Book 48 Chapter 12 – A Wine-lover’s Desire
Xu Ziling sat back down, “What secret?” he asked.
“I shouldn’t tell you this,” Hu Xiaoxian replied, “But seeing how you work hard with all your strength, giving thought to nujia, while not asking anything in return, nujia is touched and has no choice but to betray a friend’s secret to tell you, this good man. But you must promise not to harm nujia’s friend and her family.”
Hearing that, Xu Ziling was baffled; he said, “Hu Xiaojie, please bestow your advice. Xiaojie ought to know that I have never harmed the innocents.”
Laughing sweetly, Hu Xiaoxian said, “Naturally nujia trusts you. Isn’t Shen Luoyan your old close [intimate] friend?”
Xu Ziling trembled inwardly, he said, “I can only say she is a good friend. What exactly is going on?”
Hu Xiaoxian spoke with envy, “To be able to have Xu Ziling admit with his own mouth that one is his close female friend is very rare, Xiaoxian definitely does not have this special favor, am I right?”
Xu Ziling did not know whether he ought to be upset or amused, they were all talking about their proper business, yet Hu Xiaoxian did not forget to be jealous of other people, while also wanted to strive for favor! Without any better option, he said, “If someday someone ask me about my relationship with you, Hu Xiaojie, I will give him the same answer.”
Hu Xiaoxian happily said, “Nujia is really overwhelmed by favor [from superior], but you, this person, do you really have a heart of stone?”
Naturally Xu Ziling understood what she meant, but he was unwilling to be tangled muddily with her in this aspect, he spoke with serious expression, “Unexpectedly this matter is related to Shen Luoyan?”
Hu Xiaoxian leaned over a bit more and spoke softly, “In Chang’an, there is a family influential for generations with utmost influence and power that is conspiring to deal with Shen Luoyan. One thing goes wrong, Li Shiji will be implicated.”
Shaken, Xu Ziling said, “The Dugu Clan?”
“Do you know the problem between them?” Hu Xiaoxian asked.
Sighing inwardly, Xu Ziling replied, “Let’s just say that I do! Dugu Ba was killed by Shen Luoyan in Luoyang. Ay! Originally, no one knew about this matter, but we leaked it out. If currently she really encounters the situation like you said, we will bear the main responsibility; therefore, we surely cannot sit back and watch.”
Hu Xiaoxian anxiously said, “I can tell you that you can only resolve this matter in secret, you must not harm Dugu Family’s people, because Dugu Feng [phoenix] is nujia’s best friend. If she did not tell me, I would never know that ‘Han Lin Qing Yuan Tu’ had been purchased by Chi Shengchun with high price, furthermore, that he is using it as a betrothal gift to move Die’s heart.”
It was only at this point did Xu Ziling understand the rise and fall of the terrain of the ‘secret’ that Hu Xiaoxian was divulging, but he was also wary in his heart, because from the beginning Hu Xiaoxian was not ‘candid and selfless’. Fortunately, he gradually won her trust.
“Hu Xiaojie, please rest assured,” he spoke sincerely.
Hu Xiaoxian spoke heavily, “I only heard some fish scale and bird claw from what Feng Mei [younger sister] told me, they wanted to exploit Li Mi’s disloyalty to build a case against her, to drag Shen Luoyan down to the mud. If Shen Luoyan fell into the trap, they would make their move to take Shen Luoyan’s life. As for the details, nujia is not too clear.”
Xu Ziling mused inwardly that one wave has not subsided, another wave already arose, so that they were struggling to cope with it, yet they simply could not ignore it. Puzzled, he asked, “Currently Li Shiji is an important minister in the House of Tang, a key general in the attack of Luoyang, while Dugu Clan’s current fame and power has been substantially weakened, how could they dare to take the risk of offending Qin Wang by framing up Shen Luoyan?”
