Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils Chapter 11-15

Chapter - 11 Crazy All Along

After Duan Yu had his acupoints sealed by Jiumozhi, he was unable to move whatsoever. Jiumozhi's subordinates had tossed him sideways onto the saddle of a horse, facing downwards. All he saw was the ground continuously move and the hoofs of the horse rising up and down. His mouth and nose were filled with the dirt and dust of the road. He heard his captors loudly shouting, but as they were speaking in a barbaric language that he could not understand, he did not know what they were saying. Counting the number of horse-legs that he could see, all in all there were ten horses.

After galloping for ten or so li, they arrived at a fork in the road. He heard Jiumozhi jabber a few indistinct words. Five horses took the road on the left, whereas Jiumozhi, Duan Yu, and the other horses took the right. After galloping for many more li, they arrived at yet another fork. Once again, they split into two separate groups. Duan Yu knew that Jiumozhi was trying to confuse the pursuing forces and render them uncertain as to in which direction they should chase.

After travelling for another period of time, Jiumozhi leapt off his horse. He retrieved a leather belt and tied it to Duan Yu's waist. Then, supporting Duan Yu's body with his left hand, he began to make his way through the mountain passes on foot. His two remaining servants rode off westwards with all the horses. Duan Yu was secretly anguished. "Uncle must have sent out the heavy cavalry to pursue us by now, but at most they will capture the nine servants of this barbarian monk. They won't be able to rescue me."

Although Jiumozhi was carrying someone in one arm, his steps remained light and easy. He climbed higher and higher. Six hours later, he had passed into a desolate region of untamed mountains and wild ridges. Duan Yu saw that the sun was setting in the west, and its light continuously came from the left. Jiumozhi was taking them to the north.

At nightfall, Jiumozhi tied his body to a branch on a large tree, using the belt which he had wrapped around Duan Yu's waist earlier. He didn't say a single word to Duan Yu; for the matter, he didn't even glance at him. His back facing Duan Yu, he handed him a few dry flour-biscuits that were used as field rations. He unsealed the acupoints on Duan Yu's upper arm, so as to let him hold the food. Duan Yu secretly extended his left hand, intending to generate his internal energy and use the 'Shaoze Sword' technique to attack him. However, his major acupoints all remained sealed, causing all of his internal energy to be blocked and stifled. His finger stabbed and pointed impotently, without a single bit of power behind it.

Many days passed in such a manner, as Jiumozhi carried him northwards. Duan Yu repeatedly tried to provoke Jiumozhi into speaking, asking why he was being kidnapped and why they were headed north. But Jiumozhi never responded. Duan Yu's belly was full of resentment. He thought to himself that in the past when his little sister Mu Wanqing had captured him, although he suffered quite a bit, he wasn't as bored senseless and depressed as he was right now. Not to mention, being captured by a beautiful girl who smelled wonderful and had a lovely voice even when she was shouting at him, was totally different from being carried by this barbarian monk who pretended to be deaf and dumb. This wasn't even in the same league.

After travelling in such a manner for ten or so days, Duan Yu thought that they had probably left the boundaries of Dali by now. It seemed to him that the direction in which they were travelling changed to be northeast, but they continued to avoid travelling on major roads, continuing to travel through desolate mountain passes. By now though, the terrain became smoother and smoother. The mountain ridges grew fewer in number, and more sources of running water appeared. In a single day, they would often have to ford multiple rivers. Finally, Jiumozhi bought a pair of horses, splitting them with Duan Yu. But Duan Yu's six major acupoints naturally remained sealed.

Once, when Duan Yu was taking a leak, he thought to himself, "If I exercise the steps of the 'Graceful Steps Upon the Waves', this barbarian monk wouldn't necessarily be able to follow me, right?" But after taking only two steps, the sealed acupoints prevented his internal energy from flowing through them, and he immediately fell flat on his face. He sighed, then crawled to his feet, knowing that his last hope of escape had just disappeared.

That night, the two made an overnight rest stop at an inn in a small city. Jiumozhi ordered the inn servants to bring him paper, a brush, an inkstick, and an inkstone. He placed it on the table, lit a lamp, then said, "This humble monk has offended you greatly in inviting your illustrious personage to grace me with this visit northwards. I feel deeply apologetic about this." Duan Yu said, "Mmhmm. You are too polite." Jiumozhi asked, "Do you know why I have acted in such a way?"

Duan Yu was thinking about this very subject during the entire trip. After seeing all those things placed on the desk, he guessed about eighty or ninety percent. He replied, "Can't be done." Jiumozhi asked, "What can't be done?" Duan Yu replied, "You envy and covet my family's 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' and want to force me to write it out for you. This just can't be done."

Jiumozhi shook his head. "You misunderstand. In past years, this humble monk made a promise to Mr. Murong that I would borrow your venerable monastery's manuscript and let him peruse it. My inability to fulfill this promise has always weighed heavily on my heart. Fortunately, you have memorized this technique in your heart. Without any other alternatives, I was forced to take you to Mr. Murong's grave and burn you in sacrifice. In this way, I would finally be able to fulfill my promise. But you, young prince, are as a dragon amongst men, and I have no enmity with you whatsoever. How could I dare to harm you? There is a way by which both of us can be satisfied. All you need to do is write out the instructions and draw out the diagrams, without omitting anything at all. I won't take a single peek at it and immediately seal it, then take it to Mr. Murong's tomb and burn it to ashes. After having fulfilled this important wish, I will respectfully escort you back to Dali."

Jiumozhi had said these words before, that day when he had arrived at the Heavenly Dragon Monastery. At the time, Benyin and the others all were inclined to agree, and Duan Yu had also felt that this was acceptable. But afterwards, Jiumozhi had first launched a sneak attack on Emperor Baoding, then kidnapped himself, Duan Yu. He used guileful and deceitful methods to avoid pursuing forces, and showed not a single care at all for the safety and well-being of his nine subordinates. He had clearly revealed his ruthlessness and committed many crimes. How could Duan Yu trust him now? He long ago had decided that the Divine Crocodile and the other three members of the 'Four Great Evils', in openly proclaiming to be evil people, were far superior to this 'holy monk' from Tibet. Although he had very little real-world experience, Duan Yu had already mulled over this matter for the past twenty days or so and understood the critical points. He said, "Master Jiumozhi, you cannot deceive me with these words of yours."

Jiumozhi folded his hands together. "Amitabha. Everything I have done is because of the promise I made previously to Mr. Murong. This should show how highly I value my word. How can I break another promise to fulfill this one?"

Duan Yu shook his head. "No one knows whether or not you really made a promise to Mr. Murong in the past. After getting the manuscript for the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', you will definitely give it a close read. Who knows if you'll actually take it to Mr. Murong's grave or not, afterwards? Even if you really plan to burn it in sacrifice, based on your intelligence, great master, after reading it a few times, you'll have memorized it completely. Maybe, fearing that you might forget or misremember some parts, you'll even make a duplicate copy before incinerating the original."

Jiumozhi's eyes widened greatly, and he fixed Duan Yu with an evil, vicious stare. But in the blink of an eye, the expression on his face turned kind and amiable. He slowly said, "Both of us are disciples of Buddha. How can you say such brash, untrue things? What a sin, what a sin. I'm afraid that I am forced to resort to compelling you a little bit. I do this to save your life. Please don't blame me." As he spoke, he extended the palm of his left hand, gently pressing it against Duan Yu's chest. "When you are unable to withstand the pain and are willing to write to write it out for me, all you need to do is nod and I will immediately release you."

Duan Yu laughed bitterly. "If I don't write the manuscript, you won't be able to bring yourself to kill me, because then you won't be able to obtain it. If I actually do write the manuscript out for you, how could you allow me to remain living? Writing it is equivalent to committing suicide. Master Jiumozhi, I understood this point thirteen days ago."

Jiumozhi let out a sigh. "Buddha, show mercy." He began to generate energy in his palm. He expected that with this stream of internal energy passing into Duan Yu's 'Shanzhong' acupoint, Duan Yu would feel as though thousands of ants were gnawing on his entire body. Even though this little princeling who had been pampered since childhood was keeping a stiff upper lip for the moment, once he suffered the torture of being in a half-dead, half-living state, he would definitely give in. He didn't expect that as soon as he generated his internal energy, it flowed away from him and disappeared. In his startlement, he generated even more power, but this time, it only disappeared even more quickly, turbulently pouring out of his body. Jiumozhi was extremely shocked. He hurriedly pushed Duan Yu's forehead hard with his right hand. Duan Yu let out an 'Ah!' cry, then fell over on top of the table, the back of his head colliding heavily with the wall.

Jiumozhi knew all along that Duan Yu had learned the 'Great Art of Energy Dissipation' from the Old Freak of Xingxiu, but with one's critical acupoints sealed, no internal-energy techniques should have been executable, regardless of whether it was orthodox or heterodox. How could he have known that when he forcefully inserted his internal energy into Duan Yu's 'Shanzhong' acupoint, it was like that day when Duan Yu was paralyzed, his mouth wide open, and helpless to do anything when the Cinnabar Toad hopped in? It had nothing to do with whether or not Duan Yu's acupoints were sealed or not. Groaning and spluttering, Duan Yu sat up. "You falsely title yourself as an eminent and enlightened monk. Do eminent monks beat people up in such a manner?"

Jiumozhi said in a severe tone, "Who, exactly, taught you this 'Great Art of Energy Dissipation'?" Duan Yu shook his head. "The 'Great Art of Energy Dissipation' is a reckless waste of resources. It is akin to throwing away a thousand pieces of gold rather than keeping it for one's own use. Such a heterodox skill is laughable! Laughable!" Without intending to, he quoted the words written within the jade cave from which he learned the 'Divine Art of the Northern Darkness.'

Jiumozhi did not understood what had happened, but did not dare to touch Duan Yu's body. However, when he had earlier sealed Duan Yu's 'Shenfeng', 'Dazhui', 'Xuanshu', and 'Jingmen' acupoints, he hadn't met with any problems. Jiumozhi thought that this person's martial arts was strange and inconceivably bizarre. It must have been some byproduct or alteration generated by his practice of the 'Single Solitary Finger' and the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'. Only, as he had just started to learn this new technique, he still was not very proficient at it. Following this line of thought, he found himself all the more awed by and covetuous of the martial arts learning of Dali's Duan family. He suddenly raised his hand and struck out in the air with a stance from his 'Blazing Sabre', aiming the attack just slightly above Duan Yu's head. He shouted, "You really don't intend to write? If I aimed that strike just one foot lower, what would have happened to your head?"

Duan Yu was extremely afraid. He worried that if Jiumozhi really did get angry and poked out one of his eyes or chopped off one of his arms, what could he do about it? Some words which he had been pondering the entire trip instantly rose to the forefront of his mind, and he automatically said, "If I can't take it anymore, then I'll be forced to write whatever comes to mind, and it won't necessarily be accurate. If you damage my limbs, then I will hate you to the bone and what I write will be even more inaccurate. How about this. The manuscript that I write out, you intend to burn in front of Mr. Murong's tombstone, right? You'll immediately seal it and won't peek at it at all, right? So whether it is accurate or not has nothing to do with you. I'll just write something at random. It will just be me deceiving Mr. Murong's ghost. In the future, after his ghost in the underworld practices what I wrote and fire-deviates, damaging his ghostly meridians, he won't blame you, right?" After saying this, he went to the table, picking up the brush and spreading the paper, preparing to write.

Jiumozhi was extremely angry. With these few words, Duan Yu had torn apart his fa?ade of seeking the manuscript of the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' on behalf of Mr. Murong. At the same time, Duan Yu had also made it clear that if he, Jiumozhi, used force to coerce, the 'manual' which Duan Yu would write out would definitely be incomplete and inaccurate. The wrong sentences would be more common than the right sentences. Not only would the manual be useless, anyone who tried to practice according to its instructions would suffer great harm. In the course of his two battles against the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' at the Heavenly Dragon Monastery, he naturally learned what the real movements of the sword techniques were. But the main essence of the skill lay not in the movements, but purely in the internal energy formulas. There would be no way for him to discern the true instructions from the false instructions for this aspect. He barely managed to avoid flying into an utter rage out of shame, but his anger was too great, and with a 'chi' sound, he struck out with a stroke from the 'Blazing Sabre' and chopped the pen in Duan Yu's hand in half.

Duan Yu began to laugh loudly. Jiumozhi angrily said, "Little bastard, the Buddha is trying to save your life, but you obstinately persist on the wrong path. Looks like the only option is to take you to Mr. Murong's tomb and burn you to death there. The sword techniques which you memorized in your heart cannot be false, am I right?"

Duan Yu laughed, "I suppose that on my deathbed, I'll just have to intentionally misremember a few of the strokes. Right, this is a great idea! From now on, I'll try my best to misremember the technique. The more I misremember it, the better. At the very end, even I will be confused about how it was supposed to go."

Jiumozhi glared furiously at him. It was as though there was a 'Blazing Sabre' in his eyes that was about to burst out. He deeply wanted to simply wave his hand, then strike out with the invisible qi of his 'Blazing Sabre' and chop this little bastard's head off.

After this, they headed eastwards for another twenty days or so. Duan Yu listened to the accents of the other roadside travelers, and felt their speech was soft, elegant, and refined. There were no longer any spices in the food either.

This day, they finally arrived outside the great gates of the city of Suzhou. Duan Yu thought to himself, "We're about to go to Murong Bo's tombstone now. Since this barbarian monk hasn't gotten the manuscript, he won't actually kill me just yet. But to be placed upon Murong Bo's tomb and be burnt a little, then baked a little, would put me in a half-dead state. That's something to avoid as well." Turning his mind from the subject, he began to check out the scenery. It was March now. Apricot flowers bloomed on both sides of the road, green willows hung over the lake, and a warm spring wind blew against his body. It was an intoxicating, almost giddy feeling. Duan Yu couldn't help but feel his heart calm down and be at peace. Opening his mouth, he recited, "The waves are vast, and the willows are listening. A lonely village rests on a distant plain of fragrant grass, and the rays of the setting sun glow as apricot flowers fly across the sky."

Jiumozhi sneered, "You're at death's door right now, and you still have such aimless, sentimental thoughts in your mind, to the point where you are reciting poems and ballads?" Duan Yu laughed, "Thus spoketh the Buddha: 'Neither the world nor your life is eternal, and that which is not ephemeral is bitter. ' Nobody lives forever. At most, one might live a few years longer than others. What's so great about that?"

Jiumozhi ignored him. He asked a passerby for the location of the 'Canhe Manor'. But although he asked seven or eight people, none of them knew; moreover, the language barrier made it even more difficult for them to communicate. The last person he met was an old man who said, "Inside or outside of Suzhou, there isn't a single manor called the 'Canhe Manor'. Master monk, you must have misheard." Jiumozhi said, "The lord of the manor is surnamed 'Murong'. Might I ask, where does he live?" That old man said, "Within the walls of Gusu, there are those surnamed Gu, Lu, Shen, Zhang, Zhou, Wen…those are all famous manor lords. There's nobody surnamed Murong. Never heard of'm."

Just as Jiumozhi was uncertain as to how to proceed, he overheard a voice from a small eastern alleyway say, "I've heard that the Murong family lives thirty li west of the city, in a place called the Basin of Swallows. Let's go check it out." Another person said, "Right, when we arrive at the edges, we need to be careful." Their accent marked them as being from Henan's central prefecture. The two spoke in a very low voice, but Jiumozhi's cultivation of internal strength was very profound, and he heard their words clearly. He thought to himself, "Can it be that these two are intentionally letting me hear their words? If not, how can there be such a coincidence?" Glancing sideways, he saw that one speaker, dressed in mourning clothes, had a grand, imposing air, whereas the other was small, gaunt, and short, with the appearance of a chronically ill old pickpocket.

Jiumozhi could immediately tell that these two men possessed martial arts. Before he had decided whether or not to go meet with them, Duan Yu already shouted out, "Mr. Huo, Mr. Huo, you came here as well?" That small, sickly looking person was the 'Golden Abacus', Cui Baiquan. The other man was his martial nephew, the 'Soul Pursuing Whip', Guo Yanzhi.

After leaving Dali, the two of them wholeheartedly wished to avenge Ke Baisui. They knew that the Murong family had an extremely high level of martial arts, and that there was less than a ten percent chance of success, but they nonetheless courageously came to Suzhou. After learning that the Murong family lived at the Basin of Swallows, and that Murong Bo had died many years ago, they realized that the person who killed Ke Baisui must be another member of the Murong family. They felt that their chances of gaining revenge had improved somewhat and rushed to the lakeside just as Jiumozhi and Duan Yu passed by.

Cui Baiquan, suddenly hearing Duan Yu call out to him, was stunned. He quickly made his way to him, seeing that Duan Yu was with a mounted monk whose left hand was gripping the reins of Duan Yu's horse. Duan Yu's arms hung limply at his sides. Clearly, his acupoints had been sealed. He asked curiously, "Young prince, it's you! Hey, master monk, why are you giving this young gentleman a hard time? Don't you know who he is?"

Jiumozhi didn't think very highly of these two men, but he thought to himself that this was the first time he entered the Central Plains, and Mr. Murong's home was not easy to find. With these two leading the way, things would be much easier. He said, "I need to go to the Murong family's home, and would like to trouble you two to guide me."

Cui Baiquan replied, "Master monk, how should I properly address you? Why is it that you dare to offend the young prince of the Duan family? What is your noble purpose for paying a visit to the Murong family's home?" Jiumozhi replied, "You shall know when we arrive." Cui Baiquan replied, "Master monk, are you a friend of the Murong family?" Jiumozhi replied, "Correct. If you, Mr. Huo, know the location of Mr. Murong's Canhe Manor, I'll like to ask you to lead me there." Jiumozhi heard Duan Yu address this man as 'Mr. Huo', and actually thought his surname was 'Huo'. Cui Baiquan scratched his head. He said to Duan Yu, "Prince, let me unseal the acupoints on your arm first." As he spoke, he took a few steps forward and stretched out his hand, planning to unseal Duan Yu's acupoints.

Duan Yu thought to himself that Jiumozhi's proficiency in martial arts was extremely high, and that there was perhaps no one superior to him in all the world. Cui and Guo definitely would not be able to defeat him. If they made a rash attempt at rescuing him, the only result would be two more deaths. It would be best to tell the two of them to escape as quickly as possible. He said, "Wait! This master monk defeated my uncle and five other elite fighters of Dali by himself, then took me captive. He is an extremely close bosom friend of Mr. Murong, and intends to burn me as a sacrifice to Mr. Murong on the altar of his tomb. The two of you don't have anything to do with Gusu's Murong family. It'd be best if you hurried away and left."

Cui Baiquan and Guo Yanzhi, hearing that this monk had defeated the likes of experts such as Emperor Baoding, felt great shock in their hearts. After hearing that he was a bosom friend of the Murong family, they only felt even more trepidation. But Cui Baiquan also thought to himself that he had hid himself at the South-Subduing Palace for more than ten years. Today, when the young prince was in peril, how could he just look on with folded arms? They had already arrived at Suzhou. He had long since regarded his own life as expendable, since going on this voyage of revenge. There was no difference between dying to enemy abacus beads and dying at the hands of this man. He immediately placed his hand in his bosom, withdrawing a magnificent golden abacus. Raising it high in the air, he shook it, creating many clanking sounds. "Master monk, Mr. Murong is a good friend of yours, but this young prince is a good friend of mine. I urge you to let him go." With the flick of his hand, Guo Yanzhi also drew the soft whip from his waist. The two of them simultaneously rushed towards Jiumozhi's horse.

Duan Yu loudly shouted, "You two, hurry and leave! You can't defeat him!"

Jiumozhi laughed dully. "You really want to fight?" Cui Baiquan replied, "This is what is known as a mosquito attacking a tiger on its head. I know that I cannot beat you, but I still need to try. Life and death-ow, ow!"

Before he finished the sentence, Jiumozhi had already reached out and seized Guo Yanzhi's soft whip. Then, with a clapping sound, he reversed the whip and wrapped it around Cui Baiquan's golden abacus. With a powerful tug of the whip, he ripped both weapons out of their owner's hands and sent them flying towards the right, into the lake. Jiumozhi had calculated his use of energy perfectly. Just as it seemed as though the two weapons were about to sink into the depths of the lake, the tip of the whip floated up and wrapped around a willow that was overhanging the lake. The willow branch was soft and supple. It continuously rose and fell in a wave-like motion. The golden abacus slowly slapped against the surface of the water, creating one gentle ripple after another.

Jiumozhi folded his hands together. "Gentlemen, I'll have to trouble you to lead the way, please." The two of them stared at each other, not knowing what to do. Jiumozhi added, "If the two of you are unwilling to guide us, then I'd like for you to instruct me as to how to get to the Basin of the Swallows, and allow me to search for it on my own." Seeing how awe-inspiring his martial arts was, but how mild his countenance was, the two of them felt that it wouldn't be appropriate to become hostile against him, but it wouldn't be appropriate not to either.

Just at this moment, a rowing sound was heard, and a small boat appeared on the lake. A young maiden in green was holding a pair of oars and slowly paddling towards them. She was sing a little ditty as she rowed. "The fragrance of lotus blossoms fills the lake, and a playful young girl tarries picking the flowers. At night, she brings her boat to the beach to play in the water. Laughing, she removes her red skirt and drapes it over the ducks." The sound of the song was incomparably tender and sweet, joyous and pleasing to one's senses.

In Dali, Duan Yu often chanted the poems and essays of the ancients, and long since understood the people and the songs of Jiangnan [South of the (Yangtze) River]. Now, listening to this song, he couldn't help but feel intoxicated by it. He saw that the girl had a pair of delicate hands, with skin as white and luminous as jade. Her reflection could be seen in the green waves, which seemed almost transparent. Even Guo Yanzhi and Cui Baiquan, who were on the verge of confronting a powerful enemy, couldn't help but turn their heads and take a glance at her.

Only Jiumozhi ignored her. He said, "Since you two are unwilling to inform me where Canhe Manor is located then I must bid you farewell."

At this time, the girl in the boat had already reached shore. Hearing Jiumozhi's words, she replied, "Master monk, you are going to Canhe Manor? Might I ask what business you have there?" Her voice was extremely sweet and very clear, causing listeners to feel unspeakably comfortable. This girl was around sixteen or seventeen years of age, with a gentle, soft face and a delicate body.

Duan Yu thought to himself, "I never would have imagined that the girls of Jiangnan were this beautiful." Actually, this girl wasn't really all that beautiful. She couldn't compare to Mu Wanqing. But even though on a ten-point scale, she might only rank an eight in appearance, she ranked twelve in terms of gentleness and softness. Thus, she was not one whit inferior to perfect beauties.

Jiumozhi said, "This humble monk desires to visit the Canhe Manor. Can you point me in its direction, miss?" The maiden smiled slightly. "The name, 'Canhe Manor', is not known to outsiders. Master monk, where did you hear it from?" Jiumozhi replied, "I am an old bosom friend of Mr. Murong in a distant land. I have come for the sole purpose of paying my respects before his tomb, and carry out an agreement of the past. I hope to inquire as to the location of young master Murong, his son, as well." The maiden mumbled to herself, "Such an unfortunate coincidence, hey! Young master Murong went on a journey the day before yesterday. If you came just three days earlier, you would have met him, hey." Jiumozhi said, "For me not to be able to meet the young master is a source of great sorrow. But I have come travelled tens of thousands of li from Tibet to come to the Central Plains. I would like to pay my respects before Mr. Murong's tomb, and also fulfill my previous agreement with him." The maiden said, "Master, as you are a friend of old master Murong, please take a cup of green tea first. Meanwhile, I will go deliver the news. Whatcha think?" Jiumozhi replied, "Miss, what is your position within the young master's residence? How should I address you?"

The maiden smiled sweetly. "Aww, I'm just a minor servant girl who takes care of the young master, playing the zither and the flute for him. I'm called Ah Bi. Don't be so polite and call me 'miss' this and 'lady' that. Just go ahead and call me Ah Bi, hey?" Her voice was filled with a heavy Suzhou accent. Originally, it was difficult to understand her words, but as she was a servant of an aristocratic wulin family, she had heard a great deal of Mandarin, and so she added a lot of Mandarin phrases and words into her speech. With a bit of effort, Duan Yu, Jiumozhi, and the others could manage to somewhat understand her. Jiumozhi immediately said, in a respectful tone, "I wouldn't dare." (Author's note: The Wu dialect which Ah Bi spoke cannot be reproduced in a book; only some of its charm can be conveyed. If her dialogue was actually written in the Wu dialect, readers wouldn't be able to understand her at all. It wasn't easy for Duan Yu and Jiumozhi to understand her.)

Ah Bi said, "From here to the Pavilion of Zither Melodies of the Basin of Swallows is all water. If all of you want to go there, I can row you over. Is that alright?" Her words, 'Is that alright', were eagerly solicitous, soft in its inquiring, making it difficult for others to refuse her.

Jiumozhi replied, "If that's the case, then thank you for your labors." Dragging Duan Yu by the hand, he easily leapt into the boat. The small boat barely dipped downwards, and did not shake or sway in the slightest. Ah Bi smiled a little towards Duan Yu and Jiumozhi, as if to say, "Nice abilities!"

Guo Yanzhi said in a low voice, "Martial-uncle, what?..." The two of them came to seek revenge on the Murong family, but now were in a very difficult and awkward position.

Ah Bi laughed a little. "Gentlesirs, why dontcha come? Since you've already come to Suzhou, hey, if you don't have any pressing business, why dontcha come over to our place to drink some tea and eat something? Don't be worried about the boat being small; even if more people came, it still wouldn't sink." She gently paddled the boat, approaching the willow tree. Extending her delicate hand, she retrieved the golden abacus and the soft whip. She casually played with the abacus a bit, striking it and causing a series of clanging sounds.

After listening for just a brief moment, Duan Yu delightedly said, "Miss, you are playing the song, 'Gathering Mulberries', right?" As it were, when she started to play with the abacus, her fingers danced across it both quickly and slowly, with force and gently. She used a rhythm that was unexpectedly two strains from the gentle, easy song, 'Gathering Mulberries'. Ah Bi smiled beautifully. "Young master, you have a thorough understanding of music. Why don't you come play a melody as well?" Duan Yu saw that she was innocent, friendly, and unpretentious. Smiling, he said, "I don't know how to play the abacus." Turning his head, he said to Cui Baiquan, "Mr. Huo, this young miss is beating out such a lovely melody on your abacus."

Cui Baiquan forced out a smile. "That's so, that's so. This young lady really is a proper person. Even such a vulgar object as this possession of mine becomes a musical instrument in her hands." Ah Bi said, "Aww, I'm very sorry, yeah? Does this belong to Mr. Huo? This abacus is made exquisitely. You must have a lot of money at home. Even your abacus is made out of gold! Uncle Huo, lemme give it back to ya." Holding the abacus in her left hand, she stretched her arm out towards him, but Cui Baiquan was on the shore and unable to receive it. He really could not bear to part with this old friend of his, which had never left his side for an instant in many years. With a leap, he too jumped into the boat, stretching out his arm and receiving the abacus. Leaning his head slightly, he shot a glance at Jiumozhi. A gentle, amible smile was on Jiumozhi's face the entire time, without the slightest hint of anger.

With her left hand, Ah Bi held the tip of the whip, using the five fingers of her right hand to strap the other end around her hand. She scratched the whip with her fingernail, instantly creating a series of crystal clear 'ding', 'ling', 'dong', 'long' sounds. It was as though she were testing out a new pipa instrument. A weapon which had done battle all across the land, competing against both heroes and villains, once more became a musical instrument in her tender, pure white hands.

Duan Yu cried out, "Brilliant, brilliant! Miss, why don't you play a song for him?" Ah Bi said to Guo Yanzhi, "Does this soft whip belong to you, sir? I very rudely toyed around with a bit. I'm so very sorry. Why don't you come on the boat as well? In a bit, I'll peel some fresh crimson water chestnuts for you to eat." Guo Yanzhi held a deep and abiding hatred for the entire Murong family for the death of his master. But seeing this innocent, unaffected maiden speak and smile so sweetly, he couldn't release upon her the anger and hatred he felt. He thought to himself, "Since she's invited me onto the boat, I might as well go. At the very least, I'll kill some of their people and so avenge my benevolent master's death." He immediately nodded and also jumped onto the boat.

Ah Bi carefully coiled up the soft whip, then handed it to Guo Yanzhi. Pulling at the oars, the boat began to move westwards.

Cui Baiquan and Guo Yanzhi exchanged a few glances. They thought to themselves, "Today, we are entering a tiger's den. Who knows if we will live or die? The Murong family's techniques are very sinister and deadly. This girl appears to be gentle, kind, and sweet; she doesn't seem to be putting on an act. But who knows if this is a trick by which the Murong family uses to deceive their enemies? After we lower our guard, perhaps they will make their move."

The boat glided across the waters. After making several turns, they arrived at a particularly large lake. As far as the eye could see, mist covered the surface of the water, which stretched out unendingly in every direction. Guo Yanzhi was secretly apprehensive. "This large lake is probably Lake Taihu, the Grand Lake. Neither I nor martial-uncle Cui know how to swim. All this little girl needs to do is overturn the boat, and the two of us will become food for the turtles and the fish. How could we possibly gain vengeance?" Cui Baiquan had thought of the same thing. He decided that if he could get his hands on the oars, it wouldn't be an easy task for the girl to overturn the boat even if she wanted to. He said, "Miss, let me help you row the boat. Just tell me what direction we should go." Ah Bi smiled. "Aww, I vould not dare! If the young master found out, he'd berate me for slighting our guests." Seeing that she was unwilling, Cui Baiquan became all the more suspicious. He laughed, "To tell you the truth, we want to hear you, young miss, display your consummate skills in playing songs on the soft whip. We are unrefined people, but young master Duan here is a thorough expert in music, chess, calligraphy, and painting."

Ah Bi glanced at Duan Yu. She laughed, "My playing is so poor, how can it be considered a consummate skill? This young gentleman appears to be very refined. He'll laugh'n'laugh'n'laugh some more. I aint gonna!"

Cui Baiquan took the soft whip from Guo Yanzhi and put it in her hands. "Play, play!" At the same time, he took the wooden oar from her hands. Ah Bi laughed. "Alrighty! Could you lend me your golden abacus again as well?" Cui Baiquan felt extremely apprehensive. "Can it be that she has some underhanded plot in taking both of our weapons?" But at this point in time, he could not credibly refuse, and could only hand the abacus over to her. Ah Bi put the golden abacus on a wooden plank in front of her. She held the handle of the soft whip in her left hand, then gently stepped on the tip of the whip with her left foot, pulling it taut. The five fingers of her right hand plucked rapidly in succession, immediately generating a tinkling sound from the soft whip. Although the sound wasn't as clear and strong as that of a pipa instrument, it was still very bright and crisp nonetheless.

While she was playing the soft whip with the five fingers of her right hand, she managed to simultaneously stretch her fingers out and play with the golden abacus. The clanging sound of the abacus beads, when combined with the tinkling sounds from the soft whip, became even more clear in their harmonizing. Just at this moment, a pair of swallows flit past them overhead, heading westwards. Duan Yu thought to himself, "The Murong family lives at the 'Basin of Swallows'. I would imagine there must be many swallows here."

Ah Bi began to sing. "Two divinities appear at an auspicious hour, and a thousand families once more see the graceful dancing of a pair of swallows. The nest of the phoenix is certainly near, for why else does the river mist follow us even now? As messy as a rich lady's boudoir, flying low over the green shores, drawing a picture with gentle strokes, singing a song of the turning of this world. For whom do I come, and for whom do I depart? My master's benevolence is as priceless as a string of pearls."

Hearing how graceful and supple her voice was, Duan Yu couldn't help but be moved. He thought to himself, "If I stayed in the southern lands of Dali all of my life, how could I have heard such a celestial melody? 'For whom do I come, and for whom do I depart? My master's benevolence is as priceless as a string of pearls.' Young lord Murong must be an extraordinary person to have a servant girl such as her."

After finishing her song, she returned the soft whip and abacus to Cui and Guo. She laughed, "Please don't mock me for my poor singing. Master Huo, just paddle towards the small harbor towards our right!"

Cui Baiquan felt relieved after she returned their weapons to her. He immediately complied and paddled the boat towards the harbor. The surface of the water was covered with water lotuses. If it hadn't been for her guidance, he never would have discovered that there was a way in. After paddling for a while longer, Ah Bi said, "Paddle in that direction, please." Here, the surface of the water was covered with water chestnut leaves. The crimson water chestnuts surged up and down with the waves, forming a stupendously colorful sight. Ah Bi casually plucked a few of the water chestnuts out from the water and offered some to each person.

Although Duan Yu could move his arms, after having his major acupoints sealed, he couldn't exert the slightest bit of strength. He couldn't even peel the chestnut. Ah Bi laughed. "Young gentlemen, you aren't from Jiangnan and you don't know how to peel chestnuts. Lemme help ya!" She peeled many chestnuts in a row and placed them in his palm. Duan Yu saw that the skin of the chestnuts looked bright and clean, and put them in his mouth. They tasted savory, crisp, and outstandingly sweet and clear. He laughed, "The tastes of these chestnuts are clear and not dirty at all, just like the song you sang, miss." Ah Bi's blushed slightly. She laughed, "This is the first time I've heard anyone compare my singing to these water chestnuts. Many thanks!"

Before they finished paddling past the pool of water chestnuts, Ah Bi directed them to make another course change, having the small boat pass through a pond of reeds and wild rice. By now, even Jiumozhi was beginning to feel suspicious. He secretly began memorizing the twists and turns they made, so as to not get lost on his way out. But as he stared at the lake, all the water chestnuts, lotus leaves, and reeds looked identical. Moreover, once the wind blew, the shape and configuration of the chestnuts and leaves would suddenly change. Even if he really did memorize how everything looked, in a blink of an eye it all would look differently. Jiumozhi, Guo Yanzhi, and Cui Baiquan continuously cast side-glances at Ah Bi, trying to discern from her eyes how she was managing to discern where they should go. But all she did was cheerfully and carelessly pick chestnuts and play with the water before casually pointing out where they should go next. It was as though these countless complex interlocking channels, which were almost like a chessboard, were as familiar to her as the lines on the palm of her hand, something which she knew since birth and had no need to memorize.

And so, twisting and curving, they paddled for almost four hours. Off in the distance, green willows could be seen growing thickly, revealing a corner of upturned eaves. Ah Bi said, "Go there! Master Huo! You must be tired, after helping me row for half a day!" Cui Baiquan smiled wryly. "As long as there are red water chestnuts to eat and beautiful songs to hear, even if I rowed for another eight or ten years, I wouldn't be tired." Ah Bi clapped her hands and laughed. "You just wanna listen to songs and eat chestnuts? Easy breezy! Just don't leave this lake for the rest of your life, yeah!"

Hearing her say the words, 'Don't leave this lake for the rest of your life, yeah', Cui Baiquan couldn't help but feel startled. He cast her a side glance, but saw her smiling cheerfully, without any malicious undercurrent at all. Still, he couldn't help but continue to feel uneasy. Ah Bi took over the wooden paddle, and begin to row them towards the copse of willows. A large pine tree branch, carved into the shape of a ladder, touched the water's surface. Ah Bi fastened the boat to the branch. The melodious call of little birds could be heard above them. Imitating the sound of the birds, Ah Bi also let out a few calls, before turning and laughing, "Please come ashore."

As they left the boat, four or five rooms could be seen, scattered alongside the river and constructed upon an area that seemed like an island or a peninsula. The rooms were small and exquisitely constructed, appearing very refined and proper. Above the house was a plaque with two words written on it: "Zither Melody". The calligraphy of the plaque was extremely natural and unrestrained. Jiumozhi said, "Would this place be the Canhe Manor of the Basin of Swallows?" Ah Bi shook her head. "No. This is the place which the young master has given us to live in. It's a very small place and totally unsuitable for receiving guests. But you, master monk, said that you wanted to visit the mausoleum of old master Murong. This is something which I don't have the authority to allow. Please wait here for a bit while I go and consult with my elder sister, Ah Zhu.

Listening to her words, Jiumozhi felt unhappy and his face sunk. He was the national protector and dharma king of Tibet, an extremely venerated and respected personage. Not only was he greatly respected and honored in Tibet, if he were to pay a visit to the imperial courts of the Great Song, Dali, or the Western Xia, the monarchs of each kingdom would personally receive him with great courtesy and proprietry. Moreover, he was a bosom friend of Mr. Murong and personally came to pay his respects to him. Since young master Murong was unaware of this, he could not be blamed for leaving. But for this underling to not invite him to the main hall and receive him with proper ceremony and instead take him to the living quarters of the servants was simply too infuriating. But, seeing the smiles and laughter on Ah Bi's face, it didn't seem as though she had the slightest intention of disrespecting him. He thought to himself, "This little girl doesn't know anything. Why should I lower myself to be bothered by her?" After this thought, he became calm and good-tempered again.

Cui Baiquan asked, "Who is this elder sister Ah Zhu of yours?" Ah Bi smiled, "Ah Zhu is simply Ah Zhu. She's a month older than me, so puts on the air of being my elder sister. I don't have the option to not call her elder sister, since she's a month older than me after all. But you don't need to call her elder sister Ah Zhu, because if you do, she'll become all the more giddy and happy." As she chirped and tittered in her gentle, clear voice, she led the four of them into the house.

Arriving within the main hall, Ah Bi bade them sit. A male servant served them green tea and pastries. Duan Yu, holding the teacup in his hand, smelled a fragrant, aromatic scent. He removed the lid on his teacup and saw extremely fine grains of jade-green tea leaves floating on top of the tea. They appeared almost like little pearls rolled into slender hairs. Duan Yu had never seen anything like them before. Taking a sip, he felt as though his mouth was filled with a delicate fragrance which soaked into his tongue and his saliva. Jiumozhi, Cui, and Guo, seeing how strange the tea looked, did not dare to drink. These pearl-shaped tea leaves were a special local product grown in mountain peaks nearby Lake Taihu. Later generations gave it the name, "Bi Luo Chun" tea, meaning "Jade-Green Spirals of Spring". During the Northern Song dynasty, it didn't have such a refined, elegant name yet. The local people called it "Xia Sha Ren Xiang", or "Extremely Scary Fragrance." This was supposed to mean that the tea was so fragrant and rapturuous, it would scare people who tasted it. Jiumozhi had always resided in the western regions and in Tibet, and was used to drinking bitter-tasting black brick tea. Now, seeing this jade-green tea that had hair-like things in it, he couldn't help but suspect it was poisoned.

Four different types of light refreshments were served. Rose pine nut candies, soft fuling [a type of edible fungus] cakes, jade green sweetcakes, and dumplings filled with ham and powdered lotus. Each pastry appeared elegant and was properly made, appearing so lovely that they appeared as though they weren't meant to be eaten, but toys to look at and play with instead.

Duan Yu praised, "These delicacies are so delightfully made that they must taste wonderful as well. But how can anyone bear to eat them?" Ah Bi smiled a little. "Young gentleman, please feel free to eat. We have more." Duan Yu began to eat, and each time he ate one, he would praise it. Jiumozhi, Cui, and Guo still did not dare to eat. Duan Yu felt some suspicion in his heart. "This Jiumozhi fellow claims to be an old friend of Murong Bo. Why is he afraid to eat? Moreover, it doesn't appear as though they are very hospitable in welcoming him either."

Jiumozhi's patience was truly impressive. He waited until after Duan Yu had eaten all the dishes, tasted all the tea, and praised everything profusely before saying, "Miss, can you please go and inform your elder sister, Ah Zhu?"

Ah Bi smiled. "Ah Zhu's hamlet is four-nines away by water. We won't be able to make it there tonight. The four of you, please take a rest here tonight, and tomorrow morning we will go to the 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds'." Cui Baiquan asked, "What do you mean by 'four nines away'?" Ah Bi replied, "A 'nine-waterway' is nine li in length, two are eighteen li, and four would be thirty six li. Just use your abacus and you'll be able to calculate it." As it turned out, in the Jiangnan region, when people discussed the distance of a journey or a road, they counted them by 'one-nine' and 'two-nines'.

Jiumozhi said, "Miss, if this is the case, why didn't you take us directly to the 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds'? Wouldn't that have been quicker?" Ah Bi laughed. "No one ever comes here to chat and gossip with me. I'm so bored, y'know? Finally, some guests came over, isn't that great? No matter what, I gotta get y'all to stay here a night, yeah?"

All this time, Guo Yanzhi was controlling his temper and not speaking. Now, he suddenly rose to his feet and shouted, "Where do the family members of the Murong family live? I, Guo Yanzhi, did not come to the Canhe Manor to drink tea or eat delicacies, much less to serve as a diversion for you to relieve your boredom. I came here on a mission of killing and vengeance, to bleed and to die. Since I, the one surnamed Guo, came here, I had no intentions of leaving. Miss, please go convey the word that I am the disciples of Ke Baisui, of the 'Hidden Ox' sect, and have come to avenge my master!" After he spoke, he flashed his whip. With a cracking sound, a red sandalwood tea table and a mottled bamboo chair were shattered into many pieces. Ah Bi seemed neither startled nor angry. She said, "There's plenty of heroes and valiant men who have come to visit the young master, at least several every month. Lots of those respected sirs came with such tyrannical, angry, and ferocious attitudes, but this little girl hasn't heard of…"

Before she finished her words, an old person with silver hair and a grey beard walked out holding a walking stick. This person said, "Ah Bi, who is kicking up such a ruckus out here?" This person was speaking in perfect, pure, unaccented Mandarin.

Cui Baiquan rose up from the chair, and both he and Guo Yanzhi stood straight and erect. He shouted, "In whose hands, exactly, did my martial-brother Ke Baisui perish?"

Duan Yu saw that this old person was hunched over, with a face full of wrinkles. If he wasn't ninety, he had to be at least eighty. He said in hoarse voice, "Ke Baisui, Ke Baisui, right. A man a hundred years of age should've died long ago!" [Baisui, his name, literally means 'a hundred years old'; this is a play on words.]

Ever since Guo Yanzhi arrived at Suzhou, his every waking moment was consumed with the thought of going to the Murong family and getting into a big battle, with lots of killing and chopping to avenge his master. But, after Jiumozhi took his weapon away from him, his drive was snapped. Then, after meeting such an innocent, lovely lass as Ah Bi, he was unable to vent his anger out on her. Now, hearing that old man speak so rudely, he lashed out with his soft whip to strike the old man on the back of his heart. He saw that Jiumozhi was seated at the west seat of honor. In order to prevent him from helping out, Guo Yanzhi launched this attack of his from the east.

He didn't imagine that Jiumozhi would stretch out his arm and pull the whip towards him from far away, as though by magnetic force. He said, "Hero Guo, we have come from afar and are guests. If there's anything you have to say, just say it. There's no need to use force." He rolled the soft whip into a coil, then returned the weapon to him.

Guo Yanzhi's face was suffused with red. It wouldn't be good for him to refuse, but it would also be embarassing for him to accept. After a moment, he thought to himself, "Today, the most important thing is avenging my master. I can suffer some momentary humiliation in order to keep my weapon in my hands." He reached out and accepted it.

Jiumozhi said to the old man, "Elder benefactor, might I inquire as to what is your respected name? Are you a relative of Mr. Murong, or a friend?" The old man cracked a smile. "This old fellow is an old servant of the master. What 'respected name' might I have? I heard that you, great master, are a dear friend of our passed away master. Might I ask what instructions you have for me?" Jiumozhi replied, "My business can only be divulged to the young master himself." The old man said, "That's unfortunate. The young master left just two days ago. No one knows when he will be back." Jiumozhi asked, "Where did the young master go?" The old man inclined his head, then stretched out with a hand and knocked on his forehead. "As to this, I'm old and muddle-headed. I think he said he was going to the Western Xia. He also said something about the kingdom of Liao, and maybe Tibet as well. Or it could be Dali."

After hearing this, Jiumozhi felt displeasure in his heart. During this era, the world was divided into five nations. Aside from the nation of the Great Song where they currently were, this old man had named all four of the other countries as possible locations. He knew that this old man was only pretending to be muddle-headed. He said, "Since this is so, I won't wait for the young master to return. Old steward, I'd like to ask that I be taken directly to Mr. Murong's mausoleum to pay my respects, and give thanks for our old friendship." That old man's hands waved violently. "I can't make this decision on my own, and I'm not the steward."

Jiumozhi asked, "Then who is the steward of your venerable manor? Please invite him out for us to meet." That old man nodded repeatedly. "Great, great! Let me go invite the steward." Turning around, he shuffled his way out while mumbling to himself, "In this day and age, there's all sorts of bad people in the world. They dress up as monks and Taoists and beg for alms. What haven't I seen? I won't be tricked!"

Duan Yu burst out in laughter. Ah Bi hurriedly said to Jiumozhi, "Great master, please don't be angry, old Uncle Huang is an old muddle-head. He thinks he's very clever, but whenever he speaks he can't help but offend people."

Cui Baiquan tugged on Guo Yanzhi's shirt-sleeves. Walking to one side, he said in a low voice, "This evil baldy claims to be an old friend of Mr. Murong, but these people here clearly are not treating him like a respected guest. Let's not act too rashly and figure out exactly what is going on first." Guo Yanzhi replied, "Yes!" They returned to their original seats. But Guo Yanzhi's original seat had already been shattered by him into many pieces, leaving him no place to sit. Ah Bi carried her own seat over towards him. She said with a smile, "Great Hero Guo, please sit!" Guo Yanzhi nodded. He thought to himself, "Even if I am able to totally eradicate the entirety of the Murong family, I must spare this little girl."

Ever since that old man entered, Duan Yu felt that something felt off and was unnatural. But as to what exactly was wrong, he could not say. He carefully examined the pavilion's furnishings, furniture, scenery, calligraphy and paintings hanging on the walls, then looked at Ah Bi, Jiumozhi, Cui Baiquan, and Guo Yanzhi. He couldn't find anything out of the ordinary, but more and more he felt as though something was off.

After a long time passed, the sound of footsteps could be heard, and a thin old man of fifty years or so entered. His skin was sallow in color, and a straggly mountain-goat like beard could be seen on his chin. He looked extremely shrewd and capable. The clothes he wore were very tasteful. On one hand, he wore a marble ring. Evidently, this was the steward for the Murong family. The skinny fellow bowed towards Jiumozhi and said, "This humble servant, Sun San, pays his respects to everyone. We feel extremely honored, venerable sir, that you wish to pay your respects before the mausoleum of our late master. But with our young master having left, there is no one to welcome you properly, much to our shame. I will simply convey your kind intentions to our young master, once he returns."

At this point, Duan Yu suddenly smelled a light fragrant scent. His heart swayed. "Strange, strange."

Earlier, when that old male servant had come to the room, Duan Yu smelled a fragrant scent. The fragrance seemed vaguely familiar to the scent which Mu Wanqing's body also had. Although it was very different, both were feminine smells. Originally, Duan Yu thought that this fragrance was coming from Ah Bi, and so did not think too much of it. But as soon as that old servant left the room, the fragrance disappeared. But as soon as the self-claimed 'Sun San' entered the room, Duan Yu once again smelled this scent. Duan Yu suddenly understood that the reason he felt awkward earlier was because he smelled the fragrant scent of a seventeen, eighteen year old girl on the body of an eighty, ninety year old man. He thought to himself, "Can it be that in the inner pavilion is grown some sort of strange flowers or remarkable grass, and so anyone who comes here from that pavilion is covered by that scent? The other possibility is that both that old servant and this skinny fellow are actually women in disguise."

Although the scent made Duan Yu feel suspicious, it was very light and nearly unnoticeable. Jiumozhi and the other two didn't smell the fragrance at all. The only reason Duan Yu himself was able to notice it was because he and Mu Wanqing underwent a rare life-and-death situation together at the mountain cliff. Nobody else would pay any attention to this faint, virginal smell, but to him this scent made a deep impression within his heart and his very bones. It was a much stronger scent to him than that of musk, white sandalwood, or flowery perfume. Although Jiumozhi possessed an extremely deep reservoir of internal energy, he had strictly followed Buddhist prohibitions against sexual encounters all his life. Rosy cheeks and verdant temples were nothing more to him than skeletal bones and colorless skulls. Fragrant powders and rouge were even less to him. He had no idea that men and women had different scents.

Although Duan Yu suspected that Sun San was actually a woman in disguise, he couldn't spot a single flaw or giveaway. Not only did this person have the bearing and demeanor of a man, his shape and his voice weren't womanly at all. Suddenly, he thought to himself, "If a woman is imitating a man, she can't fake his Adam's apple." He secretly glanced at Sun San's throat, but saw that his goat-like beard perfectly covered his larynx. Duan Yu rose to his feet. He pretended to examine the calligraphy and painting on the walls, and casually strolled past Sun San's side. He snuck a side-glance, and saw that Sun San's throat didn't have the slightest bulge at all, and that his chest seemed full and plump. Although Duan Yu still couldn't be absolutely certain that Sun San was a woman, such a skinny man definitely should not have so much flesh and muscle on his chest. Duan Yu, having discovered a secret, felt very amused. "There's a lot more to be played out in this drama. Let's see what she has planned next."

Jiumozhi sighed, "I met with your deceased master by the boundaries of Sichuan. We discussed martial arts and very much admired each other's abilities, and became friends. I wouldn't have imagined that the heavens themselves would be envious of his talents and leave such a useless, mediocre fellow as myself alive, while taking the life of your deceased master and sending him to meet Buddha in the Western Paradise. The only reason I have left Tibet and come to the Central Plains is to pay my respects before his mausoleum, due to our ancient friendship. It does not matter whether or not someone is here to welcome me properly. Steward, I would simply like to trouble you to lead the way." Sun San wrinkled his forehead, as though he felt extremely awkward. "This…this…" Jiumozhi said, "I don't know if there is some difficulty in my request, and humbly request your instruction."

Sun San said, "Great master, since you are a bosom friend of my deceased master, you surely must know his temperament. My deceased master hated when people came to pay visits to him. He said that of those visitors who came to the manor, if they didn't come on a mission of vengeance, then they came to try and convince him to take them on as a student. A level below this would be those who came to beg for money, or try to cause trouble and pilfer something from us. He said that monks and nuns were even less trustworthy…ack, sorry!" As he said this, he suddenly seemed to realize that with these words, he must have offended Jiumozhi. He hurriedly pressed his hands over his mouth.

The manner in which she acted was totally in accordance with that of a young maiden. Her round eyes widened, and the black pupils of her eyes spun. Although she quickly drooped her eyelids down, Duan Yu, who was paying close attention, couldn't help but feel a sense of glee. "Not only is Sun San female, she's a young girl." Casting a side-glance at Ah Bi, he noticed a trace of a sly smile tugging at the corner of her lips. He no longer had any more doubt in his heart. "Sun San and old Huang clearly are the same person, perhaps that sister Ah Zhu she was speaking about."

Jiumozhi heaved a sigh. "In this world, there are more deceitful people than there are honest people. It is not unreasonable for Mr. Murong to refuse to meet with most folk." Sun San said, "Right. Our deceased master's last words were, 'If anyone wishes to conduct memorial ceremonies at my tomb or sweep my grave, politely turn them away. Hmph, those evil baldies probably just want to dig into my tomb.' Ack, great master, please don't think too much. The 'thieving baldies' our deceased master spoke of probably was not you."

Duan Yu was secretly amused. "The phrase, 'Cursing about 'evil baldies' in front of a monk' applies to this situation perfectly." Then he thought, "This evil baldy has totally maintained his composure and not batted an eyelid. The more evil and loathsome a person is, the better his temper is. This evil baldy really is a remarkable person."

Jiumozhi said, "These last words of your deceased master are understandable. His might shook the world, and he left behind many enemies. It's reasonable for him to guard against enemies who did not dare attempt revenge on him when he was living, but who would try to disturb his bones after his death."

Sun San said, "If someone wishes to disturb the bones of our deceased master, haha, that would really be like 'an elderly cat smelling salted fish.'" Jiumozhi was startled. "What do you mean, 'an elderly cat smelling salted fish'?" Sun San replied, "This is called, 'smelling dried fish, smelling dried fish'. Meaning, 'don't even think about it, don't even think about it.'" [Obviously, this is a linguistic wordplay; the phrases 'smelling dried fish' and 'don't even think about it' sound exactly the same in Mandarin Chinese.] Jiumozhi replied, "Ah, so that's how it is. I was very good bosom friends with Mr. Murong. My only desire is to pay my respects before his tomb. Steward, no need to be too skeptical."

Sun San said, "The honest truth is, I don't have the authority to grant you your wish. If I were to go against my deceased master's last command, when the young master returns and finds out, he'll break my old legs. How about this, I'll go invite the old mistress and ask her to come up with a plan. What do you think?" Jiumozhi replied, "The old mistress? Who are you referring to?" Sun San said, "Old Mistress Murong. She was our deceased master's aunt. Every time an old friend of the old master came, they would kowtow to her and pay their respects. With the young master not at home, everything needs to go through the old mistress." Jiumozhi replied, "That's very good to know. Please inform the old mistress that Jiumozhi of Tibet has come to pay his respects to her." Sun San said, "Great master, you are too polite. You flatter us too much." As he spoke, he entered the main pavilion.

Duan Yu thought to himself, "This girl is both intelligent and strange. I wonder why she is playing all these pranks on this evil baldy?" After a long period of time, a clattering of rings and ornaments could be heard as an old lady tottered out of the inner pavilion. Before she herself arrived, that light fragrance arrived first. Duan Yu couldn't help but smile. He thought to himself, "This time, she's dressed up as an old lady." The old lady wore an ancient, copper-colored satin skirt and coat, wearing jade bracelets around her wrists, and pearls and jade ornaments in her hair. Her appearance was graceful and luxurious, but had many wrinkles on her face. Her eyes seemed confused and misty, as though they could no longer see. Duan Yu secretly cheered, "This young lass is incredible. Whatever she dresses up as, she looks like. What's even more amazing is that she was able to change in such a short period of time. Her movements are so swift. It really must be acclaimed as the height of perfection in the art."

The old lady supported herself on her walking stick, entering the pavilion with faltering steps. She said, "Ah Bi, have friends of your old master arrived? Why haven't they kowtowed to me?" Her head turned left and right, as though she had very poor eyesight and couldn't tell who was present. Ah Bi gestured towards Jiumozhi and said in a low voice, "Quick, kowtow. As soon as you kowtow, the old mistress will be happy and will agree to anything." The old lady turned her head around, cupping her hands around her ears so as to hear more clearly. She loudly said, "Girl, what did you just say? Did they kowtow yet?"

Jiumozhi said, "Old mistress, how are you? This humble monk has come to pay his respects to you." He bowed deeply, his hands folded together. His twin hands exerted power, and a deep booming sound came from the bricks on the floor, as though someone had kowtowed."

Cui Baiquan and Guo Yanzhi looked at each other. Both of them were equally struck dumb with amazement. "This monk's internal energy is so profound! I fear that we won't be able to take even a single stance from him."

The old madame nodded. "Excellent, excellent. In this world, there are more deceitful people than there are honest people. Even for something like kowtowing, some evil scoundrels want to be deceitful. Even when they clearly have not kowtowed, they make booming sounds on the floor as though they have, so as to deceive this old lady's bad eyes. But you, kid, you are great, you are very obedient. You kowtowed very loudly." Duan Yu couldn't resist a snort of amusement. The old lady slowly turned around and said, "Ah Bi, did someone just fart?" She reached out her hand and pinched her nose. Ah Bi, holding in laughter, said, "Old mistress, that isn't the case. Young master Duan let out a laugh." The old lady said, "Broken? What's broken? [Duan Yu's surname, 'Duan', sounds the same as the Chinese character for 'broken' or 'snapped']" Ah Bi replied, "Nothing's broken. His surname is 'Duan'. He's the young master of the Duan family." The old lady nodded. "Right, young master this and young master that. Day in and day out, you are always thinking about your young master." Ah Bi's face reddened. "The old mistress's ears aren't good. She needs to be more careful when gossiping."

The old lady turned towards Duan Yu. "Kid, why haven't you kowtowed yet?" Duan Yu said, "Old mistress, there's something I want to tell you." The old lady said, "What is it?"

Duan Yu replied, "I have a niece who is very intelligent and clever, but who is also extremely mischievious. She loves dressing up as a little monkey to mess around. One day she'll dress up as a male monkey, the next day a female monkey. She knows how to do acrobatics too. Old mistress, you'd love to meet her. It's too bad that I didn't bring her along to have her kowtow to you."

The old lady really was the other servant girl of the Murong family, Ah Zhu, dressed up in disguise. Her abilities in the arts of disguise and makeup were godlike. Not only could she make herself look different, her words and her mannerisms were impeccable as well, not revealing a single flaw. Thus, even extremely intelligent people such as Jiumozhi or experienced jianghu veterans such as Cui Baiquan didn't suspect her in the slightest. Unexpected, Duan Yu was able to ferret out the truth, using the faint aroma which her body gave off and which she had no way of hiding.

Hearing him speak thusly, Ah Zhu was startled, but didn't change her demeanor in the slightest, continuing to appear like a senile, doddering old lady with bad vision and half-deaf ears. She said, "Good kid, good kid, you are really smart. I've never met such a smart child as you before. Good kid, don't talk too much. This old lady will definitely take care of you."

Duan Yu thought to himself, "What she means is that she wants me to not reveal her secret. She's trying to fend off this evil baldy, Jiumozhi. That makes her a friend, not an enemy." He said, "Old mistress, please put your heart at ease. Now that I am at your manor, naturally I am at your disposal and will obey your commands."

Ah Zhu replied, "You are an obedient kid to listen to my words. Great, first kowtow three times to this old lady. I definitely will give you great benefits if you do so."

Duan Yu was startled. "I am the regal son of the Imperial Crown Brother of Dali. How can I kowtow to a little girl like you?"

Ah Zhu, seeing the awkward look on his face, sneered. "Good kid, let me tell you right now, the best choice for you is to obediently kowtow a few times to your granny."

Duan Yu turned his head, and saw Ah Bi, lips pursed in a smile, casting side-glances at him. Her skin was as white as freshly peeled water chestnuts, and a small, fine black mole was at the corner of her lips, making her look all the more charming and lovely. His heart was suddenly stirred. "Sister Ah Bi, I heard that there is a sister Ah Zhu in your respect manor. Is she…is she was beautiful as you are?" Ah Bi smiled. "Aha! How could an ugly freak like me be worthy of such praise? If sister Ah Zhu heardja askin' questions like that, she'd definitely be real unhappy-like, yeah? How can I compare to her? Sister Ah Zhu is ten times more beautiful than I am." Duan Yu asked, "Truly?" Ah Bi grinned, "Why would I lie to ya?" Duan Yu said, "For a person to be ten times more beautiful than you is totally impossible, unless…unless it's the goddess of the jade cavern. For a person to even be on your level would make them a rare beauty." Ah Bi's cheeks flushed red. She bashfully said, "The old mistress asked you to kowtow. Who asked you to praise me so highly?"

Duan Yu said, "The old mistress must have originally been a nationally famous, heaven-like beauty as well. To tell you the truth, I don't really care if I get any benefits, but am more than willing to kowtow a few times to a world class beauty." As he spoke, he fell to his knees. He thought to himself, "Since I am going to kowtow, I might as well do so loudly. I already kowtowed a few thousand times to the jade statue. What's the big deal if I kowtow to a beautiful lady of the jianghu a few times?" He immediately kowtowed loudly three times.

Ah Zhu was extremely delighted. She though to herself, "This young master clearly knows that I'm just a little servant girl, but is actually willing to kowtow to me. This is really rare." She said, "Good kid, very good, very good. It's too bad that I didn't bring you a meeting-present." Ah Bi interjected, "Old mistress, just don't forget about it an' jes' give it to'm next time."

