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The Legend of the Condor Heroes - Chapter 26

Chapter 26 – New Allies

Huang Yaoshi reflected on how he’d incomprehensibly come into conflict with the Quanzhen Seven, and – even more incomprehensibly – established a deep grievance with them. There’d really been no reason for it at all. Seeing Mei Chaofeng wheezing ever fainter, he thought of the grudge he’d held for over a decade, and he felt a great, unbearable anguish within him. Tears began to fall.

A hint of a smile appeared on the corners of Mei Chaofeng’s lips. “Teacher,” she said, “please...treat me like that way you used to – the kind way you treated me before. I’ve wronged you: wronged you too much, too far! Let me be by your side forever...forever to serve you. I’m dying fast. Time’s almost up!” An imploring look covered her face.

Huang Yaoshi’s eyes were brimming with tears. “Very well, very well! I’ll treat you just like I did back when you were little,” he said. “So from today, Ruohua better be a good girl, and pay attention to what teacher says.”

Mei Chaofeng’s betrayal of school and teacher was the greatest regret of her life. But now, facing death, she had somehow gained forgiveness from her teacher, who was once again calling her by her childhood name of former days. Beside herself with joy, she clasped Huang Yaoshi’s right hand, gently trembling, in both of hers.

“Ruohua will pay attention forever,” she said. “Teacher, I want to learn how to be 12-year-old Ruohua again. Teacher, tell me how, tell me how...” She rose up with all her strength, determined to perform the rite of acknowledgement. After her third kowtow, she stiffened, never to move again.

From the other room, Huang Rong had witnessed these heart-moving, soul- stirring events unfold in succession, but hoped only that her father would stay a bit longer so she could come out and meet him the moment Guo Jing was respiring smoothly. She watched as Huang Yaoshi stooped, about to gather Mei Chaofeng’s body in his arms.

Suddenly, there was the sound of a horse neighing outside – the sound, in fact, of Guo Jing’s Little Red. Then Sha Gu’s voice could be heard: “Well, this is Ox Village. How am I supposed to know if there’s someone here called ‘Guo’? Are you called ‘Guo’?” Someone else, in a hugely impatient tone, answered: “With such few households in the village, how come you don’t know everybody around here?” At this, the door burst in, and several people entered.

Behind the open door, the look on Huang Yaoshi’s face suddenly changed: those entering were exactly who he’d been hunting as fruitlessly as if he’d been treading in broken iron shoes – the Six Freaks of Jiangnan. As it happened, they’d gone to Peach Blossom Island for the appointment; but whether they turned east or west, they ended up in circles, and found no way into Huang Yaoshi’s residence. Later, they chanced upon one of the island’s mute servants, and realised there that he’d already left. When the Freaks saw the Little Red dashing around in the forest, Han Baoju brought it under control, and the six then came to Ox Village looking for Guo Jing.

The Freaks had just stepped through the doorway when ‘The Soaring Bat’ Ke Zhen’e, whose hearing was acute, suddenly sensed the sound of breathing coming from behind the door. “Someone’s here!” he shouted. The six turned around instantly, and got a big shock: Huang Yaoshi, carrying the dead body of Mei Chaofeng across his arms, stood blocking the doorway, as if to stop them from escaping.

Zhu Cong gave a deep bow. “Master Huang,” he said, his hands folded respectfully, “my best wishes to your good health! The six of us observed the summons to visit Peach Blossom Island and pay our respects, but it so happened that the Master was engaged with other business. How fortunate it is that today our paths should cross here!”

Huang Yaoshi had just intended to strike immediately and kill the Six Freaks, but with a glance at the pale face of Mei Chaofeng, he reconsidered: “The Freaks were her mortal enemies. Today, she might have died the sooner, but I’ll enable her to kill off the Six with her own hands still. Should she learn of it in the netherworld, she’ll definitely be pleased.” His right hand holding the corpse and his left hand raising her wrist, in a sudden flash he was bearing down on Han Baoju, aiming Mei Chaofeng’s palm at his right arm. In a panic, Han Baoju tried to dodge, but it was already too late: there was a loud crack as his arm took the hit. As if using Mei Chaofeng’s palm as a weapon, Huang Yaoshi channelled his martial arts through the dead hand, transmitting a massive force of astonishing power. Although it didn’t snap Han Baoju’s arm, it left half his body tingling in paralysis.

For the Freaks, nothing could be more horrifying: Huang Yaoshi, without a single word, had immediately advanced and issued a vicious strike – and using the corpse of Mei Chaofeng as a weapon, too. There was a chorus of shouts as each drew their armaments, but Huang Yaoshi couldn’t care less; raising high the body of Mei Chaofeng, he shot straight over, and Han Xiaoying was in the firing line. She saw the eyes of Mei Chaofeng, still round and staring after death – the long hair draping the shoulders, the mouth edged with brimming blood twisted in a terrifying grimace – and the right hand held high, then violently pounding down towards the top of her own head. Scared, her hands and feet went numb, dodging and blocking forgotten.

With the wave of a shoulderpole and the flick of a counterpoise, Nan Xiren and Quan Jinfa launched simultaneous attacks at Mei Chaofeng’s arm. Huang Yaoshi pulled back the right arm of the corpse and swung out with the left arm, hitting Han Xiaoying right in the waist. In pain, she squatted straight down. Han Baoju, tilting as he stepped up diagonally, unfurled his Golden Dragon Whip; but Huang Yaoshi strode forward with his left foot and stamped firmly on the whip’s point. Han Baoju tried to free it with a mighty pull, but how could he move it one iota? In the space of a blink, Mei Chaofeng’s claw was slashing at his face. Stunned, Han Baoju ditched the whip and recoiled, rolling away immediately. Feeling his face searing with agony, he touched it with his palm and saw it come away covered in fresh blood – five nail scars had already been gouged in him. It was fortunate that Mei Chaofeng was dead and therefore unable to unleash the 9 Yin White Bone Claw form, and that the fierce poison on her nails had dissipated with the exhaustion of her qi. Otherwise, this one claw would have been instantly fatal.

After just a few exchanges, it was as if the Freaks were fighting for their lives on every side. If it hadn’t been for Huang Yaoshi intending Mei Chaofeng to kill with her own hands in posthumous vengeance, and deciding to use her limbs to destroy the enemy, the Six would have died long ago or been taken to the edge of death by injury. And even so, the Six were still living breath-by-breath against the Master of Peach Blossom Island, whose moves would come and go like a phantom’s.

In the other room, Guo Jing had been overjoyed when he heard Zhu Cong hailing Huang Yaoshi. But then, he’d listened as the seven fought, his six beneficient teachers panting for breath and crying out as they held on with all their strength. The situation was desperately critical. The qi in his dantian had yet to stabilise; but with the gratitude he owed to his teachers for raising him being no different to that he owed his parents, how could he just keep his hands in his sleeves? Immediately restricting his qi and concentrating his breath, he launched out a palm. There was a loud bang as his strike shattered the secret door.

Huang Rong was shocked. She’d seen that he hadn’t fully completed his progress – there was still a bit more effort left – and yet, at this point, he was using his strength to unleash a palm. Fearing he was endangering his life, she cried urgently: “Jing gege, don’t do it!”

As soon as Guo Jing had sent out the palm, he felt the qi in his dantian surge upwards, a heat firing his insides. He hurried to restrain and close in the qi, forcing his inner breath hard back into his dantian.

Seeing the cupboard door suddenly shatter and reveal Guo Jing and Huang Rong, Huang Yaoshi and the Six Freaks leapt back from each other, startled and delighted at the same time.

Suddenly seeing his beloved daughter, Huang Yaoshi was unsure if he was dreaming. He rubbed his eyes. “Rong’er, Rong’er,” he called out, “is it really you?” Huang Rong, still holding one palm enjoined with Guo Jing’s left, gave a slight smile and nodded her head, but said nothing. At this, Huang Yaoshi’s joy exceeded all expectation; putting other thoughts behind him, he laid Mei Chaofeng’s body down on a bench, went over to the cupboard, and sat down cross-legged. One touch of his daughter’s wrist, and he felt her pulse and breathing firm and steady. Then, reaching through the cupboard doorway, he pressed his left palm against Guo Jing’s right.

The many currents of sizzling qi boiling and bubbling inside Guo Jing’s body were already unbearable in the extreme; by this point, there’d been several times when he’d wanted to leap up screaming and shouting to relieve the pressure. When Huang Yaoshi’s palm came to enjoin with his, a stream of inner power flowed through with tremendous force, and instantly he felt a gradual settlement. Using his right hand, Huang Yaoshi set about kneading and massaging all the critical acupoints on Guo Jing; so profound was his neigong that, in just the time it took to make a bowl of rice, he had saved Guo Jing’s life.

Guo Jing, now regulating his qi with miraculous ease and circulating his inner breath freely, leapt through the cupboard doorway, bowed towards Huang Yaoshi, and immediately went to kowtow to his six teachers.

On the one side, Guo Jing was telling his teachers about the ins and outs of the situation; on the other side, Huang Yaoshi was leading his daughter by the hand and listening to her giggly chatter, her narrative punctuated with laughter. At first, the Freaks followed what Guo Jing was saying. But he was a dull talker, struggling to convey what he meant in words. Huang Rong, however, not only had a clear, crisp voice, but also a splendid turn of phrase; and when she got to the thrilling bits, her depictions scintillated with a hundred extra tones and colours. One by one, the Six involuntarily went over to listen; Guo Jing, too, finally shut up, turning from a speaker to a listener. Huang Rong did almost an hour’s worth of talking. With her expressions taking full flight – now grave, now comic – everybody listened enraptured to her pearls of wit, as if savouring a charming vintage wine.

Huang Yaoshi, upon hearing his beloved daughter had somehow become the Chief of the Beggar Gang, was utterly bewildered. “What a bizarre move from Brother Qi!” he remarked. “And how heretical of him! Perhaps he’s thinking of stealing my nickname – no longer being the ‘Northern Beggar’, and instead being the ‘Northern Heretic’? The ‘Five Greats’ would then be the ‘Eastern Beggar’, ‘Western Venom’, ‘Southern Emperor’, ‘Northern Heretic’, and ‘Central Who-Knows-What?’”

Her tale having reached the fight between Huang Yaoshi and the Freaks, Huang Rong gave a laugh. “That’s all,” she said. “There’s no use me saying what happened next!”

Huang Yaoshi announced: “I’m going to go and kill those four bastards Ouyang Feng, Lingzhi, Qiu Qianren and Yang Kang. Come with me and watch the fun, kid.” He was talking about killing people, but because he was looking fondly upon his beloved daughter, his face was all smiles.

Taking a glance at the Freaks, he felt rather contrite. Yet although he knew himself to be clearly in the wrong, he was still unwilling to hang his head and admit a fault to anyone, only offering: “The movement of qi hasn’t turned out too badly. It didn’t make me harm someone good by accident.”

