Chapter 8 - Concealed Murderous Intent
Two chunks of boulder hit the escaping ship's stern at the same time, sending out burning debris exploding into the air. Strangely though, the ship leaned slightly to the left and swayed back to the right, but eventually it regained its balance, and was doing its best to run away in their direction.
Shaking his head, Kou Zhong said, "This ship's finished! Their only way out is to pull toward the shore and flee for their lives."
"They already lost that chance," Xu Ziling responded, "Didn't you see two of the pursuing ships split to the left and right to overtake them from both sides? It is precisely to block them from pulling toward the shore. These people are so ruthless; it looks like they want to kill to the last one. There must be a deep enmity and big hatred between them."
While they were talking, their small sailboat already advanced some distance forward, so that the escaping ship, which was sailing downstream, was less than a li away.
The fire quickly spread to the mast, which was also the moment the escaping ship was sentenced to its death.
Grabbing his head, Kou Zhong said, "What should we do? Such a face-to-face direct encounter, eight or nine out of ten it will bring disaster to the fish in the moat [idiom: being implicated]."
Xu Ziling said with a sneer, "Didn't you say that when we see injustice on the road, you would draw your saber to render assistance? Why shrink back as the time for battle approaches [idiom: getting cold feet]?"
Kou Zhong replied, "Problem is: how do we know it is really injustice?"
Xu Ziling smiled and said, "Therefore, we must hurry up to see if this is clearly a planned ambushing operation. The sun insignia on this ship belongs to certain person. Deploying the troops for the sake of one person, don't you feel it strange?"
Turning his gaze onto the approaching ship, Kou Zhong spoke heavily, "Very strange! Ay! This time it's really finished."
One big rock hit the mast squarely. The mast broke immediately, sending the sail toppling down on the deck. The escaping ship was leaning over to the side. One after another the people on the ship threw themselves into the river to save their lives.
Xu Ziling said, "I am in charge of steering the boat, you are in charge of rescuing people, understand?"
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, "Then who's in charge of dealing with the rocks and the arrows?"
"Naturally also you," Xu Ziling replied indifferently, "Watch out!"
With a twist of the rudder, the sailboat curved to the left to evade the capsizing ship, but it entered the space between the two pursuing ships.
Startled, both sides looked at each other.
Immediately Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling felt their scalp went numb. Under the illumination of the lanterns, shockingly they saw Yun Shuai [the Cloud Commander] of the Western Tujue appeared on the bridge of one of the two ships. Fortunately the other side only thought that the two boys were just passing through, plus they were anxious to pursue and attack the enemies falling into the river, therefore, they only waved the two boys to leave immediately.
Lowering his voice, Kou Zhong said, "What do you think we should do?"
Of course Xu Ziling knew that under this kind of circumstances, whether they would be able to save their own lives still remained to be seen, let alone saving other people's life. Besides, as soon as someone appeared on the surface of the river, he would immediately be covered with arrows and sink back into the water; this matter did not involve any 'luck' at all.
Kou Zhong added, "Perhaps it was Yin Gui Pai ship."
When he said those words, both sides brushed past each other.
It was not until the small sailboat left Yun Shuai's side's fleet far behind that the two boys heaved a sigh of relief. They both cried inwardly, 'What a close call!' Obviously the other party was Zhu Can's men, who were providing support to Yun Shuai to attack an important figure of a certain side. Fortunately nobody recognized the two boys; otherwise they would be able to easily getting rid of them.
In this multitude-against-the-few, a wide-disparity situation [idiom from Mencius: heavily outnumbered], plus the enemy had Yun Shuai, a martial art master nearly of Bi Xuan's level, all they could do was to join those people who went into the water to save their lives.
Looking back, Kou Zhong was puzzled, "What kind of person is Yun Shuai dealing with? This Persian guy is tall and handsome, his daughter shouldn't be lacking in that department either."
Xu Ziling said with a sigh, "This kid's lusty heart is on the rise again!"
