Book 1 Chapter 5 – Thunder in a clear blue sky
When Kou Zhong woke up the next morning, the sky had not yet brightened. Recalling that the previous day using silver tongue and flowery words they were able to swindle food and a place to stay, even the County Lord was regarding them as honored guest, he was feeling extremely proud of himself.
As he opened his eyes, he found out that Xu Ziling, who was sleeping next to him, had already had his eyes open; half sitting and half reclining, supporting his head with both hands on the pillow, staring at the top of the mosquito net above them, looking like he was lost in thought.
Worried that he had nobody to share his glory, Kou Zhong sat up in excitement and said, “Xiao Ling, did you see it? In Yangzhou we were beggars and ruffians, but as soon as we left Yangzhou city walls, we became big shot young masters. In all our life, this is the first time we ever slept on such a comfortable bed, hugging delicious quilt and having sweet dreams. Taking off and putting on clothes we have young beauties waiting upon us. Ah! Having that sister Xiao Juan’s small hands rubbing my body, I already feel like becoming the Prime Minister.”
Unconcerned, Xu Ziling said, “If you can’t think of a way to escape, we will be sent back to Yangzhou. That would be awesome indeed.”
Kou Zhong laughed quietly and said, “Set your twelve thousand hearts at ease. After we have our stomach full, we’ll come back here to pick up some good souvenirs, and then find any excuse, for example, we want to go sightseeing around town or something like that. Once we are out of town, won’t it be easy to escape?”
Xu Ziling knew Kou Zhong was full of craft and cunning, so he was not really worried. He only sighed without saying anything.
“You did not sleep well last night?” Kou Zhong wondered, “Why are you up so early?”
Xu Ziling was not in good mood, “We went to bed right after dinner last night, didn’t we have enough sleep already?”
“What is it then?” Kou Zhong pressed on, “Hey! You are not thinking about that evil woman, are you?”
Evidently he had revealed the load in Xu Ziling’s mind, since he stayed silent. Kou Zhong scooted over and held his shoulders as he said, “One world two brother. Xiao Ling, are you in love with her?”
Shrugging his shoulders, Xu Ziling said, “Just go to your mother. Based on her age, she is at least half my mother. Besides, just like she said, we don’t have qualifications to have any discussion with her. I was just wondering, you, this muddle-headed fellow, have always loved to look at pretty women. This woman is more beautiful than any women we have ever seen so far. Why did you always try to push her away? On the surface she appears fierce, but her treatment to us is really not bad. Otherwise she would not have sent us to the city gate.”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “I am merely thinking about our future outlook. Precisely because this woman’s beauty is difficult to deal with, plus we have had intimate contact with her, that’s why we must especially guard against her. Men of character attach most importance to their exploits, especially since we have not achieve it yet, we must abstain from infatuation of beauty, to such an extent as to dampen our magnificent aspiration … Hey! Why are you laughing …? Ha …”
While they were talking and joking, the sky had brightened. They heard a muffled noise of the maids and servants sweeping and moving about outside.
Kou Zhong rubbed his still unbearably sore legs. “Let me swindle horses from County Deputy Chen later, I’ll say that we want stroll around on horseback. That way when we slip away later we can do it a bit faster, plus we could have substitute for the curse on our, Prime Minister and Great General’s legs.”
With a bitter laugh Xu Ziling asked, “Do you know how to ride a horse?”
“What’s so hard about it?” Kou Zhong proudly replied, “Just climb onto the saddle, turn the horse’s head to the right direction, and strike his mother’s butt twice, won’t that be enough?”
Xu Ziling was about to reply when, ‘bang, bang, bang!’ there was a knock on the door. Kou Zhong thought it was that good looking sister Xiao Juan; he coughed once, and said, “Come in!”
As soon as the gate opened, like a tornado the short and fat County Deputy Chen burst in. Reaching the two boys’ bed, he saluted in a flurry and said, “It’s good that two Da Shaoye [big young masters] are awake. Last night subordinate officer received news that your respected uncle Yuwen Daren [see Chapter 4] has dispatched people everywhere to find out the two Da Shaoye’s whereabouts. That very night I sent fast courier to get in contact with Yuwen Daren. He might arrive any moment. When two Da Shaoye see your respected uncle, please do not forget to say a few good words on subordinate officer’s behalf.”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling felt as if they had just been thrown down from the world of the immortals to the eighteenth layer of hell. Immediately their hands and feet turned icy-cold, their souls had just left their bodies.
