Chapter 4 – Confidential Matter That Is Not A Secret
Book 6 Chapter 4 – Confidential Matter That Is Not A Secret
Kou Zhong slipped out the window and came back. Dejected, he said, “Those two damn b@stard are really cruel, the security is so tight that even a fly can’t escape.”
The place they were staying was located in the garden at the southwest corner of Linjiang Palace, to the west and south of the place were open spaces with nowhere to hide. The walls were high with watchtowers everywhere. To the east was a big garden, to the north was about a dozen big bamboo groves with no passable path. Therefore, the only way out was through the garden.
Xu Ziling came back a step earlier, he also managed to obtain clear picture of the situation. Sighing, he said, “The only way is to charge through the high wall, killing our way out. It’s just that there is a thirty-zhang open space between the small garden to the high wall, I am afraid before we reach the foot of the wall, we’d be shot dead by the rain of arrows from the watchtower guards, or perhaps we’d be cutoff by the opponent’s martial art masters. How’s the situation at the flower garden?”
Kou Zhong smiled wryly and replied, “By looking at my expression, you ought to know the situation without having to ask me; there are hidden guards everywhere in the flower garden, plus it is brightly lit, thinking about escaping without the gods know and the ghosts detect is just lunatic ravings. This must be personally arranged by Dugu Sheng to prevent us from escaping.”
And then, with a wolf-viciousness he said, “If we cannot get away from a place like this, it will really damage our reputation as the Yangzhou Two Dragons. Those two damn b@stard will despise us even more.”
Xu Xiling mused, “Have it ever occurred to you that even if we manage to get out, we still need to crash our way through the city defense, and then once we are inside the city, it’s still unknown whether we will be able to find Su Jie or not.”
Kou Zhong chuckled lightly and said, “Don’t worry! Beautiful Shifu will not dare to deceive me; she has already agreed to leave secret marks all around the city, so that we can easily find their location. This is the benefit of using the ‘by hook or by crook’ method.”
Xu Ziling was dumbstruck and unable to reply.
Kou Zhong continued his analysis, “The security here seems to be incomparably tight, but we can clearly see that the imperial guards are undisciplined and their morale is low, everybody wants to shirk responsibility or even run away from here. Hey! Just think, if we suddenly gone missing, what would the imperial guards guarding us do?”
Xu Ziling’s eyes lit up immediately, “They would think that since Yang Guang ordered Dugu Sheng to keep watch over us, it would mean they are not fulfilling their obligations; it would be strange indeed if Yang Guang did not behead them all. Naturally the entire team will leave their job to join the rank of army deserters.”
Kou Zhong said, “Under normal circumstances, my stratagem might not be useful, but right now their heart is anxious, they have misgivings toward each other, they would not dare to lightly and rashly make indiscriminate action! We still have several sichen until daybreak anyway, we might as well wait for two more d@mn sichen, and then when those guards are cold and tired, we will commence our grand plan.”
The end of yin hour [3-5am], early mao hour [5-7am].
‘Whoo! Whoo!’ With two signals, one after another two shadows flitted out of the courtyard house where Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling stayed, toward the bamboo groves, while several wind lanterns in the vicinity went out at the same time. Followed by chaotic noise of snapping bamboo branches, which alerted the guards.
Among the Imperial Guards Dugu Sheng dispatched to keep watch over the two boys this time, there was no lack of martial art masters. Immediately about a dozen men flew toward the bamboo groves in pursuit of the two boys, yet they did not even see any shadow of ghost.
Nobody in the Imperial Guards was not familiar with Yang Guang’s temperament; they did not dare to ring the bell to sound the alarm, they only split up and searched around. Some even went into the two boys’ quarter to take a quick look; after confirming that nobody was inside, they hurriedly joined the search operation outside.
Half a sichen later, several leaders huddled around in discussion. Someone said, “This is awful; does anybody have any plan?”
Another man said, “If we stay here, we will die for sure; if we flee right now, we still have a little chance of surviving. Please forgive Xiaodi for not keeping you company.”
In reality, everybody had the same thought, so as soon as that man spoke up, a hundred or so Imperial Guards scrambled out in confusion, climbing over the wall and disappeared until nobody remained.
Only then did Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling crawled out from the under the bed. The former laughed and said, “While there is still time, let’s get some of Zhen Sao’s steamed stuffed buns!” [See Book 1 Chapter 1 on Sister-in-law Zhen.]
By the time Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong entering the city via the secret passage, i.e. the water sewer, the sky was starting to brighten. Returning to their former haunts, everything seemed to be familiar, but also seemed to be unusually strange. There was an indescribable inspiration in their heart.
