The three boarded the ship at dusk. Several of the leaders of the Da Dao She, including Feng Ba, had gone to the city to seek pleasure.
This moment Guan Ping had no choice but to brace himself up. He assumed a big boss air and acknowledged Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling as the sons of his maternal cousin, who had rushed over to meet him here, ignoring Da Dao She’s men’s objection, and brought the two into his room.
Seeing there were two beds in the room, Kou Zhong asked, “Who shares the room with you?”
Guan Ping replied, “Every business representative is assigned a spare bed. I originally had a personal bodyguard traveling with me, too bad not long after we left Pingyao he fell ill, and had to return to Pingyao to receive medical treatment. I had no choice but to travel alone. Now that I think about it, that attendant of mine ought to have been poisoned; otherwise, as a martial art practitioner, how could he catch illness that easily?”
Kou Zhong nodded in agreement. Turning to Xu Ziling, he laughed and said, “We will have to crowd together in one bed tonight!”
Xu Ziling kicked off his boots. Without any trace of politeness, he went to bed and lay down; dead tired and sleepy, he said, “Feng Ba is coming back soon, you deal with him, don’t wake me up.”
Frightened and indecisive, Guan Ping asked, “How do you know Feng Ba is coming back soon?”
Kou Zhong pulled Guan Ping to sit down in the chair by the window. Stretching, he said, “Feng Ba’s men saw Guan Laoban suddenly brought two strong-looking men on board, naturally they immediately went to town to notify Feng Ba to come back.”
After casting a glance toward Xu Ziling, he laughed and said, “Good guy! He said he wanted to sleep and he immediately fell asleep; indeed he is a sleeping expert.”
Xu Ziling’s slow, long, and fine breathing was barely heard; it appeared to be there, but not exactly there.
With heart alarmed, trembling in fear, Guan Ping said, “When Feng Ba is back, don’t we need to wake him up? Isn’t having more helpers always better than having less people?”
Kou Zhong yawned and said, “I will talk with Feng Ba, but I don’t know how much face I need to give him. Were it not for being afraid that in the future it would be difficult for Guan Laoban to conduct yourself, I would certainly throw all Da Dao She men into Yongji Canal and drive the boat ourselves to go up north.”
Guan Ping could not help saying, “Honestly, I have seen not a few martial art masters of famous schools in Jianghu, but those who completely have no regards of the enemy like two gentlemen, this is still the first time that I come across. If I did not see two gentlemen having a card up your sleeve and already giving this matter meticulous thought, I would really think that you are newborn calf that do not know the immensity of heaven and earth.”
Patting him on the shoulder, Kou Zhong laughed and said, “I like forthcoming person the best. Hey? They are coming! Da Dao She people are indeed efficient.”
Guan Ping was stunned, “Did somebody knock the door?” he asked, “How come I did not hear anything?”
“Feng Ba has just stepped on the boat, of course Guan Laoban did not hear it,” Kou Zhong explained.
Guan Ping was skeptical. He was about to speak when more than a dozen men’s footsteps were heard from the entrance to the corridor, heading straight toward them.
The hoarse voice outside the door said, “Feng Ba is asking an audience; Guan Xiansheng, please come out to talk.”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “Er Dangjia [second chief], how are you? This is Fu Xiong, Guan Laoban’s distant relative, the son of his maternal cousin.” And then he lightly kicked Guan Ping.
Guan Ping cleared his throat and said, “Whatever it is that Er Dangjia wanted to say, just speak with my distant relative … hey! The son of my maternal cousin! Whatever he says is the same as what I say.”
Separated by the door, Feng Ba laughed nastily and said, “Guan Laoban ought to know that whoever wants to speak with me must have the qualifications to do so. This time our Da Dao She is in charge of the escort; according to the rules, we will absolutely not let any stranger and outsider to join in midway. Unexpectedly Guan Xiansheng does not pay attention to the rules; I wonder if you are harboring evil intentions?”
Kou Zhong laughed hoarsely and said, “Whoever is harboring evil intentions, Feng LaoGe, you ought to know better than anybody else.”
