BTW, please don't expect updates every other day, since like I said, I am rather busy lately. But thanks for your concern … DongBin, is that another time-naming convention? HPC, Jaya, Spy, you are welcome. Paona, good analysis Sky, Yue Mingke? I am surprised you still remember him. I bet not many people here remember him. Here's a longer-than-usual update, marking the end of Chapter 3.
Ze Yue explained, "It is just an alliance of business and professional communities from various parts of the country north of the River. Elders have no governing authority over the professional societies under their jurisdiction, but they can represent each business community and trade power from various regions during the Hundred Industries General Assembly, to determine a variety of prices, and to mediate business disputes. Their influence could be big, could be small, depending on who the Elder is."
Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong exchanged glances; both felt that this could not be a good thing. Rong Fengxiang was the personification of the demonic sect's martial art master Pi Chen; if he was to become the big boss, the chief of professional societies and trade organizations of the world, what good would that do?
"Isn't that a good thing?" Xu Ziling tried to probe, "Why is Ze Xiong troubled?"
Smiling bitterly, Ze Yue said, "How could I not be troubled? In doing business, the most important thing is flexibility and freedom, that we do not have any constrain; but now Rong Fengxiang is putting on an air of the big taking an unfair advantage of the small, by using the power and influence of the northern Bai Ye She, he is coercing us to join his Bai Ye She …"
"If you don't join the association," Kou Zhong cut him off, "What will the consequence be?"
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Ze Yue said, "For the time being, it is still unclear. It depends on how well he can control the professional societies in the north; but since we want to do business in the north, naturally it will have some impact."
"Is your honorable gang ready to join, or already decided not to do so?" Xu Ziling asked.
Ze Yue replied, "The reason I wanted to go to Hefei a bit earlier this time is to consult with the experts from various regions to get a good understanding of what they are thinking. If everybody is eager to join, our situation will be very difficult, we might have to follow the crowd and give in."
Surprised, Kou Zhong said, "How could Ze Xiong be that kind of person?"
Smiling wryly, Ze Yue replied, "When all is said and done, I am just a businessman; whether I stay or I move, I have to consider the pros and cons first. Oh! I have not yet consulted two gentlemen, you take the trouble to move the troops in such a military expedition, who are you dealing with?"
Kou Zhong replied, "Who else but Cao Yinglong and Zhu Can, those two big bastards?"
Feeling deep veneration, Ze Yue said, "Turns out those two who kill people like scything flax, the demons who don't speak the rules of Jianghu. If there is anything that requires Ze Yue's help, as long as it is within my power, I will certainly do it at all costs."
Kou Zhong said, "You'd better keep your mind on your business first! But about Rong Fengxiang, we, two brothers, cannot ignore it, because he is another big bastard; he is even more terrifying than Cao Yinglong and Zhu Can. Therefore, we must take the time to go on a trip with Ze Xiong to Hefei; luckily it is on our way."
"What?" Ze Yue cried out involuntarily.
Kou Zhong put on the mask he wore while battling Li Tianfan and Shen Luoyan at the Flying Horse Ranch, transforming him back into the middle-aged, wild man with eagle beak nose and a face full of beard. Naturally Xu Ziling did not dare to disguise himself as either Yue Shan or the Scarface Hero; hence he took out a mask that he had not worn yet. Changing shape in a single shake, he became a yellow-faced man with a rather tacky appearance, older than Kou Zhong's disguise. The two boys 'you look at me, I look at you', both were amused.
Braving the rain, the three hastened on with their journey. In only two sichen traveling on foot, they arrived at Hefei in the afternoon. Sure enough, people of professional societies and trade organizations from all over came to attend the assembly. People and carriages came and went in an incessant stream.
As soon as the three entered the city, they were met by Longyou Bang's people, who already arrived one step ahead. Obviously, Ze Yue, the son of the Gang Leader, had a very high position, although he did not introduce his two companions, his subordinates did not dare to ask.
In Hefei, Longyou Bang opened a teashop at the main street connecting the north and the south gates of the city. The three were going to stay at the rear courtyard of this shop. While Ze Yue was listening to his men's report, since the two boys felt tired, after changing into dry clothes, they retired to their room to rest.
Kou Zhong kicked off his boots, and sprawled his limbs on the bed [orig. in 大 (big) character shape]. He spoke to Xu Ziling, who was slumping on the chair, staring out the window, watching the rain, "I really don't understand Lu Miaozi, why is it that every mask he made does not look flattering? Couldn't he make something a bit more attractive and pleasing to the eye?"