“Last time Yuwen Huaji used hunting dogs to follow our trail, he should find this secret entrance; why didn’t he have his men to block it then?” Kou Zhong wondered.
Xu Ziling was applying his internal energy to dry his drenched clothes, “Perhaps he wanted to keep this secret passage for his own needs!” he blurted out.
Kou Zhong gave him a push and said with a laugh, “Why bother applying your internal energy? Let’s go to Chen’s old clothing store and steal two sets of clothes! Giving that penny-pincher some heartburn is a good thing.”
The two boys laughed heartily, feeling very pleased with themselves; taking advantage before the sky was not quite bright, they leaped onto the roof of a commoner’s house, like an old horse who know the way home, they flew over houses and building, enjoying the cold wind against their face, rushing toward Chen’s old clothing store in the eastern part of the city.
Since they were counting their chickens before they were hatched, unexpectedly it fell through.
When they arrived, they found out that Chen’s old clothing store, as well as about a dozen other stores nearby, had been completely converted into Sui army lodging house.
Kou Zhong heaved a sigh and said, “These troops are like locusts who devoured Yangzhou until it is riddled with gaping wounds and cuts and bruises all over. Ay! Zhen Sao is so pretty, I do hope those thief soldiers did not take a fancy on her.”
Without saying a word, Xu Ziling swept across a side alley toward the marketplace.
Sure enough, Sister-in-law Zhen’s steamed bun stall was gone; on its place was a fruit and vegetable stall. The market was still bustling with noise and excitement, but the people they were bumping into were unfamiliar faces with out-of-the-area accent.
Xu Ziling grabbed the fruit and vegetable stall owner and asked, “Where did that auntie who used to sell steamed buns [orig. baozi – stuffed steamed buns and mantou – plain steamed buns] go?”
The owner let out a bitter sigh and said, “Of course she is gone! Only people with nowhere to go like me would stay here waiting to die. But if my merchandise is robbed clean again, tomorrow I am going to try rushing out the city gate.”
An old man, the over of the next stall said, “Is Sire asking about the Old Feng? Are you their relatives?”
Kou Zhong hastily replied, “We are his nephews.”
The old man shook his head and sighed, “Their steamed buns are too famous. As soon as His Highness arrived in Jiangdu, they were enlisted as cook in the Palace. Afterwards nobody knew what happened to them.”
Xu Ziling clenched his fists, turned around and walked away.
Kou Zhong ran after him; he followed him turning to the left and swerving to the right in the midst of the tide of people in the marketplace. “Where are you going?” he shouted.
“I want to rescue Zhen Sao out of that place,” Xu Ziling indignantly replied.
Kou Zhong grabbed his arm, “Calm down!” he said, “Have you forgotten the moon in the well?”
Xu Ziling was shaken and stopped abruptly. Immediately the people behind them pushed them forward and said, “Don’t block the way.”
The two boys hastily squeezed their way out of the marketplace. Leaving that noisy overcrowded place, their head cleared out somewhat.
Kou Zhong proposed to treat their ailing tummy first.
They went to a nearby restaurant and sat down. After absent-mindedly stuffed several kinds of steamed buns into their stomach, Kou Zhong said, “No matter what you want to do, I will support you, but you must not be hot-headed; first of all, we need to solve the problem of Su Jie, and then we can have a free hand in going all out.”
He sighed and went on, “The Great Sui is really finished, the world has turned into a terrible mess, if nobody took the initiative to unify the world, I don’t know how much more misery the people on the street will have to suffer. One bad Tujue man fight his way into the Central Plains, we, Han people, will fall under the harsh rule of foreign power. Only if you are willing to help me will we be able to rise in building the rivers and mountains [i.e. country] and, as much as possible, do some good things for the innocent people.”
Xu Ziling said, “Your thought seems to be too beautiful and too far for me. Now is not the time to discuss this matter; we slipped away like this, do you think Dugu Sheng will be willing to let us go? It would be best if we could find our Su Jie as soon as possible.”
Kou Zhong grabbed a couple of meat steamed buns, stood up and said, “You are in charge of buying us two new sets of clean clothes, I will go look for secret markings; we will meet again at the eastern end of Duke Ma Alley later.”
Xu Ziling looked at him and said, “Why not go together? If something happened, we can look after each other better.”
“The two of us together is too conspicuous,” Kou Zhong replied, “Plus it would be easier for our old acquaintances to recognize us. Going separately is a bit safer.”
Xu Ziling had no choice but to let him go.
