This moment the big man who received Zheng Shiru into the building happened to come back. Seeing Xu Ziling, unexpectedly a big smile broke across his face as if he had just seen an old friend, as he cordially blurted out, "Isn't this Daye a friend of Hou Gongzi? On Mid-Autumn night Xiaoren had seen Daye and Hou Gongzi were surrounded by Miss Caiqi's dancing and drumming troupe!"
Hou Xibai was, most probably, the VIP guest of any pleasure house. Thereupon the other two men immediately became very cordial. One of them even blamed him, saying, "Daye should have mentioned that you are Hou Gongzi's friend! Hou Gongzi has reserved a room for ten consecutive days, but until now we have not seen him come. Our delicate and pretty ladies are looking forward to see him with their hearts burning!"
The other man asked, "Is Hou Gongzi coming soon?"
Xu Ziling did not know whether he should laugh or cry. Without any better option he thickened his face and said, "Certainly! He is coming soon."
The man receiving Zheng Shiru said, "Xiaoren Yang Ji; may I ask Daye's honorable surname and great given name?"
Xu Ziling remembered Hou Xibai mentioned the 'Daoba Ke' Gong Chenchun [see Book 24 Chapter 6]; hence he blurted out without thinking, "Zaixia surnamed Gong, with a given name Chenchun."
Even he himself felt that this name sounded very strange. Yet apparently Yang Ji did not share his feeling; he simply said cheerfully, "Gong Ye, please come with Xiaoren."
Since they have come, we should make them comfortable [idiom: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em]; brothel luck could also be 'an apricot brought to the top of Mount Tai' [Chinese saying from the Book of Changes, meaning when adversity reaches the extreme, it will transform into a good one]. After reassuring himself, Xu Ziling followed him inside.
If Cui Jixiu was escaping alone, there would be very little chance of overtaking him. Fortunately, from the snapping branches and leaves, the footprints on the road, and other vestiges along the way, Kou Zhong could infer that there were at least fifteen to twenty men running away with him. In one breath Kou Zhong was trying to catch him for two li straight, but when he reached a small stream, all the traces he had been following suddenly disappeared.
It made sense.
At first Cui Jixiu and the others must have fled in panic and did not choose their route carefully, because they wanted to get away from danger as quickly as possible. But once they reached a safe place, to avoid the enemy's following their trails, they would have used their brains to eliminate any traces.
Kou Zhong focused his power into his eyes and carefully scanned the area.
The gurgling brook meandering over the sparse wood was flowing from south to north. Without even asking he knew that the enemies must be wading along the water; therefore, they did not leave any traces on the other side. Question is: were they going left on the creek, or right?
This was like the first test of the tracking skill that he learned from Ba Fenghan; if he was successful in pursuing Cui Jixiu, it could be considered that he finished his apprenticeship.
Carefully examining the footprints before they entered the water, most of them appeared to be heading to the left. It was the instinctive reaction of human nature; if the leader turned to the left, the followers would naturally look to the left or even change their direction to the left, so that they would be right behind the one leading the way.
Kou Zhong laughed cheerfully; he was very proud of his deduction ability. He was just about to pursue to the left when suddenly he felt something was not right. Stopping and thinking deeply, his heart was shaken, and cried inwardly, 'What a close call!'
Upon further examination, he noticed that all the footprints on the shore were on the muddy ground by the water. Not only the footprints were very distinct, they also looked very heavy, as if they were afraid the enemy would not be able to see them.
Kou Zhong tried taking two steps, but he could only leave much lighter footprints.
Up until now he still did not know that this bad ghost scholar Cui Jixiu was so cunning and was an expert in diversion tactics; therefore, he immediately changed direction to the right and pursued swiftly along the water.
Yang Ji took Xu Ziling, the 'Daoba Ke' Gong Chenchun, to the main lobby, where he handed him over to the usher. He even warned repeatedly that Xu Ziling was Hou Xibai's good friend, so that in his embarrassment, Xu Ziling copied Kou Zhong by pretending to be fully loaded, and giving tips liberally.
The middle-aged lady who acted as the usher, Wen Gu [lit. cultured (paternal) aunt] led Xu Ziling through a flower path before reaching the famous main building of the San Hua Lou, which was a three-story wooden structure, grand in scale, with carved beams and painted walls; it was extremely tasteful.
Going up to the third floor, Xu Ziling pretended to ask casually, "Hasn't Zheng Shiru Xiong just arrived? I wonder if Wen Gu took care of him?"
Wen Gu laughed tenderly and said, "Turns out Gong Ye is also a friend of Mad Scholar Zheng. Although it was not nujia who took him in, but the room Chen Gongzi and Bai Gongzi reserved is the east chamber armor room, which has the best scenery, separated from Hou Gongzi's east pavilion by only one room. Does Gong Ye want to say hello first? When Hou Gongzi arrives, nujia will come again for Gong Ye."
Inwardly Xu Ziling thought he had enough luck, somewhat feeling that this trip has not been made in vain, so he randomly thought of an excuse to decline Wen Gu's good intention.
Wen Gu laughed and said, "No wonder Gong Ye can become Hou Gongzi's good friend; Hou Gongzi has never come in contact with the other pampered sons of wealthy family, but his kindness to the ladies here need not be mentioned. He even composed music and wrote poems for them. Whenever Hou Gongzi's honorable self is here, nobody did not strive to come to see him and wait on him. These past three days they have been painstakingly waiting for him."
