Li Zitong sat high on the dragon seat. Squinting, he looked askance at Xu Ziling stepping into the main hall, accompanied by Shao Lingzhou and Shen Beichang, as if he wanted to see him through.
In the main hall, there were altogether eighteen imperial tutor chairs arranged in a row left and right in front of the throne. This moment, the three main seats on the left were occupied by Li Zitong's trusted aides. Behind the chairs stood two rows of imperial bodyguards wielding halberds in their hands, wearing shiny armors; they were quite awe-inspiring.
This kind of imposing manner would be appropriate in the Imperial Palace, but in Zongguan Mansion's main hall, it gave the impression of false bravado. However, Li Zitong was under pressure and had no choice; by abandoning the Imperial Palace, which was devastated by the raging fire, and took the Zongguan Mansion instead, he wanted to show that he was different than the muddleheaded ruler. He did not even dare to stay at the other temporary imperial residences that the previous emperor built to enjoy life.
After the herald at the door announcing their arrival, Shao Lingzhou and Shen Beichang followed Jianghu protocol in asking to have an audience with respected figure. Xu Ziling followed their example to save a lot of trouble.
After granting them their seats, Li Zitong coldly asked, "I wonder which position Mr. Ling holds in Shao Shuai Army, whether you have any symbol of authority with which you can represent Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling in this talk?"
The three high-ranking generals sitting below him all stared fixedly at Xu Ziling with cold eyes to see how he would respond.
Li Zitong's appearance was obviously more haggard than the last time they met, the hair on his temples was graying; it was clear that that was the price he had to pay in contending over the world.
Xu Ziling responded indifferently, "Since our Army was hastily established, we have had continuous military campaigns; a lot of things we still do not have time to take into consideration, symbol of authority and documentation, none has been prepared, I am asking Wu Wang's forgiveness."
A big frown appeared on his face, Li Zitong said, "Then how is Mr. Ling going to prove that you can speak on those two men's behalf?"
Shao Lingzhou interjected, "Da Wang, please understand, our humble Gang's Gui Xiliang has personally confirmed to Laofu that General Ling is indeed Kou Shao Shuai's ambassador."
"Oh," Li Zitong mumbled, and pointed to the imperial tutor chairs, he leisurely introduced the three high-ranking generals to Xu Ziling; they were, successively, Zuo Xiaoyou, Bai Xin, and Qin Wenchao.
A bizarre feeling welled up in Xu Ziling's heart; as early as when he was a still a little rascal roaming Yangzhou's street, he and Kou Zhong had already heard these three's names, and already admired them.
Especially Zuo Xiaoyou, who was the leader of one of the militias. In the great undertaking ten or so years ago at the uprising of the Dun Gou Shan [squatting dog hill], his might rose up for many days. It was some time later that he surrendered to Li Zitong, who rose abruptly one year later than he did. Among the three, he was also the oldest; in his forties, he was tall, thin, with clear eyes that glanced fearfully, his face was full of wind and frost [fig. hardships].
Bai Xin and Qin Wenchao were youthful, bold and powerful, with typical build of Shandong men, taller than average. Their attitude toward Xu Ziling implied hostility; they simply nodded slightly as a form of greeting, cold and rude.
Li Zitong slapped the armrest and shouted, "Since you can speak on their behalf, General Ling ought to be able to tell me: why did you attack Donghai and kill my younger brother, and rattle my, Ol' Li's foundation?"
Unyielding, Xu Ziling met his harsh and fierce gaze, and replied indifferently, "Wu Wang ought to understand people. In time where men are contending for hegemony over the world, there is neither friend nor foe. Plus our humble army had used peaceful measured before using force; we did send Pengliang Hui's Ren Er Dangjia to Jiangdu to pay a visit to Da Wang, to discuss our alliance, but Da Wang refused. Hence from friend we became foe; how could the blame be on our side? Moreover, it has come to our attention that Muyang's Li Xingyuan came to us in feigned surrender; left with no choice, we have to beat you at your game, to gain the initiative by striking first."
He has not finished, Li Zitong suddenly stood up, pointed his finger at Xu Ziling and shouted sternly, "Outrageous! Guards! Get him out and chop his head!"
The imperial bodyguards jumped from Li Zitong's left and right.
Xu Ziling pressed his hand on the hilt of his saber.
But while Shao Lingzhou and Shen Beichang were at a loss to know what to do, Zuo Xiaoyou sprang up and shouted, "Hold on!"
The imperial guards swiftly halted their steps.
Zuo Xiaoyou turned to Li Zitong and said, "Working together both sides benefit, separated both sides perish. Da Wang please calm down."
