Chapter 8 – Inconsolable Grief
In the battle of Du Long Gorge, the Donghai and Muyang allied forces were completely routed, Li Ziyun, Li Xingyuan and Tong Shuwen all died on the spot. Shao Shuai Army’s momentum grew like a rainbow. They marched into Muyang, where the citizens opened their doors to welcome them. Donghain County’s defeated forces also knew that their momentum had gone, they took the ships and fled to Jiangdu, so that this strategic town in foreign trade simply cupped their hands in obeisance to submit to Kou Zhong.
It was only this point that Kou Zhong truly established the foundation of his kingdom. To the east, his territory reached the ocean; to the west, it reached Liangdu; to the south it reached Xiapi, and to the north, he gained control over fertile farmland area in the vicinity of Wei Mountain, Luoma Lake and various smaller lakes.
After handing over the Donghai and Muyang be administered under Jiao Hongjin’s jurisdiction, Kou Zhong, along with Xuan Yong and Luo Qifei, immediately rushed back to Liangdu, ready to cope with Li Zitong’s wrath.
It was only when the ship docked at Liangdu that he found out that Xu Xingzhi has responded to the call and came. Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong immediately pulled him into the study room of the Zongguan mansion for some discussion.
Finished listening to Kou Zhong detailing the development in the past few days, Xu Xingzhi had a big frown on his face. “Shao Shuai’s expansion is too fast too hurried; very likely it will be problematic,” he said.
Kou Zhong was shocked, “What should I do then?” he asked.
Xu Xingzhi said, “Fortunately Shao Shuai did not attack and seize Zhongli. Otherwise you’d definitely incite Jiang Huai Army to attack. The only thing you can do right now is to establish friendly relations with Li Zitong, help him repel Du Fuwei and Shen Faxing’s coalition army, and then use him to defend our south side. At that time, even if Wang Shichong or Dou Jiande deploy their troops to attack, we won’t have to face the enemy from both sides. Ay! Presently, although our Shao Shuai Army’s awe-inspiring authority spread to eight directions, the fact is that we are still unable to withstand a single blow; practically we do not have enough power either to defend or to attack.”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “I have just killed Li Ziyun; how could Li Zitong be willing to establish friendly relations with me?”
Xu Xingzhi smiled and said, “Even if you were his personal enemy who killed his father, under the circumstances, he has no choice but to establish friendly relations and discuss plans together.”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “The number of soldiers we can use is around fifteen thousand, but they can’t be considered elite troops, we still need some time to train. In Xingzhi’s opinion, should we stop expanding our territory and try to consolidate our land’s defense first?”
Xu Xingzhi shook his head and said, “Currently we are like rowing a boat upstream; if we stop moving, we’ll fall back. Since we cannot grow either to the north or south, we must expand our influence sideways. The obvious target is Jingling; while secretly, the one we are planning to capture is Xiangyang. We are going to use former Jingling elite troops who retreated to the Flying Horse Ranch. Then we won’t have to be afraid to go out to defend the weak while leaving an empty nest.”
Kou Zhong slapped the table and exclaimed, “Wonderful!”
“How’s the situation at the Flying Horse Ranch and Shang Changzhu over there?” he casually asked.
Xu Xingzhi replied, “The situation over there is unusually complex. To put things simply, it’s the Three Big Bandits and Zhu Can and the Flying Horse Ranch in power struggle, plus Xiao Xian watching from the side like crouching tiger, and the pressure of Du Fuwei might come to attack any moment. But for us, this situation only bring benefit without any harm, perhaps we even have the opportunity to pull the Flying Horse Ranch, which has always been neutral so far, into our camp. That will create another situation altogether. Hey! The people of Flying Horse Ranch, from top to bottom, have very good impression toward Shao Shuai and Xu Ye, they all think that you are the real heroes.”
This time Kou Zhong had a big frown on his face, “I am bit confused now,” he said, “Can Xingzhi advise what are we going to do? Please give me detailed description and the sequence in which we must do it.”
