Book 20 Chapter 5 – The Difference Between Close and Distant Relatives
That very night Xu Ziling left Liangdu, riding on a light boat alone overnight along Tongji Canal going down south, and reached the confluence of Tongji Canal and the Huai River. From this point, he could follow the Canal going down south and reach Jiangdu in less than half a day, and if he headed west along the Huai River, in just several sichen he would have reached Zhongli. Originally, the journey would have been very convenient. Too bad Li Zitong stationed his warships here, and laid out iron chains across the canal, to stop any boat or ship from passing through.
Xu Ziling did not wish to let new branch growing out of a knot, hence he abandoned his boat here, came ashore and headed to the west by land route. Unleashing his footwork, he passed Zhongli, but did not enter the city, but turned to the south. As soon as he reached the Yangtze River, he could try to find a boat going west, to save time and energy.
Along the way when he was thirsty he drank mountain spring water, when he was hungry he picked a couple of wild fruits to eat his fill. When he took a rest, he would delve into the hand-written treasured books that Lu Miaozi bequeathed him. This way not only he did not feel lonely, he felt carefree, forgetting worry, without anxiety, and felt relaxed instead.
Now that he had made up his mind to rescue Susu, mother and son, he was able to throw out the load on his mind, and no longer wasting his time on an insignificant problem [orig. penetrate into the bull’s horn] in this regard.
Along his route, occasionally he would encounter deserted villages, and fill his eyes with the desolation in the aftermath of a disaster, which made him feel depressed! Therefore, he changed course and travel through wild, out-of-the-way uninhabited mountain and fields, passing over mountain ridges. Under his feet, traveling over destitute mountain and desolate valley were as convenient as treading on the level ground.
It was the height of the summer season, everywhere the flowers were blooming, the scenery was enchanting. Throughout the Henan region, the climate was moderate, rainfall was abundant, different kinds of trees made up the wide expanse of forest, covering the hillside grassland. Sika deer, golden snub-nosed monkeys, and all kinds of birds inhabit the area, filling the wilderness with natural charm and liveliness, making him forget the dismal wind and wretched rain of the secular world.
One day at noon, he crossed a high mountain and reached a fertile plain on the northern bank of the Yangtze River. As far as his eyes could see, there were branches full of wild fruits, fresh flowers in full bloom; he was in great mood as he climbed to the hill top, and cast his eyes all around.
In the not-so-distant southerly direction, there was a strange-looking mountain; the rocks were scarlet like cinnabar, with strange peaks and weird rock formation more and more emerged, extremely and wonderfully serene. About halfway up the mountain, there was a temple hidden among the rocks. Suddenly his interest was piqued and since it was on his way anyway, he was thinking of exploring it. Thereupon he dashed toward the strange mountain.
In less than half a day, he already reached the foot of the mountain, where a mountain stream meandering through, and to his surprise, he found a bridge spanning it, connecting the secluded path going around and up the mountain.
Xu Ziling was very curious; it had never occurred to him that in such a wild, mountainous country where no man ever stepped his foot on, there was such a scenic spot.
But then he got to think: people built a monastery here, surely it was because they wanted to escape the secular world. If he simply went up the mountain to go sightseeing, he might disturb their quiet meditation. He was just about to give up his original intention and turn around to leave, when suddenly a burst of clear and melodious flute [orig. xiao, vertically blown flute] sound was heard from the distant place high up the mountain.
Listening to that, Xu Ziling was emotionally moved.
※ ※ ※
Inside the study room of the Zongguan Mansion, Kou Zhong and Xuan Yong were studying more than a dozen topography maps of Liangdu and the surrounding area.
Xuan Yong said, “With our current strength, by directly attacking Donghai we will definitely end up with our wings clipped and will have to return in defeat. But if we can exploit our currently favorable situation, perhaps we can capture Donghai without wasting a single soldier, a single man, and Shao Shuai will not have to take the long and difficult journey to the Flying Horse Ranch to seek help.”
Greatly interested, Kou Zhong replied, “I am listening.”
Xuan Yong pointed to a big lake east of Pengcheng, separated by Mount Luliang and Mount Yi, “This is Lake Luoma [lit. llama],” he said, “The confluence of the river course. Not only it has abundant fish, the area around the lakeshore are fertile, vast agricultural land, the lifeline of many towns and villages nearby. If we can seize control of Xiapi, we can control this lake. At that time, without Shao Shuai even need to open your mouth, all the cities, counties, of the surrounding area will obediently throw their lot to you.”
Astonished, Kou Zhong asked, “Is there such a convenient matter? Who currently has control over Xiapi?”
