Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils Chapter 46-50 (End)

Chapter - 46 Asking Three Questions After a Drink

Ba Tianshi, Zhu Danchen and the others woke up the next morning and discovered that Duan Yu is missing. Calling at the door of Wang Yuyan yielded no response either. Noting that her door is close but unlocked, the two men knocked on the door for some time before opening it. The room is empty and unoccupied.

The two men were especially upset and groaned in misery.

Zhu Danchen bemoaned: "Our Prince is exactly like His Lordship (Duan Zhengchun); wherever he goes, he will get involved in a romantic affair. He must have snuck away in the middle of the night with Miss Wang. I wonder where they are headed."

Ba Tianshi nodded his head and added: "Young Prince is dashing and flamboyant; he would rather surround himself with pretty women than learn more about managing the country. His attraction to Miss Wang is an open secret. Forcing him to be the Prince Consort of Xixia… Sigh... Our Prince is never known for his obedience; back then, when Emperor and His Lordship wanted him to learn martial arts, he simply refused to learn. When they gave him additional pressure, he ran away from home."

Zhu Danchen concluded: "We can only resort to hunting them down in separate directions and doing our best to advise their return. "

Ba Tianshi bitterly smiled, shrugging his shoulders and facing his palms skywards in exasperation.

Zhu Danchen supplemented: "Brother Ba, there was one occasion when His Lordship ordered me to pursuit our Prince. Despite finding him after much difficultly, he…" At this point, he lowered his voice into a whisper and continued: "He was smitten with Miss Mu Wangqing. In the middle of the night, the two of them secretly eloped. Fortunately, luck is on my side and I was laying ahead in ambush. Otherwise, I would have failed in my assignment."

Slapping his thigh, Ba Tianshi reprimanded: "Ai, my worthy Brother Zhu, in this case, you are at fault. Since you have this prior experience, why didn't you take the same precaution? The two of us should have taken turns to watch over him throughout the night."

Zhu Danchen let out a sigh and explained: "I assumed that because Great Hero Xiao and Mister Xu Zhu are his sworn brothers and are here with us, he would not employ such a tactic and leave without a word. I did not expect … I did not expect him to…" The next four words he wanted to express were: prioritise women over brotherhood. However, he eventually did not say them because firstly, it is an act of insubordination and secondly, because Duan Yu is on good terms with him and he does not wish to use such a term to describe Duan Yu.

With no better idea in mind, the two men went and updated Xiao Feng and Xu Zhu. After searching for the missing persons for an entire day and in different directions, there is still no clue to their whereabouts.

At evening time, everybody is gathered in Duan Yu's empty room for a general discussion. As anxiety dominated the meeting, the Xixia Empire Ministry of Rites sent an official to the inn, asking for Ba Tianshi. The official briefed: On the 15th Day of August, the Emperor will be hosting a banquet at Xihua Palace, extending a hospitable welcome to the honoured guests from all over the world. The attendance of Prince Duan of DaLi is strictly anticipated. Stuck in a quandary, Ba Tianshi could only mutter in agreement.

Ba Tianshi has bribed this official earlier on and his behavior is pleasant and cordial. When the official is about to depart, Ba Tianshi sent him off at the door. The official whispered into his ears: "Minister Ba, I have a tip for you. At the Emperor's banquet tomorrow night, all the esteemed guests will be scrutinized for their appearances. After the banquet, there could be some archery or sparring activities, in order for the esteemed guests to showcase themselves. This is an important trial with regards to choosing the Prince Consort and the husband of our Princess. Prince Duan cannot take this matter lightly." Ba Tianshi bowed to express his appreciation. From his sleeve, he produced another large gold ingot and pressed it into the hands of the official.

Back in the inn, Ba Tianshi updated everybody and sighed: "Lord Zhennan (Duan Zhengchun) has given firm instructions that our Prince must marry the Princess regardless of whatever it takes. The two of us have failed in our mission and we are too ashamed to face His Lordship."

Bamboo Sword suddenly covered her mouth and chortled: "Minister Ba, may Little Servant (I) say something?"

Ba Tianshi condescended: "Sister, I am all ears."

Bamboo Sword giggled: "Mister Duan's father wanted him to marry the Princess of Xixia; behind the scenes, his intention is for this marriage to be a unifying factor between Xixia and DaLi. In the future, the two countries are considered allies, am I right?"

Ba Tianshi agreed: "You are right."

Chrysanthemum Sword questioned: "Being the parent-in-law His Lordship Duan, I guess he is not concerned whether the Xixia Princess is as beautiful as Xi Shi (one of China's four Greatest Beauty) or uglier than Wu Yan (a derogatory term for an ugly woman)?"

Ba Tianshi conjectured: "The Princess is of royal status, even if she is not a top-notched beauty, she would at least be average looking"

Plum Sword explained: "We sisters have an idea; as long as we can use a wedding trick and get the Princess back to DaLi, it is no longer important if we cannot locate Prince Duan in time.

Orchid Sword chuckled: "Eventually, Mister Duan and Miss Wang will get tired of sightseeing and head home to DaLi after a few years. By then, it is still not too late for them to consummate the marriage."

Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen were exhilarated. In unison, they asked: "The Prince is absent. How can we employ a wedding ruse to get the Xixia Princess back to DaLi? Since four ladies have a great plan, please share the details with us."

Plum Sword explained: "When Miss Mu put on the clothes of a man and disguise herself as a handsome scholar, wouldn't she be better looking than Mister Duan? If she attends the banquet tomorrow night, among the tons of young heroes, her looks will definitely stand out."

Orchid Sword continued: "Miss Mu is the blood sister of Mister Duan. When she represented her brother and won back a sister-in-law, firstly, she has done the country proud and secondly, she will get into the good books of her father. Isn't that a worthy bargain?"

Bamboo Sword was next: "When Miss Mu has been chosen as the Prince Consort, the actual wedding will take place at a later date. By then, Mister Duan would have been found."

Chrysanthemum Sword concluded: "Even if Mister Duan is still unavailable, Miss Mu can replace him for the wedding ceremony. Who would be the wiser?" Finishing, she used her hand to cover her mouth as the four sisters simultaneously burst out in wild laughter.

Sharing the same train of thinking and manner of speech, the four sisters are perfectly congruent and it felt like interacting with one person instead of four.

Glancing at each other, both Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen felt that this plan is incredibly outrageous. If the Xixia Empire saw through this ruse, not only will the marriage fall apart, the two countries will become enemies. If the Emperor of Xixia is annoyed enough to start a war, then they would have bitten off more than they can chew.

Plum Sword could predict the concerns of the two men and comforted: "Actually, Mister Duan has Hero Xiao as his sworn brother and originally, there is no reason to get into the good books of Xixia. However, Lord Zhennan has given his orders and we have to comply. In the worst possible scenario, as Southern Khan of Great Liao and with a hundred thousand elite troops at his disposal, Hero Xiao can intercede on the behalf of DaLi. Surely that is sufficient enough to prevent Xixia from creating trouble."

Xiao Feng let out a smile and nodded his head.

As the Exterior Minister of DaLi, Ba Tianshi is in charge of the country's political and foreign affairs. To enlist Xiao Feng's support for DaLi has always been on his mind but it is inappropriate for him to bring up the subject. Now that Plum Sword has put forth the suggestion and Xiao Feng has nodded his head in agreement, this issue has been cast in stone. In the worst case, the marriage will end up in failure but Dali Country will not suffer any severe repercussions. He thought: This proposal submitted by our four ladies is pretty straightforward like a child's game. Besides this plan, I cannot think of anything better. I wonder if Miss Mu is willing to undertake this dangerous mission?

Thus, he remarked: "This proposal by the four ladies is brilliant indeed. However, there is a strong element of danger. If we are exposed, Miss Mu runs the risk of being captured. In addition, many heroes and talented people will be gathered there. Although Miss Mu's integrity is incomparable, in terms of martial arts, she may find it an uphill task to overcome the odds."

Everybody turned their attention to Mu Wanqing and waited for her response.

Mu Wanqing started: "Minister Ba, you need not try and agitate me. This brother of mine… This brother of mine…" After saying and repeating the words: This brother of mine, Mu Wanqing suddenly burst out in tears. When she discovered that Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan has eloped, she could not help but was reminded about her own experience with Duan Yu, slipping away together in the middle the night. If not for the fact that he turned out to be her brother, they would be living as a blissful couple. Now, Duan Yu is behaving intimately with another woman, having the time of their lives while she is all cold and lonely. To add salt to the wound, these officials of DaLi are now suggesting that she disguised as him to participate in a marriage. Distressed and incensed, she abruptly swept out her hand, toppling the table in front of her. With this toppling, Ping! Ping! Piang! Piang! the teapot and tea cups came crashing down all over the floor. Jumping up from her seat, she exited the room without a single word.

Everybody gaze at one another in confusion, feeling that she is such a wet blanket. With an apologetic tone, Ba Tianshi professed: "This is my fault. If I have begged her in a kind manner, Miss Mu can simply voice her disagreement. However, my approach may have been unsuitable, causing her to be upset."

Zhu Danchen shook his head and lamented: "Miss Mu's anger is definitely not related to Brother Ba's words. There is another reason behind her reaction. Ai, it is complicated!"

The next day, everybody headed out in different directions and continued to look for Duan Yu. The busy streets are filled with young men dressed in elegant clothing and it is pretty obvious that they are here to attend the Palace banquet on Mid Autumn Night (15th August). Occasionally, some public disagreements can be sighted, clear evidence that the warriors from TuBo Country are still doing their best to remove competitors for their Prince. With regards to Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan, nobody is able to track them at all.

By evening time, everybody has returned to the inn. Naturally, some came back earlier and some came back later. Xiao Feng announced: "Since Third Brother is no longer around, there is no point for us to stay on. Regardless of who becomes the Prince Consort, it is none of our business." Ba Tianshi agreed: "Hero Xiao is right. If we stay on and helplessly witness another person become the Prince Consort, it will not be a pleasant experience."

Zhong Ling abruptly queried: "Mister Zhu, are you a married man? Since Mister Duan is unwilling to be the Prince Consort, why don't you take his place? If you married the Princess of Xixia, wouldn't that be helping DaLi too?"

Zhu Danchen guffawed: "Miss is pulling my leg. A long time ago, Your Junior (I) has already been blessed with a wife and mistress, male and female offspring." Zhong Ling stuck out her tongue. Zhu Danchen added: "A pity that Miss's features are too delicate and you have dimples on your face. You cannot masquerade as a male, otherwise, with you taking up the mantle and representing your brother to marry the Xixia Princess…"

Zhong Ling was taken aback: "What? Represent my brother?"

Zhu Danchen realized he had a slip of the tongue. Zhong Ling, being the illegitimate child of Lord Zhennan, is still not a public matter and he should maintain the confidentiality. He hurriedly corrected: "I mean you can represent Prince Duan in accomplishing this crucial mission…"

Beyond his expectation, somebody outside the door spoke out: "Minister Ba, Mister Zhu, let's set off." Brushing aside the door curtain, a striking young man entered. Full of heroic and manly aura, it was Mu Wanqing cloaked in scholarly robes.

Excited and delighted at the same time, everyone asked: "What? Miss Mu is willing to get involved?"

Mu Wanqing rectified: "My surname is Duan and my first name is Yu, the son of DaLi country Lord Zhennan. May I request everyone here to be mindful of your speech?" Her voice is clear and precise, despite some feminine undertones. Fortunately, young people tend to speak with a sharper voice so it is not something out of the ordinary. Appreciating her wonderful impersonation of Duan Yu, the crowd burst out in joyful laughter.

The day before, after throwing a tantrum, Mu Wanqing had returned to her room and cried her heart out. Straightening her thoughts, she felt bad for creating a scene and offending so many people. Moreover, it sounds pretty fun to disguise as Duan Yu to marry the Xixia Princess. In her mind, she also thought: You (DY) eloped with Miss Wang and is out there having a good time. I will purposely marry a Princess on your behalf and from then on, you will be handling endless disagreements and never have a day of peace.

Recalling the first time she entered DaLi City, she found Duan Yu's parents to be easily jealous by nature and their meetings were awkward. If Duan Yu marries a Princess, she would be definitely become his official wife and the head of his harem. Wang Yuyan will have to become his mistress (concubine) instead. Although she (MWQ) herself is unable to marry Duan Yu, she is not willing to let this petite and demure Miss Wang happily become his official wife without some hindrances. The more she thought, the more pleased she was. Therefore, she is willing to take the risk and masquerade as Duan Yu.

Ba Tianshi and the others are highly motivated and swiftly made preparations. Ba Tianshi remembered Assistant Minister Tao who has visited the inn and met Duan Yu before. Thus, he prepared three hundred taels of gold and order Zhu Danchen to deliver them to Assistant Minister Tao. The original gifts have been delivered but this is a bonus. He instructed Zhu Danchen to offer the bribe without passing any message. Later, when Assistant Minister Tao notices anything out of the ordinary, he would naturally keep it to himself. Using three hundred taels of gold to buy silence, it is a classical example of: Making a quiet fortune.

Mu Wanqing requested: "Big Brother Xiao and Second Brother Xu Zhu, I would prefer the two of you to accompany me for the banquet. With you two at my side, I will feel much safer. Otherwise, if push comes to shove, I may not be able to triumph with my skills. Within the royal palace, it is not very appropriate for my poisonous projectiles to start flying."

Orchid Sword giggled: "Correct! Once Mister Duan starts shooting out poisonous arrows and piling up corpses in the royal palace of Xixia, I doubt the Princess herself will agree to marry you."

Xiao Feng laughed: "Second Brother and myself have pledged our assistance to Uncle Duan (Zhengchun) and we will naturally do our best."

Everyone starting changing clothes and putting on make up, preparing to attend the royal palace banquet. Xiao Feng and Xu Zhu are disguised as aides from DaLi Lord Zhennan Residence; Zhong Ling and the four sisters from Lingjiu Palace originally wanted to cross dress as men and participate in the celebrations but Ba Tianshi forbade: "With Miss Mu's solo disguise, we are already at a risk of being discovered. If we add on another five ladies dressing up as men, we will surely be exposed." Therefore, Zhong Ling and the girls gave up the idea.

When everyone is leaving via the door of the inn in a single file, Ba Tianshi suddenly cried out: "Aiyah! We are in trouble! That Murong Fu is trying for the Prince Consort as well. He is someone who recognizes Mister Duan. What should we do?"

Xiao Feng let out a smile and explained: "Brother Ba can rest easy. Like Third Brother Duan, Murong Fu has disappeared without a word. Earlier on, I did some investigation. Deng Baichuan and Bao Butong are panicking like ants on a hot pan."

Everyone was overjoyed and exclaimed: "What a nice coincidence."

Zhu Danchen chuckled: "Hero Xiao's consideration is truly thorough; you even did your homework on Murong Fu and his entourage."

Xiao Feng laughed: "Actually, I am not a thorough person. In my opinion, Mister Murong is handsome and highly skilled in martial arts. He can be considered the top nemesis of Miss Mu. Heh Heh Heh Heh!"

Ba Tianshi snickered: "I see. Hero Xiao had wanted to persuade Murong Fu to skip tonight's banquet."

Wide-eyed, Zhong Ling gushed: "From thousands of miles away, Murong Fu rushed here in order to become the Prince Consort, why should he listen to simple persuasion? Hero Xiao, do you and Mister Murong share a deep friendship?"

Ba Tianshi guffawed: "Hero Xiao barely knows him. Nevertheless, Hero Xiao's fists and legs are very eloquent; Murong Fu cannot resist them."

Understanding the hint, Zhong Ling giggled: "Using fists and legs to persuade, of course the latter has to obey."

Currently, the five persons Mu Wangqing, Xiao Feng, Xu Zhu, Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen have disembarked at the doors of the royal palace. Ba Tianshi submitted Duan Yu's invitation and Xixia's Minister of Rites personally came to escort them into the palace.

Arriving at Zhonghe Hall, they noted a hundred odd young men who have already arrived for the banquet. They were seated all over the hall. Within the hall, there is a certain seat which is covered with yellow satin and decorated with golden dragons. That is obviously the seat of Xixia's Emperor. On the east and west, there are another two seats that are covered with purple satin. The seat on the east is occupied by a youth with thick eyebrows and large eyes. With a tall and imposing frame, he is attired in a long, red robe. Sewn on the robe is a tiger baring its teeth and claws in a display of might. Behind him stood eight warriors. With once glance, Ba Tianshi and the rest easily identified him as TuBo Country's Prince Zhongzan.

The Minister for Rites escorted Mu Wanqing to the purple-satin seat on the west while Xiao Feng and the others stood behind her. From this arrangement, it is evident that among the numerous youths present, the two Princes from DaLi Country and TuBo Country are the most prestigious, thereby enjoying this special privilege by the Emperor of Xixia. The other established martial arts warriors are seated together with the young masters of wealthy families. More and more people are streaming into the hall and getting assigned to their seats.

When the seats are filled, two commanding generals supervising the hall bellowed: "The esteemed guests are all present. Door to be closed." As the sound of beating drums filled the air, four sentries are slowly closing the two large and thick doors of the hall. From a corridor, the noise made by armour clanking rang out and out marched a platoon of warriors with long halberds and golden armour. The well-polished halberd tips are shimmering brightly in the candlelight. Following this display, the drums started beating again and two rows of palace aides came out from the inner hall. Each of them is carrying an incense pot made out of white jade in their hands and green smoke is emitting from the pots. Everybody knew that the Emperor is about to make his appearance and with bated breaths, they watched in complete silence.

At the back of the entourage, four escorts emerged, dressed in satin robes and holding nothing in their hands. The four of them split into two groups and were stationed on the left and right of the throne. Observing the protruding temples (two sides of forehead) of these four fellows, Xiao Feng instantly identified them as martial arts experts who are employed as the personal bodyguards of the Emperor. An attendant proclaimed aloud: "Welcome the Emperor!" Everyone kneeled down accordingly.

Footsteps can be heard and a man materialized at the corridor. After he sat down on the throne, the same attendant announced: "You may rise!" The crowd got back on their feet. Scrutinizing the Xixia Emperor, Xiao Feng noted that he is shorter than the average man and yet he has an aura of bravery around him. This Emperor is probably not a descendent of an aristocrat or military family but someone who has risen up from the commoners, a folk hero.

Standing beside the throne, the Minister for Rites opened up a scroll and declared in a loud voice: "With accord to the Mandate of Heaven, the Saints and the Deities, Hereby is the Command of Xixia Emperor: Gentlemen have come from afar, Your Majesty (I) will reward you with this toast. Respected conclusion.

The crowd kneeled down again to express their gratitude. The attendant hollered: "You may rise!" Everyone stood up.

The Emperor lifted his cup and made a drinking gesture around his lips before leaving his seat and reentering the inner hall. With his entourage at his heels, the entire group of newcomers vanished neatly in a short space of time.

Gazing at one another, the entire hall of men was astounded. Without saying a word or drinking a cup of wine, the Emperor is considered to have 'attended' the banquet. The same thought is going through everyone's mind: He did not even take a proper look at our appearances; how is he going to choose his son-in-law?

The Minister for Rites announced: "Gentlemen, please be seated and enjoy the food and wine." A troop of eunuchs began serving dishes of food. Located in the Northwestern region, Xixia is a place with bitter-cold climate and the population mainly survives on beef and mutton. Although this is a palace banquet, the dishes are mainly large servings of beef and mutton as well.

Feeling awkward that she is the only one sitting while the others are standing, Mu Wanqing whispered: "Big Brother Xiao, Second Brother Xu Zhu, please sit down and join me." Smiling broadly, Xiao Feng and Xu Zhu both shook their heads. Aware of Xiao Feng's love for wine, she had an inspiration. Waving her hand, she instructed: "Pour wine!" Hearing her command, Xiao Feng poured a bowl of wine. Mu Wanqing ordered: "This bowl is for you!" Thrilled, Xiao Feng finished the large bowl of wine in two mouthfuls. Mu Wanqing insisted: "Another!" Xiao Feng had another bowl of wine.

From the seat on the East, the Prince of TuBo drank a few mouthfuls of wine before picking up a large piece of beef from his bowl and began eating. After several bites, a large bone is left and he threw the bone aside. Whether it was intentional or not, the bone is now flying towards Mu Wanqing with a strong gust of force, displaying the strength of its thrower.

Zhu Danchen retrieved his folding fan and deflected the flying bone, sending it on a return path towards Prince Zongzan. A TuBo warrior reached out with his hand caught the bone. Cursing, he picked up a large bowl from the table and threw it at Zhu Danchen. Ba Tianshi executed a palm strike and when the bowl flew halfway, it met with the force of the palm strike and shattered into dozens of shards. As the broken shards flew towards the group of TuBo citizens, another TuBo warrior swiftly removed his outer robes and swirled the robes in mid air, netting the dozens of broken shards in the robes. His actions were precise and well practiced.

When the young men arrived at the royal palace for the banquet, everyone is fully aware of one fact: all those present are here to compete for the Prince Consort. In their interaction with one another, there is no presence of friendly intentions. Although everyone expected a brawl to happen anytime, nondescript fighting started breaking out all over the hall before anyone knew what was happening. Hearing the shattering noises of broken bowls and plates, the crowd turned boisterous.

Out of the blue, a bell starting ringing and from the inner hall, two rows of men emerged. Some were dressed in tight uniforms while others were attired in loose robes. Irrespective of outfits, each of them is armed with a unique, oddly shaped weapon. Among them, an obvious high-ranking Xixia Official who is dressed in a satin robe proclaimed in a thunderous voice: "Gentlemen, within the royal palace, please mind your manners. Seated among you, there are warriors belonging to our country's Elite Guild. If gentlemen are interested, we welcome one-on-one sparring. Rowdy combat is strictly forbidden."

Xiao Feng and company are fully aware that Xixia country's Elite Guild is a society which recruits strong heroes all over the world. Within its stable, capable fighters are aplenty. Ba Tianshi and the others immediately halted their attacks. Regardless of items being flung at them by the TuBo warriors, Ba Tianshi, Zhu Danchen and the others caught the items and placed them down instead of throwing them back at the opponents. Still, the TuBo warriors refused to cooperate. After tossing the entire set of cutlery, they are now hurling pieces of beef and mutton at Mu Wanqing.

The high ranking Official in satin robes notified the Prince of TuBo: "I request Your Highness to instruct your men to stop their actions in order to avoid an unpleasant situation." Counting at least a hundred warriors from the Elite Guild and that he is within the palace of another authority; Prince Zongzan waved his left hand and stopped his escorts.

