Book 1 Chapter 4 – Impossible to unravel
Kou Zhong put his mouth next to Xu Ziling’s ear and said in a very low voice, “This woman [orig. ‘poniang’, usually used derogatorily] is prettier than Auntie Hong of Spring Breeze Courtyard.”
Xu Ziling was staring blankly at the woman-in-white’s stately and elegant jade-countenance; hearing Kou Zhong, he nodded in approval. The woman-in-white, who was still sitting in meditation, suddenly opened her eyes and glowered at them.
The two boys were startled; they withdrew and huddled together, trying to get as far away from her as possible. The woman-in-white’s delicate body suddenly shook violently, which forced her to close her eyes again.
It was quite some time later that she opened her eyes again. Casting an angry look at them, she asked in one breath, “Where are we?”
The two boys perfunctorily looked around both banks of Yangtze River, and then shook their heads together.
The woman-in-white looked up to the sky trying to determine the time of day. Seeing the sun was about to set behind the mountain, and the banks of the Great River was bathed in the glow of the setting sun, she knew that she has been meditating four close to two sichen [1 sichen is equal to two hours]. After pondering for a moment, she asked in soft voice, “Why is Yuwen Huaji after you?”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling exchanged glances, and then both of them shook their heads vigorously, “Don’t know!”
The woman-in-white’s eyes flashed with cold rays. After staring fiercely at the two boys, she suddenly burst into tender laughter and said, “I want you, two little demons, to jump into the river right now!”
The two boys were so hungry that their limbs did not have any strength; hearing her, their countenance turned pale with fright since they did not know what to do.
The woman-in-white suddenly sighed; she said unenthusiastically, “I want to sleep for three sichen, the two of you little demons must steer the boat nicely. If the boat capsize, I will want your lives as compensation.”
Stars filled the whole sky, the moon was low on the horizon. In the dim moonlight, these two good friends, who depended on each other for survival, huddled together to keep themselves against the attack of hunger and of the river breeze, while their palm was pressed on the rudder.
The woman-in-white had her back toward them, as she sat facing the bow in meditation to heal her injury. She did look like a beautiful goddess idol carved from jade and stone. Her beautiful hair has been loosened by the wind, it fluttered freely in the breeze like a cloud.
Kou Zhong whispered as softly as he could in Xu Ziling’s ear, “Do you think she can hear us?”
Xu Ziling was watching her as if he was in a trance, hence he did not hear him. “What did you say?” he blurted out.
Kou Zhong pinched his leg hard. He sighed and said, “I wonder what kind of fellow is that Yuwen Huaji, compared to this wo … hey, this evil woman, he seems to be more formidable.”
Horrified, Xu Ziling looked at the woman-in-white’s back. It was quite a moment later that he finally breathed a sigh of relief. Kou Zhong elbowed his arm and said in ecstasy, “She really can’t hear.”
Xu Ziling asked the question he has been dying to ask, “So the secret manual is really not damaged by the water?”
Kou Zhong reached out to fetch ‘The Secret to Long Life’ and flipped a few pages before handing it to Xu Ziling. “Why don’t you look at it yourself!” he said, “I’ve already told you that this is genuine goods at fair prices, a special treasure. Otherwise, why is that Yuwen Huagu so anxious to get it? Ha! That’s funny, the name Huagu [transforming bone] is a bit more-fitting than Huaji.” [hua – change into/transform, ji – and/to reach/up to/in time for. I don’t think it means anything.]
Xu Ziling turned the book back and forth a few times. “If it is waterproof,” he mused, “Chances are it might also be fireproof … Ah!
With lightning speed Kou Zhong snatched the book back, he deftly hid the valuable and heavy treasure well, while muttering, “Don’t even think of testing it. Ha! We are finally leaving that stuffy, confining egg Yangzhou city. And now everything is fine. Except for our precious belly.”
Now that he mentioned it, suddenly Xu Ziling’s tummy reacted with an unhappy rumbling. “Do you think this beautiful evil woman would be willing to lend us some traveling expenses for us to treat our ailing belly? After all, her eyes have taken advantage of our best.”
