I'm reproducing the translation I just completed at spnet.tv here. I will also provide a pdf file for those who prefer reading a physical copy--they can print out the translation on A4 size paper. There are footnotes and a short translator's introduction in the pdf file, in compliance with what texture asked for in a translation. Please bear with the grammar--I did all I could to remove the grammatical errors but I'm sure my English is not perfect.
I redid the earlier parts by another translator, not because what he did is not good, but because I'm too shy to ask for his permission to reuse it. Moreover, that translator seems no longer active on spcnet.tv forum.
Part Two – The Nine Years That Have Vanished Like Smoke
Part Three – A Fight That Bewitches the Soul
Part Four – The Price
Part Five – Moonlight like Snow, Moonlight like Blood
FOREWORD: REGARDING THE FLYING DAGGER
The dao (knife, saber, dagger) is not just another weapon. It ranks first among the eighteen weapons of common folklore. In certain ways, the dao cannot be compared with the sword (jian). It doesn't have the sword's elegance, mystery, and romantic aura, nor its esteem. The sword is at times a gorgeous ornament, at times a symbol of identity and status. At other times, the sword can even be a symbol of authority and power. Not the dao. The graceful sword belongs to the aristocrats. The dao, on the other hand, is popular and belongs to the common folks. The sword is often associated with the imperial court, with remote mountains, with the clouds. The dao is associated with the everyday lives of human beings. From the moment a pair of scissors (jiandao) cuts away the umbilical cord when we are born, human beings can't sever ties with the dao. We use it to chop vegetables, make dresses, cut cloth, barber, trim beards, pare nails, slice meat, gut fish, and trim cigarettes. It is used as a warning, to display strength, for execution… Not one of these actions is possible without a dao. Human beings cannot do without the dao in their everyday lives, just like they cannot survive without rice or water. The strange thing is, in the hearts of human beings, the dao is definitely far crueler, more relentless, barbaric, brutal, and indomitable than the sword.
There are many types of the dao: the Chinese saber, the twin sabers, the plain knife, the Buddhist's cutter, the sawtooth saber, the machete, the executioner's saber, the goosequill saber, the five phoenix sun saber, the fish scale golden saber. The flying dagger is undoubtedly also a type of the dao. Although there has been very little written about it in mainstream history, this only adds to its mystery and legend. As for whether the "spade drill" qualifies as a dao—there is no way you can prove this.
The character Li Xunhuan is fictitious. Little Li's Flying Daggers are, of course, also fictitious. Everyone feels that such a man could not have existed in the real world. A weapon like Little Li's Flying Dagger could not have existed either. The man is too upright and chivalrous, always yielding himself to the others. His weapon is too mysterious and fantastic, too divorced from reality. But this "reality" everyone is seeking is that of our world in the modern era, not of Li Xunhuan's era. Therefore, whether Li Xunhuan and his flying daggers are real or not is not important. What matters is whether he lives and resonates in the readers' hearts, letting them share in his sorrow, joy, and laughter.
At first, no one knew what Li Xuanhuan or his flying daggers looked like. But the treatment in movies gave them a visual form, as well as made this form even more popular. Seen from a certain angle, making something popular means making it common and vulgar. Making something vulgar moves one away from literature and the arts. But I have always felt there is nothing wrong at all with making something popular under the circumstances of our modern society. Doing this is at least better than hiding in an ivory tower, crying alone.
Li Xuanhuan and his flying daggers are from another novel. This novel—Flying Dagger, the Flying Dagger Appears Again—is, of course, closely related to the Li Xuanhuan story. But there are quite a few big differences: —Although both stories deal with gratitude and revenge, love and hatred between two generations of Li Xuanhuan's family, their plots are distinct. —Although Little Li's Flying Daggers have appeared many times on film and television, the story was taken from a novel written long ago. Flying Dagger, the Flying Dagger Appears Again has already appeared as a movie. I am only just writing it into a book. The treatment is similar to that of The Eleventh Son. The movie precedes the book. Such a treatment removes unnecessary embellishments, condenses the story, and allows for more twists and turns. As filmmaking is a collective exercise, it requires great effort, and many human, material, and financial resources. Hence, novelizing a film feels completely different from writing fiction from scratch.
Luckily, there are still some similarities. I hope to uplift and encourage my readers and make them hate the wicked characters as I do. I think this is probably one of my main goals in writing fiction. —Of course, this is not my only goal.
I need to clarify another point. I haven't recovered from my wrist injury yet. I can't write much at one go. I can only dictate to an amanuensis. I never wanted to work in this way in the past. Working in this way, you may end up overlooking linguistic and narrative details. You can't feel the same emotions, drawing characters and experiencing sadness through another person other than yourself. At least, you won't feel that subtle, suggestive sadness and profound feelings as when you write alone. And the writing will lack something in the language, since the exquisiteness of the Chinese language is almost as sensitive as the melancholy of the Chinese authors.
Fortunately, I don't need to apologize to you, my readers. Working in this way will definitely improve the story's flow and pace. The long, clumsy, tedious parts will be gone. Long, clumsy, and tedious—these have often been the shortcomings of my previous novels.
After an illness (but not an illness caused by alcohol), and written not after taking wine.
In a bygone age full of aggression, wickedness, and strife, a kind of flying dagger once appeared in the jianghu. No one knew its type or form. No one could describe its speed or power. In the hearts of men, it was no longer just a weapon to curb violence, but a symbol of justice and dignity. Its power was, of course, absolutely great and resolute, and utterly invincible. Once the unrest was over, that dagger also disappeared, like a gigantic wave dissolving into the calm, tranquil ocean. But everyone knew if disorder were to ever break out again in the jianghu, that dagger would make another appearance, bringing again endless confidence and hope to everyone.
Duan Bafang was seven feet nine inches tall. His bronzed sinews and steely bones had undergone the tough Thirteen Taibao training. No one could have matched the strength of his hard-styled kungfu. Duan Bafang was fifty-one this year. By the age of thirty, he was already commanding the seven major sects and forty-two brigands north of the Yangtze River. He was also chief of the four major armed escort agencies in the distant Qi and Yu regions. His reputation was so fearsome that it was greater than just about anyone else's. He was undoubtedly still one of the most important personages in the jianghu. Hardly anyone could have rivaled his powerful kungfu. But a year ago, just three days before Chinese New Year's Eve, something most peculiar happened to him. Something almost no one actually believed could have happened.
On that day, Duan Bafang was scared to death by a sheet of white paper, with only a dagger drawn on it.
It was three days before New Year's Eve, snowing as the year swiftly approached its end. New Year was just around the corner. There was only one thing in the minds of everyone away from home during this period—to rush home for the New Year. Duan Bafang was no exception. On that day, he had just successfully mediated one of the biggest jianghu disputes in nearly a decade. He was receiving the heartfelt gratitude and praise of the thirteen major Huaiyang sects, drinking authentic Luzhou wine they prepared specially for him—six full jin in all. As he walked out of Zhenhai Restaurant with his entourage of good friends and followers, his whole body flushed with heat. To him, life was like an inexhaustible cup of mellow wine, waiting to be savored slowly. Yet suddenly, he died. You can even say he died under his own knife, like those whose lives are totally devoid of living pleasures.
No one expected a thing like that to happen to such a man.
Duan Bafang died after receiving a letter. No one signed it, nor was it addressed to anyone. The letter contained not even a single Chinese character. There was only a dagger drawn on that jumbo-sized paper, using the tip of a pen brush dipped in ink—a casually drawn dagger. No one could really make out its type or form, but everyone could tell it was a dagger. A shabbily-dressed youth had delivered the letter, on a dark road in the middle of the night. No one could really make out his build or features, despite the stray reflected rays of light around the place. Luckily, everyone could see he was a human being. He had walked out of the darkest corner of the road in a very well-behaved way. Next, he walked in a very well-behaved way up to Duan Bafang, handing him the letter with both hands in the same well-behaved way. Then, Duan Bafang's complexion changed. It was as if a scorching iron wire had been inserted down his throat. And everyone's complexion changed too—becoming more peculiar, more bizarre, and more horrific than even Duan Bafang's. Because everyone could see Duan Bafang suddenly pull out a knife. With an extremely practiced, extremely fast, neat, deft—perhaps even an extremely cruel movement of the hand, he plunged the knife into his own belly. Like he was assaulting a most hated foe. How do you explain a thing like that? Already, no one could explain what had just happened. Yet something else happened to Duan Bafang that was far more inexplicable, far more incredible, and far more unimaginable.
Three days before New Year's Eve, Duan Bafang died violently on a long street. Yet he was still alive and well on the first day of the New Year. Put in another way, Duan Bafang didn't die three days before New Year's Eve. He died on the night of the first New Year's Day. A human being has only one life. Like everyone, Duan Bafang was just a human being, so how could he end up dying twice?
The shabbily dressed youth delivering the letter was nowhere to be found. Duan Bafang was seven feet nine inches tall. His burly, 142-jin body was already slumped in a pool of blood. No one could understand anything. And no one knew what to say. The first who could speak was Second Master Tu, one of the Three Gallants of Huaiyang, renowned for his composure and quick wit. "Hurry, get a doctor at once!" he said. In fact, he already knew it was useless to find a doctor. What they really needed now was a coffin.
The coffin was borne home by land and waterways. By the time it reached Duan Bafang's native land, it was already dusk. Dusk. The first day of the New Year. First day of the New Year: Mother's greasy hands, the delighted, smiling faces of children. First day of the New Year: new clothes, fresh flowers, wintersweet, fresh fruits, firecrackers, dumplings, ingots, New Year's packet money. First day of the New Year: festive greetings, joy, laughter. The first day of the New Year is a day of varied excitement. But his family in Bafang Manor only received a coffin. Although the coffin was worth 1,800 taels of silver, a coffin was, after all, just a coffin. At that moment, it was absolutely better to have no coffin than to have one.
Bafang Manor was imposing and colossal, with many buildings and suites. No one knew how many buildings were in the manor, or how many stories each building had. The rectangular door of the manor was eight yards two feet high, six yards two feet wide, lacquered with vermilion paint, and bearing gold-ringed knockers, flanked by stone lions. Thirty-six hefty men carried the coffin in through this gigantic door, on long poles. Thirty-six hefty men dressed in white hemp attire, strapped in white bands, wearing straw sandals on their feet. They carried the black lacquered coffin into the courtyard and then retreated a total of 156 steps—back into the doorway from which they came. Then the gigantic door was immediately shut. Another thirty-six hefty men dashed out with quick short steps, lifting the coffin again, and carrying it to the rear compound. There was another rear compound behind that rear compound. And another rear compound behind that other rear compound. A succession of rear compounds lodged deep behind one another. So profoundly deep, as deep as ink. In that black courtyard, there was only a weak lamplight—a weak lamplight complemented by wan white. A mourning hall always looks like that. Always in a wan, mournful white. The thirty-six hefty men carried the coffin into the mourning hall. Then they put it down before the ashen-white faces of the orphans and widows. After that, they too began to retreat, with quick, short steps. They did not manage to exit the door. Suddenly, the hands of those orphans and widows—who looked so weak like they could be blown over by a gust of wind—flung out dozens of gleaming, light yellow threads. All of a sudden, all thirty-six hefty men as robust as iron lions collapsed. Once they collapsed, they were dead. At that precise moment when they hit the ground, they were already dead. Once they collapsed, they would never rise again.
Duan Bafang had a wife. He had, of course, only one wife. Duan Bafang had concubines—twenty-nine of them. Duan Bafang had sons—forty of them. Duan Bafang had daughters—sixteen of them. In the mourning hall now, there were, in addition to his wife, concubines, sons, and daughters—eighty-six in all—two other people. Two people who looked really, really, really old. Like they had already died many, many, many times. Their faces were expressionless. Only knife scars. No expression. Each knife scar could be considered a facial expression. A complex, sorrowful expression carved using flashing, gleaming swords and sabers, with passionate emotions of the past—love and hatred, vengeance and gratitude. Thousands upon thousands of knife scars, meaning thousands upon thousands of different expressions. Thousands upon thousands of expressions, meaning no expression at all.
There was only a weak lamplight in the dark courtyard, shining in the mourning hall—before the funeral tablet, on the funeral table. Suddenly, a cool, sad draft wafted in from no one knew where. It suddenly extinguished the lamp. By the time someone relit the lamp, the coffin was gone.
The secret chamber was constructed out of teal stone bricks, which were like the color of dead human bones. The lamplight was of the same color. The two old men carried the coffin in. Immediately, the door to the secret chamber shut automatically by itself. The old men put down the coffin and gazed at it quietly: the knife scars and furrows on their faces looked even more deeply etched, like they had blended into a sorrowful, mournful motif. They stood there, gazing quietly for a long time. No one could identify that motif on their faces. As a result, no one knew what their thoughts were, or what they really intended to do. They, too, did something no one expected them to. They suddenly dashed their heads against the stone walls and died.
The lamplight flickered like will 'o wisps. Lightly and slowly, the coffin lid quietly slid open. From inside the coffin came an outstretched hand. That hand lightly and slowly pushed the lid away. Then, Duan Bafang stepped out of the coffin and stood up. He surveyed the secret chamber. He could not hold back that smug, satisfied smile on his face. Because he now knew he was absolutely safe. Everyone in the jianghu now knew he had just slain himself on a long street somewhere. All vengeance and gratitude, feuds and hatred, had been eradicated with his death. No one would come after him for revenge. Because he was already a dead man. A dead man still alive and well in this world. Of course, this secret would remain a secret. Everyone who knew this secret was dead. Truly dead. Only the dead could shut their mouths so tight. Duan Bafang let off a long sigh. He pulled a bronze ring on the stone wall, opening a secret door in the wall. His complexion suddenly changed. He thought he would see the food rations, water, wine, clothes, and vessels he had prepared for himself. He did not. He thought he would never again see anyone come after him for revenge. But he did now.
His complexion turned horrifically pale. Yet his body reacted mechanically in the same way as always. His muscular elasticity, quick wit, and kungfu were in prime condition. He could pierce a mosquito's belly using a needle, under any circumstances, at any moment. Unfortunately, his reaction was just a bit slow this time. As soon as he started moving, he had already seen the flashing dagger. A flying dagger. He realized it was that flying dagger again. A flying dagger he couldn't dodge, no matter how hard he tried. And so he died. Even when a man uses a hidden knife to stab his own belly, even with blood oozing to the ground, that man may not actually be dead. A spring mechanism can be fitted into a knife. But what he saw this time was a flying dagger. A flying dagger always dispatched without ever missing its target. And so, this time, he really died.
And so the flying dagger made its appearance in the jianghu again.
A mountain town. A town by the distant mountains. And the distant mountains were a thousand li away.
Li Huai went back, went back to the same town. The sandstorms, the loess, the people—he knew them from long ago. Because he had grown up here. A wanderer, he had no roots. His childhood was but a succession of nightmares—in his nightmares, this place was still the place he could least forget.
A shop selling steamed buns doesn't always just sell steamed buns. Just like when he was first called Old Zhang, the man wasn't that old. But he was old now. Every day, he would fix his old, dim eyes on the surging, rolling dust and sand, like he would see some miracle happening on this street he had lived on for decades. He never thought a miracle would really happen on this day.
He saw a youth, all worn and dusty from travel, in a gray, dusty outfit, striding lazily towards the steamed bun stall outside his small shop. Dense misty steam rose from the steam basket, fogging the old man's eyes. He could see that the young man was quite good-looking, with a pair of gimlet eyes and a special look. Old Zhang had never seen anyone like him before. He would even dare say the youth was a first-time visitor to the town. "Sir," Old Zhang said, "we haven't turned on our stoves yet. But the meat buns, plain buns, and marinated soy dishes are ready. Sir, what would you like to eat?" "I want to eat you." The youth said this in such a gentle voice. His words thoroughly shocked Old Zhang. "You want to eat me?" Old Zhang was completely dumbfounded. "Why would you want to eat me? What is so tasty about me?" "Well, you are tasty," the youth said. "If I didn't eat you, how could I have survived until now?" Old Zhang stared at him in shock. Then he suddenly burst out laughing, guffawed even, chuckling like he had never been more delighted seeing anyone. "So it's you, you little bad egg!" Old Zhang was laughing so hard, his facial wrinkles all puckered. "You used to 'eat' me every day, sponging off me for years. So many years have passed since we last saw each other, and you still want to 'eat' me?" "Who else can I eat but you?" The youth was an extreme terror. His words were terrifying. What he did was even more terrifying. He really lifted the drawers of the steam basket, grabbed all the meat and plain buns inside, and stuffed them all down his throat. "You really ate them?" "Of course I did." Old Zhang chuckled again. "Do you remember you sneaking here in the dead of the night on your eleventh birthday, gobbling down all those meat buns of mine? I lost count over how many you ate! I didn't expect you to eat even more today." "It's all thanks to my practicing." The youth's smile suddenly turned quite sad and bitter. "A boy who was famished at six months old could only practice a thing like eating and nothing else." "Go ahead and eat!" Old Zhang let the youth hear him sigh. "Keep eating. I'm used to having you eat!" "Of course, you're also used to not taking my money." "Well, since you never paid me, I have to get used to not taking your money." Old Zhang smiled wryly. "Not that you have any, anyway."
But when Old Zhang said this, his voice sounded a little different from how it normally sounded. Because he had suddenly witnessed a rare scene. On this street surging with sand and dust, there were suddenly four children with round faces, round eyes, and round buns of hair, dressed in round, scarlet robes. They each had a gleaming gold necklet around their necks, a glittering bracelet on each of their wrists, and gold earrings on their earlobes. Their chubby, fair, and small hands were holding a circular plate each, piled roundly with countless circular gold ingots. Each had two round dimples on their round smiling faces, as they walked towards this oblong-shaped shop selling steamed buns. Old Zhang was stunned. He had never seen anyone like these boys here before. And not only did those chubby young kids come up to him, but they also each lifted a round plate to his face. Old Zhang stared at the piles of circular gold ingots on their plates. His eyes, too, became round. "What do you mean by this?" he asked the youth. "Did you just get them to give me these gold ingots?" "Gold ingots? What gold ingots? Where are they? I don't see a single one!" "Then what do you see?" Old Zhang glared fiercely at the youth who was acting dumb. "What do you see, if you don't see gold ingots?" "I only see steamed buns," the youth said. "What a pity. Although the steamed buns you gave me to eat saved my life, these buns I'm giving you aren't edible." "I know what you mean." The old man was really sighing now. "You want to repay me. You told me before you would pay me back a hundred times over, a thousand times over," Old Zhang said. "I used to believe you could do that someday, but now, I don't quite believe you can." "Why?" "Because I don't believe a kid like you could make such a big fortune in just a few short years." The plainly dressed and highly extravagant youth with handsome features, all dusty from travel, suddenly smiled a most mysterious smile. "You don't believe me?" he said. "It's not just you. To be honest, I don't believe it myself too." Old Zhang's face, full of wrinkles, suddenly had a sly, mysterious look. He purposely kept his voice low. "A lone burglar, I heard, has just appeared in the jianghu. Someone so daring and highly skilled, he even dared to rob the imperial treasury." "Oh!" "Have you heard of him?" "No." "His temperament seems quite like yours. And I know you have always been bold as a child." Old Zhang stared at him, his old dim eyes twinkling strangely. "If I were a great thief wanted by the authorities, I would surely hide here too," Old Zhang said. "Hide in this place where chickens don't fly, dogs don't jump and rabbits don't pee. Who can find me here?" The youth also laughed. "Well, every bit of what you said is true."
