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Xiaohu, thanks for sharing. Jaya, Ysabel, HPC, DongBin, Spy, Chua, you are welcome. Paona, no need to apologize; good analysis. I happen to agree with Akolaw, although your last comment is possible, from the text, it did not seem like she was around 40. Xu Xiong, correct.

Book 20 Chapter 5 - The Difference Between Close and Distant Relatives

That very night Xu Ziling left Liangdu, riding on a light boat alone overnight along Tongji Canal going down south, and reached the confluence of Tongji Canal and the Huai River. From this point, he could follow the Canal going down south and reach Jiangdu in less than half a day, and if he headed west along the Huai River, in just several sichen he would have reached Zhongli. Originally, the journey would have been very convenient. Too bad Li Zitong stationed his warships here, and laid out iron chains across the canal, to stop any boat or ship from passing through.

Xu Ziling did not wish to let new branch growing out of a knot, hence he abandoned his boat here, came ashore and headed to the west by land route. Unleashing his footwork, he passed Zhongli, but did not enter the city, but turned to the south. As soon as he reached the Yangtze River, he could try to find a boat going west, to save time and energy.

Along the way when he was thirsty he drank mountain spring water, when he was hungry he picked a couple of wild fruits to eat his fill. When he took a rest, he would delve into the hand-written treasured books that Lu Miaozi bequeathed him. This way not only he did not feel lonely, he felt carefree, forgetting worry, without anxiety, and felt relaxed instead.

Now that he had made up his mind to rescue Susu, mother and son, he was able to throw out the load on his mind, and no longer wasting his time on an insignificant problem [orig. penetrate into the bull's horn] in this regard.

Along his route, occasionally he would encounter deserted villages, and fill his eyes with the desolation in the aftermath of a disaster, which made him feel depressed! Therefore, he changed course and travel through wild, out-of-the-way uninhabited mountain and fields, passing over mountain ridges. Under his feet, traveling over destitute mountain and desolate valley were as convenient as treading on the level ground.

It was the height of the summer season, everywhere the flowers were blooming, the scenery was enchanting. Throughout the Henan region, the climate was moderate, rainfall was abundant, different kinds of trees made up the wide expanse of forest, covering the hillside grassland. Sika deer, golden snub-nosed monkeys, and all kinds of birds inhabit the area, filling the wilderness with natural charm and liveliness, making him forget the dismal wind and wretched rain of the secular world.

One day at noon, he crossed a high mountain and reached a fertile plain on the northern bank of the Yangtze River. As far as his eyes could see, there were branches full of wild fruits, fresh flowers in full bloom; he was in great mood as he climbed to the hill top, and cast his eyes all around.

In the not-so-distant southerly direction, there was a strange-looking mountain; the rocks were scarlet like cinnabar, with strange peaks and weird rock formation more and more emerged, extremely and wonderfully serene. About halfway up the mountain, there was a temple hidden among the rocks. Suddenly his interest was piqued and since it was on his way anyway, he was thinking of exploring it. Thereupon he dashed toward the strange mountain.

In less than half a day, he already reached the foot of the mountain, where a mountain stream meandering through, and to his surprise, he found a bridge spanning it, connecting the secluded path going around and up the mountain.

Xu Ziling was very curious; it had never occurred to him that in such a wild, mountainous country where no man ever stepped his foot on, there was such a scenic spot.

But then he got to think: people built a monastery here, surely it was because they wanted to escape the secular world. If he simply went up the mountain to go sightseeing, he might disturb their quiet meditation. He was just about to give up his original intention and turn around to leave, when suddenly a burst of clear and melodious flute [orig. xiao, vertically blown flute] sound was heard from the distant place high up the mountain.

Listening to that, Xu Ziling was emotionally moved.

※ ※ ※

Inside the study room of the Zongguan Mansion, Kou Zhong and Xuan Yong were studying more than a dozen topography maps of Liangdu and the surrounding area.

