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Kou Zhong rushed to Luoyang. He reported to the general on duty at the city gate, asking for an audience with Wang Shichong. As soon as he reported his name, Kou Zhong, Lang Feng immediately came personally to receive him. After some pleasantries, Lang Feng took him on a horse-drawn carriage into the Palace.
Revisiting the once familiar places, Kou Zhong noticed the Heavenly Street was still bustling and flourishing as before. Thinking that not to long in the future this famous city, which was even grander than Chang’an, would suffer the fire of war, how could he not sigh with sorrow in his heart?
His mouth did not match with his heart, Lang Feng said, “The past few days Shengshang [courtier’s or minister’s form of address for the current Emperor] occasionally mentioned Shaoshuai; it must be that he had a premonition that Shaoshuai would honor us with your presence.”
Kou Zhong cursed inwardly; among Wang Shichong’s generals, Lang Feng and Song Mengqiu, two men were the most doted on, not because the two had any skill, rather, they were good at the way of the official court, expert in flattery and tooting their own horn, plus they won the Crown Prince Wang Xuanying’s favor.
Qin Shubao and Cheng Yaojin had left, there were only Great General Zhang Zhenzhou and Yang Gongqing who could be considered military talent. Too bad that Wang Shichong overlooked them in favor of his own relatives.
Within Wang Shichong’s clan, only the young second son Wang Xuanshu appeared to have a bit of ability; the rest, he disdained even to mention it. Once the Great Tang Army arrived, Heaven knew how many people might defect to the Tang? Wang Shichong was harsh and merciless, Li Shimin was generous in his treatment of worthy talents. A fine bird chooses a tree to nest in; merely this aspect was beyond his, Kou Zhong’s ability to pull strongly against a crazy tide [idiom; fig. to try hard to save a desperate crisis]. The only way was to win the first battle, in order to stabilize the officers and soldiers whose heart was at odds with Wang Shichong, to make them feel that following Li kid might not necessarily be a safe bet either.
But to win over Li kid’s able-to-move-unhindered-and-unrivalled Black Armor Elite Cavalry personal guards, which momentum was like a rainbow, which equipment excellent, an imposing army with superior training – was easier said than done.
While he was still pondering over this, Lang Feng said, “Duke Yang’s Treasure’s name is empty, losing it not worth the regret. As long as Shaoshuai is willing to serve Shengshang, won’t that be the same as sitting on a treasure house? Besides, among the three capitals of the old Sui, the storehouse in Luoyang is the riches.”
Kou Zhong mused Lang kid, your information is indeed fast and abundant, you knew what was inside the Duke Yang’s Treasure. He casually asked, “About Yang WenGan’s upheaval, what’s the conclusion?”
Lang Feng let out a cold snort and said, “WenGan’s position was as a insignificant Zongguan [manager] of Qingzhou, holding power over a local gang, yet he had the guts to send out his troops in rebellion, naturally he ended up suffering a crushing defeat. Now Jingzhao Lian is classified as a rebel organization, and no longer allowed to exist in Guanzhong.”
“Is Li Shimin ascending to the Crown Prince throne?” Kou Zhong asked.
Lang Feng laughed grimly and said, “This time Li Jiancheng was really tragically implicated by Yang WenGan, fortunately there are various Guifei [imperial consort] pleading for leniency on his behalf, Cabinet Minister Feng Deyi and the others also asked Li Yuan to absolve him. In the end Jiancheng only had to kowtow to ask for forgiveness, throwing himself on the ground; only then he was barely able to save his position. Finally Li Yuan only blamed it to Zhong Yun [an official position (Courtesy of Akolaw)] Wang Gui, You Wei Shuai [Right Guard Commander] Wei Ting, and Heavenly Policy Bing Cao [lit. army officer] Du Yan; they were only looking for several scapegoats to redeem themselves and be done with it.”
Kou Zhong was confused; he did not understand what did this strife have to do with Wang Gui and Wei Ting. He thought that perhaps just like Du Yan, they were also Yang WenGan’s spy. “What about Yang WenGan?” he inquired further.
Lang Feng replied, “Yang WenGan’s rebel army was defeated by the troops under Li Shimin’s command; they were completely wiped out, only Yang WenGan broke the siege and escaped alone, his whereabouts is unknown.”