Upright and unafraid, Kou Zhong said, "Lusty heart, everybody has one. Huh?"
With a sudden gust of wind, someone swiftly flipped into the boat from the stern, and said with a long laugh, "Two Renxiong [dear friend], I trust you have been well since we last met. Xiaodi has similar sentiment with Shao Shuai, I wonder if Ziling Xiong also agree."
Startled, the two boys looked over. Surprisingly it was Tuli Khan, who, although was drenched from head to toe, did not look the least bit in a sorry state. The Fu Ying Qiang [subduing-eagle spear], which name shook the area beyond the Wall, was hanging behind his back, with its tip protruding from his left shoulder. He was still carrying his majestic, calm demeanor.
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, "Turns out it is Tuli Laoxiong [old chap]. This time, can I say that we have rescued you?"
Tuli came to Xu Ziling's other side. He looked back first, before looking up to the night sky and said, "I should say that the Heaven and you working together to rescue me. There is one thing Xiaodi would like to ask: within the Central Plains' Wulin, there shouldn't be anybody recognizing Yun Shuai; even Xiaodi has just begun to find out that he has come here, how could you recognize him in just one glance?"
Xu Ziling calmly replied, "Naturally there is cause and effect in this matter. But please let Zaixia ask Khan a question first: did Khan come here to pick up a certain Persian beauty and bring her back?"
Tuli was astonished, "You certainly possess great magical power," he said, "Xiaodi believed that this matter was extremely confidential; who would have thought that unexpectedly it seems like everybody in the world already know about it. Surely man proposes but God disposes."
Kou Zhong said, "How could we find out about it without any reason at all? We can talk about it later, but my guess is that we are not out of danger yet. When Yun Shuai fails to find Khan, he might turn around to give chase. Does Khan have any good ideas?"
Without even looking back, Xu Ziling said with a wry smile, "No need to guess! They're coming after us!"
His scalp went numb, Kou Zhong turned his head around to look, and saw far behind the silhouette of a ship under lantern light. "This guy is indeed formidable," he said, "He must have seen Khan holding on to the aft; otherwise, how could he turn around and pursue us this quickly?"
Tuli Khan sighed and said, "I am sorry for weighing two gentlemen down. Just let Xiaodi down, I'll lead them away on land, gentlemen can continue your journey north."
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, "Does Khan have enough confidence to defeat Yun Shuai?"
Tuli's expression changed slightly. Although he had never fought hand to hand against Yun Shuai, he was well aware of his lightness skill, which was considered the pinnacle of the Western Region.
Xu Ziling also knew not to meddle in the struggle between the Eastern and Western Tujue, but seeing Tuli was now like a tiger falling behind on a flat plain, all alone and in miserable plight, he was overwhelmed with compassion. Moreover, knowing that Yun Shuai was cooperating with the extremely evil Zhu Can, those people could not possibly be any better than Tuli. Making up his mind, he said, "Let's go ashore together! Those who have a head start always have a bit more advantage."
Tuli's imposing body trembled slightly, his eyes emitted a deep, complicated feeling.
The three men crouched on the edge of a mountain cliff, overlooking the wilderness extending as far as the eyes could see under the starry sky, watching for any sign of movement.
Appearing to be unable to hold back anymore, Tuli asked, "Just now the two of you ran all the way here, you have not exhausted your strength yet?"
Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Khan indeed have a bit of insight."
Tuli blew out a mouthful of cold air and said, "No wonder Li Shimin is so afraid of the two gentlemen. It was not too long ago that I saw you, but gentlemen have given Xiaodi the impression that you two are new persons. Formerly I thought I was able to see clearly how deep or how shallow two gentlemen are, but now I am starting to realize that it was just a misperception due to my own overconfidence."
Xu Ziling suddenly said, "The gratitude and grudges between Khan and Fenghan Xiong, we don't care, but Khan always make us think of Fenghan and the heroes on horseback on the desert beyond the Great Wall. Therefore, we don't understand why Khan cooperated with Yin Gui Pai to kidnap Lian Rou now; even more, we feel sorry for Khan's reputation. Khan, please forgive me for speaking so bluntly."