The girl appeared when the youth was smiling his most adorable smile. To be completely honest, the youth did look like he was thinking bad thoughts with his smile, especially when he fixed his eyes on a girl. She got angry. Although she wasn't on a horse, she had a horsewhip in her hand, like she had wanted to lash people, not horses. Her horsewhip pointing at the youth's nose, she asked Old Zhang: "Who is this guy?" The youth quickly answered before Old Zhang could. "Who is this guy? I'm afraid no one in this world knows the answer better than this guy." Clipping the horsewhip's tip with his two fingers, he turned it towards his own nose. Then he declared: "My family name is Li. I'm Li Huai (Li the Bad)."
"You're bad?" The young lady didn't look like she could hold back her laughter. "So you also know you're bad!" "A man who is called Li Huai is not necessarily a bad person." Li Huai explained with dead seriousness. The girl looked even more curious. "You mean your name's really Li Huai?" "Yes, of course it is," the youth said. "And I have another four-character name." "Four-character name?" The young lady looked at Li Huai with big astonished eyes. "What's your four-character name?" "It's Bad-Li-Huai-deserves-death." [an untranslatable pun. It means 1) Li Huai is dead and 2) Li is so, so bad.] The girl laughed. "Li Huai, you're really bad."
Her laughter was so, so adorable. If Li Huai's laughter could be considered the most adorable among men, then this young girl's laughter could definitely be considered the most adorable among women. Li Huai stared at her, half-dazed and already quite smitten. Suddenly, the girl flicked the horsewhip in her hand like it was a snake, coiling it around Li Huai's neck. Smack! Smack! Her other hand quickly gave Li Huai two hard slaps. She followed them with a sweep of her leg. So the young master of the Li family, who had just returned after making a fortune, now looked like a big bear on its back, all four limbs in the air after tumbling on this loess-dust street, with a big bun stuffed into his mouth.
Looking at Li Huai's face caked with earth and dust, Old Zhang could not stop laughing. "You cannot be that lone thief!" Old Zhang was laughing so hard that his mouth went crooked. "No lone thief in this world can be as useless as you! That girl took care of you without breaking a sweat, just like that!" "What a fierce girl. I never provoked or messed with her. What made her do that?" "Who said you never?" "When did I ever mess with her?" "Don't you remember her?" Old Zhang was smiling his crafty old smile again. "Don't you remember a little girl in a floral frock? Each time you had the opportunity to, you would smear mud on her face as a boy!" Li Huai was shocked. "You mean she is Keke?" "Yes." Li Huai had an awkward grin on his face. "I can't believe she still hates me." But Old Zhang was smiling his happy smile. "Of course, you never imagined she would become as pretty as she is now!"
There are undoubtedly many different kinds of people in this world, just like there are many similar ones. They may share certain traits and be placed under the same category. They may reside in different parts of the world. They may not have even met, yet may be in many ways more alike than real brothers. Fang Tianhao and Duan Bafang were two very good examples. Fang Tianhao was almost as tall and brawny as Duan. They practiced the same "hard-styled" external martial arts. Although Fang wasn't as well known or as elevated in status in the jianghu as Duan, he was definitely a weighty, significant leader in this border region. There were only three things he liked in life. Power, a good name, and his only daughter, Keke.
Now, in a hall as spacious as a horse field, Fang Tianhao was sitting on a pinewood chair which resembled a big stove bed, giving instructions to his trusted lackey Xiaowu in his usual raspy voice: "Go and write me an invitation letter. Use the gilt letter paper from the capital. Write to the man politely." "Write to who?" Xiaowu didn't seem happy or convinced. "Why should we be so polite to the man?" Boss Fang suddenly blew his top. "Why shouldn't we write the man a polite letter? Who do you think you are, Wu Xinliu? And who do you think I am, even if I'm Fang Tianhao? Both of us put together aren't worth even a hair of the man!" "You mean it?" "Of course." Boss Fang said, "The man made so much money in a few years—he raked in millions out of nothing all by himself. How can you guys ever compare with him?" Xiaowu bowed his head. There is a kind of man who will always bow before power and wealth, and do it willingly without any qualms at all. Xiaowu was such a man. "Why don't we give ourselves a few more days to attend cordially to him? Why must we hold the banquet this evening?" Suddenly, rage could be seen on Boss Fang's face. Real rage. "You've been asking too many questions of late." He glared at the smart man before him. "You should go back home and learn how to keep your mouth shut."
It was the fifteenth day of the month. There was a moon on the fifteenth. Full moon. There was even water under the moon. Water Moon Pavilion was under the bright moon, above the rippling waters.
Someone had even built a pond in his residential compound at a border town by the mountains. A person so extravagant should be exiled to the desert and made to dehydrate to death there. Boss Fang was such a person. The banquet was held in Water Moon Pavilion tonight in honor of a guest. The honored guest tonight was Li Huai. So when Li Huai first took his place on the seat of honor, he was almost as bashful as a young girl.
A young girl must eat like any grown man. Since he had been invited to dinner, there ought to be food on the table. But there was no wine or dishes served on the table. Boss Fang could no longer sit still. Since he had invited a guest to dinner, there must be food on the table. Now why wasn't anyone serving the dishes or the wine? Boss Fang knew the reason in his heart, but he didn't dare to lose his temper, because the trouble stemmed from his daughter, Fang Keke. Keke had smashed all the plates and wine jugs they were about to serve to the ground. Because she didn't like the guest tonight. She told the flabbergasted servants: "My silly father invited to dinner tonight, not a man at all but a young bad egg," she said curtly. "Why must we invite a bad egg to dinner, and give it the food and wine reserved for human beings?"
Fortunately, Li Huai managed in the end to have the food and wine reserved for human beings. So many inhuman men had the luck, so why shouldn't Li Huai be as lucky? Of course, the servants from the Fang kitchen had all undergone special training. They were serving the first round of dishes: four hot meat dishes, four cold plates, four stir-fried dishes, and four salad dressings were quickly put on the table. A sculpted plate cast from pure silver, seven inches in diameter, was placed on the table—brought in with both hands by eight male servants dressed in teal robes and wearing plain headgears, as well as eight servant girls dressed in close-fitting scarlet blouses and silk skirts. After that, they retreated to the sides, waiting in attendance. Li Huai sighed in his heart. He couldn't help wondering why dinner was so awkward tonight. So many people were standing around him watching him eat, so how could he have an easy time eating? He couldn't be Li Huai (Li the Bad) if he felt easy eating like this, could he? If he felt easy eating like this, his name should be Li Hao (Li the Good).
Fortunately, he couldn't have guessed the really uneasy moment was yet to come, or he would not probably be able to take even a sip of wine, or eat even a morsel of food.
Li Huai ate three mouthfuls. He had already drank eleven cups of wine by his second mouthful. Boss Fang and Mr. Wu were heavy drinkers too. The lamps lit up the room like it was daylight. Amid the warm wine and scented flowers, people were smiling. The host attended to the guest cordially, the considerate attendants opened a window. There was a moon outside the window. There was light from the full moon. Li Huai was about to toss that small wine cup aside and pour wine from the jug directly down his throat when he heard a hideous scream from a distance.
A hideous scream, meaning someone was screaming out of utter grief, terror, pain, and desperation. Such hideous screams will always sound unpleasant to the ear. But this scream Li Huai was hearing could not be described as just grievous, terrifying, painful, desperate, or unpleasant. The scream he was now hearing was heartrending—ripping his flesh, skin, bones, marrows, liver, organs, blood meridians, sinews, nails, and hair apart. Even his soul had been ripped apart.
Because the scream he was hearing now sounded like a drum beating in battle… beating one round, another round, and a third... Wine splashed out from his cup. Everyone's complexion started to look like the skin of a dead animal. Next, Li Huai saw eighteen youthful warriors in short martial outfits, each brandishing a swift saber, descending from the sky like flying generals on Meander Bridge, just outside Water Moon Pavilion. Like warriors occupying an important strategic point in battle, taking over the bridge. "What on earth is happening?" One could no longer see that gentle, adorable, shy, and somewhat wicked smile on Young Master Li's face. "Has something happened at your place, Uncle Fang? I can slip away through the back gate first." Boss Fang smiled and shook his head. "Things are fine, don't worry." Fang Tianhao's smile was full of confidence. "At my place here, even if something trivial and insignificant were to happen, it wouldn't be a problem. Even if the sky were to fall, Old Uncle Fang would be here to hold it up." He hadn't finished his sentence when that smile vanished from his face.
Fang Tianhao was so deeply confident in his specially trained suicide squad, that he doubted anyone could have even stepped up the bridge when they were holding fort there. No one had been able to convince him otherwise, until now. Unfortunately, that someone could now. It was a man with a swarthy face like black iron, dressed in a fierily scarlet robe, even taller and burlier than Duan Bafang and Fang Tianhao. With his hands behind his back, he seemed like a fair-faced scholar reciting poetry under the moon, sauntering up the bridge leisurely from a gravel pathway over the other side. He didn't seem to have done anything at all. But the moment he stepped on the bridge, everyone in the suicide squad holding fort on the bridge suddenly shrieked miserably and was hurled far away, one after another. The sound of their bones cracking only resounded after a long, long time, when they landed on the artificial hillock behind the pond. By then, the man in the scarlet robe was already seated.
Water Moon Pavilion was bright and resplendent, like a flower market at Lantern Festival. The lights of a flower market at night, as bright as the day. The man in the scarlet robe walked casually in. He sat down just as casually beside the host Boss Fang, and opposite Li Huai, the main guest. His face didn't look like a spring flower on the night of the Lantern Festival. It didn't look at all like a human face either. His face looked like a mask cast from pure, refined steel. Although his face might be smiling, it did not look like he was happy at all. Rather, he seemed to be trying to make his opponent's feet limp from fear. He was smiling. He was smiling as he observed Li Huai. "Mr. Li," he asked in a very strange, husky voice full of derision. "Could I have your surname please, Mr. Li?" Li Huai chuckled, revealing a mouthful of snowy-white teeth. "Of course, a Mr. Li must have the surname of Li." Li Huai's smile wasn't the least bit derisive. "And what about you, Mr. Han? Could I have your surname please, Mr. Han?" There was the same smile on the face of this man in scarlet. An iron stamp seemed to have imprinted that smile on his face. "You know that my surname is Han? So you know who I am?" "Everyone in this world knows the Fiery Iron Judge, Han Jun." Light shot out of Han Jun's eyes. Only now did everyone realize they were teal-blue in color, the color of ice sheets a million years old. They contrasted with his fierily scarlet robe, in a very interesting, very bizarre yet terrifying way. He stared at Li Huai for a long time, speaking slowly and stressing each word. "Yes, I am a Sixth Grade Imperial Bodyguard granted the use of the saber before His Majesty, the Grand Constable of the Justice Ministry—Han Jun from Putian Monastery, a lay disciple of Southern Shaolin." Fang Tianhao's frightened, pale face at last squeezed out a smile. And he stood up at once. "I never thought the world-renowned Grand Constable from the Justice Ministry, Senior Han, would grace our occasion tonight." Han Jun cut him off coldly. "I am not your senior and I'm not here for you." "Are you here for me?" Li Huai asked. Han Jun stared at him again for a long time. "You're Li Huai?" "Yes." "How long did your journey take, from Zhangjiakou?" "I don't know," Li Huai said. "I didn't count the days." "I know. I did," Han Jun said. "You walked a total of sixty-one days." Li Huai shook his head, smiling wryly. "I'm not a big shot and I'm not an imperial bodyguard granted the use of a saber, or a Grand Constable from the Justice Ministry. So why would anyone care about me in such details?" "You are, of course, not a constable from the Justice Ministry. The annual wages of 100 constables won't be enough to last even a day for you." Han Jun was smirking coldly as he asked Li Huai: "Do you know how much you spent in the last sixty-one days?" "I don't know. I didn't count that either." "I did," Han Jun said. "You spent a total of 86, 650 taels of silver." Li Huai whistled, exhaling a mouthful of air. "Did I really spend that much?" "You did." Li Huai was smiling very cheerfully again. "So it seems I'm really rich and really kind." "Of course you are." Han Jun's voice was even colder now. "You were just a poor boy. Where did you get all those money you've been spending?" "That's only my business and none of yours at all." "But it concerns me too." "How so?" "Some caskets of gold have been stolen from the Imperial Treasury, worth 1,700,000 taels of silver. No one person can afford to take the blame, so the Justice Ministry will have to." Han Jun riveted his nail-like eyes on Li Huai. "I was unfortunate enough to be the Grand Constable of the Justice Ministry." Li Huai exhaled a long breath, shaking his head with a sigh. "You're so unlucky." "Unlucky people always need a partner in misery, so please make a trip with me to the Justice Ministry." "Why do I have to go to the Justice Ministry with you?" Li Huai asked, staring with his big eyes. "Does your superior from the Justice Ministry want to invite me to dinner?" Han Jun said no more. His face turned even blacker, his eyes turned even bluer. His eyes were still like nails as he slowly got up from his chair, inch by inch. He was moving very slowly, inch by inch, yet behind each moving inch lurked an unpredictable danger. And he could make everyone sense that.
There was a change in everyone's breathing, as this man moved his majestic body. But not Li Huai. "Why are you staring at me like that? Are you stupid enough to think I was that lone burglar who stole the gold?" Li Huai kept shaking his head and sighing wryly. "I wish I were blessed with such great abilities. If only I had such abilities, no one would have dared bully me." Han Jun did not open his mouth. He made a sound instead. The sound did not come from his lips but from his body. There were more than 300 bones in his body. And each joint was cracking. His hands, arms, feet, and legs seemed to grow a few inches more. Although he hadn't attacked yet, he was already displaying his Shaolin external kungfu to the full. Fang Tianhao could not help but sigh. As a practitioner of external kungfu himself, he was the only one who could deeply appreciate the power of Han Jun's strike. He could even see Li Huai dropping to the ground, writhing in pain. Terrified, Li Huai turned to run. But there was nowhere he could run to, unfortunately. He was surrounded by people: men, women, and children. Everyone was around to serve him as an honored guest. Han Jun moved more and more slowly, his movements even grinding to a halt. Yet he put more and more pressure on the other man, like an arrow pulled tautly on a bow, ready to be released. Fang Tianhao, of course, would not intervene in such matters. Li Huai became desperate. He kicked and overturned the table suddenly and with a deft, clever "borrowed" force, scattered the dozen dishes on the table at Han Jun. Before the plates could reach the man, the soup and gravy had already splashed out. It would be so embarrassing if the Fiery Iron Judge were splashed with gravy from a dish of shepherd's purse and tofu. As swiftly as the wind, Han Jun stepped back. If Li Huai didn't take this opportunity to escape, he would not be Li Huai. But unfortunately, he still could not.
Suddenly, fierce gales accompanied seven steel swords, gleaming coldly as they stabbed in from seven different directions. If Li Huai had reacted the same way as he did against Keke the other day, he would have a big hole in his body if one of these swords was pointing directly at him. Fortunately, not one of these seven swords was aiming directly at him. Seven dings were heard. Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! All seven swords became interlinked in an array, forming a strange and clever contraption—a strange steel lock trying to trap Li Huai in. Everyone in the jianghu knew that no one locked by the Seven Harmony Heartlock Swords had managed to escape. No matter who it was, that person would be trapped like a young girl's heart enticed by her first lover, unable to escape.
All seven swords had the same length, width, weight, shape, and quality, tempered in the same heat, bearing the same accessories. They were identical. Undoubtedly, the seven swords were all forged in the same furnace. But seven completely different hands were grasping the hilts of these seven swords. Their only similarity was having served Li Huai just now at the table. Instead of getting scared, Li Huai laughed. "I never expected this, never expected this at all. The Seven Harmony Heartlock Swords have become attendants at the table, serving rice and tea." He was looking at a tall, slim, pretty, married woman with a lightly freckled face—one of the seven. "Hu Daniang," Li Huai said. "Since you enjoy this sort of a thing, you can make my bed and fold my blanket anytime you like." He then looked at Han Jun and shook his head. "Your Excellency must have made this arrangement too. Who else have you got lurking around here?" "Don't you think I have enough people?" "I don't think you have enough." Han Jun's face sank. He gave a low cry. "Lock him." In this sword array, "lock" means to kill. Seven interlocking swords locking a man's meridians and blood veins, shattering them all. The sword-locking array had been formed. No one could save him now.
Li Huai's veins and meridians were not shattered. His limbs, hands, feet, liver, and organs were not shattered too. It was the swords that fractured instead. The refined steel frames of the Seven Heartlock Swords fractured. All seven swords. Li Huai's hand was holding the sword tips of all seven swords. No one had seen him move, yet everyone could see the seven sword tips, gleaming in his hand. A fractured sword can still kill. The sword lights soared again. And were fractured yet again. The fracturing swords sounded like pearls falling on a jade plate.
The complexion of everyone changed. Han Jun's body extended all of a sudden, like a tiger ready to pounce, brutally attacking Li Huai. Li Huai paced by the side. He attacked indirectly, slicing with a backhand. His slice was far slower than Han Jun's. His skull should have been shattered by the time his slicing hand chopped into Han Jun's underbelly under the ribs. But it turned out everyone was wrong again. Han Jun suddenly staggered back, retreating five steps before he could steady himself. Blood oozed out from the corner of his mouth. Li Huai grinned and bowed. His smile was so bad and so adorable. "I'm taking my leave now, everyone."