Feng Ba fell silent for half a day. The tone of his voice suddenly became steady and calm, “You have guts!” he spoke indifferently, “Fu Xiong, please come upstairs to talk.”
Footsteps were going away.
Kou Zhong stretched out his limbs again, he rose up to his full height, and then casting an envious glance toward Xu Ziling, who was deeply intoxicated in the dreamland, he said, “The earlier the problem is resolved, the earlier I can go to sleep. No matter what happens, Guan Laoban must never, ever, leave Xiao Jie’s side.”
Pulling the door open, Kou Zhong saw that at both ends of the corridor leading to the upper deck of the ship stood nearly ten armed men. Everybody was sizing Kou Zhong up with their ominous gaze and murderous-looking expression.
Kou Zhong swept them up with his eyes, one after another the men was intimidated; they either looked down or moved away from his line of sight, simply because Kou Zhong’s gaze was as sharp as the arrow, as if it really had substance, so that none of the Da Dao She men was not palpitating and their mind was chaotic, no one was able to hold his gaze.
Kou Zhong laughed aloud, stepped across the threshold, and closed the door behind him. He walked leisurely along the corridor with the enemies standing on both sides in great numbers in the direction of the upper deck; automatically he generated a burst of pressing momentum, which seized the men’s soul, so that they did not dare to make their move lightly.
Under the illumination of the wind lantern, nearly twenty Da Dao She men were crowding the bridge at the aft of the ship. The leader was a middle-aged man with solid body, medium build, jug-eared, lion-nosed, and ugly appearance. The ominous glint in his eyes was flickering, he fixed his gaze on Kou Zhong without blinking. Hanging on his back was a pair of intersecting iron forks, each one was about four chi long, with the tip of the forks protruding above his left and right shoulders. There was quite a bit of overbearing imposing manner of a martial art master on him.
Since he was able to occupy the Deputy Agency Master position of Da Dao She, naturally he had some weight. If it were ordinary Jianghu martial art master, seeing such imposing manner, it would be strange indeed if he did not immediately beat the return drum.
Kou Zhong, on the other hand, only found it amusing. As soon as he stepped onto the upper deck, a shadow flashed. The man guarding the left side of the cabin door was trying to knock him down with his shoulder. Kou Zhong secretly mused that this kind of trick, Laozi has seen it all, since it was the usual trick that Jianghu people used. Thereby he estimated the opponent’s weight, and in an initial show of strength, he increased his speed many times over, so that the man immediately hit an empty air, he staggered and tumbled behind him toward the other side, knocking the man guarding the right side of the door, so that both men tumbled down, battered and exhausted.
All the men on Feng Ba’s side showed stunned expression, because unexpectedly they were unable to see how Kou Zhong dodged by increasing his speed; the feeling was extremely strange.
Remaining calm and unruffled in the midst of chaos, Kou Zhong continued toward Feng Ba, and stopped about a zhang in front of him. The men who were initially inside swarmed out to the deck to seal off Kou Zhong’s retreat path.
Meeting the flashing refined light in Kou Zhong’s pair of eyes, a chill crept up in Feng Ba heart. Originally he had a thousand words, but suddenly he could not say even half a sentence.
Kou Zhong was deeply aware of the quitting-while-one-is-ahead principle; of course he was not afraid of Da Dao She at all, but if he tied unsolvable enmity against the Da Dao She, it would potentially cause no end of trouble to businessmen like Guan Ping. Therefore, it was necessary to use both hard and soft approaches to solve the problem.
There was a faint commotion from inside the cabin, the other businessmen wanted to come out to see what was going on, but they were stopped by Da Dao She men.
Kou Zhong took a couple steps forward. He only stopped when the crowd standing to Feng Ba’s left and right moved their hands to press against the hilt of their weapons. Revealing his signature smile, which was as brilliant as the sunshine, he calmly said, “A gentleman uses his mouth and not his fist, enmity should not be easily made, we all out to earn a living, Er Dangjia is a man who understands reason, you shouldn’t need Xiaodi to tell you, the Senior, what to do?”
