In the darkening dusk, the two boys traveled away from Xucheng for about a hundred li. The snow was still raining down endlessly. They reached the top of a small hill, where down below the mountain and the fields, and the river stretched out to the infinite distance.
Feeling tipsy from the wine, Kou Zhong sighed and said, “The gratitude and grudges in the world, are they really just a big basket of jokes like Liu Dage said?”
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling replied, “If you can really take Xiang Yushan or various demons of the demonic school as friends and joke with them, not only you don’t need to strive for the world, you can even leave home to become Buddhist monk. But the way I see it, even the people of the Empty Door still cannot be completely indifferent toward the world of the living. Otherwise, Shi Feixuan did not need to have fall out with us.”
Kou Zhong sat down dejectedly; he nodded his head and said, “You are still a bit more clear-headed than me. As soon as I recall Xiang Yushan, murderous intent immediately appears in my heart. Even if life is just a spring dream, this dreamland is just too real! One more day we are still not awake, one more day we will be under control without the freedom to act independently.”
Xu Ziling sat down by his side; sighing, he said, “Only because of the grievance in seeing Zhen Sao committing suicide that we are having self-reflection upon life. Just think, at that time our hatred was burning; we concentrated our thoughts and efforts to kill Yuwen Huaji, how could we think about other things? From this, I could imagine that after a short period of time, we would return to normal, and then we would not have time to think whether life is just a spring dream.”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “But right now I do have a every-hope-turns-to-dust feeling; I don’t have any interest in doing anything, I just want to see Da Xiaojie and Little Lingzhong, I don’t want to part ways and part goods [referring to goods sent under the protection of armed escorts] with you, to take our respective path – even more.”
Xu Ziling said, “The problem is that you, LaoGe, are shouldering countless responsibilities and other people’s expectations on your back. Not only you are the son-in-law that Song Que’s personally picked, even more, you are also his heir in merit. Kou Shaoshuai is also the leader of the Shao Shuai Army. The people and troops at Pengliang are waiting for you to come back to lead and protect them.”
Staring blankly, Kou Zhong said, “This seems to be the first time that you are encouraging me to strive for the world.”
“You could say that,” Xu Ziling replied, “In case Li Shimin takes a wrong turn, or perhaps Li Jiancheng rises to power, Tujue’s main forces will go south. If that happens, we can only rely on your Shao Shuai Army to pull strongly against a crazy tide [idiom: to try hard to save a desperate crisis]. This is the real reason why Ning Daoqi let you go.”
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Kou Zhong said, “Supposing the one seizing total victory is Li Shimin, while Dou Jiande, Wang Shichong, and the others are all defeated, what advice would you have for me?”
Xu Ziling turned his gaze toward the boundless snow-covered plains ahead, he spoke softly, “Then I won’t know what to say.”
Severely shaken, Kou Zhong said, “Where are you going?”
Xu Ziling’s pair of eyes emitted a chopped-but-cannot-be-broken grieving expression; shaking his head, he smiled wryly and said, “My good brother is going to strive for the world, is there any place in the Central Plains that Xiaodi is reluctant to leave?”
Stunned, Kou Zhong said, “I thought you wanting to go beyond the Great Wall was just a random talk. Isn’t Lei LaoGe relying on you to deal with the Xiang Family? Ay! At least you ought to go to Bashu to see Shi Qingxuan. You are going single-shaped-lone-shadow to wander the cold world outside, it really pains Xiongdi’s heart.”
Xu Ziling laughed calmly and said, “Actually, I enjoy the feeling of loneliness very much. Only by being far away from the world of the living will I be able to get even closer to nature, to sense the existence and significance of life. Xiang Yushan has now found the most tyrannical backing. In the future, if Li Shimin collapses from the stage, I will certainly return to your side, to fight alongside you, to drive the Tujue away to their native place. This is a promise.”
Kou Zhong’s eyes lit up; laughing heartily, he said, “I hear you. This is the biggest encouragement for me. I will absolutely not let Li kid capture Luoyang. In your opinion, what kind of man Dou Jiande is?”