The moonlight was as before, the rippling waters were as before, as were the bridge and the pavilion. But it was not the same person now as before. Li Huai sauntered leisurely across Meander Bridge, looking like Han Jun sauntering up the bridge just now. Everyone could only see him go. No one dared to stop him. A faint mist seemed to be rising under the moon, above the rippling waters. A faint human figure could be seen in the mist. Li Huai suddenly saw the figure. No one could describe how he felt upon seeing the figure. He felt like a blind man who had suddenly seen the bright, clear moon in the sky for the first time.
A figure in the mist and moonlight, above the rippling waters. Li Huan stopped walking. "Who are you?" he asked, staring at the misty one in white. "Who are you?" There was no answer. Li Huai walked towards her, as if drawn by some mysterious power, his body stiffly erect as he walked. The clouds unfolded and the moon revealed itself. Faint moonlight happened to shine on her face. A pale face, as pale as the moon. "You're not human." Li Huai looked at her and said, "You must have come from the moon." A mysterious smile that no one could understand suddenly appeared on that pale face. The woman from the moon suddenly said in a dreamy, mysterious voice, "Yes, I came from the moon, I came to the human world only bring you people one thing." "What?" "Death!" A faint blade light, as faint as moonlight. The moonlight was also like a blade. Because at the moment when her blade flashed as faintly as the moonlight, all of a sudden, a murderous aura seemed to emanate from the bright moon in the sky too. A murderous aura out to kill and to slay, irrevocably.
The blade light grew dim, as did the moonlight. Yet the murderous aura remained as thick as blood. The blade light flashed. The silver moon changed color. Li Huai died. Snapping a finger takes sixty split seconds. But Li Huai only took one split second to die. A split second when the blade first flashed. "Flying… dagger!" By the time the blade flash was gone, Li Huai's body was already sprawled over the carved balustrade of Meander Bridge, limp like a rag. The blade had penetrated his chest to the hilt. The heart is undoubtedly a human being's most vital and vulnerable organ. No one can survive a blade pierced into the heart. Still, some people are not easily convinced. Han Jun darted over. With two clipping fingers, he drew out the pale golden hilt, as pale as moonlight. Blood splattered. The blade emerged. A narrow blade that was enough to penetrate the heart. "Well?" "He's dead for sure." Han Jun tried not to wear a too happy expression on his face. "The man is dead for sure."
The moonlight remained as before. Under the moon, the woman in white seemed to have dissolved into the moonlight.
Clear sky. Constantly falling snow that was about to stop. It was getting colder. There was a fire as crimson as the face of a bashful girl in the bronze fire basin, scrubbed as shiny-bright as a mirror. Boss Fang lay slantingly on the large stove bed covered with a sable hide. On the low table in the center of his bed were a few candy and sweet snack jars on a jade plate. And also a lamp and a spear on the table. The lamp wasn't the sort used for lighting. The spear was even less likely the sort used for stabbing fallen enemies to death from horseback. Of course, this spear could be used to kill. But killing with such a spear would take a longer time and cause greater pain.
There was an aroma of evil in this warm room. Human beings have weaknesses. Evil will always be one of the greatest forces tempting a human being. In the same way, the aroma of evil would seem far more enticing than the most fragrant spring flowers from the south of the Yangtze. "This is opium, brought by the red-haired races from India." Boss Fang squinted his eyes, staring at Han Jun who had just appeared in the warm room. "You must try this, or you would have lived your whole life in vain." Han Jun seemed deaf to his words. He only asked coldly, "Did you bury the man?" "I did, long ago." "What about the four boys with him?" Fang Tianhao smiled wryly. "No one would survive a massacre, not even an egg." "So is everything done?" "Done perfectly—more perfectly than a round egg." "Do you foresee any more trouble?" "No," Fang Tianhao said with a smug look on his face. "Absolutely none." Han Jun stared at him coldly for a long time. Then he turned and walked out, before suddenly turning back again. "Don't ever forget this. You'd better not let me see you smoke something like this again. Or I'd also imprison you for eight to ten years in that big jail at the Justice Ministry." There was a small courtyard on the cobblestones, with snow in the courtyard and on the plums. In the snow-laden courtyard, a lonely old plum tree had blossomed by itself. All the loneliness of the world seemed to be growing from its roots. How lonely. A lonely courtyard, with an equally lonely plum tree and lonely man. Han Jun walked out, now facing the cold wind. He drew in a long breath and breathed out again. Then he suddenly stopped breathing. He suddenly saw a pale face amid the crimson plum branches and leaves, staring at him with a sneakily evil smile.
Han Jun must have seen countless faces. Although they were mostly weeping faces, he had also seen many smiling ones. But he had never seen such a crooked, evil, strange, and frightfully intimate smile before. Amid the thousand crimson plum blossoms, there was suddenly a beaming face, looking and smiling at him. What would you do if you were him?
Han Jun took a step back, twisting his hips and leaping into the air. His left arm crossed his chest to defend himself, while his right hand clutched like a big eagle's claw, ready to grab at that pale face amid the crimson plum blossoms. He did not manage to grab it, because he had suddenly recognized the face.
It was the second of the Seven Harmony Swords, Liu Wei—a handsome and imposing-looking man. But now he was no different from any other dead man. Especially since anyone killed by the Seven Rupture and Seven Heartbreak Palms would contort their faces in the semblance of a smile. But their smiles would be sadder, more ghastly, and more gruesome than a weeping face. Liu Wei was killed by the Heartbreak Palms. Han Jun leaped up and recognized the face. He realized the man had been killed by the Heartbreak Palms.
The Seven Harmony Swords were all consummate, expert sword masters—especially Liu Wei and Meng Wu. The second person he found dead was Meng Wu. His body was carted back in a wheelbarrow. He was also fatally wounded by the Seven Rupture and Seven Heartbreak Palms.
The Seven Ruptures. The heart meridian ruptured, the blood meridian ruptured; the tendon meridian, the liver and intestines meridian, the kidney meridian, the bones and marrows meridian, the wrist meridian all ruptured. The Seven Heartbreaks. The heart broken, love broken. Gratitude, hatred, pain, life and death, sentiments and longing all broken. The Seven Rupture and Seven Heartbreak Palms could rupture an opponent and break that person's heart. It was an almost extinct martial arts skill. No one liked to practice an absolutely heartless form of martial arts that was loveless. No one wanted to teach it to others.
Fang Tianhao was asking Han Jun questions. He had asked three questions—all very difficult questions to answer. He had to ask Han Jun as this man was not only one of the few top fighters in the martial arts world, his mind was as sophisticated as an intricate piece of machinery invented by an eccentric genius. He would forget nothing, once he witnessed things with his eyes, heard things with his ears, and processed things in his mind. "Isn't the Seven Rupture and Seven Heartbreak Palms a lost skill? You mean there's still someone in the jianghu who knows this style of kungfu? Who?" "Yes, someone still knows it," Han Jun answered. "Who?" "Li Huai." "He knows it?" Fang Tianhao asked. "How did he learn this skill?" "I know he was the only friend of Liu Lang, the Seven Ruptures, and Hu Niang, the Seven Heartbreaks, when they were still alive." "But Li Huai is dead now, isn't he?" Fang Tianhao asked. "Didn't you say the Moon Goddess's blade is like bronze imperial graduate Little Li's fabled flying daggers? They are always dispatched without ever missing their targets." Han Jun turned his head. His cold and savage eyes were looking out of the window, at the cold crescent moon. The moonlight as cold as a blade. "Yes." Han Jun's voice sounded distant, like it had been transmitted far away to the side of the moon. "Moonlight like blade, the blade-like moonlight," he said. "The Moon Goddess's blade is like a human being under the moonlight. Just like no one can hide from the moonlight, no one can hide from the Moon Goddess's blade." "No one? You mean absolutely no one?" "I mean absolutely no one." "Then what about Li Huai?" "Li Huai is dead," Han Jun said. "He is so wicked and bad, he must die." "If Li Huai was the only one in the world who knew the Seven Rupture and Seven Heartbreak Palms, and if he was already dead by then, who killed the Seven Harmony Swords?"
Han Jun didn't answer this question, since this was a question no one could answer. But he did unravel a thread that might lead to something. Light again suddenly shone in his eyes. "Yes, it was five years ago." Han Jun said, "Five years ago, on the sixth day of the second month. It was still snowing." "What happened on that day?" Fang Tianhao asked. "I was on duty at the Justice Ministry, sleeping overnight in the Ministry's archives room. I couldn't sleep in the middle of the night and got up to look through the files. One file in particular caught my eyes." "Oh?" "An archival file from the 'Xuan' radical cabinet mentioned a man by the name of Ye Shengkang." "What about that man?" "He was stabbed three times in the heart. All three penetrated his chest, which would have been absolutely fatal." "He didn't die?" "He didn't," Han Jun said. "He's still alive and well in Beijing today." "The sharp sword pierced his heart and no one could save him. So how come he's still alive?" Fang Tianhao asked. "Because the sharp sword did not pierce that part of his chest where his heart was," Han Jun said. "In other words, his heart was not in that spot where it ought to be." "I don't understand." Fang Tianhao looked as if a flower was suddenly growing out of the man's nose. "I really don't get what you mean." "Alright, let me explain as plainly as I can," Han Jun said. "That man Ye Shengkang's heart is on the right side." "Heart on the right side?" Fang Tianhao asked. "What do you mean?" "I mean his heart is not on the left side of his chest, but on the right. All the organs in his body are on the opposite side to an ordinary person's." Fang Tianhao froze. He could only speak after a long time. He asked Han Jun, putting stress on each word: "So you think Li Huai's heart is on the right side, like Ye Shengkang's?" "Yes," said Han Jun, stressing each word like him. "There can be no other explanation." "Since Li Huai's heart is on the right side, he did not die under the Moon Goddess's blade. Although her blade pierced his chest, his heart wasn't where it ought to be." Fang Tianhao stared at Han Jun and asked, "Is this what you mean?" "Yes."
"If a man's heart isn't in that spot where it ought to be, how will that man feel about himself?" "He will feel very happy!" "Happy? Why will he feel happy?" "Because it is an error. And errors often lead to many kinds of happiness."
Li Huai must be feeling very happy. He wasn't dead. No one who wished him dead knew where he was. He must be dying of happiness, under those circumstances.
An arrest warrant had been issued. The highly skilled constables from the neighboring provinces, counties, prefectures, and circuits had all gathered here. "Hunt Li Huai down." Han Jun gave his order. "He must be somewhere around this place. We must spare no costs to search him out."
But they couldn't find him. Because Li Huai was lying in a place not one of them could dream of, snoring soundly. This Li Huai was really so bad.
Li Huai's feet were resting high on a tabletop. He was snoring soundly. This was so strange. He was obviously a man, a man who could be considered even a very coarse one. Yet his feet were like a girl's: fair, tender, and clean. He had claimed that many girls adored his feet. We, of course, cannot always take Mr. Li Huai at his word. But we can certainly believe in certain things that he said.
This place was really perfect for sleeping. Not just for sleeping, it was perfect for everything—all sorts of things. It was such a nice place and really so comfortable. A young rascal like Li Huai really didn't deserve to be in this place. Yet here he was, which was why no one expected it. Where exactly was this place?
A girl pushed open the door and slipped in quietly. She came just noiselessly to where Li Huai was, fixing her gentle eyes on Li Huai tenderly—on his face, his sleepy eyes, and his feet. Li Huai was sleeping like a corpse. Yet this dead man suddenly stretched out a hand. A bad and sneaky dead man. His sneaky hand did something worse, trying to reach for a spot it shouldn't be grabbing. "Bad," the girl said. "Li Huai, you little bastard. You're so bad."
And who was this girl? Did she have any special feelings for or a unique relationship with Li Huai? Why was she keeping him company when he was in such danger? And what special abilities did she have, to be able to ensure his safety and keep his whereabouts a secret?
"So carefree and easy huh?" the girl said. "Do you know those guys hired by my dad and Han Jun are hunting for you, combing every inch of this ground?" "I know. Of course I know," Li Huai said. "But I'm not in the least bit worried." "Why not?" "They all think that you hate me most in this town. What's more, you're your dad's daughter. They must be living ghosts, not humans, if they managed to find me here."
But Li Huai really met a living ghost this time.
The first person Li Huai saw was Han Jun. The moment the man pushed the door open, Li Huai thought he had just seen a living ghost. A living ghost that had fallen alive from the sky. Han Jun gazed at the astounded man before him with gentle, almost sympathetic eyes. "I know you didn't expect this. I didn't expect this myself either." Han Jun sighed. "We all thought we would never see your face in this life again." Li Huai's bad-yet-so-adorable face beamed with that unique smile of his. "Where's that girl? That pretty, mysterious girl from the moon who loves killing people?" Li Huai asked Han Jun. "Did she come today?" "No." "I've already guessed she won't be coming." "You knew?" "Of course I know," Li Huai said. "Moonlight like blade, the blade-like moonlight. I was almost killed by her blade. Of course I know that her strikes are like Li Xunhuan's famous flying daggers of old. The Moon Goddess almost never misses her target. And I know how expensive it is to hire her." A strange emotion could almost be heard in Li Huai's voice. "Most importantly, I know that the Moon Goddess never strikes twice. Like Li Xunhuan, she won't strike again if she didn't kill her target the first time." "So you're sure she won't come today?" Han Jun asked. "Yes, I'm sure she won't come today," said Li Huai. "You can't afford her services again. Even if you could, she wouldn't come to kill the same man twice." "You're right, you're absolutely right. The Moon Goddess is indeed the most expensive killer in the world at present. And she's indeed not coming today." Li Huai smiled. "But I believe you must have guessed I won't come here alone too." "Yes." Li Huai smiled. "Of course you won't come alone. If you came alone, you wouldn't be able to leave today." Han Jun gazed at him with the same gentle, almost sympathetic eyes. "Then do you know who I brought along today?" "No."
Of course Li Huai wouldn't know. He couldn't have guessed. No one could. No one could imagine the Grand Constable of the Justice Ministry, the world-renowned "Fiery Iron Judge" Han Jun, would dispatch so many first-class fighters in the martial arts world, just to hunt down an unknown lad. All the experts affiliated with the six departments of the Justice Ministry were after him. As if summoned by a sleight of hand, they had suddenly appeared in this mountain town, from every direction and every place. And they were suddenly in this small house Li Huai thought was the most peaceful in the world.
Li Huai was in a really bad situation this time.
No matter who it was under those circumstances, no one could have escaped after running into these experts, the way Li Huai ran into them today. He couldn't even run to his death. Because some of them didn't want him to die so fast. He couldn't live and neither could he beg for death. So what else do you suggest Li Huai do? If he was someone who could be totally stumped, he wouldn't be Li Huai.
Li Huai suddenly did something no one ever expected him to, especially Keke. She couldn't imagine him doing such a thing, not even in her worst nightmare. Someone suddenly grabbed her hand. And that someone was Li Huai. Of course, Li Huai had often grabbed her hand before, like how he used to grab at many parts of her body. But this time, it was completely different. Li Huai was now actually using the most powerful of the Little Seventy-Two Grips to grip her hand. Her wrist seemed to have been locked suddenly by an iron handcuff. And then she suddenly heard Li Huai say: "You people can start congratulating me now, since I can no longer die." Li Huai's smile was so hateful. "I'm sure no one among you would like to see Miss Fang die so suddenly when she's still so young and pretty. So I will probably live too," Li Huai said. "If I die, Miss Keke won't be able to live too." Li Huai sighed. "I believe everyone can see this fact as well as I do."
Did Li Huai just say something so shameless and despicable? Keke couldn't believe her ears. She wasn't the only one. The others couldn't believe their ears either. Boss Fang's face turned pig-liver color at that instant. "You little bastard, do you consider yourself even human? How could you do such a thing?" Fang Tianhao was growling angrily. "My daughter was so nice to you, how could you do such a thing to her?" "It's nothing strange at all," Li Huai said calmly with good reason. "I, Li Huai, have always been a bad person—so bad that it would be strange if I didn't do such a thing." He bowed in a very elegant manner. "I'm sure everyone can see what's happening now," Li Huai said. "So I believe you will let me go." Then he said, "Who the hell is Li Huai? I'm nothing but a rascal, so how can you use a bastard's life to exchange for Miss Keke's? So I believe I can say goodbye to everyone here now."
And so, Li Huai really said goodbye to these top martial arts exponents who were out to kill him. It was also true that he really came out of the tiger's den in one piece. Even he almost couldn't believe that. He shouldn't have gotten away so easily, despite the fact Li Huai had a hostage with him, and despite the fact that Fang Tianhao doted on his daughter. Everyone here out to capture him had an ace move, so even if he had a hostage, they could have easily come up with some other ways to deal with him. Moreover, these men did not necessarily care about the life of Boss Fang's precious daughter. So why would they let Li Huai go? This was something no one could understand.
A swift horse, galloping post-haste. The mountain town retreated slowly, further and further away into the distance.
The mountain town was now far away. Although it was now far away, the moon was still visible. One could still see that same bright, round moon as from the town. At this moment, the moonlight was certainly not as keen as a blade. At this moment, the moonlight was as pale as water. Faint moonlight shone into the shack through a half-open window. There was also a cold mountain draft blowing in. A wooden shack in the mountains. Li Huai was in the shack. Keke was also here, of course.
She was standing in front of the fireplace. Her face was crimson, illuminated by the roaring fire. Li Huai's face was pale. Gone was that bad look on his face and that bad smile too. He actually seemed to be thinking. Because he didn't understand, yet he seemed to have almost understood. While he was running away, a pale white figure—a figure as pale as moonlight—seemed to have brushed past his body. It was as if the moonlight and mountain peaks were brushing past him lightly. He did see such a figure. Because he had also heard a voice at that moment, from a woman with a gentle voice like the moonlight: "Stay where you are, all of you. Let Li Huai go… "
Li Huai wasn't dreaming. He had stopped dreaming since he was very, very young. He did hear her voice speak. But he was even more confused now. He had gotten away easily because the Moon Goddess had blocked his pursuers. Now why would the Moon Goddess do that?
