Book 23 Chapter 6 – Contending for Supremacy on the Sky Bridge
Xu Ziling finally set foot on the Great Mount Ba, which was overflowing with danger, famous for its plank walkway all the way since ancient time thru today.
This kind of dangerous man-made pathway, constructed around the mountain in a roundabout route, was mainly built by cutting holes on the sheer cliffs and precipitous rock faces and then inserting beams into the holes, which served as the skeleton for the wooden planks laid out on top of them.
As people were walking on it, on one side was the uneven surface of the rock cliff, while the other side was thousand-ren [unit of length, my dictionary did not have the definition, baike.baidu only says 8 or 7 feet] steep cliff. When the mountain breeze was blowing, the feeling was that the entire walkway was swaying, the foothold was unsteady. Those who are bold would still feel fright at every step, while those who are timid would be unable to move a single step.
At first Xu Ziling was overwhelmed with marvel, but suddenly his mind opened and cleared up. The unpleasant mood stirred up by Shi Feixuan was washed away clean. Along the way more and more marvelous scenery emerged; it was extremely pleasing to the eyes.
Maintaining a touring-the-mountain, visiting-scenic-spots frame of mind, he thoroughly enjoyed the covered-by-trees-and-underbrush deep mountains, high ridges, marvelous peaks and amazing rocks.
Cloud fir [spruce], cold fir, red fir, iron fir [tsuga chinensis], all kinds of fir [Cunninghamia lanceolate] trees, mixed together with ginkgo tree, fragrant fruit tree, paulownia tree, formed the ever-changing natural ecology. It was not only a paradise for birds, but golden sub-nosed monkeys [Rhinopithecus Roxellana], macaque, wildebeests, and hairy crowned deer were roaming around freely, so full of life. When he rounded a bend, the scenery changed again.
The first to catch his eyes was the roaring of the waterfall, while the walkway was continuously widening. Burst of water droplets hit him on the face, while the mist pervaded the air on the opposite mountain. A waterfall appeared like a jiao dragon [legendary (horned) dragon with ability to control rain and floods] coming out of a hole in the mountain, cascading down along the cliff, straight to the bottom of the cliff into a boiling torrent, and then rushing out following the terrain with strong momentum.
Seeing all these, Xu Ziling’s mind was intoxicated. He stopped to enjoy the view with his hands behind his back, feeling the essence, qi, and spirit in his entire body soared without any bound, and ten thousand changes converged into one.
In this moment of clarity, there was no distinction between internal and external.
The man was the nature, and the nature was the man.
Before this natural wonder, all struggles, enmity and killing have become irrelevant.
Right this moment, suddenly a familiar voice entered his ears, saying, “We must be especially bound together by fate; unexpectedly I come across Xu Xiong here.”
Xu Ziling was still staring fixedly on the mountain flow down below, formed by the water flying out of the cliff above. It converged first into more than a dozen of layer upon layer of pools, big and small, then flowed around the colorful rocks filling the bottom of the waterfall. Under the bright sun the rippling waves sparkled magnificently. Smiling, he said, “Naturally we are especially bound together by fate. But I wonder if Hou Xiong is leaving Sichuan, or is entering Sichuan?”
Hou Xibai walked slowly along the walkway toward Xu Ziling, while waving the Fan of Beauty in his hand lightly, in such an unspeakably elegant and graceful demeanor, confident and at ease above the crowd.
Xu Ziling sighed inwardly; if they fought in this place, both sides would have no way out. This matter could only be resolved by one of them defeated and perished. At the same time, he was also blaming himself for being careless. Ever since leaving Yangzhou, he has been neglecting this young martial art master of Hua Jian Pai, while Hou Xibai has been lurking on the side, waiting for an opportunity like the present.
Was it because Shi Feixuan knew that he was nearby that she was unwilling to enter Sichuan together with Xu Ziling? Listening to the tone of Shi Feixuan’s voice, she only had good impression toward Hou Xibai, without any bad feeling at all.
Hou Xibai stopped when he was about a zhang or so from him; he spoke smoothly, “During the reign of Xian Wang of the Zhou dynasty, Qinhui Wang wanted to destroy Shu [i.e. Sichuan], but no matter how hard he tried, he could not force entrance into it; thereupon he issued an order to make a stone ox with five heads, and daubed the ox tail with gold dust, claiming that the ox could produce gold excrement, and have the ox delivered to King of Shu. Greatly delighted, King of Su ordered his men to construct the plank walkway to welcome the golden ox. Eventually the Qin army forced entrance into Su along the Golden Ox Walkway and wiped out the Su State. Won’t you say that things like this are actually the main cause of disaster for the people of Sichuan?”
Looking back at the plank walkway that he had just walked through, Xu Ziling spoke indifferently, “Later on, Zhuge Liang’s ‘Six Campaigns from Mount Qi’, Jiang Wei’s ‘Nine Campaigns on the Central Plains’ [both are from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms], were also transporting troops along this path. Therefore, the fault is not on this Golden Ox Walkway, but on the people; don’t Hou Xiong think so?”
Hou Xibai opened his fan fully, and then waved it back and forth; the speed was irregular, but it seemed to follow some kind of law-within-no-law rhythm, like it was very easy to fathom, yet was impossible to grasp. It was such an extremely weird feeling.
“I never thought Xu Xiong would be this familiar with the history of Sichuan,” he spoke in astonishment, “Evidently the walkway we are standing on has been through many different reconstructions. The most ancient Golden Ox Walkway started in Mei County of Shaanxi, passing through the Xie valley, winding around the Bao Valley, and into Hanzhong. To the west it goes out to Mian County, through Yang Ping mountain pass, and into Sichuan, passing through Qingchuan, JianGe, Zitong, Mianyang, and arrives at Chengdu. Currently the Hanzhong to Sichuan section has changed into Ningqiang, surpassing seven mountain passes. This is precisely the section that Xu Xiong stopped to admire, as if you wanted to become an immortal and go directly into danger.”
Hou Xibai took a step forward, closing the distance between the two men to approximately eight chi, while the Fan of Beauty continued to wave, one after another, producing ‘Swish! Swish!’ noise. The side of the fan facing Xu Ziling had only one painting of Wanwan’s amazing image, putting her faintly discernible, unfathomable innate character, touching portrait in full display. One corner also had the ten-thousand-kinds-of-grace, another implicit-charm-in-rhyme, image of the famous courtesan Shang Xiufang.
Xu Ziling was still standing with his hands behind his back; noticing Hou Xibai did not respond, he went on, “It seems that Hou Xiong did not wish to answer. Xiaodi suddenly has a weird thought; supposing one of us suddenly ascend the heavens to become an immortal, I guarantee that no one in Jianghu would find out.”
Blurting out laughing, Hou Xibai said, “Xu Xiong’s idea is very interesting. Regrettably, the world of the immortals has no doors, so nobody could open it as he wishes. Perhaps Xu Xiong wants to turn a good dream into nothingness!”
A sliver of without-any-care-in-the-world smile escaped from the corner of Xu Ziling’s mouth; remaining tranquil and calm, he said, “Whether the world of the immortals has a door or has no door, so much so that whether there is the world of the immortals or afterlife, Xiaodi practically has never had any imagination nor any desire to look forward to, hence I have no good dream to be turned into nothingness. Even toward life and death, Ol’ Xu has a very indifferent view. I wonder if Hou Xiong would be interested in giving it a try?”
Finally Hou Xibai’s countenance changed. His eyes shone with sharp, peculiar light, the rhythm of his fan became more erratic, but it was not in confusion at all. If the listener was not Xu Ziling but another first-class martial art master, perhaps he could not stop rushing out and making his move.
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong lay on his back on the bed, but was unable to sleep. With eyes opened wide he stared at the ceiling of the cabin, with myriads thought surging in his mind.
He was thinking of his relationship with Du Fuwei.
It could be said that Du Fuwei was the first person ever to show respect on him, to consider Kou Zhong to be qualified to inherit his burning incense stick and his undertaking. Yet due to all kinds of reason, Kou Zhong declined his good intention.
In the past he was willing to let Kou Zhong left Liyang, demonstrating his breath of mind and positive outlook, which surpass others, and revealing his sincere affection, which was inconsistent with his style.
But in return, Kou Zhong bitterly defended Jingling for ten days and ten nights, so that Du Fuwei could only gain tragic victory.
Today he was going to destroy Du Fuwei’s grand plan of attacking Jiangdu. Thinking about this, he felt depressed and helpless.
That trusted lieutenant of his called Chen Sheng was a total stranger to Kou Zhong. There was no grievance in the past, there was no animosity in the present, yet tonight, using thousand ways and hundred plans, Kou Zhong was going to make him meet his death, just to incite Du Fuwei’s anger, all in the name of contention over the world. Therefore, he had to proceed by hook or by crook, not stopping at anything. Contention over the world is just like that.
Yet if he could go back to the past, he would still decline Du Fuwei’s good intention and proposal.
The real reason was that Du Fuwei did not enjoy popular support too much. Plus Kou Zhong did not wish to get things done by relying on others.
Thinking to this point, Kou Zhong jumped out of bed and ordered his men serving outside the door to summon Chen Changlin, Bu Tianzhi, and so on for a discussion.
※ ※ ※
Finally Xu Ziling reacted; suddenly he turned his tiger-body around, so that he was directly facing Hou Xibai, who was standing at an oblique angle about eight chi away on the walkway.
Two pair of eyes met, both men stared unyieldingly toward each other.
Hou Xibai stopped waving his fan and put it away on his back. Nodding his head, he said, “Xu Xiong’s brilliance is indeed beyond Zaixia’s expectation.”
Xu Ziling smiled and replied, “We are no better or worse than each other!”
The two men were not simply uttering polite words.
In fact, ever since Hou Xibai raised his voice to speak, the two have been on a head-on confrontation. Xu Ziling was bit lucky, because as he was enjoying the beautiful scenery of the waterfall on the opposite mountain, his state of mind converged seamlessly with the ten-thousand changes outside, entering the ‘no-man, no-me’ [non-self, anatta], forgetting inside, forgetting outside, state, in deep union with the purpose of the ‘Secret to Long Life’. Although he had not raised his qi or applied his power, all the orifices within his body were full of life; naturally the innate true qi circulated freely, from head to toe, there was not the slightest flaw.
The reason Hou Xibai chose this place to make his appearance was originally to borrow the waterfall’s surging momentum and its loud rumbling noise to conceal the vibration, as well as any noise, generated on the walkway as he was stepping on it, while actively calculating how to launch one strike, with a ten-thousand-catty-thunder momentum, to successfully getting rid of this formidable opponent, who, in so many aspects, was able to rival him.
From his footwork of standing at an oblique angle, pressing down on the plank walkway going around the mountain, to the rhythm of his opening and waving his fan, not one did not imply the profound-mystery law and logic. As soon as Xu Ziling was somewhat influence by it or was a bit distracted, he would make his move with all his strength. Staking everything, disregarding injury or death, he simply must strike to kill this opponent, in such a no-retreat, no-escape battlefield.
Who would have thought that not only Xu Ziling was not influenced by him the slightest bit, he remained in the profound mystery state, which Hou Xibai found to be amazing and inexplicable, which Xu Ziling suggested earlier that he had no regard of life and death. Consequently, Hou Xibai felt that if he forcefully made his move, both of them would only end up perishing together.
And that was the reason he praised Xu Ziling wholeheartedly.
From Xu Ziling’s point of view, Hou Xibai did not give him the slightest gap that he could exploit, hence the reason he did not dare to turn around earlier, afraid that his concentration would fail him.
The rhythm of Hou Xibai’s fan was some kind of gongfa [skill/power law/method; this is another ‘one of those’ that I don’t know how to translate succinctly (the other being shenfa and xinfa)] analogous to the Tian Mo Yin [demonic sound] that Zhu Yuyan employed. One slight mistake, he wound incite the opponent’s terrifying attack. He waited until Hou Xibai’s heart appeared to be shaken. He chose the exact time when the opponent was in the middle of two shakes of his fan to turn around; the exact moment when the Fan of Beauty was at its limit of movement.
This kind of subtlety accurately grasped the rhythm of the opponent’s fan, which appeared like random, without any order, movements; in a way, it was tantamount to thoroughly break the brilliant skill of waving the fan.
From this, it could be said that Hou Xibai has been hiding his real strength all along, hence the ‘no better or worse than each other’ comment.
Xu Ziling still had his hands behind his back, while standing upright and unafraid. His eyes stared fixedly on the opponent, his stored-up imposing manner expanding unceasingly, assuming the unyielding attitude of going-all-out, staking-everything, fight-might-happen-any-moment.
Hou Xibai was still maintaining his confident and at ease, unconstrained appearance, but the fact was that he was standing straight like a mountain, exuding a biting cold vortex of qi, restraining the opponent from a distance, abundant with sweeping-away-the-world spirit.
A glimmer of smile escaped from the corner of Xu Ziling’s mouth as he spoke indifferently, “Did Hou Xiongaccidentally run into me entering Sichuan, or did you already know that I am entering Sichuan?”
While continuously looking for any gap in the opponent’s line of defense, Hou Xibai replied, “This matter is unusually complicated, but it is closely related to Qingxuan. Xu Xiong, what do you think?”
Inwardly, Xu Ziling cried, ‘Formidable!’
It should be noted that fighting on the plank walkway, any shenfa or footwork would not be effective. The only way was to fight force against force.
Even though there was indeed relative superiority between the two men’s martial art skill level, but the difference was not far. Therefore, they must resort to various means to weaken the opponent’s fighting spirit, to divide his attention, in order to succeed in one strike.
Hou Xibai’s choice of words was precisely to achieve that objective.
If Xu Ziling was distracted by the two words ‘unusually complicated’ and pondered upon it deeply, also by Hou Xibai intimately calling her by her first name ‘Qingxuan’, which would make Xu Ziling think that his relationship with Shi Qingxuan was quite complex, then Xu Ziling would fall into the trap.
Fortunately, Xu Ziling was quite indifferent toward success or failure in men/women relationship; hence he was not too affected by it. Smiling instead, he said, “Hou Xiong clearly knew that before entering Sichuan, Xiaodi had an all night long chat with Miss Shi.”
This is called playing someone at their own game; moreover, he was hinting that Shi Feixuan was nearby.
