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Xiaohu, really! After all I've done … Sky, Jaya, Ysabel, you are welcome. Paona, I think what you did is fine, just make sure that you note that it is based on real historical fact. Xu Xiong … Hungry, the Lord's willing, I am planning to. DongBin, are you also saying that I am too old? Chua, oh, now I am just a manager?

"What's so difficult to guess?" Xu Ziling replied, "If you want to advance toward Luoyang and Guanzhong, on the east there are Jiangdu, Liangdu, on the west there are Jingling, Xiangyang. Of the latter two, Xiangyang has the more strategic importance; otherwise Li Mi would not have to personally take the trouble to go see Qian Duguan."

Kou Zhong nodded and said, "Well said. There is a chapter in Lu Miaozi's 'Terrain Study' dealing specifically with the places that will have to be conquered by the School of Military of the world; Xiangyang is high on the list."

"What did Mr. Lu say?" Xu Ziling asked.

As if he was very familiar with the subject [orig. as if enumerating his family valuables], Kou Zhong recited, "Xiangyang connects to Bashu [old name for Sichuan] to the west, controls Xiangchu [old name for Hunan and Hubei] to the south, cherishes River Luo to the north; hence every war would inevitably raised their fire beacon, banner and rampart toward this city. During the Three Kingdoms period [220-280 AD], Wei, Shu and Wu, all three sides were working hard for this city, even Guan Yu was injured and died in this place. After that, the Western Jin [265-316 AD] cut down Wu, the Eastern Jin's [317-420 AD] Huan Wen [312-373 AD] went on northern military campaign; all of these used Xiangyang as their base of operations. Therefore, Mr. Lu's conclusion was 'the reason Six Dynasties [220-589 AD] were able to defend the left of the River was that they really depended on strong soldiers, powerful garrisons between Huainan and Jingxiang.'"

Xu Ziling could not help thinking Zhu Yuyan's praise on Lu Miaozi, 'his talent able to move unhindered'. His treatise on Xiangyang was definitely outstanding and insightful.

Xiangyang, although not a big city like Luoyang or any capital cities, but because it was located in the middle stretches of the Han River, which was the road hub connecting Hubei, Henan, Sichuan and Shaanxi, four provinces. If one is thinking of going down south from the Central Plains, or perhaps from Guanzhong entering the Jianghan plains, one cannot but take Xiangyang first.

Kou Zhong's ambition to get Xiangyang was actually his deepest intention to pursue the deer [fig. to vie for supremacy] in the decisive battle against Li Shimin in the future. Even if Li Shimin wanted to attack Luoyang, he still had to pass through this crucial point, Xiangyang.

Both Xiangyang and Liangdu were not a political or economic center, but it concerned the success or failure of the overall strategy.

Xu Ziling said, "If you want to obtain Xiangyang, you must snatch Jingling first, and it may not be easy."

Kou Zhong cheerfully said, "The most interesting aspect of this game is its high degree of difficulty."

Displeased, Xu Ziling said, "Unexpectedly you regard killing people, filling the plains with dead bodies, miserable and ruthless battle in attacking and defending cities as a game?"

Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, "Don't talk to me with stiff face and righteous words like that. Just consider me begging you! As far as I'm concerned, life is nothing more than a game. My responsibility is to attempt to make this game more meaningful and fun. This is purely from a detached point of view. Just like Shi Feixuan thinks that everything in the world is illusory and without any eternal significance."

After a short pause, he continued excitedly, "Ling Shao, just think: on our Central Plains' vast territory, there are countless cities, large and small. With different geographical situation, they all have different importance and meaning, not unlike the checked pattern on the chessboard, with each person, each army as a chess piece. If you look at it like this, don't you think battlefield is just like a game? All military campaigns therefore center on, and start in, breaking a city and defending a city."

Xu Ziling pondered quietly for half a day; finally he nodded and said, "Your view of vying over the world is really much deeper than before."

Kou Zhong turned his head to look at Liangdu at the distance; exhaling slowly, he said, "I have lost Jingling, I can't afford to lose Liangdu as well! If our provision is adequate, we could fortify defenses and raze the fields, trying to hold up the enemy outside the city as long as possible, until their provision ran out and they had to withdraw the troops, and then wipe them out at a stroke. But now, of course, we cannot use this tactic; hence we can only employ a stratagem, use unusual tactic, by exploiting Yuwen Huagu's weak point of not daring to prolong the battle, and ruthlessly frustrating him."

Xu Ziling shook his head and said, "Right now everybody knew about food shortage in Liangdu. Yuwen Huagu deliberately marching slowly, his objective is to drive the citizens of the area along his route toward Liangdu, to drive us into a deeper frustration of lack of food supplies. He does not even have an eight-day, ten-day patience."

Shaken, Kou Zhong said, "You are right! Therefore, the first tactic is to use deceive. Not only we want to deceive Yuwen Huagu, we also need to deceive the troops and citizens of the entire city."

Emotionally moved, Xu Ziling said, "Since we are going to use deceive anyway, we might as well pretend that not only Li Zitong is willing to loan provisions, he is also willing to loan his troops, and both will arrive in several days. If the news reached Yuwen Huagu's ears, I guarantee he will speed up his advancing troops, and will do everything he can to besiege the city with the fiercest way possible, and then we will be able take advantage of this scheme."

Clamping his legs on his horse's belly, he whipped the horse and said, "We must send someone to intercept Ren Meimei, who could be back from the north any moment; if we want to tell lies, she must be in it too!"

