Book 19 Chapter 10 – Endless Entanglement
After sending off Xu Xingzhi ashore, the two boys continued their journey.
It was not until they entered the Yellow River that the two boys heaved a sigh of relief, because on this wide river, fleeing or hiding would be much easier.
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “When we started off from the south, it seemed like the world was under our feet; who would have thought that with many twists and turns, Zhifu and the others, three men died a tragic death, and Yucheng’s whereabouts is unknown. We are now forced by circumstances; we want to turn back to the south, doors are being closed in front of us. Thinking about it, I am depressed of our failures.”
Xu Ziling said, “Zhifu and the others, three men’s hatred, we must avenge. Real men distinguish clearly between gratitude and grudges. Yin Gui Pai’s method is indeed cruel and repulsive. There will come a day when we will pull it by the roots so that they [feminine] will never harm anybody anymore.”
Murderous aura flared out in Kou Zhong’s eyes. He nodded and said, “Other than Yuwen Huaji, currently our deepest hatred is toward Yin Gui Pai; blood debt must be paid by blood. Besides, even if we are willing to suffer in silence, Wan yaonu and Zhu yaofu will not be willing to let us off.” [Translator’s note: since these terms appear quite often, I am thinking of keeping them as is. ‘yao’ means ‘demon’, ‘nu’ and ‘fu’ both mean ‘woman’, but ‘fu’ usually denotes older woman. Similarly, ‘yao dao’, which I usually translate as ‘demon Taoist’. (In short, everything connected to Yin Gui Pai are ‘yao’ …)]
Xu Ziling said, “That is also the reason I am willing to come with you to Jiangdu. Otherwise I would have rushed to Baling to pick up Su Jie, mother and son. Until now I still don’t understand why Ol’ Die is willing to take part in skinning-tiger scheme, collaborating with Yin Gui Pai to conquer the world. There must be a reason that we are not able to see through yet.”
“Why do you care his mother so much?” Kou Zhong said, “Tomorrow, after entering Tongji Canal, we are going to travel day and night toward Jiangdu. But we need to replenish our food and water, because we will need at least three days and nights to reach Jiangdu.”
“I always have some sense of foreboding,” Xu Ziling muttered irresolutely, “This trip may not necessarily go smoothly.”
Patting the Moon in the Well on his back, Kou Zhong said, “When did we ever have a day of peace and safety? Whoever is not afraid of death, he can release his horse and come over! Ha! There is never enough time to learn, I want to open Lu Daye’s precious library and work hard to study it.”
Xu Ziling pulled him over and said, “Excuse me, the one who has been working hard is Xiaodi. Now it’s your turn, Zhong Dage, to man the boat.”
※ ※ ※
The two boys passed a peaceful night.
By noon the next day, the boat reached Liangdu, a big city by Tongji Canal, west of Pengcheng.
They had yet to decide who was going to guard the boat and who was going to buy provision, when the local ‘dark road’ [i.e. underworld/mafia] figures already graced them with their presence.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling grew up among the thugs of the dark road. Wanting to preserve appeasing mood, they were ready to pay the illegal toll per Jianghu custom, in order to avoid new branch growing out of a knot.
Kou Zhong put down his Moon in the Well, and stepped onto the dock to negotiate with the men coming to visit them.
Noticing Kou Zhong’s build, which was as formidable as a deity, and his calm and composed demeanor, the leader of this small gang, who himself a much-travelled person, well acquainted with the ways of the Jianghu, busily cupped his fist to salute and said, “Xiaodi is Peng Liang Hui’s [Peng Liang society] Zhi Tang [Hall of Wisdom] Xiangzhu [lit. fragrant master] Chen Jiafeng. May I ask gentlemen heroes’ honorable surname and great given name, and which village, which county were you coming from?”