Startled, Xu Ziling spoke in all seriousness, "I don't know whether Hou Xiong will be able to meet the appointment or not; before he is here, you must not tell anybody else, or else Hou Xiong's close lady friends will be happy in vain."
Wen Gu pushed the door open; a whiff of fragrant of flowers immediately hit him on the face, and he saw fragrant osmanthus flowers spread over the windowsill opposite the door. In the spacious room, leaning against the left and right walls were plum blossom enclosure and bamboo lattice full of Chinese wolfberry shrub, Chinese catalpa, and a set of wooden small table and imperial tutor chairs. Not only the engraving was exquisite and fine, the components were joined together seamlessly, as though they were carved out of a single block of wood. The front side of the back of the chair was inlaid with marble, which lines were distinct, mellow and full, elegant and beautiful.
No wonder it could share the same fame with Shi Lin Yuan; merely the furnishings proved that everything was carefully selected for quality.
The corners of the wall were decorated with calligraphy and paintings; there was not the least bit of tackiness.
Xu Ziling walked over toward the small table by the window, where there was a guzheng lying on it. Looking out the window, he saw under the moonlight and the lanterns outside, the cityscape bathed in silvery light. He saw shrines and Buddhist temples, Taoist monasteries, gates, villages, alleys and the market, multi-story buildings, palace gate watchtowers, shops and houses, gardens, pavilions and ponds, crisscrossing outside the high building. A beautiful image floated in his heart, the scenery at the pleasure house, where a beautiful courtesan was singing and playing the zither by the window, a charming and gentle, touching, as if he was drunk or was entranced.
Inside and outside the building, there was a faint sound of woodwind and string instruments; not only it did not sound noisy, it appeared to be enhancing San Hua Lou's far-reaching harmonious serenity.
Wen Gu came behind him and spoke in a low voice, "Although Miss Qingxiu cannot spare time tonight, but since Hou Gongzi's friend is here, nujia will find a way to have her come here to sing a song for Gong Ye. Other time, I'll have Qiuhong to wait upon Gong Ye!"
Inwardly, Xu Ziling cried out for his Niang; hastily he said, "Wen Gu need not go through all those troubles, zaixia will just wait for Hou Xiong here. Let's wait until he is here before making those other arrangements. Right now, it would be great if you could serve good wine and fresh fruits for zaixia."
Wen Gu stared at him in amazement for a while before acknowledging the request and withdrew out of the room, closing the door for him on her way out.
Xu Ziling breathed a sigh of relief, while at the same time focusing his power to his ears to listen to any sign of activity in Zheng Shiru's room on the other side.
Kou Zhong pursued along the brook for nearly a li before finding another trace of the enemy on the bank of the creek; not only it confirmed that his earlier speculation was correct, it also increased his confidence in overtaking the enemy. Cui Jixiu going upstream this far to the north, his objective must be to deal with Kou Zhong. Even if Kou Zhong pursued in the right direction, but not finding any traces of the enemy on shore after such a long distance, naturally he would doubt whether he made the wrong choice.
However, the enemies were running away wading in the water, naturally their speed could not compare to traveling on dry land. Therefore, Kou Zhong was even more confident that he would be able to catch up with the enemy.
Under the moonlight, he could see the glittering droplets of water that Cui Jixiu and his men were leaving on the stones and leaves. Fortunately there was neither rain nor fog tonight, otherwise he would have lost this only tracking clue, simply because when the enemies were leaping onto the shore, they would not have left these long-lasting traces on the hard surface of the stones.
After finding three more traces of broken twigs where the enemies were going through the woods, Kou Zhong reached an expanse of grassland, where not far ahead the mountains were undulating, the terrain desolate.
Focusing all his power and mind into his nose, he was immediately able to smell some kind of odor from the perspiration on the clothes remaining on the long grass, and was greatly delighted, inwardly thinking that when hunting dogs were pursuing their target, they would also do what he did just now.
What's more odd was that within the remaining scent, there was a hint of fragrance as well; he could not help thinking that Cui Jixiu looked a little bit effeminate, perhaps this bad ghost scholar had a habit of putting some kind of sweet-smelling grass on his clothes.
Cheering inwardly, without stopping at all his feet moved across the grassland, toward the foot of a small hill.
Unexpectedly there were two sets of barely discernible footprints appearing on the slope of the hill, extended to the opposite direction of each other.
This place had sandy soil, the earth was soft, and there was no hard stone that could be used as stepping stone. It looked like the enemy was carrying out splitting-to-escape tactic, so that Cui Jixiu's chance of getting captured by Kou Zhong was reduced by half.
Inwardly, Kou Zhong was amused. Without the slightest hesitation he followed the direction where the fragrance was going. Bypassing the slope of the hill, he climbed another hill, and faintly saw a mountain road in the distance. Although the grass and weeds where growing and spreading due to few people trampling on it, the path could still be clearly distinguished.
The scent entering Kou Zhong's nose was getting stronger; the enemy was obviously passing on this road not too long ago.
Kou Zhong was rushing non-stop up the hill. By the time he saw the situation on the other side of the mountain, an abandoned village with no man in sight appeared on the foot of the mountain far ahead, with more than a dozen dilapidated houses hidden inside the forest.
Right this moment, there was a hurried and brief miserable scream coming from the abandoned village; unexpectedly it broke the serenity of the moonlit night.
Stunned, Kou Zhong rushed down at full speed.