Chapter 7 – Returning To The Western Paradise
Book 10 Chapter 7 – Returning To The Western Paradise
Luo Fang excitedly said, “This time our victory was an extremely close call, even I almost lose my life. Fortunately there was a mysterious scar-faced Daxia [great hero] who drew his saber to help us, attacking the bandits that their casualties are very heavy. As if he was feeling his pocket and took something out, he even took the ‘scorched earth for a thousand li’ Mao Zao’s severed head in the middle of magnificent army with thousands of men and horses, and thus reversing the situation of the battle.”
And then, with much trepidation he went on, “You would not have believed how thrilling the situation was. At first we thought it was just an army of two, three thousands to invade and harass us; who would have thought the bandits would cover the mountains and the plains? They attacked us that we were completely routed. Fortunately Changzhu [ranch master] and Er Zhishi [second manager] separately led their troops via two different routes to curb the enemy’s main force, again with the help of that mysterious Daxia, Also Da Guanjia [housekeeper] led his troops out of the pass to face the attack head-on. Only then did we manage to resist the enemy. By the time Changzhu lured the enemy into the trap outside the village, the eastern gorge also dispatch troops to help, and so we defeated the enemy in one move, pursued and attacked them for a hundred li, and killed them until they threw off their pants. Hey! Where is Xiao Ning?”
Xu Ziling smiled and said, “Fu Zhishi [deputy manager], please sit down!”
Luo Fang acted as if he did not realize that he was the deputy manager; he was only staring blankly for a moment, before as if he had just been awakened from a dream he sat in the chair Xu Ziling pulled out for him. Looking all around, he remarked, “This house is not bad at all. Where is Xiao Ning?”
Xu Ziling sat down across the table from him. He knew that Kou Zhong knew how to coax him; hence the reason Luo Fang preferred Kou Zhong over him. He replied, “He was summoned by Princess Ning; he should be back any moment!”
Luo Fang revealed a disappointed look, but immediately returned to his excited mood. As if he was about to confer a top secret, he leaned over and lowered his voice and said, “This time it was entirely due to Er Zhishi’s recommendation, because under the Third Manager, people more qualified than me can be found everywhere. Besides, the San Zhishi’s [third manager] position has been taken over by Xu Lao. So now all managers and their deputies are our Er Zhishi’s men, something that was unthinkable in the past. Fortunately in the battle this time I have shown a bit of performance. But I heard that it was Er Zhishi who talked to Changzhu for the whole sichen, and with Da Guanjia’s support, before she finally agreed.”
Xu Lao was Xu Yang, the deputy of the Third Manager, who, like Shang Zhen, loved to smoke pipes; hence they had a good relationship.
Liu Zongdao’s face, who was blind in one eye, appeared in Xu Ziling’s mind; a slightly uncomfortable feeling crept up in his heart.
This man actively groomed his own power. Could it be that he had another agenda?
Speaking of which, he and Kou Zhong could also be considered his men.
Staying tranquil and calm, he asked, “Has misfortune befallen San Zhishi?”
Letting out a cold snort, Luo Fang said, “He usually did not have any regards toward others, and loved to flaunt his awe-inspiring authority. When he visited the battlefield for real, would he still be able to show off? Just in a couple of confrontations he was slaughtered!”
Xu Ziling was well aware that Tao Shusheng was executed in secret, but the official announcement was that he sacrificed his life in battle; either because the family scandal should not be broadcasted outside, or it was a method to purge the remnants of a defeated clique. The Fourth Manager Wu Zhaoru has always been breathing through the same nostril as Tao Shusheng; perhaps he was also involved in this matter.
Xu Ziling very much wanted to ask about Yuan’er’s fate, but in the end he held back and asked, “Has Changzhu returned?”
Luo Fang was unsure, “She should be back in a few days. The situation outside is very chaotic. After Ren Shaoming was assassinated, not only there was a fast change of scene in the south, the turn of events north of the River is also not too encouraging.”
After exchanging some more chitchats, due to his newly-appointed post, Luo Fang had hundreds of matters to attend to; thereupon he said goodbye and left.