The Xixia Minister of Rites clasped his hands towards the satin-attired high-ranking Official and implored: "East Commandant Helian, does the Princess have any instructions?"

This satin-attired high-ranking Official is the leader of Elite Guild Helian Tieshu, official title: Great General of the East. Three years ago, he led a group of warriors from the Elite Guild into the Central Plains (China) but was poisoned by Murong Fu's while he was disguised as Li Yanzong. Helian Tieshu and his men were originally captured by the Beggar Sect but were luckily rescued by Duan Yanqing. They eventually returned home empty-handed. During that adventure, Helian Tieshu has met a fake Xiao Feng, which is Ah Zhu in disguise and a fake Murong Fu, which is Duan Yu in disguise. Presently, in the hall, he is unable to identify the real Xiao Feng and the fake Duan Yu. Duan Yanqing, the Divine Crocodile of the Southern Sea, as well as the two other Evils are considered members of the Elite Guild. Nevertheless, they often act independently and are not subjugated to the Xixia Imperial Court.

In a crisp and loud voice, Helian Tieshu announced: "The Princess has decreed: After the esteemed guests have finished their dinner and wine, she welcomes everybody to the Green Phoenix Court's external study chamber for tea."

Hearing his words, everyone reacted with an 'Oh!' sound. It is common knowledge that (Xixia) Princess Yinchuan resides within Green Phoenix Court. Since she is inviting everybody there for tea, she must have wanted to examine the candidates with her own eyes and personally select her own husband. The crowd of young men was overjoyed, every one of them thinking: Even if I am not chosen by Princess, at least I have seen her with my own eyes. The people of Xixia have always described their Princess as a flawless beauty, her complexion and features second to none. If I can meet the Princess in the flesh, this long and tiresome journey would have been worth it.

Using his sleeve to wipe his mouth, the Prince of TuBo stood up and exclaimed: "We can always eat and drink at our leisure, but now is not the occasion for that. Let's have a look at the Princess!"

The eight TuBo warriors in his escort team resounded in one reply: "Yes Prince!"

Turning to Helian Tieshu, the TuBo Prince ordered: "Please lead the way!"

Helian Tieshu replied: "Sure, Your Highness, please."

Turning to Mu Wanqing, Helian Tieshu clasped his hands and invited: "Your Highness Duan, please."

In a rough voice and manner, Mu Wanqing accepted: "General, please."

Led by Helian Tieshu, the group cut through a large garden and traversed a few corridors. Passing a row of fake mountains, Mu Wanqing suddenly felt an additional presence beside her. Squinting her eyes for a side-glance, she was astonished and cried out with an 'Ah!' sound. Smartly dressed in brocade, it was Duan Yu.

Jumping back to the well episode, Duan Yu's throat is being strangled by Jiumozhi. Feeling short of breath, he is about to faint. High above them, Murong Fu is plastered against the wall and enjoying the chaos. He was smiling to himself and can't wait for Jiumozhi to strangle Duan Yu to death. Wang Yuyan is hitting Jiumozhi with every last ounce of her strength but to no avail. Freaking out, she abruptly opened her mouth and bit Jiumozhi on his right arm.

Feeling a sharp pain on his right arm 'Quchi' point, Jiumozhi experienced the outflow of all his uncontrollable internal energies in a short span of time. As the energies were channeled from his palm to Duan Yu's throat, all his pain from internal swelling as well as the feeling of body explosion evaporated. With these destructive energies gone, he was relieved from his discomfort and his fingers gripping on Duan Yu's throat gradually relaxed.

In his practice of martial arts, Jiumozhi's foundation is rock solid and his mastery is thorough; no one can doubt his unshakeable power. Although he is in physical contact with Duan Yu, he avoided contact with Duan Yu's thumb and wrist acupoints. Therefore, Duan Yu cannot activate his and absorb his internal energy. Presently, due to Wang Yuyan biting on his 'Quchi' point, Jiumozhi was alarmed and opened up the meridian pathways, allowing the internal energies to be leaked out seamlessly into Duan Yu's throat 'Nianquan' point. 'Nianquan' point is a point along the Ren Meridian. Passing through 'Tiantu', 'Xuanji', 'Huagai', 'Zhigong' and 'Zhongting' points, the energies will accumulate at the energy reservoir 'Danzhong' point.

With his internal energies initially going haywire, Jiumozhi has lost his senses. Now, he regained his clarity of mind and was horrified. He thought: Aiya! At the speed that he is absorbing my internal energy, it won't be too long before I lose all my martial arts. What should I do?

At once, he activated some internal energy to resist the leak but it is too late. In the beginning, his internal energy is already not as abundant as Duan Yu's. Now that the flow has begun, his loss is Duan Yu's gain. Unable to move both his hands despite exerting all his strength, there was no holding back as the energies left his body in huge surges.

In the dark, Wang Yuyan was greatly comforted that Jiumozhi has loosen his hold on Duan Yu's throats after her bite. Nonetheless, Jiumozhi's hands are still wrapped around Duan Yu's throat and regardless of her efforts, his hands simply cannot be pried open. Although she is well versed with all the martial arts of various sects and schools, she cannot fathom this move of Jiumozhi. Still, in the long run, it is not beneficial for Duan Yu to be in this position. Thus, she persisted in pulling apart Jiumozhi's hands. In the same breath, Jiumozhi was hoping for her to succeed as well. Unexpectedly, Wang Yuyan had a cold spasm attack and she could feel her internal energy leaving her body too. It turns out that Duan Yu's does not differentiate between bodies and absorbed Wang Yuyan's shallow energies as well. In a few minutes, the three persons Duan Yu, Wang Yuyan and Jiumozhi fainted simultaneously.

After a prolonged wait, Murong Fu is unable to detect any noise from the three of them. After calling out to them and not getting any replies, he thought: Looks like the three of them have perished together.

First, he was thrilled, but reminiscing about his relationship with Wang Yuyan, he felt some elements of sorrow. He then thought: Aiya! Large rocks have sealed the exit of the well, trapping us inside. If the three of them are still alive, with our four combined strength, perhaps we can make our way out of this predicament. Now that I am all alone, it is almost impossible. Ai, since the three of you are going to fight to death anyway, why don't you wait until we are out of the well before fighting?

Using his arm, he tried to heave the rocks upwards. Neatly stacked, the ten odd rocks weigh more than a thousand catties altogether; it will take more than Murong Fu alone for them to budge an inch.

Depressed, Murong Fu was about to jump back to the bottom of the well but upon closer observation, he heard voices outside the well. From the noisy banter, it must be some villagers of Xixia. It turned out that the four of them had spent a lot of time tussling with one another. The sun is already up and the rural farmers living outside the city are now transporting their produce into Lingzhou City for hawking. Their usual route will take them near the well.

Murong Fu pondered: If I cry for help, these villagers may not be able to cart away these enormous and heavy boulders. Even if they started to move the rocks, there is nothing to stop them from giving up halfway. I must use greed as a motivation.

As a result, he yelled: "These treasures of gold and silver are mine. The two of you must know your place. Having said that, I don't mind giving three thousand taels of silver to each of you." Following that, he exclaimed with a sharp voice: "This place is full of countless treasure. Finders Keepers. Everybody deserves an equal share of everything here." Using a hoarse voice, he proclaimed: "Don't let anyone else hear you. Finders Keepers it is. Although the valuables here are plentiful, any additional person will dilute our share." This fake conversation is being blasted out loud using his internal energy, making it audible to everyone in the area.

All the villagers could pick up this exchange, and were excited with delight. Like a swarm of bees, everyone began tearing down the rocks sealing the well. Although the rocks were heavy, under everybody's cooperation, good progress is being made. Murong Fu did not wait for all the rocks to be completely removed. Once he saw a gap that is big enough for him to slip through, he used the wall as a launch pad and shot out of the well in a rapid dash.

The farmers were shocked as Murong Fu appeared and disappeared as quickly in an unknown direction. Although there is some fear of the supernatural, but lured by the temptation of quick wealth, they continued to push the rocks aside. Once the rocks are completed dismantled, ropes that were used to bundle the firewood and vegetables were co-joined into one long rope. With that rope, the bravest volunteer was lowered into the well.

When this man arrived at the bottom of the well, he began feeling around and touched Jiumozhi in his first movement. Stirring a motionless body and assuming it was a corpse, the man was scared out of his wits and desperately clutch at the rope. Finally, he was being lifted out of the well. Some of the villagers are still unconvinced; after a round of discussion, a few pine wood branches are lighted up as torches before another visit to the bottom of the well is made. All they found were the three 'corpses' lying in the muddy debris and they assumed these three have died for some time already. There was no treasure at all! Since lives were lost and if the authorities were notified, these villagers could be framed for murder. In a state of anxiety, everyone swiftly disperse. Back at home, some villagers complained of headaches while others were down with fever. Before long, due to ignorant folks gossiping and obscuring the details, the standard myth is that whenever there is a full moon night, there will be four muddy spirits creating trouble around the well. Anyone who sees them will experience headaches and fever, and the only cure is by offering prayers. From that day onwards, besides the abandoned well, there would be frequent burning of incense regardless of the occasion.

It was in the afternoon when the three persons at the bottom of the well starting regaining consciousness one after another. The first wake up is Wang Yuyan. Her internal energy cultivation is shallow and even though she lost it all, it barely made a difference to her. The minute she recovered her wits, her first natural reaction is to locate Duan Yu. Although the sky is bright and lit, deep within the well, it is still impossible for her to see anything. Using her hands to feel around, she came into contact with Duan Yu and exclaimed: "Duan Mate, Duan Mate, You... You... How are you?" Without getting any response from Duan Yu, she presumed that Jiumozhi has strangled him to death. Unable to control herself, she hugged his corpse tightly in front of her chest and cried her heart out: "Duan Mate, Duan Mate, you loved me from the bottom of your heart and yet not once did I display a kind word or gesture to you. My only wish is to serve you as your partner for the rest of your life, repaying your love, however... however... Our lives are full of misfortunes. Today, you lose your life to an evil monk..."

Jiumozhi suddenly interrupted: "Miss is only half correct. Old Monk (I) may an evil monk but Mister Duan did not perish by my hands."

Wang Yuyan was thunderstruck: "Could it be... Could it be my Cousin who killed him? He... Why is he so vicious?"

At this instant, Duan Yu's new internal energies have integrated with his body and he regained consciousness too. Hearing Wang Yuyan's coquettish voice besides his ear, he was jubilant. Enjoying the sensation of being hugged by her, he remained still. He did not want her to find out that he has awaken because she would then release him from her bosom.

Jiumozhi declared: "Not only did your Duan Mate fail to die by Evil Monk's (my) hand, it was the exact opposite. Evil Monk (I) nearly lost my life at the hands of Duan Mate."

Wang Yuyan sobbed: "At this point in time, you are still in the mood for jokes. You have no idea the amount of grief that is going through my heart. Why don't you strangle me to death too, so that I can accompany Duan Mate in the Afterlife." Hearing the strong conviction in her words, Duan Yu is extremely flattered and intoxicated with joy.

Although Jiumozhi has lost all his internal energy, his mind is still as sharp and alert as before. Noticing Duan Yu's light breathing sounds and his obvious suppression of his breathing, he could easily guess what Duan Yu is up to. Letting out a soft sigh, he described: "Mister Duan, I made a mistake in learning the 72 Legendary Skills of Shaolin, causing my internal energy to go haywire and deviate. I was on the brink of death and if not for you absorbing all my internal strength, Old Monk (I) would have perished from madness. Presently, although Old Monk has lost all my martial arts skills, I am able to preserve my life. For that, I need to pay my respects to you in order to thank you for saving my life."

Duan Yu is an upright and humble gentleman. Hearing that Jiumozhi is going to pay respects to himself, he cannot tolerate it and replied: "Great Master need not be so formal. Junior (I) is inept and amateurish, I dare not claim to have saved Great Master's (your) life."

Hearing Duan Yu speak out, Wang Yuyan was ecstatic and stunned at the same time. In a flash, she promptly understood that Duan Yu intentionally remained still so that she will continue hugging him. Great embarrassed, she forcefully pushed him aside and whined: "Rogue!"

His trick exposed by Wang Yuyan, Duan Yi was red-faced with embarrassment. He hastily stood up and leaned against the wall of the well.

Jiumozhi sighed: "Old Monk (I) may be a Buddhist but my desire for success is stronger than the common man. The source of my present situation started thirty years ago. Ai, the three poisons Greed, Hatred, Delusion; I am guilty of them all. Yet I proclaimed I am a Senior Monk. Full of arrogance and lack of regrets, Ai, after I die, I will probably be condemned to Eternal Hell with no chance of reincarnation."

Duan Yu is currently distressed, wondering if Wang Yuyan is still angry with him. Listening to Jiumozhi's depressing comments, his compassionate side came out and he inquired: "Great Master (You) is too harsh on yourself. Regarding Great Master's earlier discomfort, has the agony been fully relieved?"

Jiumozhi kept his silence for a long time. Secretly activating his internal energy, he is instantaneously aware that his years of hard cultivation have resulted in naught. He was originally a wise and kind monk, and his study of Buddhism is all encompassing and advanced. When he started learning martial arts, his desire to win fights increase day by day and in the same note, his kindness and Buddhist wisdom decrease accordingly. Finally, everything cumulated into him sitting in a pile of muddy debris. He cannot help but evoke: Gotama Budddha taught the Dhamma, instructing his disciples to lose Greed, lose Attachment, lose Desire and lose Clinging in order to be enlightened. I did not manage to lose a single one of them. Fame and riches are tightly bonded to me. Today, I lost all my martial arts, it must be a Dhamma lesson to me, presenting me with a chance to get rid of my evil ways and return to the Light side with a fresh beginning.

Remembering the deeds he committed over the decades, he was filled with massive amounts of guilt and sorrow. Soon, his forehead started dripping with perspiration.

Since Jiumozhi kept quiet, Duan Yu probed Wang Yuyan: "Where is Mister Murong?"

Wang Yuyan cried 'Ah!' and uttered: "Where is Cousin? Aiyo, I have completely forgotten all about him."

Hearing her mentioned the words: I have completely forgotten all about him, Duan Yu is exhilarated. Nothing could make him happier. In the past, Wang Yuyan is fully devoted to Murong Fu's welfare. Right now, so much time has went by without her expressing concern about him. It is evident that her sincerity towards himself (DY) is genuine. Within her heart, he (DY) has replaced Murong Fu's position.

Jiumozhi interrupted: "Old Monk (I) has offended you several times in the past. Please forgive me." As he spoke, he put his palms together and made a bow. Although Duan Yu cannot see him in the dark, he hurriedly returned the courtesy. He reminded: "If not for Great Master (you) kidnapping Junior (I) and bringing me to the Central Plains (China), Junior (I) would not have crossed paths with Miss Wang. Junior (I) is full of gratitude towards Great Master (you)."

Jiumozhi remarked: "That is due to the good karma that Mister has accumulated. Old Monk's (I) evil act unexpectedly linked the two of you. Mister is benevolent and generous; your good fortune is limitless. Old Monk (I) is bidding farewell today. In the future, we will be separated by thousands of miles and a reunion is difficult. This Sutra, if it is not too much trouble for Mister, please help Old Monk to return it to Shaolin Monastery. May the two of you be wedded in a blissful marriage and grow old together." As he spoke, he handed the muddy copy of Yijing Sutra to Duan Yu.

Duan Yu asked: "Is Great Master going back to TuBo country?"

Jiumozhi replied: "I want to go back to where I come from. That may not necessary be TuBo country."

Duan Yu continued: "Your esteemed Prince is proposing marriage to the Princess of Xixia, Great Master is not going to wait for the outcome?"

Jiumozhi smiled: "As an unworldly monk, I am no longer be bothered by these affairs. From today onwards, Old Monk (I) will lead a wandering life. Wherever I go, I am at peace. When I am at peace, the mind will be joyful. When the mind is joyful, I will be at equanimity." As he spoke, he pulled at the rope left behind by the farmers. Testing it, he correctly guessed it is secured to one of the large rocks above. As such, he slowly climbed out of the well.

With this newfound inspiration, Jiumozhi became an Ariya, a Noble Monk. He spent the rest of his life translating Buddhist Sutras from Pali to Tibetian language, spreading the Dhamma and giving Buddhist refuge to countless individuals. In the later years, when the Pali teachings are slowly disappearing in many places, Tibet manages to retain the full set of original Sutras. This credit is due to Jiumozhi.

Facing each other in such close proximity that they can sense each other's breath, Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan are filled with happiness despite being soaked in mud. Neither of them thought of leaving the well. At the same moment, the two of them slowly reached out their hands. As the four hands grasped together, it signifies their congruent thinking.

After a long time, Wang Yuyan remarked: "Duan Mate, I am still worried about his (JMZ) strangulation of your throat. Shall we climb up and check for signs of injury?"

Duan Yu assured: "I do not feel the least bit of pain and am not in a hurry to climb out."

In a gentle voice, Wang Yuyan cooed: "If you do not wish to go up, I shall accompany you right where you are." She was fully submissive without a tinge of objection.

Feeling bad, Duan Yu chuckled: "If you continue soaking in this muddy debris, wouldn't it be bad for you?" Embracing her slender waist with his left arm, he pulled at the rope with his right arm. He was amazed at his newfound strength; with a small tug, the two of them have floated up by several feet. Duan Yu was elated. He wondered if this new strength came from Jiumozhi's lifetime's cultivation of internal energy or because he is in good spirits and well rested from sleeping in the well.

Exiting the well, the two of them scrutinize each other under the sunlight. Both of them are covered in mud and dirty beyond measure. To a certain extent, their appearances have never been more similar and both of them burst out laughing at this observation. Their next course of action is to locate a nearby river and jump inside for a long shower. Finally, all the mud has been cleaned from their hair, mouths, noses, clothes, shoes, socks, etc. As the two of them emerge dripping wet from the river, they are reminded about the occasion two nights ago when Duan Yu fell into the pond. Although the scenario is similar to now, their emotions have taken a paradigm shift. It felt like they were in an alternate universe.

Wang Yuyan highlighted: "We look dreadful. If we run into anyone, I would be so embarrassed."

Duan Yu suggested: "Why don't we dry ourselves here and only proceed back when the sky is dark?" Wang Yuyan nodded her head in agreement and leaned against a large mountain boulder.

Duan Yu ran his eyes over her in detail. His lover resembled a piece of rare jade. With water still dripping from her hair, he was thrilled at the alluring sight. His behavior caused Wang Yuyan to be greatly disconcerted and she turned her exquisite face away from him. The two of them bantered with each other on some uninteresting subjects. Times flies when one is having fun. In a blink of an eye, the sun has already set and all their clothes, shoes and socks have been dried.

Accompanied by Wang Yuyan, Duan Yu is filled with joy. Out of the blue, he thought about Murong Fu and wondered out loud: "Sister Yan (Yan Mate, not that kind of sister), presently, all my dreams have been fulfilled and even being a deity cannot match my satisfaction. Nonetheless, I am curious about your Cousin's quest to marry the Princess of Xixia. Did he fulfill his dream too or not?"

In the past, this issue will cause Wang Yuyan to breakdown with sorrow. With her newfound happiness, she secretly felt bad about Murong Fu's situation. Right now, she instead yearned for him to successfully marry the Princess of Xixia. Wang Yuyan exclaimed: "I am curious too. Let's check it out."

The two of them quickly made their way back to the inn. Almost reaching the entrance, a voice spoke out from the side of a nearby wall: "You two are here as well?"

The voice belonged to Murong Fu. Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan cheerfully answered: "Yes, we are. We did not expect to see you here."

Murong Fu let out a 'humph' and articulated: "I just concluded a skirmish with several TuBo warriors and killed more than ten of them. They have wasted much of my time. Fellow surnamed Duan (DY), why didn't you attend the royal palace banquet on your own but arranged for a lady to masquerade as you? I… I will not tolerate your schemes and I will expose you for sure."

After dashing out from the well, Murong showered, changed his clothes and had a good rest. Upon waking up, he ran into the TuBo warriors and they began fighting. Although he eventually won, he did expend a considerable amount of energy. Arriving back at the inn, he was just in time to witness Mu Wanqing, Xiao Feng, Ba Tianshi and the others coming out. Hiding behind a wall to assess his surroundings, he was about to look for Deng Baichuan and the others for a discussion when he saw Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan walking over in an intimate fashion.

Duan Yu was baffled: "A lady is masquerading as me? I know nothing about it."

Wang Yuyan explained: "Cousin, we just came out from the well…" She stopped speaking because that statement is not true, for she had spent half a day flirting with Duan Yu at the side of a hill instead of literally coming out of the well. Her face turned red unconsciously.

Fortunately, the sky has darkened significantly and Murong Fu did not notice the reddening of her face. In his hurry to make it for the palace banquet, he did not discern that Wang Yuyan has been completely devoid of muddy debris and definitely did not climb out of the well minutes ago. All he heard was Wang Yuyan continuing: "Cousin, he… he… Mister Duan… and I, we beg your pardon and sincerely look forward to your successful marriage to the Princess of Xixia."

His spirits lifted, Murong Fu gleefully asked: "Is that true? Brother Duan is not going to compete with me for the Prince Consort?" In his mind, he analyzed: Looks like this bookworm is having another bout of stupidity and is not planning to become the Prince Consort of Xixia. Instead, he is fully committed to marrying my Cousin. It is hilarious to know that such a muddle-headed fool actually exists in this world. With Xiao Feng and Xu Zhu assisting him, I would have gotten rid of my most powerful nemesis should he chose to opt out.

Duan Yu swore: "I promise not to compete with you for the Princess of Xixia, however, you must assure me that you will not come after my Sister Yan (WYY) too. A man's word is his bond, there will be no exceptions." Encountering Murong Fu, he (DY) cannot help but feel slightly unsettled.

Murong Fu was jubilant: "We still need to hurry to the royal palace. You must instruct that lady to stop masquerading as you." He then quickly explained his witnessing of Mu Wanqing disguised as a man. Duan Yu deduced that due to his own disappearance, in order to fulfill their obligations to Lord Zhennan, Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen must have goaded Mu Wanqing into disguising herself and seeking marriage on behalf of him (DY). The three of them rushed over to Murong Fu's residence.

Deng Baichuan and the others were worried sick. Upon discovering the return of Murong Fu, everyone was overjoyed. With the clock against them, everyone scrambled into their banquet outfits. Regardless of persuasion, Duan Yu refused to be separated from Wang Yuyan. He would rather skip the palace visit. Having no choice, Murong Fu prepared a set of male clothing for Wang Yuyan. Together, they set off for the palace.

