Chapter 1 - Old Affection Difficult To Break
Xu Ziling went to see Kou Zhong at Hou Xibai's secret hideout; the latter showed complicated expression on his face, his pair of eyebrows was deeply creased.
Struggling to raise his spirit, Kou Zhong asked, "Where is Lei Dage?"
Sitting down next to him, Xu Ziling replied, "He went out to investigate Yang WenGan and Madame Hong's affair. What happened to you?"
"A lot have been happening to me!" Kou Zhong replied, "I went to Persian Temple looking for Yun Shuai, who would have thought that I fell into the trap that Yang Xuyan carefully laid out? Fortunately he did not expect me to be not easy to be duped; while they were all caught unprepared, I seized the upper hand, and I even came in contact with Yun Shuai."
After explaining briefly, he went on, "Yun Shuai wants to see Li Shimin. I told him that I will give him the answer before dusk today; could you make the arrangement?"
"That should be no problem," Xu Ziling replied, "Since you did not leak your identity, why are you looking so pathetic like a defeated rooster?"
Kou Zhong sighed and said, "I just realized that I have to pay the price for the choice that I make. But when you can only make one choice, that kind feeling is really hard to take. Ay!"
Listening to him, Xu Ziling was baffled, "What are you talking about?" he asked.
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, "I am indeed babbling nonsense, yet I cannot express it clearly, because the problem is not in the choice itself, but humans are creatures that are brimming with emotions, that can be subjected to the complications because of said emotions, that furthermore, we can't resist temptation."
Xu Ziling understood; frowning, he asked, "What happened between you and Shang Xiufang?"
"For now, nothing, only the tail remains," Kou Zhong replied, "The problem is that she clearly indicated that she has a bit of interest toward me, and I cannot bear to refuse. Frankly speaking, she is indeed very charming."
Xu Ziling remembered last night Hong Funu mentioned about Shang Xiufang's 'heart already belongs to someone', he quietly pondered if Talented Lady Shang's 'yearning about the countenance, remembering the countenance' [Book 33 Chapter 4] was written for Kou Zhong?
No one knew Kou Zhong better than Xu Ziling. He was a man who would put the great undertaking on the first position.
Of the four beautiful women who have had relationship with him, Li Xiuning was love at first sight, but the outcome was the most tragic as well! Plus there was still a great possibility that in the future they would become enemies.
Toward Song Yuzhi, at first 70% was because he wanted to use her, 30% because he admired her, and only later that his feeling grew.
As for Yun Yuzhen and Dong Shuni, both of whom have had physical relationship with him, with the latter, it was purely under hot-blooded lust and full-of-stimulation environment that joined in the fun [orig. find a stage, put on a comedy (idiom)]; there was only desire without any love.
With Yun Yuzhen, it was a lot more complicated.
To Kou Zhong, Yun Yuzhen was the aloof and remote figure that he knew before Kou Zhong has not yet made his mark in the world. In his mind, to be able to 'own' her represent his ascension to the sublime status of the higher social class, which was some kind of psychological achievement.
Currently, his feeling for Song Yuzhi was extremely stable, but still, when Shang Xiufang was looking upon him with favor, he became uncertain, dithering and miserable. From this, it was thus clear that Shang Xiufang was extremely tempting to him.
In this kind of relationship between a man and a woman - even as a brother, he found it very difficult to help.
Seeing him staring blankly, deep in thought, Kou Zhong asked in surprise, "Why don't you scold me for being weak?"
Displeased, Xu Ziling responded, "Even if I did, what's the use? I told you not to be drawn into the contention over the world, but did you listen?"
"How could you mix those two separate things together?" Kou Zhong protested, "Ay! Let's not talk about this kind of depressing thing for now. Any good plan for today?"
Xu Ziling briefly explained the situation. He said, "I believe the most important person that we should deal with is Shi Zhixuan. Meeting force with force, we do not stand too much of an advantage, but dealing with his pawn, the 'Fat Merchant' An Long, it is still possible to accomplish."
"Killing An Long is something that must be done," Kou Zhong said, "We must make meticulous plan; one strike and we must succeed. Otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to get another opportunity. You have fought one-on-one against Shi Zhixuan; in your estimate, can Yun Shuai's qinggong overcome Shi Zhixuan's Huan Mo Shenfa?"