Kou Zhong immediately recalled the San Dangjia [Third Chief] of Peng Liang Society, the Yan Niangzi [amorous/romantic lady], Ren Meimei [see Book 3, Chapter 7, but it was Sao Niang (coquettish lady)], and realized that this area fell under Peng Liang Society’s sphere of influence. However, he did not want Ren Meimei to find out his whereabouts for obvious reason; therefore, he hurriedly said, “Xiaodi is Fu Ren, has just returned from the Eastern Capital for some business, and is now hurrying back to Jiangdu. Ha! Parking terminal naturally has parking terminal rules; Xiaodi is prepared to pay your honorable Society. Chen Xiangzhu, please indicate how much we owe you.”
Seeing he was so humble, Chen Jiafeng immediately had good impression; smiling, he said, “Looking at Fu Xiong’s high-spirited demeanor, you must have gained enough profit. Fu Xiong’s boat is also of the highest quality, the strangest thing is, Fu Xiong seems to have only one helper on board.”
Naturally Kou Zhong understood this tactic.
When dark road characters encountered strangers, they would always follow the golden rule of ‘peaceful measures before using force’. In simple terms, they would feel the opposite party’s foundation clearly first, before deciding how they were going to slaughter them, in order to reap maximum benefit.
Supposing Kou Zhong did not show a bit of skill himself, they might win an inch, want a foot, so much so that they might want to seize the boat.
The seven, eight men following Chen Jiafeng were big and armed; just by looking at their appearance, he knew that these were local evil tyrants who were used to go on the rampage.
Grabbing his head, Kou Zhong said, “Chen Xiong is right. Since Xiaodi and my brother dare to sail to the north and rush back to the south on a fine quality boat, naturally we have something we can rely on. However, remembering that we all are of the same Jianghu way, plus we have high respect to ‘Gui Zhuaí’ [ghost claw] Nie Jing, the Senior, plus we have a little bit of friendly relationship with your honorable Society’s San Dangjia, the Yan Niangzi Ren Meimei, we will resolve this matter according to the rules. Chen Xiong ought to understand what Xiaodi means!”
Chen Jiafeng was stunned, “May I ask which line does Fu Xiong belong to?” he asked.
Displeased, Kou Zhong took out half an ingot of gold and stuffed it into his hand, saying, “The sage presents as an ordinary person, he who shows his true colors is not a sage. If Chen Xiong is willing to value friendship, then you should not examine the root investigate the bottom. Just consider you have never seen Xiaodi.”
No longer paying attention to him, Kou Zhong turned around and returned to the boat.
Xu Ziling was pulling down the sail alone. While helping him, Kou Zhong said, “Peng Liang Hui seems to be controlling this waterway. Just don’t know to which side they are realigning their allegiance this day.”
Xu Ziling had a sudden inspiration, “Turns out Ren Meimei’s men. Logically they would place themselves into the hands of either Xu Yuanlang or Li Zitong. Hey! It shouldn’t be Yuwen Huaji, should it?”
After fixing the sail, Kou Zhong said, “I’ll go into town to buy provisions, don’t let anybody seize the boat!”
Xu Ziling laughed and said, “If Zhu Yuyan, Wanwan, or somebody their caliber is coming here, don’t blame me.”
Kou Zhong roared in laughter and left.
With nothing to do, Xu Ziling leaned on the railing and looked around.
The traffic on Tongji Canal was surprisingly low, especially on the section leading toward Jiangdu; there were only a few fishing boats coming and going. It could be that due to the war, passenger and cargo ships were afraid to go through here.
From the pier to the city gate, the distance was only about a thousand paces. Anchored around him were about thirty, forty boats, big and small. Compared to the prosperity of any pier at the Eastern Capital, it paled into insignificance [orig. minor magician in the presence of a great one].
Along the way leading to the city gate, there were several food and tea stalls, but there were only a few patrons visiting these stalls that it felt a bit deserted.
Chen Jiafeng and his men have disappeared to who knows where. Logically, if they could not ascertain the two boys’ foundation, they would not easily make their move.
Right this moment, he suddenly had a peculiar feeling. Turning around to look, he happened to see the beautiful back of a woman, as she was entering the cabin.
Even with Xu Ziling’s calm and collected nature, he could not help breaking out in cold sweats.
※ ※ ※
As he was stepping into the city gate, Kou Zhong still did not know which power had control over this city.
