The city of Luoyang was strangely quiet that night.
Wang Shichong did not send his men to search for them. Anybody knew there was nothing to gain in this matter anyway.
The two boys were hiding on the bell tower overlooking Tianjin Bridge. While transmitting his qi to help Kou Zhong recuperate, Xu Ziling told him about the siege Li Shimin laid out for him and how he escaped.
Kou Zhong sucked in a mouthful of cold air and said, "Li kid is so vicious; I wonder … Li kid did not send Li Jing, this makes sense, but why didn't he send Hong Funu to take part?"
Sneering, Xu Ziling said, "You should not let this kind of thing harming your spirit! Now think about how to rescue Xu Xingzhi? The worst thing is that we don't even know if he is dead or alive, how's his situation? I just want to get the hell out of here."
Kou Zhong closed his eyes. He silently received the true qi Xu Ziling transmitted into his body. It was quite a while later that he opened his eyes and said, "What Wang Shichong needs the most right now is a Junshi [military counsellor] and an expert in strategy like Xiaodi, and Xu Xingzhi happens to meet that need. Although Xu Xingzhi's martial art skill is nothing to brag about, in terms of ability and wisdom he is definitely not inferior to us. He must have a way to convince Wang Shichong that there isn't any close relation between him and us, and the fact is there is none. Therefore, he must be safe and sound."
And then he sighed and said, "If my enemy is only Wang Shichong, I don't have to worry so much, but with Li kid added into the equation, it is another matter altogether."
"Didn't you say you have another excellent plan?" Xu Ziling reminded him.
Kou Zhong nodded and said, "Tomorrow I'll go to see if Xu Xingzhi has left any message for us, and then I'll try to get in touch with the man Song Jingang left in Luoyang, to get a better understanding of the situation in Luoyang. Ay! Suddenly looking ahead and looking back, I see no one familiar; it makes me feel so uncomfortable."
Xu Ziling's heart was moved; he quietly thought that he ought to also look for the delicate and pretty, the beautiful Qiu Tongtong, whom Liu Heita left here, to try to scout for the news.
Kou Zhong thought hard, "Now the situation of all parties is so urgent, why does Li kid deliberately waste his time so many days in the Eastern Capital? There must be a reason that we cannot see through yet."
Xu Ziling spoke in low voice, "Save your energy! Other things can be figured out after daybreak!"
※ ※ ※
The next morning the two went their separate ways to do their job.
In Luoyang, everything looked normal; it even looked more prosperous than before.
Xu Ziling put on a mask that he had never worn before; he disguised himself as a poor, grieving scholar, as he treaded the familiar path on his way to look for Tongtong.
It was only when he reached the shop that he shed his disguise to show his real identity and entered the shop, and a short moment later he met with Tongtong in a room at the rear courtyard of the shop. The latter was packing up; obviously they were about to leave.
Seeing his visit, Tongtong spoke in great delight, "I was so worried about two Daye, but seeing Xu Ye safe and sound, I will have good news to report to Liu Ye."
After being seated, Xu Ziling asked, "Is Miss Tongtong leaving?"
Tongtong nodded, "Now the situation is critical," she replied, "Xia Wang [King of Xia] already formulated plans for attacking Xu Yuanlang. Next turn will be Yuwen Huaji. Otherwise, once the Li Army is out of Guanxi, it will be too late for us to regret."
Xu Ziling nodded in agreement.
In the School of Military, to seize victory, every moment counts.
Now that Li Mi was defeated, the whole situation changed.
Among the three major forces in the Central Plains, inside and outside the Pass, each faction had their own challenges and urgent matters they had to deal with.
Li Yuan still had Xue Ju, father and son, this fear of trouble in the rear, also the glaring-like-tiger-watching-its-prey, waiting-for-an-opportunity-to-move Liu Wuzhou.
Wang Shichong still had to consolidate the result of the war, receiving Li Mi's defeated army and his territory, and to eradicate Li Mi once for all, to pull him up by the roots.
For these reasons, Dou Jiande must seize this golden opportunity to clear up the enemies that would block his move to the south. Xu Yuanlang being the first, and then Xu Ziling's own personal enemy Yuwen Huaji next.
For the time being, Wang Shichong had become the center of the battle instead. Whoever captured Luoyang would be able to control the river transportation hub to the north. And when that happened, nobody would be able to stop his advancement to the south.
With grave expression, Tongtong said, "According to the secret information I obtained, three days ago, Li Shimin's subordinates, Li Jing and his wife set out toward Heyang; it does not look like a good thing."