According to Xu Ziling’s analysis, the reason Hou Xibai was able to select this place to intercept him was that he obtained the information from the Yangtze River Alliance, simply because Yun Yuzhen and Yangtze River Alliance’s Zheng Shuming had secret connection. Furthermore, Hou Xibai’s skill with women definitely raised this possibility.
Sure enough, Hou Xibai was slightly startled.
Naturally Xu Ziling was unwilling to let this built-up-through-painstaking-efforts golden opportunity pass; stepping forward, he sent out a heavy punch.
Hou Xibai did not take out his fan at all; he simply put his fingers together and used the palm chop with his left hand.
Qi power collided.
Both of them tumbled backward as if they were struck by lightning, opening the distance between them a zhang or so.
Hou Xibai’s revealed an extremely grave expression. “Why not spiraling qi power?” he shouted.
Xu Ziling was struggling to suppress his boiling blood and qi, while inwardly he was very shocked. If the opponent had not mistakenly thought that he was going to use spiraling qi power, he would have suffered quite a bit of loss in this exchange.
He had managed to create all sorts of favorable situations, yet still ended up both parties shared the limelight. Evidently Hou Xibai’s true power was at least a notch above his. Not to mention Hou Xibai has not used his fan yet.
Smiling slightly, he said, “How come Hou Xiong did not use the amazing skill of ‘Immortal Printed Scroll’?”
Hou Xibai’s eyes emitted an unprecedentedly fierce expression. “Was it Feixuan who told you?” he spoke in heavy voice.
While resisting his rapidly increasing fierce qi momentum, Xu Ziling sneered and said, “From this, it is clear that Hou Xiong has not had any chance to meet Shi Qingxuan, otherwise you might mistakenly guessed that it was she who told me.”
Recovering his calm manner, Hou Xibai blurted out laughing and said, “But it is also possible that I have just visited her fragrant residence, right?”
Letting out a long laughter, Xu Ziling said, “Absolutely correct!”
Both palms struck out at the same time, immediately a violent force rolled straight toward Hou Xibai.
※ ※ ※
While the warriors were working hard, the cabin was serene under the lazy afternoon sun.
After sweeping Bu Tianzhi, Chen Laomou, Luo Qifei, and Chen Changlin, four men, with his eyes, Kou Zhong pondered deeply for half a day before finally speaking slowly, “I have two things that I’d like gentlemen to consider carefully.”
Everybody knew he still had more to say, hence they just waited silently.
Appearing to be very deep in thought, Kou Zhong said, “Tonight we only need to hurt Chen Sheng, but there is no need to kill him. I want to borrow Chen Sheng’s own mouth to tell Du Fuwei who had wounded him.”
“There shouldn’t be any problem,” Bu Tianzhi said, “As long as we manage to burn a few more of his boats, it will be enough to provoke Du Fuwei’s wrath.”
Chen Changlin said, “Chen Sheng ought to know Gu Jun. If there is any flaw, in the future, our achievement will be completely wasted.”
Chen Laomou joined in, “Outside appearance is not a problem. In confusion, it woud be enough to have fifty, sixty-percent resemblance. Could Changlin describe his general appearance that I can use as my reference?”
Chen Changlin nodded to give his consent, but he said, “Gu Jun’s spear technique is very particular; if Chen Sheng sees it, he will definitely be able to tell it apart.”
“Have you seen it?” Bu Tianzhi asked.
Chen Changlin’s eyes emitted deep hatred. Letting out a cold humph, he said, “Not only seen it, I have tasted it.”
Listening to this, everybody knew that he had fought Gu Jun in the past, perhaps he even suffered some losses.
Delighted, Kou Zhong said, “That will do! Imitating ten or twenty-percent will work; Chen Sheng would think that Gu Jun was deliberately concealing his martial art.”
After a short pause, he continued, “The other thing is that in order to avenge Changlin Xiong, we must, by all means, kill Shen Lun. But we also must make Shen Faxing thinks that it is Du Fuwei who kill him. This way, the enmity between them will never be resolved, forever.”
Luo Qifei said, “Changlin and I have repeatedly considered this over; we both think that as long as Du Fuwei believed that Shen Lun attacked him, the moment Shen Lun withdraw his troops, we will ambush him from the side. This way, all accounts will be credited to Du Fuwei. The only difficulty is to determine the suitable time and place.”
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Kou Zhong said, “Supposing when Chen Sheng is injured Du Fuwei did not advance but retreat instead by withdrawing to Qingliu to regroup, then it would be really bad for us. Therefore, we must have a contingency plan. It would be best if we can force Old Du so that he won’t dare to delay.”
Frowning, Bu Tianzhi said, “Is there a way to make Du Fuwei thinks that Shen Lun has sold him to Li Zitong? That way, Old Du would try to smash one of the two in the shortest time possible, or else he would fall into the situation where he is caught up in between.”
Slapping his thigh, Kou Zhong praised, “This is merely the exertion of lifting one’s hand [fig. requiring a very light effort]. Have somebody deliver a letter to Li Zitong at once; have this fellow immediately spread a rumor, saying that Shen Faxing has already made peace with him. If this rumor can enter Old Du’s ears one step ahead of Chen Sheng being attacked, he would be even more convinced.”
And then he rose to his full height, stretched his limbs, and said, “This time I really can sleep a good sleep!”
Book 23 Chapter 7 – Shifting the Blame Onto Eastern Wu
Hou Xibai shifted sideways to retrieve the folded fan on his back; in a confident-and-at ease, natural, brimming-with-a-sense-of-beauty posture, the tip of the fan’s skeleton, rapid-beyond-comprehension, pointed at Xu Ziling’s double palms coming down at him, and then the fan opened, using the side full of portraits of beautiful women he blocked Xu Ziling’s real killer move, while sending out a kick toward his lower abdomen.
Xu Ziling rapidly whirled around, both palms created hundreds of palm shadows like an illusion, while his leg seemed to move, but was not actually moving. Even with Hou Xibai’s ability, he could not advance prematurely, while also did not dare to withdraw backward, afraid that the opponent might snatch the key moment, and then he would suffer ‘troops in defeat like a landslide’ [idiom], and lost his life on this no-escape, no-retreat plank walkway.
Hou Xibai resorted to a set of exquisite and abstruse fan technique. His fan opened and closed without showing any gap, as he parried Xu Ziling’s rainstorm-like fingers, palms, and fists attack. The sound of strong wind collided against each other lingered on.
‘Pow!’ hundreds and thousands fan shadows covered everything. The middle finger of Xu Ziling’s left hand made contact with the tip of the fan.
A vortex of qi, which Hou Xibai had been expected all along, burst in via the Fan of Beauty, slow at first, but quickly became faster.
This inner power attack was like fighting at close range with short weapon, there was no room to change move at all. The two combatants staggered backwards at the same time.
At this moment, the two men began to know the real ability of his opponent.
Hou Xibai only staggered back five steps before he managed to regain his footings; his handsome face alternated between red and green. Only after several rounds of these changes did he recover his usual fair countenance.
Xu Ziling nearly stepped out of the plank walkway. Turned out Hou Xibai’s Fan of Beauty was able to execute ‘four taels to push aside a thousand catty’ technique, simply because it was able to use some extremely weird technique of borrowing force to strike force called ‘You Shan Xie’ [lit. outstanding expertise to unload/to remove], by shifting the opponent’s inner power. And Hou Xibai’s level of mastery has reached perfection, a ‘as the arm moves the finger’, free, unconstrained state.
Nearly every strike, a punch or finger thrust, had a ‘miss-the-target’ feeling, just like trying to catch a loach with empty hand, like clearly it was caught in hand, but he was unable to hold on to it steadily.
It was precisely the ‘prescribing the right medicine for an illness’ best method to deal with the spiraling energy.
However, although he gained the upper hand, it actually entailed strenuous effort.
Fortunately, at the last moment he gained the initiative by utilizing the amazing move of ‘Using the man to play the sword, using the sword to play the enemy’ [see Book 11 Chapter 8] of the ‘Yijian Technique’. Furthermore, he exploited the unique environment of the plank walkway to force Hou Xibai to go full strength by disregarding everything in meeting the attack head-on, so that he avoided the final fate of defeat and perishing.
The skill difference had been decided.
Xu Ziling struggled hard to recover from his own momentum that sent him to the edge of the walkway. And then, using the innate true qi from the combination of ‘Secret to Long Life’ and ‘Jade Annulus of He Clan’, he neutralized most of Hou Xibai’s strange energy invading his body. But he still needed two more steps before he could stand firm.
He nearly vomited blood. Luckily when his meridians were about to burst, his five viscera felt like shattering, he exerted himself to raise the true qi within his body. The internal injury immediately recovered more than half in such a miraculous way. It was as if the true qi in his body could faintly control the opponent’s gongfa.
Hou Xibai’s most formidable aspect was that when Xu Ziling’s spiraling energy burst in, slow at first and then turned fast, Hou Xibai’s internal power became suddenly hard and suddenly soft, using both gentle methods and force, ‘breaking open’ his spiraling energy, and diverted it to both sides, enabling him to force entrance into the true qi in the opponent’s body, so that at most he could only retain fifty or sixty-percent of his original level, and thus greatly diminished the killing power.
Such a demonic power was indeed never seen; no wonder Hua Jian Pai was able to stand side by side with Yin Gui Pai on the demonic way.
From this, it could also be inferred the extent of Shi Zhixuan’s formidability.
Hou Xibai opened up his fan and lightly brushed it sideways. With confident laugh he said, “Much obliged for the experience! Xu Xiong is certainly brilliant, but if this is the extent of your skill, Xu Xiong may forget about leaving this golden-ox way alive today.”
Hearing that, Xu Ziling heaved a sigh of relief instead.
If the opponent seized this opportunity to pursue and attack, he would be doomed to death for sure. But now that he spoke to stall for time, it was clear that although his martial art skill was stronger than Xu Ziling’s, and his moves were a notch better than his, plus his injury was slightly lighter than his, yet his speed of recovery must be somewhat slower than Xu Ziling’s.
Taking another mouthful of breath, Xu Ziling let out a long laugh and said, “No better or worse than each other! Hou Xiong, please receive another one of Xiaodi’s punches.”
Right foot stepped forward, left fist sent out a punch.
Obviously Hou Xibai was stunned and was greatly puzzled, and then his expression turned serious, his clothes, from head to foot, fluttered.
Xu Ziling’s punch was extremely slow, but his internal energy was continuously accumulating, so that when his fist was nearly in position, the wind generated by the punch already reached Hou Xibai’s body. The most magical thing was that from nothing at the beginning, the punch power gradually coalesced until finally it became an incomparably forceful qi power following the moving fist, like a formless but natural iron pillar being thrust toward the chest.
Hou Xibai started to regret his decision to intercept Xu Ziling on this plank walkway. If it were an empty and wide land, breaking Xu Ziling’s move would be like handling a butcher’s cleaver with ease [idiom: skillfully and easily]. But on this unique environment, being forced by Xu Ziling’s gradually condensing qipower was like having a thousand kinds of ultimate art, yet was unable to find a solution. The only way out was to meet the attack head-on.
Hou Xibai roared; pulling his Fan of Beauty back, he used his left palm to swiftly chop down to strike the middle of the column of qi.
Spiraling energy flared out.
Xu Ziling has learned from experience that his spiraling energy was focused and did not disperse, like a sharp awl breaking into the opponent’s exploding energy.
Both men tumbled backward and spurted blood at the same time. It was injury on top of injury.
This time Hou Xibai could only neutralized twenty-percent of Xu Ziling’s qi power, hence he suffered quite a loss.
If it were on a flat land, he had seventy, eighty-percent confidence to put Xu Ziling to death. But on this plank walkway, Xu Ziling was able to bring out the fantastic qi power he obtained from the ‘Secret to Long Life’, and unleashed its greatest might.
Both sides withdrew five steps back.
Hou Xibai wiped the bloodstain on the corner of his mouth with his sleeve; smiling bitterly, he said, “Please let Zaixia retract my arrogant words. The fact is, this time I was itching: seeing an opportunity that was difficult to come by, I wanted to force Xu Xiong to swap pointers, not really wanted to hurt Xu Xiong. Xu Xiong is honorable and magnanimous, please pardon this offense.”
Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, Xu Ziling said, “Hou Xiong is so straightforward, Xiaodi admires you extremely. Since that’s the case, is Hou Xiong going to enter Sichuan, or leave Sichuan?”
Hou Xibai laughed aloud and said, “Xu Xiong has quick movements and quick mouth. Naturally Zaixia is moving forwards. Xu Xiong, please do as you wish.”
Xu Ziling smiled slightly, while forcefully pressing down another mouthful of blood that was welling up in his throat, and then leisurely and confidently he walked past Hou Xibai.
Actually, the severity of his injury was far heavier than Hou Xibai thought. Basically he did not even have any strength left to lift up his fist; therefore, he must leave this dangerous place as far away as possible at once.
Hou Xibai hesitated for a moment, and then stepped aside to let Xu Ziling pass. He even bade him farewell earnestly, with a reluctant-to-part expression.
Xu Ziling traveled for more than ten li in one breath. After making sure that Hou Xibai did not follow, he violently vomited a mouthful of blood and dejectedly sat down on the ground.
※ ※ ※
Seven warships slowly sailed out of a hidden tributary, heading for the Great River.
All warships were in total blackout, they only rely on the moon and the stars to guide them toward their target.
Chen Sheng’s Jianghuai Navy had left Liuhe at dusk, sailing speedily toward Jiangdu. According to the report, their fleet consisted of a total of more than one hundred and twenty ships, big and small; thirty of which were warships, the rest were cargo ships carrying supply wagons and army provisions.
If this fleet met with a mishap, not only Du Fuwei’s vanguard unit would lose support, their plan of besieging the city might be delayed as well. Under this ‘nothing else to do’ situation, Du Fuwei, whose rage soared to the heavens, would have to find someone to vent his anger, and the only way for him to vent his anger would be Shen Lun, who would definitely try to redeem himself.
In war, the objective ought to be striving for victory, whether by fair means or foul. Using spies was a normal practice in military strategy, ever since the ancient times.
Kou Zhong, who looked somewhat like the Long Spear Lad Gu Jun, a fierce general under Shen Lun’s command, was standing on the deck. To his left and right were Chen Changlin and Bu Tianzhi, respectively. The atmosphere was a bit tense, everybody was holding his breath, quieting their qi, ready to deal with the imminent raid.
