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Jing Kang sat down leisurely. He looked different; this moment he looked like a modest, generous elder, as if he would never get angry and throw a temper, while previously, the Jing Kang on the street gritting his teeth and saying that he wanted to throw Du Xing’s dead body on the street. It was as if they were two different persons.
Everybody stood up to welcome him. One after another they sat back down, Du Xing showed an oddly deferential and polite manner.
Jing Kang raised his cup and said, “Laofu is late, I must be punished by one cup first.”
Naturally no one dared to refuse; they all raised their cup to accompany him drying his cup.
Jing Kang slapped the table and said with a sigh, “Who would have thought that the lacking-the-strength-even-to-truss-a-chicken Sao Niangzi was actually an expert in using poison? Although we have been very careful in watching who might be scouting for Cui Wang, we had never made the least bit of progress. Turns out it was Sao Niangzi, who knew the traveling merchants going back and forth inside and outside the Pass like the back of her hands – who provide information for Cui Wang. I feel sorry for us, the men, since we can’t make her look up on us and feel regret; who would have thought that she was sleeping with people for different purpose.”
Du Xing cleared his throat, he looked quite embarrassed.
Kou Zhong, three men, immediately knew that Sao Niangzi has definitely slept with Du Xing, and that whether Jing Kang was intentional or unintentional, he had uncovered this scar.
This old fellow was indeed formidable.
Changing the subject, Xu Kaishan said, “I heard that ‘Tianzhu Kuang Seng’ [lit. mad monk of the Indian subcontinent] Fu Nantuo is also an expert in using poison. I wonder if he is somehow related to Sao Niangzi?”
Frowning, Ba Fenghan asked, “Is this man real?”
Xu Kaishan said, “Bai Ziting establishing his kingdom against the trend, this man has a great influence. Fu Nantuo came from Tianzhu, he had wandered all around the world, his knowledge and experience extensive, his eloquence unimpeded. I hear it was after listening to him that Bai Ziting hurriedly established his kingdom.”
Expressing a different view, Du Xing said, “But you cannot not mention that Fu Nantuo has a bit of skill. After Bai Ziting declared that he is establishing his kingdom, immediately Xieli and Tuli were engaged in continuous confrontation, to such an extent as to lack the strength to interfere, even the King of Qidan did not dare to act blindly without thinking, he only conserves his strength and watches for any changes.”
Ba Fenghan smiled and said, “I never thought that a martial art master from Tianzhu unexpectedly made Long Quan Fu suddenly become this lively.”
Jing Kang said, “Three gentlemen, please don’t take offense; it’s a rare occasion that Du Dangjia and Xu Dangjia are present, Laofu wants to take this opportunity to discuss a little bit of domestic affairs with them first.”
Kou Zhong did not know what kind of medicine inside his gourd he was going to sell, he only knew that whatever it was, it could not possibly be a good thing for Du Xing and Xu Kaishan; perhaps Jing Kang already obtained Wang Bo’s support. If Tuli and Xieli’s relation worsened, the effect would be far-reaching; only by personally coming to the northern territory would he begin to gain deep understanding. Thereupon he nodded and said, “Jing Lao, no need to stand on ceremony, please do as you wish.”
Jing Kang’s pair of eyes glistening brightly, he swept Du Xing and Xu Kaishan, who were holding their breath and calming their qi – with his eyes back and forth twice, before smiling and said, “Yin Ma Yi has become a master-less relay station, naturally we can’t let it be abandoned and go to waste; not only it must stay as a money-making business, it is also indispensable to the traveling merchants going back and forth. Two LaoGe, who do you think must assume control over Yin Ma Yi?”
Inwardly the three cried, ‘Formidable!’ Jing Kang chose precisely this moment to execute his old-selling-old-place stratagem to negotiate this matter with Du Xing and Xu Kaishan, it was precisely to borrow the power of Kou Zhong, the three men to put pressure on Du Xing, this pair of villains-colluding-together sworn brothers, so that they could only handle this matter according to Jianghu rules, and after they gave their consent, they would not dare to renege, otherwise they would become men who ate their own words, and Kou Zhong and the others were precisely the witness.
Because Yin Ma Yi was a famous hot spring in the northern territory, it was a strong business along a major route, becoming the must-stop station between Shanhai Pass and the other cities and towns. Both in term of business and strategy, it was a piece of fatty meat that all local gangs and societies was watching for and desired passionately.
