Translator: Foxs' Wuxia
Inside the commander room of the main building inside the mountain stronghold, Kou Zhong slept until the sun set over western hills, until Wang Xuanshu woke him up.
With a weird expression, the latter said, “There is a little pickpocket, whose age is comparable to Xuanshu, asking an audience with Shaoshuai.”
His head in the fog, Kou Zhong got out of bed and put on his clothes; muttering to himself irresolutely, he said, “Little pickpocket? Old pickpockets, I know not a few, Ziling being one of those. But little pickpocket, I don’t even know half a person. Where did he come from? What is he looking for me for?”
While waiting upon him putting on the sheepskin robe that Chuchu personally sew for him, which had been through enough calamity, Wang Xuanshu replied, “He claimed to be coming from Xiangyang, rushing over here day and night nonstop, there is an important matter related to your, Shaoshuai’s survival that he wants to report. He also insists that as long as we tell you about Xiangyang’s little pickpocket, Shaoshuai will remember who he is.”
Kou Zhong muttered ‘Xiangyang’s little pickpocket’ twice; he shook his head and said, “No recollection! Where is he?”
“He is on the platform upstairs,” Wang Xuanshu replied, “This little pickpocket is very strange, he adamantly refused to let us search him. Seeing his delicate features, which does not look like a bad person, Ba Da Jiangjun opens the net on one side [idiom: being lenient], but Shaoshuai please be careful.”
Laughing involuntarily, Kou Zhong said, “If I, this old pickpocket, fell into a little pickpocket’s scheme, I am indeed, not just in name only, but also in reality – an old cat whose tail got bitten by a mouse, a ship capsized inside the ditch [idiom: failing miserably (where failure was not expected)].”
Wang Xuanshu spoke heavily, “He came into the gorge via the entrance of the secret gorge’s southern access.”
Severely shaken, Kou Zhong blurted out, “What?”
Wang Xuanshu repeated what he said.
Kou Zhong’s countenance changed a few times. Shaking his head and smiling bitterly, he walked out of the commander room. He saw the room outside was full of more than a hundred of his tired men, fast asleep, and heard the thunderous sound of their snoring like a large ensemble.
Kou Zhong and Wang Xuanshu climbed a flight of stairs leading to the upper platform. Several dozens of construction battalion soldiers, under Chen Laomou’s leadership, were building a lookout tower, reaching up to three zhang tall – on the platform, which would become the highest point of the mountain stronghold. The giant log was lifted off the ground using large rope.
Four Flying Cloud Guards were accompanying an about sixteen, seventeen years old boy in a corner, waiting respectfully for Kou Zhong’s arrival. In the mountain stronghold, the torches were blazing high, more dazzling than the setting sun outside.
The little pickpocket caught a glimpse of Kou Zhong, he jumped up with delight, open his arms wide and blurted out, “Shaoshuai! It’s me!”
Were it not for the Flying Cloud Guards grabbed his shoulders from both side, he would have been too excited to stay and would rush toward Kou Zhong.
Focusing his attention to look, Kou Zhong recalled a long-forgotten memory. Letting out a long laughter, he said, “I could not figure out who it was, turns out it is indeed an old friend. Release him.”
Following the order, the Flying Cloud Guards relinquished their grip. The youngster ran straight toward Kou Zhong, while shouting out his protest, “I told you guys Shaoshuai will remember me. That day in Xiangyang I had eyes but failed to recognize Mount Tai; I wanted Shaoshuai’s purse, but Shaoshuai caught me. However, Shaoshuai was not alarmed, he did not beat me up ruthlessly, he even gave me an ingot of gold. Not only Shaoshuai is an unequalled hero [ying xiong] in the world, he is also a hero [hao han (lit. good man), a strong and courageous person] with great benevolence and great righteousness. I have never forgotten, not even one day – Shaoshuai’s great kindness and great virtue.”
While speaking excitedly, two clumps of red clouds arose on his snow-white, delicate and pretty – handsome face; he was talking and panting at the same time, which gave people a peculiar feeling.
Kou Zhong laughed and said to Wang Xuanshu, “This Xiao Xiongdi [little brother] spoke the truth. In those days, I accompanied Shang Xiuxun to Jingling, when we passed through Xiangyang, I came across this Xiao Xiongdi on the street. After that, I even encountered Lao Ba and Qu Ao’s disciples.” [Translator’s note: if you are interested, it happened in Book 10 Chapter 9; however, the youngster was described as a ‘sixteen, seventeen years old boy’, so after all these years, this person did not grow at all.]