As for Huang Rong, she’d originally resented the Freaks for prohibiting Guo Jing from getting married with her. But now that Mu Nianci and Yang Kang had gotten engaged, this issue had already been resolved. “Daddy,” she giggled, “how about admitting to the teachers that you made a mistake?”

Huang Yaoshi gave a snort. “I’m going to go and find Western Venom,” he said, changing the subject. He added: “Jing’er, you come too.”

Fundamentally, he felt deeply displeased at this crude, block-headed Guo Jing. “I, Huang Yaoshi, am absolutely brilliant,” he had mused. “But with such a dumbass as a son-in-law, wouldn’t that make those in wulin laugh their lips off?” He had consented to the engagement with great difficulty. It then so happened that Zhou Botong, not telling apart the silly and the serious, had cracked a reckless joke claiming Guo Jing had borrowed Mei Chaofeng’s 9 Yin Scripture and made a copy. In the midst of his rage, he had believed this to be true, and was furious at Guo Jing’s dirty underhandedness. But after having sent off Hong Qigong, Ouyang Feng, Zhou Botong and the others, he’d immediately realised that the text of the second-volume scripture that Guo Jing had learnt was far clearer than that in the second volume held by Mei Chaofeng. Moreover, this was without considering ‘let alone nowadays’, and so on. Guo Jing just couldn’t have copied from Mei Chaofeng’s handwritten text, and anyway, Huang Yaoshi had known long ago that Zhou Botong was telling lies. Later, he’d mistakenly believed Lingzhi’s made-up news of Huang Rong’s death.

Now, wild with joy at finally seeing his beloved daughter again, the grievance he held against the Freaks had momentarily vanished. It was just that he was unwilling to admit a fault or to make an apology; but he hoped in future to be able to help them with some serious matter, as a way of making amends.

Looking back on Mei Chaofeng who, in sacrificing herself to save him from great ruin, had not forgotten her gratitude to her teacher – not unto death – he pondered: “Ruohua and her martial brother Xuanfeng were in love. If they’d come and informed me about it, and petitioned to marry, I wouldn’t necessarily have forbidden them. There was no need to be rash and take the big risk of running away from Peach Blossom Island. But I’ve been moody throughout my life, never settling on joy or rage. The two of them must have considered it from every angle, and – in the end – didn’t dare to open their mouths. Now suppose Rong’er, because of this eccentric temper of mine, were to end up just like Ruohua...” The thought made him shudder. By calling out this word “Jing’er”, he was actually acknowledging Guo Jing as son-in-law.

Huang Rong was delighted. From the corner of her eye, she glanced at Guo Jing, who looked totally unaware of the implications held by this one-word title of “Jing’er”. “Dad,” she said, “let’s go to the palace first and bring teacher out.”

At this point, Guo Jing confessed to his teachers about Huang Yaoshi assenting to the marriage on Peach Blossom Island, as well as the situation with Hong Qigong accepting him as a disciple. A pleased Ke Zhen’e said: “You’ve somehow set things up so that you can call The Divine Nine- Fingered Beggar your teacher, and you’ve duped the Master of Peach Blossom Island into letting you marry his beloved daughter. We’re more than happy with it; where’s the sense in refusing? It’s just that the Mongolian Khan...” Recalling that Genghis Khan had granted Guo Jing the title ‘Prince Consort of the Golden Blade’, this was now something of an awkward matter which, if brought up, would surely provoke Huang Yaoshi into fury. For a moment, he wondered how he could mention it.

Suddenly, there was a creak as the main door was pushed open; in came Sha Gu laughing, holding a piece of yellow vellum twisted into the shape of a monkey.

“Sister,” she said to Huang Rong, “are you done eating watermelons? Oldie asked me to give you this monkey to play with.”

Huang Rong, assuming Sha Gu was just being silly and thinking nothing of it, reached out and took the paper monkey. Sha Gu added: “Hairy oldie says don’t get angry; he’ll definitely find teacher for you.” When Huang Rong heard that she was obviously talking about Zhou Botong, she looked at the monkey and saw that there were words written on the paper. Hurrying to unravel it, the following was revealed in a crooked scrawl over the surface:

Old Beggar was nowhere I looked, Old Urchin was ever so good.

Huang Rong gave a worried gasp. “How come he didn’t see teacher?” she said.

Huang Yaoshi muttered to himself for a while. “Old Urchin might be deranged,” he said, finally, “but his martial arts are terrific. As long as Qigong’s still alive, he can surely rescue him. More immediately, the Beggar Gang are facing a big problem.”

“What problem?” asked Huang Rong.

Huang Yaoshi replied: “The bamboo stick the old beggar gave you was taken away by Yang Kang. Although that brat’s martial arts aren’t great, he’s still a nasty scoundrel; even such a person as Ouyang Ke died by his hand. Now he’s got hold of the bamboo stick, he’ll definitely go stirring up a storm, to make trouble for the Beggar Gang. We ought to catch up with him and retrieve it, or else the old beggar’s brethren are going to suffer generations of serious hardship – and you, as chief, won’t be reflected in glory.”

Normally, the Beggar Gang being in trouble wouldn’t prey on Huang Yaoshi’s mind in the slightest; on the contrary, he’d rejoice in their disaster and take pleasure in their ruin, seeing it as a great spectacle of fun. But now that his beloved daughter had become the Chief of the Beggar Gang, how could he still keep his hands in his sleeves?

One after the other, the Six Freaks nodded their heads. “But he’s already been gone for days,” said Guo Jing. “I’m worried catching up will be hard.”

Han Baoju pointed out: “Your Little Red horse is here – just when you could use it!”

Delighted, Guo Jing rushed out the door and made a whistle to summon it. Seeing its owner, the red horse bounded and galloped over, brushing up close against him and neighing incessantly with excitement.

“Rong’er,” said Huang Yaoshi, “you and Jing’er hurry and grab that bamboo stick. This red horse goes at a speedy pace; I expect you’ll soon catch up.”

Having said this, he noticed a smiling Sha Gu standing by the side, with an expression exactly like that of Qu Lingfeng, his own disciple. A thought occurred to him. “Are you called ‘Qu’?” he asked her.

Sha Gu laughed and shook her head. “Don’t know,” she said. Huang Yaoshi had long been aware that his disciple Qu Lingfeng had a daughter, and calculated that her age also appeared to fit.

“Dad,” said Huang Rong, “come and look!” Leading him by the hand, she went into the secret room.

Huang Yaoshi, seeing that the separated arrangement of the secret room was completely in a pattern he himself had originated, felt that it was surely the work of Qu Lingfeng. “Dad,” said Huang Rong, “take a look at the things in that iron chest. If you can figure out what they are, I guess that makes you an expert!”

But Huang Yaoshi ignored the iron chest. Going over to the southwest corner and lifting up the sideboard at the foot of the wall, he revealed a cavity. Reaching inside, he pinched out a scroll of paper and right away leaped out of the secret room. Huang Rong hastily followed him out. Coming up behind her father, she saw the scroll unfolded in his hands, the paper’s surface covered in dust and its edges browned and broken. Written on it, in crooked handwriting, were a few rows of words:

Addressed most respectfully to venerable senior Master Huang of Peach Blossom Island:

Disciple has acquired, from within the palace, assorted calligraphy, paintings, and other artefacts, which he wishes to present for Master’s appreciation.

Disciple respectfully refers to ‘Master’, not daring the presumption to utter ‘beneficient teacher’ – even if, in disciple’s dreams, he still utters ‘beneficient teacher’ yet.

Misfortune has had it that disciple was encircled by palace guards, and is survived by a daughter…

The writing having reached the word “daughter”, there was nothing further

– except for a few splattered marks which could faintly be discerned as bloodstains.

At the time of Huang Rong’s birth, all the disciples had already suffered expulsion from Peach Blossom Island, and Qu Lingfeng had suffered it the earliest. Huang Rong, knowing that each person under the tutelage of her father had been a terrific individual, couldn’t help feeling alarmed at seeing today this report left behind by Qu Lingfeng.

By now, Huang Yaoshi had already understood the heart of it. He knew that, after Qu Lingfeng had been expelled from his teaching, he had agonised hard over gaining readmittance to the school of Peach Blossom Island. Recalling that Huang Yaoshi was fond of treasures, antiques, and samples from the work of famous painters, he had taken the risk of going to the imperial palace and committing robbery. This had gone favourably for a few times, but in the end, he had been discovered by the imperial guards. After a fierce fight, he had sustained a serious wound; returning home to write his final will, he must have struggled to finish it because of the seriousness of his injury. When, not long after, the master guardsman came in in pursuit, both sides ended up dying right here.

Huang Yaoshi was already remorseful after having seen Lu Chengfeng that last time. Now, with the recent death of Mei Chaofeng and the sight of such dedication from Qu Lingfeng, he felt even more guilt. Turning his head and spotting the grinning Sha Gu standing behind him, he had a thought. “Did your father teach you how to fight?” he asked, in a stern voice.

Sha Gu shook her head; running over to the door, she closed it and then furtively took peep after peep through the crack in the doorway, throwing a few punching moves. But as the punches came and went, they were all of the same six or seven unpolished moves from the ‘Blue Wave Palm’ form, and nothing else.

“Dad,” Huang Rong commented, “she taught herself by spying when Martial Brother Qu was practicing martial arts.”

Huang Yaoshi nodded his head, murmuring: “I expected Lingfeng wouldn’t have such a nerve as to dare pass one’s martial arts to others after having left my tutelage.” He added: “Rong’er, try attacking her footwork. Trip her up.”

Huang Rong stepped up, giggling. “Sha Gu,” she said, “let’s practice some martial arts. Look out!”

Throwing a feint with her left palm, she immediately followed with a ‘Matching Ducks Joined by a Ring’, launching two kicks with unrivalled speed. Sha Gu, dumbstruck, had already taken Huang Rong’s left kick on her right hip before she hurriedly stepped back. But she didn’t know that Huang Rong’s right leg, placed in advance, was waiting behind her; she was still unsteady from her step back when her momentum made her trip and she toppled face-up. Leaping up immediately, she shouted: “You cheated! Little sister, let’s go again.”

Huang Yaoshi’s face darkened. “Who’s the ‘little sister’?” he said. “It’s ‘auntie’!”

Sha Gu, who didn’t know the difference between “sister” and “auntie” anyway, laughed. “Auntie! Auntie!” she said, obediently.

Huang Rong had already understood. She thought: “Daddy basically wanted me to test her footwork. Both of Martial Brother Qu’s legs were broken, so when he was practicing martial arts by himself, he obviously didn’t practice using his legs and feet; therefore, Sha Gu wouldn’t have been able to spy on any footwork. If he had trained her personally, then he’d have taught her skills for all areas: upper-body, mid-section, and footwork.”

