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Ysabel, Xiaohu, Spy, Chua, DongBin, Jaya, Hungry, HPC, Sky, you are welcome.

Xu Ziling shook his head and said, "That would be our last resort; didn't you often say that you wanted to raise troops? The best thing we can do in the circumstances is I will go alone to pick up Su Jie, while you are pretending to have sincere collaboration with Xiao Xian, so that he wouldn't dare not to be courteous to me, thinking that his evil schemes would come to fruition soon."

A gust of wind, carrying the rain, blew into the wine shop, making the lanterns flickered, so that the more than a dozen empty tables also flickered between light and dark, multiplying the lonely, somber and cold feeling in their hearts.

Although the streets were filled with gaiety and songs, the residents of the city celebrating their victory that day, it seemed like the streets and the wine shop were in two isolated worlds.

Kou Zhong was staring blankly for half a day; finally he mumbled as if he was talking to himself, "What do I do now?"

Noticing Kou Zhong had his eyes fixed on the lively scene outside the door, yet his eyes were empty, Xu Ziling leaned over slightly and said heavily, "The most important business you must attend right now is to evaluate merits and bestow rewards, stabilize and pacify the heart Liangdu's citizens. Taking advantage while Li Zitong, Xu Yuanlang and the others are too busy to pay any attention to you, and Yuwen Huagu is returning north in defeat, you build a good foundation. As for how to resolve the danger facing the Flying Horse Ranch, without Xiaodi telling you, Kou Shuai [Commander Kou] ought to know what to do."

Kou Zhong was shaken, but then his eyes recovered their spirited expression. Reaching out across the table to grab Xu Ziling's hands, he spoke in heavy voice, "You must promise me to bring Su Jie, mother and son, to the Flying Horse Ranch. We have already lost Niang, we can't lose Su Jie as well."

Xu Ziling nodded with confidence and said, "I will not disappoint you."

"When are you going to leave?" Kou Zhong asked.

"As soon as I finish this cup of wine," Xu Ziling replied.

Kou Zhong let go of his hands, and leaned back into his chair with his eyes emitting profound emotion. It was quite a while later that he finally nodded his head and said, "If Xiao Xian and Xiang Yushan dare to harm you and Su Jie, I swear I will raze his mother's Great Liang Empire or what have you to the ground, kill him so that not a single chicken or dog remains. If I violate this oath, may I never be reincarnated, and be a domesticated animal forever."

Xu Ziling laughed calmly and said, "Don't worry! I, Xu Ziling, am not General Lu Meng of the Wu State of the past[1] at all; if they want to kill me, it won't be that easy."

Kou Zhong looked out the door, and muttered to himself irresolutely, "I am still a little worried about female demon Wan; in fact, I still don't understand why she is willing to cease hostility against us. Could it be that whatever it is in the 'Duke Yang Treasure' that they wanted is really so important to them?"

"I have pondered over that question as well," Xu Ziling replied, "My guess is that their change of heart was because you have never suffered defeat under Li Mi's hands, so they believe you are the only one worthy to be Li Shimin's opponent. And since Li Shimin is the Son of Heaven ordained by heaven chosen by Shi Feixuan, female demon Wan wanted to support you."

Kou Zhong was stunned, "Supporting me?" he asked, "If that's the case, why did female demon Wan join hands with Bian Bufu to deal with you?"

Xu Ziling replied, "The one she wants to deal with is precisely me and not you. I had this thought because supposing she was able to capture me alive, she would occupy the upper hand, and would not have to worry that you are not going to agree to their demand and conditions. That night at Liangdu, although she was taking advantage of our precarious position, the condition she proposed was absolutely acceptable. She was also very clear that by helping us, Ku Ge's group of horse-mounted bandits would lose their guts. Therefore, ultimately Yin Gui Pai is holding you in high regard."

Letting out a cold humph, Kou Zhong said, "That is their own stupidity; sooner or later I will have their Sect wiped out and their people perish."

After a short pause, he sighed and said, "It doesn't matter what one is doing, in the end one must clearly distinguish one's objective and ideals. Even common people also pursue livelihood, to have enough food and warm clothes, to raise a family, to live in peace and work happily. Or perhaps pursuing wealth and power. Even kings and emperors pursue immortal exploits. But I never understand, what is that female demon Wan pursuing? It seems like they only wish for the whole world to be in chaos, always stirring up the wind and the rain."