When Deng Baichuan, Gongzhi Qian, Bao Butong, Feng BoE and the three of them arrived at the royal palace, the doors were already shut. Murong Fu will not simply give up because of this minor obstacle. He snuck to an area of the palace wall where it is relatively quiet and slithered inside. Feng BoE leapt onto the wall and reached out his hand for Duan Yu. Using his left arm to hug Wang Yuyan, Duan Yu exerted his energy for a jump, his right hand reaching out for Feng BoE's. Unexpectedly, with this jump, the two of them gently floated over Feng BoE's head and even exceeded his height by a full metre. Following that, they softly descended in one fluid, noiseless movement. Murong Fu from within the palace; Feng BoE on the wall; Deng Baichuan and Gongzhi Qian outside the palace quietly marveled in unison: "Excellent Qing-gong! (Speed travel / Jump Skill)" Only Bao Butong digressed: "A standard feat."

The seven of them found themselves in the royal garden and are trying to locate the banquet hall, planning to slip inside and participate in the event. Unknown to them, right at this moment, the banquet has ended and Yinchuan Princess has invited the wedding candidates to Green Phoenix Court for tea. The three persons Duan Yu, Murong Fu and Wang Yuyan ran into Mu Wanqing at the royal garden.

Xiao Feng, Ba Tianshi and the others saw Duan Yu appearing out of nowhere like a ghost and were filled with surprise and exhilaration. Everyone engaged in a secret discussion. They conclude: There are countless proposers and the officials of Xixia are likely not meticulous enough to notice the additional presence of newcomers. As long as everyone mixes around in the crowd, they should be able to reach Green Phoenix Court without any problems. Furthermore, since Duan Yu is personally present, there is no fear of exposure.

As the row of humans travelled through the royal garden, from afar, a corner of a loft can be sighted while the rest of the building is well concealed by trees and bushes. At the entrance of the premises, two beaming palace lanterns stood out. Gathering the crowd in front of the Court, Helian Tieshu loudly announced: "The esteemed gentlemen from four corners of the world are here to seek an audience with the Princess."

The doors of the Court swung open and out came four palace maids, each carrying a thin mesh lantern. Behind them, a female official dressed in purple clothing appeared and proclaimed: "Gentlemen must have endured many hardships in your travels. The Princess hereby invites you (all) into Green Phoenix Court for a tea session."

Prince Zongzan laughed: "Excellent, excellent, I was just feeling thirsty. To meet the Princess, these travelling are trivial matters. There is no hardship at all. Hahahaha!" As he spoke, he proudly moved forward and bypassed the female Official, taking huge steps into the Court. The remaining people started shoving one another, trying their best to rush into the Court. Everyone wanted to grab a good seat and be as close to the Princess as possible.

Instead, inside the Court, they were greeted by a large gallery. A thick layer of wool carpet was laid on the floor, and the carpet itself is designed with a bright array of colours and flowers, an enchanting sight to behold. A series of tea tables have been neatly arranged and on each table, there is a green tea cup with a green lid. Besides, each cup, there is a green plate and on each plate, there are cheese, biscuits and four types of dim sum (pastry). At the end of the gallery, about a metre off the floor, there is a raised platform which is covered with a light yellow carpet. On the platform was a round seat covered in satin. The participants naturally assumed that is where the Princess will be seated. Pushing and shoving one another, they proceed to sit as close to the platform as possible. Only Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan were holding hands and seated at tea table at a corner of the gallery. Whispering among themselves and giggling frequently, they could not be bothered with their surroundings.

When everyone has finally chosen their seats, the female Official raised a copper hammer and knocked three times on a piece white jade gong. Ting! Ting! Ting! The gallery became completely silent and even Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan stopped their conversation too, anticipating the arrival of the Princess.

After a brief wait, the sound of jingling accessories can be heard. From the inner room, eight palace maids in green dresses walked out and formed two rows. Moments later, dressed in a light green gown, a young lady gracefully emerged.

Everyone's eyes lit up, noting her slender figure and classy exuberance. Her features are truly breathtaking. Everyone was secretly cheered: Rumour has it that Princess Yinchuan's beauty is incomparable; the rumours are true after all.

Murong Fu thought: Initially, I was concerned that Princess Yinchuan's appearance would be lacking. Although she is slightly less attractive than Cousin, based on her looks, she is already one in a million. My previous worries have been unwarranted. In the future when I become the Emperor of Great Yan, she and her queenly character shall be exemplary to all the citizens of Yan. Our descendants shall rule the Yan Empire forever.

The young lady gradually walked up the platform and bowed slightly, paying her respects to the crowd. When she first appeared, the crowd is already on their feet. Noting her bowing gesture, everyone returned the courtesy. Admiring her humble demeanor and absence of arrogance, those present are full of praise. The young lady merely gazed at her own chest and body; there was no eye contact with the audience, exhibiting a nervous appearance. Nobody dare to make a sound lest it would cause alarm to her. In their minds, they thought: The Princess is of royal status and for most of the time, she probably kept to herself. Out of a sudden, she is surrounded by scores of men. Her mannerism is logical and befitting of her prestigious standing.

After some time, the face of the young girl reddened. In a soft and gentle voice, she announced: "The Princess has decreed: Esteemed guests have come from afar. Green Phoenix Court is guilty of offering inferior tea and snacks to gentlemen, (humble talk) and our lack of hospitality. Everyone, please enjoy the refreshments."

The crowd was utterly shocked and glanced at one another. They secretly kicked themselves: Idi0t. She is not the Princess but is probably a palace maid that is assigned to the Princess. A mere palace maid is already bestowed with such beauty; the Princess herself must be even more outstanding. In their self-tirade, there are elements of cheerful anticipation as well.

Prince Zongzan demanded: "So you are not the Princess. In this case, please invite the Princess to come out. I forgoed delicious meat and wine to be here. These tea and snacks hardly tempt my appetite."

The palace maid replied: "When everyone has finished their tea and snacks, the Princess will release additional instructions."

Zongzan chuckled: "Very well, very well. Since Princess has given her orders, we should respect her wishes." Lifting the lid and cup, he removed the lid and placed it aside. Next, he poured the entire cup of tea and all the tealeaves into his mouth. With a gulp, he swallowed all the tea and is now chewing on the tealeaves. When the people of TuBo have tea, they usually add salt and cheese to it. In one concoction, they would swallow the mixture of tealeaves, salt and cheese. Before he finished swallowing the tealeaves, Prince Zongzan has picked up the pastries and began stuffing himself. Still chewing, he stammered: "All right. As ordered, I have finished my food. You can invite the Princess now!"

In a small voice, the palace maid answered: "Yes". However, she did not move from her spot. Zongzan knew she is waiting for everybody to finish the refreshments before notifying the Princess. His heart filled with impatience, he starting urging non-stop: "Hey everyone, eat quickly. Faster! It is only tealeaves; it is no big deal." With some difficulty, most of the people present have consumed their tea and snacks. Prince Zongzan questioned: "We are done, right?"

The face of the palace maid turned slightly reddish. With a shy expression, she states: "Your Highness Princess hereby welcomes everyone to move into the Inner Study and admire her collection of books and paintings."

Zongzan grumbled: "Hey, what is interesting about books and paintings? Even if it is a painting of a beauty, I would rather look at the actual person. In a painting, you cannot touch her; you cannot smell her. It is all fake." Nevertheless, he stood up.

Standing up too, Murong Fu was secretly pleased. He assessed: This is wonderful. Since the Princess wants us to proceed to her study and admire her books and paintings, she should be testing us on our literacy skills. Prince Zongzan is a boorish and uneducated lout. He has no knowledge or appreciation for poetry, songs, calligraphy and paintings. The minute he displays his ignorance, he would probably be driven out by the Princess. In terms of martial arts, nobody here is my match. Now that Princess is testing our academic ability, the situation is even more advantageous for me.

The Palace maid announced: "The Princess has decreed: Those females who are disguised as males and those men who are above forty years old, please remain in Ningxiang Gallery for a rest and more tea. The other esteemed guests, please proceed to the Inner Study."

Mu Wangqing and Wan Yuyan were secretly alarmed. They thought: They (Xixia) must have seen through our disguise a long time ago.

Someone abruptly shouted: "Not right, not right!" (no way, not so, not true)

The face of the palace maid became even redder. She entered the palace as a child and since she became of age, at most she would only come in contact with the half-male half female eunuchs. She has never seen a full-grown man before, including the Emperor and the Crown Prince. Out of a sudden, she is facing dozens of men and is naturally disconcerted and shy. After a pause, she probed: "I wonder what brilliant idea does this gentleman wish to advise?"

Bao Butong retorted: "Brilliant idea; I don't have. Lowly advice; I happened to have one." For the palace maid, it is the first time she is meeting someone like Bao Butong who likes to twist words into meaningless applications for his own benefit. She is at a complete loss. Bao Butong continued: "I guessed you would be asking me for my lowly advice. Looking at your nervous mannerisms, let me save you the trouble of asking and give the advice right now."

The palace maid smiled: "Many thanks Mister."

Bao Butong articulated: "We travelled thousands of miles in order to meet the Princess. Along the way, we encountered numerous hardships. There are those who died of thirst while crossing the desert; there were those who were consumed by wild beasts; there were those who were killed by the warriors of TuBo Prince. To arrive safely at Lingzhou, I would estimate eight or nine persons have died out of every ten who made the journey to come here. Everybody's desire is to admire the Princess's beauty. However, because my father and mother gave birth to me early by a few years, I am now above forty years old. All my hardships have been for naught. If I knew earlier, I would have asked to be born later instead."

Covering her mouth to stifle a laugh, the palace lady giggled: "Mister Bao must be joking. How can one decide one's time of birth?"

Listening to Bao Butong's nonsensical droning, Zongzan stared at him with displeasure. He scolded: "Since the Princess has given her orders, let's just obey them. What are you babbling about?"

Bao Butong frostily countered: "Your Highness (ZZ), these words are to your advantage as well. This year, you are forty-one years old. Although you are not considered old, your age has exceeded forty and you will be banned from meeting the Princess too. Two days ago, I calculated your Eight Characters: Bingyin Year, Gengzi Month, Yichou Day and Dingmao Hour. Yes, you are forty-one this year."

In actual fact, Prince Zongzan is only twenty-eight years old. However, with a face full of beard, it is rather tough to estimate his age. For the palace maid, it is the first time she is seeing an adult male. Naturally, she did not know how to judge a man's age by his appearance. Additionally, she cannot tell if Bao Butong is telling the truth or lying. All she could perceive is Prince Zongzan's infuriated expression as he is about to walk over and give Bao Butong a bashing. Frightened out of her wits, she stammered: "I think… I think everyone should be fully aware of his own age. Those above forty, please stay here. Those below forty, please proceed to the Inner Study."

Zongzan exclaimed: "Excellent, I am not even thirty of age; of course I am going to the study." As he spoke, he strode into the inner hall. Mimicking him, Bao Butong exclaimed: "Excellent, I am not even eighty of age; of course I am going to the study. After all, age is just a number and I am young at heart. In fact, I am young and special at heart." With a turn of his body, he stepped inside. Even if the palace maid wanted to restrain him, she was too embarrassed to do so.

The rest of the crowd started rushing into the inner chamber. Even those who are in their forties, fifties and sixties entered as well. At the end of the day, only several older folks with serious bearings and self-respect stayed behind in the gallery.

Mu Wanqing and Wang Yuyan decided to stay too. Duan Yu initially wanted to stay behind and accompany Wang Yuyan; however, Wang Yuyan insisted that he must continue and do his best to assist Murong Fu. Only then did Duan Yu unwillingly enter the inner chamber. With every step he took, he glanced back at her reluctantly. He behaved as if he is going away on a long sea voyage and they will be separated for several years.

As the row of candidates make their way through a long and deep tunnel, the same puzzled thoughts are going through their mind: "From outside, Green Phoenix Court is hardly awe-inspiring but inside, it is like entering another dimension. To think that such an enormous place actually exists. After losing count of the number of steps they took, the gentlemen came before two gigantic stone doors."

Producing a small piece of metal, the palace maid knocked on the stone doors with a Zeng! Zeng! Zeng! sound. Zha….. The stone doors swung open. Observing the compact stone doors which are about one foot thick, everyone muttered to himself: The minute we enter and the stone doors are closed behind us, wouldn't we be trapped? Could it be a scheme by Xixia Country? Using the Princess's wedding as a bait to lure heroes all over the world into meeting their doom?

Under the present circumstances, everyone also acknowledges the fact: No venture, no gain. Therefore, no one is willing to showcase his fear and beat a retreat.

As the crowd passes through the door, the stone doors were promptly closed again. Another long tunnel presents itself and oil lamps lighted both sides of the tunnel. After this tunnel, they came to a second set of stone doors and after these doors; there was a third tunnel and a third set of stone doors. By now, even the most nonchalant candidates are starting to show signs of anxiety. Turning round a few bends in the tunnel, the sound of gushing water Zong… Zong… entered the ears of everyone. Finally, they ended up at the bank of a deep river.

It is truly incomprehensible to find a deep stream within the forbidden palace grounds. As the gentlemen starting glancing at one another, some of the short-tempered ones look as if they are about to throw a tantrum.

The palace maid explained: "To reach the Inner Study, we must cross this Youlan River. Gentlemen, please." As she spoke, her petite figure moved ahead and she stepped right into the deep river. The riverbank is well illuminated by four flickering fire torches and everyone can see her actions clearly. By stepping beyond the bank, she will surely fall into the river. Some of the youths present cried out in alarm.

Amazingly, the hourglass figure of the palace maid simply sashayed across the river as if she is walking on air. Astounded, everyone immediately deduced the presence of some iron tightrope for her to step on, as there are no martial arts for levitation. Inspecting the path taken by the palace maid, true enough; there is a steel wire that runs horizontally above the river that leads from one bank to the other. This wire is extremely thin and is painted in black. Unless it is directly reflected by the torch flames, the wires are almost invisible. The river itself is deep but even if someone loses his footing and falls into it, there is no danger to his life. At most, he will be haggard and embarrassed.

The people making up the crowd are either asking for marriage in person or are bodyguards escorting their masters. Every person has a good foundation in martial arts and by using on the steel wire, it is easy to reach the opposite bank. Duan Yu is not well versed in martial arts but his is well practiced. With Ba Tianshi holding his hand, they crossed the river in the blink of an eye.

*(Tall waves micro steps, the Qing-gong Skill of Carefree Sect. Each Sect has its own style. Example: Wudang Sect Qing-gong is Ladder-Cloud Technique. Used mainly for fast travel or jumping. shows DY mastering Surfing Nimble Steps, using BeiMing Divine Skill to absorb Internal energy and again Nimble Steps to run away.)

Once everybody has crossed the river, the palace maid activated a hidden switch on the stone wall. With a Shok! sound, the steel wire reeled into some hidden compartment. The gentlemen are even more unsettled than before, thinking to themselves: This river is deep and wide, impossible to fly across. Could it be that Xixia Country is having some hidden motives? Otherwise, why would there be this secret mechanism operating over a secret river in a secret area of the Princess's residence?

In his mind, everyone is quietly reminding himself to not let his guard down and to keep a low profile. Some even lamented: I am a fool; I should have brought some weapons for personal protection.

The palace maid remarked: "Gentlemen, please come over here." Following her, they travelled through a vast bamboo forest before arriving at the doors of a mountain cave. After she knocked on the doors, the cave doors swung open. The palace girl welcomed: "Please!" as she took the lead in entering.

Zhu Danchen covertly checked with Ba Tianshi: "What do you think?" Ba Tianshi cannot make up his mind about getting Duan Yu to stay behind or continue the trip and exposing Duan Yu to more risks. However, they both knew that without entering the mountain cave, Duan Yu would naturally drop out from the selection of Prince Consort. While the two men are still hesitating, shoulder-to-shoulder, Duan Yu and Xiao Feng have stepped inside. Exchanging a firm handshake, the two of them followed from behind.

Upon entering the mountain cave and going through another passage, their eyes were greeted by a flood of lights. The end of the passage leads to a massive hall. This hall is at least three times bigger than Ningxiang Gallery where they had tea earlier. It appears to be a natural cave formed within the mountain and with craftsmen working on it; the walls of the cave are now smooth and polished. Almost every wall is being covered by paintings and calligraphies. In a typical mountain cave, the air would be humid and the walls would be moist. However, in this particular cave, it is quite dry and even the paintings and calligraphies on the walls are not turning moldy due to moisture. On one side of the hall, there is a colossal study table made out of purple sandalwood. On the table are the standard stationery items and inscriptive tablets. There are also a few bookshelves and several pieces of stone tables and stools. The palace maid invited: "This is the Princess's Inner Study. Gentlemen, please take your time in admiring the paintings and calligraphies."

Everyone shared the same observations: The layout and décor of the Inner Study is one of a kind. The furniture is sparse and there is hardly anything to indicate that its owner is a female. Everyone is baffled that this place actually belongs to the Princess of Xixia. Nine out of the ten persons present come from a martial arts background; they could barely read and definitely cannot appreciate the paintings and calligraphies. The most they could do is walk around and look at the paintings and calligraphies with an amateur understanding.

Although their martial arts are superb, Xiao Feng and Xu Zhu knew nothing about the arts. Sitting down on the floor next to each other, they paid precise attention to everything that is happening in the hall. Xiao Feng is a hundred times more experienced and streetwise than Xu Zhu. With no interest in the calligraphies and paintings hanging on the wall, his expressionless face is actually fixated on the movements of the palace maid in green gown. He knew that this palace maid is the key to the mystery and if there is any ambush or secret scheme by Xixia Country, this petite and shy palace maid will be the one to activate it. Right now, Xiao Feng is like a leopard predator waiting in the dark and surveying his prey. Although he is completely motionless, his eyes, ears and mind are fully alert and focused. Every muscle is tense and ready. At the first sign of trouble, he would instantly pounce on the palace maid and hold her hostage. He will not give her any opportunity to create mischief.

Duan Yu, Zhu Danchen, Murong Fu, Gongzhi Qian and the others are wandering about and admiring the paintings and calligraphies. Deng Baichuan is going around checking each easel stand and making sure there are no secret pipes where poisonous gas can be released. The martial artistes of Central Plains recognize the toxicity of Xixia's and precautions must be taken. Pretending to admire the paintings and calligraphies, Ba Tianshi is actually examining the walls and corners, keeping an eye out for potential traps or escape routes.

Only Bao Butong is talking rubbish, freely criticizing the paintings and calligraphies. He would either complain about the scenery in the painting or the weak brush strokes in the calligraphy. Although Xixia is a rural country at the extreme regions and the empire is considered young, the royal palace collection of rare paintings and calligraphies cannot compete with long established kingdoms of Great Song and Great Liao. Nonetheless, being the royal palace collection, there are still several noteworthy artifacts. Within the Princess's Inner Study, there is some calligraphy written in Bei Wei style by the people of Jing as well as five generations of paintings from the Tang Dynasty. Under Bao Butong's unique assessment, all these relics are deemed worthless. At that era, the most talented artists are Su Dong Po and Huang Shan Gu* but Bao Butong insisted that their works are mediocre. Even great calligraphers like Zhong Wangzhang are being ridiculed by him.

*( )

Listening to his outspoken and outrageous disparagement of the artistic works, the palace maid was completely mystified. Walking over to him, she implored: "Mister Bao, are these calligraphy really as bad as you mentioned? The Princess has always sang praises about these works!"

Bao Butong explained: "Your Highness Princess mainly resides in rural Xixia and has never encountered the famous scholars and talents of Central Plains. In the future, she should visit the Central Plains and improve her knowledge. Little Sister, you should accompany your Princess and come to the Central Plains for a tour. That way, you will not become a frog in the well."

Nodding her head in agreement, the palace maid smiled: "It is not easy to make a trip to the Central Plains."

Bao Butong rebutted: "Not right, not right! If Princess marries a hero from the Central Plains, wouldn't she be moving to the Central Plains?"

Going through several paintings on the walls, Duan Yu suddenly came across a drawing of an ancient female displaying a sword stance and was immediately taken aback. "Yi!" he cried out. The beauty in the picture looks exactly like Wang Yuyan; only her attire is different. To a certain extent, she resembles the Fairy Sister in WuLiang Stone Cave. In the painting, the beauty is holding a sword in her right arm and a sword manual in her left arm. Practicing her swordplay beside a lake and a mountain, her posture is graceful and her features are distinguished. It was a peerless artwork. Duan Yu was instantly mesmerized and felt as if he is back beside Wang Yuyan in this moment and in the next moment, he is back at the stone cave of WuLiang Mountain. After a prolonged state of fantasy, he yelled: "Second Brother, come and have a look."

Acknowledging his call, Xu Zhu strode over for a look and also had a great shock. He thought: Another drawing of Miss Wang has appeared here. Compared to the drawing given to me by Master (Wu Yazi), the person in the painting looks exactly the same. Only her posture is different.

The more Duan Yu looked at the painting, the more confused he became. Unconsciously, he reached out with his hand to touch it and he could feel some unevenness on the wall behind the painting. Gently lifting the painting and looking underneath, he came across some carvings on the wall that resembles the Ying-Yang Meridians. Upon closer inspection, he discovered that the wall is engraved with countless human silhouettes. Some were in meditation position while some were in a prancing position. The poses are peculiar and unique. The silhouettes are mostly carved within a circle and besides the circle, there are some ancient characters as well as numbers.

With one look, Xu Zhu identified them. These engravings are almost similar to those carved in Lingjiu Palace Stone Chamber. After scanning the silhouettes, he thought: Is this the martial arts of Li Qiushui?

Out of the blue, he had an epiphany: Master (Female) Li is the Empress Dowager of Xixia, it is not strange to find these in the palace.

Reminiscing about these stone carvings left behind by the deceased Li Qiushui, Xu Zhu was saddened. He understands that these carvings are actually the top-tier skills of the Carefree Sect and it is meant for martial artistes with deep internal energy. For those with inadequate energy, if they happen to study it, they would be dragged into a trance. The lucky ones will just faint from the experience; the unlucky ones could fire-deviate with serious consequences. Back then, the four sisters Plum Orchid Chrysanthemum and Bamboo were injured when they try to study the drawings of the Stone Chamber. Afraid that Duan Yu would get hurt, he quickly warned: "Third Brother, you should ignore these engravings." Duan Yu asked: "Why?" Xu Zhu whispered: "These are highly advanced martial arts. If you practice them wrongly, there will be huge losses and zero gains."

