Chapter 5 – Easy As A Pie
Kou Zhong was suddenly gripped with fear and trepidation. After sending off Chen Changlin on his way, feeling restless, he returned to the big residence that he named ‘Shao Shuai Mansion’. Summoning Luo Qifei, he asked, “Do you have any news about Xu Ye?”
Noticing his unusual expression, Luo Qifei shook his head and said, “Where exactly did Xu Ye go? Subordinate can send our people to make inquiry.”
Kou Zhong stood up and paced back and forth inside the study room. It was quite some time later that he stopped, sighed and said, “He went to Baling. Do you know Xiao Xian, that kid’s situation?”
Luo Qifei replied, “Presently, in the Great River area, in term of strength, other than Du Fuwei and Fu Gongyou, he is one to be reckoned. After proclaiming himself the emperor, Xiao Xian successively seized Yulin, Cangwu, Panyu, and other area, plus he unceasingly recruit soldiers and buy horses. His military power increases to about more than four hundred thousand strong; his might expanded so much that in the south, the two lakes [i.e. Hunan and Hubei] area, nobody dared to move their blade against him.”
Seeing Kou Zhong frowning without saying anything, he could not help feeling concerned; he asked, “Is Shao Shuai worried about Xu Ye?”
His heart distracted, his thoughts in turmoil, Kou Zhong said, “I don’t know what I’m worried about; maybe Xu Ye, maybe something else. Ay! What new movement is there in the north?”
As if enumerating his family valuables [fig. very familiar with the matter], Luo Qifei replied, “Currently the most notable is of course the war between Dou Jiande and Xu Yuanlang. I just received the news that Xu Yuanlang’s main army is no match for Liu Heita, the casualties among his troops and generals are innumerable. Apparently his days are numbered. If Dou Jiande seized Xu Yuanlang’s territory, and Du Fuwei and Shen Faxing’s allied forces took Jiangdu, we will be trapped into unfavorable situation with enemies on both sides.”
Closing his tiger-eyes, Kou Zhong composed his mind. A good while later, sketching in light shades [fig. downplay] he said, “Call Xuan Yong and Jiao Hongjin for me, I want to attack Donghai within ten days; otherwise, our Shao Shuai Army will have to be disbanded.”
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It was as if Xu Ziling’s entire body has gone numb; his face expressionless, he asked Chen Laomou, “Is there a way to preserve Su Jie’s body, so that it will not rot before arriving at Liangdu?”
Bu Tianzhi took the little Lingzhong, who was just awake, from Xu Ziling, and handed it over to the wet nurse and the young maid, who were originally meant to serve Susu, mother and child, along the way. He wanted to speak, but nothing came out.
Chen Laomou reached out to grab Xu Ziling’s shoulders, and spoke with grief, “Xiao Ling, you must restrain your grief, accept your fate. Leave this matter to me, even for a year or a half, it shouldn’t be a problem. I will immediately have someone buy copious amount of required medicine and spices. We will only leave after I am done.”
Xu Ziling personally lay Susu’s body on the carriage, and then taking Bu Tianzhi and Chen Laomou aside, he said, “When you finish taking care of Su Jie in here, don’t wait for me, you may immediately set off to Liangdu as planned. If I don’t die, I will catch up with you.”
Chen Laomou and Bu Tianzhi were seasoned Jianghu figures, just by listening to the tone of Xu Ziling’s voice, they knew that any advice would be useless; therefore, they had no choice but nodding their head in agreement.
Xu Ziling resisted his desire to look at little Lingzhong again. Returning to the fishing boat, he sailed away.
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Jiao Hongjin said, “Presently, various cities in Donghai vicinity, Huairen, Langya, Liangcheng, Lanling, Muyang, have all surrendered to us. Donghai’s land route is completely severed. If it were other city, they would have abandoned their weapons and surrendered to us as well. But Donghai County has always been relying mainly on maritime transportation, hence essentially the effect is quite low.”
Kou Zhong turned to Xuan Yong, who has been frowning the whole time, and said, “How many troops can we use?”
With grave expression, Xuan Yong replied, “Supposing we are really launching blitzkrieg strategy, we can mobilize up to 8,000 men, of which 2,000 is cavalry. It’s just that although our morale is sky-high, in terms of training and support, we are still less than perfect. So … hey!”
Jiao Hongjin interjected, “Li Ziyun is brave, Tong Shuwen is crafty, plus Donghai is Li Zitong’s base of operations. In the last several years he continuously reinforces the city defense. With our current strength, we won’t be able to capture Donghai in a short period of time. But long-term battle is not something that we can afford either. Our top priority ought to be consolidating the result of war, and concentrating our resources to recruit and train the new troops.”