By calling out the word “auntie”, Huang Yaoshi was finally accepting Sha Gu back under his tutelage. “Why the heck are you so silly?” he asked her.

She laughed: “I’m Sha Gu!”

Huang Yaoshi scowled. “Where’s your mum?”

Sha Gu put on a crying face, answering: “Gone to granny’s place.”

Huang Yaoshi then asked seven or eight questions in a row, but he didn’t get anything that mattered. He could only give a sigh and leave it at that. When Qu Lingfeng was still in his tutelage, he was aware that he had a silly daughter who wasn’t very bright. That, for sure, was Sha Gu.

There and then, they buried Mei Chaofeng in the back garden. Guo Jing and Huang Rong carried out the skeleton of Qu Lingfeng and buried it next to Mei Chaofeng. Although the Six Freaks were mortal enemies with the ‘Twin Spectres of the Black Winds’, the death of a person was what was important; they too all kowtowed before the grave, offering wishes and dismissing their prior grievance. Huang Yaoshi, gazing at the two new graves for a long while, felt a hundred feelings mixed together. “Rong’er,” he said, sadly, “let’s go and look at your Martial Brother Qu’s treasures.” At that, father and daughter walked back into the secret room.

Looking at the things Qu Lingfeng had left behind, Huang Yaoshi was silent for a long time. Shedding tears, he said: “Among the disciples under my tutelage, Lingfeng had the strongest martial arts and the brightest mind. If his legs hadn’t been broken, even one hundred palace guards wouldn’t have been able to hurt him.”

“That’s a matter of course,” said Huang Rong. “Dad, are you going to teach Sha Gu martial arts personally?”

“I’ll teach her martial arts,” he murmured. “And I’ll teach her verse-writing, qin-playing, the mysteries of the five elements…All the skills that back then your Martial Brother Qu wanted to learn but didn’t learn – I’ll teach her, comprehensively.”

Huang Rong stuck out her tongue, and thought: “Heretical thoughts from a heretical man! Daddy’s letting himself in for a lot of stress.”

Huang Yaoshi opened the iron chest, looking through it layer by layer. The more valuable the treasures, the more sorrow he felt. Seeing rolled-up paintings and calligraphy, he sighed, remarking: “No doubt it’s great to use this stuff as a pleasing diversion from frustration, but as for expending one’s will over playthings – that must never happen. How fine were the pictures of flowers, birds and figures painted by the Taoist ruler, Emperor Huizong! Yet having depicted the rivers and mountains in all their splendour, he rolled them up and gifted them to the Jins.” As he spoke, he furled and unfurled the scrolls. “Eh?” he said, suddenly.

Huang Rong asked: “Dad, what is it?”

Huang Yaoshi pointed out a landscape in splash-ink, saying: “Look here!”

In the painting was a towering mountain, with a total of five steep peaks. Among them, one peak was outstandingly tall – bolt upright and pointing to the heavens, it pierced the clouds with its colossal height and overlooked a deep chasm below. A row of pine trees grew by the mountainside. Twigs tipped with snow, each winding trunk curved to the south, suggesting the utter ferocity of the north wind. To the west of the summit was a lone pine: old, but stiff and upstanding, and rising with an elegant majesty. Beneath this pine, vermilion brushstrokes profiled a general, twirling his sword in the face of the wind. The figure’s features were hard to discern, but the sleeves of his clothes rose in a flutter, and his bearing escaped the ordinary. The entire picture was a monochromatic landscape, but this man alone was a firey, blackish red – making him seem all the more outstanding and exceptional.

The painting was without a signature. It was annotated only with the following poem:

My clothing covered with the marks of many years, In special search of em’rald haven’s fragrant heights, I’ve never seen enough of hills and rivers fine,

As cavalry by moonlight hurries to retreat.

A few days ago, Huang Rong had seen this poem as written down by Han Shizhong on the Emerald Haven Pavilion in Lin’an, and recognized the handwriting. “Dad,” she said, “this was written by Han Shizhong. The verses are of the late, mighty Yue.”

Huang Yaoshi nodded. “That’s right, my clever Rong’er!” he said. “But this poem of the late Yue was actually describing the ‘emerald haven’ of the mountains in Chizhou. The mountains in the painting make a treacherous scene; they’re no ‘emerald haven’ at all. Although this painting’s style has a fine firmness, it’s short on implication and tasteful accent; it’s not by the hand of a master.”

That day at the Emerald Haven Pavilion, Huang Rong had seen Guo Jing – reluctant to leave – tracing his fingers along the stone inscription and brushing over the remains of Han Shizhong’s handwriting. Knowing that he’d be fond of it, she said: “Dad, let Guo Jing have this painting.” Huang Yaoshi laughed. “Girls, by birth, are extroverts,” he said. “What else is there to say?”

Handing it over to her freely, he reached into the iron chest again and picked up a necklace, remarking: “This string of pearls is each and every one of the same size; that’s truly hard to come by.” After he gave it to Huang Rong to wear around her neck, she threw herself into his arms, and he reached out and held her in a hug. Father and daughter smiled at each other, nestling cheek against cheek, both feeling a never-ending warmth.

Huang Rong had just rolled up the painting when suddenly, she heard several harsh, urgent cries of eagles overhead. Huang Rong, who was highly fond of that pair of white eagles, remembered that they’d already been taken back by Huazheng, and felt very unhappy. Wanting to play with them again for a bit, she emerged from the secret room in a hurry.

Outside the doorway, she saw Guo Jing standing under the big willow tree, one eagle pulling the shoulder of his clothes with its beak and leading him somewhere, the other eagle circling him and crying repeatedly. Sha Gu, watching in amusement, was wheeling round and round Guo Jing, clapping and giggling.

Guo Jing had an agitated look. “Rong’er,” he said, “they’re in trouble! Let’s hurry and go save them!”

“Who?” asked Huang Rong.

Guo Jing replied: “My sworn brother and sister!”

Huang Rong threw a pout with her little lips. “Well, I’m not going!” she said.

Guo Jing, unaware of her feelings, was baffled. “Rong’er, don’t be so childish!” he said, urgently. “Come on!” Harnessing the red horse, he slung himself into the saddle.

“Then...do you still want me or not?” said Huang Rong. Guo Jing scratched his head in further bafflement. “How could I not want you?” he said. “I can go without my own life, but I can’t go without you.” Holding the reins with his left, he stretched out his right hand to receive her.

Huang Rong gave a beautiful smile and called out: “Dad, we’re going to the rescue. You and the six teachers come too.” She leaped over, latched onto Guo Jing’s right hand with her left, and pulled herself up to sit behind him on the horse’s back. Guo Jing, on horseback, bowed ceremoniously to Huang Yaoshi and his six teachers, and prompted the horse forward; ahead, the pair of eagles led the way, giving a long cry in unison.

The Little Red horse had been separated from its master for very long; now that it was carrying him once again, it felt an inexpressible happiness. Invigorated in spirit, it galloped onwards as if hauled by lightning and sped by the wind; although the two white eagles were fast flyers, the Little Red somehow kept up with them.

Not long after, the eagles dived down into a dark, dense forest ahead. The Little Red, not waiting for its master’s guidance, also raced straight towards the forest.

Arriving just outside the forest, they suddenly heard a voice like a cracked cymbal emanating from within the trees: “Brother Qianren, long have I known your mighty reputation as the venerable hero of Iron Palm! Younger brother has a great desire to admire, and marvel at, the virtuosity of your divine arts; it’s a pity that senior brother couldn’t participate at the Mount Hua Duels back then. Right now, let’s ‘throw brick to lure jade’. Firstly, younger brother will use his trivial skills to finish off one of these; then, how about senior brother letting loose in the awesome spirit of Iron Palm?” Following this, someone gave a loud cry of misery, the treetops swayed in the forest canopy, and a big tree came crashing down. Shocked, Guo Jing dismounted and rushed into the forest.

Huang Rong dismounted too. Patting the Little Red’s head, she pointed back at the direction they’d come from, and said: “Quick, go bring my daddy here!” The Little Red turned around and zoomed off. “I just hope daddy comes quick,” thought Huang Rong, “or else, we’re going to get it from Old Venom again.”

Hiding herself behind the trees, she crept quietly into the forest. One glance later, she couldn’t help feeling astounded: Tuolei, Huazheng, Zhebie and Bo’erhu had all been tied up separate from each other against four big trees, and in front of them stood Ouyang Feng and Qiu Qianren. Against another tree – which had collapsed – there was also someone tied; covered in brightly-coloured clothes and armour, this was actually the Song commander who’d been escorting Tuolei back north. He’d been given a push from the stone-splitting, tree-snapping force that was Ouyang Feng’s palm. The front of his body was totally coated in blood, and the eyes in his drooping head were shut; he’d already been killed. The many soldiers had, to a man, disappeared without a trace; they’d presumably been routed by the two.

Qiu Qianren, who dared not compare palm power with Ouyang Feng, was just about to say a few things to bluff his way through when he heard the sound of footsteps behind him. Turning around to see Guo Jing, he felt both alarm and glee – just in time to make use of Western Venom to eliminate him! All he had to do was induce the two of them to get fighting, and then there’d be no need to take action himself.

Ouyang Feng saw that Guo Jing had borne the powerful force of his own Toad Art, and yet hadn’t died; this was highly unexpected.

“Guo Jing gege,” cried out Huazheng in delight, “you’re still alive! Super, super!”

Seeing the situation before her, Huang Rong had already concluded her calculations. “While waiting for daddy to come,” she planned, “I ought to delay things for a bit.”

“Bastards!” shouted Guo Jing. “What are you two oldies doing here? Planning murder again?”

Ouyang Feng, intending to get a clear look at Qiu Qianren’s martial arts, gave a slight smile and didn’t respond. “Why aren’t you bowing down before Master Ouyang, boy?” shouted Qiu Qianren. “Bored being alive, are you?”

From within the secret room, Guo Jing had listened to Qiu Qianren saying all sorts of outrageous things to stir up controversy, and now he was trying to murder people. Hating him to the core, he strode forward two paces and let out a shout, throwing a ‘Repentance of the Haughty Dragon’ at Qiu Qianren’s chest. By now, his ability with the 18 Dragon-Subduing Palms was no small matter; this particular palm was four parts release and six parts restraint, its power unleashed and instantly withdrawn. Qiu Qianren tried to dodge the oncoming force by hurriedly tilting his body but still had to deal with the arriving palm wind, and helplessly, he dropped forward instead of moving backwards.

Guo Jing gave a yell and threw a left-handed reverse palm, aiming for a tongue-splitting, tooth-dropping hit, after which Qiu Qianren would never again profit from waggling his tongue and provoking a storm.

Although this palm was strong in force, it was thrown quite slowly, but in placement it was just right – making it impossible for Qiu Qianren to dodge. It looked like it was about to hit him in the cheek when suddenly, Huang Rong called out: “Hold it!”

