After clinking their cups, the two boys drained the wine in one gulp, and immediately turned their attention to the sumptuous vegetable and meat dishes on the table to cure their nearly-breaking-down-from-hunger belly.
This place was a restaurant in the city of Taolin, on the southern bank of the Great River, outside the Pass. Only after reaching this place did they find out that tonight was unexpectedly the tenth of the first month, so that after quick calculation, the two boys realized that they had spent at least three days and three nights training in the snow. Although the fact was like a mountain, the two still found it a little hard to believe.
Anyway, the three-day delay had enabled them to evade the enemy’s hunt-and-arrest operation. Anybody would mistakenly think that they had escaped out of Guanzhong.
Thereupon the two boys relied on their consummate skill of closing their qi under water and attached themselves to the bottom of one of the warships going out of the Pass; without any surprise, without any risk, they escaped to the sky, and went ashore after Tongguan, and headed straight toward Taolin.
Officially, Taolin belonged to the House of Tang, but it was still under control of local gangs and societies; there was no defense, as long as they were willing to pay the illegal toll, no traveling merchants would be barred from getting in and out of the city.
Kou Zhong poured a cup for Xu Ziling, and said with a laugh, “After we part tonight, I don’t know whether we, two brothers, still have a day where we can see each other again.”
Hearing that, Xu Ziling’s heart tightened. Knitting his brows, he said, “Why are you so lack in confidence this time? It differs greatly from the past.”
Apart from them, there were only two other tables with diners in the restaurant; it was quite cold and cheerless.
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “The person on the spot is baffled, the onlooker sees clear. You ought to understand it better than I do. I am still haggling over every ounce in transporting the treasure, in running away for my life, those kind of small matters, while Li kid already moved his [gambling] chip and tent curtain, deploying his entire combat force concerning the world’s prosperity and decline. Compared to him, I am like a small brook to the vast body of water.”
“You are rarely this modest,” Xu Ziling commented.
The refined light in Kou Zhong’ pair of eyes flaring greatly, he put down the wine pot, and stared fixedly at the rippling liquor in the cup. “This is called knowing oneself,” he spoke heavily, “Starting today, I am going to have frontal confrontation against Li kid. I must make correct assessment of him.”
Turning his gaze toward Xu Ziling, he said, “Can you guess how many days will Li kid need to start the invasion to the east?”
Xu Ziling replied, “For now, let’s not make unnecessary guess about that. Have you forgotten about the Tujue? Zhao Deyan is definitely not interested in Yang WenGan’s restoring the past regime, yet he was still willing to participate, naturally it was for the Tujue people’s benefit.”
Stunned, Kou Zhong said, “Are you saying that Xieli might launch large scale invasion to the south?”
Xu Ziling shook his head and said, “Unless there is no other way, Xieli would not toil his army on long distance military expedition to penetrate the Central Plains. He has so many claws and teeth [i.e. henchmen], the best way would be to kill with borrowed knife, by provoking us, Han people, to massacre each other first, and then when everybody are defeated and wounded, he would reap the fisherman’s benefit.”
Kou Zhong nodded and said, “You are right. Smart ones use words, stupid ones use hands. The stupid ones should be Liu Wuzhou and Song JinGang. If Li Yuan and Li kid were killed, Xieli would fish in troubled water, and would reap great benefit at the others’ expense.”
Xu Ziling said, “Li Shimin precisely saw through this situation; hence the reason he ordered Li Shiji to immediately deploy his troops outside the Pass.”
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, “Could it be that contrary to expectation, Li Shimin’s deployment is not targeted at Luoyang?”
Xu Ziling laughed and said, “This is called you are so anxious that you are confused. Li Shimin’s target is still Luoyang, but presently the Li Clan potentially will become the target of a multitude of arrows. Any operation involving the mobilization of his entire body might provoke the concern of, as well as the attack from, Liu Wuzhou, Dou Jiande, and Wang Shichong, three powers. Also, only these three powers have enough strength to fight them east of the Pass. In the south, because our Old Die has surrendered to the House of Tang, Xiao Xian, Li Zitong, and the others are under pressure that they cannot move a single step. Under this kind of favorable situation, if Li Shimin did not spread out his fists and feet wide, when is he going to do that?”
