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 Book 23 Chapter 2 - Separate Mission

While Shaoshuai Army was cleaning up the battlefield, the two boys sat on a pile of rocks by the River Zhang, discussing the valuable information that Cao Yinglong provided. Kou Zhong picked up a broken arrow lying down by his feet. While playing with it, he said, "Cao Yinglong should be telling the truth, or else he is a genius in fabricating stories and tooting his horn. At least the part where Yang Xuyan is injured can't be a lie. Furthermore, if you compare it to Shang Xiuxun's story, it was like seamless heavenly clothes. Ay! This Beautiful Changzhu is so hot-tempered. Whoever marries her will have a very big bad luck. Oh, my Niang!"

Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, "This is called different class origins. We paid obeisance to Yan Laoda as our master [Book 1 Chapter 1], at least we are accustomed to accommodate other people. She is set up on high; although she is surrounded by people, she is a lone flower admiring itself, hiding inside that little world of hers that is isolated from the crowd; perhaps her life is cheerless and lonesome. Therefore, although she does not know how to conduct herself, how to put herself in someone else's shoes, or how to give thought to others, we can't blame her. I just hope that when she calms down, she might change her mind! Otherwise, your great undertaking of regaining Jingling will potentially die in the womb."

Kou Zhong sighed and said, "I did not blame her at all. We cannot expect everything in life will happen according to our wishes, or else Niang and Su Jie did not need to die. But if I were you, I might also let Old Cao go to fulfill his wish before he dies. If my guess is correct, Shi Qingxuan is the custodian of Hua Jian Pai's library, and while she is at it, she might even be the caretaker of Bu Tian Jiao's [jiao - cult, as if in Ming Cult of Yi Tian Tu Long Ji] scriptures. And Yang Xuyan is pretending to be the disciple of Hua Jian Pai, he is going to Sichuan to deceive her and harm her. What are you planning to do?"

Grabbing his head, Xu Ziling said, "Do I have any choice?"

Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Don't act like you are in pain. In my opinion, you have the excuse you need to see Miss Shi, your heart must be really happy. Just put your butts in order, I don't care if in the latrine you'd stand or sit."

Xu Ziling looked at him in astonishment. "Unexpectedly you still have the mood to make such a dirty joke," he said in surprise.

Grieved, Kou Zhong said, "Although this time we seized total victory, we lost nearly half of our brothers. They have been through fire and water with me, yet I cannot bring them home to be reunited with their family and share riches and honor together. If I don't make some vulgar jokes, how could I divert myself from the sorrow cramming down my heart?"

Amazed, Xu Ziling said, "Your way of mourning is indeed extraordinarily weird."

Kou Zhong sized him up carefully; he said, "You have always been more compassionate than me [orig. bemoaning the state of the universe and pity the

fate of mankind], why do you seem like a bit unconcerned?"

Xu Ziling contemplated for a moment; sighing lightly, he said, "It's not that I am unconcerned, but I am a bit numbed toward life and death. After Su Jie's death, I often ponder the question of life and death. What happens after death? One is 'existence', the other is 'nothingness'. If all is 'nothing', then 'once the main problem is solved, all troubles are solved' [or 'death ends all one's troubles']. Suffering, broken-heart, despair, depression, are all the facts of life. But if all 'exist', then it is really interesting; whether it's reincarnation or going to the Temple of Heaven or the nether world, in short, going to another world. In this way of thinking, death is no longer frightening. We weep for the death, but it's just because we cannot see through. I even expect death a little bit. In this regard, Laotianye is just; whether you are of noble birth or aristocracy, or perhaps merely ordinary, common people, everybody has to experience it once."

Listening to this, Kou Zhong was so surprised and confused that he was unsure how to respond. It was quite a while later that he slowly exhaled and said, "Despite your expectation, you must not commit suicide; at least not before we find the 'Duke Yang Treasure'."

Xu Ziling was cross, "Go to your grandma!" he cursed, "I must now go to Sichuan; how about you?"

Distressed, Kou Zhong said, "The most ideal situation is of course I am coming with you to visit your little Qingxuan. Unfortunately, I have to rush back to see Chen Changlin and his clansmen, the Jiangnan troops. I have no choice but to agree on a place where we can meet later and go together to Guanzhong to try our luck. Ay! You must be a bit more careful!"

Xu Ziling responded indifferently, "Are you afraid I might die before coming with you to find the treasure?"

Sneering, Kou Zhong replied, "Compared to my good brother, can the 'Duke Yang Treasure' be considered anything?"