Duan Yu originally had no interest in martial arts. Even if he does, right now, he would rather admire the painting of the lady that resembles Wang Yuyan than the martial arts carvings. At once, he replaces the picture and scrutinized this painting. He is exceptionally familiar with the figure and facial features of Wang Yuyan; even the fine details cannot escape his eyes and are fully memorized in his mind. Gazing at the painting again, he manage to spot the difference between the lady in the painting and Wang Yuyan. The lady in the painting is slightly plumper and her eyebrows are shaped with a heroic air, unlike Wang Yuyan's completely feminine eyebrows. In terms of age, the lady in the painting appears to be older than Wang Yuyan by a few years. But if compared to Fairy Sister in Mount WuLiang's stone cave, the resemblance is almost exact.

Still blabbering nonsense, Bao Butong happened to chance upon Duan Yu and Xu Zhu's activities. Overhearing Xu Zhu's comments that the wall is engraved with highly advanced martial arts, he scolded in a snobbish voice: "What kind of highly advanced martial arts are you talking about? Little Monk is trying to deceive us again." Lifting the painting sideways, he examined the carvings. Tipping his toes, Duan Yu leaned to one side and tilted his head sideways in order to continue admiring the beauty in the painting.

The palace maid interrupted: "Mister Bao, these engravings are not meant for viewing. Your Highness Princess has indicated that huge losses and zero gains will come to those who study them but their internal energy level is inadequate."

Bao Butong argued: "What if there is adequate internal energy? It will be huge gains and zero losses, right? My internal energy level is sufficiently adequate." He (BBT) is merely an unscrupulous debater who likes to distort facts and win arguments. He does not have any intention to steal the martial arts of others. However, the second he laid his eyes on the encircled silhouettes in different poses, he instantly felt his own body undergoing an uncontrollable transformation. Unconsciously, his hand reached out to grab his ankle and he began mirroring the stances engraved on the wall.

Within a minute, everybody standing close to him has already noticed his odd behavior. Checking him out, they, too, discovered the engravings on the walls. On the other side of the hall, someone suddenly shouted: "Yi! There are some carvings here as well." Another man exclaimed: "There are some here as well." Everyone started lifting up the paintings and calligraphies in order to study the human silhouettes engraved on the walls. The moment they started looking at the carvings, they began to dance around.

Xu Zhu was secretly horrified and quickly rushed to Xiao Feng, explaining: "Big Brother, these wall engravings are not meant to be viewed by ordinary people. If they continue studying the martial arts, I am afraid everyone will become seriously injured and some of them may even turn mad. By then, it will be chaos."

In his heart, Xiao Feng was shaken. He roared: "Everyone! Stop looking at the wall carvings. We are in a dangerous situation. Quickly gather around me for a discussion."

After his loud command, some people turned back and gathered at his side. However, the engravings on the wall are too irresistible. As long as anyone has seen any of the silhouettes, he would be instantly drawn to it, feeling as if the awkward pose of the silhouette is able to provide an answer to all the challenges he face when practicing martial arts. Though the solution is not precise and the stance is unorthodox, he cannot help but focus all his attentions onto it. By now, Xiao Feng has realised many of the people present are now moving in odd sequences beyond their will, as if they are being possessed. He himself was flabbergasted at this development.

Out of a sudden, with an 'Ah!' cry, someone has fallen flat on his face after spinning around. Another man is making a hoarse sound with his throat while clawing and scratching at the stone wall, as if he is trying to dig the silhouettes out from the wall. With a quick racking of his brains, Xiao Feng came up with a plan. Using his hand, he grabbed the backrest of a chair and with a 'Kok!' noise, he broke a part off the chair. Using both palms, he rubbed the broken fragment of the chair into dozens of small shards and flung these pieces out with his hands. The air is filled with sounds of 'Chu! Chu! Chu!' Within the hall, for every sound that rang out, a lamp or a candle would be extinguished. When the sounds finally stop, all the illumination has been smothered and the Inner Study is now completely pitch black.

In the dark, heavy panting can be heard all over the place. Some would whisper: "What a close shave, what a close shave!" Some actually loudly demanded: "Light some candles, I haven't taken a look yet!"

Xiao Feng's voice rang out: "Gentlemen, wherever you are, please sit down and halt all your movements. We do not want to activate any hidden traps by accident. The engravings on the wall are bewitching. Please do not even touch them and end up injuring yourselves." Before he said these words, there are some people who are about to reach out with their hands and feel the wall carvings. Hearing his command, they recomposed themselves by force.

Xiao Feng whispered: "Forgive my intrusion! Please quickly open the stone doors and let everybody out." It turns out that before he started extinguishing the lights, like an arrow being released from a bow, he swiftly shot forward and has restrained the palace maid by her right wrist. Traumatized by this unexpected intrusion, the palace maid used her left free hand to launch a backwards palm attack. Xiao Feng took this opportunity to secure her left hand as well. Petrified and embarrassed, the palace maid remained motionless.

Now that Xiao Feng has spoken, she begged: "… Please release my hands." Xiao Feng released her wrists. Although it is dark, but by listening to her movements and reacting accordingly, Xiao Feng is not afraid of her pulling any tricks.

The palace girl reminded: "I told Mister Bao before; these engravings should be ignored. For those who are not strong enough in their internal energy cultivation, looking at the engravings will cause huge losses and zero gains. Yet, he insisted on exploring them!"

Seated on the floor, Bao Butong can feel his head throbbing in great pain and his body extremely tense for no reason. Moreover, his chest area is very uncomfortable and he felt like vomiting. Forcefully steadying his nerves, he scoffed: "If you invite me to take a look, I will ignore them. If you ask me to ignore them, I will look at them no matter what you say."

Xiao Feng pondered: This palace maid did advise everyone to ignore the wall carvings. In this aspect, she meant no harm. Still, what is the agenda of the Princess of Xixia when she wanted us to gather in her study?

Abruptly, a nice and light fragrance was detected by his senses. Stunned, Xiao Feng hastily used his hand to cover up his nose as he was reminded of the time when Xixia's Elite Guild used and poisoned a large number of beggars from Beggar's Sect. He tried activating his internal energy and was delighted to know that there is no issue with it.

What he proceeded to hear was a new palace maid announcing in a sweet and crisp voice: "Welcome your Highness Princess." Hearing that the Princess has arrived, everyone was excited and ecstatic. Unfortunately, due to the darkness, they cannot admire her features.

The young girl (new palace maid) proclaimed in a coquettish voice: "The Princess has decreed: The walls of the study have been engraved with martial arts drawings. Outsiders are forbidden from viewing them. Paintings and other works have been hung on the walls in order to conceal them. Nevertheless, someone eventually discovered them. The Princess strictly prohibits anyone from lighting a torch or making a fire. Otherwise, he will bear the severe consequences. She hopes this information is made clear to everyone. No doubt there will be some inconveniences due to the darkness and we seek everyone's understanding."

Zha! Zha! The stone doors have been opened. The young girl added: "If there is anyone who is unwilling to remain here, he may take his leave first and return back to Ningxiang Gallery for a rest and more tea. Along the way, there will be someone guiding your path and no one will get lost."

Knowing that the Princess is here, no one in his right mind will want to take his leave. In addition, hearing the calm voice of the palace maid and unable to detect any malicious intentions in her words, coupled with the fact that the doors are open and anyone can freely leave, the anxiety level of everyone decreased significantly. Naturally, there were no departures.

A brief moment later, the young girl announced: "Your Highness Princess expresses her gratitude to esteemed guests who have travelled from far places in order to be here today. If there is any hospitality lacking, your understanding is appreciated. In a gesture of goodwill, Princess will hereby give away her beloved collection of calligraphy and paintings. The works in her collection are genuine pieces and she looks forward to gentlemen's gracious acceptance. Before leaving the Court, kindly retrieve any piece that your heart desires."

Hearing that the Princess is giving away these pieces of artwork as gifts, the various martial artistes and uneducated folks cannot help but feel perplexed. For some savvy individuals, they recognize the value of these paintings and knew that they would fetch a considerable price back in Central Plains. These people are secretly delighted with their windfall. The happiest of them all is Duan Yu. He has decided to choose the painting and admire the painting together with Wang Yuyan.

No matter what he heard, it is always the palace maid speaking on behalf of the Princess. Exasperated, Prince Zongzan bellowed: "Your Highness Princess, since this location is not ideal to light a fire, shall we adjourn elsewhere to continue our meeting? It is completely dark here. You cannot see me and I cannot see you."

The palace maid replied: "It is not difficult at all if gentlemen wishes to see the Princess."

In the darkness, more than a hundred voices began crying out in unison: "We want to see the Princess! We want to see the Princess!" Several people interrupted with their own shoutings: "Please put on some lights, we promise not to look at the wall carvings." "Just light some lamps around the Princess. That is good enough. We wish to see the Princess and not the engravings." "Yes! Yes! Princess, please show yourself!" The rowdiness carried on for some time before eventually dying out.

The palace maid slowly state: "By inviting gentlemen to Xixia, Your Highness Princess naturally wishes to meet with esteemed guests. Presently, Princess has three questions and respectfully asks each of you to take turns in answering. If the answer pleases Princess, he will be invited for a meeting."

The crowd immediately went wild. Some exclaimed: "Oh, it is a verbal test." Some cried: "I am only good with spears and sabres; if you ask me some academic question, I will surely fail! Can I answer questions related to martial arts?"

The palace maid invited: "The Princess has informed maid (me) what questions to ask. Which Mister is willing to start by giving me your answer?"

Everyone rushed forward and began shoving one another. They demanded: "Let me go first! I am first! I am ready to answer!" With a chortle, the palace maid giggled: "Gentlemen, there is no need to fight among yourselves. The first to answer may be at a disadvantage." Everyone thought: That makes sense. The later I answer, the more I can learn from other people's answers. I can find out what are the dos and don'ts of interacting with Princess. Along the way, I can improve my answers.

With this thought, nobody is fighting to be the first candidate anymore.

Out of a sudden, a man declared: "When everyone is rushing to be the first, I aim to be the last; now that everyone is afraid of being the first to be sacrificed, I am willing to be the first guinea pig. Gentleman (I) is named Bao Butong, married with a kid. All I desired is a glance at Princess's fair face. No other intentions."

The palace maid acknowledged: "Mister Bao is straightforward and easy going. Your Highness Princess has three questions and seeks your advice. The first question: In Mister Bao's life, where did you have your best and happiest experience?"

After a short consideration, Bao Butong responded: "It is in a pottery shop. In my youth, I was an apprentice there. The owner is a bully and I was subjected to daily admonishments and ill treatment. One day, I went berserk and smashed everything in the shop. Regardless of bowls or plates, teapots, vases or figurines, Ping! Ping! Piang! Piang! they all ended up as smithereens. That was the happiest moment of my life. Palace Lady, is my answer appropriate?"

The palace maid replied: "Your Highness Princess will decide whether your answer is appropriate or not. Maid (I) has no idea. The second question: The person whom Mister Bao loves the most, what is his or her name?" Without any hesitation, Bao Butong answered: "Bao Bujing."

The palace maid continued: "The third question: This person that Mister Bao mentioned, what is her appearance?"

Bao Butong articulated: "This person is six years old, with one eye bigger than the other. Her nostrils are protruding upwards and her ears face the front. Regardless of my instructions, she will certainly disobey. Asking her to cry, she will laugh; asking her to laugh, she will cry. And when she cries, it is a four-hour crying session. That is my precious daughter Bao Bujing."

The palace maid burst out in giggles while the entire crowd burst out laughing. The palace maid concluded: "Mister Bao, please take a break. May I have the next gentleman please?"

Eager to get out and reunite with Wang Yuyan, Duan Yu cannot be bothered if he gets to meet the Princess of not. Stepping forward in the dark, he nevertheless bowed deeply and proclaimed: "Gentleman is Duan Yu of DaLi. I hope Your Highness Princess is doing well. I reside in the rural southern regions. Today, I am able to visit your venerated country and enjoy the wonderful sights. Many thanks for your excellent hospitality. I am deeply appreciative of your kind gestures."

The palace maid noted: "So it is the son of DaLi Country Lord Zhennan. Prince (DY) has given us too much credit. After a long journey (from DaLi), all we can offer is basic furnishings and limited spaces, which is insufficient to host our valued visitors. We seek your forgiveness and understanding." (humble talk)

Duan Yu politely rejoined: "Sister, you are too modest. If Princess is not available today, I can always seek an audience at another time. It is a small matter."

The palace maid questioned: "Since Prince is already here, please answer the three questions too. The first question: In Prince's life, where did you have your best and happiest experience?"

Without thinking, Duan Yu responded: "In an abandoned well among the muddy debris." The crowd could not help but laughed uncontrollably. Except for Murong Fu, nobody understood why Duan Yu spent the best moments of his life in an abandoned well among the muddy debris. Someone even ridicule in a low voice: "Someone who loves being in muddy debris; is he a tortoise?"

The palace maid covered her mouth to stifle a chuckle. She continued her questioning: "The person whom Prince loves the most, what is his or her name?"

Duan Yu was about to reply but he suddenly felt two persons tugging at his left and right sleeves respectively. From his left ear, Ba Tianshi whispered: "Say it is Lord Zhennan." From his right ear, Zhu Danchen whispered: "Say it is Zhennan Princess Consort." Upon hearing Duan Yu's first answer, they felt it is highly inappropriate and are concerned that his second answer will become another bad joke. Right now, he is proposing marriage to a Princess. If he says his greatest love is Wang Yuyan or Mu Wanqing or anybody else for that matter, wouldn't it mean the Princess is his secondary love and is going to marry down and become a concubine? Ba Tianshi reminded: "Of course your Father is your greatest love. This is the directive by the Imperial Court." Zhu Danchen reminded: "In terms of love, there is no stronger love between a mother and her child. That is the mindset of a learned man."

When the palace maid is asking Duan Yu about the name of the person he loves the most, he wanted to answer Wang Yuyan's name. The answer is at the tip of his tongue but after being reminded by Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen, Duan Yu thought: He is after all, the son of DaLi Country Lord Zhennan. Now that he is in Xixia, his words and actions will reflect back on his country. It is fine if he wants to embarrass himself but he cannot forsake the prestige of his own country.

Thus, he replied: "The people I love the most are naturally my father and my mother." When he mentions 'Father' and 'Mother', his chest naturally swells up with a feeling of love and respect for his parents. He knows the love for his parents and the love for Wang Yuyan are innately different. Still, he cannot decide which love is greater than the other. He is definitely telling the truth when he says his parents are the people he loves the most.

The palace maid questioned again: "Your esteemed father and mother, how would you describe their appearances? Do they resemble Prince?"

Duan Yu responded: "My father has a squarish face, thick eyebrows and large eyes. He has an awe-inspiring demeanor but actually, his character is extremely friendly……" At this juncture, Duan Yu was secretly alarmed. He analyzed: My appearance only resembles my mother and not my father. This is something I have never thought about before.

Hearing Duan Yu stopping mid sentence and not continuing, the palace maid assumed that Duan Yu does not wish to share details of his mother's appearance with a group of strangers. After all, his mother is a Princess Consort*. Therefore, she concluded: "Many thanks Prince. Prince, please take a break."

(Princess Consort here means she, as a commoner, is married to the royal brother of the King/Emperor of DaLi. She is not the child of the Emperor nor is she the assigned wife to the son of the Emperor)

Noting the extremely friendly exchange between the palace maid and Duan Yu, as if they are intimate buddies, Zongzan's heart is filled with jealousy. He secretly thought: You are a Prince; I am a Prince too. TuBo country is much stronger than your DaLi. Are you planning to win the competition due to your good looks?

Unwilling to wait any longer, he stepped forward and hollered: "TuBo Country Prince Zongzan hereby requests an audience with Princess."

The palace maid acknowledged: "Prince's glorious arrival is a privilege bestowed on our country. Our Princess has three questions for your attention."

With an easy-going air, Zongzan laughed: "I have paid attention to the three questions of Princess. You need not ask the questions one at a time. Let me answer them in one shot. In my life, my best and happiest experience is becoming the Prince Consort, marrying the Princess and spending the night with Princess as husband and wife. In my life, the person I love the most is Princess Yinchuan. Her surname is Li and I am unaware of her first name. In the future, when we become husband and wife, she would naturally tell me. Regarding the appearance of Princess, she is surely like a Fairy with rare and incomparable beauty. Ha ha, are my answers correct or not?"

Among the crowd, the majority of them shared the same train of thought as Prince Zongzan and are planning to answer the three questions in this particular manner. Hearing his speech, they are secretly expressing regrets: I should have grabbed the first opportunity to make such an excellent reply. Now, if I kept to the same template, I may be accused of copying his answer.

Xiao Feng waited and listened as the palace maid quizzed the gentlemen one by one. Some of them are trying too hard to please the Princess while others are exaggerating their abilities and making false statements. The more he heard, the more uninterested he felt. If not for his curiosity for the 'correct' answers, he would have left a long time ago.

In the midst of his restlessness, he suddenly heard Murong Fu's voice ringing out: "Gentleman is Gusu Murong Fu. I have long admired Princess's fame. Today, I came specially to pay my respects."

The palace maid acknowledged: "So it is Mister Gusu Murong. Although maid (I) is confined to the palace, I have heard of Mister's (your) famous name."

His heart filled with joy, Murong Fu thought: Since this palace maid knows my name, the Princess should naturally know about me too. Perhaps the two of them even held a discussion about me.

He quickly replied: "It is nothing. My name is probably a waste of your hearing." (humble talk)

The palace maid added: "Although we, Xixia, are at the rural borderlands, we are too, aware of the heroic title: North Qiao Feng; South Murong. It is rumoured that North Qiao Feng, Great Hero Qiao has changed his surname to Xiao, and is currently a high-ranking official in Great Liao. I wonder if this rumour is true?"

Murong Fu replied: "It is true!" He already noticed Xiao Feng when he is on his way to Green Phoenix Court, but did not choose to expose him.

The palace maid enquired: "Mister and Great Hero Xiao share the same namesake status; the two of you must be acquainted. I wonder how is his (XF) character like? In terms of martial arts, compared with Mister, who has the upper hand?"

The minute he heard the questions, Murong Fu's complexion turned completely red, even up to his ears. At Shaolin Monastery, in his duel with Xiao Feng, he was restrained by him and was even eventually thrashed heavily onto the floor. In front of numerous onlookers, it clearly exhibited his inferior skills. Presently, in front of another large crowd, he would be further ridiculed if he chose not to reveal this fact. Nevertheless, he is extremely unwilling to admit his defeat at the hands of Xiao Feng. Unable to provide a proper account, he flared up: "These questions that Miss (you) is asking; are they the three questions from the Princess?"

The palace maid hurried redeemed: "No. I beg Mister's pardon. For the past few years, Maid (I) has heard of many heroic stories about Great Hero Xiao and as a result, I am an admirer (fan) of him. I could not help but wanted to ask more questions relating to him."

Murong Fu disclosed: "At this moment, Khan Xiao is standing right beside Miss. If Miss is interested, you can ask him directly." The second these words leave his mouth, the peace of the entire hall was interrupted by loud commotions. The prestige of Xiao Feng is known all over the world; within the martial arts community, there is no one who is not shaken by his name.

The palace maid is apparently as emotional as everyone else and her voice is starting to quiver. She welcomed: "To think that Great Hero Xiao has lowered his status and paid a visit to our country. We were in the dark and our hospitality must be severely lacking. Great Hero Xiao must accommodate us and overlook this lapse."

Xiao Feng let out a 'Humph' but did not give a reply.

From the tone of the palace maid, Murong Fu can easily tell that her respect for Xiao Feng is much more than her respect for himself. He was secretly alarmed and thought: Xiao Feng that fellow is a bachelor as well and he holds the official post of Great Liao Southern Khan. He even has an army at his disposal; as a commoner, how can I hold a candle to that? His martial arts are incredible too; there is no way I can surpass his credentials. What… What… What should I do?

The palace maid apologized: "Maid (I) will pose the questions to Mister Murong first. Great Hero Xiao, please be patient. Apologies. Apologies." After making more polite and apologetic statements, she asked Murong Fu: " Question for Mister! In Mister's life, where did you have your best and happiest experience?"

Although Murong Fu has heard this question being repeated on fifty odd people before him, now that he is in the hot seat, he suddenly became tongue-tied and could not come up with an answer. All his life, he has been slogging away, incessantly trying to revive the Yan Empire. In fact, he never encountered a joyous occasion before. From the perspective of an outsider, Murong Fu is young and handsome, highly-skilled in martial arts and his fame has spread all over the world. He still commands respect in the martial arts world and logically, he should be satisfied and proud of his achievements. Nonetheless, in his heart, he has never experienced true happiness. After a short daze, he answered: "My true happiness lies in the future and not the past."

The palace maid assumed Murong Fu is using the same template as Prince Zongzan and the others, saying their true happiness will occur after becoming the Prince Consort and getting married to the Princess. Unknown to her, Murong Fu's definition of happiness is becoming the Emperor of Yan and the owner of the prosperous Yan Empire. Giggling once, she questioned again: "The person whom Mister loves the most, what is his or her name?"

Momentarily stunned and after a brief contemplation, Murong Fu let out a sigh and replied: "There is nobody that I love the most."

The palace maid concluded: "Since this is the case, we can skip the third question."

Murong Fu added: "I hope to meet the Princess and thereby, give a reply to Sister's second and third question."

The palace maid remarked: "Mister Murong, please take a break. Great Hero Xiao, since you have made your way here to our country, we have to follow the same procedure. Maid (I) will be asking you the three questions as well. If there is any offense, we ask for your forgiveness and understanding. Maid hereby gives her thanks in advance." She proceeded to ask and repeat the first question but there was no response at all.

Xu Zhu interrupted: "My Big Brother has already left. Miss, please excuse him." The palace maid was taken back: "Great Hero Xiao has left?" Xu Zhu acknowledged: "Yes, he had."

When Xiao Feng witness the Princess of Xixia instructing her palace maid to quiz the gentlemen one at a time, he deduced some special meaning behind the three questions. Nevertheless, the questions are harmless. He then went on to ask himself the same three questions and the answers he would provide. Reminiscing about Ah Zhu, he felt some pain at his chest and was tremendously grieved. Extremely unwilling to divulge his personal emotions to a group of strangers, he turned around and left the stone hall. Since the stone doors are opened and his footsteps are exceptionally light, only a few individuals sensed his departure.

The palace maid inquired: "Where did Great Hero Xiao retreat to? Is he upset with our questioning?"