In other cities, unless that particular city happened to be located at the line of attack and defense between forces, there would be merchants and ordinary travelers coming and going, both to provide tax revenue to the city, and to maintain local commercial trade.
But this strategic town along the Tongji Canal unexpectedly looked like a city without any defense; not only there was no banner of whoever held authority over it, even the guards at the city gate were half gone. Even in time like this, where the fire of war reached the heavens, this kind of situation was extremely rare.
As soon as he was inside the city, Kou Zhong could only stare blankly.
The main streets intersect right in the middle of the city, connecting the four city gates; the construction was of wide slabs of flagstone. The alleys were like a mesh crisscrossing the main streets. Most of the residential buildings were constructed of brick and wood; plain and simple, but neat. It should be a cozy and peaceful living environment. But this moment, nine out of ten buildings were empty, most of the shops closed their doors, as if disaster was about to strike. Some stores even looked as if they had been vandalized or robbed.
There were only a few pedestrians along the streets; everybody was walking in a hurry. It was indeed a picture of a ghost town.
Footsteps approaching from behind.
Kou Zhong simply stopped. He stood in the middle of the road just like that.
Chen Jiafeng came to his side and heaved a sigh. “Wars really cause a lot of trouble. One nice bustling city has turned into this.”
Kou Zhong deeply shared his sentiment, “What is really happening?” he asked.
Chen Jiafeng spoke in heavy voice, “It’s hard to explain in a few words. If you arrived just a few days earlier, you would have seen millions of people jammed the streets that not one drop can trickle through, the sound of wailing shook the heavens; it was a horrible scene of people trying to escape in all direction.”
Kou Zhong was puzzled, “Which power does this city belong to? Who attacked it?” he asked.
Chen Jiafeng replied, “This city has gone through several hands, the last belonged to Xu Yuanlang. Too bad the beautiful scenery did not last. Most recently Dou Jiande’s army crossed the river and attacked the city where Xu Yuanlang setup his base of operations. Thereupon Xu Yuanlang hastily transferred his troops, along with the provisions, out of Liangdu to help, leaving Liangdu’s defense weak. Finally even the several hundred troops defending the city also fled, leaving Liangdu a city that nobody wants to care, nobody wants to pay attention to.”
Kou Zhong was astounded. “Is Dou Jiande that terrifying?” he asked.
“Of course Dou Jiande is not terrifying,” Chen Jiafeng replied, “In term of reputation, he is much better than Xu Yuanlang, but the bandit troops Yuwen Huaji’s lackeys are more terrifying than Emperor Yan’s [Yama, king of the underworld] soul-hooking ghost messenger.”
Kou Zhong’s eyes lit up immediately.
Chen Jiafeng continued, “That day Yuwen Huaji and his army returned to the north from Jiangdu, wherever they went, they robbed and looted, slaughtering common people, raping women; therefore, when the rumors arrived, everybody scrambled over to hide and take refuge in the nearby towns and villages. Ay! Nowadays it is not easy to leave; there are wars everywhere you go.”
“Did Yuwen Huaji come here personally?” Kou Zhong asked in heavy voice.
Chen Jiafeng replied, “Nobody knows. We only live day by day here. As soon as the situation is not right, we’ll steal away immediately. If Fu Xiong don’t mind, would you uphold righteousness by taking us to Jiangdu?”
Kou Zhong was stunned, “If you want to go to Jiangdu, wouldn’t it be easy?”
Chen Jiafeng stared at him for quite some time before his countenance sank and he said, “Turns out you are not familiar with the situation in Jiangdu; unexpectedly you didn’t know that Li Zitong has closed all rivers and canals. Unless the vessel is somehow related to them, no others are allowed to sail to Jiangdu; otherwise, I would not have asked you.”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “I certainly did not know the situation at Jiangdu, because I haven’t returned for a long time. But I am not completely unrelated to Li Zitong. Chen Xiong, you may set your heart at ease.”
Half believing half doubting, Chen Jiafeng asked, “What relation does Fu Xiong have with Li Zitong?”