All the men on Feng Ba’s left and right shouted angrily, fortunately Feng Ba stopped them. He spoke heavily, “Which line of friend is Xiongtai from?” [Note: I realize it sounds weird in English, but I believe the readers will understand it without further explanation?]
Kou Zhong blurted out laughing and replied, “Naturally from Guan Laoban’s relative line.”
Finished speaking, he straightened his shoulders and back, immediately generating the imposing manner that made the people’s guts trembled and their hearts turned cold. Everybody, Feng Ba included, unconsciously took half a step back.
Kou Zhong calmly went on, “Rules are made by people, it might change according to the situation, otherwise we are only swallowing ancient learning without digesting it [idiom], continuing the same old routine blindly. Our Yu Sheng Chang’s Ma Xiansheng was ill and could not finish the journey, he withdrew midway. Therefore, our aunt [maternal cousin by marriage] ordered the two of us to travel day and night to catch up with to follow and attend upon Biaoshu [uncle from maternal side]. This matter is absolutely fair and reasonable, conforming to reason. However, the final decision is naturally in Er Dangjia’s hands; if you disagree, we, Yu Sheng Chang will immediately withdraw the shipment. When that happens, Er Dangjia cannot blame us for not following procedures, since we are only ask for fairness.”
His speech suggested that if Feng Ba turned his back on him, then he would make Feng Ba’s treachery public to the other business members, and thus making Da Dao She’s reputation sweep the floor.
They were all smart people, Guan Ping had no reason to risk the grave consequences of offending Da Dao She, to accuse and slander Da Dao She.
Feng Ba’s countenance changed again, he let out a muffled snort and said, “You dare to threaten our Da Dao She?”
Pretending to be polite and modest, Kou Zhong answered, “Er Dangjia must not misunderstand, Xiaodi is only acting according to Jianghu rules.”
His pair of eyes shooting ominous glint, a man by Feng Ba’s side laughed nastily and said, “Which Jianghu school’s rules are you following?”
Knitting his brows, Kou Zhong said, “And this LaoGe is …”
The man smugly said, “I am the Da Dao She’s ‘Left Hand Sword’ Meng Degong.”
Kou Zhong cheerfully said, “Since there is a ‘Left Hand Sword’, there must also be ‘Right Hand Sword’; am I right?”
His remark was full of ridicule, which immediately provoked the anger of the men and horses on Feng Ba’s side; everybody was eager to make their move, but it was Feng Ba who did not dare to act blindly without thinking instead; he stopped his men.
A man on Feng Ba’s other side said, “I am the ‘Right Hand Sword’ Su Yun.”
Kou Zhong uttered some perfunctory Jianghu remarks like ‘I’ve long looked forward to meeting you’ or nonsense like that before responding to Meng Degong’s question earlier, “The Jianghu rules that I follow is you respect Xiaodi one chi, Xiaodi will respect you, LaoGe, one zhang. Do you get it? The ones all Dage are going to deal with are the people who want to rob the escorted goods and not Xiaodi at all. Once we are fighting, no matter which side suffers death and injury, it won’t be a good thing at all, right?”
Feng Ba’s countenance alternated between clear and cloudy indeterminately; evidently he was hesitant to make decision. In all respects, the enemy revealed an unfathomable impression, so that it was hard for him to know his real depth. Moreover, the newcomer was adept at Jianghu way, the remarks he made immediately put him in the advantageous position.
Just when the standoff continued, two men, one old, one young, stepped out of the cabin door.
The old one was about fifty, his appearance amiable and at ease, neither timid nor overbearing, automatically he revealed the air of a big businessman; medium build, his hair sparse, as soon as he opened his mouth he helped resolving the dispute, “Laofu has just had a chat with Guan Xiong; his two nephews [maternal, see above] are not outsiders at all. I wonder if Er Dangjia could give Laofu a little bit of face, by letting these two Xiao Ge’er [basically ‘little boys’] join in midway?”