Xu Xingzhi pondered quietly for half a day; finally he spoke with determination, “I am thinking that these two aspects, solidify the internal and resist outside aggression must be carries out at the same time. Solidify the internal means establishing improved governance and defensive system in both the new and old territories, with the ultimate goal to have common people living in peace and working happily, to have the government decree flows down seamlessly. Resist outside aggression means to avoid the strong and acquire the weak, do everything we can to avert direct confrontation against Li Zitong, Du Fuwei, Dou Jiande, or perhaps Wang Shichong, and the others, while solely train our eyes on Xiangyang with the best of our ability. If we can establish stronghold south of the Eastern Capital, we will have the opportunity to contend for hegemony to the north, no need to retreat and defend to a corner.”
Kou Zhong was about to speak when there was a knock on the door.
Xuan Yong’s slightly trembling voice came through the door, “Xu Ye is back.”
Like a leopard Kou Zhong sprang out from the imperial tutor chair to open the door; seeing Xuan Yong’s pale countenance, his own face changed, as he asked, “What happened? Is Ziling injured?”
Tearfully Xuan Yong shook his head and choked with emotion he said, “Not him, it’s Susu.”
Kou Zhong suddenly reached out to grab his shoulder; shaken, he said, “It’s Su Jie? Ah!” And then the bolted through Xuan Yong toward the main hall.
Behind him, while weeping with grief, Xuan Yong said, “Susu has become an immortal!”
It was as if Kou Zhong was struck by lightning; with disbelief in his eyes, his knees went weak, he dropped down on the floor right there at the corridor.
※ ※ ※
After Susu was cremated, early morning the next day, Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong, with no emotion showing on their faces, sat in the main hall.
Zhai Jiao, with icy-cold expression, sat opposite the two. After deep contemplation for half a day, she sighed bitterly and said, “I never thought that after I, Zhai Jiao, harbor the hatred of losing my father, I still have to endure the pain of losing my younger sister. The Heaven really treats me with injustice!”
Immediately Kou Zhong’s eyes were brimming with tears; hanging his head, he spoke in hoarse voice, “One day I will muster my troops to cross the river and wash Baling with blood, as a payback of Su Jie’s debt of blood.”
Zhai Jiao coldly said, “Revenge is revenge, but you must not let your emotion clouds your judgment. For the time being, let me take care of Susu’s ashes. As for Little Lingzhong, I can take him back to the north, and treat him as my own. You may set your heart at ease.”
Xu Ziling looked at her. He wanted to speak, but nothing came out.
Rising to her full height, Zhai Jiao said, “Xuan Yong already laid out for me the route back to the north, to avoid people’s eyes and ears. You need not send me off. After I find a place for Little Lingzhong, I will send someone to notify you.”
The two boys rose up hurriedly.
Zhai Jiao finally lost it. Tears streaming down her face as she threw herself to hug the two boys tightly, and then, still in incontrollable tears, she hurriedly left.
Dejectedly the two boys slumped back into their chair.
Nobody knew how long, but finally Kou Zhong let out a bitter smile and said, “Human’s feeling of life and death is really strange. Originally it feels like it would never happen, but all of a sudden it turned into an irreversible fact, something that is difficult to alter even for a hairsbreadth. Although I cannot expect that all the good things in the world will be dumped into our laps, but why did Laotian take Niang first, and now he took away Su Jie? A piece of yellow sandy soil has buried all our expectation and hope.”
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “I already thought until my brains did not feel like it belonged to me anymore. Therefore, I will also advise you to restrain your grief, accept your fate. Presently your attempt to the throne and the business of hegemony has just set in motion; many things are waiting to be done. The most crucial thing is to pull yourself together, don’t be overcome with deject and misery.”
Kou Zhong suddenly stood up, pulled Xu Ziling outside, and walked swiftly while saying, “Well said! Let’s find a place we can drink a cup of comfort wine; let’s drink until the sky faints and the earth darkens, forget the affairs of life. Afterwards we are going to pull ourselves together, take the ‘Duke Yang Treasure’ out, and storm straight into Baling.
※ ※ ※
The wine cup fell to the ground and shattered into pieces.
