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Jaya, HPC, Xiaohu, Anh, Ysabel, Chua, Sky, you are welcome. Xu Xiong, Was this story written then? Hungry, I disagree about Li Shimin, IMHO, he was a very ambitious man, and would not easily fall in love, especially with a courtesan.

Book 19 Chapter 10 - Endless Entanglement

After sending off Xu Xingzhi ashore, the two boys continued their journey.

It was not until they entered the Yellow River that the two boys heaved a sigh of relief, because on this wide river, fleeing or hiding would be much easier.

Kou Zhong sighed and said, "When we started off from the south, it seemed like the world was under our feet; who would have thought that with many twists and turns, Zhifu and the others, three men died a tragic death, and Yucheng's whereabouts is unknown. We are now forced by circumstances; we want to turn back to the south, doors are being closed in front of us. Thinking about it, I am depressed of our failures."

Xu Ziling said, "Zhifu and the others, three men's hatred, we must avenge. Real men distinguish clearly between gratitude and grudges. Yin Gui Pai's method is indeed cruel and repulsive. There will come a day when we will pull it by the roots so that they [feminine] will never harm anybody anymore."

Murderous aura flared out in Kou Zhong's eyes. He nodded and said, "Other than Yuwen Huaji, currently our deepest hatred is toward Yin Gui Pai; blood debt must be paid by blood. Besides, even if we are willing to suffer in silence, Wan yaonu and Zhu yaofu will not be willing to let us off." [Translator's note: since these terms appear quite often, I am thinking of keeping them as is. 'yao' means 'demon', 'nu' and 'fu' both mean 'woman', but 'fu' usually denotes older woman. Similarly, 'yao dao', which I usually translate as 'demon Taoist'. (In short, everything connected to Yin Gui Pai are 'yao' …)]

Xu Ziling said, "That is also the reason I am willing to come with you to Jiangdu. Otherwise I would have rushed to Baling to pick up Su Jie, mother and son. Until now I still don't understand why Ol' Die is willing to take part in skinning-tiger scheme, collaborating with Yin Gui Pai to conquer the world. There must be a reason that we are not able to see through yet."

"Why do you care his mother so much?" Kou Zhong said, "Tomorrow, after entering Tongji Canal, we are going to travel day and night toward Jiangdu. But we need to replenish our food and water, because we will need at least three days and nights to reach Jiangdu."

"I always have some sense of foreboding," Xu Ziling muttered irresolutely, "This trip may not necessarily go smoothly."

Patting the Moon in the Well on his back, Kou Zhong said, "When did we ever have a day of peace and safety? Whoever is not afraid of death, he can release his horse and come over! Ha! There is never enough time to learn, I want to open Lu Daye's precious library and work hard to study it."

Xu Ziling pulled him over and said, "Excuse me, the one who has been working hard is Xiaodi. Now it's your turn, Zhong Dage, to man the boat."

※ ※ ※

The two boys passed a peaceful night.

By noon the next day, the boat reached Liangdu, a big city by Tongji Canal, west of Pengcheng.

They had yet to decide who was going to guard the boat and who was going to buy provision, when the local 'dark road' [i.e. underworld/mafia] figures already graced them with their presence.

Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling grew up among the thugs of the dark road. Wanting to preserve appeasing mood, they were ready to pay the illegal toll per Jianghu custom, in order to avoid new branch growing out of a knot.

Kou Zhong put down his Moon in the Well, and stepped onto the dock to negotiate with the men coming to visit them.

Noticing Kou Zhong's build, which was as formidable as a deity, and his calm and composed demeanor, the leader of this small gang, who himself a much-travelled person, well acquainted with the ways of the Jianghu, busily cupped his fist to salute and said, "Xiaodi is Peng Liang Hui's [Peng Liang society] Zhi Tang [Hall of Wisdom] Xiangzhu [lit. fragrant master] Chen Jiafeng. May I ask gentlemen heroes' honorable surname and great given name, and which village, which county were you coming from?"

Kou Zhong immediately recalled the San Dangjia [Third Chief] of Peng Liang Society, the Yan Niangzi [amorous/romantic lady], Ren Meimei [see Book 3, Chapter 7, but it was Sao Niang (coquettish lady)], and realized that this area fell under Peng Liang Society's sphere of influence. However, he did not want Ren Meimei to find out his whereabouts for obvious reason; therefore, he hurriedly said, "Xiaodi is Fu Ren, has just returned from the Eastern Capital for some business, and is now hurrying back to Jiangdu. Ha! Parking terminal naturally has parking terminal rules; Xiaodi is prepared to pay your honorable Society. Chen Xiangzhu, please indicate how much we owe you."

Seeing he was so humble, Chen Jiafeng immediately had good impression; smiling, he said, "Looking at Fu Xiong's high-spirited demeanor, you must have gained enough profit. Fu Xiong's boat is also of the highest quality, the strangest thing is, Fu Xiong seems to have only one helper on board."

Naturally Kou Zhong understood this tactic.