Instead of answering, Kou Zhong asked, “Your Peng Liang Hui was able to rank within the Eight Gangs Ten Societies; you shouldn’t be without any power [orig. economize on the oil lamp]. Why don’t you seize this opportunity to take Liangdu back, instead of taking the position of someone who can only receive the beatings without any strength to fight back?”
Chen Jiafeng sighed and said, “If not for seeing that Fu Xiong is definitely not an ordinary person, Xiaodi does not feel like telling you that much. These days are different from the former days. The year that muddle-headed ruler was assassinated, under Nie Bangzhu’s leadership, we captured more than forty towns and villages in the vicinity of Pengcheng and Liangdu in one go. We thought we would be able to proclaim ourselves hegemon over these areas, and would have a promising future. Who would have thought that one after another we were defeated by Yuwen Huaji and Xu Yuanlang? Recently, even Pengcheng was taken by barbarian thieves. Our Peng Liang Hui remains in name only, but the reality is gone. Even the Society’s Master’s whereabouts is unclear.”
Kou Zhong was taken aback, “What kind of barbarian thieves?” he asked.
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling darted toward the cabin door, and moved toward the four-door cabin. Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door to the room on his left.
Under the sunlight illuminating the room via the window, the breathtakingly beautiful Wanwan was sitting peacefully in the chair by the window, looking down with rapt attention at her pair of impeccable, flawless, not-contaminated-by-the-least-bit-of-vulgar-dirt bare feet. Her expression appeared to be a little bit shy, but it also appeared confident, which was consistent with her demonic and peculiar character.
She did not immediately look at Xu Ziling; she only said, “In the end you and I must have decisive resolution between us, isn’t that right?”
Not only her intonation was gentle and soft as though she was murmuring secrets while lying on the pillow; slowly as if each word, each sentence was placed gently in space, so that people felt some kind of extraordinary peace and harmony.
Remaining confident and at ease, Xu Ziling was leaning on the doorframe. Displeased, he said, “If you want to fight, then fight! Why bother speaking so much rubbish?”
Finally Wanwan looked up at him, while gently shaking her black, shiny hair, which length reached her abdomen. Her white-jade face, jet-black eyebrows, bluish-green, beautiful eyes that seemed to ripple with longing, even Xu Ziling, who was indifferent of women’s loveliness, had no choice but to admit that she really was extremely captivating.
He heard her cherry lips gently spoke, “Why didn’t you ask Wanwan the reason I am able to catch up with you here and now?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Xu Ziling said, “What’s so strange about that? Pi Chen failed to defeat us, you have no choice but to personally make your move; isn’t that right?”
Wanwan straightforwardly said, “We always underestimated you, two boys. Fortunately, later on we will never repeat this mistake.”
Frowning, Xu Ziling said, “You are blathering again. I am going out to find Kou Zhong!”
Wanwan’s pretty eyes were knitted in displeasure, she said, “Don’t rush me! I am trying hard to find a reason not to kill you.”
Xu Ziling burst out laughing, “Why worry so much?” he said, “I am asking for trouble, and I want to see if you really have such means of doing it. So, bring it on!”
Suddenly his countenance changed. He broke through the cabin’s roof and soared above the boat.
The rope mooring the boat was snapped, the boat was leaving the shore, and was floating with the current.
Wanwan’s Tianmo-power attack was coming from below.
※ ※ ※
Chen Jiafeng indignantly said, “The barbarians are those heaven-like Khitan people. They took advantage while the Central Plains is in the chaos of war, to collude with the scum of community within our Han people, and form the East [China] Sea Alliance, specializing in looting the cities and towns along the coastal area, robbing our wealth and stealing our women, to be brought back to Pinglu.”
Astonished, Kou Zhong said, “The Khitans are that formidable? Where is Pinglu?”
Chen Jiafeng replied, “Their equestrian archery skill is extremely brilliant. The current Mengzhu [alliance master/leader] of the East China Sea Alliance is called Ku Ge, who is the Khitan tribal chief Mo Hui’s eldest son, an expert in using a pair of hatchets, his martial art skill is overbearing. Our Er Dangjia [second chief] lost his life under his hands. As for where Pinglu is, I am not clear myself. I heard it seems to be close to Korea, which is the Khitan people’s place.”