Xu Zhu explained: "My Big Brother is not a petty person and would certainly not take any offence. Hmm, he must be craving for some wine and has left in order to quench his cravings."

The palace maid giggled: "It must be so. Great Hero Xiao is famed for his drinking habits and his ability to hold liquor is second to none. The Inner Study does not store any wine and we are unable to host this honoured guest appropriately. We are truly incompetent hosts. Mister (XZ), the next time you see Great Hero Xiao, please convey the deepest apologies from our country's Princess." This singular palace maid is particularly eloquent, polite and sensitive in her speech. Compared to the shy palace maid from the Gallery, she is a hundred times more articulate.

Xu Zhu affirmed: "When I see Big Brother, I will pass the message."

The palace maid probed: "How do I address Mister?"

Xu Zhu stammered: "My… My… My Buddhist name is Xu Zhu Zi. I… came… came… that… not here for the marriage, I am merely accompanying my Third Brother."

The palace maid questioned: "In Mister's life, where did you have your best and happiest experience?"

Xu Zhu let out a soft sigh and replied: "In a dark ice chamber."

He abruptly heard a female voice exclaiming 'Ah!' in a soft voice. Following that was another noise 'Qiang Lang!' It appears that somewhere in the darkness, a porcelain cup has been dropped onto the floor and was shattered into pieces.

The palace maid continued her questioning: "The person whom Mister loves the most, what is he or her name?"

Xu Zhu lamented: "Ai! I… I do not know the name of that lady."

The crowd burst out into laughter, thinking that this man is a fool. Without knowing the name of that particular lady, how could she be the person he loves the most?

The palace maid defended: "It is not strange to love someone without knowing the identity. Back then, the filial son Dong Yong happened to meet a Heavenly Fairy on Earth. Without knowing her name or background, he fell in love with her. Mister Xu Zhu, this lady must have been a beauty without equal, am I right?"

Xu Zhu answered: "I have never laid my eyes on her before."

In a split second, the stone hall is blanketed with thunderous laughter. Everyone was laughing their guts out and felt that this story is truly unheard of. Some even thought that Xu Zhu is intentionally telling a joke.

Amidst all the laughter, Xu Zhu suddenly heard a female whispering to him: "You… Are you Meng-Lang? (Dream mate/groom/hubby)"

Xu Zhu was shocked out of his wits. In a trembling voice, he asked: "You… You… Are you Meng-Gu? (Dream lady/aunt/bride) I missed you so much."

Unconsciously, he took a few steps forward, inhaling a breath of fragrance. A pair of warm, gentle and smooth hands is now holding onto his hands. A familiar voice is now tenderly whispering besides his ear: "Meng-Lang, I was trying to find you but I failed. Finally, I managed to get Imperial Father to issue a decree and hopefully, you will get invited."

Xu Zhu was even more astonished than before. He stammered: "You… So you are…"

The young lady suggested: "Let's talk inside. Meng-Lang, every day and every night, all I pray for is this exact moment…" Speaking in a hushed voice and holding his hand, she quietly led him past a curtain. Stepping onto a layer of thick carpet, the two of them entered the inner chamber.

Within the stone hall, the crowd is still laughing non-stop.

As usual, the palace maid repeated the three questions to everybody. When the list has been exhausted, she announced: "Gentlemen, please adjourn to the previous Ningxiang Gallery for a rest and more tea. The wall-mounted artworks will be prepared as gifts for everyone. If Your Highness Princess wishes to meet up with any one of you, our attendant will summon you accordingly."

Right now, there are many frustrated men who started rioting: "We want to see the Princess!" "We want to see her now!" "Shoving us from one place to another, are you making fools out of us?"

The palace maid reasoned: "It is better for everyone to take a break outside, why bother risking the wrath of the Princess?"

The last sentence worked like magic. Everybody came to Lingzhou for the sake of becoming the Prince Consort. By disobeying the Princess, she would not grant an audience. Without seeing her, the chances of becoming the Prince Consort is zero. The crowd instantly turned silent and one by one, they left the stone hall. Outside, the return path is well lighted by bright torches. By retracing their steps, the crowd ended up back in Ningxiang Gallery where they had tea a few hours ago.

Reunited with Wang Yuyan, Duan Yu updated her about the Princess's three questions. When Wang Yuyan heard him saying that his best and happiest experience is in an abandoned well among the muddy debris, she cannot help but break out into uncontrollable giggles. Both her cheeks turning red, she cooed: "I feel the same too."

Having tea and engaging in idle chatter, the gentlemen eventually started discussing and comparing their answers to the three questions. They wondered who has the answer that best satisfies the Princess. A short while later, palace eunuchs appeared, holding bundles of paintings and calligraphies in their arms, inviting those present to pick one. These men are deep in thought, wondering if the Princess would grant them an audience or not. Obviously, they cannot be bothered with the artwork. As no one is competing with him, Duan Yu easily retrieved the painting .

Admiring the painting with Wang Yuyan at his side, Wang Yuyan sighed: "The person in the painting resembles my mother more than myself." Recalling the prolonged separation between she and her mother, she could feel some longing in her heart.

Remembering that Xu Zhu has a similar painting as well, Duan Yu wanted to borrow his copy for a comparison. However, despite all his efforts in searching, Xu Zhu seems to have disappeared from the Gallery. He even called out: "Second Brother! Second Brother!" But there was no response. Duan Yu thought: Both Big Brother and Second Brother are gone! Is there some hidden danger?

Just as he started worrying, unexpectedly, a palace maid accosted him and informed: "Mister Xu Zhu has a letter for Prince Duan." As she spoke, with two hands, she presented a folded letter made out of gold foil.

Accepting the letter, Duan Yu could smell a light fragrance coming from it. He opened it and on the letter are the following words: I am all good. I have never been better. I am happy beyond words. I am so sorry you made a wasted trip and I have failed Uncle Duan too. But I have no choice. Addressed to Third Brother.

At the bottom, it was signed with two words: Second Brother

Duan Yu is aware that his Monk Second Brother received little education and is terrible at expressing himself through written letters. Still, this letter is totally incomprehensible. Not knowing what to do next, a dazed Duan Yu held the letter in his hand as he racked his brains.

From afar, Prince Zongzan saw the palace maid handing a letter to Duan Yu and immediately assumed the Princess is granting him an audience. Filled with jealousy, he cursed to himself: Great, true enough, you gained an advantage because of your good looks. However, I am not willing to give up that easily.

He hollered: "I will not tolerate you!" With a swift pounce, he leapt towards Duan Yu. Using his left hand, he snatched at the letter and using his right fist, he threw a punch at Duan Yu's chest.

A preoccupied Duan Yu is still trying to decipher the meaning behind Xu Zhu's letter and when Prince Zongzan attacked him, he did not think about avoiding the attack. Furthermore, based on Zongzan's martial arts, his punch is as fast as lightning and Duan Yu could not avoid it even if he wanted to. 'PONG!' The blow landed squarely on his chest. Inside Duan Yu's body, his abundant internal energy instantaneously reflected the blow and with another 'PONG!' sound, followed by 'Pi Pai! Qiang Lang! Ai Yo!' Prince Zongzan flew several steps away and crashed onto a tea table. The teapot and tea cup on the table were smashed to bits.

In pain, Zongzan cannot help but cry out 'Ai Yo!' Before he got on his feet, he examined the letter and read it out loud: "I am all good. I have never been better. I am happy beyond words."

It is evident to everyone that Zongzan was rebounded by Duan Yu's internal energy and just suffered a heavy fall. Yet, he exclaimed: I am all good. I have never been better. I am happy beyond words.

While everyone is scratching their heads in bewilderment, Wang Yuyan hurried to Duan Yu's side and asked: "Did he injure you?" Duan Yu guffawed: "Nothing worth mentioning. Second Brother has written a note to me. That Prince must have gotten the wrong impression, thinking that the Princess is granting me an audience."

Witnessing their own master being knocked over, some of the TuBo warriors ran over to assist him while the others approached Duan Yu in a fierce and intimidating manner, as if they are challenging him to a fight.

Duan Yu signaled: "This place is ill-suited for us and I don't see why we should stay any longer. Let's take our leave." Ba Tianshi hastily dissuaded: "Since Prince is here, there is no urgency to leave." Zhu Danchen added: "This is the Inner Palace of Xixia's Royal Palace, I doubt the TuBo fellows have the guts to use violence. In addition, the Princess may summon you soon. If we leave now, wouldn't that be discourteous?" The two men continued to take turns to persuade Duan Yu from leaving.

True enough, some warriors from the Elite Guild appeared and demanded the TuBo warriors to behave themselves. Prince Zongzan has gotten back on his feet. Recognising that the letter is not the Princess granting an audience to Duan Yu, the anger in his heart subsided.

In the middle of the commotion, Mu Wanqing can be seen beckoning at Duan Yu. In her left hand, she is waving a piece of paper. Duan Yu nodded his head and approached her, taking the paper from her hands.

Seeing another letter in Duan Yu's hands and noticing the expression of uncertainty on his face as he read the letter, Zongzan thought: This letter must be from the Princess, summoning him for a meeting

He roared in a loud voice: "The first time, you managed deceive me, the second time, you won't be so lucky!" His both legs propelling his body, he pounced on Duan Yu again, grabbing the letter with one hand.

Learning from his mistake, he dared not punch Duan Yu at the chest anymore. After obtaining the letter, he lifted his right foot and kicked Duan Yu's hip. At the pelvis area is the 'Danzhong' point, the seed and reservoir for all internal energy. When Zongzan kicked that same area, Duan Yu's internal energy instantly reacted without any need for activation. The repel was swift and impactful. With a 'Hu!' sound, followed by another 'Pi Pai! Qiang Lang! Ai Yo!', Prince Zongzan again soared through the air and flew over the heads of a few dozen men. Crashing into several tea tables, he finally landed on his back.

The Prince is stocky and his flesh is thick. Moreover, Duan Yu did not intentionally activate his internal energy to harm him. Although Zongzan was embarrassed and haggard looking, he did not suffer any internal injuries. Still on the floor, he lifted the freshly snatched letter and read it out loud: "A formidable foe is planning to murder my father, who also happens to be your father. Save him quickly."

With these words, the crowd became even more confused. Why did Prince Zongzan say: my father, who also happens to be your father?

Only Duan Yu, Ba Tianshi, Zhu Danchen and the others knew what the message meant. Since the letter is written by Mu Wanqing, the two fathers she mentioned is obviously Duan Zhengchun. Gathering at her side, they interrogated her about the details.

Mu Wanqing explained: "Shortly after you (all) left, the two sisters Plum Sword and Orchid Sword entered the palace, saying they have an urgent report for Mister Xu Zhu. Since Xu Zhu Zi has not shown himself, they passed the message to me. Their network of allies has received word that several formidable foes have laid an ambush in order to entrap Father. The traps have been laid at Shunan area, where Father must go through in order to return to DaLi. Their Lingjiu Palace has already dispatched two factions, Xuantian and Zhutian, to chase after Father and warn him. At the same time, they sent word to us."

Duan Yu anxiously asked: "Plum Sword and Orchid Sword, where are the two sisters? Why didn't I see them?" Mu Wanqing remarked: "You only have eyes for Miss Wang; we are all invisible to you. The two sisters Plum Sword and Orchid Sword actually wanted to speak to you directly but no matter how hard they waved at you, there was no response. I don't know if you really didn't see them or are you intentionally ignoring them."

His face turning red, Duan Yu insisted: "I… I really didn't see them."

Mu Wanqing coldly state: "They are in a hurry to find Second Brother Xu Zhu and cannot afford to wait for you. I tried to signal you too but you ignored me. I have no choice but to write that letter and pass it to you."

Feeling apologetic, Duan Yu recognized the truth in her words. Recently, all his undivided attention has been centered on Wang Yuyan. All he saw was her smiles and her frowns; all he heard was her words and her laughter. Even if the sky fell down, it does not matter. It is natural for him to miss Mu Wanqing's summons. If not for Prince Zongzan's pouncing on him and delivering a fierce punch, he would not have raised his head and notice Mu Wanqing's beckoning. To Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen, he instructed at once: "Let's travel through the night and chase after Father." The two men acknowledged: "Yes, Prince!"

The same thoughts went through their minds: Since Lord Zhennan is in danger, everything else has to take second priority. Whether Duan Yu is able to become the Prince Consort of Xixia or not is no longer important. They departed without wasting another minute.

Except for Ba Tianshi, Duan Yu and the others head back to the inn and reunite with Zhong Ling. Packing their luggage, they set off without any delay. Ba Tianshi paid a visit to Xixia's Ministry of Rites and bid farewell to the Minister personally. He spun a story, saying Lord Zhennan has fallen ill while travelling. Therefore, his son has to hurry to him and assist in nursing him. He is unable to spare the time to officially bid farewell to the Emperor and expresses his regrets. Since the father is sick, it is the duty of the son to take care of him; no one can disapprove of this noble gesture.

The Minister of Rites is full of praise and polite talk, saying Duan Yu's filial piety is as high as Heaven and His Lordship Duan will make a speedy recovery. Completing his farewell notice, Ba Tianshi swiftly exited Lingzhou City's southern gate. Activating his , he went in pursuit of Duan Yu and company. By the time he caught up to them, they are already ten miles away from Lingzhou.

Chapter - 47 Camellias Blossoming, But For Who?

Duan Yu and his entourage rode without stopping. In a few days, they have travelled south from Lingzhou to Gaolan and Qinzhou. Then heading east towards Hanzhong, cutting through Guangyuan, Jiange and finally arriving at Shubei*. Along their journey, they receive updates from Lingjiu Palace's Xuantian and Zhutian factions. These two factions are female organizations and all their reports indicated Lord Zhennan is heading south. One of the reports mentioned two female companions travelling with Lord Zhennan and at Zitong County, the two ladies engaged in a ferocious battle with no clear victor.

(Not sure about ancient China geography but Shubei and Shunan could also be Northern Shu and Southern Shu. FYI.)

In his heart, Duan Yu easily predicted that one of the ladies is Mu Wanqing's mother, Qin Hongmian; while the other lady is the mother of Ah Zhu and Ah Zi, Ruan Xingzhu. In terms of martial arts, Qin Hongmian is superior but in terms of strategy, Ruan Xingzhu has the upper hand. With Father (DZC) mediating between the two ladies, there should not be too much trouble. True enough, in less than two days, a report came, saying that the two ladies are presently on good terms with each other. Together with Lord Zhennan, they are enjoying some nice wine in a restaurant. Xuantian faction has already delivered the warning to Lord Zhennan, telling him there is a strong opponent waiting to ambush him in the later part of his journey.

During their travel, Duan Yu, Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen held several discussions. All the three of them agreed that except for Duan Yanqing, the head of the Four Evils, no one else could be the culprit. Duan Yanqing's martial arts are amazingly good; within DaLi country, except for Emperor Baoding, no one is his match. If he (DYQ) manages to catch up to Lord Zhennan, it will be catastrophic. Presently, all they could do is journey as fast as they can and reunite with Lord Zhennan. With strength in numbers, they will be able to resist Duan Yanqing.

Ba Tianshi state: "If we come across Duan Yanqing, we must drop everything and immediately launch a full out group attack on him. We must overcome him by our superior numbers and never repeat the same mistake of letting him engage in a solo duel with His Lordship."

Zhu Danchen agreed: "That is right. Here, we have Prince Duan, Miss Mu, Miss Zhong, Miss Wang and the two of us. Adding His Lordship and the two ladies, Minister Hua, Minister Fan, Brother Gu, and not forgetting the Ladies from Lingjiu Palace. With our combined forces, even if we fail to kill Duan Yanqing, we must at least put an end to his bullying."

Duan Yu nodded: "I share the same idea."

When their party is about to reach Mianzhou, sounds of horses galloping can be heard. Soon, two riders rode towards them. The two female riders flipped down their horses and called out: "Xuantian Faction of Lingjiu Palace pays their respect to Mister Duan of DaLi."

Duan Yu hurriedly got off his horse and acknowledged: "The two of you must have suffered. Have you seen my Father?"

On his right, the middle-aged lady replied: "Reporting to Mister, Lord Zhennan has received our warning and accordingly, he is now heading east, planning to make a big detour before returning to DaLi. This is to avoid running into his nemesis."

When Duan Yu heard the news, he was instantly relieved. Ecstatic, he enquired: "That is a good plan too. Father is an important figure and of royal blood; there is no need for him to personally dirty his hands with common criminals. Poisonous bugs and wild beasts; avoidance is better than engagement. This is wisdom, not fear. Ladies, do you know who is the enemy? Who tipped us off?"

The middle-aged lady explained: "The news originated from a young lady named Ah Bi. She was the person who divulge the information to Miss Chrysanthemum Sword…"

Wang Yuyan was elated: "So it is Ah Bi. I have not seen her in ages."

Duan Yu added: "Ah, so it is Miss Ah Bi. I have met her before. She used to be Mister Murong's personal maid."

The middle-aged lady continued: "That is the same person. According to Miss Chrysanthemum Sword, Miss Ah Bi and her share the same age. With an attractive face, she is adored wherever she goes. The only shortcoming is her Jiangnan accent; sometimes, it is really hard to understand what she is saying. Miss Ah Bi is the protégé of Mister Kang Guangling, the lay disciple of our Owner (XZ). To a certain extent, she is part of our Lingjiu Palace family. Miss Chrysanthemum says Owner (XZ) is accompanying Mister (DY) to the palace for the wedding proposal whereas Miss Ah Bi is going to Xixia in order to meet up with Mister Murong. During her journey, she received word about some formidable foes scheming to harm Lord Zhennan. She says Mister Duan has been kind to her and she wants us pass the warning message."

Duan Yu reminisced about the circumstances that led him to meet Ah Bi in Gusu. Through her, he got to know Ah Zhu and finally, Wang Yuyan. This time, it was her again who sent him the warning. Filled with gratitude, he inquired: "Miss Ah Bi, where is she now?"

The middle-aged lady replied: "Subordinate (I) has no idea. Mister Duan, according to Miss Plum Sword, the nemesis coming after His Lordship Duan is a dangerous fellow. Therefore, without waiting for approval by Owner, she gave instructions for the two factions, Xuantian and Zhutian to set off immediately. Mister should exercise caution as well."

Duan Yu thanked: "Many thanks to Elder Sister for your hard work and efforts. How do I address Elder Sister? In the future, when I meet up with Second Brother, I can mention (praise) your name." The lady was thrilled and she smiled: "We, the two factions, Xuantian and Zhutian, are just doing our job. Mister need not bother with our lowly names. Junior Lady (I) thanks Mister for your kind gesture!" As she spoke, she and the other lady clasped their hands in these sleeves in an expression of respect. Nodding to everyone as a sign of acknowledgment, the two ladies promptly left on their horses.

Duan Yu checked with Ba Tianshi: "Uncle Ba, what do you think?" Ba Tianshi proposed: "Since His Lordship has taken a detour to the east, we can continue heading south on our own. By the time we arrive in Chengdu, we should be just in time to intercept His Lordship." Duan Yu nodded his head in agreement: "That is right."

As they rode southwards, they went through Mianzhou City and arrived at Chengdu. Mianguan City is a prosperous and lively metropolis, the most developed city in the southwest region. After spending a few days idling in the city and still not catching any sight of Duan Zhengchun, Duan Yu and company thought: Lord Zhennan is accompanied by two ladies on his travel. Besides wonderful sightseeing, his needs are well attended to. Naturally, he would take his own sweet time. Once he is back in DaLi, all these comforts and carefree ways will come to an end.

Taking up reins, Duan Yu and company decided to head south again. Each step they take brings them one step closer to DaLi, and their spirits are lifted accordingly. Along their route, beautiful scenery can be seen everywhere. To avoid irritating Mu Wanqing and Zhong Ling, Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan rode separately. This way, the two sisters will not feel left out. During their ride, Mu Wanqing revealed the truth to Zhong Ling, telling her that Duan Yu is actually her (MWQ) own elder brother, and that Zhong Ling is actually the daughter of Duan Zhengchun too. The two girls now address each other as sisters. Observing Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan happily interacting and behaving intimately with each other, the two of them can only helplessly watch and sulk to themselves.

This particular evening, near a willow plantation, the weather started changing rapidly. Raindrops as big as yellow beans battered down upon them. Pushing their horses to go faster, they looked around for shelter concurrently. Riding around a row of willow trees, they came across several white-walled, black-tiled houses erected by a small stream. Cheered, everyone slapped their respective horses and rode towards the structures. Nearing the houses, they saw an old fellow standing on a veranda, with both his hands behind his back. He was staring at the thickening rain clouds.

Zhu Danchen flipped down his horse and stepping in front, he clasped his hands, asking: "Old Sir, sorry to disturb. My companions and I are travelling through this area when it starting raining. We hope to take temporary shelter in your treasured property. Would you please grant us this convenience?" (humble talk)

The old fellow welcomed: "Well said. Well said. When travelling, it is impossible to bring your house (shelter) with you. Gentlemen, Ladies, please enter." Zhu Danchen observed that the old man speaking with an energetic voice and without a local Chuannan accent. Additionally, his eyes are brimming with energy. Secretly alarmed, he clasped his hands and thanked: "Thank you very much."

After everyone has entered the house, Zhu Danchen pointed to Duan Yu and introduced: "This is Mister Yu, my master, who has just visited some relatives in Chengdu. This is Senior Brother Shi; my surname is Chen. How do I address Elder?"

With a small chuckle, the old fellow invited: "Elder's surname is Jia. Mister Yu, Big Brother Shi, Big Brother Chen, Ladies, please come into the inner hall for a cup of refreshing tea. Looking at the storm, I think you will be here for some time." Hearing Zhu Danchen using an alias for everyone, Duan Yu and the others were alerted to some possible danger. The group naturally kept their guard up.

Old Fellow Jia led everyone into a particular room. The walls of the room are decorated with paintings and the room itself is in pristine condition; it is completely unlike a typical room that one might find in a village. Exchanging glances, Zhu Danchen and Ba Tianshi increased their awareness level. Noting the vulgarity of the paintings in the room, Duan Yu kept his eyes away from them. Old Fellow Jia remarked: "I am going to get someone to prepare tea." Zhu Danchen acquiesced: "Sorry to trouble Elder." Old Fellow Jia smiled: "I hope I don't disappoint valued guests." As he spoke, he turned around and left, closing the door on his way out.

When the door was closed, it revealed a painting behind the door. In the painting, there are a couple of stalks of large Camellias. The first stalk is brilliantly painted in red and silver colour while the second stalk is totally white and half-withered. The contrast is extremely gratifying.