The fire flickered. Their faces were even redder now. "I've made up my mind," Keke suddenly said. "Absolutely and completely." Her voice sounded so strange. "Made up your mind to do what?" Li Huai asked. "Made up my mind to do something," Keke said. "I've made up my mind to do something that will make you both happy and feel so, so grateful to me." "Exactly what?" For a long time, Keke stared at this man with deep, deep emotions. Then she said to him in a voice full of deep, deep feelings. "I know you will feel so, so touched when I tell you that. I just hope you won't cry after that. I hope there won't be tears falling from your eyes." "Don't worry, I won't cry." "You will." Li Huai gave up. "Alright, no matter how much your words will touch me, you should at least tell me what it is you have decided to do." "Alright, I'll say it." Keke had a really determined look on her face. "I've decided to forgive you." She spoke so determinedly, almost like Zhuge Liang making up his mind to kill Ma Su. "No matter what you did to me, I've decided to forgive you. Because I know you have your reasons, you must survive no matter what." She suddenly ran over and wrapped her arms around Li Huai's neck. "So you don't have to explain anything," Keke said. "Since I have forgiven you, you don't have to explain anything."
Li Huai gave no explanation. —There are certain things you can't and won't say that you must have someone else say for you. Because they are exactly the things that person wants to hear and say to herself. "I know you're never an ungrateful wretch who takes revenge. You did that to me only to stay alive." Keke was making excuses for Li Huai. "Any man will do what you did under those circumstances. A man who wants to be with his girl has to first survive." Keke was smiling sweetly. "Under those circumstances, what can a man do but take me with him if he wants us to be together? There is nothing else he can do." And she giggled more and more happily. "So I don't blame you at all, because I totally understand your reason for doing it. You're... you're such a little rascal. Luckily, I'm not a nice girl either."
She laughed happily, since she had said precisely the things she herself most liked to hear. As a result, she didn't notice at all that faint, white figure in Li Huai's pupils. —Was that lady from the moon here again? Did she just appear right before Li Huai's eyes?
"I'm leaving," Li Huai said suddenly. "You're leaving?" Keke asked in surprise. "For what place?" "I don't know." "Why are you leaving?" "I don't know." "Don't you know anything?" "No, I know nothing," Li Huai said. "I just know that I have to leave right now." This extremely smart, extremely bad boy now actually had a stupefied expression on his face and in his eyes. —That dream-like figure dressed in white was still, of course, in his eyes. Keke looked at him, like a drowning man watching a driftwood log he could hold onto suddenly washed away by the tides. She watched in this way as Li Huai walked past her to the door. There was nothing she could do.
Beyond that door, the moon resembled water. Someone dressed in white was under the moon. Someone in the rain and the mists, between the waters and the moon, among the trees by the mountains. She was silent. More silent than even the trees by the mountains, in the rain and mists, under the moon, above the waters. She was watching Li Huai quietly. She didn't say a word. But Li Huai seemed to have heard a mysterious incantation. She didn't wave to him. She didn't move at all. But Li Huai seemed drawn to her by the most powerful sorcery in the whole universe. She didn't ask Li Huai to follow her. But Li Huai walked past the woman who loved him most, to this woman who was as clear and cold as water, under the moonlight. Li Huai didn't seem bad at this moment at all. He was not only not bad, but he was better behaved than the most docile and obedient of children. Every bad boy will behave in this way before a certain somebody. It may be the greatest sorrow a bad boy can have.
"I didn't ask you to come." "I know." "So why did you come?" "I don't know why." "What do you know?" "I only know I have come. And since I have come, I will surely not leave again," Li Huai said. "You won't leave, no matter where this place is?" "Yes, never." "You won't regret it?" "I will never regret, not even if I die." So Li Huai went to this world. A world never before visited by mortal humans, a world that didn't belong to human beings. Everything in this mysterious, distant and beautiful world was the property of the moon. No one knew where it was. No one knew what its mountains and rivers were like, in shape or appearance. No one even knew that it existed.
The spring snow had melted. Now, clear molten spring water was already trickling down the high mountains. At the summit, that mass of snow that had existed since time immemorial was already hiding in the white fleecy clouds, gleaming with silver. Everything rarely changed in this silvery-white world. You can almost say nothing had changed at all. One can only experience changes with life. But there was almost no life here. Li Huai already sensed this when he came. He didn't care. He already had that mysterious relationship he had never before dreamed of, with a woman he never dreamed of having. It gave him a new lease of life. He also brought life into this world.
But that morning, everything in this universe was annihilated for Li Huai.
Li Huai had been here 117 days—2,808 hours. Tender, loving feelings, so thick and undissolvable, filled every day, hour, and moment. The moon wasn't cold. Ordinary mortals can never appreciate the gentle moonlight. Li Huai felt fortunate and proud, since he had something no one else could ever have.
A sword has two edges. Everything has a positive and a negative side. The moment you get something you greatly cherish, you will often lose another thing you greatly cherish too. The more you get, the more you will probably lose. Enveloped by such tender, loving, amorous feelings, Li Huai would suddenly feel a pain he had never experienced before. He was afraid of loss. He was afraid of losing the woman he most loved in his life. The moment when things started, he had the feeling he would lose her sooner or later.
The feeling came true that morning.
It was oddly quiet that morning, oddly cold and oddly beautiful. It was no different from the other 117 mornings at all. The only difference was that no one was beside Li Huai that morning. Where was she? She had gone—like a dream, a fog, a mist. Without saying anything, leaving behind not a word. She had left just like that. —Did you leave just like that? It was all real. The love was real, the dream was real, their union was real, their separation was real too. —There is nothing more real in this world than separation.
Li Huai became bad again. Li Huai ate, Li Huai drank, Li Huai whored, Li Huai gambled, Li Huai got himself drunk. He tried to eat but could not. He gambled but could never end up losing. He whored, but others might be whoring him too. So he could only make himself drunk. But so what if he got drunk? To stay drunk forever is just a poet's empty dream. Who can remain drunk forever? Who can understand the empty loneliness assailing like a cold wind once you become sober again?
A prodigal son without roots, always hoping to find a place of his own. So Li Huai went back to the mountain town. The small mountain town, like the mountains with its eternal mass of solid snow, always used to seem quite the same. But it had completely changed now upon his return.
The mountain town had changed. The distant mountains were still there. The teal rocks, green trees, red flowers, yellow loess at the foot of the mountains were still there. But not the mountain town. The inhabitants of the mountain town were gone too. The mountain town, which had existed since time immemorial in Li Huai's heart and would no doubt continue to exist forever, was now suddenly gone. The mountain town had turned into a ghost town.
A dead chicken, a dying dog—behind a broken window clattering in the wind, on a street as silent as death, dusty with yellow loess. A cold, fireless stove, an empty, smashed wine jar. An empty upended steam basket containing not one moldy bun. And a man dying like the dog.
He was the only person Li Huai saw after coming back to the mountain town. He recognized him. Of course he recognized the man. It was Old Zhang, the owner of the steamed bun shop.
"What happened to this place? Where are the people? What the hell's going on?" Li Huai kept asking Old Zhang desperately, but got nothing out of him. Old Zhang was starving like that dog. He seemed almost dead now. Li Huai took out all the rations and water from his traveling bag and fed the man and the dog. The dog ended up barking again and the man could also speak. A pity the man could only say one word. He kept repeating it, although it was just one word—"Keke". "Keke, Keke, Keke, Keke...… " He kept repeating the word. No one knew how long he repeated it. No one knew how long he would keep on repeating it. Li Huai gave a cry, almost jumping up. He hadn't heard her name for such a long time. Why did Old Zhang keep repeating her name over and over again at this moment? The mountain town was now a ghost town. Was anyone else in this ghost town still alive other than Old Zhang? "Where's Keke?" Li Huai asked. "Is she still alive?" Old Zhang raised his head, staring at him. Light suddenly shot out from his old, dull, confused eyes.
This was how Li Huai ended up seeing Keke again.
The back garden belonging to the Fang family was deserted. In the derelict courtyard, there were three small pinewood buildings hidden among the cold, wrecked courtyard terrace, wilting trees and grass. It was already deep in the night. With only a dim lamplight in the derelict garden. Li Huai walked behind Old Zhang. He found himself staring at a small wooden shed.
There was light in the shed. Someone was under the light. A girl who looked so thin, she seemed almost deformed. She had a pale and obsessed-looking face. Keke. "Li Huai. You bad boy. You're so bad." Her mouth kept repeating these words, again and again. Her heart had been completely broken, everything in the world had been shattered along with her broken heart. There was nothing else she could link together other than those three phrases. The mind of a brokenhearted woman will be broken too.
Li Huai's heart was breaking, yet that adorable and hateful smile was still on his face. Under those circumstances and at that moment, what else could he do but smile? Or would you rather see him cry? "Keke, I'm Li Huai, I'm that bad bad boy. I'm so bad, I'm even mad at myself," Li Huai said. "I'm so bad, I'm sure you won't find another person as bad. So I believe there's no way you can't recognize me." But Keke didn't seem to recognize him at all. Keke stared at him like she had never seen him all her life. Keke stared at him like he wasn't even human, more a pile of dog shit. Then she gave him a slap.
She slapped Li Huai cold and hard on his face. And Li Huai laughed, laughed happily instead. "You still recognize me! You must have, or you wouldn't have hit me." "Do I?" The same dazed look was still on Keke's face. "Do I know you?" Li Huai nodded. The moment he nodded, her hand slapped his face again. He liked being slapped by her, which was why he allowed her to do that. He knew he had done her wrong, which was why he would even take 876 slaps willingly from her.
He did not end up with 876 slaps, only three. At that precise moment the crazy, obsessed-looking Miss Keke gave him three slaps, her thumb also hit his "Yingxiang" acupoint under the nose. So Li Huai found himself in a bad situation again.
The old mansion and its deep courtyard were bleak and cold, indescribably solemn and awe-inspiring. There were countless crimson dots of plum blossoms. A few old buildings—a courtyard, a terrace, a tower, and a pavilion. A lonely old man sitting alone under the porch, looking long isolated from the world. It wasn't the world that wanted to isolate him, but he who wanted to isolate the world.
A tall, brawny old man, also with silvery-white hair, crossed the snow-laden courtyard with footsteps almost lighter than a civet cat's. They left almost no footprints in the snow. The tall, brawny old man came up to him and suddenly seemed much shorter. "We've received news of the young master." "Go and bring him back." The lonely eyes of the lonely old man suddenly lit up. "No matter where he is, no matter what method you use, you must bring him back."
Even Li Huai was somewhat bewildered this time, not knowing how he got himself into such a bad situation. He never thought he would end up so badly in the soup one day. He was really unlucky. Someone had sealed his "Yingxiang" acupoint under his nose so deviously and cunningly. Even worse, it was sealed by a girl—a girl he trusted completely. She followed that by sealing another seventeen or eighteen of his acupoints. So Mr. Li Huai, himself notorious for every sort of devious trick, could only sit obediently on a big rosewood chair, waiting for someone to fix him. Who and how would that someone fix him? "Keke, why did you do that to me?" "Because I hate you, I hate you so much." "How have I offended you?" "You're not even human, you're a living ghost. That's why you only like that female living ghost from the moon." Li Huai laughed. He laughed wickedly. You have to really admire him for being able to laugh at such a moment. "What are you laughing at?" "I'm laughing at you. So you're jealous."
In fact, he shouldn't have laughed. He must know one mustn't laugh at jealous girls. Because jealous girls can end up murdering people.
Li Huai knew he could lose his life this time when he saw Boss Fang and Han Jun walk in from the outside.
Han Jun was also laughing. Of course, he had reasons to laugh. He could at last account for the missing gold, stolen from the imperial treasury. And at last, he could bring that criminal mastermind, Li Huai, to justice. "You son of a bitch," Li Huai cursed in a very gentle voice. "You damn bastard. You stole the gold. You want me to be your scapegoat. I can forgive you that, because if I were you, I would probably have done that too. But why do you want me dead?" "Because you're bad." Han Jun hadn't laughed so much since he was five. "If I allowed someone as bad as you to live, how could I ever sleep for the rest of my life?" And naturally, Boss Fang was laughing too. Li Huai stared at him and suddenly said in a very mysterious voice. "I wouldn't be laughing if I were you." "Why not?" Li Huai lowered his voice even more mysteriously. "Don't you know your daughter's already carrying my child?" The smile on Boss Fang's face froze. He struck Li Huai's face with the back of his hand. That same smile remained on Li Huai's face. "It's alright for you to hit me. What a pity, you can never hit that child in your daughter's belly," Li Huai said. "Why she hates me so much and tried so hard to harm me, is because I'm ignoring her although she's carrying my baby."
Fang Tianhao's face turned green. He suddenly spun around and stormed out. Li Huai smiled even more wickedly. He knew that the man was going to settle scores with his daughter. He also knew that Keke's reputation was ruined forever. She was a sneaky girl carrying a bad boy's child. She would be in trouble herself once her father caught hold of her. Li Huai felt he had somewhat avenged himself.
Li Huai was really bad, but he seldom took revenge as coldly and cruelly as he was doing now. He wasn't that sort of a man.
But unfortunately, a string of misfortunes often accompanies an unlucky man. Fang Tianhao had stormed out. Now, he was suddenly retreating again. He kept stepping back, looking like he had seen the god of plague. Li Huai didn't know what was happening outside, but it wasn't difficult for him to see that Fang Tianhao must have encountered something very shocking. He could guess that even with his navel. Only a few things could have alarmed Fang Tianhao so much, under the present circumstances. Li Huai became curious, like a seventeen-year-old girl faced with fresh, amorous feelings when taking a first lover. What was beyond that door? What had happened? No one could answer these questions, not even Li Huai. They were all getting nervous.
"Who is that?" Han Jun darted out like an arrow, shouting quietly, poised to strike with his deadly left fist and right palm. Yet he too suddenly retreated like Fang Tianhao, taking steps backward. There was the same look of shock and fear on his face. A tall, elderly, and majestic man with a head of silver hair slowly walked in from the outside.
Li Huai's heart sank. If there was ever someone in this world who could give him a headache upon seeing him, it was this man.
The old man's hair was like silvery-white strands. His attire glowed with the same silvery light. Even his belt was pure silver braided with platinum. The man never once denied he was extremely extravagant and fussy—fastidious about every detail concerning his clothes, food, housing, and transport. These were clearly his shortcomings, yet no one could deny that his strengths far outnumbered his weaknesses. Most importantly, he was absolutely entitled to enjoying everything he loved.
The old man paced in slowly, his hands behind his back. Han Jun and Fang Tianhao immediately bowed, showing him the deepest, most heartfelt respect. "Chief Steward, you last showed up in the jianghu nearly ten years ago. What brought you to this place today?" Fang Tianhao asked. "How is the Old Villa Master these days?" Han Jun asked even more reverentially. "Is the Young Master slightly better?" The elderly man merely gave them a faint smile. He said nothing in reply. But Li Huai shouted, "The Old Villa Master's getting worse each day, and the Young Master's dying. How can he tell you that? He won't even give a fart, of course." "What impudence!" Fang Tianhao and Han Jun shouted together. Han Jun struck at once. He already wanted to silence Li Huai. Of course, he wouldn't miss this golden opportunity. So naturally, he attacked with his most deadly strike. A blow that had killed so many in the martial arts community. With seventeen or eighteen of his major acupoints sealed, what else could a man do but wait for death? Li Huai knew he still had a chance. But it was a chance he didn't want to have at all.
Han Jun unleashed his full power, aiming to kill two birds with one stone. He not only wanted to silence Li Huai, but also impress that peerless personage, the Chief Steward. So he attacked, intending to kill. There was a flash of silvery light. Even Han Jun was surprised as his body flew out. Even more unexpectedly, that silvery flash turned out to be the Chief Steward's long robe sleeve. Fang Tianhao was stunned. What followed astonished them even more. Despite them showing him such great reverence, the Chief Steward actually walked up to Li Huai and bowed—even more respectfully than they did to himself. That in spite of Li Huai insulting him. Fang Tianhao and Han Jun could not believe their eyes. How could such a thing ever happen in this world? What they next heard astonished them even more. The old man was like a deity from heaven, clad in majestic shining silver. Yet he actually spoke in a humble servant's voice: "Second Young Master, the Villa Master wants this servant to take you home." Go home? A rootless wanderer, a bad boy with no home since young. He had no family, no food to eat... where was his home? Amidst the unending procession of long and short pavilions, where was his home? (a quotation from a Chinese poem)
Keke suddenly appeared at the doorway, blocking the silver-haired elderly man whom the other two did not dare to. "Who are you? Are you Tie Yinyi, that man who massacred so many twenty years ago?" "I am." "Why are you taking him away?" "I was ordered to." "By whom?" "Old Villa Master Li, a man whom every hero respects." "Why is he ordering you to take him home? I saved this man's life, gave up my life's happiness for him. I'm already pregnant with his child. I worked so hard to catch him this time. I even turned my hometown into a ghost town." Keke's voice was hoarse from shouting. "Why can't I have him stay here? Old Villa Master Li has no right to take him away!" Tie Yinyi remained silent for a long time. Then he said slowly, stressing each word: "Old Villa Master Li is his father." "His father?" Keke was laughing maniacally. "What did his father ever do for him? He never wanted him as a boy. He never cared about him. So why is he getting you to take him back?" Keke's laughter almost sounded like sobs. She forcefully tugged Li Huai's sleeve. "I know that you won't go back. You were unwanted as a boy. No one cared or gave a damn about you. So why would you go back now?" "I want to." "Why?" Li Huai remained silent for a long time. Then he said slowly, word by word: "I don't know. I really don't know why."
In fact, he knew. Every rootless wanderer wants to find a home of his own.
Another bright moonlit night. Like Keke, someone was shedding tears in the bright moonlight. She was using her wispy, moon-like sleeve to wipe away her tearstains under the bright moon, just as quietly.
PART TWO: THE NINE YEARS THAT HAVE VANISHED LIKE SMOKE
Chapter 1: Li Huai's Home
The distant mountains. A mountain town. The morning of an unknown New Year's Day. Firecrackers crackled incessantly in the distance. The auspicious silvery-white snow on the ground symbolized the year's rich harvest. It was undoubtedly a year of joy for most people. But for this boy, it was a year no different from many other years. He had nothing but humiliation, suffering, and hunger. In this world, he had no kin. And never a single day of easy rest. He had nothing in this world at all. While everyone was feeling so happy and joyous, he was feeling utterly miserable and lonely.