The younger one had a bit of impression as a pampered son of a wealthy family; his age was more or less the same as Kou Zhong’s, only a bit shorter than Kou Zhong, but he could be considered big and tall as well. His clothes were tastefully chosen; he dressed like a literary scholar. His forehead broad, his eyes sharp; he appeared to be a talent. This young man added, “This Fu Xiong appeared to be righteous; would Er Dangjia please …”
With obvious displeasure, Feng Ba interrupted him, “Since Cun Yi Gong and Ri Sheng Hang both think that there is no problem, what can I, Feng Ba, say? If in the future something does go wrong because of these two men, our Da Dao She will not be responsible.”
Finished speaking, he brushed his sleeve and led his men back into the cabin.
It was only then did Kou Zhong find out that these two were representatives of Cun Yi Gong and Ri Sheng Hang, two big businesses. This moment he was even more convinced that Cun Yi Gong did not collude in the dark with Da Dao She; promptly he expressed his gratitude toward the two.
Guan Ping came out to introduce Kou Zhong to the two men. The old one was the younger brother of Ri Sheng Hang’s big boss, Luo Yi. The younger one was the oldest son of Cun Yi Gong’s big boss, Ou Liangcai.
After exchanging some pleasantries, Kou Zhong went back to their room and lay down next to Xu Ziling and slept. He did not care whether the sky collapsed, he just wanted to sleep to restore his qi. Only in their dreams would they be able to temporarily put aside the world brimming with heartache and trouble.
It was not yet dawn when the cargo ship set sail.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, who were sleeping until the sky turned hazy the earth turned dark, woke up at the same time. On the other bed, Guan Ping was still snoring thunderously; he was sleeping soundly as if he was dead.
Kou Zhong crawled up and sat on the edge of the bed. Patting Xu Ziling with the back of his hand, he said, “You got the easy part, I got the hard part; you, this Xiongdi, are really good to me.”
Xu Ziling sat up next to him; staring blankly at the snowscape on the west bank of Yongji Canal outside the window, he spoke heavily, “Last night I dreamed about Niang.”
“Is Niang well?” Kou Zhong blurted out.
Xu Ziling shook his head, “I don’t know,” he replied, “She was walking in front of me; I ran after her and called her, but she paid no attention to me, she did not even look back.”
Kou Zhong said, “Perhaps she is blaming us for not personally kill Yuwen Huaji! Ay! Even if we get to do it all over again, we would still make the same choice. Really strange, I don’t seem to have any hatred toward Yuwen Huaji anymore; in fact, he and me and you are no different, we are human beings with flesh and blood and feeling. Just like us, sometimes he might do something stupid.”
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, “Something stupid? Is it me doing stupid thing right now, or is it what Shaoshuai Ye’s doing is stupid?”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “It still comes down to you got the easy part, I got the hard part. Tell me, who is a bit more stupid? But if right now I said I want to give up striving for the world, you’d probably advise me to think thrice?”
Sneering, Xu Ziling said, “It’s pathetic. But if some day you and I fight side by side in the decisive battle against the Tujue’s invasive forces, that will be a very delightful thing. Tujue’s evil clutches have already entered the Central Plains. Other outside tribes are also like a tiger watching its prey, otherwise our Niang’s Shifu would not come to the Central Plains to look for Ning Daoqi; this really gives us headache. For Niang’s sake, other than trying to avoid him, what else can we do?”
With pained expression Kou Zhong said, “What I am most afraid of is that we cannot avoid him. Therefore, the best way would be to strive unremittingly, just like the way of heaven, we are constantly forging ahead. Heavens! What can we do to have our inner power advancing by leaps and bounds in a short period of time, so that we’ll reach the level where we won’t be afraid of Ning Daoqi, Zhu Yuyan, Shi Zhixuan, and the likes?”
Smiling ruefully, Xu Ziling replied, “When I find it, you will be the first to know.”
Kou Zhong shook his head and said, “Only people who are not afraid to do rough work will find it.”
Frowning, Xu Ziling said, “Tell me then.”
Kou Zhong’s pair of eyes lit up, he lowered his voice and said, “Naturally it’s the cultivation according to Old Ba’s martial art way, or perhaps your, Ling Shao’s using battle to raise battle. Do you remember what Gao Kaidao’s subordinate Zhang Jinshu said about why Tujue cavalry is so formidable? Hearing is not as good as seeing. Since you, Ling Shao are going beyond the Great Wall anyway, I might as well see the gentleman off, and along the way learn something from Xieli.”