Kou Zhong also asked, "The men with Khan on the boat, are they Qian Duguan's men?"
Tuli was listening attentively. At first he showed displeasure, but then he revealed a completely helpless expression. He sighed, shook his head, and then said, "If I told you that this was our Great Khan and Zhao Deyan's idea, and that Xiaodi merely received the order to do it, two gentlemen must think that I am shirking responsibility. But the fact is, although on the surface I appear to have the authority, to have the power, it is precisely to deal with you, the highly risky Han people that a lot of things are beyond my control. Like me and Shimin Xiong are originally close friends who treat one another with absolute sincerity, but with current development, there's possibility that one day we will face one another on the battlefield, making me wring my hands and sigh."
Knitting his brows, Xu Ziling said, "Why do you have to meddle in Central Plains' affair? Throughout history, there has never been any outside tribe able to set their foot on the Central Plains; at most they could only loot and afterwards meet the reprisals. If this vicious cycle continues, there will be no benefit to either side at all."
Tuli was silent for half a day. Finally he spoke slowly, "This is precisely the problem. Have Ziling Xiong put yourself in someone else's shoes and consider this matter from our perspective?"
Xu Ziling apologetically said, "Because Zaixia lacks knowledge of your distinguished country, it is very difficult to ponder over this matter from Khan's perspective."
Amazed, Tuli said, "Frankly speaking, this is not the first time I am talking about this matter. But only Ziling Xiong is willing to admit that you do not have enough knowledge. Other people always acted like all knowledge and logic in the world are concentrated on him; it is indeed infuriating."
Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Infuriating Khan is indeed not a joking matter."
Tuli sighed and said, "The problem actually lies on us. Whenever the Han is strong, that would be the moment our nightmare begin."
Kou Zhong's pair of sharp eyes was constantly scanning the mountain, the forest and the plain, far and near. He blurted out, "In that case, why did you split into two countries, east and west? It is called combine forces are strong, plus if the two of you are not like fire and water, right now we do not need to be chased away by Yun Shuai like stray dogs."
Pondering over, Tuli said, "On the surface, the reason lies in the gratitude and grudges, the conflicting views between the people. As long as there is more than one person, there will be gratitude and grudges involved; much less there are more than ten million people. But the deeper reason is the way we, Tujue people, live, which is also our fundamental difference with Han people."
After a short pause, he continued, "We are pastoral people who pursue habitat with water source and grass. We fully experience the impact of natural calamities and man-made disasters, we are forced to constantly on the move, scattered and unstable, our territory is big but population is low. No matter how strong the political power is, governing such a vast area is still beyond its influence [orig. the whip cannot reach]. Therefore, because there's always disconnect in common interest, division is common practice, unity is not reasonable."
It was such a coherent, objective and profound self-analysis, which forced Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling to greatly revise their view on this Tujue king, who came from outside the Great Wall to the Central Plains, stirring up the wind and creating the rain.
Changing the subject, Xu Ziling said, "Have we had enough rest? How about continuing our journey?"
Jingling City appeared on the plain ahead, while the sun appeared on the plain to their right. The great earth was vast and hazy, the red clouds filled the sky. It was quite a rare sight this time of the year, the transition from autumn to winter.
After the three men's feet ran constantly for more than a hundred li, they all felt their muscle weary, their strength exhausted. This moment Jingling was in sight, they all felt great relief, as they stopped by a mountain spring to drink and rest.
While Xu Ziling was freshening up in the spring, Kou Zhong and Tuli were sitting on a big rock by the spring, stretching out to their heart's content.
Kou Zhong could not help asking, "When I saw Khan in Luoyang the other day, Khan had a large number of martial art masters coming with you. Are they …?"
Tuli cut him off, "Does Shao Shuai want to ask whether I abandoned them in Han River last night? The answer is that I came here alone, the others are staying in Chang'an to maintain appearance. Simply because I do not want the Li Family to know that I am slipping out."