County Deputy Chen thought that they were dumbstruck from extreme joy; he bowed respectfully with clasped hands and said, “I have instructed the servants to serve the two Gongzi [young master] taking a bath and changing clothes. Subordinate officer will wait in the main hall for two Gongzi to have breakfast together. Please excuse subordinate officer for now.”
He had just left the room, four young servants, including Xiao Juan, came in. They served them with great care, much more ceremonious and attentive compared to the previous night.
Most annoying was Zhou Ping and Chen Wang also came; eagerly attentive, they waited on the side, telling them that the breakfast was ready. Therefore, they did not have any opportunity to slip out.
During breakfast with County Deputy Chen, the situation was even more desperately serious; more than a dozen yamen [government office in old China] officers stood on both sides to serve them. The two boys ate with anxiety [orig. heart alarmed, guts tremble] and were unbearably uncomfortable.
It was not until Xu Ziling kicked his leg under the table that Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “I wonder if there are any historical sites and scenic spots around this town. While my Uncle is not here yet, we want to take this opportunity to enjoy sightseeing and having fun, so that we won’t come here in vain.”
County Deputy Chen wrinkled his face [orig. five sense organs: nose, eyes, lips, tongue, ears], showing an extremely unsightly countenance. Smiling apologetically he said, “For the past few years robbers spring up everywhere, it is not appropriate for the two Da Shaoye to go out of town; else something bad happened, then how would our county take the responsibility?”
Kou Zhong wished he could pinch him dead, but of course his face showed that he gladly accepted the suggestion. “Xian Daren [lit. county officer] is indeed very thoughtful,” he said, “Hey! Xian Daren’s kindness to us, we, two brothers, will definitely report to Uncle as things really are, so that he could evaluate the merit and bestow reward accordingly. It’s just that what we, two brothers, fear the most is staying idle inside. How about this: is there any fine courtyard or first class brothel where we can seek pleasure? Ay, ever since leaving Dadu [old name of Beijing, lit. great capital], we have not … Hey! Xian Daren should know what we are talking about. Originally we thought that as soon as we reach Yangzhou, we could have a bit of fun. Now that we have slept well, we are full of energy and in high spirit; no matter what, we must go … Ha … this kind of trivial matter, naturally we must not bother Xian Daren.”
From behind, Zhou Ping said, “But I am afraid the ladies in the courtyard are not even out of bed yet.”
County Deputy Chen barked, “Then you tell them to get out of bed!” But when he turned to face Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, his face was all smile, as he knowingly said, “This is a trivial matter, subordinate officer will arrange everything.”
Turning to Zhou Ping again he barked, “Why haven’t you left to make necessary arrangement?”
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling exchanged glances; both speculated that if they could not seize the opportunity while they were at the pleasure house to escape, most probably they could just kiss their prospect and their precious little lives goodbye.
The two boys sat inside the carriage, accompanied personally by County Deputy Chen, on their way to the county’s most upscale pleasure house.
Beipo County could be considered the biggest county around Yangzhou. In term of liveliness, it was not too far inferior to Yangzhou. Because the county fell under Jiangdu’s jurisdiction, plus it had direct export channel, the handicraft industry was particularly flourishing.
Too bad that the two boys’ heart was loaded with concern over their little lives, so that although County Deputy Chen talked until his spittle flew everywhere, promoting his own county’s benevolent government and giving running commentary on everything they saw along the road, none of these even registered in their minds. They simply agreed thoughtlessly.
Especially when they saw the dozen or so officers urging their horses to protect in front and behind them, they felt that they were not much different to the prisoners being escorted to the execution ground.
Actually, Kou Zhong, who has always been quick-witted, has already had a plan. He thought that if they could hide inside the room with the pleasure house lady, then they would have a chance to evade these people’s eyes. But whether they would be successful in escaping, it was still unknown; hence the reason they were still secretly worried.
The biggest threat would be Yuwen Huaji, who could arrive anytime, and reveal their true color, and then not only they would be humiliated, they could lose their lives as well. This kind of helpless feeling really did not need to be mentioned.
Every time County Deputy Chen looked out the window, the two boys immediately signaled each other, using their usual method to discuss escape plan.