Kou Zhong went strutting down the street; from time to time he came across Sui troops, womenfolk was nearly extinct from the street, only older ones remained. Merely from this fact it was clear why so many people wanted to leave Yangzhou.
In the mind of the people, Sui troops were more frightening than any rebel force.
Suddenly someone called out, “Zhong Shao!”
Kou Zhong jumped in fright. Turning toward the voice, he saw someone hiding in an alley, beckoning him to come.
Kou Zhong hesitated for half a day, but he finally came over. A young, robust-looking man, who was a bit older than he was, with dark skin and sturdy build, who seemed to know one or two stances of martial art, grabbed his shoulders and said, “It is really you! At first I wasn’t sure. Hey! You seem to live well!”
This man was called Gui Xiliang, he used to hang around the same crowd with Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling. When they were younger, they even had several bouts with another gang together, but all ended in defeat. However, the relationship among these several boys could not be considered bad.
Kou Zhong noticed that he was wearing Zhuhua Bang [bamboo flower gang] uniform, there were even three bamboo leaves embroidered on the lapel of his robe. “Since when did you become a Xiangzhu [fragrant master]?” he asked in astonishment, “You did not climb over a lot of other people’s heads, I hope?”
Gui Xiliang replied, “It was entirely due to Bangzhu showing favor to me, by receiving me as his disciple; ay!”
Kou Zhong pulled him toward the other end of the alley, he was puzzled, “It was a good thing, right? Why are you sighing?”
Gui Xiliang said, “Such a big deal, and you did not know? Where have you been hiding these past couple of years? Where is Xiao Ling?”
“Answer my question first,” Kou Zhong said.
Gui Xiliang let out a muted snort and said, “Whatever I say, I am the Xiangzhu, why should I answer your question first?”
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “So you want to be the Laoda [the oldest, i.e. ‘the boss’]? In that case, I’ll let you be you! These past couple of years Xiao Ling and I went mingling in the Jianghu. Du Fuwei, Zhai Rang, and the others have shook hands with us and drank wine together. Ha! Your turn to speak.”
Evidently Gui Xiliang thought he was bragging; clicking his tongue, he said, “You, this little demon, look more thick and solid than I am, it’s a pity just like before, you did not make any progress. Ay! Do you know that two months ago Bangzhu was beaten to death by the men sent by that muddleheaded ruler? It was simply because he refused to hand over Yu Ling from the Tianxian Lou and sent her away instead.”
Kou Zhong raised his thumb and praised, “Good man!”
With a bitter laugh Gui Xiliang said, “A dead good man is d@mn fart useless. Now most of the people in our gang have scattered away, leaving only about a hundred men. We hope that when Du Fuwei, or perhaps Li Zitong come to attack, we can be their contact on the inside so that we can avenge Bangzhu, the Senior.”
Kou Zhong’s eyes lit up; lowering his voice, he asked, “Have you elected new Bangzhu?”
Gui Xiliang sighed and said, “Elect what ghost Bangzhu? Right now we are like a sheet of loose sand, we are only waiting for the muddleheaded ruler’s death, and then we’ll hold an assembly in Danyang, to look at the possibility of electing the new Bangzhu.”
Meanwhile they have reached the end of the alley, ahead was another big street. Gui Xiliang halted his steps and said, “I shall not come out to the light. Do you remember that guy, Xing Rong’s house? I am hiding in there.”
Chapter 4, Part 2
Kou Zhong casually asked, “How’s Yan Laoda?”
“You still have the nerve to ask about him?” Gui Xiliang said, “I don’t know what kind of thing the two of you stole from some government official, you implicated more than a hundred people; since then, no one has seen them. I heard it has something to do with Yuwen Huaji; is that right?”
Kou Zhong heaved a deep sigh and said, “Don’t worry! I guarantee that Yuwen Huaji won’t have too many days to live. That muddleheaded ruler will soon open him up with a saber.”
Gui Xiliang snorted disdainfully, “Your dead character has never changed. Yuwen Huaji basically never has any regards toward that muddleheaded ruler; before his death, Bangzhu had a very good relationship with him, he even said that Yuwen Huaji even dare to steal the muddleheaded ruler’s women.”
Kou Zhong’s countenance changed, “Do you know which one he stole?” he asked.
“Naturally the most beautiful one,” Gui Xiliang replied, “Otherwise, why would he risk his life to steal her? Do you think he dislike having a long life?”