Muttering to himself irresolutely, he said, "Yun Shuai's intelligence and bravery have always been known throughout the Western Tujue; I thought that based on his outstanding qinggong, he would be able to catch up with us. But clearly he did not do so. It really gives me headache."
Kou Zhong said, "So what if he caught up? Zhu Can can't possibly lead his main forces to attack Jingling. The question now is how are we going to enter the city secretly?"
Tuli was puzzled, "Entering the city will only reveal your whereabouts; what benefit will it bring you?" he asked.
Naturally Kou Zhong could not tell him that he wanted to enter the city to inquire the news about Li Xiuning. He said, "When the belly is hungry, naturally we need to find a place to cure it. Now Khan ought to be far from danger, I wonder if you have good suggestion?"
Tuli smiled and said, "I do have a suggestion. Shao Shuai may want to consider."
Kou Zhong cheerfully said, "Xiaodi is listening with respectful attention."
His eyes emitting sharp light, Tuli spoke with serious expression, "This proposal will bring benefit to both sides, without bringing any harm. In Xiaodi's opinion, the urgent business before our eyes is to return to Guanzhong safely, and two gentlemen must go to Guanzhong to find the treasure. Therefore, our goals are not two different things."
Greatly surprised, Kou Zhong said, "Unexpectedly Khan still thinks that Yun Shuai might threaten your safety?"
Smiling wryly, Tuli replied, "To be quite honest, if two gentlemen are unwilling to cooperate with me, I only have 50% chance of returning to Guanzhong alive."
"What?" Kou Zhong blurted out.
Xu Ziling came to the two men's side, sat down, and said, "Listening to Khan, it appears that this matter is not as simple as we think."
A deep, cold murderous intent flashed through Tuli's pair of eyes. He nodded and said, "As for whether I should disclose the fact to two gentlemen, to be honest, I hesitated for quite a while, until just now Shao Shuai expressed to me his desire to take different roads and urge the horse on [idiom: to part ways], then I made up my mind to talk candidly with you, to see if we can cooperate sincerely."
Kou Zhong said, "This 'sincere' word is precisely the key, because both Ling Shao and I have to stay in the shadow and must not be exposed to the light, or we will be dead [orig. 見光死seeing the light and die (idiom), courtesy of Akolaw]. If we trusted Khan but turns out we trusted the wrong person, or Khan bites the hand that feeds you by deceiving us, it's really not worth it. Simply because we do not even have enough capital to take a risk."
Displeased, Tuli said, "How could I, Tuli, be such a person? If Kou Xiong so distrusted me, let's just forget about it."
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, "I was just sounding out Khan; nothing more. Xiao Ling, what do you say?"
Xu Ziling looked deep into Tuli's eyes; he spoke heavily, "What makes Khan so pessimistic about returning to Guanzhong?"
Tuli's imposing body trembled slightly; he took a deep breath and said, "Ziling Xiong's martial art skill has indeed reached the deep and immeasurable level. Just now your gaze seemed to have the substance. Of the people I encountered in all my life, only Bi Xuan and Zhao Deyan, two men can be compared with you. It is indeed unbelievable."
Xu Ziling was embarrassed of receiving such praise. Because just now he wanted to gauge whether Tuli was telling the truth or not, he secretly performed the Motionless Fundamental Hand Image [不动明王根本手印Acalanatha Fundamental Mudra (courtesy of Akolaw)], and focused his power into his eyes to penetrate Tuli's eyes. If Tuli was lying, he shouldn't be able to withstand Xu Ziling's gaze.
Kou Zhong giggled and said, "This kid certainly has a bit of skill. Time is precious, Khan, please make the long story short."
Resuming his dignified look, Tuli scrutinized Xu Ziling for half a day before saying, "I have fallen into Xieli and Zhao Deyan's trap."
Startled by what they heard, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling looked at each other.
An angry expression flitted across Tuli's rough countenance; he spoke in low voice, "The Great Khan position should be mine."