The key to their victory was to catch an enemy off guard with a surprise attack [idiom, from Sunzi's ‘The Art of War’]; using fast to defeat the slow, while the enemy was caught off guard, to break the formation of their fleet, to use every means to put the enemy into chaos. And then when the enemy was unclear of what was going on, they could use the few to defeat the many.
The seven ships stopped at the dense forest at the mouth of the river, right next to the riverbank.
The rolling Great River ahead was flowing to the east.
Sailing for two more sichen from here, one would reach Jiangdu.
Kou Zhong took a deep breath and looked up to the sky. His heart was full of emotional stirring.
In his heart, he still had nothing but good opinion and respect toward Du Fuwei, but for the sake of even more far-reaching goal, he had to do this to Du Fuwei. Thinking about this, his heart was saddened.
“They should be here by now!” Bu Tianzhi whispered in his ear, “Our timing is very accurate.”
Kou Zhong regained his senses. Casting his eyes toward the confluence of the tributary and the main river, his spirit entered the calm state.
Chen Changlin spoke quietly, “Tonight the southeast wind is blowing. If we follow the enemy’s tail tightly, we can attack by following the current and the wind at our tail. It’s going to be absolutely sure. Problem is, it might turn into a full-scale battle, and then it’s going to be more difficult to defeat Chen Sheng’s command ship first.”
Bu Tianzhi sighed and said, “Too bad we do not have any information on Chen Sheng’s natural disposition; otherwise, we could plan our attack focusing on his character. Right now we can only take a risk.”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “The most dangerous situation would be if his command ship is at the head of the procession, because then we must take the risk of attacking first, and face the danger of the rest of the warships counterattacking by following the current.”
Bu Tianzhi spoke heavily, “If we stay close to the Great River’s northern bank, we could release smoke and scatter ashes.”
Kou Zhong resolutely said, “We might as well take a two-pronged approach; while we raid the opponent’s command ship, the other six warships will separate so that the enemy cannot see our real strength. While confusing the enemy with smoke, we use cross-shaped [orig. ‘ten’ character] arrows to burn the enemy’s sail, use trebuchet to smash the opponent’s hull, to create damage as much as possible. Once it’s done, we can abandon the ship and flee into the water.”
And then he added one sentence, “As long as Chen Sheng is wounded, we have successfully accomplished this mission.”
“They are here!” Chen Changlin cried out in low voice.
Two lightweight battle ships of Jianghuai Army were passing by ahead.
After waiting for half a day, four comparatively larger warships and a dozen or so cargo ships appeared.
And then three multi-deck huge battleships followed.
Bu Tianzhi was delighted, “The Heaven is helping us; that ship in the middle is the command ship.”
Kou Zhong’s spirit was greatly aroused; his true qi flowing through the meridians in his entire body, he shouted, “Success or failure will be decided by this battle. Brothers, follow me, attack!”
The order issued, the Meng Chong Doujian [see Chapter 5] left its hiding place, the oars came out; following the current, it flew toward the enemy ship at full speed.
※ ※ ※
By the time Xu Ziling opened his eyes, the sky was full or stars, the night sky on the high mountain felt even more enchanting.
He circulated his true qi for two more cycles before standing up to his full height. But his head still felt light and dull, so he could not help but was horrified.
Since practicing the xinfa of the ‘Secret to Long Life’, no matter how serious the injury, he was always able to recover quickly. He had never tried treating his injury close to five sichen like this, yet his meridians still did not flow freely, and the qi circulation was still difficult. From this, it could clearly be seen how formidable Hou Xibai’s Hua Jian Pai demonic skill really was.
If he had to fight right now, at most he could only use forty or fifty-percent of his usual skill. Naturally he could not control his true qi like playing with magic like he usually did.
He was well aware that Hou Xibai would not let him off. The moment he found out that his internal injury was much lighter than Xu Ziling’s would be the moment he would look for him.
Even if he recovered one-hundred-percent of his power, perhaps he would still be not Hou Xibai’s match. Therefore, the only thing Xu Ziling could not right now was to get as far away as possible, so that Hou Xibai would not be able to find him.
He was about to leave when he heard the sound of wind from the plank walkway leading toward Sichuan. While Xu Ziling was crying ‘Bad!’ inwardly, a man, with face like beeswax, emaciated, his forehead and cheeks full of lines of hardship, rapidly flew over toward him.
Evidently the man had never thought he would meet a passerby in the dark of the night, on this dangerous path deep in the mountains and desolate valley; he halted his steps in shock.
Xu Ziling groaned inwardly.
Surprisingly, it was the utterly vicious, extremely evil, ‘Going Against The Tide’ You Niaojuan, the Sheng Ji Men’s renegade disciple, the one who ranked last in the list of the Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way.
It was indeed ‘enemies on a narrow road’ [idiom].
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong’s boat was very fast. In the blink of an eye it already rushed out of the tributary and swiftly entered the flowing stream of the Great River.
They saw ahead of them, behind, left and right were the enemy’s battleships and cargo ships; it was quite frightening.
Bu Tianzhi was at the helm. He steered the battleship toward the northern bank of the Great River.
Fiery arrows were shot, lime were scattered, while at the same time the stern produced heavy smoke, which, because of the tail wind, rapidly enveloping the command ship.
Battle drums were like rolling thunder.
The enemy’s fleet was in chaos.
The boat was rapidly pressing toward the command ship. Momentarily the battle drums and the battle cry resounded across the Great River.
The four light battleships trailing the command ship were immediately dispersing to strike back ferociously toward Kou Zhong’s ship.
Arrows and rocks rained down on them, the momentum was extremely astonishing.
Although Bu Tianzhi did everything he could to take the circuitous route, the opponent’s rocks still managed to hit them. The crenelated wall was shattered, holes and cracks were constantly appearing on the hull, wood splinters were flying everywhere.
Fortunately, by this time their own warships appeared from the tributary in continuous stream, cutting the enemy’s fleet into several sections, so that their head and tail were separated from each other.
The other multi-deck ship turned around and rammed their ship. This is called the tough wins against the fragile, the big wins against the small. The bow shattered immediately. It spun around twice on the Great River, and finally capsized.
Kou Zhong shouted loudly, “Boys [orig. ‘er lang men’]! Board!” Carrying his long spear, he soared into the sky.
Whether they succeeded or not this time, it would be up to him.
Book 23 Chapter 8 – Initial Estimate Difficult to Accomplish
You Niaojuan swept his gaze around, and then with a loud laughter he walked over toward Xu Ziling; bizarre expression flashed through his eyes as he spoke softly, “This renxiong looks quite handsome!”
Hearing that, the hair on Xu Ziling’s entire body stood on its end; You Niaojuan’s manner and intonation was brimming with some kind of excitement, cruelty, and perversion, as if he was hinting that since I come across you – this interesting plaything, here, why can’t I gorge myself, and do whatever I please?
Fortunately, Xu Ziling knew how to distinguish condition from hearing voices, so he knew that You Niaojuan’s serious injury was only recovered sixty or seventy-percent; otherwise, Xu Ziling would have no chance at all, even if he staked everything he had. But presently he had at least some chance to attempt escape or even to commit suicide, to avoid falling into this great evil’s hands, in which case living was not better than dying.
Turning around, Xu Ziling’s eyes shot a fierce and stern expression. Not showing any fear at all, he met the opponent’s gaze, blurted out laughing, and said, “Lao Xiong [ol’ bro], what’s your honorable surname and great given name? Since you dare to travel alone on this dangerous path, you must not be any ordinary person, but I wonder a friend of which ‘way’ are you?”
You Niaojuan’s eyes showed a skeptical look; sizing Xu Ziling up and down, he noticed that Xu Ziling was not well. Immensely proud of himself, he said, “Xiao Xiongdi [li’l bro] talks like a seasoned veteran; you seem to understand Jianghu way, your martial art skill must be not bad. How about this: if you can guess my name and my origin, I will make an exception and let you off.”
Pretending to be surprised, Xu Ziling said, “You and I have no past grudge, and currently have no enmity, how could you not let me off? But to guess who you are is not difficult at all. It’s just that I see you are not the kind of a man who speak and keep your promise. Even if I guess correctly, you would still want to fight to dispose of me; why should I rack my brain to guess it?”
Astonished, You Niaojuan looked at him for half a day; finally he shook his head and said with a laugh, “You are indeed a kid who don’t know the immensity of heaven and earth. Just by looking at your eyes, I knew that you have limited weight [i.e. importance]. How about this: you guess who I am, and you block three moves from me. If you could do any one of those two, I guarantee that I will let you off. Ha! Fascinating handsome boy.” Unexpectedly he put an air of a wicked cat playing with a mouse.
Xu Ziling spoke indifferently, “How much does your guarantee worth per catty? Unless you are willing to make a vow according to your school’s incantation, I will not believe you.”
You Niaojuan’s entire body, from head to foot, shook. Taking a step backward, his eyes shone with ominous glint, he spoke sternly, “Who are you?”
His heart moved, Xu Ziling said, “Who am I, it’s not your concern; if you want to fight, let’s fight. This Shaoye [young master] don’t have time to bicker with you endlessly, not to mention I don’t have the mood to do so.”
You Niaojuan laughed grimly; his laughter started soft, but was getting louder, until at last he was howling with laughter. A laughter that was full of insanity and frightening insinuation. Moreover, the wrinkles on his face rippled back and forth, so that he looked extremely ugly.
Suddenly Xu Ziling sent out a palm chop, slicing the air between the two.
You Niaojuan’s laughter vanished; he took a step backward in shock, and stared blankly at Xu Ziling with disbelief in his eyes.
Originally he was about to make his move, but Xu Ziling seemed to have the ability to predict the future; his palm chop happened to be one step ahead in cutting off the path of his intended move, naturally he was gob smacked in amazement.
But Xu Ziling felt his qi and blood were churning inside his body, he nearly vomited blood. He started to realize that his internal injury was more serious than he thought; raising his qi to walk away was not a problem, but if he had to fight You Niaojuan, this vicious demon of the present age, perhaps he would have collapsed in less than three moves.
You Niaojuan was a veteran, immediately he saw the signs. Stunned, he said, “Turns out you are suffering from internal injury. No wonder your move is so brilliant, but your eyes are dim and lifeless; even I failed to see it previously.”
Struggling hard to keep his boiling blood and qi under control, Xu Ziling sneered and said, “No better or worse than each other; just by listening to your voice, I know that you, Lao Xiong, are also suffering from internal injuries. Let us stake everything together until our internal injuries burst forth; let’s see who’d die first.”
You Niaojuan was about to make his move, unexpectedly Xu Ziling laughed aloud, and took half a step sideways toward the edge of the plank walkway.
You Niaojuan could not stop the amazement in his heart. Greatly puzzled, as well as astonished, he said, “What martial art is this?”
Xu Ziling knew that You Niaojuan was starting to be alerted and was having misgivings. This one step move was the limit of what he currently could do. This changing position, plus the temporary upper hand he gained, coupled with one move he previously showed, were all ‘different tunes played with equal skill’, so that the opponent would not dare to take the risk by advancing prematurely.
In somewhat disdainful tone he said, “You Niaojuan, can you still be considered our demonic school man? You have not even seen ‘Immortal Printed Method’?”
For the first time that night You Niaojuan’s eyes showed fear; he stared without blinking at Xu Ziling, and spoke heavily, “Who is Shi Zhixuan to you?”
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong soared to about four zhang above the water, while taking the whole scene of the battle on this section of the Great River at once.
His seven warships have all entered the river, cutting off Chen Sheng’s fleet into a dozen or so separate sections, of which at least twenty cargo ships were burning, although with different degree of severity of the disaster. These burning ships provided a very thick smoke, which was blowing downstream following the direction of the wind.
Other than his own ‘command ship’, which was hit and sunk by the enemy’s multi-deck ship, one other ship was also knocked by the enemy’s warship that it was overturned. The rest of his ships, under cover of darkness and the thick smoke, weaved left and right while wantonly attacking the enemy’s cargo ships.
About a dozen of Chen Sheng’s warships, including the command ship, which were already ahead, turned around urgently and sailed against the wind and against the current to counterattack, but they were trapped in the smoke in an instant.
By this time Kou Zhong was out of breath; abruptly taking another breath, he traversed sideways about a zhang in the air, and landed on the deck of the huge ship that smashed his ship over.
Immediately sabers, spears, hatchets, swords, and so on, more than a dozen weapons welcomed him.
Kou Zhong pulled back into the air, and leaped toward the deck of the second level. Using the spear technique, with at least twenty-percent resemblance of Gu Jun’s spear moves, he blocked the swarming enemies so that they fell forward and flipped backward, in full display of his prowess.
There was a sudden gust of wind.
Turned out Chen Changlin also followed him on board. With his authentic thick Jiangnan accent, he called loudly, “Gu Jiangjun, over here!”
Shouting his response, Kou Zhong soared and made several somersaults in the air and landed on the bow of the ship. Sweeping his long spear across, an explosive force followed, five or six enemies besieging Chen Changlin suddenly felt the palm of their hands were shaken and split. Immediately their weapons fell off, and they scattered in all directions.
Chen Changlin had just hacked down three enemy soldiers; while signaling Kou Zhong with his eyes, he soared away.
Kou Zhong looked back, and happened to see Chen Sheng’s command ship was only about three zhang to his left. Cheering inwardly, he quickly gave chase.
This could be his only chance to ambush Chen Sheng.
※ ※ ※
Letting out a cold snort, Xu Ziling said, “You don’t have to worry about that.”
The ominous glint in You Niaojuan’s eyes subsided; acting calm and collected, he said, “Even if you are Shi Zhixuan’s direct disciple, Ol’ You hasn’t stepped foot in Jianghu for twenty years, my appearance has changed a lot; how did you guess it was me?”
Xu Ziling shivered inwardly, thinking that these martial art masters of the demonic way, indeed not a single one was easy to deal with. Yet on the surface he adopted an apathetic and unmoving manner, as he spoke indifferently, “I don’t need to explain that even more. I just want to know, do you still want to fight?”