Ah Zhu glanced at Ah Bi. She said towards Cui Baiquan and Guo Yanzhi, "Why haven't these two guests kowtowed to me?" Guo Yanzhi let out a 'hmph' sound. In a rough voice and with a rough attitude, he said, "Do you know martial arts or not?" Ah Zhu said, "What did you say?" Guo Yanzhi replied, "I asked if you know martial arts or not. If you possess a high level of martial arts, then I, Guo Yanzhi, am willing to die underneath your hand, Mistress Murong! But if you aren't a member of the wulin, then there's no need for me to bother wasting my breath with you." Ah Zhu shook her head. "What's this about a hundred-legged centipede? Naturally, we have centipedes here. When they bite people, it's very painful!" [Centipede sounds similar to martial arts]. Turning towards Jiumozhi, she said, "Great monk, I hear you want to go check out my nephew's tomb. What type of treasure do you intend to pilfer from the tomb?"

Although Jiumozhi still did not realize that she was actually a girl, he had long sinced figured out that she was just pretending to be deaf and dumb, and that she wasn't as near-sighted or as muddle-headed as she pretended to be. He became more guarded, and thought to himself, "Mr. Murong was such an extraordinary figure. His family members must be exceptional as well." He pretended to not have heard the words, "pilfer from the tomb", and said, "This humble monk was a close bosom friend of Mr. Murong. After hearing the horrible news of his passing, I have rushed here from Tibet to pay my respects before his tomb. In the past, I made a promise to Mr. Murong to bring him the manuscript for the Duan family of Dali's 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' and let him check it out. For me to still have not carried out my promise fills my heart with shame."

Ah Zhu and Ah Bi exchanged glances. They both thought to themselves, "Finally, this monk has brought up the relevant issues." Ah Zhu asked, "And what happens if you are able to bring the manuscript for the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'? What happens if you are not?" Jiumozhi replied, "In the past, Mr. Murong and I made an agreement; as long as I was able to retrieve the manual of the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' for him to read for a few days, he would allow me to read for a few days in the 'Water Pavilion of Bestowal and Repayment'. Ah Zhu suddenly felt afraid. "For this monk to actually know the name, 'Water Pavilion of Bestowal and Repayment'…maybe he is telling the truth after all." She immediately pretended to be confused and said, "What's this about porridge and boiled dumplings? Do you want some porridge and chicken broth dumplings? That's easily done. You are a monk. Can you eat meat or fish?"

Jiumozhi turned his head towards Ah Bi. "I don't know if this old mistress is truly confused or just faking it. For her to be so unwelcoming cannot help but to give a feeling of coldness in one's heart."

Ah Zhu said, "Oh, so your heart is feeling cold? Ah Bi, quick, go and make a bowl of hot chicken and duck blood soup so as to warm this great master's heart and lungs." Ah Bi held in her laughter. "The master doesn't eat meat." Ah Zhu nodded. "Then don't use real chickens and real ducks. Use vegetarian chicken and vegetarian duck meat [usually made from tofu and veggies]." Ah Bi said, "Old mistress, vegetarian chicken doesn't have any blood." Ah Zhu said, "Then what are we to do?"

The two of them exchanged one phrase after another, and all their words were full of nonsense. Most people of Suzhou had quick teeth and clever mouths. In later generations, the story-telling abilities of Suzhou people became famous throughout the world because of this. These two girls were used to messing around and teasing each other, and they now rendered Jiumozhi unable to do anything.

Originally, he came to Gusu with the intention of discussing an important matter with young master Murong. Unexpectedly, the young master was not present, and everyone he met intertwined falsehoods with obfuscations, sometimes seeming to do so inadvertently, other times seeming to act in such a way on purpose, intermixing lies with truth. This rendered him unable to decide how to handle the situation. After a brief moment of pondering, he concluded that madame Murong, Sun San, old servant Huang, and Ah Bi were all trying to ward him off. Since they would not let him visit the mausoleum, they definitely would not be willing to allow him to enter the 'Water Pavilion of Bestowal and Repayment' and read secret martial arts manuals. At this moment, he decided, what he should do would be to clearly explain the situation and ignore their play-acting and deception. That way, in the future, regardless of whether they treated him with respect or came to blows with him, he would have already claimed the moral high ground. He immediately said in a calm, even-tempered voice, "I have brought the manuscript for the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'. Thus, I make the daring request that we act in accordance with the agreement and I be allowed to go read in the 'Water Pavilion of Bestowal and Repayment'." Ah Bi said, "Old master Murong has already passed away. First, there's no evidence of this agreement. Secondly, even if you brought the manual, there is nobody present who is capable of reading it. Any agreements made in the past are naturally no longer valid now." Ah Zhu said, "What sword manual? Where is it? Let me check it out first."

Pointing to Duan Yu, Jiumozhi said, "Within this young gentleman's mind lies the fully memorized manuscript for the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'. I have brought him here; this is the same as bringing an actual manuscript." Ah Bi smiled. "I thought there really was a manual. So you were playing a joke on us, great master." Jiumozhi said, "I wouldn't dare. The original manual for the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' has been burnt to ash by elder Kurong at the Heavenly Dragon Monastery. Fortunately, this gentleman has fully memorized it all." Ah Bi replied, "If young master Duan memorized it, then it's his business. Even if we were to invite someone to the 'Water Pavilion of Bestowal and Repayment' to read, it would be him. What does it have to do with you, great master?" Jiumozhi replied, "In order to fulfill my promise of latter days, I intend to immolate him in front of Mr. Murong's mausoleum."

Upon hearing these words, everyone was astonished. But seeing the calm, placid, serious expression on the face, he definitely did not appear to be making a joke. This astonished them all the more. Ah Bi said, "Great master, you must be jesting! How can he allow you to just casually cremate him like that?" Jiumozhi said dully, "If I want to immolate him, I don't think he would be able to resist." Ah Bi smiled. "Great master, you say that young gentleman Duan has memorized the manual for the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', but that clearly cannot be true. If young gentleman Duan really memorized such a fearful martial arts as the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', how could he be so easily controlled by you?" Jiumozhi nodded. "Miss, you know only half the story. I have sealed all of his major acupoints, and he is unable to exert any energy at all."

Ah Zhu shook her head continuously. "I believe you even less now. Unseal his acupoints and let him show off the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' first. I think that ninety nine percent of your words are lies." Jiumozhi nodded. "Good idea. We can demonstrate."

Duan Yu praised Ah Bi as being beautiful, and was absolutely charmed by her vocal and instrumental musical skills. Ah Bi naturally liked him. In addition, not only did he not reveal Ah Zhu's disguise, he also kowtowed to her three times; this made Ah Zhu happy with him as well. Thus, upon hearing that his acupoints had been sealed, both of the girls wanted to trick Jiumozhi into unsealing his acupoints. They didn't expect that Jiumozhi would immediately agree. He stretched out his palm towards Duan Yu's body and tapped his hand a few times towards Duan Yu's back, chest, and legs. Duan Yu instantly felt as though his acupoints became unsealed, and the flow of his blood became unimpeded. As soon as he generated his internal energy, he could feel his qi beginning to circulate throughout his body. He experimentally generated his energy in accordance with the directions for the 'Zhongchong Sword' technique, inciting his internal energy to pass to the middle finger of his right hand. He felt a roasting hot sensation at the tip of his middle finger, and knew that all he needed to do would be to extend his finger and sword qi would immediately shoot out.

Jiumozhi said, "Young master Duan, mistress Murong does not believe that you have practiced the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'. Please show off your ability. Do as I do, and chop off a branch from this osmanthus tree." As he spoke, he sent out a slanting palm strike with his left palm. His palm released its stored up internal energy; it was a stroke from his 'Blazing Sabre' technique. With a light cracking sound, a single branch of the osmanthus tree broke in half and fell to the ground, as though someone had chopped it with a sabre or a sword.

Cui Baiquan and Guo Yanzhi couldn't help but let out an 'Ah!' cry of alarm. Although they knew that this barbarian monk possessed some extremely unusual skills, they thought that his skills were simply heterodox and evil. Only now, when they watched him chop off a tree branch, did they realize how profound his internal energy was. His internal energy was at a level that was rarely heard of and rarely seen.

Duan Yu shook his head. "I don't know any martial arts at all, much less any 'Divine Sword of the Seven Meridians' or 'Heavenly Sabre of the Eight Channels'. Why did you have to go and ruin a perfectly fine osmanthus tree?" Jiumozhi replied, "Young master Duan, why so modest? Your level of martial arts is highest amounts the elite martial artists of Dali's Duan family. In this day and age, aside from young master Murong and my humble self, I'm afraid no one is superior to you. Gusu's Murong mansion is a repository of martial arts learning in the world. Why don't you show a few stances and have the old mistress give you some advice? That would be a very good thing for you." Duan Yu replied, "Big monk, this entire trip you have taken such wonderful care of me, tugging me here and pulling me there, dragging me all the way to Jiangnan. At first, I didn't want to say another word to you at all. But now that I'm at Gusu and have met such beautiful, heavenly girls here, the anger in my heart has dissipated. From now on, let's make a clean break. Neither of us needs to bother with the other."

Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, hearing him speak in a pedantic, bookworm like manner, couldn't help but secretly laugh. They couldn't help but feel secretly happy as well upon hearing him praise them.

Jiumozhi said, "Young master, if you refuse to display your 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', won't you be making me to look like a liar?"

Duan Yu said, "Well, you were full of nonsense to begin with. If you had an agreement with Mr. Murong, why didn't you come to Dali earlier? Why would you wait until Mr. Murong passed away and became unable to refute your words before coming to the Murong manor and cause an endless ruckus? You know what I think? I think you covet the high-level martial arts skills of the Murong family of Gusu, and came up with a false story to trick the old mistress into allowing you into their library and secretly study their private martial arts, and figure out the secrets behind their 'Using the opponent's skills, exercising them upon the opponent'. How can you possibly not realize that these people, being of a long-standing, famous, aristocratic wulin family, would see right through this trick of yours? If you could really steal away their martial arts techniques based solely upon your lies and rubbish, wouldn't anybody be able to? Who isn't able to make up this sort of nonsense?"

Ah Zhu and Ah Bi agreed in one voice.

Jiumozhi shook his head. "Young master Duan, your conjectures are incorrect. Although it is true that I made my agreement with Mr. Murong a long time ago, for nine years I sequestered myself in solitary meditation while I mastered the 'Blazing Sabre' technique, and thus could not go to Dali. If I had not mastered the 'Blazing Sabre' technique, I would not have been able to leave the Heavenly Dragon Monastery alive.

Duan Yu said, "Great master, you possess great fame, great power, and such an incredible level of martial arts. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you just stayed peacefully in Tibet as its dharma king and national protector? Why come to Jiangnan to deceive people? I recommend you return as soon as possible."

Jiumozhi said, "Young master, if you refuse to display the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', please do not blame me for being discourteous." Duan Yu said, "You've been acting impolite all along. Can it be that you've found a way to be even more impolite still? At worst, you can kill me with a single chop of your sabre. What's the big deal?" Jiumozhi replied, "Very good! Ware my sabre!" He raised his left palm and a powerful wind rushed towards Duan Yu's face.

Duan Yu had long since hatched a plan. As his martial arts was far inferior to that of Jiumozhi, whether or not he fought back made no difference at all. If Jiumozhi wanted him to show that he knew the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', he would refuse to do so no matter what. Thus, upon seeing Jiumozhi convert his internal energy into a sabre blade and chop towards him, Duan Yu toughened his spine and neither blocked nor parried. Jiumozhi was startled. Duan Yu was his only source of the manual of the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'; no matter what, he couldn't kill him before he acquired it for himself. He hurriedly lifted his hands higher, and with a 'shua' sound, a cool wind passed over Duan Yu's head, taking with it a large chunk of his hair.

Cui Baiquan and Guo Yanzhi were simultaneously shocked. Ah Zhu and Ah Bi's faces couldn't help but turn pale as well. Jiumozhi said in an awe-inspiring voice, "Young master Duan, would you really rather die than fight back?"

Duan Yu had long since thrown his fear of death into the wind. He laughed loudly and said, "Greed, wrath, lust, desire, foolishness. Master monk, you possess all of these flaws, and yet you falsely claim to be an eminent Buddhist monk. You really are not deserving of the title!"

Jiumozhi suddenly hacked a palm towards Ah Bi while shouting, "Unspeakable! I'll first kill this servant girl of the Murong manor to display my power."

This stroke came very quickly. Ah Bi was shocked, and hurriedly slanted her body to avoid it. Crack! A chair behind her was split into two by this gush of internal energy. Jiumozhi followed that strike with another from his right palm. Ah Bi fell down on the floor and hurriedly rolled away. Although her movements were quick, she was already in a very precarious situation. Jiumozhi let out a fierce roar, and shot out his third sabre attack.

Ah Bi was so terrified that her face turned pale. She had no idea what to do against this invisible internal energy attack. Ah Zhu didn't have any time to think. She shot out her palms and attacked Jiumozhi's back. When she was earlier moving about and speaking, she had the mannerisms of a seventy or eighty year old lady. But now, when she attacked, she displayed strong, vigorous, and quick movements.

In a single glance, Jiumozhi understood everything. With a laugh, he said, "So there are sixteen or seventeen year old grannies in the world? How long, exactly, did you intend to deceive this monk?" He struck a palm backwards and with a cracking sound, shattered the wooden staff in her hands into three pieces. Following this, he once more chopped towards Ah Bi. In her terror, Ah Bi grabbed a table and used it as a shield. With two clattering sounds, the red sandalwood table instantly disintegrated, leaving only a pair of table legs in her hands.

Seeing Ah Bi forced to the wall, without any place to flee and Jiumozhi striking with yet another palm, Duan Yu no longer cared about whether or not he could defeat Jiumozhi; his only intention was to save her life. He struck out with his middle finger, and his internal energy surged forth from his 'Zhongchong' acupoint with a 'chi-chi' sneering sound. It was the 'Zhongchong Sword' technique. Jiumozhi didn't really want to kill Ah Bi; he just wanted to force Duan Yu's hand. Otherwise, how could Ah Bi manage to dodge the wondrous, brilliant stances of the 'Blazing Sabre' technique for so long? Seeing Duan Yu strike out at him, he immediately sent out a hacking palm towards Ah Zhu. A powerful gust of wind roared towards her, sending her staggering back. The shoulder of her dress was mangled by his internal energy. She let out an 'Ah!', crying in startlement. Duan Yu followed his first attack with a 'Shaoze Sword' attack from his left hand, blocking Jiumozhi's attack on Ah Zhu with the 'Blazing Sabre' technique.

In the blink of an eye, Ah Bi and Ah Zhu both escaped a very dangerous situation, as Duan Yu used his 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' to totally block both of Jiumozhi's sabre strikes. Jiumozhi, wanting both to show off his own ability as well as to prove that Duan Yu really knew the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', intentionally let Duan Yu's internal energy block his own. Having drained the internal energy of so many elite martial artists, at this point in time, Duan Yu's internal energy was actually more powerful than that of Jiumozhi. Unfortunately, he didn't know any martial arts at all, and wasn't able to execute any of the sword techniques which he had memorized at the Heavenly Dragon Monastery. Jiumozhi tricked his powerful internal energy into being dispersed east and west, to the point where the doors and the windows were filled with holes. All the while, Jiumozhi was saying, "The 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians' really is very formidable! No wonder Mr. Murong admired it so much in the past."

Cui Baiquan was extremely startled. "I always believed that prince Duan has no skill in martial arts. Who would have imagined that he possesses such a refined, exquisite technique? The Duan family of Dali really lives up to its fame. Fortunately, I did not do a single bad thing during my time at the South-Subduing Palace. Otherwise, how could this old life of mine remained for so long?" The more he thought, the more nervous he grew, until his forehead and his clothes were soaked with sweat.

Jiumozhi fought with Duan Yu for a while. With each stroke, he was capable of taking Duan Yu's life. However, he wanted to play around with Duan Yu for a bit. But towards the end, he felt less and less contempt towards Duan Yu. He felt that Duan Yu's internal energy was exceedingly strong and vigorous, and definitely not below his own at all. But for some reason, once the energy was actually used by Duan Yu, the end result was not that impressive at all. It was akin to a three year old kid from an exceedingly rich family who owned tens of thousands of strings of cash, but was unable to use it properly. After throwing out a few more strokes, Jiumozhi's heart was suddenly shaken. "What if in the future, he grows intelligent, suddenly learning how to properly use his abilities as well as the fundamentals of martial arts? With his level of internal energy and this sword technique, what an extremely fearful opponent he would be!"

Duan Yu had long known that his continued existence lay solely under the control of Jiumozhi. He shouted, "Sister Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, hurry up and run away! If you take any longer, you won't have a chance to escape!" Ah Zhu asked, "Young master Duan, why are you rescuing us?" Duan Yu replied, "This monk relies on his high level of martial arts to bully and oppress others. Unfortunately, I don't know any martial arts at all. It is difficult for me to fight him off. Hurry up and run away!"

Jiumozhi laughed. "Far too late for that." Taking a step forwards, he struck out with the fingers of both hands, pointing towards Duan Yu's acupoints. Duan Yu let out a cry. "Aiyo!" He tried to avoid the attack, but how could he? Once more, three of his vital acupoints were sealed, and his limbs immediately felt numb and heavy. Falling on the floor, he shouted loudly, "Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, hurry up and leave!"

Jiumozhi laughed, "You are at the brink of death and unable to protect yourself. You still have the desire to enjoy perfume and cherish jade?" He returned to his original seat and said to Ah Zhu, "Young miss, there's no need for you to continue play-acting and fooling around. Who, exactly, is in charge of the manor's matter? Young master Duan fully memorized the entirety of the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', but does not know martial arts and thus finds it difficult to actually use it. Tomorrow, I will take him to Mr. Murong's mausoleum and burn him in sacrifice. In the underworld, Mr. Murong will understand that his old friend did not renege upon their earlier agreement."

Ah Zhu knew that no one currently at the Pavilion of Zither Melodies was a match for this monk. Wrinkling her forehead, she laughed. "Fine! Master monk, we'll believe your words. The old master's mausoleum is a day's journey away by water. Tonight, it is too late to leave. Tomorrow morning, the two of us will personally escort you and young master Duan to pay your respects at the tomb. The four of you, please wait just a short moment. Dinner will be served soon." After she spoke, she grabbed Ah Bi by the wrist and retreated into the inner pavilion.

After an hour passed, a male servant came out and said, "Miss Ah Zhu would like to invite the four of you to the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain' for supper." Jiumozhi said, "Many thanks!" Stretching out his hand, he seized Duan Yu's arm and followed the man in. They winded their way through hundreds of feet of paved cobblestone alleys and a few stone parks before arriving by the waterside. Beneath the willow trees lay a small boat. The male servant pointed to a cabin with windows on all four sides that was situated in the middle of the water. "It is right there." Jiumozhi, Duan Yu, Cui Baiquan, and Guo Yanzhi stepped onto the boat, and the male servant rowed them there. They arrived after a brief period of time.

Duan Yu walked up the wooden oak stairs of and entered the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain'. He saw Ah Bi waiting to attend to the guests, wearing light green clothing. By her side stood a young maiden who wore a light red yarncloth garment. She was also around sixteen or seventeen years of age, and she aimed an expression that seemed like a smile yet wasn't quite towards Duan Yu. Her face was full of mischieviousness and cleverness. Ah Bi had a 'melon seed' face and was elegant and beautiful. This maiden had a 'goose egg' face. Her eyes were lively and intelligent, and she displayed a different type of stirring aura.

As soon as he entered the room, Duan Yu once again smelled that faint fragrance. Laughing, he said, "Sister Ah Zhu, you are such a beautiful woman. It must have been tough for to so convincingly portray an old lady." That maiden was indeed Ah Zhu. She batted him a glance, then laughed, "You kowtowed to me three times and aren't content in your heart. Am I right?" Duan Yu shook his head repeatedly. "There was a lot of reason for me to kowtow three times to you. Only, my guesses were a bit off." Ah Zhu asked, "What did you guess wrong?" Duan Yu replied, "I guessed from the beginning that you were just like Ah Bi, that both of you were beauties the likes of which are rarely seen in the world. But in my heart, I imagined that you must have been about on par with Ah Bi. I didn't imagine that upon actually seeing you…well…well…" Ah Zhu interjected, "You found that I was far inferior to Ah Bi?" Ah Bi said at the same time, "You were greatly startled, because she is ten times more beautiful than me, right?"

Duan Yu shook his head. "Neither. I just felt that the heavens are really capable and are truly worthy of mankind's admiration. After wracking their brains and creating such a beautiful girl as sister Ah Bi, they should have totally exhausted all of their ability to portray the spirit and beauty of Jiangnan. Who would have imagined that they would be able to create a sister Ah Zhu as well? The two of you look totally different, yet each of you possess you own unique beauty. It makes me want to say a few things in praise, but I couldn't manage to say a single word at all."

Ah Zhu laughed. "Bah! You glibly just said a lot of things in praising us, and still want to claim that you couldn't manage to say a single word?"

Ah Bi smiled slightly, then turned her head and spoke to Jiumozhi and the rest. "I'm afraid that we don't have the resources to properly welcome you four esteemed personages. I'll have to ask that you just make do with our watery wine and do your best to enjoy some of our local Jiangnan dishes." She immediately invited the four of them to be seated, with her and Ah Bi taking seats to the right.

Duan Yu saw that the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain' was surrounded by water on all four sides. Glancing out the window, he saw mist covering the waters of the lake. Turning back to the table, he saw that all of the dishes on the table were made of exquisite porcelain. In his heart, he couldn't help but exclaim in praise.

Shortly afterwards, the male servants brought some dishes made from fruits and vegetables. Four vegetarian dishes were especially prepared for Jiumozhi. Next came a number of cooked dishes; white water chestnuts with shrimp meat, lotus leaf and winter bamboo shoot soup, cherry ham, dragon well vegetable leaves with chicken, and the like. Every dish was extremely unique. In the middle of the fish, shrimp, and meat were intermixed flower petals and fresh fruit. The dishes were extremely beautiful, and gave off a natural, pure fragrance. Duan Yu tried a few chopsticks of every single dish. All of them were wonderful and tasty. He praised, "Only such a wonderful landscape as this place can produce such talented people. In turn, only such talented people can be so intelligent and wise as to produce such elegant dishes."

Ah Zhu said, "Guess if I cooked the dishes, or if Ah Bi cooked the dishes?" Duan Yu replied, "The cherry ham and the plum blossom duck are fragrant, tender, and rosy. I think you made them. The lotus leaf and winter bamboo shoot soup and the round jade fish slices are verdant and cleanly chopped. Naturally, they were made by sister Ah Bi."

Ah Zhu clapped her hands and laughed. "Your guessing abilities are really good! Ah Bi, what should we reward him with?" Ah Bi smiled. "If young master Duan has any instructions for us to carry out, we would naturally do so to the best of our abilities. What's all this talk about giving him 'rewards' and 'awards'? We're just servant girls. We aren't worthy of such." Ah Zhu replied, "Hah, as soon as you open your mouth you flatter others. No wonder every says you're good and I'm bad." Duan Yu laughed, "Gentle and refined, lively and clever. The two are equally good. Sister Ah Bi, earlier, when I heard you playing songs on the soft whip, I felt relaxed and carefree. I'd like to ask you to play some melodies on actual instruments. If you do so, even if I am turned into ash tomorrow by this great monk, my time on this earth won't have been spent in vain.

Ah Bi slowly rose to her feet. "As long as you don't find it unpleasant to hear, I am willing to embarrass myself to give some joy to our guests." As she spoke, she went behind a screen, then came out with a precious jade zither. Ah Bi sat up straight on a brocade seat and placed the jade zither in front of her. She waved towards Duan Yu and laughed, "Young master Duan, why don't you come over and see if you can identify what type of zither this is."

Walking to her, Duan Yu saw that her zither was a foot shorter than ordinary seven-stringed zithers. In addition, it had nine strings, each of which had a different color. He muttered to himself, "This is the first time I've seen this nine-stringed zither." Ah Zhu walked towards them and plucked a single string on the zither. The sound was very loud and clear. The string was made out of metal. Duan Yu said, "Sister, this zither is…"

Just as he spoke these four words, the floor suddenly disappeared underneath him. His body fell straight down. He couldn't help but let out a loud cry of alarm. Next, he felt as though he landed on a soft location. At the same time, he seemed to hear someone else say 'Aiyo!' and 'Not good!', followed by two splashing sounds. His body suddenly swayed, as the thing he was resting on began to move. This strange event happened very quickly and was totally unexpected. Startled and frightened, he hurriedly sat up. He saw that he was sitting in the middle of a small boat, with Ah Bi and Ah Zhu each sitting on one end of the boat. Each of them had an oar and were hurriedly paddling. Turning around, he saw that Jiumozhi, Cui Baiquan, and Guo Yanzhi's heads had just popped above the surface of the water. After but a short period of rowing by Ah Bi and Ah Zhu, the small boat was far away from the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain'.

Suddenly, a drenched person shot up from the surface of the lake. It was Jiumozhi. He landed on the side of the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain'. He easily snapped off part of a wooden pillar, aimed it at Ah Bi, then urgently cast it towards her. The makeshift missile made a whirring sound as it tore through the air with great force. Ah Bi cried out, "Young master Duan, duck!" Duan Yu and the two girls ducked at the same time, as half of a wooden pillar flew right over their heads. The powerful wind made by its passing actually hurt their neck.

Flexing her body, Ah Zhu turned the boat slightly sideways. Suddenly, a series of loud splashing sounds could be heard, and the small boat suddenly lifted up in the air before immediately falling down again. A large amount of lake water entered the boat and all three of them became wet. Turning his head, Duan Yu saw that Jiumozhi had already wrecked the wooden portion of the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain', and was repeatedly tossing stone vessels, incense burners, and other objects towards them. Watching the trajectories of the missiles, Ah Bi turned the boat to avoid them. Meanwhile, Ah Zhu kept on paddling forward with all her might. With each stroke of the oar, the boat travelled several feet further away from the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain'. Jiumozhi continued to lob missiles at them, but the distance between the boat and where they landed grew greater and greater. Even if his strength was greater, he couldn't compete with the ceaseless tugging of the oars by the two maidens. Turning his head again, Duan Yu saw that Cui Baiquan and Guo Yanzhi had managed to scramble onto the steps of the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain'. He felt delighted, but upon seeing Jiumozhi leap into a small boat, let out a cry of alarm.

Ah Zhu cried out, "That evil monk is following us!" She exerted all her might to paddle as fast she could, but after turning her head to take another glance, burst into loud laughter. Duan Yu also turned his head and saw that Jiumozhi's boat was just spinning in place. Evidently, although Jiumozhi possessed a very high level of martial arts, he didn't know how to row a boat.

The three of them immediately felt relieved. But after a short period of time, they saw that Jiumozhi had managed to stabilize the boat and was now hurriedly paddling after them. Ah Bi sighed, "This great master is really intelligent. Anything he doesn't know, he learns in a flash." Ah Zhu replied, "Let's play hide and seek with him." Tugging on her oar, she brought the boat into the middle of a dense forest of water chestnuts. The great lake had hundreds of harbors and thousands of waterways. After making several turns, their boat entered a small river. They thought to themselves that it was very unlikely that Jiumozhi would be able to locate them.

Duan Yu said, "Unfortunately, my acupoints are sealed, and I can't help you two row." Ah Bi comforted him, "Young master Duan, don't be worried. The monk won't be able to chase after us, yeah."

Duan Yu said, "The secret mechanism in the 'Dwelling for Listening to the Rain' is really interesting. This boat was precisely placed underneath the location where you play the zither, right?" Ah Bi smiled. "Right. That's why I invited you to come check out the zither. Sister Ah Zhu's plucking of the zither was the sign for the male servants outside to remove the planks underneath us and have everyone go plop, plop, plop!" The three of them laughed loudly in unison. Ah Bi hurriedly covered her mouth and said with a smile, "Don't let that monk hear us."

From far away, a voice could be heard. "Miss Ah Zhu, Miss Ah Bi, please row the boat back. Please hurry back, I am a friend of your master and definitely will not give you a hard time." It was Jiumozhi's voice. His voice was gentle and amiable, capable of causing people to naturally obey his instructions.

Ah Zhu was startled. "The great master asked for us to come back and says he definitely won't hurt us." As she spoke, she stopped paddling, as though she was seriously considering it. Ah Bi chimed in, "If that's the case, let's go back!" Duan Yu's internal energy was very strong, and so wasn't bewildered in the slightest by Jiumozhi's voice. He hurriedly said, "He's lying. How can you trust his words?" Jiumozhi's pleasant, amiable words entered their ears. "Young misses, your master has returned. He says he wants to see both of you, and that you are to return immediately. Yes, return immediately." Ah Zhu was compelled to agree. "Yes!" Lifting up the oar, she turned the boat around.

Duan Yu thought to himself, "If young master Murong had really returned, he himself would call out to Ah Zhu and Ah Bi. Why would he rely on Jiumozhi? This is no doubt an evil technique meant to delude the minds of others." Having come to this conclusion, he reached down and grabbed a few water chestnut leaves, rolled them together, then stuck them into Ah Bi and Ah Zhu's ears.

Her wits returned to her, Ah Zhu involuntarily cried out, "Ack! Close one!" Ah Bi was also frightened. "This monk knows some sort of soul-affecting technique. We almost fell for his trick." Turning the boat around, Ah Zhu hurriedly began paddling again. She cried out, "Ah Bi, paddle as fast as you can!"

The two of them paddled the boat directly into the middle of the water chestnut fields. After a long time, Jiumozhi's voice grew faint and indistinct, until finally he could no longer be heard. Duan Yu gestured to the two of them, signaling that they could now remove the leaves from their ears.

Patting her chest, Ah Bi let out a long sigh. "Whew, that was real scary-like, yeah! Sister Ah Zhu, whaddya think we should do?" Ah Zhu said, "Let's just paddle around in circles and waste the monk's time. If we get hungry, we can pluck water chestnuts and lotus roots to eat. Even if we face off against him for ten days or half a month, we wouldn't be in the slightest danger." Ah Bi smiled. "What an interesting idea. Young master Duan, would you be too bored though?" Duan Yu clapped his hands and laughed. "There's no shortage of sights to see on this lake. With the two of you accompanying me in touring this place for ten days, I would be happier than a celestial being." Ah Bi's smooth lips gently smiled. "We're heading towards the southeast right now. There's a lot of tributaries to this river. Aside from local fisherman, nobody can easily remember the routes. After we enter Lake Baiqu [Baiqu means 'Hundred Melodies'], the monk will definitely become unable to catch up to us." Duan Yu lay down on the boat, gazing upon the many glittering stars in the sky. Aside from the rustle of the oars and the boat brushing against the water caltrops, there was no sound at all. There was a gentle breeze on the lake, which carried with it a faint aroma. He thought to himself, "Even if I lived the rest of my life like this, I wouldn't mind." Then he thought to himself, "With Ah Zhu and Ah Bi being such nice people, young master Murong can't be some sort of horrible villain either. I wonder if he really was the one to kill master Xuanbei of Shaolin and Mr. Huo's martial brother. Alas, although my family has a lot of servant girls, none of them can match sister Ah Zhu or sister Ah Bi."

After a long time, just as he was about to close his eyes and fall asleep, he suddenly hear Ah Bi let out a quiet laugh and say in a low voice, "Sister Ah Zhu, come over here." Ah Zhu also spoke in a low voice, "Whaddya want?" Ah Bi said, "Come over here, I have somethin' to say." Ah Zhu lowered the oar and walked to the stern of the boat. Ah Bi pulled her over by the shoulder and quietly laughed into her ear, "Help me think of something so I aint gonna be shamin' mahself." Ah Zhu laughed, "Whassa matter?" Ah Bi said, "Quiet, quiet. Is young master Duan a'sleepin' yet?" Ah Zhu replied, "Dunno, jus' go'n'ask'm." Ah Bi said, "Can't, can't. Ah Zhu, Ah Zhu, I…I…I need to relieve myself."

Their voices were as soft as the buzzing of mosquitoes, but Duan Yu's internal energy was extremely profound. Naturally, he heard every word clearly. Upon hearing Ah Bi say these words, he didn't dare move in the slightest. He pretended to let out light snores and be asleep, so as to prevent Ah Bi from being embarrassed.

Ah Zhu laughed quietly. "Young master Duan is a'sleepin'. Just go ahead and relieve yourself." Ah Bi bashfully said, "Aint gonna try. What if I'm half-way through and young master Duan suddenly wakes up? It'd be unthinkable!" Ah Zhu couldn't help but let out a peal of laughter. She hurriedly covered her mouth, then said in a low voice, "Whaddya mean, it'd be unthinkable? Everyone needs to relieve themselves from time to time. Nuthin' weird about it." Ah Bi shook her body, then said in a pleading voice, "Please, sister Ah Zhu, help me think of an idea." Ah Zhu replied, "I'll stand in front of you. You go ahead and relieve yourself. Even if young master Duan wakes up, he won't be able to see nuthin', yeah?" Ah Bi replied, "But there would be noise! I can't have him hear either. I…I…" Ah Zhu laughed. "Yer sis is outta ideas. I guess you can just relieve yourself on yourself. He won't smell anything." Ah Bi said, "I can't! When someone's in front of me, I can't go." Ah Zhu said, "There's no place to go. Just go ahead and do it." Ah Bi was so anxious she began to cry. "I can't, I just can't!"

Ah Zhu suddenly let out another peal of laughter. "It's all your fault. If you hadn't said anything, I would've been fine. But now I need to go too! From here to Madame Wang's residence lies only a half-nine away. Let's paddle there and relieve ourselves." Ah Bi said, "Madame Wang forbid us from entering. If she catches us, she'll slap us upside the head a few times." Ah Zhu said, "Aint no need to worry. Madame Wang and our old mistress cursed at and insulted each other, but our old mistress has already passed away, yeah. We're just a pair of servant girls. How could we have offended her, and why would she slap us upside the head, yeah? Let's just quietly sneak on land and relieve ourselves, then immediately leave. How would she ever know we were there?" Ah Bi replied, "That be so." After mumbling to herself a moment, she said, "Then we need ta have young master Duan go ashore and relieve himself first. Otherwise…otherwise, if we just rush ashore, it'd be real awkward-like, yeah?"

Ah Zhu let out a soft laugh. "You really know how to take care of people. Careful, if the young master finds out, he'll be jealous." Ah Bi sighed. "How could the young master take this sorta small matter to heart, yeah? We're just a pair of little servant girls. The young master has never taken us to heart." Ah Zhu said, "And I don't want you takin'm to heart, yeah? Sister Ah Bi, stop daydreaming about him day and night. Aint no use." Ah Bi let out a quiet sigh and did not reply. Ah Zhu clapped her on the shoulder, then said in a low voice, "You are thinking of relieving yourself, but also thinking about the young master. The two thoughts are getting mixed together, yeah? Aint that a laugh!" Ah Bi let out a soft laugh. "Sis, you're gossiping. Don't you have something to do?"

Ah Zhu returned to the front of the boat and began paddling again. After they paddled for some time, the sky began to brighten.

Duan Yu's internal energy was very vigorous, and his internal energy could not remain sealed forever. Previously, Jiumozhi would reseal his acupoints after every few hours had passed. Now, after so much time had passed, he gradually felt his internal energy circulation begin to smooth out as the sealed acupoints began to unlock. Letting out a lazy yawn, he sat up and said, "I took a long nap, while you two were working so hard. There's something I need to say which is a bit inappropriate. Please don't be offended. I, uh, I need to relieve myself." He thought that it would be best for he himself to broach the topic first, so as to allow the girls to not feel awkward.

Ah Zhu and Ah Bi simultaneously let out a burst of laughter. Ah Zhu said, "Not too far away is the abode of a relative of ours, the Wang family. Just go ashore there to relieve yourself." Duan Yu said, "If that's the case, wonderful." Ah Zhu immediately adopted a stern expression. "But Madame Wang has a very strange temperament. She doesn't allow strange men to visit. As soon as you take care of business, immediately return to the boat. We don't want to cause any unnecessary trouble." Duan Yu replied, "Alright, understood."

Chapter - 12 Forevermore Intoxicated

The small boat weaved its way past a copse of weeping willows. Far in the distant, a reflection of crimson blossoming flowers could be seen in the water, as glorious as rosy clouds in the sky. Duan Yu let out an exclamatory 'Ah!' of appreciation.

Ah Zhu asked, "What's wrong?" Pointing to the blossoming flowers, Duan Yu said, "These are the camellia flowers native to Dali. How is it that this type of 'Dian tea-leaves' exist in the middle of Lake Taihu as well?" Camellia flowers of Yunnan province were the most famous of all, and were known as 'Dian tea-leaves' [Dian is another name for Yunnan]. Ah Zhu asked, "Really? This place is known as the Highland Manor of the Mantuo Flowers. It's filled with camellia leaves." Duan Yu thought to himself, "Camellia flowers are also known as 'jade leaves', but a third name for them is 'mantuo flowers'. Since this place is named after camellia flowers, it should be interesting for me to see what famous techniques they use to cultivate them here."

Rowing the oars, Ah Zhu sent the boat speeding directly towards the midst of the camellia flowers. As soon as they reached the shore, Duan Yu cast a glance at the land, but all he could see was red and white camellia flowers, with no buildings anywhere in sight. Duan Yu was raised in Dali, where camellia flowers were commonly seen everywhere. He didn't think the sight was particularly extraordinary at all, and thought to himself, "Although there are a lot of camellia flowers here, none of them appear to be of a high quality. I imagine that the best specimens are probably within the manor itself.

Ah Zhu pulled the boat ashore and smiled. "Young gentleman Duan, we'll go inside for a bit. We'll come back out very shortly." Holding Ah Bi's hand, she prepared to jump ashore. But suddenly, the scattered sounds of footsteps could be heard, and a servant girl dressed in green appeared.

The girl was holding a bunch of flowers and plants in her hands. Upon seeing Ah Bi and Ah Zhu, she hurriedly rushed towards them, her face filled with happiness. "Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, you two are really too daring! You snuck over here again! The madame said, 'Use a knife to cut a cross on the faces of those two girls and ruin their flower-like, pure-as-jade complexions.'" Ah Zhu laughed. "Sister Youcao, is the madame at home?" [The exact phrase Ah Zhu uses is not 'madame', but 'maternal uncle's wife', which is her relationship to Murong Fu.] The servant girl, Youcao, cast a few glances at Duan Yu, turned her head towards Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, then laughed, "The madame also said, 'Those two brats also brought a strange man to the Highland Manor of the Camellias. Go and chop off that man's legs immediately!" Before she finished the sentence, she began to laugh out loud.

Patting her heart, Ah Bi said, "Sister Youcao, don't scare us! Is that really true?"

Ah Zhu laughed, "Ah Bi, don't be scared. If the madame was really at home, how would this girl have the courage to be so impish and mischievious? Little sister Youcao, where did the madame go?" Youcao laughed, "Pooh! How old are you? Are you fit to be my big sister? Clever little demon that you are, you actually managed to guess that the madame isn't at home." She let out a light sigh. "Sister Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, it's such a rare occasion that you two can come visit. I really want to keep you two here for a few days, but…" As she spoke, she shook her head. Ah Bi said, "I really want to spend some extra time with you too! Sister Youcao, whenever you are able to come pay a visit to us, I'll accompany you three days and three nights without even getting sleepy, alright?" As they spoke, Ah Zhu and Ah Bi went ashore. Ah Bi whispered quietly into Youcao's ears. Youcao let out a sudden laugh, then glanced at Duan Yu. Ah Bi immediately blushed scarlet. Pulling Ah Zhu with one hand and Ah Bi with the other, she laughed, "Let's go inside." Ah Bi turned her head and said, "Young gentleman Duan, please wait and rest here for a bit. We'll be back soon."

Duan Yu replied, "Okay!" He watched as the three girls happily walked hand-in-hand into the forest of flowers.

He too walked ashore. After first checking to make sure no one was about, he relieved himself by the side of a tall tree. He sat next to the boat for a while, slowly growing bored. He thought to himself, "Why don't I go check out what types of extraordinary camellia flowers they have here?" He began to stroll around and view the sights. Aside from camellia flowers, there were no other flowers or plants here, not even the most commonly seen plants such as the morning-glory, climbing roses, or red roses. But all of the camellia flowers were very mundane and not the least bit extraordinary. The only thing extraordinary was their quantity. After walking for one or two hundred meters, the diversity of the camellias improved, and occasionally there were some high-quality ones, but even those were not planted properly. He thought to himself, "This manor is named after camellia flowers, but they have absolutely ruined these perfectly fine camellias."

Then, he thought to himself, "I need to go back. If Ah Zhu and Ah Bi can't find me upon returning, they'd be really worried." Turning around, he headed back, but after taking a few steps, he exclaimed to himself, "How terrible!" During his journey through the sea of flowers, he had only paid attention to the scenery, and not to the path he had taken. Two small roads forked away from each other, one headed east, the other headed west. He didn't know which one was the road he had originally taken. It would be a bit difficult for him to retrace his steps and return to the place where the boat was anchored. He thought to himself, "Let me go to the water's edge first."

But the farther he walked, the more he felt he was going in the wrong direction. All of the camellias he saw were new ones that he hadn't seen previously. Just as he was starting to get worried, he suddenly heard someone speaking from a forested area to his left. It was Ah Zhu's voice. Duan Yu was overjoyed. He thought to himself, "I'll wait here for them a while. After they're done chatting, we'll leave together."

He heard Ah Zhu say, "The young master is in good health and has a healthy appetite. These past two months, he has been practicing the 'Dog Beating Staff' technique of the Beggar's Clan. It seems he will soon spar with the members of the Beggar's Clan." Duan Yu thought to himself, "Ah Zhu is talking about the affairs of young master Murong. I shouldn't eavesdrop on other people's private affairs, and should walk a bit farther away. But I can't go too far, or else I won't know when they are done talking."

Just at this moment, he heard the sound of a gentle sigh from a female voice.

Instantly, Duan Yu's entire body involuntarily trembled. His heart began to beat frantically, and he thought to himself, "What an incredibly lovely sigh that was! How can there be such a beautiful sound in the world?" That voice gently asked, "Where is he headed this time?" After having heard her let out a sigh, Duan Yu's mind was shaken. Now, hearing her say this sentence, he felt as though all the blood in his body was boiling. He felt a sour, bitter feeling in his heart, and an unspeakable degree of envy and jealousy. "She clearly is asking about young master Murong. She's so concerned about him and cares so much about him. Young master Murong, how is it that you have been blessed with such incredibly good fortune?"

Ah Zhu said, "When the young master left, he said he was headed to Luoyang to meet with some masters of the Beggar's Clan. Big Brother Deng went with him as well. Miss, set your heart at ease."

The female slowly said, "The Beggar's Clan possesses two divine skills: The 'Dog Beating Staff' technique, and the 'Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms' technique. These two are secret skills which are not taught to others. Even if we compile all of the information in your 'Water Pavilion of Bestowal and Repayment' and our 'Jade Cavern Library', we would only be able to piece together some fragmentary, incomplete staff techniques and palm techniques. We would have no information at all about how the internal energy is supposed to be generated. How, exactly, does your young master practice the technique?" [Note: The 'library' in 'Jade Cavern Library' comes from a character 'huan' that is typically used to refer to a library of fairies and immortal sages that contains many precious, rare, and often mystical books. The name is a very elegant one, but very difficult to reproduce while being both 'fluid' and 'complete in meaning', and I have translated it on the basis of the former.]

Ah Zhu said, "The young master said, 'The internal energy component of the 'Dog Beating Staff' was invented by human beings. Why can't I figure out how it works on my own? Since I possess the staff techniques, it shouldn't be too hard for me to understand the internal energy component.'" Duan Yu said, "Young master Murong's words make some sense. He probably is an extremely talented, extremely ambitious person."

That female let out yet another soft sigh. "Even if he's able to figure it out, it would take eight or ten years. How can it be accomplished in such a short time? Did you see the young master practicing the technique? Were there any sluggish, awkward-looking parts?" Ah Zhu replied, "The staff technique was executed extremely quickly by the young master. From the beginning to the end, he executed it smoothly and gracefully." The female let out a cry. "That's not good! He…he really executed the technique very quickly?" Ah Zhu said, "Yes, why? Is that wrong?" The female said, "Naturally, that's wrong. Although I don't know the internal energy component to the Dog Beating Staff, judging from the staff techniques themselves, there are several parts where the slower the techniques are executed, the better. There are some other parts which fluctuate between being slow and being fast; in the fast movements there is hidden slowness, and within the slow movements quickness is hidden. There's no question about that. He…if he just focuses on executing the technique very quickly in fighting with the experts of the Beggar's Clan, I fear…I fear…you two…can you think of a way to bring a message to him?"

Ah Zhu let out a groan. "We don't know what route the young master is taking or where he is passing by. We don't even know if he's already met with the elders of the Beggar's Clan. Before he left, the young master said that the Beggar's Clan was wrongly accusing him of having murdered their Vice-Clan Leader, a man surnamed Ma. His purpose in going to Luoyang was to defend himself against these chargers, and not necessarily to fight against them. Otherwise, he and brother Deng, despite being heroes, would be unable to overcome the sheer advantage in numbers which the Beggar's Clan possesses. I'm just worried that he wouldn't be able to fully explain everything, and that the two sides will become estranged…" Ah Bi said, "Miss, is it really so improper for him to execute the Dog Beating Staff technique very quickly?" The female said, "Naturally, it is definitely improper. What else is there to say? He…why didn't he come and visit me before leaving?" As she spoke, she lightly stamped her feet, seemingly very agitated and deeply concerned, but her voice remained tender, soft, and lovely to hear.

Duan Yu was extremely astonished. He thought to himself, "In Dali, everyone spoke of 'Gusu's Murong family' with the utmost reverence and fear. But from the words of this girl, it sounds as though young master Murong needs her advice and her pointers on martial arts. Can it be that such a young girl possesses such an incredibly high level of ability?" Lost in thought, he suddenly bumped his head into a tree branch. He couldn't help but let out a cry. He hurriedly shut his mouth, but it was too late. The female asked, "Who is it?"

Duan Yu knew that he was unable to hide, and so coughed and said from within the thicket, "I am Duan Yu. I was touring your respected manor's camellias, and accidentally arrived here. Please forgive me."

The female said in a low voice, "Ah Zhu, is it the gentleman who arrived with you two?" Ah Zhu hurriedly said, "It is. Miss, don't mind him. We'll leave immediately." The female said, "Wait. I'm going to write him a letter and explain to him that if he really gets into a fight against the Beggar's Clan, he must not use the Dog Beating Staff technique no matter what. He needs to use his own original skills. Even if he's unable to 'Use the opponent's skills, and exercise them upon the opponent', there's no other option. Take the letter and think of a way to get it to him." Ah Zhu hesitantly said, "This….well…the madame once gave orders…"

The female said, "What? You only obey the madame's commands and ignore mine?" In her voice was the slightest hint of anger. Ah Zhu hurriedly said, "Miss, as long as you keep the madame from finding out, your humble servant will naturally follow your orders, especially seeing as how this is beneficial to our master." The female said, "Come with me to the study room to prepare the letter." Ah Zhu still seemed very hesitant, and only reluctantly said, "Alright."

After hearing that first sigh, Duan Yu was becoming only more and more enthralled by this girl. Hearing that she was about to leave, he feared that he would never be able to meet her again. This would be something which he would regret all his life. Even if it were to mean risking being blamed as too forward and bold, he had to see this girl with his own eyes. Summoning up his courage, he said, "Sister Ah Bi, can you stay here with me for a bit?" As he spoke, he walked out from the thicket.

Upon hearing him walk towards them, the female let out a startled cry and hurriedly turned her back to him.

After leaving the thicket, Duan Yu saw a maiden who wore a pale, pinkish gray garment. Her face was turned towards the flowers, her form was slim and slender, with long hair hanging over her back and gently tied together with a silvery hairpin. Gazing at this maiden's back, Duan Yu couldn't help but feel as though she was enveloped by light mist and clouds, as though she really weren't a person of the mortal world at all. He deeply bowed and said, "Duan Yu pays his respects to you, miss."

The girl stamped on the ground with her left foot. "Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, this is all your fault. You know I do not associate with male strangers." As she spoke, she walked forwards. After a few twists and turns, her form gradually disappeared within the dense growth of camellia flowers.

A small smile on her lips, Ah Bi said, "Young gentleman Duan, this young lady has a really bad temper. Let's leave quickly." Ah Zhu also softly laughed, "Thank you very much for rescuing us from this predicament. If you hadn't, Ms. Wang would have forced us to deliver a message on her behalf. Our petty little lives would have been put at risk."

Duan Yu had summoned all of his courage to rush out like that, but then was scolded by the girl. He felt deeply snubbed, and was worried that Ah Zhu and Ah Bi would blame him as well. He didn't expect that the two of them would actually be grateful towards him instead. Only, although that maiden was by now far away, her pretty shadow still seemed to be before his eyes, filling his heart with melancholy. He dully watched as her back disappeared into the clusters of flowers.

Ah Bi gently tugged on his sleeves, but Duan Yu still remained in a daze. Ah Zhu laughed, "Young gentleman Duan, let's go!" Duan Yu's entire body jumped. Only after calming himself did he say, "Right, right. Are we really leaving?" Ah Zhu and Ah Bi walked in the front, leaving him with no option but to follow them. With each step he took, he looked back, filled with a reluctance to leave.

The three of them returned to their small boat. Ah Zhu and Ah Bi picked up their oars and rowed out. Duan Yu gazed at the camellias on the shore, thinking to himself, "If I, Duan Yu, am an unlucky man, how could I have had the great fortune to hear that girl's sighs and her words, much less see her goddess-like form? But if I am a lucky man, why is it that I didn't even have the chance to see her face?" As the camellias grew more and more distant, his heart became more and more downcast as well.

Suddenly, Ah Zhu let out a startled cry. "The madame…the madame has returned." Turning his head, Duan Yu saw a fast ship flying towards them. In the blink of an eye, it drew near. On the front of the ship's bow was painted an innumerable amount of multicolored flowers. When the boat drew nearer, it became evident that these, too, were camellia flowers. Ah Zhu and Ah Bi stood up, bowing their heads and staring at their feet, appearing to be extremely respectful. Ah Bi repeatedly gestured towards Duan Yu, telling him to stand up as well. Smiling, Duan Yu shook his head. "After the master comes out and speaks, I will naturally rise to my feet. A real man cannot be too humble and modest."

A female voice shouted out from the fast ship, "What male has the audacity to charge into the Highland Manor of the Camellias? Can it be that he doesn't know that any male who comes uninvited will have both his legs cut off?" The voice was very stately and majestic, but was also very clear, melodious, and pleasing to the ear. Duan Yu replied in a loud and clear voice, "I am Duan Yu. I temporarily took refuge in your honored abode, and had no intention of charging in. I sincerely thank you." The woman said, "Your last name is Duan?"

In her voice was a hint of astonishment. Duan Yu replied, "Precisely so!"

The woman said, "Hmph! Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, so it's you two brats. That boy, Murong Fu, refuses to learn how to act properly. Sneaking and sly, he specializes in doing bad things!" Ah Zhu replied, "Reporting to madame, this servant was pursued by enemies and passed by the Highland Manor of the Camellias. Our young master has left, and this matter truly has nothing to do with him at all." The woman laughed coldly. "Hmph. Nothing more than sweet words and blandishments. Don't be so hasty to leave. Come with me." Ah Zhu and Ah Bi replied simultaneously, "Yes, madame." They paddled their small boat towards the fast ship. Actually, they had not travelled too far from the manor, and in a short time both ships successively docked at the shore.

The sound of jewelry clinking against each other could be heard, and many females in green clothes exited the fast ship. All of them were dressed as servants, and each of them wielded a longsword in their hands. In the twinkling of an eye, their bared swords covered the ground like frost, light of their blades reflecting onto the flowers. Nine pairs of servants came out in total. The eighteen of them formed two lines, holding their swords at waist-level, pointed upwards. After they finished lining up, a woman left the ship.

Upon seeing this woman's appearance, Duan Yu couldn't help but let out an involuntarily cry of startlement. He was temporarily tongue-tied, feeling as though he had entered the dream world. This woman was dressed in light yellow. In her clothes and in her decorations, she seemed exceedingly similar to the jade statue within the cavern with Mt. Wuliang of Dali. Only, this female was a beautiful married woman who appeared to be not quite forty years of age, whereas the jade statue portrayed a girl of eighteen or nineteen. After his initial surprise, Duan Yu took another look at this beautiful woman. Compared to the jade statue, her eyebrows, lips, and nose were not as peerlessly gorgeous, and obviously there was an age difference as well. In addition, her face showed the marks of hardship suffered during her journey through life. Nonetheless, there was still a fifty or sixty percent resemblance. Seeing him stare at Madame Wang without blinking, Ah Zhu and Ah Bi felt that he was really being too impolite, and in their hearts both of them were groaning. They repeatedly gestured towards him, telling him not to stare, but Duan Yu's eyes remained fixed on Madame Wang's face.

The woman glanced at him, then coldly said, "This person is totally without courtesy. Later, chop off both his legs, gouge out his eyes, and rip out his tongue." A servant bowed and said, "Yes!"

Duan Yu's heart sunk. "If she really wants to kill me, fine. But to chop off my legs, gouge out my eyes, and tear out my tongue, putting me in a half-dead, half-living state, would be a really, really bad thing." Only now did fear truly enter his heart. Turning around, he glanced at Ah Zhu and Ah Bi. Both of their faces had turned a deathly pale color and were transfixed with fear.

After Madame Wang left the cabin, two more servant girls followed her out, each holding a set of metal chains in their hands. They dragged two chained males from within the cabin. Both of the males were bound by their hands and appeared to be very dejected. One man had a delicate and pretty face, seeming like a scion of a wealthy family. The other person, Duan Yu recognized. He was a disciple of Mt. Wuliang's Sword Sect named Tang Guangxiong. Duan Yu was amazed. "This person resides in Dali. How is it that he was captured by Madame Wang and brought to Jiangnan?"

Madame Wang said to Tang Guangxiong, "You are obviously from Dali. Why do you deny it?" Tang Guangxiong said, "I'm from Yunnan. My hometown is within the borders of the Great Song and is not part of Dali." Madame Wang asked, "How far is your hometown from Dali?" Tang Guangxiong said, "Four hundred li or so." Madame Wang said, "If you aren't over five hundred li away, you might as well be considered a person of Dali. Bury him alive beneath our camellias as fertilizer." Tang Guangxiong loudly shouted, "What on earth have I done? Tell me clearly, otherwise I will not be able to close my eyes even in death." Madame Wang coldly laughed, "Anyone I meet who is from Dali or who has the surname Duan will be buried alive. Why did you come to Suzhou? After you did come to Suzhou, how dare you speak with a Dali accent and make a loud commotion at the upstairs of the tavern? Even though you aren't from Dali yourself, you are a neighbor of Dali. I'll treat you the same way I would treat them."

Duan Yu said to himself, "Ah hah, you obviously are directing that to me. There's no need for you to ask, I'll just admit it point-blank." He loudly shouted, "I am from Dali, and my surname is Duan. If you want to bury me, go ahead and be quick about it!" Madame Wang coldly said, "You already reported your name, saying that you are called Duan Yu. Hmph. No person from Dali who is of the Duan family will be allowed to die so easily."

She waved her hand, and a slave girl pulled Tang Guangming away. Tang Guangming must have had his acupoints sealed or sustained severe injuries; he wasn't able to resist in the slightest. He only shouted, "There's no such rule in the world! There are millions of people within Dali, can you kill them all?" But as he was dragged deeper and deeper into the sea of flowers, his voice gradually grew faint, then disappeared.

Madame Wang inclined her head slightly and said to the delicate looking man, "What do you have to say yourself?" That man suddenly fell to both his knees, kneeling in front of her. "My father is an official in Beijing, and I am his only son. Madame, I beg you to spare my life. If you have any instructions, my father will definitely carry them out." Madame Wang coldly said, "Your father is a powerful official within the imperial court. Do you think I don't know that? There's an easy way for you to be spared. This very day, go back to your home and immediately kill your official wife. Then, tomorrow, immediately marry your secret lover, Ms. Miao, and take her as your wife. The wedding ceremony needs to be complete and done properly; the six ceremonial rites must be conducted, and the three documents must be completed. Will you accept?" The man said, "This…I can't really bear to kill my wife, and my father and mother would definitely not allow me to formally marry Ms. Miao. Isn't this my…" Madame Wang said, "Take him away and bury him alive!" The servant holding his chain said, "Yes!" Tugging at the chain, she started to drag him away. The man was so frightened, his entire body quivered. "I…I agree, alright?" Madame Wang said, "Xiaocui, escort him to Suzhou. I want you to personally witness him killing his wife and marrying Ms. Miao returning." Xiaocui replied, "Yes!" She dragged the man towards another small boat on the shore.

The man begged, "Madame, be merciful. My wife has no enmity with you, and you don't know Ms. Miao. Why must you help her like this and force me to kill my wife? I…I've never been acquainted with you, much less…much less have dared to offend you." Madame Wang said, "Since you already have a wife, you shouldn't have entangled yourself with another maiden. Since you deceived the girl with your flower words and lies, then you definitely must take her as your wife. If I don't hear about these types of things happening, then no matter. But if I do find out, then of course I will handle the situation. You aren't the first one I've done this to. What do you have to grumble about? Xiaocui, how many times have we done this?" Xiaocui said, "I have done this seven times at places such as Changshou, Danyang, Wuxi, and Jiaxing. Xiaolan and Xiaoshi have also overseen a few of these events."

Hearing that this was how she always handled this sort of affairs, that man could only moan and groan. Rowing the oars, Xiaocui propelled her boat off into the distance.

Seeing how this Madame Wang handled matters in totally irrational ways, Duan Yu was boggled, totally struck dumb. The only thing which filled his mind was four words. "This is absolutely preposterous." Unconsciously, he blurted those words out. "This is absolutely preposterous. This is absolutely preposterous!" Madame Wang let out a humph. "There are even more absolutely preposterous things in the world. Many more!"

Duan Yu was both disappointed and miserable. That day, when he found the statue of his dear goddess within the jade cavern of Mt. Wuliang, his heart was filled with admiration. The person in front of him appeared similar to the jade statue, but in speech and demeanor acted as though she were a demoness or an evil spirit.

Lowering his head, he was lost in thought. Four servant girls left the cabin of the fast ship, each holding a vase of flowers. Duan Yu, upon seeing them, was startled. All four vases were filled with rare, famous, and extremely difficult to obtain breeds of camellia flowers. Dali possessed more and better camellia flowers than any other place in the world, and within the South-Subduing Palace alone were innumerable camellias. Duan Yu was long since used to seeing them. When bored, he would listen to the ten famous gardeners who served at the palace comment on and appraise the camellias. Naturally, he fully understood the differences between superb breeds of camellias and poor breeds. His understanding in this field was as deep as that of a farmer's understanding of the differences between beans and wheat, or a fisherman's understanding of the difference between fish and shrimp. After strolling about the Highland Manor of the Camellias for some time, he was unable to find a single truly outstanding breed of camellias, and had long since decided that the manor did not live up to its name. But at this moment, seeing those four vases, he inwardly said, "Now that is more like it."

Madame Wang said, "Xiaocha, it was very difficult for us to obtain these four 'Full Moon' [Manyue] camellias. They need to be taken good care of." The servant named Xiaocha said, "Yes!" Duan Yu felt that these words were too amateurish and let out a sneer. Madame Wang said, "Because the wind on the lake was too strong, we've kept these four flowers within the cabin for many days now. It's been a while since they've gotten some sunlight. Quick, take them to a place where they can drink in some sunlight. Add some extra fertilizer as well." Xiaocha repeated, "Yes!" Duan Yu could no longer hold in his mirth, and began to roar with laughter.