Kou Zhong’s eyes lit up because he spotted the small bundle lying by her side. He made some eye signals to Xu Ziling, and then started to crawl quietly toward the bundle. Naturally Xu Ziling knew that he was going to ‘imitate the dog and steal chicken’, to be a thief and to do some shady business. Quickly he grabbed Kou Zhong’s ankle while shaking his head vigorously with a firm expression on his face.
Kou Zhong struggled twice, yet he was unable to break free. Dejected, he sat back down by Xu Ziling’s side and said sadly, “If Zhong Shaoye turns into a hungry ghost, I will definitely come to you, the other hungry ghost, to settle the account.”
Xu Ziling said, “Don’t forget that we are heroes. Right now we are rushing together on a meteoric rise [orig. divine steed flashes past] on a highway to the abundant enterprise of Duke, Marquis, General and Prime Minister. Making such a move against a weak and unsuspecting woman like this will really bring harm to our good reputation as Yangzhou’s two dragons; not to mention she did after all save our lives.”
Kou Zhong surrendered. “This evil woman’s skill can’t be considered bad,” he said, “But she is a weak and unsuspecting woman. Oh! Why does it have to rain now?”
They both looked up to the sky, and saw black clouds rolling in fast. Very quickly the moon and the stars disappeared, followed by heavy rain pouring down. In no time at all the tranquil river turned into a wildly turbulent one. The Great River was pitched black, they could not even see the fingers in front of their nose, let alone the woman-in-white. Therefore, they could forget about steering the boat in such a difficult situation.
The fishing boat was tossed around endlessly by the river; they were surrounded by vast darkness. The rain shot down like arrows. Their clothes were completely drenched, making them cold and miserable.
In their frantic struggle, ‘Boom!’ the fishing boat suddenly hit something, immediately it leaned sideways and capsized. They both cried out in alarm and threw themselves in the direction of the woman-in-white.
With its earth-shattering power [orig. hiding the sky and covering the earth], the river water swoop down on them. The three people held on to each other and sank down together into the river.
In this situation, where the violent storm blew the rain horizontally, where the waves surged rapidly, where the turbulent water prevented them from seeing their own fingers, where Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong were starving and freezing, where they were attacked relentlessly by the water, every time they struggled hard to surface, they would immediately be pulled down into the water again.
The two boys’ original intention was to rescue the woman-in-white, but in the end Xu Ziling was holding on to her neck, while Kou Zhong was pulling her legs. The woman-in-white was still in deep sleep, but her body was perfectly straight; no matter how hard the wind and the rain attacked her, she stayed floating face up on the river. In a way, she has become the two little demons’ life-saving raft.
They were struggling between being living persons versus being water ghosts for nobody knows how long. The power of the rain finally lessened. The moon also showed its face a little. It was only then did they realize that the water has washed them out closer to the shore. In their great delight they exerted the strength that they did not know they still had, to pull the woman-in-white along to the shore.
As soon as they reached the muddy shore, the two boys were not able to hold on anymore; they lay down on the sand on either side of the woman-in-white.
The river still sent its waves to the shore, but no longer with the violent force of a moment ago. The two boys could not stop panting, in contrast to the woman-in-white soft and slow breathing, as if she was sleeping soundly.
The moon was obscure by drifting clouds once again. Before the three people were shrouded by the darkness, light suddenly came from the direction of the lower reached of the river. The two boys forced themselves to look up, and were shocked to see six big, brightly lit five-mast warships, with all their sails down, sailing at full speed toward them.
They were so scared that their scalps felt numb. Quickly they crouched as low as possible behind a sandbar. In time like this they really wish the river tide would be a bit more violent.
Time seemed to stop to a stand still.
While in their hearts Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling beseeched all gods and Buddhas, known or unknown to them, the huge warships finally sailed far away. Fortunately the ships were so tall that their lights barely reached the darkness where the three of them were lying down, plus at that time the sky was still filled with drizzle, so the visibility was low, plus lantern lights could not reach far; hence the three of them escaped great calamity.
With the woman-in-white between their hands and feet, the two boys huffed and puffed to get her onto the grassy area farther up the shore, and then both of them dropped down, totally exhausted.
