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Xu Ziling was enjoying the colorful reflection of the distant mountain on the Zhang River, with dense green forest providing dark shades on both sides of the river. The river looked like an embroidered belt, which a fairy from heaven tossed down onto the earth, meandering north and south, adding unbounded tenderness and affection to the whole wide earth. He sighed and said, “Everybody has different ideals and pursuits. Supposing the warlords contending for hegemony over the world are only Cao Yinglong, Zhu Can, Xiao Xian, Wang Shichong, and those like them, I would definitely fight side-by-side with Kou Zhong to the end. But among the warlords now, there are Liu Heita, Li Shimin, and the others, all are chivalrous heroes. I really do not have the heart to regard them as the enemy. Only because Kou Zhong is my Xiongdi did I let myself to get sucked into the whirlpool of the contention over the world.”

Xuan Yong nodded and said, “Xu Ye’s breadth of mind is indeed different from ordinary men. Liu Heita is certainly a special figure, but Li Shimin is basically not the crown prince. Even if he managed to snatch the crown prince position, he is, after all, a man born of honorable school, big clan; during the struggle over the world, he would salute those who help him to the extreme. But after obtaining the world, wouldn’t he play the-birds-are-over, the-bow-is-put-away game? Being from powerful and wealthy family, how could he understand the plight of the people below him?”

Xu Ziling was silent for half a day. “This kind of thing varies from person to person,” he spoke slowly, “It was not my intention to speak good words on behalf of Li Shimin, I just wanted to be fair. Take Han Gaozu[1] for example; he was an insignificant Tingzhang [ancient official title] from Sishui [county, Jining, Shandong]. After obtaining the world, winning success and recognition, didn’t he bestow the title Wang[king/prince] to the younger generation of the same surname? But he was vicious and merciless toward the kings and marquis of different surname who helped him during the conflict; even Han Xin[2] was not spared from death. Evidently it has nothing to do with class origin.”

And then he smiled and said, “But there is one thing that Xuan Xiong has seen accurately: Kou Zhong is absolutely not the kind of person Liu Bang was.”

Xuan Yong said, “During the Qin and Han era, there was no honorable school, big clan yet. I have been oppressed by the descendants of the rich and powerful. My humble father also suffered false accusations from powerful clan’s people that he died. Were it not for Da Longtou taking me in, and passing on to me some martial art, I, Xuan Yong, would never have seen a day like today.”

Xu Ziling agreed, “Powerful school and influential clan are indeed going on the rampage for a period of time, harming and bringing suffering to many people. Xuan Xiong has the aspiration to help Kou Zhong breaking through the world, it is a wonderful thing. A man born in troubled time, he should go out to create an undertaking.”

Xuan Yong spoke clearly and boldly, “To be buried in a horse hide [i.e. to give one’s life on the battlefield] ought to be considered a glory for a real man. If in my conduct I shrink my head in fear, I would rather be blown up in battle. To be able to follow Shao Shuai, it is indeed the most delightful matter in my life.”

The sun was slowly creeping to its zenith, bathing the whole earth, including the river, mountain and fields, in its glorious light.

Kou Zhong was precisely the morning sun that has just appeared. There would be a day where he would rise to the zenith.

From the back, Shang Xiuxun caught up with Kou Zhong and Bai Wenyuan, who were at the head of the procession; she asked, “According to the hoof print and footprint, the thieves shouldn’t be heading this direction.”

Kou Zhong fell back a little to ride side-by-side with her; he explained, “Because thief Cao might pitch camp during the day to rest, currently we are only less than half a day away from him. Just the sound of hoof beat will be enough to alert him. Therefore, we are taking the long route to be in front of him. By the time they are marching tonight, we will ambush him and burn his provisions.”

Satisfied, Shang Xiuxun said, “Just consider your answer reasonable enough.”

Kou Zhong was dying to ask bout the Two Sects and Six Ways further, but they must hasten at full speed, thereupon he had no choice but to temporarily shut this matter tightly in his heart.

By that evening, they already rounded a large circle, from the mountain road back to the plains, hurrying to be ahead of the Three Bandits’ army. Were it not for Bai Wenyuan, this old horse who knew the way home, they could forget about obtaining, as well as executing, such a marvelous plan. Because the slightest mistake or losing their way would mean that they lost the good opportunity.

Kou Zhong made a prompt decision to choose a hill, where the ambushing troops would be hidden behind the hillside on which was the road the enemy must follow.

When he and Shang Xiuxun went to the top of the hill to inspect the area, he seized the opportunity to ask more about Hua Jian Pai. He said, “Supposing Shi Zhixuan was the Hua Jian Pai previous generation’s disciple, and Bi Xiuxin fell for him, wouldn’t it mean Ci Hang Jingzhai had suffered a big blow?” [Translator’s note: the original text was kind of gibberish here, so the last sentence was only my ‘interpretation’ (blame Paonakata for this).]

Shang Xiuxun pondered deeply; she said, “This matter appears to be far more complicated than you think. Niang has repeatedly discussed this with Lu Miaozi, but even Lu Miaozi was not too clear about the particulars. He only knew that Shi Zhixuan might be a rare outstanding martial art master of Hua Jian Pai, which was not inferior in any respect to Zhu Yuyan and the Xie Di Xiang Yutian. Do you know what kind of man Xiang Yutian was?”

Kou Zhong replied, “I just found out about that; I happen to know that there exists some strange thing called Demonic Emperor Relics.”

Shang Xiuxun was greatly astonished, “How did you know that?” she asked, “This is the top secret of the demonic schools, even their own people are strictly forbidden to mention it to each other.”