Shaking his head, Xu Ziling replied, “I am not clear. His actions always carried a bit of unfathomable impression. Without Li Shimin, the Tang Army would never be his match.”
“Damn it!” Kou Zhong suddenly cursed.
Unable to make any sense of it, Xu Ziling asked, “Damn what?”
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “Just now unexpectedly we forgot to borrow a few taels of silver from Liu LaoGe or Xiao Bai; now we, two brothers, are without a single wen to our name, how are we going to Leshou to look for Da Xiaojie?”
Xu Ziling laughed and said, “Won’t selling your Moon in the Well solve the problem? As long as we have gambling capital, I can make a few taels for you to spend.”
Kou Zhong rose up to his full height; subconsciously he whisked the snow soaking his body. Laughing involuntarily, he said, “If we want to sell, each of us still have a Night Pearl; are you willing to part with it? Those are irreplaceable souvenirs; each time I play with it on my hand, it’s just like I am replaying the unforgettable days of dressing up as deities and pretending to be ghosts in Chang’an.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Xu Ziling said, “In that case, let’s think of something along the way. We are young and vigorous, doing hard labor will probably earn us a few pennies.”
Kou Zhong’s heroic spirit rose vigorously, he said, “From nothing to something, from something to nothing. Since leaving Yangzhou, this is the first time we are beaten back to our original shape, becoming poor ghosts once more. Let us, these pair of poor ghosts brothers, break into Jianghu again, using the sky as our blanket, using the earth as our mattress. Ha! I got it! Why don’t we hunt a couple of deer to be exchanged with some gambling capital?”
Xu Ziling’s grief was lessened a little bit, “Good idea!” he cried out, and flew down the mountain.
Kou Zhong promptly followed behind him. The two boys quickly went far away.
Liting, located on the south bank of the Yongji Canal, was in Dou Jiande’s territory. It was a big small town at the intersection of the water and land routes. From here to Leshou, one could take a boat sailing up north along Yongji Canal, disembark at another town, Dongguang, and then taking two more days on fast horse, one would reach one’s destination.
Another way was to cross the Yongji Canal, travel west until River Zhang, and take a two-day boat ride to reach Leshou.
However, no matter which way they wanted to take, the implementation would be difficult, simply because the two had not a single wen on their body. In this turbulent era, without a few pennies, one would be unable to move a single step.
They rushed urgently day and night for three days straight, still without half a grain of rice in their belly. Were it not for their profound power, they would have frozen stiff on the way. By the afternoon, they arrived outside the city gate. Seeing the few food stalls and tea shacks were crowded to bursting point with traveling merchants and passers-by, their stomachs were rumbling with hunger even more, the feeling was difficult to bear.
Xu Ziling pulled Kou Zhong back and said, “Unless you want to enter the city, we will stop here.”
It was only then that Kou Zhong remembered that to enter the city one must pay taxes. He laughed and said, “We are the younger brothers of their Lao Chuang [lit. old charging/breaking in], Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, two such resounding names; we might as well tell the Dage soldier guarding the city gate that we want to see the civil officer or military general in charge of this city. We will suddenly reveal our names, borrow some traveling expenses, and find cure for our rumbling stomach. Won’t everything be easily solved [orig. bamboo splits when meeting the knife’s edge]?”
Xu Ziling crossly said, “You don’t want to follow Dou Jiande conquering the world, yet you want to ask for his favor; what kind of hero are you?”
Slapping his forehead, Kou Zhong said, “I am confused from hunger; if I received his favor now, how could I strive for the world against him in the future? Ay! Those mantou [steamed buns] smell really good.”
Xu Ziling turned his head around, the closest food stall to them was selling steamed buns; the steam was rising, the aroma permeated the whole place, he could not help thinking about the past, where Zhen Sao often gave them vegetables and meat buns just for friendship’s sake. Going through the same experience now, the heartache that he deliberately pressed down suddenly bubbled up in his heart.
Seeing the two unable to take their eyes off the steamer basket, the stall owner thought that business was coming; he shouted, “One wen each, best to eat while it’s still hot.”