Hearing that Li Shimin did not become the crown prince, a spark of new hope appeared in Kou Zhong’s heart. He probed further, “Shuni Xiaojie can’t possibly be implicated, can she?”
Surprised, Lang Feng said, “Li Yuan’s love for her is only increasing by the day, how could she be implicated?”
It was Kou Zhong’s turn to be at a loss; he asked in confusion, “Shuni Xiaojie has a close relationship with Yang Xuyan, this …”
Lowering his voice, Lang Feng said, “Shuni Xiaojie has just become pregnant, she is carrying Li Yuan’s flesh and blood, Li Yuan, that pervert, only shows tenderness toward her and not enough dislike, how could he treat her coldly? Although Yang Xuyan has some relationship with Yang WenGan, but he was not involved in the armed rebellion. Li Yuan is a man who cherishes old friendships; therefore, his position is still very stable.”
Kou Zhong nearly blurted out, saying that Li Yuan knew that Yang Xuyan was Shi Zhixuan’s disciple. He thought that Li Yuan was indeed muddleheaded, or there was some other subtle inside story that he did not know.
The carriage drove into the Imperial City. Kou Zhong gathered his thought, ready to deal with the old fox Wang Shichong.
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling swaggered into the city. Following Gao Zhandao’s direction, he came outside the large residence that was Hongnong Bang’s headquarters, and reported his name at the door, asking for an audience.
The fact was that without him needing to reveal his identity, as early as when the entered the city, the guard already recognized him as Xu Ziling, and had already sent information in secret, notifying Chen Shi of his arrival. But naturally all these did not escape Xu Ziling’s eyes and ears.
Also, it was obvious that his and Kou Zhong’s portraits have already been distributed to the various branches of Hongnong Bang, in order to detect and monitor their movements.
Chen Shi received him in the inner hall. This leader of the Hongnong Bang, the sworn brother of Lei Jiuzhi, was about fifty years old, wearing a thick goatee, somewhat slim, having regular features, his eyes lively, but also carrying a bit of a Gang Leader air.
On the surface, he was very cordial. After some polite greetings, the two sat down to drink tea and talk.
Xu Ziling smiled and said, “Zaixia has something to be discussed with Chen Bangzhu.”
Chen Shi was a Jianghu veteran, naturally he understood his intention. After ordering his men to withdraw from the hall, he spoke solemnly, “Xu Ye is a man that Chen Shi always admire; even with no relation to Jiuzhi, Chen Shi will still consider imitating the dog and toiling like a horse on Xu Ye’s behalf as an honor, much less Jiuzhi is my sworn brother, which we sealed with the incense stick.”
He spoke with such sincerity that if Xu Ziling did not know the truth, he would definitely not be suspicious of him. This moment, however, he only thought that his pretense was so laughable.
Again, Chen Shi so casually asked, “Shaoshuai did not travel with Xu Ye?”
Xu Ziling replied indifferently, “Shaoshuai has other important things to attend to, hence we did not travel together. Zaixia came to Hongnong this time, it was just to let Zhandao and the others know that we are fine, so that they can leave with no worries.”
Frowning, Chen Shi said, “Your honorable subordinates have just left the city to provide support to the other team of troops and horses, I don’t know when they will be back.”
Xu Ziling smiled and said, “They are gone!”
“What?” Chen Shi blurted out.
Remaining calm and unruffled in the midst of chaos, Xu Ziling laughed and said, “Chen Dangjia, please listen carefully to every word that I, Xu Ziling, am going to tell you. Were it not for I, Xu Ziling, remembering Dangjia is Lei Jiuzhi’s sworn brother, also you have done Zaixia a favor in the past, there would be only one way to resolve the problem between us, which is by relying on martial art.”
Chen Shi’s countenance changed, he asked, “What does Xu Ye mean by this?”
The divine light in Xu Ziling’s eyes flared out, he fixed his gaze on Chen Shi and said, “If Chen Dangjia is a real man, you should dare to admit what you dare to do, no need to waste any lips and tongue. Besides, the Heavenly Policy Mansion people may arrive any moment; we can take this opportunity to work out a good way to satisfy rival demands first, wouldn’t it be better than we become enemies where you are wishing for my death, and I am desiring you to perish?”