Kou Zhong groaned inwardly; the most beautiful women by Yang Guang’s side were Xiao Fei and Zhu Fei [reminder: fei means imperial concubine]. Zhu Fei was Baling Bang people, so there shouldn’t be any problem. But if it were Xiao Fei, then Yuwen Huaji should know that he and Xu Ziling have come to Jiangdu especially to do harm to him.
The more he thought, the more he was alarmed; no longer in the mood to chitchat with this guy, he hurried away.
Xu Ziling was waiting for Kou Zhong, empty-handed. The latter asked in surprise, “The clothes?”
Xu Ziling indignantly said, “All satin garments and used clothing stores have been looted bare; they all closed down their businesses for good. Everybody said that wherever the muddleheaded ruler went, there wouldn’t be law and order in that place. Failing the people’s heart like this, I really wish to kill him with one punch. Huh? Why is your countenance so unsightly?”
Kou Zhong craned his neck out to look around, a squad of Sui troops has just passed by. Lowering his voice he said, “Did you see anything different about those Sui troops?”
Xu Ziling thought he was still referring to the men that Dugu Sheng sent to catch them. “Nothing different to me,” he replied, “In my opinion, currently the morale of the troops is in a mess, even if there is any order from above, they won’t necessarily do it wholeheartedly.”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “What I am worried about is not that matter, rather, Yuwen Huaji might have received information about his unfavorable situation. Quick! Let’s go find Su Jie, I’ll tell you along the way!”
Xiang Yushan proved himself to be a scholar of ability and wisdom; the safe house was at the outskirt just south of the city, not far from the Yangtze River. If any problem arose, it would be very convenient to escape either via the water or on land.
On the outside, it was no different than an ordinary family mansion, but it was actually Baling Bang’s secret hideout.
By the time the two boys stepped into the courtyard, they immediately felt something was unusual. One of Baling Bang leaders told them in low voice, “Dugu Sheng and Fei Yun are here.”
Kou Zhong had already guessed that they would, so he simply laughed aloud and calmly and boldly he strode into the hall.
Xu Ziling, who was following behind him, had a strange feeling; formerly this good brother of his was just a kid, but facing such a tough enemy he had shown his able side.
Dugu Sheng grandly sat in the middle of the hall, on his side were Xiang Yushan, Susu and Big Sister Xiao, on the other side was the ill-countenanced Fei Yun. Only Yun Yuzhen was not present.
On either side stood five, six big men wearing embroidered robe, with just one glance it was clear that these men were martial art masters of the Imperial Bodyguards.
Dugu Sheng’s eyes were flickering sharply as he shouted with heavy voice, “What do you two think you are doing?”
Kou Zhong leisurely halted his steps, his eyes swept across the hall, and he giggled and said, “We, two brothers, also want to know what do you think you are doing? You lightly scolded us as slaves, and locked us up as prisoners. Hey! Let’s have everybody judge fairly between us.”
Xiang Yushan cast a deeply concerned glance toward Susu, who was so scared that her face was devoid of any color; he stood up and said, “It’s good that Kou Xiong and Xu Xiong came back, this is just a little misunderstanding. Come! Sit down and let’s talk.”
Fei Yun was putting on an air of big official; he slapped the armrest and shouted, “What misunderstanding? Yushan, you sit down, let’s clear up this matter first.”
Noticing Susu was scared, Xu Ziling empathized with her; letting out a cold laugh, he said, “I don’t understand why you are still nagging endlessly; the smart thing to do right now is immediately slip away, if you tarry much longer, I am afraid it will be too late.”
Dugu Sheng understood his implication, he raised his hand to stop Fei Yun, who was about to flare out in anger, and spoke in heavy voice, “Can Xu Xiongdi speak a bit more clearly?”
Kou Zhong spoke up, “I just heard information that one of His Highness favorite concubines has secret ties with Yuwen Huaji. Therefore, our secret plan is no longer a secret. If you were Yuwen Huaji, what would you do?”
Everybody’s countenance changed immediately.
Suppressing his anger, Fei Yun asked, “Where did you get the information from? Do you know which imperial concubine?”
“From Zhuhua Bang people,” Kou Zhong replied, “I heard that the late Bangzhu was Yuwen Huaji’s man, and that’s how I learned about the incident.”
Fei Yun was seething with anger, “Turns out it’s that thief who did not know how to appreciate favors.”
From the tone of his voice, it was obvious that if the death of Zhuhua Bang’s late Bangzhu was not directly related to him, he must have had some connection with it.
Dugu Sheng turned to one of his men, “Zhu Ming, did you see anything unusual with Yuwen Clan’s troop’s activity today?”