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “It looks like you are more fitted and more competent to be the Shao Shuai than me.”
“Let’s talk less nonsense,” Xu Ziling brushed him off, “I just want to remind you, from the beginning, it is difficult for Wang Shichong to be a very capable person. You still want to help him defending Luoyang?”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “If I had a choice, why would I want to speak half a word more to that old fox?”
The only other choice was to give up his fight over the world.
Xu Ziling raised his wine cup and said with a smile, “With effort, one can achieve anything. This time Li Shimin’s military expedition to the east is quite risky. Xiongdi! Later on I’ll look for you in Luoyang to drink some wine!”
Kou Zhong’s heroic spirit welling up, he laughed heartily and raised his cup and clinked it against Xu Ziling’s. Seeing him raising his cup and drinking it until not a drop remained, Kou Zhong cheerfully said, “Suddenly I am brimming with fighting spirit again. Real man is buried inside a horse’s hide; as long as I can pursue my dream without a moment’s hesitation, although I die, there will be no regret!”
Raising his cup, he drank it dry.
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling parted ways with Kou Zhong outside the city of Taolin. He rushed toward Hongnong that very same night.
Hongnong was the place he and Gao Zhandao agreed to meet. Because of his relationship with Lei Jiuzhi, the Gang Leader of Hongnong Bang Chen Shi could be considered on his side as well. With such a big gang supporting him east of the Pass, naturally there would be a lot of conveniences.
They already made meticulous plan. The treasure was hidden outside the city; nothing would be brought inside. Gao Zhandao would contact Chen Shi first, to see whether he would be willing to help, before they proceed to the next step.
He barely entered Taolin, when Xu Ziling immediately got a feeling of being followed. Based on his foot’s strength and speed, unless it was female demon Wan, Yang Xuyan, or martial art masters of their level, he would be able to throw them off easily.
However, this moment he felt that the person watching him was located at the high elevation at the top of the hill, and no one was following behind him.
This situation clearly showed that it was along the way to Taolin that the enemy discovered their track. Thereupon they setup inescapable net so that as soon as they got a grasp of the route he was going to take, they would besiege him en route and put him to death.
Immediately he determined that the opposite side must be from the Heavenly Policy Mansion. The logic was very simple: because nobody could guess that he and Kou Zhong might part ways [orig. to take different roads and urge the horses on (idiom)] outside the city of Taolin. Currently their combined power was naturally enough to deal with Li Clan’s people. However, if one is divided into two, it would be another matter altogether. If it were Li Yuanji’s men, then they would definitely choose Kou Zhong instead of Xu Ziling.
Only the Heavenly Policy Mansion would pick him to be dealt with. Because they knew that ‘San Ren’ Ning Daoqi would personally wait upon Kou Zhong.
He nearly wanted to turn around and run after Kou Zhong, but immediately gave up the idea. With the strength of Kou Zhong’s legs, plus he was hurrying on at full speed, catching up with him was practically an impossibility. The only thing he could do was suppressing the burning anxiety in his heart, hoping that since Kou Zhong’s martial art skill has progressed greatly, he would be able to avoid this calamity.
Xu Ziling suddenly avoided the official road and rushed into a dense forest by the road. This move would definitely mess up the enemy’s troop disposition and would reveal their trail.
※ ※ ※
Kou Zhong was rushing at full speed along the river. Ten-thousand-fathom heroic emotion welled up in his heart. To be able to compete against Li Shimin, the most excelling-the-common [idiom], outstanding figure of the Li Clan, which inspired awe throughout the empire, in the hunting of the deer in the Central Plain [fig. to attempt to seize the throne (see also Chapter 1 of Jin Yong’s Deer and Cauldron)] – was indeed the delight in life.
