Chapter 11 – Imperial Court’s End of the Road
Book 5 Chapter 11 – Imperial Court’s End of the Road
Kou Zhong washed the disguise from his face and hair; breathed a sigh of relief, he said, “I didn’t know disguise can be so difficult to bear. Look! My skin is red.”
Xu Ziling was squatting by the stove on the other side of the kitchen, rinsing his face with cold water, after seeping it with freshly boiled water; deeply in agreement he said, “This kind of starch paste Wei Ge [older brother, referring to Zhuge Dewei] concocted is indeed a first-class deceiving trick, but it is also a first-class evil punishment.”
They were in an ordinary courtyard house inside the city of Yangwu, Liu Heita’s guarantee indeed came about as predicted, the five of them entered the city in batches without a hitch. After settling them down in this house, which was the secret hideout of the Dou Army, Liu Heita and Zhuge Dewei went out to observe outside activities and scout for information.
Kou Zhong went over to Xu Ziling’s side and whispered, “Do you think the Old Liu has some interest in Su Jie?”
Xu Ziling was wiping the last piece of starch paste off his forehead; he was about to wash his hair when he heard what Kou Zhong said. “Not just some interest,” he replied, “He is very interested. When he looks at Su Jie, his eyes seem to be shining.”
But then he sighed and said, “But it appeared that Su Jie is avoiding him!”
Kou Zhong assumed the haughty manner of an expert; acting as if he was taking things very seriously, he shook his head and swayed his noggin and said, “Girls are like that, the more she is interested in you, the more she will act indifferently, playing with your emotion and driving you crazy. She will even lure you and make your heart unbearably itchy. In terms of qualifications, Old Liu is not at all inferior to Li Dage, plus he knows how be particularly attentive and spare no effort to win her sympathy. I don’t believe Su Jie’s heart is not moved.” While speaking, he handed the towel to Xu Ziling.
Xu Ziling took it to dry his hair; he said in a low voice, “Do you want to fix them together? But Old Liu will go to war three hundred days in a year; if Su Jie marries him, won’t she have to keep watch of an empty boudoir alone? Plus she will always worry that he wouldn’t come back.”
With a wry smile Kou Zhong said, “I was thinking of the same thing. But if she marries Li Dage, won’t it be the same? The most important thing is to gauge Su Jie’s heart. Let me go out to sound her out.”
Ignoring Xu Ziling’s advice to stop, Kou Zhong went to the eastern wing where Susu’s room was. Knocking on the door, he called, “Su Jie!”
“Come in!” Susu replied.
Kou Zhong pushed the door to enter. Susu was leaning against the window, looking outside; she appeared to be enjoying the snow scenery of the small garden in the middle of the courtyard. He came over behind her and said in a low voice, “Does Jiejie have something in your mind?”
Susu trembled slightly, “No!” she replied, “There is nothing.”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “Is it that fellow Liu Heita?”
Susu turned around, her almond eyes opened wide, she said crossly, “What are you talking about? Ay! You are thinking that far already.”
“Don’t you feel that he is especially good to you?” Kou Zhong asked.
Susu rolled her eyes on him, “Don’t be meddlesome,” she said, “You always love to let your imagination run wild. Are you tired of Jiejie following you?”
Kou Zhong cried out to Heaven for the injustice, “How could Su Jie have such thought? We just care about you!”
After staring at him for quite a while, Susu sighed; half-leaning onto the windowsill, she gloomily said, “Liu Dage is a one-hundred percent hero, but … ay! Jiejie really don’t know how to explain it!”
Kou Zhong happily said, “That means Jiejie has a good impression on him; what’s so difficult to explain?”
Susu shook her head sorrowfully; reaching out to pat Kou Zhong’s cheek, she hung her head down as she said softly, “You wouldn’t understand the burden in Jiejie’s heart.”
Kou Zhong was dismayed, “If Jiejie did not tell me the burden in your heart, how could I understand?” he asked, “Looking at Jiejie’s appearance, I am truly heartbroken.”
Susu pondered silently for half a day; finally she smiled bitterly and said, “Every time I see Liu Heita, it’s just like I am seeing Li Dage. They both are of the same type of person, Jiejie is very scared. Do you understand what I am saying?”
Kou Zhong had no idea that she was having that kind of feeling and thoughts; greatly stunned, he was speechless for quite a long time.
Susu forced herself to look excited as she said, “Jiejie has decided that from now on I will serve and take care of you, two wild boys, I won’t marry for as long as I live; so in the future you must not be heartbroken for Jiejie’s sake.”
