Book 64 – Chapter 14 Epilogue
The tenth year of Zhen Guan, the first month.
Heavy snowfall in Chang’an.
Xu Ziling was sitting at the table by the window in the southeast corner of the third floor of the Fu Ju Lou, staring fixedly at the Yue Ma Bridge under the wind and the snow filling the whole sky – down below. A carriage was just driving up to the bridge. It could be imagined that thousands of people stepped on the bridge and passed by every day, but he was sure that no one knew that this bridge has not only changed his and Kou Zhong’s fate, but it also changed the fate of the world.
He pulled the hat that was already pressed down to his brow a bit lower, and said with a smile, “You came!”
Turning up his collar that it covered most of his cheeks, Kou Zhong came to his side and sat down, with his back toward the other guests. Leaning against the back of the chair comfortably, he brushed off the snow on his body, revealed a brilliant smile, carefully sized Xu Ziling up and down, his pair of eyes brightened up, he shook his head and said with a sigh, “How many years has it been, my good brother?”
Xu Ziling replied cheerfully, “Just nine years. After accomplishing the magnificent feat of exploring the source of the two rivers, you, this kid returned to the Song Family Mountain City to settle down, while Xiaodi hid in the You Lin Xiao Gu [secluded forest small valley], since then, we haven’t seen each other and haven’t passed on any news.”
Kou Zhong cast his gaze toward the completely-covered-in-white-snow Yue Ma Bridge, he saw no pedestrians on the bridge. His pair of eyes emitted a reminiscing look, he sighed for the second time and said, “The Big Way is so simple that it is very easy. Turns out curing the country is unexpectedly that simple? Shimin really put the words he spoke at the Bank into practice, unexpectedly he accomplished the situation before our eyes. But honestly, I exerted myself in secret, to help him rectify the tyrannical villains, the grasping officials, corrupt mandarins [idiom] in the south.”
Knitting his brows, Xu Ziling said, “Are you still brandishing saber, toying with sword?”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “You don’t seem to know my, Kou Zhong’s status in Jianghu this day and age. After the White Horse Oath, I have never fought against anyone, because practically there is no need to undertake the task, as long as I send someone to say a word, that is enough. Who dares to offend me? Otherwise, Shimin’s benevolent policy would not have been implemented in the south this quickly.”
After a short pause, he sighed for a third time and said, “Feixuan is indeed the most discerning person in the world, the so-called famous monarch since ancient times, who can match our Great Tang Son of Heaven Li Shimin? He proved it with facts for anybody to see. After the great chaos, there is indeed a great governance. It is the golden age that is unprecedented all the rage for a time [idiom: grand for a limited period of time]. Hey! Why hasn’t the richest man in Chang’an arrived yet?”
Xu Ziling was baffled, “The richest man in Chang’an?” he asked.
Suppressing his laughter, Kou Zhong said, “Who else but Lei Jiuzhi, the happiest and most blessed old fellow in the world, but he is definitely poorer than many people, because all the real gold and white silver he earns, he is using it to renovate the Great River, so oftentimes his purse is as empty as if it is being washed, like when he used to gamble. Unexpectedly there is such a weird big boss in the world.”
Xu Ziling said, “You know everybody’s situation very clearly.”
Kou Zhong said, “How could I not? New Year and after the celebrations, people always come to visit me, so that Laozi is awfully busy. This is called withdrawing from the fray and living in seclusion? His granny’s!”
Blurted out laughing, Xu Ziling said, “I don’t want to hear you complaining bitterly [orig. have bitter digestive fluids rising to the mouth], have you seen Xiao Hou?”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “I met him once, he came to borrow Gu Kaizhi’s [346-407, famous painter of Eastern Jin dynasty, one of the Four Great Painters of the Six Dynasties] original works. Listening to the tone of his voice, he seemed to be as romantic as ever. Hey! The richest man is here!”
The time was half a sichen before the beginning of the lunch crowd, plus it was snowing heavily. There were only a few tables on the third floor with diners. Putting on a hat to cover his face, Lei Jiuzhi arrived in a hurry, he had barely sat down and immediately spoke in low voice, “I should have been the one waiting for you guys, but you must not blame me for coming late, because Huangshang caught me for questioning, and I was forced to betray you. Ha! You still look the same as ten years ago, not like your Dage, me, becoming more youthful, more energetic, and have the look of riches and honor even more.”
Xu Ziling shook his head with a wry smile, Kou Zhong feigned anger and said, “Clearly it was you who took the initiative to pat Shimin’s horse butt, you betray us in exchange for glory, splendor, wealth and rank. Let Laozi lodge an accusation against you to Qing Jie [older sister].”
Hearing Qingqing’s name, Lei Jiuzhi was shocked, he raised his cup, smiled apologetically, and said, “Don’t blame a good person wrongly, the problem lies with Hou kid, he reserved the most luxurious side room in Shang Lin Yuan from Lao Tao, and the one patting Huangshang’s horse butt is Lao Tao, he thought that this move of Xiao Hou’s is hiding mysterious principles, hence without waiting at all, he flew urgently to report to Pang Yu, implicating me that I was immediately escorted by the Dayemen [big masters] of the Ministry of Justice to see Huangshang. Huangshang only said to me, ‘Don’t waste Zhen’s time.’ If you were me, what do I do? Should I offend Huangshang, or should I betray you, these two kids? Which one should I choose? Of course I chose to betray you. Let’s all drink a cup, our brotherhood should not change because of anything.”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were helpless against him, they raised their cup and toasted each other, and drained the cup in one gulp.