While Xu Ziling was still musing over the situation caused by Ren Shaoming’s death, Kou Zhong, with stupefied look on his face, came back. He sat down absent-mindedly, his eyes looking straight ahead, just like two empty holes.
Xu Ziling was about to question him, Kou Zhong dejectedly sighed and said, “Finally she and I came to an end.”
Xu Ziling reached out to grab him by the shoulders and said heavily, “Not everything in life is lovely flower, round moon, blissful with everything going on as you wish. While we do not need to serve beautiful Changzhu these next few days, we might as well ask for guidance Mr. Lu, to have a bit more positive outlook.”
Kou Zhong nodded; he said, “It’s critical that you tend to your injury and heal quick, don’t leave the slightest amount of scar; otherwise, your scar faced Daxia will expose the fox’s tail!”
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And so they passed their days like that.
Lan Gu appeared to be afraid of them that she did not dare to come and harass them; so the two boys enjoyed a free and easy life, day and night they slipped out to talk with Lu Miaozi, discussing the written notes of his lifelong learnings.
Due to the differences in characters, Xu Ziling held special interest in landscape design and astronomy, while due to his ambition, Kou Zhong was more interested in history, the art of war, and mechanism; each in the correct place.
On the surface, Lu Miaozi did not look like someone at the death’s door; his complexion was still ruddy and bright. Yet the two boys were aware that he had reached the last brightest moment just before the flame dies.
※ ※ ※
One evening, the two boys were just thinking of going to Lu Miaozi’s place, when Xiao Juan, whom they have not seen for a few days, suddenly appeared, telling them that the Ranch Master wanted them. So they knew that the beauty has come back.
Having a guilty conscience, they could only brace themselves to go see her.
Shang Xiuxun was sitting alone in her study; she was busy reading scrolls of document piling up on her desk. The two boys stood in front of her desk and saluted, she merely uttered an ‘ehm’, as if she thought looking up to acknowledge their presence was not worth doing.
After the two boys stood transfixed for quite a while, she suddenly said flatly, “Take off your clothes!”
“What?” the two boys blurted.
Tossing the writing brush in her hand, Shang Xiuxun looked up to stare at them. She spoke irately, “Take off your clothes is take off your clothes. Which part of it you don’t understand? My word is your command; otherwise, house rule is waiting for you.”
Forcing a laugh, Kou Zhong said, “Other than our Niang, no other women have ever seen our innocent bodies. If we strip naked in front of Changzhu, it won’t look so good if anybody ever finds out!”
Shang Xiuxun gave him a stern look; she scolded, “I did not tell you to take off your pants. Still refuse to comply? Are you waiting for the beating?”
Xu Ziling was about to argue, Kou Zhong was afraid he might unmask their true identity, he quickly cried out, “You want us to take off our clothes, we will take off our clothes!”
Seeing Kou Zhong peeling off and stripping his upper garments, exposing his refined naked thick and solid torso, and knowing that Shang Xiuxun wanted to see if they had any scars on their bodies, plus remembering that they were going to see Lu Miaozi, finally Xu Ziling relented.
Shang Xiuxun rose up to her full height, walked around the two boys for a few turns, and then returned to her desk, while failing to cover her disappointment. Waving her hand, she said, “Get lost!”
The two boys picked up their clothes, and were about to get out when suddenly Shang Xiuxun stopped them, “Get dressed first before going out. If you go out like that, are you looking for scandal?”
The two boys awkwardly put on their clothes under her shining eyes. Noticing that she looked like she was still thinking about something, Kou Zhong probed, “Changzhu! Can we get lost now?”
Shang Xiuxun’s eyes looked at the two boys up and down several times. She said coldly, “Do you work out every day?”
Kou Zhong realized that she had her doubt upon seeing their perfect and solid muscles. “Of course,” he spoke without thinking, “Every day, first thing in the morning, we spend at least one sichen punching and kicking, only then will we be in high spirit.”