Knitting his brows, Xu Ziling replied, "This is very difficult to tell. If Yun Shuai and Shi Zhixuan compete on who will arrive at certain destination first, perhaps Yun Shuai would be able to triumph over the opponent. But speaking about dodging, shifting, moving, I believe Shi Zhixuan is still one notch higher. Coupled with his amazing skill of Immortal Image, we really cannot pin him down."
Kou Zhong's pair of eyes lit up, he said, "If it was on the plains and wilderness, won't we have a good chance of killing him then?"
Displeased, Xu Ziling said, "You'll have to break his Immortal Image Method first. What about if the three of us joining hands against the Four Great Holy Monks? Why don't you think about it?"
Dejected, Kou Zhong said, "Is there really no way to kill him? The problem is that the entrance to the treasure-trove is extremely likely located inside the Wu Lou Si's Abbot's room. In that case, we'll just have to try our luck. Hopefully while we are trying to find it, he would not be in the Temple."
Xu Ziling said, "Since he is undercover and intentionally concealing his track, unless absolutely necessary, Shi Zhixuan will not leave the temple."
Feeling big headache, Kou Zhong said with a wry smile, "Looks like our good luck has reached the end of its path; previously, even if the treasure-trove was hazy without any clear thread, we always had hopes. But now our only clue leads us to Shi Zhixuan's old nest tiger cave. Ay! I suddenly feel very tired! If only Niang made it clear that day, it would be much better."
Xu Ziling looked up at the beam; pondering deeply, he said, "Yue Ma Bridge? Why did Niang only mention Yue Ma Bridge? If the treasure-trove is in the Wu Lou Si, she ought to say Wu Lou Si of Chang'an, and that should be enough."
Severely shaken, Kou Zhong said, "Make sense! This is called we are 'catching the wrong expression'; the question is, where?"
The refined light in Xu Ziling's eyes flared out brightly; he looked at Kou Zhong, the two boys' gazes met, they were shaking at the same time.
Taking a deep breath, Kou Zhong said, "We are so stupid! We only swam back and forth under the bridge, but did not search the Yue Ma Bridge thoroughly."
Xu Ziling said, "The most important point is: if the entrance to the treasure-trove is inside the Wu Lou Si Abbot's room, then even Niang would not be able to get in."
Kou Zhong nodded his agreement. But he was still puzzled, "But how come Wu Lou Si has Lu Dashi's architectural style?"
Xu Ziling sighed and said, "Perhaps I misinterpret what I saw! No! I can't possibly misinterpret it; especially the shape of the protruding interlocking wooden brackets between the top of a column and crossbeams. I am sure it was Lu Dashi's original painting. There is an explanation about it in the architectural book he left behind. The decorative lines and patterns are of the same family, there's no difference."
Kou Zhong's spirit greatly aroused, he said, "Thinking too much is useless; after slaughtering An Long, we will take advantage of the dark to explore the bridge, we'll search every brick and every stone. It's pointless to bother about anything else."
Pondering deeply, Xu Ziling said, "Don't you think we are asking too much? You have just exposed your identity. Based on Li Yuanji's nature, he is eager to win and keen to render meritorious service, certainly he will use thousand ways, a hundred plans to capture us, yet we still want to - openly and without fear - kill An Long?"
Kou Zhong said, "This is called seeking victory in the midst of danger; with enemies on all four sides, if we cannot grasp the initiative, we could only crane our neck waiting to be chopped. Right now our best scheme is to make Shi Zhixuan believe that An Long is harmed by Yin Gui Pai people; otherwise, how else can we deceive Shi Zhixuan, this big crafty scoundrel?"
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "Unless you know Tian Mo Da Fa, and when you are making your move you make sure that no one is watching, how could you shift the blame onto the Eastern Wu?"
This moment Lei Jiuzhi came back and said, "I have information. Yang WenGan is really crafty."
Hearing that, the two boys were greatly delighted; busily they poured tea and handed the water, and waited upon him to sit down.
Pointing to Xu Ziling, Lei Jiuzhi asked, "Do you remember Li Xiong?"
Xu Ziling nodded and said, "He is Jingzhao Lian's Fu Lianzhu [vice alliance master]; one time he led his men to rob Xing Chang Long's salt goods, and was injured by me [see Book 30 Chapter 8]."