He hid in that thatched hut by the foot of the mountain, all by himself. Those red flowers, fresh fruits, new clothes, firecrackers, dumplings, roast pork, and red packets belonged to the other children. He never once dreamed of having them. A little girl in red brought him a chicken thigh, two chunks of roast pork, three fried pancakes, four marinated eggs, five or six rolls of sugar cakes—all wrapped up in a scarlet silk handkerchief. She gave them quietly to him. But he drove the girl away. He didn't want any pity. He didn't want any alms. The little girl cried and cried and went away, leaving the chicken thigh, roast pork, fried pancakes, marinated eggs, and sugar cakes scattered in the snow by the slope. He could easily walk out, pick them up, and eat. No one would know, no one would mock him. But he didn't. Although he was starving, he didn't pick them up. He would rather die of starvation than pick them up. He was born with such a temperament. A temperament that flowed in his blood. Never to compromise, never to give in, never to submit.
A tall, elderly, majestic man with a head of silvery hair suddenly appeared before the boy. The man had been observing him quietly from a distance for a long time. The boy stared back at the old man. He asked fiercely, "Why are you staring at me like that on New Year's Day? You should be celebrating with your children at home! What's on me to stare at?" The old man sounded so solemn, the solemnity almost bordered on pain. "What's your family name?" he asked the boy. "I don't know." "You don't know? You don't even know your family name?" "Why must I?" The boy jerked his mouth, squinting and puffing out his chest. "I have no father, no mother, and I don't know my family name. This is my family affair and none of your damn business at all, so why are you asking me?" The old man stared at him, with a sorrowful pain that intensified in his eyes. "How do you know you have nothing to do with me? I came here especially to look for you." "Came here for me? You don't even know me! What do you want from me?" "But I do know you." "You know me? Are you kidding?" The boy was surprised. "You mean you know who I am?" "I know, of course I know." The old man's voice was full of pain and sorrow. "I also know your father. Without him, I would be worse off than even you alive." The child stared at him in amazement for a long time. "Who are you?" The boy asked him. "Give me your family name." "My family name is Tie (Iron)." "And you know mine?" "Your family name is Li," the old man said. "Your name ought to be Li Shan (Li the Benevolent)." The boy suddenly laughed. "Li Shan? My name ought to be Li Shan? A boy like me, if my family name is Li, must be called Li Huai (Li the Bad)."
Chapter 2: Flesh and Blood
The old man took the boy away. "Where are you taking me?" "Home." "Home? Do I have a home?" "You do," said the old man. "I'm sure you'll be proud of your home, and your home will be proud of you." "Proud of me? A kid like me who's been every inch bad, from head to toe?" "You aren't bad." "I'm not bad? So how bad would mean bad?" "You can only be bad if you do mean, shameless, despicable things," the old man said. "But you won't do them." "How do you know that?" "Because you're a member of the Li family, your father's own flesh and blood." The old man sounded more serious. "As long as you can keep that bit of a backbone, I can guarantee that no one in this world will ever dare treat you with the slightest contempt."
And so Li Huai went home. It was the first time he went home, nine years ago. Now, he was going home again. With the passing of years, so many things and people had changed. After nine years, the boy was now a grown-up. After nine years, he had mastered a peerless skill. After nine years, he had unearthed a treasure that can rival a nation's wealth.
Nine years. How many things had changed in nine years?
"I can go with you if that's what you want. But you must promise me one thing at least." "What is it?" "I want wine. And I want to enjoy it to the full." "Alright, I'll buy you wine." Tie Yinyi said, "I promise you will have a great time drinking wine."
Highland. An expansive plateau. An autumn breeze was blowing, yet not a falling leaf could be seen, since there was not even a single tree on this wild plain. Yet overnight, this place had seen great changes. There were suddenly more than twenty tents topped with golden tassels, erected around one massive tent with a canopy sewn from 1,128 pieces of calfskin. It took place in the morning. The herdsmen who were there the day before arrived in the morning. They thought they had come to the wrong place. Things became even more surprising at noon. No one could believe their eyes. All of a sudden, there was a red carpet over the grassland. Carriages brought in many exquisite wooden vessels, tables, chairs, and bed curtains, which were carried into different tents. Wine vessels cast from solid gold and silver were set on the dining table in the main tent. Seven or eight large, roomy carriages appeared. Several middle-aged men alighted. They had potbellies protruding slightly and were all big shots, or so it seemed. There was almost a greasiness on their faces that could never be washed off. Very few people knew who they were. Someone was heard yelling from a distance, "Announcing the arrivals of Master Chen from Heavenly Scent Hall, Master Wang from Deer Bleat Garden, Master Du from Spring Heart Garden, Master Hu from Jade Spring Pavilion, Master Li from Top Graduate House, Master Lin from Great Constellation Restaurant!"
Another group appeared around dusk, on pliant horses and carriages wafting with fragrance. Gorgeous beauties stepped down from the carriages. They were attended to by maidservants both young and old, pretty page girls and handsome page boys. Each beauty had her own unique grace, style, and charisma.
They were assigned to different tents.
Tie Yinyi and Li Huai were, of course, the last to arrive.
It was past dusk by the time Li Huai arrived. The inside of the tent was already as brightly lit as the day. Li Huai squinted his eyes, smiling. "What they say—that Chief Steward Tie is the most generous and extravagant man in the world—is surely no exaggeration." "I promise to let you enjoy your wine to the full. I'm going to pay for it grandly." "Looks like I have no excuse not to get drunk tonight." "Then get drunk," Tie Yinyi said. "The two of us aren't friends, but I can be drunk with you tonight." "We're not friends? Why not?" Li Huai asked. Tie Yinyi stared at him. He had that heavy and solemn expression in his eyes again. "Always remember, you're the Second Young Master of the Li family. No one in the world can be your friend, given your status and position." He continued, stressing each word. "You must remember this even more: after drinking with me tonight, you'd probably not have another chance to drink like this again." "Why not?" "Because you're now heir to those peerless flying daggers." Tie Yinyi's face became even more solemn. "And you must pay a painful price to inherit them." "Why must I inherit them?" "You're born to. You have no choice at all." "Can't I live a happier life?" "No." Li Huai laughed again. "I'm not convinced. I'd have to find a way to."
No matter how depressed, disillusioned, or despondent a man feels when he becomes sober, he's always happy drinking wine—especially with beautiful women serving him with choice vessels. So Li Huai drank. Tie Yinyi also drank—no less than Li Huai. The man had rampaged the world twenty years ago, massacring so many. There was never the slightest emotion on his face. Did this old man have an untangled knot in his heart, that could only be undone by wine?
It was deep in the night and they were almost drunk. In the darkest, deepest, blackest portion of the night, a strange and mysterious noise like that of a buzzing mosquito was heard. It was soft, scrawny, and sharp. Although it sounded far, far away, it was in fact very clear and distinct, like it was close by. Tie Yinyi suddenly knitted his thick, silver braid-like brows. Li Huai immediately asked: "What is it?" "Nothing. Just drink." As he emptied a large cup of wine down his throat, he saw someone enter the tent from the outside. A very strange person, entering with very strange steps and gait. Someone who seemed to be dancing in.
With a waist resembling a snake, although more supple and adept at twisting and turning. A waist that could casually twist into a position in a way no one could imagine. And suddenly twist out from that position in a way no one could imagine. There was a very primitive allure in those gyrating postures—so strange, mysterious, and beautiful. With a satin-like skin, but without satin's glaring sheen. With a sheen that was soft and gentle, but also with a primitive allure. With legs that were straight, long, and slender. With muscles trembling with wild elasticity and rhythm. A rhythm that could make every man's heart keep beating. Dancing to this beat, that person with the incredible dancing gait sat down in the tent. The hearts of everyone started to beat faster. They seemed to be holding their breaths. And even Li Huai was no exception. After this, whenever he met a close friend at a drinking session, he would keep expressing his utter admiration. "A stunning and peerless beauty. I'm sure that everyone who witnessed the scene would respond," Li Huai said. "I'm sure any man who is still a man will feel his heart stirred." "And you? Were you stirred?" "No." "So you're not a man?" "Of course I am. And I'm like every normal man." "Then why weren't you stirred?" "Because that she was a he." So the listeners all collapsed in surprise.
The man, who looked far more attractive than most women in this world, was twisting and gyrating towards Tie Yinyi and Li Huai. He first gave Li Huai an amorous glance with his utterly bewitching eyes. Next, he put a satin box on the table with his slender, shapely fingers, which resembled bamboo shoots in spring. He then gave Li Huai another wink, while not forgetting to give one to Tie Yinyi as well. And kept twisting and wriggling his hips in a dance, with his really supple waist. Li Huai actually felt his lips go a little dry. But Tie Yinyi only watched coldly, without any change in expression. The other man gave him a most seductive smile, then wriggled away like a tornado. He was soon out of the tent. His smile and dance were enough to put these famous courtesans and beauties to shame. Only Tie Yinyi remained unmoved. "Not bad at all," Li Huai said. "You can actually feel indifferent when you see such a woman." "I would have allowed that person to stay if he was really a woman. Unfortunately, that she is not a she." "She's not a woman?" "Neither a man nor a woman." "Then what is he?" "Only a transvestite," Tie Yinyi said. "One of the Six Transvestites of Kun Province." Li Huai wasn't stupid. "I get it now, but not entirely. Why did that transvestite come look for you here?" "Why don't you first take a look at what's inside the box?"
Li Huai opened the box. He froze. Everyone would be dumbfounded by the contents of the box. In the box, there was only a bean on a red satin lining. A small bean. What's so strange about a bean? Why make such a fuss about a bean? Why did that weird man bring a bean in here so weirdly? Li Huai couldn't quite understand. Which was why he froze. "Is this what you so solemnly want me to see?" Li Huai asked Tie Yinyi. "Yes." "It looks like a bean. Only a bean." "Yes." Tie Yinyi still had that grave expression on his face. "It looks like a bean. Only a bean." "What's so special about a bean?" "A bean, of course, is nothing special," Tie Yinyi said. "If it's only a bean, then of course there's nothing special about it." "You mean it's not a real bean?" "It's not." "What is it then, if not a bean? What is this funny thing?" Tie Yinyi's expression turned even more solemn as he put stress on each word. "There's nothing funny about this thing at all." "Nothing funny about it?" "Yes. If anyone were to take it lightly, he would die, taking the next step."
Li Huai was stunned again. Li Huai was not someone often made dumb by another, but he didn't understand Tie Yinyi's words at all. "It's a curse. A curse that can kill in an instant." "I remember now!" Li Huai cried. "This is the bean of Wisteria Flower!" "Yes." "I heard that if Wisteria Flower sends someone a bean, that person—whoever he is—will be considered dead the moment he sees it." "Yes," Tie Yinyi said. "That is why I called this bean a deadly curse." "Is everyone who has received this bean dead? Each and every one of them?" "Yes. So far, no one has survived." "I heard that Wisteria Flower is a woman. What sort of a powerful woman is she?" Tie Yinyi kept quiet for a long time before he spoke, stressing each word. "You're still young. There are many things you still can't understand. But always remember, there are too many women in this world far more powerful than you can imagine."
Suddenly, Li Huai kept quiet too. He suddenly remembered the Moon Goddess. And Keke. —Could they be considered powerful women? Li Huai didn't want to remember them or think about this question. He only asked Tie Yinyi, "Have you seen Wisteria Flower before?" "No." Li Huai gave a long sigh, again showing that unique smile no one could decide whether was hateful or adorable. "Then this bean must be for someone else," Li Huai said. "Even if it's some deadly curse, it has nothing to do with you at all." Tie Yinyi stared at him for a long time. His cold eyes seemed a little warmer, but his voice turned even colder. "You think it's for you? Are you going to be responsible for it?" Li Huai admitted silently. Tie Yinyi smiled coldly. "I've seen many young men who liked to play the hero. And many who weren't afraid of death. But it's a pity, you can't snatch this bean away for yourself." "I can't?" Li Huai asked. Before Tie Yinyi could say anything, Li Huai had struck like lightning. He snatched the deadly bean from the brocade cloth, giving it a flick. Up it jumped, from the palm into his mouth. He swallowed it whole, like a tipsy drunkard swallowing a peanut. Then he asked Tie Yinyi with a gleeful smile, "Now is it me who can't snatch away your bean, or you who can't snatch away mine?"
Tie Yinyi's face changed color. Because that urchin-like smile on Li Huai's face immediately froze after he spoke. His face suddenly turned indescribably and horrendously grotesque, like that of a frozen dead man. Unless you have seen a man frozen to death, you absolutely cannot imagine the expression on his face. Tie Yinyi's pupils contracted. The muscles of his entire body also contracted. Unless you have seen Tie Yinyi's expression now, you cannot imagine someone as calm, cold and indifferent as him looking like he was at present.
That strange mosquito-like noise rang out again at this moment. Although it sounded very distinct, it still seemed to be from very far away. Actually, it wasn't that far away now.
The noise actually came from the strings of a huqin. Mosquitoes, of course, cannot play the huqin. Only human beings can. A tall, beautiful, busty woman appeared, dressed in opulent clothes, her mature charms still able to flutter most men's hearts. On her arm was the hand of a wan, short, emaciated old man with white hair, dressed in tattered clothes. They had suddenly appeared in the tent. Clearly, they had walked in slowly step by step, the one supporting the other. Yet by the time everyone noticed them, they were already inside the tent. The old man was playing the huqin. An old, worn huqin, with bowstrings already black with age. A few strings had snapped. It sounded like a buzzing mosquito, so indescribably irritating to everyone. The old man had a completely shriveled face, his aging eyes sunken deep in their sockets. There was no glimmer of light in them. He was blind.
They came in and stood quietly in a corner by the door, looking neither like beggars nor wandering tavern singers. Yet no one could help not noticing them. They seemed so mismatched. Even more amazingly, although the huqin was so close to everyone in the tent, it still sounded far away. Very, very far away. Only one person ignored them. He didn't even glance at them, treating them like they never existed. That person was Tie Yinyi.
At this moment, Li Huai not only had a stiff, frozen smile on his face, but his whole body also appeared stiff and motionless. In fact, although the man wasn't dead yet, everyone could see that he was not far from death. Yet strangely, worry seemed to have left Tie Yinyi's face. Li Huai's death seemed to have nothing to do with him at all. Either that, or he had acquired some mysterious charm that could ensure Li Huai's survival.
The mosquito-like noise of the huqin was no longer audible. Suddenly, from outside the tent came a lively, rhythmic, wonderful music, played by some unknown instruments. That man with the supple, wriggling, snake-like waist entered again, swaying and gyrating with the same dance steps. Although he wasn't alone this time. There are seven people this time, five looking as strange and seductive as he did, taking all sorts of strange and seductive dance steps to the beat of the music. They were dressed in every bizarre and seductive dance costume imaginable, exposing most parts of their bodies even more daringly than the dancing girls bought by Persian slave traders from the Middle East. They were, of course, all men.
There was an extreme provocative wildness in the music, and they danced even more wildly. The music and dance kept those who clearly knew they were men from feeling disgusted. Amid these wild dancers wriggling and gyrating their hips and thighs, the spectators suddenly discovered another person. In direct contrast to them moving wildly, she remained completely still. Their torsos were mostly bare, but the woman was wearing a purple cloak, printed with purple golden flower motifs, draping all the way down to her heels. Her entire body was covered, only showing a face. A face no one who glanced once at could ever forget. It was so horrendously ugly, but with a kind of indescribable charm. Like she could utterly satisfy every man, anytime and anywhere.
There are some who claim that ugly women also have their charms. Sometimes, even more than beautiful women, they can flutter a man's heart. An ugly woman's poses, attitude, frowns, smiles, and gestures can stir a man's desires. Anyone who had seen this woman could confirm the truth of this statement. And no one would doubt that once he heard her voice. Her voice was husky and low. She smiled at Tie Yinyi, then slowly walked up to Li Huai. She gazed intently at him for a long time.
"Is he Li Huai?" she asked Tie Yinyi. "Yes." "But I don't find him bad at all." "Oh?" "He's not only not bad, he's quite brave. I've never seen anyone quite like him before."
"Oh?" "He's the first man in the world who dares to swallow my bean in one gulp." Tie Yinyi deliberately gave the woman a cold stare and said in a deliberately cold voice: "Beans, I believe, are always meant for eating. No one knows how many beans are consumed each day in our world." "But my beans aren't meant for eating." "Why not?" "Because whoever eats my bean must die. He will turn into pus and blood in a day." Tie Yinyi smirked. "You don't believe me?" The woman asked. Tie Yinyi continued to smirk. What he meant by his smirk was clear. He was treating her words as bullshit. This woman also smiled, even more gently and beguilingly than before. "You must have guessed who I am." "Yes," Tie Yinyi said coldly. "You're Wisteria Flower." "Why don't you believe me, since you know who I am?" "Because I also know that Li Huai will not die." "You're wrong," Wisteria Flower answered softly. "Anyone who eats my bean, I assure you, will surely die. Mr. Li Huai will be no exception." "But Mr. Li Huai will be the exception." He sounded so full of confidence. Everyone knew Tie Yinyi wasn't stupid or ignorant, so he must have a reason for saying that. Wisteria Flower was also beginning to find it a little strange. "Why? Why will he be the exception?" "Because of Grand Madam Gongsun."
"Grand Madam Gongsun" merely sounded like an old lady's title—at best an old woman just slightly more famous, richer, and older than the other old women. But when Wisteria Flower, that cold-blooded murderer, heard her name, even her charming smile faded a little. Tie Yinyi continued to speak in that cold, indifferent voice. "I believe you must also know who Grand Madam Gongsun is, and what she does." Wisteria Flower deliberately spoke in the same cold and indifferent voice: "I think I have heard of her. She seems to be only a murderer who kills for any client who is willing to pay her. It's just that her services are a bit more expensive, that's all." "Is that all you know about her?" "Are you telling me there's more to that woman?" "If you really don't know, let me enlighten you," Tie Yinyi said. "Grand Madam Gongsun is the most fearsome killer in the jianghu in the past 170 years. She's also the most senior and expensive assassin working today." "There also seems to be a ‘moonlight like blade, the blade-like moonlight' Moon Goddess," Wisteria Flower deliberately asked. "Does she exist in the jianghu too?" "Yes." "Have you seen her?" "No," Tie Yinyi said. "She's like you and Grand Madam Gongsun. One doesn't see her very often." Wisteria Flower smiled beguilingly like water. "But you have seen me today." Tie Yinyi said, "That's only because you think Li Huai is dead. Everyone here who has seen you will surely also die, since you and the Six Transvestites of Kun Province have arrived." Wisteria Flower sighed quietly. "You're so thoughtful. So thoughtful on behalf of the others too." "Luckily, you're not me," Tie Yinyi said. "There are many things you haven't thought of." "Oh?" "You, at least, didn't guess that Grand Madam Gongsun would be here today." "Oh?" "Grand Madam Gongsun is like the Moon Goddess and yourself. She won't strike so easily. But if someone can afford her services and she agrees to kill, she will surely show up." Tie Yinyi continued. "As soon as one of you shows up, that assassin will definitely not let another steal her business. She won't let that person she's hired to kill die in another's hands. Nor will you." Wisteria Flower agreed. "Everyone in the jianghu knows this. I don't actually need to say it," Tie Yinyi said. "So why are you saying it now?" "Because I suddenly thought of a most interesting question." "What question?" "A person can only die once. If both of you appeared together, both wanting to kill the same person at the same time, which one of you would end up killing that person?"
