Chapter 7 - Battle Cloud Over Han River
Shang Xiuxun crossly said, "You two seem to be completely oblivious of what Bai Ji is doing? Swaggering into Jiangxia like this, even I, who don't care about what's happening on the outside world, know about it. I reckon your enemies won't miss this golden opportunity even more. Tell me, are you going to rely on your two men's power to go straight from here to Guanzhong?"
Kou Zhong respectfully replied, "Shang Changzhu [ranch master], aren't you living in ease and comfort at the ranch? How could you make appearance in Old Du's territory?"
Shang Xiuxun turned her head to cast a glance at Xu Ziling; noticing that he also revealed an incomparably respectful attitude toward her, 'Pfft!' she broke into a tender giggle and said, "You don't have to be in such fear and trepidation like this. I am not a man-eating tiger; I was just throwing a temper!"
Kou Zhong withdrew his gaze from looking outside the window to the beauty next to him; astonished, he said, "Why does Changzhu's mood seem to be very good today? Not only you do not care about the old scores between us to settle, you seem to be giving us, two kids, enough face."
Sitting behind the two, Xu Ziling took this opportunity to speak, "Last time, without seeking Changzhu's approval in advance Xiaodi let Cao Yinglong go for personal reason; that was indeed inappropriate."
Kou Zhong interjected, "Changzhu Daren, please be magnanimous; we are both ashamed and moved. Ha!"
Shang Xiuxun pouted her elegant cherry lips; pretending to be indifferent, she said, "Let bygones be bygones. Could it be that I wanted to pan fry your skin and tear open your bones? I am here to see Li Xiuning. It was only this morning she left on a boat to Jingling."
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling exchanged a glance; both were greatly amazed. Li Xiuning was like the Li Family's envoy. She came to Jiangxia, obviously it was related to Du Fuwei surrendering to the Li Family, it's just that time-wise, something did not add up; there must be something that they did not know.
Most likely all along the Li Family has been sending their lobbyist to lobby Du Fuwei, but it was not until Shi Feixuan personally showed Du Fuwei that the 'white way' Wulin was in favor of the Li Family that finally Du Fuwei was moved to be willing to bow his head to the Li Family. It could be said that all along Du Fuwei was the Flying Horse Ranch's biggest threat, and now unexpectedly the bamboo splits when it meets the knife's edge [idiom: (of a problem) easily solved]; no wonder Shang Xiuxun's mood was this good.
Suddenly hearing Li Xiuning's name, Kou Zhong did not know what he should feel in his heart, a pained expression appeared on hi face, and he was temporarily speechless.
Xu Ziling did not know what to say either; hence he changed the subject, "How did Shang Changzhu know that we are here?"
Shang Xiuxun replied, "The two of you are very easy to recognize, who do you think you can hide from? It's just because Du Fuwei issued his order not to give you any trouble that you were able to enter the city without obstacle, without anybody stopping you. As far as I know, your plan of entering Guanzhong, everybody in the world knows. From here to Chang'an, all schools, sects, gangs, and societies, are aware of your whereabouts, and they report it to the Li Clan to receive credits. So I really don't understand what worthwhile result you are thinking of achieving?"
Striving to rouse his spirit, Kou Zhong asked, "Where are we going now?"
Shang Xiuxun nonchalantly replied, "Naturally to take you out of town."
The two boys looked at each other in astonishment.
The carriage galloped out of the South Gate. Obviously the officers guarding the city gate were already notified, so they omitted the routine inspection.
Shang Xiuxun suddenly asked Kou Zhong, "So what's your relationship with Shang Xiufang?"
In Kou Zhong's mind, actually this beauty, who was a double-pinnacle of look and art - had nearly been forgotten. Hearing the question, he was caught off guard. A bit embarrassed, he answered the question with a question, "Why do you ask?"
While listening to their exchange, Xu Ziling has been watching the direction the carriage was taking; after leaving the city, they traveled east along the river. Continuing along this route, if they were not hindered by the mountain forest, in three days they would be back at Jiujiang. Therefore, the route they were taking was indeed the return route.
With her big, beautiful eyes Shang Xiuxun scrutinized Kou Zhong for half a day, before she finally slightly shrugged her fragrant shoulders and said, "Originally this matter has nothing to do with me, but Xiuning Gongzhu [princess] told me that Shang Xiufang frequently asked her about you. I thought you two were intimate friends!"
Embarrassed, and slightly putting on an act that he had just been accused wrongly, Kou Zhong said, "I only met her twice, three times, top! Added together, our conversation is less than ten sentences, plus it was always in public place with numerous people, under the eyes of the crowd. In my opinion, Li kid is her old intimate friend."