Kou Zhong even has personally verified the ironclad fact that Yin Ma Yi was as strong as a fort; with only several dozens of strong bows, they could defend the place as secure as a city protected by a wall of metal and a moat of boiling water [idiom]. In itself it had an important military role; if it fell into the hands of Jing Kang or Gao Kaidao, it would play a direct role in maintaining check and balance of power in Shanhai Pass. In short, it was a strategic point that anybody moving the troops must strive to obtain.
Du Xing smiled calmly and asked, “What good proposal does Jing Lao have?”
Jing Kang spoke seriously, “Laofu thinks that under current seeing-a-bow-reflected-in-a-cup-as-a-snake situation, it is inadvisable for any local gang or sect to intervene, temporarily it ought to be Yan Wang assuming control of that place; two LaoGe, what do you think?”
And then he smiled and said, “And that is also what Zhi Shi Lang [i.e. Wang Bo] has in mind.”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling suddenly realized that the struggle before their eyes was actually between the Han people and the foreign tribes.
Gao Kaidao, taking advantage of the opportunity while the internal strife within the Tujue was difficult to resolve, strived to resurrect his independence, in order to obtain the support of the local Han-dominated gangs and sects.
On the surface Xu Kaishan did not show any disgruntled expression, he cheerfully nodded and said, “Presently, this is the best solution to this problem.”
The ominous glint in Du Xing’s pair of eyes flashed, but it quickly disappeared. Exhaling lightly, he said, “Since this is Jing Lao and Zhi Shi Lang’s proposed solution, I, Du Xing, can only agree, there won’t be any objection.”
Jing Kang acted as if he had just accomplished a trivial thing; turning to Kou Zhong, he asked, “I wonder for which affair did Shi Xiaojie honor us with her Buddhist-self’s presence?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Kou Zhong said, “How would I know if she didn’t tell me?”
Xu Ziling rose up to his full height and said, “Thank you for Du Xiong’s trouble; while there is still time, we want to examine those three dead bodies.”
Xu Kaishan personally saw them off to the Yanshan Winery before taking his leave. Du Xing and Jing Kang also made some excuses and hurriedly left their seats and parted company with them.
Returning to the Winery’s inner hall, they sat down, and Ren Jun reported that due to the tiring journey, Uncle Li and the others, five men have gone to bed.
After drinking two mouthfuls of hot tea, Kou Zhong asked Xu Ziling, “What do you think?”
Ba Fenghan said, “Even if I have never seen Zhou Laotan and Jin Huanzhen, I know that those two dead bodies are not them. This is just a tactic to confuse people’s eyes and ears, and I am certain that it was not Shi Zhixuan’s doing. Otherwise, why should he destroy their faces?”
Both corpses were severely struck on the face, so that it was badly mangled and was difficult to recognize; but the clothes and ornaments, as well as the body type and age, could be pass off as genuine.
Xu Ziling spoke heavily, “This method is simply too cruel.”
Kou Zhong nodded his agreement. At the last moment they had to rush to find two people to substitute this pair of old man and his old wife of the demonic school, it could only be accomplished if they drew on local resources to look for two innocent persons in the neighboring cities, towns and villages to pass off fish eyes for pearls. Were it not for the three happened to come upon this matter, the news would only reach Shi Feixuan’s ears after the bodies were buried. Because the clothes and ornaments came from the real Jin Huanzhen and Zhou Laotan, there was a good chance that Shi Feixuan would believe that the two were killed by Shi Zhixuan.
This hasty scheme was definitely targeted to Shi Feixuan.
Xu Ziling sighed and said, “The only thing I can think of is Yin Gui Pai. This is very similar to their [feminine] style of work.”
Smiling bitterly, Kou Zhong said, “Even if Ling Shao’s guess is not spot on, it shouldn’t be too far off; just how many people out there know that Xiedi Sheli fell into Shi Zhixuan’s hands? Counting it horizontally and vertically, there are no more than Zhao Deyan, Yun Shuai, and Zhu Yuyan, three parties. Yun Shuai could be excluded [orig. skimming the foam from the surface of a liquid], because he does not have any knowledge whatsoever about Jin Huanzhen’s marvelous method of sensing the Relics, which leave us with Zhao Deyan and Zhu Yuyan, two major demonic school powers, of which, Zhu Yuyan is the most unwilling to see Shi Zhixuan unifying the demonic way.”