Madame Wang felt that his laughter was weird and asked, "What are you laughing at?" Duan Yu replied, "I laugh at the fact that you know nothing about camellias, but insist on planting them. For such an exquisite specimen to fall into your hands is truly a waste, like burning a zither for firewood or cooking a crane for meat. This really disheartens me! What a pity, what a waste. I feel so sorry for it." Madame Wang angrily said, "I don't know anything about camellias? So you do?" But suddenly, her heart stirred. "Wait," she said to herself, "He's from Dali and his surname is Duan. Maybe he really does understand camellias." But her words were still stubborn. "The name of this manor is the 'Highland Manor of the Camellias'. Camellias populate this place, inside and out. See how exuberant and brilliant they are! Why do you say that I don't understand camellias?" Duan Yu smiled, "Commonplace flowers of low quality will naturally flourish. But the four vases of camellias you have there are are exquisite specimens. If amateurs like you are able to properly plant and take care of them, then my surname isn't Duan!"

Madame Wang exceedingly loved camellia flowers. She didn't care about the cost; wherever she went, she would purchase beautiful specimens to take home. But when the new camellias arrived, not a single one of the famous and rare specimens would thrive or flourish. Usually, within a year or so, they would wither and die or be at death's gate. She was always vexed by this problem. Now, hearing Duan Yu's words, her anger turned to joy. She took two steps forward and asked, "What is so special about these four vases of camellias? What must I do to make them flourish?" Duan Yu replied, "If you want to consult me, then you need to follow the proper etiquette for asking advice. If you want to threaten and compel me into answering, go ahead and chop off my legs first. You can always ask me afterwards."

Madame Wang angrily said, "What's so difficult about chopping your legs off? Xiaoshi, chop his left foot off first!" The servant girl named Xiaoshi replied in the affirmative, then advanced towards Duan Yu, sword in hand. Ah Bi hurriedly said, "Madame, don't ya be doin' that, yeah. If ya hurt this fella, he's real stubborn-like and would rather die and speak." Madame Wang only wanted to scare Duan Yu in the first place. With a wave of her hand, she beckoned Xiaoshi back.

Duan Yu laughed, "Go ahead and chop off my legs, then place them next to those four vases of white camellias. They really will serve as a superb fertilizer. These white flowers will grow bigger and bigger. Maybe they'll flourish into a sea of camellias! Haha, beautiful, wonderful, brilliant!"

Madame Wang originally really was thinking of doing just that, but Duan Yu's every word was filled with irony and sarcasm, rendering her speechless. After being stunned for a moment, she said, "What are you babbling about? What, exactly, is so special about these four vases of mine? Tell me. If you are correct, I'll pay the proper respects to you then."

Duan Yu replied, "For starters, Madame Wang, you made the mistake of calling these flowers 'Full Moon' camellias. If you don't even recognize what the exact breed of flowers you have are, how can you be said to understand flowers? One of the flowers is named 'Red Makeup, White Wrappings'. Another is called 'Clawing a Beautiful Woman's Face'." Intrigued, Madame Wang asked, "'Clawing A Beautiful Woman's Face?' Is there really such a weird flower name? Which one is it?"

Duan Yu said, "If you want to ask for my advice, you need to follow proper etiquette."

Duan Yu had mocked her mercilessly, without her being able to defend herself, but upon hearing that one of her four vases of flowers had such a unique name, Madame Wang was filled with delight. Smiling, she said, "Fine! Xiaoshi, order the cooks to prepare a banquet at the 'Pavilion of Glorious Clouds' in order to entertain young gentleman Duan." After acknowledging the order, Xiaoshi left.

Ah Zhu and Ah Bi gazed at each other. Seeing that Duan Yu had not only escaped death, but was also now being treated as a guest by Madame Wang, both of them were overjoyed at the surprise.

The servant who had taken Tang Guangxiong returned and reported, "That person surnamed Tang from Dali has already been buried beneath a red camellia in front of the 'Pavilion of Rosy Clouds'." Duan Yu's heart went cold. Madame Wang didn't seem to care at all. She simply nodded, then said, "Young gentleman Duan, please come this way!" Duan Yu said, "I dared to disturb you; I am very blessed indeed that you, my host, are so forgiving." Madame Wang said, "An able and worthy person has come, bringing great honor and glory to the flowers and ramparts of the Highland Manor of Camellias." The two of them spoke courteously to each other as they walked, not revealing a shred of the life-and-death danger Duan Yu had been in just moments ago.

With Madame Wang accompanying Duan Yu, the two passed by a forest of flowers, a stone bridge, and a small alleyway before arriving in front of a small pavilion. Below the eaves of the pavilion, Duan Yu saw an inscribed wooden board with the words, "Pavilion of Glorious Clouds", written in blackish-green ink in the seal-script style. Camellia flowers blossomed all around the pavilion. But in Dali, these camellia flowers were considered to be third or fourth class rubbish. Their appearance totally clashed with the refined-looking and elegantly constructed pavilion.

Madame Wang actually seemed to be very pleased with herself. "Young gentleman Duan, in your Dali there are many camellia flowers, but I'm afraid that compared to my place, there still aren't quite as many." Duan Yu nodded. "It's true that we don't plant this sort of camellia flowers in Dali." Madame Wang chortled, "Really?" Duan Yu replied, "In Dali, even country bumpkins know that these camellias are not of very high quality, and too mundane to plant." The color of Madame Wang's face changed, and she angrily said, "What did you just say? You say that these flowers of mine are of poor quality? Aren't these words of yours too…too infuriating and insulting?"

Duan Yu said, "Madame, if you don't believe me, that's your choice." Pointing to a gorgeous, five-colored camellia in front of the pavilion, he said, "This flower, you no doubt treat as a precious treasure, right? Hm. Actually, the jade railing next to the camellia is made from actual Hotan jade. It's very beautiful, very beautiful." He was gushing with praise for the jade railing next to the camellia while not saying much about the flower itself; this was akin to a person, while viewing someone else's calligraphy, praise how dark the ink was and how famous and rare the paper was.

This camellia was both red and white, both violet and yellow. The variety of colors it possessed were magnificent and resplendent. Madame Wang had always treated it as a treasure. Now, seeing Duan Yu showing such disdain for it, she immediately furrowed her eyebrows, emitting a murderous look from her eyes. Duan Yu said, "Madame, if I may ask, what is this flower known as here in Jiangnan?" Madame Wang vehemently said, "We don't have any particularly special name for it. We just call it the 'Five-Colored Cammelia'." Duan Yu smiled. "But we in Dali have a name for it. We call it the 'Failed Scholar'."

Madame Wang spat. "Bah! Such an ugly name! You must have made that up. This flower is gorgeous to behold. Why would it be called a 'Failed Scholar'?" Duan Yu said, "Madame, please take a look and count for yourself. How many colors do the blossoms of this camellia flower have?" Madame Wang said, "I counted them long ago. There's at least fifteen or sixteen." Duan Yu said, "There are exactly seventeen colors. In Dali, there is famous camellia flower called the 'Eighteen Scholars'. It is one of one of the highest grade camellias in the world. Each plant has precisely eighteen flowers, and each flower is of a different color. The red flower is totally red; the violent flowers are totally purple. There's not a single hint of intermingled color. In addition, the shape of each of the eighteen blossoms is different as well, with each possessing their own unique beauty. When they bloom, they bloom at the same time; when they wither, all eighteen flowers wither at the same time. Madame, have you seen it before?" Madame Wang had been listening, stunned. She shook her head. "Camellias like this actually exist? I've never even heard of it!"

Duan Yu said, "Compared to the 'Eighteen Scholars', there are some other famous flowers that are similar to it in quality. The 'Thirteen Grand Protectors' are camellia plants that have thirteen blossoms, each with a totally different color. The 'Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea' refers to camellia plants with eight different colored blossoms. The 'Seven Celestial Maidens' refers to camellia plants with seven different colored blossoms. The 'Three Heroes of Hardship' have three blossoms, and the 'Two Qiao Sisters' have two blossoms; one red, one white. For all of these camellia flowers, the color of each blossom must be pure. If there's a hint of white within a red flower, or a blush of red in a white flower, it is considered a low-grade version." Madame Wang couldn't help but be carried away and raptured by his explanations. Lifting her head up, she quietly whispered to herself, "Why didn't he ever tell me this?"

[Translator's note: All of the above refer to famous historical or mythical personages in ancient China, each with many legends attached to them. The 'Thirteen Grand Protectors' refers to a group of thirteen legendary warriors during the Five Dynasties period who protected Li Cunxu, who proclaimed himself Emperor Zhuangzhong of the Later Tang dynasty. The 'Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea' is a very famous story in its own right. The 'Seven Celestial Maidens' are all daughters of the emperor of Heaven. The 'Three Heroes of Hardship' refers to Li Jing (who later became deified) and his two sworn brothers. The 'Two Qiao Sisters' refers to two lengendarily beautiful sisters of the Qiao family during the Three Kingdoms period. The younger sister married Zhou Yu; the older sister was married to Sun Ce, Sun Quan's older brother.]

Duan Yu continued, "Within the 'Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea', there must be a deep violet flower and a light red flower. These two represent Iron-Crutched Li and Female Celestial He. If this isn't the case, even if all eight flowers have different colors, they cannot be called the 'Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea'. They would simply be called the 'Eight Precious Adornments'. They are also considered to be famous flowers, but are a level inferior to the 'Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea'." Madame Wang said, "So that's how it is."

Duan Yu continued, "Now, let's talk about the 'Three Heroes of Hardship'. There's differences between high quality and low quality versions of these flowers as well. In authentic versions, the violet flower must be the largest in size, symbolizing Qiu Ranke. The white flower is second, symbolizing Li Jing. The red flower is the most delicate and the smallest, as it represents lady Hong Fu. If the red flower is larger than the violet flower or the white flower, then the flower is considered to be of a low quality, and has a much lower status ranking." Duan Yu spoke of these flowers as though he were enumerating his own family's valuables, because these flowers were indeed treasures of the Duan family. Naturally, he was very familiar with them. Madame Wang listened to him talk with keen pleasure. She sighed, "I haven't even seen low quality flowers, much less high quality ones."

Duan Yu pointed towards the five-colored camellia. "This flower not only has one less color than the 'Eighteen Scholars', but the flowers are not pure in color. They bloom at different times, and are all of different sizes. In every aspect, it attempts to imitate the 'Eighteen Scholars', but is never able to match up. Isn't that a sad, miserable thing? Thus, we call this flower a 'Failed Scholar'." Madame Wang couldn't help but let out a breath, then laughed, "This flower's name is really too acrimonious and unkind. Most likely, you scholars came up with it."

By this point in time, Madame Wang had full faith of Duan Yu's knowledge of camellia flowers. She immediately escorted him into the 'Pavilion of Glorious Clouds'. Duan Yu saw that the furnishings upstairs were rich and beautiful, with a large painting of a peacock spreading its feathers in the middle of the room and two matching poetic lines carved in wood at each side of the painting. The lines read, "A dense cloud of leaves coats the land, even the snow is jealous of the camellia's beauty." Very shortly, the banquet began. Madame Wang invited Duan Yu to take the seat of honor, while she herself took a right-hand seat to keep him company.

The dishes prepared at the banquet were very different from the ones which Ah Zhu and Ah Bi had earlier prepared. The dishes Ah Zhu and Ah Bi prepared were very light and refined, showing great craftsmanship in simple dishes. But the banquet dishes at the 'Pavilion of Glorious Clouds' emphasized luxuriousness, with such rarities as bear paws and shark fins. Every dish was made from rare and precious ingredients. Duan Yu, being a scion of the royal family, had become accustomed to eating rare and precious dishes since birth. In his mind, the banquet here was actually inferior to the food the two girls prepared at the 'Pavilion of Zither Melodies.'

After three rounds of drinks, Madame Wang asked, "The Duan family of Dali is a famous, aristocratic family of the martial world. Why is it that you do not study martial arts?" Duan Yu replied, "There are a large number of people in Dali who have the surname Duan. Only the royal descendants of the imperial family study martial arts. Commoners like me do not study martial arts." Whether he would live or die was wholly under the control of this woman. Being in such a humiliating position, he had decided that no matter what he could not reveal his real identity, for fear of degrading the fame and prestige of his uncle and his father. Madame Wang said, "You are a commoner?" Duan Yu replied, "I am." Madame Wang said, "Do you know any members of the royal Duan family?" Duan Yu replied, "None whatsoever."

Madame Wang was lost in thought for some time, then changed the topic. "Earlier, you were speaking about the various merits and qualities of camellia flowers, causing me to suddenly see the light. The flower artisans of Suzhou from whom I acquired these four vases of flowers called these flowers 'Full Moon' flowers, but you said that one is named 'Red Makeup, White Wrappings', and that another is named 'Clawing a Beautiful Woman's Face'. I don't know how they can be told apart, and would like to ask for your advice."

Duan Yu replied, "The plant with the large white flowers with faint black spots is the one known as the 'Full Moon' flower. Those faint black spots are the cassia twigs which grow on the moon. That other plant with white flowers which has two olive-pit sized black spots on the petals is known as the 'Beautiful Eyes' flower." Madame Wang happily said, "This is a very good name."

Duan Yu continued, "The plant with white flowers that are sprinkled with red dots is known as 'Red Makeup, White Wrappings'. Lastly, the plant with white flowers covered by a faint green sheen and thin, hair-like strips of red is known as 'Clawing a Beautiful Woman's Face'. However, if too many of those red lines appear, the flower is no longer known as 'Clawing a Beautiful Woman's Face', but rather it is called 'Resting On a Lovely Railing'. Madame, please consider this. A beautiful woman must be gentle, refined, and warm. If by chance a scratch occasionally appears on her face, it can't be because she damaged herself while putting on makeup, nor can it be that she got into a fight with someone else. The only possible explanation is that while she was playing with her pet parrot, it scratched her. This is very normal and understandable. Thus, this flower must have a green sheen, which represents the green feathers of a parrot. But if her entire face is scratched and clawed, the only explanation is that this woman always gets into fights with others, in which case, how can she be considered to be beautiful?"

Up till now, Madame Wang was repeatedly nodding as he spoke, very pleased. Suddenly, her face sunk with anger as she shouted, "How dare you! Are you mocking me?"

Duan Yu was startled, then hurriedly said, "I wouldn't dare! I don't know how I offended you, madame." Madame Wang angrily said, "Whose stories did you listen to, for you to come here and concoct these wild lies to insult me? Who says that a woman can no longer be considered beautiful after learning martial arts? What's so good about being gentle, refined, prim and proper?" Duan Yu was startled. "My words were based upon the standard, accepted explanation for the naming of this flower. There are many women who know martial arts that are both beautiful and stately." He didn't expect that Madame Wang found these words grating to the ear as well, as she yelled, "So are you saying that I'm not stately?"

Duan Yu replied, "Whether or not you are stately, you yourself know best, madame. How would I dare comment wildly? But for you to demand that a man murder his wife and wed another woman is definitely not proper at all." By now, he himself was getting angry as well, and no longer cared about what he was saying.

Madame Wang gestured with her hand, and the four girls who were serving them stepped forward in unison. Bowing, they said, "Yes, madame?" Madame Wang said, "Take this man into your custody and away from my sight. I command that he be given the task of watering my camellias!" The four servants said in unison, "Yes, madame!"

Madame Wang said, "Duan Yu, you are a person from Dali, and your family name is Duan. I should have killed you long ago. For the moment, I'll postpone your execution, but I'll punish you by giving you the task of taking care of all of the camellias in this manor. You need to take especial care with the four which we have brought home today. Let me be clear. If a single one of these four vases of camellia flowers dies, I will chop off one of your hands. If two die, I will chop off both. If all four die, I will turn you into a limbless cripple." Duan Yu asked, "And if all four live?" Madame Wang said, "After all four flowers begin to flourish, your job will be to cultivate other famous camellias for me. 'Eighteen Scholars', 'Thirteen Grand Protectors', 'Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea', 'Seven Celestial Maidens', 'Three Heroes of Hardship', and the 'Two Qiao Sisters'. I want several of each! If you can't accomplish it, I'll tear your eyeballs out."

Duan Yu loudly objected, "These famous flowers are rarely seen, even in Dali. It will be almost impossible to find them in Jiangnan. If you can get several of each just like that, how can they be considered to be rare and precious breeds? Just go ahead and kill me now! I refuse to accept the torture of having you cut off my hands today and gouge out my eyes tomorrow." Madame Wang loudly rebuked him, "You must be tired of living, to act so rudely in front of me. Take him away!"

The four servant girls walked towards him. Two of them grabbed him by his arms, one by his chest, with the last grabbing him by the back. All five of them descended from the top floor of the pavilion. All four of the servant girls knew martial arts, and Duan Yu found himself totally unable to resist. All he could do was secretly lament, "Damnit, damnit!"

Pushing and tugging, the four servants pulled him to a flower nursery. One servant stuck a gardening hoe in his hand, while another grabbed a watering pail. She said, "If you listen to the madame's orders and obediently water the flowers, you can keep your life. But the way you keep offending her, you are tremendously lucky that she didn't immediately order for you to be buried alive." Another servant said, "Aside from doing your duties to preserve the flowers, you aren't allowed to run about wildly within the manor. If you break into one of the restricted areas, no one will be able to save you. It's the equivalent of asking to die." The four servants lectured him in extremely solemn tones for some time before leaving. Duan Yu could only blankly stand there, not sure whether he should laugh or cry.

At Dali, he was only inferior in rank to his uncle and to his father. In the future, after his father ascended to the throne, he would become the crown prince. How could it have happened that he was kidnapped and brought to Jiangnan, almost be burned to death, then risk having his arms and legs chopped off or his eyes gouged out. As if that wasn't enough, now he was forced into being someone else's gardener. Even though he had an amiable temperament, and, in his palace, often chatted with the gardeners while watching them prune the flowers, work the earth, and spread the fertilizer, he was still a prince. In his heart, he felt that gardener's were very lowly people.

Fortunately, he was a happy person and a lively spirit by nature. Upon meeting any problems or setbacks, at most he would only be dispirited for a short while before becoming happy again. He said to himself, "At the jade cavern of Mt. Wuliang, I already kowtowed and accepted the dear goddess as my master. Aside from the age issue, this Madame Wang looks very similar to her. Why don't I just think of her as my martial-uncle? It's natural for a pupil to labor hard and obey the commands of his master. Not to mention, cultivating flowers is an artistic sort of work done by literati. It's definitely much more elegant and sophisticated than waving around sabres or poking around with spears. And it's definitely ten thousand times better than being burned alive by Jiumozhi in front of Mr. Murong's tomb. The only problem is, these flowers are really too inferior in quality. Having the prince of Dali take care of them is a waste of talent, like killing a scrawny chicken using a giant blade meant for butchering cattle. Haha, actually, can I be really be considered a cattle-butchering blade? What sort of flower-planting talent do I have, anyhow?"

Then, he thought to himself, "If I stay at the Highland Manor of the Camellias for a bit longer, there's always the chance that I might have the good fortune of seeing that girl who wore the pale pinkish grey dress. This can be called, 'Duan Yu, how do you know that planting flowers won't be a lucky thing for you?'"

Considering the question of whether he was lucky or unlucky, Duan Yu grabbed a handful of grass. "Let's see how long it will be before I have the chance to see that girl." He began to pass the grass from his left hand to his right, then from his right hand to his left, trying to tell his fortune. After divining for some time, he ended up with a 'Gen' divinatory symbol, with an upper 'Gen' and a lower 'Gen'. He thought to himself, "'You shall see her back, but you will not win her body; you shall go to her courtyard, but you will not see her person. No fault.' This divination is really appropriate. Even though I won't see her, in the end, it won't be my fault."

He started over. This time, he ended up with a 'Kun' divinatry symbol, along with an upper 'Dui' and a lower 'Kan' symbol. He inwardly groaned, "'Hard-pressed down amongst plants, as though you had entered a secluded valley. You will not present yourself within three years.' I won't even see her within three years. I really am very hard-pressed." Then he thought, "If I can't see her within three years, that means I'll see her in the fourth year. There's plenty of time in the future. Why think of myself as being hard-pressed?"

Since his divinations were very unfavorable, he dared divine no more. Humming a little melody, he picked up the hoe and began to stroll about aimlessly. He thought to himself, "Madame Wang told me to make those four vases of white flowers flourish. These four plants truly are famous breeds. I need to find a very graceful place to plant them, so as to show them off in the proper setting." While strolling about, he reviewed the local scenery. Suddenly, he burst out in loud laughter. "Madame Wang doesn't know a damn thing about camellias, but insists on planting them, and even calls this place the Highland Manor of the Camellias. She doesn't even know that camellias prefer the moon, not the sun, and planted them in places where there is a lot of sun. Even if the flowers manage to somehow survive, there is no way they can flourish. Then she smothers them with fertilizer, by which point, any and all famous breeds of camellias will have been killed by her. What a waste, what a waste! But so funny, so very funny!"

He avoided the sunlight, only going to shadowy areas underneath trees and other large plants. After passing a small hill, he heard the gurgling of water. To his left-hand side was a row of green bamboo plants. The entire place was very quiet and secluded. The area was hidden in the shadow of the hill, where the sun could not reach. Madame Wang, knowing that this place was not suitable for planting flowers, did not plant a single camellia here. Duan Yu was overjoyed. "There's no better place than this."

Returning to his starting place, he carried the flower vases one by one to where the bamboo plants were. He shattered each porcelain vase then planted each camellia along with the mud in the vases. Although he had never done this before, he had seen this done many times. Surprisingly, although he was just making it up as he went along, he did it perfectly. Within an hour's time, he finished transplanting the four white camellias next to the bamboo. He planted the 'Clawing a Beautiful Woman's Face' to the left, the 'Red Makeup, White Wrappings' and the 'Full Moon' to the right, and the 'Beautiful Eyes' flower right behind a large boulder. He said to himself, "This is like the saying, 'Only after you call and entreat her to come out many times does she appear, carrying a pipa and covering half her face.' when these plants are placed in an appropriate setting do their true beauty and charm shine." In Chinese history, flowers have always been compared to beautiful women. The art of cultivating flowers is equivalent to the art of a beautiful woman using makeup. Duan Yu came from a royal family and read many books; naturally, his understanding of these things was a level above most people.

Stretching his hands into the small stream, he washed away the dirt and mud. Taking a seat on top of the boulder, then stared at that 'Beautiful Eyes' camellia plant, turning his head this way and that to view it from every angle. Just as he was feeling proud of himself, he heard the sound of footsteps coming from a distance. Two females were walking his way. One of them said, "This place is the most quiet and secluded place here. No one ever comes…"

The sound of her voice was very pleasing to the ear. Duan Yu's heart thumped loudly. The voice obviously belonged to the girl who wore the pale pinkish grey dress which he had seen earlier in the day. Duan Yu held his breath, not daring to make the slightest sound. He thought to himself, "She said she refuses to meet with any male strangers, and I, Duan Yu, am obviously a male stranger. For me to be able to listen to her say a few words and hear her goddess-like voice is already my infinite good fortune. No matter what, I can't let her know I am here." His head was originally leaning towards one side; now, he didn't even dare straighten his neck, and so he just left his head in that inclined position rather than risk his neck straightening and making even the slightest bit of noise, scaring that girl.

That maiden continued, "Xiaoming, what have you…have you heard, regarding news of him?" Duan Yu couldn't help but feel a sour feeling in his heart. The 'him' the maiden was referring to obviously couldn't be himself, Duan Yu; rather, it was young master Murong. From Madame Wang's earlier words, young master Murong seemed to have the given name of 'Fu', 'recover'. The maiden's question seemed to be filled with concern and tender affection for him. Duan Yu could not control the feelings of jealousy from springing forth from his core as they once more hurt his heart. Xiaoming mumbled haltingly for a long time, appearing to be very uncomfortable.

The maiden said, "Tell me! I definitely will take good care of you afterwards." Xiaoming said, "I'm afraid…I'm afraid the madame will blame me." The maiden said, "Silly girl, after you tell me, do you really think I will go tell the madame?" Xiaoming asked, "What if the madame asks you?" The maiden said, "Naturally, I still won't tell her." Xiaoming hesitated for another period of time before saying, "Your cousin, the young-master went to Shaolin." The maiden said, "Shaolin? Why is it that Ah Zhu and Ah Bi said he was going to Luoyang to meet with the Beggar's Clan?" Duan Yu thought to himself, "Her cousin, the young master? Oh, young master Murong is her maternal cousin. The two of them must share the innocent affection of cousins, which they have had since childhood. Then…then…"

Xiaoming said, "This time, when the madame was out travelling, she came across second master Gongye. He said that the all the leaders of the Beggar's Clan have come to Jiangnan, intending to put on a huge show of force and question the young master about something which had to do with one of their masters. Second master Gongye said that he received a letter from the young master. The young master wrote that he had arrived in Luoyang but was unable to find any of the leaders of the beggars, and so went to Mt. Song to visit Shaolin." The maiden said, "Why did he go to Shaolin?" Xiaoming said, "Second master Gongye said that in the letter, the young master wrote that an old Shaolin monk died in Dali, and that Shaolin was falsely accusing Gusu's Murong family of having done the deed. The young master was very angry. Fortunately, Shaolin isn't very far away from Luoyang, so he decided to go there and clear up the matter.

The maiden said, "If he's unable to clear things up, then won't things end up in violence? Since the madame found out about this news, why did she come back home instead of rushing to Shaolin to help the young master out?" Xiaoming said, "This…well, I don't know. I imagine that it is probably because the madame doesn't like the young master." The maiden angrily said, "Hmph. Even if she doesn't like him, he's one of us. If Gusu's Murong family loses face to outsiders, will our Wang family gain anything from it?" Xiaoming did not dare to reply.

The maiden walked back and forth near the copse of bamboo plants. Suddenly, she saw the three white camellia plants which Duan Yu had planted, as well as the shattered remains of the porcelain vases. She let out a startled sound, then asked, "Who is planting camellias here?"

Duan Yu moved quickly, emerging from behind the boulder. Bowing deeply, he said, "In accordance with the madame's orders, your humble servant came here to cultivate camellia flowers. I'm sorry to have disturbed you." Although he bowed very deeply, he stared straight ahead at her. He was afraid that the maiden would just repeat the words, "I don't associate with male strangers," then leave again, with him once more missing a wonderful opportunity.

As soon as he saw the young lady, he felt a buzzing sound in his ears. He felt as though his vision was becoming blurry, and his legs went weak. He couldn't help but sink to his knees. If he didn't exert all of his energy to keep himself straight, he would have kowtowed to her. Finally, he managed to cry out, "Dear goddess! I…I have been so miserable, dreaming about you! Master, your disciple, Duan Yu, pays respects to you!

The girl in front of him looked totally identical to the jade statue of the jade cavern. There were no differences whatsoever. Although Madame Wang looked very similar to the jade statue, she was obviously older, and was not as beautiful. But the girl in front of him, aside from her choice of clothes, looked exactly the same as the statue. Face, eyes, nose, lips, ears, skin color, body figure, hands, feet; there was not a single difference. It was as though the jade statue had come to life. In his dreams, he had longed for the jade statue a thousand or ten thousand times. Now, seeing her before his own very eyes, he really did not know where he was. Was he on earth, or was he in heaven?

The young maiden thought he was a lunatic. Letting out a soft cry, she retreated two steps. Shocked, she said, "You…you…"

Duan Yu rose to his feet. His eyes remained locked on the young maiden, and now he saw her even more clearly than before. Only now did he realize that there were still some differences between the girl in front of him and the jade statue. The jade statue was gorgeous, seductive, and arousing; it had the power to entrance one's senses and steal one's soul. The maiden in front of him, on the other hand, was dignified and sedate, with a hint of childishness. In terms of appearances, the jade statue actually appeared to be more animate and alive than the girl in front of him. He said, "Ever since that day in the jade cavern, when I kowtowed to your celestial statue, dear goddess, I felt that I was the luckiest of men. I never would have imagined that today, I would be able to see your appearance with mine own eyes. Goddesses really do exist on earth. The world isn't an empty place at all!"

The maiden said to Xiaoming, "What is he talking about? He…who is he?" Xiaoming said, "He's that bookworm which Ah Zhu and Ah Bi brought. He claimed to know how to plant camellias. The madame actually believed his rubbish." The maiden said to Duan Yu, "Bookworm, did you overhear the conversation I had with her just then?"

Duan Yu laughed, "Your humble servant has the surname of Duan, with the given name of Yu. I am a citizen of Dali, not a bookworm. Dear goddess, I accidentally overheard the conversation between you and sister Xiaoming. But neither of you need to worry; your humble servant won't leak a single word of your conversation. I guarantee that I will not cause sister Xiaoming to be blamed by Madame Wang."

The maiden's face sank. "Who are you calling your 'dear goddess'? You refuse to admit you are a bookworm? When did you ever meet me?" Duan Yu replied, "If I'm not to call you 'dear goddess', how should I address you?" The maiden said, "My family name is Wang. You can just call me Miss Wang."

Duan Yu shook his head. "No way. There's hundreds of millions of Miss Wang's in the world. Miss, how could I address a celestial personage such as yourself simply as 'Miss Wang'? But how am I to address you then? This is a really tough problem. How about Celestial Maiden Wang? That seems too vulgar. Princess of the Camellias? But the Great Song, Dali, Liao, Tibet, and the Western Xia all have many princesses. Which one can compare to you?"

The maiden felt as though his words were filled with poetic diction. She all the more felt he was a total bookworm. Nonetheless, seeing him so enraptured by her and hearing him pour forth so many praises of her beauty, she couldn't help but be a little delighted. Smiling she said, "Your luck is not bad at all. My mom didn't chop your legs off."

Duan Yu said, "The madame's looks are comparable to yours, dear goddess. Only, her temperament is a bit too weird, and she randomly wants to kill people. It's really a bit at odds with her goddess-like appearance."

The maiden knitted her eyebrows slightly. "Hurry up and go plant camellias. Don't just stand here and jibber jabber. The two of us have important things to talk about." Her attitude indicated that she thought of him simply as a common gardener.

Duan Yu didn't think about disobeying. He just wanted to exchange a few more words with her and cast a few more glances towards her. He thought to himself, "The only way I can lure her into being whole-heartedly willing to chat with me is by discussing young master Murong. Aside from this, she won't care about anything else." He said, "Shaolin is the Mt. Taishan and the Big Dipper of the martial community [meaning, holds an utmost position of height and power]. Within the monastery itself, if there aren't a thousand eminent monks and expert fighters, there are at least eight hundred. Many of them have practiced the 72 Ultimate Techniques. Recently, Master Xuanbei was violently murdered in Dali's Luliang prefecture, within the Shenjie Monastery. The many monks there were firm in their assertion that it was Gusu's Murong family which did the deed. For young master Murong to enter such an extremely risky situation by himself is very unwise.

That maiden's body actually trembled. Duan Yu didn't dare look directly at her face. He thought to himself, "She cares so much about that little brat, Murong Fu. If I see her expression, I might be so pissed that I would start crying." He watched the lower hem of her pale, pinkish grey dress gently tremble. He heard her insurpassably gentle voice say, "Why do the monks of Shaolin falsely accuse Gusu's Murong family? Do you know? You…hurry and tell me."

Hearing her beg him in such a trembling voice, Duan Yu's heart softened, and he wanted to immediately tell her everything. But then, he reconsidered. "Actually, my knowledge in this matter is limited. All I really know is that master Xuanbei was killed by a blow from the 'Great Veda Sceptre' technique, and that everyone agreed that only the Murong family 'uses the opponent's skills, exercising them upon the opponent.' I would finish explaining all of that in a few sentences. After I'm done explaining, she'll shoo me off to go plant camellias again, by which point it will be very difficult to come up with any other topics of conversation. I need to make a mountain out of a molehill and spend a long time talking about a simple matter. I'll just tell her a little bit each day, but also talk about all sorts of random matters and ramble on and off. I'll stretch the conversation out as long as I can, so as to get her to come talk to me every day. If she can't find me, her heart will itch and she'll be discomfited."

Duan Yu coughed and said, "I myself do not know martial arts. I don't even know the most basic of techniques, such as 'Golden Pheasant Stands Alone', or 'Black Tiger Stealing the Heart'. But I know a family friend by the surname of Zhu, whose full name is Zhu Danchen. His nickname is 'Student of Calligraphy'. He might look like a weak and scholarly bookworm like me, but he really is very good at martial arts. One day, I saw him fold his fan, invert it, then with a puffing sound, point the fan towards the shoulder of this big muscular fellow. That fellow immediately curled up into a ball, as though he had turned into a puddle of mud, totally unable to move."

The maiden said, "Right, this is the 'Cool and Refreshing Fan' technique's acupoint sealing skill. It is the thirty eighth technique, the 'Bone-Piercing Fan' technique. Invert the fan, then diagonally attack the shoulder acupoint. This Mr. Zhu belongs to a branch of the Mt. Kunlun school of martial arts, and is a disciple of the Three Reasons Temple. Practitioners of this school of martial arts are even more formidable when using judge pens as opposed to fans. Let's get back to the main topic. There's no need to discuss martial arts with me."

If Zhu Danchen himself had been here and heard these words, he would have admired this girl from the depths of his heart. Not only had the maiden properly identified the technique he had used, she even managed to discern the origins of his martial arts and clearly explain where he had studied it. If another famous martial arts expert, such as Duan Yu's uncle, Duan Zhengming, or his father, Duan Zhengchun, they would have been astonished as well and wondered, "How is it that such a young girl has such a broad, deep, and incisive understanding of martial arts?" But Duan Yu did not know martial arts at all, so when the girl casually made those comments, he just casually listened, without even knowing if her words were correct or not. He stared at her thin eyebrows as they rose and her red lips as they moved. Whether or not her words were correct, he did not care one bit.

The maiden asked, "So what about Mr. Zhu?" Duan Yu pointed at a bluestone bench near the bamboo plants and said, "This story will take some time in the telling. Miss, why don't you move over there and take a seat? Then, I'll slowly report the events to you." The maiden said, "You ramble on and on. Why can't you just speak casually and quickly? I don't have the energy to listen to you." Duan Yu replied, "Miss, if you don't have the time today, you can come find me tomorrow. If you don't have free time tomorrow, it'll be fine if we wait a few more days. As long as the madame does not chop off my tongue, all you need to do is ask and I will tell you what you want to know."

The maiden lightly stomped her foot on the ground, then turned around and ignored him. She asked Xiaoming, "What else did the madame say?" Xiaoming replied, "The madame said, 'Hmph, the problems are becoming bigger and bigger. He's become foes with the Beggar's Clan and enemies with Shaolin. I'm afraid that Gusu's Murong family will die…die without even a place to be buried." The maiden hurriedly said, "Mother clearly knows that my cousin is in a dangerous, critical situation. Why doesn't she care?" Xiaoming said, "Right. Miss, I'm afraid that the madame will go looking for me. I need to leave! No matter what, please don't tell the madame what I told you. I want to be alive to serve you for a few more years." The maiden said, "Put your heart at ease. Why would I harm you?" Xiaoming paid her respects and left. Seeing a look of dread and fear on her face, Duan Yu thought to himself, "To Madame Wang, killing people is as big a deal as cutting the grass. She really does make others swoon with fear."

The maiden slowly walked to the bluestone bench, then lightly and elegantly sat down, but did not ask Duan Yu to sit as well. Duan Yu naturally did not dare to rashly sit next to her. One of the white camellias was situated very close to her, only two branch-lengths away. A beautiful woman and a famous flower; the two brought out the best of each other's beauty. Duan Yu sighed, "'The beautiful flower collapses the country, but both are beautiful.' Inferior, far inferior. In the past, the poet Li Bai used peony flowers as a metaphor for the beauty of Precious Consort Yang [Yang Guifei]. If he had the fortune to see you, miss, he would realize that although the flower is very beautiful, it is not tender when angry, does not have a soft voice, has no joyful laughter, and is without worries and cares. The flowers are far inferior!"

The maiden quietly said, "You keep on telling me that I am beautiful, but I don't know if it's true or not." Duan Yu was totally astonished. "Only those who have no eyes cannot see beauty when beauty is placed before them. If this is the case for men, how much more must it be for you? I imagine that you have been called beautiful too many times in your life, and are bored of hearing it."

The maiden slowly shook her head, revealing a look of loneliness. She said, "No one has ever told me whether or not I am beautiful. Within the Highland Manor of the Camellias, aside from my mother and myself, everyone here is a servant. They only know me as the young missus. Why would they care if I am beautiful or ugly?" Duan Yu said, "What about outsiders?" The maiden said, "What outsiders?" Duan Yu said, "When you go outside and others see your goddess-like beauty, surely they are startled and gasp in admiration, then prostrate themselves in reverence?" The maiden said, "I never go outside. Why would I go outside? Mother doesn't allow me to, anyhow. When I go to my aunt's house to read at the 'Water Pavilion of Bestowal and Repayment', I don't meet any outsiders there either. Although, some of his friends, like big brother Deng, second brother Gongye, third brother Bao, or fourth brother Feng, they…they aren't dull-witted fellows like you." As she spoke, a small smile appeared.

Duan Yu said, "Can it be that young master Murong…that he too has never told you how beautiful you are?"

The maiden slowly lowered her head. An indescribably soft, almost inaudible sound could be heard, followed by a few more. A few teardrops fell onto the grass, crystal clear and sparkling, appearing as though they were the early morning dew. Duan Yu no longer dared to ask any more questions, nor did he dare to say any comforting words.

After a long time, the maiden let out a quiet sigh. "He…he's a very busy person. Every day of every year, from dawn til dusk, he is always busy, without a single moment of free time. When we are together, either we are discussing martial arts or important affairs of state. I…I hate martial arts."

Duan Yu slapped his thigh and declared, "Not bad, not bad! I hate martial arts as well. My uncle and my father both told me to learn martial arts, but I refused to learn no matter what, and chose to sneak away from home instead."

The maiden let out a long sigh. "In order to be able to often meet with him, despite hating martial arts, I forced myself to not only read boxing treatises and sabre manuals, but also to memorize them, so that if there was something he did not understand, I could explain it to him. But I myself do not learn them. It isn't very refined for girls to brandish sabres and wave cudgels about…" Duan Yu agreed from the bottom of his heart. "Right, right! How could a girl like you, a peerless beauty, get into physical battles with others? That'd really be totally inappropriate. Ack!..." He suddenly realized that these words he said were offensive to his own mother. The maiden didn't really pay much attention to what he said and continued, "All of the political leaders of every dynasty have always been engaged in power struggles. Today, I try to kill you; tomorrow, you try to kill me. I really don't want to know about those things. But he loves talking about those matters, so I have no choice but to read those types of books to be able to tell him about these things."

Duan Yu asked curiously, "Why is it that you have to read books and then explain them to him? Can't he read them himself?" The maiden glanced at him. "What, you think he's an idiot? That he doesn't know how to read?" Duan Yu hastily said, "No, no! He's the best person in the whole wide world, alright?" Although Duan Yu said these words, in his heart he felt sour.

The maiden smiled beautifully. "He's my maternal cousin. Aside from my aunt, my uncle, and him, very few people come to visit this place. But after my uncle passed away, my mother got into a spat with my aunt. Now, my mother doesn't even allow my cousin to come visit. I honestly don't know if he's the best person in the whole world. I am not able to get to know the good people or the bad people of the world." Duan Yu said, "Why not ask your daddy?"

The maiden said, "My father died a long time ago. He passed away even before I was born. I…I've never seen his face." As she spoke, her eyes reddened as though tears once more wanted to emerge.

Duan Yu said, "Right, so your aunt would be your father's older sister, and your uncle is your aunt's husband, so he…he…he is your aunt's son." The maiden laughed out loud. "You are so muddle-headed. I'm my mother's daughter, and he is my cousin."

Seeing that he was able to coax a laugh from her, Duan Yu was very happy. He said, "Oh, I know! It must be that your cousin is too busy to read books, so you have to read them for him." The maiden said, "You could put it like that, but there's another reason as well. Let me ask you, why is it that the monks of Shaolin are falsely accusing my cousin of having killed one of their people?"

Duan Yu saw that a single tear still quivered at the end of her long eyelashes. He thought to himself, "The ancients wrote, 'Pear flowers blossom when the spring brings rain.' This is a metaphor for a beautiful woman crying. But although pear flowers are all very beautiful, pear trees themselves are too fat and heavy. In addition, after a rainstorm, every pear flower would have 'tears' on them. That's an excessive amount of sadness. Miss Wang is like a camellia flower covered with faint dew; only this can be considered truly beautiful beauty."

The maiden waited for a while, but Duan Yu still did not reply. She stretched her hand out and gently tapped the back of his hand. "What's wrong with you?" Duan Yu's entire body trembled, and he shot to his feet, calling out, "Aiyo!" The maiden was frightened for a moment, and asked, "What's wrong?" His entire face burning red, Duan Yu replied, "When you tapped your fingers on the back of my hand, it felt as though my acupoints were being sealed."

The maiden opened her eyes wide, not knowing that he was joking. She said, "There's no acupoints on this side of the hand. The 'Ye Men' [Liquid Gate], 'Zhong Zhu' [Central Islet], and the 'Yang Chi' [Yang Moat] acupoints are all on the palm of the hand. The 'Qian Huo' [First Opening] and the 'Yang Lao' [Providing For the Elderly] acupoints are on the wrist. All of them are very far away." As she spoke, she used the back of her own hand to demonstrate.

As Duan Yu watched as she pointed towards the tender, delicate, snowy-white back of her hand, he felt his throat become dry. His head felt dizzy and he asked, "Mi…miss, what is your name?"

The maiden smiled. "You are a really weird fellow, you know that? Fine, I guess there's no harm in telling you. Even if I don't tell you, those two little rascals, Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, will tell you." Stretching a finger out, she drew three characters on the back of her own hand: "Wang Yuyan." [Yuyan means 'Beautiful Speech' or 'Beautiful Language']

Duan Yu called out, "Wonderful, wonderful! Beautiful smiles and speech, and a kind, amiable personality." He thought to himself, "Let's make things clear from the start. If she's like her mother, being perfectly fine one moment then suddenly angry the next and having me go plant flowers, then the name is insuitable for her."

Wang Yuyan smiled. "People always have nice names. All of those vile, wicked, evil people in history had beautiful names as well. Cao Cao did not necessarily display any upright conduct [De Cao means Upright Conduct], and Zhu Quanzhong was totally disloyal [Quanzhong means Totally Loyal]. Your name is Duan Yu. Is your name, Yu, such a good name? I'm afraid you're a little 'buying fame…'[Gu Ming]" Duan Yu interjected, "…and fishing for praise' [Diao Yu]!" The two of them laughed loudly together. [The phrase, 'Gu Ming Diao Yu', means fishing for compliments and praise.]

Wang Yuyan's beautiful face had always seemed to carry a hint of anxiety, but now, caught in the midst of joyful laughter, she became all the more charming and beautiful. Duan Yu thought to himself, "If I can spend the rest of my life making her laugh and wreathing her face in smiles, there would be nothing more I would ask for from life."

Unexpectedly, she was only happy for a brief period of time before once again that faint look of sorrow and worry settled across her face. She quietly said, "He…he's always so serious. He never talks about such silly things with me. Alas! The nation of Yan, the nation of Yan…is it really that important?"

'The nation of Yan, the nation of Yan'; these words, upon entering Duan Yu's ears, suddenly interlinked with many previously separate terms and phrases. The 'Murong lineage', the 'Basin of Swallows,' the 'Canhe Manor', the 'nation of Yan'…Duan Yu suddenly blurted out, "Is this young master Murong the descendant of Murong clan of the Xianbei people, who carved out the 'Yan' empire during the time when the five Hu minority nationalities spread chaos in China? He is of the Hu minority, and is not a Chinese person?"

Wang Yuyan nodded. "Right. He is the descendant of the former princes of the Murong family which ruled the nation of Yan. But that was centuries ago. There's no need to constantly bear in mind ancient history and the affairs of your ancestors. He wants to be a Hu person, not a Chinese person. He doesn't want to learn Chinese characters or read Chinese books. But I don't see what's so bad about Chinese books. Once, I said to him, 'Cousin, if you say that Chinese books are bad, what books do the Xianbei people have? I want to take a look.' But he immediately flew into a rage because there's no such thing as Xianbei-language books to begin with."

She slightly raised her head, staring at the lazy, distant clouds in the sky. In her soft voice, she said, "He…he is ten years older than me. He's always just thought of me as a younger sister. He thinks that I don't know anything aside from reading books and memorizing martial arts techniques. He has never realized that I read books for his sake, memorize martial arts for his sake. If it weren't for him, I'd rather raise a few chicks to play with, or play the zither, or practice calligraphy."

In a quivering voice, Duan Yu said, "He truly doesn't know that you…that you are this good to him?"

Wang Yuyan replied, "Of course he knows that I am good to him. He's always treated me very well as well. But…but it's as though we are actual brothers and sisters. Aside from serious matters, he never discusses anything with me. He never tells me what he is thinking, nor does he ever ask me if I have anything on my mind." Her jade-like cheeks blushed a faint red, and a bashful look appeared in her eyes and on her face.

At first, Duan Yu wanted to tease her and ask her, "What sort of things do you have on your mind?" But seeing the tender, bashful look on her beautiful face, he didn't dare run the risk of offending this beautiful lady. He said, "You don't need to always discuss history and martial arts with him. Aren't there a lot of evening songs and love poems in the books you read?" As soon as he said this, he felt regretful. "Just let her continue to stare at him with soft eyes and tender glances, but be unable to communicate with him. Isn't that a good thing? Why should I teach her techniques to communicate with him? I really am a total idiot."

Wang Yuyan became all the more bashful. She hurriedly said, "How…how could I do that? I am a prim and proper maiden. How could I bring up these…these poems and songs, and have my cousin look down upon me?"

Duan Yu let out a long breath, then said, "Absolutely, you are absolutely right." In his heart, he cursed at himself, "Duan Yu, you bastard, you really aren't an upright and honest gentleman."

Wang Yuyan had never revealed these thoughts of hers to anyone else. She kept them in her heart, examining and re-examining them many times over by herself. Today, by chance, she ran into a fellow like Duan Yu, who was naturally easygoing and unrestrained in temperament. For some reason, she felt that he was very trustworthy and divulged to him all of the tender and soft feelings she had towards Murong Fu. Actually, the likes of Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, and even Xiaocha, Xiaoming, and Youcao all naturally knew that she was secretly in love with her cousin. It was just that none of them spoke aloud regarding it. After talking for so long, the gloomy feeling in her heart dissipated slightly. She said, "I digressed a lot in our conversation, and we didn't get to the main topic. Why, exactly, is Shaolin making things difficult for my cousin?"

Knowing that he was unable to dodge the question any longer, Duan Yu said, "The abbot of Shaolin is known as master Xuanci. He has a junior martial-brother named Xuanbei. Master Xuanbei is most proficient at using the 'Veda Sceptre' style." Wang Yuyan nodded. "That is the forty-eighth fighting style amongst Shaolin's 72 Ultimate Techniques. Within the style, there are only a total of nineteen individual stances, but all of them are very fearsome and overpowering when executed."

Duan Yu continued, "When master Xuanbei came to Dali, he was somehow killed by someone within the Shenjie monastery in Dali's Luliang prefecture. Moreover, the technique which the killer used against him was the technique which master Xuanbei himself was famous for; the 'Veda Sceptre' technique. They said that only Gusu's Murong family harms others in such a manner, which they called 'using the opponent's skills, exercising them upon the opponent.'" Wang Yuyan nodded. "That's not unreasonable."

Duan Yu said, "Aside from Shaolin, there are others who also are seeking revenge upon the Murong lineage." Wang Yuyan said, "Who else?" Duan Yu said, "Within the Hidden Ox sect, there was a man named Ke Baisui who specialized in a technique known as the 'Thousand Ruptures on the Soul of Heaven'." Wang Yuyan said, "Oh! That is the fourth variation of the ninth stance of the Hidden Ox sect's 'Ever-Victorious Soft Whip' technique. Although the technique is extremely strange, it can't really considered a top-tier martial arts technique; all that can be said in its favor is that the force it unleashes is extremely hard and fierce." Duan Yu said, "This person was killed by the 'Thousand Ruptures on the Soul of Heaven' technique. His martial-brother and his apprentice are naturally seeking revenge upon the Murong family."

Wang Yuyan mumbled to herself, "It's possible that my cousin killed Ke Baisui, but he definitely did not kill Xuanbei. My cousin doesn't know the 'Veda Sceptre' technique. It is extremely difficult to learn. But if you ever meet my cousin, don't tell him that he doesn't know this technique, and definitely don't tell him that I told you so. Otherwise, he'll fly into a rage."

Just as they spoke to this point, the sound of two pairs of feet rushing towards them could be heard. It was Xiaoming and Youcao.

There was look of dread on Youcao's face. Totally flustered, she said, "Miss, bad…bad news! The madame ordered that Ah Zhu and Ah Bi…" Her voice choked, and for the moment she couldn't say anything. Xiaoming stepped in, "That their right hands be chopped off, to punish them for their offense of arrogantly barging into the Highland Manor of the Camellias. She also said that if she ever sees them again, she'll immediately have their heads chopped off. What…what are we to do?"

Duan Yu hurriedly said, "Miss Wang, quick, you've got to think of a way to rescue them!"

Wang Yuyan was very anxious as well. Knitting her eyebrows, she said, "Ah Zhu and Ah Bi are my cousin's trusted servants. If I allow them to be crippled, how can I face my cousin? Youcao, where are they?" Youcao, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi were extremely good friends. Hearing that Wang Yuyan seemed inclined towards helping them, she felt a ray of hope. She hurriedly said, "The madame ordered that the two of them be taken to the 'Flower Fertilizer Shed'. I begged granny Yan to delay the execution of the sentence by an hour. If you go beg the madame immediately, there's still a chance." Wang Yuyan thought to herself, "Most likely, begging my mother to show mercy is useless. But except for this, there are no other options." She immediately nodded, then left with Youcao and Xiaoming.

Watching her slim and graceful back disappear, Duan Yu wanted to run after her and say a few more words to her. But after taking a single step, he felt as though he had no words to say. As he stood there, stupefied, he began to reminisce about the conversation he just had with her. He couldn't help but go crazy over it.

Wang Yuyan walked swiftly to the main rooms. Seeing her mother reclining on a bed, lost in a trance while staring at a camellia painting that was hanging on the wall, she called out, "Mother!"

Madame Wang slowly turned her head. A grim expression was on her face. "What do you want to talk to me about? If it has to do with the Murong family, I don't want to hear it." Wang Yuyan said, "Mother, Ah Zhu and Ah Bi didn't come here on purpose this time. Can't you let them off the hook, just this once?" Madame Wang said, "How do you know they didn't come here on purpose? Are you afraid that if I chop their hands off, your cousin will never speak to you ever again?" Tears began to gather in Wang Yuyan's eyes. "My cousin is your nephew. Why…why must you hate him so much? Even if my aunt offended you, you don't need to resent my cousin." She had summoned up all her courage to say these words, but as soon as she did, her heart began thumping wildly in her chest. Even she herself was shocked at how daring she had been in directly contradicting her mother.

Frozen lightning was in Madame Wang's eyes. She swept her gaze across her daughter's face a few times, but did not immediately respond. Following this, she closed her eyes. Wang Yuyan didn't dare to so much as take a loud breath, unsure as to just what exactly her mother was planning.

After a long time, Madame Wang opened her eyes. She said, "How do you know that your aunt offended me? How did she offend me?" Hearing how icy her mother's tone was, Wang Yuyan was so frightened that she couldn't even speak. Madame Wang said, "Go ahead and tell me. You are growing older, and no longer need to obey me anyhow." Both angry and anxious, Wang Yuyan began to cry. "Mother, for you…for you to hate her family so much, she must have offended you somehow. But you never told me how she offended you. Now that she's passed away, you…you don't need to cling to your hatred of her." Madame Wang snapped at her, "Have you heard anyone talk about this?" Wang Yuyan shook her head. "You never allow me to leave, nor do you allow outsiders to come. Who would talk to me about this?"

Madame Wang let out a quiet sigh. Her tense, taut face immediately loosened, and the tone of her voice became gentle as well. She said, "I do this for your own good. There are too many bad people in the outside world, each of whom kills more than the next. It's best for a young lady like you to not meet with bad people." As she said this, she suddenly thought of something and added, "The new gardener who is surnamed Duan is very glib and very sly. He's not a good person. If he says so much as a single sentence to you, immediately order the servant girls to kill him. Don't allow him to say a second sentence. Understood?" Wang Yuyan thought to herself, "What's this about one sentence or two sentences? We've probably talked for more than one hundred or two hundred sentences!"

Madame Wang said, "What is it? Look at how soft-hearted and gentle you are; the gods only know how much suffering you will have to endure in your life because of it." She clapped twice and Xiaoming entered. Madame Wang said, "Pass the word down. If anyone talks to the gardener surnamed Duan, both of their tongues will be cut out." Xiaoming looked stupefied. Madame Wang's attitude seemed to be that of one who was ordering a chicken or a dog to be slaughtered. She replied, "Yes!" She hurriedly retreated. Madame Wang waved a hand towards her daughter. "You leave as well!"

Wang Yuyan replied, "Yes." As she passed through the doorway, she turned her head and said, "Mother, please show mercy to Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, and just order them to never come here again, under any circumstances." Madame Wang said coldly, "How often do I go back on my word? No matter what you say, I won't change my mind."

Madame Wang clenched her teeth. In a low voice, she said, "I know why you hate auntie and why you dislike my cousin." With a few quiet steps, she hurriedly exited.

Madame Wang said, "Get back!" These words were particularly loud or clear, but were filled with an awe-inspiring dignity. Wang Yuyan returned to the room, head lowered and silent. Madame Wang stared at the quivering lines of blue smoke rising from the incense-burners in the room. In a low voice, she said, "Yan'er, what do you know? No need to lie to me. It's best if you just say everything." Wang Yuyan bit her lower lip. "Auntie blamed you for killing people indiscriminately, to the point where you offended the local government authorities as well as created many vendettas with people of the martial world."

Madame Wang said, "Correct. These are the affairs of the Wang family. What did they have to do with her Murong family? She was nothing more than your father's elder sister. What authority did she have to try and govern me? Hmph, over the past few hundred years, the only thing the Murong family has done is dream about 'restoring the Yan dynasty'. All they can think about is uniting the heroes of the world under their banner. They fawn on people and try to make alliances. Heh heh, and now, they've even offended both the Beggar's Clan and Shaolin."

Wang Yuyan said, "Mother, my cousin definitely did not kill master Xuanbei of Shaolin. He doesn't know how to use…" But just as she was about to say 'the Veda Sceptre technique', she hurriedly paused. As soon as her mother found out where she had heard those words from, it would be almost impossible for Duan Yu to escape death. Instead, she said, "…I'm afraid his martial arts level isn't good enough."

Madame Wang said, "True. Right now, he went to pay a visit to Shaolin. Those blabbermouth servant girls naturally have already told you this. 'Nothern Qiao Feng, Southern Murong.' This saying is really famous and resounding. But can one Murong Fu, plus a Deng Baichun, really get any good results from this trip to Shaolin by themselves? He really doesn't know his own limits!" Wang Yuyan took a few steps forward. In a supplicating voice, she said, "Mother, can you please think of a way to rescue him? Can you send some people to go give him a helping hand? He…he's the last descendant of the Murong lineage. If something bad happens to him, the Murong family line will come to an end and their lineage be extinct." Madame Wang sneered, "Gusu's Murong family. Hmph. What does the Murong family has to do with me? Your auntie claimed that her Murong family's 'Water Pavilion of Bestowal and Repayment' is superior to our 'Jade Cavern Library'. Fine. Then let her precious son, Murong Fu, go to Shaolin and display his power and might." With a wave of her hand, she said, "Leave, leave!" Madame Wang said, "Mother, my cousin…" Madame Wang snapped, "You grow more and more impudent!"

Tears glistened in Wang Yuyan's eyes. Lowering her head, she left. Her mind was running wild and she had no idea what to do. As she walked to a porch in the west wing of the house, she heard someone say in a low voice, "Miss, what's wrong?" Wang Yuyan raised her head. It was Duan Yu. She hurriedly said, "You…don't talk to me!"

After Wang Yuyan had left earlier, Duan Yu had stood there in a daze for a while before slowly following her footstep in a befuddled way. He waited for her from a distance. After seeing her come out from Madame Wang's room, he couldn't prevent himself from following her. Seeing a grieved expression on Wang Yuyan's face, he knew that Madame Wang did not agree to her request. He said, "Even if the madame did not agree, we still need to think of something." Wang Yuyan replied, "If mother doesn't agree, what's the point of coming up with any ideas? She…she…she…my cousin is in a very dangerous situation, but she intends to fold her hands in her sleeves and ignore him." The more she spoke, the more miserable she felt, until she couldn't help but once more begin to shed tears.

Duan Yu replied, "Right, young master Murong really is in a lot of trouble…" He suddenly thought of something and asked, "You know so much about martial arts. Why don't you go yourself and help him out?" Wang Yuyan opened her dark, liquid eyes, and stared at him as though this was the most bizarre idea in the entire world. After a long time, she said, "I…I understand martial arts, but don't practice them. Besides, how could I go? Mother definitely wouldn't allow it." Duan Yu smiled. "Your mother naturally won't let you go, but aren't you able to sneak out by yourself? I once left home by myself once. Afterwards, when I came back home, my mother and father didn't scold me too harshly."

After hearing these words, Wang Yuyan suddenly saw the light. Her eyes brightened, and she thought to herself, "Right! If I sneak out to go help my cousin, even if mother severely punishes me when I return, it's no big deal. Even if she wants to kill me, I'll have already helped my cousin." When she thought about having the chance to undergo trials and tribulations on behalf of her cousin, her heart was filled with both misery and sweetness. Then she thought, "This person said he secretly ran away before. Hm, right, why didn't I ever think of anything like this?" Duan Yu, sneaking glances at her, saw that she seemed to be half-convinced. He immediately exerted all his effort to convince her. He said, "You always stay here, within the Highland Manor of the Camellias. Don't you want to check out the dazzling outside world and see its myriad temptations?"

Wang Yuyan shook her head. "What does it have worth checking? I'm just worried about my cousin. But I've never practiced martial arts. If he really meets up with any problems, I won't be able to help." Duan Yu replied, "Why wouldn't you be of help? You'd be of tremendous help! When your cousin is fighting others, you can give watch and give him a few words of advice from the sidelines. This is known as 'the bystander sees most clearly'. When someone else was playing a game of chess and about to lose, I gave him some advice from the sidelines and he immediately managed a complete comeback. This just happened very recently." Wang Yuyan felt he made a lot of sense, but wasn't able to summon up enough courage. She hesitantly said, "I've never been away from home. I don't even know if Shaolin is to the east or to the west."

Duan Yu immediately jumped at the opportunity. "I'll accompany you. If any problems arise on the road, just let me deal with them." He naturally didn't bring up the point that his own experience in the martial world was brilliantly shallow.

Wang Yuyan furrowed her eyebrows. Inclining her head to one side, she mumbled to herself indecisively. Duan Yu asked, "What's happening with Ah Zhu and Ah Bi?" Wang Yuyan said, "Mother won't let them off." Duan Yu said, "In for a penny, in for a pound! [Lit. 'Either don't act at all, or don't stop once you do!'] If Ah Zhu and Ah Bi have their right hands chopped off, your cousin will definitely blame you. Why don't we go rescue them, then the two of us will immediately set off." Wang Yuyan stuck out her tongue. "How can my mother possibly forgive such an enormous outrage? You really have way too much courage!"