Shang Xiuxun’s palm slapped the table; her apricot eyes grew big as she scolded them, “Nonsense! In the entire Ranch, you are the ones who get out of bed the latest; you need people to ring the gongs and beat the drums before you are willing to wake up. You dare to lie to me?”
Smiling apologetically, Xu Ziling said, “Getting up early is indeed our habit, but lately we followed Changzhu’s instruction to learn new skills from Mr. Lu every night, so that our day and night are reversed. That’s why we sleep late!”
Kou Zhong did not expect her to know about their everyday life; without any better option, he awkwardly admitted, “Changzhu Daren, please be magnanimous. I was merely speaking out of habit, forgetting the recent changes in our lives.”
Shang Xiuxun’s eyes were growing brighter and sharper; regaining her calm and composed manner, she said, “But Liu Er Zhishi said that during the several days of travel to this place, he has never seen you two trained martial art?”
Afraid that Kou Zhong might brag, Xu Ziling hastily said, “Simply because we saw Er Zhishi and the others have superior martial art skills, how could we dare to display our slight skill before an expert? Please Changzhu understand.”
Half-believing, half-doubting, Shang Xiuxun stared at him for quite a while. Finally she sighed and said, “If one day I find out that you are hiding something from me, I will kill you with my own hands.”
Kou Zhong heaved a sigh of relief inwardly, knowing that Shang Xiuxun no longer suspect Xu Ziling to be the scar-faced strange hero. “Now can we get lost?” he asked respectfully.
With a straight face, as if she was furious, Shang Xiuxun said, “No!”
The two boys were stunned.
Shang Xiuxun pondered a moment. In the end she waved her hand and said, “Go! But every day you must report to me the old guy’s condition.”
“What time do we need to see Changzhu?” Kou Zhong asked.
Shang Xiuxun replied impatiently, “I will have someone summon you. Now get lost!”
As if they had just received the Emperor’s amnesty, the two boys scurried out.
※ ※ ※
Upon arriving at Lu Miaozi’s small building, the two boys were shocked.
Chapter 7 - Part 2
Lu Miaozi was still sitting up straight, but there was no sign of blood on his face anymore; his eyes were closed and he did not say anything.
The two boys jumped forward to hold him from left and right. Lu Miaozi let out a long breath and opened his eyes, “Help me get down!” he said.
Kou Zhong quickly jumped toward the bookcase and pulled the iron rod to open the tunnel door. With squeaking noise the trap door opened, revealing the basement underneath.
Lu Miaozi said, “I have set aside your stuffs and my notes and packed them up properly. When you leave, you may take it with you.”
The two boys helped him down the tunnel and came to the underground room. To their surprise, they saw a stone bed in the middle of the room, complete with a pillow, quilt, everything. Following Lu Miaozi’s instruction, they lay him down on the stone bed.
Lu Miaozi put his head down on the wooden pillow, folded his hands over his chests, and told the two boys to cover him up with the shockingly crimson embroidered quilt. And then this dying old man sighed and said, “Our life in this world is merely a white steed flitting past a crack. When you think that you’ll never reach the end of life, in the blink of an eye you are already at the moment where you breathe your last.”
Kou Zhong felt like crying, but not even half a drop of tear came out of his eyes. He said resolutely, “Mister, rest assured! We will definitely deal with that Yin Gui Pai witch, so that you can vent your anger.”
Lu Miaozi shook his head with a wry smile; he said, “You must weigh your ability and act accordingly! If you came across Zhu Yuyan right now, it would be akin to you are delivering your lives in vain. Besides, my hatred toward her right now has completely disappeared. Were it not for her, I wouldn’t have accompanied Qingya for twenty-five years, and I wouldn’t have realized that in the end, she is the only one in my heart. It’s finished! It’s finished!”
The two boys looked at each other, at a loss of what to say.
Gasping lightly, Lu Miaozi said, “Off you go! Don’t forget what to do.”
Aghast, Xu Ziling said, “But Mister is not dead yet!”
Lu Miaozi suddenly brightened up; slightly angry, he said, “Do you want to see me breathing my last and turn into a useless creature?”
