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 Book 24 Chapter 6 - Simply Must Go

The two sat in a noodle shop at the south market, cattycorner from An Long's old shop Long He Xing, specializing in wine.

The noodle shop was not on business; it merely opened its middle door, while providing cakes spread over the table, free of charge for the crowd enjoying the Lantern Festival. At this time, the Lantern Festival was in full swing. A large group of Yi people, more than a hundred men and women, wearing full traditional ethnic apparel, were performing their singing and dancing on the street. The sound of drums and happy music warmed the air, attracting the people who were originally taking a rest inside the shop to go out to watch, cramming the wide street so that not one drop could trickle through, and thus making it more convenient for Xu Ziling and Hou Xibai, these two men, to sneak in from the courtyard through the back door.

In passing, Hou Xibai picked up a piece of mooncake, which he bit and chewed a mouthful, and said, "Tonight's Lantern Festival is jointly hosted by Duzun Bao, Chuan Bang, and Ba Meng, three parties. On the surface it is for everybody to have fun together, but it is actually a show of their unity to the outsiders! This is a yun tui [lit. cloud leg] mooncake, very authentic; would Ziling Xiong like to try it?"

Xu Ziling picked a piece to sample it; sure enough, as it entered his mouth, it was crisp and crumbly, sweet and salty, the taste of ham was prominent, moist, but not greasy, it could be rated as best quality product. After nodding his head approvingly, he casually asked, "But internally, are they really united?"

Staring at the crowd on the street, Hou Xibai replied, "I am afraid only Feixuan would be able to tell for sure. But at the very least, the alliance of three powers benefits the people of Chengdu, the law and order here is the best in the Central Plains. Like tonight, nine out of ten houses are empty, yet there are no scoundrels committing a crime, because they knew that they will lose their lives afterwards for sure."

More and more Xu Ziling felt that this man Hou Xibai was an enigma. He was dying to ask him why he wanted to kill Xu Ziling, yet although the words have arrived at his throat, in the end he could not spit it out, and had to stuff it back into his belly.

Hou Xibai's eyes seemed to be able to penetrate the heavy wall of people, straight into An Xing Long [sic, it was Long He Xing above]; spirited light shone from his eyes, he said, "Tonight I was lucky to come across Ziling Xiong, otherwise I, Hou Xibai, lose my life in other people's hands without knowing what's going on."

Xu Ziling did not understand, "How did it happen?" he asked, "Does your honorable master particularly care about and dote on Yang Xuyan?"

Smiling bitterly, Hou Xibai said, "I wish I knew. Ziling Xiong, please do not blame Xiaodi for attempting to take your life twice in succession, simply because master's order is difficult to disobey. But now I started to guess that it must be Yang Xuyan using our school's token to falsely passing on Shi Shi's order, and using the same method he tricked Qingxuan into coming to Chengdu, scheming to snatch the scroll and to murder. However, this matter has been leaked, so that even if he had gargantuan guts, he would not dare to touch Qingxuan."

Although Xu Ziling still could not believe him completely, but since Hou Xibai was willing to explain, plus he admitted frankly that he did indeed try to kill him twice in a row, he felt a bit more comfortable; nodding his head, he said, "Hou Xiong nearly took my life."

Shaken, Hou Xibai said, "That time at Yangzhou, turns out you really sensed I was hiding in ambush. This is really unbelievable."

Xu Ziling smiled and said, "Hou Xiong is indeed brilliant; you guessed this fact based on my response. But we don't have much time! How are we going to do this?"

Hou Xibai replied, "The agreed time to leave is still about half an hour away, Xiaodi is thinking of affirming one thing first, does Ziling really have the intention of killing Yang Xuyan?"

Murderous intent flashed through Xu Ziling's eyes, "I can't find any reason not to kill him," he replied.

Delighted, Hou Xibai said, "That's great. But it still depends on our luck, whether he is fated to lose his life or not. Toward Yang Xuyan, I knew nothing at all. But toward An Long, I have deep knowledge of his temperament. If he wanted to see you at certain time, you could only show up at that time, neither early nor late. Therefore, as long as we lie in wait for them in time, taking advantage the moment before Yang Xuyan come in to enter the shop, we might be able to kill him."