Duan Yu knew very well that right now that nothing could move her mind aside from her cousin. He immediately used the tactic of retreating to seize an advantage. He said, "If that's the case, then let's go immediately and just let your mother chop off Ah Zhu and Ah Bi's hands. In the future, when your cousin asks you about it, you can just deny knowing about it. I definitely won't divulge the secret."

Wang Yuyan hurriedly said, "How can I do that? Isn't that lying to him?" She felt very hesitant. "Alas! Ah Zhu and Ah Bi are his two trusted servants. If anything bad were to happen to them, the grudge between the Murong family and my Wang family will only grow all the more deep." Stamping her left foot, she said, "You, come with me."

Hearing the four words 'You, come with me', Duan Yu was so happy he could have died at that moment with no complaints. In his entire life, he'd never heard four more beautiful words. Seeing that she was walking towards the northwest, he followed her from behind.

In a short amount of time, they arrived outside of a large stone room. Wang Yuyan said, "Granny Yan, please come out. I want to talk to you."

A strange laughter emanated from the stone room. A shriveled, dry voice said, "My dear young miss, have you come to see how granny makes flower fertilizer?"

Earlier, Duan Yu had heard Youcao and Xiaoming say that Ah Zhu and Ah Bi had been taken to the 'Flower Fertilizer Shed'. Then, he hadn't really paid it too much mind. Now, upon hearing this extremely sinister voice say the words, 'flower fertilizer', his heart froze. "What is the 'Flower Fertilizer Shed'? Is it where fertilizer for the flowers is kept? Damn, right, Madame Wang is incomparably ruthless. She buries people alive and uses them as fertilizer for her flowers. If we came too late, Ah Zhu and Ah Bi's right hands will have already been chopped off and turned into fertilizer. What will we do then?" His heart thumped frantically, and all the blood disappeared from his face.

Wang Yuyan said, "Granny Yan, my mother has something to discuss with you. Please come out." The woman in the stone room said, "I'm busy. What pressing business does the madame have, that she sends you to personally come tell me?" Wang Yuyan said, "My mother said…hey, are they here yet?"

As she spoke, she entered the stone room. She saw that Ah Zhu and Ah Bi were bound against two iron pillars. Something was jammed into their mouths, preventing them from saying anything despite their eyes being filled with tears. Duan Yu glanced inside as well. Seeing that Ah Zhu and Ah Bi were not yet harmed, he felt half-relieved. After glancing around the rest of the shed, his heart, which had just barely began to calm down, began to beat wildly again. An old lady with a crooked back who was holding a long, bright, and gleaming sabre in her hands stood next to them. By their side was a boiling cauldron of water that was emitting steady streams of water vapour.

Wang Yuyan said, "Granny Yan, mother orders that they be released for now. There's something important she wants to question them about first."

Granny Yan turned around. Duan Yu saw that she had an extremely ugly face, filled with malice. She nodded. "Fine. After she's done asking questions, escort them back and have their hands chopped off then." She muttered to herself, "The thing which I, Granny Yan, hate seeing the most is pretty girls. These two girls must have a hand chopped off. Only then will they really be good looking. I'll go talk to the madame; we should chop off both their hands. We've been running a bit low on fertilizer." Duan Yu was furious. He thought to himself that this old woman was filled with evil and maliciousness. Who knows how many people she had already killed? If it weren't for the fact that he didn't have the strength to truss up a chicken, he would have given her a few strong blows to her mouth and knock two or three of her teeth out before freeing Ah Zhu and Ah Bi.

Although Granny Yan was getting on in years, her ears remained sharp. She immediately heard the sound of Duan Yu's harsh breathing and asked, "Who is outside?" Sticking her head outside, she saw Duan Yu. She fiercely asked, "Who are you?" Duan Yu laughed, "I'm the person who the madame ordered to be her gardener. Granny Yan, might I ask if you have any fresh fertilizer for me?" Granny Yan replied, "Wait a short while. We'll have some soon." Turning her head, she said, "Miss, your cousin likes these two girls very much, doesn't he?"

Wang Yuyan said, "Yes. It's best for you not to hurt them." Granny Yan nodded. "Miss, isn't it true that the madame ordered that these two girls each have their right hands be chopped off and be expelled from the manor, and also told them that if she ever sees them again, she'll chop their heads off?" Wang Yuyan said, "Yes." As soon as she said this, she immediately knew something was wrong and hurriedly covered her mouth with her hands. Duan Yu secretly groaned bitterly. "Man. This young lady doesn't even know how to tell a lie."

Fortunately, it seemed as though Granny Yan was old and muddle-headed, not noticing this huge flaw in the story. She said, "Miss, this rope was tied very tightly. Come and help me untie it."

Wang Yuyan said, "Alright!" Walking to Ah Zhu side, she reached out to untie the rope fastening her wrists. Suddenly, with a clanking sound, an arcing steel hoop shot out of the metal pillar, trapping her slender waist....

Wang Yuyan let out a startled cry. Although there was a few inches of free space between her waist and the hoop, there was no way she would be able to escape.

Shocked, Duan Yu rushed into the room. He shouted, "What are you doing? Free the young lady!"

Granny Yan let out a series of strange, grumbling laughs. "Since the madame already said that if she ever saw these girls again, she would chop off their heads, why would she summon them to ask them questions? The madame has so many servants; why does she need to send you to come personally? There are a lot of irregularities here. Miss, wait here a while. Let me personally go ask the madame, and then we'll see."

Wang Yuyan angrily said, "What on earth do you think you're doing? Let me go immediately!" Granny Yan said, "Miss, I am totally devoted and loyal to the madame. I don't dare to do anything wrong. Old Mrs. Murong truly was far too impolite to the madame. She made a lot of malicious remarks and slandered the madame's stainless reputation. It isn't only the madame who was angry; even us servants hate her to the bone. That day, all the madame had to do was nod and we would have dug a tomb for her, then dragged her corpse to the 'Flower Fertilizer Shed' and turned her into ordinary fertilizer. Miss, let me tell you this. There isn't a single good person in the Murong family. There's no way the madame would have consented to spare these two girls. But since you gave me these orders, I am going to go to the madame and figure everything out. If things really are the way you say they are, I'll come back and immediately kneel before you and apologize. You can just go ahead and use wooden rods to beat me in accordance with our household rules." Want Yuyan was very worried. She said, "Hey, hey, don't go ask the madame! My mother will be angry!"

Granny Yan harbored no more doubt in her heart, knowing that the young lady was certainly making mischief behind her mother's back. In order to protect her cousin's servants, she had transmitted false orders. She decided to seize the opportunity to win some merit. She said, "Excellent, excellent! Miss, wait here a bit. This old granny will be right back." Wang Yuyan cried out, "Don't leave! Free me first!" Granny Yan ignored her, quickly leaving the stone room.

Seeing the situation had reached a critical point, Duan Yu stretched out both his hands, blocking her way. Laughing, he said, "Wouldn't it be better if you released her, then went to speak with the madame? You are a servant, after all. In the long run, it does you no good to offend the young miss."

Narrowing her eyes, Granny Yan inclined her head to one side before saying, "You are behaving very inappropriately, you little punk." With a flip of her hand, she seized Duan Yu by the wrist, then dragged him next to the metal pillar as well. She activated the pillar, and with a clanking sound, it shot out another metal hoop which settled around Duan Yu's waist as well. Panic-stricken, Duan Yu stretched his hand out and grabbed her by the wrists, refusing to let go no matter what.

As soon as she was seized by him, Granny Yan felt as though her internal energy was continuously flowing out of her in a steady stream. She felt unspeakably uncomfortable, and angrily shouted, "Let go!" But as exerted her energy to shout loudly, her internal energy began to flow out of her more quickly. She struggled ferociously, but was unable to free herself from Duan Yu's grip. Shocked, she said, "Little bastard…what are you doing? Let go of me now!"

Duan Yu was directly facing her hideous face, with only a few inches separating them. With his back forced against the metal pillar, there was no way for him to lean his head backwards. Seeing that her filthy yellow teeth looked as though they were about to bite his throat out, he was both terrified and nauseated. But he knew that at this critical moment, if he released her, not only would Wang Yuyan receive a heavy punishment, but he himself along with Ah Zhu and Ah Bi would be unable to keep their lives. All he could do was shut his eyes and not look at her.

Granny Yan said, "You…are you going to let go or not?" Her voice was already weak. Originally, Duan Yu fully absorbed the internal energy of the seven disciples of Mt. Wuliang's Sword sect, then drained a portion of the internal energy of many high-calibre martial artists. With his internal energy having grown more powerful, the suctioning power of the Divine Art of the Northern Darkness grew greater as well. At this point, draining Granny Yan's internal energy took but a short amount of time. Although Granny Yan appeared to be very ferocious, her actual internal energy reserves was limited. In less than the time it would take to drink a cup of tea, she was totally worn out and looked exhausted. All she could do was gasp out, "Let…go of me, let…let…let go."

Duan Yu replied, "First, activate the mechanism to release me." Granny Yan said, "Yes, yes!" Squatting down, she stretched out her right hand to activate a mechanism that was hidden underneath the nearby table. With a cracking sound, the metal hoop which had encircled Duan Yu's waist retracted. Pointing at Wang Yuyan, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi, Duan Yu ordered that they be immediately released as well.

Granny Yan tugged at the mechanism which controlled Wang Yuyan's metal hoop, but even after some time passed, it refused to move. Duan Yu angrily said, "Why aren't you releasing the young miss immediately?" Granny Yan frowned, "I…I don't have any energy left in me at all."

Stretching his own hand out, Duan Yu felt for the mechanism underneath the table. Finding it, he tugged on it, and with a clanking sound, the metal hoop surrounding Wang Yuyan slowly retracted into the pillar. Duan Yu was elated, but still did not yet dare to release Granny Yan from his hold. Picking up the long sabre which had fallen to the floor, he sawed through the ropes which bound Ah Bi.

After being released, Ah Bi took the sabre away from him and cut away the ropes binding Ah Zhu. They were both startled and elated, and removed the rough walnuts from their mouths. For the moment, they remained speechless.

Wang Yuyan glanced at Duan Yu a few times, a look of surprise on her face, mixed with some disdain. "How is it that you know the Great Art of Energy Dissipation? Why would you learn such a filthy technique?"

Duan Yu shook his head. "This isn't the Great Art of Energy Dissipation." He decided that not only was there no time to explain everything clearly, even if he did she might not believe him. It would be best just to make something up. He said, "This is a technique of Dali's Duan family, which is known as the 'Six Suns Melting the Snow' technique. It's derived from a combination of the 'Solitary Solar Finger' and the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'. It is orthodox where the Great Art of Energy Dissipation is heretical, and benevolent where the latter is vile. The two can't be mentioned in the same sentence."

Wang Yuyan immediately believed him. Smiling sweetly, she said, "Please forgive me for my ignorance. I've long heard of Dali's 'Solitary Solar Finger' and the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians', but this is the first time I have heard of your 'Six Suns Melting the Snow' technique. In the future, I'll have to ask you to explain it to me."

Duan Yu, hearing that this beautiful woman was willing to hear him explain the technique to her, was absolutely delighted. He hurriedly said, "Miss, all you have to do is ask, and I naturally will explain everything to you, without daring to hide anything."

Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, in their wildest imaginings, wouldn't have dreamed that Duan Yu would be able to rush here to save them at this most critical of moments. Now, seeing him chat so amiably with the young miss, they were even more astonished. Ah Zhu said, "Young gentleman Duan, miss, thank you both of rescuing us. We need to take this Granny Yan away with us, or else she might reveal what happened here."

Granny Yan was terrified. She thought to herself that if she were to be taken away by these girls, she would have less than a ten percent chance of survival at best. She cried out, "Miss, miss! The old mistress of the Murong family accused the madame of having a secret lover, and said that you…" Ah Zhu pinched her cheeks with her left hand, then shoved the walnuts which she had just spat out into Granny Yan's own mouth.

Duan Yu laughed. "Brilliant! This is the signature trait of the Murong family, well-known as 'using the opponent's technique, exercising it upon the opponent.'" Wang Yuyan said, "I'm coming with you. I'm going to see how he…" As she spoke, her entire face reddened, and she said in a low voice, "See how he…how he is doing." She had been irresolute previously, but the unexpected events which had just occurred helped her make her up mind. Ah Zhu happily said, "Miss, if you are willing to help out, that would be wonderful. In that case, there's no need to take Granny Yan with us." The two girls dragged Granny Yan next to the metal pillar, activated the mechanism, and trapped her with the steel hoop. The four of them quietly left the stone room, quickly moving towards the lakeside.

Fortunately, they didn't encounter any servants on their way. The four of them got onto the boat which Ah Zhu and Ah Bi had rowed over here and immediately began to row towards the middle of the lake. Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, and Duan Yu all rowed simultaneously. It wasn't until they could no longer see so much as the slightest shadow of the Highland Manor of the Camellias that they slightly relaxed. But, afraid that Madame Wang might pursue them in her fast ship, they did not stop rowing.

After they rowed for a long time, the sun began to set and the misty water vapour began to thicken and settle across the face of the lake. Ah Zhu said, "Miss, we're relatively close to the place where we servants live. Tonight, we'll have to ask that you settle for the inconvenience of temporarily staying here for a night. Then, we'll discuss what's the best way for finding the young master. Is that alright?" Wang Yuyan said, "Alright, we'll do things your way." The farther they were from the Highland Manor of the Camellias, the more taciturn she grew.

Duan Yu watched her dress be gently fluttered by the clean lake wind. It was dusk, and there was a slight chill in the air. Suddenly, a dreary, desolate feeling entered his heart. The earlier joyfulness of their escape gradually faded away.

After they rowed for another long period of time, it was so dark that he could not see anybody's eyes or nose clearly. Towards the eastern horizon, bright lights and lit lamps could be seen. Ah Bi said, "That place over there with the bright lights is sister Ah Zhu's 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds'." They began to row the boat in that direction. Duan Yu suddenly thought to himself, "In this lifetime, I'm afraid that I will never experience the emotions of tonight a second time. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this small boat would never be able to reach those lights?" Suddenly, a bright light appeared in the sky. A bright comet with a long tail streaked across the heavens.

Wang Yuyan whispered a few soft words which Duan Yu couldn't quite make out. In the middle of the darkness, he could only hear the sound of her sigh. Ah Bi said in a soft voice, "Miss, don't worry. All his life, the young master has turned bad luck into good fortune. He's never met with any real calamity." Wang Yuyan said, "Shaolin has been famous for hundreds of years. This isn't a trivial matter at all. I can only hope that the eminent monks within the monastery will listen to reason and are willing to allow my cousin to explain. I'm just afraid…afraid that my cousin has a bad temper, and begins to get into a verbal battle with the monks of Shaolin, alas…" She paused for a moment, then quietly said, "Every time a meteor flashes across the sky, I'm never able to complete my wish."

There is a traditional belief in the Jiangnan that whenever a shooting star streaks across the sky, if a person manages to make a wish before the shooting star disappears, anything they ask for, no matter how difficult it is to accomplish, will come to pass in a satisfactory manner. But shooting stars always disappear very quickly. Oftentimes before the wish-maker has finished saying but a few words, the shooting star will have already disappeared. Over the course of centuries, it is unknown as to how many young men and women have placed their hopes and dreams on shooting stars, and how many have been disappointed. Although Wang Yuyan had a very deep understanding of martial arts, she still possessed the sentiments and feelings of a young person. In this, there was very little difference between her and the young daughters of farmers and peasants who lived on the lake.

Upon hearing her words, Duan Yu felt a fresh stab of pain in his heart. He clearly knew that the wish she wanted to make had to do with young master Murong, and that she was certainly wishing for him to be safe and unharmed, and that he would accomplish all his goals. Staring at his feet, he thought to himself, "In the whole wide world, what girl would be like Wang Yuyan and secretly make wishes on my behalf? Sister Wan once deeply loved me, but now that she knows I am her elder brother, she surely views me in a different light. I wonder where she is now? Has she met up with a husband-and-lord who pleases her? And what of Zhong Ling? Does she know that I am her elder brother by blood? Even if she doesn't know, when she thinks of me, at most her heart will be moved at that moment. Shortly afterwards, she'll have thrust the thought from her mind. She definitely wouldn't be like how Wang Yuyan is right now, thinking of her beloved with an aching longing that penetrates her mind and which has settled into her very bones."

Chapter - 13 Giving Pointers to Extraordinary Men At the Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds

The boat drew closer and closer to the shore. Suddenly, Ah Zhu said in a low voice, "Ah Bi, look. This doesn't seem right." Ah Bi nodded. "Right. Why are so many lanterns lit?" She let out two quiet laughs, then said, "Sister Ah Zhu, is your home celebrating the lantern festival? There's so many bright lanterns and lamps. Maybe it's a birthday party for you?" Ah Zhu remained silent, eyes transfixed on those bright lights.

From far away, Duan Yu could see eight or nine buildings on the islet. Two of those buildings were two-storeyed buildings. There was light emanating from the windows of every building. He thought to himself, "As Ah Zhu's home is known as the 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds', I imagine it should be much similar to Ah Bi's 'Pavilion of Zither Melodies'. The reason there are so many bright lights here is no doubt because sister Ah Zhu likes to keep things noisy and lively.

When the boat came within one li of the shore, Ah Zhu halted her oar and said, "Miss Wang, enemies have come to my home." Wang Yuyan was startled. "What? Enemies have come? How do you know? Who are they?" Ah Zhu replied, "I don't know who they are, exactly. But take a whiff. The smell of alcohol reeks to high heaven. It must be that wicked visitors are causing trouble here." Wang Yuyan and Ah Bi both sniffed hard, but neither could notice any scent. Duan Yu, in turn was attenuated to the scent of maidens, but otherwise was normal and had no special smelling abilities.

Ah Zhu's nose was extremely sensitive. She said, "Oh no, oh no! They've destroyed my jasmine nectar and my rose nectar. Ack! They've even ruined my winter plum nectar…" At this point, it seemed as though she was about to cry.

Duan Yu was astonished. "Are your eyes so keen that you've seen them?" Sobbing, Ah Zhu choked out, "No. I smelled them. It took me a lot of care and effort to distil those nectars. These evil visitors must have taken them for alcohol and drank them!" Ah Bi said, "Sister Ah Zhu, what should we do? Should we avoid them, or should we go and fight?" Ah Zhu said, "I don't know if the opponent's are very powerful…" Duan Yu said, "Right. If the enemies are very powerful, the best choice would be for us to avoid them. If they are just ordinary characters, it would be best for us to go teach them a lesson and prevent sister Ah Zhu's precious treasures from being ruined even more." Ah Zhu was feeling very unhappy. Now, listening to Duan Yu's pointless speech, she replied, "Avoid the strong, bully the weak. Who doesn't understand this logic? But how do you know if the opponent is very powerful, or just ordinary?" Duan Yu opened his mouth to respond, but had no idea what to say.

Ah Zhu said, "Let's go take a closer look and find out. However, all of us need to change our clothes and dress up as aged fisherman and old ladies." Pointing to the east, she said, "An old fisherman and his wife live there. They both know me. Let's go borrow their clothes." Clapping his hands, Duan Yu laughed, "Wonderful, wonderful!" With a tug of the oar, Ah Zhu sent the boat eastward. When she thought about putting on new disguises, her spirit was instantly invigorated, and she no longer was to distraught about enemies having come to her home.

Ah Zhu first disguised herself, Wang Yuyan, and Ah Bi. She disguised herself as an old fishwife and turned Wang Yuyan and Ah Bi into middle-aged fishwives. Lastly, she began to work on Duan Yu, changing him into a forty-year old fisherman. Ah Zhu's disguising skills were truly matchless and incomparably wondrous. She obtained some flour and some mud, then spread a little here and pasted a little there. In the blink of an eye, everyone's appearances totally changed. Next, she borrowed a fishing boat, a fishing net, a fishing pole, some living fish, and the like, before paddling the boat towards the 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds'.

Although Duan Yu, Wang Yuyan, and Ah Bi's appearances had been changed, their voices remained the same. It was the weak point in their disguise. Even if they had years, they wouldn't be able to master Ah Zhu's skills in disguise. Wang Yuyan laughed, "Ah Zhu, if anything happens, you'll have to take the lead in dealing with it. We'll just have to pretend to be mute." Ah Zhu laughed, "Right. I promise to keep you from being exposed."

The fishing boat slowly glided towards the back of the pavilion. Duan Yu saw that weeping willows grew all around the pavilion, but bursts of loud, uncouth yelling sounds continuously emanated from within the building. Such wild shouts and screams were totally at odds with the quiet, ingenious, and tasteful layout of the building and the surrounding plants.

Ah Zhu let out another sigh. She was totally unhappy. Ah Bi whispered into her ear, "Sister Ah Zhu, after we chase the enemies away, I'll come help you fix the place up." Ah Zhu squeezed her hand to show her thanks.

The four of them entered the kitchen from the rear. The chef, old Gu, was so busy that his head was covered with sweat. He was unceasingly spitting his saliva into the boiling cauldron, then rubbing his dirty hands together and causing the mud and the dirt on his hands to fall into the cauldron as well. Ah Zhu was half-amused, half-angry. She called out, "Old Gu! What are you doing?" Old Gu was so startled, he jumped. Frightened, he said, "You…you…" Ah Zhu laughed, "I am miss Ah Zhu." Old Gu was overjoyed. "Miss Ah Zhu, a lot of bad men came. They forced me to cook dishes and broil vegetables for them. Watch!" As he spoke, he blew his nose and dripped his snot into the middle of the vegetables, then began to laugh. Ah Zhu wrinkled her forehead. "You cook such nasty dishes!" Old Gu hurriedly said, "Miss, when I cook for you, I wash my hands clean before I do anything else. But when I am forced to cook for scoundrels, I'll make the dishes as disgusting as possible." Ah Zhu said, "The next time I see food which you have cooked, I'll think of this and be nauseated." Old Gu said, "No, no. That's different, that's totally different." Although Ah Zhu was a servant to young master Murong, she was the master of the 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds'. She had her own servant, chef, boatman, gardener, and other subordinates.

Ah Zhu asked, "How many enemies are there?" Old Gu said, "First came a gang of around eighteen or nineteen people. Then came a second gang of around twenty." Ah Zhu said, "There's two separate groups? What type of people are they? How are they dressed? Judging from their accents, where are they from?" Lao Gu cursed, "F*ck their mothers…" As soon as the vulgarity left his mouth, he hurriedly covered his lips with his hands, a look of terror on his face. He said, "Miss Ah Zhu, old Gu deserves to die. I…I'm so angry, I've gone stupid. One of the two groups of bad men consists of rough fellows from the north. They look like bandits. The second group comes from Sichuan. They all wear white gowns, but I don't know where they are from." Ah Zhu said, "Who are they looking for? Have they hurt anyone?" Old Gu said, "The first group of bandits came looking for the old master. The second group of weirdos came looking for the young master. We told them that the old master had passed away, and that the young master wasn't at home. They didn't believe us and ransacked the place searching for him. The servant girls have all run away already. I'm the only one who stayed, because I was too pissed. ***…." He was just about to curse again, but just as the vulgarity began to escape his lips, he managed to retract it in time. Ah Zhu saw that his left eye was blackened, and half of his face was heavily swollen. He must have taken a few nasty blows. She no longer blamed him for taking out his resentment on the dishes by spitting and blowing his nose into them.

Ah Zhu muttered to herself, "We need to check it out ourselves. Old Gu wasn't able to make things clear." The four of them left the kitchen from a side entrance. They passed by a jasmine flower terrace and two jade cavern gates before arriving outside the flower pavilion. They were still a number of meters away from the window, but could already hear an uproar from within the building.

Ah Zhu quietly snuck to the window, then used her fingernail to poke a hole in the paper window screen. She peeped into the crack. The inside of the main hall was very bright, but only the lanterns on the east side had been lit. There, eighteen or nineteen coarse and burly men were having a little party. The tables were covered with dinner dishes and cups, and the chairs were scattered across the floor. A few people were sitting on the tables. Others were holding chicken drumsticks or pig feet in their hands and chomping away happily. Others brandished their sabres, chopping the meat on the dishes with them and then spearing the meat with the tips of their weapons before delivering the meat to their mouths.

Ah Zhu glanced towards the east side of the room. At first, she didn't notice anything. But after taking a few more glances, she couldn't help but feel cold as goosebumps appeared on her flesh. More than twenty or so men dressed in white gowns sat there solemnly. They lit a single candle on the table in front of them. The candlelight did not spread more than a few feet in circumference. She saw that the seven or so people closest to the candlelight had frozen looks on their face, displaying neither happiness nor anger, as though they were but corpses. The entire time, those people sat there without speaking or moving. If it weren't for the fact that a few of them would blink every so often, she really might have taken them all for dead people.

Sneaking forward as well, Ah Bi grasped Ah Zhu's hand. Ah Zhu's hand was icy cold and quivering as well. Ah Bi immediately poked a second hole in the window to take a look for herself. She peered directly into the gaze of a yellow, sallow-faced individual, and their eyes met. That person who seemed half-dead, half-living stared at her. Startled, Ah Bi couldn't help but let out a quiet cry. With a pair of slamming sounds, the two windows were shattered. Four people jumped out of the windows simultaneously. Two of them were northerners, with the other two being the weirdos from Sichuan. They shouted in unison, "Who are you?"

Ah Zhu replied, "We caught a number of fresh fish and came to ask if Old Gu wanted them or not. The shrimp we have is still living and jumping about." The words she spoke were of the native Suzhou dialect. The four men initially did not understand, but seeing as how the four of them were dressed in fishermen's garbs and carrying live fish and shrimp, they figured out what Ah Zhu was saying. One of the men snatched a fish away from Ah Zhu, then shouted loudly, "Cook! Cook! Take this and go make some broth for us to drink to help dilute the alcohol!" The other northerner reached out for the fresh fish Duan Yu was holding.

Seeing that they were fish-sellers, the two Sichuanese men paid them no more mind. They returned to their seats. When they two passed by her, Ah Bi smelled a heavy, masculine musk, and couldn't resist stretching her hand out to cover her nose. One of the Sichuanese men shot her a glance and saw that when she covered her nose, her arms slid out of her sleeves slightly, revealing skin that was as white as snow and as tender and smooth as rouge. Instantly, he became highly suspicious. "How could a middle-aged fishwife have such white and tender skin?" With a backhand, he grabbed Ah Bi by the wrist and asked, "G'dammit, how old are you?" Startled, Ah Bi wrested away from his grasp. "Whaddya doin', yeah? Touchin' people like that." Her voice was soft, tender, clear and melodious, and her movements were nimble and dexterous. The Sichuanese man only felt that his arm suddenly went numb, and with a stagger he crashed out of the room.

Now, their secret had been totally revealed. As the four men outside of the building cried out at the same time, ten more people exited the room, fully surrounding Duan Yu and the others. One of the men reached for Duan Yu's beard, tearing it off. Another man tried to grab Ah Bi, but she dodged and gave him a shove, knocking him to the floor instead.

The men began to loudly roar, "Spy, it's a spy!" "They are crooks in disguise!" "Hang them up and flog them!" They pressed the four of them into the room, then reported to an old man who sat at the east side, "Stronghold-master Yao, we captured two spies in disguise!"

That old man had a large, imposing build, with a grey beard that stretched to the pit of his stomach. He shouted, "Spies, who sent you? Sneaking around and disguising yourselves…what foul deeds are you plotting?"

Wang Yuyan said, "It isn't any fun dressing up as an old lady. Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, I'm not going to maintain the disguise anymore." As she spoke, she stretched her hand out and rubbed the mud away from her face. The mud and flour fell away, taking her 'wrinkles' with them. Before their awestruck, gaping eyes, the men watched as a middle-aged fishwife was suddenly transformed into a maiden of unsurpassing beauty. In the blink of an eye, silence reigned, and not even a whisper could be heard. The Sichuanese people to the west also had their eyes glued onto her.

Wang Yuyan said, "All of you, remove your disguises as well." She laughed towards Ah Bi, "It's all your fault. You revealed our secret!" Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, and Duan Yu immediately rubbed away the mud and flour from their faces as well. Everyone stared at Wang Yuyan, then at Ah Zhu and Ah Bi. None of them could believe that there were such beautiful women in the world, who looked as though they had been chiseled from pure, white jade.

After a long moment, that large old man said, "Who are you? What are you doing here?" Ah Zhu laughed. "I'm the master of this place. Isn't it a bit odd for outsiders to ask me what I am doing here? Who are you? What are you doing here?" That old man nodded. "Right. So you are the master of this place? Wonderful. You are the young miss of the Murong family? Murong Bo is your daddy, then?" Ah Zhu smiled. "I'm just a servant. How could I have the fortune of being the old master's daughter? Sir, who might you be? What business have you here?" That old man heard he say she was but a servant girl, but did not immediately believe her. He muttered to himself for a while before saying, "Please invite your master to come, and I will tell him the purpose of this visit." Ah Zhu replied, "Our old master has passed away. The young master is out on a journey. Sir, what important task do you have here? Just tell us. Can it be that you cannot even reveal your name to us?" That old man said, "Fine. I am Yao Bodang, and I lead the Qin family stronghold of the province of Yunnan." [The term 'stronghold' in its Chinese context usually refers to a mountain stronghold of bandits.] Ah Zhu replied, "Pleased to meet you, pleased to meet you." Yao Bodang laughed. "You are just a little girl. Why would you be pleased to meet me?"

Wang Yuyan said, "The Qin family stronghold of Yunnan province is most famous for its 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate' sabre technique. In the years after elder Qin Gongwang invented the sixty-four stances of this technique, his descendants forgot five of the stances. I hear that only fifty nine of the stances have been passed down. Stronghold-master Yao, how many stances have you learned?"

Yao Bodang was greatly astonished. He blurted out without thinking, "How is it that you know that that the Qin family's 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate' sabre technique originally had sixty four stances?" Wang Yuyan replied, "That's what the books say, so it probably isn't wrong, right? The five stances that you have lost are the stances, 'White Tiger Leaps Over a Ravine', 'Birthing the Wind With a Roar', 'Free-Flowing Chopping Pounce', 'Powerfully Tyrannizing Many Mountains', and…right, that fifth stance is named, 'Lion Emerges From the Appearance of Defeat'. Am I right?" Yao Bodang stroked his beard. He was aware that five of the most exquisite stances of his school of martial arts had become lost, but no one knew what the names of the techniques which had been lost. Now, hearing her speak with such certainty, he was both shocked and suspicious. He didn't know how to respond to her words.

From the west side of the room, a thirty year old man wearing white said in a deliberately strange voice, "Stronghold-master Yao is an important person with many matters to deal with. He has already forgotten the five stances which the Qin family's 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate Technique' is missing. Young miss, what relationship do you have with Mr. Murong, Murong Bo?" Wang Yuyan replied, "Old master Murong is my aunt's husband. Sir, what is your respected name and surname?" That man smiled coldly, "Miss, you are well-learned and are intimately familiar with stronghold-master Yao's martial arts technique. I would like to invite you to guess what my own origin is." Wang Yuyan smiled. "First, you need to demonstrate some of your abilities. I can't guess anything just based on a few words."

That man nodded. "True." He stretched his left hand into the sleeves of his right arm, and did the opposite for his right hand, as though his hands were chilled by winter's cold. He immediately snapped his hands out. Each hand was holding a strange weapon. In his left hand, he was holding a metal awl which was six or seven inches long. The tip of the awl was split in two. In his right hand, he wielded a small, eight-faced mace. The shaft of the mace was over a foot long, and the head of the mace was smaller than most people's fists. Both weapons were small and exquisitely made, appearing almost as though they were children's toys. They seemed to be totally useless for actually fighting off opponents. As the men who sat at the east side of the room saw the weapons, some of them immediately began to loudly laugh. One of them laughed, "You're actually humiliating yourself by displaying the toys and baubles which Sichuanese babies play with?" The people who sat at the west side all glared at him angrily.

Wang Yuyan said, "Right. This is the 'Thunder God's Explosion'. Sir, I imagine that you are an expert in qinggong and hidden weapons. The books say that the 'Thunder God's Explosion' is the unique weaponry of Sichuan's Qingcheng sect, located on Mt. Qingcheng. Within the 'Qing' character, there are nine attacks; within the 'Cheng' character, there are eighteen destroying strokes. The strangeness and cunning of the techniques are difficult to fathom. Sir, I would like to guess that your surname is Sima, right?"

That entire time, the man's face was very somber. But upon hearing this girl say those words, he couldn't help but be shaken. He exchanged a few glances with three of his assistants that stood next to him. After a long time, he family said, "Gusu's Murong family is well-known for having a deep, broad, and profound understanding of martial arts. You really live up to your reputation! I am Sima Lin. Miss, might I ask you if there truly are nine strikes within the 'Qing' character, and eighteen destroying strokes within the 'Cheng' character?"

Wang Yuyan replied, "This is an extremely good question. In my opinion, it would be more appropriate to say that there are ten strikes within the 'Qing' character. Although the 'iron Bodhisattva strike' and the 'iron lotus seed strike' seem superficially similar, they have totally separate usages and really shouldn't be mixed together. With regards to the eighteen destroying strokes of the 'Cheng' character, it seems as though there is nothing particularly special or exquisite about the 'armor destroying', 'shield destroying', and 'tablet destroying' stances. It seems as though they were simply thrown in there to fill up the spaces needed for there to be a total of eighteen stances, whereas in actuality they can be discarded or perhaps merged together. In which case, there would be a total of 'fifteen destroying strokes' or 'sixteen destroying strokes', which would actually be more refined."

Listening to her words, Sima Lin was struck dumb. He had only learned seven of the techniques within the 'Qing' character, and knew nothing of the differences between the 'iron Bodhisattva strike' and the 'iron lotus seed strike'. In addition, the 'armor destroying', 'shield destroying', and 'tablet destroying' stances were the stances which he felt the most proud mastering about all his life, and which had always be considered a unique, consummate skill of his sect. He never would have imagined that this girl would say that they could be abolished. At first, he was startled; then, he was extremely angry. He thought to himself, "It's natural that the Murong family has long since known of my name and my martial arts. They want to humiliate me, and so have spun these lies and ordered this maiden to come here with scorching, humiliating words." He didn't immediately flare up. He only said, "Thank you for your advice, miss. I've suddenly seen the light." Immediately, he turned to an assistant by his side and said, "Apprentice-brother Zhu, why don't you ask this young miss for a few pointers?"

His assistant, Zhu Baokun, was an ugly man with a face full of pock marks. He appeared to be somewhat older than Sima Lin. Aside from the white gown he wore, he also tied up his hair with a strip of white cloth, as though he were in morning. Underneath the flickering light of the candle, he appeared very sinister and secretive. He rose to his feet, cupping his hands respectfully, then withdrew his weapons as well. He also withdrew a small mace and a short awl, both of which were identical to Sima Lin's 'Thunder God's Explosion' weapons. He said, "Miss, please advise me."

All the onlookers thought to himself, "Your weapons are totally the same as that of Sima Lin. If this girl knows his martial arts, then obviously she knows yours as well." Wang Yuyan also said, "Sir, as you wield the 'Thunder God's Explosion' weapons, naturally you belong to the Qingcheng sect as well." Sima Lin said, "This martial-brother of mine already possessed some martial arts before entering our school. Miss, I'd like to test your wisdom and see if you can discover what sect he originally came from." He thought to himself, "Even I am not too sure about the origins of brother Zhu's martial arts. It'd be rather strange if you could!" Wang Yuyan thought to herself, "This is a difficult question."

Before she had a chance to say anything, the Qin family stronghold's Yao Bodang interjected, "Sect-leader Sima, what's the point in having this young lady guess about the origins of your martial-brother? Isn't this extremely uninteresting?" Astounded, Sima Lin said, "Why is this extremely uninteresting?" Yao Bodang laughed. "Your apprentice-brother face is now filled with pock marks, which seem to be meticulously carved into his skin. Thus, his true features can't be too exquisite to look at." Everyone on the western side of the room exploded into laughter. [True features and true origins can share the same characters.]

All his life, the thing which Zhu Baokun hated the most was others making fun of his pockmarked face. Now, hearing Yao Bodang so openly ridicule him, he could he hold his temper? Without caring that Yao Bodang was a famous hero of the north and the master of a stronghold, he aimed the steel awl in his left hand towards Yao Bodang's chest, then struck the awl with the steel mace in his right hand. A violent 'chi' sound split the air with a sharp roar as a host of hidden weapons shot forth from the awl and towards Yao Bodang's chest.

As soon as the Qin family stronghold and the Qingcheng sect had entered the pavilion, they had taken each other's measure. Neither side offered any greetings to the other. They glared at each other and humphed at each other. In all likelihood, if Wang Yuyan and the others had not arrived, they would have gotten into a fight with each other by now. In insulting Zhu Baokun, Yao Bodang originally only wanted to tease him a little. He never would have imagined that the other party would attack so quickly. The secret weapons flew towards him with great haste. He didn't even have the time to draw out his sabre. With his left hand, he snatched a candlestick which lay on top of the table in front of him, then chopped at the hidden weapons. With a clanging sound, the hidden weapons were redirected upwards, and with a thudding sound embedded themselves into the ceiling. Now, they could be clearly seen. The hidden weapons were three-inch long steel needles. Although the needles were short, the force behind them was tremendous. Yao Bodang's left hand went numb, and the candlestick slipped from his grasp. With a clanking sound, it hit the floor.

The bandits of the Qin family stronghold pulled out their sabres. In a loud voice, they cried out, "So you are using hidden weapons to harm others?" "What a valiant hero you are!" "Shameless! I'll f*ck your grandmother, hard!" A very fat person was filled with the most obscenities, even cursing eighteen generation's worth of the other party's ancestors. But the people of Qingcheng sect only continued to sit there in that strange silence, as though neither seeing nor hearing the words from the Qin family stronghold.

Earlier, when Yao Bodang snatched the candlestick to block the hidden weapons, he didn't have a very firm grip. But having his weapon being shaken from his hand by tiny steel needles despite his decades of internal energy training was, by the accepted rules of wulin, a loss for him. He thought to himself, "The opponent's martial arts are extremely strange. From what the young lady said, within the Qingcheng sect's martial arts, the 'Qing' character has nine strikes, all of which are based upon hidden weaponry. If I'm not careful, I'm going to be in trouble." He immediately waved his arm and quieted the noisy calls of his subordinates. He laughed, "Brother Zhu, this technique of yours was extremely handsome, but also extremely vicious! What is it called?"

Zhu Baokun let out a cold laugh, but did not respond.

The fat man amongst the Qin family stronghold said, "Most likely, it is called, 'No sense of shame or face, launching ambushes against others!'" Another middle-aged person laughed, "He never had any face to begin with. The name you just gave is very good. It's quite appropriate and suits them. Clearly, you are well-learned and lettered! Well-learned indeed!" Within his words was a hidden ridicule directed once more to Zhu Baokun's pock-marks.

Wang Yuyan shook her head. In a soft voice, she said, "Stronghold-master Yao, now you are at fault." Yao Bodang said, "How?" Wang Yuyan said, "It's possible for anyone to suffer an illness or be wounded. When a person is young and trips and falls, it's possible that his leg might become crippled. When fighting with others, it's possible to lose a hand or an eye. It's extremely ordinary for the people of wulin to have wounds or scars on them, am I right?" Yao Bodang could only nod his head. Wang Yuyan continued, "When he was young, Mr. Zhu suffered from a foul disease which left him with some scars. What's so funny about that? In judging whether a male is a true, stalwart man, the first thing to consider is his character and his moral quality. The second thing to consider is his ability and his competence. The third would be his learning and his martial arts abilities. What does his facial appearance have to do with anything?"

Yao Bodang was rendered speechless. He broke out in loud laughter, then said, "There is some reason in your words, miss. By that logic, this old man is at fault for mocking brother Zhu."

Wang Yuyan laughed, "Old master, for you to be able to freely admit to your mistakes shows that you are an upright, honest, and honorable man." She turned her face to Zhu Baokun, then shook her head and said, "Won't do, that won't work." When she said these words, a gentle, tender, sympathizing look was on her face, as though she were an older sister who was watching her younger brother exhaust himself trying to do something which he didn't have the strength to do. Her words were both admonishing and intimate.

Zhu Baokun, upon hearing her say that it was very normal for people of the wulin to have battle scars or wounds, and that a man should be judged first and foremost by his character and his accomplishments, felt very happy. All his life, he had been unhappy about his pockmarked face. He had never heard anyone address the issue so sincerely and reasonably. Now, hearing her say, "Won't do, that won't work," he asked, "Miss, what do you mean?" He thought to himself, "Is she saying that this needle technique of mine, the 'Lord of Heaven Replenishes the Heart', won't do, and won't work? She doesn't know that there are twelve steel needles hidden within my awl. If I didn't stop and instead repeatedly struck it with my mace, I would have taken that old fellow's life a long time ago. Only, I cannot reveal my secret in front of Sima Lin."

Only to hear Wang Yuyan said, "This 'Lord of Heaven Replenishes the Heart' needle technique of yours truly is a overbearing hidden weapon technique…" Zhu Baokun's body trembled, and he let out a soft cry. Sima Lin and two other experts of Qingcheng sect also let out a simultaneous shout of, "What?!" The expression on Zhu Baokun's face changed, and he said, "Miss, you are wrong. This was not the 'Lord of Heaven Replenishes the Heart' needle technique. It is our Qingcheng sect's hidden weaponry technique, the fourth strike within the 'Qing' character, named the 'Green Hornet' nail technique." Wang Yuyan smiled. "It did appear as though you used the 'Green Hornet' strike. When you executed the 'Lord of Heaven Replenishes the Heart' needle technique, the tools and techniques you used are the same as that of the 'Green Hornet' nail technique. But the essential nature of hidden weaponry lies neither in the tools nor in the technique, but in the hidden weapon's force and power. Everyone uses steel needles, but the force which Shaolin disciples release is unique to Shaolin, and the force which the Kunlun sect releases is unique to Kunlun. This cannot be faked. Yours is…"

Suddenly, a murderous look filled Zhu Baokun's eyes. He suddenly raised the steel awl to his chest. All he needed to do was to strike the awl with his mace, and the steel needles would instantly shoot towards Wang Yuyan...

Half the people watching let out cries of alarm. Earlier, when he attacked Yao Bodang, his movements were very fast and the power released was very strong. Very few hidden weapon techniques could compare to it. Obviously, there was an extremely powerful release mechanism hidden within the awl, as it was definitely impossible for any human force to create such an effect. Moreover, the tip of the awl was curved and split, making it difficult for others to believe that steel needles could shoot out from it. No one knew that the hollow cavity within the awl was straight. Fortunately, Yao Bodang was quick of eye and fleet of hand and thus managed to avoid disaster. If he released the hidden weapons towards Wang Yuyan, how could a beautiful, delicate woman such as her possibly avoid or dodge it? But seeing how beautiful and gentle she appeared, Zhu Baokun couldn't bear to kill her. In addition, he was still grateful for how she had argued on his behalf earlier. He shouted, "Miss, don't talk too much and bring disaster upon yourself!"

Just at this moment, a person rushed forward and placed himself in front of Wang Yuyan. It was Duan Yu.

Wang Yuyan smiled. "Young gentleman Duan, many thanks! Mr. Zhu, many thanks to you as well for not killing me. But even if you kill me, there's no point. The Qingcheng sect and the Penglai sect have been enemies for generations. Your scheme was already tried over eighty years ago, by your venerable sect's seventh sect leader, Haifeng Zi. I'm afraid that his intelligence and martial arts is not one whit inferior to your own."

Upon hearing these words, the gaze of every member present of the Qingcheng sect turned towards Zhu Baokun. They mercilessly glared at him, all of them thinking to themselves, "Can it be that he is a member of our mortal enemy, the Penglai sect, who is in our sect undercover? How is it that he speaks with the Sichuanese accent, and doesn't have the slightest trace of a Shandong accent?"

The eastern peninsula of the Shandong province was lorded over by the Penglai sect. Although they were located in the east, and Sichuan's Qingcheng sect was located in the west, hundreds of years ago a bitter enmity was laid down by experts of their respective sects. From that time forth, each would make retaliatory attacks upon the other, committing many cruel and vicious revenge killings. Both sects possessed consummate martial arts techniques that could counter and restrain the other. In fact, the enmity laid down centuries ago was created by disagreements in a discussion on martial arts. After over ten violent battles and killings, in the end the Penglai sect was unable to defeat the Qingcheng sect, but the Qingcheng sect was also unable to overcome the Penglai sect. Every time the two came to battle, masters and experts from both sides would suffer wounds and often perish together, ending the battle in common ruin.

The Haifeng Zi which Wang Yuyan spoke of was an outstanding talent within the Penglai sect. He carefully examined the strengths and weaknesses of the martial arts of both schools, knowing that although it would not be too hard for him to surpass the Qingcheng sect based upon his own abilities, in the future, after he died and the Qingcheng sect produced a wise and talented student of its own, the Qingcheng would once more have surpassed his own sect. In order to finish the job once and for all, he sent his most talented disciple to sneak into the Qingcheng sect and steal their martial arts. In this way, he would 'know himself and know his enemy, proving victorious in every battle'. But his disciple had not fully mastered his martial arts and was discovered and executed by disciples of the Qingcheng sect. After this, the enmity between the two groups became only deeper as both sides began to guard against the other side stealing their secrets.

Within these past few decades, the Qingcheng sect set down a rule where they would not accept northerners as students. No students who spoke with any northern accents were accepted. Forget about having a Shandong accent, even if the applicant had the slightest Hebei, Henan, Shanxi, or Shaanxi accent. Later on, the rules became even more rigid, and they began to only accept disciples from Sichuan alone.

The 'Green Hornet' nail technique was a hidden weapon technique unique to the Qingcheng sect, whereas the 'Lord of Heaven Replenishes the Heart' needle technique belonged to the Penglai sect. Zhu Baokun clearly used the 'Green Hornet' nail technique, but Wang Yuyan continued to insist that he used the 'Lord of Heaven Replenishes the Heart' needle technique. This caused everyone in the Qingcheng sect to be filled with shock and dread. It must be known that the Penglai sect had a rule which was similar to that of the Qingcheng sect; they would only accept disciples from Shandong. Moreover, the people from the eastern part of Shandong were considered better. People from western Shandong or southern Shandong would find it extremely difficult to be allowed into the Penglai sect. It wouldn't be impossible for a person to put on a disguise and not reveal himself, but it would be extremely difficult for a person to change his manner of speaking so completely that in a thousand words, he wouldn't say a single word with a slightly strange accent. Zhu Baokun came from the Zhu family of the Guan county of Sichuan, a famous, aristocratic family of western Sichuan. How could he be a disciple of the Penglai sect? Everyone present would never have imagined it in their wildest dreams. Earlier, when Sima Lin wanted Wang Yuyan to guess his origins, all he wanted to do was stump this girl with a tough riddle. He did not suspect Zhu Baokun at all. How could he have imagined that he would receive such a soul-shaking response?

The person who was most startled of all was naturally Zhu Baokun himself. As it was, his original teacher was a Daoist priest named Dulingzi. In youth, Dulingzi had been greatly harmed by the Qingcheng sect, and incessantly schemed to revenge himself upon the Qingcheng sect. He snuck around all of Sichuan, trying to find ways by which he could cause them harm. One year, he met the young Zhu Baokun at the Guan county. At this point, Zhu Baokun was still but a child, but showed an extremely good bone structure and had a very good foundation for learning martial arts. Thus, Dulingzi came up with a plot. He ordered people to disguise themselves as Jiangnan pirates and had them sneak into the Zhu family, tie up the family members, and then, after looting the place, prepare to rape the two daughters of the Zhu family and execute the rest. Dulingzi himself was outside the entire time. He waited until the critical moment, then stepped forth bravely, chased away all the fake bandits, retrieved all of their belongings, and preserved the chastity of the two daughters of the Zhu family. The master of the Zhu family was naturally filled with boundless gratitude towards Dulingzi.

Dulingzi deliberately provoked him, saying, "If one does not possess first-class martial arts, no matter how rich you are, you can still be bullied by robbers and bandits. This group of bandits possessed some decent abilities. They've been beaten off today, but it is likely that they will come back for another try some other day." The Zhu family was an extremely powerful and well-known aristocratic family in the area. Before the master's very eyes, the guards and martial arts instructors he had invited were knocked down with three punches and two kicks. Now, hearing that the bandits would come back again soon, he was so frightened that his soul almost left him, and he begged Dulingzi to stay. Dulingzi insincerely refused for a while, then 'reluctantly' agreed to stay. After a short period of time had passed, he managed to convince Zhu Baokun to kowtow to him as his disciple.

Aside from his single-minded enmity towards the Qingcheng sect, Dulingzi himself was not really a bad person, and possessed extremely capable martial arts. He exhorted the Zhu family to carefully guard the secret of his presence, and secretly taught Zhu Baokun martial arts. After ten years or so, Zhu Baokun became one of the most outstanding individuals within the Penglai sect. This Dulingzi fellow really was patient. After settling down in the Zhu family household, he immediately disguised himself as a mute person. From beginning to end, he did not say a single word to a single person. When teaching Zhu Baokun martial arts, he would only demonstrate the techniques using his hands and feet, or manually write down the instructions for Zhu Baokun to read. He wouldn't say a single word or reveal his Shandong accent. Thus, although Zhu Baokun had associated with him for over ten years, he had never heard a single word spoken with the Shandong accent.

After Zhu Baokun fully completed his martial arts training, Dulingzi wrote down the entire ins and outs of the situation and told his student to act as he saw fit. Although, he naturally left out the part where he had people dress up as robbers to attack the Zhu family. In Zhu Baokun's heart, not only had his master saved his entire family, over the past ten years, his master had treated him with great benevolence and kindness, passing down to him all of the Penglai sect's martial arts techniques. He had long since felt boundless gratitude towards his master, and once he understood what his master wanted, he didn't hesitate in the slightest. He immediately headed towards Mt. Qingcheng, putting himself under the 'tutelage' of the Qingcheng sect's then-leader, Sima Wei. Sima Wei was Sima Lin's father.

At this point in time, Zhu Baokun was no longer a child, and moreover declared himself as having learned some low level martial arts from the guards which his family had hired. At first, Sima Wei was unwilling to accept him. But the Zhu family was a very rich family in western Sichuan, possessing both wealth and power. Although the Qingcheng sect belonged to the martial world, in the end, they were still located in Sichuan. They were unwilling to become estranged from the powerful and wealthy local noble clans. In addition, accepting a member of the Zhu family as a disciple would only enhance their sect's prestige. Thus, Sima Wei agreed in the end. While teaching him their skills, they found that Zhu Baokun already possessed quite impressive martial arts. But whenever they tried to question him, Zhu Baokun, in accordance with what his master Dulingzi had taught him to do, would make up something and throw them off. Sima Wei, wanting to give his father some face, did not pursue the matter too much. He thought to himself that for a scion of a rich family to reach such a level of martial arts was already very difficult.

After entering the Qingcheng sect, Zhu Baokun focused on a specific number of martial arts techniques as instructed by Dulingzi. On New Year's Day and during other festivals, he gave very lavish gifts to his master and his fellow apprentices. Whenever his master needed anything done, he wouldn't wait for any actual request to be made before perfectly fulfilling his master's wants. After all, his family had plenty of money, which made these things easy. Sima Wei always felt rather awkward about this, and thus poured his energy in teaching Zhu Baokun martial arts, holding nothing back and keeping nothing hidden. Thus, within seven or eight years, Zhu Baokun had learned the ultimate skills of the Qingcheng sect.

Three or four years ago, Dulingzi had originally ordered Zhu Baokun to go to Mt. Penglai and display the martial arts of the Qingcheng sect, with the aim of overturning the Qingcheng sect with this knowledge. But after staying with the Qingcheng sect for so many years, Zhu Baokun felt that Sima Wei treated him very well. When teaching him martial arts, Sima Wei treated him as though he were his own son. Zhu Baokun could not bear the thought of him personally causing the destruction of the Qingcheng sect and slaughtering Sima Wei's entire family. He secretly decided, "I cannot make my move until after master Sima Wei passes away first. Martial-brother Sima Lin's treatment of me is nothing special; it's no big deal if I kill him." Thus, he delayed for a few years. Dulingzi tried to hasten him several times, but each time, Zhu Baokun would reply that he had not fully learned the nine strikes of the 'Qing' character and the eighteen destroying strokes of the 'Cheng' character. After having expended so much blood and sweat on this scheme, he was unwilling to 'fail to build a mound for the lack of one last pail of dirt'. He only exhorted Zhu Baokun to learn the secrets as quickly as possible, so that they could launch an attack.

However, during the past winter, Sima Wei was killed within the eastern Sichuan city of Baidi by an enemy who used Qingcheng sect's own 'Moon Destroying Awl' technique of the eighteen destroying strokes of the 'Cheng' character. The 'Moon Destroying Awl' technique pierced through Sima Wei's ear, driving through his brain and causing his death. Although the 'Moon Destroying Awl' technique had the word 'Awl' in its name, in actuality it did not use an awl. Instead, the practitioner would form his five fingers into a claw, then use profound internal strength to drive the claw through the opponent's ear.

Sima Lin and Zhu Baokun were in Chengdu when they received this news. They rushed to Baidi overnight. After discovering how Sima Wei died, the two of them were both sorrowful and afraid. They all thought to themselves that within the Qingcheng sect, aside from Sima Wei himself, only Sima Lin, Zhu Baokun, and two other venerable experts could use the 'Moon Destroying Awl' technique. But when this calamity happened, all four of them were clearly in Chengdu, as they were together during that period of time. None of them could suspect each other. Thus, aside from the famous family which would 'use the opponent's skills, exercising them upon the opponent', that being Gusu's Murong family, no one else could have killed him. The Qingcheng sect immediately turned out in full force, gathering all of their experts and going to Gusu, intending to exact revenge upon the Murong family.

Before heading out, Zhu Baokun secretly asked Dulingzi if it was the Penglai sect which did the deed. Dulingzi wrote, "Sima Lin's level of martial arts is very close to that of my own. If I were to kill him, I would have to use the 'Lord of Heaven Replenishes the Heart' technique to kill him. If a group of people were to besiege him, they would have to use our 'Iron Crutch' formation." Zhu Baokun thought to himself that this made sense. By now, he was fully aware that neither of his two masters was inferior to the other in martial arts. When it comes to using the 'Moon Destroying Awl' to kill Sima Wei, not only did Dulingzi not know this technique, even if he knew it, his proficiency in it couldn't possibly be superior to Sima Wei's. With no more doubt in his mind, he came with Sima Lin to Jiangnan to seek revenge. Dulingzi did not try to obstruct him, only telling him to be careful. He was to keep his eyes and ears open, but not to throw away his life on behalf of the Qingcheng sect.

After arriving in Suzhou, they sent people inquiring all over the place. It was only with great difficulty that they arrived at the 'Water Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds'. The Qin family stronghold of Yunnan had arrived just before them. The rules of the Qingcheng sect were extremely rigid; without the sect-leader's permission, no one dared to rashly say or do anything. Seeing how unorthodox and wild the people of the Qin family stronghold, they felt contempt towards them in their heart. Thus, both sides spoke very insultingly towards the other. The Qingcheng sect had come on a mission of revenge, and thus did not disturb a single blade of grass, and ate only the food they themselves had brought. They actually got something good out of this, as none of the members of the Qingcheng sect tasted old Gu's snot, saliva, or the mud from his hands.

After Wang Yuyan and the other three had arrived, strange things started to happen. When Zhu Baokun used the Qingcheng sect's 'Green Hornet' nail technique to shoot out the steel needles in the past, not even Sima Wei would be suspicious in the slightest. He never could have imagined that this little girl, Wang Yuyan, would expose the truth of the matter in a single sentence. Zhu Baokun did not manage to act quickly enough to silence her; still remembering her kind words from earlier, he hesitated for but a moment and lost the opportunity. In addition, Sima Lin and the others had already heard the words, 'Lord of Heaven Replenishing the Heart needle technique'. Even if he killed Wang Yuyan, it would only serve to make him look all the more treacherous and wicked.

At this moment, Zhu Baokun's mind was thrown in confusion, and cold sweat began to drip from his head. Turning around, he saw that Sima Lin and the others all had their hands folded within their sleeves, and were staring at him with fierce glares.

Sima Lin icily said, "Mr. Zhu, so you belong to the Penglai sect?" He no longer address Zhu Baokun as 'martial-brother', instead calling him 'Mr. Zhu'. Clearly, he no longer considered him as being part of the same school.

Zhu Baokun could neither admit to it nor deny it. An extremely awkward look was on his face.

Sima Lin's eyes opened wide, and he glared at Zhu Baokun. "You came to the Qingcheng sect to steal our skills, then, after learning the 'Moon Destroying Awl', used it to murder my father. You brutal, unscrupulous, cold-blooded cur, you are far too vile!" Sweeping his arms from his sleeves, he withdrew the 'Thunder God's Explosion' from his sleeves. He thought to himself that after Zhu Baokun had learned their martial arts, he must have taught it to the masters of the Penglai sect. Although Zhu Baokun was in Chengdu when his father died, after the Penglai sect's experts learned this technique, any of them could have killed his father.

Zhu Baokun's face was ashen. He thought to himself that although it was true that his master Dulingzi had sent him into the Qingcheng sect with this intention, to date he had not divulged a single secret of the Qingcheng sect. But with the situation having reached this point, how could he possibly explain? It seemed that a violent battle was about to occur. The enemy had more people and a stronger force. The skills of Sima Lin and the two other experts were not one whit inferior to his own. Today, it seemed as though he was about to lose his life. He thought to himself, "Although I did not do this, I did have the intention of betraying my master. Even if I am killed by the Qingcheng sect, it would be no more than receiving just punishment for my deeds." He immediately hardened his heart, then said, "Our master definitely was not harmed by me."

Sima Lin shouted, "Naturally, you yourself did not do the deed, but you taught the technique to the person who did. What's the difference between this and you personally killing him?" He said to the two tall, thin old men by his side, "Martial-uncles Jiang and Meng, when dealing with traitors like this, there's no need for us to adhere to the martial world's rules of one-on-one duels. Let's fight him together!" The two old men nodded, then withdrew their hands from their sleeves. They, too, were wielding the 'Thunder God's Explosion' weapons.

Zhu Baokun took a few steps back, resting his back against one of the room's pillars to prevent himself from being encircled. Sima Lin loudly cried, "Kill this traitor and avenge my father!" He charged forward, lifting his mace and delivering a powerful blow towards the top of Zhu Baokun's skull. Zhu Baokun sidestepped and let the blow pass by him, then countered with an awl-strike. The old man surnamed Jiang shouted, "You are fine fellow, you traitor! You still have the stones to use the martial arts techniques of our sect!" With his left hand, he struck out with the awl towards Zhu Baokun's throat, while with his right hand he struck out with his mace three times, using the 'Phoenix Nodding' technique.

The followers of the Qin family stronghold saw that the old man surnamed Jiang wielded the mace with superb skill, and that his techniques were extremely strange. All of them were extremely intrigued. Yao Bodang and the others secretly nodded, thinking to themselves, "The fame of the Qingcheng sect shakes western Sichuan. It looks like this isn't due to luck." Sima Lin was impatient in desiring to avenge his father, and thus his attacks were too rash and hasty. Zhu Baokun was consequently able to defend against them. But the two old men generated their internal energy, executing their attacks in accordance with the four critical points of the Qingcheng style: 'Steady', 'Ruthless', 'Secret', and 'Fierce'. Their awls pierced and their maces struck, with each blow directed towards his vital points. Zhu Baokun was besieged on all sides, and was instantly surrounded by danger.