Rising to his full height, Xu Ziling said, "I was just joking. Both of us must be a bit more careful. Not only we are being sucked into the maelstrom of the contention over the world, we are also progressively being drawn into the mysterious power struggle between the upright and the demonic. One slip, and we will be caught in a situation without any hope of reprieve."

Kou Zhong suddenly stood up; turning his gaze toward the sinking sun on the western horizon, he spoke slowly, word-by-word, "The fact is, the moment we obtained the 'Secret to Long Life', we are already falling into this unknown struggle, from which we cannot escape, even if we wanted to. This is our destiny."

※ ※ ※

Xu Ziling hastened on his journey for four days and three nights straight. By the time he reached a county town east of the Great Bashan [Mount Ba], he could no longer endure it, and had to throw himself into an inn to rest.

Since ancient times, the road into Bashu [Sichuan] has been widely known as hard to pass, because it was surrounded by a range of hills, range upon range of mountains, high mountains and deep valleys. In between was the Yangtze River snaking through it like a belt. Converging streams and joining flows, both grand and majestic, as well as dangerous and difficult.

To enter Sichuan by land, one must go through the plank walkway going around the mountain between the Great Mount Lou and the Great Mount Ba. As for the waterway, there was the Three Gorges natural stronghold. Therefore, no matter how chaotic the outside world was, as long as one could occupy Sichuan and declare himself 'king', by relying on the dense river channels within its borders, plus the Dujiangyan gravitational irrigation system [more info: ://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dujiangyan], one could develop the agriculture, with which one could hold his ground for a long period of time. Hence it enjoyed the good reputation as 'the land of abundance'.

Although the inhabitants of Shu [short for Sichuan] region were mostly Han, there were more than forty other ethnic groups, such as Qiang, Yi, et cetera, hence it was very rich in local customs.

The county town Xu Ziling was stopping over was Shangyong City, north of River Du, Fang Ling County, Hubei, one of the major stations on the main route toward Shu region. From here, he would only need half a day of travel to enter the mountainous area of the Great Mount Ba.

The city was officially under Zhu Can's control, but in reality it was under control of the combination of a former Sui official and the local gangs and societies; therefore, it was fortunate not to be ravaged by Zhu Can's Garuda Army, except for limited exploitation as the Army was passing through.

According to Bai Wenyuan, all the gangs and societies in Sichuan and its surrounding area accepted order from Chuan Bang [Sichuan Gang] as the leader. This Chuan Bang was already one of the biggest powers outside Duzun Bao [Supreme Fort]. Its Gang Leader, the 'Spear King' Fan Zhuo had outstanding martial art skill, an expert in wielding the spear, and was on an equal footing with the 'Wulin Magistrate', Xie Hui [see Book 22 Chapter 3], a veteran and an esteemed character in Wulin.

After having a good soak in the bathhouse, Xu Ziling returned to his room and slept for half a day. It was only when the dusk fell that he went to a restaurant along the main street to have a big meal.

Suddenly he felt like he was a brand-new person.

The non-stop journey of the past few days has consumed a lot of his physical strength and true power, while also made him too busy to think about anything, hence all troubles were thrown to the back of his mind.

After dinner he asked for a pot of wine. But before he even had the chance to take the first sip, an alarm went off in his heart. Instinctively he turned his head toward the entrance, and saw a beautiful young [married] woman under escort of four big men, boldly lifted the hanging curtain and entered in. Surprisingly, it was the female chief of the Chang Jiang Alliance, Zheng Shuming.

It was obvious that Zheng Shuming was looking for him; she went straight to him, without any trace of politeness sat down on the chair across the table from him. Her phoenix eyes shone with power as she hissed, "It is indeed you!"

The four big men spread out toward the four corners. The other guests immediately felt the peculiar atmosphere, one after another they paid their bill and left. Even the waiters disappeared to who-knows-where.

Xu Ziling raised his cup to toast her and drained it in one gulp. He smiled and said, "Zheng Dangjia, what advice do you have for me?"

※ ※ ※

Bu Tianzhi and Chen Changlin welcomed the covered-in-dust Kou Zhong into one of Jukun Bang's secret hideouts located in the southwest of Jiangdu.

After taking their seat, Chen Changlin cheerfully said, "Fortunately we did not bring disgrace in following the order. Five hundred twenty-eight good-quality horses from Khitan and Korea already fell into our possession."

Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong said, "Two gentlemen are indeed very skillful, just with the hands behind your back you managed to completely take over so many good horses. How did you do it?"