Xu Ziling said, “Yin Gui Pai ought to do everything in their power to secretly follow Jin Huanzhen, husband and wife’s track, their objective is to let Shi Feixuan defeat the vanguard troops first, so that they could pick up some convenience. Yet because there is a good chance that Shi Zhixuan is running away outside the Pass, their tracking method is ineffective in the great prairie and the great desert, they had no choice but to change plan and captured Jin and Zhou, two persons, and forced them to follow Shi Zhixuan’s trail, hence the reason of this fake-passing-off-as-genuine move.”
Ba Fenghan smiled and said, “I always say that being together with you must be many-postures, many-colors. No time to lose, shall we inform Xianzi [fairy] immediately?”
Shaking his head, Kou Zhong said, “Unless she wants to see us on her own, her immortal track is hard to fathom; how would we find her?”
Ba Fenghan said, “Maybe the place where Shi Feixuan is staying is the Qi Xian Si that the Old Xu mentioned, or perhaps we could ask them to deliver a letter to her. This could be considered we are upholding righteousness and justice in Jianghu.”
Turning to Ren Jun, Kou Zhong said, “Currently the situation in Shanhai Pass is delicate, your safety while staying here shouldn’t be a problem. You stay here to organize things and practiced. Also, this matter about notifying Xianzi, I leave it to you to manage.”
It was hard for Ren Jun to hide his disappointment; hanging his head, he said, “When are three Ye’er leaving?”
“We will leave immediately,” Ba Fenghan responded resolutely.
Stunned, Ren Jun said, “If Jing Dangjia is asking your whereabouts, how am I going to answer him?”
Kou Zhong smiled and said, “Just tell him that we have to deal with the Qidan and the Tujue immediately. As for when it is confirmed that Du Xing and Xu Kaishan are conniving with the wolf-bandits in the dark, whether we want to kill them or to cut them to pieces, we will leave it to him, the Senior, to decide.”
Remembering Da Dao She affair, he said, “By now, you ought to know about Da Dao She as much as we do. Consider it your good deed of the day; you need to inform the Da Dao She people that Guan Ping is a replacement-guaranteed-if-not-genuine fraudster.”
Urging them to leave, Ba Fenghan said, “If we hurry tonight, by the time the sun comes out tomorrow, we should be able to see the Qian Duo Lian Hua Shan [lit. thousand-stem of lotus flower mountain] extending all the way across in front on us, which is acclaimed as ‘no peak not wonderful, no cliff under the rock not high and steep, no temple not ancient’, which is also the most beautiful mountain on the Changbai Mountain Range. If two gentlemen think that just looking at it is not satisfying enough, you may consider the thousand hot springs about ten li away. It is rumored that the spring water has the divine efficacy to rejuvenate the skin and muscle.”
Greatly astonished, Kou Zhong said, “Unexpectedly there is such a brilliant place outside the Pass? My Niang! Is there really a Buddhist temple on top of the Qian Duo Lian Hua Shan?”
Ba Fenghan blurted out laughing and said, “My Niang, indeed! You, this Central Earth kid who has never seen the side of the world outside the Pass, you think that outside the Pass is a remote border area, a poor ridge land where human footprints do not reach, and water plants do not grow? Actually, outside the Pass you can find both a lot of the most beautiful and cozy places, but also the most terrifying places. I guarantee it will greatly broaden your horizon.”
Blushing with shame, Xu Ziling said, “I did not think that there will be a Buddhist temple outside the Pass either.”
Ba Fenghan said, “On top of Qian Duo Lian Hua Shan, there are three famous Buddhist monasteries, known as Qian Shan San Da Chan Lin [Three Great Zen Forests on Thousand Mountains], which are Wuliang Guan [immeasurable monastery], Si Ge [west pavilion] and Long Quan Si [dragon spring temple]. Think about mountain peaks overlapping each other, covered in layers of forest as protection, ancient Buddhist temple built leaning against the rocks, or hidden deep in bluish-green valley, a really perfect environment in the human world; if you don’t see it with your eyes, you will not believe it.”
Greatly delighted, Kou Zhong said, “Let’s stop the idle talk, we are leaving immediately. Outside the Great Wall, we will take a leisure tour, to pass a few of his granny’s bear free and unfettered days.”
The surging river flowing across the vast plains toward the Bohai Sea, grand and majestic; it made people gasping in amazement.
After hastening day and night for three days, the three finally crossed the Yan Mountain, and entered the famous Yanyuan in Northern Liao, reaching the southern back of the Liao River north of the border.