Zhu Baokun knew by heart all of the mace and awl techniques which the three men were employing. After seeing each stance, he would be able to guess what the next three or four stances would be. This was the only reason why he was able to hold out against the three of them at the same time without being defeated. After ten or more stances, he felt sourness in his heart. He secretly thought to himself, "Master Sima truly treated me extremely well. I know every single one of these techniques which Sima Lin and these two martial-uncles are using. When teaching someone about the weak points in one's own techniques, it's very easy and common for the teacher to intentionally hold things back and not teach the student the most important points. At this critical life-and-death juncture, the three of them are naturally holding nothing back and going all out. It seems I really have been taught everything that he knew about Qingcheng sect's martial arts." His heart swelling with feelings of gratitude and indebtedness towards his master, he couldn't help but cry out, "I definitely did not cause my master's death…"

With his thoughts going astray, Sima Lin rushed forward and was now only a few feet away from him. Qingcheng sect's weapons were all short, and thus they were naturally most deadly when used in close hand to hand combat. If Sima Lin was fighting a member of any other sect, when he charged in he would have gained a seventy or eighty percent chance of winning. But since Zhu Baokun knew the same martial arts as he did, neither of them gained an advantage. Beneath the flickering candlelight, everyone present felt as though their vision was blurring. All they could see was that both Sima Lin and Zhu Baokun executed their stances very quickly. Their hands weaving and waving about, in the blink of an eye they had each executed seven or eight stances. The steel awls pierced upwards and jabbed downwards, while the steel maces struck horizontally and smashed vertically downwards. It was as though both of them had gone insane. But each of them was so familiar with the other's techniques that whenever one of them executed an attack, the counterattack came to the other as naturally as breathing. They had been instructed by the same teacher, and thus their techniques and styles were identical. Sima Li was young and strong, but Zhu Baokun possessed an abundance of varied experiences. In a short period of time, tens of stances had been exchanged. The onlookers could hear the clinking and clanging sounds as their weapons clashes, but could no longer tell what attacks and defenses each were using.

The two elders, seeing that Sima Li was unable to achieve victory despite a long battle, suddenly let out a sharp whistle, then rolled on the floor towards them, attacking Zhu Baokun's lower extremities.

Most of the people who use short weapons, save for females, knew various rolling and jumping techniques which would cause the opponent to be uncertain as to how to respond. Zhu Baokun, too, was originally very familiar with this attack of theirs, known as the 'Thunder God's Earth Explosion', but with his hands occupied defending against Sima Li's awl and mace, he had nothing left to guard against the two elders. All he could do was run around and try to dodge or jump away. Elder Jiang's steel mace struck at him from the left, while elder Meng's awl stabbed from the right. Zhu Baokun leapt up and delivered a flying kick to elder Meng's lower jaw. Elder Meng cursed, "Son of a tortoise, so you are going all out?" He dodged to the side. Elder Jiang charged forwards, delivering a sweeping attack with his mace, just as Sima Lin's mace struck towards Zhu Baokun's forehead. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Zhu Baokun had to choose between the lesser of two evils. Lifting his weapon, he blocked Sima Lin's attack, while receiving a stiff blow to his left leg from Elder Jiang's mace.

Although the mace was small, the crushing force of its blows was very formidable. Zhu Baokun felt the pain in the very marrow of his bones. For the moment, he couldn't even be sure as to whether or not his leg bone was already snapped. With a clanging sound, two maces met and sparks exploded. He then let out a cry as elder Meng's awl pierced his left leg as well.

He was actually capable of dodging this strike, but if he had done so, the 'Thunder God's Earth Explosion' technique which the two elders were using would have united and transformed into the 'Earth Goddess's Thunder Web' attack, which he would have been unable to resist. Since his left leg might already be broken, he might as well just let it receive some more punishment. Within a few more strokes, bright blood began to splash from his leg, spraying red dots all across the walls.

Wang Yuyan saw Ah Zhu crease her forehead and pucker her lips in a frown. She knew that Ah Zhu hated watching this bunch of people battle against each other here and dirty her clean and tidy house. Smiling, she called out, "Hey, stop fighting! If you have problems, let's talk them out. Why be so unreasonable?" Sima Lin and the others wanted to execute the 'evil traitor who murdered their master' on the spot. Zhu Baokun was willing to stop fighting, but how could he? Seeing how the four of them continued to fight violently and ignore her words, and how it was primarily Sima Lin and the two elders who kept the fight going, she said, "All of you, stop fighting!" Sima Lin roared back, "I will not live under the same sky with the man who murdered my father! How can I not avenge him? What are you babbling about?" Wang Yuyan said, "If you don't stop, I'm going to help him!"

Sima Lin's heart went cold. He thought to himself, "This beautiful girl sees very clearly and thoroughly. I imagine her martial arts skills are excellent as well. If she helps the other side, things would get a bit troublesome." Then he thought, "With so many experts of our Qingcheng sect here, if push comes to shove we can mob them. Can it be that we'll all be defeated by such a delicate-looking girl?" He added more force to his blows, pelting vicious blows towards Zhu Baokun like the beating of the rain or the raging of the wind.

Wang Yuyan said, "Mr. Zhu, first use, the 'Force of Li Cunxiao Striking the Tiger', then use 'Zhang Guolao Riding the Donkey Backwards'!" [As the reader will have guessed, Li Cunxiao and Zhang Guolao are famous legendary figures.] Zhu Baokun was startled. He thought to himself, "The first stance belongs to the Qingcheng sect, but the second comes from the Penglai sect. These two definitely cannot be mixed together. How can I use them in succession?" But right now, the situation was critical. How could he have the time to ponder in depth? He executed the 'Force of Li Cunxiao Striking the Tiger' technique, and with a pair of 'dang' sounds, just managed to block two mace blows from Sima Lin and elder Jiang. Following this, he turned around and took three crooked steps backwards, each step taken precisely before an ambushing awl attack by elder Jiang. This stance which elder Jiang used was a combination attack using both the mace and the awl, with three strikes in total. It was extremely sinister and vicious. Each step Zhu Baokun took, he staggered as though he were drunk, and the execution was totally unorthodox. But at the most critical moment of each attack, he managed to avoid the opponent's ruthless strikes. It was as though the two of them had practiced this in advance and were now showing off their abilities.

These three ambushing strikes were extremely ingenious, but the dodges were even more exquisite. All of the members of the Qin family stronghold watching were rapt and breathless. After every dodge, they let out an exclamation in unison, and by the time all three attacks were dodged, they had let out three mighty shouts. The faces of the disciples of the Qingcheng sect were very gloomy to begin with, but now they looked all the more terrible to behold.

Duan Yu shouted out, "Wonderful, wonderful! Brother Zhu, whatever Miss Wang tells you to do, do it. I promise you won't lose out by doing so!"

When Zhu Baokun executed this 'Zhang Guolao Riding the Donkey Backwards' technique, he had no idea what the results might be. His head was filled with a murky fog, and he felt that life and death were the same, and had long since cast away any hopes of living. He didn't imagine that these two techniques from the Qingcheng sect and the Penglai sect could actually be executed together and allow him to evade those three vicious blows. The panic in his heart was far greater than even that of the members of the Qin family stronghold, or of the members of the Qingcheng sect.

He heard Wang Yuyan call out, "First execute 'Han Xiangzi Embraces the Snow of the Blue Gate', then execute the 'Crooked Path Opens to the Netherworld'!" The first technique belonged to the Penglai sect, and the second belonged to the Qingcheng sect. Without even thinking, Zhu Baokun drew a circle in front of him using his mace and his awl in a defensive sealing movement. Just at this moment, Sima Lin and elder Meng thrust at him with their awls. The three of them had actually executed their attacks at the same time, but in the eyes of outsiders, it seemed as though Zhu Baokun had completed his defensive movement first, while Sima Lin and elder Meng, despite seeing his defensive movement and finding no flaws in his defense, still insisted on using a large amount of energy in a useless attack. Their two awls connected with his mace, and with a clanging sound, the two awls were flicked aside. Zhu Baokun didn't hesitate at all, and immediately stooped down and launched a backwards piercing strike with his awl.

Elder Jiang was just about to strike him from behind. He never imagined that Zhu Baokun's awl would strike at him at this moment, from this angle. The 'Crooked Path Opens to the Netherworld' technique belonged to the Qingcheng sect, and elder Jiang knew it by heart. Using the attack in such a manner was totally antithetical to the basic principles of Qingcheng sect martial arts. If Zhu Baokun, while practicing martial arts, had normally executed the technique in such a way, elder Jiang would have burst into loud laughter. But by using such an unreasonable attack, elder Jiang was put into a position where he was about to commit suicide, as he was rushing forwards with his body in line with the tip of the awl. He knew that he was in a disastrous position, but couldn't retract his charging force in time. With a puffing sound, the awl pierced into his waist. His body swayed, and he fell to the floor. Two disciples of the Qingcheng sect ran forwards, grabbed him, then carried him away.

Sima Lin cursed, "Zhu Baokun, you son of a turtle, you just hurt martial-uncle Jiang with your own hands. You can't claim this is false as well, right?" Wang Yuyan said, "I told him to hurt elder Jiang. Please, stay your hands!" Sima Lin angrily said, "If you're really so capable, tell him how to kill me!" Wang Yuyan smiled. "Mr. Zhu, first use the technique, 'Iron-Crutched Li Passes Through a Tunnel Into the Front Yard Beneath the Moon,' then use the technique, 'Iron-Crutched Li Discusses the Way in a Jade Cavern.'"

Zhu Baokun replied, "Yes!" He thought to himself, "Within the Penglai sect's martial arts techniques, there are only the stances, 'Lu Chunyang Passes Through a Tunnel Into the Front Yard Beneath the Moon' and 'Han Zhongli Discusses the Way in a Jade Cavern.' How did Iron-Crutched Li get mixed up into this? Most likely, this girl's understanding of our school's martial arts technique still has its limits, and she misspoke." But at this critical moment, Sima Lin and elder Meng definitely would not give him the chance to ask her to clarify. All he could do was use his normal techniques and execute 'Lu Chunyang Passes Through a Tunnel Into the Front Yard Beneath the Moon'.

This technique, 'Passing Through a Tunnel Into the Front Yard Beneath the Moon', was originally meant to be executed by taking a large step forward, and was possessed of natural grace and elegance, as though someone were flying through the air. But after his left leg received two serious wounds, when he took a large step he was limping. How could he appear to be like Lu Chunyang? He looked one hundred percent like Iron-Crutched Li. But even though he was forced to limp forwards, he still received a great advantage from this motion. The two awl strikes which Sima Lin had just struck out with hit nothing but the air. Next, when he executed the 'Han Zhongli Discusses the Way in a Jade Cavern' technique, his left leg was still limping and his entire body was inclined towards the left. He used the mace in his right hand as a fan, sweeping it across his body. Just at this moment, elder Meng's head came into contact with his mace. With a clapping sound, the mace hit him right in the mouth. Ten of his teeth were immediately knocked out of his mouth and fell to the floor. It was so painful that he yelled and jumped up like a madman. He threw away his weapons, pressing both hands to his mouth as he sat down on the floor.

Sima Lin was secretly shocked, but for the moment didn't know what to do. Should he continue to fight, or temporarily withdraw and gain his revenge another day? The two techniques which Wang Yuyan had instructed Zhu Baokun use were simply too miraculous. She had calculated that after those three earlier techniques, elder Meng would charge towards Zhu Baokun's right hand side. When Zhu Baokun struck out with his hammer at that moment, it was perfectly aligned with elder Meng's mouth. Since Zhu Baokun's leg was crippled, 'Han Zhongli Discusses the Way in a Jade Cavern' turned into 'Iron-Crutched Li Discusses the Way in a Jade Cavern,' and the mace struck out at an angle. If he hadn't been crippled and the mace came out normally, it would have missed by a few inches. Her calculations were extremely ingenious and her predictions of the opponent's actions were very accurate. It truly was shocking and astonishing.

Sima Lin thought to himself, "If I want to kill Zhu Baokun, this son of a turtle, first I'll need to think of a way to shut this girl's mouth and keep her from giving him advice." But just as he was trying to think of a strategy by which he could harm Wang Yuyan, he heard her say, "Mr. Zhu, you are a disciple of the Penglai sect. For you to deceive your way into the Qingcheng sect in order to steal their martial arts is extremely inappropriate. However, I do believe that you were not the one who harmed the old master, Sima Wei. Based on your level of martial arts, even if you taught another expert the skills of the Qingcheng sect, he definitely would not be able to use the 'Moon Destroying Awl' technique to kill old master Sima Wei. But you are still to blame for stealing other people's martial arts secrets. Quick, go apologize to sect-leader Sima, and we'll consider this matter settled."

Zhu Baokun thought that her words were just. In addition, she had saved his life, as he had only escaped from danger based on her advice. He could not disobey her commands, and immediately bowed deeply towards Sima Lin. He said, "Martial-brother sect-leader, it is your junior brother's fault…"

Sima Lin leapt to one side, then fiercely cursed, "You bastard, you son of a turtle, you still have the face and the audacity to call me your martial-brother sect-leader?"

Wang Yuyan called out, "Quick! 'Sauntering About the East China Sea!'

Zhu Baokun's heart went cold. He immediately rose up and leapt three feet into the air. With a number of 'chi' sounds, over ten 'Green Hornet' nail projectiles passed underneath his feet, just barely missing him. If it hadn't been for Wang Yuyan's warning, as well as her specifically instructing him to use 'Sauntering About the East China Sea' technique rather than simply saying 'Beware his hidden projectiles!', his focus would have been on the opponent. How could he have guessed that Sima Lin would shoot out 'Green Hornet' nails from his sleeves? By then, it would have been too late to dodge.

The technique Sima Lin had just used was named 'Heaven and Earth Within the Sleeves'. This was an ultimate skill which the Sima family passed down only to their children and not to the other disciples of the Qingcheng sect. This was a household rule, and not even the two elders knew this technique. Sima Wei did not pass this skill to Zhu Baokun because he had to obey the ancestral rules. This couldn't be considered 'hiding' something from him. Zhu Baokun couldn't have imagined that Sima Lin, without batting an eye, only needed to tuck his hands inside his sleeves and the hidden weaponry would erupt from the 'Green Hornet' nail mechanism hidden within. Wang Yuyan not only exposed this trick, but even instructed him on how to avoid the hidden weapons, using the Penglai sect's technique, 'Sauntering About the East China Sea'.

This never-fail trick which Sima Lin had just executed had actually been defeated, as though by ghosts or demons. Pointing towards Wang Yuyan, he cried out, "You aren't a human, you're a ghost, a ghost!"

All the teeth in elder Meng's mouth had been knocked loose, and he had actually swallowed three of his teeth earlier. Although he was very old, he was very sharp-eyed, his hair was still dark, and his teeth were firm and hard. He prided himself on these things. Whenever he lost a tooth, he grieved deeply. Now, he loudly cried out in an indistinct voice, "Capture that girl, capture that girl!"

The rules of the Qingcheng sect were extremely rigid. Although elder Meng had a very high status, all actions had to be approved by the sect-leader first. Every disciple turned their gaze towards Sima Lin. If he said a single word of approval, they would throw themselves at Wang Yuyan.

Sima Lin said icily, "Miss Wang, how is it that you are so very familiar with the martial arts of our sect?" Wang Yuyan said, "I read them in a book. The techniques of the Qingcheng sect specialize in trickery, deception, viciousness, and ruthlessness. There aren't a lot of changes or transformations in the techniques. They aren't too hard to memorize." Sima Lin said, "What book is this?" Wang Yuyan said, "Oh, it wasn't a particularly special book. There are two volumes of the tome which discusses the martial arts of the Qingcheng sect. The first volume is called <>. The second is called, <>. You are the sect-leader of the Qingcheng sect. Naturally, you've read them both."

Sima Lin secretly cried, "How embarrassing!" When he was young and first starting to learn martial arts, his father said to him, "In our schools martial arts, there originally were the <> and the <>. Unfortunately, with the passage of time, they were lost, leaving us with incomplete fragments, so that all these years, we have not been able to surpass the Penglai sect, and causing us to only be able to stalemate them. If anyone is able to uncover these two sets of martial arts in their entirety, not only would we be able to destroy the Penglai sect with ease, it wouldn't be unthinkable for us to rule over the world." Now, hearing her say that she read these books, he couldn't help but feel a fire ignite in his chest. He said, "Might you be willing to lend this book to me to read, so that I might see what similarities this book has with the teachings of my sect?"

Before Wang Yuyan had a chance to reply, Yao Bodang began to laugh loudly. "Miss, don't fall for this kid's trick. His understanding of the martial arts of the Qingcheng sect is very shallow. He only knows three or four of the strikes of the 'Qing' character, and at most eleven or twelve of the 'Cheng' character's destroying strokes. He wants to trick you into letting him check out your strange and wondrous martial arts treatises. No matter what, you can't lend it to him!"

Sima Lin's intentions were laid bare by Yao Bodang. Sinister lines of anger appeared on his young face. He said, "I personally wish to borrow some books from Miss Wang. What does this have to do with your Qin family?"

Yao Bodang laughed. "Naturally, this affects the Qin family stronghold. Miss Wang has memorized so many strange and exotic martial arts in the world. Whoever gets her will become matchless in the world. When I, Yao Bodang, see gold, silver, pearls, treasure, or beautiful women, I've always stretched my hand out and taken them. How can it be that I'll let such a rare, once-in-a-lifetime treasure such as Miss Wang slip away from my grasp? Brother Sima, if your Qingcheng sect wishes to borrow books from her, why don't you come and ask me if I am willing to allow it? Hah hah, hah hah! Why don't you take a guess? Do you think I will agree?"

These words Yao Bodang spoke were extremely rude and arrogant, but after Sima Lin and the two elders heard them, their hearts were swayed. They thought to themselves, "This young girl's understanding of martial arts truly is boundless and unfathomable. Judging from her fragile, delicate appearance, it'd be impossible for her to personally fight and achieve victory. But she obviously has read many weird and remarkable martial arts manuals, and has understood how to apply what she has learned as well. If we can manage to take her back to the Qingcheng sect, we would be able to learn more than just the 'Nine Strikes of the 'Qing' Character' and the 'Eighteen Destroying Strokes of the 'Cheng' Character'. It seems as though stronghold-master Yao has the same though. Looks like we need to prepare for a major battle."

Yao Bodang continued, "Miss Wang, we originally came to cause trouble for the Murong family. From the looks of it, you seem to belong to the Murong family?"

Once Wang Yuyan heard the words, 'you seem to belong to the Murong family', she felt both bashful and happy. Her entire face blushed, and she swayed once before saying, "Young master Murong is my cousin. What business do you have with him? How has he offended you?"

Yao Bodang laughed loudly. "You are Murong Fu's cousin? That couldn't be better. The ancestor's of Gusu's Murong family owes my Yao family a million taels of gold and ten million taels of silver. It's been centuries, and they owe us interest on the interest. How shall we settle this debt?" Wang Yuyan was astonished. "How can there be such a thing? My uncle's family has always been rich. How can they owe your family money?" Yao Bodang replied, "Whether they owe us or not, what does a little girl like you know? I went looking for Murong Bo to get our money back. He agreed to pay us back, but he didn't pay us back a single copper before his feet stiffened and he dropped dead. Since the old fellow died, the only option is to go find his son. Who would have imagined that upon his creditors arriving, Murong Fu would actually hide himself away? The only choice I have is to find something to serve as a mortgage."

Wang Yuyan replied, "My cousin is generous and straightforward. If he borrowed money from you, he would have repaid you long ago. Even if he didn't borrow money from you, if you asked him for some gold and silver, he would not refuse you. What is this nonsense about him being afraid of you and hiding himself away?"

Yao Bodang wrinkled his forehead. He said, "How about this. It's hard to fully debate matters like this in a short period of time. Tonight, why don't you temporarily come north with me, Miss? You can stay at the Qin family stronghold for a year or so. I guarantee that the people of the Qin family stronghold won't touch a hair on your head. The wife of Yao Bodang is a famous for being a jealous old tigress. I've always been extremely well-disciplined when it comes to dealing with other women. Put your mind at rest. There's no need for you to pack either, we'll leave immediately. After your cousin has coughed up the money to repay this debt, I will naturally escort you back to Gusu and allow you and your cousin to be married. The Qin family stronghold will give you a very lavish wedding gift, and I, Yao Bodang, will have to come and drink a wedding toast as well." As he spoke, his lips split into another loud laugh.

These words were extremely boorish, and the last few words were all the more mocking, but in Wang Yuyan's ears, they sounded very sweet and made her very happy. Smiling, she said, "You love to talk rubbish. Why would I go with you to the Qin family stronghold? If my uncle's family really borrowed money from you, most likely it was something which happened a long time ago which my cousin doesn't know about. All you have to do is produce evidence, and my cousin will definitely repay you."

Yao Bodang's original intention was to carry off Wang Yuyan and force her to reveal martial arts secrets. Everything he said earlier about a million taels of gold and ten million taels of silver were all nonsense. Now, hearing how innocent she was in taking his nonsensical story to be true, he said, "It is best if you come with me. The Qin family stronghold is a very fun place. We've raised a pack of black hunting panthers, giant hawks, and deer. Everything is new and exciting. I guarantee that you won't be bored of the place within half a year. As soon as your cousin receives the news, he will immediately come there to find you. Even if he doesn't pay me back, I guess I can just forget about it and let the two of you go back to Gusu. What do you think?" These words he spoke caused Wang Yuyan's heart to actually be moved.

Sima Lin, seeing her gaze wander and a beaming expression on her face, thought to himself, "If she actually agrees to go to the Qin family stronghold, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to prevent her from doing so afterwards." Without waiting for her to respond, he immediately interjected, "Yunnan is a place of bitter cold, located beyond the Great Wall. Miss Wang, how could a delicate and tender Jiangnan beauty such as you suffer such torment? My hometown of Chengdu is a city of legendary beauty, known as the City of Silk and Satin. The silk which we produce is famous world-wide. Moreover, we have beautiful scenery and ten times as many diverting things to do as Yunnan. Miss Wang, in accordance with your beauty, you should come to Chengdu and buy some silk dresses. It would be like a red rose on a field of green plants, each multiplying the beauty of the other. Young master Murong is both handsome and talented. Naturally, he would like it if you dressed up beautifully for him." Since he was now certain that his father had been harmed by the people from the Penglai sect, he held no more grudges against the Murong family.

Yao Bodang shouted, "Farting, farting, your dog of a mother is letting out a smelly fart! Can it be that the city of Suzhou lacks silks or brocade? Open your dog eyes and take a close look at these three beautiful girls. Which of them don't know how to dress up?" Sima Lin let out a cold snort. "It stinks in here. It really does stink." Yao Bodang angrily shouted, "Are you talking about me?" Sima Lin said, "I wouldn't dare! I'm saying that a filthy dog naturally lets out nauseating farts."

With a swishing sound, Yao Bodang drew the short-hilted broadsword from his and called out, "Sima Lin, my Qin family stronghold, compared to your Qingcheng sect, is probably about on par and matched with each other. But if the Qin family stronghold unites with the Penglai sect, we'd probably be able to wipe out your Qingcheng sect. Am I right?"

The look on Sima Lin's face changed. He thought to himself, "His words are not false. After the passing of my father, the strength of my Qingcheng sect is already diminished. In addition, this traitor, Zhu Baokun, has stolen our secret martial arts techniques. If the Qin family stronghold becomes our enemies as well, then things will become very difficult. As the saying goes, 'he who strikes first becomes the master, he who strikes second suffers disaster'. Goddamnit, the only option we have today is to launch a surprise attack on them." He immediately said lightly, "What do you propose?"

Seeing him fold his hands into his sleeves, Yao Bodang knew that could shoot forth his insidious hidden weapons at any point in time. Instantly, he became all the more cautious. He said, "I am inviting Miss Wang to stay in Yunnan as my guest until young master Murong comes to escort her back home. But you have chosen to meddle in my business and refuse to accept this. Am I right?"

Sima Lin said, "Your home, Yunnan, is too crappy a place for Miss Wang. I want to invite Miss Wang to come to Chengdu to enjoy herself." Yao Bodang said, "Fine. Let us determine victory or defeat through battle. Whoever wins will be Miss Wang's host." Sima Lin said, "Precisely so. After all, even if the losers want to be Miss Wang's host, they can't possibly invite her down to the underworld." The meaning of his words was that this wasn't a competition of martial arts, but a life-and-death struggle which would determine who would live and who would be destroyed. Yao Bodang loudly laughed, then shouted, "The life that I, Yao Bodang have lived, has always been one of lapping blood from the tip of my broadsword. Sect-leader Sima, you want to use the word 'death' to frighten me? I have not taken it to heart in the slightest!" Sima Lin said, "How shall we compete? Shall the two of us duel with each other, or shall everyone just charge at the other side?"

Yao Bodang said, "Why don't you just let this old fellow that I am play with you a bit…" Sima Lin suddenly turned his head towards the left, a look of utmost astonishment on his face, as though something bizarre had just happened. Yao Bodang's gaze had been on him this entire time, fearing that he was planning some sort of trick. But now, he couldn't help but turn his gaze to the left as well. Suddenly, three sneering sounds could be heard. Snapping his attention back, he saw that the hidden weapons were now less than a meter away from his chest. He felt sourness in his heart, knowing that he was in deep trouble....

Just at this critical, lethal moment, something flashed by his chest. With a clattering sound, it knocked aside all of the poisoned nails. The poison nails were shot out extremely quickly, and despite Yao Bodang being focused upon his opponent, he still would have been unable to avoid them. But the object which knocked aside the poison nails was several times faster than the nails. It was sent out later, but arrived earlier, knocking the poisoned nails aside. As to what exactly was tossed out, no one had seen clearly.

Wang Yuyan cried out in a happy voice, "Is it Uncle Bao who's arrived?"

An extremely strange voice replied, "Tis not so, tis not so. It isn't Uncle Bao who's arrived."

Wang Yuyan laughed, "You claim not to be Uncle Bao? Even before you yourself appear, your 'tis not so, tis not so' comments arrive!" That voice replied, "Tis not so, tis not so! I am not Uncle Bao!" Wang Yuyan laughed. "Tis not so, tis not so? Then who are you?" That voice replied, "The kinsmen of the Murong family call me 'third brother', but you addressed me as me 'uncle'. Tis not so, tis not so! You addressed me incorrectly!" Wang Yuyan's body swayed with laughter as she pressed her hands to her face. "You still aren't coming out?"

The voice did not reply. After a while, Wang Yuyan saw that there wasn't a single bit of movement, and cried out, "Hey, come out! Come help us shoo out these random people away!" But still, no sound could be heard. Clearly, the person surnamed Bao had left long ago. Wang Yuyan felt a bit disappointed, and asked Ah Zhu, "Where did he go?" Ah Zhu smiled. "Third brother Bao always had this sort of weird temper. Earlier, miss, you said, 'You still aren't coming out?' Originally, he was planning to come out, but after hearing you say that, he would do the opposite to make things awkward for you. I'm afraid he might not come back at all today."

Earlier, there was a 99% chance of death for Yao Bodang, if it hadn't been for the help of the man surnamed Bao. Naturally, he felt indebted to him. Originally, he held no grudges against the Qingcheng sect and felt no enmity towards them, but now, it was unavoidable that he would want to kill Sima Lin. Brandishing his short-handled broadsword, he shouted, "Shameless scoundrel! You secretly shoot out hidden weapons. Do you think you can hurt this old man with them?" With a sweep of his broadsword, he chopped towards the crown of Sima Lin's head. Sima Lin's hands left his sleeves. In his left hand he wielded a steel awl, and in his right hand he wielded a steel mace, and his two weapons began to tussle against Yao Bodang's broadsword.

Yao Bodang possessed great physical strength, and his sabre techniques were ruthless and vicious. By contrast, Sima Lin specialized in using small, quick weapons and clever techniques. This was the first time a member of the Qin family stronghold and a member of Qingcheng sect had fought against each other. With each of them being the leader of their respective organization, this was more than just a life-and-death battle; this was something which would determine the prestige or downfall of their sects. Both of them were forced to be very careful, not daring to slacken off in the slightest.

After seventy or so stances had been exchanged, Wang Yuyan suddenly said to Ah Zhu, "Check it out. It seems as though the Qin family stronghold is missing more than just five strokes from their 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate' sabre style. Why isn't leader Yao using the techniques 'Carrying the Son Through the River' or 'Valuing Integrity, Guarding Righteousness'?" Ah Zhu didn't know anything about the 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate' sabre style, and found it difficult to respond.

In the middle of this fierce battle, these four sentences drifted into Yao Bodang's ears. He was greatly shocked. "This little lady's eyesight is incredible. It originally was the case that only fifty nine strokes remained of the sixty four strokes of the 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate' sabre style. But when my master learned this style, he was not intelligent enough to learn those two stances, 'Carrying the Son Through the River' and 'Valuing Integrity, Guarding Righteousness.' Thus, those two stances were lost, leaving behind only fifty seven strokes. In order to save face, I slightly modified the alternate forms of two other strokes, so as to keep the number of stances at fifty nine. She actually saw through it."

As it were, the people of the mountain strongholds were a motley, disorderly array. Anyone could mingle together with them, but when Yunnan's Qin family led raids to loot and plunder, the leaders were always disciples of the 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate' school. The experts of other sects, knowing that the members of the Qin family stockade would not treat them as one of their own, would not go and try to join forces with them. Yao Bodang's master came from the Qin family. He was not only the chief of the Qin family stockade, but also the leader of the sect-leader of the 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate' school of martial arts. His own martial arts level, as well as that of his son, Qin Boqi, was very mediocre. Thus, he gave his own rank and station to that of his head apprentice, Yao Bodang. Several months ago, while in Shaanxi, Qin Boqi was killed by a sabre technique which utilized three horizontal chops and a vertical chop, known as the "Four Knife-Strokes of the 'Wang' Character" [The 'Wang' character, meaning 'King', is written in Chinese with three parallel horizontal strokes and a vertical stroke which bisects all three]. This was the hardest and most fierce technique within the 'Five Tigers Shattering the Gate' sabre style. Everyone believed that the killer must have been Gusu's Murong family. Yao Bodang, remembering his master's benevolence, marshaled the many experts of his stronghold and came to Suzhou to seek revenge on behalf of his martial-brother. Unexpectedly, he almost lost his life to the poison nails of the Qingcheng sect before he even had a chance to meet with the master of the place, and his life was actually rescued by one of Murong Fu's friends.

Yao Bodang hated Sima Lin's vile, treacherous techniques techniques. Now, hearing Wang Yuyan expose the flaws in his martial arts, he felt very ashamed. He wanted to defeat Sima Lin as quickly as possible, so as to maintain his own dignity and prestige within his sect. But this anxiousness to achieve a quick victory made him rash and impatient. He executed several risky attacks, all of which were dodged by Sima Lin. Letting out a loud roar, Yao Bodang brandished his sabre in a mighty downwards chop. Just as Sima Lin leapt to the left, Yao Bodang suddenly kicked out with his right leg. Sima Lin's body was in midair, leaving him with no place to dodge. Instead, he delivered a powerful thrust towards Yao Bodang's foot using the steel awl in his left hand, intending to force Yao Bodang to retract this kick. Although Yao Bodang indeed did not follow through with his right kick, his left leg suddenly struck out as well in a tandem strike, attacking the left side of Sima Lin's waist.

Sima Lin struck diagonally with his steel mace. With a clapping sound, by chance it managed to strike Yao Bodang precisely on the bridge of his nose. Blood immediately began to flow from the wound. But at the same time, Yao Bodang's left leg struck Sima Lin on his waist.

Unfortunately, since Yao Bodang was struck first, he was startled, causing the power of this kick to have less than 20% of his normal force. Although Sima Lin was hit, he suffered no ill effects at all, aside from some temporary pain. And so, in the twinkling of an eye, victory and defeat had been determined. Letting out a tiger's roar, Yao Bodang charged forward with his sabre. But feeling pain so severe that it seemed his head had been split in twain, Yao Bodang's footsteps became staggered and his footing became unsure.

Sima Lin's winning of this battle was highly due to luck. He knew that if he spared Yao Bodang's life, Yao Bodang would cause him no end of trouble in the future. Immediately, he made up his mind to be ruthless. The mace in his hand flashed through the air in an attack. Just as Yao Bodang brandished his knife to defend, the steel awl in Sima Lin's left hand pierced directly towards Yao Bodang's heart.

The deputy-leader of the Qin family stronghold, seeing that things were going south, let out a loud cry then threw his short-hilted broadsword directly towards Sima Lin. In the blink of an eye, the room was filled with the sound of wind blowing as over ten short-hilted broadswords flew through the air towards Sima Lin.

As it so happened, within the martial arts of the Qin family stronghold, there was a consummate technique which involved throwing their broadswords at an opponent. Each broadsword weighed roughly between three and five kilograms. When thrown at an opponent, they carried an extremely powerful force. Now, with over ten broadswords flying towards him, Sima Lin found himself in a hopeless situation, neither able to deflect them nor able to dodge them.

Just when it seemed as though he was about to fall prey to the flying broadswords, a shadow of a man appeared in the room, flying towards Sima Lin's side. Stretching out his hands, the shadow plunged them into the midst of those flying broadswords, snatching and grabbing at them until he had seized all of them. He clasped them to his chest with his left hand, then let out a long laugh, seating himself on a chair in the middle of the room. Following this, he hurled all of the broadswords down to his feet with a clanking sound.

Everyone was struck dumb with astonishment. The man seated in the chair was middle-aged, thin and gaunt, extremely tall, and wore a long, grey gown. There was a stubborn, perverse look to his features. Having seen his skill in seizing the broadswords, everyone here was both fearful and awed. Nobody dared to say a word.

Only Duan Yu was laughing. "This brother's movements are really quick! I imagine your martial arts is at a very high level. Sir, might I ask what your undoubtedly famous name is?"

Before that man had a chance to reply, Wang Yuyan rushed forward and laughed, "Third brother Bao! I thought you weren't going to come back, and was starting to worry. Wonderful, wonderful!"

Duan Yu said, "Oh, so it's Mr. Bao." Mr. Bao tossed him a sideways glance, then icily said, "Boy, who are you? How dare you prattle on and on in front of me?" Duan Yu replied, "My name is Duan Yu. I've never studied martial arts and am not a warrior, but during my time stumbling about the jianghu, I've somehow managed to avoid death up 'til now. It's really rather remarkable." Mr. Bao turned and stared at him, not knowing how to respond.

Sima Lin stepped forward. Bowing deeply, he said, "Sima Lin of the Qingcheng sect greatly appreciates your assistance. I will never dare to forget your great benevolence and kindness. Mr. Bao, might I ask what your full name is, so that I might forever remember it in my heart?" Mr. Bao's eyes flashed, and he suddenly struck out with a kick, knocking Sima Lin backwards into a somersault. He shouted, "You think you are worthy of knowing my name? I didn't have any intention to save you. It's just that this is the home of sister Ah Zhu. If they dismembered you, you little brat, into many pieces here, it would've dirtied this place, the 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds.' **** off, **** off now!"

When Sima Lin saw him kick out, he wanted to dodge, but could not do so in time. The fall he took was very humiliating. After hearing Mr. Bao speak such bullying words, according to the rules of the jianghu, if Sima Lin didn't immediately attack and go all out, he would at least have to arrange a future date for a duel. No matter what, he could not allow himself to be humiliated so badly in front of everyone without even a response. He gathered himself, then said, "Mr. Bao, today I, Sima Lin, was besieged by many enemies and almost lost my life. I am indebted to you for your saving of my life. I, Sima Lin, am a person who can distinguish between benevolence and enmity. I will repay benevolence with benevolence, and enmity with vengeance. Please, sir! Your move." Sima Lin knew all too well that no matter how long or how arduously he trained, he wouldn't be able to achieve Mr. Bao's level of martial arts. Thus, he could only use the eight words, 'repay benevolence with benevolence, and enmity with vengeance', to indistinctly put up a muddled response.

Mr. Bao wasn't even paying attention to what he was saying. He turned towards Wang Yuyan and said, "Miss Wang, how is it that the madame allowed you to come here?" Wang Yuyan laughed, "Why don't you guess how this happened?" Mr. Bao mumbled to himself, "This is a bit hard to guess."

Sima Lin, seeing how Mr. Bao totally ignored his display in favor of talking to Wang Yuyan, felt even more belittled and humiliated than when he had been kicked earlier. He couldn't help but feel hatred towards Mr. Bao. He no longer cared at all about the benevolence which Mr. Bao had shown him earlier. With a wave of his left hand, he led all the disciples of the Qingcheng sect away.

Mr. Bao said, "Hold. Stay here and listen to my instructions." Sima Lin turned around. "What?" Mr. Bao said, "I heard that you came to Gusu in order to avenge the death of your father. You came looking for the wrong person. Your father, Sima Wei, was not killed by young master Murong." Sima Lin said, "Why do you say that? Mr. Bao, how do you know this?"

Mr. Bao angrily replied, "If I say that young master Murong didn't kill him, then naturally young master Murong didn't kill him. Even if he really killed him, if I say he didn't, then the killing doesn't count. Can it be that my words hold no weight?"

Sima Lin thought to himself, "These words of his are really far too peremptory." He replied, "I cannot exist in the same world with a man who murdered my father. Although my skill in martial arts is low, I must avenge his death, even if it results in my body being smashed into powder. Mr. Bao, if you know who murdered him, please inform me." Mr. Bao loudly laughed. "Your father isn't my son. Why should I know or care as to who killed him? I'm telling you that young master Murong didn't kill him, but it seems you won't believe me. Fine! Let's just say I killed him. If you want to avenge him, come kill me!" Sima Lin's face turned ashen pale. "How can the murder of my father be treated as a game? Mr. Bao, I know that I am not your match. If you want to kill me, go ahead, but you are not allowed to humiliate me thusly!" Mr. Bao laughed, "I refuse to kill you, but insist on humiliating you. What are you going to do about it?"

Sima Lin was so furious, his chest was about to explode. However, he still did not have the courage to rush forward and stake his life in an all-out-attack. He was caught between a rock and a hard place, with neither advancing nor retreating being a good option. He felt extremely awkward.

Mr. Bao laughed, "Your father's level of martial arts is too trifling. Why would brother Murong bother to personally deal with him? Young master Murong's level of martial arts is ten times higher than mine. Think about it. Is your father fit to die underneath his hands?"

Before Sima Lin had a chance to respond, Zhu Baokun drew out his weapons then loudly shouted, "Mr. Bao, Mr. Sima Wei was my instructor and master. I will not allow you to besmirch his reputation, after his death!" Mr. Bao laughed, "You are a spy who snuck into the Qingcheng sect to steal their martial arts secrets. What does this have to do with you?" Zhu Baokun loudly shouted, "Master Sima Wei treated me with the utmost kindness and decency. I, Zhu Baokun, am ashamed that I was not able to repay him. Today, in dying to protect my departed master's reputation, I will slightly atone for my sins of deceiving him! Mr. Bao, apologize immediately to sect-master Sima Wei!"

Mr. Bao laughed. "I, Bao the Third, have never admitted to making any mistakes in my life, and have never apologized. Even when I know I am in the wrong, I'll argue and debate until my dying breath. Even when he was alive, Sima Wei didn't have much of a reputation. Now that he's dead, his reputation is even worse. This sort of person should have been killed long ago! It's great that he was killed! Great!"

Zhu Baokun angrily roared, "Draw your weapons!"

Mr. Bao laughed, "Sima Wei's son and disciples are a bunch of worthless trash. Aside from using hidden weapons to harm others, what else are they good for?"

Zhu Baokun shouted, "On guard!" He struck out with the technique, "Ascending to Heaven, Descending Past Hell", a simultaneous attack using both the steel awl in his left hand and the steel mace in his right.

Mr. Bao didn't even leave the chair. He waved the sleeve of his left arm, and a powerful gust of wind struck outwards. As Zhu Baokun hurriedly dodged, Mr. Bao kicked with his right leg, sending Zhu Baokun collapsing to the floor. Mr. Bao kicked out again with his right leg, striking him directly on the buttocks and knocking him out of the room.

Zhu Baokun flew through the air, landing on his shoulder and his head. He immediately flipped to his feet, then hobbled and staggered towards Mr. Bao, once more stabbing at Mr. Bao's chest with the steel awl. Mr. Bao seized him by the wrist. With burst of force, he threw him up into the air. With a crashing sound, Zhu Baokun slammed into the ceiling. Falling to the floor, Zhu Baokun flipped to his feet, then rushed towards Mr. Bao a third time. Frowning, Mr. Bao said, "You really don't know what's good for you. What, you think I won't kill you?" Zhu Baokun cried out, "It's best if you killed me…"

Mr. Bao struck out with both arms, capturing both of Zhu Baokun's hands. With a cracking sound, he shattered both of Zhu Baokun's arms, also causing Zhu Baokun's awl to pierce into his own left side, while his mace hit his right shoulder. Blood immediately began to flow from his new wounds. These wounds he sustained were grievous. Although he still wanted to fight, he no longer had the ability to.

Everyone in the Qingcheng sect stared at each other, uncertain as to whether or not they should go forward and assist. Most of their hatred towards him had dissipated upon seeing Zhu Baokun truly be willing to sacrifice his own life in order to protect his master's reputation.

This entire time, Ah Zhu was silently watching from the sidelines. Now, she suddenly said, "Master Sima, Master Zhu, if Gusu's Murong family truly did kill Sima Wei, how could we leave the rest of you alive? If third brother Bao truly wanted to exterminate all of you, I'm afraid it wouldn't be too hard for him to accomplish. At the very least, he wouldn't have saved master Sima's life, and miss Wang wouldn't have tried so hard to help master Zhu. I suggest that all of you go back home and launch a careful investigation as to who really killed Mr. Sima."

Sima Lin felt that these words were extremely reasonable. He wanted to say a few words in response, but Mr. Bao angrily said, "These is sister Ah Zhu's place. The hostess has asked you to leave this place. Why haven't you scrammed yet?!" Sima Lin replied, "Fine! We'll meet again someday." With a slight nod, he left. Zhu Baokun and the others followed him out.

Yao Bodang saw that Mr. Bao's martial arts was very high, and that he had a very weird temperament. He very much wanted to make the acquaintance of this incredible wulin figure, and also wanted to convince Wang Yuyan to divulge more martial arts secrets to him. He immediately rose to his feet and was about to speak, when Mr. Bao loudly said, "Yao Bodang, I'm telling you right now that your worthless martial-brother, Qin Boqi, wouldn't be worthy of being chopped at a single time by young master Murong, even if he practiced martial arts for thirty more years. And even if he practiced for one or two hundred years, young master Murong would disdain chopping at him four times. I won't allow you to say a single word more. Roll the **** out, now!" Shocked, Yao Bodang's face turned ghastly pale. He tightly gripped the hilt of his broadsword. Mr. Bao said, "Your level of martial arts is way too pitiful. Don't display your meager skills in front of me. If I tell you to roll the **** out, you should roll the **** out. There's no room for you to say anything else."

Earlier, the bandits of the Qin family stronghold had thrown their broadswords towards Sima Lin. These broadswords were intercepted by Mr. Bao, and were now piled around his feet. As they watched him humiliate Yao Bodang, all of them wanted to attack and kill him. But unarmed and without their weapons, they were like toothless, fangless tigers.

Mr. Bao let out a loud laugh, then struck out with a series of kicks. Each kick landed on the handle of a broadsword, sending all of the ten-plus broadswords slowly flying towards the bandits of the Qin family stronghold. Each of them caught the broadswords, but as they did so, they were shocked. It had been extremely easy for them to catch their weapons. Clearly, Mr. Bao was intentionally returning their weapons to them. They couldn't help but realize that for Mr. Bao to make it so easy for them to catch their weapons, he could have easily made it extremely difficult for them to do so as well. It wouldn't have been hard at all for him to spin the broadswords around and pierce their bodies with them. Each of them wielded their weapons in their hands, but all of them looked extremely miserable.

Mr. Bao said, "Yao Bodang, are you going to roll the **** out or not?" Yao Bodang laughed bitterly. "Mr. Bao, you have saved my life today. The only reason I am alive is because of your kindness. If you have any orders for me, I will carry them out. I bid you farewell." As he spoke, he bowed politely, then waved with his left hand. "Everyone, let's go!"

Mr. Bao said, "I told you to roll the **** out, not walk out!" Yao Bodang was stunned. "I don't understand what you mean." Mr. Bao said, "Rolling means you roll. Are you going to roll or not?" Yao Bodang thought to himself that this person was extremely strange, clearly insane and unwilling to listen to reason. Paying no more attention to him, he hurriedly walked towards the main doorway.

Mr. Bao shouted, "Tis not so, tis not so! This is striding, this is jogging, this is walking, this is running. No matter how you spin it, it isn't rolling!" With a flicker of his shadow, he appeared behind Yao Bodang. His left hand flashed out, seizing Yao Bodang by the back of his neck. Yao Bodang tried to defend with his right elbow, but Mr. Bao lifted him up with his left hand, raising him above the floor. Thus, Yao Bodang's right elbow missed him.

Next, Mr. Bao stretched out his right hand, grabbing Yao Bodang by the buttocks. He loudly shouted, "This is the home of my sister, Ah Zhu! It's not the type of place where you can come and go as you please! Roll your mother****in' *** out!" His hands loosened, rolling Yao Bodang's huge form out of the building with a throwing motion.

Yao Bodang's acupoints had been sealed by him, rendering Yao Bodang unable to stand up. All he could do was helplessly roll on the floor like a giant log until his body exited the building. Fortunately, the doorway was very wide and his head did not collide with anything. The bandits of the Qin family let out a cry of alarm, and rushed out afterwards in unison, stopping his roll. Yao Bodang said, "Quick, let's go, let's go!" All of them ran away as though a swarm of bees were after them.

Mr. Bao looked at Duan Yu up and down, but wasn't able to figure out what sort of fellow he was. He asked Wang Yuyan, "What type of person is he? Should I roll him out too?"

Wang Yuyan said, "Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, and I were seized by Granny Yan and were in an extremely dangerous situation. It was our great fortune that young gentleman Duan rescued us. In addition, he knows the circumstances of how elder Xuanbei was killed by someone using a blow from the 'Veda Sceptre' technique. We can ask him about it." Mr. Bao said, "So what you're saying is that you'd like for him to stay?" Wang Yuyan said, "Correct." Mr. Bao grinned. "You aren't afraid that brother Murong will drink vinegar?" [Drinking vinegar means getting jealous] Wang Yuyan's eyes widened. "What do you mean, drink vinegar?" Mr. Bao pointed towards Duan Yu. "This fellow is glib and sly. Don't fall for his tricks!" Wang Yuyan still didn't understand. "What tricks did I fall for? Are you saying he'll make up false stories about Shaolin? I don't think that's the case."

Seeing how innocent and na?ve she was, Mr. Bao felt it was inappropriate to say anything else. He let out three cold snickers towards Duan Yu, then said, "I heard that monk Xuanbei was killed in Dali by someone using a blow from the 'Veda Sceptre' technique, and that a bunch of stupid *******s are claiming someone from our Murong family did this. What exactly is going on? Tell me the truth." Duan Yu felt very unhappy. He coldly replied, "What do you think you're doing, interrogating a prisoner? If I don't tell you, what will you do, beat me up?" Mr. Bao was startled, but instead of being angry, he laughed while mumbling repeatedly, "Bold youngster, bold youngster!" He suddenly walked forwards, then seized Duan Yu by his upper arm. He need to only use the slightest bit of force for Duan Yu to feel pain deep within his bones. Duan Yu loudly cried out, "Hey, what are you doing?"

Mr. Bao replied, "I am interrogating a prisoner and cruelly beating him!" Duan Yu let him do what he want, pretending as though the arm no longer belonged to him. Smiling, Duan Yu said, "Go ahead and beat me up. I won't pay attention to you." Mr. Bao added more force to his grip, causing Duan Yu's bones to groan in protest, as though they were about to snap. Duan Yu expended enormous effort to resist the pain, continuing to ignore him.

Ah Bi hurriedly said, "Third brother, this young gentleman is extremely stubborn and has an extremely haughty temper when roused. He is our savior and benefactor. Don't hurt him." Mr. Bao nodded. "Wonderful, wonderful. Stubborn and has a haughty temper, eh? That's a very appealing trait to me, Mr. 'Tis not so, tis not so!'" As he spoke, he slowly released Duan Yu's arm.

Ah Zhu laughed. "Speaking of appealing, everyone must be hungry. Old Gu! Old Gu!" Raising her voice, she shouted. Old Gu stuck his head in from a side door. Seeing that Yao Bodang, Sima Lin, and the others had left, he was overjoyed and happily skipped inside. Ah Zhu said, "First, go brush your teeth twice, wash your face twice, then wash your hands three times. Lastly, prepare a few exquisite dishes for us. If they're even slightly dirty, Mr. Bao will make things rough for you!" Old Gu grinned. "I guarantee they'll be clean. I guarantee it!"

The servants of the 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds' prepared a banquet for them within a flowery pavilion. Ah Zhu arranged for Mr. Bao to take the head seat, with Duan Yu seated next to him and Wang Yuyan taking the third seat. Ah Zhu and Ah Bi took the seats on the right hand side, accompanying them. Not waiting for the tea to be served, Wang Yuyan said, "Third brother, he…he…"

Mr. Bao tossed a glance at Duan Yu, then said, "Miss Wang, there's an outsider seated here. There are some things we cannot talk about. Moreover, the fellow here is a sly, glib, pretty-faced playboy. I don't trust him at all…"

Duan Yu's temper rose as he listened. He suddenly rose to his feet, intending to immediately leave.

Ah Bi hurriedly said, "Young gentleman Duan, don't be angry. Mr. Bao always has had this sort of attitude. His formal name is Bao Butong [Butong means different, or contrary]. He insists on arguing or offending people for a bit. Only then can he swallow his food. The day he doesn't offend people with his words is the day the sun rises from the west. Please sit."

Duan Yu glanced at Wang Yuyan. It seemed to him as though she wanted him to sit as well. Although he couldn't be certain of it, in the end, he wasn't willing to give up the chance to enjoy a banquet with her. He once more sat down, then said, "Mr. Bao says that I am a pretty-faced playboy, and that I thus am very untrustworthy. I imagine, then, that your young master Murong's appearance is similar to that of Mr. Bao's?"

Bao Butong laughed loudly. "Excellent question! Our young master is much more handsome than you, brother Duan…" Wang Yuyan, hearing these words, immediately broke out into a radiant smile which seemed to come from the depths of her heart. Bao Butong continued, "Our young master has a vigorous, heroic spirit to his appearance. Although he is very handsome, it's totally different from your useless pretty-face, brother Duan. Totally different! As for my humble self, I am heroic but not handsome. I have an average degree of heroism and vitality, but an extraordinary amount of ugliness. Thus, I can be described as an ugly hero." Duan Yu and the others all broke out into laughter.

After drinking a cup of wine, Bao Butong said, "The young master sent me to Fujian to handle some business. He wanted me to secretly help Shaolin out in an important matter. As to what that matter is, we'll have to wait until brother Duan leaves before I can tell you. Since we are trying to become friends with the Shaolin sect, there is no way that we would kill one of their monks. In addition, the young master has never been to Dali. Although Gusu's Murong family is very powerful, I'm afraid we haven't yet mastered the ability to strike a person from thousands of miles away using the blows of the 'Veda Sceptre' technique."

Duan Yu nodded. "Brother Bao's words are very reasonable."

Bao Butong shook his head. "Tis not so, tis not so!" Duan Yu was startled. He thought to himself, "I said your words are reasonable. Why would you disagree?" Bao Butong said, "It's not that my words are reasonable. This is just how the truth of the matter is. Brother Duan, when you say that my words are reasonable, you leave open the implication that I am simply good at talking, and things aren't actually the way I say they are. Thus, these words of yours are really incorrect!" Smiling, Duan Yu did not reply, deciding there was no need to argue with him.

Bao Butong said, "Yesterday, I returned to Suzhou. I ran across fourth brother Feng, and the two of us pondered over the situation for a bit. It must be that some son of a turtle has a grudge against Gusu's Murong family and is secretly harming others with the intention of having others making out the bill for these crimes to Gusu's Murong family. To tell you the truth, originally, this wasn't a big deal at all. What can be better than a nice big brawl?" Ah Zhu laughed. "Fourth brother must have been exceedingly happy. He can't ask for anything better than a fight!" Bao Butong shook his head. "Tis not so, tis not so! How can you say that he can't ask for anything better than a fight? He always asks for fights! Wherever he goes, he likes to get into fights!"

Seeing how he rebutted Ah Zhu thusly, only now did Duan Yu believe Ah Bi's earlier words. This person really did take a perverse joy in arguing against others.

Wang Yuyan said, "Did you and fourth brother Feng figure anything out? Who is secretly causing trouble for us?" Bao Butong replied, "Number one, it can't be Shaolin. Number two, it can't be the Beggar's Sect. Their vice-chief, Ma Dayuan, was killed by someone using the 'Throat Locking Technique'. Ma Dayuan became famous because of his skill in the 'Throat Locking Technique'. It's no big deal for someone to kill Ma Dayuan, but for someone to use the 'Throat Locking Technique' to kill him is clearly trouble for Gusu's Murong family. Duan Yu nodded. Bao Butong said, "Brother Duan, you've been repeatedly nodding. You must be secretly saying to yourself that these words of mine are very reasonable."

Duan Yu replied, "Tis not so, tis not so! First, I only nodded once, and was not repeatedly nodding. Secondly, it's not that your words are reasonable; this is simply how the truth of the matter is."

Bao Butong laughed loudly. "This is the technique known as, 'using an opponent's skills, exercising them upon the opponent.' Do you want to place yourself in service to Gusu's Murong family? What's the meaning behind this? Have you taken a fancy to my little sister, Ah Bi?"

Ah Bi's face immediately turned red. Annoyed, she said, "Third brother, you're talking wildly again. I haven't offended you." Bao Butong replied, "Tis not so, tis not so. If he's taken a fancy to you, it's because of your gentleness and adorableness. I said those words precisely because you haven't offended me. If you had offended me, I would've reversed it and said that you took a fancy to this pretty boy, but this pretty boy didn't take a fancy to you." Ah Bi was even more embarrassed. Ah Zhu said, "Third brother, stop bullying sister Ah Bi. If you keep on bullying her, then next time I'm going to bully your Liangliang."

Bao Butong laughed loudly. "My daughter's name is Bao Buliang. For you to call her Liangliang is flattering her, not bullying her. Sister Ah Bi, I don't dare bully you anymore." It seemed as though he was actually a bit fearful when others threatened to bully his daughter. [The character 'Liang' means 'beautiful'; thus, her given name, 'Buliang', means 'not beautiful'. Ah Zhu referred to her as 'Liangliang' rather than by her given name, 'Buliang', hence Bao Butong's claim that Ah Zhu was 'flattering' his daughter.]

Turning his head towards Wang Yuyan, he said, "Sooner or later, we'll figure out which son of a turtle is causing problems for us. Fourth brother Feng also just came back. He was in Jiangxi. I don't know the details of what he was doing too much. We two brothers went to pay a visit to the 'Manor of Blue Clouds'. Brother Deng's wife informed us that she received the news that a large group of experts from the Beggar's Clan had arrived in Jiangnan, most likely to cause us trouble. Fourth brother immediately wanted to go and fight with them. It was tough for her to convince him not to go." Ah Zhu smiled. "She's really talented. She actually managed to restrain fourth brother and convince him not to go fight." Bao Butong said, "Tis not so, tis not so. It's not that she's talented. Rather, her words were very reasonable. She said, 'We need to place primary importance on carrying out the young master's grand mission. We cannot run around cultivating powerful foes.'"

As he said this, Wang Yuyan, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi all grew solemn as they exchanged a few looks.

Duan Yu pretended not to notice. Extending his chopsticks, he picked up a piece of stir-fried chicken, put it in his mouth, then said, "Old Gu's techniques really aren't that bad, but compared to sisters Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, he's still a ways off." Ah Bi smiled. "Old Gu is inferior to Ah Zhu, but much superior to me." Bao Butong said, "Tis not so, tis not so! Each of you have your own strengths." Ah Zhu laughed. "Third brother, today your sister wasn't able to personally go to the kitchen and cook something for you. Next time you come, I'll make it up to you…"

Just as she was speaking, two clear, melodious sounds of a silver bell being run could be heard. Bao Butong, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi simultaneously said, "Second brother has sent us a message!" The three of them left the banquet, heading to the eaves of the room. Raising their heads, they saw a white pigeon fly in a circle above them before rushing downwards, coming to a rest on Ah Zhu's hand. Ah Bi stretched out her hand, untying a small bamboo tube which was tied to the bird's leg. She removed a scroll from within the tube. Bao Butong snatched it away from her. After skimming through it, he said, "If that's the case, let's go now!" He said towards Wang Yuyan, "Hey, are you coming or not?"

Wang Yuyan replied, "Coming where? What's going on?"

Bao Butong displayed the letter in his hand. He said, "Second brother sent us a message. He said that the Western Xia's 'League of Elites' sent out a large number of experts who have arrived in Jiangnan. We don't know what their intentions are. He wants me to take Ah Zhu and Ah Bi to go investigate." Wang Yuyan said, "Naturally, I'll go with you. Can it be that the Western Xia's 'League of Elites' wants to cause us trouble as well? Our list of enemies is growing larger and larger." As she spoke, she frowned slightly.

Bao Butong replied, "They aren't necessarily enemies. However, they definitely haven't come here for the sake of tourism, and it's not a religious visit either. It's been a long time since we've met with real experts. Now, both the Beggar's Clan and the League of Elites are here. Heh heh, now things are getting fun." As he spoke, a delighted look was on his face, clearly showing his great joy at the possibility of getting into a big fight.

Wang Yuyan walked forwards, intending to take a look at the message. Bao Butong handed it over to her. There were seven or eight lines of characters on the letter, all written very elegantly and with great vigor. Although she recognized every single character, there was no unity or coherence in the sentences. Although she had read many books, she'd never seen a writing style like this. Frowning, she said, "What's this?"

Ah Zhu smiled. "This is a weird toy which second brother Gongye thought up. It's derived from poems and song melodies. Words with the 'flat tone' are read with the 'entering tone', and words with the 'entering tone' are read with the 'falling-rising' tone. 'Yidong' thusly becomes 'Sanjiang'. We're used to reading it and can understand it, but outsiders won't be able to make anything out of it at all."

Ah Bi saw that Wang Yuyan looked a bit uncomfortable after hearing the word, 'outsiders'. She hurriedly said, "Miss Wang, you aren't an outsider! Miss Wang, if you want to learn how to read it, I'll just teach you later." Wang Yuyan immediately looked very happy.

Bao Butong said, "I've long heard that the Western Xia's 'League of Elites' has accumulated a large number of experts. They have people from all over the western regions of China. If miss Wang comes with us, all you'll need to do is glance at them and you'll know what their origins are. After we handle this matter, we'll go to Henan to meet with the young master."

Wang Yuyan was overjoyed. Clapping, she cried, "Wonderful, wonderful! I'm coming with you!"

Ah Bi said, "Let's take care of business here and go to Henan as fast as we can. We don't want to be late and miss him when he is on the way back. Also, there's that Tibetan monk. I don't know how much damage he's caused over there." Bao Butong said, "Second brother Gongye's wife has already sent someone to go investigate. That monk already left. Put your heart at ease. Next time, I'll help you beat that monk up." Duan Yu thought to himself, "No matter what he says, there's no way he can defeat that monk. Forget about beating him up, you should be thanking the heavens if he doesn't beat you up."