Wang Xuanshu, however, asked with grave expression, “May I ask this Xiao Xiongdi’s honorable surname and great given name? How did you know we set up a stronghold here?”
The youngster replied, “Everybody calls me Xiao He’er [lit. little crane], oh! I ...”
Noticing Kou Zhong’s eyes were sizing him up and down, as if he knew something, immediately his handsome face turned red, the rose-tinted clouds at sunset color penetrated the base of his ears.
Kou Zhong stretched out his big hand, he laughed and said, “Come, let’s step aside and talk.”
Without the slightest hesitation, Xiao He’er reached out with his delicate, long and fair hand, and let Kou Zhong grabbed it.
Kou Zhong signaled Wang Xuanshu with his eyes, and led him toward the perimeter wall facing the mountain and fields. He smiled and said, “Your visit is giving us a warning; I wonder if Li Shimin already knew the secret of the Tian Cheng Gorge?”
Xiao He’er sighed in praise, which came from the bottom of his heart, “Shaoshuai is indeed brilliant and has divine martial art, your intelligence surpasses others. Xiangyang’s defenders, the whole nest came out. Combined with the troops from the neighboring cities, the total number is more than fifteen thousand men, with Qu Tutong as the commander-in-chief, they are advancing toward the Tian Cheng Gorge’s southern road exit.”
Inwardly Kou Zhong blamed his own negligence. Since someone changed the inscription of the secret gorge’s name, it must be a scenic spot that was known to everybody in neighboring places. When Li Shimin saw him withdrawing to this side, naturally he was able to see that his destination must be the Tian Cheng Gorge, hence he immediately ordered Qu Tutong to rush to Xiangyang via the waterway, and gather the local city defenders to cut his escape route. If the south road exit was sealed tight, Kou Zhong would not be able to meet Ba Fenghan’s reinforcement, then his fate would definitely be total defeat of his army. Xiao He’er’s intelligence immediately threw him hard, from standing high in the clouds, back to the earth with a forehead full of cold sweats.
Xiao He’er continued, “The people of Xiangyang discuss Shaoshuai defending Luoyang and resisting the Tang Army spiritedly every day, but I am extremely worried about Shaoshuai; I constantly sought information, until finally heard that Shaoshuai succeeded in breaking out the siege, only then did I breathe a sigh of relief a little bit. Four days ago, Qu Tutong arrived in Xiangyang. I knew something was not right, until I found out that Qu Tutong’s destination was Tian Cheng Gorge, then I knew that Shaoshuai must be here. Come to think about it, it’s kind of hard to believe, coming into and going out of Xiangyang, I have been through Tian Cheng Gorge many times, yet I never thought it would look like this.”
Knitting his brows, Kou Zhong ssaid, “Qu Tutong is really not a rookie on the battlefield, how could he leak the destination of his troops?”
Taking the credit for his achievement, Xiao He’er said, “Speaking about spying, I’m afraid not many people in Xiangyang have my skills. Xiangyang has a very nasty Tang Army’s low-grade general, not willing to spend money but love to brag. Of the Yao Yue Lou [lit. inviting/seeking the moon building] ladies, no one likes him. However, when he is drunk, he leaks out all kinds of information. He said that this time it will be difficult for you, Shaoshuai to escape calamity. I did not believe his bragging, Shaoshuai can’t possibly be dead, because Shaoshuai is the best person!”
Kou Zhong let go of his hand, he smiled and said, “Turns out you have a spy in the pleasure house. Did you leave before the Tang Army set off?”
Xiao He’er said, “I left one night earlier than they, plus I took shortcuts and rushed over nonstop. I was actually very tired that I feel like dying, but seeing Shaoshuai, for some reason my weariness is completely gone, I feel so spirited that I can beat a fierce tiger to the death.”
Muttering to himself irresolutely, Kou Zhong said, “According to your estimate, if Qu Tutong’s main forces travel day and right, when will they reach the south road exit?”
Seeing how Kou Zhong was open-minded and asked him question, with worry shown on his face, Xiao He’er thought carefully for half a day, before answering, “They should arrive tomorrow at dusk.”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “Xiao He’er, you ought to know that it is quite possibly that your information may be the crucial point to the success or failure of my battle with Li Shimin. Although you said you are not tired, I can see that you are tired. You might as well go to my commander room and have a good night sleep. I don’t think you’d want to crowd together with my brothers in the big tent.”
Xiao He’er’s handsome face turned beet-red, he hung his head down and spoke softly, “Shaoshuai can see through Xiao He’er!”