Kou Zhong said, “The best training is the training on the battlefield; my skill was precisely trained during fighting and killing. You can rest assured that I won’t be so stupid as to siege the city. Our biggest shortcoming right now is our weak troops, our foundation is not stable yet, our expansion is too fast. But these are our strong points as well. Li Ziyun is an egotistical man who rejoices in grandiose deeds, and Tong Shuwen is a conceited man who is too proud of his wisdom. These two men added together, they are exactly our ideal enemy. If we handle it wisely, victory is a great possibility.”
Xuan Yong sighed and said, “Shao Shuai always capable of accomplishing the impossible. Listening to Shao Shuai’s analysis, although the outcome is still unknown, you already raised our confidence.”
Kou Zhong laughed calmly and said, “The key lies in Li Xingyuan of Muyang. If I guess correctly, he must be a spy sent by Tong Shuwen. Because logically speaking, he really ought to adopt a wait-and-see attitude first, to see whether we really have any prospect before coming here to surrender. Remember that Muyang and Donghai are interdependent. If Li Zitong cannot trust him, how could he let him hold control over Muyang? At least Li Xingyuan’s close family ought to be in Donghai, so that if he defected, Li Ziyun could kill his entire family without leaving half a soul. Therefore, this must be a deceit.”
Astonished, Jiao Hongjin said, “I thought Shao Shuai trusted Li Xingyuan completely; turns out Shao Shuai already has plan in your heart, yet on the surface it did not show the least bit.”
Kou Zhong spoke indifferently, “His biggest flaw is that he came to see me in person. From Muyang to here, back and forth ought to require at least three days? In time like this, where war could happen at any moment, how could he walk away as he wishes? How is he going to explain to Li Ziyun? Ha! How dare he treat me, Kou Zhong, as a fool?”
Greatly delighted, Luo Qifei said, “Since that’s the case, how are we going to handle this?”
Kou Zhong smiled and said, “Of course by beating them at their own game: we lure the tiger out of its lair.”
Inwardly, he could not restrain Susu’s pure and beautiful, good and honest jade countenance from emerging in his heart.
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Xu Ziling was crouching in the darkness on the back of the roof, his eyes were fixed on the cavalcade just entering the city.
Yun Yuzhen’s flagship has just returned, and now it was very likely that she was going to see Xiang Yushan, hence by following her Xu Ziling could find that despicable disciple who forgot favor and violated justice.
It was the third watch of the night, the street was deserted with no one in sight, there was only the sound on the wheels grinding against the pavement, mixing with the clip-cloping sound of the hooves, breaking the quietness of the late night in this big city along the Great River.
Xu Ziling closed his eyes, while focusing all his attention to the sound of the wheels of two carriages on the street. Very soon he was able to distinguish that the one in the rear had passengers on it, while the other was empty. Although the difference of the sound was very subtle, it could not escape his, top quality martial art master’s ears.
The reason he was suspicious was because he knew and understood very well how Xiang Yushan conducted himself, his obtaining Susu’s fragrant heart was entirely for his grand plan. But if he could find Xiang Yushan easily by following these trails, it would not make much sense.
Bu Tianzhi’s defection should make Xiang Yushan and Yun Yuzhen know that their crafty scheme has fallen through and stood exposed. Now that he and Kou Zhong was not like General Lu Meng of Wu of the former days, anybody who tied deep enmity with them would find it difficult to sleep peacefully at night; how could Xiang Yushan be an exception?
But Xiang Yushan could be considered formidable as well. Knowing that Xu and Kou, two boys would disregard everything in trying to find him and get Susu back from him, he setup an inescapable net, and deliberately left Susu, mother and child, inside the net as bait, so that all of a sudden he went fishing for Xu Ziling. It’s just that in this game, he was one step behind, because he never imagined that Xu Ziling knew disguising skill, moreover, he already knew his despicable trick.
One trick failed, another trick was setup.
The new bait was Yun Yuzhen.
Xu Ziling knew for sure that the one sitting in the carriage was Yun Yuzhen’s pretty maid Yun Zhi, and Yun Yuzhen herself never board the carriage.
Escorted by dozens of Baling Army troops, the convoy gradually went far.
Xu Ziling took a deep breath, but stayed crouching, motionless.
By the time the sound of hoof beats and the wheels almost disappeared completely, suddenly there were gusts of wind from both sides of the street. Xu Ziling’s heart shivered, he focused his attention to look. Two people appeared in the middle of the street, their shenfa was so swift that they looked like ghosts.