Xu Ziling muttered, "Tell me, what do you think of Mr. Lu's appearance?"
Kou Zhong replied, "When he was young, he must be very handsome. Didn't you see he was still a good-looking fellow when he was already old? But what does it have to do with the mask?"
Shrugging his shoulders, Xu Ziling said, "I don't know; there must be a little bit of relationship! When people are born, they are already destined to be handsome, ugly, horrid, or pretty. Under normal circumstances, this will not change, so we can only accept the reality. If I were Mr. Lu and I had the power to change the weather, naturally I would want to change into an entirely different face, to experience another, distinct identity, a different perception."
Kou Zhong nodded and said, "If you put it that way, it does have a bit of truth in it. All right! Back to the topic: should we join hands to slaughter Rong Fengxiang?"
"The rain stops!" Xu Ziling said.
Kou Zhong sat up from the bed; looking out the window, he said, "This matter must be decided, we only have two days and one night to destroy Rong Fengxiang's scheme. Ay! I really don't understand why Wang Shichong did not deal with this demon. Yang Gongqing should have told him that Rong Fengxiang is Bi Chen, and Bi Chen is Pi Chen."
Xu Ziling sighed and said, "Too much self-confidence is not a good thing. Even if Pi Chen is stupid enough to accidentally be alone to give us the opportunity to make our move, we may not necessarily be able to kill him. Much less he has Zuo Youxian watching his back, plus this is Fu Gongyou's territory; there is no place for us to show off."
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, "It's not that I have too much self-confidence at all; it's just that we don't have much time."
Xu Ziling laughed and said, "If we cannot overcome the enemy by force, we must outsmart them. Isn't your belly full of crafty schemes? How about selecting one and telling me, so that I can increase my knowledge?"
Kou Zhong happily said, "Listening to the tone of your voice, it seems that you already have a card up your sleeve. Tell me quickly."
Laughing involuntarily, Xu Ziling said, "We must first understand the situation! Tearing down a house is always easier than building a house."
Emotionally moved, Kou Zhong said, "That makes sense. By randomly swinging our hand, we can smash the cup, but to manufacture a cup, we must go through multi-layered process, such as kneading the clay to form the cup, and then put it into the kiln to burn. It can be said that Rong Fengxiang could reach the top position in Bai Ye She as an Elder also falls under this category. First he had to become big businessman with the help of his money and power [orig. long sleeves help one dance beautifully], then became the president of a business society, but still, it was because he gained the advantage of becoming the big boss of the biggest gang in the north that he seized the position as the Elder of Bai Ye She. Now he even wants to expand his influence north of the River, later on his evil clutches will reach the south; the process is really not easy. But as long as we can expose his identity, we can shatter his beautiful dream just like casting a cup to the ground."
Xu Ziling said, "Rong Fengxiang can take Shangguan Long's place as the Luoyang Bang's Laoda [number one, chief], it's definitely not as simple as it appears on the surface. I dare say that there must be remnants of Yin Gui Paipeople within the Gang who could speak up on his behalf, plus Rong Fengxiang himself is in collusion with Yin Gui Pai in the dark …"
Shaken, Kou Zhong said, "You are right. It is quite possible that in order to gain big advantage in their struggle to conquer the world, most of those his mother's Demonic Sects' Eight Big Martial Art Masters are willing to stand on the same front, to get hold of the wind, to get hold of the rain, all over the place to gain benefit at others' expense. Without Zuo Youxian giving him a nod, how could he hold Bai Ye She general assembly in Hefei?"
And then he added, "You'd better disguise yourself as Yue Shan, call on your old friend Youxian Yaodao to fish for some information."
Xu Ziling laughed and cursed, "I guarantee that before we finish drinking a cup of hot Xu Ziling tea, I would have revealed the cloven foot [idiom: to unmask one's true nature]. You, this kid, clearly want to harm me."
This moment Ze Yue entered the room with grave expression; he said, "I am going to see someone; if he is willing to support the refusal to join Bai Ye She, there will be a lot of people responding."
Sitting at the edge of the bed, Kou Zhong asked, "Who is this person?"
Ze Yue walked over to the chair next to Xu Ziling to sit down, he said, "His name is An Long. This man is known as the 'Sichuan Fat Merchant', the biggest wine dealer in the southwest, but he also runs other businesses. He is the chief of multiple business associations."