Guo Jing instantly converted his left hand into a grappling palm. Seizing Qiu Qianren by the back of the neck, Guo Jing lifted him up, then turned his head and asked: “What?”

Huang Rong was worried that, if Guo Jing wounded this oldie, Ouyang Feng would immediately go on the attack. “Quick, let go!” she said. “The ‘facial martial arts’ of this senior master are phenomenal. Once your palm hits his face, its force will be fired back at you; you won’t avoid internal injury!”

Guo Jing, not knowing she was speaking in ridicule, was incredulous. “There’s no such thing!” he protested.

Huang Rong added: “Senior master Qiu can strip the hide off an ox with just a gust of his breath! Why aren’t you getting out of the way?” Guo Jing was even more incredulous. But realizing that she surely had some intention, he duly put Qiu Qianren down and let go of his neck.

Qiu Qianren cackled loud with laughter. “Young miss sees the danger yet!” he said. “With you little kiddies, I’ve no grievance, no enmity. By the abundant goodness of heaven above, how could I – being the senior – do as the big bully the small, and injure you as I please?”

Huang Rong smiled. “That’s well said,” she replied. “I’m a great admirer of senior master’s skill; today, I’d like to seek advice on expert moves. But don’t you injure me!” At that, she put her guard up; her left hand raised, she rolled her right into a hollow fist, brought it to her mouth, and blew a few times.

“Here’s a move called ‘Tooting One’s Own Conch’,” she laughed. “En garde!”

“Young miss has some gall!” said Qiu Qianren. “The name of Master Ouyang is pervasive under heaven – your ridicule is unacceptable!”

There was a smack as Huang Rong threw a surprise right-handed slap, landing a crisp, clean hit on his face. Giggling, she said: “This move’s called ‘The Backlash of the Facetious Cheek’!”

Suddenly, from outside the woods came the sound of laughter, and someone said: “Excellent! And the same once again!”

Hearing the voice, Huang Rong realised that her father had now arrived. Immediately growing more daring, she gave a call of agreement and duly motioned to throw a right-hand slap. Qiu Qianren hastily ducked in avoidance, but didn’t know that her move was actually a feint – the slap was instantly pulled and followed up with a left palm. Using the through- arm style of Six-Harmony Fist, he tried to swing out a block, but hadn’t figured that his opponent’s attack was still a feint; seeing her two tiny little palms fluttering up and down before his eyes like a couple of jade butterflies, his concentration slipped, and his right cheek took a slap yet again. Qiu Qianren knew that, if the fight carried on, things could get positively out of hand. Shouting, he threw out two punches which forced Huang Rong to retreat a couple of steps, then straight away leapt aside with a cry of “Hold it!”

“What?” said Huang Rong, laughing. “Had enough?”

Qiu Qianren gave her a stern look. “Miss,” he said, “you’ve already sustained an internal injury. Hurry off to a tranquil room to convalesce for seven times seven days. And don’t so much as peep outside, or else there’s no guaranteeing your little life!”

Seeing him speak so seriously, Huang Rong couldn’t help being startled for a moment – before bursting into giggles of uncontrollable laughter, her body trembling like the stem of a flower.

By now, Huang Yaoshi and the Six Freaks of Jiangnan had already caught up, and were puzzled at the sight of Tuolei and the others tied against trees.

Ouyang Feng had naturally heard that the martial arts of Qiu Qianren were astonishing. In one former year, he’d beaten the master warriors of the Hengshan School – which had rocked the southern realms with its might – until they lay dead or dying, using only his pair of iron palms. There and then, Hengshan suffered irrecoverable collapse, never again able to hold its position in wulin. But today, how come he couldn’t even beat a little girl like Huang Rong? And could it be true that he had facial neigong, able to injure opponents by firing their force back at them? Not only was this unheard of, it didn’t look like it, given his situation.

Just as Ouyang Feng was hesitating, he raised his head and suddenly spotted a document pouch of Sichuan brocade hanging aslant from Huang Yaoshi’s shoulder, with a camel embroidered in white silk on its surface – the property, as it happened, of his own nephew. Deep down, he couldn’t help feeling dread. Having left after killing Tan Chuduan and Mei Chaofeng, he had come back again just to collect his nephew. “Could it be that Huang Yaoshi has actually killed the lad in vengeance for his disciple?” he thought. In a trembling voice, he asked: “What’s happened to my nephew?”

“What’s happened to my disciple Mei Chaofeng is also what’s happened to your nephew,” replied Huang Yaoshi icily.

Ouyang Feng felt half his body go cold. Ouyang Ke had been born because of an illicit liaison between him and his sister-in-law; nephew by name, he was actually his dear son, and he loved this illegitimate son like life itself. He had felt that, although Huang Yaoshi and the Quanzhen Taoists had established deep grievances with him, all of these people were renowned champions in jianghu; with Ouyang Ke unable to move either of his legs an inch, there was no way they’d cause him trouble. He just had to wait for them to disperse, before taking his son to a quiet place where he’d recuperate from his injuries. Little did he know that Ouyang Ke had already met with brutality.

Huang Yaoshi watched him standing there, eyes staring straight ahead, about to launch a sudden attack any moment now. He knew that this would be unleashed with a mountain-moving, ocean-churning violence, an unstoppable force; inwardly, he readied himself.

“Who’s the killer?” growled Ouyang Feng. “One of yours, or one of Quanzhen’s?” He knew that, with Huang Yaoshi’s exalted status, he’d never kill with his own hands someone who had two broken legs. He must have got somebody else to do it. By now, Ouyang Feng’s naturally harsh voice had become even more ear-piercingly jarring.

Huang Yaoshi answered coldly: “A brat who’s studied Quanzhen martial arts plus some skills from Peach Blossom Island, and who’s well acquainted with you. You go and look for him.”

Huang Yaoshi was actually talking of Yang Kang, but when Ouyang Feng thought about it, Guo Jing instantly came to mind. Bursting with rage and anguish, for a moment he aimed a ferocious glare at Guo Jing, and then turned his head to Huang Yaoshi. “What the heck are you doing taking my nephew’s document pouch?” he asked. “If the master map of Peach Blossom Island was with him, I had to take it back,” said Huang Yaoshi. “In digging down to search for the map, it was necessary for me to trouble your excellent nephew – after his burial – with the sight of daylight once again. Of that, I feel rather regretful. It’s a shame that although he had the document pouch on him, within the pouch, that master map was nowhere to be seen; the search ended up being a waste of Heretic Huang’s efforts. Still, we definitely gave the remains of your nephew a proper resting-place; we dared not have it the least bit deficient.”

“Well said, well said,” remarked Ouyang Feng.

He was aware that victory and defeat against Huang Yaoshi would be hard to tell apart until after one or two thousand moves had been exchanged, and that he’d not necessarily be the one standing in the ascendancy. Fortunately, he’d already gotten his hands on the 9 Yin Scripture, and anyway, there was no impatience for the day of revenge. But if Qiu Qianren could beat up the Jiangnan Six, Guo Jing and Huang Rong – and afterwards, come to his assistance – the two of them joining forces might take the life of Huang Yaoshi there and then. At this time of bereavement, from the sudden news that his dear son had been killed, he was still capable of coolly appraising the situation between himself and the enemy; and having calculated the chances of winning were higher, he wasn’t willing to let the opportunity go. He turned his head to Qiu Qianren.

“Brother Qianren,” he said, “you massacre these eight, while I deal with Heretic Huang.”

Qiu Qianren laughed and gave a few gentle waves of his big cattail-leaf fan. “That’s fine,” he said. “I’ll come and help you after I’ve massacred these eight.”

“Precisely,” said Ouyang Feng.

And with that one word, he fixed his glaring eyes on Huang Yaoshi, and slowly began crouching down. Huang Yaoshi, his legs in a ‘half-nail, half- V’ stance, stepped eastward into a ‘Z-tree’ position. In a moment, the two men were about to use world-class martial arts to distinguish the strong and the weak, the living and the dead.

“Massacre me first!” giggled Huang Rong.

Qiu Qianren shook his head. “Young miss is so cute and lively,” he said, “I almost can’t bear to do it…Oh shit! Oh shit!” He was suddenly clutching his belly with both hands and bending over at the waist. “At this time, of all the rotten coincidences…”

“What?” said Huang Rong, puzzled.

“You wait a moment,” said Qiu Qianren, a strained look on his face. “I’ve suddenly got a stomach-ache. I must be excused!”

Huang Rong spluttered, for once not knowing what to say. Qiu Qianren, his brows knitted in an expression of discomfort, gave another moan; clutching his crotch with both hands, he ran off to one side, a limp in his step. From the look of things, he’d had a sudden stomach-ache and, unable to hold it in, had pooped into his pants. Huang Rong, aghast, had a feeling that he was eight-tenths faking it. But worried that he really did have diarrhoea, she looked on wide-eyed and let him run past, not daring to get in his way.

Zhu Cong took out a piece of straw tissue from his pocket. With flying steps, he caught up with Qiu Qianren and tapped him on the shoulder, saying pleasantly: “Have some toilet paper.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Qiu Qianren. Going into some bushes by a tree, he squatted down.

Huang Rong picked up a stone and threw it at the small of his back, calling out: “Go a bit further!”

The stone was just about to hit Qiu Qianren when he reached behind with his hand and caught hold of it. “Does the smell offend you, miss?” he laughed. “I’ll just go a bit further away, then. And the eight of you better wait for me; don’t be taking the opportunity to slip away!” As he talked, he pulled up his pants and walked further and further; behind a line of low groves over ten zhang away, he squatted down again. “Second teacher,” said Huang Rong, “that old bastard wants to escape.”

Zhu Cong nodded his head, remarking: “That old bastard might be thick- faced, but he’s slow-footed, too; he won’t be able to escape, I’m afraid.” He added: “Here’s a couple of things for you to play with.”

Huang Rong saw that he had a sharp sword and a cast-iron palm in his hands, and knew that he’d lifted them off Qiu Qianren’s person when he’d patted the oldie on the shoulder just now. From the secret room, she’d already witnessed Qiu Qianren fooling the Quanzhen Seven with the sword- stabbed-through-the-belly stunt; she’d known immediately that it was clearly a sham, but hadn’t been able to guess its mechanism. Now, seeing straight away that the sword had a retractable blade in three sections of interlocking sheaths, she laughed so hard she fell over. Then, she got the idea of messing with Ouyang Feng’s mind. Going over to stand in front of him, she smiled and said: “Uncle Ouyang, I just can’t bear to live!” Raising her right hand, she stabbed the sword violently into her stomach.

Both Huang Yaoshi and Ouyang Feng, who were just then accumulating power in preparation to attack, were shocked to see her do this. Huang Rong promptly held up the sword, showing off the three-section blade and pulling out the ensheathed tip, and laughing as she explained Qiu Qianren’s trickery to her father.