Casting his glance outside the door, Xu Ziling saw the crowd cheering and applauding, the sound surging inside like tidal waves, yet in his heart he only saw Shi Qingxuan's bright-moon-like jade countenance. He said, "That will depend whether he is one of the crowd enjoying the bustling scenery."

They could only wait in ambush for Yang Xuyan on the roof of the old shop. If Yang Xuyan entered the shop from the street, they might be waiting in vain.

Shaken, Hou Xibai said, "That's not right! There are so many good places to meet, why would he pick a place bustling with noise and excitement where people are piling up? There must be a reason."

Pondering deeply, Xu Ziling said, "Could it be that that is the place where Yang Xuyan is going to meet Miss Shi?"

Hou Xibai stood up abruptly and said, "Let's step outside to test the water, and then we'll decide on the countermeasure for dealing with this situation."

Xu Ziling came to the threshold to peer outside. Hou Xibai came to a halt next to him and said in a low voice, "A bit later we will probably meet Ba Meng people, Ziling Xiong may pretend to be someone named Chang Fei. This lord calls himself Da Ba Shan Ren [a man of great Mount Ba]. He has always been coming and going alone, but is actually well-known to be a handsome man, and just like Ziling, he does not like to use weapon. You are posing as him, it should be like a seamless heavenly clothes."

Xu Ziling smiled and said, "Than you for Hou Xiong's reminder. But I actually feel safer to disguise myself as a scar faced mountain man [or hermit]. Otherwise, when we meet Lian Rou, it will be a joke."

Finished speaking, he turned his back, with an easy-drive-on-a-familiar-part he changed-shape-in-a-single-shake to become the scar faced hero.

Watching this, Hou Xibai was dumbstruck. "Turns out Ziling have this face-changing ability. I wonder how should I dress Ziling Xiong now?" he asked.

Xu Ziling responded indifferently, "How about I follow your respected opinion?"

Hou Xibai cheerfully said, "This mask has no flaw at all; it could be rated as best quality product of the present age, even the scar on your face looks amazingly real, it makes me remember a certain figure who had once gone on the rampage in the Yun Gui region [i.e. Yunnan and Guangxi]. In Jianghu, he was known as the Daoba Ke [lit. scar (from a knife would) guest/visitor], a character with resounding name about a dozen of years ago. He would not let off anybody who had a debt on him. Afterwards he seemed to be angering local schools and sects, and henceforth went into hiding and disappeared. How about Ziling Xiong become him, returning to Jianghu after a period of inactivity?"

The more he came in contact with Hou Xibai, the more Xu Ziling felt his outstanding charisma as he was talking cheerfully and wittily. Xu Ziling also could not stop his interest from being aroused. Astonished, he said, "Hou Xiong seems to have extensive knowledge; I am full of admiration. I wonder what is this Daoba Xiong's surname and given name, and what kind of weapon he is good at?"

Hou Xibai said, "Our Hua Jian Pai puts emphasis on roaming across the four seas, we go to a lot of places, hear a lot of hearsay and comeback stories. This is in answer to the aforementioned praise of having extensive knowledge. As for Daoba Ke's name, it is very strange; he is called Gong Chenchun. Reportedly, he is adept in using more than a dozen different weapons with distinct characteristics. As for the actual fact, unless we encounter him in person and fight with him, there is no way we can verify it for sure."

Xu Ziling mused that among Lu Miaozi's wonderfully made masks, one was definitely made based on Yue Shan's real appearance; who could say for sure that the others were not made based on actual person? Therefore, he said cheerfully, "In that case, let Xiaodi temporarily become Gong Chenchun then. Ha! We should take advantage of this festive time!"

Chen Changlin entered the cabin. After he was seated properly, Kou Zhong asked, "I want to know more about the Song Clan's situation in Lingnan."

Chen Changlin had just learned from Bu Tianzhi, who was just on his way out of the cabin, that Kou Zhong has made up his mind to visit the Song Family. Originally he wanted to persuade him to dispel the idea, but as he saw Kou Zhong's expression this moment, he knew that Kou Zhong's mind has been made up. He had no choice but to ask, "Which aspect does Shao Shuai want to know?"

