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Looking grieved for being wronged, Kou Zhong said, “Beautiful Changzhu, what kind of man do you think Kou Zhong is? My respect and admiration toward Changzhu knows no bound; how could I dare to put on airs?”

“Pfft,” Shang Xiuxun giggled tenderly, just like a fresh flower suddenly blooms. Her eyes returned to looking ahead, she spoke tenderly and with naiveté, “It’s been a long time since I heard this call, unexpectedly there is a bit of freshness in it. Oh! How about this: after we destroy Cao Yinglong’s group of horse-mounted bandits, I’ll give you ten thousand highest quality warhorses, with which you can crisscross the world and unify the rivers and mountains.”

Kou Zhong shook his head and said, “This does not conform to the Ranch’s rules, plus it might generate other people’s misperception, thinking that Changzhu is being sucked into this vortex of power struggle. We’d better wait for me to obtain the Duke Yang Treasure, and then using real gold, white silver I will buy horses from Changzhu. This way nobody would dare to speak even half a word of gossip about Changzhu.”

Shang Xiuxun slightly shrugged her almond shoulders; with sweet and charming demeanor she said, “You want to play brave, Xiuxun will be happy to play along.”

Turning her head around, her beautiful eyes rippling with odd expression as she looked at him and said, “I haven’t seen you for a year, you, this kid, appear to have more heroic spirit than before. This name Shao Shuai is very good; it is most suitable for you.”

A peculiar feeling welled up in Kou Zhong’s heart, so much so that he had a strong urge to pull her into his embrace. Since Li Xiuning and Song Yuzhi, he had never felt this way toward any woman.

The Ranch’s main forces arrived at the foot of the hill, a group of high-ranking officers left the troops and galloped up the hill to meet up with them, however, Jingling’s Duba Village’s former generals like Feng Ge, Feng Han, and the others had to stay behind at Yuan’an and Dangyang, hence they did not come.

Kou Zhong saw Fu Dajie [big sister], Xu Yang, Liang Qian, Wu Zhaoru, and the others; everybody was extremely happy and excited.

The First Manager Liang Zhi was in charge of watching over the Ranch, so he did not come either.

Shang Xiuxun was respectful toward Bai Wenyuan, this official who had rendered great merit. After saluting him and exchanging some pleasantries, she turned to Kou Zhong and said, “It’s late, we’d better pitch camp and take a rest. During dinner we can discuss how to pursue and attack Cao Yinglong’s troops of thieves?”

Kou Zhong shook his head and said, “Fortunate timing is fleeting. Cao Yinglong’s brilliance is precisely waiting and regrouping during the daytime. Supposing that we overtake them, they will take advantage of our troops being weary, our horses tired, to strike back using their dominant military strength. When we are resting in the night, he will be marching at full speed. With this reversed day and night scheme, they would occupy the invincible position. Therefore, if we want to defeat him, we must march in the night, snatch their provisions first, disturb their hearts and rob their will, and drive their formation into disarray, so that they flee in confusion toward the Zhang River. Only then will we have the chance of annihilating them at one stroke.”

The Ranch people all nodded in agreement, but their faces showed difficult expression as well.

Shang Xiuxun said, “We have been rushing on the road for three days, men and horses are dead tired. Even if the men supported the idea, the horses won’t be able to endure.”

Having a card up his sleeve, Kou Zhong said, “As long as the men are willing to endure, it will work. I have already made preparation, along the way we seized thousands of high quality warhorses from the enemy, which we can use like relay stations, as convenience as simply exchanging the horses.”

Bai Wenyuan added, “It appears that we are now only one horse-ride day away from the enemy. If we could exchange horses on the way smoothly, then we could overtake the enemy by tomorrow night, and thus we could carry out our surprise attack.”

Everybody’s spirit was greatly aroused; their admiration of Kou Zhong’s deep plans and distant thoughts was growing.

Shang Xiuxun cast a sidelong glance with her thousand-tenderness and hundred-charm eyes toward Kou Zhong, and said with a laugh, “You, this kid, is so full of tricks.”

And so she solemnly issued a decree, ordering Shang Zhen to personally pick a thousand martial art experts who were most adept in night travel, plus having the most exquisite equestrianism, to be on standby to set off.

Everybody immediately took advantage of this short break to let their horses drink water and eat grass. While Bai Wenyuan, along with Luo Fang, Liu Zongdao, and the others, who were familiar with the surrounding terrain, were studying the route, Kou Zhong and Shang Xiuxun walked to the side to talk.

This beautiful Ranch Master suddenly asked about Xu Ziling. Kou Zhong laughed and replied, “From time to time he and I both also miss Changzhu.”

