West of the Willow Lane was the Jiucheng [lit. old city] River that cut across the road going north and south of the city, spanning across the river were two big bridges, Ruyi [as one wishes] and Xiao Hong [little rainbow]; the scenery on both banks was charming and gentle, with long dike and willow branches drooping down, lined with luxuriant fragrant grass.
Further away was the other large river, the Wen River, balancing the Jiucheng River. Along the Wen River going east was the Great South Gate Street, the busiest and most prosperous street in Yangzhou; most shops were concentrated here.
This moment Xu Ziling was overwhelmed with memories, how could he have any interest in visiting a pleasure house? But he was also having a peculiar feeling, recalling that in the past, he could only steal a peek to admire the ladies of the House of Heavenly Fragrance, but now he would be able to enter from the main room, into the inner chamber, as a rich big master. Obviously the past and the present were completely different; they had grown up to become adults.
For the young Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, the city of Yangzhou was a very good place to play hide-and-seek, or perhaps a good place where they could go everywhere to flee for their lives.
Before Emperor Yang developed Yangzhou to become Jiangdu, in the city district, most of the houses were self-developed, which resulted in irregular shapes and layout, with oblique street corners and cluttered intersections; except for several main streets, the rest were mostly nine-crooked, thirteen-bent, streets and alleys crisscrossing each other haphazardly, which also became the special characteristic of Yangzhou.
In the past, the two boys' favorite place to hang out was the Great South Gate Street, and also the Satin Silk Street, which intersected the Great South Gate Street. This street got its name not only from the brocade, satin, juan [thin, tough silk fabric], and chou [light silk] shops lining the street, but also the shops offering jewelry and arts and crafts, hence many wealthy spenders [orig. with ten thousand strings of cash in money belt] spent their time here. For the young Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling at that time, this was the place where the fat sheep congregated.
Noticing Xu Ziling did not say anything, Xing Rong thought he agreed to stroll into the pleasure house tonight; thereupon he turned to another topic, "Luo Tangzhu can be considered the best in his treatment toward us! He is the only one willing to speak up on our behalf."
Stunned, Xu Ziling asked, "How about Shen Beichang?"
Lowering his voice, Xing Rong said, "Shen Laotou [old man, usually in disrespectful way] is very grouchy, nobody knows what he really thinks. I'll say Shao Lingzhou has deep misgivings toward him."
Frowning, Xu Ziling asked, "Does Madame Yuling have any influence on our Zhuhua Bang?"
"Of course she has!" Xing Rong replied, "She is very supportive of us, but she never intervenes in the Gang's affair; she does not have any real power within our Gang, therefore, her influence is only from our Gang brothers who show her respects, but in major things, it is difficult to rely on her support."
This moment the group of more than fifty people have just entered the courtyard gate. Shao Lingzhou and Shen Beichang went out to meet them, to intercept Luo Feng and Gui Xiliang.
The four men stood around to talk, but actually Gui Xiliang could only stood respectfully and answer whenever someone else asked him question, the real dialogue was between Shao Lingzhou and Luo Feng.
Responding to Luo Feng's beckoning him, Xu Ziling stepped forward from the rear of the line. He was introduced to Shao Lingzhou and Shen Beichang first, and then Shao Lingzhou, with a slight condescending look in his eye, sized him up and down, before asking, "Does Ling Xiong have the authority to represent Shao Shuai?"
Xu Ziling replied indifferently, "Naturally I do! Otherwise Shao Shuai could not possibly send me to come with Gui Tangzhu."
Revealing a skeptical look, Shao Lingzhou was silent for half a day before finally nodding his head and said, "Very well! In that case, would Ling Xiong immediately follow Ol' Shao to the Zongguan Mansion to see Da Wang? He wants to talk with someone who can represent Kou Shao Shuai."
And then, turning to Gui Xiliang and Luo Feng, he said, "Two gentlemen Tangzhu need not join us, only Laofu [old man, referring to self] and Old Shen will do!"
※ ※ ※
Accompanied by Xu Xingzhi, this old friend, Chen Changlin entered the study room to see Kou Zhong. This Shao Shuai was diligently studying Lu Miaozi's treasured book of 'Mechanical Equipment'; he looked so enraptured by the book. He was greatly surprised to see Chen Changlin, "Unexpectedly Changlin Xiong is back so soon?" he said.