You Niaojuan laughed aloud and said, “Since you are ‘Xie Wang’ Shi Zhixuan’s disciple, how could Ol’ You dare to offend? Xiao Xiongdi, please.” With exaggerated movement he step aside as if asking a nobleman to take the lead.
Inwardly Xu Ziling felt something was really wrong; it looked like You Niaojuan could see through that he was a counterfeit article. Immediately coming to his senses, he examined himself and straightaway saw where he made the mistake. If he were a real Hua Jian Pai disciple, like Hou Xibai, for instance, how could he easily expose his own identity?
If he could think of the reason, naturally he could also find the solution. Thereupon Xu Ziling deliberately knitted his eyebrows and said, “You shouldn’t flaunt friendship for Shi Zhixuan’s sake, because he and I don’t have any relationship at all.”
You Niaojuan was stunned and confused at the same time.
He had intended to stake everything, even at the risk of aggravating his internal injury, to kill this strange young man who knew his identity. As long as nobody found out, he did not care if his Shifu was the King of Heaven himself.
Xu Ziling tried to urge his internal qi again. Unexpectedly he felt a burst of discomfort and irritation. In his shock he was terrified and came to realize that in his eagerness to save himself, he had violated the big taboo of ‘no-action’ of the ‘Secret to Long Life’ by doing ‘action’, the big taboo of ‘ten thousand thoughts are silent’ realm of the Taoist school of thought, hence he started to experience the first stage of fire-deviation. Focusing his attention at once, he looked up to the night sky.
You Niaojuan’s voice entered his ears, “If what you used just now was really ‘Immortal Print’ xinfa, yet you said that you have no relationship whatsoever with Shi Zhixuan, then this is really strange. I wonder if Xiao Xiongdi could explain it a bit.”
The sky was densely populated with dots of stars. On this dangerous path on the mountain, the night sky appeared even more clear and penetrating.
Xu Ziling spoke in great surprise, “Why does You Zongzhu [head of a clan/school] suddenly become so polite? I have always been receptive to softness and do not respond well to harshness, so I have no problem in revealing a little for you. But this is a matter of great importance; you must make an oath according to your school’s incantation to ensure that you won’t revealed it to the third party.”
You Niaojuan threw his head back in long laughter. Gasping for breath, he said, “What makes you, this kid whose smell of your mother’s milk has not yet dried, think that you can repeatedly ask me to make an oath? I only need to capture you, and then if I want to, you will call me Die [daddy].”
Xu Ziling laughed aloud and said, “What a joke. You think you can catch me as soon as you wish to do so? On your guard!”
Suddenly he moved forward, both hands opened horizontally, the two thumbs were pressing toward You Niaojuan’s eyes, while the other fingers moved up and down like a wave. The technique was strange beyond comprehension.
Immediately You Niaojuan’s countenance changed.
Although Xu Ziling’s strange move was beyond his depth, it was not the move that shocked him. The reason his countenance changed was because Xu Ziling’s appearance right now practically did not look like someone who suffered internal injury. The only explanation that he could think of was that Xu Ziling was putting on an act; after You Niaojuan lost his guard, Xu Ziling made his move at full strength to deal with him.
This thought led him to guess further that the opponent was deliberately waiting here to block his path and to challenge him, taking advantage while You Niaojuan has not recovered from his internal injury to take care of him. Otherwise, how did he know that he was You Niaojuan? Despite what he said, the other party must have some kind of relationship with Shi Zhixuan.
These thoughts flitted across You Niaojuan’s mind like a flint spark, which also led him to select the most proper course of action.
Letting out a strange cry, You Niaojuan flew backward like a ghost, and in an instant disappeared behind the bend on the plank walkway.
Xu Ziling could not hold it anymore; he spurted a small amount of blood, and slumped down to sit cross-legged.
A moment when he looked at the night sky, his mind was just like yesterday, when he was watching the waterfall, where ten-thousand changes joined together without any gap between them, so that he managed to blend together a little bit of true qi, which unexpectedly has scared off You Niaojuan, who had become like a bird startled by the mere twang of a bow. He was really extremely lucky.
He had not sat steadily, a pair of delicate lily-white hands was pressing on his broad shoulders, followed by Wanwan’s tender-and-soft-as-water voice speaking by his ear, “With me protecting you on the side, why must you urge your true qi?”
※ ※ ※
One after another Chen Changlin and Kou Zhong landed on the deck of Chen Sheng’s command ship, and were immediately trapped into a blood soaked and hard-fought struggle.
Chen Changlin was the first to reach the target command ship; he was like a demon falling down from the smoke and killing the archers standing on the bow looking for their target so that they fell to the east and tumbled to the west. He was just thinking of charging toward the bridge deck above when suddenly more than a dozen warriors in light armor surrounded him. Every one of them had unusually outstanding martial art skill. Although Chen Changlin himself was a Jianghu expert, immediately he found himself unable to move a single cun.
Fortunately Kou Zhong rushed over in time. Together they brandished their sword and spear, and only then did they snatch back the initiative. Not that they were forced back into the river, but their original plan to quickly look for Chen Sheng as soon as they landed on the ship became just a wishful thinking that came to nothing. More aggravating was that the fire on the burning enemy’s ships upstream was growing in intensity, wall after wall of thick smoke were blowing over following the tail wind; not only it was difficult to breathe, it was also difficult to see anything. Looking for one person among the disorderly army was easier said than done.
Kou Zhong no longer hid his strength; unleashing his prowess, he consecutively struck down four enemies. Yet the enemy was still increasing without letup; although the two of them gave it their all, they were still surrounded at the bow of the ship in endlessly hard battle.
Not too long afterwards many cuts and wounds already appeared on the two men’s bodies. They could only disregard everything in dealing with the perilous situation before their eyes, while at the same time feeling something was really wrong; how could Chen Sheng have this many superior martial art masters under his command?
At this time the number of enemies losing their lives under their sword and spear has reached to at least a dozen, but there were still layer upon layer of martial art masters around them, so that they were stuck in a hard battle.
Suddenly a familiar voice came from the direction of the upper deck of the ship, saying, “Boys, let me take a look who has such guts!”
While Kou Zhong was greatly shaken with horror, the enemies surrounding them followed the order by withdrawing to both sides. Chen Changlin still thought the newcomer was Chen Sheng; he seized the opportunity by rushing out of the opening.
While Kou Zhong was crying out ‘Bad!’, a fast shadow like a ghost swept over to meet Chen Changlin. At the same time, a thick smoke happened to roll by, swallowing Chen Changlin inside it.
Realizing their situation has turned from bad to worse, Kou Zhong charged through the enemies, who were pouncing back at him from left and right, using the absolute maximum speed he could muster, to fly toward Chen Changlin inside the thick smoke.
‘Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!’
A series of continuous ringing was heard, followed by Chen Changlin’s miserable groan. Kou Zhong ran into the staggering-backward Chen Changlin.
Kou Zhong realized that whether they could survive or not would depend purely on this moment. Moving quickly, he threw himself to crouch on the deck, his long spear shot up from under Chen Changlin’s crotch, and flew at an angle; like a streak of lightning it flew through the thick smoke to meet the terrifying enemy pursuing over, not worrying whether the opponent would be able to see him or not.
If the opponent could see him, he certainly could recognize Kou Zhong immediately, because the newcomer was the ‘Universe in His Sleeve’ Du Fuwei, whose name shook the world.
Who would have thought that he would be on board this ship?
This moment Kou Zhong did not have time to consider any grand plan, and could only think about how to escape with their lives intact.
Even with Du Fuwei’s brilliance, in this kind of thick smoke, he could only rely on his instinct to sense the spear leaving Kou Zhong’s hand in sneak attack; his sleeve swept, ‘Dang!’ he struck down the spear.
Although what Kou Zhong had used was not spiraling energy, the momentum was powerful. When striking down the spear, Du Fuwei felt his entire body shook, and he was forced to sway slightly backward. But this split second delay was enough to give Kou Zhong the golden opportunity to escape.
As soon as the spear left his hand, Kou Zhong grabbed Chen Changlin’s waist, and then, borrowing the momentum as he rolled around, he turned backward, just before the enemies were closing in, to cross over the approximately two-zhang distance. Midway through he soared into the air to evade the enemy’s interception, and then threw themselves into the river.
By the time they fell into the ice-cold water, even Kou Zhong himself was unable to tell whether the operation this time was a success or a failure; he could only surrender everything in Laotianye’s hands.
※ ※ ※
With a rueful smile Xu Ziling said, “How could there be such a coincidence?”
Wanwan’s entire tender body was leaning against his back, her arms snaked around his waist and abdomen like a tight hoop, as she was half kneeling behind him. She spoke softly, “I was chasing after You Niaojuan, and Feixuan is chasing after me. Whom are you chasing after?”
As early as when Wanwan touched his shoulders, Xu Ziling has been opening up his mind. Putting what little true qi he managed to amass on his dantian, he prepared himself for the worst, trying to see if he could break his own heart meridian to kill himself. As soon as he made up his mind, his heart was free of any obstruction instead. With peaceful heart and tranquil qi he said, “Whomever I chase after is none of your business. Are you willing to let me off?”
Wanwan’s pair of burning hot lily-white hands pressing on his lower abdomen emitted two streams of comfortably warm true qi, squeezing into the ocean of qi under his dantian, giving him a feeling of unspeakable comfort and drowsiness that made him wanting to sleep.
He heard her gentle and soft voice replying, “Of course I am not willing to let you off. Oh, Ziling! Do you know that in this world, you are the only man who can move my heart? Do you know what attracts me the most? Let Wanwan tell you, all right? I love to see your expression of contempt and disdain when you look at me; there has never been any man who looked at me with that kind of expression. Ay! Unexpectedly there is such an icily arrogant man like Xu Lang [term of endearment to address a husband or boyfriend] in the world. Your forehead is high and grand, as if there is infinite wisdom inside. Even when walking on main street and rubbing shoulders with a crowd of people, you are still standoffish, carrying that kind of melancholy and cold and detach nature like you are walking alone in the wilderness. But when you smile, you look so sincere. With this kind of special characters blended together, which woman will be able to resist you?”
When he heard that, on one hand Xu Ziling was dumbstruck, on the other hand he felt her true qipenetrating his lower abdomen was stirring up in him some kind of masculine desire.
Suddenly, his nostrils were assaulted by Wanwan’s captivating body scent; furthermore, he seemed to feel her every fiber, her curvaceous and wonderful, well-developed body, brimming with boundless seductive power, stirring up in him the strange feeling that was hidden deep within.
The worst was that what little true qi he had also disappeared without any trace, so that he became like a piece of meat on the chopping block, for her to manipulate however she wished.
When it comes to crafty plots and machinations, as well as using trick in a struggle, naturally he was not this Yin Gui Pai’s most outstanding direct disciple after Zhu Yuyan’s match.
Even if he still had all his strength, perhaps he would still fall head first under her hands, let alone he was completely without any power to resist just like right now.
Knitting his sword-shaped eyebrows, Xu Ziling said, “If you, Wanwan, stir up my lust using despicable method, I will look down upon you.”
Wanwan pressed her pretty face on his bloodless cheek; while nibbling his earlobe lightly, she spoke slowly, “Xu Lang must not misunderstood. Taoist school emphasizes training the essence and transforming the qi. I just want to examine the secret of your ‘Secret to Long Life’, hence I simply must explore your lower part. Can’t you just endure it for a bit longer?”
Because his qi was bounded, Xu Ziling was unable to do anything about it, hence he had to shut up.
At the same time, in his heart he was thinking about demonic schools’ people, who had no regard for other’s feeling and abandoned righteousness, who, with thousand ways, a hundred plans, prevented themselves to be aroused to passion toward anybody. Even when they wanted to bear and raise children, they would select the man they loathed the most to have intercourse; Zhu Yuyan choosing Yue Shan was one example.
Earlier Wanwan confessed to have fallen in love with him, therefore, she wanted to kill him.
Currently Wanwan has progressed from completely fake to be somewhat real, so much so that she poured out her deep feeling toward him, without any misgivings at all; therefore, there was a very high possibility that this was a prelude to her killing him.
Wanwan’s true qi continued to make strange things happen within his body. She said, “After resolving this matter with Xu Lang, Wanwan will run after You Niaojuan, taking advantage of his injury to kill him, and take him back as a sacrifice for Xu Lang’s soul and spirit [of the deceased]!”
While Xu Ziling was crying ‘I’m done for!’ inwardly, Wanwan suddenly exclaimed, “Huh?”, and withdrew her lily-white hands, while hiding behind him.
Stunned, Xu Ziling looked up. To his surprise, You Niaojuan came back.
Book 23 Chapter 9 – There’s A Way To Reverse The Rotation Of The Sky
The burnt vessels were sinking one by one, leaving only a small amount of smoke slowly rising to the sky. Under the starlight, the hundred or so Jianghui Navy fleet of warships and cargo ships were berthing on both sides of the river. It was impossible to guess what their next move would be.
The Shaoshuai Army, composed of Jiangnan younger generation troops, have been evacuated safely, only they had to swim away, because all seven warships have been wiped out completely, and have to be written off as lost assets to them.
Kou Zhong and Luo Qifei stayed behind in a nearby forest, to watch Jianghuai Army’s movement from a distance. Chen Changlin originally wanted to stay to watch the outcome, but because he suffered loss due to Du Fuwei’s wrath, Kou Zhong had Bu Tianzhi send him off so that he could recover in time.
Luo Qifei whispered in his ear, “Altogether we destroyed twenty-three of their cargo ships, and damaged three warships and seven light boats. This battle’s outcome is not bad at all.”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “Too bad this kind of battle’s outcome is not enough to stop Old Du from attacking Jiangdu. I just hope that Old Du would examine Gu Jun’s spear; otherwise, this time we are ruining the enterprise for the sake of one basketful.”
Suddenly Luo Qifei shook; he said, “The ships are starting to move!”
Focusing his attention, Kou Zhong looked up. He saw Du Fuwei’s command ship was sailing downstream, but then made a sharp turn; unexpectedly they returned to where they were coming from. One after another the other ships followed suit.
The two looked at each other. They both saw the excitement in each other’s eyes.
Finally Du Fuwei was duped.
Precisely because he suspected that the man attacking him was Shen Lun that he canceled his trip to Jiangdu. Without first removing this threat, Shen Lun, how could he dare to attack Jiangdu at the risk of facing danger from both sides?