The tall one carried a long sword at his back; his waist and back were as straight as a ramrod, approximately thirty years old, with delicate features, dressed in Confucian scholar’s attire, grew a moustache, his countenance ice-cold. Even without introduction Xu Ziling knew this must be the new martial art master Xiao Xian invited to join his ranks, the ‘Plain-clothed Confucian Scholar’ Xie Fengge, an expert in Covering the Moon sword technique, whose might shook the southern part of the country.
The short one held long truncheon; this must be the ‘Cowherd’ Zhu Zhong. His body type was complete opposite of Xie Fengge; he was a person of short stature, broad forehead and big ears, garlic-shaped nose, dense eyebrows and swarthy complexion, and narrow eyes, giving the impression of a farmer. But upon further inspection, his gaze was sharp and fierce, exuding aggressiveness from head to toes, definitely not someone to be provoked.
In that instant, from the opposite sides’ subtle movements, Xu Ziling has already had accurate grasp the two men’s weight [fig. importance/capacity].
This moment, the ‘Cowherd’ Zhu Zhong let out a cold snort and said, “This time Yushan Ye’s calculation seems to be wrong; I told you that that fellow will not dare to come here to display shockingly bad behavior.”
Xie Fengge smiled and said, “As soon as he heard that our Zhu Dage is here, wouldn’t he run with his tail between his legs as far away as possible?”
Zhu Zhong burst out laughing and said, “Licking my bottom won’t do you any good; you might want to save a bit of energy to wait upon that consider-himself-unexcelled-in-the-world Bao Rang!”
Xie Fengge disdainfully said, “Does he deserve it? Let’s go back!”
Zhu Zhong nodded and said, “If we don’t go back, do you want to stay here and continue drinking the northwest wind? That kid really makes us miserable; these couple of nights I did not have a good night sleep, and now I must find a beautiful girl to warm my bed.”
With waves of laughter, the two men unleashed their footwork and swiftly went far away.
※ ※ ※
 General Lu Meng of the southern state of Wu was the model of self-improvement by diligent study.
After Xuan Yong and Luo Qifei left, Jiao Hongjin stayed alone. He came with Kou Zhong to the garden. While this Shao Shuai was looking up to gaze at the brilliantly star-studded night sky, Jiao Hongjian could not help asking, “Turns out from the beginning Shao Shuai has already seen through Li Xingyuan’s deceit. But at that time we really did not have the slightest idea; we thought Shao Shuai gave your bare heart into his keeping, you just wanted to see if he could be completely trusted.”
With wooden expression, Kou Zhong said, “If I could not deceive you, how could I deceive him? Ay! I am just tooting my horn; at that time I believed him at least 90%. This Li Xingyuan must be a first-class liar; his words sincere, voice and features were well prepared. His mother’s!”
Only then did Jiao Hongjin realize that he had overestimated him; stunned, he asked, “Then what makes Shao Shuai suddenly think that he has a problem?”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “Tonight, for some reason I had ominous feeling with my heart alarmed, my body leaping; I was sure there was a problem somewhere. Thereupon he thought over everything that had happened these past couple of days, and only then did I realize the problem lies in this guy. If we fell into his evil plan, we would not be spared.”
Full of admiration, Jiao Hongjin said, “Shao Shuai is indeed not an ordinary person, hence you have this extraordinary ability.”
Changing the topic, Kou Zhong asked, “Are you still seeing that beauty, Qiu Yue? She has a pretty good voice.”
Jiao Hongjin said with disdain, “Why would I want to see a woman who cannot go through trials and tribulations together with me?”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “Well said! A man who clings to women’s charm cannot found a nation and establish great endeavor. It’s late! Go back to sleep! Tomorrow will be a very busy day. After Donghai is fallen, Li Zitong’s stronghold in the north will fall into our hands. At that time, whatever we say, he will have no choice but to listen obediently.”
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Without making any noise, Xu Ziling leaped down at an angle from the eaves, and then like an arrow he shot toward the big house Xie Fengge and Zhu Zhong were about to enter.
Because a number of big men guarding the door to the residence were looking at Xu Ziling’s direction, they were the first to detect his presence. But Xu Ziling’s speed was really too fast; while their faces were showing astonishment and they were about to open their mouth to cry out, before any sound came out, Xu Ziling was already about a zhang behind Xie and Zhu, two men, and had started to attack.