“Could it be true,” thought Ouyang Feng, “that this oldie has whipped up a phoney reputation, cheating his way to worldly renown with a lifetime of deception?”

Huang Yaoshi, noticing him slowly straightening to a stand, had already guessed what he was thinking. He took the cast-iron palm from his daughter’s hands. The hollow of the palm, he noticed, was engraved with the word “Qiu”, and the back of it had a carving in a wave pattern.

“This is the leadership token of Qiu Qianren, the Chief of Hunan’s Iron Palm Gang,” he said. “20 years ago, this token was really of the utmost significance in jianghu. No matter whose hands it was in, it brought an irresistible right of way, from as far east as Jiujiang to as far west as Chengdu; followers of both right and wrong would without exception offer awed obedience at the sight of it. In the past few years, the name of the Iron Palm Gang has long been unheard of, and it’s unknown whether – or how – it’s disbanded. Could this shameless, pathetic, big-talking oldie really be the owner of the token?” With doubts in his mind, he returned the iron palm to his daughter.

Seeing the iron palm, Ouyang Feng peered at it from the corners of his eyes, an expression of great surprise on his face.

“This iron palm could turn out to be a lot of fun,” giggled Huang Rong. “I want it! That deceitful guy has no further use for it.” Lifting the three- section iron sword, she called out “Catch!” and raised her hand to throw it. But seeing the distance to Qiu Qianren was very far, she didn’t have enough strength in her hands; her throw definitely wouldn’t reach.

Smiling to her father, she handed him the sword. “Dad,” she said, “you throw it to him!”

Huang Yaoshi, whose suspicions were aroused, had been intending a further test of whether or not Qiu Qianren had any real ability at all. Raising his left hand, he lay the iron sword flat atop his palm with the tip of the sword pointing away from him, and flicked its handle with the middle finger of his right hand. There was a light clang as the sword shot off sharply, faster and harder than if fired from a taut, powerful crossbow. Huang Rong and Guo Jing clapped their hands and cheered; Ouyang Feng, secretly shocked, thought: “What terrific Divine Flick skill!”

While they roared in acclaim, the sword flew straight at Qiu Qianren. When its tip appeared to be only metres from him, he remained squatting on the ground, unmoving; and in the blink of an eye, the point of the sword had already plunged into his back. Although the three-section sword wasn’t sharp at all, this one flick from Huang Yaoshi had sent it in handle-deep. Even if it were a blade of wood or bamboo – let alone an iron sword – this oldie, if he wasn’t dead, was surely heavily injured.

With flying steps, Guo Jing went over for a closer look. Suddenly, he gave a loud cry of astonishment. There was a yellow ko-hemp jacket on the ground; picking it up and waving it in the air again and again, he shouted: “Oldie sneaked off long ago!”

As it happened, Qiu Qianren had taken off his jacket and hung it over the stem of a small tree – not only was he far apart from the others, the grass and woods were also blocking the view – and he’d somehow pulled off this ‘moult of the golden cicada’ trick. Just now, Huang Yaoshi and Ouyang Feng were concentrating on facing their opponent, their eyes on nothing else; and those two were in turn being watched by Zhu Cong and the rest. In the end, they’d all been deceived by Qiu Qianren. Eastern Heretic and Western Venom, giving each other a glance, couldn’t help bursting simultaneously into loud laughter, both feeling secret cheer at having one less powerful enemy in the world.

Ouyang Feng knew that Huang Yaoshi was quick-witted in thought, and not straightforward like Hong Qigong; it wasn’t easy to connive against him and succeed. But seeing him laughing in an easy-going manner, totally off- guard, how could he not take advantage of this opportunity to land a vicious strike? He gave three clanging laughs – a noise just like the din of gold clashing with iron – then stopped abruptly, as quick as lightning making a sudden bow low towards Huang Yaoshi.

Huang Yaoshi, still laughing with his head held high, raised his left palm sharply and clenched his right in a hook – and clasped his hands, returning the courtesy. Both men swayed slightly.

His surprise attack failing to connect, Ouyang Feng stood unmoving, before suddenly retreating three steps. “Heretic Huang,” he shouted, “we’ll meet again!” With a shake of his long sleeves, cloth swirled as he turned to go.

There was the faintest change of expression on Huang Yaoshi’s face: he thrust out his left palm in front of his daughter, shielding her. Guo Jing had also recognised that Western Venom, in the midst of this turn, was stealthily unleashing his ruthless, sinister skills, and was about to use an Air-Splitting Palm-type technique to launch a sneak attack on Huang Rong. But both in reactions and making his move, he wasn’t as quick as Huang Yaoshi; seeing the danger, it was already too late to help. So with a loud shout, he threw a double punch straight at Western Venom’s stomach, hoping to force him to counterpunch in self-defence. The power applied in the sneak attack on Huang Rong would then not be enough.

The force unleashed by Ouyang Feng had just been repelled by Huang Yaoshi; exploiting the momentum, he immediately swung it around to attack Guo Jing instead. This move augmented the original force from himself with energy borrowed from Huang Yaoshi’s block, amplifying its power. Guo Jing, in a critical position, ducked and rolled away. Leaping up afterwards, his face was already pale with shock.

“Good little boy!” swore Ouyang Feng. “I don’t see you for a few days, and your skills improve yet again.” Just now, his counterattacking move – borrowing an opponent’s strength to injure another, an unfathomable variation delivered with unspeakable speed – had somehow been dodged by Guo Jing. That was completely beyond his expectations.

The Six Freaks of Jiangnan, seeing both sides go on the attack, had clustered into a semicircular barrier behind Ouyang Feng. Paying no attention to them in the slightest, he dashed straight through, taking big strides. Quan Jinfa and Han Xiaoying, not daring to obstruct him, stepped aside to get out of his way and watched wide-eyed as he left the forest.

If Huang Yaoshi had wanted to avenge Mei Chaofeng right now, he could have got everyone to join forces, surround Western Venom, and overwhelm him. But being proud and arrogant by nature, he was unwilling to let anyone say a word about him ‘using the many to persecute the few’, and would rather seek him out again in the future, alone. Following the figure of Ouyang Feng with his gaze, he gave a cold laugh.

Guo Jing, Quan Jinfa and the others untied Huazheng, Tuolei, Zhebie and Bo’erhu. Already beside themselves with joy at the sight of Guo Jing still alive, they loudly cursed Yang Kang for his deceitful rumourmongering. “That Yang character said that he had to hurry to Yuezhou for something,” fumed Tuolei. “I thought he was just a decent person, so I wasted three fine horses on him as a gift.” Earlier, they’d been told of Guo Jing’s tragic loss; in the midst of their grief they heard Yang Kang talking on and on about wanting to avenge his sworn brother, and had fallen for his spiel. That evening, while they were staying together at an inn in a small town north of Lin’an, Yang Kang had wanted to go and stab Tuolei to death. But he hadn’t expected that Fatty and Skinny

– the two beggars who’d seen him holding the stick of the Chief’s authority

– were guarding him vigilantly, taking turns on night watch outside his window. Yang Kang had several times been just about to launch his attack, only to see if not Fatty then Skinny, patrolling to and fro in the courtyard with blade in hand. After waiting a whole night and from start to finish not getting an opportunity, he just gave up; the next day, he cheated Tuolei out of three fine horses, and rode off westward along with the two beggars.

Tuolei and the others, unaware that the previous night they’d nearly died a brutal death, were about to head north when they saw the pair of white eagles turn around and fly south. Waiting for half a day, there was no sign of them coming back. Tuolei knew that the eagles were unusually intelligent and that there must have been a reason for them to go south; as there was fortunately no urgency at all to return north, they therefore waited in the inn for a couple of days. When the third day arrived, the eagles suddenly flew back, crying incessantly at Huazheng. Tuolei and the others followed in a group as the pair of eagles led the way, once again travelling south. Unfortunately, they then chanced upon Qiu Qianren and Ouyang Feng in the forest.

The Jin Empire had conferred a mission upon Qiu Qianren: incite the champions in Jiangnan to get fired up against each other, so that the Jin army could come south. While talking trash to Ouyang Feng in the forest, he’d spotted Tuolei – the Mongolian ambassador – and, together with Ouyang Feng, had instantly gone on the attack. Although Zhebie and the others were extraordinarily brave, how were they a match for Western Venom? The two eagles had actually flown south because they’d discovered the tracks made by the Little Red horse, but had ended up unwittingly leading their master into a catastrophe. And if they hadn’t brought Guo Jing and Huang Rong over just in time, Tuolei’s entire group would have inadvertently lost their lives there and then in the forest. Of these particulars, there were some Huazheng knew of, and there were some she was oblivious to. Tugging at Guo Jing’s hand, she chattered away endlessly. Huang Rong, seeing the manner between Huazheng and Guo Jing so intimate, was already somewhat unhappy. Even more uncomfortably, Huazheng was speaking entirely in Mongolian, which Huang Rong couldn’t understand a single word of. She had become an outsider.

Huang Yaoshi noticed the odd expression on his daughter’s face. “Rong’er,” he asked, “who’s this barbarian girl?”

“Brother Jing’s wife-to-be,” answered Huang Rong, morose.

Hearing this, Huang Yaoshi almost couldn’t believe his own ears. “What?” he asked, insistently.

Huang Rong hung her head. “Dad,” she said, “go and ask him for yourself.”

Zhu Cong, nearby, had recognised in advance that things were getting inauspicious, and hastened forward. Delicately, he raised the circumstances of Guo Jing’s already having gotten engaged with Huazheng earlier in Mongolia.

Huang Yaoshi, unable to restrain his anger, cast an accusing glance at Guo Jing. Icily, he said: “So it turns out that, before coming to Peach Blossom Island as a suitor, he’d already set on an engagement in Mongolia?”

“We ought to think of a…think of a way to satisfy both parties,” stuttered Zhu Cong.

“Rong’er,” said Huang Yaoshi sharply, “dad’s going to do something, and you’d better not get in the way.”

“Dad, what is it?” asked Huang Rong, her voice trembling.

“That disgusting boy, that worthless girl – I’ll slaughter both of them together!” said Huang Yaoshi. “How could we allow anyone to disgrace the two of us, father and daughter?” Huang Rong dashed forward a step and grabbed her father’s right hand. “Dad,” she said, “Brother Jing said wholeheartedly that he really, really loves me – that he’s never taken this barbarian girl to heart!”

“Well, fine,” snorted Huang Yaoshi. Raising his voice, he shouted: “Boy, hurry up and kill the barbarian girl, to display evidence of your own feelings!”

Guo Jing had never in his entire life met with such an awkward situation. Naturally hesitant in his thoughts, he heard what Huang Yaoshi just said and felt totally at a loss; standing there in a daze, dumbfounded, he didn’t know what to do.

