In Chang’an, Luoyang, or similar metropolis, people might react slower to subtle changes of the season, but in Tong Wan City, because it was closely bound up with the prairie, no one missed the reflection of the changes in the natural climate.
She was like a small boat floating over on the rolling green sea, so that the passengers of the boat could feel the beginning of spring, brimming with life force.
Early morning under the brilliant radiance of spring, after not sleeping a wink all night long, Ba Fenghan, Kou Zhong, and Xu Ziling lazily sat at the same place they were sitting last night, facing the unending stream of vehicles and horses coming and going along the street, enjoying the glossy, shiny-and-translucent-like-a-tray-of-pearls grapes supplied by Cheng Zhen’s household.
The news of the killing of the Hei Shui San Sha [Three Demons of the Black River] was spreading like plague, especially since it involved Ba Fenghan, the only martial art master beyond the Great Wall who dared to openly challenge Bi Xuan. It has caused a sensation in Tong Wan.
It was reflected in the attitude and expression of the passersby.
Kou Zhong and the others responded to the passersby saluting and saying hello to them with smile.
That was then, and this is now.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling went from Han dogs to great hero of Han ethnic group who got rid of the evil.
Ba Fenghan tossed a grape high in the air and easily caught it with his mouth. While chewing, he said, “Very soon someone will deliver his daughter over.”
“What?” Kou Zhong blurted out. He nearly spurted out the grapes that he was eating with keen pleasure from his mouth.
Ba Fenghan roared in laughter and said, “Are you saying that you did not know that in the prairie, daughters are a man’s most precious asset? First-class warhorses come next. According to Tujue law, a man who caused others to be permanently disabled must compensate it with his daughter. Only if he does not have any daughter will he have to compensate it with other things.”
Knitting his brows, Xu Ziling said, “Why did you say that very soon someone would deliver his daughter over?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Ba Fenghan calmly said, “They.”
Scratching his head, Kou Zhong said, “They. Your granny! Who are they?”
Ba Fenghan replied, “Naturally they who want to ask me to kill someone. Something that other people cannot accomplish, ‘Jian Ba’ [overbearing sword] Ba Fenghan definitely can do it.”
Hearing that, the two doubled up in laughter.
Smiling wryly, Ba Fenghan said, “Other than ‘Jian Ba’, Xiaodi also have a dozen more nicknames that other people are imposing on me. If I tell you, I am sure you will be laughing to the death, and then I will be doing a big favor to Shi Zhixuan for nothing.”
With abundant palpitation Kou Zhong said, “That fellow Shi Zhixuan is really formidable; last night was like a nightmare.”
Nodding his head, Ba Fenghan said, “Compared to him, Qu Ao was like a child who has just learned to walk. I am afraid the three grandmasters in the world joining hands will still be unable to break his Immortal Image and kill him.”
Smiling, Xu Ziling said, “What other nicknames does Fenghan Xiong have? It’s really difficult for Xiaodi to curb my curiosity.”
Ba Fenghan returned a greeting from a group of young riders passing by. They were the third group to salute them. He replied, “The more decent one is ‘Xiao Zongshi’ [little grandmaster].”
Slapping his thigh, Kou Zhong said, “Xiao Zongshi Ba Fenghan; it describes your literary skill as well. Jian Ba is too old-fashioned, lacking new idea. But still, Ba Fenghan, three characters are the most brilliant; why do you need any nickname?”
Xu Ziling suddenly tensed up; he said nervously, “Fenghan Xiong is indeed seasoned and experienced; unexpectedly someone is really offering his daughter!”
The two stopped talking and followed Xu Ziling’s gaze, looking at the northern end of the long street. Two pairs of eyes immediately grew big and lit up. A gorgeous beauty, which could be compared to the morning sun, riding a horse, was slowly coming over. Having her would be like having all the radiance of spring in the prairie.
Everybody on the street was gaping at her. For the first time, people all around moved their attention away from the three men.
