Chapter 9 - Cuddling and Leaning and Having a Heart-to-Heart Chat
Putting on his Gong Chenchun mask, Xu Ziling walked swiftly to the west along the Luo River. Suddenly he heard a song, a female voice singing on a small boat in the middle of the river, "Reflecting the green-jade palace, the magnificent Luo River rushing over the empty space at the end of the military camp, winking its eyes over the glory, riches and honor. Why should one always dream of the tree branch of the south?"
The song was moving and sad, very touching, brimming with sorrow and helplessness, floating above the distant water of the Luo River. This late at night, the outward emotion made one's thoughts wandering far away. Xu Ziling halted his steps; his heart was tranquil and harmonious.
Ever since he and Kou Zhong started their trip north to Guanzhong, countless things that caught him and Kou Zhong off guard have been happening one after another, like wave after wave of the tide continuously pounding against the seaside, and each time they had to struggle and seek survival right on the thin line between life and death.
But at this very moment, a serene feeling like he had lost countless days suddenly filled his heart to the brim. His entire being empty and ethereal, all the struggles, enmity, killing, crafty plots and machinations - felt like they had nothing to do with him whatsoever, that they no longer had the slightest influence on him.
All of a sudden, his mind cleared up and he understood that his cultivation in the martial art study was a layer deeper. It was some kind of inexplicable feeling; it reached the top of the tops. As for how he attained this kind of realm at this moment, whether it was because of the operation where he assassinated the fake Rong Fengxiang just now, which stimulated this breakthrough, or because of the unceasing tempering he experienced beforehand, it was very difficult to ascertain clearly.
Why should one always dream of the tree branch of the south?
Life has always had dream-like characteristics; the ancient sage Zhuang Zhou [aka Zhuangzi (369-286 BC), Daoist author] was dreaming about he was turning into a butterfly. When he woke up, he asked himself whether he was dreaming about becoming a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly dreaming about becoming him? To explain a complicated subject matter in simple terms, it was a clear explanation of life's bizarre illusion.
The bright moon behind the soft floating clouds slowly revealed its immortal beauty, its noble golden light bathed the cold night of the ancient city Luoyang. In itself, it felt like an unreal dream. Which one was the illusion, which one was the reality?
If he could turn illusion into reality, and turn reality into illusion, would he be able to break the Immortal Image Method, created by the demonic school's genius Shi Zhixuan, which could fuse together two extremes, life and death, into one?
Xu Ziling's entire body suddenly shook severely. 'Ah!' he exclaimed.
The small boat slowly glided toward the riverbank, a female voice gently came through, "Such a beautiful moonlit night, would Ziling be interested to get on the boat and stay for a while?"
Hearing that, Xu Ziling soared into the air, leisurely and effortlessly he landed on the boat, and calmly sat down. Smiling at the stunning beauty sitting at the stern, sculling the boat with a single oar, he said, "Since Shen Junshi [military advisor] has the time to enjoy the night, roaming the Luo River, I, Xu Ziling, naturally am honored to keep you company."
Shen Luoyan had lost some weight; her clothes, her sleeves, her beautiful hair, were fluttering lightly in the river breeze. Her beautiful eyes, filled with resentment, gazed at the bright moon in the sky, her cherry lips opened lightly, she spoke with gentle sigh, "Mi Gong [Duke Mi] is defeated!"
A burst of emotion filled his heart, Xu Ziling spoke in low voice, as if he was chanting, "An old steed in the stable still aspires to gallop a thousand li, a martyr in his declining years strengthens his heart unceasingly. Mi Gong only needs to quietly wait for another fortunate timing!"
Shen Luoyan's eyes fell onto Xu Ziling's handsome face. Lightly rowing the boat, a faint bitter and astringent smile escaped from the corner of her perfect, pretty mouth. Shaking her head, she said, "Once the fortunate timing flitted pass, it will never return. Mi Gong has been defeated; it was due to his excessive ego. Otherwise, even though Wang Shichong received help from the two of you, he would still have to bow before him."
Xu Ziling said, "As his Junshi, why don't you offer him your sincere counsel?"
Looking at the weeping willow on the left bank, Shen Luoyan spoke indifferently, "Would he be willing to listen? Toward you and Kou Zhong, he simply snorted disdainfully; otherwise, how could he fail and was wiped over the floor?"
Xu Ziling said, "Mi Gong opted to surrender to the Tang, to accept the gift of time; he couldn't be considered failing and being wiped over the floor."