Lei Jiuzhi said, "Hong Nong Bang's men have been monitoring his movements secretly, they finally discovered that there is a batch of salt shipment of unknown origin that was delivered to Hong Nong, and was received by Gu Tianzhang of Guang Sheng Xing, which was then shipped into Guanzhong."
Guang Sheng Xing was Xing Chang Long's archenemy.
Kou Zhong asked, "So what's wrong with this batch of salt shipment?"
Lei Jiuzhi said, "Of course it's a fake salt shipment. Hidden inside are arrows and darts. They must be shipping bows and arrows separately."
Xu Ziling asked, "What made Hong Nong Bang men suspicious?"
Lei Jiuzhi replied, "Because Gu Tianzhang personally went to Hong Nong to supervise the handing over the goods. That was the reason Hong Nong Bang thought there is something wrong with the shipment."
Kou Zhong said, "Where in Guanzhong will this shipment be delivered to?"
Lei Jiuzhi said, "After entering the Pass, they lost track, because all along, this is not their territory. In Hong Nong, Hong Nong Bang possesses great magical power, but in Guanzhong, they have to rely on gangs and society with whom they have friendly relationship. Because they are afraid to beat the grass to scare the snake, Chen Shi did not dare to ask other people to help."
Chen Shi was Hong Nong Bang's Gang Leader [in Book 30 Chapter 6, it was Sheng Nanfu].
Lei Jiuzhi went on, "Finding that there was a problem with this batch of salt shipment, and the twist and turns of the course of events, plus in order to deal with the Xiang Family Hong Nong Bang has never relaxed their surveillance on Ba Ling Bang, from this, they unexpectedly found out several gangs and societies that have always had close relation with Xiao Xian were sending their men along the way to take care of this batch of shipment, only then did they find out that this salt shipment actually contained arrows and darts."
"It's getting more and more interesting!" Kou Zhong commented, "Shen Faxing delivered the firearms to Yin Gui Pai, and then Yin Gui Pai transported it into Guanzhong, while Xiao Xian supplied the arrows to Yang WenGan. Xiang Yushan personally undertook the task to help Yang WenGan to rebel. If the firearms did not fall into our hands, and Li Shimin was oblivious, perhaps Yang WenGan could really avoid the Heavenly Policy Mansion's eyes and ears, and could get rid of Li kid in one move."
Xu Ziling said, "This is called one scheme fails, carryout another scheme. The mastermind behind it must be Shi Zhixuan. He originally intended to conspire with Song JinGang and the Tujue, when Li Shimin was returning from Luoyang to Guanzhong, to kill him en route, but they failed. Naturally as a result Li Shimin raised his vigilance. Shi Zhixuan was left with no other choice but to plan another large-scale ambush. If we follow this reasoning, Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji ought to be kept inside a drum [idiom: completely in the dark], and do not have any knowledge of the plan."
Lei Jiuzhi said, "But if they can really kill Li Shimin, Li Jiancheng might think that if it’s wrong, it’s wrong [idiom: to make the best after a mistake], and cooperate with Yang WenGan to force Li Yuan to abdicate, so that he could ascend the dragon throne. Since Li Shimin is gone, who'd dare to oppose?"
Kou Zhong laughed and said, "It's a pity that we messed up their scheme. This time Yang WenGan is bound to end in doom and gloom."
"Don't be so pleased too early," Lei Jiuzhi said, "Just now Li Yuanji summoned the heads of all local gangs and societies, saying that the two of you already infiltrated Chang'an, and ordering them to mobilize their manpower to find you at all cost. It must be because last night Yang Xuyan lost the Scroll that Li Yuanji was put on alert."
After explaining the real reason, Kou Zhong said with a cold snort, "As long as he does not suspect my Divine Doctor identity, he could forget about finding me. But Ling Shao's Yong Qin might be more at risk."
Slapping the table, Lei Jiuzhi said, "We haven't thought about one other thing; if Ziling becomes Mo Wei again, it will be seamless heavenly clothes."
Xu Ziling laughed and said, "The reason Zhong Shao is able to deceive people is because no one thinks that he knows medical art. As for Xiaodi, no one would link a gambler identity with either me or Kou Zhong. Especially Xiang Yushan; he knew that gambling does not even enter a single aperture of our heads [idiom: don’t understand a word]. Ay! Looks like I will have to hang out with Madame Hong. With her as my cover, I could escape people's eyes and ears even more."
He then laughed and said, "Don't forget that not only I am Gong Chenchun, I am also the 'Overbearing Saber' Yue Shan, whose name shook the world."