Kou Zhong patted his as-empty-as-anything waist pocket; smiling bitterly, he said, “Do you want to hire us to do rough work? We don’t need wages, you can just pay us with mantou.”
Showing look of disdain on his face, the stall spoke impatiently, “I am not hiring, go someplace else!”
Kou Zhong did not take offense; he laughed heartily, shrugged his shoulder calmly, and turned toward Xu Ziling and said, “Looks like we’ll have to hit the road on hungry tummies; how about sneaking into the river to catch two fresh fish? Based on our two brothers’ skill, it should be the exertion of lifting our hand.”
The stall owner no longer paid them any attention; he went to wait on the customers around the several tables inside the shack.
Xu Ziling thought that it could indeed be considered a way to solve their hungry intestines problem. “Let’s go!” he cheerfully said.
As they were about to leave, someone called out, “Two Renxiong, please hold your steps.”
Stunned, the two looked back. The man calling them was one of the diners inside the shack, sitting alone on a table, a middle-aged plump man with a round, pouty face. In just one glance they could tell that he was a businessman.
The fatty stood up and said with a laugh, “Across the four seas all are brothers; how about letting me, Guan Ping, to be a small host?”
Feeling grateful, Xu Ziling said, “We appreciate your kindness, but how could we let Guan Laoban [boss] spend your money?”
Guan Ping cheerfully insisted, “No matter what, two Renxiong must bestow Guan Ping a little bit of face, you must not be too courteous. Please take a seat.”
Kou Zhong signaled Xu Ziling with his eyes, hinting that he must not miss this opportunity, and then took the lead to walk toward Guan Ping’s table. Xu Ziling was helpless against him; he had no choice but to follow him taking a seat.
Guan Ping called for some wheat porridge and mantou, and invited the two boys to gorge themselves. Suddenly lowering his voice, he said, “I wonder if two gentlemen have some skills?”
While stuffing a mantou into his mouth, Kou Zhong raised his thumb and praised, “Guan Laoban indeed have insight; we both know a couple of tricks.”
Guan Ping cheerfully said, “Other things I cannot do, but reading people I have a bit of understanding. Although I know nothing at all about two gentlemen’s background, surname and given name, but only by looking at the elegant manner and imposing disposition of the two gentlemen’s dragon-walk and tiger-step, I am already admiring from the heart. The rarest thing was that the two gentlemen do not rely on strength to go on the rampage; you would rather go hungry than stealing and robbing, which is the sign of true hero and warrior.”
Xu Ziling was afraid that Kou Zhong would give him random name such as Xiao Jing, Xiao Xuan, Xiao Xuan [from Shan Wanjing, Shi Feixuan, Shi Qingxuan, respectively] or things like that; he hurriedly introduced himself, “I am called Fu Jie, he is Fu Xiong [the same surname as Fu Junchuo, ‘jie’ and ‘xiong’ mean ‘heroic’ and ‘grand/mighty’, respectively], coming from Yuhang, on our way to Leshou to see a relative.”
Guan Ping sighed and said, “Not to conceal anything from you, right now my little life is as precarious as a pile of eggs [idiom: in a dangerous state], I could be killed any moment by evil people. If two gentlemen are willing to help, I am willing to pay two taels of gold as a thank you gift to two gentlemen.”
Kou Zhong’s pair of big eyes immediately shone, he said, “Who have the impertinence to injure and kill others at will? Could it be that they are not afraid of the law of the state [lit. king’s law]?”
Stunned, Guan Ping said, “The law of the state?” Soon afterwards he smiled bitterly and said, “The government is far away, the fists are near, plus the warlords vying for supremacy, each one separately declared himself king. Committing a crime here, one could run away elsewhere, becoming unfettered and beyond the law. Frankly speaking, in Pingyao, who’d dare to move half a strand of my hair? But here, people are unfamiliar. Ay!”
Xu Ziling’s sympathy greatly aroused, he asked, “Guan Laoban is a shrewd businessman, how did you become trapped in this kind of situation?”