Xu Ziling was silent for half a day. He said in grief, “In last night’s dream, I was back at our broken-down home in the abandoned garden in Yangzhou. Unexpectedly Zhen Sao was there, cleaning up the house for us, while also scolding us for the hideous mess our home was. When I went out, I saw Niang walking alone on the street. Ay! Do you understand? Currently I am downhearted about everything and have no interest in doing anything.”
Smiling wryly, Kou Zhong said, “All right! In that case, we’ll split up after Leshou! Ay! How did things become like this?”
Lying on his back on the bed, the tone of his voice brimming with pain, he softly said, “For the first time, I feel like I hate you a little.”
Laughing involuntarily, Xu Ziling said, “You don’t hate me; you just want to force me. However, cultivation according to martial art way and using battle to raise battle are two different things. The former is hard training, the latter is facing the enemy by using trick. Hence the reason Ba Fenghan must leave us to undertake the lonely, single-shadow-lone-shaped journey, to deal with all difficult things alone, to ponder and reflect upon himself everything that he come across, alone. Isn’t our using battle to raise battle enough? Now is the time to train hard!”
Kou Zhong sat halfway up in horror; he said, “According to what you said, wouldn’t it mean I cannot train? Under current circumstances, there is no way I can be alone.”
Guan Ping was still snoring loudly, providing the best cover for their whisperings.
Xu Ziling reached out to put his hand on Kou Zhong’s broad shoulder; he shook his head and said, “Loneliness is one kind of mental state. The longer we don’t part, the longer we cannot become like Ning Daoqi, that kind of martial art master who assumes personal responsibility. With your, Zhong Shao’s aptitude and intelligence, you ought to understand what I mean.”
“All right!” Kou Zhong said dejectedly, “But how long are you going to wander before you are willing to come back to visit me or collect my dead body?”
Xu Ziling blurted out laughing and said, “Don’t speak pathetically like that. I really don’t know when I am coming back. Perhaps one day my heart would suddenly move, and I might come back.”
A hundred kinds of emotion running through his heart, Kou Zhong smiled bitterly and said, “Ever since we understand things, we, two brothers are like a pair of clapping block, we left home to make our way in the world never far from each other, but suddenly we have to part, how could it not make me depressed and unwilling to let go?”
Displeased, Xu Ziling said, “How could you describe this matter as ‘suddenly’? Didn’t we agree that after obtaining the hidden treasure, you go to strive for the world, I go to pursue the life that I have been dreaming about?”
Kou Zhong pushed his last effort, “But now the situation has changed; Li Shimin might collapse any moment, Tujue’s invasion is at hand; you, Ling Shao, ought to change in response to the situation. You ought to accompany Xiaodi to look at the situation clearly first, and only then you decide whether you should go or stay.”
Smiling bitterly, Xu Ziling said, “Good fellow! You go back on your word, yet you are still speaking passionately.”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “I call this unyieldingly seeking survival. Frankly speaking, even though previously I was forced to promise to let you go, I always feel that it was just empty promises, nothing serious, and can’t possibly happen for real. But now that the separation is pressing in on our eyelashes, naturally it is another matter altogether.”
After a short pause, he went on, “I wanted to send you off, yet you refused; what kind of brother are you?”
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling replied, “You are like a man with a family, the entire city of Pengliang is waiting for you to come back. Furthermore, you ought to make adequate preparation, the coming year will determine the rise or fall of your Shao Shuai Army; how could you ignore your own family?”
Hearing that, Kou Zhong unexpectedly showed an excited look; he spoke cheerfully, “On that, you don’t need to worry. In the preparation effort, we have Xu Xingzhi, Xuan Yong, and the others helping Xiaodi. Li Shimin wanting to put Song JinGang in order, he will need at least a year or a half. I am now completely free and easy, suitable to make the trip to the foreign land.”
Before Xu Ziling had any chance to respond, the ship’s speed increased sharply.
The two looked at each other, they both know that something unusual was happening.
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