The three let their horses eating grass and resting by the river bank, they also took the horses to the shallow shore of the river to give them a good scrub, as a way to say thank you for the horses’ hard work.
Kou Zhong could not help asking Ba Fenghan, “Is your ‘Taklamakan’ actually stronger, or our ‘Thousand-li Dream’ and ‘Ten-thousand-li Spots’ live too much like a prince? How come these two are dead tired, but your horse still appears to have vigorous spirit, as if traveling a hundred more li won’t be a problem?”
Ba Fenghan smiled and said, “I have been waiting for you to ask this question for three days and now you finally mention it; it’s so not like your, Zhong Shao’s style!”
Astonished, Xu Ziling asked, “Listening to the tone of Ba Fenghan Xiong’s voice, could it be that there is some other trick in it?”
Ba Fenghan returned to the shore to sit down. Pulling the Beheading Mystery Sword, he wiped the blade like he usually did every evening; nodding his head, he said, “The reason that I, Ba Fenghan, am able to repeatedly defeat the horse thieves from various sides, is simply because I have a unique, self-created horse-riding technique, which I called ‘man and horse as one’. Can two gentlemen guess what this name implies?”
Delighted, Kou Zhong said, “Good kid, you are really quite something! Is it injecting the true qi into the horse? But in order for it to work, it requires accurate understanding of horses’ meridians and their tolerance.”
Smiling bitterly, Ba Fenghan said, “It was after I exhausted more than a dozen highest quality warhorses to death that I succeeded in creating this method. It was really not easy, the guilt in my heart is even more unbearable! That was the reason I intentionally waited for you to raise it up before I am passing this secret method to you, so that you’ll know that this is very precious.”
Kou Zhong cast his gaze toward the grassland extending as far as the eye could see on the opposite bank of the river. Sighing, he said, “If I obtain this amazing horse-riding technique, oh great prairie! Won’t you be mine, where I, Kou Zhong can gallop unhindered?”
The boundless grassland extended straight toward the end of the earth, as if Laotianye has personally laid out a piece of dark green carpet. A thousand li of fertile land, adorned by big and small lakes like drops of pearls, the river interwoven among them, large flocks of cattle and sheep under meandering white clouds, walking back and forth among the brushing grass like ocean waves in the natural big pasture, wild flowers were blooming, all the colors in profusion [idiom], with cold celery wormwood [Artemisia carvifolia] and needle spears mixing together, growing among the small grass and small shrubberies, enriching the variety of flora in the prairie. Layer upon layer or even more verdant grass waves brought about the diversity of the changes.
Other than they, there was no human footprints on the vast grassland. Occasionally there was the undulating sound of howling wolf coming from the distant hills, reminding people that the beautiful heaven and earth also had its dangerous side.
The three lay down by a small lake to rest. A long gust of wind was blowing, brushing the lake water that it looked like a rippling clear and crystalline jade. Fish were swimming freely in the water; ducks, swans, wild geese were scattered all around the lake, hunting for their food, brimming with vitality.
After scanning the vast area by the bank of the lake, Ba Fenghan’s gaze returned to the two boys’ faces, he sighed and said, “Although I don’t want to admit it, but I failed to chase the wolf-bandits. Cui Wang must be someone with profound knowledge of the prairie, as well as deep understanding of the trick of hiding.”
Shaken, Kou Zhong asked, “Why did you say so?”
Ba Fenghan sat up and said with a smile, “This game of ten-thousand-li pursuit has become more interesting. If I am guessing correctly, Cui Wang already sensed that we are pursuing him from behind, so he played the mingling-horses-traveling-together trick, and then separately escaped and dispersed, so that we did not know which way to pursue him.”
“What is mingling-horses-traveling-together?” Xu Ziling asked.
Casting his gaze far away into the distance, Ba Fenghan said, “Cui Wang’s group of more than forty riders was rushing toward this lake. Because there was a large herd of wild horses by the lakeside drinking water, Cui Wang then drove the horses away toward the west, and then he drove the horses to scatter in all directions, while they were mingling in the middle; this way, we could no longer be sure which hoof prints were left by them.”
“So what do we do now?” Kou Zhong asked.
Sneering, Ba Fenghan said, “How can you guys just rely on me, one person? You came here to learn through experience, to devote yourselves to perfecting your skill. For example, Ling Shao could use his superhuman efficacious senses to detect which direction Cui Wang was running away to; am I right?”
Xu Ziling suddenly made a signal, telling them not to talk, while he slowly closed his tiger-eyes.