Lowering his voice, Guan Ping replied, “Simply because I trusted the wrong person. This time I followed everybody going to Shanhai Pass to do business, requesting the Da Dao She [lit. main street agency] people to be our bodyguards. At first everything was going as it should be, who would have thought that along the way we began to realize that Da Dao She people are colluding with my enemies in the dark? In the moment I have no room to advance or to retreat, I don’t know what to do?”
Puzzled, Kou Zhong said, “Since your life is in danger, why not avoid the problem by walking away from it?”
Guan Ping forlornly replied, “The problem is that the people I am coming with are transporting five hundred bolts of highest quality silk fabric, half of the goods were entrusted by connoisseurs; if I avoid the problem by walking away from it, my own loss will be disastrous beyond explanation, and when I return, I still have to compensate for the loss and will lose my family fortune, furthermore, my reputation will be damaged, afterwards it will be difficult for me to do business again.”
Frowning, Kou Zhong said, “Isn’t Shanhai Pass far away in the barren land of the frontier fortress? Guan Laoban has confidence that you can sell off such a large quantity of silk cloth over there?”
Guan Ping explained, “The most popular gang at the northern territory is the Bei Ba Bang [lit. northern hegemon gang]. Bei Ba Bang’s Da Longtou [big boss/chief] is the ‘Ba Wang’ [simply ‘hegemon/overlord/despot’] Du Xing, well known both inside and outside of the Great Wall. Whether it’s Qidan, Tujue, or Gaoli, everybody has to give him a bit of face to some extent. Therefore, he is able to enjoy market dominance in the commerce world, by exporting goods from Shanhai Pass to the various non-Han tribes beyond the Great Wall. Previously, he was content to receive commission, but in recent years he is personally involved in trading and some shady business. The order for this batch of silk fabric was actually placed by his representative, for which he had even paid a ten-percent deposit. As long as I can transport the goods to Shanhai Pass, I could collect the agreed value of the goods in gold.”
Greatly astonished, Kou Zhong said, “Unexpectedly there is such a formidable figure in the northern territory; why would the Tujue want to do business with him?”
Guan Ping replied, “On one hand, it’s because his martial art skill is outstanding, hailed as the number one martial art master of the northern territory, but also because of his blood relationship with the Tujue and Qidan; therefore, either the Tujue or the Qidan do not regard him his an outsider.”
Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong exchanged a look, inwardly they felt that this was not good at all. It was extremely likely that this ‘Ba Wang’ Du Xing was a formidable chess piece in the Tujue’s invasion of the Central Plains, similar to the previously cultivated by the Tiele, Ren Shaoming.
“This Da Dao She that you requested as your bodyguards, what kind of social connections do they have?” Kou Zhong asked.
Stunned, Guan Ping said, “You are people who wander the Jianghu, unexpectedly you have never heard of Shanxi’s biggest underworld gang Da Dao She? After the demise of the Great Sui, the world is in chaos, robbers spring up everywhere, the roads are not safe to travel, thereupon Da Dao She established escort agencies in various provinces, cities, everywhere. Although the fee they charge is expensive, it is worth it. As far as I know, they only lost three batches of goods, and after the fact they were able to recover some of the goods, even to kill the robbers to the last one.”
Knitting his brows, Xu Ziling said, “Escort agencies rely mostly on the reputation of their company, if they embezzled their charges, who’d dare to trust them afterwards?”
Smiling bitterly, Guan Ping said, “Under normal circumstances that is indeed so, hence this time, were it not for I hear it with my own ears, I would definitely not believe it.”
Kou Zhong was puzzled, “This kind of things, how did Guan Laoban hear it with your own ears?”
Guan Ping replied, “It’s like this: after our two large ships berthed at the dock here, following normal procedure, I went to the hold of the ship to check the cargo, suddenly I heard the voices of three men, Da Dao She’s Fu Shezhu [deputy agency master], ‘Yecha’ [yaksha (malevolent spirit), but it literally means ‘night fork’] Feng Ba, who is in charge in protecting the goods this time, talking with his subordinates Meng Degong and Su Yun, at the door of the hold. In it they mentioned receiving Cun Yi Gong’s payment of a hundred taels of gold to have me killed before reaching Shanhai Pass, and swallow my silk goods. I was scared and went to hide, and waited until they left before daring to slink off, and promptly left the ship and came here. While I was at a loss of what to do, I was lucky to come upon you.”