At the same time, he felt strange inwardly, because based on Li Xiuning's character, she would not easily reveal Shang Xiufang's secret words to another woman.
Blurted out laughing, Shang Xiuxun said, "You, this person, always have everything big!"
Turning her head around, her beautiful eyes gazed deeply onto Xu Ziling, she said, "Do you really want to go to Guanzhong?"
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling replied, "It would be best if Kou Zhong answer that question."
Revealing a deep-in-thought expression, again Kou Zhong answered the question with a question, "When did Changzhu find out that Du Fuwei surrendered and paid allegiance to the Li Clan?"
The carriage slowly stopped. To their left was the torrential, continuously flowing Great River.
Taking her eyes off Xu Ziling, Shang Xiuxun, "I only found out about it when I saw Xiuning Gongzhu this morning. But since Xue Ju, father and son's defeat, Xiuning Gongzhu has been representing the Li Family as itinerant political adviser everywhere, advising all heroes and powerful figures of local gang and sects in all parts of the country to surrender and align themselves to the Li Clan. Du Fuwei was her biggest target. Many times she made contact with Du Fuwei's men in Jingling, but from beginning to end Du Fuwei refused to see her in person. When she told me about it earlier this morning, I was also greatly amazed."
Kou Zhong spoke heavily, "What is Changzhu going to do?"
Shang Xiuxun sighed lightly. Revealing a pained expression, she spoke with a bit of helplessness in her voice, "According to my humble family's wishes from past generations, unless it is the case of self-preservation, our Flying Horse Ranch must never get involved in political or Jianghu strife. Ay! Xiuxun has never had close friend from the opposite sex. You two can be considered as my good friends, although barely. In your opinion, what should I do?"
Xu Ziling said, "Changzhu does not need to be troubled; you are willing to trust us with this knowledge, it is already the greatest honor for us, how could we accuse Changzhu for any injustice, to such an extent as to go against your ancestor's admonition? We understand Changzhu's position."
Kou Zhong seriously said, "Under current situation, even if Changzhu is thinking of giving me full support, it will be very difficult to do. Therefore, it would be best if you maintain your neutral position. Based on Changzhu's good relation with the Li Family, you might be affected by the wind on the outside carrying the rain."
And then, remembering something, he added, "I will have to bother Changzhu to notify General Feng Ge, that he and his men need not follow me, Kou Zhong. The most important thing is that he let the men following him to live in peace and work happily. Other things he needs not care anymore."
Feng Ge was Du Ba Village's veteran general. After Jingling fell, he led Jingling people to seek shelter at the Flying Horse Ranch, and they were settled in two neighboring big cities as their temporary residence. After several years of engaging in business, they started to set their roots there.
Kou Zhong originally wanted to use them and the Flying Horse Ranch's forces to regain Jingling, and then to go north to take Xiangyang, so that he would have good foundation in his strive over the world against the Li Family. But with Du Fuwei surrendering, the entire situation reversed to the Li Family's advantage, hence this plan would no longer work.
For Kou Zhong's Shao Shuai Army, the current situation was indeed very bad, he had been put in hopeless situation where he could only passively take the beating.
Inwardly, Xu Ziling was full of praise. Although Kou Zhong frequently have the four words 'by hook or by crook' [bu ze shou duan] hanging at the corner of his mouth, but the fact constantly proved that he was absolutely not that kind of person.
He and Kou Zhong were originally people who had nothing at all; furthermore, from their childhood they suffered enough humiliation and torture. But it actually trained them to have strong backbones, and had never had any need of other people's sympathy.
Shang Xiuxun turned her pretty face away to look at the sun slowly disappearing into the flowing river. Her beautiful eyes seemed to be veiled by a layer of dense fog, a hint of rueful smile escaped from the corner of her mouth, as she spoke calmly, "How could it be that simple? This is precisely the reason Xiuning Gongzhu anxiously wanted to see me."
Stunned, the two boys looked at each other; neither one of them could guess what she was going to say next.
A bit feebly, Shang Xiuxun leaned back into the seat, while slowly turning her exceptional jade countenance to let Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling get a frontal view and the touching outline of her exceptionally touching jade countenance. Under the dimming illumination of the setting sun penetrating the window, this beautiful woman appeared to be even more out-of-the-world. Combined with her pained and bewildered expression, her beauty could make those who look at her enchanted and have their soul melted.
They saw her lightly opening her cherry lips and spoke slowly, "Several days ago there was an intense debate within the Great Tang's court. The crown prince Li Jiancheng and Qi Wang [king] Li Yuanji on one side vented their anger, together they accused the Qin Wang Li Shimin of wrongdoing, believing that due to remembering old friendship, Li Shimin was unwilling to deal with the two of you harshly and kill you in Luoyang, and thus had given the two of you the opportunity to grow big. Perhaps Li Yuan himself was bewitched by his newly acquired Dong Fei [imperial concubine], unexpectedly he also stood on Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji's side, so that Qin Wang had no way to argue."