Aghast, Xu Ziling stared at Kou Zhong, only to see his face had no trace of blood. “This time it’s really bad!” he cried out involuntarily.
By this time of the day, the restaurant they have frequented has yet to open their door for business, so it was perfect for the two to have their private business here.
Putting down his cup, Xu Ziling frowned and asked, “What’s the fuss?”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “Even the wisest can have a momentary lapse in judgment, and that certainly applies to you too. Try to think about it: Lu Miaozi, the Demonic Emperor Relic, Zhu Yuyan, and Duke Yang’s Treasure. Synthesized these four aspects together, then you’ll come to only one conclusion. We have certainly fallen into the yaonu’s [female demon] evil scheme. All these great troubles are to provide dowry for the crafty scoundrel.”
This time it was Xu Ziling’s turn to have his countenance changed, “You are right,” he said, “Must be because of Su Jie’s matter that my brain was clouded. The fact is, no one has ever been able to find the Demonic Emperor Relic, simply because Mr. Lu put it inside the Duke Yang Treasure. But how did Zhu Yuyan know? I am afraid it’s just a blind guess!”
Kou Zhong took another cup of wine. After pouring some and drinking it, he muttered to himself irresolutely, “It doesn’t matter if she guessed it right or she guessed it wrong, supposing his mother’s Demonic Emperor Relic is indeed in the treasure-trove, will we have to fulfill our promise?”
Xu Ziling raised his cup and drown it in one gulp; he calmly said, “What do you think?”
Kou Zhong threw another cup to the floor; letting out a long laughter, he said, “What kind of men are we, brothers? Once we give our promise, of course we won’t go back. I don’t care if after obtaining the Demonic Emperor Relic that yaonu can escape to the earth or fly to the sky, I am not afraid.”
Raising his thumb, Xu Ziling said, “Now that’s my good brother.”
Kou Zhong picked up another cup and held it against his lips, letting the wine dripped and wet the lapel of his clothes. Distressed, he said, “Too bad Su Jie is gone. Otherwise, if she were here to accompany us drinking, it would have been ultimate delight!”
Xu Ziling dejectedly said, “Eventually one day you and I will step on her trailing dust [fig. somebody’s footsteps]. If death is the end of everything, then it will also end all our troubles. However, if there is something after death, won’t we still have time to meet again?”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “The problem is that destiny is not repeatable. For instance, if there really is reincarnation, when we die, Su Jie has already reborn, and is already experiencing another life. This is precisely the real meaning of ‘an accident arising from many causes’.”
And then he spoke softly, “To be honest with you, I really am grateful to you for leaving half of Xiang Yushan’s life for my pleasure to wipe out the enmity of a loved one, so that my grief won’t be without any place to wash it out.”
Xu Ziling shook his head and said, “Until now I am still unclear as how Su Jie could contract such a foul illness. We must investigate this matter.”
With tears in his eyes, Kou Zhong said, “Ever since we said goodbye to Su Jie in Xingyang, she had never had one day where she was really happy, and then she met that completely-lacking-any-feeling-or-sense-of-justice man.”
Pouring another cup of wine for Kou Zhong, Xu Ziling said, “Now is the time to drink comfort wine, wailing for the dead was yesterday’s matter.”
Kou Zhong wiped the tears with one hand, while with the other hand he drank his wine.
Xu Ziling said, “There is some questionable things about that man, Hou Xibai.” And then he narrated his and Bu Tianzhi’s suspicions.
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “Since the beginning I did not like him too much. At first I thought that I was narrow-minded and was jealous of him, but now I know that I actually had foresight. Shi Qingxuan mentioned those ‘Eight Great Martial Art Masters of the Demonic Way’; besides Zhu Yuyan, You Niaojuan, Zuo Youxian, who are the others?”
Xu Ziling replied in distress, “I don’t know whether she was deliberately messing up with me, but she only told me half of everything. One of those things was the confirmation that Rong Fengxiang is the personification of Pi Chen. As for the other four, I am afraid you must find Shi Feixuan and ask her yourself!”