As if she was recounting people and things that have nothing to do with her, Shen Luoyan sneered coldly and said, "What gift of time are you talking about? The commander of a defeated army is not fit to talk about bravery! Mi Gong originally thought that by leading his troops in surrender, he would receive the generous good fortune of being appointed Wang [king, prince, the highest nobility rank in ancient China]; who would have thought that the official post that Tang Huang [Emperor] bestowed to Mi Gong was only official salaried high ranking officer 'Shang Zhu Guo' [lit. upper pillar of the country], the nobility conferred to him was only Xing Guo Gong [duke with the surname of the country]. On the contrary, not only Xu Zhiji is still in command of the troops stationed in Liyang, he is also bestowed the surname Li, officially saluted as the Zuo Wu Hou Da Jiangjun [left military marquis great general]. This division has substantially weakened Mi Gong's military strength. Early on I already advised him not to enter Chang'an, but he did not listen. Instead, he listened to Wei Zheng's nonsense; what can I, Shen Luoyan say?"
The desolation in her voice made the sorrow in Xu Ziling's heart grew as a thicket; not the least bit of hatred toward her remained in his heart. He smiled and said, "You can't give up because of this. Shen Junshi can choose the wise master, you can still attempt great undertaking."
Letting out a distressed laugh, Shen Luoyan's beautiful eyes were full of emotion as she said, "To the Li Clan, I, Shen Luoyan am just an outsider, plus I am also discouraged, no longer have the great ambition and magnificent aspiration of the olden days! Without any better option, if you marry a chicken follow the chicken, if you marry a dog follow the dog; I have to put my feelings in order to become a good woman of a Li family."
Xu Ziling's heart was shaken; he knew that Shen Luoyan has finally decided to marry Xu Shiji, who had changed his surname to Li. This trip to Luoyang was to visit Qin Shubao and Cheng Yaojin, but not acting as an itinerant political adviser for Li Mi, she was acting for her husband instead, to obtain helps.
Hanging her head low, Shen Luoyan spoke softly, "Why do you stop talking?"
Xu Ziling hastily replied, "I was just going to congratulate you!"
Rolling her eyes at him, Shen Luoyan said, "Are you being sincere?"
Xu Ziling's handsome face slightly blushed, he calmly replied, "Shen Junshi suddenly passes on this good news, but it is a bit too sudden. But Shen Junshi finding your ideal husband, naturally I am very happy for you."
In daze, Shen Luoyan stared at him for half a day, before sighing and said, "Oh Xu Ziling! I wonder which family's young lady would be able to overturn you feeling and make you love her ardently?"
Xu Ziling did not expect her to be this straightforward; he was totally caught off guard. After clearing his throat a couple times to cover up his embarrassment, he replied with a wry smile, "This question, Zaixia really don't know how to answer. Hey! How did Shen Junshi know that I was going to pass by here?"
"Pfft!" Shen Luoyan broke into giggle; she cast him a coquettish glance first before saying, "Don't change the subject; we are old acquaintances! Can't we talk about some intimate things? It's not that I am forcing you to marry me."
Xu Ziling nearly wanted to cry out for his Niang. Although he and Shen Luoyan have always been standing on opposing sides, and this situation has not changed even until now, but the fact was that he had never had any ill will toward her, and of course, they were not at the friendship level that they could talk about the feeling between a man and a woman. There has always been a delicate relationship between the two, but Shen Luoyan's remark has just torn this wrapping paper apart.
No matter how he answered it, it would be very difficult not to touch on the affair between men and women, and this would put him in a greatly awkward position.
Shen Luoyan seemed to understand his embarrassing situation very well; she spoke cheerfully, "What's the matter? Just answer me like a real man, which girl can occupy the first position in your heart? Would you like Luoyan to point out several girls' fragrant names to help you jog your memory?"
Shen Luoyan, who had always looked deeply and with much wisdom, finally no longer suppress the feeling in her heart; speaking forthrightly like this, she revealed the bitterness and despair in her heart toward Xu Ziling.
Shen Luoyan, just like Yun Yuzhen, has watched them progressing and maturing, from bullied, nameless hairy-headed rascals rising abruptly to become the inspiring-awe-throughout-the-empire, rebuking-the-Heaven-and-Earth heroes and prominent figures, with enmity-and-love-difficult-to-distinguish, hopelessly-muddled relationship between them.
But now, because of Susu's affair, Yun Yuzhen has had a fall out with them, while with Shen Luoyan, although 'the famous flower already has its owner' [idiom: the girl is already taken], they still had 'wanting-to-break-but-still-connected, remaining-feeling-unfinished' relationship.
Taking a deep breath, Xu Ziling nearly wanted to secretly perform the Motionless Fundamental Image. Shaking his head, he sighed and said, "The two of us, Kou Zhong and I, only live our lives one day at a time, how could we dare to think about the affair between men and women? Shen Junshi does not need to waste your mind for this matter!"
He could not help thinking about Shi Qingxuan and Shi Feixuan. Supposing one of these two was willing to give herself wholly to him, how would he react? He knew that he was just being carried away by his wishful thinking; promptly he discharged this extravagant hope out of his mind, yet in his heart he was still not without self-pity.