The two boys did not know what to do. Lu Miaozi softened up; he said gently, “Each of you kowtow to me three times and then leave! I can’t hold it much longer. Ha! Death is not so terrible. I wonder what will happen?”
After hiding the stuffs given to them by Lu Miaozi in a safe place, the two boys dejectedly left the small two-story building, which has now become desolate, cold, and cheerless.
With his right hand pressed against Xu Ziling’s shoulder, Kou Zhong sighed bitterly and said, “Other than Niang and Susu Jie, quite possibly that old guy was the nicest person to us. Too bad that just like Niang, we only met for a few days and he was gone.”
Recalling Susu, Xu Ziling sighed.
“Are we going to leave tonight, or tomorrow morning?” Kou Zhong asked.
Xu Ziling shook his head, “No!” he said, “We are leaving right now. What’s the point in staying?”
Li Xiuning’s beautiful image appeared in Kou Zhong’s mind; her voice as she told him to forget her seemed to resound in his ears. Nodding his head, he said, “Very well! I’ll fetch my Moon in the Well, and then we’ll find a way to slip out of here.”
When their door was in sight, Lan Gu suddenly appeared in front of them and said, “You two, pack your valuables immediately, you are going with Changzhu on a trip; it is indeed an honor! Changzhu appointed you to be in charge of her diet along the way!”
The two boys could only stare blankly.
※ ※ ※
At dusk, a party of twenty-eight people galloped out of the eastern gorge into the vast plains outside.
Other than Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, the two servants of the Great General, Big Sister Fu and Xiao Juan also came along to take care of Shang Xiuxun’s everyday life. The others were all Flying Horse Ranch people, consisting of manager-level Liang Zhi, Liu Zongdao and Xu Yang, and deputy-manager-level Luo Fang, and Liang Zhi’s deputy Wu Yan, a stocky man of around forty years of age.
There were also two old men called Shang Peng and Shang He. Everybody, including Shang Xiuxun, addressed them as Peng Gong [grandpa/a term of respect to address an old man] and He Gong.
The two old men very seldom spoke, but their eyes were flashing like lightning; obviously these two were Flying Horse Ranch’s martial art masters who shared the same surname ‘Shang’ with the original founder.
After traveling for half a day, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling still did not know where Shang Xiuxun was heading leading such a team of warriors.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were in charge of driving the only cart they brought. The cargo was naturally their tents, food, cookware, and other stuff.
While urging the four steeds pulling the cart, Kou Zhong whispered in Xu Ziling’s ear, “We’ll slip away as soon as we finish preparing dinner. If we wait till they eat their fill and drunk of wine, it could be considered extreme benevolence and beyond our line of duty!”
Xu Ziling laughed and said, “Aren’t you an expert in geography? This direction seems to be leading to Jingling. Zhong Shao, do you concur?”
Kou Zhong looked distracted for a moment. Smiling wryly, he said, “This time let’s consider you win; with practice, your geography skill seems to be improving. But taking care of twenty-eight people’s livelihood is not an easy task, how can it be compared to going on a scenic tour to Jingling?”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “In that case we are leaving tonight!”
※ ※ ※
As night fell, Shang Xiuxun issued her order to pitch their camp by a brook for the night. Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling immediately got busy lighting fire and cooking dinner. They worked hard until dark. Fortunately Xiao Juan was helping them, so they were able to relax a little bit.
After eating their specialty, dumpling oil rice, everybody praised them without ceasing, so that the two boys were beaming from ear to ear. Luo Fang, Big Sister Fu and Xiao Juan ate together with the two boys in a circle around a bonfire, giving them an interesting taste of the wild open country.
Kou Zhong took this opportunity to ask, “Where are we going, actually?”
Lou Fang was surprised, “Nobody told you?” he asked, “This time we are going to Jingling!”
“What happened in Jingling?” Xu Ziling wondered aloud.
Obviously Luo Fang did not know the details, he said, “It seems like something important is going on there.”
Big Sister Fu lowered her voice, “It was Jingling’s Fang Zhuangzhu [village master] sending a messenger to Changzhu, asking for help. We are just the advance troops, as soon as the others are ready, they are going there as well.”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling looked at each other; they both can see the fear in the other’s heart, because both of them were thinking of the same terrifying possibility.
