Fu Qian threw his head back in loud laughter, which immediately attracted the attention of everybody in the hall, and only then did he speak in loud and clear voice, "If your esteemed master is fortunate to obtain the world, would he, like Yang Guang, strive to achieve extraordinary things by flaunting his military prowess to the Western Region to expand his territory?"
The hall immediately grew quiet; even the maids and servants waiting on the guests stopped whatever they were doing, only the sound of music lingered on. Apparently this question had a subduing, intimidating power.
Inwardly Kou Zhong cried, 'Formidable!'. Even Tuli and Wang Shichong also listened respectfully, they wanted to hear how Li Jing would answer this question.
This question ought to be answered personally by Li Shimin. The problem was that Li Shimin was not the crown prince at all. If he rushed to answer, it would be clear that he was competing against his elder brother Li Jiancheng in the succession right to the throne.
Furthermore, it involved Li Shimin's aspiration, so whether Li Jing answered it or not, it would be equally inappropriate. If he responded with evasive words, Fu Qian would only look down on him.
Fu Qian finally made his move to probe.
Li Jing laughed calmly and said, "It doesn't matter who obtain the world, he must understand the Han-Hu [Han and non-Han] differences in territory, culture, natural conditions and local social customs. These differences are real. Dwelling primarily on these differences will only make us suffer lack of virtue and beneficence; there is no need to be suspicious. Concealing virtue and beneficence, these four tribes can be likened to a family, where suspicions and jealousy abound, blood relation would inevitably become animosity. Won't Fu Wangzi think so?"
This answer skirted the issue but struck at the heart of the matter; listening to this, everybody uttered sincere praises.
Fu Qian let out another long laugh; he even cried out 'Good!' three times, before lowering his voice to cheerfully address Li and Kou, two men, "Gentlemen, feel free to do as you please!"
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong and Li Jing walked around the banquet area to get out of the hall via a side door, toward a corridor winding along the Hall's wall, lined with stone fence.
Although this morning's heavy rain has stopped, the weather has not improved, the moon and the stars did not show their light. Beyond the fence was a fishpond dotted with rockeries. Rows of tree peonies were planted along the edge of the pond, but due to the heavy rain, not much flowers left; petals floated on the surface of the pond, drifting away following the flow of the water.
Li Jing spoke heavily, "Xiao Ling left town last night; where did he go?"
Kou Zhong was dying to mock him by asking whether he posted sentries to monitor the city gate twelve sichen a day, but recalling their brotherhood in the past, he held his temper and replied, "He has a pressing business to find a friend."
Li Jing sighed and said, "Ay! Why did things deteriorate to this hard-to-fix stage?"
Kou Zhong had his gazed on the fish swimming in the pond. "Well said!" he replied indifferently, "Yesterday I tasted Saozi's [sister-in-law] red whisk that even my little life was nearly gone."
Shaken, Li Jing turned his eyes toward Kou Zhong. "What?" he blurted.
Kou Zhong shrugged his shoulders, "It was nothing," he replied, "I can't blame her; isn't it called loving husband unconditionally?"
Li Jing was quiet for a long time. Finally he spoke with strained voice, "When are you going back to the south?"
Kou Zhong revealed a pained and miserable expression. Every time he remembered his unfortunate sister Su, he felt that all his achievements became empty and unreal, with nothing to show. Filled with helplessness with nowhere-to-complain feeling, he said, "Please don't mind Su Jie's matter, all right? Right now we don't even have any strength left to put the blame on you."
His countenance changed, Li Jing said, "What actually happened? Tonight you look somewhat downcast and dispirited."
Thinking about past cause and future effect, Kou Zhong nearly wanted to cry aloud, but he clenched his teeth, waved his hand and walked away.
Li Jing reached out to grab his arm, "What actually happened?" he shouted.
Kou Zhong whimpered, "The biggest mistake Su Jie ever committed in all her life was knowing the three of us. Is that enough?" Flinging Li Jing's hand, he staggered back into the Hall.
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong was rushing in when he bumped into someone coming out of the Hall. This other person pulled his arm and said, "I was just looking for you!"
Naturally Kou Zhong was not in the mood to chat with anybody, "Hou Xiong, what noble errands brought you here?" he spoke crossly.
