Xu Ziling opened the outer courtyard gate of the Yanshan Winery, the first thing that caught his eyes was Shiye Hua, having slightly comical face with his pair of slanted mustaches. Next to him was a man wearing gorgeous dress, tall and strongly built, heroic and grand, around thirty years old, his nose was slightly too long, the corner of his wide mouth seemed to carry an eternal smile, brimming with self-confidence, the kind of person who would constantly looking for facts to prove that he was the greatest.
Shiye Hua saluted and said, “I am glad Xu Ye is here, our humble Bangzhu Xu Kaishan is asking for an audience.” [Just so you know, the ‘Xu’ of Xu Kaishan is different character from the ‘Xu’ of Xu Ziling].
Xu Ziling struggled hard to suppress the urge to look at Shiye Hua’s expression, for fear that he would not be able to restrain himself from laughing. He smiled calmly to Xu Kaishan and said, “Xu Bangzhu is overly courteous; how could we dare to accept?”
Xu Kaishan revealed a bending-his-ear-to-listen-attentively look; he said, “Such a formidable true power; just by listening to the sound of saber and sword I know that great-master-grade figures are exchanging blows. It’s only natural that one is Shaoshuai, but who is the other gentleman? Even if I had to cut my life for a few years, I am willing to pay the price to know.”
Xu Ziling’s heart turned cold; he knew that he had guessed wrong. He was sure that the martial art master among the wolf-bandits that he encountered last night was not this person. Not only the body shape was not right, the Xu Kaishan before his eyes was a lot more formidable, his martial art had reached their level. Could it be that he had accused him wrongly?
As if nothing had happened, Xu Ziling said, “That is Ba Fenghan. As long as Xu Xiong is willing to inquire, Zaixia would be happy to oblige.”
Emotionally moved, Xu Kaishan said, “Unexpectedly it is Ba Xiong, who swept Qu Ao back to Tiele. Ha, I, Xu Kaishan must have a very good luck, to be able to meet three most outstanding heroes all at once. Tonight Xiaodi is giving a dinner party, three gentleman must give Xiaodi a little bit of face.”
Xu Ziling was confused. Toward this Xu Kaishan, he did not have the slightest feeling that he was a fake; just like Shi Zhixuan’s disguise as Holy Monk Dade, he did not reveal the slightest bit of flaw. If that was indeed the case, then Xu Kaishan was really too terrifying. Who was he, actually?
Trying to sound him out, he said, “Wasn’t Xu Xiong going to see someone in connection to the Anle Tragedy, which delayed your arrival at Yin Ma Yi for one night? I wonder what was the outcome of your trip?”
Xu Kaishan solemnly said, “I was half a step too late, that person has been killed to prevent him from opening his mouth. Strangely, there were also two dead bodies nearby, one man and one woman. The way this pair of man and woman died was nefarious.”
Severely shaken, Xu Ziling said, “What?”
Stunned, Xu Kaishan asked, “Does Xu Xiong know them?”
Xu Ziling described Jin Huanzhen and Zhou Laotan’s appearance.
Xu Kaishan said, “I dare say it’s them. But who are they, actually? How were they related to Cui Wang’s dog breed? Does Xu Xiong want to examine them personally? It’s very convenient, I can have the bodies brought here. Oh! How about tomorrow? Tonight we have to drink our fill and talk freely until daybreak.”
Suddenly Xu Ziling felt that he has fallen into the disadvantageous position, because he was completely unable to see through this person. Had it not been for he and Kou Zhong joined the battle, perhaps all the other gangs and societies added together still could not defeat the gentleman in front of him.
Xu Ziling’s gaze briefly made contact with Shiye Hua; he sensed that deep in his heart, Shiye Hua was terrified. Smiling wryly, he said, “Apparently Xu Xiong did not know that your sworn brother and us have become like water and fire; he even put three-day limit before we have to leave. Xu Xiong came to look for us like this, aren’t you afraid he might not be happy?”
Xu Kaishan laughed aloud and said, “I came this time precisely to be the old peace-maker. What matter cannot be resolved peacefully? Wait till everybody raises his wine cup and talk happily, forget former enmity, and then we’ll look for the best solution. No matter how much we’ll have to pay to redeem Da Xiaojie’s sheepskin, I, Xu Kaishan will cover it. The most important thing is that we all have open and happy hearts.”
Xu Ziling cried for his Niang inwardly. This was the first time that he felt that he had fallen into the disadvantageous position and lacking in strength to defend himself in a verbal battle; the opponent had completely overwhelmed him. Smiling slightly, he said, “How about several workers of Da Xiaojie’s branch office that their whereabouts is still unknown? The longer we fail to resolve this matter, the longer we and your honorable sworn brother cannot sit down together, talking in tranquil and even-tempered manner.”