Bao Butong said, "I'm just afraid that if miss Wang comes us, the next time madame Wang sees me, she'll give me a fierce scolding…" Suddenly, he turned his head towards Duan Yu and said, "You're always here listening! I'm unable to speak freely and comfortable with you here. If you please, beat it. As we're discussing private matters, we don't need your extra set of ears and lips. When we go fight with others, we don't need you to stand by the side and cheer either."

Duan Yu clearly knew that his presence here could only irritate others. Now, seeing as how Bao Butong was openly shooing him off in an extremely impolite way, even though he was reluctant to part with Wang Yuyan, he couldn't be so shameless as to still stay. Rising to his feet, he said, "Miss Wang, Ah Zhu, Ah Bi. I'll take my leave now. May we meet again."

Wang Yuyan said, "It's the middle of the night. Where can you go? Moreover, you aren't familiar with the waterways of Lake Taihu. It's best if you stay here overnight and leave tomorrow."

Duan Yu could tell that although she was inviting him to stay, her attention was elsewhere. Clearly, all she wanted to do was fly as quickly as possible to young master Murong's side. He couldn't help but feel both furious and snubbed. He was the son of a royal family, impulsive and stubborn. Although he had undergone many thrilling events and suffered many torments recently, he had never before received such a frosty reception. He immediately replied, "There's not much of a difference between leaving today and tomorrow. I take my leave."

Ah Zhu said, "If that's the case, I'll send someone to escort you out of the lake."

Seeing how even Ah Zhu did not try to convince him to stay, Duan Yu felt all the more unhappy. He thought to himself, "What's so extraordinary about this young master Murong fellow, for everyone to act as though he were some sort of celestial phoenix amongst men. They don't care at all about Shaolin, the Beggar's Sect, or the Western Xia's 'League of Elites'. They just want to reach his side as soon as possible." He replied, "No need. Just loan me a boat. I'll paddle myself out."

Ah Bi mumbled to herself, "But you don't know the waterways. I don't think this is a good idea. Be careful, and don't run into that monk again."

Duan Yu stormily said, "It's best if all of you hurry and go meet up with your young master Murong. If I meet that monk again, at most I'll be burnt to death by him. I'm not your cousin or your young master. No need to worry about me." As he spoke, he quickly strode out of the room. As he left, he heard Bao Butong say, "We don't know what the origins are of that Tibetan monk either. We need to investigate." Wang Yuyan replied, "My cousin most likely knows. If we find him…"

Ah Zhu and Ah Bi escorted Duan Yu out. Ah Bi said, "Young gentleman Duan, in the future, after you meet with our young master, perhaps you will become good friends with him. Our young master really likes to make friends." Duan Yu laughed coldly. "I'm not fit to be his friend." Hearing a large amount of resentment in his voice, Ah Bi felt very confused. She asked, "Young gentleman Duan, why are you unhappy? Is it that our reception of you was too simple and brief?" Ah Zhu said, "Third brother Bao has always been like this. Young gentleman Duan, please don't be too upset. Allow Ah Bi and I pay our apologies to you." As she spoke, she grinned and curtsied towards him as Ah Bi did the same.

Duan Yu returned the courtesy, then took large steps towards the waterline. Arriving next to a small craft, he immediately tugged at the oars, sailing away into the lake. He felt a deep depression in his heart. As to why he felt this way, even he himself could not say. All he knew was that if he stayed ashore for another moment longer, he would lose control of himself. It was even possible that he would begin to cry. He vaguely heard Ah Bi say, "Sister Ah Zhu, does the young master have enough spare clothing? Let's each sew a new set of clothing for him tonight." Ah Zhu replied, "Alright! You are so attentive and thoughtful."

Chapter - 14 Intensely Drinking a Thousand Cups, And the Affairs of Men

Duan Yu had been bullied by the Divine Farmers clan and the Mt. Wuliang Sword sect, coerced by the Divine Crocodile of the Southern Seas, imprisoned by Crown Prince Yanqing, kidnapped by Jiumozhi, then was forced to become a gardener at the Highland Manor of the Camellias. The misery and humiliation he had undergone in recent times was significant indeed, but never before had he felt such anger and indignation.

In all fairness, there was no one within the Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds who was truly impolite to him or intentionally tried to embarrass him. Although Bao Butong asked him to leave, he showed forbearance when he did so; he did not break Duan Yu's arms as he did Zhu Baokun, nor did he kick him away like a ball as he did to Yao Bodang. Wang Yuyan verbally expressed the desire for him to stay a bit longer, and Ah Zhu and Ah Bi solicitously escorted him off. But all of this only increased the unspeakable misery in his heart.

The evening wind rolled across the surface of the lake, carrying with it the scent of water chestnut leaves. Tugging mightily at the oars, Duan Yu wasn't sure whom his anger and hatred should be directed towards. He really couldn't say why he was as angry as this. Previously, Mu Wanqing, the Divine Crocodile, Crown Prince Yanqing, Jiumozhi, and madame Wang had all exceptionally humiliated him, but he had maintained his calm and did not feel too wronged. In his innermost heart, he indistinctly felt as though perhaps it were because he deeply yearned for Wang Yuyan, but within her heart, she didn't care about Duan Yu in the slightest. Even Ah Zhu and Ah Bi thought very lightly of him. Ever since he was young, he had been pampered and treated as a precious, beloved treasure by others. Within Dali, everyone from the Emperor on down felt that he was an extraordinary person. Even enemies had treated him thus; the Divine Crocodile, for example, had whole-heartedly wanted him to become his disciple. Jiumozhi, in expending so much effort to abduct him from Dali to Jiangnan, showed that he valued Duan Yu highly. And, of course, the young maidens such as Zhong Ling and Mu Wanqing fell in love with him almost at first sight.

He had never before been looked down upon or treated as coldly as he had been today. Although they were polite to him, it was polite indifference. Within their hearts, young master Murong was naturally much more important to them than he was. Over the past few days, whenever someone even mentioned young master Murong's name, a sensation would be created and everyone would become absorbed in listening closely. It seemed as though Wang Yuyan, Ah Zhu, Ah Bi, Bao Butong, and even this 'elder brother Deng', 'second brother Gongye', and 'fourth brother Feng' all lived for him.

Duan Yu had never before tasted the bitter fruit of envy or jealously. Now, as he was paddling a boat in middle of the lake all by his lonesome, it seemed to him as though young master Murong's shadow appeared in the sky and was smirking at him. He seemed to hear young master Murong speak and ridicule him, saying, "Duan Yu, oh, Duan Yu. How can you ever compare to even a single strand of hair on my body? You are interested in my cousin, something which is like an insane shrimp of a toad being desirous of a heavenly swan. Isn't this disgraceful and ludicrous?"

As his heart filled with anger, the strength with which he pulled at the oars increased as well. After rowing for about two hours, his powerful internal energy slowly began to come out. The more he rowed, the more vigorous he became, and the gloomy feeling in his heart slowly faded away as well. After rowing for two more hours, the night sky was slowly beginning to brighten. A small mountain peak appeared to the north, surrounded by clouds and mist. Approximating his current location, he decided that the 'Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds' and the 'Pavilion of Zither Melodies' were located to the east. All he had to do was keep rowing northwards, and he would not accidentally return to his place of origin.

But with each rowing motion, he felt an attachment and longing in his heart. He couldn't prevent himself from thinking that with every meter the boat travelled, he was becoming a meter away from Wang Yuyan.

Close to noon, he arrived at the base of that small mountain peak. Going ashore, he asked the locals where he was, and was told that he had arrived at Mr. Maji [Maji means 'Horse Tracks'], and was now very close to Wuxi.

He had seen the name 'Wuxi' before within a book. He knew that it was a large city that had become famous during the 'Spring and Autumn' period. He immediately returned to his boat and began rowing north again. After some time, he arrived at the city of Wuxi.

As he entered the city, he saw that pedestrians were hurry about here and there, giving an appearance of a bustling market. Compared to Dali, it had its own unique style. As he leisurely strolled about, he suddenly smelled something delicious. It was the smell of caramel and soy sauce mixed into cooked meat. He hadn't eaten for quite some time and had spent the past few hours rowing a boat. He was famished, and immediately began to follow the delicious smell. After turning a cover, he saw a huge wine-house across the street. On its gold-lettered signboard were written the words, "The Pine and the Crane." The shop sign itself was very aged, long since blackened by mist and smoke. But in contrast, the golden characters on it were gleaming and bright. The fragrant scent of wine and meat flowed out of the wine-house, and the chef's chopping sounds mixed with the calls of the customers and the staff.

As he entered the place, a waiter came and greeted him. Duan Yu ordered a kettle of wine and four types of food to go with the wine. Leaning against the railing, he poured himself a few cups and began to drink. Suddenly, he felt cold and dreary. He couldn't help but let out a loud sigh.

A large man sitting towards the west turned his head towards him. The man's two eyes, radiating frozen lightning, flashed across Duan Yu's face. Duan Yu saw that this person had an extremely large and tall physique, was thirty years or so of age, and wore an old grey gown that was already a bit tattered. He had thick eyebrows and big eyes, a high nose and broad lips, with a face that had the shape of the 'Guo' character. He looked as though he had endured many hardships, and when he turned around to look at Duan Yu, he displayed an aura of power and influence.

Duan Yu secretly praised, "What a man! He must be a fervent person from the northern nations of Yan and Zhao which are sung about in those elegies. Neither Jiangnan nor Dali can produce a person such as this. Bao Butong tooted his own horn about having a vigorous, heroic spirit. But only this man can be described as having a vigorous spirit and a heroic aura!" [Yan and Zhao are nations which existed during the Warring States period. They can roughly be approximated to be towards the north, near Beijing.]

On the big fellow's table was a plate of cooked beef, a large bowl of soup, and two kettles of wine. Aside from those three, there was nothing else. Even in eating and drinking, he appeared to be very unrestrained and displayed a heroic spirit.

After glancing at Duan Yu a few times, that man turned his head back and went back to eating and drinking. Duan Yu was feeling a bit lonely and bored. Wanting to make a new friend, he called a server over. Pointing to the back of the big fellow, he said, "Put all of that gentleman's things on my tab."

Hearing Duan Yu give those instructions, the big fellow turned around and smiled. He nodded, but didn't say anything. Duan Yu wanted to strike up a conversation with him and relieve his own sense of loneliness, but couldn't find an appropriate way to begin.

After drinking three more cups of wine, Duan Yu heard the sound of footsteps on the stairway. Two men appeared from downstairs. One had a lame foot and propped himself up on a crutch, yet still walked very quickly. The other was an elder with a frowning, worried face. The two walked to the big fellow's table, then very politely bowed towards him. The big fellow nodded, but did not stand up or return their salute. The man with a lame foot said in a low voice, "I have a report, elder brother. The other party has arranged for us to meet with them at the crack of dawn tomorrow, at the wayside pavilion of Mt. Hui." The big fellow nodded, then said, "That's a bit rushed." The elder said, "I originally told them that we should meet up in three days time. But it seemed as though they knew that we haven't gathered all our forces yet, ridiculing and mocking us. They said that if we don't have the guts to face them, it's fine if we don't show up tomorrow."

The big fellow said, "Fine. Send down the word for everyone to arrive at Mt. Hui at midnight tonight. We'll get there first and wait for them there." The two bowed, then left.

The three spoke in very quiet tones, and none of the other guests could hear what they were saying. But Duan Yu had abundant internal energy and very acute hearing. Although he did not intend to intentionally eavesdrop on them, he naturally overheard every single word. Intentionally or unintentionally, that big fellow glanced at Duan Yu yet again. He saw that Duan Yu's head was lowered and he was looking away, as though he had overheard his words. Instantly, his twin eyes were filled with a ferocious light. He let out a deep 'humph'. Startled, Duan Yu's left hand quivered. With a cracking sound, the wine cup he was holding fell to the floor and shattered. That big fellow smiled. "Brother, why are you so nervous? Why don't you come over and have a few cups with me?"

Duan Yu laughed. "Wonderful, wonderful!" He instructed the server to bring over his cup and his chopsticks, then moved to the big fellow's table and asked him his name. The big fellow smirked, "Brother, why ask when you clearly already know the answer? There's no need for us to rigidly stick to the proper forms. Won't it be a wonderful thing for us to drink a few large bowls of wine now? Afterwards, when we are clearly divided as enemies, we won't have the chance." Duan Yu laughed. "Brother, it seems as though you've mistaken me for someone else, perhaps an enemy. However, I love to hear the words, 'no need to rigidly stick to the proper forms'. Let's drink!" Pouring a cup of wine, he drained it at one go.

That big fellow smiled. "Brother, you are easygoing and straightforward. But your wine-glass is too small." He called out, "Bartender! Go bring me two large bowls and ten jin [five kilograms] worth of hard liquor!" Upon hearing the words, 'ten jin worth of hard liquor', the bartender and Duan Yu both jumped in shock. The bartender laughed, "Sir, will you be able to finish ten jin of hard liquor?" The big fellow pointed towards Duan Yu and said, "This gentleman is treating me. There's no need for you to be concerned about saving me money! If ten jin aren't enough, bring twenty jin!" Laughing, the bartender said, "Alright, alright!" After a short period of time, he brought out two large bowls and an enormous jug of liquor, placing them on the table.

The big fellow said, "Pour us two full bowls!" The bartender poured him two bowls as instructed. As he was pouring, Duan Yu felt the smell of the alcohol assault his nostrils, causing him to feel a bit uncomfortable. While in Dali, he would only drink a few cups of wine occasionally, and had never seen anyone drink like this. He couldn't help but wrinkle his forehead. The big fellow laughed, "Why don't the two of us start off by drinking ten bowls together. What do you think?"

Duan Yu saw that there was more than a hint of ridicule in the big fellow's eyes. Normally, he would beg to be excused in this sort of situation and admit that he had very low tolerance for alcohol. But the previous night, he had been treated coldly and indifferently within the Waterside Pavilion of Fragrant Sounds. He also thought to himself, "This big fellow is most likely one of young master Murong's people. If he isn't big brother Deng or second brother Gongye, he's probably fourth brother Feng. He's already arranged to enter into a martial arts competition at Mt. Hui with his opponents, who must be either the Beggar's Clan or the Western Xia's 'League of Elites'. Hmph, what's so special about young master Murong? I refuse to be belittled and held in contempt by his underlings. At worst, I'll drink myself to death. What's the big deal?" He immediately puffed his chest out and loudly said, "I'll risk my life and accompany a gentleman! If I forget myself and act improperly later while drunk, please don't blame me, brother!" As he spoke, he lifted one of the bowls of liquor and gulped it down.

He drank down the entire bowl of wine in a fit of pique. Although Wang Yuyan wasn't nearby, in Duan Yu's mind, she might as well have been, as he considered himself competing with Murong Fu in drinking. He refused to admit defeat in front of the person he loved. Forget about merely drinking one large bowl of liquor; even if he had to drink a bowl full of poisoned wine, he would have downed it without the slightest hesitation.

Seeing how casually and straightforwardly Duan Yu was drinking, the big fellow was greatly surprised. Laughing loudly, he said, "Nicely done!" Lifting up his own bowl, he poured the liquor down his throat, then set it down and poured them two more bowls.

Duan Yu laughed, "Good stuff! Good stuff!" He let out a breath, then drained that bowl in one gulp as well. The big fellow drained his own bowl, then once again poured two more. Each bowl contained at least half a jin of liquor [a quarter kilogram!]. Duan Yu had just drank two jin, and felt as though a raging fire was burning his innards. His head was already becoming confused, but he thought to himself, "What's so great about Murong Fu? What's so special about him? How can I lose to one of his underlings?" Taking the third bowl of alcohol, he drained that one as well.

The big fellow saw that he had become totally wasted in the blink of an eye. He was secretly amused, and knew that after this third bowl, Duan Yu would collapse to the floor very shortly.

Even before he drank the third bowl, Duan Yu felt as though he was going to throw up. After this third bowl of liquor entered his belly, all his organs seemed to be in a state of turmoil and were writhing. He tightly closed his mouth, refusing to allow any of the alcohol he had just drunk come back out. Suddenly, his dantian vibrated, sending forth a gush of vigorous energy. He felt as though as though the internal energy in his body was agitated, akin to how he felt back at the Heavenly Dragon Monastery when he was unable to control his internal energy. Immediately, he used the technique his uncle had taught him and called that gush of internal energy back to his 'Dazhui' acupoint.

As it were, he had so much alcohol in his body that it was beginning to mix with his internal energy. Alcohol is something which has form and substance. Unlike internal energy, it could not hide itself within his acupoints. But Duan Yu had an easygoing disposition, and allowed his internal energy to naturally travel from his 'Tianzong' acupoint to his 'Jianzhen' acupoint, then travel to his left arm's 'Xiaohai', 'Zhizheng', and 'Yanglao' acupoints, then through his left hand's 'Yanggu', 'Houhuo', and 'Qiangu' acupoints, before rushing out of his pinky finger's 'Shaoze' acupoint. The route which his internal energy travelled was precisely that of the Shaoze sword technique of the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'. Originally, the Shaoze sword technique was that of a vigorous, invisible sword qi. But at this moment, a stream of alcohol slowly and unhurriedly poured out of his little finger.

At first, Duan Yu didn't notice this, but after a while, he began to feel sober. After realizing that alcohol was pouring from his little finger, he secretly cried out, "Extremely miraculous!" His left hand was pointing to the floor, and the big fellow didn't pay it any attention. He just saw that while just moments ago, Duan Yu was so drunk that his eyes were closing, Duan Yu now seemed alert and vigorous. He couldn't help but secretly feel amazed. Laughing, the big fellow said, "Brother, it seems you have quite some tolerance for alcohol! Not bad at all." He poured two more bowls of wine.

Duan Yu laughed, "My capacity for wine is extraordinary because of your presence. As the saying goes, 'When meeting with a bosom friend, a thousand cups of wine is still too few.' I estimate that there are no more than twenty or so cups worth of wine in each bowl. In order to reach a thousand cups, we'll still need to drink another forty or fifty bowls. I'm afraid I won't be able to drink another fifty!" As he spoke, he drank the bowl of liquor in front of him, then immediately began to exercise his internal energy. He rested his left hand on top of the window railing next to their table, forcing the alcohol out from his pinky finger and causing it to flow down the wall. This was a perfect deception, which not even gods or devils could discern. In a short amount of time, he had forced out all of the four bowls worth of liquor from his body.

The big fellow saw that Duan Yu had just carelessly downed four large bowls of very potent liquor. He was extremely pleased, and said, "Wonderful, wonderful! When meeting with a bosom friend, a thousand cups of wine is still too few. Let me drink a few bowls first!" He immediately poured out two bowls of wine, then drank both of them in succession. Next, he poured two more bowls for Duan Yu. Duan Yu casually and cheerfully drank both while engaging him in conversation. It seemed as though he drank the hard liquor even more easily than others drank water and ate food.

Drinking in such a manner, the two of them astonished all of the other patrons of 'The Pine and the Crane'. Even the kitchen cook and the fire-starters came out and surrounded them upstairs, watching as they drank.

The big fellow said, "Bartender! Bring me twenty more jin of liquor!" The bartender stuck out his tongue in disbelief. He too was caught up in the excitement of it and did not try to dissuade him this time. He left, and when he returned, he brought back another huge vase of liquor with him.

Duan Yu traded bowls with the big fellow, one after the other. In the time it takes to eat a meal, they drank over thirty big bowls of liquor.

Duan Yu knew that he was playing a deceitful trick with his little finger. The alcohol would simply cycle through his body then immediately pour out from his finger. It could be said that his alcohol tolerance was inexhaustible and infinite. But that big fellow had drank over thirty bowls worth, based purely on actual ability. And yet, he still seemed utterly composed, neither batting an eye nor displaying the slightest hint of intoxication. Duan Yu secretly felt great admiration for him. At first, he viewed the big fellow with animosity, thinking him one of young master Murong's people. But now, seeing his bold and heroic air, his regal, heroic spirit, Duan Yu couldn't help but cherish the man. He thought to himself, "If we continue competing like this, it's impossible for me to lose, but if this fellow keeps drinking the way we are now, he'll invariably damage his health." As they reached their fourtieth bowl, he said, "My dear brother, we've drunk about forty bowls by now, right?"

The big fellow laughed, "Brother, it seems you are still very sober and clear-headed! You're still able to keep clear count." Duan Yu laughed, "Both of us have met our match today. I think it won't be easy for either of us to claim victory. But if we keep on drinking in such a manner, I'm afraid I won't have enough money to pay for it!" Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out an embroidered pouch. As he tossed it onto the table, a light clinking sound could be heard. Clearly, he didn't have too much money in his pouch. Duan Yu had been abducted by Jiumozhi from Dali, and didn't have the chance to bring any possessions. The bag was embroidered with silver and gold thread; clearly, it was a rare and precious object. But at a glance, one could tell that it wasn't filled with very much.

As soon as he saw it, the big fellow began to laugh loudly. He withdrew an ingot of silver from his own pouch, tossing it onto the table. Grabbing Duan Yu by the hand, he said, "Let's go!"

Duan Yu was very happy. While he was in Dali, it was hard for him to make any real friends, due to him being the young prince. Today, he had become friends with this fellow, not because of his scholarly knowledge, nor because of his martial arts, but purely because of his fictitious drinking ability. This was something rare and strange indeed!

After going downstairs, the big fellow began walking faster and faster. After leaving the city gates, his steps grew larger and larger still as he rushed down the street. Duan Yu gathered his energy then ran alongside him, shoulder to shoulder. Although Duan Yu did not know martial arts, he had an extremely abundant reservoir of internal energy. This sort of quick movement was nothing to him at all. That big fellow glanced at him, then smiled. "Great. Let's see who is faster." Immediately, he upped his speed, starting to run.

After running for but a few steps, Duan Yu tripped and almost fell because he was moving too hurriedly. Only after taking a staggering step leftwards did he steady himself. This step happened to be one of the movements of the 'Graceful Steps Upon the Waves'. By unintentionally using this movement, he actually gained a meter or two. Secretly elated, the next step he took was also based on the 'Graceful Steps Upon the Waves', at which point he caught up to the big fellow. The two travelled forwards, shoulder to shoulder. The wind whistled past them as they flew past all the trees by their side.

When he was learning the 'Graceful Steps Upon the Waves', Duan Yu didn't have any intention of competing in speed with anybody. Now, he was like an arrowed nocked onto a taut bow; he didn't have any choice but to be shot out. All he could do was to do his utmost; he didn't actually have any intention to outdo the big fellow. All he did was move in accordance to the footwork he learned while using his incomparably deep internal energy. He no longer cared at all as to whether that big fellow was in front of him or behind him.

The big fellow lengthened his strides, moving faster and faster. In the blink of an eye, he far outpaced Duan Yu. But if he took the slightest of breathers, Duan Yu would immediately catch up to him. Glancing at him askance, the big fellow saw that Duan Yu's movements were natural and unrestrained, as though he were taking a stroll within a courtyard. There wasn't a single bit of a forced aura to his footwork. He secretly admired Duan Yu. Adding more force to his steps, he once more left Duan Yu behind, but very shortly Duan Yu once again caught up to him. After trying this out a few times, the big fellow realized that Duan Yu's internal energy was extremely vigorous, greater than that of his own. It wouldn't be too hard for him to outrace Duan Yu in a ten-li long race, but if the race continued for thirty or forty li, it would be very difficult for a victor to be determined. If the race reached sixty li, he would definitely lose. Laughing loudly, he came to a stop and said, "Young master Murong, today I, Qiao Feng, submit to you! Gusu's Murong family really lives up to its name!"

Duan Yu rushed past him a few steps, but immediately turned around and came back. Hearing the man address him as 'young master Murong', he hurriedly replied, "My name is Duan Yu. Brother, you've mistaken me for someone else!"

The big fellow looked astonished. "What? You…you aren't Murong Fu, young master Murong?"

Duan Yu smiled. "Every day since my arrival in Jiangnan, I have heard of young master Murong's famous name. I admire him very highly, but to this day I haven't had the good fortune of meeting him." He thought to himself, "If this fellow misrecognized me as Murong Fu, then clearly he isn't one of his people." When he came to this realization, he felt all the more warmly towards the man, and asked, "Brother, would your surname, then, be Qiao, and your given name be Feng?"

The look of shock had not disappeared from the fellow's face. He said, "Just so. I am Qiao Feng." Duan Yu said, "Your humble brother, I, am a person from Dali. It is my great fortune to be able to make friends with such a hero as yourself during this trip to Jiangnan." Qiao Feng muttered to himself, "Oh, so you are a scion of Dali's Duan lineage. No wonder, no wonder. Brother Duan, what important business brings you to Jiangnan?"

Duan Yu replied, "It's a bit embarrassing to explain. Your humble brother was captured and brought here by an enemy." He immediately gave a brief explanation of how he was kidnapped by Jiumozhi, how he met two of Murong Fu's servant girls, etc. Although he only briefly summarize the long story, he didn't hold anything back at all, nor did he try to conceal any of the humiliating things which had happened to him.

After hearing his story, Qiao Feng was both astonished and pleased. He said, "Brother Duan, you are an extremely straightforward and honest man. I've never met anyone like you. Although we've just met, I feel as though you are an old friend. What say you and I become sworn blood brothers?" Overjoyed, Duan Yu replied, "That is more than I can wish for." They compared their ages. Qiao Feng was eleven years older than Duan Yu; naturally, he assumed the rank of elder brother. They immediately built a mound of dirt, stuck in a few sticks of incense, then kowtowed eight times towards heaven. Qiao Feng addressed Duan Yu as 'worthy junior brother', and Duan Yu addressed him as 'elder brother'. Both of them were extremely pleased.

Duan Yu replied, "At 'The Pine and the Crane', I secretly overheard you, elder brother, talk about an appointment you've made with an enemy for tonight. Although your humble brother doesn't know any martial arts, I'd still like to go check out the fun. Elder brother, will you agree to this?"

Qiao Feng interrogated him for a bit and learned he really didn't know any martial arts at all. He couldn't help but click his tongue in astonishment. "Worthy brother, with your incredible cultivation of internal energy, learning first-class martial arts would be as easy as taking an item out of a bag. You would face no difficulties at all. With regards to the battle tonight, there's no reason why you cannot come with us to watch. Only, I'm worried that that enemy will use vicious and sinister techniques. Worthy brother, do not reveal your presence no matter what." Duan Yu happily replied, "Naturally, I'll listen to your orders, elder brother." Laughing, Qiao Feng said, "It's still early. Why don't we two brothers go back to Wuxi and drink for a while longer before going to Mt. Hui." Hearing him say that he wanted to go back and drink even more wine, Duan Yu was shocked. He said, "Elder brother, when I was competing with you in drinking, I was actually deceiving you. Please don't blame me." He immediately explained how he purged the alcohol from his system via the 'Shaoze' acupoint. Astonished, Qiao Feng said, "Brother, this…is this the outstanding skill, the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'?" Duan Yu replied, "Precisely so. I learned it not too long ago, and am very unskilled with it."

Qiao Feng was stunned for some time, then sighed, "My master once told me that there is a legend in the martial world that Dali's Duan family possesses a technique known as the 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians,' which uses invisible sword qi to kill people. No one knows if this is true or not. So such a divine art actually exists in the world."

Duan Yu replied, "Actually, aside from using it to compete with you in drinking, this skill isn't very useful. I was kidnapped by that monk, Jiumozhi, and wasn't able to defend myself at all. The people of the world overstate and exaggerate the strength of this 'Divine Sword of the Six Meridians'. Elder brother, alcohol is very harmful to the body. You need to know when and where to stop. Today, I think it's best if we don't go drinking again." Qiao Feng laughed loudly. "Worthy brother, your advice is wise. Only, your foolish elder brother has a body like an ox. Ever since I was young, I loved to drink alcohol. The more I drink, the more energetic I get. Tonight, we are about to confront a major opponent. I need to drink a lot of hard liquor before going there and mixing it up with them." As the two spoke, they returned to Wuxi. This time, they were not competing in speed, and the two of them casually strolled back in, shoulder to shoulder.

Overjoyed at having made such a good friend, Duan Yu felt extremely elated. Nonetheless, he still constantly thought about Murong Fu and Wang Yuyan. After casually chatting for a while, he couldn't help but ask, "Elder brother, earlier you misrecognized me as young master Murong. Can it be that I look somewhat similar to him?"

Qiao Feng replied, "I've long heard of the fame of Gusu's Murong family. I have come to Jiangnan on their account. I hear that Murong Fu has a handsome, learned appearance, and is about twenty eight or twenty nine years old. He's several years older than you, but I could not believe that aside from Murong Fu, there could be another handsome young man with such impressive martial arts. Thus, I mistook you for him. I'm very embarrassed."

Hearing him say that Murong Fu was a handsome young man with impressive martial arts, Duan Yu felt an uncomfortable sourness in his heart. He asked, "Elder brother, have you come from afar to make friends with him?"

Qiao Feng let out a sigh, and a downcast expression appeared on his face. Shaking his head, he said, "Originally, I had hoped to become friends with him, but I'm afraid I won't be able to, now." Duan Yu asked, "Why not?" Qiao Feng replied, "I have an extremely close bosom friend who died a violent death two months ago. Everyone says that it was Murong Fu who did the vile deed." Duan Yu nervously said, "Using an opponent's technique, utilizing it upon the opponent!" Qiao Feng replied, "Right! The injury which my friend died from was inflicted by someone using the skill which he himself became famous for." As he said this, his voice became choked with sobs, and he looked very grieved. After pausing for a while, he said, "But there are many strange things which occur in the martial world, and its people are hard to fathom. I cannot place blame on someone solely based upon rumor and hearsay. Thus, I have come to Jiangnan to ferret out the truth."

Duan Yu asked, "And what is the truth?" Qiao Feng shook his head. "It is hard to say at the moment. That friend of mine became famous long ago and displayed upright conduct. He had a meek, modest temperament, and handled things very rationally. He wouldn't have offended young master Murong without a good reason. It's very hard for a person to puzzle out why someone would have murdered him."

Duan Yu nodded. He thought to himself, "On the surface, elder brother looks crude and straightforward, but on the inside, he is actually extremely careful and meticulous. He's not like Mr. Huo, Guo Yanzhi, Sima Lin, and the others, who insist that young master Murong is the killer without even doing any independent investigations." He asked, "Who, then, are the powerful opponents which you have arranged an appointment with?"

Qiao Feng replied, "They are…" Just as he said these two words, two beggarly fellows dressed in tattered clothes rushed towards them. Qiao Feng immediately fell silent. Exercising their qinggong, the two appeared before them in the twinkling of an eye. They bowed in unison. One said, "Chief, four people have rushed into the 'Hall of Great Righteousness'. They've demonstrated exceptional skill. Hall-master Jiang, seeing that they seem to have come with evil intentions and concerned that he might not be able to hold them off, ordered the two of us to locate the 'Hall of Great Benevolence' and request aid.

Hearing that the two extremely respectfully address Qiao Feng as 'Chief', Duan Yu thought to himself, "So elder brother is the lord and master of some clan or sect."

Qiao Feng nodded, then asked, "What type of people are they?" One man replied, "Three of them are females. One of them is a very tall, very skinny middle-aged man who is extremely unreasonable and arrogant." Qiao Feng humphed. "Hall-master Jiang is a bit too careful. There's only one opponent. Can it be that he can't hold him off?" The man said, "Chief, it seems as though those three woman also know martial arts." Qiao Feng chuckled, then said, "Fine. I'll go check it out." A happy expression appeared on the faces of those two, and they replied in unison, "Yes sir!" Letting their hands fall, they retreated behind Qiao Feng.

Qiao Feng said to Duan Yu, "Brother, shall you come along with us?" Duan Yu replied, "Naturally." The two men led them westwards, following a crooked, winding path, until they arrived at a countryside farmland. The land around them was all very fertile, as there were many rivers intersecting all about the place.

After walking for a few li, they arrived by a forest filled with apricot trees. A strange voice could be heard coming from that forest. "Brother Murong went to Luoyang to meet with your chief. Why is it that the people of the Beggar's Clan have come to Wuxi? Aren't you intentionally avoiding him? It's not a big deal if you guys are cowards and afraid of dying, but aren't you guys tiring brother Murong out by causing him to make a trip in vain? Outrageous, this is totally outrageous!"

As soon as Duan Yu heard this voice, his heart began to beat frantically. It was precisely the voice of "Mr. Tis not so, tis not so": Mr. Bao! He thought to himself, "Is miss Wang with him? Didn't they say there were three women with him?" Then he thought to himself, "The Beggar's Clan is the largest clan in all the world. Can it be that today, I have become sworn brothers with their chief?"

A man who spoke with a northern accent loudly replied, "Did young master Murong make an appointment in advance to meet with our humble clan's chief?" Mr. Bao replied, "It makes no difference whether they made an appointment or not. Since young master Murong went to Luoyang, the chief of the Beggar's Clan can't just up and leave and let him have made the trip in vain. Outrageous, simply outrageous!" The other person said, "Did young master Murong send a message or a scroll informing our humble clan?" Mr. Bao replied, "How should I know? I am neither young master Murong, nor the chief of the Beggar's Clan. How would I know? This question of yours makes no sense. Outrageous, totally outrageous!"

Qiao Feng's face sunk, and he quickly strode into the forest. Following him in, Duan Yu saw that within the forest was two groups of people facing each other. Behind Mr. Bao stood three females. As soon as Duan Yu's gaze came across one of the maiden's faces, it froze there.

Naturally, the young maiden was Wang Yuyan. She let out a soft exclamation. "You came as well?" Duan Yu replied, "I came as well." He stupidly stared at her, utterly enraptured. Wang Yuyan blushed and she turned her head away. She thought to herself, "This person is staring at me like that. He's so rude." But she knew that Duan Yu greatly admired her beauty, and so she couldn't help but secretly feel happy instead of being angry with him.

Standing on the opposite side of Bao Butong was a bunch of beggars in tattered clothing. When the person standing in front saw that Qiao Feng had arrived, a look of great joy appeared on his face. He immediately rushed forward, and led all of the beggar's behind him into a deep bow. They called out in unison, "Chief, we, your subordinates pay our respects to you!"

Clasping his fists, Qiao Feng replied, "Brothers, it is good to see you."

Bao Butong still had a look of arrogance on his face. He said, "Hmph, so this is chief Qiao, leader of the Beggar's Clan? My name is Bao Butong. I'm sure that you've heard of me before." Qiao Feng replied, "So it is Bao the Third! I've long admired your illustrious name. It is my good fortune to be able to meet you today." Bao Butong replied, "Tis not so, tis not so! What illustrious name do I have? I only have a stinking name! Everyone knows that I, Bao Butong, like to provoke disputes and insult people with my words. Heh heh, chief Qiao, you are in the wrong for coming so casually to Jiangnan"

The Beggar's Clan was the largest clan in the world. The chief of the clan held a position of great venerance and respect; the disciples of the clan treated him as though he were a living divinity. Seeing how impolite Bao Butong was towards their chief, and hearing his reproachful words, everyone present was filled with righteous indignation. Behind hall-master Jiang of the 'Hall of Great Righteousness' stood six or seven people who were gripping the hilts of their sabres, or clenching their fists. All of them wanted to charge forwards.

But Qiao Feng only lightly replied, "How am I in the wrong? Mr. Bao, please advise me."

Bao Butong replied, "My family's young master Murong knows that you, chief Qiao, are an outstanding personage, and that there are many amazing figures within the Beggar's Clan. Thus, he personally rushed to Luoyang to pay his respects to you. How could you so contentedly come to Jiangnan instead? Outragous, simply outrageous!"

Qiao Feng smiled. "If I had known in advance that young master Murong was going to honor us at Luoyang with his presence, I would have respectfully awaited his arrival. Please forgive me for the sin of failing to meet a guest." As he spoke, he cupped his fist in a salute.

Duan Yu secretly applauded him. "Elder brother's words are very courteous and totally in keeping with his status as the leader of a clan. If instead he had gotten into a verbal battle with Mr. Bao, he would have lost some status instead."

Unexpectedly, Bao Butong continued to press the case. Nodding, he said, "You did commit the sin of failing to meet a guest. Although there is the saying that 'the one who commits an offense unknowingly has done nothing wrong', whether or not the sinner is to be punished lies wholly in the hands of others!" Just as he was feeling very self-satisfied, several people within the apricot forest began to loudly laugh in unison. The sound of their laughter shook the heavens. Within the midst of the laughter, someone said, "I've long heard that Jiangnan's Bao Butong loves to let out dog farts. You really live up to your reputation!"

Bao Butong replied, "As the saying goes, a loud fart doesn't stink, and a stinky fart isn't loud. The dog's fart I just heard was both stinky and loud. Can it be that it came from the six elders of the Beggar's Clan?"

That person replied, "If Bao Butong is aware of who the six elders of the Beggar's Clan are, how does he dare to continually spout nonsense?" Before the sound of their words had died away, four old men out from behind the apricot forest. Some had white beards and white hair, others had faces which were glowing with health. Each of them held a weapon in their hands, and they formed a rectangle around Bao Butong, Wang Yuyan, and the others.

Bao Butong naturally knew that the Beggar's Clan was not only the largest clan in the world, but also the top clan amongst the best large clans. The experts within the clan were as plentiful as the clouds. Its six elders naturally had an even more impressive reputation in the martial world. But he had a naturally arrogant disposition, and ever since he was young had an attitude of fearing neither heaven nor hell. Now, seeing that he had been secretly surrounded by four of the six elders, he quietly groaned to himself, "That's not good, that's not good. Looks like today my illustrious reputation will be dragged through the dust." But he didn't outwardly show any fear at all. He said, "What instruction do you four old fellows intend to offer me? So you want to get into a brawl with Mr. Bao? Why haven't the other two elders appeared as well to help you out? Hiding and sneaking about, are they intending to ambush me? Good, good, absolutely great! Mr. Bao loves to fight!"

Suddenly, a voice sounded out from mid-air. "Who is the person who likes to fight more than anyone else in the world? Is it Mr. Bao? Wrong, wrong! It is Jiangnan's 'Gust of Wind', Feng Bo'e!"

Raising his head, Duan Yu saw that a man was standing on a branch of an apricot tree. The branch continuously waved up and down, but the man simply bobbed up and down along with it. The man appeared to be thirty two or thirty three years of age, had a small, thin frame, hollow cheeks, and a rat-like beard split into two strands, and drooping eyebrows. He looked extremely ugly. Duan Yu thought to himself, "It seems that this person is the 'fourth brother Feng' which Ah Zhu and Ah Bi were talking about." Indeed, he heard Ah Bi call out, "Fourth brother Feng, have you heard any news about the young master?"

Feng Bo'e called out, "Wonderful. We've met up with some excellent opponent's today! Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, we'll discuss the young master's affairs later." He somersaulted down from the branch, throwing himself at the short and stout elder who stood north of their group.

That elder was wielding a steel staff. He suddenly struck out with it, attacking Feng Bo'e's chest. This steel staff was as thick as a goose egg, and when it struck out, it carried with it a vigorous wind. The force of it was fierce and awesome indeed. Feng Bo'e shot his body up, stretching out his hand to seize the staff. The elder flipped his hand around. The staff trembled, then the other end shot out and attacked Feng Bo'e's chest again. Feng Bo'e cried out, "Wonderful!" He suddenly ducked down, snatching at his opponent's waist. The steel staff had already struck out and could not immediately be retracted to block this blow. Seeing how close the enemy was to him, the elder countered with a flying kick to his stomach.

Feng Bo'e slanted his body and dodged this kick, then actually continued the motion and attacked the red-faced elder to the east side. With a flash of dazzling white light, a broadsword appeared in Feng Bo'e's hand and he launched a horizontal chop. The red-faced elder was wielding a demon-headed sabre. The sabre was extremely long, with the back of the sabre being thick and the cutting part sharp and thin. Seeing Feng Bo'e chopping at him, he lifted up his demon-headed sabre to directly blocked the chop with one of his own, intending to slam the edge of his blade against Feng Bo'e's. Feng Bo'e called out, "Your weapon is too fearful. I'm not going to directly clash mine against it!" He leapt a few meters, then launched a backwards chop towards the white-bearded elder at the south side.

The white-bearded elder wielded a steel mace in his right hand. The surface of the mace was covered with spikes. It was a weapon designed to penetrate an opponent's outer defenses. Seeing that Feng Bo'e had launched a backwards chop, but that the red-faced elder had not yet fully retracted the power of the chop from his demon-headed sabre, he felt that if he warded off the blow right now, it could be construed as the two elders launching a pincer attack against Feng Bo'e. He greatly valued his own status and was unwilling to fight against him two on one. Immediately, he sidestepped and dodged the attack instead.

He didn't know that Feng Bo'e simply loved fighting. The more thrilling the fight, the more happy he was. He didn't really care too much about who the winner was or who the loser was, and never followed any of the ordinary rules to fighting. When the white-bearded elder sidestepped the attack, it was obvious to every present that he was intentionally giving way. But Feng Bo'e paid no attention at all to the customary rites and rituals of the martial world. Upon seeing that there was a weakness to be exploited, he struck out with four chops in a row. All of them were advancing and attacking strokes, carrying with them the force of the fluttering wind and and incomparable swiftness.

The white-bearded elder didn't expect him to take the opportunity to attack. This was truly impolite, and he hurriedly waved his mace to block. He had to take four steps back before regaining his footing. By this time, he had been backed against an apricot tree and no longer was able to retreat any further. He launched a horizontal strike with his mace. The technique he just used was his best skill for going from defense to offense to kill an opponent. He didn't expect that Feng Bo'e would shout out, "Lemme fight another one!" Instead of blocking, he simply retreated, his broadsword spinning about in a circle as he launched an attack against the fourth elder. By the time the white-bearded elder's attack was launched, the opponent was long gone. He was so angry that he repeatedly let out angry breaths, causing his white beard to fly up high.

The fourth elder had two very long arms. In his left hand, he was carrying a very soft weapon. Seeing Feng Bo'e charge at him, he lifted his left arm and unveiled his weapon. It was a gunnysack used to hold rice. As the wind blew into it, the gunnysack opened and expanded. He struck out with the open in the sack towards Feng Bo'e's head, trying to cover it.

Feng Bo'e was both startled and delighted. He cried out, "Wonderful, wonderful! I'll fight with you!" There was nothing more he liked better than fighting. If his opponent's utilized unusual techniques or strange weaponry, he would go wild with joy, much like how a person who loved to go sightseeing might react when seeing a famous mountain or a large river, or how a person who loved eating and drinking might react when tasting a wonderful new dish for the first time. He had never even heard of anyone who used a gunnysack as a weapon, much less fought with him. He was so overjoyed that the surplus joy turned into caution, as he carefully jabbed out with his broadsword, wanting to see if he could use his weapon to poke holes in the sack. The long-armed elder tossed the gunnysack to his right arm, then, spinning his fist, launched a punch at Feng Bo'e.

Feng Bo'e raised his head upwards, dodging the blow, and was just about to launch a counterattack with his broadsword against the elder's lower parts. But the long-armed elder had mastered an extremely brilliant fist technique known as the "Arm Passing Through". Just when it seemed the energy from his punch had dissipated, new energy appeared and his fist continued forward another half-foot. Fortunately, Feng Bo'e was a person who loved fighting and had been through over a thousand battles, large or small. He could come up with ways to improvise his way out of a bad situation like none other, and as the fist came towards his fast, he opened his mouth and chomped at it. The long-armed elder had expected to be able to knock loose a few of his teeth with this punch. How could he have imagined that just as his fist reached Feng Bo'e, Feng Bo'e would open his mouth and bite at him with all those pearly white teeth? He hurriedly withdrew his hand, but was just a bit too late. He let out a loud cry as Feng Bo'e's teeth drew blood from the tips of his fingers. Some of the onlookers began to curse violently, while others began laughing loudly.

Bao Butong said in a perfect deadpan, "Fourth brother Feng, this technique you just used, 'Lu Dongbin Bites the Dog', really lives up to its reputation! You've practiced it to a legendary, mythical level. That you can reach such a level is all due to you spending ten bitter years, braving summer heat and winter frost, practicing this technique and biting to death one thousand eight hundred white dogs, black dogs, and splotchy dogs."

Wang Yuyan, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi all began to laugh. Duan Yu laughed, "Miss Wang, you know everything there is to know about the martial arts of the world. What school or clan does this technique of biting people belong to?" Wang Yuyan smiled slightly, "This is a skill which is unique to brother Feng. I don't know it." Bao Butong said, "You don't know it? Heh heh, you are too ignorant and ill-informed! 'The Nine Great Stances of Lu Dongbin Biting Dogs'. Each stance contains eight orthodox and unorthodox biting techniques. Eight times nine is seventy two, giving this style a total of seventy two biting techniques. This is an extremely high level martial arts technique!" Seeing how delighted Wang Yuyan was in listening to Bao Butong's nonsense, Duan Yu also wanted to make a few jokes. But suddenly he realized, "That long-armed elder is one of elder brother Qiao's subordinates. How can I make fun of him?" He hurriedly shut his mouth.

At this time, the sound of roaring wind could be heard, as the long-armed elder waved his gunnysack about, turning it into a yellow blur and enveloping Feng Bo'e within his techniques. But Feng Bo'e's own broadsword techniques were brilliant and wondrous, and he used it to impede the enemy's advance, allowing him to fend the elder off. Only, he did not know all the techniques of the gunnysack, and he had already experienced the power of the 'Arm Passing Through' fist technique. The 'technique' he had used to counter it, 'Lu Dongbin Bites the Dog', only landed by sheer luck earlier and could not be used again. Thus, at this time, he didn't dare slacken up in the slightest.

Qiao Feng, seeing how Feng Bo'e was able to take on the long-armed elder's 'Arm Passing Through' fist technique for over a hundred stances without being defeated, was secretly astonished. His impression of young master Murong went up another level.

The three other elders of the Beggar's Clan retreated to one side, raptly watching the ferocious battle.

Ah Bi saw that Feng Bo'e would not be able to hold out for long, and grew worried. She asked Wang Yuyan, "Miss Wang, this respected elder uses a gunnysack as his weapon. What type of technique is this?" Frowning, Wang Yuyan said, "I've never read about this sort of technique in the books. The fist technique is the 'Arm Passing Through' fist technique. As for the gunnysack technique, it seems to possess the strength of the 'Thirteen Circling Soft-Whip Strikes of Dabie Mountain', combined with the techniques of the 'Eighty One Three-Sectioned-Staff Techniques' of Hubei's Ruan family. It seems as though that the gunnysack technique is something he himself invented.

Her voice was not particularly loud, but the words, 'Thirteen Circling Soft-Whip Strikes of Dabie Mountain' and 'Eighty One Three-Sectioned-Staff Techniques of Hubei's Ruan family' thundered in the long-armed elder's ears. Originally, he was a disciple of Hubei's Ruan family, having learned the three-sectioned-staff techniques from them. Afterwards, he committed the great offense of killing one of his elders. Thus, he changed his name and abandoned the three-sectioned-staff, refusing to ever use it again, so that no one would ever know of his origins. Unexpectedly, although he had done the best he could to abandon the martial arts he learned as a child, in the midst of a major battle he automatically revealed some of them. He was astonished. "How is it that this girl knows about my origins?" He thought that the shameful deeds which he committed decades ago were known to this girl. With his attention thus diverted, Feng Bo'e launched a series of broadsword attacks which he found difficult to cope with.

He retreated three steps in a row, hurriedly dodging aside. Seeing that Feng Bo'e's broadsword was about to arrive, he immediately sent out a flying left kick, striking at Feng Bo'e's right wrist. With a wave of the broadsword, Feng Bo'e chopped at his foot. The long-armed elder kicked out with his right leg as well in tandem, sending his body into mid-air. Feng Bo'e saw that, despite his great age, this elder was strong and vigorous, not at all inferior to younger people, and couldn't help but exclaim, "Wonderful!" With a whooshing sound, Feng Bo'e launched a punch at his kneecap. As the long-armed elder's body was in midair, it was very difficult for him to dodge this attack. If it landed, his kneecap would disinitegrate and his leg would snap.

Feng Bo'e saw that his opponent refused to change his move, despite his fist almost having reached the elder's kneecap. Suddenly, he felt as though the sound of the wind had picked up. His opponent had opened the mouth of his gunnysack, and was about to cover Feng Bo'e's head with it! Although he could shatter the elder's kneecap with this punch, it would be a huge disaster for his head to be covered with the gunnysack. He immediately changed his punch into a sweeping strike, intending to sweep aside the gunnysack strike. The long-armed elder inclined his right arm slightly to the side and spun the bag about, capturing Feng Bo'e's fist within it.

The difference in size between Feng Bo'e's small fist and the huge opening in the gunnysack was significant. Although it was easy to cover Feng Bo'e's fist, there was no way it could actually trap it. As soon as Feng Bo'e retracted his hand, it came out from within the gunnysack. Suddenly, he felt slight pain on his upper arm, as though it had been pierced by slender needles. When he took a look, he felt great shock; there was a tiny scorpion attached to his upper arm! This scorpion was smaller than most, but it was multicolored and bright, appearing to be very fearsome. Feng Bo'e knew that he was in trouble, and immediately exerted all his strength to shake the scorpion off. Unfortunately, the scorpion's stinger was firmly lodged in his arm, and no matter what he did, he could not shake it off.

Feng Bo'e hurriedly stretched out the broadsword in his right arm, slapping the flat of it against his left arm. With a clapping sound, the multicolored scorpion was smushed. But if the long-armed elder put this scorpion in his bag, its venom definitely wouldn't be something which could be easily dealt with. Even ordinary beggars were extremely adept at using poisonous substances, much less one of their six elders. He immediately leapt three meters away, withdrawing an antidote from his robes and immediately swallowing it down.

The long-armed elder did not pursue him. Putting away his gunnysack, he instead turned to stare at Wang Yuyan, thinking to himself, "How did this girl know that I am from Hubei's Ruan family?" Bao Butong was extremely concerned. He hurriedly said, "Fourth brother, how do you feel?" Feng Bo'e waved his left arm a few times, but felt nothing out of the ordinary. He was very puzzled, thinking to himself, "It's impossible for the multicolored scorpion in the gunnysack not to have some oddities about it." He said, "No problem…" Just as he said these words, with a thudding sound, he fell down, face-forwards....

Bao Butong hurriedly propped him up, repeatedly asking, "What's wrong? What's wrong?" The flesh and muscles on Feng Bo'e's face had stiffened into an extremely forced smile. Bao Butong was shocked. He immediately sealed the acupoints around Feng Bo'e's wrist, elbow, and shoulder, intending to stop the progress of the poison. How could he know that the poison of the multicolored scorpion acted extremely quickly? Although it wasn't so lethal as to 'seal the throat upon touching blood', it was on a similar level. The venom acted more quickly than even the toxins of vipers. Feng Bo'e opened his mouth, wanting to speak, but all he could muster out was a few horrifying croaking sounds. Seeing how deadly this poison was, Bao Butong feared that it might already be too late to save him. Feeling inconsolable grief and rage, he let out a loud howl and threw himself at the long-armed elder.

The short and stout elder who wielded the steel staff said, "You want to fight in turns and tire him out? Allow this shorty to spar with the heroes of Gusu's Murong family!" His steel staff shot out, striking towards Bao Butong. This was an extremely heavy weapon, but he wielded it as though it were as light as a feather. His techniques were very quick and agile, as though he were actually using a sword. Although Bao Butong was extremely angry, his opponent was very powerful and he did not dare to ignore him. He intended to capture the short and stout elder and use him to force the long-armed elder to give Feng Bo'e an antidote to save his life. He immediately began to use seizing and capturing hand techniques, launching raids in between the hollow spaces left by the steel staff's attacks.

Ah Zhu and Ah Bi each stood to one side of Feng Bo'e. Tears glimmered in their eyes as they cried out, "Fourth brother! Fourth brother!" Wang Yuyan had no knowledge at all regarding the usage of poison or the curing of poison, and felt very regretful. "In all the martial arts scrolls I've read, there was a lot of information regarding the usage of poison. Only, I believed all of that stuff was useless and didn't even take a look at them. If I had at least glanced at them, I would remember at least a little bit and wouldn't be totally helpless right now, able to do nothing but watch as fourth brother Feng dies an unnatural death."

Qiao Feng, seeing how Bao Butong and and the short elder were evenly matched, knew that victory could not be determined for some time. He said to the long armed elder, "Elder Chen, please go ahead and cure Mr. Feng!" The long-armed elder was startled. He said, "Chief, this fellow was extremely impolite and his martial arts is not weak. If I rescue him, there'll be no end of trouble in the future." Qiao Feng nodded. "What you say is true. But for us to kill a master's subordinates before even meeting him might be construed as us bullying the weak. It's best for us to firmly plant ourselves on the moral high ground." Elder Chen angrily said, "Vice-chief Ma was clearly killed by that brat from the Murong family. We're here to take revenge, not to engage in moral or righteous posturing." A look of slight displeasure appeared on Qiao Feng's face. "Go and cure his poison first. It won't be too late for us to slowly discuss other things later."

Although elder Chen was extremely unwilling to do this, in the end, he did not dare to disobey his chief's orders. He said, "Yes sir." From within his robes, he withdrew a small bottle. Taking a few steps forward, he said to Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, "My chief puts benevolence and righteousness ahead of all other things. This is the antidote. Take it!"

Ah Bi was overjoyed. She immediately rushed forward to accept the antidote, then very respectfully curtsied to Qiao Feng and paid her respects to elder Chen as well. "Thank you, chief Qiao. Thank you, elder Chen." As she took the antidote, she asked, "Elder, if I might ask, how should the antidote be applied?" Elder Chen replied, "After drawing out the poison in the wound, apply the antidote directly to the wound." After pausing for a moment, he said, "If the venom isn't totally drawn out, this medicine will do more harm than good. You should be aware of this." Ah Bi replied, "Understood!" Rushing back to Feng Bo'e's side, she lifted up her arm and was about to press her open mouth against the wound and suck out the venom.

Elder Chen loudly shouted, "Hold!" Ah Bi was stunned. "What is it?" Elder Chen said, "Females cannot draw the poison out!" Ah Bi's face reddened slightly. "What's wrong with females?" Elder Chen replied, "This poison has a cold Yin nature. Females are Yin by nature. To add even more Yin would be to increase the toxicity of this venom."

Ah Bi, Ah Zhu, and Wang Yuyan all half-believed, half-doubted him. Although they felt his words were very strange, they weren't totally unreasonable. If he was telling the truth, then them drawing out the venom would be actually making things worse. On their side, the only man left was Bao Butong, but he was currently embroiled in a huge battle with the short elder. The shadow of the elder's staff flashed about, and Bao Butong's palms fluttered about here and there. It would be difficult for the battle to come to an end soon. Ah Zhu called out, "Third brother, stop fighting for now! First come and help rescue fourth brother!"

There was only a hairs breadth of difference between Bao Butong's strength and that of the short elder. Even if he wanted to retreat and disengage, it wasn't something he could do very quickly. When experts competed in martial arts, they risked their lives with every stroke. If someone could advance and retreat freely, they would be able to take their opponent's life easily. How could it be so easy for him to charge or disengage? Hearing Ah Zhu's call, Bao Butong knew that there was a change in Feng Bo'e's condition. Growing anxious, he launched several powerful attacks in a row, hoping to be able to shake the short elder off.

By now, the short elder had already fought with Bao Butong for over a hundred strokes. Although they were evenly matched, he himself was wielding a large, long, and powerful weapon, whereas Bao Butong was empty handed. Thus, superiority and inferiority had already been determined. Brandishing his steel staff, the short elder had launched many attacks in succession against Bao Butong, but Bao Butong had been able to dissolve all of them. He knew that most likely, if this battle were to continue, he would lose, not win. Seeing how ferocious Bao Butong's attacks became, he thought that Bao Butong was trying to vanquish him and immediately used all of his energy to counterattack. These four elders of the Beggar's Clan each had their own unique accomplishments in martial arts. Zhu Baokun and Sima Lin of the Qingcheng sect, along with Yao Bodang of the Qin family stronghold, were all dispatched by Bao Butong in a laughably easy manner, but this short elder really was difficult to deal with. Although Bao Butong had the advantage, for him to actually defeat his opponent by one stance or half a stroke would depend on his opponent's strength, and clearly the short elder possessed strong stamina.

Qiao Feng saw that Wang Yuyan and the other two girls looked very frightened. He knew that it was true that females cannot draw out this poison, and also knew how lethal the multicolored scorpion's venom was. He knew that if he ordered his subordinates to launch an attack, even if the situation was a hundred times more dangerous than it was today, not a single person would dare to complain. But no matter what, he could not give out the order for one of his subordinates to risk his own life to save an enemy. He immediately said, "I will come and draw out his poison myself." As he spoke, he walked towards Feng Bo'e.

As soon as he saw the anxious look on Wang Yuyan's face, Duan Yu had the intention of helping Feng Bo'e draw out the poison. Only, Qiao Feng was now his sworn brother, and it would be totally improper for him to go and help his sworn brother's enemy thusly. Although Qiao Feng had ordered elder Chen to provide the antidote, Duan Yu didn't know if he was sincere in doing so or not. Seeing as how Qiao Feng was personally walking towards Feng Bo'e and intended to draw out the poison himself, Duan Yu hurriedly said, "Elder brother, let me do it instead." Rushing forward, he immediately executed the 'Graceful Steps Upon the Waves'. With a swaying flicker, he rushed in front of Qiao Feng. Grabbing Feng Bo'e's upper arm, he pressed his mouth against the wound and began drawing the poison out.

At this point in time, Feng Bo'e's arm had already turned totally black. His eyes were wide open; the flesh on his face had become so rigid that he couldn't even close them. After drawing out a mouthful of poisoned blood, Duan Yu spat it out on the ground. The poisoned blood was as black as ink. Everyone who saw it was astonished. Just as Duan Yu was about to draw out more poison, more black blood began to flow from the wound. Startled, Duan Yu thought to himself, "It'd be best if I let this poisoned blood flow out first." He did not know that this was because he had once ingested the 'King of Ten Thousand Poisons', the Cinnabar Toad, which could conquer all venoms. The venom of the multicolored scorpion was far inferior to it. As soon as they touched, the venom began to flow out. Feng Bo'e's body suddenly came to life, and he said, "Many thanks!"

Ah Zhu and the rest were all overjoyed. Ah Bi said, "Fourth brother, you can speak again!" The flow of black blood slowly lessened, beginning to turn purple. After the purple blood flowed for a bit longer, the blood turned a scarlet red. Ah Bi hurriedly applied the antidote to his arm, and Bao Butong unsealed his acupoints. In a short period of time, Feng Bo'e's arm, previously swollen grotesquely, looked normal again, and he had no problems speaking or moving.

Feng Bo'e bowed deeply towards Duan Yu. "Thank you for saving my life." Duan Yu hurriedly returned the courtesy, saying, "There's no need to be so courteous about such a trifling matter." Feng Bo'e grinned. "My life might be a trifling matter to you, but it's a rather important matter to me." Taking the small antidote bottle from Ah Zhu, he tossed it towards elder Chen, saying, "I'm giving your antidote back to you!" Turning towards Qiao Feng, Feng Bo'e cupped his fists. "Chief Qiao, you are exceptionally benevolent and righteous. You are worthy of being the leader of the largest clan in the world. I, Feng Bo'e, admire you very much!" Qiao Feng cupped his fists in return. "You are too kind."

Feng Bo'e picked up his broadsword, then pointed with his left arm towards elder Chen. "Today, I was defeated by you. I, Feng Bo'e, freely admit my inferiority! Next time we meet, let's fight again! But this today, we're not fighting anymore." Elder Chen smiled. "I will naturally keep you company next time." Slanting his body, Feng Bo'e called out towards the elder wielding a mace, "I'd like to go a few rounds with you, sir!" Ah Zhu and Ah Bi were astonished. They called out, "Fourth brother, no! Your body isn't fully recovered yet!" Feng Bo'e replied, "Not getting into a fight when one's available? That's not in keeping with my character!" Brandishing his knife, he charged at the mace-wielding elder.