She was dressed like a bride. Her jet-black beautiful hair was woven into two straight, hanging down lively, graceful and good-looking long braids, separately tied with small flowery cloth with rhombus-shaped embroidered trim. Her pair of bright and clean, sparkling and translucent beautiful eyes was like the brightest stars hanging in the deep night sky. Set against the two hair-like slender eyebrows, it was like a clear, limpid and bright spring of fresh water in the desert; combined with her elegant, charming nose, two juicy, moist-petal like colorful fragrant lips, which matched very well with her goose-egg-shaped face, enhancing her beauty shining on other people, which none did not greatly admire her.
On her cheeks, there were two healthy, pink, rose-colored-clouds-like small dimples. The glow of two strings of long drop earrings hanging from her small ears, and a string of pearl wrapped around her slender neck – was brimming with luminous youthfulness, thick with the passion of a bud of flower not yet bloomed.
Outside the close-fitting skintight clothes, she wore colorful, exquisite robe, the sleeves reached to the wrist, about five cun above the cuff was embroidered with wide-edged motif, which was similar to the decorative trim of her collar. Her trousers were made of five sections of wide cloth of different colors, her feet encased in sheepskin riding boots, extremely dazzling to the eyes.
There were a couple of old men riding ahead and behind her acting as her escorts. It appeared that one ought to be her grandfather, while the other one looked like an uncle or that kind of relatives.
All three people’s eyes were looking at Kou Zhong and the others; apparently they were heading toward the three.
As if he was talking in his sleep, Kou Zhong said, “Now I understand why girls are the most precious assets in the prairie!”
Such beauty was enough to compete with beautiful women of Shang Xiufang, Shang Xiuxun, Shi Qingxuan, Shi Feixuan, Song Yuzhi’s caliber day in and day out.
The three were nervous; they were afraid that she would really come to look for them. Yet if it were not so, they would feel sorely disappointed as well. The feeling was quite contradictory.
The beauty and her entourage finally came to the street section where the three were sitting on the stone steps, and then they all flew off their horses together.
The three came to their senses. For the first time, from the other side’s deft movements, they speculated that these people were not to be trifled with.
With a smile on her face, the beauty bowed to salute and with very articulate pronunciation and vocalizing Han language she said, “Three gentlemen great heroes, I wonder if I could sit down and say a few words?”
The three hastily stood up to return the salute. Kou Zhong replied politely and modestly, “It’s our honor; how should we address Guniang?”
The beauty lightly moved her lotus steps and sat down on the chair facing the street. Her ‘grandpa and uncle’, acting like they were her slaves, stood behind her. And then of course the three men knew that the other side were not what they thought they were.
The three men sat down.
The beauty’s autumn ripples [fig. luminous eyes of a woman] wandered around, revealing an extremely enchanting smile, the two small dimples, like a ripple on the water, exploded upon her jade cheeks, between her fragrant lips appeared snow-white and even white teeth; using a brimming-with-tenderness sweet-sounding voice she said, “People of the prairie call me Meiyan Furen [see Book 37 Chapter 12]; everybody calls me that name, so that I have even forgotten my original surname and given name.”
Inwardly the three men were shocked, recalling the Yiwu Tribe’s camp of many colors outside the city, they never expected that Meiyan Furen would grace them with her fragrant self, and that she actually looked so young, just like a girl.
Meiyan Furen introduced the two men behind her, one was the Left Elder, the other was the Right Elder. The two men’s expression did not show any emotion, as if the ones being introduced were not them, but some other people.
Originally, because they did not know whether they should recall the swindlers Guan Ping or Duan Zhu, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were brimming with hostility toward her, but now that she sat in front of them in living color, exuding fragrance, they were unable to generate any ill will toward her.
Ignoring the gaze of the people gathering around them to watch, Ba Fenghan smiled and said, “Furen came to us, I wonder what instruction do you want to bestow?”
Meiyan Furen’s full of tender feelings gaze fell on Ba Fenghan’s face. Lightly shrugging her fragrant shoulders, she said, “Can’t I come to a place on account of its reputation [idiom]? We come across each other and talk, both to increase our understanding, but also to see which affairs we can work together, right?”