Losing their interest in small talk, after sprouting some nonsense for a while, they excused themselves to take a rest, and hid inside their small tent.
Lying on his back next to Xu Ziling, Kou Zhong spoke in low voice, “This is terrible; we should have guessed from Wanwan’s affair that Qu Ao has joined hands with Ol’ Die.”
After a short pause, he went on, “Do you remember when we were in Xingyang, at Shen Luoyan’s courtyard, Song Yuzhi told Shen Luoyan that Qu Ao is working together with the Ol’ Die to assassinate Li Mi? And now clearly Ol’ Die is using ‘beauty entrapment’. Wanwan must be back in Jingling, weaving a tale to tell Fang Zetao, that affectionate Zhuangzhu. As long as she stretched her finger, Fang Zetao will be finished.”
Xu Ziling had his eyes fixed on the top of the tent; he spoke bitterly, “Even without Wanwan, Fang Zetao is already no match for the Ol’ Die. The most tragic thing is that Duba Village has always relied on the Flying Horse Ranch for mutual support. However, after their disastrous victory, their strength suffered a big blow; basically they were no longer able to aid Jingling; otherwise, they would not have sent twenty eight people, but a big army of over ten-thousand men and horses.”
Kou Zhong peeked out the tent to look at Shang Xiuxun and the others, who were sitting around the campfire, chatting. He said in a low voice, “By today’s reckoning, we’d better go to Jingling as quickly as possible, before Wanwan makes any move, we take one step ahead to kill her.”
Displeased, Xu Ziling said, “By that time, we will be extremely tired, how could we still have any strength to deal with Wanwan? Not to mention that even if we are on our top form, we still cannot easily score a victory against her. Worse yet, what if she badmouthed us in front of Fang Zetao? This guy has been enchanted by this fox spirit that his eyes are blinded, his heart is confused. If we try to be clever and end up with egg on our faces, I guarantee that demon [or beautiful woman] will laugh until her belly hurts.”
Distressed, Kou Zhong said, “This one is not right, that one is wrong, what should we do then?”
Xu Ziling calmly gave him his analysis, “There is no quick fix for this matter. If I was the Ol’ Die, since I only need to grasp it and the victory is assured, I might as well lure the entire Flying Horse Ranch people out of their nest, and then set up an ambush along the way. This way I can take care of two largest powers of this whole area in just one move. After that, either going north or south will be a lot more convenient.”
Kou Zhong acted as if he had just met him for the first time; delighted and sincerely willing, he said, “You are a lot more formidable than I am. Ay! I don’t know why this moment my brains went blank, my mind and spirit are restless; I can’t seem to think about anything. So what do we do?”
Xu Ziling sat up, and said indifferently, “It’s not that I am more formidable than you are, it’s just that my mind is clear my heart is unobstructed. Just like the water in the well, it can reflect everything. You, this kid, on the other hand, since you saw Li Xiuning yesterday, you look like a mess. If your eyes are not opened, you might as well go back to your village to cultivate land or perhaps open up a restaurant!”
Kou Zhong stared blankly for half a day; finally he nodded and said, “Your lesson is well-said, I definitely did not make any progress. All right! From now on, I want to reform and start afresh. I won’t think about her anymore.”
After pondering silently for a moment, he went on, “Hence this time Shang Xiuxun led her people to Jingling, there is a good possibility that we will fall into Ol’ Die or perhaps Chang Shumou’s plot. And that would be very dangerous.”
“Finally your head clears up!” Xu Ziling delightedly said.
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “Not quite, only a bit. Based on Ol’ Die’s dynamic character, right now he must be itching to make his move; he might already take control of Duba Village that they are not able to move a single step, and then Flying Horse Ranch will be left alone to fend for themselves. Oh! Xiao Juan is coming!”
The two boys promptly pretended to be asleep.
Outside the tent, Xiao Juan called out in low voice, “Are you asleep? Changzhu wants to see you.”