The mace-wielding elder had white eyebrows and a white beard. He had become famous decades ago. What type of person hadn't he met? But he couldn't help but be struck dumb with amazement as he saw Feng Bo'e vigorously charging towards him, just moments after being brought back from the brink of death. Originally, there were many transformations and changes in his mace techniques. Aside from beating, striking, sweeping, and piercing techniques, he also had bizarre techniques to lock up an enemy's weapons. But now, feeling a bit nervous, his skill decreased by a significant degree and all he could do was to ward off Feng Bo'e's attacks, without being able to counterattack at all.

Qiao Feng frowned slightly. "This Feng fellow really doesn't know what's good for him. Brother Duan just saved his life. How could he so indiscriminately and rashly charge off into battle?"

Bao Butong and Feng Bo'e both slowly gained the upper hand in their battles. However, it would still take some time for victory or defeat to be determined. When experts were competing against each other, the situation could change in the blink of an eye. It only took one particularly brilliant stroke or the slightest negligence for a losing position to be turned into an equal one. None of the four dared to be the least bit negligent, and all of the onlookers watched raptly.

Duan Yu suddenly heard the sound of many people rushing this way from the east, followed by people coming from the north. Duan Yu said to Qiao Feng in a low voice, "Elder brother, people are coming." Qiao Feng also had heard the sounds long ago, and nodded. He thought to himself, "Most likely, other forces under young master Murong's command have come. So this Bao fellow and Feng fellow arrived first to keep us entangled here while they prepared a large group of men to attack us." He prepared to give a secret command, ordering the ordinary members of the clan to head west and individually disappear off to the south while the four elders, hall-master Jiang, and himself would secure the rear. But suddenly, he heard footsteps coming from the west and the south as well. They had been totally surrounded by enemies.

Qiao Feng said in a low voice, "Hall-master Jiang, the enemy force is weakest to the south. Later, when I give the hand signal, immediately order all of our brothers to retreat to the south." Hall-master Jiang replied, "Yes sir!"

Just at this moment, fifty or sixty people burst in from the east. All of them wore ragged clothes, had uncombed hair, and either wielded weapons or broken bowls and bamboo staffs. All of them were members of the Beggar's Clan. Next, eighty or so disciples of the Beggar's Clan appeared from the north. All of them had very serious expressions on their face, and when they saw Qiao Feng, they didn't pay him any courtesies at all. Instead, they seemed to be faintly hostile towards him.

Bao Butong and Feng Bo'e, seeing so many disciples of the Beggar's Clan suddenly appear, were both alarmed. They thought to themselves, "How can we rescue miss Wang, Ah Zu, and Ah Bi from this situation?"

However, the person who was most astonished of all was Qiao Feng. These were all members of his clan, and normally would be extremely respectful towards him. If they saw him from afar, they would immediately rush forward to pay their respects. How could it be that today, they wouldn't even let out a call of 'Chief'? Just as he was feeling confused, he saw that dozens of additional clan members had rushed here from the west and the south. In a short period of time, the apricot forest was crammed with people. However, aside from the four elders and hall-master Jiang, who had arrived earlier, none of the other leaders of the Beggar's Clan were present. Qiao Feng was more and more astonished. Slowly, cold sweat began to form on his palms. He had never been shocked than he was today, not even when he was facing the toughest of enemies. He could only think to himself, "Can it be that there has been a riot or rebellion within our ranks? Can it be that the skill-instructing elder and the law-enforcing elders, along with the various hall-masters, have all been murdered?" But with Bao Butong and Feng Bo'e still fighting with the two elders, and Wang Yuyan and the other two girls still watching, he could not give voice to his thoughts.

Elder Chen suddenly shouted in a loud voice, "Form the 'Dog Beating Formation!'" From each direction, ten or twenty Beggar's Clan disciples rushed forwards, all wielding weapons, surrounding Bao Butong and Feng Bo'e.

Bao Butong saw that in the blink of an eye, the Beggar's Clan had formed a battle array against them. He knew that although he himself might be able to just barely escape, Feng Bo'e had been greatly exhausted by his battle with the poison and would suffer severe injuries while doing so. It would be harder than hard to rescue Wang Yuyan and the other girls. When faced with a situation like this, he really had no other options but to throw up his hands and admit defeat. For him to admit defeat when so badly outnumbered would not cause any harm to his reputation at all. But Bao Butong had a stubborn, pigheaded nature. He would intentionally do the opposite of what normal people considered to be natural. In addition, Feng Bo'e was a person who loved fighting more than his own life. As long as there was an opportunity to fight, regardless of whether he would win or lose, whether he would live or die, or whether the cause was just or injust, he would fight to the very end. Victory and defeat had already been determined, but Bao Butong and Feng Bo'e continued to fight hard, not yielding in the slightest.

Wang Yuyan cried out, "Third brother Bao, fourth brother Feng! This won't work! The two of you aren't capable of defeating this 'Dog Beating Formation'! It's best if you stop fighting now!"

Feng Bo'e replied, "Lemme fight a bit longer! When I am totally helpless, I'll stop fighting!" As he spoke, his attention was diverted and the white-haired elder landed a hit on his shoulder with his mace. The spikes on the mace tore a bloody wound in his shoulder. Feng Bo'e cursed, "Your grandmother's! What a nasty stroke!" He launched three swishing suicidal attacks, as though he wanted nothing more but to die with his opponent. The white haired elder thought to himself, "It isn't as though the two of us have irreconcilable differences. Why must you go all out like that?" He immediately tightened his defenses, no longer attacking.

The long-armed elder began to sing, "Brothers from the south, come beg for food! Ai-yo-ai-yo-yo…" Although he was singing a begging song, what he actually was doing was issuing out combat orders. The tens of beggars at the south all raised their weapons. As soon as the elder stopped singing, they would charge forwards. Qiao Feng knew that once the 'Dog Beating Formation' was launched, the beggars in the formation would not stop until the enemy had been wounded and killed. He was unwilling to create a deep grudge with Gusu's Murong family before he had fully investigated the situation. He immediately waved his left hand and shouted, "Wait!" His shadow swaying, he arrived before Feng Bo'e, launching a clawing attack towards his face....

Feng Bo'e dodged to the right, but Qiao Feng launched an attack with his right hand, seizing him by the wrist and disarming him. Wang Yuyan cried out, "This is a stroke from the 'Dragon Claw Hand' named the 'Three Pearl-Snatching Strokes'!"

Then she cried out, "Third brother Bao, his left elbow will collide with your chest, then his right hand will chop at your upper waist, and his left hand will seize your 'Qihu' acupoint. This is a 'Dragon Claw Hand' stroke known as 'Copious Amounts of Rain'.

Just as Wang Yuyan said, 'his left elbow will collide with your chest', Qiao Feng's left elbow really did strike out and collide with Bao Butong's chest. As Wang Yuyan said, 'his right hand will chop at your upper waist', Qiao Feng's right hand really did chop at his upper waist. He acted at exactly the same moment that she spoke; the synchronicity was so perfect that it couldn't even have been trained for. Just as Wang Yuyan said the third sentence, Qiao Feng's fingers formed a hook and seized Bao Butong's 'Qihu' acupoint.

Bao Butong felt his entire body go limp, rendering him incapable of movement. He indignantly said, "What a nice 'Copious Amounts of Rain'! Little sister, what's the point of you telling me about it after the fact? If you told me a bit earlier, I could've prepared for it!" Wang Yuyan apologized, "He's simply too powerful. When he executes his attacks, he doesn't reveal any hints in advance, and I wasn't able to realize what he was about to do. I'm really sorry." Bao Butong replied, "What's this 'really sorry, really sorry' nonsense? Today, we lost this fight and have shamed the Basin of the Swallows!" Turning his head, he saw that Feng Bo'e was standing straight and stiff. When Qiao Feng took away his weapon, he had also sealed his acupoints. Otherwise, how could he simply stand there without fighting so obediently?

Elder Chen, seeing how his chief had already subdued Feng Bo'e and Bao Butong, stopped singing the song without finishing it. The four elders and various experts of the clan, seeing how Qiao Feng had immediately subdued those two as soon as he acted with such unimaginably wonderful skill, all felt great admiration for him in their heart.

Qiao Feng unsealed Bao Butong's 'Qihu' acupoint, then gently tapped Feng Bo'e on the shoulder, unsealing his sealed acupoint as well before saying, "The two of you, feel free to leave."

Even if Bao Butong was more stubborn than he already was, he knew that the gap between his level of martial arts and that of his opponent was simply far too wide. Even if the Beggar's Clan didn't have the 'Dog Beating Formation' or the four elders, Qiao Feng would still easily overcome him. At this point in time, if he said anything at all, he would only lose more face. Without saying a single word, he immediately returned to Wang Yuyan's side.

Feng Bo'e, on the other hand, spoke. "Chief Qiao, I am definitely inferior to you in martial arts. But I'm not happy with how you beat me using that technique earlier. You caught me a bit off guard." Qiao Feng replied, "True. I did catch you off guard. Let's go a few more stances, shall we? I'll receive some strokes from your broadsword." As soon as he finished speaking, he lifted up his hand, making a snatching motion mid-air. A current of air suddenly agitated the broadsword lying on the floor, causing the broadsword to actually jump up and leap into his hand. With a flick of his finger, Qiao Feng spun the broadsword around, then presented it to Feng Bo'e.

Feng Bo'e immediately froze in utter shock. In a quivering voice, he said, "This…this is the 'Dragon Capturing Art'? Someone exists who is actually…actually able to use this incredible technique?"

Qiao Feng smiled. "My proficiency in the skill is very basic. Please don't laugh at me." As he spoke, he glanced at Wang Yuyan. Earlier, when Wang Yuyan had recognized him using 'Copious Amounts of Rain', she had predicted with incredible foresight, as though she were a prophet. This had greatly astonished him. At this moment, he was curious as to how this young maiden who had a thorough knowledge of martial arts would comment on his execution of the 'Dragon Capturing Art'.

Unexpectedly, Wang Yuyan didn't say a single word. It seemed as though she hadn't even seen Qiao Feng's outstanding display. As it turned out, she was lost in thought. "Chief Qiao's martial arts skill is so incredible. My cousin shares an equal amount of fame with him, and everyone in the martial world knows the saying, 'Northern Qiao Feng, Southern Murong'. But…but my cousin's proficiency in martial arts, how can it…how can it…"

Feng Bo'e shook his head. "I can't beat you. The difference between our respective skill levels is too great. There's no fun in fighting you. Chief Qiao, farewell!" Although he had just been defeated, he didn't look crestfallen at all. The saying, 'Victory is joyful, but defeat is delightful as well' applied to him. The only thing he wanted to do was fight. The more exciting the battle became, the happier he was. He didn't care at all about victory or defeat. He could honestly be described as someone was deeply in tune with the 'Way of Battle'.

After saluting Qiao Feng, he said to Bao Butong, "Third brother, I hear that the young master went to Shaolin. There're a lot of people there. There must be a lot of fights willing to happen as well! I'm going to go stir up some trouble! You guys take your time." The only thing he was afraid of was missing half a chance to get into a fight. Without even waiting for Bao Butong to respond, he immediately ran off.

Bao Butong said, "Let's go, let's go! As my skill is inferior to others, I have lost all face! Even if I practiced for ten more years, I would still be totally defeated. I might as well stop now, and come to a rest!" He sang the words in a loud voice as he swaggered off. Even in defeat, he looked carefree and unrestrained.

Wang Yuyan said to Ah Zhu and Ah Bi, "Third brother and fourth brother have both left. Where shall we go to find…to find him?" Ah Zhu lowered her head. "The Beggar's Clan needs to discuss some serious matters here. Let's go back to Wuxi and discuss things there." Turning her head towards Qiao Feng, she said, "Chief Qiao, the three of us are leaving now!" Qiao Feng nodded. "Ladies, at your leisure."

From within the group of beggars to the east, walked out a middle-aged beggar with an elegant, refined face. "Chief, we haven't yet avenged the murder of vice-chief Ma. How can you so casually let our enemies leave?" These words seemed on the surface to be very courteous, but the person appeared very overbearing and aggressive, not acting as though he were a subordinate at all.

Qiao Feng replied, "We came to Jiangnan for the purpose of avenging the death of vice-chief Ma. But over the past few days, I have done some investigating and now believe that he was not necessarily slain by young master Murong."

The middle-aged beggar was named Quan Guanqing. He was nicknamed the 'Fully Learned Scholar'. He was wise and full of stratagems, and possessed a high level of martial arts as well. Within the clan, he was an eight-bagged hall-master whose position was inferior only to the six elder's themselves. He was in charge of the 'Hall of Great Wisdom'. He asked, "Chief, what makes you say that?"

Wang Yuyan, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi were just about to leave, but upon hearing someone in the Beggar's Clan bring up Murong Fu, they immediately went to one side and quietly listened, out of their love and solicitude for him.

Qiao Feng replied, "It is based purely on my own conjecture. I cannot provide any proof." Quan Guanqing said, "What conjectures do you have, chief? Your subordinate would like to hear them." Qiao Feng replied, "When I was in Luoyang and heard that second brother Ma died to the 'Throat Locking Technique', I suddenly thought of Gusu's Murong family, famous for 'using an opponent's skills, exercising them upon the opponent.' I believed that second brother Ma had unequaled proficiency in the 'Throat Locking Technique', and that aside from Gusu's Murong family, no one is capable of using second brother Ma's own ultimate technique against him." Quan Guanqing said, "Correct." Qiao Feng said, "But over the past few days, more and more I have begun to think that our initial judgment might not be correct. It's possible that there are other complications to this matter." Quan Guanqing said, "All of the brothers here are willing to listen to your thoughts and help you clarify them."

Qiao Feng felt that his words seemed to spring from an evil intention, and also noticed that all of the members present had a strange look on their faces. Some tremendous unforeseen event must have occurred within the clan, and he asked, "Where is the skill-instructing elder and the law-enforcing elder?" Quan Guanqing replied, "Your subordinate has not seen either of the two elders today." Qiao Feng then asked, "And where are the hall-masters of the 'Great Benevolence, 'Great Trustworthiness', 'Great Valor', and 'Great Courtesy' halls?" Quan Guanging turned and looked at a seven-bagged disciple who stood towards the northwest and asked, "Zhang Quanxiang, where is your hall-master?" The seven-bagged disciple replied, "Um…um…I don't know."

Qiao Feng always knew that Quan Guanqing, the hall-master of the 'Hall of Great Wisdom', was a person who utilized careful planning. He was a very capable and experienced person, and was originally one of his own exceptionally competent personal subordinates. But now that he was conspiring to cause upheaval, he became an exceptionally dangerous enemy. Seeing a look of shame on that seven-bagged disciple, Zhang Quanxiang, how he was unwilling to meet his own gaze, and hearing how he hemmed and hawed, Qiao Feng shouted out, "Zhang Quanxiang! You murdered the master of your hall. Right?!" Zhang Quanxiang was shocked. He hurriedly said, "I didn't, I didn't! Hall-master Fang is safe and sound in that place. He isn't dead, he isn't dead! This…this has nothing to do with me. I didn't do it!" Qiao Feng said in a severe voice, "Then who did it?" This sentence was not said particularly loudly, but it was filled with dignity and majesty. Zhang Quanxiang couldn't help but begin to tremble from head to foot, and his gaze turned towards Quan Guanqing.

Qiao Feng realized that the revolt had already come to pass. Even if the skill-instructing elder and the law-enforcing elder had not been slain, they were definitely in critical, life-and-death danger. He had to act quickly, before the opportunity faded away. Letting out a long sigh, he turned and asked the four elders, "Four elders, what exactly has happened?"

The four elders looked at each other, each of them hoping that another person would be the first to speak. Upon seeing this, Qiao Feng knew that the four elders were also complicit in whatever had happened. Smiling slightly, he said, "Within our clan, from myself on down, everyone highly values the code of brotherhood…" As he said this, he suddenly took two steps backwards. Each step he took was over three meters long; other people couldn't move so quickly even if while walking forwards, and their steps would not be as large. After taking those two backward steps, he was within one meter of Quan Guanqing. Without turning around, he shot both hand backwards and seized Quan Guanqing's 'Zhongting' and 'Jiuyi' acupoints, located on his chest.

Qiao Feng exerted his internal energy through his hands, sending it through Quan Guanqing's captured acupoints and into his meridians, where it surged to the 'Zhongwei' and 'Yangtai' acupoints near his kneejoints. Feeling his legs go soft, Quan Guanqing couldn't help but fall to his knees.

Quan Guanqing possessed outstanding martial arts ability, and was not at all inferior to the four elders. How could it be that he was subdued in but a single stroke, without even having the chance to retaliate? Everyone present turned pale. They were all astonished and fearful, uncertain as to how to proceed.

Qiao Feng had surmised that Quan Guanqing must be the principal troublemaker in this revolt. Qiao Feng knew that if he did not subdue him immediately, there would be no end of problems. Even if he was able to suppress the traitors, it would be difficult to avoid a bloody, fratricidal civil war within the clan itself. While about to face tough opponents, how could the Beggar's Clan inflict wounds on itself? He saw that of the people present, everyone aside from the hall-master of the 'Great Righteousness' seemed to have been deluded and mislead by Quan Guanqing. If they began to fight each other, things would become very difficult to handle. Thus, he intentionally turned around to ask a question of the four elders and, while Quan Guanqing was not on his guard, suddenly retreated and sealed his acupoints. Outwardly, this may have appeared as a simple, uninterrupted action, like a hare rearing its head and a hawk descending to slay it, but in actuality Qiao Feng had to draw upon everyone he had ever learned to carry it out. If Qiao Feng's backwards strikes were off-target even slightly, even though he would have been able to subdue Quan Guanqing, he wouldn't have had the chance to send his internal energy to Quan Guanqing's kneejoints, and Quan Guanqing's co-conspirators might have rushed forward to aid him, forcing a battle. But with Quan Guanqing falling to his knees, everyone present thought that he was actually surrendering to Qiao Feng, and thus no one dared to make any rash moves.

Qiao Feng turned around. He lightly clapped Quan Guanqing on the shoulder and said, "Since you admit your mistake, there's no need for you to kneel down. However, I cannot fail to mete out punishment to you for going against your superiors. We'll slowly discuss how to handle this." With a light tap of his elbow, he sealed Quan Quanqing's 'Mute' acupoint, preventing him from speaking.

Qiao Feng knew that Quan Guanqing was a superb orator. If he was given a chance to speak and incite the people present, it would cause many problems. This was a moment of great crisis, and thus he had to use drastic measures to deal with it. He had subdued Quan Guanqing and forced him to his knees. Now, he turned to Zhang Quanxiang and loudly said, "Lead hall-master Jiang of the 'Hall of Great Righteousness' to invite the skill-instructing elder and the law-enforcing elder here. If you obediently listen to my commands, your own offenses will be lessened. Everyone else must immediately sit down. Without my permission, none of you are allowed to rise!"

Zhang Quanxiang was both shocked and overjoyed. He repeatedly agreed, "Yes! Yes!"

Hall-master Jiang of the 'Hall of Great Righteousness' was not part of this revolt. When he saw how Quan Guanqing and the others dared to stage an armed rebellion against their superiors, he was filled with so much rage that his face was swollen red. He breathed heavily and furiously. Only now, upon hearing Qiao Feng order him to go rescue the two elders, did he calm down slightly. He said to the twenty or so members of his hall, "Our clan has unfortunately fallen victim to turmoil. Now is the time when all of us must exert all our efforts to repay our chief's benevolence. Everyone must protect the chief and obey all his commands!" He was afraid that the four elders would, once he left, launch an attack against Qiao Feng. Although the people of the 'Hall of Great Righteousness' were far outnumbered by the traitors, the chief couldn't be allowed to face the traitors all alone.

But Qiao Feng said, "No! Brother Jiang, take all of the brothers within your hall with you. Nothing can go wrong on this critical mission of saving the two elders." Not daring to disobey him, hall-master Jiang replied, "Yes sir!" Then he said, "Chief, please be careful. I will come back as soon as possible." Smiling, Qiao Feng said, "Everyone here is a brother with whom I have gone through life-and-death experiences with. It's just that they have some temporary complaints. It is no big deal. Set your mind at rest and go." Then he added, "Send someone to inform the Western Xia's 'League of Elites' that our meeting at Mt. Hui must be pushed back by seven days." Hall-master Jiang respectfully bowed, then left with all of his subordinates.

Although Qiao Feng spoke very casually, he was actually very anxious. With the members of the 'Hall of Great Righteousness' having departed, aside from Duan Yu and the three girls, each and every one of the two hundred plus people within the apricot forest had participated in this revolt. It would only take one person taking command for all of them to suddenly move against him, making the situation very hard to deal with. Staring at everyone, he saw that there was a look of extremely awkward embarrassment on all of their faces. Some tried to put on a pretense of calmness, while others let their fear show on their faces. But still others seemed itchy and eager to give battle, appearing to be ready to take reckless actions. None of the two hundred people surrounding him spoke, but it was clear that if someone did, there would immediately be great chaos.

By this time, the sky had slowly become black, as dusk enveloped the world. A mist arose within the apricot forest, billowing hither and to. Qiao Feng thought to himself, "At this time, I need to calm everyone down. The best thing to do would be to change their current state of mind. Once the skill-instructing elder and the rest come, everything will be solved." Glancing at Duan Yu, he said, "Brothers, a joyous thing has happened to me today. I've made a new friend. This is brother Duan, Duan Yu. The two of us got along perfectly, and I have become sworn brothers with him."

Upon hearing that this bookworm had become sworn brothers with the chief of the Beggar's Clan, Wang Yuyan, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi were all astonished.

Qiao Feng continued, "Brother, let me introduce to you some of the most important people in my clan." He led Duan Yu to the white-haired elder who wielded the spiked mace. "This is Elder Song. He is a senior statements of our clan, whom everyone respects. When his spiked mace freely roamed across the martial world, you, brother, weren't even born yet." Duan Yu said, "Pleased to meet you, pleased to meet you. For me to have the good fortune of meeting an eminent, virtuous person is a true blessing." As he spoke, he cupped his fist and saluted the elder. Elder Song forced himself to return the courtesy.

Next, Qiao Feng led Duan Yu to stand before the short and stout elder who wielded the steel staff. "Elder Xi is an expert of our sect who specializes in armed combat. Ten or so years ago, I often sought advice from him regarding martial arts. The relationship between us can be characterized as half that of a master-disciple relationship, and half that of a deep friendship. The ties of affection that bind us are deep and unabiding." Duan Yu said, "Just earlier, I watched elder Xi fight with that other fellow. He really is superb at martial arts. Admirable, admirable." Elder Xi had a straightforward and frank disposition. Upon hearing how highly Qiao Feng esteemed their friendship, and how Qiao Feng had never forgotten that elder Xi had once instructed him, he himself couldn't help but feel greatly ashamed for listening to and stupidly believing Quan Guanqing's words.

After Qiao Feng had introduced elders Xi and Chen, he was about to introduce Duan Yu to the red-faced elder Wu, who wielded the demon-headed sabre, when suddenly he heard the sound of many footsteps rush in his direction from the northeast. There was a great deal of noise, and some people were repeatedly calling out, "How is the chief? Where are those traitors?" Others were saying, "We fell for their tricks and were imprisoned by them! I'm so angry." All the voices came together in a chaotic roar.

Qiao Feng was overjoyed, but did not want to be discourteous and risk making elder Wu unhappy. He introduced Duan Yu to elder Wu and explained elder Wu's status and great fame before turning around. As he did, he saw that the skill-instructing elder, law-enforcing elder, and the hall-masters of the 'Great Benevolence', 'Great Valor', 'Great Courtesy', and 'Great Trustworthiness' halls had all arrived, along with a large group of their subordinates. All of them had many things they wanted to say, but in front of their chief, none of them dared to speak too rashly.

Qiao Feng said, "Everyone, please be seated. I have some things I want to say." They all answered in unison, "Yes sir!" Each of them seated themselves in accordance to their own rank and station. To Duan Yu's eyes, it seemed as though everyone was just scrambling about for a seat, but in actuality, there was a regimented order and method to their seating arrangements.

Seeing how everyone seated themselves according to regulations, Qiao Feng felt thirty percent relieved. Smiling, he said, "It is the good fortune of our clan that the people of the martial world hold us in high esteem, so as to allow us to be the largest clan in the world for over a century. With so many people in our clan, it's natural that we have differing opinions and feelings. All we need to do is clearly explain the situation and politely discuss our differences. Everyone here is the closest of brothers and friends to everyone else. There's no need for us to take any temporary personal disputes too seriously." When he said these words, a very kind and gentle look was on his face. He had long since decided to handle this situation peacefully and cause this great disaster to totally disappear. No matter what, he could not allow the brothers of the Beggar's Clan to kill and slaughter each other.

As everyone heard his words, the dangerous, explosive air actually did diminish a bit.

An old, yellow-faced beggar seated to Qiao Feng's right rose to his feet. He said, "Elders Song, Xi, Chen, and Wu. Might I ask, why is it that you ordered for us to be imprisoned within a small boat on Lake Taihu?" This was the law-enforcing elder. His name was Bai Shijing. He had always been incorruptible and impartial, and whenever anyone within the clan who had broken its rules saw him, they all became very nervous, no matter what their rank or station.

Of the four elders, elder Song was the oldest, and so he was something of their de-facto leader. His face flushed red. Coughing, he said, "This…this…um…we are all old friends who have gone through many trials and tribulations together over the years. Naturally, we had no ill intentions towards you…Bai…law-enforcing elder Bai, please give me some face and don't hold it against me."

Everyone, upon hearing his words, thought that he was becoming old and muddleheaded. To revolt against one's leaders was an extremely serious offense. How could it be simply waved off with the words, 'please give me some face and don't hold it against me'?

Bai Shijing replied, "Elder Song, you say that you had no ill intentions, but that is not the case. The skill-instructing elder and I, along with our brothers, were all imprisoned on three boats and set adrift in the middle of the lake. The boats were filled with firewood, sulfur, and saltpeter. We were told that if we tried to escape, the boats would immediately be set aflame. Elder Song, are you telling me that this is not an example of ill intentions?" Elder Song said, "This…this, well, this really was way too excessive. We're all one big family and are like brothers to each other. How can we be so reckless and rough? In the future, how can we face each other? This…isn't this humiliating?" These last few sentences were directed towards elder Chen.

Pointing to a man, Bai Shijing said in a fearsome voice, "You tricked us aboard the ship by telling us it was the chief's command. Tell me, what is the penalty for falsifying the chief's orders?" The man was so terrified, his entire body was quivering. In a trembling voice, he said, "My station is humble and low. How could I dare commit such a rebellious act? It was all…it was all…" His eyes looked towards Quan Guanqing, and his meaning was clearly. He was saying, 'it was all due to my hall-master, who ordered me to lie to you.' But, as one of Quan Guanqing's subordinates, he didn't dare to openly accuse him. Bai Shijing replied, "It was the orders of hall-master Quan, right?" The man hung his head, not daring to either say yes or say no. Bai Shijing said, "When hall-master Quan ordered you to lie to me and tell me that our chief wanted me to get on this boat, did you know that this order was false?" Instantly, all the blood drained away from that man's face, and he didn't dare to utter a sound.

Bai Shijing laughed grimly. "Li Chunlai, you've always been a tough man who has never been afraid to admit to your actions. Am I right? As a man, if you had the guts to do something, how can you not have the guts to admit to it?" Suddenly, a firm, unyielding look appeared on Li Chunlai's face. Puffing out his chest, he said in a clear voice, "Elder Bai, your words are correct! I, Li Chunlai, have acted wrongly. Regardless of whether I am to be killed or dismembered, I await your orders! If I so much as wrinkle my forehead when it happens, then you can say I'm not a real man! When I gave you the 'orders' from the chief, I knew very well that the orders were false."

Bai Shijing asked, "Did the chief wrong you? Was it I who wronged you?" Li Chunlai replied, "Neither is true. The chief has always acted righteously and loyally by me, and you, elder Bai, are just and impartial. No one can say differently." Bai Shijing said in a severe voice, "Then what is the meaning behind all this? What is the reason for your actions?" Li Chunlai glanced at the kneeling Quan Guanqing, then glanced at Qiao Feng. He loudly said, "I broke our clan's regulations and deserve death. But I do not dare give the reason for my actions." He flipped his wrist, and a bright flash of steel could be seen. With a puffing sound, he stabbed himself in the heart. His movements were very quick, and his dagger was aimed at his own heart. As the dagger pierced into his heart, he immediately died.

All the beggars present let out a loud cry of shock, yet all of them remained seated. None of them moved.

Bai Shijing didn't even bat an eye. He said, "You knew that the order was false, and yet instead of reporting this to the chief, you lied to me. You deserved to be put to death." Turning towards the skill-instructing elder, he said, "Brother Xiang, which person tricked you into going on the boat?"

Suddenly, a person jumped to his feet and quickly tried to run away from the apricot forest.

Chapter - 15 Within the Apricot Forest, Discussing One's True History

This person was carrying five cloth bags on his back; he was a five-bagged disciple of the Beggar's Clan. He ran away extremely frantically. It was obvious that he was the one who transmitted the false order and tricked elder Xiang aboard the boat. The skill-instructing elder and the law-enforcing elder each let out a sigh, not saying a word. Suddenly, with the flicker of a shadow, someone rushed forward and blocked the fleeing five-bagged beggar. This person's face was red and vigorous, and he wielded a demon-headed sabre. It was elder Wu. In a fierce voice, he said, "Liu Zhuzhuang, why are you running away?" The five-bagged beggar said in a trembling voice, "I…I…I…" He said the word 'I' six or seven times, unable to say anything else.

Elder Wu said, "As we are disciples of the Beggar's Clan, we must follow our ancestor's laws. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. When a real man acts, he must be willing to bear the consequences." Turning his head, he said to Qiao Feng, "Chief Qiao, all of us met together and decided to oust you from your position as chief. Elders Song, Xi, Chen, and Wu all agreed to this. We were afraid that the skill-instructing elder and the law-enforcing elder would not allow it, and thus devised a way to imprison them. In doing so, we were considering the greater good of our clan and couldn't help but act in such a way. Today, we lost the momentum and you have seized the advantage. You can just go ahead and deal with us as you see fit! I, Wu Changfeng, have been in the Beggar's Clan for over thirty years. Everyone knows that I'm not the sort of person to cravenly fear death!" As he spoke, he hurled his demon-headed sabre far away, then folded his arms in front of his chest, a totally fearless look on his face.

When he clearly explained how their plot was to 'oust the chief', everyone within the clan was shocked. Although each of the plotters was well aware of what they were trying to do, none of them dared to openly say it. Wu Changfeng was the first person to state it openly and clearly.

The law-enforcing elder, Bai Shijing, said in a clear voice, "Elders Song, Xi, Chen, and Wu betrayed the chief and have broken the cardinal rule of the clan. Law-enforcing disciples, take them into custody and bind them!" The law-enforcing disciples under his command took some cow-sinew ropes and first bound elder Wu. Elder Wu continued to smile, not resisting in the slightest. Next, elders Song and Xi also threw away their weapons, allowing themselves to be bound as well.

Elder Chen had an extremely ugly look on his face. He repeatedly muttered, "Cowards. Cowards! If we all had charged him, we wouldn't necessarily have lost, but everyone was afraid of Qiao Feng." These words were very true. When Quan Guanqing had been subdued, if the rebels had immediately launched an attack, Qiao Feng would have been hopelessly outnumbered and in dire straits. Even after the skill-instructing elder, law-enforcing elder, and the hall-masters of the 'Great Benevolence,', 'Great Righteousness', 'Great Trustworthiness', and 'Great Loyalty' halls arrived, the rebels still outnumbered the loyal forces. But with Qiao Feng standing there in such an awe-inspiring manner, no one dared to make a move. Consequently, the opportunity had been lost and now all of them were being bound. After elders Song, Xi, and Wu had been bound, even if elder Chen was still determined to fight, he would be fighting alone. Letting out a sigh, he threw away his gunnysack and allowed the law-enforcing disciples to bind his wrists and his feet with cow sinew rope.

By now, it was totally dark. Bai Shijing ordered his disciples to light some torches. The light of the torches flickered across the faces of the bound elders, revealing a series of gloomy, dejected expressions.

Bai Shijing turned to stare at Liu Zhuzhuang. "How could you act in such a manner? Are you fit to be a member of the Beggar's Clan? Shall you end it yourself, or will you force others to act for you?" Liu Zhuzhuang said, "I…I…" He wasn't able to finish his sentence, but he slowly withdrew a dagger from his waist, wanting to slit his own throat. However, his hand shook so badly that he was unable to chop at his own neck. A law-enforcing disciple called out, "You are so useless! It's unfortunate that you've wasted so much time within our clan!" Catching his upper arm, the law-enforcing disciple gave a mighty pull and helped him cut his own larynx. Liu Zhuzhuang gurgled, "I…thank you…" He immediately passed away.

Within the Beggar's Clan, there was a rule that if a person broke the laws of the clan in such a way as to merit the death penalty, so long as he took his own life, all of his sins would have been washed away and everyone would still consider him as being one of their brothers. But if it was one of the law-enforcing disciples who killed him, his honor would be forever besmirched. Earlier, that law-enforcing disciple saw that Liu Zhuzhuang wanted to take his own life, but simply didn't have the strength to do so. That was the only reason why he had assisted him.

Wang Yuyan, Duan Yu, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi accidentally oversaw an internal rebellion within the ranks of the Beggar's Clan. They all felt as though they were outsiders peeping in on the Beggar's Clan's secret affairs, which was highly improper. But if they were to leave now, they would run the risk of raising the beggar's suspicions. All they could do was sit far away and pretend to be indifferent and unconcerned. After seeing how Li Chunlai and Liu Zhuzhuang's blood splattered across the ground, how their corpses now lay cold on the flower, and how the four awe-inspiring elders Song, Xi, Chen, and Wu had been bound, it seemed to them as though there must be even more soul-stirring events to come. All of them looked at each other, feeling extremely awkward. Duan Yu was Qiao Feng's sworn brother, and earlier, when Feng Bo'e had been poisoned, drained away the poison on Qiao Feng's behalf. Wang Yuyan and the other two girls felt extremely grateful towards Qiao Feng. Now, seeing how he had pacified the rebellion and dealt with the traitors one by one, they all felt happy for him.

Qiao Feng uncomfortably sat to one side. Although the traitors had been subdued, he didn't feel the least bit triumphant or happy. He remembered how, thanks to the benevolence of his master, chief Wang, he had been given the position of chief of the Beggar's Clan. Over the past eight years as chief, Qiao Feng had endured many trials and tribulations, from pacifying internal wrangles to resisting outside foes. He had always used every ounce of his strength to deal with the matters in such a manner as to make the Beggar's Clan greatly flourish, without harboring the slightest selfish thought. Now, the Beggar's Clan had a magnificent, glorious reputation in the martial world, something which truly was in large part a product of his efforts. Why would so many people, in such a short period of time, suddenly scheme to revolt against him? If it was simply a matter of Quan Guanqing being ambitious and desiring to rule the clan, why would senior statesmen such as elders Song and Xi or an honest and upright person such as elder Wu all participate? Could it be that he accidentally did something to greatly offend all of the brothers of the clan which even he himself did not know about?

Bai Shijing said in a clear voice, "Brothers, chief Qiao did not succeed chief Wang by force of arms or trickery or use any inappropriate methods to gain his position. In the past, chief Wang tested him by giving him three tough problems to deal with and ordering him to accomplish seven great deeds on behalf of the clan before passing the 'Dog Beating Stick' to him. That year, when we were holding our great conference at Mt. Tai, our clan was besieged by enemies and in a very critical situation. It was all thanks to chief Qiao wounding nine powerful enemies in a row that we were able to pull through. Many of the brothers present personally witnessed this. Over the past few years, our clan has flourished and prospered. Everyone here knows that this is all thanks to chief Qiao's efforts. Chief Qiao treats people justly and benevolently, and handles matters even-handedly and impartially. We should expend every effort to support him as leader. How can it be that there are people who've gone stupid and decided to engage in armed rebellion? Quan Guanqing, tell us now!"

Quan Guanqing had his 'Mute' acupoint sealed by Qiao Feng. Although he clearly heard all of Bai Shijing's words, he wasn't able to reply at all. Qiao Feng walked to him and gently tapped him twice on his back, unsealing his acupoint. Qiao Feng said, "Hall-master Quan, if I, Qiao Feng, have done wrong by our brothers, please go ahead and openly accuse me. Don't be afraid and don't have any misgivings." Quan Guanqing immediately leapt to his feet, but because his legs were still numb, immediately sank to his knees again. He loudly shouted, "You haven't done anything wrong by our brothers yet, but you soon will!" Only after saying these words did he rise to his feet again.

Bai Shijing roared, "Nonsense! In his conduct and bearing, chief Qiao has always been open and upright. He's never done anything bad in the past, and never will in the future. Based on these baseless accusations, you actually agitated our brothers and convinced them to betray the chief? To tell you the truth, I myself have heard these rumors before, and simply treated them as utter bullshit. This old man punched the person who was spreading this bullshit and shattered three of his ribs. I can't believe that there are so many idiots who actually believed your crap. No matter what you say, all you have is these few words. Go ahead and end your own life!"

Qiao Feng thought to himself, "So there have long been ugly rumors about me spread behind my back which even elder Bai has heard. For him to not bring them to my attention must mean they are extremely vicious rumors indeed. A real man isn't afraid to confront any words or deeds. Why the need to hide them?" He said in a calm voice, "Elder Bai, no need to be impatient. Allow hall-master Quan to clearly explain everything in detail. For even the likes of elder Song and elder Xi to put themselves against me means that I must have acted improperly in some manner."

Elder Xi said, "I was wrong in rebelling against you. No need for you to keep bringing it up. Later, after judgment has been passed, I'll just go ahead and chop at my short neck and give you my head!" He said the words in a cheerful manner, but everyone present felt deep grief in their heart. None of them showed the slightest hint of a smile on their faces.

Bai Shijing said, "Chief, your instructions are wise. Quan Guanqing, go ahead and speak."

Quan Guanqing, seeing how all four of the elders who had conspired with him had been subdued, knew that this battle was lost. But he couldn't at least go without a final struggle, and loudly said, "I believe that vice-chief Ma was murdered according to Qiao Feng's orders."

Qiao Feng's entire body trembled. Shocked, he said, "What?"

Quan Guanqing said, "You've always despised vice-chief Ma and wanted nothing more than to get rid of him. You worried that if you didn't get rid of him, your position as chief would never be secure."

Qiao Feng slowly shook his head. "That is not the case. Although I did not have deep ties of friendship with vice-chief Ma and we did not always agree, I've never even thought of harming him. Let the emperor Heaven and empress Earth be my judge and scrutinize my words and deeds. If I, Qiao Feng, have ever had the intention of harming Ma Dayuan, then destroy my honor and my reputation, suffer thousands of calamities, and become the laughingstock of the martial world." These words were spoken with the utmost sincerity and were filled with a vast, boundless heroic spirit. Not a single person present doubted him in the slightest.

But Quan Guanqing said, "Then why is it that, after we have come to Gusu to seek revenge upon Murong Fu, you keep on colluding with the enemy?" Pointing to Wang Yuyan and the other maidens, he said, "These three are the family members and servants of Murong Fu, but you protect them." Pointing at Duan Yu, he said, "This person is Murong Fu's friend, but you became sworn brothers with him…"

Duan Yu repeatedly shook his hand in denial. "Tis not so, tis not so! I am not a friend of Murong Fu, and have never even seen his face. These three ladies can be said to be his relatives, but can't be said to be part of his family." He thought to himself that Wang Yuyan could only be considered Murong Fu's 'relative', and definitely not a member of his household. This had to be made clear.

Quan Guanqing said, "'Tis not so, tis not so.' Bao Butong is Murong Fu's subordinate, the master of the 'Golden Wind Manor'. 'A Gust of Wind', Feng Bo'e, is also Murong Fu's subordinate, the master of the 'Mysterious Frost Manor'. If it hadn't been for you, Qiao Feng, rescuing them, one would have died from poison, and the other would have been ground to paste. Everyone here saw this with their own eyes. What is there for you to deny?"

Qiao Feng unhurriedly said, "The Beggar's Clan, ever since it was founded centuries ago, has always been venerated and respected by the people of the martial world. This is not because of our numbers, or our martial arts ability, but because we act righteously and nobly, and because we support justice and equity. Hall-master Quan, you are blaming me for protecting these three maidens. True, I am protecting them. This is because I cherish the centuries-old spotless reputation of our clan. I refuse to allow the people of the world say, 'The elders of the Beggar's Clan joined forces to bully three young girls.' Elders Song, Xi, Chen, and Wu. Which of them isn't a senior figure in the martial world? Even if you don't cherish the reputation of the Beggar's Clan and the reputations of those four elders, the many brothers of our clan cherish them!"

After hearing these words, everyone present glanced at those three delicately sweet maidens. They all felt these words were reasonable. If others knew that they had made things difficult for three maidens, it really would greatly damage the Beggar's Clan prestige.

Bai Shijing said, "Quan Guanqing, what else do you have to say for yourself?" Turning to Qiao Feng, Bai Shijing said, "Chief, there's no need to waste time and words with a rebel who can't see the big picture. Let us go ahead and immediately sentence him in accordance with the crime of revolting against one's superiors." Qiao Feng thought to himself, "Elder Bai wants to execute Quan Guanqing as quickly as possibly. It seems as though he wishes to avoid allowing him to spew out harmful rumors regarding me." In a clear voice, he said, "For hall-master Quan to convince so many people to conspire to overthrow me, he clearly must have had a compelling case. A real man clearly differentiates between right and wrong. Brothers, if I, Qiao Feng, have done something wrong, please feel free to tell me openly!"

Elder Wu let out a sigh. "Chief, either you are an evil, unscrupulous person of great ambition who is putting up a front, or you are an honest, bold, straightforward man. I, Wu Changfeng, don't have the ability to tell. Just go ahead and kill me now." Qiao Feng felt extremely uncertain. He asked, "Elder Wu, why did you say that I am a liar who bullies others? You…you…why do you doubt me?" Wu Changfeng shook his head. "If this matter is openly discussed, it will cause too much trouble. If the story gets out, the Beggar's Clan will never be able to raise its head in the martial world again, and everyone will look down at us with scorn. Originally, we wanted to simply kill you with one chop and end the affair thus."

Qiao Feng was now totally bewildered and couldn't make head or tail out of it at all. He mumbled to himself, "Why? Why?" Raising his head, he said, "I rescued two of Murong Fu's high-ranking subordinates, so all of you suspect me, right? But your conspiracy to rebel came before, and my rescuing of them came after. These two things have nothing to do with each other. Besides, it's hard to say with certainty whether I am right or not, but I simply do not feel that vice-chief Ma was killed by Murong Fu.

Quan Guanqing asked, "Why do you say that?" He had asked this question earlier, but the tumultuous events had prevented Qiao Feng from answering. Now, he asked again.

Qiao Feng replied, "I believe that Murong Fu is a great hero and a good man. He wouldn't kill second brother Ma." Wang Yuyan, hearing Qiao Feng praise Murong Fu as 'a great hero and a good man', was overjoyed. She thought to herself, "It seems chief Qiao really is a great hero and a good man as well."

But Duan Yu, on the other hand, frowned, thinking to himself, "Not necessarily, not necessarily! Murong Fu isn't necessarily a great hero or a good man."

Quan Guanqing said, "Over the past two months, there have been many experts who were killed using the skill which they themselves were best at. Everyone knows that these murders were committed by Gusu's Murong family. How can such a person who has murdered so many of our friends in the martial world be considered a great hero and a good man?" Qiao Feng slowly began to pace about as he said, "Brothers, last night, I was drinking wine at the 'Tavern Overseeing the River' in the city of Jiangyin, next to the Yangtze river. I met a middle-aged scholar who drank over ten large bowls of hard liquor without batting an eye. What an excellent drinking capacity, and what a fine man!"

When Duan Yu heard this, he couldn't help but grin. He thought to himself, "So elder brother got into a drinking competition with someone last night as well. This fellow had a good tolerance for alcohol and drank freely, so elder brother liked him. But that doesn't necessarily mean this fellow was a good man."

Qiao Feng continued, "I drank three bowls of wine with him, then we began discussing the martial artists of Jiangnan. He bragged that he possessed the second highest level of skill in palm techniques in Jiangnan, with young master Murong being the best. Thus, I exchanged three palms with him. He was able to receive the first and second palms, but when he took my third palm, the wine bowl he was holding in his left hand was obliterated. The porcelain shards from the bowl slashed across his face, making him bleed, but he remained composed and said, 'What a waste, what a waste! What a waste of a perfectly fine bowl of liquor.' This greatly endeared him to me, and thus I did not send out a fourth palm. I said, 'Sir, your palm techniques are exquisite. You truly deserve the title of being the second best in Jiangnan!' He replied, 'The second in Jiangnan, but only a fart in the rest of the world!' I said, 'Brother, no need to be too modest. With regards to palm techniques, you can be considered a first-class master.' He said, 'You are chief Qiao of the Beggar's Clan! I freely admit my loss and submit to you. Thank you for showing mercy and not injuring me. Let me offer you another toast!' The two of us drank three more bowls together. When we departed, I asked him for his name. He said that his last name was 'Gongye', and his given name was 'Qian'. This is not the 'Qian' of 'universe' [Qian Kun], but the 'Qian' in toasting others. He said that he was a subordinate of young master Murong, in charge of the Scarlet Clouds Manor. He invited me to go to his manor and drink with him for three days straight. Brothers, what do you think of him? Would you consider him a good friend?"

Wu Changfeng loudly said, "This Gongye Qian fellow is a good man and a good friend! Chief, please introduce us sometime!" He forgot that he had committed a great offense and was now a prisoner, soon to be executed. When he heard about such a hero and such a good man, he immediately had the desire to make friends with him. Qiao Feng smiled, but in his heart, he was sighing. "Wu Changfeng is heroic and straightforward. Unexpectedly, he got mixed up in this rebellion as well." Elder Song said, "Chief, what happened next"

Qiao Feng replied, "After I bid Gongye Qian farewell, I hastened to Wuxi. Roughly two hours before midnight, I heard the sound of two people loudly arguing in the middle of a small bridge. By now, it was totally dark. I thought it was very strange that people would be getting into a heated argument at this time, and went to go check it out. The bridge was a single-planked bridge. On one side was a man dressed in black. On the other was a countryside villager who was carrying a bucket of feces on a carrying-pole over his shoulder. The two of them were arguing over who should cross first. The man in black yelled at the villager to go back and allow him to cross, as he reached the bridge first. The villager said that he was carrying a bucket of feces and couldn't retreat. He wanted the man in black to let him go past him. The man in black said, 'We've already been arguing here for two hours. Even if we argue all the way to midnight, I still won't give way!' The villager said, 'Aren't you afraid of how bad this bucket smells?' The man in black said, 'You're carrying a heavy bucket of crap on your shoulder! As long as you aren't afraid of being tired out, then let's just remain here until the end!'"

"When I saw this situation, I thought it was extremely funny. I thought to myself, 'That fellow in black has a really weird temper. All he had to do was take a few steps back and let him pass. What's the point of him getting into an in-your-face confrontation with a villager carrying a bucket of crap? Judging from their words, they've been at it for over two hours.' Now that my curiosity had been aroused, I wanted to see how this would end. Would the man in black no longer be able to resist the stench and surrender, or would the villager become so tired that he would admit defeat? I didn't want to smell the crap, though, so I watched from far away upwind. Both of them were arguing using the local Jiangnan dialect, and I couldn't be too sure what they were saying. All I knew was that both of them were claiming that they were in the right. That villager really was strong and had a nasty stubborn streak. He moved the bucket of crap from his left shoulder to his right shoulder, then later moved it from his right shoulder to his left shoulder. No matter what, he wouldn't retreat."

Duan Yu looked at Wang Yuyan, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi. He saw that all three of them were smiling, happily engrossed in Qiao Feng's story. He thought to himself, "There has been an attempted revolution in the clan which is yet to be resolved. The situation is extremely critical, and yet elder brother is calmly and leisurely telling stories. It's natural for Wang Yuyan and the girls to be interested in stories like this, but how could a heroic, bold man like elder brother show such a childish innocence as well?

Unexpectedly, the hundred-plus members of the Beggar's Clan present were all solemnly and respectfully listening to Qiao Feng's story. Not a single person thought Qiao Feng's words were boring.

Qiao Feng continued, "After watching for a while, I slowly grew astonished. I noticed that the man in black had an extremely stable footing, not budging in the slightest, as immovable as a mountain. He was actually someone who possessed a high level of martial arts. The villager carrying the bucket of crap was just an ordinary person. Although he was very sturdy and robust, he didn't know any martial arts at all. The more I watched, the more baffled I was. I thought to myself, 'With the fellow in black's strong level of martial arts, all he has to do is extend his little finger in a single poke and knock both the villager and his bucket into the river. But instead, he doesn't use any martial arts at all. For a master such as him, it might be natural for him to exercise self-restraint, but even if he refused to let the other person by, he could easily jump over the villager's head. But instead, he insists on standing there and arguing with the villager. How amusing!"

"The man in black suddenly raised his voice and shouted, 'If you don't let me by, I'm going to start cussing you out!' The villager said, 'If you want to cuss, then cuss. So you know how to cuss at people. You think I don't?' The villager actually seized the initiative and immediately began to cuss. The man in black began to cuss right back at him. Trading cusses back and forth, the two pulled out all sorts of strange, bizarre, and filthy curses to insult the other with. I couldn't even understand half of these strange local Jiangnan swear words. After cussing for over an hour, the villager became exhausted. The man in black, thanks to his strong internal energy, was perfectly fine and still energetic. I saw the villager's body began to sway. It seemed that very shortly, he would be so exhausted that he'd fall into the river."

"Suddenly, the villager stuck his hand into the bucket of feces, grabbed some of it, then tossed it towards the man in black's face. The man in black never imagined that he would be attacked like this. As he let out a cry of alarm, the crap splattered him in the face. I secretly said to myself, 'Oh no! This villager has just doomed himself, and he can't blame anyone else for what will happen.' I saw that the man in black was furious. Lifting his palm, he struck downwards towards the villager's head.'

Although Duan Yu was listening to Qiao Feng, his eyes were fixed on Wang Yuyan's slightly parted, cherry-like lips. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Ah Zhu and Ah Bi smile at each other, but paid them no mind.

Qiao Feng continued, "All of this happened too quickly. To avoid the stench, I was over a hundred meters away. I wanted to go rescue that villager, but I wouldn't be able to. Unexpectedly, just before the man in black's palm was about to strike down on the villager's skull, he suddenly froze and didn't follow through, bringing his palm to a halt mid-air. He loudly laughed, 'Old chap, in our contest of patience, who won and who lost?' That villager was really stubborn. He had clearly lost, but he refused to admit it. He said, 'I'm carrying a big bucket of crap. You gained an advantage from this. If you don't believe me, how about you take this bucket and I'll stand here with my hands free. Then, we'll see who wins and who loses!' The man in black said, 'That's fair enough!' He reached out and pulled the bucket of crap towards himself, straightening his arm and lifting the bucket up with the palm of his left hand."

"Seeing as how the man in black was carrying the bucket while holding his arm straight, the villager was stupefied. He said, 'You…you…' The man in black laughed, 'I'll help you support the bucket of crap like this without moving. Let's compete again, and this time, whoever loses has to drink this entire bucket of crap!' Seeing how incredibly strong the man in black was, the villager no longer dared to argue with him. He hurriedly retreated, but he was so flustered that he lost his footing and fell down towards the river. The man in black stretched out his right hand, grabbing him by his collar and lifting him up. Still supporting the bucket with his left hand while lifting the villager in the air with his right, the man in black laughed loudly. "Fun, fun!" In the twinkling of an eye, he lightly leapt over to the other side of the bridge, placing both the villager and his bucket on the floor. Then he utilized his qinggong and disappeared into the mulberry forest."

"The man in black had his face splattered with crap by the villager. He wouldn't have had to use any effort to kill him. Even if he wasn't willing to kill someone just like that, it would have been very natural for him to give the villager a beating. But he didn't do that at all. He had a very unique temperament, the like of which is rarely seen in the martial world. Brothers, I witnessed this with my own eyes. I was very far away from him, and I do not believe he knew I was there and was just putting on a show for me. Would you consider a person like this a good friend and a fine man?"

Elder Wu, elder Chen, and elder Bai all said in unison, "Right! He's a fine man!" Elder Chen said, "It's unfortunate that you didn't manage to get his name, chief. If you had, you could introduce him to us, so as to let us know that within the personages of Jiangnan, there's actually a hero such as him."

Qiao Feng slowly said, "This friend actually just exchanged a few stances with elder Chen, and his arm was wounded by your poison scorpion." Elder Chen was shocked. "He is 'A Gust of Wind', Feng Bo'e!" Qiao Feng nodded. "Correct!"

Only now did Duan Yu understand that Qiao Feng had carefully and meticulously described this anecdote in order to recount to everyone Feng Bo'e's character and temperament. Duan Yu now realized that although Feng Bo'e was very ugly and loved to cause trouble and fight, he was by nature a very good person. This truly was an example of how one should not judge a person by their appearance. Earlier, when the girls were raptly listening to the story and Ah Zhu and Ah Bi exchanged smiles, it was because they well knew Feng Bo'e's temperament. They knew that this gentleman must be Feng Bo'e, and also knew that this gentleman definitely wouldn't wantonly kill others.

Qiao Feng continued, "Elder Chen, the Beggar's Clan considers itself to be the foremost large clan of the world. You yourself are a very important figure within our clan. Your rank and prestige cannot be compared in the same breath with the local Jiangnan martial artist named Feng Bo'e. Feng Bo'e, when feeling insulted and humiliated, could control himself and not harm an innocent. How can the experts of the Beggar's Clan prove ourselves to be lesser than him?" Elder Chen's entire face blushed, with even his ears reddening. "Chief, thank you for the lesson. You ordered me to give him the antidote because of your concern for my reputation and prestige. I, Chen Guyan, didn't understand your noble intentions and harbored a grudge against you. I'm as stupid as a wooden ox or a braying donkey." Qiao Feng replied, "Preserving your reputation and the reputation of our clan was only a secondary concern to me. The most important rule for us martial artists is to not harm innocents. Elder Chen, even if you weren't a very important figure within our clan and weren't such an illustrious figure within the martial arts world, you still cannot take the lives of others so easily, without a clear certainty regarding the facts!" Elder Chen bowed his head. "I, Chen Guyan, admit to my wrongdoing."

Seeing that he had managed to convince Chen Guyan, the most haughty of the four elders, with his words, Qiao Feng felt extremely happy. He slowly said, "Gongye Qian was a heroic man, and Feng Bo'e was a man who knew right from wrong. Bao Butong acts unrestrained and naturally, and these three maidens are gentle, refined, and proper. All of these people are young master Murong's subordinates, his friends, or his relatives. As the saying goes, 'things of one kind come together, birds of a feather flock together'. Brothers, calm yourselves and think: If young master Murong has friends and associates such as they, can he himself be a wicked, vile, despicable, shameless villain?"

The people of the Beggar's Clan highly valued the code of brotherhood and loved friends. They all thought that these words were reasonable, and many people chimed in agreement.

But Quan Guanqing said, "Chief, are you saying that in your opinion, it definitely was not Murong Fu who killed vice-chief Ma?"

Qiao Feng replied, "I dare not say that Murong Fu is definitely the person who assassinated vice-chief Ma, but I also dare not say that he definitely was not the person either. There's no need to rush to complete our vengeance. We need to clearly investigate the situation. If we can prove that it was Murong Fu who did the deed, naturally we will seize him and avenge vice-chief Ma's death. But if we cannot prove it was him, we must continue to seek the real perpetrator. If we kill a good man solely based on wild conjecture while allowing the real killer to remain free and secretly laugh at how stupid and incompetent the Beggar's Clan is, not only will we have wronged the person we falsely accused and killed and wronged vice-chief Ma, we'll also have ruined the Beggar's Clan's illustrious name. Brothers, do you think you will enjoy the taste of being ridiculed and insulted as you travel about the martial world?"

Hearing his words, every person present was moved. This entire time, the skill-instructing elder had remained silent. Now, he stroked his thin, fine beard and said, "Your words are reasonable. In the past, I once killed an innocent man by mistake. To this very day, it troubles me. To this very day, it troubles me!"

Wu Changfeng loudly said, "Chief, we rebelled against you because we made the mistake of listening to the words of others. We knew that you didn't get along with vice-chief Ma, and secretly suspected you of conspiring with Gusu's Murong family to kill him. All sorts of things added up and we couldn't help but be suspicious. In hindsight, we were all so stupid! Elder Bai, please bring out the knives of law! We'll take our own lives in accordance with clan regulations!"

Bai Shijing's face was as cold as winter. In a heavy voice, he said, "Law-enforcing disciples, please bring out the knives of law."

Nine of his disciples immediately said, "Yes sir!" Each of them withdrew a yellow cloth bundle from a sack on their backs. They opened the bundles, each retrieving a short knife from within. The nine gleaming, brilliant knifes were placed side by side. They were equal in size and shape. Underneath the blazing light of the torches, a blue light could be seen gleaming from the edges of the knives. A law-enforcing disciple brought over a tree trunk, and all nine of the other law-enforcing disciples stuck the knives into the trunk. The knives slipped into the trunk with ease; clearly, these blades were extraordinary. The nine of them called out in unison, "The knives of law have been assembled!"

Bai Shijing let out a sigh. "Elders Song, Xi, Chen, and Wu made the mistake of listening to the lies of others and conspired to rebel. They would have caused great damage to the clan. Their punishment is death by one knife. Quan Guanqing, the hall-master of the 'Hall of Great Wisdom', spread vicious rumors and created internal dissent. His punishment is death by nine knives. All other disciples who participated in this revolt bear responsibility for their offences as well. In the future, there will be an investigation and they shall each receive punishment."

As he declared every person's crime and punishment, no one spoke. In every single organization in the world, the penalty for plotting to overthrow the leader or betraying the organization was death. There was nothing strange about this at all. When the people present had participated in the plot, they knew of this possible outcome.

Wu Changfeng took large steps forward. Bowing to Qiao Feng, he said, "Chief, Wu Changfeng has wronged you! I hope you understand that I was foolish. After I die, please forgive me, Wu Changfeng!" As he spoke, he walkd to the knives of law and loudly said, "Wu Changfeng will take his own life. Law-enforcing disciples, release me from my bonds!" A law-enforcing disciple said, "Yes sir!" But as he went forward to cut Wu Changfeng loose, Qiao Feng shouted, "Wait!"

Wu Changfeng's face immediately turned a deathly, ashen pale. With bated breath, he said, "Chief, is it that my sin is too great, and you will not allow me to take my own life?"

According to the rules of the Beggar's Clan, if a person who had broken the laws of the clan took his own life, his reputation would be restored and spotless, and the crimes he had committed would not be revealed to anyone else. If anyone in the world insulted that person's memory, the Beggar's Clan would actually intervene on their departed comrade's behalf. All of the heroes of the martial world greatly valued their reputation and were unwilling to allow it to be besmirched after their deaths. Wu Changfeng, seeing that Qiao Feng was not willing to allow him to take his own life, felt both shame and dread.