Xu Ziling was severely shocked inwardly; his countenance changed, he said, "Li Shimin wants to take Li Mi's defeated army into his, he wants to recruit the surrendering soldiers."
Frowning, Tongtong said, "How could Li Mi be content to be someone else's subordinate?"
Recalling Kou Zhong's analysis on Li Shimin, Xu Ziling replied heavily, "Enduring it is a small matter, but a big scheme in this upheaval. Right now although the world is big, Li Mi has no place he could hide, no road he could flee to. If Li Shimin could offer him shelter, to keep away from the way the wind blows and the intensity of the fire, it sure is better than ending up failing and wiped over the floor."
Tongtong still did not understand, "If the rumors are true, Li Shimin is said to be both wise and courageous. He should know that recruiting Li Mi is just a case of nurturing a tiger inviting calamity."
Xu Ziling nodded, "Your comment is not without reason. But let me go a layer deeper: Li Shimin's trick is mainly done for others to see. He wants to show clearly that even an ambitious and ruthless hegemon of a region like Li Mi, he would welcome with open arms and breadth of mind, that following him would mean prosperity. This is probably the reason why he had to fight less on so many battles."
Tongtong's tender body trembled slightly, her beautiful eyes shot reverent and admiring look as she spoke in low voice, "Tongtong surrenders! Xu Ye's deep knowledge of Li Shimin is just like you are able to see through him clearly. That must be it, and that is the only reasonable explanation."
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "Most probably Li Shimin is the one person in the world, in the present age, who knows how to use that kind of strategy the most; a capable person acting as an incapable person, conducting himself as if he is a nobody. And now I am worried for Kou Zhong! He painstakingly defeated Li Mi, yet without a single 'thank you' the Li kid took over his biggest achievement."
Tongtong said, "The situation is getting tense now. After Wang Shichong consolidated his troops, he started to force other parties' men and horses to withdraw from the Eastern Capital. This is the other reason why we want to withdraw."
"I wonder if Fu Qian, Tuli, Wang Bo, and the others are still in Luoyang?" Xu Ziling asked.
"Fu Qian's situation, I am not too clear myself," Tongtong replied, "But one after another Tuli and Wangbo have left the city, presently their destination unknown. Ay! The Mount Mang Military Expedition has turned the entire situation upside down, and now nobody knows what will happen next. Only one thing is for sure, Kou Ye and Xu Ye's prestige in Jianghu has exploded many times over; nobody dares to take you lightly."
How could Xu Ziling care whether his reputation was better than before? He asked further, "Do you have any information on either Huang Gongcuo or Yin Gui Pai?"
Tongtong replied, "I heard Huang Gongcuo is returning to the south. As for Yin Gui Pai, they have always been secretive, nobody knows what they are doing."
Xu Ziling felt something was really wrong. With Yin Gui Pai's reputation of debt must be repaid, enmity must be avenged, how could they be willing to let them off?
But Tongtong clearly knew she should stop right here. Thereupon Xu Ziling took his leave. This delicate and pretty, pleasant beauty revealed a sad expression as they were about to part. Sending him off to the door, she said in low voice, "Xu Ye, please be careful, right now there is an extremely high price for the heads above your necks!"
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling met Kou Zhong at a noodle shop. The latter looked really angry as he said, "The situation is quite bad, Xu Xingzhi did not leave any secret mark. My guess is that Wang Shichong already saw through our relationship, thereupon he held him up as a hostage, so that we came to rescue him."
After a short pause, he lowered his voice and said, "Actually, rescuing him ought to be the last resort. As long as we can capture a hostage with personal relationship to him, say Wang Xuanying, we won't have to worry that Wang Shichong will not agree to the exchange."
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "I am afraid you must go to the Imperial City or Imperial Palace to find Wang Xuanying. In that case, you might as well make your move against Wang Shichong himself; it's even more straightforward."
Kou Zhong laughed and said, "I was just using him as an example. The fact is, I already have someone in mind; I am not afraid Wang Shichong will not give in."
"Dong Shuni?" Xu Ziling spoke heavily.
"Precisely that woman," Kou Zhong excitedly replied, "We can harm Yang Xuyan and Li kid at the same time. Can you guess whether Li Shimin is aware that Yang Xuyan has already gambled his head over this loose woman?"
Frowning, Xu Ziling said, "How would we make our move? We can't wait in vain outside the Imperial City, plus we do not know from which gate she is going to leave, and then we won't know which carriage she is going to hide in."