Kou Zhong downed another cup; he asked in surprise, “Why is the more I drink, the more spirited I am, and not the least bit his mother’s drunk? How’s Shi Qingxuan compared to Shi Feixuan? [Reminder: Shi Qingxuan (石青璇) vs. Shi Feixuan (师妃暄), different ‘Shi’, different ‘Xuan’] Was her Niang really Shi Feixuan’s Shibo [martial (older) uncle]?”
Xu Ziling replied helplessly, “Even her true appearance, she only let me look at half of it. She is fairly discernible, hard to fathom [fig. elusive]. But my days with her was not unbearable.”
If it were before, Kou Zhong would have immediately teased him as falling in love with her, but right now he did not have that kind of mood. After being quiet for half a day, he said, “Now, our Shao Shuai Army’s only way out is to attack Jingling and Xiangyang, two strategic towns. Along the way, we could look for Zhu Can and the Three Big Bandits to take their heads off. But to accomplish such a difficult goal, we must have ‘Duke Yang Treasure’ to succeed. What do you think I should do?”
“Just say it frankly!” Xu Ziling said, “The promise I made to you, I won’t ever renege.”
Kou Zhong rose up to his full height and said, “I am just waiting for Gui Xiliang and Xing Rong, those two kids’ news. After Shao Lingzhou is taken care of, that will be the time Li Zitong and I talk about the conditions.”
※ ※ ※
That very same evening, sure enough, Zhuhua Bang’s [bamboo flower gang] representative arrived. But it was neither Gui Xiliang nor Xing Rong, but it was the Deputy Hall Master who rose up to become the Hall Master, Luo Feng.
Kou Zhong busily received him at the main hall. After sitting down, Luo Feng, with a face full of dust, spoke with grave expression, “Jiangdu is in critical condition, it might fall any moment. Du Fuwei and Shen Lun join hands to attack Jiangdu; they take turn to besiege the city. It looks like Li Zitong won’t be able to hold on for long.”
Kou Zhong shivered in fear and said, “How’s Old Du and Little Shen’s military strength?”
Luo Feng replied, “Du Fuwei stations his troops at Qingliu, his strength reaches seventy thousand men. Shen Lun has his garrison at Yangzi, his strength is about fifty thousand men. Li Zitong mobilized troops and horses from all sides, and his strength numbers around forty thousand. Were it not for Jiangdu’s city wall tall and the rampart solid, it would have been fallen early on.”
Kou Zhong pondered quietly on how he was going to fight this battle; even if he poured out all his strength to help, he would only suffer loss for nothing. Du Fuwei was an old fox, veteran of a hundred battles, definitely not someone easy to deal with.
But if Li Zitong was done for, his Shuai Shao Army would be next.
Raising his thick eyebrows, Luo Feng said, “This time Lao Ge [old older brother, referring to self] received Shao Junshi’s secret order to negotiate with Shao Shuai, to see whether we can draw support from Shao Shuai’s forces to solve the crisis in Jiangdu.”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “We are on the same side, there is no need to stand on ceremony. I just want to know if Li Zitong has anything to do with this.”
“That is only natural,” Luo Feng replied, “Otherwise, I would not have become the mediator.”
Recalling Xu Xingzhi’s remark, Kou Zhong laughed hoarsely and said, “For the sake of his own survival, Li Zitong indeed disregarded his sibling’s enmity. However, in this matter, he still harbors ill intention; he wanted to borrow Du and Shen’s coalition forces to weaken my strength. Luo Dage, what do you think?”
Luo Feng nodded and said, “Lao Ge has had discussion with Ol’ Shen and Xiliang; we all knew that this is ‘lending a knife to kill’, but once Jiangdu fall, I’m afraid Shao Shuai will also find it difficult to preserve your hard earned rivers and mountains. This is indeed a big headache.” [See Book 7 Chapter 3 for more on these characters.]
Kou Zhong mused, “I really have to protect Jiangdu, otherwise my territory will be gobbled up by Old Du, then innocent civilians will suffer the disaster of being trampled by the soldiers.”