※ ※ ※

By dusk that day, Ren Meimei's boat docked at Liangdu; with the boat she brought along more than a dozen carts of army provisions. Reportedly, it was the first batch of foodstuff Li Zitong ever loaned after he formed the alliance.

Along the way to the storehouse at the Zongguan Mansion, one of the carts 'accidentally' overturned, spilling out its cargo of rice and wheat.

Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, two boys, personally met them at the city gate, and then riding left and right, they escorted this 'minister who has given outstanding service' entering the city. The citizens of the city lined the street to cheer, so much so that some even knelt down and burned incense to worship, while calling out 'long live!' [orig. wanshui, ten thousand years].

Passing the high all of the Zongguan Mansion, Ren Meimei's flowery smiling face immediately became wooden and cold; gnashing her teeth in anger she cursed, "That dog Li Zitong really deserves to be wiped out by Du Fuwei. Not only he refused to lend a helping hand, he also threw stones at people who fell down a well. He cut off the lower reaches of the waterway; his speech was even more unbearable. He is really infuriating!"

Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Ren Dajie [big/elder sister], there is no need to bicker with this kind of lowly man. Just wait until we're done taking care of Yuwen Huaji, we'll take a good look at him."

Turning to Xu Ziling, he asked, "Did the show with the transporting provisions just now look real enough?"

Fully satisfied, Xu Ziling said, "Were it not for I knew the inside story, I would have been deceived."

The three sat down in the main hall.

Ren Meimei's anger has not dissipated, she cursed, "That dog not only showed excessive arrogance, he forced me to wait for three days for nothing, and in the end he only sent a court eunuch to tell me that he did not have time to see me, unless I waited ten more days. Tell me, how irritating is that?"

Kou Zhong asked in surprise, "Didn't Ren Dajie say that his speech was unbearable? If you didn't even see him, how could you hear what he said?"

Puffing out her sweet cheeks, Ren Meimei said, "Although I did not see him, but the eunuch passed his message to me, telling me that if I wanted to rest a little bit, he might summon me within five days into the palace to accompany him."

Murderous aura flashed through Kou Zhong's eyes, but his expression was surprisingly calm; he nodded and spoke slowly, "Li Zitong is deliberately humiliating us. Very well! Since he wants to throw stones at ones who fell down a well, don't blame me for not showing any mercy to him."

Xu Ziling was silent.

And then Ren Meimei reported Jiangdu's situation, "Currently Du Fuwei is stationing his troops east of Danyang, only about twenty li from Jiangdu, in accord with Shen Faxing's son, Shen Lun's main force, which is stationed north of the adjoining hill. They have launched three ferocious attacks in succession against Jiangdu city walls, both sides suffered heavy casualties, with Li Zitong's side slightly losing. The adjoining hill originally belonged to Li Zitong, and was taken by Shen Lun only in the last month or so, so that Li Zitong lost control over all counties south of Jiangdu."

Kou Zhong asked, "So what bargaining chip is left for Li Zitong? How could he dare to look down on us like that?"

Ren Meimei replied, "Nothing more than a dozen or so county towns due north of Jiangdu. Among these, the most important are Donghai County overlooking the East China Sea on the northeast, and Zhongli County on the Huai River. The former is that dog's native place and rear defense base, the latter is the pivot point of his route inland. Any one of these two fell, it would be a fatal blow to him."

Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, "I thought he had no loophole we could exploit, impervious to sword and spear? Turns out there are so many flaws and weak points; a bit later, I will look for him to settle the account. This time I have troubled Ren Dajie! Please go inside and take a good rest."

After Ren Meimei left, with a deep frown of his brows, Kou Zhong said, "Isn't it a bit strange? I thought because of our relationship with Song Jingang, plus we are helping him to deal with Yuwen Huaji, that fellow Li Zitong would weep grateful tears, who would have thought that he could treat our envoy like that?"

Xu Ziling said, "What else would give him more benefit than Yuwen Huagu and us fight each other until both sides suffer? If that happens, he would only need to send several thousand officers and soldiers, and Liangdu will fall into his hands."

Kou Zhong appeared to be deep in thought. It was quite a while later that he said, "In my opinion, the situation is not that simple. Right now his most pressing business is to break Jiangdu's siege; therefore, any military operation will have that military objective. Just think, supposing after a hard battle Yuwen Huagu finally win over Liangdu, what would be the benefit for him?"

Xu Ziling was visibly moved; he said, "I get it. He wanted to move the troops that are originally stationed in various cities north of Jiangdu to Jiangdu, and use them to deal with Ol' Die and Shen Lun's coalition forces; but because of Dou Jiande and Yuwen Huagu's threat, he is practically powerless to expand his territory. At that time, as long as he could beat back Ol' Die and Shen Lun's army, he then could go up north along the River, and snatch Liangdu from Yuwen Huagu's hands."

Revealing a smile, Kou Zhong nodded and said, "Must be so; hence he is hoping that Yuwen Huagu and us will fight until both sides suffer; the worse our condition the better it is for him! Isn't this called 'poor but with great ambitions'? Or perhaps 'before the poor heart is exhausted, the greedy heart arises'?"

Xu Ziling laughed and said, "Are you not like that?"

Kou Zhong suddenly stood up; upright and unafraid, he said, "How could I be like that? Victory has come into my hands. Right now what I need is to sharpen the Moon in the Well, to chop Yuwen Huagu's dog head, and offer it as a sacrifice in front of Niang's grave. All these years, aren't we waiting for precisely this day?"

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