Xu Kaishan laughed and said, “That is just a small misunderstanding.” Turning to Shiye Hua, he nodded his head. Shiye Hua immediately withdrew to the middle of the small street, lit a bright torch, and used the fire to send out a signal to someone in a distant place.
The sound of weapons clashing came to an abrupt end.
Xu Kaishan spoke leisurely, “When we have spare time later, Xiaodi would like to ask for some pointers from three gentlemen. I did not expect that not only Shaoshuai’s saber technique is formidable, his archery skill is even more brilliant, beyond everybody’s expectation. I have examined those Huihe wicked thieves’ condition. The arrows completely pierced through the vital part, iron shield was not much of a use either, one arrow and it’s done for.”
Xu Ziling said, “About killing people to shut their mouth, I wonder if Xu Xiong could give me more details?”
Xu Kaishan said, “That man was called Gemike, an able subordinate of a Tujue man known as the ‘Zang Shou’ [lit. stolen goods/booty/spoils hand] Ma Ji. For some reason he had fallen out with ‘Zang Shou’ and secretly contacted Xiaodi to meet at the first abandoned Mountain God temple in Shenmu [lit. divine forest], hinting that he had information about the wolf-bandits. He even asked me to give him the money to be used for traveling expenses since he wanted to escape to faraway places. Who would have thought that by the time I arrived, he already met someone’s vicious attack and died a violent death? If gentlemen are interested, you could examine his cause of death as well. He was killed using the same technique as that pair of man and woman whom Xu Xiong recognized. But Xu Xiong has not told Xiaodi who those two people are?”
Xu Ziling knew that he was sensing that Ba Fenghan, Kou Zhong, and Ren Jun were coming toward them. He said, “That pair of man and woman was from a famous sect of the Central Plains’ demonic school; they were husband and wife. The man was called Zhou Laotan, the woman Jin Huanzhen. I never thought they would die by violence in the northern territory.”
This moment Ba Fenghan and Kou Zhong appeared on Xu Ziling’s left and right, respectively. Two pairs of eyes, like four arrows, shot at Xu Kaishan.
Xu Kaishan saluted and said, “Nice to meet you, nice to meet you. Xiaodi Xu Kaishan, paying my respect to Kou Xiong, Ba Xiong. Two gentlemen are the men Xiaodi has admired for a very long time, and finally we can meet in person and talk together; I have no more regret in life.”
They heard the sound of pattering hoof beats, a horse-drawn carriage arrived outside the door. Shiye Hua, who has been waiting for a long time, hurriedly opened the door. Five men got off the carriage in single file.
Ren Jun, who was standing next to Kou Zhong, blurted out, “Li Shu!” [uncle]
Stunned, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling looked at each other. They were surprised, not because these people were being released, but because Uncle Li, five people’s countenance was calm, they acted normal, without the least bit of sign that they had been detained.
Although inwardly they were happy, but they also felt something was not right.
Xu Kaishan laughed and said, “Li Shu, come here quickly and explain to Kou Xiong, Xu Xiong and Ba Xiong what really happened.”
Uncle Li was around fifty, he appeared to be loyal and honest; he said, “Three Daye, please understand, we went to Beiping to deliver goods to a customer, we were just rushing back when on the way we were intercepted by the men whom Xu Dangjia sent. Only then did we understand that someone posted a seal on the shop, while inside, the room was splashed with red paint and was left in a mess.”
Xu Kaishan added, “Xiaodi dares to guarantee it with my neck that Du Xing is absolutely not someone who would do such a thing. Dage is an unrivalled hero; anything happens, he would resolve it with open saber, open spear. Otherwise, inside and outside the Pass, everybody could not possibly give him a little bit of face.”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling felt greatly awkward, they were nearly speechless, so much so that they felt confused, unable to figure out what game was Du Xing and Xu Kaishan were playing.
Kou Zhong laughed and said, “Turns out it’s a misunderstanding. Xu Xiong must know everything that happened here like the back of your hand, I wonder who might instructed the hotels around here not to receive us?”
Laughing involuntarily, Xu Kaishan said, “It was a freaky coincidence. In the last few days, there is a rumor going around the Shanhai county town. The rumor reportedly says that the Heihe Shuang Sha [lit. Twin Demons of the Black River], whose name stinks far and wide outside the Pass, are coming to look for Dage for revenge. Those two men look good [orig. good eyebrows, good appearance], but their hands are extremely vicious and very ruthless, they won’t shirk from any crime. The most despicable thing is that they went everywhere to rape women. Because they are so unpleasant to the eye, one or two years ago Du Dage went out personally in a hunt and kill mission; unfortunately they managed to slip away. Reportedly recently they want to come and plot against Dage.”
Ba Fenghan let out a long laugh to let the two boys step down the stage; he said, “I am looking for them as well; if they want to drop in, that will be most ideal.”