"This is called one mountain cannot have two tigers," Xu Ziling replied, "The feuds between Ci Hang Jing Zhai and Yin Gui Pai have been going on for nearly a thousand years. And now, because of Zhu Yuyan and female demon Wan, Yin Gui Pai appears to enjoy resurgence, so the time has come for the two Sects to distinguish victory or defeat. The struggle for the Emperor's throne is just one of the many battlefields! And we are able to perceive it, because we have been drawn into this vortex."

Greatly astonished, Kou Zhong said, "Your insight is very thorough."

Xu Ziling replied, "This is called the person on the spot is baffled, the onlooker sees clear."

Grabbing his head, Kou Zhong said, "If you are an onlooker, which one is the insider then?"

Xu Ziling smiled and said, "Concerning Su Jie's affair, Yuwen Huagu's enmity, I am an insider. But in other matters, I am only an onlooker. Zhong Shao, do you understand?"

Finished speaking, he rose up to his full height.

Kou Zhong laughed aloud; picking up the wine cup, he said, "Here's wishing Ling Shao a pleasant journey, the horse arrives, the work accomplished."

Xu Ziling gladly picked up his wine cup. 'Ding!' he clinked it against Kou Zhong, downed the wine, and floated away.

Kou Zhong watched until he disappeared among the crowd on the street, in spite of the wind and the rain, before raising his wine cup and pouring the wine into his throat.

※ ※ ※

Inside the West Hall, Zongguan Mansion, at the heart of the city of Liangdu, Kou Zhong held his first important meeting with important high-ranking military officers under his command.

The attendees included Xuan Yong, Ren Meimei, Luo Qifei, Chen Jiafeng, Xie Jue, and Wagang Army's old generals who came with Xuan Yong, Gao Ziming and Zhan Gongxian. In the last battle, the latter two have shown outstanding performance, hence they were bestowed the reward of being promoted to Left and Right Vanguard Generals under Xuan Yong, the new Liangdu Zongguan [lit. chief manager].

First of all, Kou Zhong tactfully declined the proposal, which had repeatedly been brought up in recent days, to have him declare himself king. He said, "The reason we are able to establish Liangdu as our base of operations is purely fortuitous coincidence, because being able to survive in the narrow crack among big powers is simply a miracle; therefore, the more we don't attract attention the better. Presently the proposal to declare kingship will bring more harm than benefit."

Ren Meimei spoke solemnly, "But under current circumstances, no matter how low-key you are, Liangdu has always had a tight grip on the throat of the Tongji Canal; other people will never be willing to leave Liangdu alone. It would be better to stake it out, publicly proclaim ourselves hegemon. Relying on Kou Ye's prestige, towering figures near and far will come to place themselves into our hands, it will greatly strengthen our momentum."

Kou Zhong calmly laughed and said, "What Ren Dajie said is of course very reasonable, but it can only be implemented after further expansion of our power. The top priority right now is to take advantage while Xu Yuanlang, Yuwen Huagu and Dou Jiande in the north are in endless entanglement, Wang Shichong is busy with consolidating Li Mi's territory, to turn toward Li Zitong, who is too busy to pay us any attention, to extract a little bit of profit from him, to consolidate and expand our territory."

His eyes shining with excitement, Chen Jiafeng said, "Are we going to single out Li Zitong's city as the point of attack?"

Noticing Xuan Yong has been smiling without saying anything, Kou Zhong asked, "Does Xuan Zongguan have any good proposal?"

Xuan Yong calmly said, "Defending a city is easy, besieging a city is difficult. Were it not for Li Zitong transferring his troops to Jiangdu, based on our current strength, practically we can't do anything. But now we have a bit chance of success."

And then he took a map and spread it out on the table. "Presently we have three important matters that must be dealt with simultaneously," he went on, "In the first place is consolidating the city, establishing our foundation. Secondly, we must rebuild Pengcheng, and make Liangdu - Pengcheng, two cities as the centers, integrating the more than a dozen cities and towns and a hundred something villages within several hundred li of these two cities into our territory. Finally, we select one of the two big cities, Donghai and Zhongli, as our military target, and formulate strategies to forge ahead."