Emotionally moved, Luo Feng said, “Shao Shuai is indeed a real hero, a brave knight, who disregard gain and losses, and personal benefit for the sake of common people.”
Susu’s departed soul came to mind, Kou Zhong sighed and said, “Success and failure, gains and losses, are as fleeting as life itself, it will pass in a snap of the fingers. As long as I can do things that will give my heart peace, then I will have no regrets.”
Luo Feng hesitated for half a day. Finally he spoke in fierce determination, “Actually, both Ol’ Shen and I opposed to Shao Junshi and Li Zitong having too close of a relation. Li Zitong is a fickle person, not someone you want to work with for a long time, but he simply refused to listen or even to see us!”
Kou Zhong seized that opportunity to ask, “What does Luo Dage think of Mai Yunfei? Does he have the qualifications to be a Tangzhu [Hall Master]?”
Smiling wryly, Luo Feng said, “Without me telling you, Shao Shuai ought to know what kind of material Mai Yunfei is. At least Xiliang has a better relationship with other people, plus he is the direct disciple of our former Bangzhu, and has the full support of Madame Yuling. Mai Yunfei only rely on Shao Junshi, one person’s support. For this reason, Ol’ Shen has had intense dispute with Shao Junshi.”
Kou Zhong mused inwardly that turned out Gui Xiliang also had a little bit of reputation and status; he spoke indifferently, “Knowing Ol’ Shen and Luo Dage’s intention is enough! Presently our Gang’s Bangzhu position is still vacant, and Xiaodi is not suitable to sit on this position. I wonder if Luo Dage has a good proposal?”
Luo Feng said, “Presently, the person most qualified to sit on the Bangzhu position is not Shao Junshi, but Ol’ Shen. As for Xiliang, in terms of talent, ability, virtue, and prospect, it will still be difficult for him to convince the masses. It is only due to the Song Clan’s inclination that the Bangzhu position is still hanging in the air. But it led to Shao Junshi leaning on Li Zitong, which led our Gang to be in the brink of splitting up. This whole thing is extremely complicated and very difficult to handle.”
Kou Zhong said, “If Shen Beichang, the Senior, sits on the Bangzhu position, and Xiliang takes up a post as the Fu Bangzhu [deputy], would Luo Dage think it will work?”
Stunned, Luo Feng said, “How could Shao Lingzhou agree to that arrangement?”
Kou Zhong’s eyes gleamed with cold and sharp flashes; he said, “In the matter of life and death, how could he not agree? What Xiliang lacks right now is illustrious merit. If I let him break Du and Shen’s siege, his fame for fighting prowess will thus greatly rise, hence it will be proper and to be expected as a matter of course that he will take the Fu Bangzhu position; who’d dare to object?”
Luo Feng cast him a hard-to-believe look; he was speechless.
Naturally Kou Zhong knew that Luo Feng thought he was simply blowing his spiral conch. Smiling, he said, “Can Luo Dage answer a question from me?”
Luo Feng nodded.
Kou Zhong spoke indifferently, “Supposing Jiangdu is captured, will it be Du Fuwei’s Jiang Huai Army following up the victory by going up north, or will it be Shen Faxing’s Jiangnan Army advancing to the north?”
Luo Feng was dumbstruck and unable to reply.
The reason Du Fuwei and Shen Faxing were willing to join hands in dealing with Li Zitong was simply because Li Zitong occupied Jiangsu, the most important strategic city on the intersection between the north and the south. Both sides were hoping to get rid of this big stumbling stone and a thorn in their side. Once they succeeded in capturing Jiangdu, it would be both sides’ turn to have face-to-face confrontation due to their common interest.
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “That is the key to our victory. May I bother Luo Dage to go back and tell Li Zitong and Shao Lingzhou frankly about this proposal? As soon as they give us a nod, send Xiliang here immediately to discuss our big plan. If we say that only Xiliang can resolve the Jiangdu situation, just like Luo Dage, they won’t believe, that’s why they will definitely agree. Ha! This way, the impossible will become possible. It’s going to be fun!”
Luo Feng could only return a blank stare.