※ ※ ※
You Niaojuan stopped about two zhang away. His eyes fell onto the bloodstain in front of Xu Ziling’s knees; laughing demonically, he said, “I have indeed guessed correctly that, you, this stinky kid is really an arrow at the end of its flight, it was practically a false bravado. Ol’ You only need to pocket you, you are nearly crawling on the ground.”
Inwardly Xu Ziling thought that You Niaojuan, you have come just in time, thereupon he deliberately provoked him to make his move. Having this ‘brutal life’ [not sure, 残生], he spoke in displeasure, “Old You, you have fallen into the trap again! I spat this blood to deceive you. If you don’t believe me, just pull the single-legged copper man from your back and pound it on Laozi to give it a try. Ha! You are a stupid, pathetic mother thief.”
You Niaojuan noticed that Xu Ziling’s expression looked spiritless and haggard, yet his mouth was still hard and aggressive like that; he could not help feeling stunned. And then an evil grin appearing on the corners of his mouth, he wrinkled his face until every single line was prominent, and with a howl of laughter he said, “Good kid, you are really quite something! In this kind of plight you still refuse to die. I just want to see what are you going to do? You have the cheek to speak conceited nonsense.”
With a loud roar and lightning speed he sent a punch over empty space.
Xu Ziling was amused inwardly; You Niaojuan sending a punch from a zhang away, clearly he was testing the water, which showed his paranoid innate character.
However, although he was internally injured, this punch was not a small matter. A biting cold qi power that toppled the mountains and overturned the seas surged over, with a pulling force hidden within. Evidently, although on the surface this punch carried torrential momentum, the goal was still to capture Xu Ziling alive.
Xu Ziling felt Wanwan’s delicate jade palms pressing on his back; a stream of swiftly moving, unfathomable, seemingly empty yet solid, yin and soft in nature, yet abundant and unstoppable, fantastic true qi like a tidal wave burst into his meridians.
Immediately Xu Ziling felt his entire body was full of energy, he felt as if this uncontainable stream of astonishing demonic true qi was leaking out of his body, his five viscera and six bowels could not be protected, he could not help extending his fingers toward You Niaojuan to poke remotely.
Like a tidal torrent a surge of qi power flowed along the Yangming meridian and Taiyin meridian on the outside and inside of his right hand and burst forth, passing through Quchi, Hegu, Sanjian, Erjian, Yunmen, Shaoshang, various acupoints, so that all of them became intolerably yin and cold, until finally it shot out from the Shangyang acupoint of the second finger, piercing toward the enemy.
In that instant, he grasped the principle of the Tian Mo Da Fa’s true qi flow and its passage through the acupoints and arteries and veins, which was indeed very different from the ‘Secret to Long Life’. Other than Ren and Du, two main meridians, the meridians that the Demonic Qi was using did not differ much from the ‘Secret to Long Life’. However, the main emphasis was on the twelve auxiliary straight passages, which were Taiyin lung passage, hand’s Yangming large intestine passage, foot’s Taiyin spleen passage, hand’s Shaoyin heart passage, hand’s Taiyang small intestine passage, foot’s Taiyang urinary bladder passage, foot’s Shaoyin kidney passage, hand’s Jueyin pericardium passage, hand’s Shaoyang three truncal cavities passage, foot’s Shaoyang gall bladder passage, foot’s Jueyin liver passage, and foot’s Yangming stomach passage.
Starting from the Taiyin, ending on the Jueyin, relying mainly on the Ren and Du, two main meridians, it flowed in a cycle, like a circle with no beginning and no end. Although the direction of the flow could vary, it could still be searched through the arteries and veins, following the hand’s three yin, from the viscera to the hand; or from the hand’s three yang, which was from the hand to the head. From the foot’s three yang, from head go down to foot; from the foot’s three yin, from foot going to the abdomen. Ten thousand changes not departed from this cardinal rule.
It was as if Wanwan leaked a bit of Tian Mo Zhen Qi to Xu Ziling.
Xu Ziling’s heart was moved, he suddenly thought of one possibility to avoid his predestined fate this time.
The finger wind violently pierced the fist power.
The strangest thing happened.
Wanwan’s jade palm pressed on his back suddenly became as cold as ice and snow, while at the same time it generated a sucking force a lot more brilliant and mysterious than You Niaojuan’s pulling force, so that unexpectedly most of You Niaojuan’s power was pulled over, but was suddenly pushed out just before it entered Xu Ziling’s meridians.
Xu Ziling was aware of the peculiarity of the Tian Mo Da Fa, he was waiting for precisely this moment. By way of Tian Mo Da Fa’s totally different way of circulating qi along the meridians, the moment it cycled back, he seized the opportunity to borrow part of Wanwan’s true qi. Because Wanwan wanted to control the true qi within his body, while she had to deal with You Niaojuan, whose demonic skill was outstanding, unexpectedly he managed to conceal it from her.
You Niaojuan’s countenance changed immediately. His punch turned into a palm, with which he drew a circle, while flying backward at the same time in an extremely sorry situation.
Positioned between the two, Xu Ziling had to admire You Niaojuan, not only for his profound demonic power, but also for his fast and brilliant ability in meeting a contingency; unexpectedly as soon as he knew the situation was bad, he changed his move instantly, by withdrawing his qi power, changing from disregarding everything in head-on confrontation to dispersing the power and fleeing away. It was such an extremely ingenious move. Otherwise it would be difficult for him to escape unscathed.
The upper part of You Niaojuan’s body swayed before he was able to steady his footing. His face became extremely ugly, his eyes shone with ominous glint, as he spoke sternly, “Kid, who are you? What’s your relationship with Zhu Yaofu [(older) female demon/witch]?”
Wanwan’s palm left Xu Ziling’s back; she withdrew all her true qi, but she did not know that a stream still remained in Xu Ziling’s body, silently battering his blocked meridians.
He was hiding the true qi in his yongquan acupoint on the sole of his foot, and then released it a strand by a strand to heal the injured acupoints and channels.
This moment there was nothing he liked better than talking nonsense to stall for time; therefore, he sighed and with calm smile said, “If I tell you that Zhu Yuyan, Zhu Yaofu is my archenemy, I wonder if you, Old You, would believe me?”
Stunned, You Niaojuan asked, “Didn’t you just use Tian Mo Da Fa?”
Remaining calm and unruffled in the midst of chaos, Xu Ziling replied, “At its highest level, demonic schools’ big method [Da Fa] are all singing different tune but using the same skill, able to control the true qi as one wishes, with countless changes, more and more emerge. ‘Immortal Print’ method is not inferior in any respect to Tian Mo Da Fa; no wonder you, Old You, could misunderstand.”
Wanwan’s delicate hand was pressing on his back again, while Tian Mo Qi gushing into his body.
You Niaojuan was a little discouraged; half believing half doubting, he asked, “Then who are you?”
Xu Ziling smiled and said, “You want to know? It’s easy. Just before reaching the nether world, I will tell you.”
Laughing evilly, You Niaojuan said, “All right! Let me see if you really have that kind of weigh.”
The single-legged copper man appeared in his hand.
Xu Ziling pushed out both palms.
Greatly astonished, You Niaojuan said, “Is your martial art can only be put to use sitting down on the ground?”
While speaking, the single-legged copper man in his hand made two rapid rotations, and the moment it gained enough momentum, and was about half a zhang away from Xu Ziling, it struck down at full force.
The objective of this strike was to kill the enemy in one shot; the momentum was greatly different to his previous attack just a moment ago. The single-legged copper man produced whistling noise like a violent storm scraping against the canyon walls; it also seemed like piercing through the sky above and the earth below. Although it was released in such a short distance, in terms of speed and angle, the copper man still carried subtle changes, so that it was difficult to know when it would hit, and where it would strike; it was a clear that this vicious man, who was listed among the Eight Major Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way, did not carry his title in vain. If he had not suffered internal injury, perhaps even Wanwan would not dare to meet his full-strength strike head-on.
But Wanwan also displayed her reaching-universally-shocking-level skill.
Her Tian Mo Qi burst into Xu Ziling’s Yangming and Taiyin, two passages, and then like the Great River separated into its tributaries, it went straight toward his ten fingers. Without him being able to control it, Xu Ziling’s both hands clawed the empty air in front of him to remotely control the opponent’s copper man pounding toward him.
You Niaojuan suddenly fluttered lightly, as if he had no strength and was feeling unwell. On the contrary, his copper man has become heavier than a thousand catty, yet it was difficult to advance a single cun. However, this was purely his feeling; for a spectator on the sideline, there was no difference at all, his copper man was still striking down like a gale onto Xu Ziling, who was still sitting cross-legged on the ground.
Xu Ziling, who was as the center of the two combatants pitted themselves against each other in demonic power, felt his breathing became rugged, his entire body felt aching all over, his skin and flesh felt about to burst, his eardrums hurt so much. Other than the noise produced by the copper man, which sounded like ten million ghosts of those who died unjustly wailing and screaming in their strange howling sound, he could not hear anything else.
Xu Ziling closed his eyes to relieve the unbearably tremendous force pressing down on his eyelids.
Tian Mo Zhen Qi was suddenly withdrawn, and then was released again. One suck and one spit, in just the blink of an eye, it made sharp difference in the outcome of the battle.
You Niaojuan felt as if he was trying to push a ten-thousand-catty heavy boulder with all his strength, but suddenly the boulder became as light as a feather. The pain and discomfort of such a wrong usage of strength could be easily imagined.
You Niaojuan almost tumbled forward; aghast, he quickly reduced thirty-percent of his strength. In this frightening moment, the Tian Mo real power rolled back to meet his copper man.
Xu Ziling changed his claw into palm, heavily slapping the copper man’s yellow shiny bald head.
A spectator who was not involved the battle would not know the subtlety and mystery of these various changes.
Qi power was raging.
You Niaojuan only took a step back, the copper man was changing again; it struck five times in a row with increasing strength, swift and severe to the extreme point, showing that he had the qualification to become Zhu Yuyan’s match.
Xu Ziling suddenly opened his tiger-mouth and laughed aloud, “With Immortal Print technique, you can’t kill me, no matter what. Don’t you get it?”
Putting his finger together into a palm chop, he sliced left and right. No matter from which angle You Niaojuan’s copper man was striking, he was always one step ahead in chopping it with his palm, producing a series of extremely irritating ‘Bang! Bang!’ noise.
While You Niaojuan was admittedly amazed and greatly puzzled, Wanwan’s fragrant heart was in turmoil as well. Since the battle began, Xu Ziling has always been under her control; if she wanted him to punch, he would punch, if she wanted him to raise his hand, he would raise his hand. But these several palm chops were Xu Ziling’s own moves, which, after absorbing the Tian Mo Qi from her, he transmitted it via meridians and acupoints that she could not understand, from yin and soft to yang and hard.
To a very large extent, it could be said that under the circumstances, she and Xu Ziling were life and death partners who shared both the honor and the disgrace; if she presumptuously retracted her true qi, while Xu Ziling would definitely die under You Niaojuan’s copper man, she would be affected as well; her feet was already too deep in the mud, she could not stop even if she wanted to.
Plus this should not have happened.
Basically, she was borrowing force to counter the force; she was a great expert and was extremely skillful in playing with the Tian Mo Qi to follow her heart’s desires. Yet even after self-examination, she had to admit that she never encountered something like this, where after receiving her true qi, the other person was able to use it for his own benefit, and in a flash was able to transform it into his own. It was indeed such a marvelous skill.
It wasn’t clear whether Xu Ziling’s ‘He Shi Bi Shen Gong’ [divine skill/power from Jade Annulus of He Clan] has been trained to such level, simply by adding a slight alteration, he was able to treat You Niaojuan like the evil qi of the Jade Annulus of He Clan that could destroy the heart and split the lungs, and Wanwan was like Kou Zhong and Ba Fenghan in the past.
Relying on the true qi he borrowed earlier, Xu Ziling pulled Wanwan’s innate true qi, but did not flow it through the ‘twelve straight passages’ but diverted it through his ‘Secret to Long Life’ passages, and changed it naturally to become his own true qi, which could subdue the enemy, while also healing his internal injury; one move, two gains. The delight in his heart was difficult to describe.
Being hacked down by his palm, You Niaojuan let out strange cry repeatedly. The most irritating thing was that no matter how he changed his move, the opponent was always able to move one step ahead by cutting it. And the palm chop was always heavier than the previous one, the moves were increasingly more exquisite, every strike was like the divine stroke of a pen in a miraculous hand.
With a sudden long whistle, Xu Ziling stooped down and shot out off the ground. His eyes shot strange light, with a twist of his waist he attacked You Niaojuan in one move, executing an extremely fierce counterattack.
Finally You Niaojuan caught a glimpse of Wanwan behind him; his countenance changed dramatically and he screamed wildly, “It’s so infuriating!” Swinging the single-legged copper man, he parried Xu Ziling’s fist, and then flew backward and disappeared behind a bend on the plank walkway, but his voice was still heard from far away, “The time my injury is healed will be the time of your, this pair of Yin Gui dog man and woman, death.”
Xu Ziling turned around to face the beautiful Wanwan, who was standing within his reach. Shrugging his shoulders in such an elegant manner, he said, “You failed to kill me again! Would Miss like to keep trying?”
Two clumps of red cloud, which made her look even more tender and beautiful beyond comprehension, flew across Wanwan’s sparkling and translucent, penetrating jade cheeks. Stomping her foot, she said, “You, this dead little thief wicked scoundrel, tricked me into pouring so much of my heart’s content. You must compensate me.”
Stunned, Xu Ziling stared blankly at her.
Smiling sweetly, Wanwan said, “You, this kid, really have some ability; just now you were mentioning Immortal Print technique, was it Shi Feixuan who told you that?”
Xu Ziling came to his senses; the touching image of Wanwan revealing her heart’s content just now was still fluttering in his mind, so that he had to constantly remind himself that she was callous and ruthless. Sneering, he said, “You should know that between you and me, there is nothing to say.”
Helpless, Wanwan smiled indifferently and said, “Almost forget that you are a stubborn kid. All right! You don’t want me to ask, then I won’t ask. Where are you heading now? If you refuse to tell me, I will follow closely behind you like a diao xue gui [lit. hanging-boots ghost]. I want to see if you have appointment to see Shi Feixuan, I will be jealous.”
