Chapter 2 – Facing imminent catastrophe
Book 1 Chapter 2 – Facing imminent catastrophe
The City of Yangzhou gradually woke up.
As soon as the city gate was opened at the mao hour [between 5-7am], traveling merchants, peasants, all kinds of people fell over each other to enter the city. The boats and ships that arrived the previous day already unloaded their cargo on the docks; they also took this time to deliver their goods into the city. All at the same time carriages and horses were moving together; hence it was so noisy.
From Yangzhou going east down the Yangtze River, one could sail to Japan [lit. dwarf country], Ryukyu Islands, and Southeast Asia, making Yangzhou one of the nation’s most important transit centers to foreign lands; hence it was more bustling compared to any other city.
But today the atmosphere was a bit strange; there were a large number of officers and soldiers inside and outside the city. The crossing checkpoints were also a lot more stringent than usual, resulting in long queues. However, although everybody was burning with anxiety, nobody dared to open his mouth to grumble. Because anybody who was used to roam the Jianghu could see that mixed with local officials, there were not a few big men wearing the uniform of the Imperial Bodyguards. Unless one did not value his life anymore, who would dare to offend these tyrant Imperial Bodyguards from the Capital?
There were a total of five markets in the city. The most flourishing one was the South Gate Market, which faced the Yangtze River. There were at least a few dozens stalls offering all kinds of food or food products, big and small. It was indeed an ideal place for the would-be travellers, who were ready to embark their boats, to get their breakfast.
Other than being an important hub, since ancient times Yangzhou has been well-known across the country for its prostitutes [烟花 can either be prostitutes or fireworks]. Whether it was young master of rich merchant with ten thousand strings of cash in his belt, or self-proclaimed literary talent, romantic scholar, or licentious swordsman, if they have not been here at least once, they could not be considered a romantic hero. [Translator’s note: I don’t think these people came to Yangzhou to enjoy fireworks.] Therefore, it was obvious why Yangzhou was flourishing.
Among the food stalls in the South Gate Market, Ol’ Feng’s vegetable and meat steamed bun [baozi] was the most famous. On top of that, the sales lady was Ol’ Feng’s young mistress, Zhen Sao [lit. Sister-in-law Zhen], who had countenance of a flower, face like the moon. She became the living advertising board to drum up business. By the time the Ol’ Feng brought out a tray full of steaming hot vegetable and meat steamed buns from the kitchen, the impatient customers who have been waiting outside immediately scrambled forward to hand over the money in their hands.
While Sister-in-law Zhen was busy and dripping wet with fragrant sweats, suddenly a big head belonging to a teenager stuck out from the crowd; with big smile on his face [orig. ‘brows raised in delight and eyes laughing’] he said, “Eight vegetable and meat steamed buns, please. Zhen Sao, how are you?”
It was Xu Ziling. Because he was afraid Ol’ Feng might see him, he deliberately hunched over that he was half as tall as the other people; his posture looked quite comical, actually. Fortunately his features were unusually charming; his eyes were long and lively, his nose straight and the bridge of his nose was quite high, his forehead wide, the corners of his mouth curled up in smile as bright as the sunshine. If not for his face was greasy and dirty, his clothes were shabby, plus he was beaten up by Yan Laoda that his face was blue and his lips swollen; so his appearance right now was quite unsightly, hence people did not have any reason to compliment him.
When Sister-in-law Zhen saw him, the first thing she did was casting a worried look over at the Ol’ Feng and the evil first wife in the kitchen; seeing that they did not notice the situation over here, she was relieved. While serving the other customers, she pretended to protest coquettishly, “No money yet you want to imitate other people buying steamed buns?”
With a forced laugh Xu Ziling said, “Just a bit of delay, none will be lacking, tomorrow I will definitely pay you back.”
With the quickest movement Sister-in-law Zhen grasped four steamed buns; after a slight hesitation she picked two more, and then wrapped everything nicely in paper, and stuffed it into his hands, while scolding him in low voice, “This is the last time. Ay! Look how bad you have been beaten.”
Xu Ziling squealed in joy and withdrew from the crowd. Straightening up his back, his appearance looked a lot better instantly.
Although he was very young, he had grown to be as big and tall as fully-grown men. His shoulders were wide, his waist narrow; it’s just that due to undernourishment he was relatively thin.