Kou Zhong lost the interest to talk; he finally said, “Jiejie must not set any rules for yourself like that; otherwise, if you meet someone that you fancy, you might miss the opportunity because of these words.”
Susu was slightly angry, “Jiejie has given this matter careful consideration, I don’t need you to lecture me.”
This moment Liu Heita’s voice was coming from the main hall, the two people hastily went out of the room. Seeing the abundance of food and drink Liu Heita has purchased and brought back, without any trace of politeness Xu Ziling sat down in front of the table and started to chew. Kou Zhong and Susu promptly joined him.
Susu watched as the three men busily sending the food to their bowls and to their mouths. “Where is Wei Dage?” she asked.
Liu Heita replied, “Yangwu water transportation is extremely scarce nowadays, money alone is useless, we must also have some power. Dage is trying to talk with Baling Bang people, they are the only one who can tread on both black and white ways right now [i.e. both underground (criminal) and official] right now; other clans and societies are out of the question.”
Kou Zhong, three people, looked at each other; they did not expect that in the end they still had to deal with Baling Bang.
Noticing their unusual expression, Liu Heita asked in surprise, “Haven’t you had any dealings with them before?”
“It was not a dealing per se, just some encounters,” Kou Zhong replied, “Liu Xiong, have you heard the name Xiang Yushan?”
“Not only heard, I even met him face-to-face once,” Liu Heita replied, “This fellow is one of the newer well-known figures of Baling Bang. He knows a lot about business, rather popular in both the black and white ways; his public relation skill is exceptionally good.”
Hearing this, Kou Zhong could only stare blankly; he had never imagined that such a second-rate character like Xiang Yushan could also have some standing in Jianghu.
Liu Heita lowered his voice, “Although this person’s martial art skill is sloppy and very ordinary, he is very resourceful. Currently, Yang Guang’s two most favorite imperial concubines, one is Madame Xiao, the other is Zhu Gui’er. From what I heard, Zhu Gui’er was personally presented to that fatuous ruler by Xiang Yushan.”
“If that’s the case,” Xu Ziling said, “Why did Yang Guang send an assassin to murder Baling Bang’s big boss?”
Liu Heita said, “These things, we, as outsiders, can hardly understand.”
“What other news did Liu Dage hear?” Susu queried.
The beauty stooped down to ask information, Liu Heita felt he gained a lot of face; excitedly he replied, “Naturally the situation is very good: last month Li Yuan started a rebellion from Taiyuan; Li Mi repeatedly gained victory; Du Fuwei, Fu Gongyou, two men, flaunt their power in Jiang Huai, our army is known as Mighty Yan and Zhao [my dictionary gives ‘beautiful women’ as alternate definition]. The only places Sui household can defend right now are the western capital Chang’an, eastern capital Luoyang, and Yang Guang’s nest Jiangdu, Yangzhou. Other places, like where we stay temporarily, Yangwu, are basically without any ability to defend itself. The high-ranking military officers guarding the city are merely looking around to see which side they would surrender to!”
Xu Ziling excitedly asked, “How’s the situation of the Li Clan?”
Liu Heita shrugged, “They rely on help from the Tujue, becoming their hunting dog; there is nothing left to say.”
Xu Ziling was greatly disappointed; he also had nothing left to say.
“There is one this that is really puzzling,” Liu Heita went on, “The rumor in Jianghu is that the two of you know the secret of the Duke Yang Treasure Trove. Whether this is just a rumor or not, Xia Wang [king of Xia] and I have repeatedly researched it, and our final conclusion is that this treasure is just make-believe tales.”
“Why do you think the treasure does not exist?” Kou Zhong wondered.
Liu Heita said, “When Yang Guang murdered his own father and declared his independence, he also murdered his brother Yang Yong. In this matter, Yang Su had expended a lot of effort for him. At that time Yang Guang was still putting on the cloak of righteous ruler on him, so he showed a lot of favor and trust toward Yang Su. Although time and again he wanted to kill Yang Su, on the surface he did not show the least bit of sign. This was about a year before Yang Su died. Logically speaking, Yang Su would not have the mind to rebel or hide a treasure.”
Xu Ziling joined in, “It’s possible that the treasure was prepared during the Emperor Wen, Yang Jian’s time [c. 581-604 AD]. Due to Yang Su’s rigorous schemes and deep foresight, he ought to know that high meritorious service would shake the master, nothing good ever comes out of it.”