Kou Zhong looked around at the other diners of the noodle shop first, before leaning over whispered in Xu Ziling's ear, "Officially Dong Shuni has become Li Yuan's imperial concubine. Logically she ought not leave her boudoir even for half a step, especially to see another man. Luckily both you and I know what she is made of; it would be strange indeed if she does not steal out to have a tryst with Yang Xuyan."
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "You speak as if it is as simple as eating a bowl of noodle until you are full. Forget about your injury has not been healed properly, apart from Yang Xuyan, I don't know how many more vicious men are in the Rong Mansion. We go in blindly to look for her, it'd be a wonder if we are not making a mess."
Kou Zhong said, "Without entering the tiger's den, how could we get a tiger cub? As long as we can rescue Xu Xingzhi, Song Jingang's men can make arrangement for us to go to Jiangdu. Time is running out, we'll make our move tonight."
And then he added, "Do you know who's looking for Yue Shan?"
His interest piqued, Xu Ziling asked, "Who?"
Kou Zhong mysteriously said, "How can you not guess? It's Shang Xiufang."
"What?" Xu Ziling blurted out, "She is still in Luoyang?"
Kou Zhong said, "This misunderstanding has grown out of proportion! You are impersonating Yue Shan has not only detained her here, she even offers ten taels of gold for any information on your, this fake goods, whereabouts. I really wanted to look for her and ask why she is so anxious to see this Yue Shan?"
Sneering, Xu Ziling said, "Didn't you say that she has a very good opinion on you? Plus she already invited you for a private meeting."
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, "It was then, now it's different. I hear every night Li kid went to Man Qing Yuan to hear her playing qin and singing. The two carry on intimately with each other, how could I have a share?"
Xu Ziling shook his head and said, "Li Shimin is absolutely not the kind of man to indulge in wine and women. What he is doing is simply creating diversion, to confuse Wang Shichong and his men's eyes and ears. The fact is that he is secretly trying to recruit Li Mi to be his general; if he is successful, it would be like winning a lot of battles without any blood on the men's swords at one go."
Kou Zhong's countenance changed, he asked, "Where did you get that information from?"
After Xu Ziling told him in details, Kou Zhong slapped the table and praised, "Good kid, you are indeed all right. But I don't believe he will succeed. Ay! I shouldn't be that confident."
Noticing everybody's raised eyebrows at them, Xu Ziling reprimanded him, "Keep it down a bit, will you?"
Only now did Kou Zhong look down and start eating his noodles. He mumbled, "What I am worried the most right now is Female Demon Wan; she suddenly went into hiding, so that we cannot guard against her. Even if we could rescue Xu Xingzhi, the road to Jiangdu will not be good for us. Don't forget that all along Yin Gui Pai always has close working relationship with Ol' Die. This will be the thorn on our back, it might carry great misfortune for us."
Xu Ziling sighed and said, "But now, other than taking it one step at a time, what else can we do?"
Kou Zhong silently finished his noodle before shaking his head and said, "We must go from passive to active, to kill first before seeking for life; only then will we be able to ruthlessly give lessons to Li kid and Wang Shichong, that old fox who forget favors and violate justice. Kidnapping Dong Shuni is the first step. As for the second step, hey! Do you have ideas?"
Displeased, Xu Ziling said, "You must be a very combative person. What makes you think that you can fight Li kid? Even fighting one-on-one, we may not necessarily able to beat Li kid."
Kou Zhong giggled and said, "We are fighting in wits, not in forces. You'd better put on your Yue Shan disguise and go see Shang Xiufang, see if there is any advantage we can exploit."
His heart moved, Xu Ziling said, "If I became Yue Shan, it would be better not to see Shang Cainu [talented woman], but Wan Yaonu [female demon] instead! Can you find out where Zheng Shiru is staying?"
Kou Zhong threw up his arms and said, "Currently I have neither generals nor soldiers, how am I supposed to find out?"
And then, shaken, he said, "Why not try Bai Qing'er's ship? There is no harm in exposing your track a little bit before making yourself scarce again. I will keep watch for you nearby. While we still have more than half a day until night time, it might be good for us to look for a bit more fun thing to do."
Xu Ziling hesitated, "What if we bump into Zhu Yuyan? She might be an old friend of Yue Shan; won't she then see through my disguise and might provoke a problem for us?" he asked.
Kou Zhong said, "Sooner or later we are going to deal with Zhu Yuyan anyway, why would you be scared of her? Besides, the chance to bump into her is minuscule, perhaps this is the only way we can scout out Yin Gui Pai."
After deep contemplation for half a day, Xu Ziling nodded and said, "Very well! We'll do just like you said. Might as well try our luck."