Chen Shi was stunned speechless.
After all, Hongnong Bang was just a small gang in a county or prefecture; even if they had the support of Heavenly Policy Mansion behind their back, but offending some top figures whose name intimidated the world like Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong, it would still be extremely unwise.
Finished playing hard, Xu Ziling changed direction by playing soft, to give the opposite party the opportunity to step down with dignity. Lowering his voice, he said, “Naturally I know that Chen Dangjia had no choice because you were under pressure. You are afraid to offend the Li Family, afraid that another day when the Tang Army coming to the east, you would have to bag your food and leave before you finish eating; therefore, although I know Chen Dangjia is assisting Li Shimin in secret, we still understand you. However, one mistake cannot fix another mistake; Kou Zhong and I always pay any kindness, avenge any enmity.”
‘Avenging any enmity’ was actually not Xu Ziling’s style at all, but in order to achieve his goal, he simply had to say it.
Chen Shi suddenly looked like he was aging several years older; his eyes down, he spoke dejectedly, “Ay! How can I still have the face to see Jiuzhi? Xing Chang Long’s Bu Ting and Tian Santang personally came to see me, they said the situation is very serious. If I were alone, I could always run so far away; but how can I bear to see the brothers who follow me have their family bankrupt and the people perish?”
Suddenly he looked up and said, “Xu Ye, quickly go. I’m afraid they are already entering the city!”
Xu Ziling suddenly said, “If I go away, how would Chen Dangjia make the report back about your mission? Don’t worry! I can get out of Guanzhong and come over here, naturally I can get out of here and go anywhere I want. I only hope that Chen Dangjia would be able to rein the horse at the edge of the precipice, and to be magnanimous by letting Zhandao and the others off. Otherwise, even if I understand Chen Dangjia’s difficulty, Kou Zhong might not be willing to let you go.”
At the same time, inwardly he cursed himself and Kou Zhong for being careless; they set Hongnong as their meeting place, forgetting that from Xing Chang Long, Li Shimin could trace back their relationship with Hongnong Bang.
Chen Shi resolutely said, “Xu Ye can return good for evil, I, Chen Shi will definitely be able to reciprocate. Xu Ye, please leave immediately, I will deal with the Heavenly Policy Mansion people.”
Xu Ziling suddenly signaled him with his eyes, indicating that there was enemy sneaking in. Slightly raising his voice, he said, “Since Tong Xing She brothers have already left, Zaixia must immediately be on my way to Guanjun to meet up with them.”
Guanjun was south of Hongnong, a Zhu Can’s territory, a place difficult for the Li Clan’s power to reach, so if they fled to that place, it would be quite logical.
Chen Shi was accustomed to Jianghu way, immediately he played along, “Xu Ye has come from afar, no matter what you must let Chen Shi be a good host; let’s eat lunch first before you hit the road. I can even arrange vehicle and horse, I guarantee Xu Ye will be able to catch up with your honorable brothers.”
Xu Ziling rose up to his full height and said, “This matter should not be delayed, let me accept Chen Dangjia’s good intention in my heart! Someday when I have the opportunity, I will come again to look for Dangjia to drink wine and celebrate together.”
Secretly he made a signal telling Chen Shi to find an excuse to leave the hall. Chen Shi could also be considered one of those men whose brains could move fast; he immediately said, “Xu Ye, please stay a moment, I have something that I’d like to trouble you to deliver to Jiuzhi. Let me go to get it for Xu Ye.”
Finished speaking, deeply worried and sick at heart, he left. Although Xu Ziling’s name shook the world, but the Heavenly Policy Mansion came prepared. If Xu Ziling met with unexpected misfortune in here, it would be strange indeed if Kou Zhong did not dye Hongnong red with blood.
Xu Ziling sat down again. He stared at the door where Chen Shi had just disappeared. Suddenly he roared, “Chen Shi, how dare you betray me!”
The windows shattered, like a tidal wave the enemy flooded into the hall.
※ ※ ※
Wang Shichong received Kou Zhong at the other courtyard of the imperial palace where he discussed government matters with the members of his inner ministerial circle. Accompanying him on his left and right were Wang Xuanying, Wang Xuanshu, two brothers, and Song Mengqiu plus Lang Feng, all were Wang Shichong’s closest men.