Leaning back into his chair, Kou Zhong stretched his limbs and said with a sigh, "Since sleep seems to elude me, Changlin Xiong might as well tell me whatever you want to tell me, if something interests me, I may just inquire further."

Chen Changlin sorted out the information he had in his head. After muttering to himself irresolutely for half a day, he began, "I believe Shao Shuai wants to know the Song Family's standing in local politics and their position in Wulin?"

Kou Zhong laughed and said, "Their position in Wulin ought to be clearly and easy to see. Southern martial art master whose name shakes the whole nation, other than the Heavenly Saber Song Que, who else will there be? Although Huang Gongcuo is brilliant, he had suffered defeat under Ning Daoqi's hands. But until today, Song Que has not met his match. Tell me something else!"

Inwardly, naturally he was thinking the Ba Dao [overbearing saber] Yue Shan, who lost his lifetime fame for fighting prowess under Song Que's hands. And from Yue Shan his mind went to Xu Ziling. His days without Ling Shao by his side have been particularly difficult to bear; whenever he had a load in his mind, there was no one to confide to.

Chen Changlin nodded his agreement; he said, "To understand the situation at Lingnan, we must first understand that it is the place where the Li [ethnic group] and the Han mingle together. The Li people are further divided into Wu Wu [two different characters] Liao, Xi Yuan Man, and Huang Dong Man, and other different ethnic groups, which, in the end, are known as Li Liao."

Kou Zhong was confused; he mumbled, "Trying to remember these names gives me headache, it's easier to just call them Nan Man [lit. southern barbarians]."

Chen Changlin smiled and said, "Whether we call them Li Liao or Nan Man, both names carry a derogatory tone. In fact, since the Qin and Han dynasties, Nan Man has been increasingly Sinicized, but they live in remote places, their dwellings are still some kind of the so-called pole and fence houses, made of bamboo and wood construction, the roof is made of reeds and paddy straws. It has two layers; the top is for people, the bottom for livestock. It can avoid malaria, as well as wild animals. Just from this, we could infer their way of life."

Kou Zhong thought that if he could pass the night with Song Yuzhi in his arms in such a house where the people were on top and the livestock on the bottom, it would be a distinctive flavor.

Chen Changlin continued, "After the Sui wiped out the Chen [of Southern dynasties, 777-589], with the Song Clan's approval, one after another the Li Liao from various regions of Lingnan realigned their allegiance to the Sui dynasty. Thereupon Yang Jian successively set up Nan Hai, Yi An, Zhu An, Jiao Zhi, and so on, twenty three counties, locally. He also agreed with Song Que's proposal to appoint Li Liao tribal chief and commander to govern the ethnic groups' internal affairs; therefore, various tribal chiefs and commanders of Lingnan are grateful to Song Que."

Sneering, Kou Zhong said, "Yang Jian had no choice; if he did not use this governing-by-restrain method, I am afraid the Li Liao would have been rebelling early on."

And then, furrowing his brows, he said, "It does not matter how formidable Song Que's saber technique is, how enormous the Song Family's influence is, there will always be conflict of interest among the various Li Liao ethnic groups; how does the Song Family hold them up together?"

Chen Changling raised his thumb and said with a laugh, "Many superficial changes, but no departure from the original stand. Precisely how Mencius advised the Liang's Hui Wang [king of Hui], 'King! There is no need to take advantage of the day, on the contrary, take advantage of the movement.'"

Greatly interested, Kou Zhong said, "Changlin Xiong, please don't leave Xiaodi hanging! Tell me quickly what is it?"

Chen Changlin laughed and said, "The Song Family's two most powerful magic weapons are that they are in control of shipping business of the south and the commercial trading system linking the entire country. Not only that, Song Que is a man whose words worth a thousand gold; he purchases openly, he sells openly, paying particular attention about fair dealing. So when all Li tribal chiefs obtain benefit and become rich, nobody would not follow Song Que blindly. Therefore, no matter how Lin Shihong or Shen Faxing expanded their influence, they would never dare to even have half an idea of provoking the Song Family of Lingnan."