Kou Zhong nodded and said, "In this world, everybody drinks, and he is the biggest wine seller in the southwest, certainly he has a bit of influence. Does he know martial art?"
"His martial art skill is mediocre," Ze Yue replied, "But his sworn brother is Sichuan's powerful hegemon, the 'Wulin Panguan' [Wulin (Martial Art World) Magistrate], Xie Hui. Xie Hui's son Xie Wenlong married Song Que's daughter Song Yuhua. With such a strong backing, who'd dare to provoke him?"
Emotionally moved, Kou Zhong said, "I heard that Xie Hui's dominance and his standing is the most prominent outside the Four Major Family Clans, and Xie Hui's martial art is comparable to the 'Heavenly Saber' Song Que. Oh! I must see this man."
"How's the Bai Ye She's the situation?" Xu Ziling asked.
Ze Yue replied, "Rong Fengxiang and his beautiful daughter have arrived in Hefei three days ago. They are now moving about all over the place, lobbying business leaders who are coming here from all over the place. Bai Ye She general assembly will be held in the Zongguan Mansion tomorrow morning. We don't have much time."
Kou Zhong sprang up and said, "There's no time to lose. Let's go see An Long first, and we'll talk later."
Steam was rising in the public bath.
In the VIP bathroom at the west hall, the two-zhang square bath was monopolized by An Long alone. More than a dozen bodyguards and personal attendants were spread out around the bath and all entrance and exits, each one had bulging taiyang acupoints [temples], evidently they were not ordinary martial art practitioners; it was a clear sign of An Long's wealth and influence.
An Long was a big, fat man. It was unclear whether it was because he had too much excess fat that his hands, which appeared particularly short, seemed to grow directly from his big belly. His flat-top, melon-shaped head, seemed to be coming out straight from his fat shoulders; plus with his two thick fat lips, it was evident at a glance that he was a man who paid particular attention to eating, drinking and being merry. The water in the bath was overflowing to the rocky slabs of the edge of the pool, making people wondered whether the water level was like this because of him.
This moment he was perched in the corner of the pool, while a subordinate squatting by the pool was preparing some shredded tobacco in water pipes to produce the smoke. He held the pipe next to An Long's lips, so that with 'glug, glug' noise he swallowed clouds and blew out fog, giving the impression comfort and decadent, twisted feeling.
When Xu Ziling, Kou Zhong and Ze Yue, three men arrived inside the bathroom, before they even had a chance to speak, An Long already laughed aloud and said, "Tianwen Xiong cannot come, virtuous nephew can; it's the same. Come quickly, accompany me enjoying this pleasure."
Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong's heart skipped a beat. If they revealed the age and skin behind the masks, their youthful bodies would come out, then they would reveal the cloven foot immediately.
Ze Yue, however, showed his talent in facing a stressful situation; he laughed and said, "How could little nephew dare to disobey An Laoban's [boss] order?"
And then he quickly took off his clothes and shoved it into the two's hands, and said, "You two wait for me outside the door."
With only this kind of affectation and order, he established the two boys' status as his attendants in front of An Long and his men, but of course they were still able to head the conversation inside the public bath from outside the door.
Outside was a small hall where the attendants of the VIP guests could take a rest. It only had two sets of table and chairs; An Long's men occupied one of them. After exchanging propriety and greetings, the two sat on the other table and chairs, enjoying the fragrant tea and pastries that the bathhouse servants were serving.
This moment An Long was inquiring from Ze Yue the wellbeing of his father, the Gang Leader of Longyou Bang, so they had not talked about the main issue. Kou Zhong whispered in Xu Ziling's ear, "What do you feel about this fatty?"
Xu Ziling responded softly, "He must be a hidden-deep martial art master; his outward appearance is just a scam."
Kou Zhong's expression turned grave; he nodded and said, "I also feel that deeply; as soon as I entered the bathroom, I sensed some kind of hard-to-describe demonic qi, my heart was trembling, just like when I confronted Wanwan."
Shaken, Xu Ziling said, "That is really bad! This dead fatty is the sage presents as an ordinary person like this, he must be Rong Fengxiang's caliber; even worse, he might be one of the Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way, so this time, no matter what Ze Yue say, he would only waste his lips and tongue."
Kou Zhong's expression was only very difficult to describe; he said, "Let's hear what he has to say before making our judgment."