Wisteria Flower undoubtedly also found the question interesting. She thought for a long time before asking Tie Yinyi, "What do you think?" "I don't claim to have any special insights more than you. I only know one fact." "What fact?" "Twenty-two years have passed since Grand Madam Gongsun's first assignment, killing the Leader of Mount Lao Sect, Taoist Reverend Yiyan, at Bohai Bay. According to the deductions and assessments of the most experienced and qualified seniors of our martial arts world, she has struck twenty-one times since, once a year on average. Every person she killed was a top martial arts exponent of his time." "And how do those old fellows know?" "Based on the manner and habits of her strikes." "And their conclusion?" "In the past twenty-one years, no one can complain about Grand Madam Gongsun's killings. She has never made the slightest mistake. She certainly has not let even one of her targets escape." Wisteria Flower smiled again. "I've actually heard of her record." Then she asked Tie Yinyi, "But what about mine?" "Of course you have killed more than her," Tie Yinyi said. "You have killed sixty-nine people since you first assassinated Yang Feihuan at Mawei Slope thirteen years ago. Like her, every person you killed was a first-class martial arts exponent. And like her, you have never once let your targets escape." "So I fare a little better than Grand Madam Gongsun?" Wisteria Flower was smiling enchantingly. "This sort of calculation is quite wrong," Tie Yinyi said. "You fare a little worse than her, and maybe more than a little worse." "Why?" "Because you made at least thirteen mistakes in those seventy assignments. You didn't time yourself precisely at times, some of your strikes weren't immediately fatal, and you were twice wounded yourself," Tie Yinyi said coldly. "Each time, those thirteen mistakes could have cost you your life." He stared at Wisteria Flower coldly and came to a cold conclusion. "So you're absolutely no match for Grand Madam Gongsun."
Wisteria Flower's smile seemed to have faded in glamor and charm. She asked Tie Yinyi again, "You mean if Grand Madam Gongsun were here today and she also wanted Mr. Li dead, she'd be the one who ended up killing him?" "You got roughly what I mean," Tie Yinyi said. "If Grand Madam Gongsun won't let you kill the person she wants dead, then you probably can't." Wisteria Flower stared at Li Huai for a long time. That irresistible smile slowly surfaced on her face again. "I think you probably got it wrong this time. Our Mr. Li seems dead now," Wisteria Flower said. "And you yourself said a man can only die once."
He was right. A man can only die once. Once someone dies in your hands, it is absolutely impossible for him to die again in someone else's hands. This is an indisputable fact no one can deny.
The snake-like hips were still gyrating, as the music continued to play. The violent, noisy, and primitive music sounded like drums, stampeding horses, slaughtering and clashing metallic weapons on the battlefield. No sound between the heavens and the earth, it seemed, could overcome this music and make it stop. Yet now, that mosquito-like noise from the huqin had overwhelmed it. Only those who had fought in a battle can understand this feeling. If you ever fought for one of two opposing armies, with blood streaming like rivers and corpses piling up everywhere, with thunderous drums beating by the side of the rearguard marshal, with comrades and enemies fighting in front… with sabers and swords clashing beside you, heads getting sliced off, bones fracturing, blood splattering, screams like ripping cloth... If a mosquito were to buzz in your ear at that moment, what would be the most distinct sound you heard then? Definitely that mosquito's buzz.
You can only understand this feeling when you have been to battle and experienced war. Everyone in this tent suddenly realized they could hear nothing but the screechy, mosquito-like noise of the huqin at that moment. And nothing else. The busty, tall, opulently-dressed lady, with mature charms that could still make most men's heart flutter, left the blind old man playing the incredible huqin music. With unusual gentleness and quiet grace, she slowly walked up to Tie Yinyi from the corner. "Thank you." She said, "Thank you for your compliments. We will always keep them in mind." Tie Yinyi stood up, looking serious and sincere. "I merely told the truth." "Then I can assure you what you said will definitely come true." The kind and respectable lady gave a polite curtsy. "I can guarantee Mr. Li Huai will never die before the coming sunrise."
It was now late in the night, almost close to sunrise. But the blackness was still intense, shrouding the earth. There was still some time before dawn would break in the east under the darkness. Standing in the tent's brilliant lights, the graceful, cultured woman not only looked kind and respectable, but also elegant and dignified. No one would doubt any of her words. "I believe you," Tie Yinyi said. "I absolutely believe in whatever Grand Madam says." Wisteria Flower seemed unable to hold back her laughter. Still, she forced herself to. She asked Tie Yinyi, "Is this lady really Grand Madam Gongsun?" "Yes, I believe she is." "But she doesn't look like her. How could a Grand Madam be so young?" Wisteria Flower asked. "And why would a Grand Madam say something so irresponsible too?" The cultured lady smiled enchantingly at her too, also giving her a polite curtsy. "I'm young, you say? I won't pretend that I am. And I can't afford to be irresponsible like you say I am too. "I've signed a contract to take this man's life at sunrise. Of course I can't let him die before sunrise," Grand Madam Gongsun said. "Even if the man's dead, I can still revive him and make him die in my hands." Wisteria Flower sighed softly. Suddenly, the six dancers with snake-like waists completely surrounded Grand Madam Gongsun, arching their waists in six different directions. Twelve hands attacked Grand Madam Gongsun from twelve different directions, all at the same time. They attacked from twelve unexpected directions. Other than the six of them, no one else in the jianghu could attack so lethally under those circumstances. In that split second, the respectable lady seemed almost like a respectable dead woman. The old man playing the huqin was still playing a monotonous tune, his face as colorless and expressionless as before, like he was really blind. Tie Yinyi didn't intervene either. He seemed to have decided it was not his business.
Six strange, bizarre, charming transvestites attacked with their twelve soul-bewitching, lethal hands. Twelve lethal strikes of such infinite varieties. But what followed was a single, horrendous shriek. Not from one, but from all six of them at the same time. The Six Transvestites of Kun Province all fell with a horrendous shriek. Not a wound or scratch could be found on their bodies. They all seemed to have collapsed for some strange unknown reason. All of a sudden, someone seemed to have slit a bloody horizontal gash below their foreheads and above their nose bridges, two to three inches long, with an invisible steel saber. Those bloody slits were like third eyes connecting their real eyes. All of a sudden, all six lost their sight. There was only a bloody furrow in place of their real eyes. Their eyes and the nose bridges in between were suddenly replaced by a bloody furrow instead.
Neither Tie Yinyi nor Wisteria Flower's complexion turned pale. Almost no one in the tent looked pale, since everyone else had either fainted or run off while they still could an hour ago. Even that famous courtesan, Song You'er, renowned throughout China for her quiet grace, virtue, decorum, and intelligence, had fled. She didn't look at all graceful and quiet when she ran. Running out, she looked more like a wild dog slashed on her butt by a butcher.
The kind and respectable Grand Madam Gongsun sighed quietly again. "Grand Madam Gongsun, I really admire you now. One formless and lethal strike killing all six that was impossible to follow. I believe almost no one has actually seen how you killed those six little freaks of mine." "I don't deserve such flattery." "Since no one has understood how you struck, we must all admire you," Wisteria Flower said. "When your soul returns to Heaven, I will offer you wine and scented flowers on your death anniversary each year on this day, Grand Madam Gongsun." "I don't deserve it." Grand Madam Gongsun continued to speak with refined grace. "I'm sorry, I believe I will still be alive on this day in the coming year, just like Mr. Li Huai." "You really believe you can save him?" "I don't need to. No one can save a dead man." "What makes you think he's still alive?" Grand Madam Gongsun sighed again. "If you think Mr. Li Huai is dead now, then you surely don't know the man." "Oh?" "He wouldn't be Li Huai if that tiny bean of yours could kill him."
Suddenly, at this moment, a sudden burst of laughter could be heard by everyone still inside the tent. When Wisteria Flower heard the laughter, she could no longer laugh. She never thought that person would be laughing now. That person who had suddenly burst out laughing was Li Huai—who really ought to be dead by now.
Two hours ago, he had turned cold and dead suddenly. Yet Li Huai was laughing right now. And he actually stood up and walked. Mr. Li Huai actually walked up to Wisteria Flower, smiling politely at this woman bent on killing him before sunrise. There was a tiny something on his palm, which he offered to her respectfully. "Here's your bean," Li Huai said. "You can have it back." "Thank you." Wisteria Flower also gave her most charming smile. "I should have known, of course. Someone as smart as Mr. Li wouldn't really eat something so indigestible. It's just that I didn't expect Mr. Li to play dead so well." Li Huai smiled. "I've been practicing since I was a kid. Every time I stole food and they wanted to beat me to death, I would play dead first," he said. "A wild boy foraging for food must first learn some tricks like this. Unfortunately, I'm stuck with this bad habit. I keep doing it each time I find myself in this kind of trouble." "And when that wild boy grows up and cultivates some wonderful internal skill, he will be even better at playing dead." "I won't be modest about it. Unless I was good enough, I couldn't have fooled Lady Wisteria, could I?" "Mr. Li," Wisteria Flower smiled charmingly, picking up the bean on Li Huai's palm with all ten of her scallion-like fingers. "I admire and like you a lot. You must surely also like me in your heart?" Li Huai sighed. "I'm honest. It's really hard to dislike a woman like you." "Could you do me a favor then?" "What favor?" "Could you really die once for me?" That instant she said this was, they all knew, the best moment for her to strike. Wisteria Flower should have struck the moment just when she was making the request. She could have killed him with one strike. Yet strangely, for a long time after that, Wisteria Flower didn't look like she would. It would have been the perfect opportunity. Once you lose a good opportunity, it's gone forever. Only a fool will miss it. Wisteria Flower, of course, was no fool. But she was looking quite dumb at the moment. She had always wanted Li Huai dead. Li Huai was also the kind of man who wouldn't let her off. As she stared dumbly at him, it would have been also the best opportunity for Li Huai to strike. But like her, Li Huai didn't. How did these two incredibly smart people end up as fools, all of a sudden? Even more bizarrely, someone beside them was actually applauding these fools.
Grand Madam Gongsun was clapping her hands. "Mr. Li, you're truly remarkable. I can't help but admire you." "You flatter me." "How exactly did you keep her in check?" "I merely used the tip of my little finger to brush that tiny acupoint at the rim of her palm, just when she took the bean from my hand. She didn't detect my light touch." "In other words, she can do nothing after saying those words, since her arm has suddenly turned numb? And she can't move the right half of her body now?'' Grand Madam Gongsun asked Li Huai. "Something like that." "That's why you didn't strike again." Li Huai smiled and Grand Madam Gongsun sighed. "I'm not trying to flatter you, Mr. Li. In the present world, I can't find three people to rival the marvelous kungfu of your hand just now."
Li Huai blinked and smiled. He deliberately asked: "You may not be able to find three people, but surely you can find two, Grand Madam? Aren't you one of the two yourself?" "You won't believe me if I say yes. You won't believe me if I say no either." "That's true," Li Huai answered very earnestly.
If according to all the information that could be gathered on the jianghu, Grand Madam Gongsun could be ranked in the first or even the supreme tier for her achievements, then Mr. Li Huai could only be ranked in the third tier at best. "Failure" was a word never found in Grand Madam Gongsun's records. But "failure" was a word that was never obliterated in Li Huai's records. So were there really no other ways Li Huai could compare with her?
After all the murder and rampage that had happened just now, only a few people remained in the tent. Most of those who hadn't fled were surprisingly women. A few ravishing and uniquely charismatic women. They might look very different in appearance, age, or how they were dressed, but they all shared a common trait. They always remained calm and collected in the face of ordeals. Probably because they had all seen a lot. Famous courtesans, like famous chivalrous warriors, were part of the jianghu community. They shared a common personality ordinary people cannot judge with common sense or reason. At certain times, famous courtesans can even be like famous chivalrous warriors, putting life, death, honor, and disgrace to one side.
Spreading out his arms, the silver-haired, opulently-robed Tie Yinyi sat on a gold satin-lined armchair of light poplar wood, purchased by a Persian merchant from foreign royalty. Only now did he get up slowly. "Second Young Master, your performance in this act is over. It appears to be my turn now." "Your turn?" Li Huai asked. "Your turn to do what?" "My turn to kill or be killed." "Killing or being killed are like two sides of the same coin. It's the same coin whether it turns up heads or tails." Tie Yinyi stood up majestically, his silver hair gleaming. "So my life and death are none of your concern now." Li Huai smiled bitterly. "Whose concern can they be, if not mine? I'm begging you, please don't meddle in my affairs this time!" "I can't." Tie Yinyi said, "The Old Master ordered me to take you back. I have to do that. Whoever wants you dead must kill me first." "If you're dead, how can you take me back?" "Then let me die first. You can die later."
He wasn't quoting from a play, nor was he playing a part pretentiously. He was probably speaking more sincerely than a top three imperial graduate swearing an oath at court, after being ordained as a minister. Li Huai didn't laugh. He didn't look like he could. Tie Yinyi looked at him and slowly waved him aside. "I'm sure you know what I mean. So could you please step aside for the moment?"
Someone started to applaud them. It was a young lady with faintly drawn eyebrows, otherwise wearing no make-up, dressed in a pure gossamer silk dress of a light teal color. She looked so young, chaste, gentle, and vulnerable. No one could guess from her appearance that she was the foremost courtesan here. And they didn't expect her to say this either: "Wonderful. I've never seen men like the two of you before. If both of you were to die, I would die with you here." Sometimes, the words of a courtesan can be more trustworthy than a great chivalrous warrior's.
Li Huai laughed again. "Why does everyone here want to die? Really, no one needs to." He said to Tie Yinyi, "As long as you watch that hand of the old man playing the huqin, I will guarantee that not one of us will have to die." Li Huai said, "Without that old gentleman helping her, Grand Madam Gongsun would have died at least seventeen or eighteen times by now." The music from the huqin stopped. The blind old man staggered out from his corner, speaking in a voice even huskier and lower in pitch than the sound made by his instrument. "Shall we go for a walk?" he was asking Li Huai. "Would you like to take a walk with me?"
The night had suddenly turned misty, because the fog was misty. It was completely beyond the imagination of anyone that there would be a misty fog in such a place and at such a moment. Just like no one could imagine seeing two men like Li Huai and Grand Master Gongsun drink wine on the branch of a withered poplar tree, in such a place and at such a moment. The wine wasn't stolen from Tie Yinyi, but fished out by the old man from his own bag. This wine didn't smell like wine at all, but one would still feel a scorching sensation in the stomach after drinking it. "Don't you find the wine a bit strange?" The old man asked Li Huai. "I not only find the wine a bit strange, but I find you even stranger as a person." "You mean you didn't expect me to invite you here all of a sudden, drinking shitty wine in this shitty place?" "I didn't, but I still came," Li Huai said. "Although I knew you wanted to kill me, I still came." The old man guffawed, so hard that the wine almost splashed out from his gourd. A flat wine gourd. And a flat mouth, not showing teeth even when it smiled. Luckily, no one kills with the teeth. So Li Huai only needed to rivet his eyes on the man's hands like nails that were nailed in. Grand Master Gongsun's hands, which were shaking just now as he laughed, now seemed almost nailed dead. The keen light in Li Huai's eyes, which had resembled glittering nails, now seemed much gentler and less intense. Very few people in this world were likely to detect this change, other than the two men themselves.
Victory and defeat, life and death in a duel between true top martial arts exponents are often decided by such fine margins. But who ended up alive or dead, who turned out the victor or the defeated--these had not been decided yet. Since this was only the first round of their duel which had just begun.
With his flat mouth, Grand Master Gongsun took a swig of the strange wine from his flat wine gourd. "I'm a strange person, but you're more remarkable. Not just remarkable but also remarkably smart," Gongsun said. "So you must understand why I asked you out was because I long knew my old woman isn't your match at all." Li Huai admitted it. "But I'm sure there's something else you don't know," Gongsun said. "I asked you out for one other very, very special reason." "What?" Instead, Grand Master Gongsun asked Li Huai, "Do you know my name? Do you know what kind of a person I am?" "I don't." "My family name is Gongsun. My given name is Bai (Defeat). My pseudonym is Wusheng (Never Win)." "Gongsun Bai? Gongsun Wusheng?" Li Huai looked really astonished. "Are those your real names?" "Yes. Because I have never won a fight against anyone all my life." Li Huai was really surprised. Because he had already discovered Grand Master Gongsun's hands making at least three movements while he was laughing and trembling just now. Three movements cannot be considered too many. A movement too complex will not be frightening. And sometimes, you can kill someone without making even a single move. The scary thing is that each movement of Grand Master Gongsun's hands might prove fatal in an instant.