Twirling his mustache, Bu Tianzhi smiled and said, "Of course by outsmarting the enemy. After putting our men together in Donghai, we set sail toward the ocean, and then going at full speed toward the mouth of the Yangtze River, we set an ambush at Hudou Island [orig. zhou, island in a river]. When the three seagoing ships transporting the horses arrived, we raised Li Zitong's flag, posing as naval escort to meet them, and falsely notified them that the river ahead was blocked by the Du Army, so they must disembark at Ninghai, in the vicinity of Jiangdu. As for other details, we can tell you if you wish to know."

Kou Zhong nodded and said, "This is equal to crippling Li Zitong and Ku Ge's dog legs [i.e. lackey/henchmen]. How's the situation of Du and Shen, two armies?"

Chen Changlin said, "Luo Xiong is monitoring their activity day and night. Because Jianghuai Army is still holed up at Qingliu, it's hard for us to attack. We have no choice but to watch helplessly and wait for the fortunate timing when they march into Jiangdu."

With a card up his sleeve, Kou Zhong said, "If I'm guessing correctly, within these two days Du Fuwei might send his army to attack Jiangdu. Because the news of Zhu Can and Xiao Xian withdrawing their troops and Cao Yinglong suffering total defeat of his army must have reached Old Du's ears, he will seize the opportunity before I am back at Liangdu to invade Jiangdu. Currently Xuan Yong is leading the troops returning to the east. I traveled day and night to come here like this, it is precisely to enjoy this excitement."

Bu Tianzhi and Chen Changlin were emotionally moved; they had never expected that Kou Zhong would have such brilliant and incredible achievements.

While Kou Zhong was still talking over some details, Luo Qifei's messenger came to report that Jianghuai Army's vanguard and pathfinder unit has already left Qingliu to set out toward Jiangdu.

Everybody immediately felt the 'opening clouds to see the moon' moment.

Kou Zhong cheerfully said, "It's time for that kid Xiliang to make his move!"

Zheng Shuming's beautiful eyes lit up; it appeared that she had no malice as she took a good, long look at Xu Ziling before speaking softly, "Perhaps Xu Xiong would find it hard to believe, this time nujia came to pay a visit without any wish to recklessly brandish weapons."

Being at the receiving end of this pair of beautiful eyes, which seemed to hide a lot of things that were hard to understand, Xu Ziling was nonplussed. Clearing his throat, he said, "That would be best; otherwise it won't be good for anyone."

Zheng Shuming calmly said, "The fact is, we do not have enough power here to deal with you. Plus we do not wish to tie an unraveled enmity with your Shaoshuai Army, since it won't bring the slightest benefit to our Yangtze River Alliance."

Xu Ziling did not understand, "Aren't you in alliance with Yun Yuzhen and Xiao Xian? With Xiao Xian as your backer, you shouldn't have any misgivings in dealing with us."

Zheng Shuming smiled and said, "This is called the situation has changed. Previously our number one public enemy was the roving bandits headed by Cao Yinglong, which was the reason for the establishment of the Yangtze River Alliance. But now that Cao Yinglong has been destroyed by you, we decided to place ourselves outside the struggle between you and Xiao Xian. Ay! Were it not for being compelled by circumstances, who'd dare to set himself against the two of you?"

Xu Ziling mused inwardly, "So that's what happened." A bit embarrassed, he said, "Are we that dreadful?"

Zheng Shuming suddenly shouted tenderly, "Bring me wine!"

Receiving the order, the men brought some wine and poured her a cup. They also refilled Xu Ziling's empty cup to the brim.

Zheng Shuming raised her cup to toast him, "Unexpectedly Xu Xiong is just like nujia, we are fond of the contents of the cup. Let's drink for the total annihilation of Cao Yinglong."

After exchanging a toast with her, Xu Ziling smiled wryly and said, "It was only recently that I discovered the benefit of good wine; previously, I only drink when I could not decline anymore."

A blush suddenly exploded on each of Zheng Shuming's cheeks, the kind of flirtatious expression of a mature young woman who was unable to hold her alcohol, making her appeared more tender and beautiful, more alluring. With a smile on her face, she said, "It was only after my late husband passed away that Shuming started to copy others, drinking wine to relieve boredom. I wonder what made Xu Xiong started to drink?"

Xu Ziling's countenance darkened. Watching Zheng Shuming as she poured another cup full of wine, he shook his head and said, "Nothing!"