Xu Ziling felt a big headache; frankly speaking, if Wanwan did not look for him to fight, it could be considered his good fortune. On this kind of high mountain, big mountain ridge, where the plank walkway was the only way to go, practically there was no way he could cast her away. And if that happened, perhaps he would not even be able to sleep.
Smiling wryly, he said, “If I told you, would you leave me alone and we go our separate ways?”
Wanwan moved forward a little. Three more cun, and she would be in his bosom. Only then did she stand charmingly; looking up at his heroic, outstanding face, she spoke softly, “How could I do anything that will make you unhappy? Just by listening to your exchange with You Niaojuan a moment ago, I know what you are going to do in Sichuan!”
Turning her tender body around, Wanwan gracefully started to walk leisurely in the direction of Sichuan.
The only thing she left behind was her intoxicating fragrance.
Book 23 Chapter 10 – Lantern Festival in Chengdu
One year became a city, two years became a capital, [Orig. ‘Chengyi’ and ‘Chengdu’, respectively. Not sure if ‘Chengyi’ is a place’s name, Google did not give me good information.] hence the origin of the name Chengdu [capital of Sichuan, lit. ‘becomes capital’].
During the Warring States period [475-221 BC], in the autumn of the ninth year of his reign, King Huiwen of Qin [reigned 338-311 BC] dispatched senior official Zhang Yi [political strategist, born before 329 – 309 BC] and Sima Cuo to lead large army to attack Shu [short name for Sichuan], annexing it and called it Shu Jun [county], with Chengdu as the junzhi [seat of the principal county magistrate].
The following year King of Qin accepted Zhang Yi’s proposal to build Chengdu county seat.
Based on comprehensive survey of the successive dynasties in the establishment of the city, whether in term of the rugged mountain, or the possession of water conservation system, only Chengdu had no danger threatening its existence, but there was no benefit of the waterway either. Furthermore, the town site was on the low-lying areas of the plains; it was wet and rainy, and there were a lot of marshes nearby, which requires manpower to improve it.
In order to build the city, the people of Shu have been digging around a lot. The areas where the dirt was removed became large ponds. The well-known ones included Liu Chi [lit. willow pond] at the west side of the city, the Tianjing Chi [lit. ‘sky well’ (courtyard) pond] at the northwest side of the city, the Ximo Chi [lit. washing the ink stick], Wansui Chi [lit. ten-thousand years (i.e. long live)] at the north side of the city, and the Qiansui Chi [lit. thousand years] at the east side of the city. These ponds could irrigate the good agricultural land, to raise fish and produce grains, but could also serve as natural barrier in the east, west, and north, three sides, during wartime.
On top of that, during King Zhao of Qin, the defender of Shu, Li Bing [c. 230 BC, historical hydraulic engineer] built Dujiangyan, forming a unique water conservation system, which solved flood disaster, irrigation, and water transport, three major problems of the Chengdu Plains.
Chengdu’s city wall had twelve li perimeter, seven zhang high walls, and was divided into two sections: Tai Cheng and Shao Cheng [major and minor city, respectively]. Tai Cheng was on the east, about seven li wide, Shao Cheng on the west, not even five li wide.
At the beginning of Sui dynasty, Chengdu was the seat of Yizhou [name of old state in modern Sichuan] Zongguan Mansion [it’s a generic name for governmental office buildings], which then reverted back to its former name, Shu Jun.
Tai Cheng was the seat of government agencies and residential areas; it was the center of politics. Shao Cheng was mainly business district, the most famous was Nan Shi [south market], where skillful artisans of a hundred arts, rich merchants and huge traders, as well as peddlers and carriers engaged in business, do their work and live peacefully.
Before setting off in his journey, Xu Ziling has inquired from Bai Wenyuan about Chengdu’s current situation.
As it turned out, when the Sui government collapsed, the leaders of the three major powers of Sichuan, Duzun Bao’s [see Book 22 Chapter 6] Xie Hui, Chuan Bang’s [lit. Sichuan Gang] Fan Zhuo, who was known as ‘Spear Hegemon’ or ‘Spear King’, and Ba Meng’s [East Sichuan Alliance] ‘Monkey King’ Feng Zhen, held a meeting to decide the fate of the Shu people. They decided to retain the original former Sui dynasty’s officials and governmental structure, and changed the name of Shu Jun to Yizhou [see above]. In order to show the difference between the old and the new, the new policy was backed by the three major powers; neither one declared himself king, nor proclaimed himself hegemon, they decided to wait for the advent of the ‘Bright Ruler’.
It was said that all of these were facilitated by the ‘Wulin PanGuan’ Xie Hui [magistrate/judge of Wulin, Book 22 Chapter 3]. Thus, it was clear that this man had an outstanding insight, he knew that Sichuan received protection from the mountain and the water, plus the people were simple and honest, they ardently loved the self-sufficient life, and wished to hold a small part of the territory; therefore, they had no place in the power struggle.
After hastening in his journey for three days straight, Xu Ziling paid the tax to enter the city just before nightfall. He wanted to take a rest for one night, and continued on to Huanglong [lit. yellow dragon] in the morning to look for Shi Qingxuan’s secluded forest in the small valley.
The fact was that his internal injury has not been completely healed; he still needed a good night’s rest to preserve and nurture his spirit in order to deal with any danger that might happen suddenly.
As soon as he entered the gate, Xu Ziling felt Shu people’s relative ignorance of the chaos of war in the Central Plains; the rising and peaceful prosperity, the extravagant of the rich and powerful, have made them stand aloof from worldly affairs.
The first thing that caught his eyes was countless colored lanterns; some were hanging outside the door of the businesses and residential buildings, some were brought by the pedestrians. Children were flocking together, frolicking with portable lanterns in their hands, in all kinds of colors, shapes and sizes, strange, skillfully made, glorious and dazzling.
Girls were dressed in lovely scene of blossoming plants swaying in the breeze [or simply: gorgeously]; Qiang [ethnic group] girls’ magnificent clothes and beautiful dresses were brimming with exotic romance. Charming laughs and playful noises rose and fell in succession, overflowing shops stood in great numbers along the main street leading to the city gate. On the crowded street [orig. not one drop can trickle through], firecrackers noise was unending, green smoke rose up everywhere; the city was full of holiday atmosphere.
Xu Ziling counted the day, and suddenly realized that it was the Mid-Autumn Festival [15th day of the 8thmonth, lunar calendar]; he could not help looking up at the full moon, which light was somewhat hidden by the smoke and the fire. A familiar feeling welled up in his heart, but there was also a little bit of out-of-place feeling with the warm atmosphere around him.
After leaving Yangzhou, he and Kou Zhong had lost the mood to celebrate any holiday; this was perhaps the price of contention over the world!
Peace and prosperity ought to look like the scene before his eyes. His heart could not help being touched.
If Susu were still alive, she would be very happy to join him in the fun.
Suddenly, he was sucked into the city market, which was brimming with life of passion, lantern shadows and candlelight, as he rubbed shoulders with the tide of people slowly moving along the street. Multistoried buildings and pavilions stood on both sides of the street, none was not decorated with lanterns and colored banners; all were opening their door to let the people enjoy the gaiety. Richer households invited musicians and performing artists to liven things up; elated, extravagant, and delightful. There was the surreal feeling of morning-exhausted-for-an-extreme-evening, falling-forward-in-bewilderment and losing-consciousness-because-of-the-wine.
For a time, Xu Ziling did not know where to go.
In the bustling and fiery festive atmosphere, suddenly there was something thrown at him from who-knows-where. Xu Ziling easily caught it. Turned out it was an embroidered ball. Stunned, he looked up to see, and in the depths of the lights, he saw a woman standing on the opposite street among a group of children burning firecrackers, staring at him through the gauzed veil covering her face.
Even in the night when the girls dressed like butterflies contending to be the most beautiful, she did not reveal her pretty face, jade countenance. Yet her graceful and amazingly handsome figure still made her stand out like a crane among a flock of chicken.
It was that kind of familiarity.
In just this one glance, he already recognized Shi Qingxuan.
More than a dozen Qiang maidens walked by hand-in-hand while laughing tenderly between he and she. Seeing Xu Ziling’s elegant appearance and tall, well-built stature, their pretty eyes lit up while sending him repetitious amorous glances.
While Xu Ziling was hindered that he was unable to move a single step, Shi Qingxuan lifted her delicate hand to slowly remove the gauzed veil covering her face, exposing the lower part of her nose. Suddenly, the cacophony of playful laughter around him seemed to be rapidly fading; although the crowded thoroughfare and overflowing alleys in the surrounding area were filled with hundreds and thousands of tourists taking advantage of the festival, he felt that between the Heaven and the Earth, there was no third person apart from him and Shi Qingxuan. Although the two were separated by a four-zhang wide street filled with people and passing carriages, yet in his eyes, there was no barrier at all.
It was an indescribable feeling. Although he was still unable to get a full view of her, yet this slight revelation of her could make him feel even more familiar and comfortable. It was as if by her action, she was telling him, “Here you go! I am showing you some!” in a touching manner. Compared to her deliberately putting on an ugly nose or disguising herself in rough, swarthy complexion, the beautiful scenery before his eyes was indeed an extremely pleasant surprise.
The first thing that impressed him the most was her slender, delicate and clean, smooth-like-satin-brocade neck, which extended out like a swan’s neck of her plain yellow gown, which made her appeared even more delicate and pretty beyond human comprehension. It was a totally different kind of beauty; it was some kind of extraordinary beauty.
It was precisely because the top half of her face was hidden behind the veil that he paid particular attention to the previously overlooked part. In fact, he never tried to look at her from a male’s perspective.
By the time his gaze shifted from her exquisitely charming chin to her two fragrant lips, which appeared to store abundant feelings inside – except that she had never been willing to reveal the feelings, but merely appeared a little bit happy and a little bit angry, it looked like her lips were moving. Although there was no audible sound, from the way the mouth was moving, Xu Ziling could read her loud and clear, “You finally came.”
Xu Ziling was about to squeeze his way through the crowd, Shi Qingxuan suddenly put down her veil, while his line of sight was also blocked by a big and tall man.
“Xu Xiong, how are you?”
Startled, Xu Ziling looked up. Turned out it was the ‘Mad Scholar of Henan’ Zheng Shiru. And then, when he tried to look over his shoulders across the street, Shi Qingxuan had disappeared in the crowd without a shadow, just as sudden as her appearance.
Astonished, Zheng Shiru looked back following his gaze, and asked in surprise, “Did Xu Xiong see your acquaintance?”
Having an extremely close miss, Xu Ziling nearly wanted to give Zheng Shiru a good beating, but naturally he must not let him know about Shi Qingxuan. Frowning, he said, “Nothing! I was just looking around!”
Acting friendly, Zheng Shiru pulled his arm; without asking whether Xu Ziling wanted to go or not, he spoke like an old friend, as they were walking together, “Why did Xu Xiong arrive so late? This morning I sent someone to meet you at the gate.”
Not in a good mood, Xu Ziling said, “When I left, Zheng Xiong was still in Shangyong, how did you arrive here earlier than Xiaodi?”
Zheng Shiru let go of his arm and said with a laugh, “Xu Xiong left too hastily! Zaixia and Zheng Dangjiaactually wanted to invite you to take the boat and come here via the waterway. While saving our legs, we can also feast our eyes on the beautiful scenery of the Three Gorges, the magnificently steep Qutang Gorge, the serenely beautiful Wuxia Gorge, and the rapids on the shore of Xiling Gorge. Each one has its distinguishing feature; there is no road beyond the rocks, no sky when the clouds open, they could be considered the wonders of the Great River.”
He spoke powerful, resounding words, to the point of with embellishing power, combined with the haughty air that arbitrarily emerged from beneath the surface; although Xu Ziling was sure that he was a Yin Gui Pai demon, or at least had a close relationship with Zhu Yuyan, Xu Ziling still found it difficult to think of malicious thing about him.
Xu Ziling was still thinking about how to get away from Zheng Shiru so that he could look for Shi Qingxuan, when Zheng Shiru suddenly produced a pot of wine seemingly out of nowhere, took a couple of mouthful first, and then stuffed it into Xu Ziling’s hands.
This moment, because the mention of the Three Gorges brought to his mind Shi Feixuan and Hou Xibai traveling together, plus he smelled the wine aroma permeating the whole place, he reckoned that Zheng Shiru would not play a trick in poisoning him; besides, poison could not harm him anyway, thereupon he resolutely took a big mouthful. When returning the wine pot to Zheng Shiru, the fragrant, thick and burning liquor passed through his throat and went straight to his intestines and viscera. “Good wine!” he could not help praising.
Zheng Shiru raised the wine pot again and drank another mouthful; letting out a loud burb, he put his hand on Xu Ziling’s shoulder and sang, “Returning very late at night heavily intoxicated, needing help to enter the chamber as if not yet awake, helplessly drunk, brewing musk-deer-mixed-with-orchid-scent wine. Frightened to sleep, chuckling gently. How long can the road of life be?”
Tipsy feeling burst forth, when this kind of decadent song lyric that for generations came spontaneously out of the wine – one time drunk solved a thousand anxieties, entered his ears, Xu Ziling modestly felt that within his singing voice, there was a faint desolate, solemn and stirring feeling. He could not help feeling his ill will toward this man was reduced by thirty-percent.
With heroic, fervent air, Zheng Shiru said, “I don’t know why, but when I see Xu Xiong, I feel like we are kindred spirits. Tonight, we won’t go home before we are drunk. Let us go up to the San Hua Lou, the most famous in Chuan Shu, equally famous with Shanglin Yuan of Chang’An, Guanzhong, to the top floor where we can gaze afar, accompanied by beauties, to enjoy the bright moon of the Mid-Autumn.”
Recalling that he and Kou Zhong were doomed to have bad luck whenever they visited a brothel, Xu Ziling was startled, “Zheng Xiong is too polite!” he said, “Please forgive Xiaodi for not able to accompany you.”
Pulling him to the side of the road to avoid a group of children running around with lanterns in their hands, Zheng Shiru asked in astonishment, “Does Xu Xiong have an important matter to attend to?”
Feeling a bit guilty, Xu Ziling did not want to lie to him, thereupon he replied honestly, “Tomorrow I do, but the road is long and hard, so I want to rest a bit early today. When I have the opportunity some other day, I will accompany Zheng Xiong.”