Surprisingly it was the 'Passionate Prince' Hou Xibai.
Seeing him talking with someone else, Li Jing, who was running after him, sighed and walked away, disappointed and frustrated.
The other guests started to take their seat, while Li Shimin, Wang Shichong, and their men, several groups of people, remained standing, laughing, joking and making small talk. Rong Fengxiang and Fu Qian were exchanging conventional greetings. In short, it was a lively and jubilant atmosphere.
Yun Yuzhen also came. She visited with Song Lu and Liu Jing, the three of them chatted in low voice; nobody knew what they were talking about. Other new arrivals included Bai Qing'er, Zheng Shuming, and Zheng Shiru.
The ensemble stopped playing. Outside the firecrackers continued loudly, the sound of people urging each other to drink, the banters, young men and women having fun, shouting and calling each other, continuously coming from the two front halls and the rear courtyard. Comparatively speaking, the inner hall's atmosphere was a lot more subdued.
Hou Xibai pulled Kou Zhong to a corner and said in low voice, "Where is Ziling Xiong? Why didn't he come to join the fun? I saw Feixuan yesterday, she said that the dispute concerning the Jade of Annulus has been resolved."
"Xiao Ling has to do something; he can't come," Kou Zhong replied, "What do you want?"
Hou Xibai's handsome eyes lingered on Dong Shuni and Rong Jiaojiao, who were sitting side by side, for a moment. Their banquet table was one of four tables in the middle, and it was quite full. Including Wang Xuanying, Wang Xuanshu, two brothers, they were all of younger generation, and everybody was scrambling to fawn upon the two ladies.
But from time to time the two ladies' eyes were floating toward Kou Zhong and Hou Xibai; clearly they were very interested in the two men.
Hou Xibai said, "Did Fenghan Xiong and Ziling Xiong mentioned that I was tracking a Yin Gui Pai female demon?"
It was only then did Kou Zhong remember that Xu Ziling indeed told him about this matter. Forcing himself to rouse his spirit, he asked, "How was it? Who was she?"
Hou Xibai leaned closer and replied, "It's precisely the peerless beauty wearing Yunnan batik [color printing on cloth using wax]. Among everybody here, she is the only one wearing that kind of clothes; obviously she loves to be in the limelight very much."
Kou Zhong has never paid much attention to what kind of clothes a girl was wearing, he was only interested in finding out if she was good-looking or not. Frowning, he said, "You are the expert in girls, while I don't know anything about their clothes. Can't you not talk such profound mystery?"
Hou Xibai laughed involuntarily and said, "It's inconvenient for me to point at her, because all women in this room are glaring at us like a tiger watching its prey. Batik's distinguishing feature is the dyeing process, where the dye permeates the cloth through the crack of wax previously applied, creating thousands of lines and tens of thousands of patterns like exploding ice. The changes are natural, not fixed in the least, the hue simple yet elegant, the variations are limitless."
It was only then that Kou Zhong realized Dong Shuni's clothes looked like his description. Shaken, he said, "You don't mean that crafty and unruly girl wearing alternating blue and red colors clothes, do you?"
Delighted, Hou Xibai said, "Kou Xiong indeed understood with just a bit of clue. Precisely that woman, I am 100% sure. Who is she?"
Kou Zhong sucked in a mouthful of cold air, then said, "Really not Rong Jiaojiao but she? This is really unexpected. But her lightness skill is indeed extremely good, I just did not know if she is also well versed in martial arts."
"Who is she?" Hou Xibai pressed on.
Kou Zhong smiled wryly and replied, "She is Wang Shichong's niece [sister's daughter], but I don't think she is a Yin Gui Pai female demon."
Inwardly he added that I have had fiery, passionate relationship with her. This girl's brilliance was in her exceptional qinggong, but her wugong [martial art skill] was ordinary. And they had never doubted her, because she really had no reason to lie.
Hou Xibai was stunned, "Are you sure?" he asked.
Kou Zhong replied, "If she is really a Yin Gui Pai female demon, Xiao Ling and I would have been finished by now! How could I speak with you here?"
Rong Fengxiang's laughter interrupted everybody's conversation, and then he politely asked everybody to take their seat.