Clearing his throat, Kou Zhong said, “Unexpectedly it was a misunderstanding. Ha! This is a case of a toast we did not drink, but we drank as the result of having lost a bet. Where is Du Ba Wang? He has to punish Xiaodi three cups. Ha!”
Xu Ziling knew that Kou Zhong has not changed his view toward Du and Xu, two men at all; he was just feigning civility, to see what other trick they were going to play?
Xu Kaishan said, “Xiaodi has already prepared a banquet at the local Xiao Taoyuan [little Peach Spring, from ‘Tao Hua Yuan’ – utopia] to wash the dust from gentlemen’s feet. Other than Du Dage, I also invited Sai Mo Bang’s person of virtue and prestige, Old Jing, to accompany the guests. If three gentlemen are willing to do the honor of attending the banquet, it will be Xiaodi’s greatest honor.”
Kou Zhong was back to normal. Laughing aloud, he said, “Xu Xiong honors us like this, how could we dare to have the intention to brush it off?”
He could no longer understand the relationship between Du Xing, Xu Kaishan, and Jing Kang; he had lost the dividing line between friends and foe.
Xu Ziling’s eyes fell onto Uncle Li; while he was hesitating whether they should go along in order to protect them, Xu Kaishan, who was good at understanding others, said, “Li Shu and the others may take a rest in this place in peace, Xiaodi can guarantee their safety.”
Ren Jun spoke in a low voice, “Let me stay to take care of them.”
Kou Zhong slightly nodded. “Xu Xiong,” he said, “Please lead the way.”
Xu Kaishan spoke to Shiye Hua, “Xiang Xiansheng may go back to take a rest.” And then turning to the three, he said, “Please!”
A light drizzle was falling down from the sky, so that this remote county town in the northern territory sank into the hazy curtain of water droplets, bringing about some kind of dismal feeling like in a dream.
The four strolled along the street on foot, braving the rain. On the surface they appeared to be good friends seeking pleasure together.
Xu Kaishan was very popular here, from time to time there were people calling out to him and saluting him, and Xu Kaishan was quite friendly as well, he never stop nodding his head to return the greetings.
Ba Fenghan was walking side by side with Xu Kaishan, while Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were following behind them.
One after another the passersby gave way to them.
Although it was drizzling, the street was brightly lit; it was very lively.
Ba Fenghan’s conversation was never far from his interests; he asked, “What kind of weapon Xu Xiong is accustomed to using?”
Xu Kaishan cheerfully replied, “Xiaodi really do not dare to say it to make a fool of myself in front of an expert, because Xiaodi is also using sword, but completely lack the method. The only thing that Xiaodi can come up with is to see people’s stuffs, which is some experience in raising and training horses.”
Evidently Ba Fenghan, just like Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, was unable to see through what kind of person Xu Kaishan really was, so he asked more questions, while appearing to be casual, “Ol’ Ba is very interested in training horses; I wonder what is your key trick?”
Xu Kaishan smiled and said, “Turns out Ba Xiong is a kindred spirit. How could Xiaodi dare to show off my disgrace? A good horse is no more than the breed, the break in, and the training, three important keys. But to train hundreds or thousands in groups, yet still silent without any neigh, conforming to the as-the-arm-moves-the-finger principle, there must be some trick within it. Naturally Ba Xiong is more outstanding and competent than Xiaodi.”
Walking behind them, Kou Zhong said, “I am the kind of person who when there’s a horse, you ride on it; I wonder if Xu Xiong could teach me a skill or two, in order to open Xiaodi’s horizon?”
He knew that Ba Fenghan wanted to set his hand to delve into his real background via his horse-training experience. Xu Kaishan was the fastest rising man in the northeast in recent years; in just a short period of a few years, he had become the biggest warhorse supplier in the northern territory, but no one really knew his foundation.
His appearance and body type was a bit like Tujue man, but it was possible that he belonged to any ethnic group beyond the Great Wall.
Xu Kaishan said, “Shaoshuai’s inquiry, none of what Xiaodi knows will not be revealed. The emphasis of breeding is experience and eyesight. Breaking in a horse relies on horseback skill. In training the horse, first of all one must love the horse, make it into your best partner and companion. Using the whip to lash out lightly, even if the horse might submit out of fear, you will never be able to cultivate it into a top quality warhorse.”
Ba Fenghan said, “In dealing with wild horses that have not been tamed, which one Xu Xiong is accustomed to using, the fly rope or the loop-pole?”
Xu Kaishan was slightly startled, and then said, “Ba Xiong is indeed a big expert. Xiaodi is using the loop-pole.”
Baffled, Kou Zhong asked, “What is a loop-pole?”