Panting with rage, Li Zitong stared hatefully at Xu Ziling for a good while before sitting back down in the dragon throne at the top of the steps.
The imperial guards returned to his left and right.
Zuo Xiaoyou sat down and spoke to Xu Ziling, "This time Shao Shuai sent General Ling here, what good proposal do you bring?"
Because Xu Ziling had overheard Li Zitong's secret talk with Ku Ge earlier, he was well aware the opposite party was using both hard and soft techniques to create pressure, so that in the ensuing negotiation, they would be able to reap greater advantage. Feeling amused inwardly, Xu Ziling maintained that calm-and-unruffled-in-the-midst-of-chaos attitude; he said, "General Zuo is right, working together both sides benefit, separated both sides perish. Du Fuwei could form an alliance with Shen Faxing, our Shao Shuai Army naturally can also form an alliance with your honorable side. If Da Wang thinks that this suggestion is satisfactory, we can continue our discussion, otherwise I have no choice but to leave immediately to report to my supervisor."
Li Zitong laughed coldly and said, "Kou Zhong bragged that he can break our Jiangdu's siege; did he really make that remark?"
Everybody's eyes were fixed on Xu Ziling.
Xu Ziling smiled calmly and said, "Indeed he made that remark!"
Letting out long laughter, Qin Wenchao said, "When Du Fuwei proclaimed himself hegemon in Jianghuai, and our humble master was preeminent at Shandong, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were just little rascals in Yangzhou. Within Zhuhua Bang, they lacked the qualification to have even one leaf. And now, although they won a little bit of power, what made him think that he would be able to repel the allied forces of Jianghuai and Jiangnan?"
Xu Ziling laughed involuntarily and said, "Compared to Li Mi, who was able to move unhindered in the Central Plains, can Du Fuwei be considered superior? Problem is whether Da Wang can be like Wang Shichong, who was at least able to defeat Li Mi. Even if we worked together earnestly, can Da Wang do it?"
Li Zitong's countenance changed greatly; because Xu Ziling was implying that since Kou Zhong was able to defeat Li Mi, naturally he did not have any regards on Du Fuwei and Li Zitong. Moreover, since the cooperation with Li Zitong was limited to the breaking of the Jiangdu siege, afterwards both sides will meet face to face to decide victory or defeat.
Bai Xin was afraid Li Zitong could not restrain his anger, he interrupted, "But how do we know that your superior is going to cooperate in good faith?"
Xu Ziling laughed aloud and said, "My humble superior Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling are known to be one-word-worth-nine-sacred-tripods men [fig. words of enormous weight]; have you ever heard they broke faith and abandoned right [i.e. commit treachery]?"
There was a tight silence in the hall.
Li Zitong tapped the armrest with his fingers; he spoke in heavy voice, "Empty promises, what good will they bring? What kind of brilliant scheme does Kou Zhong have that he can solve the crisis in Jiangdu?"
Xu Ziling smiled and said, "As long as Da Wang agrees to lift the blockade at the canal, send army provisions from Zhongli for our use, and provide accurate intelligence about the enemy to us, we will immediately dispatch our troops to mount sneak attack to the enemy's rear stronghold and army camps, so that their head and tail cannot attend to each other, while facing the enemy from the front and back. In the past, Li Mi was using precisely this tactic, so that Yuwen Huaji's hundred thousand elite troops were tired of constantly running for their lives, much less Du Fuwei's insignificant several tens of thousands Jianghuai Army?"
Zuo Xiaoyou said, "At that time Li Mi's fighting generals were like clouds, his armed forces strong and solid. Now Shao Shuai Army has just taken shape, how could you match them?"
Xu Ziling replied, "This is just as Jianghuai Army cannot be compared to Yuwen Huaji's elite troops in the past. Besides, we heard that Du Fuwei and Fu Gongyou do not bite the strings [? Must be an idiom, but I have no idea what it means]. Is that true, or false?"
This moment the crowd was beginning to be enraptured by the eloquence of this lobbyist; momentarily nobody was able to say anything.
Skirting the issue, Li Zitong said, "How many men and horses can Kou Zhong spare to help me?"
Xu Ziling confidently replied, "How about twenty thousand cavalry?"
Li Zitong immediately said, "Tell Guaren first; how do you intend to dispose of our Li clansmen from Donghai?"
Xu Ziling smiled and said, "Da Wang indeed understands people; you ought to know that if we do not have any problem in working together, Da Wang's clansmen should not have any problem if they wish to leave."
Li Zitong laughed aloud and said, "Very well! It is decided then."
Xu Ziling already knew that this was going to be the final outcome. By giving Li Zitong a hundred-benefits-without-a-single-harm proposal like this, how could the other party refuse?