When dark road characters encountered strangers, they would always follow the golden rule of 'peaceful measures before using force'. In simple terms, they would feel the opposite party's foundation clearly first, before deciding how they were going to slaughter them, in order to reap maximum benefit.

Supposing Kou Zhong did not show a bit of skill himself, they might win an inch, want a foot, so much so that they might want to seize the boat.

The seven, eight men following Chen Jiafeng were big and armed; just by looking at their appearance, he knew that these were local evil tyrants who were used to go on the rampage.

Grabbing his head, Kou Zhong said, "Chen Xiong is right. Since Xiaodi and my brother dare to sail to the north and rush back to the south on a fine quality boat, naturally we have something we can rely on. However, remembering that we all are of the same Jianghu way, plus we have high respect to 'Gui Zhuaí' [ghost claw] Nie Jing, the Senior, plus we have a little bit of friendly relationship with your honorable Society's San Dangjia, the Yan Niangzi Ren Meimei, we will resolve this matter according to the rules. Chen Xiong ought to understand what Xiaodi means!"

Chen Jiafeng was stunned, "May I ask which line does Fu Xiong belong to?" he asked.

Displeased, Kou Zhong took out half an ingot of gold and stuffed it into his hand, saying, "The sage presents as an ordinary person, he who shows his true colors is not a sage. If Chen Xiong is willing to value friendship, then you should not examine the root investigate the bottom. Just consider you have never seen Xiaodi."

No longer paying attention to him, Kou Zhong turned around and returned to the boat.

Xu Ziling was pulling down the sail alone. While helping him, Kou Zhong said, "Peng Liang Hui seems to be controlling this waterway. Just don't know to which side they are realigning their allegiance this day."

Xu Ziling had a sudden inspiration, "Turns out Ren Meimei's men. Logically they would place themselves into the hands of either Xu Yuanlang or Li Zitong. Hey! It shouldn't be Yuwen Huaji, should it?"

After fixing the sail, Kou Zhong said, "I'll go into town to buy provisions, don't let anybody seize the boat!"

Xu Ziling laughed and said, "If Zhu Yuyan, Wanwan, or somebody their caliber is coming here, don't blame me."

Kou Zhong roared in laughter and left.

With nothing to do, Xu Ziling leaned on the railing and looked around.

The traffic on Tongji Canal was surprisingly low, especially on the section leading toward Jiangdu; there were only a few fishing boats coming and going. It could be that due to the war, passenger and cargo ships were afraid to go through here.

From the pier to the city gate, the distance was only about a thousand paces. Anchored around him were about thirty, forty boats, big and small. Compared to the prosperity of any pier at the Eastern Capital, it paled into insignificance [orig. minor magician in the presence of a great one].

Along the way leading to the city gate, there were several food and tea stalls, but there were only a few patrons visiting these stalls that it felt a bit deserted.

Chen Jiafeng and his men have disappeared to who knows where. Logically, if they could not ascertain the two boys' foundation, they would not easily make their move.

Right this moment, he suddenly had a peculiar feeling. Turning around to look, he happened to see the beautiful back of a woman, as she was entering the cabin.

Even with Xu Ziling's calm and collected nature, he could not help breaking out in cold sweats.

※ ※ ※

As he was stepping into the city gate, Kou Zhong still did not know which power had control over this city.

In other cities, unless that particular city happened to be located at the line of attack and defense between forces, there would be merchants and ordinary travelers coming and going, both to provide tax revenue to the city, and to maintain local commercial trade.

But this strategic town along the Tongji Canal unexpectedly looked like a city without any defense; not only there was no banner of whoever held authority over it, even the guards at the city gate were half gone. Even in time like this, where the fire of war reached the heavens, this kind of situation was extremely rare.

As soon as he was inside the city, Kou Zhong could only stare blankly.

The main streets intersect right in the middle of the city, connecting the four city gates; the construction was of wide slabs of flagstone. The alleys were like a mesh crisscrossing the main streets. Most of the residential buildings were constructed of brick and wood; plain and simple, but neat. It should be a cozy and peaceful living environment. But this moment, nine out of ten buildings were empty, most of the shops closed their doors, as if disaster was about to strike. Some stores even looked as if they had been vandalized or robbed.

There were only a few pedestrians along the streets; everybody was walking in a hurry. It was indeed a picture of a ghost town.

Footsteps approaching from behind.

Kou Zhong simply stopped. He stood in the middle of the road just like that.

Chen Jiafeng came to his side and heaved a sigh. "Wars really cause a lot of trouble. One nice bustling city has turned into this."

Kou Zhong deeply shared his sentiment, "What is really happening?" he asked.

Chen Jiafeng spoke in heavy voice, "It's hard to explain in a few words. If you arrived just a few days earlier, you would have seen millions of people jammed the streets that not one drop can trickle through, the sound of wailing shook the heavens; it was a horrible scene of people trying to escape in all direction."

Kou Zhong was puzzled, "Which power does this city belong to? Who attacked it?" he asked.

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