Knowing that he had big speech to make, the two boys did not interrupt.
A dense fog seemed to cover Tuli's face. Sounding desolate, he went on, "When my father, Shibi Great Khan, was preparing to go down south to attack your distinguished country, he fell ill and died. At that time I was still young, so my uncle [younger than father] took the Great Khan position and became Chuluo Khan; I had nothing to say. After Chuluo inherit the title, he took the Sui dynasty's Yicheng Gongzhu [princess] as his wife. She was the one who recruited Zhao Deyan to enter our [dynastic] government. Zhao Deyan proposed to welcome the Yang Emperor's Huang Xiaoshi and the Sui Dynasty's Qi Wang [king] Yang Lai's posthumous child Yang Zhengdao into the Khan's court of law. As for the purpose, two gentlemen ought to be able to guess it without I need to tell you."
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, "Turns out it is that complicated. Yang Zhengdao's purpose is naturally to act as the chess piece to disrupt our Central Plains. But how could you let a Han randomly dictate the court's policy?"
Tuli sighed and said, "Although Chuluo is infatuated with Yicheng Gongzhu's charm, but toward Zhao Deyan, he was actually extremely wary. It's just that under Yicheng Gongzhu's repeated instigation, he reluctantly appointed Zhao Deyan Guoshi [teacher of the state]. Afterwards Chuluo fell ill, he ate Zhao Deyan's five-rock soup of cinnabar, realgar, Baiyan, Zengqing, and magnetite smelted together. Not only it did not show the desired effect, it actually poisoned him to have skin ulcer and died. Overnight Yicheng Gongzhu became the most powerful person."
Xu Ziling was puzzled, "How could your clansmen let the power fell into a Han woman's hands?"
Smiling wryly, Tuli said, "At that time our people was like a dragon without its head, the tribe was in total chaos. According to reason, the most logical successor to the throne should either be me or Chuluo's son Aoshe. Who would have thought that Yicheng Gongzhu, Zhao Deyan, and Xieli colluded in secret? Using a blitzkrieg strategy they suppressed the opposition, and Xieli ascended to the throne. Not only that, he took Yicheng as his wife; he was extremely shameless."
Kou Zhong was speechless. "Khan, you are able to live until today, it is indeed a marvel," he commented.
Tuli said with a sneer, "There's no luck involved in this matter. When my father was still alive, he was an outstanding hero, his prestige far surpassed Chuluo, plus Bixuan is protecting me in all respects, so making a move against me is not an easy thing. But to borrow Yun Shuai's hands is another matter altogether."
Xu Ziling asked, "Before Xieli became the Great Khan, what was his status? How come he went against the tide like that, yet unexpectedly no one is reckoning with him?"
Tuli replied, "Chuluo and Xieli are both my father's younger brothers. Speaking about strength Xieli was in no way inferior to Chuluo. In our tribe, whoever has enough power can proclaim himself king, there's no place for argument."
Kou Zhong said, "Is Khan saying that this whole thing is basically a trap to deal with you? But from what we know, Yin Gui Pai was certainly helping you wholeheartedly to capture Lian Rou. Are you saying that even Zhu Yuyan was deceived by Zhao Deyan?"
Tuli said, "To Zhao Deyan, everybody is just tools that he can exploit. He has always been able to achieve his objective by hook or by crook. Humph! Fortunately I was able to see through his wicked scheme; otherwise I could forget about returning alive to settle the account with him and Xieli."
Listening to him, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling still only knew one and understood half, but at least inwardly they believed most of what he said. Otherwise, how could Yun Shuai promptly rush over to the Central Plains and was able to clearly understand the key moment by striking Bai Qing'er and Tuli's fleet one after another?
Heaving a long sigh, Tuli slowly said, "If my guess is correct, Zhao Deyan ought to be somewhere near waiting for me."
At the same time, the two boys thought that An Long ought to be a key figure in this whole affair, so much so that even Shi Zhixuan might be one of the masterminds behind the scene.
They could not help a chill from creeping up in their heart.