Zheng Shuming knew how to read expressions; she knew that he was unwilling to confide in her. Thereupon she put down the wine pot and ordered her men to wait outside. Lowering her voice, she said, "I hear that after killing Fang Jianding, Xu Xiong let Cao Yinglong go; I wonder if what I heard was true?"

Xu Ziling shivered inwardly. If Yang Xuyan heard about this, he might be able to speculate that Cao Yinglong had used the secret as an exchange for his life, which would be very bad. However, his mouth responded, "Zheng Dangjia is really well-informed."

Zheng Shuming sighed and said, "So it did happen. I believe Xu Xiong must have a very good reason to spare his life. But Shuming is a bit grateful to you instead. If Xu Xiong had not let him go, Shuming would not have the opportunity to kill the enemy who murdered my husband with my own hands."

Stunned, Xu Ziling said, "Wasn't your husband killed by Ba ... hey ..."

Zheng Shuming replied mournfully, "My late husband died in the duel against Ba Fenghan only because his old injury relapsed, but the main culprit responsible for his injury was Cao Yinglong."

Xu Ziling mused inwardly that such a muddled accounting, perhaps nobody knew how to settle it. "What made Ba Fenghan fight with Jiang Dangjia?" he casually asked.

Smiling wryly, Zheng Shuming replied, "He came to settle an old score on the behalf of Dong Ming Pai; but if he wasn't so overbearing, it would not have developed into such plight. Ay! Can we not talk about such things?"

Inadvertently Xu Ziling gained further understanding of the hard-to-fathom relationship between Shan Wanjing and Ba Fenghan. He nodded without saying anything.

Zheng Shuming toasted him with another cup of wine, saying, "This cup is to offer best wishes on the capture and killing of Cao Yinglong, also to console the million ghosts who died unjustly under his hands."

Staring blankly, Xu Ziling said, "Zheng Dangjia this time ..."

Zheng Shuming cheerfully said, "The reason I am hastening to Chengdu this time is precisely to hunt and kill Cao Yinglong. Over the past few years, in order to deal with this evil thief, we have painstakingly gathered all information pertaining to him. We knew that he had never stayed in one place for more than a month; only in Chengdu he lingered for more than three months. Afterwards, he had been making multiple trips to Chengdu. Once he even went shopping at a cosmetic shop. Thus it is clear that he must have a woman somewhere in that place. Since he is at the end of his rope, I am quite certain that he might be hiding in Chengdu."

Listening to that, Xu Ziling immediately felt a big headache. While he was hesitating whether he should tell her that Cao Yinglong only had half a year to live, and asked her whether she could be magnanimous, Zheng Shuming went on, "This deep enmity of killing my husband is absolutely irreconcilable, I will not let this evil thief off, no matter what."

Xu Ziling had no choice but to swallow the words that were hanging by his lips.

Zheng Shuming noticed that he wanted to say something but then hesitated. "Did Xu Xiong want to say something?" she asked in astonishment, "May nujia be so bold to ask why Xu Xiong simply must let him go?"

Lowering his voice, Xu Ziling replied, "It would be best if Zheng Dangjia don't know. Otherwise you might be drawn into an unnecessary, but could easily bring disaster to you, gargantuan trouble, but with absolutely no benefit to Chang Jiang Lian.

Her countenance changed, Zheng Shuming said, "Unexpectedly it is that serious? In that case, does Xu Xiong have any advice for me on pursuing and killing Cao Yinglong?"

Inwardly Xu Ziling praised her intelligence and quick-witted, as well as her thoughtfulness and cautious mind. He took this opportunity to say with a laugh, "Cao Yinglong already reached 'the path exhausted, the end of the road' state, he won't live for much longer. Whether Zheng Dangjia can find him or not, it won't make much difference. If you could, don't get involved in this matter, that will be a sensible act."

Zheng Shuming knitted her pair of crescent-moon-shaped pretty eyebrows as she stared at him for half a day. Her cherry lips opened lightly as she said, "To hunt and kill Cao Yinglong has been the unanimous decision of our Chang Jiang Lian, from top to bottom. Ever since we received the flying pigeon news, we have put all manpower and thrown all resources into this matter, otherwise we would not have found Xu Xiong this quickly. I am afraid we cannot change this matter. I wonder if Xu Xiong could be a bit clearer: does he really suffer serious internal injury?"

Xu Ziling sighed inwardly. Smiling wryly, he said, "Zheng Dangjia, please forgive me, what I can tell you I've already told you."