After the host and guest sat down, Kou Zhong chopped his head [saying something in a rush (without proper warm up) when just met (Courtesy of Akolaw)] and said, “Great Tang Army finally went out the Pass!”
Slightly startled, Wang Shichong frowned and said, “Can Shaoshuai be a bit more specific?”
Kou Zhong said, “The Great Tang Army is already sending light military supply wagons and army provisions toward Guandong [lit. east of the Pass], they are about to launch large scale invasion to the east.”
Showing a bit of disdain, Wang Xuanying said, “Shaoshuai has been inside the Pass for a long time, hence you don’t know the latest development outside the Pass. The Tang Army deployment is due to Song JinGang borrowing Tujue warhorses, amassing troops and horses at the provincial border north of Taiyuan; they could storm to the south any moment to attack Taiyuan, the old nest where the Li Family made their mark. It is reported that Li Yuan sent Li Yuanji out to calm Taiyuan; naturally they have to continue to provide material support.”
Kou Zhong had already guessed that the Eastern Tujue’s claws and teeth might take the opportunity to rise in revolt, only he did not expect it would be Li Yuanji who was being sent to deal with it. Immediately he felt that Li Shimin’s strategy was unfathomable, giving him a big headache.
Wang Xuanshu said, “This time the Li Family’s situation is not optimistic at all, simply because Puban’s Wang Xingben has become the Eastern Tujue’s vassal state, greatly weakened the Li Family’s power in Taiyuan. Plus Wang Xingben and Song JinGang are supporting each other, so that the Li Army at Taiyuan is facing enemies on both sides.”
Taking joy in calamity and delight in disaster, Song Mengqiu said, “Song JinGang’s timing is very accurate; taking advantage while the situation inside the Pass is very chaotic due to Yang WenGan’s rebellion, he suddenly rose in revolt. This is precisely the essence of ‘to attack when least expected’ of the School of Military.”
On the contrary, Wang Shichong was the one did not dare to despise Kou Zhong’s ability and wisdom the most; he asked, “Shaoshuai, what’s your opinion?”
Kou Zhong has not fully digested the information yet. “Who is Wang Xingben?” he casually asked.
Lang Feng replied, “Wang Xingben was a high-ranking military officer of the Old Sui, he established himself as a warlord in Puban, assembling his personal army, thereby presenting a challenge to the central government. Officially he already surrendered to the House of Tang, but several times Li Yuan ordered him to come to Chang’an, he always refused, and now he finally rebels.”
Kou Zhong decided that Li Yuanji was not Song JinGang’s match; therefore, in the end Li Shimin must stick out his head to deal with this situation. But if that was the case, how could he still have the energy to invade Luoyang? However, he had a faint feeling that the situation was not so. Without any better option, he looked around and asked, “How’s the situation of the remaining members of the Wagang Army?”
Wang Shichong replied, “It appears that the only remaining members of the Wagang Army are Li Shiji’s troops, who had surrendered to the House of Tang, who still have control over a vast area reaching to the ocean on the east, the Great River to the south, Dangzhou to the south, and Wei County to the north. But if Dou Jiande defeated Yuwen Huaji, and then Dou Jiande and us attacked from north and south, definitely he is not going to last long.”
Divine light suddenly flashed inside Kou Zhong’s mind. Severely shaken, he said, “I understand now!”
Everybody looked at him in surprise.
Kou Zhong said, “Li Shimin deliberately wanted Li Yuanji to suffer defeat.”
Frowning, Wang Shichong said, “Troops in defeat is like a landslide; where is the logic in losing a battle on purpose?”
Kou Zhong analyzed, “Under ordinary circumstances, naturally Li Shimin would not do such a stupid thing. However, on the basis of internal and external, two factors, Li Shimin simply cannot not taking this risk. It is a calculated risk, but it’s extremely brilliant; lucky that Li kid was able to come up with it.”
Puzzled, everybody waited for him to continue.
Kou Zhong said, “Let’s talk about the external factor first. If Li Shimin is out to defend Taiyuan, what would the situation be?”
Shivering slightly, Wang Shichong said, “You are right. If the one defending Taiyuan is Li Shimin, this kid’s ability to defend a city no one in the world could match or surpass, although Song JinGang is strong, he would still be locked in a stalemate position.”