Since leaving Yangzhou, he and Xu Ziling have always been on the run, they grew to maturity in challenges and in tempering themselves. Yet laid out in front of their eyes was the most severe situation since their debut. Would the never-been-defeated Li Shimin, in his attack against Luoyang, a world-class strategic town – suffer big loss?
The crescent moon was hanging high in the sky. Gusts of strong, extremely cold wind were rolling in from the other side of the river, blowing on him that he felt as if he was riding the wind.
With his current speed, he could forget about reaching Luoyang in less than three, four days. The fastest and most convenient way was naturally taking a boat. It’s just too bad that on the boundless Great River, unexpectedly there was not any boat coming or going. It must be because Li Shimin was amassing his main forces outside the Pass that all water traffic toward Luoyang was cutoff.
After rounding a bend, Kou Zhong came to the top of a high cliff. Under the hazy light of the moon, the majestic, vast and mighty Great River was rolling on from the west, flowing toward the distant east. The atmosphere was multifarious, making people gasping in amazement.
Kou Zhong could not help stopping his steps. On both sides of the river the forest met the hill, the mountain was connected to the ridges, extending forever to all directions; the earth was boundless. Throughout the ages, how many heroes and towering figures had been pursuing bloody battle on this beautiful land, to decide who would be the emperor?
Today, he, Kou Zhong, would join their ranks. It was the only way to make his life worth living.
Kou Zhong swept his gaze around, his heart was surging.
Suddenly he discovered that far away downstream, there was a small fishing boat by the shore. Greatly delighted, he hastily rushed toward his target.
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling was hiding on a high place in the forest. He closed up his pores, and quietly waited with rapt attention for the enemy to show themselves.
If he were on the other side’s shoes, he would also be confused by this strange and sudden move; he would be at a loss to know what to do.
The enemy has been very careful; they only kept watch on higher elevations. Who would have thought that Xu Ziling possessed acute senses, which was different from ordinary person, and was able to react to long-distance surveillance?
And now the sentry would use special method to notify his leader, and then this leader would decide the next step of their operation.
In this kind of wild, mountainous country, Xu Ziling was an expert in fleeing for his life; anybody knew that the pursuer would fail. Sure enough, less than the time to drink a cup of tea later, there was sudden gust of wind, more than a dozen men were rushing over, along the official road from the direction of Taolin. Xu Ziling did not dare to take a peek. Since the opponent had the confidence to take care of him, naturally they were not ordinary martial art masters; any movement on his part might incite reaction from the opponent.
The enemies stopped at the spot where he entered the forest just now, only about three zhang away from his hiding place. Someone said, “Xu Ziling entered the forest from here.”
Chai Shao’s voice said with a cold snort, “Good kid. Unexpectedly he knew that we are following his trail. But their separation is even more beneficial for us; it will save us some effort.”
Duan Zhixuan’s familiar voice said, “Leaving person will not go to the Temple [no idea, perhaps an idiom]. I am one hundred percent sure that he is rushing to meet with Tong Xing She people. If we take fast horse to hurry on, we could catch all of them in one net.”
Inwardly Xu Ziling shivered in fear, knowing that his guess was not incorrect. At least one of the Tong Xing She teams could not escape their surveillance. His only consolation was his side had already guard against this, so they were not failed and wiped over the floor yet. Now that he found this piece of information, perhaps they could still beat the enemy at their own game, by leading the enemy along a different path.
Pang Yu coldly said, “These two’s action often exceeds all expectation. We must have all our twelve-consciousness on guard; otherwise it will be difficult to answer Qin Wang. Kou Zhong is doomed to a dismal end, if we could put Xu Ziling in order as well, then Shao Shuai Army will become a dragon without its head, it would be greatly beneficial to our mission to attack Luoyang.”
A gentle and reserved voice said, “Shao Shuai Army is still in fledgling state, even with Kou Zhong in the helm, why worry over them? This time their treasure hunt operation failed, it can clearly be seen that our Great Tang’s fortune is like a rainbow; it is not these jumping-over-the-beam clowns’ turn to mess it up. Let’s just proceed with Pang Jiangjun’s plan to immediately hurry to Hongnong at full speed. With Chen Dangjia [chief] on our side, why do we have to worry that we cannot capture Xu Ziling and the rest of his clique in one net?”