Xu Ziling was the first to suffer a dizzy spell, he could not hold on, his vision blackened and he blacked out. Kou Zhong called him twice. And then after feeling his back to make sure the ‘secret manual’ was safe, he felt relieved and closed his eyes to sleep.
After sleeping for nobody knows how long, Kou Zhong was the first to wake up. He saw the sun was shining on the open space around him, his body felt comfortably warm, the heat seemed to penetrate his body and soul. Moaning in comfort, for a moment he felt as if he was still in his little nest in Yangzhou. It was not until he heard the rumbling noise of the river beneath his feet did he finally remembered what had happened the previous day. He woke up with a jolt, opened his eyes wide, and sat up.
The place where they were was surrounded by range of hills, the sun had already at the top of the hills, the Great River was flowing from the south, flowing right next to them.
After looking more clearly, he could not help sucking a breath of cold air. Turned out in this section of the river the rapid water merged with rugged shoal, reefs stood up everywhere; no wonder that although he tried to steer it, their boat suddenly crashed and sank.
But it was a good accident; if not for their boat capsized, perhaps Yuwen ‘Huagu’s ships would have caught up with them early on.
Xu Ziling was still sleeping like a dead person.
Heavens! Where is that woman-in-white?
Kou Zhong was at a loss, but he was also being paranoid; he was afraid she might slip back into the river. Quickly he crawled toward Xu Ziling and slapped his face in his usual technique. “Xiao Ling! Xiao Ling! Wake up! That evil woman is gone.”
Xu Ziling struggled hard to open his eyes, but unable to withstand the harsh sunlight, he closed his eyes immediately. “Ay,” he moaned, “I was just dreaming of Zhen Sao’s delicious meat and vegetable steamed buns! What? That evil woman slipped away?” Suddenly he sat up and glanced to the left and looked to the right with a look of disappointment on his face.
Chapter 4, Part 2
Szfong, Weed, Anh, Janger, Strawberry, you are welcome. Scrapper, welcome to the forum. In case you did not know, you may want to check other great stories here, quite a number have been finished. Drak, welcome back. It's always nice to see familiar names. Weed, I meant to post this last night, but was busy.
Kou Zhong burst into laughter, “Xiao Ling!” he said, “You fell in love with that woman, didn’t you? Be careful, I think she might want to take your little life. Hey! Ha ha! Ow! Ay! You are not supposed to laugh on an empty stomach.”
Xu Ziling shot him an angry glare, “I am just afraid she slipped away for personal gain, taking along our secret manual with her!”
Startled, Kou Zhong felt his back. Suddenly he sprang up, his countenance changed. “Stinky woman, mother thief, she really stole our secret manual!”
Xu Ziling still thought he was joking; reaching out to feel Kou Zhong’s back and lower waist, he let out a miserable scream and threw himself to the ground. Spreading out his hands and feet, he sobbed, “It’s finished! The person is gone, the money is gone, the secret manual is gone, and we have become fugitives. O God! Everything is finished.”
Gnashing his teeth, Kou Zhong stood up, made a fist toward the heavens and shouted madly, “No! I will do whatever it takes to get the secret manual back! Ah …!” Something flew across and hit his face. Kou Zhong screamed miserably and tumbled down to the ground.
Xu Ziling sat up, aghast. He saw standing on a rock about a zhang away, was the woman-in-white. Her beautiful face looked as if it was covered in a layer of cold frost; with her apricot eyes opened wide, she glowered at them.
When Kou Zhong was struggling to crawl up, he discovered that the ‘secret projectile’ that attacked him was precisely the darling of their hearts, their life treasure. With a strange cry he returned the book inside his clothes on his back. His manner of regarding the book as important as his life was ridiculously funny.
With a cold snort the woman-in-white said, “What martial art secret manual? Don’t make people laugh until they die. Just by looking at those seven diagrams, I know that it’s a plaything about training to reach immortality that the Taoists use to cheat people. Those talisman scribbling are to make it deliberately mystifying. Only Yuwen Huaji and you, the two ignorant children, consider it a treasure.”
Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong said, “It is best that Dashi is thinking that way. Hee hee …! Last night we finally managed to save Dashi’s life. Although there’s a saying, ‘confer a favor do not expect recompense’, slight reward is always one’s duty under the circumstances. Is it possible for Dashi to give us a couple of coin strings? And then everybody may peacefully take different roads and urge the horses on. Good beginning and good end.”