Kou Zhong spoke indifferently, “I wonder if Furen has a Han subordinate by the name of Duan Zhu?”
Meiyan Furen knitted her pretty brows, while revealing a look of contemplation. Looking back, she asked the Right Elder behind her, “Do we have a Han man called Duan Zhu?”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were stunned; they had never thought that the two Elders knew Han language.
The Right Elder took out a book, nearly three cun thick – that looked like an account book from his pocket, and in deadly earnest started to leaf through the pages.
Meiyan Furen explained with wry smile, “Nujia has so many people working for me.”
Finished flipping through the book, the Right Elder shook his head and said, “No one by the name of Duan Zhu.”
Hearing that, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling you looked at me I gazed at you, naturally they did not believe him. Clearly he just wanted to push this matter thoroughly back at her.
Meiyan Furen let out a burst of silver-bell like sweet-sounding tender laughter; she stretched out her delicate lily-white hand to take the account book. Putting it on the table, she spread it out and said, “Three gentlemen, please look over.”
The three concentrated their attention to look, only to see the book was full of Yiwu characters, which the three did not understand at all. Without any better option they looked at each other with a bitter smile; they had a feeling that this woman was playing them on the palm of her hand.
“Aiyo!” Meiyan Furen exclaimed. After saying, “I’m sorry,” she flipped to the end of the book, on the left side appeared several Han names; indeed Duan Zhu’s name was not listed in it.
The Right Elder said, “This is Furen’s expense ledger. Anybody who works for Furen, their names will be listed in the book, along with detailed records of the work performed and the monetary reward received, daily expenses, and so on.”
Meiyan Furen spoke softly, “As far as I’m concerned, anything as big as a country or as small as a gang or society, school or sect, they are just a business. Therefore, we must assess our income and spend accordingly [idiom]; we must control the cost. Three gentlemen ought to think so, no?”
Her gaze shot at Ba Fenghan. Pursing her lips, she giggled and said, “Not many Tujue men look cultured and handsome like you.”
Ba Fenghan chuckled and said, “Looks like Furen does not have too good of an opinion on Tujue men.”
Meiyan Furen sighed lightly and said, “Yiwu people don’t have any good opinion on any tribe who worship the wolf, but Ba Fenghan is an exception.”
In the prairie, Tujue and Qidan were tribes who worship the wolves. Tujue Army’s banner was golden wolf head, which was displayed prominently during battle.
Astonished, Ba Fenghan asked, “Why am I an exception?”
The colorful light in Meiyan Furen’s pretty eyes were flashing, giving the impression that not only she was good-looking, but also possessed out-of-the-ordinary intelligence, absolutely not just an extraordinarily beautiful woman who bewitched others using her outward appearance.
The tone of her voice serene, she said, “Ba Fenghan has become a model in the prairie as the only person who fight against power. Mentioning Ba Fenghan, no one dares not to say that you are a hero and a good man.”
Blurted out laughing, Ba Fenghan said, “How could Xiaodi dare to be presumptuous?”
Tranquil and calm, Xu Ziling asked, “I wonder if Furen has a five-colored precious stone?”
A hint of smile appeared at the edge of Meiyan Furen’s fragrant lips. Suddenly her left hand bored out of her sleeve; turning the palm of her hand over, a slightly-larger-than-the-Night-Pearl, its-seven-colors-moving-incessantly, showing-its-extraordinary-splendor-under-the-sunlight, anybody-who-is-not-blind-would-know-that-it-was-a-rare-treasure colorful stone suddenly appeared before the three men’s eyes.
Set against the delicate and beautiful, so gentle and soft that it was hard to describe, moving jade palm, the five-colored precious stone appeared to be like an alien object coming from the world of immortals.
This move was greatly beyond the three men’s expectation; momentarily they could only stare blankly.
Meiyan Furen’s voice entered the three men’s ears, “If the three gentlemen do not dislike being troubled, is it possible to deliver the Five-Colored Stone for me to Longquan, and present it to Bai Ziting?”
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, “Frankly speaking, Furen is a person that is difficult to refuse. But I still don’t understand why Furen is so sure that we, three brothers will accept this proposal.”