“The reason I am asking about this matter,” Kou Zhong replied, “It’s because Liang Shao had a chance encounter with Bi Xiuxin and Shi Zhixuan’s daughter Shi Qingxuan [different xuans]; otherwise, I wouldn’t even be aware of the existence of the Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Ways.”

A strange feeling welled up in Shang Xiuxun’s heart, a feeling that she herself did not understand. It seemed like she did not like to hear Xu Ziling and Shi Qingxuan’s names being mentioned together in one sentence; she could not help falling silent.

The sky gradually turned dark, with occasional dim starlight appearing on the cloudy night sky. The moon has not shown its face.

Yet full of spirit, Kou Zhong kept talking, “I got it. Didn’t you say earlier that Hua Jian Pai people treated the passion of the secular world with heartlessness? Bi Xiuxin must have had her heart moved by this Hua Jian Pai martial art master with a heart of stone, but that is also as if she has broken his demonic power. The problem is Bi Xiuxin’s real enemy must be Zhu Yuyan; therefore, she was using this method to win Shi Zhixuan may not necessarily be useful. All along she might lose under Zhu Yuyan’s hands.”

Shang Xiuxun cast her irritation out of the lake of her heart; she spoke indifferently, “Bi Xiuxin was indeed defeated so that her calm power [‘jing’ from Ci Hang Jingzhai] was greatly decreased. But her Yin Gui Paiopponent had suffered equally.”

Delighted, Kou Zhong asked, “What did Zhu Yuyan suffer?”

“It wasn’t Zhu Yuyan,” Shang Xiuxun snapped, “It was Zhu Yuyan’s daughter. On the night before her decisive battle against Bi Xiuxin, she slipped away overseas, angering Zhu Yuyan that she nearly suffered fire deviation. That was twenty years ago!”

Kou Zhong was severely shaken; he cast his gaze to the sky, trying to jog his memory. Closing his eyes, he muttered, “I have a good guess on who Zhu Yuyan’s daughter is! Ay! I should have guessed it early on. No wonder Bian Bufu can be his father.”

Dissatisfied, Shang Xiuxun said, “Earlier you said that you know the current generation disciple of Hua Jian Pai, and now based on the several sentences I said, you are able to guess the identity of Zhu Yuyan’s daughter; who is she? Tell me quickly.”

Kou Zhong took a deep breath; recovering from the shock, he said, “Although I cannot say with 100% confidence who the current Hua Jian Pai disciple is, it is extremely possible that he is the ‘Passionate Prince’ Hou Xibai. I wonder if Shi Zhixuan is already dead? If he is not, where is he now?”

Shang Xiuxun wrinkled her elegant-beyond-comprehension straight nose; with a little displeasure in her voice, she said, “Why not tell Xu Ziling to personally ask Shi Qingxuan? How would I know her family matters?”

For the first time Kou Zhong felt that she was jealous because Xu Ziling was with Shi Qingxuan. After staring at her absolute-beauty countenance with astonishment, he laughed involuntarily and said, “Ziling and Shi Qingxuan are just strangers coming together by chance; in a lot of things, it is inappropriate for him to inquire of her directly.”

Blushing with shame, Shang Xiuxun cast him a sidelong glance, hang her head low and said, “How would I know the relationship between them? Tell me, who is Zhu Yuyan’s daughter then?”

Full of confidence, Kou Zhong said, “I am quite sure it is Madame Dong Ming. Only I don’t know why unexpectedly she married Bian Bufu, who is her older generation, plus whose stinky name spread far and wide, no! It should be ‘whose stinky name spread secretly’. However, Bian Bufu also have wild schemes toward Wan yaonu, so clearly the people of demonic schools never pay attention to proper human relationships and difference between generations. In their eyes, things that do not conform to reason are actually quite reasonable.”

Hearing the name of Wanwan, Shang Xiuxun’s eyes spouted flames of hatred; she spoke heavily, “You must help me kill that female demon, to avenge He Bo and Peng Bo’s [uncle, older than one’s father, referring to Shang He and Shang Peng] ocean-deep blood debt.”

A feeling of empathy welled up in Kou Zhong’s heart; nodding, he said, “Absolutely. As long as I am still breathing, I will never let anybody from Yin Gui Pai get away. But right now it is not the time yet, we must still endure it a bit longer.”

Shang Xiuxun thought that Kou Zhong was referring to his martial art skill was still not enough to subdue Wanwan; with glistening tears in her eyes, she nodded in agreement.

Kou Zhong had to fight the strong urge in his heart. It was the first time that this staunch, remarkably beautiful woman showed this kind of lovely, pitiful appearance. Evidently deep in her heart, not only she was relying on him more and more, but she also trusted him fully. In this extremely tender-affection inducing moment, he nearly pulled her into his arms, when suddenly he remembered how just now she was jealous because of Xu Ziling. Hastily he pressed down his desire and spoke tenderly, “The road of life is never smooth and flat. Inevitably there will be a lot of matters that do not go according to our wish and about which we cannot do anything. ‘Separated in life and death, partings and reunions in joys and sorrows’, these eight characters [sheng li si bie, bei huan li he] sum it all.”

Shang Xiuxun quickly recovered; a little embarrassed, she said, “I have never been this weak. I don’t know why in front of you I became this fragile. Ay! I was telling you something; where was I?”

Suddenly there was an urgent sound of hoof beats.

The two turned their eyes in the direction of the sound, and saw Luo Fang urged his horse like flying, coming near from afar, while making signal with his hand that the enemy was coming this way.

[1] Han Gaozu, posthumous name of the first Han emperor, Liu Bang (256 or 247-195 BC), reigned 202-195 BC.

[2] Han Xin (-196 BC), famous general of first Han emperor, Liu Bang.

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