Zheng Shiru smiled and said, “If Xu Xiong wants to have a good rest, you ought to let Zaixia take care of it even more. I can guarantee that everywhere you go in the city, you won’t find an inn or a hotel where you can sleep tonight.”
Xu Ziling only need to look at the people constantly bumping arms and knocking shoulders with them, and he already believed him 90%. Without any better option, he said, “Zheng Xiong, please don’t worry, someone already reserved a room for me in advance. Therefore, tonight’s lodging shouldn’t be a problem.”
By now he was bent on leaving Zheng Shiru so that he could go look for beautiful Shi; thereupon he had to casually invent some crazy nonsense.
Zheng Shiru laughed aloud and said, “Exactly which inn is that?”
Xu Ziling cursed him inwardly. Having no other choice, he mentioned the name that Shi Feixuan gave him, the Yuelai Inn in the south side of the city, because that was the only hotel he knew by name in Chengdu.
Zheng Shiru was slightly startled. Shrugging his shoulders, he said, “Since that’s the case, let Zaixia take Xu Xiong there. If there is any problem, this humble brother can make other arrangement.”
Xu Ziling was quite surprised, as well as puzzled, by his cordiality. Thinking that a bit later he might have to suffer embarrassment when his lie was uncovered, he smiled wryly and said, “Zheng Xiong is indeed a true friend.”
Zheng Shiru led him in the direction of the south market. Pointing to a tall building towering under the bright moonlight in the southwesterly direction, he said, “That is Zhangyi Lou [reminder: lou – multistory building], built to commemorate Zhang Yi building the city in the past. From the top floor we can see the permanently snow-capped Yulei Mountain about a hundred li away, as well as the Neijiang and Waijiang [inner and outer rivers, respectively] flowing out of the Dujiangyan and winding around the city. The scenery is extremely beautiful.”
Astonished, Xu Ziling said, “Zheng Xiong is very familiar with Chengdu.”
Zheng Shiru suddenly sighed and said, “I was wondering if Xu Xiong is extremely wary toward me, Zheng Shiru?”
Xu Ziling has never expected that from introducing Chengdu’s scenic spot, he would suddenly change subject to such a sensitive question. “Why would Zheng Xiong say such thing?” he asked indifferently.
“To tell you the truth,” Zheng Shiru began, “This time Shiru came here specifically to find Xu Xiong, because I want to have a good chat with Xu Xiong, to clarify some unnecessary misunderstanding; would Xu Xiong be willing to listen to me?”
Xu Ziling sneered inwardly; when he was impersonating Yue Shan, he had personally seen that Zheng Shiru and Zhu Yuyan had some kind of relationship. If right now, with graceful words, flowery speech he denied that he belonged to Yin Gui Pai, then Xu Ziling might as well shed all pretense of cordiality by scolding him directly and driving him away, so that he would not follow him and be a hindrance. Xu Ziling was already tired of being hopelessly muddled with Zheng Shiru like this; he just hated to punch a smiling person like that in anger!
Cold and indifferent, he replied, “Xiaodi is listening with respectful attention.”
Zheng Shiru lowered his head. While continued walking, he appeared to be deep in thought. Finally, half a day later he shook his head and said with a wry smile, “I am the kind of person who, one, have a bad name, two, do not seek favor. But for my love of wine and beauty, some people jokingly call me ‘mad scholar of wine and women’. Although it has derogatory meaning, to me, it is as sweet as syrup [idiom, from Book of Songs: to endure hardship gladly].”
The two turned into a side alley. Obviously there were a lot less pedestrians, but there was a group of foreign girls coming over, singing and dancing, wearing buttoned Chinese jacket without collar and short-sleeved gown on the top, plus several items of covering garments. The hem of their skirt was semi-circular, with streamer girthed their waist, while the back of their waist was folded into a pair of triangular floating ribbon hanging behind their back, in embroidered silk with decorative design, beautiful and dazzling to the eyes, linked to the pleated skirt on the lower part of their body, flared like morning glory flower, which emphasized their prominent and well-developed figure when they were walking. The pleated skirt swayed as if the lower garment was treading on clouds; what is true and what is false complimented each other. There was an extremely implicit charm, enhanced by the dazzling headdress, earrings, and breast ornaments. Xu Ziling’s eyes could not take it all in; he found it mesmerizing and amusing.
Zheng Shiru said, “They are Yi girls. The skirts they are wearing could not be considered wide. The skirts of Nakhi and Pumi girls in Bashu’s Lugu Lake region are wider than you ever thought. Don’t imagine that you could make it without several zhang of fabric folded together.”
Xu Ziling pulled his eyes away from the girls’ full of dynamic alluring back, and asked in bewilderment, “Such a wide skirt, how are they wearing it?”
Putting on an air of the expert, Zheng Shiru said, “Wrapping it several times around their body is a common thing, the rest of it will be tucked behind their waist, so that it will look like they are carrying something behind their back, very distinctive. Ha! Xu Xiong is so handsome, tall and straight, when you pass through the road where Yi people live, you must be careful. Yi women are beautiful; even more so, they are bold and passionate. Once they entangle you, they will never let you go, it’s not something that you can solve by walking away.”
Inwardly Xu Ziling blew out a mouthful of cold air; thinking that fortunately when that group of Yi girls was throwing flirtatious glances at him, he did not respond by smiling. Otherwise, he might not be able to get away, just like Zheng Shiru’s current wretched state.
Zheng Shiru silently led him turning to the left and branching to the right along the streets where people were coming and going, until they reached a more secluded side street. He spoke in heavy voice, “Please forgive Zaixia for one thing I’d like to ask about: why did Xu Xiong and Kou Xiong arbitrarily assert that Qian Duguan’s favorite concubine Bai Qing’er is a Yin Gui Pai person?”
Xu Ziling thought the time has come; halting his steps, he spoke indifferently, “Have we read wrong?”
From a house somewhere came the sound of drums and happy music, while a group of children parading along the street with lanterns in their hands was coming straight toward them, full of festive pomp.
Contrary to Xu Ziling’s expectation, Zheng Shiru said, “Not only she is Yin Gui Pai person, she is also Wanwan’s Shimei, her position is very high. Her husband-concubine relationship is just a pretense, but this is a top secret. However, Xu Xiong and Kou Xiong seem to be able to see it through quite effortlessly.”
Stunned, Xu Ziling looked at him. Straight to the point [orig. to open the door and see the mountain] he asked, “In that case, which position and what responsibility does Zheng Xiong have within the Yin Gui Pai?”
He has finally reached the limit of his patience, and did not wish to beat around the bush any longer.
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong unleashed three saber strikes in a row, hacking his subordinates that they were falling to the east and tumbling to the west. This moment, Chen Changlin, Luo Qifei, Chen Laomou, and Bu Tianzhi, four men, were coming to see him. Hurriedly he shouted his order, “You guys continue to practice.”
He came into the hall with the four and sat down. “Are you here to invite me to enjoy the Mid-Autumn moon?” he said with a laugh.
Chen Laomou looked out the window at the saber and sword coming and going outside. Kou Zhong had personally picked ten young men from the Jiangnan Army to be trained as his personal bodyguards. He said, “Shao Shuai indeed have a skill in training the army.”
Looking at the inner courtyard sprinkled with the moonlight, Kou Zhong recalled four of his men who came with him transporting salt to the north, where three of them met with a violent death under Yin Gui Pai’s hands, and one’s whereabouts was unknown; his heart turned intensely cold and aching, he only nodded slightly in response.
Luo Qifei, who had hastened back recently, spoke heavily, “After returning to Qingliu, Du Fuwei sent people to summon Shen Lun to see him. Shen Lun is aware that Du Fuwei suddenly withdrew the large-scale operation of besieging Jiangdu; hence he was overly suspicious. Not daring to personally see Du Fuwei, he only sent his man to inquire. After chatting with Shen Lun’s emissary for a while, Du Fuwei drove him away.”
Slapping the table, Kou Zhong said, “Shen Lun, this kid, really helps us succeeding.”
And then he asked in astonishment, “Qifei, how did you know what happened in Old Du’s Command Mansion so clearly?”
Luo Qifei laughed and said, “With money, even the ghosts will be worn down. I have someone from my hometown working for Du Fuwei; a few words in exchange for a bag of gold, who can refuse?”
“What should we do next?” Chen Changlin asked.
Leaning back in his chair, Kou Zhong slyly said, “We don’t need to pay attention to how Du Fuwei will gain the initiative by striking first to take care of Shen Lun; we only need to mobilize our entire forces to keep watch along Shen Lun’s retreating path. The time he is fleeing back to Jiangnan will be the time we will ambush him, so that Changlin Xiong can take revenge and erase humiliation. We will retreat as soon as we succeed, and let Li Zitong clear the mess. Tonight, we won’t care about anything except admiring the full moon and drinking some wine. Tomorrow morning, we will immediately set out on our journey. I am very clear of Old Du’s temperament; he will definitely resolve this matter in the shortest time possible.”
The crowd agreed in unison.
Chen Changlin’s eyes lit up; he seemed to already see the desperate situation where Shen Lun was being ambushed and killed.
Book 23 Chapter 11 – Appointment with A Beauty
Smiling wryly, Zheng Shiru said, “I knew you would have this kind of understanding. The fact is that although I do have a close relationship with Yin Gui Pai, I am not a Yin Gui Pai man. It’s just that in all his life, my humble father managed Yin Gui Pai’s business affairs and traveled all over the country to acquire all kinds of supplies for them, so I have been in contact with Yin Gui Pai people since I was little, and thus have become someone that they trust.”
Xu Ziling was dumbstruck. For a long time now he has always thought that Yin Gui Pai stood outside of the real world like Ci Hang Jingzhai, that they were detached from Jianghu and society, that they were another kind of people who did not eat the food of common mortals. Yet, listening to Zheng Shiru now, he realized that they still need to earn money and make a living, just like everybody else. [Translator’s note: all ‘they’ referring to Yin Gui Pai are feminine.]
He said, “What Zheng Xiong revealed just now could be considered Yin Gui Pai’s big secret. Zheng Xiongis not afraid Zhu Yuyan won’t be happy?”
Zheng Shiru replied, “My humble father has passed away many years ago. Yin Gui Pai already has someone else to take my father’s place. I myself no longer have a direct relationship with them. Only because of my relationship with Bai Qing’er that I was helping Qian Duguan to manage Xiangyang. But now that my business with Bai Qing’er has come to a close, I don’t want to care about Yin Gui Pai’s affairs anymore.”
Puzzled, Xu Ziling asked, “Since that’s the case, Zheng Xiong do not need to explain everything to Xiaodieither; this will not bring you any benefit.”
“But it won’t bring any harm to me either,” Zheng Shiru replied with rueful smile, “For Xu Xiong, what I was just telling you can’t be considered a secret at all. The reason I explained the situation was that I really don’t want to stand as Xu Xiong’s enemy; even more, I don’t want Shuming to misunderstand me, thinking that I am a Yin Gui Pai man.”
Xu Ziling suddenly saw the light. But naturally he must not believe Zheng Shiru’s words that easily. Because if Zheng Shiru really gained control over the Yangtze River Alliance via Zheng Shuming, and Lin Shihong was really a Yin Gui Pai demon, then it would be catastrophic to their major undertaking.
It’s just that for the time being, it was difficult to find a way to verify whether what Zheng Shiru said was the truth or a lie. This extremely charming man was absolutely not simple.
Sighing, he said, “Time will tell whether Zheng Xiong is telling me the truth. It’s late! Zheng Xiong, please go back!”
Zheng Shiru smiled and said, “Xu Xiong must be extremely annoyed by my bothering you. Yuelai Inn is just around the corner ahead, how could Zaixia abandon you midway? Come!”
※ ※ ※
After three rounds of wine, Kou Zhong’s heart was moved; he asked Chen Changlin about the Song Family of Lingnan, “Where exactly is Lingnan? Is Changlin Xiong familiar with the Song Family over there?”
The five were sitting in a circle in the small garden at the rear courtyard; this house was one of Bu Tianzhi’s secret nests, it was not far from the Great River and was hidden deep in a small valley, a very good place to escape from the world.
The bright moon was hanging high in the sky, stirring up in Kou Zhong his wounded feeling of ‘round moon does not mean the person is round’ [not sure, 月圆人未圆], so that he was suddenly dying to know more about Song Yuzhi, who, by this time, had been returning to Lingnan.
Chen Laomou, showing off his seniority, answered instead, “Lingnan actually refers to Yuecheng, Dupang, Mengzhu, Qitian, and Dayu, these five ranges [separating Hunan and Jiangxi from south China, mainly Guangdong and Guangxi] encompassing a vast area in the south. My, Chen Laomou’s own mother was an outstanding beauty from the Zhuang ethnic group in Lingnan. Ha! At least my Die often bragged about her, ha!”
Everybody just smiled.
Chen Changlin said, “Lingnan is the Song Family’s territory. The Song Family operates beast of burden, jadeite, pearl and precious stones, rhinoceros and elephant, and other businesses involving local products. They started at Xiongqu and then grew into local political power. Because the mountain is high, the emperor is far, for the last five dynasties, no matter who the emperor is, he has to give the Song Family enough face. By the time the ‘Heavenly Saber’ Song Que took leadership, the Song Family reputation has already grown a hundredfold, and they enjoy majestic position in Jianghu. Within the Wulin world south of the Great River, no one dares to doubt his qualification as the number one saber expert in the world.”
“What about that Huang Gongcuo?” Kou Zhong asked, “What kind of ‘thing’ is he?”
With a cold snort Chen Laomou said, “Huang Gongcuo is not a ‘thing’, but a big [email protected] [orig. confused ball]. His natural disposition is that he always shields his shortcomings, and is very temperamental. Although his martial art skill is quite high, no one in southern Wulin likes him. Potentially, he and the Song Family are like water and fire. However, after Song Que defeated Yue Shan, Nanhai Pai [South China Sea Sect] became silent even until today.”