Hu Xiaoxian replied with solemn expression, “Don’t underestimate the Dugu Clan. Currently both the Dugu Clan and the Yuwen Clan are relying on help from Li Yuan. The relationship among the three Clans has always been very close, now the two Clans know even more clearly that the only way to survive and to preserve their riches and honor and their power is to support Li Yuan with all their might. Just by looking at how Li Yuan could invite and move You Chuhong to enter the Palace to protect Zhang Jieyu, we know the closeness of their relationship. With Zhang Jieyu behind them providing support to the Dugu Clan, plus Li Yuan’s misgivings toward Li Shimin, if they push the boat with the current, perhaps Li Yuan might condone the Dugu Clan’s seeking revenge from Shen Luoyan. Once the criminal charge concerning Li Mi’s rebellion is thrown onto Shen Luoyan’s back, I am afraid even Qin Wang will be helpless to do anything, because Shen Luoyan’s loyalty toward Li Mi has already been known to everybody.”
Xu Ziling felt big headache. This matter could become big or could become small. He bade farewell and left.
※ ※ ※
Contrary to Kou Zhong and the others’ expectation, Song Shidao came back, but instead of looking relaxed and cheerful, his expression was heavy.
Being tactful, Lei Jiuzhi and Ren Jun fabricated some excuse and left, so that it would be convenient for the two to talk in private.
Song Shidao took the fragrant tea that Kou Zhong was pouring for him; absentmindedly he drank a mouthful and put down the cup onto the table, his pair of eyes staring blankly into the distance ahead. Kou Zhong was sure that he was not looking at anything in particular, he was just lost himself in deep thinking; Kou Zhong tried to probe, “Shang Changzhu still refuse to forgive us?”
Song Shidao shook his head, still with blank expression on his face; he said, “I say she already lost most of her anger to you. She is a woman with wisdom, and she understands you two very well, she ought to know that you must have difficulties.”
Hearing that, Kou Zhong was unable to make any sense of the matter; he could not help asking, “Did ErGe have any chance to explain to her on our behalf?”
Song Shidao was still staring at a distance with empty eyes, lost in his own thought; he was speaking as if in a dream, “I explained to her one time, she did not give me a definite answer, she only said she would think about it for a few more days. And then with an overflowing interest she discussed her favorite Lantian [county in Xi’an, Shaanxi, but could also mean ‘blue (rice) field’] jade with me. This kind of beautiful jade is the king among the jade, the jade color is warm in the winter, and cool in the summer. The texture is clean, solid and crisp, when it is struck, the sound is clear and resonant, the grain is colorful, absolutely beyond human comprehension. Ay! Xiuxun is surely a woman with good taste and good vision.”
Astonished, Kou Zhong said, “Listening to ErGe, the two of you should have an extremely congenial chat, why … hey … why …”
Song Shidao looked at him as if it was the first time that he noticed Kou Zhong’s presence; smiling bitterly, he said, “So what if it was congenial?”
Kou Zhong did not dare to ask directly. Making insinuations, he said, “Did Song ErGe see her in your real identity, or did you see her as Shen Wenjiang?”
“Naturally in Song Shidao’s true colors,” Song Shidao replied, “You don’t want her to know Situ Furong affair, do you?”
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “I can’t help it! How come Song ErGe look like … hey … look like you lost the joy of life? Could it be that with her words she was putting the blame on you, ErGe? Did she like the printed cloth that you presented to her?”
Song Shidao stared blankly at him for half a day; shaking his head in grief, he said, “Xiao Zhong, you misunderstood! Not only she loves the printed cloth I gave her very much, she even said that she would immediately sew it into a dress with her own hands and show it to me. When I left, she even invited me to come back tomorrow night to enjoy dinner together with her. We all are family, I don’t want to conceal anything from you and Ziling, Xiuxun is the first good woman that can move my heart apart from your Niang.”
Kou Zhong remained puzzled after pondering over it a hundred times [idiom], he scratched his head and asked, “What’s the problem then?”
Smiling ruefully, Song Shidao said, “The problem is that I, Song Shidao am the ‘Heavenly Saber’ Song Que’s son, while also your, Kou Shaoshuai’s ErGe.”
Inwardly Kou Zhong was severely shaken; he immediately understood.
Shang Xiuxun was the master of the Flying Horse Ranch, hence her first consideration had to be the survival of the Ranch. According to the current development, it was extremely likely that the world would evolve into north-south confrontation separated by the river. South of the Great River would be Song Que and Kou Zhong’s world. North of the Great River would fall under the Li Clan’s House of Tang’s sphere of influence. If Song Shidao and Shang Xiuxun became close friend [romantic connotation], while the Flying Horse Ranch was located north of the Great River, potentially it would become a thorn in the Li Clan’s side, it would be difficult to escape the fate of being pulled out by the root.