“That is a reasonable argument,” Liu Heita said, “But later on Yang Su’s son Yang Xuan raised an army in rebellion, his men did not even have a single decent weapon, and oftentimes he lacked the fund to pay the soldiers’ salary. This does not make sense. How could Yang Su not tell his son about the hidden treasure?”
Kou Zhong could not resist, “The place where Yang Xuan rose in rebellion is Liyang, the western capital’s mountain is long and its water far, perhaps he did not have time to get the treasure!”
Liu Heita slapped the table and laughed, “Two Xiongdi’s Jianghu experience is indeed too shallow; in just a few sentences you uncovered the secret to me that the treasure is at the western capital.”
Xu Ziling indignantly said, “Who would have thought Liu Xiong would swindle us?”
Kou Zhong giggled and said, “Liu Xiong just wanted to coach us in discipline. But we only know that the treasure is in Guanzhong. Before Niang could tell us, she already passed away. Otherwise, who knows? Perhaps we would give the treasure to Liu Xiong.”
Liu Heita was delighted, “Hearing what you said is enough. Honestly, I don’t believe such treasure would accomplish much.”
This moment Zhuge Dewei came back. He sat down and said, “Tonight Baling Bang may have a ship sailing for Jiangdu, with a cargo of all kinds of thread, gauze and satin for the muddleheaded ruler, so that the fatuous ruler can have his people cut it into flowers and leaves, and sew it onto the branches, and spread it over the pond, just so that he could enjoy the beauty of spring and summer in the middle of the winter. I already made arrangement; you can hitch a ride with that ship. This time Baling Bang really gives us a face.”
Liu Heita sighed and said, “Death is near at hand, that muddleheaded ruler still does not repent.”
And then, broken-hearted at having to part, he said, “We are going to part company!”
Susu hung her head low, she did not dare to meet his gaze.
Kou Zhong’s blood was boiling; straightening up his body he said, “Liu Xiong, I have something I’d like to ask your guidance in private.”
Liu Heita was a bit surprised; as he followed Kou Zhong toward the garden outside, he asked in low voice, “What is it? Are you hard pressed for funds?”
Kou Zhong patted the money pouch hanging on his waist; assuming a rich man air, he said, “We have enough money to spend on wine and pleasure, Liu Xiong need not worry.”
Then, lowering his voice he said, “I noticed that Liu Xiong is showing some interest on our Su Jie, is that correct?”
Chapter 11, Part 2
Liu Heita’s thick face turned scarlet. “In this kind of matter, naturally I cannot conceal it from you two,” he admitted, “The strange thing is, I have met not a few girls, but as soon as I saw your Jiejie, it’s hard for me to maintain self-control, ay!”
Kou Zhong was puzzled, “This is a good thing,” he said, “Why did Liu Xiong sigh?”
Liu Heita dejectedly said, “Five years ago, someone told my fortune by reading my facial features. He said my mountain root [don’t ask, I don’t know what it is …] appears too low, my two eyebrows are squeezing my qi extensively, perhaps before I turn forty one I would have passed. Therefore, I have made up my mind, I will enjoy my forty years of life without the slightest hesitation. Other things, I dare not think.”
Kou Zhong downplayed his remark, “How can we believe Jianghu charlatan’s words?”
Liu Heita smiled wryly and said, “Problem is, that person was not a Jianghu charlatan at all; rather, it was the Number One Expert of the Central Plains, Ning Daoqi. And it was because I was not afraid of the truth that I implored him repeatedly before he was willing to tell me.”
Kou Zhong was severely shaken, “Have you seen him?” he asked.
Liu Heita’s face revealed an awed expression; he nodded and said, “Only for a moment, and in a hurry. But his simple, relaxed and calm demeanor, I will never forget until the day I die.”
Reaching out to pat Kou Zhong’s shoulder, he said, “My deep affection for your virtuous sister can only be buried deep in the bottom of my heart; I do not dare to implicate her. Furthermore, when I come back this time, I am going to fight in one place after another all around the world [tian xia, i.e. China], life or death is unpredictable, I don’t know if in the future I will have the good fortune of seeing the three of you again. Kou Xiongdi’s good intention, Xiongdi is deeply grateful.”
What else could Kou Zhong say?
Heavy snow was starting to fall from the sky, again.
By nightfall, Baling Bang sent a carriage to pick up the three people. With heavy heart Liu Heita and the others bade farewell to the three people; recalling that they might never meet again in the future, everybody’s heart was brimming with sorrows.
After taking a seat in the carriage, Susu was overwhelmed with emotion, she bowed her head and shed some silent tears. Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were scared; they did not dare to disturb her, they simply looked out the window, silently watching the snowflake fluttered in the air along the street.