Ba Fenghan replied, “A loop-pole is a sturdy, with braking characteristic – long wooden pole, with a loop of leather rope tied on its end. After the rope is looped around the wild horse’s neck, hold the pole tight, do not let go. Let it run around, wait for an opportunity to jump onto the horse’ back, let it rears, leaps, or bucks, as long as you are not thrown down, by the time the wild horse shouts itself hoarse, it could only resign to its fate and becomes tame.”
He explained further, “Methods of breaking in a horse beyond the Great Wall can be divided roughly into two major systems, using flying ropes and using loop-poles, but only Shiwei and Huihe people use loop-pole. Evidently Xu Xiong’s method in breaking in a horse originated from one of these two locales.”
For the first time Kou Zhong felt that they were back at occupying a bit of the upper wind, and it was entirely due to Ba Fenghan’s familiarity with the ethnic groups beyond the Great Wall; how could Xu Kaishan think that he was divulging his foundation from these points?
Following up the victory and pressing home the attack, Ba Fenghan asked, “Does Xu Xiong castrate horses?”
This time Xu Kaishan was a lot more careful in answering, he said, “The secret method of castrating the horse, Xiaodi certainly stole it from the Shiwei people. Whenever the horse grows four teeth, the horse must be neutered. This way, the horse stays strong, healthy, powerful, but also gentle and agreeable, without its wild nature, able to withstand wind chill and have long life.”
Several big men from Xiao Taoyuan came out to meet them, they bowed respectfully with clasped hands to wait upon the four men as they entered in.
Up to this point, whether it was going to be a good feast or a bad feast, the three did not have the slightest assurance.
The Xiao Taoyuan was located at the main street traversing the north and south of the city, near the north gate; it was three floors high, and sitting in the big side room on the top floor, one was able to see the Great Wall through the wind and the rain, like walking-dragon, roaming-snake among the perilous peaks, summits and ridges along the mountain range of the Yanshan [Mt. Yan], not only making people think about the spectacular and magnificent sight of how it went up and down, meandering straight toward Jiuquan at the western border, continuous for ten thousand li, but also think about the history of the Central Plains written in the blood and tears of the people inside and outside the Pass resisting the foreign tribes’ invasion since ancient times.
The wine has been going for three rounds, but Du Xing and Jing Kang’s good-selves have not arrived yet. Noticing that Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling were enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Great Wall outside the county town, Xu Kaishan laughed and said, “Those who have never been to Shanhai Pass always think that the Great Wall is on barren mountain, located between desolate mountain ridges. They did not know that places famous for their scenery can be found throughout the Great Wall. For example, on Mount Jue, about six li from here, there is the Qi Xian Si [perching virtuous temple]; serene and hidden in depth, tranquil, with dense pine, hazel trees and luxuriant vegetation. From the famous Fo Du Tai [lit. Buddha-passing-through platform] of the Qi Xian Si looking down, one can see the Yan Sai Lake. The water is bluish green, full of birds’ cry and beasts’ trail; beautiful, interesting and attractive. Other amazing sights are in innumerable succession, each with its own distinguishing feature. If two gentlemen are interested, Xiaodi will be happy to show the way.”
The three secretly mused that perhaps Shi Feixuan was staying in that temple.
Ba Fenghan said, “Yesterday I went to the Xuan Yang Dong [lit. hanging sun cave] north of the city; the mountain is wonderful, the rocks rugged. The wonderful scenery from the hanging cave looking into the sky is indeed rarely found.”
Xu Kaishan laughed and said, “I did not know Ba Xiong loves to go on a scenic tour. That’s why I often say that only by interacting with each other will one understand the other party. Relying on rumors to get the impression, there will always be distortion.”
Kou Zhong spoke indifferently, “Who actually did it?”
Stunned, Xu Kaishan asked, “What is Kou Xiong talking about?”
“Naturally about Da Xiaojie’s eighty-thousand sheets of sheepskin that were robbed by force,” Kou Zhong replied, “Da Xiaojie even lost more than a dozen brothers. This is not something that can be resolved in just a few words, not to mention now they even demand that we pay ransom; where is the logic in that? If this happened to Xu Xiong, what do you do?”
Xu Kaishan sighed and said, “It’s a question of choices. According to Jianghu rules, we cannot reveal who did it. Ba Xiong ought to understand better than anybody else the situation of the horse thieves beyond the Great Wall. To find a bunch of horse thieves on the prairie is not much different to fishing a needle from the sea. If Shaoshuai wants to investigate, I am afraid in the end the eighty-thousand sheets of sheepskin would only be like throwing a stone and see it sink without any trace in the sea. Du Dage made contact with them via a middleman. Although their opening price is exorbitant, but there is no room for negotiation. However, Shaoshuai must promise not to pursue, and only then will we have the possibility of talking about closure.”
As Kou Zhong was about to speak, Du Xing rushed in like a whirlwind and said with a big laugh, “Since we all understand that it was a misunderstanding, we can entirely erase what happened today, everything will start from the beginning.”