But Shang Xiufang's mind was secretly tied to Kou Zhong; he and Ouyang Xiyi were the only two around the banquet table who did not look at her with heart and soul.
Ouyang Xiyi was a man who has passed through great changes, an old man who was approaching a hundred years old; that he was not moved by her at all, she was not surprised. But Kou Zhong, who looked like a romantic guy, turned a blind eye to her, even if she did not want to admit it, her interest in him was piqued.
This moment Kou Zhong was sensing Ouyang Xiyi's strong unresolvable sorrow, and was pondering over this venerable senior martial art master, who was filled with sad memories of the past, induced by Shang Xiufang's striking resemblance to an old affection's characteristic and appearance. At the same time, he was also remembering Shi Qingxuan's touching flute song, which was taught by her own mother Bi Xiuxin, which was not inferior in any respect to Shang Xiufang's musical talent.
Right this moment, he heard Shang Xiufang's sweet-sounding voice asking him, "What does Kou Gongzi think of Hu music?"
If this question were directed to Xu Ziling, he would honestly confess his ignorance.
But Kou Zhong was used to invent crazy nonsense, hence he blurted out his answer, "Of course it is very good!"
Seeing Shang Xiufang took the initiative to cajole Kou Zhong to talk, Wang Xuanying was very jealous; he pressed on, "Which aspect do you think it is good?"
Kou Zhong was immediately at a loss for words; from the corner of his eyes he saw Shang Xiufang was looking at him expectantly, he groaned inwardly. He had no choice but to continue his crap; he said, "Music and dancing are both the outward expression of the feeling inside the heart. Just think about the vast grassland outside the borderland, the desert and the snowy mountain, where cattle and sheep, deer and horses roam around everywhere, the bold atmosphere where the tribes beyond the Great Wall gallop their horses, we know that the music and the dance grew out from this kind of different environment, naturally it would be extremely exquisite and refined."
And then, afraid that Wang Xuanying would continue to badger him, he hastily turned toward Linglong Jiao, whose lovely charming almond eyes, with extraordinary splendor, was looking at him. He giggled and said, "Miss Jiao is from there; in my opinion, Miss Jiao must be a first-class master in music and dancing."
With his earlier remark, he was thinking about the 'supporting self with naked blade, killing people in the world of mortals', the wandering knight, promoter of martial spirit, Ba Fenghan, and his description of the life beyond the Great Wall; inadvertently his voice was slightly imbued with the emotion of parting.
But listening to him, Shang Xiufang's fragrant heart slightly trembled; she nodded and said, "Kou Gongzi's comment is very insightful, this is the first time that Xiufang hear someone appraising the Hu Music from such a broad perspective."
Wang Xuanying was nearly angered to death; he could not stop hate and envy toward Kou Zhong from growing in his heart.
Wang Shichong laughed and said, "Mr. Kou is always able to amaze people. Let me ask everybody here: who would have thought that his understanding of Hu music is this deep?"
While Kou Zhong groaned inwardly for the shame, Linglong Jiao softly said, "Nujia is a Qiuci, but in music and dancing, I am just an ordinary novice [orig. low hand of nine schools of thought]. Hereafter you must not talk nonsense!"
Although on the surface she appeared to chide him, the fact was that her attitude toward Kou Zhong had changed in a big way; at least she was willing to admit that she was from that certain nation.
Shang Xiufang laughed tenderly and said, "Turns out Miss Jiao is from Qiuci; I would never have thought! Fortunately Xiufang has not displayed my slight skill before an expert, otherwise I would only incite Jiejie's loud laughter."
Ouyang Xiyi struggled out of the deeply painful memory; he joined in by addressing Linglong Jiao, "I hear your esteemed country has a wind instrument called Bili, made of wood or bamboo, with nine holes, which to be covered with the fingers, and reed inserted on the mouth of the pipe, the timbre loud and clear, but mournful and mellow. Played on the prairie, it sounded as if it was weeping and complaining, the tones rising and falling, round and round unceasingly. I wonder if Miss Jiao know how to play it?"
Kou Zhong mused inwardly that this man really knew the Hu music.
Linglong Jiao appeared to recall something that burdened her heart; she was about to answer, but then shook her head and said, "Wanbei [junior] can't."
Yang Gongqing was an old veteran of the Jianghu; just by looking at Linglong Jiao's expression, he knew that there must be different reason, and not that she did not know how to play at all. He changed the subject by asking Shang Xiufang, "For the last approximately a hundred years, there have been many musical instruments being imported from outside the Wall, one cannot tell how many; other than the one Old Yi mentioned just now, the widely spread instruments include Pipa, Wuxian, Sheng Hou, Di [transverse flute], Hujia [no idea what it is], Jue [lit. horn], Jiegu [double ended skin drum with narrow waist], and so on. According to Xiufang and everybody, what's the difference between those instruments with our Qin [guqin/zither], Se [standing harp], Sheng [same character as above], Zhong [bell], Fangxiang [no idea], Paiban [clapper-board, percussion instrument]?"