Zheng Shuming softly said, "I am afraid Xu Xiong still does not trust nujia!"

Xu Ziling's heart moved, he asked, "Why did Zheng Dangjia walk together with Bai Qing'er?"

Zheng Shuming replied in low voice, "That is another reason qie wanted to see you. Why did Kou Zhong call Bai Qing'er a yaonu? He also mentioned to her the name of Wanwan, who made Jingling 'the city destroyed, the people perished'."

Xu Ziling's tiger-eyes flashed coldly; he spoke indifferently, "Good question! Zheng Dangjia still don't understand?"

Zheng Shuming's countenance changed again; aghast, she said, "Is Bai Qing'er really a Yin Gui Pai people?"

Xu Ziling replied frankly, "Bai Qing'er is a Yin Gui Pai female demon. Zheng Shiru is Yin Gui Pai demon. I am afraid even Qian Duguan cannot get off of this relationship. Zheng Dangjia must be very careful."

"Zheng Shiru?" Zheng Shuming blurted out, "Does Xu Xiong have any proof? As far as I know, this man has always been acting alone and independent, arrogant and has high opinion about himself, unlike any Yin Gui Pai demon."

Naturally Xu Ziling could not tell her that he disguised himself as Yue Shan and saw through Zheng Shiru's real face and real purpose. Without any better option, he said, "If we did not uncover it, who would have known that Luoyang Bang's big boss Shangguan Long is Yin Gui Pai people? This matter is absolutely true. Zheng Dangjia should not lightly ignore it."

Zheng Shuming's pretty face turned deathly pale, she bit her lower lip, but did not say anything.

Intuitively Xu Ziling felt that she did not believe him, plus this matter involved the emotion between a man and a woman; otherwise, her reaction would not be that strange.

Sighing, Xu Ziling poured another cup of wine for the two of them, saying, "This cup is for Zaixia paying my respect to Zheng Dangjia, hoping Zheng Dangjia would attach most importance to the general situation. I also offer this toast to say good-bye. Please!"

He had not finished speaking, someone entered the restaurant in big strides. Surprisingly, it was the 'Mad Scholar of Henan' Zheng Shiru.

※ ※ ※

Without making any noise at all Kou Zhong leaped down the city wall. After hiding the rope with the hook well, in the blink of an eye he already set foot on the red-light district, where he spent countless childhood days in Yangzhou.

He put on the mask that turned him into the full-bearded man with eagle-beak nose. His destination was Tian Xiang Lou to find Madame Yuling. Only through her would he be able to get in touch with Gui Xiliang while evading other people's eyes and ears.

Perhaps because the news of Du Fuwei's main forces invading their territory has not spread around, the atmosphere at the red-light district was still peaceful and lively, making people wonder perhaps the situation inside Yangzhou did not have the slightest relationship with the fire of war outside the city.

Along the sides of the street, red sleeves floated and disappeared, the lanterns illuminating the road, the sound of music and song were everywhere. Kou Zhong could not help feeling that he had fallen back into his youth when he could only peek from the outside, leaning against Cui Nong Hong, while other people were staking a thousand pieces of gold on one throw [idiom: extravagant]; a hard-to-describe emotion welled up in his heart.

In that instant, past happenings filled his mind completely, as if he was back as his old little rascal self, roaming the streets of Yangzhou, living a life where hardship and happiness were difficult to tell from each other, but where his heart was filled with longing and expectation of the future.

At the same time, another train of thought rose in his heart, making him feeling dazed and lost.

The fact is, he could never go back to the past. It is also impossible to recall the past years by his thought, he could not change the choices and mistakes that he made in the past either.

What's lost is lost. Time is like powerful current that will never turn back.

He had already lost a lot of precious things. In every case, people constantly make mistakes, make inappropriate choices, while regrets always come later. This is a recurring phenomenon. This realization seemed to make him dazed and at a loss as to which path to follow.

All previous efforts and achievements did not seem to carry any lasting importance; it could not even scratch the itch in his heart.

If only he could walk hand-in-hand with Song Yuzhi, strolling along this bustling scenic spot of Yangzhou, it would be such a beautiful thing, touching and satisfying the heart.

Suddenly the sound of hoof beats urgently pulled his thought back to the grim reality, and then he realized he had just walked past Tian Xiang Lou's main gate.

A horse-drawn carriage was just hurrying out of the gate.

Suddenly an ominous feeling rose up in Kou Zhong's heart; he ran after the fragrant carriage, which ought to carry Madame Yuling's honorable self.

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