Kou Zhong reached out to pull her head entirely into his bosom, he cheerfully said, “We both are people of the same profession, the number one secret of success in pickpocketing is to see people, if I can’t even tell a man from a woman, what use is it for me to mingle among the people?”
Revealing a little girl’s bashful expression, Xiao He’er spoke softly, “Can I call you Kou Dage? I always wanted to have a big brother. When you hacked and shattered Changshu Mou’s shield in Xiangyang that day, you don’t know how sensational it was. It was only then did Xiao He’er know that the person upholding justice and giving me an ingot of gold was unexpectedly Kou Zhong, whose name shook the world.”
Kou Zhong’s mind was thinking about how to deal with the covering-the-sun imminent crisis, he responded without thinking, “From now on, I am Dage, you are Xiaomei [little sister]; Xiaomei has no family?”
Xiao He’er’s countenance darkened, her pair of eyes turned red, she spoke hoarsely, “All died!”
Kou Zhong was overcome with pity, he patted her shoulder to comfort her, and then he called a guard and ordered him to settle Xiao He’er in his commander room to rest.
With grave expression, Wang Xuanshu came to his side, Kou Zhong spoke heavily, “Summon Mou Gong, Yuanzhen and Ba Yegang, we must have an emergency meeting immediately.”
Xu Ziling sat on the stern, his feet dangled over the water, his eyes gazed deeply at the sail boat cutting through the rippling waves of the rushing river, but his mind already flew to Shi Qingxuan’s residence in the hidden mountain. If everything went well, he ought to be able to see her tomorrow morning.
An unprecedented expectation and a deep longing feeling overcame his heart. In this cold and heartless, winner would be king, brimming with hypocrisy, deceit and hatred, power struggle, and the troubled times, only Shi Qingxuan’s fragrant residence could be the Peach Garden where he could shun the world.
But Kou Zhong’s success or failure was like a thorn piercing his heart, so that he knew that the life of happiness that he was seeking was still some unattainable distance away. How could he abandon the brother that has gone through life and death together with him since childhood? What’s more, the battle between Kou Zhong and Li Shimin has actually evolved into a struggle between them and the demonic school and the Tujue people.
The sound of Hou Xibai’s, who was operating this approximately two zhang long sailboat – laughter was heard, he blurted out, “A real pleasure! This small sailboat’s asking price is four ingots of gold; although it is four times more expensive than the usual price, it is still worth it.”
Without moving his gaze from the long river, Xu Ziling spoke indifferently, “One of the costs of war is to make everything more expensive, so that the people’s burden is a hundred catties heavier, common people suffer unspeakable misery! War creates opportunities for only a small number of people, but until the world is unified, no one knows who the beneficiaries or the victims.”
Hou Xibai sighed and said, “I know Ziling is worried about Kou Zhong, but for you, the top priority before our eyes is to throw away everything, to concentrate on treating your injury. After complete recovery, Ziling can come back out of retirement in the east mountain, roll the dust and start over.”
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, “Roll the dust and start over? The situation is still not that serious. At least Kou Zhong has not yet stepped on the trailing dust of the Western Chu Hegemon Xiang Yu. I am not worried about him, but worried about every single person of the Shao Shuai Army, which makes me feel that it is difficult to extricate myself from being rolled into this great vortex of contention for hegemony over the world. However, Xibai need not worry about me, because I am still optimistic about Kou Zhong.”
Hou Xibai asked in surprise, “Ziling does not seem to be the kind of person whose natural disposition is optimistic, why is this matter any different?”
Xu Ziling looked up at the starry sky above, he said, “Song Que definitely won’t let Kou Zhong be defeated by Li Shimin. In the world today, can you find somebody who can rival Song Que plus Kou Zhong? That is impossible. This thought brings much pain in me, after all, Li Shimin is a man worthy of my respect and love.”
Hou Xibai was silent for half a day; he spoke heavily, “Would you say that Feixuan might come down the mountain the second time to help Li Shimin dealing with us?”
Xu Ziling spoke dejectedly, “That would be the last thing I want to see.”
Hou Xibai said, “But Feixuan can’t possibly sit and watch Li Shimin being defeated. The problem is that in any case, she cannot go to the battlefield to move the blade and play with the stick; commanding battle is even more not her strong point.”
Smiling wryly, Xu Ziling said, “The immortal heart is difficult to fathom, we, mortals should not take the trouble to do that.”
Hou Xibai said, “But we can’t treat it as an idle chat either. My guess is that if she sets foot on the secular world again, the first person she wants to see will be you, Ziling.”