And then he sighed and said, “Although their number is not that many, but they come and go like the wind; in an instant they already fled to the sea. So far nobody is able to do anything to them.”
The two turned to look, and saw one of Chen Jiafeng’s men, flustered and exasperated, rushed over and said, “Not good! Someone stole the boat!”
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling knew in his heart that if he could not flee for his life one step ahead of her, he would be entangled by Wanwan, then he would end up more dead than alive.
If he had guessed correctly, Yin Gui Pai determined to eliminate them because they no longer provide any value they could exploit, also because they were afraid the boys would return to the south and mess up their business with Du Fuwei.
But getting rid of them was not as easy as before, especially when the two of them joined hands, the combined power would be even more enormous than the sum of the two separate capabilities. Therefore, Wanwan followed them directly here, and waited until the two separated to deal with Xu Ziling, alone.
Bian Bufu, whom he had not seen for a long time, also appeared from the other cabin door and came at an angle toward him. Apparently he misjudged the direction Xu Ziling would take, especially since instead of coming out of the door, Xu Ziling broke through the cabin’s roof to escape. It was as if Xu Ziling had snatched his little life back from Emperor Yan’s hands. Otherwise, if he came across Wanwan and Bian Bufu on the corridor, the two people could attack him from the front and rear, then he would lose his life for sure.
The moment before Wanwan’s Tianmo-power reached his body, Xu Ziling quickly exchanged a mouthful of true qi to generate new power, unexpectedly he was able to flip over in the air, and flew toward the top of the sail mast. Laughing aloud, he said, “Excuse me, I must leave!”
Wanwan changed direction to pursue him, like a big bird Xu Ziling soared to the sky, traversing the nearly ten zhang distance over the water, and cast himself to the shore.
Wanwan’s true qi has been used up; she had no choice but to fall back toward the top of the mast. Her beautiful face turned deathly pale, she watched Xu Ziling escaping without any trace.
This moment, like a meteor Kou Zhong shot out of the city gate to the dock. He roared, “Wan yaonu, if you have guts, come ashore and fight with me, Kou Zhong, for three hundred rounds. I will cut you off into two or three pieces.”
The sailboat continued floating downstream.
Bian Bufu said with a cold laugh, “We’ll let you two live a few days longer!”
Wanwan suddenly revealed a sweet smile.
The two boys just sat dejectedly down on the shore.
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “I had never imagined that what you said earlier was a prophecy. The treasured boat is indeed snatched away by them. But I don’t have the qualification to blame you either, because I could not find any provision to be brought back to you.”
This moment Chen Jiafeng and his men rushed over, everybody showed deep admiration and respect.
Irately Kou Zhong swept them with his eyes, he said, “The boat is gone! You have to figure out how you are going to Jiangdu!”
Chen Jiafeng awkwardly said, “We really have eyes but fail to recognize Mt. Tai; unexpectedly we did not know two gentlemen are Kou Ye and Xu Ye whose names shook the whole world.”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “What name shook the whole world? We don’t even have a boat.”
Chen Jiafeng asked in low voice, “Just now, aren’t those two yaonu and yaoren [demon] of Yin Gui Pai?”
Kou Zhong nodded in affirmative.
Chen Jiafeng showed admiration until he felt like prostrating himself in front of the two boys; he said, “In all the world, only you, two Daye are not afraid of them.”
Xu Ziling laughed in spite of himself; he said, “Praising people should have its sense of propriety; at least Ci Hang Jing Zhai people are also not afraid of Yin Gui Pai; we are not the only ones.”
A big man behind Chen Jiafeng raised his thumb and said, “Xu Ye is a real hero; you don’t brag, you don’t exaggerate.”
Kou Zhong said, “You guys can say anything you want, but it can’t cure my empty stomach. Is there any way to get some food and wine? After eating, we all can go our separate ways.”
Chen Jiafeng happily said, “This is but an exertion of lifting one’s hand. Two Daye, please!”
The two boys were not bashful; they followed them back into the city.”