Hearing that, Xu Ziling nearly fell off the tree, simply because not even in his dream would he expect Lei Jiuzhi’s sworn brother unexpectedly could betray them for their own benefit.
At first he only felt the speaker’s voice sounded very familiar, but he could not remember who it was. Only after he finished speaking that he recognized him from his elegant tone to be ‘Wang Xing Shan’ [lit. forgetting-shape (folding) fan] Pei Ji, one of Li Yuan’s inner ministerial circle, whose status was on par with Liu Wenjing, who had deep relationship with Li Yuan. Xiao Yu, Chen Shuda, and Feng Deyi were all slightly below him.
This time he came with Pang Yu and the others, the Heavenly Policy Mansion troops to deal with the two boys, it could be concluded that Li Shimin had received Li Yuan’s full support.
His mind went back to the old affair, where they were still kids venturing from their thatched hut for the first time [idiom: young and inexperienced], after stealing Dong Ming Pai’s account book, they had breakfast with Li Shimin, Pei Ji, Li Xiuning, and the others on the ship, where Chai Shao and Pei Ji did not even consider the two boys worthy in their eyes. And now they became enemies as incompatible as fire and water; how could he not sigh with sorrow?
And then another familiar voice said, “The matter should not be delayed. We must immediately be on our way.”
Surprisingly it was the Li Clan’s top martial art master Li Shentong’s voice.
Xu Ziling sucked in a mouthful of cold air. Merely Li Shentong, Pei Ji, Pang Yu, Duan Zhixuan, and Chai Shao, five major martial art masters were already enough to deal with him and Kou Zhong, not to mention there were other martial art masters accompanying them.
Suddenly he understood that this group of men had only come to deal with him, so that he could not support Kou Zhong.
Right now, his only hope was that Kou Zhong would be able to escape through the gap of Ning Daoqi’s fingers. Otherwise, everything would be finished; it would be unclear whether they could even avenge this enmity.
※ ※ ※
A light boat, across the surging-up billows of the Great River, about five zhang away from the shore, was bobbing up and down on top of the waves; unexpectedly it was not pushed by the current downstream. On the boat sat an old man that looked like he belonged to the intellectual class, wearing five-strand long beard on his face, his appearance looked quaint, elegant, and simple. His clothes were oversized brocade gown; his appearing-to-be-taller-than-ordinary-people build looked even more imposing like the mountain. He was fishing with rapt attention. He had quite the impression of an elegant hermit who had been out of the dust.
Seeing this, Kou Zhong’s eyebrows were deeply knitted, while he groaned inwardly. Suddenly rising up, he landed on the other end of the boat, and smiled at the idling-and-sitting-quietly-on-the-bow master and said, “The kid Kou Zhong, coming specifically to pay my respect to you, Senior, and to wish you well.”
A hint of smile escaped from the corner of the ‘San Ren’ Ning Daoqi’s, who was hailed as the number one master in the Central Plains – mouth, but he was still staring with rapt attention at the string hanging down from the fishing rod in his hand. Suddenly a happy expression appeared on his face, just like a child getting a treasure, as he blurted out, “Got you!”
The fishing rod rose up, the fish at the end of the line must weigh several dozen catty, unexpectedly the entire fishing rod was bent due to its pull. Watching this, Kou Zhong was dumbstruck, musing that how could there be such a coincidence; he had just stepped on the boat, his butts had not seated properly, and there was a big fish caught by the hook.
The fishing basket next to Ning Daoqi’s foot was still as empty as anything [idiom]; this was obviously the first big fish that Ning Daoqi caught. But if this fish was as big as the bent fishing rod indicated, it would definitely not fit into the small fish basket.
The fishing line slowly left the water. Surprisingly it was an empty string; there was not even half a hook.
Aghast, Kou Zhong looked at the fishing rod, which was still bent from the pull. His entire body went numb, a chill started to rise on his back.