Xuan Yong replied, “Currently Xiapi falls under control of a powerful gang called Luoma Bang [lit. llama gang]. The Bangzhu is called Du Ren, his men number nearly three thousand. Not only going fishing has to pay him fees, boats passing through or travelers touring the lake must pay him illegal toll. From time to time he went all around the area, robbing and looting, so he has already incited the heaven’s anger and the people’s grievance. If we can remove and replace him, and implement benevolent government, with Shao Shuai’s current prestige, the heart of the people will definitely turn to you. By then, we can also acquire Huairen, Langya, Lanling, Liangcheng, four counties northwest of Donghai, Muyang, Lianshui, Huaiyang, three counties southwest, plus Xiapi itself, we can completely sever land route toward Donghai; at that time Donghai is potentially already in our bag.”
Emotionally moved, Kou Zhong said, “Xiao Yong is indeed an insightful person. This plan is not only brilliant, it is within our ability, and will be greatly advantageous in our effort to rebuild Pengcheng.”
Seeing his proposal was accepted, Xuan Yong’s spirit greatly aroused, he said, “In that case, subordinate will immediately send Luo Qifei to Xiapi to get a clear picture of Du Ren’s foundation, to see how we can eliminate him in one stroke.”
After Xuan Yong left, Kou Zhong was thinking of taking out Lu Miaozi’s secret book and spending some time to study it diligently, when his personal guard came in to report that Gui Xiliang and Xing Rong of Yangzhou came to ask for an audience.
Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong hurriedly went out to meet them.
※ ※ ※
The flute sound slowly moved up and down in the magnificent, leisure atmosphere of the big natural world where the wind brushed the leaves into motion. The tone and the cohesion between the sound had no flaw. Although there was no intense change or climax that appeared suddenly, there was another feeling that lingered endlessly, an implicit charm in the sound that would not rest until death.
Xu Ziling could not help stopping to listen carefully. The ethereal, penetrating wordless music seemed to accurately describe the beautiful endlessly empty space in the abyss of a certain spirit; no sorrow, no joy, but was able to touch the listener’s soul. The mood of the flute player itself was like an empty mountain locked up in the clouds, seemingly visible yet desired to be hidden; so elusive and unfathomable. The tender and limpid beautiful sound was like someone inside the house, yet was doomed in predestination to have the cold and detached gaze of an outsider, making others also felt that the heavy life could also be interpreted with cold, indifferent attitude.
The flute sound suddenly stopped.
As if he was forced to wake up from a dream, Xu Ziling reluctantly came up to his senses and decided to climb up the mountain to take a look.
He knew who the flute player was.
Only she could produce such a lucid and elegant, graceful, without the least bit of vulgarity, flute sound.
※ ※ ※
Grabbing Gui Xiliang and Xing Rong’s, his childhood companions, hands, Kou Zhong pulled them into the study room.
After a bit of catching up, Gui Xiliang happily said, “It’s really good to see you, this kid. Ever since we heard the news you defeated Yuwen Huaji, we immediately rushed over at double speed, most afraid that you would suddenly disappear someplace else.”
Almost with reverence, Xing Rong said, “Nowadays not many people are as famous as you and Xiao Ling! Ay! If we had arrived two days earlier, we could have seen Xiao Ling too.”
Kou Zhong poured tea for the two; giggling, he said, “Two Dage’s news network is certainly fast and abundant. Xiaodi only kicked Yuwen Huagu’s butts a little bit, yet can’t conceal it from you; this time what kind of support you can offer Xiaodi?”
Gui Xiliang stared at him blankly for half a day. Finally he sighed and said, “People say wealth will bring the good out of you. You, this fellow, are already world famous, but at the deepest level, that shameless attitude seems to be the same as before, just like it will never change.”
Kou Zhong roared in laughter and said, “Can you change fine natural character as soon as you say you are going to change? Take you, this muddled egg [i.e. scoundrel/bastard] for example, as soon as you climbed up the ladder to become a Xiangzhu [lit. fragrant master, a leadership position in a gang], you went all over the place acting like a big brother; am I not of a common origin with you, who previously loved to make a scene? The difference is that you are of an inferior fundamental character!”
Gui Xiliang was unable to hold his ground; displeased, he laughed and said, “We are all brothers, how come you are not willing to let me off?”
Xing Rong rolled with laughter; completely at ease, he said, “I don’t know when was the last time I laughed this happily!”
Kou Zhong raised his tea cup and said, “Come! Let Xiaodi toast two Dage with a cup of tea.”