Squeezing through a row of fruit and vegetable stalls, he bumped into Kou Zhong. Reaching into the bundle he grabbed a steamed bun and stuffed it into his mouth, while mumbling with his mouth full, “Is it really the last time?”
Kou Zhong was a year older, but he was half a cun [a thumb, approx. an inch] shorter. His shoulders were wide, his upper arm bulging. He looked rather thick and solid. Although he lacked Xu Ziling’s elegance, he had a broad face and big ears. All in all, he carried a strong masculine aura, with a free and happy-go-lucky attitude, which was unusually attractive; his eyes were deep but looked quick-witted. In short, he was in no way inferior to Xu Ziling, making people believed that in the future this kid would definitely not be a nobody [orig. an object in the pond]. However, his clothes were ‘patched on the east and stitched in the west’, it was even more filthy than Xu Ziling’s; in fact, it was just as bad as a little beggar.
Xu Ziling was eating his third steamed buns. Suddenly he frowned and said, “Don’t you say that Zhen Sao is basically a good person? Nowadays, how many people in Yangzhou are as kind-hearted as she is? Too bad her parents owed money, plus her old dad considered money as important as life, so that he sold her to the Ol’ Feng as a mistress. Laotianye [God, Heaven, lit. old master of the sky] must be blind.”
By this time the two of them already left the market and reached the main street, mingled among the stream of people heading out of the city via the South Gate.
With his tummy full, Kou Zhong wrapped his arm around Xu Ziling’s shoulder; glancing to the left and right, he said, “Fat sheep are especially many today, it is best to find a bit older, with gorgeous clothes, walking alone, looks like he had a lot of loads in his mind, and won’t even know if he loses his wallet. That kind of old idiot.”
With a bitter laugh Xu Ziling said, “That time it was you, this muddled egg, who wanted to find an old man as a target. And then when you saw him scrambling on the ground and crying out to heaven, you pretended to pick it up and give it back to him, in the end I was beaten up by Yan Laoda.”
Kou Zhong was unabashed, “Don’t forget that I only wanted to return half of that old man’s money; it was you who wanted make that man happy and insisted that I should stick to the original plan and return the whole thing to him, and now you are blaming me? Hey! But as thieves, we also have principles, so we can be considered good men. Ha! Look!”
Xu Ziling followed his gaze, and just happen to catch sight of a fifty-something old scholar, walking in the direction of the city gate. He was well dressed, but had an anxious look on his face, as he walked hurriedly with his head down. He fit Kou Zhong’s description perfectly. How could there be such a coincidence?
The two of them stared blankly at the old man, and then they noticed that the back of his clothes was bulging, apparently he carried his purse hidden on his lower back.
Kou Zhong whispered in Xu Ziling’s ear, “Whether we’ll meet with the lady luck or not, we only need to see whether this fellow looks impressive but is worthless or not.”
Xu Ziling anxiously said, “I really need to pay Zhen Sao back.”
As the two of them hurried run after the old man, suddenly they saw a platoon of soldiers coming from the opposite direction. They were greatly shocked and quickly turned around and entered a small alley, and from there they run across toward another alley, which lead to another street big enough for sedan chair, which ran parallel to the southern wall of the city.
The two of them plopped down to sit by the wall. After sighing for their bad luck, Kou Zhong came up with another idea, “Maybe we’d better try entering the imperial examination. Although the material we know coming from eavesdropping Bai Lao Fuzi’s [see Chapter 1] lecture, at least it’s better than those good-for-nothing people in class who pay a lot of money to listen to stories. If our names make the list, not only we won’t need travel expenses anymore, we don’t need to take the risk of a long and difficult trek; we’ll be high-ranking officials.”
With eyes blazing with fire Xu Ziling said, “Joining the militia is your idea, and now you want to enter imperial examination. You think it is as easy as taking a peek at those young ladies from the Spring Breeze Courtyard [i.e. brothel]? After all …”
Kou Zhong suddenly elbowed his ribs and winked. Xu Ziling looked up toward the street, and saw the old scholar was actually also running away in panic just like them. Even when he looked toward them, he did not seem to see them but just hurrying along toward the big street. The two of them were ecstatic at this unexpected turn of events, they sprang up and ran after him.
Time for the operation.