Unexpectedly there was such a mysterious skill in the world.
The fishing line was still swinging around in the air. As if he really caught a big fish, Ning Daoqi’s hand reached out to grab, it was as if there was a big fish struggling in his hand, which was about to escape; his hand made movements as if the fish was wet and slippery. It looked so real that even Kou Zhong started to doubt whether there was really an invisible fish getting caught on an invisible hook.
Some time later, Ning Daoqi finally released the invisible fish, the fishing rod was back to its original shape, Ning Daoqi skillfully put the ‘fish’ into the fish basket, closed the lid, and only then did he turn to look at Kou Zhong.
Kou Zhong has never seen this kind of pair of eyes.
A pair of standing-aloof-from-worldly-affair eyes. Looking at them, it was as if he looked at another world, which had nothing to do with this dusty, vulgar world, which was as if it could be eternally kept inside a mysterious level, which also contained an enormous-without-equal power. The calm and elegant gaze appeared to be forthcoming, sincere, even carried a little bit of children’s naiveté.
Combined with his quaint, elegant, and slim face, there was some kind of transcending-the-mundane-world charm.
He suddenly patted the bamboo basket by his feet lightly, while revealing the satisfied smile of a fisherman catching his fish. Looking up to the heaven, he spoke softly, “Look! The starry sky is so beautiful. The impossible thing in the world among the entire set of constellation becomes possible.”
Following his example, Kou Zhong looked at the magnificent night sky, while sitting on the boat in the vast river, moving up and down with the waves. Nodding his head, he said, “Tonight’s starry sky is indeed extraordinarily touching.”
Inwardly he thought that if the one looking at the sky was Xu Ziling, he would definitely point out each bright star’s name, or perhaps which constellation the star belonged to.
Ning Daoqi’s eyes were still on the starry sky, he spoke calmly but slyly, “Has Shao Shuai heard the story about ‘Wanting to use the moisture of the (mouth) [note: the original text has this word in parentheses], to moisten with spittle [idiom: sharing meager resources] is not as good as forgetting the Jianghu’?”
Kou Zhong knew that he wanted to enlighten him [orig. magic transformation performed by Taoist immortal]; smiling wryly, he said, “Please forgive this kid for being stupid and ignorant, I have never heard such a fable.”
Although the two of them were standing on opposite sides, but toward this most outstanding grandmaster in nearly a hundred years, he still admired him from the bottom of his heart, hence he humbly asked for enlightenment.
Ning Daoqi’s gaze returned to him, with cultured and refined smile he said, “There was a small spring that has dried up, and the fish were trapped in the dry pond; they could only blow moisture at each other, using their saliva to moisten each other. Although some of them could see the truth, but how could each of them swim randomly, free and easy in the boundless great lake?”
Kou Zhong’s tiger-body shook. Ginger gets spicier as it gets older [idiom: the older, the wiser], let alone this supreme-without-equal, with-deep-and-wide-wisdom grandmaster of the Taoist school.
Moreover, this story was the most accurate portrayal of Kou Zhong’s current situation; although he was not trapped in the dry spring yet, but he was not far from that state. Under the threat of the Great Tang Army, he could only moisten using the spittle with Wang Shichong and the others. Moreover, it was unfortunate that not everybody could see the truth.
His eyes fell on the fish basket by Ning Daoqi’s feet, he spoke heavily, “Qianbei went fishing, and only then you start to obtain the joy of fishing; moreover, there is actually no fish in the basket, yet it did not diminish the fun of fishing. Evidently whether you get the fish or you lose the fish, you never really care it in your heart. Since that is the case, why bother about dry or wet, gains and losses?”
Astonished, Ning Daoqi said, “Where is the fish then?”
Even with Kou Zhong’s imaginative power and quick thinking, as well as his eloquence, he was still at a loss for words. Ning Daoqi’s remark, ‘Where is the fish?’ was brimming with pointed Zen logic; very thought provoking. Kou Zhong felt that his fighting spirit has been substantially weakened.