The carriage made a grand entrance into the courtyard. The two fake young masters followed County Deputy Chen stepping down from the carriage, and were greeted by a few bleary eyed and averaged-looking prostitutes, under the leadership of the brothel proprietress. As the two boys looked at each other with wry smile on their faces, suddenly the sound of hoof beats was hear from afar, but coming toward them, fast.
The Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling pair, which was hard to differentiate which one was the older and which one was the younger, knew that their situation was going from bad to worse. While they were thinking of how to stake everything they had and flee for their lives, a strong gust of wind arrived, pressing down from above.
County Deputy Chen and his bailiffs still did not know what was going on, one after another they were thrown out in all directions. In the confusion they seemed to see a white shadow descending from the sky. But by the time they were able to crawl up, Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling had already disappeared without a trace, leaving only swirling dust that was still hanging in the air.
The woman-in-white grabbed the two boys by their wide belts as they flew over houses and climbed over the ridges of the roof. In a flash they had left Beipo County but kept speeding over the mountain and fields, as effortless as blowing dust.
The two boys felt as if they had just come back from death’s door, they almost could not refrain from cheering, but were afraid they might provoke the woman-in-white; hence they had to keep silent.
Shortly afterwards they arrived at the riverbank. They saw mooring on the piers were numerous boats, and on both sides of the river several fishermen were busy mending their nets.
Without even thinking the woman-in-white got into one of the boats and tossed the two boys on the deck. With her sword she cut the mooring rope, and then she grabbed the oar and vigorously started to row, splashing water everywhere. The boat glided on the water like an arrow, leaving the angry shouts of pursuing fishermen far behind.
Chapter 5, Part 2
Strawberry, I don't think you'll have any problem here. Anh, you are welcome. I'll try to finish Chapter 5 tomorrow or Monday morning (US time) at the latest.
Tossed by the woman-in-white, the two boys were aching all over; whining and groaning they sat up. You look at me I look at you, they saw the frosty face of the woman-in-white; how could they dare to speak? The atmosphere was extremely terrifying.
After traveling for at least twenty, thirty li, the woman-in-white let out a cold snort and reduced the speed of the boat. Gathering up his courage, Kou Zhong tried to sound her out, “Dashi, you must have followed us all this time; otherwise, how could you arrive at the nick of time?”
The woman-in-white did not even look at them; she said angrily, “Who have time to follow you, two little demons who only know how to steal and swindle? It’s just that noticing Yuwen Huaji is sending people to search nearby towns and villages, I came back for you.”
Xu Ziling respectfully said, “Thank you very much for Dashi’s kindness in saving our lives. If we have the opportunity, we, two brothers, will definitely repay Dashi.”
The woman-in-white condescendingly said, “I did not do it out of the kindness of my heart. It’s just that if I can make Yuwen Huaji not happy, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. So there is no need to thank me. When we arrive at Danyang, we will go our separate ways, and henceforth I forbid you to even mention me. Or else I will come and chop your little doggies’ head.”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “Go our separate ways then we go our separate ways. If in the future we master an unrivalled martial art skill, I want to see if you still dare to call us ‘little doggy this, little doggy that’.”
The woman-in-white’s eyes flashed in anger, but then she softened. When she spoke up, there was no trace of anger in her voice. “Even if you do obeisance and enter Turkic people’s ‘Wu Zun’ [Revered Martial Art] Bi Xuan [lit. complete mystery] school, don’t even think that you would achieve any considerable skill. Therefore, it would be best if you forget this dream of yours. Go learn a good craftsmanship, make your living, take a wife, have children, and enjoy your life to the fullest. That will be the most decent thing to do.”
Hearing this, the two boys were deeply hurt. After staring blankly at her for a while, Xu Ziling could not help asking, “Are you saying that our innate ability is too lacking?”
The woman-in-white sighed. She looked down at the two boys tenderly, and then with an unusually gentle voice she said, “You must have realized that you are not even qualified to have me lying to you. Your natural endowment is actually better than most people I’ve ever seen. Take last night for example, after being tossed around like that you did not get sick, it is indeed hard to come by. But you do lack the good fortune.”
Receiving her compliment, the two boys’ self-esteem and confidence was somewhat restored. “What good fortune?” they asked at the same time.
