Close to shore were more than a dozen fishing boats in full sail, returning to port. Just by looking at how deep the hull was in the water, one would know that they were returning from a rewarding journey.
Beneath the rippling, clear seawater were thousand-beauty-ten-thousand-shape colorful coral reefs. Kou Zhong mused inwardly that if he was not in a hurry, he would love to dive down to explore, which certainly would bring him endless delight.
Overwhelmed with emotion, he sighed lightly and said, "Looks like Ling Shao is smarter than me. There are so many good places on earth more than enough to travel all my life, why would I want to painstakingly struggle over the world?"
With the qualifications of one with much experience, Bu Tianzhi laughed and said, "Sometimes Zhi Shu is also like you, feeling burnout; but in a flash that feeling would vanish without any trace. People need to play around and rest; Shao Shuai is too tired!"
Embarrassed, Kou Zhong said, "I was just making a casual remark! From Nanhai Pai, I remember a certain Huang Gongcuo. I seem to remember that the Zhangmen [headmaster] is a young and promising man; what was his name again?"
Bu Tianzhi replied, "It's Mei Xun. This year he ought to be around twenty-seven, twenty-eight years old; an expert in using golden spear, the most famous martial art master of Lingnan's new generation, he ranks barely second to Song Shidao. But his martial art skill is definitely not under Song Shidao. It's just that Song Que's fame for fighting prowess is too flourishing that Song Shidao, who is related to him, is also considered a tad higher."
Curious, Kou Zhong asked, "Why did Nanhai Pai and the Song Family become enemies?"
Bu Tianzhi replied, "This is called one mountain cannot hide two tigers. Nanhai Pai still has a little bit of influence to the coastal counties and towns. A bit deeper inland is the Song Family's world. Tell me, how could Nanhai Pai be willing to accept that?"
Greatly interested, Kou Zhong said, "Since Song Que considers himself unexcelled in the world, why didn't he go to Zhuya, beat old fellow Huang until he begs for forgiveness? Won't that settle the issue?"
Bu Tianzhi laughed involuntarily and said, "Shao Shuai's remark sounds like a naïve big kid. Perhaps defeating Huang Gongcuo is not difficult for Song Que, but then he would become the-two-cannot-exist-together mortal enemy with Nanhai Pai; there won't be any benefit to either party. Therefore, it is still better to get along peacefully with each other."
Kou Zhong asked, "Where am I going to go ashore tonight?"
Bu Tianzhi replied, "In two sichen, we are going to proceed into Qin River. Shao Shuai may go ashore at Zunhua, then continue north toward Yu River. After crossing the river, you will reach Yulin County. The Song Family's mountain city is in the western suburb of Yulin City. I have prepared a detailed map, Shao Shuai shouldn't have any difficulty in finding Song San Xiaojie [third miss]."
Kou Zhong blurted out laughing, "Even Zhi Shu is teasing me!"
While Xu Ziling was sitting alone in a corner of the inn's dining hall enjoying tea and getting some rest, Hou Xibai came back freely and easily. He sat down and cheerfully said, "Luckily I did not disappoint you. Recently, because of the tense situation downstream, passenger ships and traveling merchants are not willing to go. Fortunately Xiaodi still have a bit of face; I went to call on the most popular Wu Jiang Bang [black river gang]. Currently, only the passenger ships that they operate are not affected by the political situation. After evening meal, Xiaodi will take Ziling to board the ship."
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Xu Ziling said, "Is it because Xiao Xian and Zhu Jie's battle is getting intense?"
Hou Xibai sighed and said, "Probably so! You should know better than me. Three days ago the two sides fought a hard battle on the river next to Badong. Zhu Jie's entire navy died, and the loss on Xiao Xian's side was also quite heavy."
Secretly Xu Ziling guessed that most probably the warship on Xiao Xian's side was under Yun Yuzhen's command. Thinking about this woman, a burst of hatred and disgust welled up in his heart, while he had to admit that he was completely unable to understand her. All that she did in the past, what benefit might those things bring for her?
Hou Xibai continued, "Both Zhu Jie and Xiao Xian have sent their men to Bashu as lobbyist, hoping to, at least, have Bashu's three major powers to remain neutral. It's just that the Li Clan's current prestige is like the sun in the middle of the sky, so whatever they say, I am afraid in the end their work will be to no avail."
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "Zhu Jie's lobbyist ought to be Zhu Mei. Compared to Shi Feixuan, she is like firefly compared to the sun; what kind of outcome could she possibly achieve?"
After calling the attendant and ordered some good food and drink, Hou Xibai hesitated for a moment before saying, "The current situation is obvious. Those that can contend against the Li Clan in the struggle over the world, in term of strength there is Wang Shichong, Dou Jiande and Liu Wuzhou, three parties. In term of personality, there is only one."
Stunned, Xu Ziling asked, "Why did you say that?"
Hou Xibai replied, "It wasn't me, rather, it was Shi Feixuan's analysis. The reason why the Li Clan is able to obtain their currently favorable situation is completely due to Li Shimin being in charge of the overall situation. He is like the bright moon in the sky, the outstanding heroes [or warlords vying for supremacy] under the heavens are just the dots of starlight in the background. Although Wang Shichong, Dou Jiande and Liu Wuzhou, three sides have enough power to contend against him, but in the end, they cannot compare against Li Shimin in terms of political and military affairs, and will be defeated. Dou Jiande and Liu Wuzhou are a bit better. The former has Liu Heita, the latter has Song JinGang, both are valiant military leaders with all-around wisdom and bravery. Wang Shichong does have famous generals, but he does not know how to use them. He should be defeated the soonest, the fastest."