Song Shidao spoke dejectedly, “You finally understand!”
Nodding helplessly, Kou Zhong said, “When did ErGe think about this matter?”
Song Shidao replied, “When I mentioned you guys to her, she said that she was under pressure. There will come a day where she will draw a clear dividing line with you. This time she came to Chang’an, it is because the leaderships of the Flying Horse Ranch are determined to establish friendly relations with the Li Clan. By the way, the misunderstanding with you over Wanwan is just a small matter. That’s when I remember that I am Song Que’s son. It’s not appropriate for me to associate with her. This relationship will only bring harm and pain to her.”
And then he laughed sadly and said, “My resolution toward your Niang is not firm enough. Originally I already made up my mind to accompany Junchuo for the rest of my life in that secluded valley, but I am having three hearts, two minds, serving the Qin in the morning and the Chu in the evening. I should be punished.”
Kou Zhong’s thoughts in a whirl, he cried in alarm, “ErGe must never entertain this kind of idea. If ErGe is seeking true love, Niang’s soul and spirit in heaven will only be gratified. You accompanying her by her grave will make her unpeaceful instead.”
Out of his wits, Song Shidao spoke blankly, “Is that true?”
Recovering his senses, Kou Zhong patted his chest to guarantee, saying, “Xiao Ling and I are Niang’s representative in the world of the living, if you don’t believe us, whom are you going to believe? Tomorrow night, you, Song ErGe are going to attend the banquet, act as if nothing had happened, talk with her about Lantian Jade in relaxed and amiable atmosphere, talk with her about anything, just don’t talk about us or about the political situation. Consider her as your close female friend. As for what will happen in the future, just let Niang’s soul and spirit in heaven make the decision.”
Song Shidao’s pair of eyes lit up, he nodded and said, “Right! She now only sees me as a close friend with whom she can talk with, therefore, I need not be overly sensitive.”
Kou Zhong put down the load on his mind, but he was well aware that he had gained one more load on his mind; moreover, it could be a difficult problem that he was incapable of solving. He could not help thinking about Li Jiancheng’s interest toward Shang Xiuxun. If tomorrow night Li Yuan personally raise the engagement matter with Shang Xiuxun, would Shang Xiuxun, for the sake of the Flying Horse Ranch’s future, wrong herself by accepting this political business deal? This could be the real reason behind her remark about ‘drawing clear dividing line’ with the two boys.
Would Song Shidao be able to withstand another heavy blow after Fu Junchuo’s death?
※ ※ ※
Xu Ziling urgently rushed back to the Passionate Nest. Hou Xibai was leisurely, pleased with his position – moving his brush on the ‘Hundred-Beauty Painting’ inside his study room. Seeing Xu Ziling, he spoke cheerfully, “Thanks to Ziling’s a little bit of reminder, now what my eyes see is the painting, what my heart sees is the painting, but it also seems that there is no painting. Indeed I feel peace and happiness and at ease, I have no time to think, I am not in the mood to think – unnecessary things.”
Xu Ziling sat down next to him, watching him putting colors on the beauties that he already sketched; he casually asked, “Didn’t Li Yuan appoint you to paint the beauties in his chambers of imperial concubines [i.e. harem]? Why does it look like you are building a cart behind closed doors [idiom: to be overly subjective and disregard the outside world] in here?”
Putting down his brush, Hou Xibai laughed and said, “How could I build a cart behind closed doors? Besides, how could I let go of the opportunity to see the beauties in the Tang Palace? The beauties in the painting, I met them in person at the Palace and made a sketch of them. Not one of those beauties dared not to obediently listen to me, they even tried to curry favor with me in thousand ways, a hundred plans, for fear that I might draw an ugly picture of them, or perhaps I wouldn’t give prominence to their strong points, or put them in obscure place in the picture scroll. Ha! This is indeed an excellent order that is hard to seek.”
“When did you go into the Palace?” Xu Ziling asked.
Hou Xibai proudly said, “I can go into the Palace anytime I like, why did you ask? Is it related to the theft of the painting?”