Finished laughing and joking, Gui Xiliang spoke grimly, “This time we rushed over, there is indeed a critical matter we’d like to discuss with you.”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “With your current status, you can’t possibly come to see me if it were a chicken feather, garlic skin [i.e. trivial] matter, right?”
Pretending to be angry, Gui Xiliang said, “You tease me again and I’ll beat you; I don’t care how formidable you are now.”
Kou Zhong surrendered. “Gui Dage, please calm down,” he said, May I ask what instruction do you have for me?”
Xing Rong joined in, “Ever since that year in Jiangyin City you and Xiao Ling beat the people of Clear, Rain and Dew, three Halls, until they were in a sorry state [see Book 7 starting on Chapter 3], we reorganized our gang under the leadership of Shao Junshi. Due to your connection with the Song Clan, Liang Ge was promoted to be the Tangzhu [hall master] of the Dew Bamboo Hall. Hey! Xiaodi was implicated to have fun as the Fu Tangzhu [vice/deputy].”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “I also know that Xiliang obtained Big Miss Shao Lanfang’s hand in marriage. Ay! Your, this kid’s luck with women is indeed not shallow.”
Gui Xiliang’s old face turned beet red as he said, “You are teasing me again?”
Afraid that the two would entangle each other endlessly, Xing Rong hastily cut them off, “With the Song Clan’s support, these past few years we are enjoying great progress, and once again establish a good foundation in Jiangdu. Otherwise, we would not learn that quickly that one after another you and Xiao Ling have defeated Li Mi and Yuwen Huaji. All Xiongdi of our gang are very proud of you.”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “Don’t flatter blindly, at least that kid Mai Yunfei can’t possibly be proud of us; am I right?”
In Jiangyin that day, perhaps because he was Gui Xiliang’s rival in love, Mai Yunfei was very rude toward Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, resulting in him suffering a little loss, having his head and face filthy with grime, his countenance lost its luster.
Letting out a cold humph, Gui Xiliang said, “Forget that bird! With Shao Junshi in charge, he doesn’t even have a turn to speak up.”
Therefore, Kou Zhong knew that Gui Xiliang and Mai Yunfei were still like fire and water.
Xing Rong said, “Shao Junshi ordered us to come here to ask you to be our Bangzhu!”
Kou Zhong was stunned. “What?” he said.
With his hands behind his back, Xu Ziling stepped onto the path leading up the mountain. By unleashing his footwork, very soon he reached the middle of the mountain, where under the horizontal branch of a strange-looking pine tree, there was a small octagonal pavilion. On the side closer to the mountain, there was a stream of small spring, from where the clear water trickled down. On the other side was the edge of a cliff, from where he could see the boundless, empty and hazy sky under the setting sun, a multifarious beautiful scenery that changed irregularly.
It was when Xu Ziling was stopping to watch the scenery that a shrill whistle came from the foot of the mountain, followed by another whistle responding. The latter sounded so much closer to him than the previous whistle.
Intuitively he felt that these two whistling voices were full of ruthless, murderous sense that made his heart uncomfortable.
Xu Ziling’s heart was moved; he soared to hide among the thick branches of a nearby tree, crouching quietly, motionless.
※ ※ ※
Gui Xiliang spoke excitedly, “After you and Xiao Ling assassinated Ren Shaoming, our Zhuhua Bang’s reputation is also flourishing greatly. Not only there is a constant stream of newcomers wanted to join our gang, there are local small gangs and societies who, by their own initiative, wanted to merge with us. Perhaps you won’t believe me, but nowadays no one in the Yangtze River area does not give us a little bit of face. Even Li Zitong wanted to win us over.”
Kou Zhong was dumbstruck. “Li Zitong?” he asked.
Xing Rong said, “Shao Junshi has a very good relationship with Li Zitong, but our request to have you be our Bangzhu has nothing to do with Li Zitong, rather, it was our Gang’s brothers’ unanimous decision.”
“Hold on!” Kou Zhong hissed.
The two were stunned. “What’s the matter?” they asked in chorus.
Kou Zhong’s eyes flickered with sharp flashes; he swept the two man with his gaze several times. Seeing their heart was on edge, he resumed his usual full-of-mischievous-smile demeanor and spoke in heavy voice, “Do you trust me, or do you trust Shao Lingzhou more?”
Gui Xiliang spoke awkwardly, “This … hey!”
Xing Rong responded with conviction, “Of course we trust you, Kou Zhong, more. Ever since I was young, I knew you and Xiao Ling have the most yiqi [reminder: spirit of loyalty and self-sacrifice].”
Kou Zhong’s gaze fell on Gui Xiliang’s face; he spoke slowly, “Whatever you say in here, will never leak out even half a word; what his mother’s are you afraid of?”