Chen Changlin continued, “During the eighth year of Emperor Wen of Sui, the Sui Army captured Jiankang [old name for Nanjing], but the Song Family was unwilling to realign their allegiance to the new Emperor. Yang Jian then sent his great general Wei Xian to lead the troops to the foot of the mountain range, but he did not dare to enter Lingnan even for half a step. Later on, Sing Que observed the situation and formed a judgment; realizing that resisting the Sui would bring more harm than good, he changed his mind and went out of the mountain range to meet him, and accepted the title ‘Qiao Guo Gong’ [lit. duke of the Qiao State] the Sui dynasty conferring to him. Yang Jian personally granted him the right to form his own government, to set up his own government officials of Zhangshi [chief official historian] level and below. He gave him his seal, a right to develop his own military forces, and so on, just short of proclaiming him a ‘king’. It could be considered a very generous treatment.”
Bu Tianzhi said, “Ever since Yang Jian ascended the throne, all along Song Que was unwilling to enter the imperial court to present himself [to a superior], Yang Jian was helpless to deal with his steadfastness in resisting the enemy relying on inaccessible territory, and with his autonomy.”
“What a courageous spirit,” Kou Zhong praised.
Chen Laomou sneered and spoke sharp and unkind words, “Using pleasant words, we call him steadfast, but using unpleasant words, we call him stubborn. Song Que’s appearance is very handsome; in the past he enchanted countless beautiful women, yet evidently he had a heart of stone. At first, he wanted to remain single and did not want to get married, afterwards, due to the family pressure, he had no choice but to marry, but unexpectedly he picked an ugly woman to be his wife, so that the woman who loved him the most more or less nearly killed herself to give vent to the grievance in her heart. Ha! This man’s action is really unpredictable.”
Kou Zhong jumped in fright, thinking that fortunately Song Yuzhi took after her father, otherwise it would be terrible.
Luo Qifei was amused, “Mou Gong is really funny,” he said with a laugh.
Kou Zhong pondered, “I understand how Song Que’s prestige could rise over the southern sky. The reason he married an ugly woman as his wife must be so that he could devote his aspiration to the way of the saber. Otherwise, if he indulged himself in the delight of the lady’s chamber, it could naturally weaken his will to fight.”
Bu Tianzhi nodded and said, “Shao Shuai’s conjecture ought to be pretty close; very insightful.”
Chen Laomou laughed and said, “Song Que must be thinking that going to bed [orig. 行房 - a euphemism for sexual intercourse] must be a hard work, without even half a bit of pleasure.”
Kou Zhong asked, “Anybody know the relationship between Song Que and Zhu Yuyan?”
Everybody shook his head in bewilderment.
Looking up at the bright moon in the sky, Kou Zhong was thinking of seeing Song Que first, and then he thought about Song Yuzhi, and his heart was boiling.
If right now he were to go to Lingnan immediately, would Song Yuzhi change her mind?
He hated it that at the moment he could not spare time for a separate task, therefore, he would never know the answer to that question.
But was he really unable to spare some time?
※ ※ ※
The inn was extremely quiet; there was only one old shopkeeper dozing off by the door. The sound of the two men pushing the door and stepping inside was still not enough to wake him up. Perhaps the receptionist and the other workers of the inn were slipping away into the street like a swarm of bees to enjoy the excitement of the Lantern Festival.
Zheng Shiru cleared his throat. Only then did the old shopkeeper opened his eyes; with blurry vision he looked at the two men up and down.
Zheng Shiru greeted him and said, “My friend here is surnamed Xu; has anybody booked a room for him here?”
Xu Ziling’s handsome face was burning with embarrassment. Although Zheng Shiru could only be counted as half of an enemy, but having his lie uncovered in front of his face was hard to take.
The old shopkeeper nodded his head incessantly, “Right!” he said, “There was a Qin Gongzi booked a room for Xu Gongzi; he already paid for three nights of accommodation.”
While undoubtedly it was quite surprising for Zheng Shiru, Xu Ziling was dumbstruck as well. How did Shi Feixuan make such an appropriate arrangement?
Apologizing, Zheng Shiru said, “Turns out I really misunderstood Xu Xiong, so Zaixia will not dare to garrulously disturb you anymore.”
After leaving the address where he could be contacted, he left without saying anything.
Being left alone, Xu Ziling was feeling relaxed and comfortable. He went to the public bathroom first to soak himself, and then, after stuffing his belly with a couple of wild fruits that he picked along the way, he sat cross-legged on the bed to meditate.
Recalling the encounter on the plank walkway, he felt lucky of having a new lease of life.
Originally he thought about going out to the street to find Shi Qingxuan’s fragrant footprints, however, remembering the street was so crowded that he was unable to move a single step, he had no choice but to dispel this idea. Besides, since she was not in the secluded forest of the small valley, Yang Xuyan would be pouncing an empty space. Therefore, she ought to be safe for the time being.
This beauty’s flute art was matchless under the heavens, her style was even more faintly indiscernible and hard to fathom, so that others would find it difficult to tell whether it was real or merely a fantasy.
He also thought about how earlier he already made up his mind not to come to this inn where Shi Feixuan wanted to meet him. Who would have thought that somehow Zheng Shiru steered his steps and confused his direction, and then the ghosts shoved the gods pushed, he ended up in this inn anyway. Evidently fate has a way to render him helpless to act independently.
After letting his thoughts ran wild for quite a moment, his mind gradually entered the the-thousand-thought-vanished realm of the Way [Dao/Tao]. The true qi within his body flowed naturally, the empty space inside expanded infinitely, the barely-there remaining internal injury quickly faded away.
After nobody knows how much time has passed, suddenly his heart was moved, and he regained his senses.
Then there was a soft knock on his door.
Shi Feixuan’s sweet, clear and melodious voice spoke tenderly outside the door, “Xu Xiong! Is it convenient for Feixuan to come in?”
Xu Ziling was greatly surprised. It had never occurred to him that Shi Feixuan would be willing to come into a man’s room, even if there was not the slightest bit of man-woman intimate contact. Hurriedly he jumped out of bed and pulled the door open.
Shi Feixuan, still wearing men’s clothing, was standing charmingly outside the door. Her deep and impenetrable beautiful eyes were flashing with strange light.
Xu Ziling retreated to the side and said, “Please come in.”
With light lotus steps, carrying the fresh and clean fragrance that was uniquely hers, Shi Feixuan came into the room. Sweeping the room with her eyes, she said with a smile, “This room is quite spacious, I hope it is to Xu Xiong’s satisfaction?”
Standing behind her, Xu Ziling said, “For someone who has slept in the wild, mountainous country for the past few months, this is like a luxurious mansion!”
Shi Feixuan let out an indifferent, “Oh?” and then, under Xu Ziling’s polite bidding she sat down on a chair by the table. Waiting for Xu Ziling to sit down properly opposite her, Shi Feixuan smiled sweetly and said, “When I booked this room for Ziling Xiong, I did not think that Ziling Xiong would really come. Who would have thought that Ziling Xiong is really willing to do me the honor? This is really beyond Feixuan’s expectation.”
Xu Ziling had to smile wryly in return and said, “Why would Miss think that I would not come?”
Shi Feixuan lightly shrugged her fragrant shoulders and said, “That’s just a subtle reaction that I sensed when a person came in contact with another person. Ziling Xiong made Feixuan feel that you are the kind of person who can cast anything that cause complications away and simply ignore them. I wonder if Feixuan has misjudged you?”
Laughing calmly, Xu Ziling said, “Miss praises me too much! I am far inferior to that servant boy who concocted pills of immortality; how could I have such ability?”
Shi Feixuan stared deep in his eyes with her beautiful gaze; she said, “Perhaps Xu Xiong don’t realize it yourself, but compared to the last time I saw Xu Xiong, your personality traits have changed; evidently you have had fortuitous meeting on the mountain.”
Neither confirming nor denying, Xu Ziling replied, “You can say there’s a little bit of that!”
No longer pursuing this matter, Shi Feixuan asked, “Has Ziling Xiong decided when you are going to set off toward the secluded forest of the small valley?”
Xu Ziling sat back comfortably in his chair and shook his head, “I am not going!” he replied.
Shi Feixuan was stunned, “Wasn’t it the purpose of Ziling Xiong’s trip this time?” she asked.
Being able to surprise Shi Feixuan, Xu Ziling felt wicked satisfaction in his heart, but then he was amused by his own childish thought. Meeting the opposite party’s shining-luminously spirited eyes, he responded indifferently, “Something came up, I need to change plan. May I ask how long will Miss Shi be here?”
Frowning, Shi Feixuan stared at him for quite a while. Suddenly she let out a bitter smile and said, “Turns out Ziling Xiong is still blaming Feixuan. Actually, Feixuan really have another important matter so that I was forced to part company with Ziling Xiong while rushing toward Chengdu. Originally I did not intend to explain, but now I will have to explain!”
A strange feeling welled up in Xu Ziling’s heart, but he could not tell what kind of feeling it was.
Averting her gaze, Shi Feixuan slightly raised her cicada head to look at the full moon hanging high in the night sky outside the window. She spoke smoothly, “Don’t think that Feixuan did not care about anything. Feixuan made an exception by booking this room for Ziling Xiong, it was for the sole purpose of expressing my regret. Feixuan often see myself like a solid rock in the stream. Although every moment every instant the water flows over the rock, it will only make the rock smoother, without leaving any traces at all. But people are not rocks, Feixuan also has feeling.”
Xu Ziling’s heart was shaken, he was speechless.
Shi Feixuan turned her gaze back to him, her countenance also returned to its usual tranquil, calm and composed expression. She said, “What I just said has already surpassed what Feixuan is accustomed to speak. This time Feixuan going down the mountain, setting my foot on the world of the living, naturally it was because I received a mission from my master. But there is also a hidden intention of entering the world for spiritual cultivation. The highest xinfa in the Jingzhai is that one must enter the world before one could cultivate virtue, not by building a cart behind closed doors at all.”
After staring blankly at her for half a day, Xu Ziling asked, “What xinfa is that? Aren’t both Buddhists and Taoists speak about the four elements are vanity [idiom: this world is an illusion], purification of defiling illusion, and letting things take their own course [Daoist doctrine of inaction]? Why do you have to mingle among the secular world and be bothered by trivial things to succeed?”
Shi Feixuan serenely replied, “Confucian school differentiates between single-benevolence for the body, double-benevolence for the world. Buddhism school also differentiates between Hinayana and Mahayana. ‘If I don’t go to hell, who will?’ is precisely the act of sacrifice. My humble Zhai’s [i.e. Ci Hang Jingzhai] ‘Ci Hang Sword Canon’ has a principle of ‘broken and then standing, crumbling and then rising up’. Evidently those who can’t stand the test and being sharpened on grindstone cannot become very capable person. My humble Zhai’s highest xinfa is known as ‘Jian Xin Tongming’ [the heart of the sword is brightly lit]. Among my worthy predecessors of successive generations, there has never been anyone who could cultivate virtue by ‘closing the door and defending oneself’. So much so that even on the second highest xinfa ‘Xin You Lingxi’ [mutual sensitivity of the heart], it was rare that anybody could master it; precisely because it is easy to break, but difficult to stand. Xiuxin Shibo actually had the highest prospect of climbing into the ‘Jian Xin Tongming’ level, but because of her relationship with Shi Zhixuan, she could only stop at the ‘Xin You Lingxi’ level. Yet she was an exception rather than the norm.”
Embarrassed, Xu Ziling said, “Does Miss imply that Xiaodi is one of the obstacles in Miss’s virtue cultivation? In that case I have the reason to be very proud.”
Shi Feixuan has never anticipated that Xu Ziling might blurt out this sentence. Giggling tenderly, she said, “Now you are a bit like Kou Zhong! No wonder the two of you could become brothers in hardship. Feixuan did not intentionally make that implication. By willing to stop at the inn to meet you to repay you, I just want to tell you that I am not as heartless as you thought.”
Xu Ziling did not dare to reveal the truth even more, but his mood was considerably better. He said, “I must have shown indignation that is hard to quell that Miss is compelled to waste your time to explain everything.”
Shi Feixuan nodded and said, “It should have a bit of influence. First, I asked you what happened on the way here, you responded evasively. And then, I asked you when you are going to the secluded forest of the small valley, you responded indifferently. The reason of your indignation must be me!”
Xu Ziling’s old face turned red; he said, “It was because I am afraid to be a vain lowly person that I feel some things are inconvenient to mention. It was not because I wanted to deliberately conceal it from you. Would Miss please forgive me?”
Emotionally moved, Shi Feixuan said, “Is it possible for you to tell me? Feixuan would never regard Ziling Xiong as a lowly person who sow discord between people.”
After slight hesitation, Xu Ziling said, “I was attacked by Hou Xibai on the plank walkway of the Great Mount Ba and nearly lost my life. What does Miss think of this?”
Shi Feixuan’s jet-black eyebrows were knitted together as she asked, “Did he really want to kill you?”
Recalling what happened at that time, Xu Ziling replied slowly, “I do have that feeling. But later on he acted like an old friend, saying that he must pretend like he simply had to kill me to force me to fight him for real. But when we fought, it was definitely a desperate fight, unlike a friendly contest to amuse ourselves.”
Smiling, Shi Feixuan said, “You are the kind of person that ordinarily stand aloof; only when chatting like this you are revealing your true temperament. The fact is, I am not the least bit surprised of him challenging you. Earlier he confided in me that he wanted to experience the ultimate art that you and Kou Zhong learned from the ‘Secret to Long Life’.”
Surprised, Xu Ziling said, “You still trust him that much.”
Shi Feixuan replied indifferently, “I can only say what I observed. If Hua Jian Pai can travel on the right track because of him, won’t it be an enormously good thing?”
How could Xu Ziling say anything after that? Originally, he wanted to tell her about Hou Xibai planning on ambushing him in Yangzhou, but now he had no choice but to swallow it back into his belly, and felt his interest dwindling very quickly.
Shi Feixuan spoke softly, “Toward him and toward Ziling Xiong, I do have a bit of different feeling; I am still wary toward him. Does Ziling Xiong understand?”
Xu Ziling’s heart was still cooling down, fast. He spoke slowly, “I might as well tell you this: just now I caught a graceful glimpse of Miss Shi in the city, but I did not have any chance to talk to her. That’s the reason I do not intend on going to the secluded forest of the small valley.”
Revealing a surprised look, Shi Feixuan was deep in thought for half a day. Suddenly she said, “Would Ziling Xiong be interested in going out with Feixuan to the city to see the Lantern Festival tonight?”