After the two sat down, Chen Changlin said, "Taking light boat going downstream, it took less than half a day to reach Donghai. On the return trip, we got tail wind, so it took us only one night plus a few sichen. Fortunately Changlin did not fail my assignment; fifteen hundred children and disciples of Jiangnan Army will reach Liangdu tonight, and they are using their own weapons."
Xu Xingzhi added, "And all of them were forged by Jiangnan's iron and steel industry; often imitated, never duplicated."
Kou Zhong put down the treasured book and cheerfully said, "That's even better. This time we only want to drive a wedge between the enemy, not to really attack Old Du's Jianghuai Army. What can we do that we won't damage our own people, but can raise Old Du's suspicion and his anger?"
Xu Xingzhi spoke leisurely, "As for the details, we must wait for Luo Qifei's intelligence before making definite plan, but it would be best if we could take advantage of a particular situation to assassinate an important trusted lieutenant under Du Fuwei's banner; whether successful or not, we won't have to worry, they will definitely be suspicious and then will become hostile with each other."
"What particular situation?" puzzled, Chen Changlin asked.
Xu Xingzhi explained, "Presently the Du and Shen, two armies, are taking turns to attack Jiangdu Yangzhou. It can be easily imagined that whoever is doing the siege will make an all-out effort in doing so, hoping to enter the city first to drink that oral soup, the agreement that the two sides made. According to the information we received from Jiangdu, last time happened to be Shen Army's turn to besiege the city. Both the besieging and the defending armies suffered considerable damage. By the time Jiang Huai Army besieging the city again, their chance of breaking the city will be very high. What we want is precisely this kind of situation."
Slapping the table and shouting with praise, Kou Zhong said, "This scheme is absolutely wonderful. It is enough to provide the motive for Shen Lun to wreck the collaboration, which is he is afraid that Jiang Huai Army would enter the city first and grab the benefit of the victory."
And then he called one the guards to summon Bu Tianzhi.
Xu Xingzhi said, "Now the only problem we need to resolve is how to avoid Du and Shen, two armies, so much so Li Zitong's eyes and ears, because this kind of grandiose military operation involving a thousand men will be difficult to keep a secret."
Kou Zhong laughed and said, "The originally mission impossible has now become highly possible. Ha! Our savior is here!"
Bu Tianzhi hurriedly came, and after understanding their mission clearly, he patted his chest and said, "Leave this thing to me, I have more or less friendly relationship with the longtou dage [big brother big boss] of various wharfs across the nation. As long as Changlin's men disguise themselves as my men, I can transport them in batches to our secret lair in Jiangdu's vicinity, where they can wait for the opportunity to go into action."
Xu Xingzhi said in delight, "In that case all things are ready; we only lack intelligence from the east wind."
Kou Zhong said, "We'd batter change the assassination target to Old Du himself; wouldn't it be one needle pricking the flesh? In any case, basically we are not looking for success; as long as we could spread a bit of empty prowess, leave behind some Jiangnan trademarked arrows, darts and weaponry, shout with some Jiangnan accent, the mission can be considered successfully accomplished."
The other three nodded; they all agreed that it was a good plan.
Chen Changlin was concerned about another problem; he asked, "Supposing Du Fuwei really fell into the trap and strike back at Shen Lun, how would we exploit this situation?"
Xu Xingzhi said, "Du Fuwei's strength far surpasses Shen Lun's; he will be able to deal heavy blow on Shen Lun's soldiers and sergeants. At that time Shen Lun could only retreat back to Piling along the Jiangnan canal. We can intercept Shen Lun on the canal, catching him off guard, attacking him without he knowing how to deal with it."
Kou Zhong looked at Bu Tianzhi; he asked, "Is this feasible?"
Bu Tianzhi cheerfully said, "We know diverse Jiangnan waterways like the back of our hand, so I can guarantee that when our warships suddenly appear in the canal, Jiangnan army will be as if they had just awakened from a dream. As long as we can seize Shen Lun's command ship, Changlin Xiong will be able to personally put Shen Lun under his blade."
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, "This matter should not be delayed. We will immediately prepare the mission. When the time comes, I will personally accompany Changlin Xiong to get on board to pay an official visit to that kid Shen Lun, to see if Laotianye is willing to preside over justice."
Severely shaken, Chen Changlin said, "From this day onward, my life belongs to Shao Shuai!"