Gui Xiliang helplessly said, “He has shown kindness to me by promoting me, also gave his consent for his daughter to marry me. I … ay! Of course I trust you a bit more than him.”
Joyfully satisfied, Kou Zhong said, “Finally you two guys understand the difference between close and distant relatives. Now we can start the amusing game of question and answer; I ask the question, you give me the answer. If you conceal anything from me, the last loser will undoubtedly be you.”
The two men jumped in fright; they were also dubious, hence they had no choice but to wait for him to shoot the questions.
※ ※ ※
The sound of sleeves fluttering in the wind had just come from the mountain road, the man already reached the pavilion. His breathing was still calm, even and drawn-out, a proof that he was a first-class martial art master with deep cultivation in both inner and outer power.
In this kind of wilderness of a desolate mountain, seeing this kind of martial art master ought to be surprising for anybody, but Xu Ziling was already amazed at the emergence of the flute sound earlier that no other person or object could move his heart. He understood that the flute was deliberately telling the incoming person that she was waiting somewhere nearby.
Although the man in the pavilion had fast and nimble shenfa, he still could not hide from Xu Ziling’s sharp eyes. It was a big man wearing tight warrior outfit; there was an unusually big iron X on his back [Note: I have 3 different web sources, but all don’t have this character]. His nose crooked, his eyes deep; there was some kind of hard-to-describe sinister aura around him. In just one glance, Xu Ziling knew this was not a good guy. The weirdest thing was that he was wearing Tongtian Crown [通天冠 (http://m.wanhuajing.com/t495204) – in Chinese], a crown in the form of a horizontal board with all kinds of tassel hanging from it, like the one worn by an emperor.
While he was still thinking about it, another shadow flashed with extremely fast momentum and stopped outside the pavilion. The newcomer let out a cold snort and said, “Ding Jiuzhong, you are finally willing to crawl out of your burrow? I hope in that thirty-six-move [the following two sentences several characters missing, I can’t figure out what he was saying].”
Xu Ziling mused inwardly that turned out these two were old enemies, hence as soon as they met, they both put on an act ‘with swords drawn and bows bent’, giving the impression that the fight might start any moment.
Ding Jiuzhong inside the pavilion laughed eerily and calmly replied, “I haven’t seen Zhou Laotan Xiong for twenty years, who would have thought that your temper is still as bad, no wonder all along your Scarlet Hand Something [again, missing character] cannot reach the pinnacle of perfection. I heard that s1ut’s daughter has received the handed-down teachings from her mother, I hope you don’t still harbor a grudge against Qi Yun Monastery!”
This Zhou Laotan’s appearance was even less flattering that that of Ding Jiuzhong. His face was as wide as a basin, his chin bulging and protruding outward, his thick lips stuck out like a bird’s beak, his two big eyes clear, like a pair of will-o'-the-wisp. His build was short and stout, but his two arms are thick and solid like tree trunks. Although he was wearing monk’s cassock, there was not the slightest bit of impression that he was a man outside the secular world; on the contrary, he gave up the impression of a devil king who killed people like scything flax. On his head he wore a string of blood red beads, which felt even more out of place.
From their exchange, Xu Ziling knew that they were full of hostility toward the flute player, Shi Qingxuan.
Standing outside, Zhou Laotan blew off his breath, emitting a frog-like croaking noise, his left foot stepped forward, his right hand shot out from inside his sleeve.
Terrifying thing happened.
His originally already thick and solid arm suddenly swelled nearly half, the skin color turned red; he sent a palm strike over empty air toward the pavilion.
The surrounding air seemed to be completely sucked in by his swelling, blood-red huge hand, and then turned into a hot wave of air, carrying a stench like stinky fish, which, with a toppling-the-mountains-and-overturning-the-seas momentum, rolled in toward the pavilion.
Xu Ziling already had high estimate on his ability, but he still did not expect his Scarlet Hand Something could be this demonical and overbearing; he could not help feeling anxious for Shi Qingxuan, thinking that no matter what, he must not sit and watch and remain indifferent.
Ding Jiuzhong inside the pavilion let out a stifled groan, while Zhou Laotan only shook a little; obviously, in this palm exchange, Ding Jiuzhong suffered a slight loss.
Zhou Laotan withdrew his scarlet hand, and let out a ‘He! He!’ harsh-sounding laugh, “Funny! It’s really hilarious! The magnificent Gu Zhu [valley master] of ‘Diwang Gu’ [Monarch Valley] Ding Jiuzhong, Ding Da Di [lit. the Great Emperor Ding], unexpectedly fell with just a light pressure from me, that even your egg was nearly squeezed out. Really funny!”