Kou Zhong summed it up, "Presently these are the two most urgent things for us to do: first, naturally we must find the location of the treasure-trove, and second, kill An Long. With these two accomplished, we could decide the grand plan, and be able to leave this dangerous place where danger lurks on every side a bit early."
Lei Jiuzhi said, "About An Long, let me step into the field, Xiao Zhong had better return to the Sha Mansion. Right now you have vast circle of friends; people are coming to pay a New Year call to you, yet you mysteriously disappear, that won't look too good!"
And then turning to Xu Ziling, he said, "No matter what, you have to see Madame Hong today, see what she has in mind. The situation is critical, I need to do some trick on the interface between your fake and real faces. You might be able to use it when necessary."
After that was finished, the three split up to do their separate tasks.
Kou Zhong had just stepped into the Sha home, Sha Fu already met him up and said, "Li Furen [Madame Li] is waiting for you in the east hall."
"Who's Li Furen?" Kou Zhong asked in surprise.
Sha Fu replied, "It's Li Shiji Jiangjun's [general] wife."
It was only then did Kou Zhong realize that Shen Luoyan has come looking for him. While groaning for the headache inwardly, his mouth said, "Why is she looking for me? I don't even know her! If she wanted me to examine her, she shouldn't choose this Beginning of Spring day, right?"
Sha Fu laughed with him, "This, Xiaoren does not understand either," he said, "But Wu Xiaojie is accompanying her chatting. I hear that nowadays Li Shiji is greatly popular, he holds military power in his hands, therefore, Mo Ye has to give his wife a little bit of face, no matter what."
When they were outside the east hall's door, Sha Fu said, "Today there are really a lot of people coming to pay a New Year call, Xiaoren needs to go outside to take care of things. When Mo Ye has time later, please go see Er Gongzi; he said he wants to talk with you about something."
Kou Zhong said yes and stepped into the east hall. After introducing him to the sitting-with-her-mind-wandering far-away Shen Luoyan, Sha Zhijing said with a laugh, "Today Li Furen came here specifically to pay a New Year call to Mo Xiansheng. She has some medical question that she'd like to ask for Xiansheng's guidance."
And then she found an excuse to leave, leaving the two people alone.
Kou Zhong spoke with a wry smile, "Li Furen clearly knows that dropping by looking for Xiaodi like this is extremely dangerous."
Shen Luoyan spoke indifferently, "Your disguise is this remarkable, who would suspect you? Your ability has always been exceeding all expectations, but it is not surprising to Luoyan at all [orig. keeping one’s calm in the face of the unexpected]."
Kou Zhong was well aware of her strong will and her style of conduct; he sighed and said, "What advice does Li Furen have for me?"
Shen Luoyan cast her gaze outside the window, where the fine snowflakes were still floating down endlessly. With a tired look on her face, she appeared haggard and lost; something that has never happened to her before.
Kou Zhong remembered how she was previously following Li Mi going to war on all sides, braving all kinds of crises, which was a far cry to her situation now, where she was willing to be someone else's woman, abandoning all official position and political power; what could he say to comfort her?
Her interest waning, Shen Luoyan sighed lightly and spoke in soft voice, "Where's Ziling? Is he deliberately avoiding me?"
Kou Zhong was shocked; under such circumstances, where she has become someone else's wife, Shen Luoyan was still nursing lingering entanglement with Xu Ziling, the consequences were truly too horrible to contemplate.
Shen Luoyan's countenance turned cold, as she said, "Just now I heard the news from the Heavenly Policy Mansion: Ziling, using the name of Gong Chenchun, left without saying goodbye, only leaving a letter. This matter was immediately reported to Huangshang. Originally everybody thought that Qin Wang would definitely receive serious criticism; who would have thought that Huangshang did not blame anybody, he simply considered this matter settled by leaving it unsettled."
Kou Zhong mused that Li Yuan was busy dealing with the attack from all sides from the demonic school's three big shots, how could he have any interest in meddling with other people's business like that?
Shen Luoyan turned her head around to look at him; slightly angry, she said, "Why is the glib-tongued Shao Shuai suddenly become a mute?"
Kou Zhong has indeed racked his brains, but was still unable to find any good word to deal with her; momentarily he was speechless.