With one look, Duan Yu was instantly filled with gladness. Then he noticed a column of words next to the drawing: The Crown of Flowers Camellia, 71 in variety, as big as a peony, resembling a fire _ cloud _, mammatus _.

There are several blanks in the writing. This string of verses originated from Dian Zhong's , which Duan Yu has memorized since young. There are actually 72 varieties of Camellia but in the verses, it is written as 71. Noting a complete set of stationery laid on the table, he could not help but lifted a brush and dipped it in ink. Under the '1' he added another horizontal stroke, turning it into a '2', after the word 'fire', he added a word 'like', after the word 'cloud', he added a word 'formation', after the word 'mammatus', he added a word 'wonder'.

In the blink of an eye, the words now read: The Crown of Flowers Camellia, 72 in variety, as big as a peony, resembling a fire-like cloud formation, mammatus wonder.

The verses are written in font and Duan Yu used the same font. Nobody could tell that the words have edited.

Zhong Ling clapped her hands and cheered: "With you filling up the blanks, the painting is now complete and perfect."

Not long after Duan Yu replaced the ink brush, Old Fellow Jia pushed open the door. After entering, he was closing the door when he discovered that the blanks in the painting have been filled up. His face brimming with joy, he chuckled: "Valued Guest, Valued Guest. Old Man has been lacking in respect. This painting is drawn by an old friend; his memory is terrible and could not recall the exact verses. Initially, he wanted to return home and refer to his books, planning to fill up the blanks the next time he visits. Ai! Upon reaching home, he fell sick and never recovered, leaving me with this incomplete drawing. I did not expect Mister Yu to possess such deep knowledge and finally fulfill this dying wish for my dead friend and I. Wine! Wine! Bring out our wine!" He yelled as he left the room.

A brief moment later, Old Fellow Jia re-emerged in a brand new silk robe, inviting Duan Yu and company to the main hall for wine. The group gazed out of the window and could see for themselves that it is raining cats and dogs. On the ground, countless streams of rainwater are gushing through and fro. It is impossible to leave for the next few hours. Faced with Old Fellow Jia's sincere pleading, they cannot bear to reject him anymore and proceeded to the main hall. On the dining table, there are over ten dishes of fresh fish, game meat, poultry and vegetables. Thanking their host, Duan Yu and the others sat down.

Pouring wine into cups, Old Fellow Jia introduced: "This wine is fermented in our own village and it is not as strong as what you usually get. Mister Yu, Old Man (I) is actually born in Jiangnan. In my younger days, I mastered some basic martial arts and during a fight, I killed two enemies by accident. Unable to continue staying in my hometown, I was forced to flee to this place. Ai. Although I have been here for decades, I still miss my hometown. Back there, our wine tastes much better than this." As he spoke, he continued pouring wine for everyone.

Hearing him talking about his background, nobody believed it is entirely true. But since he confessed he knew some martial arts, they are less suspicious of him. After he poured wine for everybody, he exclaimed: "Let me toast everyone first as a sign of respect!" In one mouthful, he swallowed the full cup of wine. Duan Yu and the others find it reassuring that the wine is not poisoned and started drinking too. Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen barely drank. They also waited for Old Fellow Jia to eat from the dishes first before eating from the same dish.

The dinner and drinking has concluded but the rain has not. Old Fellow Jia again sincerely offered accommodation for the night so Duan Yu and company spent that night in the village.

Before retiring, Ba Tianshi secretly conveyed to Mu Wanqing: "Miss Mu, tonight, keep your guard up, as this place still gives me some evil vibes." Mu Wanqing nodded her head. That night, she slept fully clothed and her poisonous arrows are tucked in her sleeve. Throughout the night, the pitter-patter pitter-patter sounds of raindrops occupy her ears. Drifting in and out of sleep, she woke up next morning without any incidents.

As they are washing up, they noted that the storm is over and bade farewell to Old Fellow Jia without any delay. Old Fellow Jia escorted them out of the house and accompanied them for some distance before sending them off. All this time, his behavior is entirely respectful and courteous.

Leaving the property far behind, everyone is still befuddled by the episode. Ba Tianshi remarked: "This Old Fellow Jia, what is he up to? Everything is so mysterious and honestly, I cannot decipher his tricks, if there is any in the first place." Zhu Danchen mused: "Brother Ba, my guess is that Old Fellow Jia originally had evil intentions but after he discovered Mister filling up the missing words, his attitude changed. Mister, the painting and the words, is there any connection between the two of them?"

Duan Yu shook his head: "The two stalks of Camellia are pretty common. One stalk is the 'Fenhou' variety' the other is 'Xueta' variety. Although they are special breeds, they are not rare in the market." Unable to make head or tail of the situation, everyone stopped talking about it.

Zhong Ling joked: "It will be great if during our journey, we are able to encounter more paintings with missing words. Once our Mister Duan filled up the blanks, it will be a wonderful bargain. We will profit two meals of dishes and wine, one night of accommodation, all without spending a single cent." Everyone was tickled and starting laughing.

Truth is stranger than fiction. Although Zhong Ling was simply kidding; during their journey, Duan Yu and company are indeed confronted by a series of paintings. All the paintings are related to Camellia; some paintings are missing words; some contain words that are written wrongly, etc. There were even instances of drawings of flower stalk without the actual flower or the flower and stalks are drawn but the leaves are missing. Whenever Duan Yu came across a defective painting, he would rectify it without hesitation. Once the correction is completed, the owner of the painting will welcome everybody with the best hospitality: serving the best wine and food but never asking for a single cent in return.

Several times, Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen tried to probe for more information. Amazingly, every painting owner has the same reply template: Due to circumstances, the original artist is unable to complete the work, thanking Duan Yu profusely for remedying the painting and filled with deep gratitude. Duan Yu and Zhong Ling are young and na?ve, treating these errands as a game. They hope for more incomplete paintings to come along. Seeing Duan Yu in a happy mood, Wang Yuyan is happy too. All along, Mu Wanqing has been a fearless character; whether the host is kind or evil, she couldn't be bothered. Only Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen are increasingly worried. Reviewing the enemy's meticulous planning, they suspect a grand scheme is unfolding. However, they are unable to detect any loopholes or evidence.

Whenever Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen received warm hospitality, they would carefully scrutinize their surroundings and keep a lookout for poison in their food and drink. Sometimes, it is hard to detect slow-acting poisons, as they require taking several doses in order to cause harm. Ba Tianshi is observant and streetwise, if someone tries to poison his food, he would be able to catch him in the act. However, he is unable to detect any abnormalities. Moreover, the owners of the paintings shared their meals, proving that the food is safe for consumption.

It is now early October as they sustained their southwards voyage. It has yet to turn cold and during their travelling, they are mostly surrounded by mountain ranges, thick forests and overgrown grass. Compared to the northern region of Xixia, the environment is vastly dissimilar.

This singular evening, the group is riding near a sea of grasslands, with the jade green and wild grass reaching out to the horizon, as far as the eye can see. On their left is a dense and extensive forest. Scanning their surroundings, there are no signs of human civilization. Ba Tianshi advised: "Mister, this is unsafe territory. We should quickly seek accommodation." Duan Yu nodded in agreement: "You are right. We are unlikely to go through these grasslands by today. I wonder where can we rest for the night?"

Zhu Danchen warned: "The sea of grass is heavily populated by venomous mosquitoes and other bugs. Furthermore, there is the presence of smog. The Osmanthus smog is nearly over and the Hibiscus smog is just starting. When these two smog are mixed together, its toxicity is even more devastating. If we are unable to find accommodation, we will have to spend the night in the trees, thereby avoiding the smog and venomous insects."

Everyone proceeded to make a left turn and rode towards the forest. Since this is the first time she is learning about smog and their toxic effects, Wang Yuyan quizzed Zhu Danchen about Osmanthus smog and Hibiscus smog. Zhu Danchen described: "Smog is the poisonous fumes that are released from swamps in wild mountainous areas. The Peach flower smog from March and the Durian flower smog from May are considered the most toxic. Actually, these fumes are all the same but due to different time periods, we use the names of flowers to label them by the month. Between March and May, the rise in temperature is the most significant, leading to mass breeding of venomous bugs, creating the worst season for smog. At this time of the year, the effects of smog are generally limited. However, in this specific area, the air is humid, catalyzing the rot and decay of dead vegetation, therefore exacerbating the power of the smog."

Wang Yuyan asked: "Hmm, is there a smog named after Camellia?"

Duan Yu, Ba Tianshi and the others broke out into laughter. Zhu Danchen clarified: "We, the people of DaLi, adore Camellia, and would never link Camellia to the nasty smog."

As they spoke, the group has already entered the forest. The hooves of their horses are treading in mud and every step is a sinking sensation followed by a tedious pulling out. It is a horrible experience. Ba Tianshi suggested: "I think we need not move any deeper into the forest. Tonight, let's learn from birds and make a nest on the trees. When the sun is out tomorrow and the smog has diminished, we will continue our trip." Wang Yuyan asked: "When the sun is out, the smog will be weakened?" Ba Tianshi educated: "That is right."

Suddenly pointing to the northeastern direction, Zhong Ling worriedly exclaimed: "Aiyo, this is bad, there is a smog cloud rising in that direction. What kind of smog is that?" Everybody's eyes followed the direction of her finger and gaze. True enough, there are several waves of clouds rising out from within the forest.

Ba Tianshi answered: "Miss, that is Making Dinner smog." Zhong Ling anxiously asked: "What Making Dinner smog? Is it powerful or not?" Ba Tianshi laughed: "This is not a smog; it is the smoke being produced when someone is making dinner." True enough, from the green cloud, there are tinges of black smoke and white steam, like a gentle fog. Everyone started laughing. Encouraged by their new discovery, they cried: "Let's look for the Making Dinner smog." Zhong Ling was so embarrassed her face turned completely red. Wang Yuyan consoled her: "Sister Ling, fortunately, you discovered this Making Dinner... Making Dinner smoke. Otherwise, we will all be sleeping in trees."

The group rode towards the rising smoke. In closer proximity, they observed a clearing in the forest where several wooden cabins have been erected. Besides the houses, there are stacks of chopped wood. It appears that this is the accommodation for logging workers. Pushing his horse forward, Zhu Danchen shouted in a loud voice: "Head of the timber mill, we are passer-bys and would like to spend a night in your prestigious estate. Is that all right with you?" After some time, there was still no reply from within the house. Zhu Danchen repeated his request and it was again met with silence. On the roof, the chimney is still emitting smoke, indicating that the house is occupied.

Retrieving his weapon-fan made of iron spines from his bosom, Zhu Danchen held it in his hand as he gently pushed open the door and entered the house. At first glance, the house is empty and yet, he could hear the 'bi bo bi bo' sounds of crackling firewood. Zhu Danchen walked towards the back of the house and arrived at the kitchen, finding an old woman tending to a fire stove. Zhu Danchen enquired: "Old Grandma, is there anyone else beside you?" The old woman stared at him with a dumbfounded expression. Zhu Danchen asked again: "Are you alone?" The old woman pointed to her own ear and mouth, producing a few 'ah ah ah' sounds, signaling that she is a deaf-mute.

Zhu Danchen returned to the main hall. By then, Duan Yu, Mu Wanqing and the others have already investigated the rest of the cabins. Among all the property, there is nobody except for the old woman. In every cabin, there is a wooden bed but there are no mattresses or blankets. It looks like the loggers have not started work. Ba Tianshi circled the area twice and did not find anything suspicious.

Zhu Danchen indicated: "This old Grandma is deaf and mute; I cannot communicate with her. Miss Wang Yuyan is the most patient among all of us. It is better for you to interact with her." Wang Yuyan nodded with a smile: "Sure. I will give it a try." Entering the kitchen, she gesticulated to the old woman and even presented a tael of silver to her. Eventually, the old woman approximately understood the intrusion. After the old woman has finished her cooking, Duan Yu and company managed to procure some rice from her. The wooden cabin does not store any meat or wine. By eating the cooked rice and some dry rations, the group managed to stave off their hunger.

Ba Tianshi instructed: "We will stick together and everyone will sleep in this house." The males promptly slept at the east wing while the females slept at the west wing. In the main hall, the old woman placed a lighted oil lamp on the table.

After everyone barely got into bed, the sounds of 'ta ta' can be heard from the main hall. It is clear that somebody is trying to light a fire with firestones but is unsuccessful. Opening the door, Ba Tianshi went out and noticed the oil lamp on the table has been extinguished. In the dark, he could still hear the 'ta ta' noise, which came from the old woman trying to re-light the lamp. Using firestones to start a fire is not easy; if the paper charcoal (fire starter) does not catch the sparks, it could be a trying process. Ba Tianshi immediately retrieve his firestones from his bosom and with one 'da', he managed to light up oil lamp. A slight smile formed on the face of the old woman. Gesticulating to Ba Tianshi, she wanted to borrow his firestones. Pointing to the kitchen, she probably wanted to start a fire there. Ba Tianshi handed over his firestones and returned back to his room to sleep.

Soon thereafter, from the main hall, sounds of 'ta ta ta ta' began to occur again. Duan Yu and company barely caught a few winks before they were fully awakened by the fire-starting noise. Seeing the lack of illumination between the seams of the wooden walls, they guessed the oil lamp must have been extinguished again. Zhu Danchen laughed: "The old woman is really unlucky." At first, he wanted to ignore her but the 'ta ta ta' sounds did not subside. It felt as if the old woman is planning to strike the firestones throughout the night if that is what it is going to take to relight the oil lamp. Finally losing his patience, Zhu Danchen got up and walked to the main hall. In the dark, he could vaguely envisage the arm of the old woman moving up and down, trying her best to strike the firestones. Retrieving his own firestones, Zhu Danchen got a light at his first strike and lighted the oil lamp. The old woman grinned at him and made some hand gestures, indicating that she wanted to borrow his firestones to light a fire in the kitchen. Zhu Danchen loaned her his firestones and went back to his room.

Unexpectedly, a brief moment later, the sounds of 'ta ta ta' came out from the main hall again. Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen were boiling with anger. They cursed: "This old hag, what is her problem!" Still, the 'ta ta ta', 'ta ta ta' noise went on incessantly. Ba Tianshi jumped out of bed, went to the old woman and grabbed her firestones. Striking them, not a single spark came out. Feeling the firestones, he realised the firestones are not his. In a loud voice, he demanded: "Where are my firestones?" Once the words left his mouth, he half-laughingly chided himself: "Why am I venting my frustration on a deaf-mute old grandma?"

At this juncture, Mu Wanqing came out too. Producing her own firestones, she asked: "Uncle Ba, are you trying to make a fire?" Ba Tianshi explained: "The old grandma is really bizarre. The oil lamp was reignited and extinguished, reignited and extinguished. We have been at it for ages." Receiving her firestones, with a 'da' sound, sparks came out and the oil lamp was lit again. The old woman had a look of satisfaction on her face and she smiled broadly as she stared at the fire in the oil lamp. To Mu Wanqing, Ba Tianshi commented: "Miss, you must be tired from all the travelling. Please have an early rest." Then he returned to his room.

Before the time needed to drink a cup of tea, the 'ta ta ta', 'ta ta ta' sounds arose again. Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen leapt out of their beds simultaneously, each ready to confront the noise. In a flash of realization, both men thought: This peculiar old woman is certainly suspicious. There must be some evil at work.

The two men softly shook hands once and stealthily crept out of the room. From the left side and right side, they separately sneaked towards the old woman. Just as they are about to pounce on her, both of them concurrently caught a whiff of light fragrance. It turned out that the person striking the firestones is Mu Wanqing. The two men immediately recovered from their attacking stance. Ba Tianshi checked: "Miss, is that you?" Mu Wanqing answered: "Yes, I have a bad feeling about this place and I wanted to light a lamp and explore around."

Ba Tianshi remarked: "Let me have the firestones." However, with a few tries and the 'ta ta ta', 'ta ta ta' sounds, he could not create any sparks. Stunned, he highlighted: "This firestone is broken, it must have been switched by that old grandma." Zhu Danchen ordered: "Quickly locate that hag; don't let her escape." Mu Wanqing rushed to the kitchen while the two men dashed out of the wooden house. With a speedy search, they discovered that the old woman has disappeared. Ba Tianshi reminded: "That's enough chasing. Protecting Mister is our priority."

Back at the wooden house, Duan Yu, Wang Yuyan and Zhong Ling were roused by the loud commotion.

Ba Tianshi demanded: "Who still has his or her firestone? Let's light a fire before talking." Two voices spoke out in unison: "The old woman has borrowed my firestones." The voices belonged to Wang Yuyan and Zhong Ling. Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen secretly lamented to themselves: We have exercise extreme caution; nevertheless, we fell into the enemy's trap.

From his bosom, Duan Yu produced his firestones. 'Ta ta ta'. After a few strikes, no sparks were seen. Zhu Danchen questioned: "Mister, has the old hag borrowed your firestones before?" Duan Yu responded: "Yes, that was before dinner. After she used them, she returned them back to me." Zhu Danchen surmised: "The firestones must have been switched."

For a short spell of time, nobody spoke up. In the darkness, all they could hear were the sounds of forest bugs. It is a moonless and starless night; there is no natural lighting they can rely on. Gathered in the house, the six of them can barely make out each other's silhouettes. In their hearts, they felt as if they are being surrounded by an unseen danger. Ever since Duan Yu started filling up the missing words in the painting and receiving dedicated hospitality from Old Fellow Jia, the six of them are being blinded and lured into coming to this wild and secluded spot. Although they could somewhat guess that something is amiss, no one could comprehend the evil scheme or even identify any evidence that points to such a scheme. Everyone thought: If the enemy physically confronts us in an open battle, we can have a proper contest. Now that the enemy is sneaking around in the darkness, we are unable to take any precautions.

Mu Wanqing reasoned: "The old grandma has stripped us of our firestones. She wants to keep us shrouded in the dark in order to execute her evil plans." Zhong Ling suddenly shrieked out loud: "What if they release centipedes and venomous ants to bite me in the dark? That will be my worst nightmare!" In his heart, Ba Tianshi shuddered once. He state: "If we are assaulted by venomous insects in the dark, we would be entirely defenseless." Duan Yu suggested: "Why don't we get out of here and hide in the trees?" Zhu Danchen forbade: "I think the trees are already planted with venomous bugs." Letting out a scream 'Ah!', Zhong Ling grabbed onto Mu Wanqing's arm. Ba Tianshi comforted: "Miss, do not be frightened. Let us light a fire before talking." Zhong Ling wondered: "Without firestones, how do we start a fire?" Ba Tianshi strategized: "It is hard to fathom the enemy's plan but since they want us to stay in the dark without fire and lighting, we shall purposely create a fire. We certainly cannot go wrong with that."

As he spoke, he entered the kitchen and came back with two pieces of firewood. Handing them to Zhu Danchen, he instructed: "Brother Zhu, turn these firewood into wooden splints, the finer the better." Hearing his words, Zhu Danchen immediately understood his idea and agreed: "You are right, why should we remain as sitting ducks?" From his bosom, he took out a dagger and started paring the firewood. Duan Yu, Mu Wanqing, Wang Yuyan and Zhong Ling joined in as well. Retrieving their own daggers or small knives, they assisted by cutting, chopping or grinding the wooden chips, turning them into wood kindling. Duan Yu sighed: "Unfortunately, I do not possess the incredible power of Grandmaster Kurong from Sky Dragon Monastery (TianLong Monastery). He can ignite this wood kindling by focusing his internal energy. I think Jiumozhi has this ability too." In actual fact, the accumulated internal energy in Duan Yu has long surpassed Grandmaster Kurong and Jiumozhi. However, he does not know how to utilize this power.

As everyone worked tirelessly on breaking down the firewood into minute portions, there is hardly any peace in their hearts. Fully silent, they paid full attention to their hearing, the only ability they could depend on to detect any enemy activity. Everyone thought the same: Since the old grandma has conned us of our firestones, she probably will not wait too long before taking action. Even in the next moment, we could be under attack.

With his hands feeling the wood kindling, Ba Tianshi estimated that he has enough to fill a typical rice bowl. Gathering them into a pile, he added some charcoal paper (fire starter) to it. Holding his own knife in his left hand, he borrowed Zhong Ling's knife and held it in his right hand. In a swift movement, he scrapped the blunt sides of the knives against each other with a 'zheng' sound. Fire sparks erupted in all directions and some of them came in contact with the wood kindling, causing the kindling to start burning. Unfortunately, the fire died down as soon as it is lighted, and did not spread to the charcoal paper. As everyone sighed with disappointment, Ba Tianshi continued grinding the two blades against each other. 'Zheng Zheng' the sounds rang out relentlessly. After more than ten tries, the charcoal paper finally started burning.

Duan Yu and everyone else cheered and whistled in delight. Using the charcoal paper, they managed to reignite the oil lamp. Afraid of the wind snuffing out the lamp, Zhu Danchen gathered and lit up all the oil lamps from the kitchen and the two bedrooms. The flames are weak and make everyone's face appear with a greenish tinge. The smell of smoke is thick and irritating to the nose. Nonetheless, the fire was created after much difficulty and everyone is in high spirits, feeling as if they had just won a big victory.

The wooden house itself is sparse and from the gaps of the door, wind is blowing continuously into the cabin. The six of them glanced at each other, hands on weapons, pricking their ears for any suspicious sounds. However, except for the sound of wind rustling the trees or the standard squeaking of the bugs, everything else remains normal.

After a prolonged period, there are still no signs of enemy activity. As a result, Ba Tianshi started exploring the interior of the wooden house. He noticed a few pillars are being wrapped with grass mats and the grass mats are secured in place by grass ropes. From his recollection, there were no grass mats and grass ropes when he first entered the house. He cut the grass ropes at once and with it, the grass mats fell off the pillars.

On two of the pillars, Duan Yu saw that a pair of couplets is engraved on them. The upper verse goes: Spring river flowing water _ camellia. The lower verse goes: Summer valley _ rise red lychee. There is a missing word in each couplet. Turning around, he saw that Zhu Danchen has dismantled another two grass mats from another two pillars, revealing another pair of engraved couplets. They go: _ in green robes a familiar face; _ camellia blossom with grace.

Duan Yu declared: "Along our journey, I have been filling up blanks in paintings. Good, bad, who knows? Since they (enemy) have wrapped the pillars with grass mats, they evidently do not wish for me to see the couplets. We have always acted unconventionally, desiring to see what tricks the enemy is going play." With that, he stretched his hand out. With sounds of 'chi chi', he has written the word 'white' next to the word 'camellia' and the word 'mist' next to the word 'valley'. The perfected couplet now reads: 'Spring river flowing water white camellia; summer valley mist rise red lychee'. His internal energy is profound and wherever he exerted strength, wood kindling would fall out. Clapping her hands, Zhong Ling giggled: "If we knew about this, you can simply scrap your fingers against the firewood and we would have wood kindling. There is no need for us to expend so much effort."