‘Pow!’ Once again Kou Zhong tumbled down to the ground. Five clear finger marks appeared on his face. Of course it was the woman-in-white who sent him a slap through the air.
The woman-in-white ignored Kou Zhong’s cry of pain; she turned her eyes on Xu Ziling. Xu Ziling raised his hands to show his innocence.
“I didn’t say anything,” he said, “Could you not stare at Zaixia [lit. under, a humble way to call oneself. I think only Jianghu people used this, I’ve never seen usage among ordinary/common citizens.] like that?”
“You didn’t say anything?” the woman-in-white indifferently said, “Then who said just now that I slipped away taking your rotten book along?”
Xu Ziling scooted several cun [1 cun is approx. an inch/a thumb] backward, while putting up a big smile on his face, “It was just a misunderstanding! And now the misunderstanding has been dispelled, let the bygone be bygone.”
By this time Kou Zhong has crawled back up; while stroking his burning cheek, he nodded incessantly and said, “Right! Right! There’s no more misunderstanding, we all are still good friends.”
The woman-in-white cast him a sidelong glance; she said in disdain, “You little demon, who do you think you are that you are fit to bargain with your Miss? I only wanted to look at your stinking book with weird scribbling, that’s why I took it. Alright, I want each of you to give yourself ten heavy slaps on your mouth; let’s see if after this you still dare to call me ‘woman, woman’?” [See the beginning of this chapter.]
The two boys looked at each other. Xu Ziling suddenly stood up straight with indignant look on his face. “A warrior can be killed, must not be humiliated,” he said firmly, “You can kill me!”
Kou Zhong got a shock. “Xiao Ling!” he said, “We can discuss everything slowly.” Turning toward the woman-in-white, he said, “My Dashi Miss, after we slap ourselves, will we go our own ways, from now on all gratitude and grudges, kindness and enmity, will be severed, both parties won’t have anything to do with each other anymore?”
The woman-in-white’s cold eyes flashed with thick killing aura; she said coldly, “I changed my mind. One of you must take my sword. The two of you may decide for yourself, which one will die.”
The two boys looked at each other, and then they exclaimed together, “Me!”
‘Ring!’ The woman-in-white unsheathed her treasured sword.
The two boys exchanged glances again, and then they screamed together, turned around and ran toward the river. But before they could even take two steps, the clothes on their back tightened, because the woman-in-white picked them up like a couple of chicken. The wind swished by the two boys’ ears. They left the riverbank, but not toward the plain or the forest lining up both sides of the rivers for hundreds of li.
‘Bang! Bang!’ The two were dropped down one after another from about a zhang away, along a hard surface on inclined slope. Because of their own momentum, they rolled down the slope seven, eight times, before finally landed on the bottom, totally confused, and with all four limbs facing the sky.
They had been hungry for a day and a night, their limbs had been devoid of strength early on, it was with great difficulty that they were finally able to crawl up. Looking around, they found out that they were actually at the entrance of a small town. People were walking around, the place was buzzing with activity, it was a lively town, but the woman-in-white was nowhere to be seen.
Kpu Zhong was greatly delighted, “That wo … ha! Dashi has left.”
Licking his lips, Xu Ziling said, “How can we find something to eat?”
Kou Zhong slapped his chest, assuming an upright and unafraid stance. Walking away from the wilderness, he took the ancient road leading to the entrance of the town, and went straight into the marketplace.
Xu Ziling ran after him. He saw the signboard above the city gate had three big characters ‘Bei Po Xian’ [lit. north slope county] written on it. “I wonder if they have militia army in here,” he said hopefully.
Kou Zhong snapped, “When our tummy is rumbling, even Emperor or Laozi will have to step aside.”
By this time the two boys have reached the main street, which was lined on both sides with houses, shops, and inns and restaurants. When the people saw their shabby clothes and unkempt hair, they raised their eyebrows and cast a despising look on them. They were accustomed to this kind of look; therefore, they did not think differently.