"Grand Master Gongsun, Grand Master Gongsun Wusheng," Li Huai asked. "You have really never won even once in your life?" "Yes, never." "I don't believe you, I won't believe you even if you kill me. Even if you chop off my head and use it as a nightpot, I still won't believe you." "Why not?" "I'm a rascal, a bastard, a swine. That's why I never eat pork. But I know how a pig walks," Li Huai said. "So at least I can tell this much about you." "What about me?" "If that Bai Xiaosheng who created the weapons ranking chart sixty years ago were still alive today in the jianghu, and if he were to make another chart, then your pair of hands, Grand Master Gongsun, would surely occupy one of the top five positions," Li Huai said. "So how can it be that you have never won even once?" Grand Master Gongsun took a swig of the wine. Then he stared at Li Huai with eyes that seemed completely blind and completely sightless. He let off a long sigh after a long time. "You're right, but you're also wrong." "Oh?" "You got my martial arts right, but me wrong as a person," Grand Master Gongsun said. "Oh?" "It's true that my martial arts skill isn't too bad, that I can truly rank among the few top exponents of the martial arts world today," Grand Master Gongsun explained. "If I were to challenge any of the twenty-eight top exponents now who claim to have won at least thirty consecutive times, I might not have lost even once." "Then why did you keep losing?" "Because although my martial arts isn't so bad, I'm wrong as a person." "Wrong in what way?" Grand Master Gongsun kept quiet for a long time, before asking Li Huai in a very strange voice: "Do you know how many times I have fought with others all my life?" "How many times?" "Four times." "Four times?" Li Huai was baffled again. "Grand Master Gongsun, with your martial arts, personality, and temper, you have only fought four times in your life?" "Yes," Grand Master Gongsun said. "I fought four times and each time, I lost." Then he asked Li Huai, "If I were to ask you to name the five best martial artists of today, who would you pick as the top five?" Li Huai thought for a long time before giving his reply. "The esteemed Wudang exponent, Master Zhong'er, and Reverend Wuxu, the Shaolin elder. Although they have retired for years, so no one can really assess their martial arts, I don't believe anyone in the jianghu would deny their supreme expertise." "It is so." "Mr. Li Manqing, the son of Little Li the bronze imperial graduate, that greatest and most renowned xia of his age. Although Mr. Manqing hasn't fought for twenty years and is now almost a recluse, his family's flying daggers are such that no one would easily dare challenge him in the jianghu." "Little Li's flying daggers—they are always dispatched without ever missing their targets. The chivalrous acts of Little Li the bronze imperial graduate still live in people's hearts today," Gongsun said. "I have only the utmost respect and admiration for Mr. Manqing." "The Divine Sword Xiaoxiang, the Snow Sword of Kunlun, the grandson of Swordsman Fei—Young Master Huanyu. No one can say whose swordsmanship is the best among these three," Li Huai said. "These three are life-and-death friends. They never care to know which one among them is the best. So no one can say for sure which one is the most highly skilled in the sword." "You're right," Gongsun said, "If you can defeat even one of the three, you can be sure you have lived your life well." "You have seen them all?" Li Huai asked. Grand Master Gongsun gave a wry smile. "I not only have seen them all, I have even fought with four of them." "Which four?" "Xiaoxiang, Zhong'er, Kunlun, and Huanyu." Li Huai sighed. "You've picked such great opponents. Why didn't you choose others?" Grand Master Gongsun also sighed. "Because I am wrong as a person."
It's boring drinking wine alone. As a wine drinker, it's just as boring drinking wine with another man who ends up drunk after just one cup. It's so boring talking to yourself. It's even more boring talking with a detestable man whose conversation is insipid. This is often the way things are in this world. This was something Li Huai could understand. "I understand what you mean," he told Grand Master Gongsun. "You fought not to win, but only to find someone worth fighting with. You don't care at all about winning or losing, victory or defeat." Li Huai said, "If that person isn't fit to fight you, even if he begs you on bended knees, you won't stretch out a finger against him." Grand Master Gongsun stared at him. There was a shimmer in his eyes—the shimmer of hot tears. "I knew you would understand. If even you could not understand, who else in this world could?" Grand Master Gongsun let off a long sigh. "If I don't lose, who else in this world will?"
He was saying two completely different things, yet they shared the exact same logic. Li Huai suddenly stood up, bowing to Grand Master Gongsun with a reverence he never showed before. "I am never a bootlicker, but even if I were a mortal enemy who was to die in your hands in an instant, or even if I were to kill you in an instant, there's something I have to say first." "Say it." "Grand Master Gongsun, although you have always been losing and never won once, you have honor in defeat. I admire you."
Grand Master Gongsun suddenly did something strange. He suddenly leaped up and somersaulted in the air, in a strange posture no one could imagine, making seven or eight such somersaults. He leaped seven to eight yards into the air before landing on that branch he had been sitting on. He wasn't mad. He did this because he knew hot tears were welling in his eyes. Turning somersaults to keep someone from seeing hot tears in one's eyes was definitely not a very good solution, yet undoubtedly a very effective one.
Li Huai undoubtedly also understood this, so he took a swig of the wine and finished everything in the gourd in one gulp. "I'm so grateful you're willing to make me your fifth opponent. I feel very honored indeed." "This is really not up to me to decide." Gongsun pretended to be cold and indifferent. "I have already accepted the payment of 30,000 taels of silver to take your life." Li Huai laughed again. "I never expected my life to be worth that much." Grand Master Gongsun didn't laugh. "As a married couple, we always honor our promises. Once we make an agreement, we will honor it no matter what." Li Huai wasn't laughing now. "I, too, am a very principled person. And I don't wish to die now, so although I admire you a lot, I'm determined to let you taste defeat once again."
The feelings between friends are always so true and precious. Unfortunately, not all friends are true friends. But an enemy is always absolutely real. So, if an enemy reveals certain feelings he feels about you, those feelings may be far truer than the feelings experienced between friends.
You are always intimate with your friends. The closer a friend, the more intimate you will feel with him. Unfortunately, intimacy often breeds contempt. But not between enemies. If you ever feel contempt for your enemy, you will die because of this feeling. So, between friends, especially the best of friends, there is very possibly only intimacy and not respect. Between the worst of enemies, there is very possibly only respect and not contempt. Such respect is often more real than the respect between friends. This is really something very strange.
Even stranger is the fact this is how many things are in this world.
Just like people are always falling in love in this world, in every corner, day, and hour, someone in the jianghu will be risking his or her life in a duel. Such things will happen many times in a day. Ever since humanity started recording its history, there must have been millions, maybe even tens of million, of such life-and-death duels decided in a split second. But how many can remain forever in human memories? Among them, at least two were truly unforgettable.
The duel between Master Landa and Xiao Wangsun was fought on a towering mountain peak amidst the clouds. Master Landa wielded a 69-jin iron hammer as his weapon. Xiao Wangsun used the belt around his waist which had earlier girded his silk robes. Their stark difference in their choice of weapons was already unprecedented and might never again be repeated. Master Landa's martial arts style was hard, brutal, and relentless, unrivaled under the heavens, dazzling ancients and contemporaries alike. His hammer could pulverize rocks. Xiao Wangsun was elusive with unpredictable footwork. The difference between their styles—one hard and the other soft—was beyond the imagination of ordinary mortals. Although no one had the good fortune to grace and witness that duel, it was widely discussed and exaggerated even now. The duel was regarded as almost mythic by the martial arts community.
Lu Xiaofeng and Ximen Chuixue fought their duel early in the morning, under a white fog. Ximen Chuixue was called the God of Sword. No opponent could escape being slain by his sword. The man was born for the sword, and willing to die for it too. The greatest wish of his life was to fight a duel with Lu Xiaofeng, to know who would emerge as the victor. Because Lu Xiaofeng had never been defeated before. The other man always had a casual, almost cheeky smile on his face. He didn't look smart or fearsome at all. He was almost like a useless fellow who didn't even want to train hard for his martial arts. He had survived too many ordeals in his life and experienced too many dangers of the extremest kind. But it was also true he had never been defeated before in his life. So, what was the outcome of his duel with Ximen Chuixue?
Like the duel between Xiao Wangsun and Master Landa, their showdown had a common feature just as strange. Both duels were intense and heart-shattering. Life and death hanged by a breath, at a moment. Yet in the end, no one in both duels emerged victorious or was killed. Although each could have killed the other in a split second, no one executed a lethal move as they all cherished their opponent. In the depths of their hearts, they had regarded the other man as their friend. A friend they truly respected from the bottom of their hearts.
Li Huai and Gongsun weren't friends. Although Grand Master Gongsun lost each of his fights, it was only because of his pride and conceit. He had honor in defeat. Although Li Huai wasn't well known in the jianghu at the moment, with only a small number who could truly assess his martial arts, a few of them already did. A few who never expected themselves to be defeated and who had lost to him. So who could predict the outcome of his life-and-death duel with Grand Master Gongsun?
An ancient mansion, its heavy door firmly locked. Rank weeds at the foot of the walls. Vermilion paint peeling on the door. Like a big withered tree left with just a relic of a shell, everyone could see its glory days were a thing of the past. The mansion was no longer lauded or revered as it once was. Yet if you happened to see the three martial artists passing by this mansion, you might find hidden depths and surely feel quite different about this place. The three martial artists were dressed in vibrant colors, their long sabers hanging by their hips as they rode on fiery horses, galloping on the snowy ground. They looked so high-spirited and intrepid. Like nothing could make them stop in their tracks as they went on their journey. Yet a hundred paces away from this long dilapidated mansion, they suddenly dismounted. Ignoring the muddy snow slush, they walked to the house with a look of utmost adulation. "Is this really the mansion of Little Li, the bronze imperial graduate?" "It is."
The couplet inscribed in the stone was still visible, on either flank of the huge door peeling vermilion paint:
Seven jinshis in one family; Three bronze graduates: grandfather, father, son.
The three young martial artists stared at the words with a pilgrim's heart. "Little Li's flying daggers—they are always dispatched without ever missing their targets." The youngest of the three men sighed. "I can never forgive myself for not living in the same era as the man." "Would you like to pit your skills against his?" "No, it's not that. I wouldn't dare." One can imagine the reverence the young man felt when he said the words "I wouldn't dare", although he was at an age of utmost vigor and arrogance. But this young man feeling such adoration and reverence suddenly sighed. "Sadly, the Li family has no heirs. Although Old Villa Master Li Manqing is kind and loyal, doing his best to salvage his family's fallen prestige, the awesome might of Little Li's Flying Daggers can never be found on him again." Tears even glistened in the young man's eyes. "The mighty power of Little Li's flying daggers may never be found in anyone again."
"There is something I can never understand." "What?" "They once called Mr. Manqing a child prodigy. Why did he become so despondent in middle age?" The other young man, a more ruminative-looking man, remained quiet for a long time. Then he said in a low voice: "Famous chivalrous warriors are like famous gentlemen. They are amorous men. Aren't we like them ourselves?" "You mean Mr. Manqing is depressed over a woman?" There was no answer. There wasn't any need for one. Holding on to their horse reins, the three of them stood quietly for a long time in the chilling wind, before silently tugging their horses away.
Li Huai and Tie Yinyi were also there. The two of them saw the three young men and overheard their conversation. It left a deep sadness in their hearts. —Could anyone revive the glory days of Little Li's Flying Daggers? —Mr. Manqing was despondent over a woman. What woman? Hot tears almost splashed out of Li Huai's eyes. He suddenly remembered his mother—that beautiful, intelligent, and pitiful woman. All of a sudden, he wanted to go. But Tie Yinyi had already caught his arm. "You cannot leave. You surely cannot leave now," Tie Yinyi said. "I know what is in your mind right now. But you must also know how much your father needs you. You're his true flesh and blood, no matter what. The flesh of his flesh, the blood of his blood." Li Huai clenched his fists tight. Green veins kept throbbing on his arms. Tie Yinyi stared at him, speaking each word slowly: "And you must know you're the only one now who can revive your family's glory days."
A path covered with snow. Empty pavilions, towers. Where were the signs of its rich, glorious past? Li Huai's footsteps were as heavy as his heart. No matter what, no matter what he had been thinking in his heart, no matter what the others had been saying—he still had his roots in this place. Blood is thicker than water. This is a fact no one can deny. He was about to see his father again—a father who, even before he had been born, had already abandoned his mother and him. But he couldn't abandon his father, just like he could not abandon himself. "Do you know why your father wanted so badly to have you back?" Tie Yinyi asked Li Huai. "No." Li Huai said, "I only know I will do whatever he wants me to."
Another year. Another year of plum blossoms. Another year of snow. The old man sat under the porch, staring blankly at the white snow and crimson plum blossoms in his courtyard, like a child staring dumbly at a spinning pinwheel. Why must a man grow old? Why can't a man die when he wants to?
There was a blade in the old man's hand. A murderous blade, a dagger always dispatched without ever missing its targets. A flying dagger. No one knew the dagger's weight, form, and composition. Just like it could not be dodged by anyone in this world. But this dagger hadn't appeared in the jianghu for many, many years, since he was no longer confident to make it hit its target when he dispatched it. He was a son of the Li family. His father was the peerless Little Li the Flying Dagger. For almost 100 years, the most renowned xia in the jianghu. He had been grieving for twenty years. Who could understand the pain in his heart? Grieving over what? Suddenly, a faint silhouette seemed to appear amidst the white snow and crimson plum blossoms. A lady in snowy-white robes. A relationship he could not forget.
"Villa Master, the Second Young Master's back." Mr. Manqing suddenly awoke from that obsessive, sentimental dream of the past. He raised his head and saw his son. —Son? This smart, adorable young man is really my son? Why didn't I take care of him in the past? Why did I let him roam the streets like a wild dog? Why did I leave his mother? —Why must a man force himself to do things against his conscience all the time, letting himself suffer until death? He looked at his son, at this strong, valiant young man before him, so full of vigor and intelligence. He saw the boy as a replica of his former self. "You're back?" "Yes." "How have you been lately?" "I don't find myself good, I don't find myself bad," Li Huai smiled. "I'm still like how I was. I don't care if anyone likes or dislikes who I am." "Don't care? Why can't I do the same?" The old man's heart was dripping blood. Had he thrown caution to the wind like his son was doing now, he would have lived a much happier life.
Li Huai's heart was also dripping blood. He, too, knew what his father was thinking. His parent's relationship was an open secret in the martial arts world. His parents were both very young when they first met each other. They met, fell in love, and came together. They had him. They were both very successful and very famous, young and healthy. Their union should have been the envy of many. But this beautiful love song ended up in sobs.
It wasn't their fault. They could only blame one unalterable fact—a feud they could never forget. —With one fling of the dagger, his father's father killed his mother's father. His mother had the compound surname Shangguan. Little Li's flying daggers—they are always dispatched without ever missing their targets. There would be no exception, not even for the Leader of the Money Sect, the world fearsome Shangguan Jinhong.
"This was the first wrong I did in my life," the old man said. "I knew it would be unforgivable and would make us both suffer. But I still did it." He was downcast and silent for a long time. "Every time I think about it, I can never forgive myself for this act." Li Huai could not speak. He had totally lost the ability to. He used to feel so indignant and aggrieved over the unfair treatment of his mother. But all of a sudden, he was now discovering an indescribable feeling of sorrow and pity for his father too, deep in his heart. In spite of everything, he and his father still had one thing in common. They were, after all, both men.
The old man said to Li Huai: "I asked you here not to give you any explanation. This is something that can never be explained." Li Huai kept quiet. "I only did two wrong things in my life. They made me suffer so much pain and regret all my life," the old man said. "I asked you here about the other matter." One could almost hear the fallen leaves cracking in the melting snowdrift in the quiet courtyard. The old man went on slowly. "Many years ago, when I first made my appearance as a martial artist, I was eager to prove my good name wasn't reliant on my ancestor's merits," he said. "There used to be a very famous man then who almost defeated the whole martial arts world. He was invincible." The old man said, "I'm sure you must have heard of this man before." Twenty years ago, bolstered by his awesome string of thirty-one consecutive victories, "One Sword Fluttering Snow" Xue Qingbi went on to defeat the Three Birds of Yandang, the Eagle of Kunlun, and finally Taoist Reverend Baiyan who had just assumed leadership of Diancang Sect. He won each duel in just seven moves. He had such a great reputation, it was unmatched under the heaven. But in his final duel, he lost to Mr. Manqing. Three months after that, he died a depressed man. Li Huai had, of course, heard of this incident and the man.
"I defeated a peerless swordsman of great renown in a single duel. I was, of course, beside myself with joy." It should have made a man so proud and happy indeed. Yet, as Mr. Manqing narrated his story, there was an even more downcast look on his face. "I only learned something I had not after that," the old man said. "Had I known that earlier, I would not have challenged the man, not even if I died." He said, "This became known to many people in the jianghu. I'm sure you must have heard of it too
Li Huai had. When Li Manqing first challenged Xue Qingbi, the man had already sustained many wounds as a result of his many consecutive duels. He was left with an incurable internal injury. At around this time, his wife also left him. His sustained wounds and internal injury turned him into another person—someone totally unrecognizable from the legendary "One Sword Fluttering Snow". But there was still stubborn, haughty blood in Xue Qingbi's veins. Such that the man would not yield. So he went to fight Li Manqing, nursing the injuries. He didn't tell Li Manqing he couldn't really fight. Even if he were to die, he would not tell his opponent that. He wouldn't tell anyone that. Not even if his head was cut off, his veins slashed, his bones crushed. So he went happily for the duel. And was defeated. And he died—died in his own glory. "This is why I still cannot forget that flash of pride and dignity on the man's face, just before his death," the old man said. "I have never seen anyone die with so much pride. And I don't believe I will again either." Li Huai looked at his father. All of a sudden, there was indescribable respect in his eyes. He was proud of his father too. Only a true, hot-blooded man, he knew, could understand the other man's emotions. It is hard being an upright person, a true human being. And you can't describe the effort of being a true man as just being "not easy".
The old man kept quiet for a long time. Almost long enough for snow on the fallen leaves to have melted completely. Li Huai couldn't hear the snow melting or the leaves cracking. They were inaudible to the ears. No one could hear them. But Li Huai was listening. Not with his ears but with his heart. Because he was listening to his father's heartfelt confession. "I killed a man I shouldn't have. I regretted it, but what's the use?" The old man's voice was hoarse. "There is perhaps only one thing a man can do after he did wrong." "What?" Li Huai could not help but ask at last. "Pay the price," the old man said. "After doing wrong, everyone must pay the price." He went on, stressing each word. "It is now time for me to pay the price."
Date and Time: Yuanxiao Day. Midnight. Venue: Your residence. Weapon: My weapons are the flying daggers. You're free to choose your own weapon. Victory and defeat: Can be decided in one move. Or at that instant of death. Challenger: Xue. Ling Province.
This didn't read like a very standard challenge letter, yet it was undoubtedly a most terrible one. One could sense the oppressive arrogance between the lines, almost like the challenger was already in full control of the other man's life. Li Huai felt his blood boil. "Who wrote this letter? What audacity!" "I did," Mr. Manqing said. "You? How can it be you?" "Because it was the exact same letter I wrote to Mr. Xue Qingbi, twenty years ago. Other than the challenger's name, not a single character is different." The old man said, "A descendant of Mr. Xue wrote this letter to avenge him. This challenge is what I need to pay as the price." Li Huai sneered. "Price? What price? What right have the Xues to use their flying daggers against ours?" The old man gazed into the distance. He let off a long sigh. "You don't have to be a Li to master the flying dagger." "Could anyone's flying daggers be more fearsome than ours?"