Shang Xiuxun responded in displeasure, “Your love-to-speak-out-of-line character still has not changed. As soon as you left, you were like the yellow crane, I could only learn about your recent developments from people returning to the Ranch. Ay!”

“Why did you heave a sigh?” Kou Zhong wondered.

Shang Xiuxun fixed her beautiful eyes on the gradually darkening night sky, as she spoke softly, “You have put Shang Xiuxun in a very difficult situation. The Li Clan has a very good relationship with us, Li Xiuning is even a dear [lady/girl] friend whom I knew since we were little. They came up with a plan for dealing with Liu Wuzhou purchasing warhorses from the Tujue, hoping that I can breed and train new good horses, which I could supply to them on regular basis. Tell me, what should I do?”

Feeling tenderness toward her, Kou Zhong said, “How could I let Changzhu be in difficult situation? If Changzhu has a hundred horses, you could sell fifty each to Li Xiuning and me, then Li Xiuning would not be able to blame you.”

Astonished, Shang Xiuxun turned her eyes toward him; her jet-black eyebrows slightly knitted, she said, “Kou Zhong, what kind of person you really are? Are you really doing it for me? Or is there another ruse? I really can’t see through you.”

Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “Sometimes I am a cunning fox, other times I am a stupid pig; I really am not clear myself. But one thing I am certain: no matter what, I will not do anything to harm the affairs of the people I care about. In the big contention for hegemony of the world, which covers practically the entire Central Earth, I only have a 10% chance of winning, while the Li kid, Shimin, has at least 60% of the remaining 90% chance, with the remaining 30% belongs to Dou Jiande, standing at 20%, and together, Du Fuwei and Xiao Xian accounted for 10%. Therefore, if Changzhu is not able to help me, the consequences will be dire.”

Emotionally moved, Shang Xiuxun said, “Only real hero and outstanding character can say such words. Since you know the chance of losing is greater than the chance of winning, why don’t you realign your allegiance to the Li family?”

Stunned, Kou Zhong said, “If I, Kou Zhong, am willing to be under other people as their hunting dog and slave, would I still be Kou Zhong?”

Shang Xiuxun apologetically said, “I am only passing on the words that someone else entrusted to me. I knew early on that you would never listen.”

Staring blankly, Kou Zhong said, “Li Xiuning?”

Shang Xiuxun nodded slightly. “She has a letter that she entrusted me to give to you, at this moment I have it with me,” she spoke softly.

Kou Zhong was silent for half a day. Finally he spoke indifferently, “Just tear it for me!”

Xu Ziling was standing at the riverbank; suddenly remembering Susu’s untimely death, which caught him unprepared, he could not help feeling the pain as if an awl bored through his heart. The last streak of sunset was disappearing under the grassy land of the opposite bank.

If Fu Junchuo’s death made him grow up from a child to an adult, then Susu’s death has changed his view of life.

Men only live for several decades of summer and winter; what is actually the purpose of that?

This moment Xuan Yong came from behind and reported, “The fire beacon signal indicated that Cao Yinglong is indeed withdrawing in this direction, and they will arrive the night after tomorrow.”

Xu Ziling was awakened from his deep thought, to return to the ruthless reality. Muttering to himself irresolutely, he said, “If for any reason the Ranch’s main forces cannot come in time for pincer attack, and the enemy is crossing the river under carefully laid out defense, will we still be able to launch surprise attack?”

Xuan Yong replied, “Then we only have fifty-fifty chance, success or failure is hard to forecast. It will purely depend on how Cao Yinglong would counterattack. When that time comes, we will need Xu Ye to make the decision.”

Xu Ziling mused inwardly that Kou Zhong certainly made good recommendation by putting him in such important position that he must make decision that would affect the life or death of thousands of people. Smiling ruefully, he said, “You are more qualified than I am to make that decision.”

Full of confidence, Xuan Yong said, “Xu Ye, set your heart at ease, Shao Shuai will definitely have a way to force Cao Yinglong to cross the river in a flurry.”

Xu Ziling again mused inwardly that the reason Xuan Yong had such confidence was because he had never seen Kou Zhong, when facing defeat, fought like desperate rooster.

In fact, before dealing big blow on Li Mi, they did not have too many successes; Susu’s death was precisely a continuation, as well as the aftermath, of such failure.

If that day they did not come across Xiang Yushan on the street and asked him the way to the brothel, Susu would not have to die of pent-up frustration. Going deeper into his thought, if they did not encounter Li Jing, would their lives be happier?

Unfortunately, life does not have any ‘what-if’. It was as if Laotianye had a pair of invisible, unreachable, formless hands that was pulling individuals together to stimulate gratitude and grudges, and entangle those people together in an intricate fate.

Life is full of ups and downs, floating and sinking, without the freedom to act independently.

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