Shen Luoyan steered the boat into a tributary, leaving the Luo River. Sighing faintly, she looked desolate. It was precisely this expression, the eternal moment that Hou Xibai was able to capture by painting it on the surface of his fan. Looking at her, Xu Ziling could only stare blankly, while a feeling of pity rose up greatly in his heart.
He remembered that day in Xingyang, where from his hiding place he heard her dialogue with Li Shiji. Evidently the relationship between those two persons was not that harmonious and loving at all, so he wondered if the unity of marriage between these two would be auspicious or ominous.
Shen Luoyan slowly brought the skiff into a halt under a small bridge, and she sat in the darkest corner at the base of the bridge. Outside the bridge, the water was flickering with the reflection of the moon above, so that the inside and outside the bridge were like two different worlds altogether. The mood was exceptionally beautiful.
Quietly her beautiful eyes were gazing at Xu Ziling. It was quite a while later that she smiled faintly and said, "I had never thought that the two of us could sit side by side to have intimate talks in here without any hostility at all. It can clearly be seen that the things of the world are impermanence, it is very difficult to guess."
Xu Ziling felt this touching beauty's tender and affectionate side; he spoke gently, "When would Shen Junshi return to Liyang?"
Shen Luoyan looked as if she was afraid to destroy the serenity of the moment under the bridge; she replied in soft voice, "No! I am coming back to Guanzhong; I want to give my last advice to Mi Gong for the last time."
Stunned, Xu Ziling asked, "For the last time?"
Shen Luoyan lightly nodded her head and said, "I want to persuade him to kill his lofty aspiration of contention for hegemony over the world, and to obediently be the Li Family's surrendering subject. Otherwise, even if he could return to office after living as a hermit on Mount Dongshan [idiom: to make a comeback], in the end it would be difficult for him to escape his demise."
Xu Ziling remained silent. Although Shen Luoyan was giving her advice to Li Mi, she might as well give the same advice to Kou Zhong and him.
Shen Luoyan sighed faintly and said, "Nowadays, even Du Fuwei resigned himself to surrender to the Tang, and received the order to be appointed Dongnan Daoheng Tai Shangshu [southeast expert support government minister] and bestowed the title Chu Wang [king of Chu]. In this world, who could contend against the House of Tang?"
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Xu Ziling said, "Supposing the House of Tang loses Li Shimin, how do Shen Junshi see it?"
Shaking her head, Shen Luoyan said, "Li Shimin will not lose. Between the Heaven and the Earth, only Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong are worthy to be his opponent. Other people are simply out of the question."
Surprised, Xu Ziling said, "Shen Junshi thinks too highly of us!"
Shen Luoyan smiled and said, "I did not make that remark; it came from Qin Wang's own mouth. He had worked hard to collect and study your tactics. His conclusion was: like a heavenly steed, soaring across the skies, the tactics change unpredictably, without any trace that basically anyone could seek. It deeply follows the intention and purpose of the sly changes of the art of war. What you guys lack is just the time. Let's talk about Kou Zhong! Who could be like him, winning without the arrogance, losing without endangering himself, his natural tendency is using logistics as the screen, an outstanding talent in moving the troops with chatting and joking?"
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "You are praising him too much! Even if Kou Zhong, that arrogant kid, heard it, he would blush. Much less we are about to go to Guanzhong to throw away our lives; if we did not die, then we could talk about other things."
Shen Luoyan stretched lightly, as if she was putting the beautiful, alluring silhouette of her naked body in full display for Xu Ziling's benefit. After casting him another hundred-charm, thousand-tender glance, she spoke with a hint of smile on her face, "Including Li Shimin, nobody is optimistic about your trip to Guanzhong for the treasure hunt, only nujia is of the opposite opinion; I have full confidence on you. Ziling, how would you thank nujia?"
Staring blankly, Xu Ziling said, "How do you want me to thank you"
Suddenly red clouds arose on Shen Luoyan's jade cheeks, her demeanor became sweet and charming beyond human comprehension. After casting him a sidelong glance, she gently moved her tender body to sit in Xu Ziling's bosom.
A loud bang shook Xu Ziling's mind, but already a soft-jade-warm-fragrance body filled his bosom. Shen Luoyan's small mouth was close to his ear; slighting panting, she said, "After we part this time, Shen Junshi will become Madame Li; henceforth military affairs will no longer stain Luoyan's hands. Now I just wish to leave behind a beautiful memory with Ziling, to obliterate gratitude and grudges of the past. What I am asking is just a soft kiss; Ziling, please don't blame Luoyan for being licentious."
It was already too late for Xu Ziling to either protest or refuse, Shen Luoyan's fragrant lips already heavily imprinted on his lips.