Recalling the 'Silver Dragon' Song Lu's standing when dealing with various issues in Luoyang, Kou Zhong saw a lot of similarities in him. He asked, "Aren't they mainly in salt business?"

After muttering to himself irresolutely, Chen Changlin said, "Salt is just one of them. The Song Family has been distributing all kinds of local products of Lingnan's Li Liao to all parts of the Central Plains in a steady flow, while also transporting local necessities back into Lingnan. That is where they make their profit from. Some people believe that quite possibly Song Que is the richest man under the heavens. Although this opinion might not be accurate, it is not far from the truth either."

Slapping the armrest, Kou Zhong said, "Turns out the Song Family is the genuine Longyou Bang [roaming dragon gang, see Book 22 Chapter 3]; no wonder just from the tea leaves' shape and flavor Song Shidao is able to write a book."

Listening to that, Chen Changlin was bewildered, "What kind of gang is Longyou Bang?" he wondered aloud.

After explaining it to him briefly, Kou Zhong's eyes shone as he asked, "Lingnan has valuable products?"

Obviously Chen Changlin had a remarkable understanding of commercial trade of various places around the country. As if enumerating his family valuables, he said, "For our Nanhai Jun, we have tortoiseshells, pearls, ivory, and Chinese eaglewood. Huang Gongcuo's Zhuya [historic name for Hainan Island] produces spices, kapok, five-colored rattan, and all kinds of precious medicinal herbs. Lingnan's ironware foundry is fairly developed. All are in the big business of making money."

Kou Zhong happily said, "I finally found a reason that I simply must go to Lingnan! We are in need of a reliable business partner like Song Que."

Smiling wryly, Chen Changlin said, "I thought that after Shao Shuai listened to me, you might dispel your intention to go!"

By the time Xu Ziling and Hou Xibai, the two difficult-to-distinguish-between-friend-and-foe partners, stepped into the crowd on the street, the song and dance just happened to end. Amidst the warm and lively shaking-the-heavens shouts and cheers, everybody was clamoring toward the public square, where the market was normally held, to watch the lantern decoration and spotlights. Everybody was in high spirit; in the twinkle of an eye the stream of people dispersed more than half off the street.

Xu Ziling, in his guise as the scar-faced hero, cried inwardly, 'Heaven helps me!' Leaning closer to Hou Xibai, he said, "Although I have never seen Yang Xuyan's real face, but this man's body shape and bearing are exceptional; as soon as Hou Xiong see him, you will know."

"Human life is beyond value," Hou Xibai said, "Xiaodi will only make my move after you verify it. You are responsible for watching for Yang Xuyan, I am responsible for paying attention to the people from An Long's side."

The two weaved right and left among the crowd as they crossed the vehicles and horses' lane. Children holding lantern in their hands were running around on the street, adding a considerable vitality and liveliness to the Lantern Festival atmosphere. Seeing the street was filled with all kinds of people from all kinds of ethnicity enjoying the festival together, Xu Ziling's heart grew warm; more and more he felt that peace and prosperity was a precious thing. At the same time, Hou Xibai's remark about 'human life is beyond value' made him think that if Hou Xibai was not a good and honest man by nature, then he must be an extremely evil man. Until now, he still believed Cao Yinglong's view that the disciple that Shi Zhixuan trained could not possibly be a good man, since it would be completely against the demonic schools' code of conduct.

This thought came into his mind, he asked, "Hou Xiong values human life like that, I wonder what would your esteemed master's reaction be if he heard it?"

By this time they have reached the street where An Xing Long was located. An Long's old shop, just like any other shop, was opening its main gate, with cakes and culinary delicacy for the people to enjoy. Hanging inside was a row of more than a dozen of giant carousel lamps [lantern with carousel of paper horses, rotating under convection, used at Lantern Festival], affording a magnificent view, attracting not a few of the people to stop by to enjoy it.

Because they also provided good wine to entertain the guests, the spacious shop was crowded with an unending stream of visitors, so that the outside of the shop was bustling with noise and excitement.