Meiyan Furen’s lily-white hand went down until it was only about a cun above the tabletop; tilting her palm, she let the perfectly round precious stone rolling gently on the table. Watching this, the three were very scared and on edge, nervous that the precious stone might knock into something and become damaged, because any slight defect was an unforgiveable error.
The Five-Colored Stone was just too precious!
Rolling her beautiful eyes around, Meiyan Furen cast Kou Zhong a seemingly deeply meaningful glance; as tender and soft as water, she said, “Because to Shaoshuai Kou Zhong, whose name shook inside and outside the Central Plains, going to Longquan will be a moving journey. Not to mention this stone is originally the Qidan’s subduing country’s treasure, no matter the cost, Qidan people will never let it fall into the old enemy, Bai Ziting’s hands. Qidan people are seeking Shiwei people’s help. I hear that Shiwei’s two most outstanding martial art masters, Junwawei’s Bielegunatai and Bugunatai, two brothers, are rushing over for this purpose.”
Ba Fenghan sighed and said, “Furen’s speech is just as enchanting as Furen’s elegant manner.”
“I wonder if Furen wants us to be your bodyguards,” Kou Zhong said.
Meiyan Furen stood up gracefully, shook her head, and said, “Now everybody in this street knows that nujia has handed over the Five-Colored Stone to you, it no longer has anything to do with nujia. If so destined, we will meet again.”
Smiling ruefully, Xu Ziling said, “You are not afraid that we might embezzle the treasure or perhaps we will have a rift with Bai Ziting and give the stone to Qidan people?”
Laughing tenderly, Meiyan Furen said, “Then I’ll have no choice but to blame myself for entrusting it not to the right person.”
Finished speaking, just as graceful-with-many-postures, along with the Left and Right Elders, she swiftly get on the horse and left.
Staring blankly at the Five-Colored Stone Meiyan Furen left behind, Kou Zhong sighed and said, “Just another beauty that gives people headache.”
Ba Fenghan reached out to pick the colorful stone with his fingertips. Bringing it to about three cun in front of his eyes, he looked at it closely and spoke heavily, “Last night Shi Zhixuan already made me feel that from being the hunter, we have become the prey, and now this feeling is getting more intense.”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “Ma Ji’s good luck is certainly coming right into his face; otherwise, how could side issues keep arising, so that we cannot concentrate our attention and find the time to deal with him?”
Ba Fenghan smiled and said, “Does Shaoshuai think that this treasure can be exchanged with eighty-thousand sheets of sheepskin from Bai Ziting? This request is not too excessive! Whenever I, Ba Fenghan have worked for somebody, I would have to get paid.”
He casually put the colorful stone into Kou Zhong’s sheepskin robe’s coat.
Kou Zhong grabbed the Five-Colored Stone over the coat. As if he was just awakened from a dream, he said in pleasant surprise, “Must be because I am still adjusting to the water and soil [i.e. climate] of the prairie that my brain is still sluggish. Xiaojie’s eighty thousand sheets of sheepskin were practically purchased by Bai Ziting from the Huihe people. Da Xiaojie dipped into her pocket. This time it ought to be his turn.”
Xu Ziling said, “Money being available does not necessarily mean the goods is readily available as well. Didn’t you have to wait at least a year or a half?”
Kou Zhong reached out and pressed his hand on Xu Ziling’s shoulder; immensely proud of himself, he said, “Xiao Ling is, after all, an honest person, in this matter your little brain cannot go around a corner. Bai Ziting can buy the skin from Ma Ji, no need to worry that it will be out of stock.”
Ba Fenghan jumped up and retrieved the placed-on-the-table, intimidating-the-prairie Beheading Mystery Sword, hung it on his waist, and cheerfully said, “It’s time to let the horses go for a walk.”
Without even looking, Kou Zhong took the Five-Colored Stone, transferred it from his right hand to his left, and stuffed it inside Xu Ziling’s outer robe’s pocket; he said with a laugh, “Ling Shao has the least stuffs to carry, naturally you’ll have to be responsible for this.”