That night, the dark place of charm and beauty under the small bridge has become even gentler and softer.
Kou Zhong was hiding in the dark alley, standing close to the bottom of the wall. His tiger-eyes flickering brightly, he watched the main gate of the Rong Mansion diagonally across the street.
The Rong Mansion was brightly lit, it was as bright as day. The middle gate was open wide, valiant-looking Jianghu characters were coming in and out in unending stream. Under such circumstances, sneaking into the Rong Mansion was simply an impossibility.
Kou Zhong did not really want to go into the Rong Mansion to scout for information; rather, he just wanted to seize an opportunity to use the Moon in the Well on his back to behead demon Taoist Pi Chen who disguised himself as Rong Fengxiang.
The one he hated more was the forgetting-favors-and-violating-justice Wang Shichong, but due to the current situation, he must let Wang Shichong retain his dog life for now, so that he could block the Guanzhong Army coming to the east.
After going through a period of arduous days, his Eight Methods of the Well already reached maturity; the stage where he could make changes at will, the stage where what the heart wishes, the hand accomplishes. The most beneficial to him was the battle against Wanwan in Nanyang, which pointed to him where his weaknesses were, which made it more clear to him the strong points that he would need to continue developing.
By the time he surpassed the outstanding level of saber moves, even with Song Que's ability, he would have to be careful in dealing with Kou Zhong. And that would represent another level of martial art way. If he could climb to that level, he could become another 'Heavenly Saber' Song Que.
Just now, when he descended from the sky, hacking down at demon Taoist Ke Feng at Man Qing Yuan, it was a sign that he has broken out of his cocoon and advanced into the next level of saber technique cultivation, hence the reason Ke Feng's entire mind was terrified by his Moon in the Well, allowing Fu Qian to succeed in just one strike.
Failure to kill old demon Pi Chen had given him such a blow that deep down in his heart he could not accept. And now he wanted to rely on his own strength to accomplish this matter, within the nearly impossible circumstances.
As for whether he would have this opportunity, he would let Laotianye decide.
At this moment his heart was completely free of distracting thoughts. Not only there was not the slightest bit of nervousness, he did not even have any thought about life or death in his heart; even the jittery anxiety due to the wait did not exist, not even one drip.
He felt as if he could continue waiting just like this, all the way to the end of the universe.
This was a fantastic mental state that has never appeared in his mind before; as cold as ice and frost, as steady as the mountain and peaks.
There was a sound of hoof beats, an ordinary looking horse-drawn carriage came out of the Rong Mansion and entered the street. There were two men sitting on the driver seat; surprisingly, they were the Laojun Guan martial art masters who stayed close to protect the demon Taoist Ke Feng.
Kou Zhong was greatly surprised. Not daring to hesitate, he somersaulted onto the roof and followed the carriage from a distance.
Although Xu Ziling was already far away from the small bridge where he and Shen Luoyan exchanged a touching, fervent kiss just now, her intoxicating fragrance was still lingering in his nostrils; he still felt Shen Luoyan's carved-in-the-bones-and-engraved-in-the-heart deep love toward him, as well as her sorrows and helplessness.
He was even more surprised that although toward this beautiful woman he only had good impression without any love or desire, he still felt the charming and gentle, the soft and fragrant, the erotic and enchanting, touching-to-the-extreme-point, first kiss.
Supposing the one who kissed him was either Shi Qingxuan or Shi Feixuan, how would it feel like?
Entering an alley, he suddenly halted his steps.
The moonlit long street extended as far as his eyes could see. After three more blocks and then turning left, passing Tongjin Canal, he would reach the Xuanfeng Lane, where Fu Qian stayed in Luoyang.
A thought-provoking, barely-audible as if it came from the far away outer space - bell of a Buddhist hall entered Xu Ziling's ears.
Taking a deep breath, Xu Ziling discharged all fluttering thoughts and mixed feelings entirely out to clear his spirit. Slowly turning around, he came face to face with a Buddhist holy monk, holding a steel bell in his hand, standing about five zhang away; he calmly said, "Xu Ziling pays his respect to Liao Kong Dashi."
Unexpectedly it was the Buddhist holy monk Liao Kong Dashi from Jingnian Chanyuan, whose martial art skill was trained until his youthfulness was restored.
Liao Kong Dashi smiled slightly and said, "Would Xu Shizhu be willing to come with Pinseng to the Chanyuan to stay for some time?"
Smiling ruefully in his heart, Xu Ziling knew that the ones who were coming have finally come; the ones that Kou Zhong was more afraid to confront: Shi Feixuan and the rest of the Four Great Holy Monks.
 Wei Zheng (580-643), Tang politician and historian, notorious as a critic, editor of History of the Sui Dynasty