Walking about a dozen zhang, a sweet smelling of food assaulted their nostrils. The two boys could not stop their feet from stepping toward the direction of the smell. There was a small lane crossing the main street, turning to the left, they saw spiraling smoke from kitchen chimneys rose to the air; they were wondering which house was producing such a fragrant smell.
They had just decided to go in and take a chance when a shout coming from behind them; evidently someone was calling out to them, “Stop!”
The two of them turned around in shock, only to see two official looking men, with devils and monsters’ appearance, were coming toward them. From their expression, it was clear that their intention was not good.
Seeing they were not Yuwen Huaji or his men, Kou Zhong was relieved. Taking the initiative, he stepped forward, raised his cupped fist and said, “Finally seeing Uncle Officers, this is very good indeed.”
The two officers were taken aback. The one that looked a bit older asked in surprise, “Why is seeing us good?”
Kou Zhong’s eyes turned red, as he narrated his sad story, “We, two brothers, are Daxing [district, in Beijing] people, My name is Yuwen Zhong, his is Yuwen Ling. We embarked a ship to Yangzhou, who would have thought that en route we were attacked by rebels? The boat capsized, the people perished, more than a thousand entourage were buried at the bottom of the river, only us, two brothers escaped with our lives, but we lost our way. The purpose of our trip to Yangzhou this time is to visit our uncle, the Zongguan of Yangzhou, Uncle Yuchi. Ay!”
Listening to him, the two officers looked at each other. One of them asked suspiciously, “Where exactly did the mishap happen? How did you arrive here?”
Xu Ziling caught on, “The accident happened at the Grand Canal. To evade the thieves, we were in panic and did not see where we were going; it was after walking for many days that we are finally here. I wonder what are Uncles’ honored surname and great given name? If you could send us off to Yangzhou, Uncle Yuchi will definitely reward you handsomely.”
The older officer replied, “My name is Zhou Ping, and he is Chen Wang.”
Noticing that the two officers were eyeing their shabby clothes that made them look more like beggars than young masters of prominent family, Kou Zhong promptly offered a remedy, “During our journey over the mountains and across the forests, our clothes were ripped and damaged beyond repair, fortunately we came across a small village, where we exchanged our jade ornaments for two sets of clothing, but we were given random direction that we ended up in here. May I ask Uncles, how much farther is it from here to Yangzhou?”
Chen Wang and Zhou Ping exchanged glances; their eyes lit up simultaneously. Zhou Ping let out a dry cough; his mannerism suddenly became a lot more respectful. In a low voice and less air he asked, “May we ask which one is your esteemed father?”
With a straight face Kou Zhong replied, “My father is Yuwen Huagu, my father’s younger brother is Yuwen Huaji. Ay! Father has never been good in martial art matters, he made us, two brothers, to work hard on the teaching of Confucius and Mencius. Every day we have to read some ‘first concern is affairs of state, enjoying the pleasure comes later’. Otherwise, if we only learned one-tenth of our Uncle’s martial art skill, we won’t be in such a sorry state today.”
Zhou Ping and Chen Wang were two straw bags. Hearing him quoting some literature, although they did not understand, plus they were intimidated by Yuwen Huaji’s prestige, their suspicion vanished. Hurriedly they fell on their knees and loudly expressed their respect.
Kou Zhong was delighted. He said with a laugh, “Two great uncles need not be overly-courteous. I wonder which restaurant nearby has quite decent dishes?”
Zhou Ping respectfully said, “Two Gongzi [young master], please follow lowly ones! Our town’s Gao Peng Xuan [gao peng – high/respected friend, xuan – pavilion with a view], although it is local, its appetizer is exceptionally well-known.”
Chen Wang turned around and said, “I must report to County Deputy Chen immediately that Yuwen Daren’s [lit. big/great man, a term of respect toward superiors, usually government officials] nephews have arrived.”
The two boys jumped in fright, but their stomachs were rumbling violently, so they did not care too much about other things.
 Lao-tze (c. 500 BC), Chinese philosopher, the founder of Taoism.
 Da Yunhe, the Grand Canal, 1800km from Beijing to Hangzhou, built starting from 486BC.
 Quotation from essay ‘On Yueyang Tower’, by Song Dynasty writer Fan Zhongyan; ergo, it was in the future since this story supposedly happened before Tang Dynasty.