Revealing a helpless expression, Xu Ziling said, “Song Que is moving his troops to go up north, the situation is no longer Kou Zhong’s to control; even if Kou Zhong is willing to withdraw, he definitely cannot influence Song Que’s divine sacred heart’s intention to revive the unification of the Han people. Just like your Shi Shi’s making the revitalization of the Holy School his business. No one in the world will be able to reverse this situation. Furthermore, to a certain degree, the struggle between Kou Zhong and the Li Clan is delaying the day Li Shimin will be harmed by his father and elder brother indefinitely. This is a good thing and not a bad thing at all.”
Hou Xibai sighed and said, “Listening to you, I am more confused than ever. Ziling, you’d better get a good night’s sleep, when you open your eyes, the boat should be docked already!”
Xu Ziling’s mind turned back to Shi Qingxuan, an infinitely tender feeling welled up in his heart, he lay down and closed his pair of eyes.
Kou Zhong, Bing Yuanzhen, Ma Chang, Wang Xuanshu, Ba Yegang, and Ma Chang [sic. I think it ought to be Chen Laomou], six men sat on chairs made of tree stumps, in the lower level of the big building, surrounding a long, rectangular wooden table made of logs, coarse but sturdy, holding the first military conference after the establishment of the mountain stronghold, surrounded by piles of rations and fodder, wood and stones. The air was filled with the tension of mountain rain about to fall.
After Kou Zhong explained the situation according to the information brought by Xiao He’er, everybody’s countenance changed; they felt deeply that the advantage was gone, furthermore, there was a dejected, lost feeling of falling into a danger spot.
Kou Zhong’s manner was still calm; he said, “Li Shimin sent Qu Tutong to Xiangyang, that should be four, five days ago. At that time, Li Shimin was still being held up outside the hidden pond mountain, he did not know that our destination was Tian Cheng Gorge. Yet it’s like he can predict without being a clairvoyant, he dispatched Qu Tutong to Xiangyang to mobilize the elite squad to cut our retreat route. What does that tell us?”
Everybody you looked at me I looked at you, nobody understood what Kou Zhong meant by telling them this.
Kou Zhong sighed and said, “Know yourself and know your enemy, and you will never be defeated. My negligence is underestimating Li Shimin, so that I made repeated mistakes. Fortunately Xiao He’er came from Xiangyang to alert us, it finally wakes me up. Ay! Li Shimin lives up to his famous reputation, he has deep understanding of the essence of the Art of War’s ‘know the terrain’. I can guarantee that he has a detailed topographical map of the area near Luoyang in his hand. It should be part of the preparation effort several years before attacking Luoyang. Therefore, that night, when we broke out the siege from the hidden exit of the Yi Luo mountain area, we met his frontal assault, the dead and injured were more than half! It was not because he came across us by lucky coincidence, but Li Shimin already guessed that we would take that exit and walk right into the trap. This time, it is also like that. He not only knew that we were not going to attack Xiangcheng, furthermore, we were not going to slip back to Chenliu, but to exploit Tian Cheng Gorge’s natural stronghold and defend our property to the death.”
Everybody suddenly saw the light. At the same time, they admired Kou Zhong for facing death yet did not panic. In this moment where there were enemies in front and behind, he was still cool-headed enough to make detailed analysis on Li Shimin, he was deeply aware of the ‘know yourself, know your enemy’ principle.
Bing Yuanzhen said, “If we immediately withdraw via the south road of the gorge path, we should be able to pounce directly to the Huai River before the enemy seals off the retreat route. There is still a ray of opportunity to live.”
Kou Zhong sighed again and said, “If we do that, that will be something that Li Shimin seeks but fail to get. With Li Shimin’s deep knowledge of the Art of War, he would never care about the gains and losses of one place’s army, but would have his eyes on the overall victory or defeat. He might give up pursuing and attacking us on the mouth of the gorge, but move his troops to attack Chenliu, and continue to sweep Pengliang using the like-a-hot-knife-through-butter momentum. Combined with Li Zitong attacking Zhongli and Gaoyou from the front and rear, the Song Family’s main forces coming to help will have no room to advance or to retreat. And our fleeing army will still have Qu Tutong’s fifteen-thousand-man army, who has been preserving and nurturing their spirit, chasing our tail to kill. Even if we could escape back to Zhongli, our fate will only be waiting to be surrounded and slaughtered. Therefore, we must defend Tian Cheng Gorge to the death, to firmly curb Li Shimin’s main forces in here.”
Ba Yegang said, “Li Shimin’s military force is ten times ours, since the escape route is sealed, he only needs to leave twenty, thirty thousand men and the great general under his command to be in charge on his behalf, then he still can easily move his troops to attack Chenliu. The situation won’t change that much.”