The tall and thin Zhu Ming shook his head and replied, “We have been closely monitoring Yuwen Huaji, Yuwen Shiji and Yuchi Sheng’s men, we did not see anything unusual.”
Dugu Sheng breathed a sigh of relief; he said, “Wind from an empty cave cannot be without any cause. Moreover, Yuwen Huaji has always had free access to the Imperial Palace, so this matter is highly possible. Fortunately, Laofu [lit. old man, referring to self] has been well-prepared; in the next two days, I have strict order that no one is to leave the Palace …”
Xu Ziling cut him off, “Now it’s not the time to comfort ourselves; didn’t you see that last night our men managed to slip out of the Palace? If one of those men cast his lot with Yuwen Huaji, plus the secret information from that unknown imperial concubine spy, Yuwen Huaji should have a clear picture of his unfavorable situation.”
Big Sister Xiao joined in, “Who currently holds power over the military?”
Dugu Sheng replied, “All His Highness’ personal bodyguards have been with Laofu for many years, more or less there shouldn’t be any problem. However, whether they are harboring some disloyal thought, or perhaps they have been bought, even Laofu does not dare to guarantee.”
Fei Yun added, “Other than personal bodyguards, there are also Jiangdu’s own garrison and the Imperial Guards that are coming with His Highness. The former is under Yuchi Sheng’s command, the latter under Sima Dekan. Yuwen Huaji and Yuwen Shiji do not have direct authority over military affair.”
The tone of his voice softened as he said, “This official is slightly mistaken, hereby I sincerely apologize to two Xiao Xiongdi. This matter should not be delayed, we must take advantage before Yuwen Huaji finds out about it to strike first and gain the upper hand; pull the Yuwen family’s root from Jiangdu, otherwise it will cause no end of trouble. Would two gentlemen immediately come with this official to have an audience with His Highness? His Highness’ sacred self has already returned to the royal city.”
Xiang Yushan also urged, “Two Dage must use this opportunity to avenge your benevolent master’s big enmity, before Yuwen Huaji finds out about this matter, act fast; otherwise, if you miss this opportunity, there won’t be any second chance.”
Kou Zhong spoke indifferently, “So there is really no sign of troop movement or any rebellion?”
Hearing the tone of his voice, everybody was startled.
Susu could not help asking, “Xiao Zhong, what do you have in mind? Quickly speak up!”
Xu Ziling’s intelligence was on par with Kou Zhong, he understood immediately. “How many men did Sima Dekan take to pursue Dou Xian? When did he leave?” he asked.
Dugu Sheng was shaken, “Do you think he is going to rebel?” he asked.
Kou Zhong said, “Soldiers and officers ran away, he will take the blame. Does he have good relationship with Yuwen Huaji?”
Zhu Ming’s countenance changed; he said, “Before Commander set off this morning, he stopped by Zongguan mansion to see Yuwen Huaji and Yuchi Sheng.”
Fei Yun stood up abruptly. “That’s not right!” his voice trembled, “He has no reason to bring twenty-thousand men just to pursue Dou Xian’s several hundred men.”
Xu Ziling said, “His pursuit of Dou Xian is just an empty threat. In my opinion, no later than tonight, he will lead the troops back to join Yuchi Sheng and Yuwen Huaji’s troops to kill their way into the Imperial Palace.”
Fei Yun’s countenance became extremely unsightly, “This is extremely urgent,” he said anxiously, “We must enter the Palace immediately to report to His Highness.”
“Hold on!” Kou Zhong shouted, “We are willing to accompany you braving this danger, but you must let our Jiejie leave Jiangdu first, so that we won’t have any fears of trouble in the rear.”
Dugu Sheng and Fei Yun exchanged glances; they hesitated and were unable to make decision. Without Susu, if these two boys employed some tricks and slip away again, they would have no way of finding them back, plus currently time was not on their side.
“No!” Susu mournfully said, “I will wait for you and we will leave together.”
Kou Zhong smiled wryly and said, “Then if something bad happens, nobody will be able to leave. I am afraid that for Yuwen Huaji, this house is no longer a secret.”
Xiang Yushan patted his chest as a guarantee and said to Dugu Sheng and Fei Yun, “My two Dage are men who dare to do and dare to take responsibility, plus they have deep enmity against Yuwen Huaji. Two Daren can rest assured.”
Dugu Sheng reluctantly nodded his approval.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling bade their farewell to Susu. Only after handing her over to Xiang Yushan did they enter the ‘How do you catch the tiger cub without entering the tiger's lair?’ frame of mind, and followed Dugu Sheng and Fei Yun back into the city.