The old scholar was such in a hurry that he did not even notice the clothes on his back was cut. Just now he wanted to leave the city via the South Gate, but was scared by the tight border security that he drew back. He knew it was not suitable for him to go out, yet he was afraid to return home; calling on a friend, he was even more afraid he would implicate other people. While he was hesitating, a shadow flashed, someone was barring his way.
While the old scholar was shaking in shock, more men appeared from left and right and seized him that he was not unable to move a single step.
The one blocking his way was Yuwen Huaji and one of his men. With a smile on his face this martial art expert from the Yuwen Clan walked over toward the old scholar. After seizing him up from top to bottom several times, he said in a bored tone, “Isn’t this gentleman Jiangdu’s rising poetry and literature scholar Tian Wen Laoshi [teacher]? I heard Laoshi is a good friend of Shi Long Shifu [simply a respectful form of address for older men]. Just now we took the liberty of paying an official call on Tian Laoshi’s respected residence. Unexpectedly, without suspecting anything, we managed to dredge up Shi Shifu’s body from the bottom of the well. And now Tian Laoshi seems to be in a hurry to leave; I wonder what was the reason?”
Tianwen’s countenance was changed greatly; he could not find anything to say. By this time the people passing through the street knew that something was not right, but seeing that among the men surrounding Tian Wen was their own captain of the local garrison, who would dare to be implicated by interfering?
Meanwhile, the two men grabbing Tian Wen from both sides did not stay idle either; their hands were busy searching Tian Wen's whole body, but they were unable to find the book that was supposedly in his possession. Zhang Shihe personally did the search. Before long he discovered that the back of Tian Wen's clothes had been cut with a sharp weapon.
"Not good!" his countenance changed, "The book is gone!"
Yuwen Huaji's eyes flashed with cold rays as he called out in deep voice, "Chen Shoubei!" [Translator's note: Shoubei practically means 'on garrison duty'. I am not sure his actual military rank, although earlier I said 'captain'.]
Chen Shoubei, who normally tyranize people, quickly stepped forward. As his eyes met Yuwen Huaji's, his knees buckled and he dropped down kneeling on the ground, "Lowly officer's here!"
Yuwen Huaji coldly said, "Seal the city gates immediately. While you are at it, catch all thieves and local ruffians in the city for me. If we can't find the thing that His Holiness wants, they can forget about keeping their lives."
Chapter 2, Part 2
Anh, Grundle, Zlack, you are most welcome. Thanks for stopping by. SzFong, thanks for the info. I wouldn't know because I never watch any adaptation. CFT, how come you guys are so knowledgeable? It's one of the reasons I keep translating, because even if I don't know much, you guys will step in and make necessary correction. Thanks. Here is the end of Chapter 2. If I can maintain my pace, we'll have Book 1 finished before Christmas.
Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong were sitting side-by-side in a secluded alley by the East Gate, staring blankly at the book in front of them. Deeply disappointed, Xu Ziling said, "Next time we want to steal, we must never target those that look like a school teacher. This weird book with undecipherable handwriting is more difficult to understand than the Heavenly Book [mythical book of heavens]. Aren't you the Zhong Shaoye [young master] who often brags about your great erudition and scholarship? Tell me, what is this written on the top?"
Kou Zhong proudly said, "How can I be like you, a mere kid without learning or skills? This book must be a secret martial art manual from the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors era [the earliest system of Chinese historiography]. We can train it, we will be unequalled under the heavens that even Shi Shifu will have to step down gracefully. Just look at these diagrams of human body, this is the secret to circulate qi along the channels. Ha! This time we come across a treasure. Look! Did you notice the marvelous quality of the paper?"
Xu Ziling could not stop laughing. "Don't blow your horn too loud. Just read a couple of characters let me hear it. I want to see how good your education is."
Kou Zhong has always been proud of his age and experience; his eyes were gleaming as he said, "If somebody could write it, then there must be somebody else who could understand it. Let us find an old scholar with the most learning, we'll ask him to interpret these strange characters for us. Besides, we, the two dragons of Yangzhou, have specific responsibility to train martial art. This is called dividing up the work in collaboration, each on in his proper place. Do you understand?"
With disappointment in his voice Xu Ziling said, "Do you think you are the Zongguan [see chapter 1] of Yangzhou? Who would listen to us and do our bidding? Right now we, the two snakes of Yangzhou, have a more pressing problem at hand: food. Looks like we will have to take the money we save for traveling expense and exchange it for a couple of steamed buns to feed our tummy. I'll say it is a bit more practical."