Qiao Feng did not immediately reply. He walked to the knives of law, then said, "Fifteen years ago, the country of Khitan invaded us via the Yanmen Pass [Wild Geese Pass]. After elder Song received this news, he rushed back to inform us of this critical military news. He did not eat for three days, and did not sleep for four nights. Enroute, he rode nine horses to their deaths. He himself was so exhausted that he sustained severe internal injuries and vomited blood. But with his news, our country, the Great Song, was prepared for the attack and the Khitaners were beaten back and forced to retreat. This was a major, meritorious deed which affected the entire country. Although the heroes of the martial world are not aware of the details of this event, we in the Beggar's Clan are. Law-enforcing elder, I hope you will take into consideration the major contributions which elder Song have made and will allow him to atone for his crimes in some other fashion.

Bai Shijing replied, "Chief, it is reasonable for you to beg clemency on behalf of elder Song. But it is said thusly in our laws: 'The great crime of betraying the clan cannot be pardoned. No matter how meritorious the offender's past deeds, it cannot atone for this crime. This is so that those who have done great deeds will not become arrogant and overbearing and risk destroying our clan.' Chief, your plea is not in keeping with the laws of our clan. We cannot breach the rules which the many successive chiefs of the past have laid down!"

Elder Song laughed sadly. He took two steps forward, then said, "The law-enforcing elder's words are totally true. For us to become elders of the clan, we all naturally had to perform many great deeds of valor. If everyone excuses themselves by pointing to their past valors, then all sorts of crimes will be committed. Chief, please be merciful and allow me to take my own life." With two cracking sounds, he shattered the cow sinew-strings which bound his wrists.

Looks of shock appeared on everyone's face. The sinew-strings were both hard and tough. Even if a person were to chop at them using a steel sabre, it still might take a while to chop them apart. Elder Song was actually able to shatter them simply by lifting his hands up. He really lived up to his reputation as being one of the elders of the Beggar's Clan. His hands now free, elder Song stretched them out to snatch a law knife in front of him so as to take his own life. Unexpectedly, a soft stream of energy gushed towards him. His hand was only a foot away from the knives, but he could no longer move his hand forward any further. Qiao Feng was refusing to allow him to withdraw the knife.

A grieved look on his face, elder Song called out, "Chief, you…" Qiao Feng stretched his hand out, pulled out the first knife on the left side. Elder Song said, "Forget it, forget it! I had the intention to kill you. It is just that I be punished! Go ahead and kill me!" The knife blade flashed across his eyes. With a puffing sound, Qiao Feng stabbed himself in his own shoulder with the knife.

All the beggars let out a loud cry. In unison, they all rose to their feet. Shocked, Duan Yu said, "Elder brother, you!" Even outsiders such as Wang Yuyan were so terrified by this unexpected development that their lovely features changed. The maidens cried out, "Chief Qiao, don't…"

Qiao Feng said, "Elder Bai, within the regulations of our clan, there is this line: 'When the disciples of our clan commit a crime and cannot be forgiven, if the chief wishes to pardon them, he must shed his own blood on their behalf to wash away their crimes.' Am I right?"

Bai Shijing's face was as rigid and hard as stone. Slowly, he said, "Within our regulations, there is such a line. But for the chief to shed his own blood to wash away their sins, he must consider whether or not it is worth it."

Qiao Feng replied, "As long as I am not breaching the laws of our ancestors, I am happy." Turning around, he said to elder Xi, "In the past, elder Xi instructed me in martial arts. Although he was not formally my master, he acted in that capacity. However, that is just an act of personal kindness to me. In the past, chief Wang was surrounded by five elite Khitan fighters and trapped within the 'Cave of Sinister Wind' of Mt. Qilian. The Khitaners intended to force our clan to surrender to them. Chief Wang was short and stout, and also looked something similar to elder Xi. Elder Xi disguised himself as chief Wang and went to die in his place. Only then did chief Wang manage to escape. This is a great deed which benefited both our clan and our country. I absolutely must pardon him for his crimes!" As he spoke, he pulled out a second knife of law. With a light swish, he cut apart the cow sinew-strings binding elder Xi's wrists, then stabbed himself in the shoulder with this knife as well.

He slowly turned to walk towards elder Chen. Elder Chen had a very strange temperament. In the past, he had wronged his family clan, changed his name, and fled. He was always afraid that others would rip open this scar of his. He dreaded Qiao Feng's intelligence, and thus always was distant towards Qiao Feng, not willing to become close friends. Now, seeing Qiao Feng turn his eyes towards him, he loudly said, "Chief Qiao, I don't have much of a friendship with you. I offended you far too often in the past, and don't dare ask for you to shed blood on my behalf." Flipping his arms around, he suddenly brought his bound hands to the front. His skill in the 'Arm Passing Through' technique had reached the acme of perfection, and he was able to retract and advance his arms easily. As he squatted down, he snatched out and grabbed one of the knives.

Qiao Feng launched a backhanded attack and easily removed the weapon from his grasp. In a clear voice, he said, "Elder Chen! I, Qiao Feng, am a crude, boorish fellow. I don't like to make friends with people who are cautious, conservative, and prudent. I also don't like people who don't drink, don't laugh, or who are taciturn. This is just my natural disposition. I can't change it. We have totally different personalities, making it difficult for us to avoid quarrelling. I didn't like vice-chief Ma's personality much either, and whenever I saw him, I would avoid him. I'd rather go and drink strong liquor or eat roast meat with low ranking, one-bagged or two-bagged brothers. Everyone knows this temperament of mine. But if you think that I wished to get rid of you or vice-chief Ma, then you are wrong, totally wrong! You and vice-chief Ma are experienced, prudent people who never drink. Those are good traits. I, Qiao Feng, cannot measure up to you!" And as he said this, he stabbed himself in the shoulder with this third knife, before continuing, "Outsiders don't know who committed the great deed of killing Yelu Bulu, the deputy marshal of the left wing of the Khitan army, but can it be that I also don't know?"

All the beggars immediately began to murmur and whisper in mingled shock and admiration. Many years ago, the Khitan nation carried out a major invasion of the Great Song, but many of their generals and leaders kept on being assassinated. Their leadership decapitated, they retreated without winning any victories and the Great Song managed to avoid a catastrophe. Amongst the generals who were killed was Yelu Bulu, the deputy marshal of the left wing of the army. Aside from the highest ranking members of the Beggar's Clan, nobody was aware that elder Chen was the one who did this great deed.

Elder Chen, hearing Qiao Feng publicly advertise his great accomplishment, felt consoled. In a low voice, he said, "I, Chen Guyan, whose name is known throughout the world, am deeply moved by my chief's great benevolence and virtue."

The Beggar's Clan had always secretly assisted the Great Song in fighting off its enemies, protecting the nation and defending its citizens. But in order to prevent the enemies from noticing them and focusing their efforts on destroying the Beggar's Clan, the clan decided that regardless of whether or not their stratagems succeeded, they would not reveal what they had done to outsiders. They even kept the secrets from as many members of the Beggar's Clan itself as possible. Chen Guyan had always acted arrogantly and rudely. He was older than Qiao Feng, had served in the clan longer, and thus usually was not especially meek or modest in front of him. All the beggars within the clan knew this. Now, seeing how the chief forgave him his crimes and shed blood in order to wash away his sins, all of the beggars present were moved.

Walking towards Wu Changfeng, Qiao Feng said, "Elder Wu, you once guarded the Yinchou Gorge by yourself, using nothing but your own strength to resist the experts of the Western Xia's 'League of Elites' and prevented them from achieving their goal of assassinating the general of the Yang family, Yang Ye [The legend of Yang Ye and of the Yang family generals is a famous Chinese legend]. The 'Golden Medal of Valor' which Marshall Yang awarded him is in and of itself sufficient to pardon him of his crimes today. Take it out and display it to everyone!" Suddenly, Wu Changfeng's face flushed, as he looked both embarrassed and uneasy. "That, uh…uh…" Qiao Feng said, "All of us present are your brothers. Elder Wu, if there's anything problematic about my request, just go ahead and say it without worry." Wu Changfeng replied, "About that golden medal of mine…well…to tell you the truth, chief, it…um…it…it disappeared." Astonished, Qiao Feng said, "How did it disappear?"

Wu Changfeng said, "I lost it. Um…" After composing himself, he said in a loud voice, "One day, I really was craving some alcohol, but didn't have any money on me. I sold the gold medal to a jewelry store." Qiao Feng laughed uproariously. "Forthright and carefree! Only, I'm afraid that by doing so, you've wronged Marshall Yang a bit!" As he spoke, he pulled out a fourth knife. First, he used it to cut Wu Changfeng's bonds. Then, he planted it in his left shoulder.

Wu Changfeng loudly shouted, "Chief, you have shown me great benevolence and mercy. From this day forth, Wu Changfeng's life belongs to you. I'll never listen to anyone who spreads rumors about you ever again!" Qiao Feng clapped him on the shoulder, then laughed, "We're beggars. If we don't have food to eat or wine to drink, we should go beg for some. There's no need for us to sell gold medals." Wu Changfeng laughed, "It's easy to beg for food, but hard to beg for alcohol. Everyone always says, 'Foul beggar, now that your stomach is full, you want alcohol to drink as well? How shameless! I won't give you any, I won't give you any!'"

All the beggars listening boomed with laughter. Plenty of beggars within the clan had begged for alcohol, only to be refused. In addition, now that Qiao Feng had pardoned the four elders of their crimes, everyone felt as though a great burden had been lifted from them. Now, everyone's eyes turned to Quan Guanqing. They thought to themselves that he was the chief instigator and agitator of this plot to cause a revolt within the clan. No matter how magnanimous Qiao Feng was, there was no way he could pardon him.

Qiao Feng walkd to Quan Guanqing. He said, "Hall-master Quan, do you have anything to say?" Quan Guanqing replied, "I rebelled against you for the sake of the safety of our nation, the Great Song, and for the sake of preserving the Beggar's Clan. Unfortunately, the people to whom I revealed your true history are all cowards who are afraid of death and aren't willing to reveal themselves. Just go ahead and kill me!" Qiao Feng pondered for a bit, then said, "If there's anything wrong with my history, go ahead and say it openly." Quan Guanqing shook his head. "If I make empty accustations now, no one will believe me. It's best if you just kill me now."

Qiao Feng was filled with suspicion. He loudly said, "A real man says whatever is on his mind. Why hem and haw and refuse to speak when you want to? Quan Guanqing, a real man isn't afraid of death, much less saying a few words."

Quan Guanqing laughed bitterly. "Right. If one doesn't even fear death, what does he have to fear? Qiao Feng, hurry up and kill me with a single chop. That way, I won't have to stay alive and watch the Beggar's Clan submit to the barbarians, or the beautiful mountains of the Great Song be annexed by foreigners." Qiao Feng said, "Why would the Beggar's Clan fall under the control of barbarians? Explain clearly!" Quan Guanqing replied, "No one will believe anything I say now. They'll assume that I'm a coward who fears death and who made everything up. No matter what, I will die. Why should I leave behind a bad name?"

Bai Shijing loudly said, "Chief, this person is crafty and deceptive. He's saying a bunch of garbage, hoping to convince you to spare his life as well. Law-enforcing disciples, take the knives of law and carry out the sentence!"

A law-enforcing disciple said, "Yes sir!" He stepped forward, pulling out a knife and walking towards Quan Guanqing.

Qiao Feng never let his gaze waver from Quan Guanqing. Qiao Feng only saw an aggrieved, angry look on his face, and did not see any crafty or deceptive signs. Nor did Qiao Feng see any fear or dread. He began to feel suspicious, and said to the law-enforcing disciple, "Give me the knife of law." The law-enforcing disciple respectfully presented it to him with both hands.

Receiving the knife, Qiao Feng said, "Hall-master Quan, you say that you know my real history, and that it affects the safety of the Beggar's Clan. And yet, you are afraid to reveal what you claim the truth is." As he spoke, he wrapped up the knife into a bundle, placing the bundle within his clothes. "You have formented armed rebellion. It will be hard to pardon your crimes. However, I will temporarily grant a stay of execution. After the truth of the matter comes out, I will personally kill you. I, Qiao Feng, am not a fussy person who dithers and dickers. Now that I am determined to kill you, I'll wager you won't be able to escape me. Go away now, and leave behind your bags. From now on, you are no longer a member of the Beggar's Clan."

The phrase, 'leave behind your bags', carried with it the implicit meaning of expelling him from the Beggar's Clan. Aside from brand new members of the Beggar's Clan who had no formal duties at all, every person in the clan carried anywhere from one to nine cloth bags over their backs. The number of bags they carried signified the rank they held within the clan. When Quan Guanqing heard Qiao Feng order him to leave his bags behind, a murderous look filled his eyes. Turning around, he snatched one of the knives of law, inverted it, then pointed it towards his chest. Being expelled from one's clan or sect is so humiliating that the depth of the shame is difficult to describe. It was often considered to be even more intolerable than being executed on the spot.

Qiao Feng coldly watched him, waiting to see if he would actually kill himself or not.

Quan Guanqing held the law knife with a steady arm, hand not shaking in the slightest. Turning his head, he stared at Qiao Feng. The two locked gazes. Instantly, everyone went silent and no noise could be heard at all within the apricot forest. Quan Quanging suddenly said, "Qiao Feng, you are so calm and self-possessed! Can it be that you really don't know?" Qiao Feng said, "Know what?"

Quan Guanqing opened his mouth, but in the end, he said nothing. He slowly returned the knife of law to its original location, then just as slowly removed the bags from his back, reverently placing them on the floor.

Just as Quan Guanqing removed his fifth bag, the sound of galloping hoofsteps could be heard as a horse charged towards them from the north, followed by two whistles. The beggars on sentry whistled in report as the horses grew nearer and nearer. Wu Changfeng mumbled to himself, "What sort of critical event has happened?" Before the horse from the north had arrived, the sound of another horse could be heard from the east. Only, it was farther away and its hoofsteps were indistinct. No one could tell in which direction it was headed.

In a short period of time, the horse from the north arrived at the outskirts of the apricot forest. A man leapt off the back of the horse and ran into the forest. He wore an extremely magnificent wide-sleeved gown, which he hurriedly shucked off and threw away, revealing a tattered uniform of the Beggar's Clan. Duan Yu only had to think about it for a moment, before immediately understanding: For a member of the Beggar's Clan to rush about on a horse would be very conspicuous, and government officials would often halt them to investigate. However, a messenger delivering an urgent message absolutely must use a horse. Thus, the beggar dressed up as a rich, prosperous merchant. However, he continued to wear his own original clothes underneath, so as to show that he had not forgotten where his loyalties lie.

That person walked to hall-master of the 'Hall of Great Righteousness', respectfully presenting him with a package. "Urgent report on the military situation…" After saying these words, he ran out of breath and began panting. Suddenly, the horse he had ridden here let out a mournful neigh, then collapsed on the floor. It had been exhausted to death. The courier's body swayed, then he suddenly fell down as well. It was obvious that both the courier and his horse had been rushing for a long distance, and both had used up all of their strength.

The hall-master of the 'Hall of Great Righteousness' recognized this courier. He was one of the beggars whom had been sent to spy upon the Western Xia's 'League of Elites'. Seeing how this person had exhausted himself to deliver this message, its contents surely must be of great importance and unusual urgency. Thus, he did not open the pouch itself, and instead offered it to Qiao Feng, saying, "Critical military report regarding the Western Xia. The courier was sent to keep an eye on the Western Xia along with brother Yi Dabiao."

Qiao Feng took the pouch. Opening it, he saw that there was a wax pellet. He broke open the pellet, retrieving from within a roll of paper. Just as he was about to read what was written on the paper, the sound of hoofsteps grew louder as the horse from the east burst into the apricot forest. Just as it entered the forest, the man on the horse flew out of its saddle, shouting, "Qiao Feng, the message within the wax pellet involves critical military intelligence. You cannot read it!"

Everyone present was startled. They saw that this person was an extremely old beggar with a white beard which fluttered in the wind, and who wore a turtledove robe which had been repaired over and over again. The skill-instructing elder and the law-enforcing elder rose to their feet simultaneously. "Elder Xu, what business causes you to grace us with your presence?"

When the beggars heard that it was elder Xu who had arrived, looks of shock appeared on their face. Elder Xu, at eighty seven years of age, was of an extremely senior generation within the Beggar's Clan. Even the previous chief, chief Wang, addressed him as 'martial-uncle'. Everyone within the clan was of a lower generation than him. He had retired many years ago, and had long since ceased to pay attention to worldly affairs. Every year, when Qiao Feng, the skill-instructing elder, and the law-enforcing elder went to pay their respects to him, they would only casually discuss some of the affairs of the clan. Unexpectedly, he would suddenly rush here today, and then forbid Qiao Feng from reading the urgent news regarding the Western Xia's military movements. Everyone present was greatly shocked.

Qiao Feng immediately bowed forward in a salute. "Elder Xu, have you been well?" Following this, he opened his hand and delivered the roll of paper to elder Xu.

Qiao Feng was the chief of the Beggar's Clan. Although it was true that he was of a younger generation than elder Xu, he was still the person in charge when it came to events of great import involving the clan. Even the previous chief, chief Wang, would be subject to his commands, much less a retired elder such as elder Xu. But unexpectedly, when elder Xu forbade Qiao Feng from reading the urgent military news regarding the Western Xia's movements, Qiao Feng did not defy him in the slightest. Everyone present was shocked.

Elder Xu said, "Excuse me!" He took the roll of paper from Qiao Feng's hands, then immediately cast his gaze at the group of beggars. In a clear voice, he said, "The widow of vice-chief Ma Dayuan, madame Ma, is soon to arrive. When she arrives, there are some things which need to be discussed. Everyone, what say ye?" All of the beggars looked at Qiao Feng, wanting to know how he would respond.

Qiao Feng was filled with doubt and suspicion. He said, "If this is a matter of great importance, then we can simply wait." Elder Xu said, "This is a matter of great importance." After saying these words, he said nothing further. He belatedly paid Qiao Feng the courtesies due to the chief, and then sat down to one side.

Duan Yu felt some misgivings about the whole situation, and also wanted to seize the opportunity to make some conversation with Wang Yuyan. He said to her in a low voice, "Miss Wang, the Beggar's Clan has so very many affairs. Should we depart, or should we stay here and watch all the fun?" Wang Yuyan wrinkled her forehead. "We are outsiders. Originally, we shouldn't get involved in their secret internal issues. However…however…the matter which they are fighting over involves my cousin. I want to listen." Duan Yu chimed in, "That's right. It's said that vice-chief Ma was killed by your cousin and left behind a helpless, pitiable widow." Wang Yuyan hurriedly said, "No! No! My cousin didn't kill vice-chief Ma. Isn't that what chief Qiao says as well?" At this moment, the sound of hoofsteps could be heard once more as two riders galloped towards the apricot forest. In setting up their conference here, the beggars of the clan naturally left behind signs for others. In addition, they had people nearby who could lead the way for friends or give out warnings if enemies arrived.

Everyone was certain that one of the riders must be vice-chief Ma's widow. Unexpectedly, one of the riders was an old man, and the other an old lady. The man had a small, short figure, while the female was extremely tall and lofty. They formed a total contrast.

Qiao Feng rose to greet them. "Granny Tan and Grandpa Tan of Mt. Taihang's Cavern of Flowing Clouds, you honor us with your presence! Qiao Feng apologizes for not welcoming you from afar, and thank you for your forgiveness." Elder Xu and the other six elders all rose up and saluted them as well.

Upon seeing this, Duan Yu realized that Granny Tan and Grandpa Tan must be wulin figures of great renown and dignitas.

Granny Tan asked, "Chief Qiao, why are there a number of knives planted on your shoulder?" Lifting up her arm, she immediately pulled out all four knives from his shoulder. The movement of her hands was extremely quick. Right after she pulled out the knives, Grandpa Tan withdrew a small box from his bosom. Opening its lid, he dabbed his finger into some ointment within the box, then spread it on the wounds on Qiao Feng's shoulder. As soon as he applied this 'Golden Wound' ointment, the fresh blood which was spewing forth from the wounds instantly came to a halt. The speed which Granny Tan displayed in retrieving the knives was very rarely seen, but it was only a single action. Grandpa Tan's movements in withdrawing the box, opening the lid, dabbing the ointment, applying it to the wounds, then staunching the bleeding were neat and tidy. Although his movements were very quick, everyone was able to see them clearly and distinctly. It truly appeared almost like magic, or sleight of hand. In addition, the 'Golden Wound' ointment's almost divine efficacy in stopping the flow of blood was even more unimaginable. As soon as it was applied, the blood stopped flowing, without even the slightest delay.

Qiao Feng saw that Granny Tan and Grandpa Tan immediately helped him treat his wounds without even carrying about the how's and why's of the situation. Although he felt this was a bit rash of them, he also felt extremely moved. Even as he was in the process of thanking them, he felt that the pain in his shoulders became replaced by itchiness. In a very short amount of time, much of the pain was greatly reduced. He had never even heard of a cure as miraculous as this 'Golden Wound' ointment, much less have personally seen it before.

Granny Tan asked again, "Chief Qiao, who in the world has the audacity to stab you with these knives?" Qiao Feng laughed. "I did it to myself." Curious, Granny Tan asked, "Why would you stab yourself? Are you tired of living?" Qiao Feng smiled. "I stabbed myself for the fun of it. The flesh on my shoulders is thick and tough. I didn't harm the sinews or the bone." Elders Song, Xi, Chen, and Wu, hearing Qiao Feng conceal the real story, felt both moved and ashamed.

Granny Tan let out a laugh. "What type of lies are you spewing out? Oh, I know! You clever little imp, you heard that Grandpa Tan created a brand-new, incomparably efficacious ointment for wounds, using a mixture of 'Frozen Jade from the North Pole' and the 'Mysterious Ice Toad', and you wanted to give it a test run, right?"

Qiao Feng was noncommittal. He only smiled a little, then thought to himself, "This old granny is extremely simple and tactless. Who in the world could be so bored as to stab themselves with knives, so as to test out your new medicine?"

The sound of hoofbeats could be heard once more, as a donkey charged into the apricot forest. On the donkey was seated a man mounted backwards. His back was facing the front of the donkey, while his front was facing the donkey's tail. Granny Tan's face was immediately wreathed in smiles. She shouted out, "Martial-brother, what type of crazy game are you up to now? I'll spank you!"

When everyone looked at the rider, they saw that he had shrunk his body into a ball, as though he were a seven or eight year old child. Granny Tan stretched out with her palm, slapping at his buttocks. That person immediately rolled down to the ground. As he stretched his hand out to steady himself, he suddenly became both big and strong. Everyone was a bit startled. Grandpa Tan, however, had a rather unhappy look on his face. With a hmph, he tossed a side-glance at the man while saying, "I was wondering who it was. So it's you." He immediately turned his head to stare at Granny Tan.

If one were to say that the man who was riding the donkey backwards was very old, it didn't seem he was all that old. But it would be equally impossible to describing him as young. He appeared to be somewhere from thirty to sixty years of age, and could not be described as ugly or as handsome. He stared raptly at Granny Tan, displaying a boundless concern and fascination with her. In a gentle voice he asked, "Little Juan, has your life been happy recently?"

Granny Tan was as large as a horse and built like an ox. Her hair was as white as silver, and her face was filled with wrinkles. Unexpectedly, her name was actually 'Little Juan' ('Juan' literally means graceful/beautiful). Such a delicate, pretty name was totally opposite to her appearance. Everyone within hearing range thought this was very funny. However, it was true that every old lady was once young. If she was called 'Little Juan' when she was young, it wouldn't be appropriate to change it to 'Old Juan' later on, right? Just as Duan Yu was thinking that exact thought, once more the sound of hoofsteps could be heard as multiple horses sped their way. This time, however, the speed of the horses didn't seem to be particularly urgent at all.

Qiao Feng was sizing up the donkey-rider, but was unable to determine just who he was. He was Granny Tan's elder martial brother, and while riding the donkey, he displayed an extremely brilliant usage of the 'bone shrinking technique'. Naturally, he must be an extraordinary character. However, Qiao Feng had never heard of him before.

The pack of riders arrived at the apricot forest. Riding in front were five youths, all with thick eyebrows and large eyes. They all looked very similar to each other. The eldest appeared to be over thirty years of age, whereas the youngest was a bit over twenty. Clearly, the five of them were brothers born of the same mother.

Wu Changfeng loudly called out, "The Five Heroes of Mt. Taishan have arrived! Wonderful, wonderful! What propitious wind has blown all five of you brothers here at the same time?" The third brother of the Five Heroes of Mt. Taishan was named Dan Shushan, and he was extremely close to Wu Changfeng. He immediately seized the first chance to reply and said, "Fourth Uncle Wu, hello! My father came as well." The look on Wu Changfeng's face changed slightly. He said, "Truly? Your father…" He had just acted in a way which violated the rules of the Beggar's Clan, and still felt uneasy about it. Upon hearing that the 'Iron Faced Judge' Dan Zheng of Mt. Taishan had suddenly arrived, he couldn't help but suddenly feel flustered. The 'Iron Faced Judge' Dan Zheng hated wickedness as though it were his personal foe. If ever he heard that something unfair had occurred within the jianghu, he would definitely intervene. His own skills in martial arts was very formidable, and aside from his five sons, he also had many disciples under his tutelage, numbering over two hundred people. Everyone was in awe of the fame of "Mt. Taishan's Dan Family".

Following this, another rider galloped into the apricot forest. The Five Heroes of Mt. Taishan simultaneously brought the horse to a halt, as the rider, an old man who wore a long silk robe, floated down from his mount. He clasped his hands towards Qiao Feng, saying, "Chief Qiao, Dan Zheng has arrived without being invited. Please forgive me for interrupting."

Qiao Feng had long heard of Dan Zheng, but this was the first time they had met in person. He saw that Dan Zheng's face was filled with a healthy red glow. The man lived up to his reputation of having 'white hair and a rosy complexion'. However, he had a very mild expression on his face. It didn't seem as though he were as ruthless a person as the rumors of jianghu made him out to be. Qiao Feng hastily cupped his fists in response and said, "If I knew that you, elder Dan, were going to grace us with your presence, I would have welcomed you long ago."

The man who rode in on a donkey suddenly let out a weird shout. "Hah, great! So you should welcome the 'Iron Faced Judge' from afar, but when I, the 'Iron Arsed Judge' arrived, you didn't pay me any mind at all!"

Upon hearing the bizarre nickname of 'Iron Arsed Judge', everyone present laughed uproariously. Although Wang Yuyan, Ah Zhu, and Ah Bi all felt that laughing was improper, they couldn't help but let out beautiful smiles as well. Upon hearing these words, the Five Heroes of Mt. Taishan knew that this man was trying to mock their father. They immediately became upset. However, the family rules of the Dan family were extremely rigid. Since Dan Zheng himself had not said anything yet, none of his children dared to speak out of turn.

Dan Zheng possessed very good self-control. He couldn't immediately determine the origins of this weirdo, and so pretended to not have heard his words. In a clear voice, he called out, "Madame Ma, please come out and speak with us."

From behind the grove appeared a covered sedan. Two strong men were carrying the sedan, and they moved so quickly as to appear to be flying. Arriving within the forest, they set down the sedan, then parted upon the sedan curtain. From within the sedan, a young madame all dressed in mourning clothes slowly stepped out. The young madame bowed her heads towards Qiao Feng, paying her respects to him. She said, "The widow of the Ma family pays her respects to the chief."

Qiao Feng returned her salute. "Sister-in-law, I greet you."

Madame Ma said, "My late husband had the misfortune to pass away. Thankfully, the many uncles of the clan have helped to arrange his funeral rites. I am sincerely grateful to you all." Her voice was extremely clear and melodious. Evidently, she was very young. However, this entire time her eyes stared down at the ground, preventing others from seeing her face.

Qiao Feng believed that Madame Ma must have found an important clue in the matter of her husband's death, which is why she had suddenly rushed here. But for her not to bring such important information to the chief of the clan, and to approach the Iron Faced Judge and elder Xu instead, was an indication that something was very fishy here. Turning around, he glanced at the law-enforcing elder, Bai Shijing. Bai Shijing had just turned to glance at him as well. Their gazes met, and both of their eyes were filled with suspicion regarding the proceedings.

Qiao Feng decided to properly receive the guests first before handling internal affairs. He said to Shan Zheng, "Elder Shan, the married couple of Mt. Taihang's Cavern of Flowing Clouds are here as well. I wonder if you know them?" Shan Zheng cupped his fists towards them. "I've long heard of the great fame of the Tan family. It is my great fortune to meet you." Qiao Feng said, "Elder Tan, could you introduce this other old gentleman to me, so that I might pay him proper respects?"

Before Grandpa Tan had a chance to reply, the donkey rider replied, "My family name is 'Shuang', and my personal name is 'Wai'. My nickname is the 'Iron Arsed Judge.'"

No matter how good 'Iron Faced Judge' Shan Zheng's temper was, he couldn't prevent his rage from rising at this point. He thought to himself, "My family name is 'Shan' [Single], and he chooses the family name 'Shuang' [Double]. My personal name is 'Zheng' [Straight], and he picks the name 'Wai' [Crooked]. Isn't this clearly directed at me?" Just as he was about to let loose his rage, Granny Tan said, "Elder Shan, don't listen to Zhao Qiansun's nonsense. He's a bit crazy. There's no point in getting worked up over him."

Qiao Feng thought to himself, "This man is named Zhao Qiansun? That can't be his real name." He said, "Everyone, there's no seats here, and so I'll have to ask you all to make do with the ground." After seeing everyone sit down, he said, "If I had known a day ago that I would meet with so many distinguished elders and friends, I would have felt extremely honored and fortunate. Might I ask why all of you have graced us with your presences?"

Shan Zheng said, "Chief Qiao, your respected clan is the largest clan in the jianghu, and for centuries has had a world-spanning heroic reputation. Whenever anyone in the wulin says the words 'Beggar's Clan', they do so with great awe and respect. I, Shan Zheng, have always greatly admired the clan as well." Qiao Feng said, "You are too kind!"

Zhao Qiansun interjected, "Chief Qiao, your respected clan is the largest clan in the jianghu, and for centuries has had a world-spanning heroic reputation. Whenever anyone in the wulin says the words 'Beggar's Clan', they do so with great awe and respect. I, Shuang Wai, have always greatly admired the clan as well." His words were exactly identical to the words of Shan Zheng; only, he change the name from 'Shan Zheng' to 'Shuang Wai'.

Qiao Feng knew that many of the elders of the wulin had strange temperaments and dispositions. He didn't know why Zhao Qiansun was making fun of Shan Zheng every chance that he got, but he decided that the only thing which truly concerned him was not offending anybody. Thus, once more Qiao Feng said, "You are too kind!"

Shan Zheng smiled a little, then said to his eldest son, Shan Boshan, "Boshan, go ahead and speak to chief Qiao in my stead. If anyone wants to imitate my son, they can go ahead and do it to their heart's content."

Everyone who heard these words couldn't help but let out a burst of laughter. They all thought to themselves that that although the Iron Faced Judge posed as a man of high morals, he was secretly quite caustic. If Zhao Qiansun imitated the words of Shan Boshan, then it would be said that Zhao Qiansun was pretending to be Shan Zheng's son.

Unexpectedly, Zhao Qiansun said, "Boshan, go ahead and speak to chief Qiao in my stead. If anyone wants to imitate my son, they can go ahead and do it to their heart's content." He flipped the situation on its head, as though he were now acknowledging that he himself was Shan Boshan's father.

Shan Zheng's youngest son, Shan Xiaoshan, had the most explosive temper. He loudly cursed, "Mother****er, are you tired of living?"

Zhao Qiansun mumbled to himself, "Mother****er, four useless sons such as these are already four too many. There really was no need for a fifth. Heh, I wonder who his real father is."

Hearing how brazenly Zhao Qiansun was provoking him, even if Shan Zheng were a clay figurine, he would warp and bend. Turning his head, he said to Zhao Qiansun, "We are the guests of the Beggar's Clan for the moment. If we kick up a fuss, it would be disrespectful to our hosts. After the matter at hand is dealt with, I will naturally seek you out and see your incredible skills. Boshan, just speak!" Zhao Qiansun continued to imitate him and said, "We are the guests of the Beggar's Clan for the moment. If we kick up a fuss, it would be disrespectful to our hosts. After the matter at hand is dealt with, I will naturally seek you out and see your incredible skills. Boshan, your old man is telling you to speak. Just speak!"

Shan Boshan would have liked nothing better than to rush forward and give him a few nasty chops of the sabre and relieve the hatred in his heart. With a strenuous effort, he reined in his fury and said to Qiao Feng, "Chief Qiao, the two us, father and son, originally would never have dared to get involved in the matters of your venerable clan, but as my father says, 'a gentleman loves men of character…'" As he said this, he glanced at Zhao Qiansun, wondering if Zhao Qiansun would be imitating him. If he was, he would be forced to also say, 'But as my father says, 'a gentleman loves men of character'. Thus, Zhao Qiansun would be saying that Shan Zheng was his father.

Unexpectedly, Zhao Qiansun really did continue to imitate him. He said, "Chief Qiao, the two us, father and son, originally would never have dared to get involved in the matters of your venerable clan, but as my son says, 'a gentleman loves men of character'." He changed the word 'father' to 'son'. Naturally, he was mocking Shan Zheng. Everyone who heard this frowned, feeling that Zhao Qiansun was going too far. They feared that the situation would immediately explode into a bloody confrontation.

Shan Zheng lightly said, "Sir, you continue to try and make things difficult for me. However, I have never met you before, and do not know how I might have offended you. I would like to ask that you make things clear. If I am at fault, simply let me know and I will immediately admit my error's and offer you my apologies."

Everyone secretly supported Shan Zheng's words, feeling that he really lived up to his reputation of being a heroic, chivalric figure of the central plains.

Zhao Qiansun said, "You didn't offend me, but you offended Little Juan. This is ten times worse than offending me!"

Shan Zheng said, "Who is 'Little Juan'? When did I offend her?" Zhao Qiansun pointed at Granny Tan. "She's Little Juan. Little Juan is her maiden name. In the whole wide world, no one but me can address her like that." Shan Zheng was both angry and amused. He said, "Oh, so that is Granny Tan's maiden name. I didn't know. Please forgive me for any offense I may have given." Zhao Qiansun said in a haughty, supercilious voice, "As you didn't know, we won't blame you. Your first offense is pardoned; if it happens again, you won't be." Shan Zheng said, "I have long heard of the great fame of the married Tan family, who live in Mt. Taihang's Cavern of Flowing Clouds, but never had the karmic fortune to meet them. I have never gossiped about anyone behind their back. How could I have offended the granny of the Tan family?"

Zhao Qiansun angrily said, "Earlier, I was asking Little Juan, 'has your life been happy recently?' But before she had a chance to reply, your five precious sons swaggered on in and barged their way into our midst, interrupting her response. Even to this very moment, she hasn't had a chance to reply to me. Brother Shan, why don't you go and ask what type of person Little Juan is? Or what type of person I, 'Zhao Qian Sun Li, Zhou Wu Zheng Wang', am? Are we the type of people who would allow others to disrupt our conversations just like that?" [All of the eight words from 'Zhao' to 'Wang' are surnames; Zhao Qiansun's own name is made up of three surnames, which is why Qiao Feng doesn't believe it could be his real name.]

Upon hearing these bizarre words, Shan Zheng realized that this fellow really wasn't very bright. He said, "Brother, there's something I don't understand, and I hope you can enlighten me." Zhao Qiansun said, "What is it? If I'm in a good mood, I suppose I can help you with a few pointers." Shan Zheng said, "Many thanks, many thanks. Sir, you said that you are the only person in the whole world who can address Granny Tan by her maiden name, right?" Zhao Qiansun said, "Right on! If you don't believe me, call her maiden name out again, and see if I, 'Zhao Qian Sun Li, Zhou Wu Zheng Wang, Feng Chen Chu Wei, Jiang Shen Han Yang,' won't get into a big fight with you right now!" Shan Zheng said, "Brother, I naturally wouldn't dare to call her name again. But can it be that even Grandpa Tan is not allowed to call her by her maiden name?"

Zhao Qiansun's face turned a ghastly pale color. For a long moment, he did not respond. Everyone thought to themselves that these words of Shan Zheng had stupefied him. Unexpectedly, Zhao Qiansun suddenly burst into sobs, as his tears and snot criss-crossed into a pitiable, heart-broken appearance.

This was wildly outside of everyone's expectations. This person feared neither heaven nor hell, and had seemed determined to squabble with the Iron Faced Judge to the very end. Unexpectedly, just these few simple words caused him to break into a large cryfest which he seemed unable to end.

Seeing how heartbroken Zhao Qiansun was, Shan Zheng began to feel embarrassed. The fury which had curdled up in his heart immediately vanished away. He instead began to console Zhao Qiansun, saying, "Brother Zhao, I'm the one at fault here." Zhao Qiansun sobbed and whimpered, "My surname isn't Zhao." Startled, Shan Zheng asked, "Sir, what is your surname then?" Zhao Qiansun replied, "I don't have one. Don't ask, don't ask anymore."

Everyone guessed that Zhao Qiansun must have an extremely painful subject that would be awkward to discuss. As to what it was, since he refused to say, it would be inappropriate for others to ask. All they could do was to let him continue to cry, sob, and weep without stopping.

With a composed look on her face, Granny Tan said, "You've gone crazy again. You are in front of so many friends. Aren't you afraid of losing face at all?"

Zhao Qiansun said, "You cast me off, then went off and married this good-for-nothing Grandpa Tan. How can I not be miserable and pained? My heart is shattered, and my guts have been splintered. Why would I care about such a small thing as face?"

All the onlookers glanced at each other and smiled. None of them were surprised at the revelation. Clearly, Zhao Qiansun and Granny Tan once shared a romantic history together. When Granny Tan married Grandpa Tan, Zhao Qiansun became so heartbroken that he threw away his very name and would go into insane fits of silliness. The Tan couple were clearly in their sixties. How could it be that Zhao Qiansun was still this passionate, still this heartbroken despite the passage of decades? Granny Tan's face was covered with wrinkles, and her white hair was desolate and dreary. No one present could see how this large and tall old lady, even in her youth, could have caused Zhao Qiansun to be so passionate about her to this very day.

A bashful look appeared on Granny Tan's face. She said, "Martial-brother, why do you keep on bringing up these bygone affairs? Today, the Beggar's Clan has important matters to discuss. Be well-behaved and just listen, alright?"

These gently persuasive words were very comfortable to Zhao Qiansun's ears. He said, "If you smile at me, I'll listen to you." Before Granny Tan had a chance to smile, ten or so bystanders already burst into laughter. Granny Tan didn't seem to notice at all, and smiled directly at him. Zhao Qiansun stared at her as though stupefied. Clearly, he had been totally dazed by her smile, and it was as though his very soul had been frozen.

Grandpa Tan sat off to one side, face filled with fury, but there was nothing he could do. Watching this scene, Duan Yu's heart suddenly trembled. He thought to himself, "The love and passion between these three people is so strong that they don't pay a care to the fact that others are here and watching. I…I…in the future, in the future, will I and Miss Wang be the way Zhao Qiansun and Granny Tan are? No! No! Granny Tan clearly holds great affection towards her martial-brother. But the person whom Miss Wang constantly thinks about is her cousin, Murong Fu. Compared to Zhao Qiansun, I am far inferior to him, and my situation is much worse."

Qiao Feng, on the other hand, was thinking about something else. "So Zhao Qiansun is a false name after all. I've always heard it said that Granny Tan and Grandpa Tan were disciples of the master of the Taihang sect. But judging from the words these three have said, it seems as though they don't come from the same school after all. Does Grandpa Tan belong to the Taihang school, or does Granny Tan belong to the Taihang school? If Grandpa Tan is the one who belongs to the Taihang sect, then which sect did Granny Tan and this Zhao Qiansun fellow come from?"

Zhao Qiansun said, "I heard that Gusu's Murong family produced a Murong Fu, who 'uses the opponent's skills, exercising them upon the opponent.' I hear that he is brash and audacious, and that he wantonly murders innocents. This old man wants to go a few rounds with him and see what sort of ability that brat has, to reverse his attacks upon me, 'Zhao Qian Sun Li, Zhou Wu Zheng Wang'. Little Juan, you told me to come to Jiangnan. Naturally, I came. Much less I…"

But before he finished speaking, a person could be heard crying loudly. Weeping and bawling, the sound was absolutely identical to that of his own crying a few moments earlier. Everyone present was astonished. That person began to complain while crying, "My dear martial-sister, how did I offend you? Why did you go marry that horrible old man Tan? This old man's been thinking about you day and night. My stomach has been stretched and my intestines have been knotted. The person I always think about is you, martial-sister Little Juan. When our master was alive, he treated the two of us as though we were his own children. How can you face our master, after you refused to marry me and marry someone else?"

In both sound and speech pattern, the voice was absolutely identical to that of Zhao Qiansun's. If it weren't for the fact that everyone clearly saw how Zhao Qiansun was stunned and gape-mouthed, and how astonished he looked, everyone would have believed that it was he who spoke. Everyone turned to look as one. They saw that this voice came from a young maiden who wore a light red dress.

That person turned around, revealing herself to be Ah Zhu. Duan Yu, Ah Bi, and Wang Yuyan knew that Ah Zhu had an almost divine ability to mimic the voices of others. They weren't surprised at all. But everyone else present was both amazed and amused. They all thought that after hearing this, Zhao Qiansun would go crazy with rage. Unexpectedly, these words of Ah Zhu stirred his heart. He had almost stopped crying, but upon hearing her words, his eyes reddened once more, his lips drooped downwards, and once more his tears poured down his face, and he once more started bawling in tune with Ah Zhu.

Shan Zheng shook his head. In a clear voice, he said, "Although my surname is 'Shan', 'Single', I have a wife and four concubines, and my sons and grandchildren fill my home. You, Mr. Shuang Wai, have a surname 'Shuang', Double', but you are a solitary, lonely figure. This sort of affair should have been dealt with long ago. There's no point to bringing it up now. I'm afraid it's rather too late. Brother Shuang, we were invited to come to Jiangnan by the widow of the late vice-chief Ma of the Beggar's Clan. Did we come for the purpose of discussing your marriage and matrimonial status?" Zhao Qiansun shook his head. "No." Shan Zheng said, "In that case, it would be best if we discussed the serious business which brought us to the Beggar's Clan in the first place." Zhao Qiansun suddenly shouted out angrily, "What? The business of the Beggar's Clan is serious business, but the business between me and Little Juan is not?"

By this point, Grandpa Tan had reached the ends of his patience. He said, "Ah Hui, Ah Hui! If you don't hurry and keep him from continuing to act crazy, I won't be able to restrain myself." After hearing him address her as 'Ah Hui', everyone present realized, "So Granny Tan has another name after all. 'Little Juan' is a term which Zhao Qiansun alone uses."

Stamping her foot, Granny Tan said, "He isn't going crazy. You harmed him and made him become like this. Aren't you content yet?" Surprised, Grandpa Tan said, "I…I…I…how did I harm him?" Granny Tan said, "I married you, you horrible old man. Naturally, my martial-brother feels miserable about it…" Grandpa Tan said, "When you married me, I was neither horrible nor old." Granny Tan angrily said, "Have you no shame? Are you claiming that in the past, you were handsome and graceful?"

Elder Xu and Shan Zheng looked at each other, shaking their heads. They thought that these three babies were old, but not at all dignified or mature. The three of them were all senior members of the wulin with a great deal of personal prestige, and yet they were now squabbling over the passions of their youth in front of so many people. It was truly ridiculous.

Elder Xu let out a cough. "Father and son of Mt. Taishan, husband and wife of Mt. Taihang, and this friend as well, thank you for gracing us with your presences this day. Everyone in our humble clan, from top to bottom, feel very honored. Madame Ma, please tell your tale, starting from the beginning."

Madame Ma was originally standing still on one side with her head down, her back towards everyone. She had overheard what Elder Xu said, so she slowly turned around and in a quiet voice said: "My husband was unfortunate and passed away, I only know how to cursed my fate at not being able to born any children to continue the Ma bloodline..." Her voice although quiet, yet clear, caused the words that entered the ears of everyone who heard to shed tears. Her tone until this point was emotional, but now it seemed to be choked by tears. All the heroes in the forest after hearing her talked was touched all the way to their soul. With one cry Zhao Qiansun made everyone laughed, Ah Zhu made everyone amazed, but Madame Ma made everyone sorrowful.

Madame Ma continued, "After I had buried my husband, I went through the belongings he left behind, in the place with the Buddhist scriptures there was a letter that was sealed with wax. On the cover of the letter it was written: "In case that I died peacefully, burn this letter immediately. If opened, then my soul in heaven (yellow river) will not be able to rest in peace. But if I died in a suspicious manner, this letter must be handed over to all the Beggar clan elders to read together. This matter is of utmost importance, must not be failed."

When Madame Ma talked to this point, the entire forest was quiet, a needle falling to the ground could still be heard. She paused for a moment then continued, "I saw that since my husband wrote seriously thus, I know this matter is important so I immediately searched for Bangzhu to hand over this letter. It was coincidence that Bangzhu along with the clan elders are at Jiang Nan regarding matters of revenge for my dead husband. Because of that I have not yet been able to hand over the letter.

People there noticed a different shift in her tone, emphasizing "coincidence" and then "because of that". Together everyone looked at Qiao Feng from the corner of their eyes.

Qiao Feng all afternoon had dealt with the devious plot directed at himself, although he had suppressed Quan Guanqing and the clan elders' rebellion, he has not yet put this matter to rest. Now after he heard Madame Ma speak, he now felt lighter inside than before, his complexion calm and thought to himself, "Whatever plot these people are planning, come out and say it and be done with it. In this lifetime I have never done anything to be ashamed of so why would I be scared of someone trying to slander me."

Madame Ma continued, "I know that this letter has implications to the clan, and since Bangzhu and clan elders were not at Luoyang, I dare not delay so I immediately went to Zhengzhou to see Elder Xu and ask him to take charge of this matter. As for what this matter is… Elder Xu, please explain to everyone here.

?Elder Xu coughed a few times before speaking, "This matter if spoken out loud involves matters of gratitude and grudges. I foresee that the consequences are very hard to imagine." Those few sentences conveyed a deep worrisome meaning. He slowly opened a clothe bag from his shoulders, took out the letter, and said "This is the will of Ma Dayuan. Great ancestors, grandfather, and father of Dayuan, many generations have belonged to the Beggar clan, and had been if not clan elders then at least 8 bags members. I knew Ma Dayuan since he was little and are very familiar with handwritings of his. The words on this letter are definitely Ma Dayuan's handwriting. When Madame Ma handed me this letter, the wax seal on it has not been touched. I was afraid it held important matters and dare not delay it so I opened it immediately without waiting for the other Elders. When opening the letter, the Iron Faced Judge of Mt. Taishan Shan Zheng was there as witness."

Shan Zheng spoke up, "What he said was true. I was there to visit Elder Xu at that moment when he opened the letter."

Elder Xu opened the envelop taking out the letter and said, "I examined the letter inside and saw that it was not written by Ma Dayuan and was a little surprised. The beginning of the letter was to: Brother Jiantong, and this is even more weird. Jiantong is the name of Wang Bangzhu - the former Bangzhu of the Beggar Clan. If the person who wrote this letter was not a good friend of his, then they would not addressed him as such. Moreover Wang Bangzhu had passed away for a long time, so who would write a letter to him? At this point I have not yet read what was written in the letter but immediately skipped to the end to see the name on the signature. Upon reading it I was even more surprised. At that point I couldn't contain myself and exclaimed 'So it was him!' Brother Shan was curious and peeked his head over to see and also exclaimed 'So it was him!'"

?Shan Zheng nodded his head hinting that it happened exactly like that.

Zhao Qiansun sneaked in "Mister Shan, what you did was not right. This is a secret letter of the Beggar Clan. You are not a 1 bag member of the clan, nor a 2 bag, nor even a lowly street beggar who goes around asking for food. How come you dared to peek at a secret letter belonging to others?" Everyone there thought that he was like a madman but now he actually made sense. Shan Zheng's faced turned red and hurriedly said, "I… I only looked at the signature at the end of the letter and not what was actually written in that letter." Zhao Qiansun replied, "If one stole 1000 gold one is a thief, if one stole 1 copper one is still a thief. The amount of money is different. But stealing a large amount is still stealing and stealing a small amount is still stealing. Sneaking a glance at a letter belonging to others is not an act of a gentlemen. If you are not a gentlemen then you are a shameless person, and a shameless person is someone everyone should look down upon. If you are already a shameless person then you deserved to die."

Shan Zheng raised his hand to keep his five sons from acting rashly. Just let him talk nonsense and see where this goes. Though he was boiling on the inside, he calmly thought to himself that there was something more to this, and asked himself "This person just met me and he's already trying to stir up trouble, did he already had grudge with me from the past perchance? In Jianghu there are not many who doesn't give face to the name Thaishan Shan jia. Why can't I figure it out?"

Everyone else was waiting for Elder Xu to say the name of the person in the letter to see what kind of person he is that caused Elder Xu and Shan Zheng to both be shocked. While they all were trying to think of this matter, Zhao Qiansun started speaking out of turn with some other nonsense causing many people to stare at him in anger.

Granny Tan suddenly spoke up, "What is everyone looking at? Every word my senior martial brother said was the truth." Zhao Qiansun saw Granny Tan spoke up for him, felt estactic inside, and said, "Everyone look here, even Lian Xiaojuan agrees, so how can I be in the wrong. Whatever Lian Xiaojuan have said or done in the past had never been wrong."

But suddenly another but shockingly similar voice to Zhao Qiansun cut in, "That is right. Whatever Lian Xiaojuan says or do has never been wrong. She married Grandpa Tan, and did not married me… she did not married wrong at all!" The person who said that was A'Zhu. Starting at the moment when Zhao Quinsun talked bad about Murong Fu, she was still holding a grudge inside so she couldn't help herself from making fun of him. Zhao Quinsun after hearing that didn't know whether to laugh or cry, and fell victim to the specialty of the Murong famly move – turning one's special move against them. (I don't know how to translate this idiom Help??)

Immediately there were two faces looking at A'Zhu intimately and full with approval, on there right there was Grandpa Tan's and on the left there was Shan Zheng.

A person's shadow flashed and Granny Tan jumped in front of A'Zhu with a raised palm and slapped her hard in the face and piqued "Whether I marry right or wrong, what does it have to do with a lowly servant girl like you?" She raised her hand very fast that even though A'Zhu wanted to dodge it, she couldn't. Another person even if next to her wouldn't even be fast enough step in to help. A loud squeak of pain was heard and on the powder white face of A'Zhu there was purple hand print.

Zhao Qiansun laughed out loud, "This smelly girl deserved her lesson. Who told her to be gossipy about other people's business."

A'Zhu with tears running down her cheeks started crying out loud. Grandpa Tan stepped up and stuck his hand into his pocket pulling out a small jade box, opened it, and started spreading ointment onto the face of A'Zhu. Granny Tan slapped her skillfully and quickly, raising her palm and pulling it back in just a single motion. Grandpa Tan applying ointment to her face had to use many different motions but it was even faster than Granny Tan's slap. A'Zhu didn't even get a chance to move and the ointment were already on her face, her bruised face suddenly started to heal and feel better. At the same time in her left hand she was holding something. She opened her palm to see a small jade box, seeing that she knew that Granpa Tan just gave her a box of special ointment to treat her injury. A'Zhu, as soon as she started crying had suddenly started smiling.

Elder Xu had no reason to pay attention to Granny Tan bicker with Grandpa Tan, so he lowered his voice and continued, "My brothers! As for the person who wrote this letter, I can not say at this moment. I have been in the Beggar Clan for over 70 years, have retired to live in seclusion for 30 years and no longer have any dealings with business in Jianghu. I don't have any conflicts with people nor do people have enmities with me. I have lived in this world for a long time, yet I don't have any children nor do I have any students thus I harbor no hidden bias nor agendas. I am about to say a few words, will you all be able to believe what I say?" The group of beggars all said together, "If we don't trust Elder Xu then who can we trust?"

Elder Xu turned around and looked at Qiao Feng and asked, "What say you Bangzhu?" Qiao Feng replied, "I have always respected Elder Xu, elder should know this already."

Elder Xu then continued, "After reading this letter, I felt both hurt and anger in my heart. I had doubts that I am mistaken and erred in my thinking so I immediately showed it to brother Shan Zheng. Everyone must keep in mind that Brother Shan and the person who wrote this letter have always been intimate with each other. He can recognize the handwriting of that person. This matter has important implications so I needed to ask Brother Shan to examine this letter to see if it is true or false."

Shan Zheng looked forward and stared at Zhao Qiansun implying "Do you have anything more to say?" Zhao Qiansun replied, "If Elder Xu showed the letter to you, then of course you have a right to look at it. However it still doesn't dismiss the fact that the first time you saw it, it was because you sneaked a peak. No different from a thief swearing in front of Buddha that he will never steal again, and even though he changed his ways, it still doesn't wash away the fact that he was once a thief."

Elder Xu, paid no attention to Zhao Qiansun trying to stir up trouble, and continued talking, "Brother Shan! Will Brother Shan please announce to everyone here whether this letter is real or fake?"

Shan Zheng replied, "The person who wrote this letter and I are good friends and have exchanged letters with each other for many years. In my house I still kept many of his old letters, so I led Elder Xu and Madam Ma back to my place to compare them. Not only the handwriting matches, but also the envelop and the wax seal were all of one kind and does not leave any doubt as to who wrote the letter."

Elder Xu said, "I won't live for much longer so everything that I do, I must be careful. Especially since this matter has important implications to the Beggar Clan and the reputation and name of a hero, how could I dare be reckless and take liberty of the matter."

After hearing him say that, everyone turned their faces to look at Qiao Feng, knowing immediately that the hero that he was implying were Qiao Bangzhu himself. With that being said, no one dared to look at him straight in the eyes opting instead to look down at the ground when their eyes meet.

Elder Xu continued, "I knew that the Tan husband and wife living on Mt. Taishan and the person who wrote the letter knew each other for many years, so I payed a visit to Cavern of Flowing Clouds. Grandpa Tan and Granny Tan shared with me everything to confirm this matter. I truly didn't dare to come straight out and talk about this matter by myself."

At this time everyone realized that Elder Xu invited the Tan husband and wife and ShanZheng here to testify and serve as witnesses.

Elder Xu then continued, "At that time Granny Tan said that she has 'a martial brother that can bear first hand witness to this matter. If we can invite him to testify his account then everything can become clear. This person is mister Zhao Qiansun. But this person acts differently and more eccentric than the average person, he won't accept just anybody's invitation.' But he still holds Granny Tan in high regard. As soon as her invitation letter arrives, Zhao Qiansun immediately agreed to come..."

??Grandpa Tan suddenly got angry and stared at Granny Tan then asked, "What?? You were the one to ask him to come? Why didn't you tell me first before you two carried out covert exchanges behind my back?" Granny Tan became angry and shouted back, "What is this 'covert exchanges' you mentioned? I wrote a letter and asked Elder Xu to send someone to deliver it. That is the right and honorable thing that I did befitting a wife. You have a perchance for pointless jealousy, if you knew then you will nag incessantly about it bringing down the house, so that's why I chose not to tell you." Grandpa Tan replied, "Hiding something from your husband violates the moral ethics of husband and wife, and that is not right!"

Granny Tan not in the mood to argue more, took her palm and punched him in the middle of his face. Grandpa Tan, although his martial arts are higher than his wife, didn't block nor did he dodge, just stood still for his wife to hit him. He then reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box to rub ointment onto his face to stop the swelling. The person who struck was fast, but the person who applied ointment was even faster. The anger of this husband and wife caused everyone to find it ridiculous.

Zhao Qiansun seeing this, gave a long sigh and in a sad hurt voice said, "So that's how it is. So that's how it is. So regretful. If I had known sooner then in the past I would have allowed her to slap me around a few times. Not a difficult thing to do." His voice was full of regret.

Granny Tan replied in an equally regretful voice, "Who told you to hit me back when I hit you in the past? You never once yielded to me."

Zhao Qiansun looked up in a dumb looking stupor, started to reminiscence the old times about a certain martial sister with a volatile temper. A misstep around her and one would be on defense all day. Every time he got hit for a nonsense reason, he could not endure nor yield so back and forth they go thus killing any chance for love before it had a chance to mature. Now seeing Grandpa Tan withstood her beating without a sound, he was finally enlightened, and now repent bitterly with a heart full of grief. Over the past few decades, he was bitter at his martial sister for choosing another man, thinking it was due to some significant reason, but who would have thought that his rival's only advantage was that he was willing to serve as her whipping post. "Oy, if I only I had known back then, I would let her hit me more then she would be satisfied."

Elder Xu spoke up, "Mister Zhao Qiansun!! Please give some input and say to everyone whether the contents of this letter is true or false."

Zhao Qiansun, still lost in his thought, muttered, "I am such an idiot, at that time why couldn't I figure it out? Studying martial arts are for beating enemies, beating evil, beating lowlife bastards, who would have thought to use it for beating a loved one, beating the person of your dreams. If being beaten was love, being scolded was love, being slapped around was love, then what was such a big deal that I couldn't endure it back then."

Everyone seeing him so infatuated found it slightly touching yet also ridiculous. The Beggar Clan is facing an important matter that needs to be resolved. Elder Xu had invited this person from afar to testify, but who knew this person turned out to be a love struck fool, can what he has to say be taken seriously?

Elder Xu reminded him, "Mister Zhao Qiansun, we all asked you here so you can talk about what is in this letter."

Zhao Qiansun replied, "Oh right, right, elder is asking about the matter in the letter right? That letter though short, is full of meaning: 40 years ago we were fellow students, the memories still fresh. Every time little sister thinks back, I start missing those days. Although martial brother's head is now gray, your smiling face is no different from years past..." Elder Xu was asking about the letter Ma Dayuan left behind, but he actually recited Granny Tan's letter that he memorized by heart.

Elder Xu was speechless and not knowing what to do, turned to Granny Tan and said, "Madam Tan! Madam please ask him to cooperate."

Granny Tan witnessed Zhao Qiansun unexpectedly take an ordinary letter of hers and recited it fluently by heart, knew in her soul that he must have read that letter forward and back many times. She was very touched and sweetly said, "Martial brother! Martial brother please talk about the situation at that time."

Zhao Qiansun replied, "I remembered that scene like it was still in front of my eyes, the memories of it were like it happened yesterday. Martial sister had combed your hair into two braids, each one tied by a red string. That day Shifu taught us the move Stealing Dragon Switching Phoenix...."

Granny Tan slowly shook her head and said, "Martial brother, Elder Xu is not asking about our past. Martial brother once had participated in the bloody battle at Shi Guqian (Quarry Stone Valley) outside Yanmen Guan Pass. Martial brother please tell everyone what the situation was like at that time."

Zhao Qiansun shakely said, "Outside Yanmen Guan Pass? At Quarry Stone Valley... I... I...." His complexion suddenly changed color. He suddenly turned towards the southwest direction where there wasn't a single soul and started running away. His lightness skill was strong and fast. He ran all the way into the forest and it would be hard for anyone to catch him so everyone started to yell "Mister Zhao Qiansun! Don't run! Please come back!" Zhao Qiansun paid gave no heed and ran even harder.

Suddenly there was a loud ringing voice, "Martial brother's head is now gray, your smiling face is now crooked, different from years past..." Zhao Qiansun immediately halted, turned around and asked, "Who said that?" That other person continued, "If it is not so then why upon seeing Grandpa Tan do you feet inferior, turn tail and run away?" Everyone looked to see who spoke, and it was Quan Guanqing.

Zhao Qiansun angrily yelled back, "Who felt inferior? His kungfu is only good for standing there to take punishment and not hit back. How is that better than me?"

All of a sudden on the other side of the forest an old man's voice was heard, "Taking punishment but not dishing it back is the hardest kungfu to learn under heaven. It is not a simple, no?"

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