Xie Fengge and Zhu Zhong’s reaction was completely within Xu Ziling’s anticipation. As soon as they felt the pressure of the wind on their bodies, they fled to the left and right to strive for the space and time to strike back.
It was only natural that the men guarding the door were martial art masters of the Baling Bang; one after another they drew their weapon and scrambled to intercept.
With a cold snort Xu Ziling flashed away to evade the sword slashing toward his chest to stab at his heart.
Flicking his finger, he knocked another saber. As if he was electrocuted, the man wielding the saber was jolted back.
Like a tiger entering a flock of sheep Xu Ziling stormed into the enemy ranks. Just before another sword slashed down at his shoulder, his leg flew and hit the sword wielder’s lower abdomen, shaking the man and thrown him far away.
In an instant, relying on his fast and erratic footwork, he flashed to the left and swept to the right. Among all seven men guarding the door, none narrowly escaped; they either received a punch of met with a flying kick, and fell down to the ground in serious injury.
Although he was spurred by hatred, his attacks were still carefully measured; his opponents were only injured, and none of them died.
The inner courtyard was dim, the entire plaza was illuminated only by a huge lantern hanging over the main gate above the flight of steps in front of the main building. Were it not for Xie Fengge and Zhu Zhong leading the way, just by looking at the surface, he would never have thought that Xiang Yushan would hide in such an ordinary house consisting of only three medium-sized buildings.
From the buildings to the right and left of this residence, a dozen or so men rushed out to charge toward him.
This could be considered the optimum chance to kill Xiang Yushan, because the most formidable figures of Baling Bang were either guarding the trap where Yun Yuzhen was used as the bait, or they were guarding the more important figure, Xiao Xian. If Xu Ziling were able to dispose Xie and Zhu, two men, who were chasing into the gate from behind, then he would have the chance to deal with Xiang Yushan.
Xu Ziling let out a cry of grief; not advancing, he retreated instead. In an instant, he was in the space between Xie Fengge and Zhu Zhong.
Immediately Xie and Zhu, two men, had their soul flown away and scattered.
As soon as they regained their footings and chased into the gate, they already thought several possibilities on how to face the enemy, but they had never thought that he would change from advancing to retreating. It was not that they were stupid that they did not think about this, but because they were too confident about their own eyesight and judgment.
Anybody who was rushing with that kind of speed wanted to reverse direction must go through a three-stage process: take a breath, reduce speed, and stop first. Even a first-class martial art master, who would be able to go through these steps in the blink of an eye, would still reveal signs that others would be able to see, in which case Xie and Zhu would be able to adapt to changes.
But they did not know that Xu Ziling’s true qi, which originated from the ‘Secret to Long Life’ and the ‘Jade Annulus of He Clan’, totally did not follow conventional reasoning; it could go along, or go against, according to his wishes. As soon as he wanted to reverse direction, he would be able to do so.
The two men’s reaction was also first class. The Covering-the-Moon Sword and the Eyebrows Truncheon attacked together, hoping that by working together, Xu Ziling would be forced out of the sword-truncheon circle, and then the two would have the opportunity to regroup and launch their attack.
Xu Ziling’s back seemed to grow eyes. With just a hairsbreadth difference, his body swayed to dodge Zhu Zhong’s Eyebrows Truncheon, and then when the truncheon was at its end of travel, his back bumped into the body of the truncheon, sending spiraling energy along the truncheon, jolting Zhu Zhong that he let out a miserable groan, and tumbled two steps away, opening up enough space that Xu Ziling was able to flash away from the Covering-the-Moon Sword, and occupy the blind side between the two.
It seemed to be such a simple and easy action, but it embodied brilliant strategy, intelligence, calculation, and profound ultimate skill, which also decided the fate of Xie Fengge and Zhu Zhong, two men.
Before Xie Fengge flashed away in horror, Xu Ziling bent his body slightly, his left elbow heavily struck Xie Fengge’s flank.
Xie Fengge’s Covering-the-Moon Sword left his hand and flew away, his ribcage fractured, like a kite with cut string he flew sideways, and fell to the ground, heavily injured.
Fast as lightning, Xu Ziling’s other hand reached out to grab Zhu Zhong’s truncheon. In his attempt to lessen the pressure on Xie Fengge, Zhu Zhong hurriedly swept his truncheon, which resulted in not enough power in his truncheon. Xu Ziling twisted his body and his leg flew, while Zhu Zhong was pulled and losing his balance, Xu Ziling’s left foot hit his lower abdomen.