Xu Ziling replied, “It could become related to the theft of the painting; let’s talk about it a bit later, we have two urgent matters right now, you must make your move to help.”
Hou Xibai said, “Looks like Xiaodi is a bit useful. Ziling, please bestow your instruction.”
Xu Ziling said, “First of all, I need you to investigate whether what Liu Wenjing told Chi Shengchun on Li Yuan’s behalf is true? This is a matter of grave importance; if before the theft Zhang Jieyu practically did not know about ‘Han Lin Qing Yuan Tu’s’ existence, or perhaps she had not had any desire to look at this painting, then the treasured painting must be hidden inside Li Yuan’s art studio. Do you know what I mean?”
Hou Xibai sat down by Xu Ziling’s side, he nodded and said, “It is indeed very important. Leave this matter to me. I am well known as an art lover, asking that kind of question will not raise anybody’s suspicion at all. Let me ask that beauty Zhang Niangniang directly! So what’s the second problem?”
Xu Ziling’s countenance sank, he said, “Try to find a way to see Shen Luoyan, warn her that the Dugu Clan is going to use Li Mi’s conspiring in the dark to leave Chang’an to drag her down to the water. They might have Li Yuanji or Li Jiancheng’s support behind them. Tell her she must not fall into the trap.”
Emotionally moved, Hou Xibai said, “This matter is even more important. Can you tell me more specific details so that she knows what to avoid?”
Shaking his head, Xu Ziling said, “That’s all I know. Remind her that the time when Li Mi formally volunteers himself for military service outside the Pass to gather his former subordinates to deal with Wang Shichong and Dou Jiande will be the time the danger is coming. Before this thing happen, it would be best not to make any contact with either Li Mi or Wang Bodang.”
Hou Xibai asked, “If she wants to see you, how do I answer her?”
Xu Ziling replied, “Today until dusk, I should be at the Situ Mansion; if anything happens, you can come to see me, I will rush over here to see her.”
Hou Xibai said, “I am leaving right away to handle these two things for you, I also need to investigate the shock of Sha Fang’s death to the House of Tang.” And then he lowered his voice and said, “Thank you to both of you.”
“Thank us for what?” Xu Ziling quietly asked.
Hou Xibai spoke slowly, “Thank you that in order to steal the painting, you have spent considerable effort and racked your brains. Honestly, although we failed to steal it, I am still extremely grateful. Ay! If the painting is not in Jieyu’s chamber but inside Li Yuan’s study room, we can only give up. Besides, there are layer upon layer of multi-story buildings and palace halls at Li Yuan’s residence, he could put it anywhere. Even if there is nobody stopping us from searching, I am afraid we will still need a day or two to find it. Although I am crazy about paintings, but I am not a fool; there is no reason for me to drag you two to accompany me throwing away my life.”
Xu Ziling smiled and said, “I suddenly remember something. That night when I was trying to steal the painting, Chi Shengchun sprinkled some powder on the ground, if the sole of my feet ever touched it, they would be able to follow me relying on the scent. I wonder if you could find me such powder?”
Hou Xibai did not understand, “What does it have to do with stealing the painting?” he asked.
Xu Ziling replied cheerfully, “If Li Yuan really invites our Shen Ye to verify the authenticity of the ‘Han Lin Qing Yuan Tu’, this kind of power will be our beacon of hope while sailing in the night amidst the angry sea. Unless Li Yuan hides the painting inside a sealed room where air cannot circulate freely.”
Hou Xibai slapped the small table and exclaimed, ‘Wonderful!’ He said, “Ziling’s wisdom and scheming ability indeed surpass others. This stratagem is foolproof, because the ideal place to hide the scroll of painting must be open, airy, with moderate humidity, it should not be stored in sealed indoor. Leave this matter to me; actually, I should say leave it to Lei Dage, because he is more capable than me. Do we still need to go into the Palace to find our way tonight? Should we be worry that we might beat the grass to scare the snake?”
Xu Ziling replied, “Tonight’s tour to the Tang Palace is circumstances that require action [idiom: absolutely necessary], we simply must go, we do not dare not to go even more, otherwise how could our disgraced mechanism and civil engineering great master be willing to let us off?”
The two exchanged glances, which could only come from their hearts, and then burst into hearty laughter at the same time.