Blurted out laughing, Kou Zhong said, "I can assure you that Li kid has been doing his best to deal with us and kill us, it's just that oftentimes things did not go according to his expectations."
Glowering at him Shang Xiuxun spoke in displeasure, "Shame on you to say such thing. You clearly know that Li Jiancheng's style of conduct is completely different from Qin Wang's."
"Is Li Jiancheng going to take the dealing-with-us matter into his own hands?" Xu Ziling asked.
"More or less so," Shang Xiuxun replied, "But the one really in charge of the operation is Li Yuanji. Don't underestimate this man; reportedly his martial art skill surpasses his two elder brothers', he has never met a match in Guanzhong. Not only he is brave, he is an expert in scheming as well. In recent years he has attracted a large number of Jianghu's desperate criminals to be his trusted aides, his methods are a hundred times more ruthless than Li Shimin's."
Kou Zhong was more concerned over something else; he asked, "What did Li Xiuning think about this?"
Casting a sidelong glance at him, Shang Xiuxun said, "Why would I want to tell you? You won't want to listen to me anyway."
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, "So what if Li Yuanji is capable of shutting the gate of Guanzhong and declaring himself king? Within the Li Family of Guanzhong, only Li Shimin is worthy to be my adversary. If Li Yuanji took this matter into his hands, I will teach him a lesson so that it will be too late for him for regrets."
Shang Xiuxun angrily said, "You can say anything you want. You think we are bothered by it? Li Jiancheng wanted us, the Flying Horse Ranch, to draw a clear dividing line with your Shao Shuai Army. You, Kou Shao Shuai, tell me what we should do?"
Kou Zhong looked at Xu Ziling. Laughing coldly, he said, "This kid is really tired of living! Shall we send Li kid Shimin another big present, to have this Great Tang's crown prince slaughtered?"
Xu Ziling calmly replied, "Do not underestimate the enemy too much. Within the powerful clans, the Li Clan occupies the first place; their men powerful, their horses strong, it need not be mentioned, but they also have Yang Xuyan supporting them from behind. To put him in order is easier said than done."
Turning toward Shang Xiuxun, he asked, "What is the clear dividing line referring to?"
Seething with anger, Shang Xiuxun glowered at Kou Zhong for quite a while. She angrily said, "You, this person, only know how to speak hot-headed words; what does it have to do with the matter at hand? For your sake, I formally told Li Jiancheng that I will never realign my allegiance to them; moreover, I will never supply warhorses to them. Are you satisfied?"
Shaken, Kou Zhong called out, "Changzhu!"
Smiling ruefully, Shang Xiuxun said, "If Qin Wang were the master of the Li Family, he might understand my difficulties. As long as we do not officially send troops to help you, we would not be implicated. But Jiancheng, Yuanji are petty-minded persons, so if you could really get rid of them, I would be extremely grateful. However, under current circumstances, that is simply an impossibility. Tell me, how could I not have my heart distracted, my thoughts in turmoil, because of you?"
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were extremely touched. They never expected that this lone-flower-admiring-itself beauty who lived deep in the grazing land could have such a deep feeling and heavy friendship toward them.
Shang Xiuxun's gaze moved outside the window to catch the last ray of the sun disappearing behind the western mountain; she spoke gently, "For the second half of the journey, there will be a small sailboat that can take you to the north, or bring you back to the east to Pengcheng; you decide. Xiuxun has nothing more to say, I hope in the future there will be a day we can see each other again!"
The small sailboat speedily entered the Han River, and continued upstream in the direction of Jingling. The pitch-black sky was covered densely with stars; it was such a magnificent and enchanting scene.
Kou Zhong came to Xu Ziling's, who was operating the rudder, side, and said, "Although beautiful Changzhu is a bit too temperamental, she is actually a true friend of ours."
Xu Ziling nodded slightly, but did not say anything.
To their left, there was a ferry crossing dock where more than a dozen fishing boats were moored along the river bend. On the shore, beyond the dense forest they saw flickers of lanterns; it ought to be the village where the fishermen lived. It was a peaceful and laid-back atmosphere.
Taking his eyes back, Kou Zhong spoke in low voice, "In your opinion, about the Four Great Holy Monks trying to stop us from going up north to Guanzhong, do you think the Li Clan is aware of it?"
Shaking his head, Xu Ziling said, "That's not Shi Feixuan's style at all; she is absolutely not going to join hands with people outside the Buddhist and Taoist, two schools, to deal with us. Practically she does not need outsiders' help at all."