When Xu Ziling, using ingenious beyond compare technique, grabbed the body of his truncheon, Zhu Zhong already knew his situation was not good. While he was about to abandon his truncheon and flee, Xu Ziling’s spiraling energy, like a demonic hand along the truncheon, sucked his hand tightly. In his shock, he felt like his soul already left him. The very same instant his lower abdomen felt like it was hit by ten-thousand-catty hammer. The meridians in his entire body felt like splitting. His blood was spurting out from his mouth, light as a feather his feet left the ground, he flew out of the courtyard gate, and landed on the ground without being able to climb back up.
Inwardly, Xu Ziling cried ‘Lucky!’ because he had been using his full strength, but the two were only injured and did not die. From this, he knew the depth of their foundation. The reason for his remarkable success was simply because he already had in-depth observation on those two, plus he was willing to trade life for life. Otherwise, if the tangled battle continued, victory or defeat would still be unknown.
With a long whistle, Xu Ziling once again charged forward, attacking the more than twenty men, sending them falling face down to the left and tumbling down to the right, unexpectedly not a single one was able to resist.
Although he was enraged, when he was fighting, Xu Ziling’s mind and spirit automatically entered ‘the moon in the well’ stage. He floated, flashed, advanced and retreated among the saber rays and sword shadows, the enemy’s weapon always missed him by a hairsbreadth, without being able to touch him the least bit, so that it was like he was entering a no man’s land.
Two enemies received his punches and flew out, and landed on the steps.
By this time he already killed his way toward the steps. Four men wearing tight warrior outfit, who were originally guarding the steps outside the door, charged toward him. Saber, sword, hatchet and spear, four different weapons with torrential momentum attacked over.
The night sky over the residence and the courtyard exploded with fireworks and fiery arrows; obviously Xiang Yushan knew the situation was desperate, hence he sent signal to ask for help.
These four men’s martial art skill was quite superior, far above the other guards, plus they were proficient in techniques of fighting as a group. If they managed to hold him outside the gate, then not only he would not be able to kill Xiang Yushan, even escaping alive would probably be a problem.
Dealing with group warfare, Xu Ziling had ample experience. With a wild roar, unexpectedly he soared to the sky.
The four men’s weapons hit empty air. Before they even ascertained Xu Ziling’s position above them, ‘Pop!’ the lantern hanging above the main gate, the only light source at that courtyard, suddenly went out. In that instant where darkness fell, it was as if the four men suddenly went blind, while Xu Ziling landed behind them.
Repeated screams were heard, as one after another the four men collapsed on the steps.
The main gate shattered, lantern light burst through.
Guarding behind the door were eight of Xiang Yushan’s personal guards with the strongest martial art skill. They were about to charge out, when, using a heavy technique, Xu Ziling lifted one of the unconscious guard and hurled him inside, immediately they were hit and rolled into a heap, utterly defeated.
Like a whirlwind Xu Ziling stormed into the main hall. After striking two men and sent them flying, he shouted, “Where is Xiang Yushan?”
Two intrepid, unafraid of death, big men burst in from the door to pursue Xu Ziling, and were met with swift and severe, unmatched punch across empty air. They were jolted and were sent spinning and flying out, and landed on the steps outside the door.
By this time, everywhere inside and outside the door were the dead and the injured. Xu Ziling stood tall like a mountain, with a real consider-oneself-unexcelled-in-the-world lofty quality.
Xiang Yushan, with countenance as pale as a dead person, retreated toward the door to the rear courtyard, shielded by more than a dozen of his men standing in front of him. Everybody’s countenance showed fear. No one dared to charge forward to fight.
Xu Ziling’s eyes shone with dense murderous intent, as he fixed his gaze at Xiang Yushan at a distance behind the human wall, who was trying to get away step by step.
Without even looking, Xu Ziling’s leg flew backward to hit the tip of a spear that was thrown toward him. Like a streak of lightning the spear flew back and pierced the heart, the fatal point of the man mounting the sneak attack. Violent and ferocious momentum brought that man flew face up backward, knocking over another enemy, who was rushing inside, sending both man rolling down the steps. The situation was desperate to the extreme point.
Xiang Yushan could not restrain the fear in his heart anymore; screaming in terror, he turned around and ran away.
Xu Ziling soared vertically up, broke through the roof tiles, made a somersault in the air, and fast as lightning landed on the courtyard between the two sections of the building.
Xu Ziling launched a series of palm strikes over empty air, knocking down the bodyguards left and right of Xiang Yushan. And then he landed by Xiang Yushan’s side and let out a long laugh, “Xiang Yushan, have you ever thought that this day would come?” he said.