Li Huai was responding very naturally with this question. Yet immediately after saying it, his facial muscles began to stiffen. Each word he spoke led to a short paralysis. After saying this, there seemed to be a grayish death mask in place of his face. Because he suddenly remembered someone, remembered a terrible flash of dagger light. —Moonlight like blade, the blade-like moonlight. It seemed almost as terrifying as the old adage "Little Li's Flying Daggers, they are always dispatched without ever missing their targets" in the contemporary martial arts world. The old man asked again: "So now you know who it is?" Li Huai was already admitting it by not saying anything. "This is the price I have to pay," the old man said dejectedly. "I am now just like when I first challenged Mr. Xue. If I accept the challenge and fight, I will surely lose. Then I will die." Li Huai kept quiet. "Death is not what I fear, what I fear is defeat," the old man said. "I can die, but I cannot lose."
There was a florid flush on his old, pale, agitated face, like that on the face of a dying man. "Since I am a Li, I cannot be defeated by another person's flying daggers. I cannot allow my late ancestors to suffer shame in Hades." He stared at Li Huai. "This is why I brought you back, so that you can fight on my behalf. I want you to defeat that Xue." Even the old man's voice was hoarse now. "You must survive this fight. You cannot die. You can only win. You cannot lose."
Li Huai's face was now distorted, after its initial stiffness. No one who had seen him before could expect such a grotesque face. His hands clenched tightly, like a drowning man clutching at a drifting log. —You must survive this fight. You cannot die. You can only win. You cannot lose. All of a sudden, Li Huai's voice seemed to have turned completely hoarse too. "So you want me to kill that person?" "Yes," the old man said. "When there is a need to, you must kill that person. You have no choice."
Li Huai had been sitting there, motionless like a block of wood. Like a dead body without a soul. But he suddenly jumped up, like a dead body now under the control of some strange, wicked spell, reanimated by the spirit of another person. No one could describe his expression at the moment. When he spoke to his father, his eyes weren't looking at him, but at another world. A world full of sorrow and curses. "What right have you to make me do this? Why must you make me kill someone I don't hate at all?" "Because this concerns the Li family. And you're a son of the Li family." "So you're now acknowledging me as a son of your Li family? Why didn't you do that in the past? Why didn't you want me and Mother?" Li Huai's voice was so hoarse that it became almost inaudible. "What about that legitimate elder son who was your rightful heir? Why didn't you get him to go? Why didn't you get him to kill? Why must I? Why must I go on your behalf? Who… the hell am I, to be asked to do this?" No one saw his tears. Because he had already dashed out before his tears could fall.
The old man didn't stop him. There were also tears in his old eyes, but they didn't fall. The old man hadn't shed tears for many years. His tears seemed to have dried up.
It was already the twelfth month. The snowdrift in the courtyard was already freezingly numb, like the heart of a rejected wanderer, so numb that even a piercing awl could not make it feel pain. Li Huai stormed out of the door and saw a ravishing woman standing under an old pine tree, gazing intently at him. There is a class of women in this world whom everyone will remember afterward in his dream, after taking just a single glance. The woman standing under the pine tree, gazing at Li Huai now, belonged to that class. She was in her early thirties, but seeing her, no one would have cared about her age. She was clad in a silvery-white fox fur coat, complementing her tall slim figure and fair skin. Complementing the lush green of the ancient pine tree. She looked like someone from a painting and not from the mortal realm at all. But Li Huai was in no mood to give her another glance. Right now, Li Huai only wanted to run far, far away, to a place where no one could see him, and where he could see no one. He didn't expect this lady as noble as a fairy to block his way. "Second Young Master." She was looking at Li Huai. "You cannot leave now." "Why not?" "Because there's someone who must meet you, and whom you must also see." Someone else was behind the pine tree, also clad in a silvery-white fox fur coat. He was sitting on a large chair covered in fox hide. His pale and totally bloodless face looked like the snow in the courtyard, totally numb in the freezing cold. "It's you who want to see me?" "Yes, it's me." "Who are you? Why must you see me?" "Because I am that elder son of the Li family you were talking about." He said, "I want to see you only to let you know why I can't go for the duel." Although his complexion was pale, he was only in his early thirties. There was unspeakable melancholy in his shining eyes. Yet they were still clear and bright. Hot blood started to surge up Li Huai's chest again. This man was his elder brother, the only brother he had in this world. Yet it was also thanks to this man and his mother that he and his mother were abandoned by the Li family, leaving Li Huai to roam the streets like a wild dog. Li Huai clenched his fists tight, trying to make his voice sound like the most unpleasant, the most grating of sarcasm. "Oh, so you're the Elder Young Master of the Li family? It's true that I wanted very much to see you. Because I really want to ask why can't you take up the challenge for the Li family?" Li Zheng did not answer this question. Instead, he looked at Li Huai with a very strange expression in his eyes. Then he slowly put out his hands from the inside of his fox fur coat. There were only four fingers left on his two hands. His thumbs, index fingers, and middle fingers had all been sliced off at the roots.
"When I was fourteen, I thought I had mastered the Li family's peerless flying daggers. "You must have gone through that same stage when you were fourteen. You must have known how a young man thinks at that stage of life. "By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late. "At that time, I only wanted to do something to help our family's prestige, to win face for our ancestors. I wanted to challenge the top martial arts exponents with the flying daggers I thought I had mastered. "So what happened to me in the end?" Li Zheng stared at his maimed hands. "This is what happened to me in the end. And this is the price I have to pay for our family." He suddenly raised his head and stared at Li Huai. His melancholic eyes suddenly became as keen and intense as flying daggers. "And you?" he asked Li Huai, stressing each word. "Should you be now doing something for our Li family?"
Li Huai became drunk. How could he not get drunk? Because when a man is grieving, frustrated, downcast, or defeated, if that man has strong enough willpower, he may not end up drunk. If he has no money to buy wine or doesn't drink at all, he of course won't end up being drunk either. But not one of these circumstances applied to Li Huai now. Li Huai wasn't grieving, frustrated, downcast, or defeated. He had only encountered a problem he could not resolve. Li Huai had money to buy wine. Li Huai loved wine. Li Huai was bad. Li Huai was also somewhat depressed. Most importantly, Li Huai's problem was greater than the sum of 8,000 other men's problems. So Li Huai got drunk.
Li Huai got terribly drunk—drunk with a headache, body aches, weak eyes, and a stuffy red nose. This numbness was so lovable, it could make one forget all physical suffering. If it weren't lovable, why would anyone allow himself to be so numbed and intoxicated? Unfortunately, such a feeling will not last and is also unreliable. This is probably why in our world, past and present drunk men will be most troubled by the fact that everybody will have to turn sober again. A drunk man will surely turn sober again and need to face reality. Even more terrible is the fact once a drunk man becomes sober again, the reality confronting him is often the reality he least wants to face.
Li Huai became sober. When he became sober again, the first thing he saw was Han Jun's heartless, faithless, totally expressionless face.
Li Huai got drunk. Li Huai became sober. He forgot how many times he got drunk. The only thing he regretted was becoming sober again after getting himself drunk. At this very moment, he really wanted to remain drunk forever. Because he really didn't want to see Han Jun's face. He did not know how he ended up in Han Jun's hands. Yet strangely, Han Jun didn't look like he liked seeing Li Huai either. He merely stared at him with cold, indifferent eyes. So cold and indifferent, they seemed almost abnormal. Li Huai was highly sensitive to such feelings as this place was very dark. After he became sober again, all he could see were those eyes which he reacted strongly against. On top of that, he could hear Han Jun interrogate him in a cold and indifferent voice which didn't sound quite normal. "Is your family name Li and your full name Li Huai?" "Yes." "The Imperial Treasury lost 1,700,000 taels of silver. Did you steal it?" "No." These are two customary questions used for interrogating a suspect. But Li Huai was very shocked by them. Both questions didn't seem like what Han Jun would ask. Even his voice sounded like another man's—much less cold and savage than how he used to sound. "You mean you have nothing to do with this burglary case at all?" Han Jun asked again. "Yes. I have nothing to do with the case at all." "Then where did you get the money you were spending so extravagantly these few months?" "I don't think the source of my money is any of your business. None of your freakin' business at all."
Li Huai said this only after summoning great courage. He knew that smart men always trim the sails, but he still said it, unable to hold back. After saying it, he prepared himself to get fixed. To tell Han Jun that in the face would almost surely mean a brutal beating. Yet strangely, Han Jun seemed to have no reaction at all. Even the look on his face remained the same. —What on earth was going on? Why was this guy, once more brutal than the King of Hell, now a totally different man? Why was he talking to Li Huai so politely?
To his surprise, someone else was in the dark. "It's alright, Li Huai. Answer truthfully every question Chief Han asks of you." That man was saying to Li Huai. "As long as you tell the truth, we will surely clear your name if you're innocent." His voice sounded warm and sincere. There was in it a majestic integrity audible to everyone. For some strange reason, Li Huai already felt close to this man. He already trusted this man whose face he had not even seen. "Grand Constable Han, ask him again." The man spoke again. "I believe he will tell the truth." Han Jun coughed dryly twice and repeated his question. He asked Li Huai how he suddenly came upon such a huge fortune. This was really Li Huai's secret. But in the darkness and under those peculiar circumstances, he was eager to prove his innocence. So he told them his secret.
Many years ago, Tie Yinyi found Li Huai only after conducting a series of exhaustive searches. Dragging him from the town's mud, he brought the boy back to see his father. The boy inherited the techniques of those peerless flying daggers. But Li Huai still would not stay, not even for a month. Because he never felt himself belonging to the Li family or their world. He would rather roll like a wild dog in the mud, than live in this world he didn't belong to, eating choice cuisine and dressed in fine clothes. So he ran away. On a night without stars, the moon, or the wind, he stole a really huge chunk of stewed beef from the kitchen. It was not entirely cooked, but he still tied it behind his back like a backpack. Then he ran away from this family, the foremost house in the martial arts world. He would not be restrained. He couldn't stand his family and servants treating him with a respect that bordered on cold indifference either. He did not know that in the households of esteemed noble families, there will always be a little coldness when they treat you with the utmost respect and courtesy. Too much affection and intimacy will mean one cannot really show respect.
Of course Li Huai couldn't understand this. How could a wild boy understand this, growing up in the mud? Even rich tycoons swimming in money do not understand this. So Li Huai ran away. Unfortunately, he was caught by Tie Yinyi a short distance away after his escape. But Tie Yinyi did not make him go back. Instead, he gave him two items: a booklet and a brocade pouch. "These are what your father wants me to give you."
The booklet contained the flying dagger techniques of Little Li, the bronze imperial graduate, which were once peerless in the world. "You must have learned many flying dagger techniques from your father over the past days," Tie Yinyi said. "Their essence is recorded in this manual. You will surely master your family's flying daggers if you train hard. You can do that since you're a Li, and as your blood contains the blood of your Li family." What about the brocade pouch? "No one knows what is inside this brocade pouch," Tie Yinyi said. "This pouch is from your mother who gave it first to your father, so it hasn't been opened by any one of us." There was only a sketchy map inside with a few brief explanatory notes on how to find the map's marked location. The map seemed almost like Midas's finger. Li Huai found the place and lived alone there for seven years. He mastered the peerless flying dagger techniques and unearthed a treasure that can rival a nation's wealth.
Although Han Jun was trying his best to control himself while listening to Li Huai's story, his face and even the muscles of his body were all twitching repeatedly and uncontrollably. That man sitting quietly in the dark was listening too. "How much is that treasure you found worth?" he asked Li Huai. "I believe it is definitely worth as much as or more than the silver stolen from the imperial treasury." In the darkness, someone had quietly drawn in and then exhaled a breath. Then he said slowly: "I believe you're telling the truth." "Every word I said is true." "Then there is one more thing I must ask you," the man asked Li Huai. "Who is your mother?" "My late mother had the compound surname Shangguan." "Could your mother be Shangguan Xiaoxian?" This very calm and quiet man suddenly sounded just a little agitated. "No," Li Huai answered. "Aunt Xian was my late mother's elder sister. My mother was her younger sister." That man in the dark let off a long sigh. "Could that treasure trove you found once belonged to Shangguan Jinhong's Money Sect?" Of course, this was a question that now needed no answer.
A lamp suddenly illuminated this place. Li Huai immediately understood why Han Jun wasn't acting like himself.
The once dark room was in fact a spacious and lavishly furnished hall. There were nine other people in the hall, other than Han Jun and Li Huai. All nine were seated and not moving. Although Li Huai did not know them, he could immediately tell they were no ordinary men. Their magnanimous air and expressions were enough to explain their status. How would Han Jun dare act presumptuously under the surveillance of nine such men?
An old, short, and lean man, dressed in a purple robe with a jade belt girding his waist, slowly stood up. "I know you haven't seen me before, but you must have heard of my name," the highly cultured old man said. "My family name is Xu, my courtesy name is Jianbai. My self-styled pseudonym is Green Stone." His voice was warm and affectionate. This was the man who had just spoken to him in the dark. Of course Li Huai knew this man. The Xu family and the Li family were old acquainted families with a firm friendship spanning several generations. Elder Green Stone and Mr. Manqing took oaths to be sworn brothers as young men. But Elder Green Stone had to defer to family traditions and took the orthodox career path, rising from a xiucai to a juren and then to an imperial graduate, before ending up a Hanlin Academician. He was now a premium-ranked official. Why would such a highly esteemed man get involved in such a matter? Elder Green Stone seemed to have guessed the question in Li Huai's heart. "We stepped in this time simply to clarify matters for you, since we are your father's friends," Elder Green Stone said. "Your father doesn't at all believe you will commit larceny for money. We believe him." The eight other old men, all carrying the same cultured and refined air, also smiled with him. "This is why we, retired old men, became involved. We were trying to help," Elder Green Stone said. "Now that the truth is out, I only hope you can understand this: a father's concern for his son is something the son can never understand." He patted Li Huai on the shoulder. "Really, you ought to feel proud being your father's son." Li Huai said nothing. He was afraid the moment he opened his mouth, hot tears would trickle down his eyes. "There is one more thing I need to tell you," Elder Green Stone said. "There's a young lady from the Fang family who wanted to see you one last time. I agreed. But she later changed her mind." —She would rather not meet. —Keke, Keke, I know I have let you down. I only hope you will understand, things were beyond my control too. "Right now, all business you have with us is over. From now on, you're a completely free man," Elder Green Stone said. "You may decide what you want to do or must do, entirely on your own."
Auspicious snow. Heavy snowfall, cold enough to freeze a person to death. Yet still seen by many as an auspicious sign. Because those people could not see bones freezing in the snow, or children wailing hungrily in the bitter cold. Does auspicious snow really presage rich harvest for the year? Probably so. Once the spring snow melts, it will surely irrigate the crops. Irrigation helps fertilize the soil. A fertile plot of land will have the best crop yield. A sword has two edges. Everything has a positive and negative side. Unfortunately, very few people can see the positive and the negative sides at the same time.
After the previous night's snowfall, a wind was now blowing the snowdrift away, flake by flake. A northwest wind, howling and whistling. But Li Huai could not hear it. Since Li Huai's heart was still reverberating with that voice, he could hear nothing else. —A father's concern for his son is something the son can never understand. —You ought to feel proud being your father's son. —From now on, you're a completely free man. You may decide what you want to do or must do, entirely on your own.
chefying: atumiwa : 青 is a range of colour from light green to azure. Green is 绿.
Feb 27, 2022 15:56:55 GMT
siuyiu: atumiwa 青 is most commonly translated as "indigo" in english, to match the 7 colours of the rainbow that isaac newton insisted there (he did it for religious reason; those in the art world know there are 6 colours of the rainbow).
Mar 8, 2022 4:00:33 GMT
Admin: 青色,颜色的一种,据说是最难以描述的颜色,没有之一。 英文:CYAN siuyiuatumiwa : according to baidu it's translated in English as cyan. 00FFF
Mar 9, 2022 4:09:11 GMT
atumiwa: some people said to me that "black" is also possible for classic time
Mar 14, 2022 5:40:06 GMT
kyc: 青 probably means one of these three colors: green, teal or blue.
Apr 7, 2022 13:11:25 GMT
jenxi: Cyan is a modern usage. Blue/green is in Vernacular Chinese while blue/back is from Classical Chinese
Apr 19, 2022 6:27:23 GMT
yenchin: Recently I was watching Archive 81, there was this scene where a character in a videofeed who suddenly extended her arm out of the screen to choke the guy watching it. It made me wondering: What would happen if the guy was trained in martial arts?
May 4, 2022 7:27:22 GMT
yenchin: A similar thought caught me when I was watching "Kingdom" which was about hordes of zombies in historical Korea. How would Guo Jing & Co. fare against a zombie horde instead of Mongolians? To add the fun, zombie Greats retaining their martial arts!
May 4, 2022 7:35:17 GMT
siuyiu: yenchin LOL you should re-write all storylines to be wuxia-compliant!
May 8, 2022 18:47:39 GMT
theresa: I have a sincerely good question related to this section of the forum, to which I plan on participating in: Regarding Wuxia art- can it be art based on actors/actresses who acted as the Wuxia movie/television show?
May 31, 2022 1:54:23 GMT
Admin: theresa : yes, it can be art based on actors/actressed who acted in wuxia theme
Jun 9, 2022 8:55:42 GMT
kyc: Happy Mid-Autumn Festival
Sept 10, 2022 10:12:58 GMT
ethanrob: "The Return of the Condor Heroes" is really a classic. I like not only its manga but also the TV adaptation.
Oct 23, 2022 2:28:53 GMT
siuyiu: for those who celebrate it, Merry Christmas! and to @all a Happy New Year!
Dec 24, 2022 22:24:19 GMT
chefying: Happy New Year! May the new year bring peace, health and happiness.
Jan 4, 2023 7:00:46 GMT
kyc: Happy Chinese New Year!
Jan 21, 2023 6:16:21 GMT
chefying: It is almost midnight where I am, and it is the 8th day of Chinese New Year. I hear fireworks everywhere, because people (especially those of FuJian descend) are celebrating the 9th day of CNY, a.k.a. Festival of the Jade Emperor.
Jan 29, 2023 15:58:02 GMT
atumiwa: any good wuxia film or drama?
May 10, 2023 5:24:29 GMT
Admin: atumiwa : recently there's a lot of xianxia drama on TV. the one with Luo Yunxi, Xiao Zhan. Both of them are quite popular. TBH that's not my cup of tea. I don't see anything good/interesting from the filmes.
Jul 14, 2023 5:21:59 GMT