“You’d already set on a marriage beforehand,” continued Huang Yaoshi frostily, “yet you still came to me in suit! Whoever heard of such a thing?”

Seeing Huang Yaoshi’s ashen expression, the Jiangnan Freaks knew that Guo Jing was one sudden flick of a palm away from fatal misfortune; furtively, each of them went on guard. But with their ability so far inferior by comparison, they’d actually be helpless to assist should the fighting get serious.

Guo Jing had always been unable to tell lies. Having heard these questions, he answered with the plain truth: “All I hoped for was to be with Rong’er for the rest of my life. Without Rong’er, there’s no way I can live.”

Huang Yaoshi’s expression softened slightly. “Very well,” he said. “If you don’t kill this girl, that’s fine; but from now on, you cannot ever see her again.”

Guo Jing, faltering, had yet to respond, when Huang Rong asked: “You definitely need to see her, don’t you?”

“I’ve always treated her just like a dear sister,” said Guo Jing. “If I can’t see her, sometimes I’d worry about her.”

Huang Rong gave a beautiful smile. “Just see who you’d like to see – I don’t mind!” she said. “I have faith that you don’t really love her. And how could it be that I don’t compare to her?” “Fine!” said Huang Yaoshi. “I am here. The barbarian girl’s family are here. And your six teachers are here, too. Now you better say it loud and clear: the one you want to marry is my daughter, and not that barbarian girl!” It was already greatly against his nature to concede repeatedly like this; but out of respect for his beloved daughter, he restrained himself with all his might, and tolerated it. His heart had also softened briefly since Mei Chaofeng lost her life while shielding her teacher.

Lost in thought, Guo Jing hung his head. Stashed around his waist, he glimpsed both the golden blade granted to him by Genghis Khan, and the small dagger gifted to him by Qiu Chuji.

“Going by the will of father,” he pondered, “Yang Kang and I should be good brothers, not changing through life and death. But how can I keep faith in this tie if he acts like he does? And going by the will of Uncle Yang Tiexin, I should take Sister Mu as a wife. But that obviously can’t be right. It looks like I don’t always have to follow the orders laid down for me by elders. The engagement between myself and Sister Huazheng was made by Genghis Khan. How can it be that, because some person said a few words, Rong’er and I have to spend our lives apart?” Having thought this far, he’d already made up his mind. He raised his head.

By now, Tuolei had clarified with Zhu Cong what had been spoken about in the exchange between Huang Yaoshi and Guo Jing. He saw Guo Jing dithering and ruminating, seemingly embarrassed; and he realised that he truly felt no sentiments towards his sister. Bursting with rage, he took a long, wolf-fanged-and-vulture-plumed arrow out from his quiver, and gripped it in both hands.

“Brother Guo Jing!” he called out. “Everywhere under heaven, ‘One’s word is one’s bond’ is the conduct of the true man! Now that you’ve treated my sister heartlessly, how could the heroic sons and daughters of Genghis Khan seek sincerity from you? The brotherly tie between you and me…from now, I demand it severed! As for the bond of life and death the two of us had when we were children, and also your saving the lives of father and me – let’s keep kindness and grievance clearly separated. Because your mother’s in the north, I’ll certainly provide for her, properly and respectfully. But if you want to see her come south, I’ll be sure to send people in escort. There won’t be the least bit of neglect – no way! A real man’s words are set in stone. You put your mind at rest!” Done with talking, there was a loud crack as he snapped the arrow in two, flinging the shards before the horse. Tuolei had spoken with a steely finality and an iron will. Deep down, Guo Jing felt in awe, and he suddenly recalled all kinds of heroic deeds that him and Tuolei had got up to during their youth in the great desert.

“He said: ‘A real man’s words are set in stone,’” thought Guo Jing. “The agreement to marry Sister Huazheng was from my own mouth. To go back on one’s word – how is that the way to behave? Even if Master Huang kills me today and Rong’er hates me for the rest of her life, I can’t be seeing it like that.”

Immediately, he raised his head high. “Master Huang, my six kind teachers, Brother Tuolei, and masters Zhebie and Bo’erhu,” he announced, “Guo Jing really isn’t the type who has no honour, no virtue. I have to marry Sister Huazheng.”

He made this announcement in Chinese, and separately, in Mongolian. For everyone, it was far off what they’d expected. Tuolei, Huazheng, Zhebie and Bo’erhu were surprised but delighted; the Jiangnan Freaks privately praised their disciple for being a true man of hard backbone; and Huang Yaoshi, casting him a sideways glance, gave a cold sneer.

Huang Rong was deeply heartbroken. After a moment’s pause, she took a few steps towards Huazheng, and assessed her carefully. She noticed Huazheng’s athletic figure, her large eyes and dashing eyebrows, her features everywhere noble; and she couldn’t help giving a long sigh.

“Jing gege,” she said, “I understand. You and her are the same. The two of you are a pair of white eagles rising over the great desert. But I’m just a little swallow, sitting under a willow branch in Jiangnan.”

Guo Jing stepped over to her. “Rong’er,” he said, grasping her hands, “I don’t know if what you said is right or wrong. In my heart, there’s only you

– and you know it! Who cares what others say we should or shouldn’t do? They can burn my body ‘til the ashes blow away, but I’ll only be thinking of you!”

“Then why did you say that you’ll marry her?” said Huang Rong, tears welling in her eyes.

“I am a fool,” said Guo Jing. “I don’t know about any reasoning. I only know this: the promises that you make, you just can’t take back. But I’m not lying when I say that, no matter what, you’re the only one in my heart. There’s no way I can be apart from you. I would rather die!”

Huang Rong felt confusion inside – feelings of love and of pain. After a moment, she gave a faint smile. “Jing gege,” she said, “if I’d known things would be this way, we’d never have returned from the ‘Island of Rubicund Clouds’. Wouldn’t that have been great?”

Huang Yaoshi, raising an eyebrow, suddenly shouted: “That’s easy!” With a flap of his robe sleeves, he swung out a hand chopping at Huazheng.

To Huang Rong, her old dad’s intentions had been plain to see. Spotting a cold glint in his eyes, and knowing an attempt to kill was imminent, she’d pre-emptively dashed to obstruct him before he’d thrown out his hand. Huang Yaoshi, afraid of harming his beloved daughter, at once stopped his hand’s momentum. Huang Rong had already grabbed Huazheng by the arm and pulled her off her horse when Huang Yaoshi’s hand struck the horse on the saddle, making a loud noise.

Initially, the horse didn’t seem unduly affected at all. But gradually, its head drooped and its legs bowed as it curled, paralysed, into a ball on the ground

– where, in the end, it died. This was a sturdy horse from a renowned Mongolian breed; although it wasn’t as fabulous as the treasured blood- sweating horse, it was still a fine, muscular animal, strong-boned and with a high, bulky body. But with just one wave of Huang Yaoshi’s palm, it had died under his hand. Martial arts this extreme were a rare sight indeed. The hearts of Tuolei, Zhu Cong and all the others were pounding wildly; if, they thought, this hand had struck Huazheng, how would she have survived? Huang Yaoshi hadn’t expected his daughter would actually take action and rescue Huazheng. He was stunned for a moment, before understanding why: if he killed the barbarian girl, Guo Jing would surely turn against his daughter, and they’d become enemies. He snorted, thinking: “To turn against is to turn against; how could I even be scared of this boy?” But with one glance at his daughter, he saw her expression was one of misery and pain, but obviously also of feeling intertwined with someone in a thousand ways – unable to part, unable to leave. Deep down, he couldn’t help trembling: this was exactly the same look that his wife, on the verge of death, had on her face. Huang Rong had always been very similar in looks to her departed mother. Back then, that emotional event had affected Huang Yaoshi like a dementia, like a madness; although it had been fifteen years, every day since it was as if it was still right before his very eyes. Now, to see it suddenly appear on his daughter’s face, made him realise that her feelings of love for Guo Jing were already rooted bone-deep. Reflecting that this was precisely the natural character of her father and mother – self- willed and disposed towards irresolvable passion – he gave a long sigh, and intoned:

“Earth and heaven Are a stove,

Nature is the worker! Yin and Yang are

As charcoal,

Thousand things are copper!”

Huang Rong stood still, teardrops falling slowly.

Han Baoju gave Zhu Cong’s lapels a tug. “What’s he singing about?” he asked, in a whisper.

“It’s from a composition written by someone called Jia, during the Han Dynasty,” answered Zhu Cong, also whispering. “It’s saying that existence on this world – for mankind and the ten thousand creatures – is an anguish just like that of suffering incineration inside a huge furnace.” “He’s trained to such a high standard!” spluttered Han Baoju. “What anguish can he have?”

Zhu Cong, shaking his head, gave no response.

“Rong’er,” said Huang Yaoshi gently, “after we go back, you are never to see this boy again.”

“Dad, no!” said Huang Rong. “I still have to get to Yuezhou. Teacher told me to go and be the Chief of the Beggar Gang.”

Huang Yaoshi smiled faintly. “Being the head of the tramps,” he said, “is a serious hassle, and it’s not much fun.”

“I promised teacher I’d do it,” said Huang Rong.

“Well, try it out for a few days, then,” sighed Huang Yaoshi. “When you’re really sick of it, hand it over to another straight away. And afterwards…are you going to see this boy or not?”

Huang Rong took a glance at Guo Jing and saw him gazing back at her. The look in his eyes was one of overflowing tenderness, of a love infinite in depth. She turned her head back towards her father.

“Dad,” she said, “he’s going to marry someone else; so I’ll marry someone else, too. I’m the only one in his heart, just as he’s the only one in my heart.”

Huang Yaoshi laughed. “The daughter of Peach Blossom Island cannot lose out, so that’s not too bad. Now, suppose the man you marry doesn’t let you be friends with him…?”

Huang Rong gave a snort. “Who’d dare to stop me?” she said. “I’m your daughter!”

“Silly girl!” said Huang Yaoshi. “It won’t be a few more years before dad dies.”

“Dad!” sobbed Huang Rong. “The way you treat me, would I really be able to live on for much longer?” “So are you still going to be with this heartless, faithless boy?” enquired Huang Yaoshi.

“Each extra day I stay with him is an extra day of happiness,” said Huang Rong. She said this gently, but with an expression of utter misery.

While father and daughter asked and answered each other like this, the Jiangnan Freaks – despite being eccentric in character – couldn’t help but listen agape. In the Song era, the proscriptions advised by propriety were followed with the most particularity; but because Huang Yaoshi was a man who ‘opposed Tang and Wu and despised Zhou and Kong’ and who perversely went against the conventions of the age, it had led to everyone calling him by the given title of “Eastern Heretic”. As for Huang Rong, she’d been moulded by her father since youth, and regarded marriage as marriage and love as love; when had thoughts of rectitude and chastity ever passed through her little head? This kind of conversation, shocking by the standards of the time, would set tongues wagging incessantly in disapproval among anyone overhearing it. But father and daughter were even talking as if it were only natural – just like common, idle, household chat. Despite the open-mindedness of Ke Zhen’e and the others, they couldn’t help shaking their heads quietly.