Luo Qifei said, "Both Donghai and Zhongli are highly strategic cities. The former can enable us to gain control over the road leading to the sea, while giving us the opportunity to do business with the cities along the coastal area. The latter is located right next to River Huai, which will provide us with a foothold to advance toward the southwest region. In terms of importance, each one has its own merits. However, under current circumstances, it is advisable to take Donghai first, because psychologically, it will deal the greatest blow to Li Zitong."

After a short pause, he went on, "But I am in favor of Ren Dajie's proposal earlier for Kou Ye to declare yourself king. It's called 'words do not justify unfavorable name'. Of the dozen or so cities nearby, most are under control of local power. The reason they are not willing to throw their lot to either Li Zitong or Xu Yuanlang is simply because these two are not capable person with great chance of success. But with Kou Ye's reputation, as soon as you raise your hand and issue a rousing call, the wind will definitely be blowing your way. Kou Ye must reconsider this proposal."

Gao Ziming and Zhan Gongxian also echoed this proposal, pointing to Zhai Rang raising up the Wagang Militia Army as an example to illustrate the importance of declaring oneself king.

Kou Zhong smiled and said, "I have an idea, let's compromise: how about not declaring myself king, but commander? That appellation is surely justified, while also giving a brand-new impression to those who want me to be the king. Not in such a way as to easily oppose various powers with equal harshness, in the two-cannot-exist-together kind of manner. It will also enable us to do things a hundred times more flexible."

One after another the crowd expressed their approval.

Xie Jue proposed, "It would be better to call Longtou Da Shuai [lit. big boss great commander]. This name is very awe-inspiring!"

Kou Zhong burst out laughing and said, "That name is not awe-inspiring, but too bossy, also carries a bit of underworld gang [orig. black thief] boss impression. Just call me Shao Shuai [lit. young/junior commander]! You will be called Shao Shuai Army, so it will feel a bit more harmonious, easy and amiable."

Noticing that he spoke about such a proper name so casually, they all knew that he had already had firm view about this, so they all voiced their praise.

Kou Zhong said, "Xuan Zongguan's suggestion of those three urgent matters are very insightful. Let's leave the consolidation of the city to Ren Dajie. Within Peng and Liang area, who did not know Pengliang Hui's beautiful and alluring Er Dangjia?"

Everybody laughed heartily. Ren Meimei cast him a sideways glance and said, "Still loves to blather?"

Kou Zhong laughed and said, "I am the kind of person who will not change. As far as I'm concerned, power, fame and position are just as fleeting as a reflection of the moon on splashing water. In this struggle for hegemony over the world, the only thing that I am concerned about is how to make common people pass their days in peace, security and happiness. Toward the arduous process of the struggle itself, other than passing my days in ignorance, it does not make any sense to me."

Listening to that, everybody felt deep veneration for him.

Turning to Chen Jiafeng, Kou Zhong said, "The task of rebuilding Pengcheng, Chen Jiafeng will be in charge, with Xie Jue as his deputy. If there is any problem, our Ren Dajie will allocate any resources as necessary."

Xie Jue said, "There is no candidate more suitable than Er Dangjia; previously, Ren Dangjia was our treasurer [orig. storehouse manager]."

Ren Meimei said, "Don't call me Er Dangjia anymore. Hereafter Pengliang Hui no longer exists, there is only Shao Shuai Army."

Kou Zhong said, "Between Donghai and Zhongli, two counties, we are going to take Donghai first. I appoint Xuan Yong as the Commander in Chief, with Qifei as his deputy. Ziming and Gongxian are in charge of recruiting and training the army. Build the siege equipment according to the blueprint I gave you. You have three months to prepare everything. I appoint Xuan Yong to direct the overall situation."

Xuan Yong was stunned, "Shao Shuai, how about you? What are you doing?"

Tranquil and calm, Kou Zhong said, "I am going to the Flying Horse Ranch to borrow men and horses, to establish an unequalled-throughout-the-world cavalry troops. The moment I come back will be the moment we attack Donghai."

by diligent study (see also

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