Kou Zhong said, “But to the House of Tang, this situation will not bring the least bit of benefit. Once Li Shiji is defeated by Shengshang and Dou Jiande’s joint attack, the contact between Taiyuan and Guanzhong will be cut off, the only way out is for Li Shimin to give up defending Taiyuan.”
Wang Xuanshu’s countenance changed, he said, “Is Shaoshuai saying that sending Li Yuanji to suffer defeat is unexpectedly Li Shimin’s scheme to lure the enemy to go deep into the south?”
Kou Zhong asserted, “If Liu and Song are holding back their troops without moving, due to their location on the northern frontier, bordering the Eastern Tujue, in case of direct conflict between the Li Clan and Xieli, any punitive expedition to the north to Liu and Song is definitely not something that a wise man would do. However, as long as Liu Wuzhou and Song JinGang’s problem is not resolved, it will still be difficult for Li Shimin to advance to the east with peace of mind. The only way is to lure Liu and Song’s main forces to go deep into Taiyuan, and then using his usual trick, Li Shimin would build a rampart and hold fast inside, while cutting off the rear route for providing foodstuff. When the enemy’s grain is depleted, he would raise his troops to attack. Shengshang, what do you think?”
Wang Shichong took a deep breath and said, “That is the external factor. What’s the internal factor?”
Kou Zhong said, “The internal factor involves the internal power struggle within the House of Tang. Looking at the current situation, Yang WenGan’s upheaval has not shaken Li Jiancheng’s Crown Prince throne. Jiancheng. Yuanji, have always opposed Li Shimin’s military expedition to the east, for fear that if his prowess is growing, once he leaves Guanzhong, it would be even more difficult to hold him back [orig. holding him by the elbow]. Therefore, Li Shimin uses retreat to advance, he let Li Yuanji going to Taiyuan to hit the nails first, while he himself would provide support.”
Wang Xuanying excitedly said, “This is the time to attack Guanzhong.”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “If Dou Jiande defeated Yuwen Huaji, Li Shiji would be too busy to deal with him, then it would indeed be the best time to attack Guanzhong. However, if my guess is correct, Li Shimin stationing the troops outside the Pass is one-move-three-purposes strategy. It could provide assistance to Taiyuan, while also curbing Shengshang’s main forces, so that it would be difficult for Shengshang to go all-out in dealing with Li Shiji. The most formidable part is that if he could lure Shengshang to send your troops to attack, it would hit his heart’s desire head-on.”
Wang Shichong laughed and said, “I wonder if Shaoshuai is not overestimating Li Shimin’s ambition? We only have to force Li Shimin back into the Pass, and then Li Yuanji’s troops defending Taiyuan would be an isolated force. If Shaoshuai is willing to be Zhen’s [I/we (imperial use)] Junshi [military adviser], why worry that big things are not going to succeed?”
This was precisely Kou Zhong’s objective in coming to Luoyang. But since he guessed that for the time being Li Shimin’s aspiration was not on Luoyang, he immediately felt that the situation was reversed. If the Zheng Army attacked the Tang, on the surface Li Shimin would appear to be passive, while the fact was just the opposite; he was holding the initiative completely in his hands.
Kou Zhong knew himself very well. Both in martial art and in the art of war, he was good in offense but poor in defense. Even in defending a city, he relied mainly on troops appearing suddenly in ambush. Li Shimin was good not only in offense, but in defense as well.
Using Kou Zhong’s offense against Li Shimin’s defense, what could the outcome be?
Smiling wryly, he said, “Will Shengshang trust Xiaodi?”
Wang Shichong calmly said, “Without the lips, the teeth will feel the cold [idiom, fig. intimately interdependent]. Now that Zhen and Shaoshuai have identical interest; if I don’t trust you, whom should I trust?”
His spirit greatly aroused, Kou Zhong resolutely said, “Very well! It’s a deal. As long as Guanzhong is not defeated, we are allies fighting side-by-side.”
Wang Shichong issued his imperial order, “On Zhen’s behalf, summon Zhang Zhenzhou and Yang Gongqing immediately. The Great Zheng’s prosperity and decline will be decided by this war’s success or failure.”
The crowd acknowledged the order in loud voice.
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