There was a strong gust of wind.
Xu Ziling only saw a shadow flashed, the person inside the pavilion rushed out, the giant iron X [and then there were some gibberish, I can’t make any sense out of it], stormed straight toward the opponent. But in Xu Ziling’s eyes, this attack was not simple at all. Not only the technique was profound, the ever-changing, thick and broad X [and some gibberish] … [Just to give you an idea, here is the original: 宽厚的x?聿蛔“诙??婢⒌?性龀ぃ?俣纫嘣诘萆??鋢?ㄒ训匠錾袢牖?木?界。Two of my sources are the same, the third one simply skip this part altogether and go straight to the following paragraph. Any help will be appreciated.]
Although Zhou Laotan appeared relaxed, his expression was extremely grave; his two swelling and blood-red arms struck out from inside his sleeves and turned into scarlet palm shadows like fire filling the sky, to meet the giant X head-on.
Powerful qi collided; all around them the tree where shaken the flowers were snapped, the branches broke and the leaves fell.
When Zhou Laotan was staggering to the left, Ding Jiuzhong retreated to the pavilion. Laughing nastily, he said, “I, Ding Da Di had just broken through the thirty-seventh style of the ‘Five Emperors XX’, the ‘King of Xiang’s dream’. How did it feel?”
It was only this moment that the exhausted Zhou Laotan managed to steady his footing. His face alternated between red and white, but it was unclear whether the changes were due to him circulating his internal energy, or because he was ashamed.
Xu Ziling was secretly alarmed.
Any one of these two men could go anywhere in Jianghu, and would become an overbearing figure who was able to go on the rampage unhindered, and now there were two of them; naturally he was quite amazed.
Based on his current skill, dealing with one of them would entail strenuous effort on his part, forget about dealing with the two of them at the same time.
Before Zhou Laotan had any chance to respond, a burst of tender laughter came from the mountain road, a tender and coy, like cotton and honey, female voice spoke up, “My Da Di Gege, Laotan Xiaodi [big brother and little brother, respectively], it’s been twenty years! Yet you are still like before, as soon as you see each other you fight like dogs fighting over a bone; aren’t you afraid I, Jin Huanzhen, would twist your ears?”
Xu Ziling nearly called for his Niang in his heart! Where did these devil heads, who had been in hiding for the last twenty years, come from? They must have had old complicated relation like intertwined melon and vine plants with Shi Qingxuan’s mother Bi Xiuxin, and the enmity must be extremely deep. Would she be able to deal with them? Would he have the ability to help her cross this difficulty safely?
Fortunately he was a free and easy person; he would not be troubled because of this matter, he could not possibly be bothered about success and failure, gains and losses even more. He only made up his mind to strive for the charming beauty, who he had not met.
A shadow flashed; a thousand-tender a hundred-charm woman in splendid colorful attire appeared next to Zhou Laotan, and acted as if she was going to come closer to Zhou Laotan.
It was as if Zhou Laotan was evading a snake; he darted off two zhang to the side and only after reaching the intersection to the road leading up the mountain did he stop and spoke in horror, “You want to find someone to show your affection, just go to your Ding Da Di!”
Ding Jiuzhong gave out a hollow laugh and said, “Thank you for Laotan Xiong’s nice introduction, but I’d rather defer to you!”
Listening to that, Xu Ziling was confused; suddenly Zhou Laotan and Ding Jiuzhong became like old friends who were chatting and joking amiably, without the least bit sign of the fire of war.
Jin Huanzhen was wearing palace-style brightly colored clothes, at first glance her age seemed to be in her twenties, but after careful examination, it was clear that the years she has lived were not a few; a faint trace of crow’s feet could be seen radiating from the tip of her brows and the corner of her eyes toward the hair on her temples, like a cobweb. But her eyebrows were like distant mountains, her eyes like the limpid autumn waters, the true measure of beauties; it’s just that her face was pale without the least bit sign of blood on it, making her looked like a beautiful apparition from the underworld.
She stomped her feet and spoke angrily, “Who do you think you are? You have the impertinence to push me, the ‘Mei Niangzi’ [Charming Lady] Jin Huanzhen, away like that? One day I will make you kneel in front of me to lick Laoniang’s [I, this old woman] toes.”
A long laughter shaking the heavens came from the distance but approaching fast; a voice, which was originally strong and straightforward, deliberately spoke slowly in soft, gentle manner, “If they don’t dare to have you, let me, the ‘Dao Xing Ni Shi’ [lit. going against the tide, a perverse way of doing things] You Niaojuan accept you without question!
Even Xu Ziling’s countenance finally changed.