While still rowing, the woman-in-white replied, “It’s the good fortune of training. All who wish to excel above the masses and become martial art expert must start their training since childhood. According to my Shifu, anybody who wants to learn anything until achieving the ‘what the heart wishes, the hand accomplishes’ level, the most important period is the ten years between the age of five until fifteen. Just like learning language; if one starts to learn after this period, no matter what the pronunciation will not be just right. [Translator’s note: the term here refers to the pronunciation of Chinese characters.] Martial art is also the same. Supposing you start today, no matter how hard you work, you will spend twice the effort to get half the result. If you only learn enough skill to run errands, sooner or later you will be killed. In that case, it will be better if you did not learn at all. Do you understand?”
The two boys stared blankly at her. They felt their hands and feet icy-cold; their world seemed to lose its life force and meaning. Kou Zhong has always had unyielding nature; he patted the treasured book behind his back and loudly said, “Maybe we are an exception? Furthermore, we still have the secret manual. Don’t you think our case is a bit different?”
For the first time the woman-in-white’s eyes showed pity. Shaking her head, she said, “The truth is always hard to accept. The book you have, I‘ve already looked. It is called ‘The Secret to Long Life’. It is indeed a treasury of the Taoists, but it has nothing to do with martial art. You’d better find a place where you can throw it away. Otherwise, you may face disaster because of it. Ay, in my opinion, that book is just a lie; how could human beings can achieve immortality?”
The two boys’ countenance was immediately devoid of any color; they were unable to speak. The boat was filled with awkward silence.
Danyang was the biggest town in the upper reaches of Yangzhou; it was the route that has to be taken if one was to go from the inland out to sea via Yangzhou. In importance, it was second only to Yangzhou. The only thing it lacked was, of course, the Grand Canal that linked the north and the south.
The scenery inside the city was unique; the river weaved through it, adorned with hundreds of stone arch bridges over the river course. People built their lives around the water; high and low, row upon row of houses strewn at random. Where there was water there was street, where there was water there was market, where there was water there was road. Water, road, bridge, building, mixed into one entity, into one tranquil, pristine water scenery; tender and soft was water.
By early morning the next day, when the city gate opened, the woman-in-white, along with Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling, mingled into the throng of peasants and villagers to sneak into the city. Because their dream of the future was shattered, their enthusiasm was dampened, they just followed the woman-in-white like a pair of walking corpses wandering around the city.
Obviously it was the first time the woman-in-white came here, her clear eyes looked around, seemingly interested in everything.
Upon entering the gate, they followed the main street going deep into the city; both sides of the street were lined with shops that people used as a place of business at the front, and as residence at the rear. The shop fronts were open, bright with the light from sunroof, and filled with all kinds of goods and arts and crafts products; it was extremely flourishing. The number of visitors was not a few either; it could even be said that the customers crowded these shops like a cloud.
Everywhere the woman-in-white went, due to her beauty, both men and women gave her admiring look, but she did not seem to care, as if all of these were to be expected, as if she turned a blind eye to it.
Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling have not eaten for half a day and one full night. Although they were not in a good mood, they still had to fight the feeling of the empty stomach; while the woman-in-white did not even seem to notice they were passing many restaurants already, she simply walked straight ahead. Kou Zhong could not help coming over to her, coughed lightly, and said, “Shouldn’t we pay a visit to the temple of five viscera first?” [Translator’s note: I guess it’s a slang to refer to eating. Five viscera: heart, liver, spleen, lungs, kidneys.]
The woman-in-white halted her steps in front of a big building with white-washed wall and black roof tiles. “Do you have money?” she coldly asked.
From the other side Xu Ziling forced a laugh and said, “Naturally we don’t have any money. But Dashi, if you have some, won’t that be the same?”
With a cold laugh the woman-in-white said, “So if I have money than it would be the same as you have money? Have you looked into the mirror recently? Besides, my money, along with my bundle, has long ago fallen into the bottom of the river when you, two little demons, crashed the boat and capsized it. Yesterday you had people serving you two meals, you had ample food and clothing, while I haven’t had even half mantou [steamed roll] to eat. And now you are still blaming me for not taking you for a big feast?”