Kou Zhong thought that luckily the question was directed to Shang Xiufang; if he were to answer that, he would be humiliated on the spot.
Shang Xiufang modestly replied, "How could Xiufang accept everybody's accolades? Great General Yang is too polite. Generally speaking, certain musical instrument came into being, to a certain degree it is a reflection of the people's livelihood and custom, as well as their characteristic. Most of the ethnic groups in the Western Region live nomadic life in pursuit of, and live by, a habitat with water source and grass. As a result, it affects the design of the musical instrument. First of all, it has to be portable, hence the form and structure are comparably small. Second, because it is often played in the open space of the wilderness, it has to be loud and clear, as well as melodious, so that the sound can be transmitted far. Compared to our country's big and inconvenient to carry, as well as changing less, musical instruments, they appeared to be especially novel and lively, as well as coarse and wild."
Everybody, including Kou Zhong, were amazed and emotionally moved.
This woman's excellent knowledge and experience was not something that ordinary courtesan would be able to match.
This moment Kou Zhong was racking his brains trying to find a brilliant scheme so that he could leave with Xu Xingzhi without arousing Wang Shichong's suspicions. Noticing that everybody was giving their own view on the musical instruments, Shang Xiufang tried to find an opening in the midst of the disorderly discussion to lean over to Kou Zhong and whispered, "I was wondering if Kou Gongzi's heart belongs to someone and that your mind is constantly on this woman?"
This remark, which could be considered a bit of flirting, was nothing strange to Shang Xiufang, a famous courtesan who was accustomed to dealing with all kinds of men in various social interaction; but in Kou Zhong's ears, it was highly provocative.
Truth be told, Kou Zhong had never encountered anything like Shang Xiufang's ten-thousand kinds of flirtatious expressions, it actually had a very strong attractive force to him. But because this moment his mind was focused on how to leave Luoyang as soon as possible, plus she was stirring up memories of Li Xiuning in his mind - the two women happened to share the same middle name, 'Xiu' [refined/graceful/elegant/pretty … you get the idea] - his heart, which was set aflame earlier, was cooling down again. He replied, "I am actually thinking of you, Miss!"
Greatly interested, Shang Xiufang said, "What's so good in qie [I, your servant] to think about?" While in her fragrant heart, she was sniggering, thinking that turned out you are no different from other lustful men.
Kou Zhong giggled and said, "Aren't people really strange? Before Miss arrived here, we did not know each other, but now we have become friends who can talk to each other, and can get to know each other. Ha! I really don't know what to say."
Shang Xiufang was silent; evidently his words have stirred up her thoughts and feeling.
Suddenly, under thousands of staring eyes, Kou Zhong leaned over and whispered in her ear, "I am leaving! But Miss' musical talent, voice and appearance, I, Kou Zhong, will never forget for the rest of my life."
And then he rose up to his full height and saluted to take his leave.
Astounded, Wang Shichong asked, "What gargantuan important urgent matter does Mr. Kou have?"
Shang Xiufang hung her head low; she was vaguely able to grasp the reason Kou Zhong leaving the banquet was not a simple one. Unexpectedly a melancholy feeling, which rarely caused by a man, floated up in her heart.
Kou Zhong sent out an ambiguous signal with his eyes toward Wang Shichong; he said, "Wangzi, have you forgotten? I have appointment with someone!"
Wang Shichong had no choice but to pretend to understand.
Kou Zhong perfunctorily took his leave from everybody. When he moved to the other banquet table, he seized the opportunity to slip behind Xu Xingzhi, and in friendly manner put his hand on his shoulder, while secretly crooked his finger to write a 'go' character on his back.
Xu Xingzhi understood immediately; he stood up and said, "Let Zaixia sends Mr. Kou off on behalf of my master!"
※ ※ ※
After some chitchat, Bu Tianzhi put down his cup of wine and spoke in low voice, "For the past few years, most of the Xiongdi in our Gang have a lot of resentment toward Yun Bangzhu, one of those being our Gang becomes the hunting dog of Baling Bang."
Xu Ziling did not understand, "Isn't your esteemed Gang always relying on selling intelligence to make a profit? But Baling Bang itself has the most extensive intelligence network in the world; why would they need you?" he asked.
Bu Tianzhi said, "They look up on our fleet, which is growing day by day, plus we have operation base in all coastal cities and towns along the Great River. While Haisha Bang is declining, Dajiang Hui [great river society] and Shuilong Bang's [water dragon gang] fame and power is falling, our sphere of influence is expanding quietly; how could Xiao Xian dare to look down on us?"