Guo Jing, who was feeling very bad, wanted to say a few comforting words to Huang Rong, but he’d always been wooden in speech. Now, he knew even less what was the right thing to say. Huang Yaoshi glanced at his daughter, then glanced at Guo Jing. Lifting his head towards the heavens, he suddenly roared long and loud. The sound shook the treetops and echoed from the mountain valley, startling some magpies; they rose in a flock and flew around the forest.

“Magpies, magpies!” called out Huang Rong. “The cowherd meets the weaving-girl tonight. Why no hurry to build the bridge?”

Huang Yaoshi grabbed a handful of loose stones from the ground and hurled them up into the air. One by one, a dozen magpies dropped, most dying where they fell. “What bridge is there to build?” shouted Huang Yaoshi. “Deep passion, great love: all empty fantasy in the end. More fitting that it die an early death!” He spun around and floated off. In just the space of a blink, the others saw his blue-robed figure disappear beyond the back of the woods.

Tuolei hadn’t understood what they’d been talking about; he knew only that Guo Jing was unwilling to turn his back on agreements from the past. “Brother,” he said, happily, “here’s hoping you soon succeed with your big objective. See you again when you’re back north!”

Huazheng added: “Keep this pair of white eagles by your side, and come back someday soon!”

Guo Jing nodded his head. “Tell my mum,” he said, “that I’m sure I’ll put the enemy to the blade, and get revenge for father.”

Zhebie and Bo’erhu also took their leave of Guo Jing, and the four rode out of the forest together.

“What are your plans?” Han Xiaoying asked Guo Jing.

Guo Jing said: “I…I plan firstly to go and find Teacher Hong.”

Ke Zhen’e nodded his head. “That’s right,” he remarked. “Master Huang went to our households; our families must have been very worried. We ought therefore to return. When you see Chief Hong, you must invite His Eminence to come to Jiaxing and convalesce. We’ll keep a firm guard over him, and assure you his safety.” Guo Jing promised to do so, took leave of his six teachers, and then returned to Lin’an with Huang Rong.

That evening, the two of them went back into the palace for a careful look around the imperial kitchens, but there was no sign of Hong Qigong anywhere. They found and interrogated several eunuchs, all of whom said that there hadn’t been any intruders or trespassers appearing in the palace these past few days. Guo Jing and Huang Rong felt they could put their minds at rest somewhat. Although Hong Qigong had lost his martial arts, he still had the resourcefulness and experience of a great master; they expected he’d surely had a plan of escape. And by now, it was already drawing near to the time of the Beggar Gang’s big meeting – they couldn’t delay any longer. Early next morning, they immediately rode westward together. At this time, half of China was already occupied by the Jins, the boundary a line from the River Huai in the East to Sanguan in the West. What remained for those of the Southern Song were seventeen provinces in all: Eastern and Western Liangzhe; Eastern and Western Huainan; Eastern and Western Jiangnan; Northern and Southern Jinghu; Southern Jingxi; the five regions of Bashu; Fujian; and Eastern and Western Guangnan. (*) The nation’s influence was in faltering decline, its territory shrinking by the day.

On this particular day, Guo Jing and Huang Rong were coming to the border of Western Jiangnan province. (*) While going along a mountain ridge, there was a sudden blast of cold wind across it, and a big layer of jet- black clouds came floating over fast from the east. Right now, it happened to be the height of summer, but rain falls as it pleases; even before the dark, rumbling clouds had arrived overhead, there was a thunderclap, and it was already showering down with soyabean-sized raindrops.

Guo Jing opened an umbrella and went to shelter Huang Rong with it, but a violent, unexpected gust of wind burst over, ripped off the parasol, and carried it far away, leaving only a naked umbrella-handle in Guo Jing’s hands. Huang Rong, laughing loudly, said: “How come you’ve got a Dog- Beating Stick, too?”

Guo Jing laughed with her. Looking ahead along the ridge, there was nowhere in sight where they could escape from the rain. Guo Jing took off his jacket, wanting to use it to shield Huang Rong. “We can cover up for a bit longer,” said Huang Rong, smiling, “but we’ll still get wet!”

“Then let’s walk quicker,” said Guo Jing.

Huang Rong shook her head. “Jing gege,” she said, “here’s a story from a book. One day, it was raining down hard. Everybody travelling on the road was rushing to and fro. But there was one man who just walked at an unhurried pace. The other people were surprised, and asked him why the heck he wasn’t running. The man said: ‘It’s raining down hard ahead of me, too. Won’t running over there still get me soaked just the same?’”

“True!” laughed Guo Jing. The issue of Huazheng suddenly arose in Huang Rong’s mind. “The future ahead is already doomed with misery and heartbreak,” she thought. “No matter how we run, in the end we can’t escape, can’t hide. It’s just as if we’d encountered rain while along the ridge of a mountain.”

There amidst the downpour, the two of them walked slowly until they’d left the ridge. Seeing a peasant household, they went in to shelter from the rain. As both were totally soaked from head to toe, they changed into clothing borrowed from the peasant family. Huang Rong put on the worn garments of an old farmer’s wife, which she found amusing, when suddenly she heard a series of disappointed groans from Guo Jing in the neighbouring room. Rushing over, she asked: “What is it?”

Guo Jing, an upset look on his face, had in his hands the painting given to him by Huang Yaoshi. It had so happened that the painting had been damaged by rainwater during the downpour just now. “What a shame!” repeated Huang Rong.

Taking the canvas from him for a look, she saw that its paper was torn, its strokes of paint blurred. There was already no way it could be refitted and restored. She was just about to put it down when she suddenly noticed that a few extra lines of dim writing had appeared by the side of the poem annotated by Han Shizhong. A closer look revealed that these words had been written on paper interlying between the painting and the sheet it had been mounted on; if it hadn’t been for the painting getting soaked, they definitely wouldn’t be visible. The disintegration of the rain-soaked paper had made the writing fragmented and difficult to distinguish, but by looking at the form in which it was arranged, Huang Rong could make out there were four sentences in all.

With careful discernment, she read out slowly:

“…posthumous writings of the late…, iron palm…,

Middle…peak, Second…joint.” The remaining words were so damaged that there was absolutely no way they could be identified.

“It’s about The Posthumous Writings of the Late General!” called out Guo Jing.

“Indeed!” said Huang Rong. “There’s no doubt. That bastard Wanyan Honglie assumed the Writings were hidden by the side of the palace’s Cuihan Hall. But although he got the stone box, the Writings were nowhere to be seen. It looks like the location of the Writings hinges critically on these four lines of text.”

After murmuring “…iron palm…middle…joint…” for a while, she added: “That day at The Villa of the Gathering Clouds, at one point I heard Martial Brother Lu and your six teachers discussing that deceitful guy, Qiu Qianren. They said he was the Chief of the Iron Palm Gang or something. Daddy said that the might of the Iron Palm Gang rocked Sichuan and Hunan; its prestige and reputation really were awesome. Could it be that the Writings actually have something to do with Qiu Qianren?”

Guo Jing shook his head. “As long as it's Qiu Qianren playing up,” he said, “I’m not believing any of it!”

“I wouldn’t believe it either!” said Huang Rong, with a little laugh.

On the fourteenth day of the seventh month, they arrived within the borders of Northern Jinghu province. (*) The next day, before the stroke of noon, they’d already reached Yuezhou. Leading their horses and loosing the eagles, they asked around for directions, and came by path to Yueyang Tower.

After going up into a nearby restaurant and ordering food and drink, they admired the scenery of Dongting Lake: a sweeping vastness of one blue- green hue spread across ten thousand qing. Towering mountains stood out in every direction, a ring of misty, lofty peaks arrayed in an arc of awe- inspiring majesty. Compared to the hazy waters of Tai Lake, this spectacle was something else entirely. While they enjoyed the view, the food arrived. The cuisine of Hunan was very heavily spiced, and Guo Jing and Huang Rong both felt that it wasn’t to their taste; but with such big dishes and such long chopsticks, it nevertheless had a rather generous spirit to it. The two of them ate some of the food and looked around at the verses inscribed on the four walls. Guo Jing perused Fan Zhongyan’s Remarks on Yueyang Tower in silence, but he couldn’t help reading out loud when he reached the sentence:

“Be first under heaven to worry, And last under heaven to rejoice.”

“What do you think about this couplet?” asked Huang Rong.

Guo Jing re-read it silently, pondering to himself and giving no immediate response.

“The writer of this essay was Fan, ‘The Just Official’,” said Huang Rong. “At that time, he rocked the Western Xia with his might; a literary talent and an astute tactician, you could say that he had absolutely no equal on earth.”

Guo Jing asked her to describe some of Fan Zhongyan’s achievements, and listened as she talked about his various childhood hardships – the poverty of his family, the early death of his father, the remarriage of his mother – and, after he’d attained wealth and honour, everything he did in consideration for the commonfolk. A grave feeling of reverence rising unstoppably within him, Guo Jing solemnly poured a ricebowlful of wine. “‘Be first under heaven to worry, and last under heaven to rejoice.’” he said. “This is surely what’s in the mind of great heroes and great champions!” With that, he lifted his head and drained the wine in a single shot.

Huang Rong laughed. “Although this sort of person is good for sure,” she said, “there’s so much worry under heaven – and so little joy – that wouldn’t he never get to rejoice in his life? I couldn’t be like that.” Guo Jing gave a slight smile.

“Jing gege,” continued Huang Rong, her voice getting lower, “I don’t care whether there’s worry or joy under heaven. If you aren’t by my side, I’m never going to be joyful.” Her brows were knitted with despair. “I won’t be joyful either,” remarked Guo Jing, hanging his head. He knew that she was thinking about how the two of them were going to end up, and he had no way of comforting her.

Huang Rong suddenly raised her head and laughed. “Never mind!” she said. “All this is childishness, anyway. Have you heard anyone sing Fan Zhongyan’s poem Spurn the Silver Lantern?”

“I haven’t heard it, of course!” said Guo Jing. “Could you tell it to me?” Huang Rong said: “The concluding passage of the poem goes like this: ‘The life of man is but

A hundred years in all;

Infatuated youth

Ends up with aged pall.

Only in between there’s time, Briefly youthful in one’s prime.

Why grasp on fleeting fame, catch hold Of first-class rank and thousand gold? For how to flee white hairs of old?’”

She followed this by explaining the general meaning of the poem.

Guo Jing commented: “He was telling people not to waste their best years by using them up in seeking fame, gaining office, getting rich, and so on. And that’s very well said.”

Huang Rong, in a whisper, recited:

“Wine into the worried stomach Changes into lovesick tears.”