Ning Daoqi revealed another moving smile, brimming with childlike interest. He spoke softly, guiding patiently and systematically, “Before, there were three gods in the world; in the south, there was Nan Di [the Southern Emperor], in the north, there was Bei Jun [the Northern Lord], in the middle is a god whose name is Hun Dun [Chaos], who treated Nan Di and Bei Jun extremely generously. Thereupon Nan Di and Bei Jun got together to discuss how they could repay the kindness. They came up with the idea that human have seven apertures [of the human head: 2 eyes, 2 ears, 2 nostrils, 1 mouth], with which they see, hear, eat and drink, and breathe. Thereupon each day they bored a hole, seven days later Hun Dun’s seven apertures were opened and he died. Can Shao Shuai understand the truth from this?”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “This kid understands that Qianbei wants to enlighten me, you want the kid to act following the law of nature. But people have their own aspirations, naturally Qianbei feels nothing about it, but this kid has different view, and thus I am doing something about it.”
Ning Daoqi let out a long laughter. Shaking his head, he sighed and said, “Looking at you is like looking at myself when I was young; never willing to yield to authority, always refused to be bound by the law. I wonder if Shao Shuai has the patience to listen to Laofu’s [old man] last tale?”
Straightened up his back and shoulders, Kou Zhong’s pair of eyes was flashing with divine light, but his attitude was still so modest and deferential. He nodded and said, “Qianbei, please bestow your instruction.”
Ning Daoqi calmly and leisurely said, “In ancient times, there were two gentlemen, A and B, both raised sheep, and as a result they both lost a sheep. When A was asked why he lost a sheep, his answer was that he was busy with studying; when B was asked why he lost a sheep, turns out he lost it in gambling. What they did were entirely different things, but the outcome was completely without any difference; both lost their sheep.”
Kou Zhong met Ning Daoqi’s brimming-with-wisdom gaze, torrential-reaching-to-the-sky wave was surging in his heart. Ning Daoqi’s tale really hit his vital point.
All along, he felt that his motivation in striving for the world was different from other people, which was also the driving force behind his advancing toward this ideal. But Ning Daoqi has used this tale to vividly describe the judgment toward this kind of behavior, which could only be seen from the result, and he alluded to the fact that his action could have disastrous consequences to the world.
The two men looked at each other. Ning Daoqi was still with stand-aloof-from-worldly-affairs, clear-and-still-with-no-action immortal disposition and leisurely attitude, but Kou Zhong’s gaze has become penetratingly sharp like a saber blade.
Ning Daoqi’s good words had finished, if Kou Zhong refused to turn back to the shore, potentially it would become a battle to see the truth.
The hull shuddered lightly, the boat started to float with the current eastwards.
Smiling slightly, Kou Zhong said, “Why did Qianbei insist on telling this to the kid?”
Ning Daoqi smiled in return; remaining tranquil and calm, he said, “Since Shao Shuai has the predestined affinity to master the Taoist’s Secret to Long Life, Laofu consider you as a kindred spirit, and thus I do not loath to be too wordy.”
Kou Zhong spoke heavily, “The natural way is nothing more than the weak are prey to the strong. Now, just because Li Shimin’s potential is great, plus he obtains Shi Feixuan’s personal support, I, Kou Zhong, am reduced to be the stray dog that the Buddhist and Taoist, two schools – yell to hit and shout to kill. If some day this kid is fortunate enough to become the hegemon most qualified to seize power over the whole country, would the Buddhist and Taoist, two schools still be dead set in supporting Li Shimin?”
Stroking his beard, Ning Daoqi smiled and said, “Good question. Precisely because we are adapting to circumstances and look ahead to the consequences that we wish for Shao Shuai to give thought to the people of the world, and stop without delay.”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “If Qianbei has nothing else to say, please forgive this kid for not having the time to accompany you.”
With a somersault, he escaped into the water behind the boat.
It was the only way he could escape the immortal’s palm, also the only way he could strive for the initiative and the upper hand.
Ning Daoqi’s martial art skill was indeed too terrifying.
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