Ze Yue's voice came over, "This time I am going out, Die warned a thousand times, instructed ten thousand times, that in everything little nephew must consult An Shishu [noble uncle, younger than one's father], so I won't make any mistake."
Outside, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling cried, 'It's finished!' inwardly. If Ze Yue really listened to An Long's instruction, wouldn't he immediately change his standing and join Bai Ye She?
An Long let out a burst of laughter, which sounded like a pig's cry, and said, "Your Old Die think so highly of me, An Long; Ol' An will immediately send him a jar of Hei Zhen Tian [lit. black treasure sweet] wine. It's the best among the wines; the color is sparkling and translucent, clear and penetrating, shiny and dazzling, mellow and rich, sweet and beautiful, the taste is sweet and sour. After drinking it, the saliva and spirit will be in harmony, the stomach warm, the kidney restored, nourishing and strengthening the body. All those empty perspiration, night sweats, grieved spirit, shady exhaustion, and illness will disappear with the wine's arrival. If I had not gotten a batch of black pearl rice from Tianzhu [modern day India], I would have not been able to brew this kind of wine, hence it can only be gifted, but not sold. And of course the recipient of the gift is limited to old friends with whom I have fate for friendship like Tianwen Xiong."
Listening to this, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were flabbergasted.
Merely speaking about eloquence, this man had definitely reached the pinnacle; his mouth like a torrent, nothing was difficult. Moreover, each word was powerful and resonating [orig. if thrown on the floor, it will make a sound], there was a very high degree of persuasiveness. Upon self-inspection, after listening to him, the two really wished to find one such jar to have a taste, to see if he was exaggerating.
Letting out a hollow laugh, Ze Yue said, "My Die thanks An Shishu's profound affection. Hey! This time Rong Laoban calls for our associates north of the River to join the Bai Ye Association, I wonder what Shishu's view is."
An Long pondered for a moment before responding in low voice, "This is really an important matter. Although we have always been doing things each in his own way, but we get along harmoniously, just like xiang xue [fragrant snow] wine mixed with jia fan [lit. added to food] wine; the existing strong fragrance of xiang xue and the sweetness of jia fan will display thick, pure aroma, which gives lingering aftertaste. Rong Fengxiang is coming north flaunting his power, clearly because he wanted to expand Bai Ye She's influence. This matter must be carefully weighed."
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling put down the load that has been weighing their heart for half a day, thinking that they have been overly suspicious, and have misjudged An Long, or perhaps even though An Long was of demonic sect, he was standing in opposition to Rong Fengxiang, hence he secretly pulled his hind legs.
Delighted, Ze Yue said, "In that case, Shishu is saying that we are to join together and refuse to join Bai Ye Association."
Lowering his voice, An Long said, "If we do that, we are big idiots."
Hearing that, Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong looked at each other; they were completely lost.
Inside the bathroom, evidently Ze Yue's comprehension was not much better than theirs. He spoke haltingly, "Shishu's meaning is …"
It was unclear whether An Long forcefully slapped Ze Yue, or he slapped his own fatty meat to liven things up, but all they heard was An Long laughing and saying, "Yue Shizhi [noble nephew] has always been a bit soft. If it were your Ol' Die who came over, he and I would have the same way of thinking. Business is business; the most important thing is to make money. Joining Bai Ye She would only bring benefit to business, without any harm; what do you have against it?"
Ze Yue asked the question Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong most dying to ask, "But Shishu just said, hey! There is something wrong with Rong Fengxiang."
An Long replied, "Whether there is something wrong with Rong Fengxiang is not important at all, the most important thing is that after we join Bai Ye She, we ought to decide who would become the Elders, who would have the right to speak."
Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong suddenly realized, they finally understood that they had not completely misjudged An Long; their only mistake was thinking that he was Rong Fengxiang's ally.
Clearly he coveted the Bai Ye She Elder position, and wanted to snatch it away.
Ze Yue was too stunned to say anything.
An Long continued with assurance and composure, "Although Rong Fengxiang is the big boss of Luoyang Bang, I have the support of Sichuan's dominant power and the Song Family of south of the five ranges. If your honorable Gang also issues a call for action, then he will be well taken-care of. When the general assembly starts tomorrow, we will simply coerce him to elect new Elder. Ha! I want him to steal the chicken but cannot nibble away at the rice."
Listening to this, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling had a big headache; who would have thought that the situation was this complicated? Momentarily their mind was in chaos.