Xu Ziling still did not understand; he asked further, "Right now all gangs and societies in the world, big and small, none does not attach itself to a local power. Currently, Xiao Xian's Liang Guo [kingdom of Liang] has become the number one major power in the south, his prestige is even above the Song Clan's; why does Bu Xiong dislike them so much?"
Bu Tianzhi laughed coldly and said, "I don't believe Xiao Xian can become a very capable person. If we are speaking about resorting to conspiracy, not many people can match this hypocrite. I don't need to say anything, just look at him, because he is afraid of Du Fuwei, he does not dare to go up north. From this, I know that it will be difficult for his great undertaking to succeed."
And then he sighed and said, "And that is not main reason."
Xu Ziling promptly inquired in details. His main concern was, naturally, Susu.
Bu Tianzhi dejectedly said, "Who would want to wallow in the mire with those human traffickers?"
Xu Ziling's countenance changed, "They ate still doing shady business in trafficking women?" he asked.
Letting out a cold humph, Bu Tianzhi said, "Certainly not out in the open right now, but since this business has brought them countless benefit, with Xiao Xian being a really snobbish person, why would he want to give up easily?"
After a short pause, he went on, "At the beginning, Yun Yuzhen guaranteed to us that the cooperation with Baling Bang is just a plan of convenience; who would have thought that after she and Xiang Yuzhan are having an affair …"
"What?" Xu Ziling blurted out.
Bu Tianzhi hastily explained, "That was before Xiang Yushan married Miss Susu! Afterwards, whether they are still in contact with each other, I am not really clear."
Xu Ziling's unsightly countenance turned even uglier. He really wished he could grow a pair of wings, with which he would fly back to the south to see Susu.
With gloomy countenance Bu Tianzhi sighed and said, "I don't know why Bangzhu resigned herself to that kid Dugu Ce, and she is getting worse since. If we did not consider her great merit to our Gang, we would have deposed her early on. And now she is hanging around all kinds of men all day long, her martial art skill is declining, she is even too lazy to mind our Gang's affairs. If this continued, we can't survive."
This is called 'every family goes through its problem' [Chinese idiom]; since Xu Ziling's 'heart distracted, his thoughts in turmoil' [another idiom] due to Susu, he was out of his wits and was unable to offer any help. Smiling wryly, he said, "So what's your plan?"
Bu Tianzhi said, "In chaotic time like this, everybody wants to charge forward to do great things. Our Xiongdi have discussed this matter over and over again, and we all believe that Kou Ye and Ziling, are the people we are willing to submit cheerfully the most. Therefore, we want to ask you to lead us."
Xu Ziling jumped in fright; he said, "If that's the case, wouldn't Yun Bangzhu hate us to the bones? Has Bu Xiong discussed this matter with Kou Zhong?"
Bu Tianzhi solemnly said, "This is all Xiongdi's intention, she has no influence whatsoever. I have already asked for an appointment to see Kou Ye, but am afraid he, the Senior, forget due to his busy schedule, hence the reason I specifically waited for him at Song Jingang's place. This Song Jingang is both wise and brave, his name shook northern Xinjiang. But even he holds Kou Ye and you, Ziling, in very high regard, which boosted our confidence even more. Two gentlemen, must not decline."
With a bitter laugh Xu Ziling said, "I think Bu Xiong had better have a long discussion with Kou Zhong over this matter. We have always had friendship with your esteemed Gang, and I have always been disinterested in the struggle for fame and profit. Kou Zhong is the person of choice you want to ask."
Bu Tianzhi laughed and said, "How could we not know Ziling's temperament? But in any case, you are going to stand by Kou Ye, am I right?"
Xu Ziling smiled ruefully, but did not answer.
Bu Tianzhi spoke in heavy voice, "You don't need to worry about Yun Yuzhen. Were it not for her and Xiao Huan, the two of them inciting Xiang Yushan, he might not necessarily woo your esteemed sister."
"What?" Xu Ziling suddenly roared.
The only waiter around, who was nodding in the corner, woke up in a start. Fortunately at this moment the shop did not have any other patrons, otherwise they would have raised their eyebrows.
Bu Tianzhi sighed and said, "At that time we really could not stand idly and watch. Even if we wanted to win over two gentlemen, we must not use this kind of method, in which we are harming other family's young lady's lifetime happiness!"
Xu Ziling's eyes flashed with unprecedented, deep and cold, murderous aura. He spoke slowly, word-by-word, "If Xiang Yushan treated Su Jie with slightest bit of unkindness, I am going to make him die without a burial site."
 Bili or Guan, Chinese double reed wind instrument. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guan_(instrument)
 Pipa, Chinese lute. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pipa
 Wuxian, Five Strings Lute. (this one in Chinese, can't find the English version)
 Sheng (instrument), Chinese mouth-blown free reed instrument. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheng_(instrument)