Kou Zhong and Ba Fenghan fervently waited in expectation. Xu Ziling opened his eyes and cast his gaze toward the northwest, he said, “Now I seem to obtain a little reaction.”
Kou Zhong vigorously patted him on the shoulder and said in great delight, “You are quite all right. If toward this kind of hiding method you could also generate reaction, sooner or later you might become an immortal who does not know how to fly.”
Xu Ziling said, “The one I am sensing is not Cui Wang, but Xiedi Sheli.”
“What?” the two blurted together.
Xu Ziling said, “The sense appears to be there but not quite there, it disappears in a flash, leaving some lingering feeling.”
Scratching his head, Kou Zhong said, “Since when did you learn this strange technique of sensing the Relics? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ba Fenghan’s pair of eyes lit up, he said, “Because Ling Shao has the strange qi that came from the Relics in his body, coupled with his own amazing natural endowment, he can produce reaction. Ha! Killing Shi Zhixuan is much more interesting than killing the wolf-bandits.”
The murderous intent in Kou Zhong’s pair of eyes flaring greatly, he spoke heavily, “Xiao Ling, do you remember what Xiaodi said, if we besiege Shi Zhixuan in the prairie, I guarantee that he won’t be able to escape.”
Knitting his brows, Xu Ziling said, “If we let the wolf-bandits off, how are we going to recover Da Xiaojie’s eighty thousand sheets of sheepskin?”
Ba Fenghan pointed to the northwest horizon and said, “Did Ziling sense that Shi Zhixuan is fleeing in that direction?”
Xu Ziling nodded and said, “I am sure he is going in that direction.”
Slapping his thigh, Ba Fenghan said, “That will do! I have a way that will satisfy rival demands.”
“Quickly tell us!” Kou Zhong said in delight.
Ba Fenghan spoke unhurriedly, “About two hundred li in the northwest, there is a big lake. By the lake is the famous Yan Yuan Ji [swallow origin gathering], located at the northeast edge of the Little Gobi Desert. It is a big county fair where the tribes from various regions gather to do business, but is also the battlefield where the powers from all sides are having their internal strife, yet no one is ever able to seize absolute control; therefore, there is no day where there is no bloodshed. From there turning to northeast is precisely Mohe, Shiwei, and Qidan. To the west, we’ll enter Tujue’s sphere of influence. Going south is the grassland that the Xi people inhabit.”
Kou Zhong said, “Shi Zhixuan must be driven by Yin Gui Pai to go over there. But what does it have to do with pursuing the wolf-bandits?”
Ba Fenghan said, “Remember the ‘Zang Shou’ [Dirty Hand] Ma Ji that Xu Kaishan mentioned? [Note: in Book 38 Chapter 12, different ‘Zang’ character, maybe a typo, but again, I don’t know which one is correct] His subordinate Gomiko was killed because he offered to supply Xu Kaishan information about the wolf-bandits. Whether there is another inside story, we put it aside for the time being, but there is no doubt that Ma Ji cannot escape responsibility.”
“Does Ma Ji live in Yan Yuan Ji?” Xu Ziling asked.
Ba Fenghan responded indifferently, “Ma Ji is a celebrity there; his business specialty is receiving stolen goods [the ‘Zang’ in Book 38 Chapter 12 I mentioned above], he makes so much profit that you won’t believe it. This man is without a fixed residence. Yan Yuan Ji is just seasonal village market where they do business in certain times, but also the place where people like Ma Ji meet and have fun together. From this kind of people, you can probably imagine what kind of place Yan Yuan Ji is.”
Kou Zhong’s spirit greatly aroused, he said, “If Ma Ji is the man receiving the wolf-bandits’ dirty goods, perhaps we will be able to recover the eighty thousand sheets of sheepskin from him.”
Ba Fenghan said, “This kind of matter cannot be resolved by purely relying on force. If we rely on strength to pressure him and provoke public anger, afterwards we will be unable to move a single step in the prairie; it will only be harmful without any benefit for us.”
“Someone’s coming!” Xu Ziling said.
The two looked toward the northeastern horizon. The dust was rising to the sky, a large group of riders was rushing in their direction, their number could not be less than a hundred.
Ba Fenghan rose up to his full height, his hand grabbing the Beheading Mystery Sword’s hilt, a smile escaped from the corner of his mouth, he said, “They are Qidan people. This time I am not going to hum half a sentence, I want to see if your Tujue language can pass these people’s muster?”
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