Kou Zhong was indignant. “Are you angry with us?” he said, “If our boat did not capsize, Yuwen Huagu would have catch up with us early on. At best we would be turned into bones by him [Translator’s note: play of words, gu hua, gu – bone, hua – transform]; but Dashi has countenance of flower, face like the moon. I guarantee that you will be taken as a concubine by that strange Yuwen fellow.”
The woman-in-white stopped abruptly. The two boys thought she was going to make things difficult for them; they were ready to run to two different directions. The woman-in-white was taken aback; looking at the two boys’ scared expression, she could not stop an amused look from appearing on her face for the first time.
And then when she saw the boys’ stunned expression, she really smiled and said, “You two little demons, wait here for a moment, let me get some silver, and then I’ll take you to a nice meal. Afterwards all kindness and benevolence will cease, we’ll have nothing to do with each other.” When she spoke the last two sentences, she was imitating Kou Zhong’s style; she broke into laughter and walked toward a shop on the left.
Kou Zhong looked up and found out that it was actually a pawnshop. He quickly blocked her and said solemnly, “Pawning stuff? Nobody is more adept than me.”
The woman-in-white was unhappy, “How do I know you won’t stuff your pocket first?”
Havinfg his real intention revealed by her, Kou Zhong could only sigh and dejectedly stepped back by Xu Ziling’s side.
Following the woman-in-white entering the pawnshop with his gaze, Xu Ziling blurted out, “Since our dream of becoming the number one martial artist in the world is finished, looks like we don’t have any choice but to focus on studying for the imperial examination. And then you can become the Right Premier, and I can become Left Premier.”
With a wry smile Kou Zhong said, “While the world is in chaos, the one without prospect the most is precisely a rotten ghost scholar. But I still don’t believe her mother’s opinion that ‘The Secret to Long Life’ is completely unrelated to martial art. Although there is no Taoist priest who achieves immortality, we can see highly skilled Taoist priests on the street. From this we can clearly see that even though we cannot train to be immortal, we can still train to have exceptional martial art skill.”
Xu Ziling stood up excitedly, but then he sighed and said, “But didn’t that woman say that we missed the precious childhood to start training?”
Kou Zhong said, “I think she could see that our bones are much better than hers; afraid that in the future we can surpass her head, she intentionally spoke some discouraging words so that we will lose heart. Ay …” Evidently he also felt that by what he said he was just deceiving himself; hence he did not continue.
In the meantime, the woman-in-white walked out in high spirits. The two boys hurriedly came over to her. The woman-in-white said in a low voice, “Listen up, you two little demons, if I hear you call me behind my back ‘this woman’ or ‘that woman’, I will cut off both of you, little doggies.” [Reminder: the word ‘woman’ (po niang) is usually used derogatorily.]
The two boys were deeply embarrassed; they could only nodded and said yes repeatedly.
The three people climbed onto the second floor of a restaurant, sat on a table facing the window, and ordered some vegetable and meat dishes.
There were more than a dozen tables, half were filled with diners. On one table, there was a respectable-looking young man wearing luxurious clothing; one look and others could see that he was the son of a prominent family. He repeatedly cast a glance toward the woman-in-white; apparently he was mesmerized by her beauty.
Xu Ziling let out a dry cough, “May we venture to ask Dashi’s honorable surname and great given name, so that we can address you properly?”
The woman-in-white propped her chin with one hand; she asked in surprise, “The two of you little demons are no more than Yangzhou’s little ruffians, little gangsters; why is it that when you talk you always talk like you are old and full of experience, pretending like you are a pair of impoverished bookish students?”
Kou Zhong proudly replied, “This is called the person is poor, the ambition is not lacking. There will come a day we will become a pinnacle of virtue and ability; I want to see if you still dare to call us good-for-nothing.”
The woman-in-white was in an unusually good temper; she thought for a moment, and then said, “After I leave, what are you going to do? Cheating for your food and drink has never been an option.”
Chapter 5, Part 3
Anh, Janger, you are welcome. Here's the end of Chapter 5.
It was the first time that Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling felt that the woman-in-white really cared about them, but at this moment the vegetables and meat dishes arrived, the two boys did not have time to think further. They leaned forward on the table and gorged themselves without any care of the world. It was actually very unsightly.
The woman-in-white only ate two mantou, and already stopped eating. She seemed to have something in her mind; she looked out the window without saying anything.