Lei Jiuzhi spoke in delight, “Xingzhi’s Zhongli Academy [of classical learning, from Tang to Qing dynasties] has been very successful. Many people in Chang’an sent their sons to Zhongli to receive Xingzhi’s teaching. Merely based on his remaining prestige as the Shaoshuai’s Junshi [military adviser], it is enough to make him win instant success [idiom], not to mention he indeed has two or three degrees of broad axe.”
Xu Ziling said, “Don’t meander left and right speaking about him, is Shimin on his way here?”
Lei Jiuzhi laughed and said, “Of course Huangshang wanted to rush over right away, it’s all thanks to me risking my life strenuously admonishing him that Huangshang obey the well-disposed advice like the flow of water, but you must enter the palace tomorrow morning to have an audience with the emperor’s good-self, otherwise I will be pushed out of the Meridian Gate and beheaded. You guys don’t want to implicate Qingqing to live as widow, do you? Understand?”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling looked at each other with a wry smile. They originally did not want to disturb Li Shimin, but things have come to this point, there was nothing pertinent to say.
Puzzled, Xu Ziling asked, “Why is Xiao Hou so brash? There are many places to choose from when it comes to drinking, yet he simply must choose Shang Lin Yuan?
Lowering his voice, Lei Jiuzhi spoke mysteriously, “Because he wants to give Shaoshuai an unforgettable pleasant surprise of all his life.”
Severely shaken, Kou Zhong said, “Xiufang?”
Lei Jiuzhi spoke cheerfully, “Ha! It’s not entirely concerning Xiao Hou’s affairs, it’s our Shang Dajia who has just returned from a long trip, indicating clearly and with certainty that she wants to see Zhong Ye at Shang Lin Yuan.”
Xu Ziling reached out to light pat Kou Zhong on the shoulder to pacify his stirred-up emotion, and then he asked, “Where’s Lao Ba?”
“I haven’t seen his trace yet,” Lei Jiuzhi replied.
Kou Zhong suppressed the excitement in his heart, casting his gaze to the street, he said, “He’s here!”
In the heavy snow swirling in the air, Ba Fenghan stood on the street where pedestrians were sparse, looking up at them, revealing a joyous expression of reunion after a long period of separation.
Lei Jiuzhi pulled the two boys to stand up, he said, “Don’t keep Shang Dajia waiting too long, we are going to Shang Lin Yuan immediately. There are also Dazhi and Xianhe waiting for us there to enjoy ourselves to the full. I’ll settle the bill for you, you guys go to the street and wait for me.”
As soon as the two stood up, their outstanding physique and bearing immediately attracted the attention of the other diners. Afraid of being recognized and caused the commotion they wanted to see the least, they hurriedly went downstairs.
Ba Fenghan walked over leisurely from across the street, stretched out his arms to give the two boys firm embrace. Letting out a long laughter, he said, “This time we must have a good meeting, it’s been ten years! The passage of time is like a white steed flitting past a crack [idiom], so fast that it’s hard to pay attention.”
Letting go of his hands, with a smile on his face, he looked at the two boys up and down.
Right this moment, the three men looked to the end of the street at the same time, a cute little girl about eight or nine years old appeared amidst the heavy snow, bouncing and vivacious, carrying a basket of fresh fruits – was running towards them.
The three men were stunned. The little girl, breathlessly, puffing cold mist, stopped and stood in front of them, and asked in her childish voice, “Excuse me, may I ask, which one is Xu Dashu [big uncle]?”
Xu Ziling’s heart moved, he smiled and said, “That would be me!”
The little girl handed him the basket, in high spirits, she said, “It’s my Niang told me, Ming Kong to give it to you.”
Xu Ziling took the fruit basket, the little girl named Ming Kong cheered, and just like that she turned around and ran back to where she came from. In the depths of the rain and snow, a graceful figure of a woman could faintly be seen, wearing clothes as white as snow, and bare feet under her skirt.
Knitting his brows, Kou Zhong said, “Wanwan?”
Xu Ziling watched the little girl threw herself into Wanwan’s bosom, Wanwan lightly waved her jade hand to say goodbye. Pulling Ming Kong along, she gradually disappeared into the depths of the misty snowflakes.
Xu Ziling said, “I wonder if that’s the disciple she accepted? Or the daughter that she gave birth to?”
Ba Fenghan cast his gaze toward the gift in Xu Ziling’s hand, he smiled and said, “The bright moon in the sky [ming yue dang kong, same ‘ming’ and ‘kong’ characters], it’s a good name full of imageries.”
Lei Jiuzhi paid the bill and went downstairs. While chatting and laughing, the four men strolled along the streets of Chang’an, where the snow and the wind filled the whole sky, heading towards Shang Lin Yuan.