Upon stepping across the threshold of the door, Hou Xibai withdrew his penetrating gaze with which he scanned the shop interior. He said, "That is just Xu Xiong's misunderstanding of our humble Sect. Perhaps I can give you an analogy: Hua Jian Pai is Jianghu's Zonghengjia[1], the emphasis is zongheng method [or method to move unhindered; see footnote], not relying on numbers, because in each generation it has only one disciple. The most important thing is to study and cultivate by knowledge and experience, by traveling around everywhere, and by being able to make nations and countries perish with no blood on the men's swords."

It suddenly dawned on Xu Ziling that Shi Zhixuan assuming Pei Ju's identity was precisely this 'not wasting/costing one soldier one pawn' principle, bringing the Great Sui to its demise from the inside. If he were relying on military force alone, how long would it take him to accomplish this matter?

He asked, "Since that's the case, what kind of person is your esteemed master, actually?"

Hou Xibai halted his steps and looked around; he spoke in heavy voice, "Sometimes I suspect that Shi Shi is a person with dual personalities, all because Hua Jian Pai and Bu Tian Ge, two sects' martial art xinfa are polar opposite, each one goes to the extreme. For Bu Tian, capturing the heaven is not enough; hence they act on behalf of the heaven, by specializing in assassination and murder, the more chaotic the world the better, fetching the generals seizing the commanders, to regard the magnificent army with thousands of men and horses as nothing. Early on I already suspected that Yang Xuyan is Bu Tian Ge disciple, but I just received the confirmation from Xu Xiong's mouth! Bu Tian Ge pays no attention to comradeship; everything is just a tool for them, a vast difference from our Hua Jian Pai's embracing the scriptures and the ways of the world, losing oneself in the white cloud. Ay! It's bad!"

Xu Ziling's heart shivered; following Hou Xibai's gaze, he saw a group of six, seven beautiful girls, with handsome and wonderful posture, beating a small drum tied onto their waist, walking toward them. They were wearing colorful attire of their specific ethnic group, matching their gorgeous appearances. The most eye-catching was that the two sleeves of the small-collared slanting lapel of their clothes were made of red, yellow, green, purple, and blue, five different color cloth put together. The hem of their skirts was embedded with precious stone, and the outside their long gown was covered with purple and red and deep blue - inlaid with flowers - sleeveless jacket. Long ribbon was tied on their waist; both ends of the ribbon had embroidery thread coiled together into flower and black decorative motif.

Magnificent with many postures, as if the clouds tinged with sunset hues in the sky above became human, in the form of bright and beautiful, touching, pretty women - and appeared in the mortal world.

Their waist drums were even more carefully picked; the casing were made of mulberry wood, inlaid with precious stone and a variety of jade, the cover was made of python skin. Both hands were beating the drum alternately, the right hand struck the center of the drum, producing 'dong', strong tone; the left hand struck the edge of the drum, producing 'wu', weak tone. Sometimes both hands slapped the center of the drum or the edge of the drum together, producing drum roll, so there were 'dong ka dong wu', or perhaps 'dong dong dong dong', 'ka ka wu wu'; many variations on the drumming method, evolving into unbelievably splendid and pleasant-to-listen-to drum music and wonderful rhythm.

While Xu Ziling was still wondering why Hou Xibai groaned 'It's bad!', seven beautiful drummer girls already surrounded the two. They seemed to be cautious, yet happily beating their drums and dancing, attracting everybody's attention.

Xu Ziling began to understand; if they were being entangled by this group of girls, how were they going to proceed with their operation to assassinate Yang Xuyan?

One of the girls was slightly taller, her legs were particularly long, her smile was even more pleasant; for some reason she was able to make a deep, romantic, pushing-down-all-beauties impression in people's heart. But there was hidden bitterness, secret grudges in her eyes, as she stuck close to Hou Xibai's body. Obviously the two of them knew each other.

Hou Xibai helplessly smiled wryly toward Xu Ziling. This moment, unless they soared into the air, there was no other way to free themselves from these girls.

In this annoying moment, Xu Ziling suddenly saw Shi Qingxuan.

[1] School of Diplomacy of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), 'zongheng' itself means 'vertically and horizontally/length and breadth/crisscross/able to move unhindered.

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