Kou Zhong smiled and said, “How could Li Shimin feel at ease in leaving his men to deal with me, Kou Zhong? And Heaven still does not want me, Kou Zhong to perish, thereupon He sent Xiao He’er to bring intelligence to me. This time, Qu Tutong come not to seal the road, but to throw away his life, perhaps I can still follow our original plan to take advantage of their weakness to seize Xiangyang. At that time, it will be another situation altogether.”
Hearing that, Ma Chang and the others you looked at me I gazed at you, they did not understand how in such a disadvantageous position Kou Zhong still had a card up his sleeve like this.
However, Xiao He’er’s arrival to bring warning was indeed a part of the mysterious karma, as if there was a dark power of the underworld at play.
Relying on his seniority, Chen Laomou said with a deep frown, “Our military strength is less than five thousand men; by looking after this thing, we will lose that thing. If we go against Li Shimin’s main forces, we cannot divide the troops to deal with Qu Tutong. Even if our whole army came out, I am afraid we still cannot resist Qu Tutong’s military power, which is three times ours; what makes Shaoshuai this confident?”
Kou Zhong spoke heavily, “How many days do you think we can confidently hold out in here?”
Ma Chang replied with confidence, “Unless our arrows are exhausted and our provisions are gone, Li Shimin can forget about capturing the mountain stronghold.”
Wang Xuanshu laughed happily and said, “What he is saying is that we can hold out for twenty to thirty days, including killing the horses to fill our belly.”
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “That will work! Without using a single troop, a single soldier from this stronghold, I will take Qu Tutong, who believe himself infallible to seal off the southern road; I will move one step ahead, by taking advantage of the dark, to leave the gorge path in secret via the south road exit, to hurry to meet Lao Ba and his reinforcements, and then carry the firearms to mount sneak attack toward Qu Tutong’s troops from behind. Because I know the route that Lao Ba is going to take, plus I have Wuming to be my eyes in the sky, everything should go without a hitch.”
Hearing that, none did not have his spirit greatly aroused. It’s not that they had not thought about this matter, it’s just that no one knew the quantity, as well as the formidable power, of the firearms, as clearly as Kou Zhong did.
Chen Laomou spoke in great delight, “If we could inflict heavy losses on Qu Tutong’s main forces, perhaps we will really have a chance to seize the opportunity to take Xiangyang.”
Kou Zhong cheerfully said, “This is called you have a good scheme, I have a ladder to climb over the wall. I have already suffered both the worst and the most grievous defeat in battle, I definitely will not let history to be repeated.”
Turning to Chen Laomou, he said, “Chen Gong must immediately send your men to reinforce the southern road exit defense. Furthermore, send the men to watch closely the situation on that side, such as detecting whether Qu Tutong is under attack, then you take that opportunity to immediately divide the troops to go out and attack; strike the routed enemy’s troops as much as possible. I can predict that this is not a battle, but a ruthless massacre. The victor will be called king; nothing good to say about this. War is a heartless game to see which side’s injury is heavier.”
Stirring himself up, Chen Laomou said, “Shaoshuai, don’t worry, leave everything to me.”
Lowering his voice, Kou Zhong said, “Xiao He’er’s life experience is pitiful, hence she disguises herself as a young street ruffian. Gentlemen must not reveal her identity as a woman, naturally you must take a special care of her.”
Wang Xuanshu obtained a sudden understanding, “No wonder she won’t let us search her; it’s really embarrassing.”
Letting out his weird laughter, Chen Laomou said, “If she is a girl, she must be very pretty.”
Ma Chang teasingly said, “Xuanshu Gongzi is about the same age as she is, it should be most appropriate if Gongzi is taking care of her.”
Wang Xuanshu’s handsome face blushed slightly, he did not know how to respond.
Kou Zhong laughed aloud and said, “This is called Heaven never bars one’s way. It is also coming across life on a danger spot. Victory and defeat are only a fine line apart. I’ll hand over this place to gentlemen, Dage. The most important thing is to bluff, to make Li Shimin believe that I am still inside the mountain stronghold.”
Chen Laomou laughed and said, “Can’t we find one among several thousand men to be disguised as Shaoshuai? As long as the fake Shaoshuai moves his hands and feet on the top platform, it should be enough to deceive Li Shimin. Leave this matter to me.”
Rising to his full height, Kou Zhong said, “Li Shimin could be here tomorrow, but without a few days of work, he could forget about launching any attack. At that time, Qu Tutong’s army will already be utterly defeated! Ha!”
The crowd of generals responded with a roar.