Helpless, Xu Ziling replied, “Don’t worry, I don’t want Da Xiaojie to sink down because of this.”
The sound of hoof beats suddenly rang; dust was rolling from the end of the long street, more than a dozen riders were galloping over. Ba Fenghan sat back into the chair; unconcerned, he said, “They are Heshui [black river] people; as long as two LaoGe mention your relationship with Tuli, I guarantee you can cross the barrier without a hitch.”
While Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were thinking that the Heshui troops were coming to look for them to settle the Three Demons of Black River account, to their surprise, the Heshui troops rushed into every great streets and small alleys, and shouted loudly along the sides of the road. Listening to their frightened, urgent, and tense intonation, although the three did not understand Heshui language, they could tell that the announcement could not be good news.
Hearing them, none of the people on the street was not overwhelmed with the great-catastrophe-about-to-arrive mood; they scattered in all directions in great haste, the streets became chaotic, the tranquil and peaceful atmosphere vanished from the face of the earth.
Two Heshui troops rushed over along the street, still shouting the same words over and over again. Cheng Zhen, father and sons rushed out of the workshop. The eldest son Muke shouted some questions to the Heshui troops. The Heshui troop answered while still running, and immediately disappeared into the distance.
Cheng Zhen and his sons, their faces devoid of any color, withdrew to their house.
At a loss, the three men stared blankly at Cheng Zhen. Cheng Zhen appeared as if he suddenly aged several years. He spoke in panic, “They are finally here.”
“Who are they?” Xu Ziling asked.
Cheng Zhen replied, “The Golden Wolf Warriors are advancing toward Tong Wan, they could be here as quickly as midnight tonight. We now must immediately flee to the mountain area to take refuge, hopefully they won’t pursue.”
Hearing that, the three’s scalp went numb. Unexpectedly Xieli was unwilling to let them get away and was pursuing relentlessly, probably it was that group of Arabian merchants who leaked out the information.
Pulling the sleeve of Cheng Zhen, who was returning to the house to pack, Ba Fenghan said, “How many days will it take?”
Smiling bitterly, Cheng Zhen replied, “We are dragging the old and carrying the young, no matter how fast we are walking, it will still take at least two days.”
Ba Fenghan let go of this old man’s, who was afraid to become Tujue slaves – sleeve.
Cheng Zhen said, “Quickly get out of here. Ay! I really envy you.” Finished speaking, he returned inside the house.
The two boys you looked at me I looked at you, momentarily they did not know what to say. Because of them, these people had to abandon their house and flee to the mountain area; it would be difficult for their heart to feel peace.
“We’d better escort them to the mountain area,” Kou Zhong said.
Shaking his head, Ba Fenghan said, “If we do that, the only outcome is everyone will die together. If Xieli still has his more than a thousand personal guards with him, in face-to-face confrontation, we will surely lose. Since we have no way of leading Xieli away, we might as well stay here to guard the city.”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “We’ll do it that way then. This matter is caused by us, we ought to resolve it.”
The bells were ringing, elevating the mountain-rain-about-to-fall tense situation.
Rising up to his full height, Ba Fenghan said, “I’ll go grab a Heshui troop to inquire clearly Xieli’s situation. You guys are in charge of collecting darts and arrows. Fortunately we have two good bows, otherwise, we would lack the qualifications of even fighting with all our might.”
Suddenly the main street was full of vehicles and horses fleeing from calamity, most were scrambling toward the north gate. Seeing this, the three found it extremely unbearable.
Kou Zhong slapped the table, creating a loud ‘Bang!’ He angrily said, “His mother! I, Kou Zhong, will definitely make you pack your bag before finish eating. Easy come, but difficult to go.”
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, “Don’t toot your horn too loud! Just to stay alive, we must beseech God and ask for good fortune, there is no need to be overly delusional.”
Ba Fenghan laughed aloud and said, “I always said that mingling with you is always fun and colorful, and now unfortunately this prophecy has come true. As long as we can prevent the people of Tong Wan from being slaves, what harm is there in dying?”
The three agreed in loud voice; they vowed to fight to the death.