Immersed in his own world, Duan Yu is now at the other pillars filling up the blanks, muttering to himself as he wrote: "Beauty in green robes a familiar face; September camellia blossom with grace" As he chanted, he swayed his head (like poets when composing poems) while stealing glances at Wang Yuyan. Wang Yuyan's delicate face glowed red and she turned her head away. (embarrassed)

Zhong Ling highlighted: "I wonder which tree does this wood come from? The fragrance is pretty nice." Everyone took a few sniffs and agreed that from the engraving hole made by Duan Yu's finger, there was an enchanting flowery scent. The fragrance seems to resemble osmanthus or rose but is neither of them. Duan Yu, too, exclaimed: "Nice aroma!" The fragrance became thicker and thicker and after inhaling it, the body became more comfortable and alert.

Zhu Danchen's face instantly lost colour and he warned: "Not good. I think this scent is poisonous. Everybody, cover your nostrils." Hearing his reminder, everyone hurriedly used their handkerchiefs or sleeves to seal his or her mouth and nose. By now, everyone has breathed in a considerable amount of the fragrance. If it is poisonous, there should be signs of dizziness or discomfort. However, no one felt any signs of uneasiness.

After a short while, everyone was in need of oxygen and naturally started breathing again. Feeling no signs of poisoning, everyone gradually removed their seals. Discussing the situation, nobody could offer a good explanation for the enemy's scheme.

A long wait later, the air is suddenly filled with a series of buzzing noises. Mu Wanqing was alarmed and cried out: "Aiyo! The poison has been activated. I keep hearing a weird noise in my ears." Zhong Ling wailed: "Me too." Ba Tianshi instead clarified: "That is not a weird noise in your ears. It sounds like a huge swarm of bees are flying towards us." True enough, the buzzing sound became louder and louder, signaling the approach of thousands of bees.

Bees are actually nothing to be afraid of. Still, this is the first time everyone has heard such a loud buzzing sound. Nobody could even confirm if the buzzing sound actually came from bees or something else. For a split second, everyone was stunned on the spot, not knowing how to react. As the 'weng weng' sounds grew closer and closer, it sounded like countless vampires howling and dashing towards them, ready to bite every person. Zhong Ling is basically grabbing onto Mu Wanqing's arm while Wang Yuyan is holding Duan Yu's hands as tightly as she could. Everyone's heart is thumping like a beating drum. Although they expected an enemy concealed in the darkness, no one expected such a horrifying noise to herald the arrival of their attackers.

Abruptly, with a 'pai' noise, it sounded as if a small object has knocked onto the wooden wall of the wooden house from outside. Following that came a continuous stream of 'pai pai pai pai' sounds, as if scores of small items are knocking at the wall. Mu Wanqing and Zhong Ling screamed in unison: "They are bees!" Ba Tianshi rushed to close a window and out of the blue, the air is pierced by the dreadful long cries of horses and sounds of their stomping. Zhong Ling shrieked: "The bees are stinging the horses!" Zhu Danchen announced: "I will go and cut the ropes binding the horses!" Tearing the collar of his long robes, he wrapped the cloth around his head. As he barely pushed open the wooden door with his left hand, a gust of wind brought thousands of bees into the house. Zhong Ling and Wang Yuyan instantly screamed at the top of their voices.

Ba Tianshi dragged Zhu Danchen back into the house, and with his knee, he knocked the door close. However, the house is already filled with bees. Once they entered the house, the bees started stinging everyone and in a few minutes, everyone's head, arms, face have all been stung several times. Opening his folded fan, Zhu Danchen smacked randomly in the air. Tearing his own collar, Ba Tianshi used it against the bees as a weapon. Enduring the painful stings, Duan Yu, Mu Wanqing, Wang Yuyan and Zhong Ling also did their best in smacking the bees.

When Ba Tianshi, Zhu Danchen, Duan Yu and Mu Wanqing attacked the bees, they utilized their maximum internal energy. Soon, there are only a few dozen bees left in the house. Strange enough, these bees are like moths attracted to fire. Despite the circumstances, they continued stinging everyone relentlessly. Another brief skirmish later, everyone finally realised that all the bees within the house are dead. Zhong Ling and Wang Yuyan are both crying profusely due to the pain. In the ears of everyone, the sounds of 'pai pai' outside the house are as dense as ever. There could be another tens of thousands of bees waiting to penetrate the wooden cabin. Paled-faced, everybody temporary ignored their bodily pain and hastily tore at their collars or sleeves, using them to plug every single gap in the wooden house.

Numerous red and swollen marks occupy their six bodies and faces; everybody looked the worse for wear. Duan Yu consoled: "Luckily, we are able to seek shelter in this wooden house. If we are outside in the open wilderness and with these millions of wild bees coming after us, we will be slaughtered." Mu Wanqing warned: "These wild bees are being lured here by our enemies. Will they give up now? Or will they try to break down the wooden house?" Zhong Ling let out a shriek and asked: "Sister, you… you are saying that they will break down this wooden house?"

Before Mu Wanqing could reply, a loud 'PONG!' sound was heard above her head. A large rock has apparently landed on the roof. The rafters of the roof went 'ge ge' as it shook. Fortunately, the roof remained intact. The 'ge ge' sound barely ended when another two large rocks broke through the roof and landed in the house. The oil lamps were instantly extinguished.

Duan Yu hurriedly held Wang Yuyan in his bosom and covered her head and face. Faced with ear-deafening buzzing noise, the group realised fighting is futile and quickly used their robes to cover their faces. In seconds, their arms, legs, shoulders are pierced by thousands of stings. Shortly, everything went black as the six of them fainted simultaneously.

Duan Yu has ingested the Crimson Buffalo Toad and originally, he is immune to poison. However, these bees are raised by humans. Besides the venomous bee sting, sleeping drugs are applied to the bee's stinger. After being stung consecutively by hundreds of bees, he succumbed as well. Nevertheless, his internal energy is overwhelming and among the six, he was the first to regain consciousness.

The second he woke up, he immediately reached out his hand to hug Wang Yuyan. However, he is unable to move his arms. At the same time, he realised that Wang Yuyan is no longer in his bosom. Although his eyes are wide open, all he could see is complete darkness. It turns out that his arms and legs are securely fastened; his eyes are blindfolded with a black cloth and there was a large walnut stuffed in his mouth. His breathing is limited and speaking is impossible. All over his skin, he can feel countless small but painful spots, the places where the bees have left their marks. He could sense that he is in some underground chamber but has no idea where he is or how long he has been knocked out.

In his state of helplessness, Duan Yu suddenly heard a firm female voice reprimanding: "I have expended so much energy, planning to capture the old dog surnamed Duan from DaLi. Why did you catch this little puppy instead?" Duan Yu felt that this voice is familiar to him but for the time being, he could not recognize the speaker.

A voice from an old woman replied: "Servant (I) has followed your instructions carefully and nothing was neglected." The lady snorted: "Humph, I believe there is some funny business going on. The old dog was heading south from Xixia, taking the main road and passing through Xichuan; why did he abruptly head east? All the drugged wine that we carefully prepared along the journey was consumed by this puppy instead."

In his heart, Duan Yu knew the 'old dog' she mentioned is his own father Duan Zhengchun. In her rude terms, the 'puppy' is therefore Duan Yu himself. Based on the walled voices of the lady and old woman, they are probably speaking in another chamber, probably the chamber right next to Duan Yu's.

The old woman mused: "On this trip to the Central Plains, His Lordship Duan has already spent a considerable number of days. When he abruptly head east…" The lady scolded: "You still address him as His Lordship Duan?" The old woman answered: "Yes, in the past… Mistress instructed me to address him as Mister Duan. Now that he has aged…" The lady snapped: "Stop talking about him." The old woman acknowledged: "Yes." The lady released a light sigh and dejectedly continued: "He… He has aged…" In her voice, signs of pity and vulnerability can be discerned.

Duan Yu was instantly relieved. He pondered: Initially, I was puzzled about her identity. Turns out that she is Father's old girlfriend. She has a grudge with Father and she is probably doing it out of jealousy. Oh yeah, her venomous bees scheme is originally used to kidnap Father but due to a complicated coincidence, I took the rap instead. Since this is the case, she would not cause any harm to us. Still, I wonder who this lady is? I have definitely heard her voice before.

The lady started speaking again: "The incomplete paintings that we prepared in all the houses and inns; did that puppy really make all the right corrections? I am still in doubt. The old dog has managed to replicate all his education in the puppy? Is there such a coincidence in this world?" The old woman reminded: "Whenever the Father recites his poetry, the son will be influenced. There is nothing strange with that." The lady angrily cursed: "Dao Baifeng that uncouth and uneducated girl grew up in the countryside. How did she give birth to such a talented son? I will never believe this as long as I live."

Hearing her insult her own mother, Duan Yu was incensed. Unconsciously, he wanted to scold her in return but the minute he tried to move his lips, he was reminded of the giant walnut in his mouth. Under such restraint, how could he speak out?

Next, he heard the old woman advising: "Mistress, these events happened decades ago, why are you still clinging onto them? Moreover, the person who mistreated you was Mister Duan, not his son. You… you… You should spare the young man. Our 'Drunken Bees' have inflicted large amounts of pain on him; it should be more than enough." In a shrill voice, the lady exclaimed: "You are saying I should spare the kid surnamed Duan? Humph, Humph, I will cut him into a thousand slices before I spare him."

Duan Yu thought: Father has offended you, not me; why did you hate me so much? So the bees are known as 'Drunken Bees', I wonder how did she accumulate so many bees that will only attack us? Who is this lady? She is not Madam Zhong. Their voices are completely different.

Out of the blue, a male voice can be heard: "Maternal Aunt-in-law (Wife of mother's brother. Will use Maternal Aunt in future), your nephew pays his respects to you."

Duan Yu was greatly shaken. In his heart, a mystery has been solved. The male speaker is Murong Fu and the lady whom he addresses as Maternal Aunt is naturally Madam Wang of Gusu Moon Flower (jimsonweed / thornapple) Manor. She is the mother of Wang Yuyan and his future mother-in-law. Simultaneously, Duan Yu's heart is thumping uncontrollably. His emotions are going haywire and his brain is utterly confused. In his mind, the episodes at Moon Flower Manor are being played out like a cut scene:

Regardless of Camellia or Moon Flower, the best grown are those from DaLi. The quality of camellias from Gusu is deplorable, with the most being produced by Moon Flower Manor. Their variety is pathetic and the cultivation method is erroneous; either the farmed flowers are smaller than usual or they wither faster than normal. Funnily enough, why is the Manor named as 'Moon Flower Manor'? Except for camellias, no other flowers are planted at the Manor; what is the reason behind this peculiarity?

Moon Flower Manor has its own set of laws. Any male who enters the Manor uninvited must amputate both his legs. Additionally, Madam Wang insisted: "If the male happens to be from DaLi or is surnamed Duan, he must be buried alive." When the disciple of Limitless Sword Sect was captured by Madam Wang, although he is not from DaLi, he was still buried alive because his hometown is less than 20km away from DaLi.

Another time, Madam Wang seized a young gentleman, and ordered him to go home and murder his official wife. Afterwards, he must marry his private mistress as his official wife. If he disagrees, Madam Wang will take his life on the spot, giving the fellow no option but to accede.

Duan Yu remembered Madam Wang instructing her maidservant: "You shall escort him (as a prisoner) back to Gusu City and witness him killing his own wife with your own eyes. Once he has married Miss Miao, you may come home." The gentlemen pleaded: "My wife has no enmity with you; you are not acquainted with Miss Miao either. Why are you helping her, forcing me to kill my spouse and remarry?" That occasion, Madam Wang laughing replied: "Since you are a married man, you should not seduce another virgin lady. By sweet-talking her and involving her in a relationship, you have no choice but to marry her as your wife." Based on her revelations, the maidservant Xiaocui alone has already handled seven similar cases in Changshu, Danyang, Wuxi and Jiaxing.

Duan Yu is from DaLi and surnamed Duan. If not for his knowledge in growing camellias, Madam Wang would have sentenced him to death. Instead, he was invited to attend a feast at Yunjin Hall (Hall of Brocades). Unfortunately, while Duan Yu and Madam Wang are discussing about the different breeds of camellia, they mentioned a specific breed: white petals with a red streak, nicknamed: Beauty maimed her face. Duan Yu corrected: "There are many types of white camellia with red streaks. That is not 'Beauty maimed her face', it is 'Fence-leaning Beauty'. Madam, please think about it; all beauties are generally refined and gentle. If she occasionally cuts her face, that is acceptable. But if a beauty's face is full of cuts, that means she is always picking fights with others. How can someone like that be considered beautiful?" These words caused Madam Wang to blow her top and she berated him: "Where did you hear this nonsense from? How dare you create this twisted logic and insult me? Are you saying that a girl who practices martial arts is ugly? Refined and gentle; what's so good about that?" She had him instantly dragged out of the feast and nearly executed him.

From these incidents, at that point in time, Duan Yu concluded that Madam Wang is someone without compassion. Except for 'absurd', he could not find a better word to describe her. Presently, aware that the lady in the neighbouring chamber is Madam Wang, he was enlightened: She is another old flame of Father; that explains her dedication towards camellia and her extreme hatred for DaLi residents that are surnamed Duan. Since Madam Wang is so fond of camellia; her relationship with Father decades ago must be intricately linked to camellia. When she chose to bury men from DaLi or men surnamed Duan, she must be venting her frustration on Father, who himself is surnamed Duan and from DaLi. Father must have abandoned her and she bore this grudge till today, implicating innocent men. Whenever she forces men with mistresses to kill their official wives and remarry, it reveals her long hidden wish. She hoped that one day, Father would kill his official wife and marry her. When he (DY) unintentionally stated that a lady always getting into fights couldn't be beautiful, she immediately lost her temper. Back then, because of her affair with Father, they must have had a big martial arts fight. Of course, during the fight, Father would naturally make concessions for her.

Although Duan Yu finally unraveled many suspicious mysteries, there is no mental relief for him. Instead, it felt as if a gigantic boulder is pressing on his chest. For certain reasons, he could not articulate it. To a certain extent, he felt that Wang Yuyan's mother and his Father's past affair is something he is awfully uncomfortable with. Deep in his heart, he suddenly experienced an earth-shattering fear. Unwilling to face this most fearsome thoughts head on, he was petrified with unspeakable trauma.

Next minute, he heard Madam Wang speaking: "Oh, it is Nephew Fu. You look great. I believe you will soon become the Emperor of Great Yan. When is the coronation?" Her speech carried a tone of ridicule.

Murong Fu instead solemnly answered: "That is the bequest of my ancestors. Nephew is incompetent. Roaming through the martial arts world for years, I am still back at square one. I was about to seek some guidance from Maternal Aunt."

Madam Wang coldly sniggered: "What guidance can I offer? Ours is the Wang Family. Yours is the Murong Family. We are surnamed Wang, and have nothing to do with your Murong Family Emperor dream. I forbid you from entering Moon Flower Manor and forbid you from meeting Yuyan, all because I do not wish to get involved with your Murong Family issues. Where is Yuyan? Where have you brought her?"

'Where is Yuyan?' The three words struck Duan Yu's ear like a lightning bolt. This is his utmost concern right now. When the venomous bees are attacking him, Wang Yuyan was right in his bosom. Currently, where is she? Listening to Madam Wang's tone, she appears to be telling the truth.

He heard Murong Fu retort: "Where is Cousin? How would I know? All along, she has been accompanying Mister Duan from DaLi. Who knows, the two of them may have already went through marriage ceremony and have become husband and wife!"

In a quivering voice, Madam Wang scolded: "You… What utter rubbish!" With a loud 'Pong!' she heavily slammed her palm on the table. She furiously reprimanded: "Why didn't you take care of her? Letting her, a young lady, roam the martial arts world randomly? Don't you care for her as a Cousin?"

Murong Fu remarked: "Maternal Aunt, why are you so upset? You are afraid that I will marry Cousin, afraid that she will become the daughter-in-law of the Murong Family and follow me in my Emperor dream. Presently, everything is looking good. When she marries Mister Duan from DaLi, in the future, she will be the official Empress of DaLi country. Isn't that a fantastic outcome?"

'Pong!' Madam Wang landed another palm on the table. She hollered: "Nonsense! What kind of fantastic outcome is that? It will never be allowed!"

In the chamber next door, Duan Yu is already in a state of anxiety. When he heard the words 'it will never be allowed', he groaned in despair: "Suffering, suffering, Yuyan and I eventually cannot have a smooth sailing relationship. Her mother even stated that our marriage 'will never be allowed!'"

From a window outside, someone sang out: "Not right, not right. Miss Wang and Mister Duan are a match made in heaven, a pair made on earth. Madam is mistaken when you say it will never be allowed." Madam Wang angrily threatened: "Bao Butong, who gave you the permission to contradict me in this act of insubordination? If you continue to be rude, I will order someone to assassinate your daughter." Bao Butong is originally someone who fears neither the deities nor the demons. But after hearing Madam Wang's sharp censure, he instantly kept his mouth shut and became as quiet as a mouse.

In his heart, Duan Yu was wishing: "Third Brother Bao, Third Uncle Bao, Third Master Bao, Third Grandmaster Bao, please continue contradicting Madam Wang. Her words are entirely illogical. Only you are a true hero who posses the guts to pick a fight with her." Against his wishes, the voice from the window became completely silent, as Bao Butong no longer dared to speak out. Actually, Bao Butong is not afraid of Madam Wang sending a killer after her daughter Bao Bujing. The truth is that for generations, Bao Butong's ancestors have served the Murong Family. He himself is a loyal subordinate. Since Madam Wang is a Senior related to the Murong Family, indirectly, she is his owner (mistress) as well. Even if he loses his temper, he would not neglect this master-servant status.

Now that Bao Butong has committed to silence, Madam Wang's fury decreased by a little. To Murong Fu, she demanded: "Nephew Fu, now that you are here, what tricks are you up to? This time round, what do you plan to swindle from me?"

Murong Fu laughed: "Maternal Aunty, Nephew is your relation. In my heart, I am concerned about you. Can't I even pay you a visit? Why did you say I am here to swindle you?"

Madam Wang scorned: "Hey hey, to think you still have a conscience and are concerned about Maternal Aunt (me). If you have shown more concern, Maternal Aunt would not have landed in this pathetic state today." Murong Fu chuckled: "Maternal Aunt, if there is anything bothering you, by all means, share them with Nephew. Nephew guarantees you a satisfactory conclusion."

Madam Wang spat: "Pui Pui Pui! After a few years of not seeing you, I wonder where you learnt how to sweet talk!"

Murong Fu clarified: "It is not sweet-talking. If it were some strangers, I cannot tell what is bothering them. But for the issue bothering Maternal Aunt, even if Nephew (I) cannot be 100% correct, I would at least be 80% correct. In order to give Maternal Aunt a satisfactory conclusion, not that Nephew is bragging, but I am 80% confident of success."

Madam Wang challenged: "Why don't you try guessing? If you start spouting nonsense, don't blame me for giving you a tight slap."

Swaying his voice, Murong Fu recited: "Beauty in green robes a familiar face; September camellia blossom with grace."

Madam Wang was taken aback and in a trembling voice, she asked: "You… How did you know? Have you been to the wooden house by the sea of grass?" Murong Fu deflected: "Maternal Aunt need not know how I found out. Maternal Aunt only needs to tell Nephew, does she want to see this person or not?" Madam Wang stuttered: "See… Who do I wish to see?" Her tone has softened at once, carrying a pleading tone. Compared to her earlier serious and icy tone, the two tones are worlds apart. Murong Fu remarked: "The person Nephew is talking about is the same person Maternal Aunt has been thinking about. Spring river flowing water white camellia, summer valley mist rise red lychee!"

In a quavering voice, Madam Wang questioned: "Tell me, how can I meet him?" Murong Fu described: "Maternal Aunt has expended plenty of effort and resources in order to apprehend this person. However, due to one misstep, he avoided your trap. Nephew has been thinking; it is not difficult to encounter him but there is no use in purely meeting him. Ultimately, it makes more sense to capture him and make him completely obedient to Maternal Aunt. When Maternal Aunt wants him to head east, he dared not head west. If Maternal Aunt wants him to draw her eyebrows, he dared not apply rouge on her cheeks." The last two lines are highly disrespectful but Madam Wang's emotions are in a state of turbulence and she paid no heed to them. Sighing once, she commented: "My scheme is well-planned and brilliant, still, he managed to evade it. I cannot think of any better idea."

Murong Fu suggested: "Despite that, Nephew knows the whereabouts of this person. If Maternal Aunt trusts me, please provide Nephew with the details of the scheme. Maybe I can add some perspective to it."

Madam Wang explained: "After all, we are one big family and trust is never an issue. This round, my scheme is known as 'Drunken Bee' scheme. At Moon Flower Manor, I kept a few hundred bee hives. Besides camellia, the Manor does not plant any other flowers. The Manor is far away from mainland, so the bees on the island will not pick honey from anywhere else." Murong Fu noted: "That is right. Except for camellia, these 'Drunken Bees' will develop a dislike for the fragrances of other flowers." Madam Wang continued: "It took me more than ten years of effort in cultivating these bee hives. In the honey consumed by the bees, I gradually added sleeping drugs and other sedatives. When these 'Drunken Bees' sting someone, the person will be knocked out for four to five days."

Duan Yu was shocked: "Have I been unconscious for four to five days?"

Murong Fu praised: "Maternal Aunt's brilliant scheme is truly hard to overcome. Nevertheless, how do you get the bees to sting a specific person?"

Madam Wang explained: "You have to add a certain drug to the person's food. This drug is not poisonous, is colourless and odourless. However, it has a bitter taste so you cannot put the entire dosage in one go. As you know, this person (DZC) himself is a master of trickery. His subordinates are all wise, highly skilled and talented in various areas. Using poison or sleeping gas against him will be futile. Therefore, I came up with this plan. By sending my staff to provide all his meals and wine, we are able to dope him in small dosages."

Duan Yu was instantly enlightened: It turns out that along the journey, all the defective paintings were baits laid by Madam Wang to lure my Father. Once the paintings were rectified, the spies planted by Madam Wang will identify the presence of His Lordship Duan of DaLi. They will accordingly spike the food and wine before serving them.