Guo Jing gazed at her. “Is that a poem of Fan Zhongyan, too?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Huang Rong. “Great heroes and great champions also aren’t the heartless sort, you know.”

The two of them drank a few cups to each other, and Huang Rong had a look at the guests in the restaurant. On the eastern side, she saw three middle-aged beggars sitting around a square table; although they wore many patches, their clothes were clean and fresh. By the look of them, they were important figures within the Beggar Gang who’d come to attend tonight’s big meeting. Besides them, the other guests were all the usual officials and merchants. The incessant chirp of cicadas could be heard coming from a big willow tree outside the restaurant.

“All day long,” said Huang Rong, “these cicadas call out ‘zhi le, zhi le’ endlessly, but whatever they know is unknown. Basically, even among insects there are guys who boast shamelessly. It makes me think of a particular person, and I rather miss him.”

“Who?” demanded Guo Jing.

“That big talker of bull,” said Huang Rong, smiling, “the Iron Palm’s Qiu ‘Floats-Over-Water’ Qianren!”

Guo Jing laughed loudly. “That old trickster…!” he began.

He hadn’t finished speaking when suddenly, from a corner of the restaurant, they heard somebody speaking in a mysterious voice: “Looking down even on ‘Floats-Over-Water’ Elder Qiu of Iron Palm? That’s some big talk!” Guo Jing and Huang Rong glanced at where the voice was coming from and saw a middle-aged beggar, with a swarthy complexion and clad in a tattered jacket, squatting by the corner and looking at them in snickering laughter.

Guo Jing, seeing that he was a Beggar Gang figure, immediately relaxed. Noticing that he had an agreeable expression, Guo Jing clasped his hands in respect and said: “Senior, how about joining us and drinking a cup or three?”

“Sure!” said the beggar, coming over at once.

Huang Rong ordered an extra cup and set of chopsticks from a waiter. Pouring the cup with wine, she said with a smile: “Please take a seat, and drink up!”

“Beggar here doesn’t deserve a seat,” he answered. Sitting right there on the floorboards, he took out a broken bowl and a pair of bamboo chopsticks from a pocket. Extending the bowl, he said: “The leftovers you’re finished with – dump some over, and they’ll do for me.”

“That’d be a bit too disrespectful!” said Guo Jing. “Whatever dishes senior would like to eat, we’ll order them up from the kitchen.”

“A beggar does as a beggar looks,” said the beggar. “If he’s one in name only – just feigning the accent and affecting the appearance – might as well not be a beggar. If you agree to hand it out, then hand it out. If not, I’m going someplace else to beg for food!”

Huang Rong took a glance at Guo Jing. “Indeed!” she laughed. “You said it right!” They then tipped all their leftover food into the broken bowl. The beggar grabbed a few clumps of cold rice from inside a pocket and, along with the leftovers, began eating them up zestfully.

Secretly, Huang Rong counted the number of pockets on him: there were three pockets to a cluster, and three clusters in total – in sum, nine pockets. Having another look at the three beggars around the other table, each of them was wearing nine pockets as well, but on their table was a lavish spread of food and drink. Those three acted as if they hadn’t seen this one beggar, and all along had never so much as glanced at him; but at times, their expressions carried a faint look of disgust.

As the beggar continued eating heartily, they suddenly heard the sound of footsteps on the staircase, and three people started coming up. Guo Jing turned his head and looked towards the stairs.

The first two people were Fatty and Skinny, the two beggars who’d attended Yang Kang at Lin’an’s Ox Village. The third person was Yang Kang himself. Poking his head up, he got a big shock at the sudden sight of Guo Jing, still alive; after a moment of panic, he abruptly turned back and descended the stairs in terror, speaking about something as he left. Fatty followed him down, but Skinny went over to the table of the three beggars and said a few things to them in a low voice. The three immediately stood up and departed down the stairs. Meanwhile, the beggar sitting on the floor just carried on eating, taking no notice of them at all. Huang Rong went over to the window and looked down from it, seeing Yang Kang – thronged by a dozen beggars – departing westward. He hadn’t gone far when he turned his head and glanced up. Happening to make eye contact with Huang Rong, he looked away instantly and quickened his pace.

The beggar, having finished eating his meal, licked the bottom of the bowl clean and clear with his extended tongue, gave his chopsticks a few wipes on his clothing, and put everything into a pocket. Huang Rong looked at him carefully. His face, covered with wrinkles, expressed anxiety and hardship; his hands were unusually big – almost double those of an ordinary person – and on their backs were raised blue veins, attesting to a lifetime of hard toil.

Guo Jing stood up and folded his hands in respect. “Senior,” he said, “please take a seat and we can have a talk.”

“I’m not used to sitting on stools!” laughed the beggar. “You two are the disciples of Chief Hong; although you’re young, we’re actually in the same generation. But as I’m older by several years, you can address me as ‘big brother’. My name’s ‘Lu’; I’m called ‘Lu Youjiao’.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong cast a glance at each other, both thinking: “So he already knows our background!”

“Big Brother Lu,” said Huang Rong with a smile, “this name of yours really is interesting!”

Lu Youjiao answered: “It’s often said: ‘A pauper without a stick gets harassed by the dogs.’ I’m indeed without a stick, but what I do have is a pair of stinky feet. If a doggie comes to harass me, I take aim straight at the mongrel’s head, and that son-of-a-b***h gets a foot like so! Then, it’s off running to the wilds with its tail between its legs.”

Huang Rong laughed and clapped her hands. “Super, super!” she said. “If dogs knew the meaning of your name, they’d always be keeping their distance!” “From what Brother Li Sheng’s been saying,” remarked Lu Youjiao, “I know the deeds the two of you did at Baoying. ‘Having ideals comes not from having advanced years; lacking ideals, one lives to a hundred in vain.’ How true! It really is a cause for admiration. No wonder Chief Hong has favoured you like this!” Guo Jing rose and demurred modestly.

Lu Youjiao continued: “Just now, I heard you two chatting about Qiu Qianren and the Iron Palm Gang. It seems you’re very much unaware of his circumstances.”

“True,” said Huang Rong. “I ought to ask for your advice.”

“Qiu Qianren is the Chief of the Iron Palm Gang,” said Lu Youjiao. “This Gang holds huge influence in the regions of Hunan, Hubei and Sichuan. The Gang’s hordes commit murder and robbery; there’s no evil they won’t do. At first, they used to collaborate with local officials. Now, they’re getting nastier and nastier – bringing out the cash to bribe ministers, they’re starting to become officials themselves. Even more despicable is their secret liaison with the Jin nation, with whom they’ve struck a deal to work from within in accord with those outsiders.”

“That oldie Qiu Qianren is only good at tricking people,” said Huang Rong. “How’d he be able to handle such serious power?”

“Qiu Qianren is dangerous in the extreme!” insisted Lu Youjiao. “You ought not to look askance at him, miss.”

Huang Rong smiled. “Have you met him?” she asked.

“As it turns out, no,” admitted Lu Youjiao. “I hear he lives in seclusion among obscure mountains, practicing The Divine Art of the Iron Palm; he hasn’t descended for at least a decade.”

“You’ve been tricked!” said Huang Rong, laughing. “I’ve met him a few times. I’ve even fought him. And as for whatever ‘Divine Art of the Iron Palm’…” Remembering how Qiu Qianren had feigned diarrhoea and run away, all she could do was just gaze at Guo Jing and giggle. Lu Youjiao gave her a stern look. He stated: “Although I’m not aware of what dirty tricks they’ve been playing, the Iron Palm Gang has rather flourished in recent years; you really ought not to belittle them lightly.”

“Well said, Big Brother Lu!” offered Guo Jing hurriedly, worried he was getting angry. “Rong’er just loves to joke around.”

“Since when was I joking around?” said Huang Rong with a laugh. Clutching her abdomen and imitating Qiu Qianren’s voice, she added: “Ouch, ouch! I’ve got a stomach-ache!” Her antics made Guo Jing recall that particular spectacle, and he couldn’t help letting out a laugh too.

Huang Rong saw he was laughing as well, but instantly restrained her mirth and changed the subject by asking: “Big Brother Lu, are you acquainted with those three who were dining here just now?”

Lu Youjiao gave a sigh. “The two of you aren’t outsiders,” he said, “so you may have already heard Chief Hong mention the internal division of our Gang into two groups: the ‘Clean Clothes’ and ‘Dirty Clothes’ factions.”

“Haven’t heard teacher talk of it,” said Guo Jing and Huang Rong together.

“The division within the Gang is fundamentally not a good thing,” said Lu Youjiao. “Chief Hong is extremely unhappy about it. His Eminence has expended an enormous amount of thought and effort, but all along hasn’t been able to get these two factions to join together as one. Now, under Chief Hong, the Beggar Gang has four elders in all…”

“This I’ve heard teacher mention,” interjected Huang Rong. Because Hong Qigong was still in this world, she didn’t want to raise the issue of him having charged her with taking over the Chief’s position.

Lu Youjiao nodded his head. “I’m the fourth-ranked elder,” he continued. “All those three who were here just now are also elders.”

“I get it!” said Huang Rong. “You’re the head of the ‘Dirty Clothes’ faction, and they’re of the ‘Clean Clothes’ faction!”

“Eh? How did you know?” asked Guo Jing. “Look how dirty Big Brother Lu’s clothes are!” said Huang Rong. “But the others’ clothes were really clean. Big Brother Lu, I reckon the ‘Dirty Clothes’ faction are no good; dressing so stinkily, so sloppily – it isn’t comfortable in the slightest! People in this faction of yours should wash their clothes more often. Wouldn’t that just make both factions the same?”

Lu Youjiao was furious. “You’re a little miss from a moneyed family,” he fumed. “Of course you’d be annoyed by stinking beggars!” With a stamp of a foot, he stood up. Guo Jing moved to apologise for the offence, but the angry Lu Youjiao just stormed off down the stairs, without even turning his head.

Huang Rong stuck out her tongue. “Jing gege,” she said, “I offended that Big Brother Lu. Don’t tell me off.”

Guo Jing just smiled.

Huang Rong added: “I was really worried just now.” “Worried about what?” said Guo Jing.

Huang Rong had a serious expression. “Just worried he’d lift up his foot and give you a kick. Wouldn’t that have been awful for you?”

“Why’d he kick me all of a sudden?” asked Guo Jing. “Even if you said something to offend him, there’s still no use kicking people.”

Huang Rong, pursing her lips with a slight smile, didn’t respond. Guo Jing just sat there in stupefaction, pondering uncomprehendingly.

Huang Rong sighed, and said: “Why don’t you think a little about what his name implies?”

Guo Jing had a sudden realisation. “So!” he shouted. “This is your roundabout way of calling me a dog!” He leaped up, motioning to tickle her as punishment. Huang Rong, giggling, dodged his outstretched hands.