“Who is Cun Yi Gong?” Xu Ziling asked, “The name is so strange?”
Guan Ping replied, “Cun Yi Gong is Shanxi’s biggest cloth dealer; along with my Yu Sheng Chang and Ri Sheng Hang, which specializes in print fabric, are known to be Shanxi’s Three Big Businesses. Cun Yi Gong has always wanted to expand their business in silk fabric, as a result we have had very unpleasant dealings with Cun Yi Gong.”
Kou Zhong asked, “When will your cargo ships continue the journey? Who are the other people traveling together with you?”
Guan Ping replied, “We won’t leave until tomorrow morning. Traveling together this time are the goods from Shanxi’s other dozen or so businesses, including Cun Yi Gong and Ri Sheng Hang. Each business sends their representative with the goods going up north, to be in charge of the business transaction. All the goods are ordered by the Bei Ba Bang.”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “Guan Laoban, you fell into a trap!”
Stunned, Guan Ping said, “Fell into a trap?”
Kou Zhong said, “This is called ‘export method’. Feng Ba and the others practically knew that you were inside the hold doing an inventory count; therefore, they deliberately talked near the hold door, so that you can hear every word, and thus you’d escape without any trace. I dare to guarantee that this matter does not concern Cun Yi Gong. If you just rush back to Pingyao and send punitive force to Cun Yi Gong, then you would fall right into Da Dao She’s plot. After the fact, Da Dao She can get off scot-free, they can even push the blame entirely to you. And Guan Laoban, you are finished; afterwards, you no longer need to do silk fabric business.”
Hearing that, Guan Ping was half-believing-half-doubting; alternating between clear and dark, his countenance became even more unsightly. Staring blankly, he was deep in thought, while muttering, “Between Da Dao She’s Shezhu [agency master] Qiu Qipeng and I, there is no past grievance, no current hatred, why would he unexpectedly want to harm me?”
And then he reached out to grab Kou Zhong’s hand firmly and said with quivering voice, “Two heroes must help me. I decided to immediately withdraw this business, retrieve the goods, and then find another way to transport it to Shanhai Pass.”
Xu Ziling said, “We are helping you to retrieve the goods is just the exertion of lifting our hands. However, the root of the trouble has not been eliminated, because we still don’t know why Da Dao She is targeting your honorable business.”
“Where is your next stop?” Kou Zhong asked.
Guan Ping replied, “We are precisely going to Leshou where your honorable relative lives, because there is still a batch of goods need to be shipped there. Ay! What do we do?”
Kou Zhong mused, how could there be such a coincidence? He laughed and said, “From here, Leshou is still a few days away. Let us, two brothers, temporarily be your personal bodyguards. We’ll talk again after Leshou.”
Guan Ping hesitated instead; he said, “This place is Dou Jiande’s territory, plus with you two strengthening my momentum, perhaps I still have a chance to take the goods back. I expect Da Dao She would not dare to openly harm me or seize my goods by force in front of the other business people. But once we leave Liting, Da Dao She might use their many men, a great force; plus the situation would be different. If two gentlemen are implicated, it will be difficult for me, Guan Ping, to have a peaceful heart.”
Kou Zhong patted his full stomach, he rose up to his full height and said, “Guan Laoban, please set your heart at ease; don’t look at our poor, wretched look. The fact is, we are martial art masters who are able to deal with any situation. We are going out to wander the Jianghu, our main principle is to hold up the Way of the Heaven. Come! Let us go to the ship and have a good his mother’s sleep first; as long as you don’t leave our side, I guarantee that just like in Pingyao, no one can move half a strand of your hair.”
He also patted the Moon in the Well hanging on his back and said with a laugh, “Anybody wants to play rough? Let him ask my other brother whether he is willing or not.”
Doubt and trust mixed in Guan Ping’s heart, but he was ashamed to doubt Kou Zhong’s capability, so he felt awkward to the extreme point.
Xu Ziling pulled him up and whispered in his ear, “Guan Laoban, it’s time to pay the bill!”
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