Suddenly Shen Luoyan broke into a tender giggle. The formerly deploying-troops-with-chatting-and-joking, the lofty quality of a woman-who-compare-favorably-with-men-in-terms-of-ability-and-bravery seemed to reappear on her; casting a flirtatious sidelong glance toward Kou Zhong, she said, "Perhaps it would be better for Luoyan to become the foot soldier in front of the horse under Shao Shuai's banner, or perhaps waving flags and shouting battle cries by your side, watching Shao Shuai moving the chess pieces and troops disposition in battle, unifying the land under heaven."
A tumultuous feeling welled up in Kou Zhong's heart; although he was fully aware that Shen Luoyan was just joking, but he knew that it was not without 30% of earnestness within it.
As Li Mi's Junshi [military adviser] for many years, Shen Luoyan has always been single-mindedly loyal to Li Mi, regarding Li Mi as the true master who would someday unify the world.
Once this originally unswerving conviction broken by the cruel reality like a burst bubble, the frustration and depression could be easily imagined.
Regarding Kou Zhong, the great enemy who defeated Li Mi, Shen Luoyan's attitude has turned from hate to respect, a totally different kind of mentality.
Until this moment, Kou Zhong still did not know what to say.
From laughter, Shen Luoyan quickly heaved a sigh. Her eyes moved to look outside the window, she spoke faintly, "Let me tell you frankly, the moment the troops were defeated, I really did not want to believe it. One moment the world was still brilliant and beautiful; the next moment it turned into another thing altogether. Everything, and I really mean everything, has an entirely different meaning; the past and the future become completely without any value! At that time I only felt that my four limbs were lacking in strength, my thoughts were in a whirl. Those who have never gone through that wretched state will never know how it feels. Finished! Everything is finished."
Kou Zhong wondered if he were to face that kind of failed-and-wiped-over-the-floor situation like Shen Luoyan, would he feel the same?
Shen Luoyan's beautiful eyes were glazed with a mist, dreary and fuzzy turmoil; the previously astute expression was replaced by a perplexed, at-loss look.
Kou Zhong felt that the one before his eyes, sitting opposite him was no longer the living-color-growing-fragrance pretty Junshi, but only the losing-life-force-leaving-only-the-beauty-on-the-outside shell.
Lightly hanging down her small cicada head, Shen Luoyan, with a hint of bitter expression floating out of the corner of her mouth, spoke in low voice, "I constantly remind myself that I have to pull myself together and be strong, but I also know that the great momentum is over. The undefeated Mi Gong [Duke Mi], after he was defeated, unexpectedly displayed such a poor, hopeless, missing-the-golden-opportunity-to-recover attitude. Completely disheartened, I had no choice but to marry Shiji. Do you understand? I have never told Ziling this, but I could not refrain from pouring out my emotions to you. Does Shao Shuai feel it strange?"
Kou Zhong awkwardly said, "Must be because we are old friends who had been around each other for many years."
Without concealing anything, Shen Luoyan let out a cold snort and said, "Friend? Calling you my bane is more apt. It's over! Everything has become the past. I want to see Ziling again; can you arrange it for me?"
Smiling ruefully, Kou Zhong said, "Xiaodi has just revealed my tracks, and was almost killed by Li Yuanji. Now the city the boiling; I was wondering if Shen Dajie [big sister] could wait until this Chang'an affair is over before meeting Ziling again?"
The brilliant light in Shen Luoyan's eyes flashing, she said, "You think I don't know that? Shao Shuai is indeed formidable. Even Ke Dazhi, who had always considered himself higher than the heaven could only stare blankly while letting Shao Shuai, you, break the siege and escape without losing half a strand of your hair. This matter immediately exploded all around the city. Only now the people of Chang'an begin to understand that Shao Shuai's reputation is not in vain."
Kou Zhong sincerely said, "It was just luck; I really hope that this kind of encounter will not happen the second time."
Shrugging her shoulders, Shen Luoyan said, "I still insist on seeing Ziling. Shao Shuai, what do you say?"
Distressed, Kou Zhong said, "Don't forget that you are Li Furen. You are seeing Ziling like this, it won't be good for anybody."
"I don't care!" Shen Luoyan resolutely said, "Tell Ziling, the zi hour [11pm-1am, or midnight] tonight, I am going to wait for him at the ferry crossing dock outside Anli, west of Yong An Canal."
Finished speaking, without paying any attention to Kou Zhong's reaction, she walked out of the hall.