Kou Zhong laughed aloud. He stood up, hid the book in his clothes again, stretched, and said, “Let me, Zhong Shaoye, take care of lunch. Come! Let’s go home first to get some money, and then we go to the docks outside the city to do some damn business that requires no capital. Afterwards we run away as far as we can; otherwise, if that stinky Laoda discovered that we have some treasured book in our bosom, we will be in very big trouble.”
Recalling the fierce beating he received the previous day, Xu Ziling broke out in sweats. He sprang up and sneakily followed Kou Zhong back to the abandoned courtyard, their ‘home’.
Yuwen Huaji was sitting in the main hall of the Zongguan Mansion, drinking tea; serving him was Yangzhou Zongguan, Yuchi Sheng. Not only these two men were well-acquainted with each other, the relationship between them was more than casual. Before Yang Jian established the Great Sui Dynasty, he was a high-ranking minister of the Northern Zhou Dynasty [557-581]. Later on, after Emperor Xuan of Zhou [? not sure about this one], Yuwen Yun, died of illness, Yang Jian colluded with Internal Historian Physician Zheng Yi and Imperial Justice Physician Liu Fang. Arguing that the successor of the throne, Yuwen Shan, was still underage, they acted in the pretense of following imperial order by calling Yang Jian back to the imperial court to take over the government.
One year later, Yang Jian forced Emperor Jing to abdicate, and proclaimed himself as the new Emperor. Henceforth, the Yuwen Clan’s Northern Zhou’ world now belonged to the Yang Clan. Yet because Yuwen Clan’s influence was deep-rooted, although becoming the Emperor, Yang Jian was unable to completely uproot the Yuwen Clan. By the time his son Yang Guang became the Emperor, Yuwen Clan rose up in power again. Strictly speaking, although on the surface the Yuwen Clan was loyal toward the Sui Dynasty, there was a hatred buried deep in the deepest of their hearts.
After Yang Jian usurped the throne, there were three separate attempts by different high-ranking officials who supported the Yuwen Clan’s Northern Zhou to rise up in rebellion, namely Xiangzhou’s Zongguan Yuchi Zhou, Zhengzhou’s Zongguan Sima Xiaonan, and Yizhou’s Zongguan Wang Qian. These people did not have any family relationship with the Yuwen Clan, they were simply loyal to the royal family of the Northern Zhou. One of them, Yuchi Sheng, was precisely Yuchi Sheng’s paternal uncle; hence the reason these two people had close relationship. Therefore, even when talking about secret matters, they did not have the slightest bit of worry.
Yuwen Huaji sighed and said, “This book is really very important. I have prepared some experts. As soon as we obtain the treasured book, we will pretend that we manage to break the secret, and let that incapable ruler train it. I guarantee that within three months, he will die of the training. Who would have thought that there are many twists and turns in getting that thing that ought to be in our hands right now? We can’t even make a fake copy.”
With a cold snort Yuchi Sheng said, “Even if the treasured book did not exist, I am afraid it would be difficult for the Yang Clan to protect their throne. The Heaven blesses the Great Zhou. Ever since that incapable ruler usurped the throne, internally he screws taxes out of the people by force, he carries out large scale constructions; externally he engage in wars of aggression at will, engaging the Korean Goryeo in the military expedition to the east. Three battles and three defeats. And now rebel armies are everywhere. As long as we can seize this opportunity, we can restore the Great Zhou’s glory of the past.”
Yuwen Huaji’s eyes were gleaming with cold rays; he said in deep voice, “Yang Guang’s days are numbered. What I worry about is the other three powerful clans, especially the Li Clan that must not be taken lightly. Their Clan Leader Li Yuan is the nephew of Empress Dowager Dugu’s maternal aunt; that’s why they enjoy the Yang Clan’s trust much more than our Yuwen Clan. The longer we fail to wipe out the three powerful clans, our Great Zhou’s restoration will undoubtedly come across considerable resistance.”
After a short pause, he continued, “In regards to foreign power, Turkic ethnic group is the biggest threat. Right now the rebel armies are allying themselves with Turkic people to borrow their influence, and thus increasing the Turkic’s power. Moreover, Turkic’s four masters’ martial art skill has reached perfection. Thinking about it indeed makes one anxious.”