Xuan Yong said, "With our current strength, by directly attacking Donghai we will definitely end up with our wings clipped and will have to return in defeat. But if we can exploit our currently favorable situation, perhaps we can capture Donghai without wasting a single soldier, a single man, and Shao Shuai will not have to take the long and difficult journey to the Flying Horse Ranch to seek help."

Greatly interested, Kou Zhong replied, "I am listening."

Xuan Yong pointed to a big lake east of Pengcheng, separated by Mount Luliang and Mount Yi, "This is Lake Luoma [lit. llama]," he said, "The confluence of the river course. Not only it has abundant fish, the area around the lakeshore are fertile, vast agricultural land, the lifeline of many towns and villages nearby. If we can seize control of Xiapi, we can control this lake. At that time, without Shao Shuai even need to open your mouth, all the cities, counties, of the surrounding area will obediently throw their lot to you."

Astonished, Kou Zhong asked, "Is there such a convenient matter? Who currently has control over Xiapi?"

Xuan Yong replied, "Currently Xiapi falls under control of a powerful gang called Luoma Bang [lit. llama gang]. The Bangzhu is called Du Ren, his men number nearly three thousand. Not only going fishing has to pay him fees, boats passing through or travelers touring the lake must pay him illegal toll. From time to time he went all around the area, robbing and looting, so he has already incited the heaven's anger and the people's grievance. If we can remove and replace him, and implement benevolent government, with Shao Shuai's current prestige, the heart of the people will definitely turn to you. By then, we can also acquire Huairen, Langya, Lanling, Liangcheng, four counties northwest of Donghai, Muyang, Lianshui, Huaiyang, three counties southwest, plus Xiapi itself, we can completely sever land route toward Donghai; at that time Donghai is potentially already in our bag."

Emotionally moved, Kou Zhong said, "Xiao Yong is indeed an insightful person. This plan is not only brilliant, it is within our ability, and will be greatly advantageous in our effort to rebuild Pengcheng."

Seeing his proposal was accepted, Xuan Yong's spirit greatly aroused, he said, "In that case, subordinate will immediately send Luo Qifei to Xiapi to get a clear picture of Du Ren's foundation, to see how we can eliminate him in one stroke."

After Xuan Yong left, Kou Zhong was thinking of taking out Lu Miaozi's secret book and spending some time to study it diligently, when his personal guard came in to report that Gui Xiliang and Xing Rong of Yangzhou came to ask for an audience.

Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong hurriedly went out to meet them.

※ ※ ※

The flute sound slowly moved up and down in the magnificent, leisure atmosphere of the big natural world where the wind brushed the leaves into motion. The tone and the cohesion between the sound had no flaw. Although there was no intense change or climax that appeared suddenly, there was another feeling that lingered endlessly, an implicit charm in the sound that would not rest until death.

Xu Ziling could not help stopping to listen carefully. The ethereal, penetrating wordless music seemed to accurately describe the beautiful endlessly empty space in the abyss of a certain spirit; no sorrow, no joy, but was able to touch the listener's soul. The mood of the flute player itself was like an empty mountain locked up in the clouds, seemingly visible yet desired to be hidden; so elusive and unfathomable. The tender and limpid beautiful sound was like someone inside the house, yet was doomed in predestination to have the cold and detached gaze of an outsider, making others also felt that the heavy life could also be interpreted with cold, indifferent attitude.

The flute sound suddenly stopped.

As if he was forced to wake up from a dream, Xu Ziling reluctantly came up to his senses and decided to climb up the mountain to take a look.

He knew who the flute player was.

Only she could produce such a lucid and elegant, graceful, without the least bit of vulgarity, flute sound.

※ ※ ※

Grabbing Gui Xiliang and Xing Rong's, his childhood companions, hands, Kou Zhong pulled them into the study room.