Immensely proud of himself, Kou Zhong said, "That is exactly the answer I wanted to hear. My other question is: if you were Li Yuanji, and you have a large number of martial art masters under your command, plus you want to show clearly to Li Yuan and Li Jiancheng that he is better than ErGe [second (older) brother] Li kid, and you have Yang Xuyan behind your back pushing the wave and adding to the billows, how would you deal with us?"
Without thinking the matter through Xu Ziling replied, "He might lay out an inescapable net, and try to kill us before we enter Guanzhong."
Revealing a smile full of confidence, Kou Zhong said, "Beautiful Changzhu had said something that is very interesting to me; can you guess what she said?"
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "Was it about going straight from here to Guanzhong? Ay! You, this fellow, really don't know how to spell the word 'dead', plus you are already aware that I do not wish to have frontal confrontation against Shi Feixuan."
Pulling his shoulders into a hug, Kou Zhong said with a laugh, "Naturally I am a hero with mouth and teeth [idiom: articulate]; Ling Shao, don't worry. But in my opinion, no matter how we try to conceal our track, in the end we won't be able to escape Shi Feixuan and the Four Great Holy Monks. Therefore, we must make mental preparation. Now, we'd better think about how to take advantage of this boat!"
Xu Ziling nodded and said, "Now that's more like it. If we could hide from the boat that your unrequited-love sweetheart riding on, perhaps we could enter Guanzhong with no surprise, no danger."
Acting a bit unnatural, Kou Zhong said, "Unrequited love, these two words are so unpleasant to hear. Can't you see that she actually has considerable affection toward me? Otherwise, there is no need for her to ask beautiful Changzhu to warn me."
Xu Ziling smiled and said, "Xiang Wang [King Xiang] dreaming about the goddess who has no intention of meeting with him; this kind of thing happens every day in the human world, it is also a human nature, what's so pleasant or unpleasant to hear about it? If you are unwilling to give her up, how could you be worthy of Song Yuzhi?" [Translator's note: I can't find good reference on this story, but based on what I found, it was a poem. I found this story 'King Xiang has a wife' that mentioned this poem (in the footnote):
Blurting out laughing, Kou Zhong said, "Unexpectedly you are giving me a forewarning! Don't worry! Since this thing happened, practically there was no feeling between Li Xiuning and I; I don't want to rekindle old flame at all. Besides, now that the enemy and us are clearly defined, there's no possibility for anything to happen. Currently I am single-mindedly going on a treasure hunt. If I cannot find it, I will return to my hometown to till the fields, or perhaps I'll go wandering with you to the ends of the earth."
Shaking his head, Xu Ziling said with a sigh, "You, this bad kid, are scheming to move my heart again. Even if you did not say that, I would still do my best to help you finding the treasure, to see how Laotianye will decide your destiny. Huh?"
Alarm also went off in Kou Zhong's heart; looking ahead on the river, he saw more than a dozen li beyond the river bend there was a faint blaze rising into the sky, like there was a burning ship there. Shocked, he said, "Can't be Xiuning's boat under attack, can it?"
Concern was evident in his voice.
Frowning, Xu Ziling said, "This is called concern makes you confused. Based on the timing, how could it be Li Xiuning's ship?"
Kou Zhong felt a bit relieved. "But whose ship is that?" he wondered, "If pirates robbing a merchant ship, as the representatives of chivalrous warrior of the great righteous way, naturally we cannot see without doing anything."
Xu Ziling replied indifferently, "Why don't you say frankly that your hands are itching?"
Kou Zhong's eyes were flashing with sharp light; calmly, almost ruthlessly, he said, "Even if I say it, it would be meaningless. Right now our martial art skill already reaches the level that even we ourselves are unclear about it. If I had not already promised you, I really wish I could have a hard battle against Xianzi [fairy] and the Holy Monks to test it."
Under Xu Ziling's control, the sailboat swiftly glided around the corner to enter the section of the river where gorges were rising high on both sides and the stream was flowing rapidly.
Carried by the wind, battle cry floated into their ears.
They saw warships from both sides were engaged in fierce battle ahead. The sound of rocks being shot by stone thrower and the swishing noise of arrows were unending.
One side had three warships, but two of them already caught fire, which blaze illuminated the sky, as they were under close-range attack of the enemy's five warships. The battle situation was intense.
The warship that has fallen into the disadvantageous position was struggling hard to break through the heavy siege; they were running away downstream in the two boys' direction, about three li away from them. The five enemy ships immediately abandoned the other two ships to pursue at the escaping ship's tail relentlessly, while from a hundred or so arrow-shooting machines the fiery arrows rained down like locusts toward it.
Watching this, the two boys were frowning deeply; they were wondering whether they should intervene or not.
The escaping ship's stern was finally hit by the arrow and caught fire.