The driver, Baling Bang man, was polite and very hospitable; he drove straight out of the gate toward the big pier by Tongji Canal outside the city, led the three people to a skiff, and a moment later they reached a huge five-mast ship anchored in the middle of the river.
The three have just stepped foot on the deck, someone, beaming from ear to ear, already greeted them, “Kou Xiong, Xu Xiong, Miss Susu, how are you?”
“Ah!” Susu was pleasantly surprised, “It’s Xiang Gongzi!”
The man welcoming them was unexpectedly Xiang Yushan. Noticing the ill expression on Kou and Xu, two boys’ faces as they looked at him, he hastily bowed respectfully with clasped hands and said, “Two Dage must not blame Xiaodi, I have done everything in my power to find you three’s whereabouts, but all those hard works accomplished very little. Fortunately I guessed correctly that to go to Jiangdu, unavoidably you will have to pass through Yangwu, so I came here to wait for your news. Sure enough the Emperor of Heaven did not turn his back on resolute person, in the end I can meet once again with the three of you!”
With ‘frigid irony and scorching satire’ Kou Zhong said, “We were also very fortunate not to go to your Peipei or what have you, or else we would have fallen into the Wagang Army’s hands early on.”
Xu Ziling let out a cold laugh and said, “Xiang Xiong indeed know how to introduce us to good people.”
Xiang Yushan was shocked, “Is there such thing?” he asked, “Humph! If verified, Xiongdi will definitely punish the traitor according to gang rules.”
Kou Zhong said, “If we encounter something in the future, how would we know that you will not betray us like Peipei?”
Xiang Yushan feigned helpless ignorance as he lamented, “How could Kou Xiong look down on me, Xiang Yushan, like that? If I have that kind of intention, let me not have a good end.”
Susu could not bear not to say something, “We did not know Xiang Gongzi have his own problem, you two must not blame him again.”
Xu Ziling swept his gaze around; he noticed the sailors were raising the anchor and untying the sail in preparation to set off. Turning to Xiang Yushan he said, “Very well! But if we discover later on that you are playing trick on us, I will immediately tear you apart.”
Xiang Yushan indignantly puff out his chest and said, “The three of you may set your heart at ease, I, Xiang Yushan is definitely not a despicable man.”
After a short pause, he continued respectfully, “Xiaodi has prepared a banquet inside the cabin, especially in honor of the three of you. Miss Susu, please!”
After staring at Xiang Yushan for a few seconds, Susu gladly walked over, Xiang Yushan delightedly led the way. Seeing Susu accepting the invitation and entered the cabin, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling had no choice but to follow behind her.
The cabin was brightly lit, plus there was a stove in the corner, so that it was as warm as springtime. In the middle of the room was a table of sumptuous banquet, by the table was a beautiful lady in white. Leading four good-looking maids, she bowed to greet the guests.
Xiang Yushan made the introduction, “Xiao Dajie [big sister] is the younger sister of our humble gang’s Fu Bangzhu [Deputy Gang/Clan Leader] Xiao Xian; she manages the daily expenses and necessities of the imperial concubines in the imperial palace, she knows the imperial palace situation like the back of her hands. With her working out a strategy, this time Yuwen Clan is in danger.”
[Translator’s note: so far I always translated Bang as Clan, like in Beggar Clan (gai bang), or Clans and Societies (bang hui) just because this term is widely known in our circle; however, since in this story there are a lot of references to ‘family clan’ (fa), I feel that I need to differentiate these two. So … I will make conscious effort to use ‘gang’ instead of ‘clan’ when referring to these organizations.]
This Big Sister Xiao was about twenty years or so, in terms of beauty, she was inferior to Shen Luoyan, Shan Wanjing, and the like, but her figure was like standing jade, her body alluring, her bearing elegant; in short, she was sexually very attractive.
Big Sister Xiao’s laughter sounded like the ringing of a bell; absolutely unrestrained, she sized Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling up and down, and laughed again before even speaking, “You are fine specimen indeed, no wonder as soon as he saw you, Yushan has such a high regard of the two gentlemen!”
Awkwardly Xiang Yushan cleared his throat and said, “Please sit down.”
After everybody was seated, the pretty maids poured wine into their cups and then withdrew from the cabin.
Susu did not drink wine, she asked for fragrant tea instead. Xiang Yushan, who was sitting next to her, politely served her.
With licentious look, Big Sister Xiao repeatedly urged Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling to drink their wine; it was such a warm atmosphere.