After a bit of catching up, Gui Xiliang happily said, "It's really good to see you, this kid. Ever since we heard the news you defeated Yuwen Huaji, we immediately rushed over at double speed, most afraid that you would suddenly disappear someplace else."

Almost with reverence, Xing Rong said, "Nowadays not many people are as famous as you and Xiao Ling! Ay! If we had arrived two days earlier, we could have seen Xiao Ling too."

Kou Zhong poured tea for the two; giggling, he said, "Two Dage's news network is certainly fast and abundant. Xiaodi only kicked Yuwen Huagu's butts a little bit, yet can't conceal it from you; this time what kind of support you can offer Xiaodi?"

Gui Xiliang stared at him blankly for half a day. Finally he sighed and said, "People say wealth will bring the good out of you. You, this fellow, are already world famous, but at the deepest level, that shameless attitude seems to be the same as before, just like it will never change."

Kou Zhong roared in laughter and said, "Can you change fine natural character as soon as you say you are going to change? Take you, this muddled egg [i.e. scoundrel/bastard] for example, as soon as you climbed up the ladder to become a Xiangzhu [lit. fragrant master, a leadership position in a gang], you went all over the place acting like a big brother; am I not of a common origin with you, who previously loved to make a scene? The difference is that you are of an inferior fundamental character!"

Gui Xiliang was unable to hold his ground; displeased, he laughed and said, "We are all brothers, how come you are not willing to let me off?"

Xing Rong rolled with laughter; completely at ease, he said, "I don't know when was the last time I laughed this happily!"

Kou Zhong raised his tea cup and said, "Come! Let Xiaodi toast two Dage with a cup of tea."

Finished laughing and joking, Gui Xiliang spoke grimly, "This time we rushed over, there is indeed a critical matter we'd like to discuss with you."

Kou Zhong laughed and said, "With your current status, you can't possibly come to see me if it were a chicken feather, garlic skin [i.e. trivial] matter, right?"

Pretending to be angry, Gui Xiliang said, "You tease me again and I'll beat you; I don't care how formidable you are now."

Kou Zhong surrendered. "Gui Dage, please calm down," he said, "May I ask what instruction do you have for me?"

Xing Rong joined in, "Ever since that year in Jiangyin City you and Xiao Ling beat the people of Clear, Rain and Dew, three Halls, until they were in a sorry state [see Book 7 starting on Chapter 3], we reorganized our gang under the leadership of Shao Junshi. Due to your connection with the Song Clan, Liang Ge was promoted to be the Tangzhu [hall master] of the Dew Bamboo Hall. Hey! Xiaodi was implicated to have fun as the Fu Tangzhu [vice/deputy]."

Kou Zhong sighed and said, "I also know that Xiliang obtained Big Miss Shao Lanfang's hand in marriage. Ay! Your, this kid's luck with women is indeed not shallow."

Gui Xiliang's old face turned beet red as he said, "You are teasing me again?"

Afraid that the two would entangle each other endlessly, Xing Rong hastily cut them off, "With the Song Clan's support, these past few years we are enjoying great progress, and once again establish a good foundation in Jiangdu. Otherwise, we would not learn that quickly that one after another you and Xiao Ling have defeated Li Mi and Yuwen Huaji. All Xiongdi of our gang are very proud of you."

Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Don't flatter blindly, at least that kid Mai Yunfei can't possibly be proud of us; am I right?"

In Jiangyin that day, perhaps because he was Gui Xiliang's rival in love, Mai Yunfei was very rude toward Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, resulting in him suffering a little loss, having his head and face filthy with grime, his countenance lost its luster.

Letting out a cold humph, Gui Xiliang said, "Forget that bird! With Shao Junshi in charge, he doesn't even have a turn to speak up."

Therefore, Kou Zhong knew that Gui Xiliang and Mai Yunfei were still like fire and water.

Xing Rong said, "Shao Junshi ordered us to come here to ask you to be our Bangzhu!"

Kou Zhong was stunned. "What?" he said.

※ ※ ※

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