Xu Ziling nodded and said, "This, I understand; but in term of personality there is only one, who are you referring to?"
After staring at him for half a day, Hou Xibai spoke in heavy voice, "The one Feixuan was referring to, other than your good brother Kou Zhong, who else could it be?"
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "Don't you think Shi Feixuan thinks too highly of that kid?"
Shaking his head, Hou Xibai said, "Feixuan won't casually compliment just anybody. Both politics and military affairs, two aspects, are Li Shimin's strong points. He is open-minded, generous in spirit, and has deep understanding on how to utilize people; a rarity since ancient times. And the only person who can strive against him is Kou Zhong. Were it not for Ziling having no intention of vying over the world, but with all your might you are helping Kou Zhong, I am afraid Li Shimin will end up nursing a grievance."
Xu Ziling blurted out laughing and said, "Hou Xiong must not flatter us too much; the two of us just happen to be present at the right time! Looking at the current situation, we practically cannot have any accomplishment."
Hou Xibai laughed and said, "Frankly, at that time my response to Shi Feixuan's high assessment toward Kou Zhong was similar to yours; she was only smiling, but did not say anything. Obviously she has strong conviction of her own opinion."
Xu Ziling pondered for a moment, and then asked, "Can I ask Hou Xiong a personal question?"
Hou Xibai calmly replied, "Ziling, please speak forthrightly; I really consider you as a close friend."
Meeting his gaze, Xu Ziling slowly said, "In your capacity as the direct disciple and heir of Hua Jian Pai, what expectation does your esteemed master have over you? In any case, it couldn't be just for the intoxicating song and wonderful dance, and consideration for lady's chamber and passion, a life of wine-jar first and flowers next, could it?"
Laughing in spite of himself, Hou Xibai said, "Ziling must not laugh at me, because I am extremely in admiration and am engrossed in this kind of lifestyle. However, my pursuit is not the outer beauty of things, rather, it is the charm, grace and personality traits. Only by this will the outside and inside be identical, and will bring out the best in each other. By making that remark, Ziling is hinting that you doubt Xiaodi's motive. With my character, I usually did not see any need to explain, but Ziling is an exception. Ay! I don't know how to say it."
Xu Ziling spoke indifferently, "If it is to embarrassing to mention, then you don't have to answer."
Smiling ruefully, Hou Xibai said, "Shi Shi's only expectation on me ought to be the unification of Demonic School's Two Sects Six Ways, to return the six volumes of the 'Tian Mo Ce' [demonic policy] back into one. Tell me, under current circumstances, do you think it's impossible?"
Puzzled, Xu Ziling asked, "Both Hou Xiong and Cao Yinglong mentioned that there are only six volumes of 'Tian Mo Ce'; but Shi Feixuan said that 'Tian Mo Ce' has ten volumes in total; why is that?"
Hou Xibai replied, "'Tian Mo Ce' originally had ten volumes, but what we inherit today are only six volumes."
The food and wine arrived. The two toasted each other.
Xu Ziling still did not understand, "Since Hou Xiong is a demonic school disciple, how could there be so much difference with the other demonic school people? To say the least, you and Yang Xuyan are two different kind of people."
Hou Xibai grabbed a mantou [steamed bun] and handed it over to Xu Ziling, saying, "I am afraid it is a bit related to nature and nurture. Although my character and my conduct are straightforward, but because I take pleasure in various arts, like painting, for example, I have no ambition toward power, riches and honor. In fact, this is also Hua Jian Pai's tradition: the pursuit of self-improvement, not to drift with the waves and go with the flow."
Puzzled, Xu Ziling asked, "In that case, why was Hua Jian Pai considered to be heretical and demonic way?"
A hint of helpless smile escaped from the corner of Hou Xibai's mouth; he answered calmly, "First of all, Hua Jian Pai's martial art originated from the Tian Mo Ce; this is an undeniable fact, nobody can say otherwise. Secondly, because Hua Jian Pai's xinfa emphasizes entering passion before getting out of passion, only then one would surpass the true meaning of attitude of the heart and grasping the passion. To a lot of people, this is precisely one hundred percent heretical and strange behavior."
Xu Ziling nodded and said, "It is indeed very difficult for people to accept. If Hou Xiong appeared publicly as Wuqing Gongzi [pitiless - no passion, prince (reminder: Hou Xibai's nickname was 'Duoqing Gongzi', which literally means 'young master with lots of passion')], others couldn't say anything instead."
Hou Xibai sighed and said, "Our Sect's xinfa is extremely subtle; it is rare that once Ziling hear it, you understand immediately. The reason why Shi Shi, using a thousand ways, a hundred plans, created the Immortal Image method was precisely to make a breakthrough in Hua Jian Pai's xinfa. Otherwise, because of Bi Xiuxin, he would never be able to advance and pry into the demonic school way, he could only obtain it partially, but not wholly."
His heart was moved, Xu Ziling asked, "Hou Xiong is unable to paint Shi Feixuan on your fan, was it also because of 'entering passion, but unable to get out of passion'?"
Shaken, Hou Xibai said, "Finally Ziling could see through it. Our humble Sect wants to wander about unhurriedly among the blossoms [reminder: Hua Jian literally means 'among the flowers'], aiming to be free and at leisure, to be passionate as well as without passion. Once the passion is made known, it can be covered for the sake of passion, it can take advantage of the demonic way for the sake of the heart. Therefore, although I could obtain only half of the Immortal Image Scroll, it is of a great significance for me."
Xu Ziling smiled and said, "Time is running out! Let Xiaodi toast Hou Xiong with a cup."