After three rounds of drink, Xiang Yushan said, “Know yourself and know your enemy, and you will never be defeated [idiom, from Sunzi's ‘The Art of War’]. I wonder if two Dage are familiar with Yuwen Clan’s affairs.”
Kou Zhong was particularly blunt toward Xiang Yushan; knitting his brows, he said, “If you don’t tell me, how would I know?”
Big Sister Xiao laughed coquettishly and said, “Yushan is so bad, when he started, he gave two Gongzi bad impressions. Just consider this cup as my apology on behalf of Yushan.”
Since she spoke up the load in their mind in such a forthcoming manner, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling felt embarrassed instead; they promptly drank their cups.
Like a blossoming flower Big Sister Xiao smiled toward Susu and said, “If I had two good Didi like Miss Susu, I would be extremely thrilled.”
At first Susu was uncomfortable with this young – but acted as if she was a seasoned windblown dust [i.e. prostitute] who had gone through everything – woman, who incessantly threw flirtatious glances toward Kou and Xu, two boys; but with such flattering remark, her ill will immediately diminished greatly. A smile burst open on her pretty face.
Xiang Yushan was a bit mesmerized by her flourishing fresh flower-like smile; he sighed and said, “If I could be like Kou Xiong and Xu Xiong who have a sister like Miss Susu, that would be really good!”
Susu rolled her eyes at him; her pretty face blushed, she hung down her head and said in a low voice, “How could Susu dare to accept the compliment? I am only a maid.”
Xiang Yushan replied in earnestness, “I don’t care what Miss Susu’s status is, in my, Xiang Yushan, heart, you are a fairy from heaven.”
Susu’s pretty face blushed even redder, but her expression showed that she was delighted.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling exchanged a glance; they both felt it was inappropriate. The first time Susu met Xiang Yushan, she already spoke up on his behalf. If this time Xiang Yushan mixed some sweet nothing in his old hand technique to arouse the romance and thus force his way inside her heart, wouldn’t it be very bad?
While both of them separately plotting a countermeasure, Big Sister Xiao said, “About Yuwen Clan’s affairs, let me tell you! The two most formidable persons in Yuwen family are Yuwen Shang and Yuwen Shu. The former concentrates fully on martial art training. Along with the Song Clan’s ‘Heavenly Saber’ Song Que, they are known as the Central Plains’ two greatest martial art masters after Ning Daoqi. His martial art skill is matchless, but he never set foot in officialdom. He begets two sons, Yuwen Chengdu and Yuwen Wudi.”
Kou Zhong was dumbstruck. “I thought Yuwen Huagu is his son, turns out he is not,” he said.
Big Sister Xiao shook in laughter like a flower at the trip of a branch. “Yuwen Huagu?” she said, “Fancy that you came out with that name.”
Kou and Xu could not avert their eyes from her silky breasts, which were trembling in sync with her shaking body due to the laughter; they found it to be highly captivating.
Xiang Yushan interjected, “Yuwen Shu successively held high positions in the imperial court, until his nobility rank reaches Guo Gong [state duke], the highest possible official positions. He has three sons; Yuwen Huaji is the oldest, followed by Yuwen Shiji [士及] and Yuwen Shiji [智及]. Although Yuwen Shiji is not among the four great martial art masters of the Yuwen Clan, but since he is the most inscrutable, we must never underestimate him.”
Big Sister Xiao continued, “Yuwen Shang never held any official position, his specific responsibility is Jianghu matters. From Yuwen Shu’s three sons, Yuwen Huaji inherited his father’s Guo Gong nobility, his official position is the Commander of the Right Reserve Officers, and the Zongguan [Chief Manager] of the Capital. His second son Shiji married Yang Guang’s daughter Princess Nanyang, so he is the Sui Dynasty’s prince consort.”
Xiang Yushan joined in, “Yuwen Shiji [the third son] is proficient in wood construction. Yang Guang’s minor jail, north of Jiangdong city’s Guiyan Palace, Huiliu Palace, Songlin Palace, and the others, the ‘Shugang Ten Palaces’, were all built under his supervision.”
Xu Ziling breathed out a mouthful of cold air, “Yuwen Clan is in such a close relationship with the imperial household, how could one account book make any difference?”
“That’s why we must make a careful plan,” Xiang Yushan said, “Otherwise we won’t be able to harm them but suffer a heavy loss instead.”
It was only now did the two boys realize the dangerous nature of their mission; it was definitely not as easy as they thought.
But they were already riding on the tiger’s back; there was no way they could shrink back.