When the two boys could not eat anymore, the dishes on the table have been swept clean, nothing remained. The two boys rubbed their belly and could not help but looking at the woman-in-white.
The woman-in-white sighed. She took out more than ten taels of fine silver and put it on the table in front of the two boys. She said softly, “Thinking about the trials and tribulations ahead, I am giving this money to you. Although right now there is confusion of war [orig. fire beacons in all four directions] everywhere, the South is still comparably peaceful. However, this peace won’t last long, it will be dangerous later. It’s not advisable for you to stay long. You two must behave.”
Ignoring the two boys’ lit up eyes, she stared hard at the money on the table, and then she beckoned the waiter to settle the check.
The waiter respectfully said, “Miss’ account has already been settled by the Gongzi that was sitting on the table over there. They have just left.”
‘Slam!’ The woman-in-white took out a string of five zhu coins [1 zhu is 1/24 of a tael] and tossed it on the table. She said indignantly, “I don’t want anybody else pay my bills, take it!”
She rose up and went down the stairs without saying anything.
The two boys saw how she decidedly left without looking back; since they already felt inferior and at a loss, after exchanging a glance, Kou Zhong sighed, picked up the silver and put it in his bosom, and dejectedly said, “Let’s also go!”
Xu Ziling had also wanted to leave this heart-breaking place as soon as possible; hence he scampered behind Kou Zhong going down the stairs.
When they reached the street, they saw the sun was shining bright, people came and people went, but there was not a shred or warmth in these two boys’ heart. When they were in Yangzhou, although life was hard, and often times they had to receive beatings and scolding from others, but they always had full hopes of the future.
Although now they were free, plus there was a small fortune in their pocket, they felt emptiness in their hearts instead. It was as though the world was so big, but there was nowhere for them to go.
They were thinking of looking for the woman-in-white again, but after looking for a while, they still could not see or even smell her fragrance. It was as if the woman had already become a distant and indistinct memory, adding to their sense of loss.
Deeply disappointed, the two boys walked shoulder to shoulder in the direction of the city gate.
Suddenly they felt something was different. A whiff of fragrance breeze blew, the woman-in-white came from behind and joined them; they walked together side by side. The boys were inwardly very happy, but they did not dare to express it; they did not dare to ask her even more.
When the gate was in sight, the woman-in-white coldly said, “Don’t you two have any ideas. I am just afraid that Yuwen Huaji would catch up with you and take your ‘Secret to Long Life’ and present it to the tyrant and get the credit for it, before he finally send you away to a distant land. I am doing this to deal with Yuwen Huagu [sic], not that I have any particular good impression toward you, the two little demons.”
Xu Ziling could not stand it anymore. He halted his steps and angrily said, “That being the case, no need to bother Dashi anymore. We have hands and feet, and we know how to run away. We don’t need your money either. Kou Zhong, give the money back to her!”
Kou Zhong wanted to speak up, but in the end he just sighed, took the money from his pocket, and handed it over to her.
“Pfft!” the woman-in-white stifled her laugher, reached out to grab the two boys’ arms, and pulled them to walk with her quickly. The instant they left the city gate, while heading toward the river, she released them and said, “Why such a temper? In all my life I have never learned how to curry favor like those girls trafficked into a brothel to work as prostitute; I have always lived a solitary life. Just consider I have offended you.”
It was the first time she was willing to lower her guard and plead with them. Xu Ziling, who actually had magnanimous nature, felt very bad instead. With a slight blush on his tender face, he said, “It’s not that I’ve never been looked down upon by others, it’s just that when Dashi looked down on me, I feel exceptionally angry and feel it was extremely unfair.”
Kou Zhong came closer and whispered in the woman-in-white’s ear, “This fellow falls in love with you.”
The woman-in-white elbowed Kou Zhong’s flank that he doubled-over in pain. She pointed her finger at him and angrily said, “If you dare to say such again to your Miss, I will … I will slap your mouth.” She had wanted to say that she would kill Kou Zhong, but knowing that she would not have the heart to do so, she corrected herself just in time and said a much lighter punishment instead.
Xu Ziling was baffled, “What did he say?” he asked.
The woman-in-white glowered at him, but did not say anything. Momentarily the three of them did not know what to say.
The woman-in-white turned her gaze toward big and small boats moored along the pier outside the city. “How come there are so many boats sailing back from the west, but no boat sails to the west?” she muttered to herself.