Yuchi Sheng said, “I am under the impression that you don’t have to worry about the Li Clan. Although Li Yuan is Yang Guang’s maternal cousin, just based on the fact that this man is giving favor to a lot of people far and wide, and thus he made friends with heroes everywhere, Yang Guang is very jealous of him. Right now Li Yuan is too busy to defend himself. As long as we can plan our move, deepening Yang Guang’s suspicions toward Li Yuan, we might be able to kill him with borrowed knife; hence we will reap the fisherman’s benefit.”
A smile appeared in Yuwen Huaji’s eyes. As he was nodding his praise, Zhang Shihe came in to report, “We have a bit of progess!” Yuwen Huaji and Yuchi Sheng were greatly delighted.
Zhang Shihe said, “According to Tian Wen’s confession, before he was arrested, he came across two ruffians, about fifteen, sixteen years old. It seems like these two boys were the ones who stole the book.”
Yuwen Huaji happily said, “And Shihe must have had investigated these two ruffians clearly; that’s why you came to report.”
Zhang Shihe laughed, “That is correct. These two boys, one is called Kou Zhong, the other Xu Ziling. They are Yangzhou’s most famous pickpockets. Their boss is called Yan Kuan, right now he is in our custody to help us finding those two fellows.”
Yuchi Sheng laughed aloud and said, “That’s an easy thing to do. Unless they can grow wings, as long as they are still in the city, they won’t escape our grasp.”
Yuwen Huaji breathed a sigh of relief and sat back down in his chair, as if the treasured book has already been in his hands.
The two boys had not had any chance to get the dozen or so five-zhu [1/24th of a tael] coins stringed together, when Xu Ziling, who was on the lookout, saw the dejected Yan Laoda being dragged by a dozen or so big men toward the abandoned garden. Xu Ziling was very sharp; although he was greatly shocked, he knew he had to hasten quietly to the rendezvous point with Kou Zhong, and then together they slipped into another broken down room that only have three remaining rotten walls. They hid inside a hole in the ground, which they made especially whenever they wanted to avoid Yan Laoda. It was covered with a fake floor, made of wooden planks, strewn with fallen leaves, sand and stones, leaving only a small crack for ventilation purpose.
‘Crash, bang, thud, crack!’ Noise of overturned wooden chest and falling object unceasingly entered their small nest. Soon after they heard Yan Laoda’s bawling, apparently he was being severely beaten up by those men.
Although they really wished someone would beat Yan Laoda to death, but listening to his situation right now, they still could not bear it.
They were greatly puzzled as well. What had happened? After all, in Yangzhou Yan Laoda had a bit of reputation and power, he had more than twenty brothers as his underlings. More recently, he took the Hall Master of the Bamboo Flower Clan, Chang Ci, as his father-in-law. But in front of these men, he seemed to be even lowlier than a pig or a dog.
A grim and sad-sounding voice was heard from further down the path, “Go search!”
Hearing this, the two dragons of Yangzhou immediately turned into two coiling snakes as they tried to curl up as small as possible, did not even dare to take half a breath.
Yan Laoda’s trembling voice was heard, “Gentlemen [orig. ‘daye’ – big master], please give me a bit more time, we will definitely get the book back, I can guarantee with my head … aaahhh!” Evidently if he was not punched, then he must have been kicked.
Footsteps were heard very close to the hole, followed by someone calling out, “Still can’t find them?”
Yan Laoda’s voice was hoarse with pain as he was begging for mercy, “Please give me another chance, these two wretched kids must have gone to Shi Long’s martial art training field to peek at people training martial art there. Aahhh!”
The grim and sad-sounding voice spoke, “We closed Shi Long’s martial art training field this morning; there is not much to look at over there.”
A short pause, and then, “I want four of you to stay here, wait for their return. And you, this scum, take us to all the places those kids might stroll to one by one. Quick, drag him up!”
The footsteps died away.
Inside the hole, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling looked at each other; they both see the other’s face was as white as a ghost. Almost at the same time both of them recalled the dark culvert heading out of the city by the East Gate.
Right now that was their only hope.
 Personal name of first Tang emperor, Gaozu, 566-635, reigned 618-626.
 Turkic people are collection of ethnic group that live in northern, eastern, central, and western Asia, northwestern China, and parts of eastern Europe, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkic_peoples