The two boys composed themselves and took a look; indeed it was strange.
The pier was full of people waiting to board their boats, busily talking to each other. Suddenly a gentle and pleasant voice was heard right next to them, “May I ask if Miss and these two Xiao Xiongdi [little brother] are waiting for your boat?”
Still clutching the painful spot, Kou Zhong stood up. He and Xu Ziling looked at the speaker up and down. Turned out it was the young master at the restaurant a while ago, the one who could not keep his eyes from the woman-in-white, and the one who later on settled their bill.
This man indeed looked naturally handsome, his demeanor was elegant, and he was still half a head taller than Xu Ziling, but did not look like a weak scholar. His back was straight, his shoulders broad. Although he was dressed like a scholar, he gave the impression of someone who was well-versed in martial art.
Without even turning her head, the woman-in-white said, “It’s our business; it does not concern you!”
The young master was not offended at all; raising his cupped fist, he said, “Let me, Song Shidao, offer my apology first for offending a beauty. Zaixia [I, humble, see Chapter 4] did not dare to be presumptuous; it’s just that noticing that Miss seemed to be puzzled by the boats turning back on the river, I ventured to inquire. There is no other intention.”
Like a whirlwind the woman-in-white turned around. After sizing him up and down for a moment, she coldly said, “Speak up!”
Song Shidao was overwhelmed by the beauty’s favor; he said in great delight, “The reason is Li Zitong’s militia army from East China Sea; they had just crossed the Huai River, and formed an alliance with Du Fuwei, dealing a heavy blow to the Sui (Dynasty) army. Furthermore, they are sending an army going south. They are fast approaching Liyang. If Liyang is under attack, Yangtze River’s waterway will be cutoff. Therefore, right now everybody simply adopts wait-and-see approach. Nobody dares to venture to the west without being able to see the situation clearly.”
The two boys noticed how the woman-in-white was listening attentively. They also noticed that this Song Shidao seemed to be a lot stronger than they were; they could not help feeling deeply upset, yet they could do absolutely nothing.
While the woman-in-white was still deep in thought without saying anything, Song Shidao spoke up again, “Miss, if you don’t mind, you can take Zaixia’s boat. I guarantee that even if we come across thief army, you won’t be disturbed.”
The woman-in-white coldly stared at Song Shidao; she said indifferently, “You talk big; apparently you have a bit of background.”
With a straight face Song Shidao said, “How could Zaixia dare to ‘swing an axe before a carpenter’ in Miss’ presence? It’s just that my humble family can be considered as having a bit of reputation. As long as we fly our banner on the boat, friends on the road will give us a bit of face.”
At this point, even Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling had no choice but to praise how this fellow has struck the right note; neither haughty nor humble, it was just right.
The woman-in-white swept the two boys with her gaze while she pondered in silence. Evidently she was a bit tempted. Traveling with the two kids by land, not only it was time consuming, they were bound to meet some mishaps as well. But if they travel by water and managed to cross Liyang, they would not have to be afraid Yuwen Huaji would catch up with them.
Kou Zhong could not resist, “I prefer to travel by land,” he said.
Before the woman-in-white could answer, Song Shidao already pressed her, “Excuse me Miss, these two Xiao Xiongdi are …”
The woman-in-white impatiently cut him off, “Nothing, no relation whatsoever. Don’t ask anymore. Where is your boat?”
While Song Shidao was giving direction with great delight, Xu Ziling pulled Kou Zhong aside and said, “The time to go our separate ways has arrived. Let her ride her boat, we’ll travel our road.”
Kou Zhong aptly showed his lofty spirit; with a loud laughter he held Xu Ziling’s shoulders, “Good kid!” he praised. And then he pushed Xu Ziling to start walking to the west.
The woman-in-white angrily shouted, “Stop right there!”
Kou Zhong looked back and waved his hand, “Good bye!”
The woman-in-white stomped her foot angrily and said to Song Shidao, “Song Xiong, please board the boat first, we will come later.”
In a flash she was already behind the two boys. Capturing them, she brought them back like carrying chicken.
Song Shidao was puzzled, but recalling that the beauty has agreed to come onboard, there was no need for him to worry that he would not have the opportunity to win her favor later. So why would he have to worry about other things? Therefore, he happily ran after her.