Madam Wang bemoaned: "Unexpectedly, due to some ridiculous coincidence, that fellow skirted off elsewhere while his son stepped right into the thick of it. The little ruffian actually memorized his father's library of poems, verses, songs and records. Of course, he is another blatant womanizer and lecherous wanderer. On his trip, the little ruffian filled up all the painting blanks correctly. As he unreservedly wined and dined, he has consumed all the drugged wine and food on behalf of his father. Finally, he arrived at the wooden house near the sea of grass. Inside the wooden house, the oil in the oil lamps is all laced with drugs. I hid more drugs in the wooden pillar, waiting for the little ruffian to break it. The different drugs and the fragrance mixed together will attract the 'Drunken Bees.' Ai, there is no flaw in my plans; it is the wrong person who spring the trap. This little ruffian has ruined my grand scheme! Humph, if I don't dismember him into seventeen or eighteen pieces, I cannot appease the hatred in my heart."

Listening to her vile words and fierce tone, Duan Yu cannot help but was frightened at her threats. He thought: Her plan is truly brilliant and all-encompassing - by hiding drugs in the pillar and luring me to fill up the missing words in the couplets; once I broke the pillar, the drugs would seep out. Ai, Duan Yu ah Duan Yu! One step at a time, you have entered a trap set by the enemy, yet, you did not detect anything amiss. You are an absolute fool.

Duan Yu then changed his thinking perspective: Along the trip, I have been filling up blanks in paintings, thereby misleading Madam Wang's spies, giving them the impression that I am my Father. With all their attention on me, my Father was able to escape this predicament. Bearing this calamity for my Father, I have no regrets. In fact, I am grateful for this development.

As Duan Yu thought up till this point, he felt his sacrifice is not a big issue. But eventually, he cannot help but wonder: After capturing me, Madam Wang is going to dismember me in seventeen or eighteen pieces but if the person she captured was my Father, she would obediently oblige and serve him. Looks like the end consequence between my Father and I are vastly different.

Next, he heard Madam Wang grumbled with hatred in her voice: "I got this maidservant to masquerade as a deaf-mute old woman, giving her full authority to command the operations. Despite personally knowing and recognizing that person, the entire scheme fell apart like one big joke."

The old woman debated: "Mistress, Maid (I) has already reported to you that Mister Duan (Senior) is not present in the group. I proceeded to con them out of their firestones so that they cannot put up a light. Furthermore, I used grass mats to conceal couplets on the pillars, preventing the 'Drunken Bees' from being lured to the house. Unexpectedly, these people are simply a magnet for trouble. At the end of the day, they still managed to light a fire and unmask the couplets."

With a snort, Madam Wang insisted: "Regardless of what you say, you are plain useless."

Duan Yu thought: "When the old woman cheated us of our firestones and wrapped the pillars with grass mats, she is actually doing it for our own good. I did not see that coming."

Murong Fu enquired: "Maternal Aunt, after the 'Drunken Bees' have stung someone, what happen to the bees?" Madam Wang replied: "Once the bees have stung someone, they will die shortly after that. However, the bees that I have been rearing are in the ten of thousands. A few hundred dead is of no consequence." Murong Fu applauded: "That is wonderful. First, we grab the junior, then we get the senior; the sequence doesn't matter. Nephew has a suggestion, if we are able to retrieve a identification item from junior, either a pendant, weapon or some significant object, we can present it to Maternal Aunt's … that… that guy. With it, we can easily lure him to the wooden house near the sea of grass."

With an 'Ah!' cry, Madam Wang stood up and praised: "My good Nephew, after all, as a young man, your brain is more resourceful. When Maternal Aunt's (my) scheme fell apart, I was disappointed and empty of ideas. It did not cross my mind to extend the scheme. You are right. The Father and son share a deep bond. If he knows his son is being detained by me, he would surely try and save him. By repeating the 'Drunken Bee' trap, we can still accomplish the mission."

Murong Fu laughed: "When that really happens, even without the bees, there is nothing to fear. By adding sedatives to his wine and forcing him to drink it, he would not reject in order to save his son. In fact, when he sees Maternal Aunt's exquisite complexion, all the 'Drunken Bees' and sedatives will be useless. He will be fully intoxicated by your beauty."

With a 'pui', Madam Wang scolded: "You rascal, how dare you utter rubbish in front of Maternal Aunt!" But thinking of reuniting with Duan Zhengchun and drinking wine with him, she unconsciously revealed a joyful smile. Her blissful heart fluttering to the sky, she sweetly agreed: "Correct, not bad, we shall go with this idea."

Murong Fu said: "Maternal Aunt, Nephew's idea is pretty good, isn't it?" Madam Wang chuckled: "If everything concludes successfully without any accidents, Maternal Aunt naturally would not forget to reward you. Our first step is to investigate the actual whereabouts of that heartless fellow." Murong Fu disclosed: "Nephew is in possession of some news regarding his location. With regards to this, there are some complications." Madam Wang frowned: "What kind of complications? As usual, you love to withhold stuff from others." Murong Fu revealed: "This man is currently being detained by another captor, and his life is danger."

With a 'Qiang Lang' noise, a delicate bowl was accidently swept by the sleeve of Madam Wang. Falling onto the floor, it shattered into pieces.

Duan Yu had a big shock too. If not for the walnut stuffed in his mouth, he would certainly have cried out.

In a trembling voice, Madam Wang inquired: "Who… Who is his captor? Why didn't you say so earlier? We could have thought of a plan to rescue him." Murong Fu shook his head: "My dear Maternal Aunt, our opponent this time possess incredible martial arts, even Nephew is not his match. We can only rely on our wits and not by force." Hearing his tone, Madam Wang felt that Murong Fu is hardly in a state of urgency or anxiety. Slightly comforted, she continued interrogating: "How do we win by relying on our wits? What clever plan do you have?"

Murong Fu reasoned: " We can still utilize Maternal Aunt's 'Drunken Bees' scheme. We only need to change the pillars and engrave new words on them. For example, we can engrave 'DaLi Country is presently ruled by Emperor Baoding Duan Zhengming'. When that person sees this, he would certainly rage about it. When he uses his fingers to erase the words 'Emperor Baoding Duan Zhengming', the drugs will seep out from the pillar."

Madam Wang guessed: "So his captor is that fellow who is competing against Duan Zhengming for the throne of DaLi. I think his name is Duan Yanqing."

Murong Fu confirmed: "That's right!"

Madam Wang was petrified: "He… He… If he is in the hands of Duan Yanqing, his days are numbered. All along, Duan Yanqing has been dying to kill him. Maybe… Maybe by now, he has already… Has already executed him."

Murong Fu coaxed: "Maternal Aunt need not worry too much. There are some critical conditions involved that you have not considered." Madam Wang demanded: "What critical conditions?" Murong Fu elaborated: "Presently, the Emperor of DaLi is Duan Zhengming. Your Mister Duan (senior) has already been conferred with the title of Imperial Successor. Everyone in DaLi knows about this. Duan Zhengming is lenient in his punishments and taxation, practices good governance and loves his people. He is widely praised as a compassionate ruler while Lord Zhennan himself is popular with the citizens of DaLi. The monarchy is stable and established. For Duan Yanqing, killing Lord Zhennan is as easy as lifting a finger; however, the minute Lord Zhennan is killed, the Imperial Court of DaLi will be in chaos. There is no guarantee that Duan Yanqing can smoothly ascend the throne of DaLi."

Madam Wang agreed: "What you said makes sense, but how did you come to these conclusions?" Murong Fu answered: "Some of these information are what Nephew learnt from others; while the rest are my own deductions." Madam Wang realised: "All your life, you are thinking of becoming an Emperor. Naturally, you would spare no effort in obtaining information in these areas."

Murong Fu articulated: "Maternal Aunt has given me too much credit. It is Nephew's wild guess that Duan Yanqing would not execute Lord Zhennan immediately after capturing him. Instead, he should think of a way to let him ascend the throne first before abdicating and transferring the throne to Duan Yanqing himself. This method will be official and upright. Regardless of DaLi ministers, generals or citizens, no one could object to this arrangement." Madam Wang quizzed: "Why is this official and upright?" Murong Fu explained: "Originally, Duan Yanqing's father is the Emperor of DaLi. Due to a power tussle by corrupted statesmen, Duan Yanqing's disappearance was engineered during a succession, allowing Duan Zhengming to become the Emperor instead. Duan Yanqing is the true blue Prince Yanqing of DaLi. This is common knowledge in DaLi. When Lord Zhennan ascended the throne and he is without an heir, it is only befitting to confer Duan Yanqing as the Imperial Successor. Therefore, this process is completely official and upright."

Madam Wang was bewildered: "He… He… He obviously has a son. Why did you say he is heirless?" Murong Fu laughed: "Maternal Aunt, have you forgotten your earlier words? Didn't you say you are planning to dismember the surnamed Duan fellow into seventeen or eighteen pieces? I don't think he can still become an Imperial Successor when he is in seventeen or eighteen pieces." Madam Wang cheerfully exclaimed: "Right! Right! This b@5tard which came out of the cheap lowlife Dao Baifeng. His living existence only serves to annoy me."

Duan Yu thought: This time round, it looks like my life is in extreme danger. I wonder where is Yuyan? If she begs for mercy on my behalf, maybe Madam Wang will spare my life.

Madam Wang declared: "Since his life is not in immediate danger, I am relieved. I will not allow him to become the pointless Emperor of DaLi. He must accompany me to Moon Flower Manor." Murong Fu reasoned: "After Lord Zhennan has abdicated, he would naturally accompany Maternal Aunt to Moon Flower Manor. Even if he remains in DaLi, there is nothing for him there. Duan Yanqing will not appreciate his presence too, for Lord Zhennan could be a source of trouble for him. Nonetheless, it is necessary for Lord Zhennan to ascend the throne. Let him enjoy the throne for ten days or even up till two weeks. Once we have the upper hand, we will show no mercy. Otherwise, Duan Yanqing would not agree." Madam Wang dissed: "Pui! Whether he agrees or not, it has nothing to do with us. Once we have captured Duan Yanqing and rescued Mister Duan (senior), we can simply kill him. Who cares about his consent?"

Murong Fu let out a sigh: "Maternal Aunt, I forgot to mention something. Before we could capture Duan Yanqing, there is still a big hurdle we need to overcome." Madam Wang commented: "You already knew where he is. My good Nephew, Maternal Aunt fully understands your character. When the mission has been accomplished, what kind of reward do you want from me? Let's get this issue out of the way first. Feel free to make your most daring request." Murong Fu rejected: "We are relatives. For Nephew to assist Maternal Aunt, no reward is necessary. Nephew is just doing my best and have no desire for any benefits."

Madam Wang indicated: "If you say so. In the future, if you bring this up again and I refused your request, don't you dare to be upset."

Murong Fu guffawed: "Since Nephew has declined any reward, I will stick to it. In the future, when you are really feeling generous, feel free to reward me with a few thousand taels of gold or a few martial arts manual from Langya Jade Cave. That will suffice."

Madam Wang snorted once 'Humph' and remarked: "If you need gold for your daily expenses and come to me for them, why would I reject you? If you wanted to browse the secret manuals in Langya Jade Cave, you are more than welcomed! I am only worried if you waste your life away and do not seek to improve yourself. I really have no idea what is going through your mind. All right! Regarding the capture of Duan Yanqing and the rescue of hostage, what is your idea?"

Murong Fu began: "The first step is for Duan Yanqing to escort Lord Zhennan to the wooden house by the sea of grass, am I right?" Madam Wang nodded: "That is right. How do you plan to lure Duan Yanqing to the wooden house by the sea of grass?" Murong Fu responded: "This is easy. For Duan Yanqing to become the Emperor of DaLi, he needs to accomplish two tasks. First, he needs to apprehend Duan Zhengchun and force him to abdicate. Second, he needs to kill Duan Yu, making Duan Zhengchun heirless. After all, 'Among the three failures, heirless is the gravest.' With his capture of Duan Zhengchun, Duan Yanqing has completed the first task. Duan Yu that fellow is still alive in this world. We will bring an identification item of Duan Yu and show it to Duan Zhengchun. Duan Zhengchun would obviously want to save his son and Duan Yanqing will escort him here. Therefore, when Maternal Aunt has captured the Duan junior fellow, it is not a mistake at all. Because of the captured Duan Yu, we now have a fragrant bait to catch the golden tortoise."

Madam Wang giggled: "You are saying the Duan junior fellow is a fragrant bait?" Murong Fu laughed: "I think he is half fragrant and half stinking." Madam Wang asked: "Why so?" Murong Fu explained: "Half of him from Lord Zhennan is fragrant. The other half from the lowlife Zhennan Princess must be stinking."

Madam Wang burst out laughing and remarked: "You little sweet-talker; you really know how to please Maternal Aunt."

Murong Fu chuckled: "Nephew might as well work on this immediately. The earlier we finish, the earlier Maternal Aunt can begin a life of happiness. Maternal Aunt, please summon that fellow." Madam Wang updated: "After he has been stung by the 'Drunken Bees', he would only regain consciousness in about three more days. This kid is in the next chamber. If he is awake, based on our loud voices, he would have overheard everything. There is something else I wanted to ask you. This… This Lord Zhennan may be a heartless cad but he is a righteous hero after all. How is Duan Yanqing going to force him to abdicate? Is he going to use methods of torture and cause him… cause him plenty of suffering?" As she spoke till this point, her voice is full of deep concern.

Murong Fu sighed once and advised: "Maternal Aunt, regarding this, you should not probe any further. If Nephew told you, you would certainly be angered." Madam Wang anxiously demanded: "Quickly tell me. Quickly tell me. Stop hiding things from me." Murong Fu sighed: "When I say the DaLi Duan fellow is heartless, I am entirely correct. With Maternal Aunt's breathtaking beauty, academic background and martial arts skills, even if someone carries a lantern and search throughout the lands, there will not be a second one available. This Duan fellow must have accumulated plenty of good karma in his previous life to win the love of Maternal Aunt. By then, he should have stayed loyal and cared for you. However… Ai, to think that such a muddle headed fool actually exists; ignoring the bliss right before his eyes. Instead of loving the Moon Goddess ChangE, he chose the sow rolling in the mud…"

Madam Wang was incensed: "You are saying he… he… that heartless cad is involved with other women? Who is she? Who is she?" Murong Fu advised: "These lowlife and cheap women; they are not even fit to carry the shoes of Maternal Aunt. Those women beside him are only the wife of Zhang San* and the daughter of Li Si*. Maternal Aunt must maintain your prestige. There is no need to get upset over these kind of women."

(derogatory term for anonymous women)

Madam Wang blew her top and slammed the table several times 'Pong! Pong! Pong!' She bellowed: "When he dumped me and returned to DaLi and become a Lord, I do not hold it against him. He is married with a wife; I also do not hold it against him. It is my own bad luck for meeting him after he got married. But he… But he… You say he has been hanging out with other women? These women, who are they? Who are they? Speak!"

In the next chamber, Duan Yu heard her throwing a huge tantrum and he could not help but was traumatized as well. He thought: Yuyan is such a gentle and easygoing person; why is her mother such a fearsome character? It must be quite tough for Father to date such a woman.

Duan Yu then realised: All of Father's old girlfriends have weird tempers. Aunty Qin ordered her daughter to assassinate my Mother. Aunty Ruan gave birth to a daughter like Sister Ah Zi; her own temperament cannot be any better. Aunty Gan has obviously gotten married to Zhong Wanchou and yet she is still entangled with my Father. The wife of Beggar's Sect Assistant Chief is crazily obedient. Even my own Mother is peculiar. Instead of cohabiting with Father, she chose to be a nun in a temple outside the city. Even Imperial Uncle and Imperial Aunty cannot persuade her to change her mind. Ai, why did I list my Mother among the old girlfriends?

Murong Fu comforted: "Maternal Aunt, there is no need to lose your temper. Please catch your breath and Nephew will slowly tell you everything."

Madam Wang professed: "Even if you are unwilling to speak, I already guessed as much. Duan Yanqing must have captured a cheap woman who is accompanying the surnamed Duan fellow. This is to force him to abdicate after becoming the Emperor. If he refuses, the cheap woman will be subjected to torture. Am I right? The silly character of the surnamed Duan fellow, don't I know him well enough? No matter how you force him, even if you put a steel knife to his neck, he would rather die than comply. But if you are threatening a woman that he loves, he is willing to agree to anything, even sacrifice his own life. Humph. How does the cheap woman look like? That foxy vixen, I wondered how did she seduce him? Speak quickly, who is this cheap woman?"

Murong Fu warned: "Maternal Aunt, I will say it out. Please do not be angry. There is more than one cheap woman." Shocked and infuriated, 'Pong!' Madam Wang heavily slammed the table once and shouted: "What? There are two of them?" Murong Fu sighed once and slowly replied: "There is more than two of them!"

Madam Wang is completely filled with disbelief and rage: "What? In his trip, he is still busy womanizing? One is insufficient, he needs two, even three companions?"

Murong Fu shook his head: "Presently, there are four females accompanying him. Maternal Aunt, there is no need to be upset. In the future, when he becomes the Emperor, his harem will be filled with beauties. Although DaLi is a small country and cannot be compared with Great Song or Great Liao, even if he does not have three thousand concubines, he would at least have three hundred ladies at his beck and call."

Madam Wang scolded: "Pui! Pui! That is why I forbid him from becoming the Emperor. Speak, who are the four cheap women?"

Duan Yu was puzzled as well. He only knew about Qin Hongmian and Ruan Xingzhu who are accompanying Father. Where did the other two ladies come from?

Next, he heard Murong Fu started: "One is surnamed Qin, one is surnamed Ruan…" Madam Wang cursed: "Humph! Qin Hongmian and Ruan Xingzhu; these two vixens are intertwined with him again." Murong Fu added: "There is one more but she is a married woman. I hear them calling her Madam Zhong. It appears that she is looking for her daughter. This Madam Zhong kept a respectful distance and her relationship with Lord Zhennan seems to be platonic. Lord Zhennan treated her respectfully in return but he always lovingly addressed her as: Baobao, Baobao!" Madam Wang berated: "It is Gan Baobao the cheap woman. What respectful behavior rubbish? It is all fake and putting up a show for others. If they are indeed prim and proper, they should be miles apart. Yet, they are sticking together. Who is the last cheap woman?"

Murong Fu clarified: "Number four is not a cheap woman. She is the official wife of Lord Zhennan, Zhennan Princess Consort."

Both Duan Yu and Madam Wang were utterly astounded. Duan Yu thought: Why is Mother here as well? Madam Wang let out a 'Ah!', as this is beyond her expectation.

Murong Fu chuckled: "Does Maternal Aunt find this strange? Actually, if you think deeply about it, it is nothing extraordinary. Lord Zhennan has left DaLi for more than a year. Central Plains has countless beauties. Since there are attractive women like Maternal Aunt, there would surely be h0rny (horny) vixens like Qin Hongmian and Ruan Xingzhu. Surely Zhennan Princess would be worried about Lord Zhennan, right?"

Madam Wang went 'Pui' and chided: "How dare you compare me with those h0rny vixens! These four women, are they all still with him?"

Murong Fu laughed: "Maternal Aunt can rest easy. After a vicious battle on a red sand beach near Double Phoenix Station, Lord Zhennan's side suffered a complete loss at the hands of Duan Yanqing. Regardless of male or female, the acupoints were all sealed and everyone became a prisoner. Duan Yanqing was busy fighting Lord Zhennan and his companions, failing to detect me, who is hiding nearby and witnessed everything. Nephew rode tirelessly and now I am about 50km ahead of them. Maternal Aunt, time is of the essence. Let's prepare the 'Drunken Bees' and the sedatives. At the same time, let's send someone to lure Duan Yanqing…"

When he said the word 'Qing', suddenly, from afar, there came a sharp and ugly sounding voice, saying: "I have been here for some time already; there is no need to lure me. You should prepare the 'Drunken Bees' and sedatives instead."

Chapter - 48 Wretched Imperial Descendent. an Episode Never to be Repeated. Passing of an Era

Although the speaker is at least dozens of feet away, when the voice entered the ears of Madam Wang and Murong Fu, it felt as if the speaker is right beside them. The countenance of both Aunt and Nephew lost colour instantly. Outside the house, Feng BoE and Bao Butong roared out in unison as they raced towards the source of the voice. Murong Fu dashed to the door and under the fluttering green moonlight, a grey silhouette and a yellow silhouette shot past him. It is Deng Baichuan and Gongye Qian (Gongzhi error) who are respectively performing a left and right combined attack.

With his left staff propped against the floor, Duan Yanqing's right staff went for a horizontal slice towards the two men Deng Baichuan and Gongye Qian. 'Chi Chi Chi' sounds rang out and in a split second, seven killing stances have been executed. Deng Baichuan barely defended himself while Gongye Qian cannot withstand the force and took two steps back. The two men Bao Butong and Feng BoE entered the fray as well. Against the four of them, Duan Yanqing hardly broke a sweat and he easily gained the upper hand.

From his waist, Murong Fu unsheathed his long sword. With a display of cold aura and a flash of green light, he stabbed in the direction of Duan Yanqing. Duan Yanqing is surrounded and consecutively attacked by the five men. Among the five, Murong Fu is considered a first-class swordsman. Nonetheless, the shadow of his staff is flying everywhere and all his attacks are fierce and forceful.

Back then, when Madam Wang and Duan Zhengchun are passionately in love, under the moon and before the flowers, except for swearing vows of love to each other, they discussed martial arts as well. Duan Zhengchun had exhibited Yiyang Finger and Duan Family Swordplay for her appreciation. Currently, Madam Wang is witnessing sword stances from Duan Yanqing that resembled her own Duan-Lang, how could she not be grieved? In her mind, she guessed that Duan-Lang has been kidnapped and should be in the vicinity; she should take this opportunity to rescue him. About to leave the house and search in the nearby mountain, she was abruptly interrupted by a loud scream from Feng BoE.

She saw Feng BoE lying on the ground and Duan Yanqing behind him. With his steel staff, Duan Yanqing scratched Feng BoE in several areas but none of the attacks are aimed at his critical spots. Murong Fu, Deng Baichuan and the others thrust their weapons at Duan Yanqing but were deflected by his steel staff. The situation is absolutely clear. For Duan Yanqing to kill Feng BoE, it is as easy as flipping his hand. For the time being, he is being merciful.

Murong Fu quickly retreated and called out: "Stop!" The three men Deng Baichuan, Gongye Qian and Bao Butong leapt backwards. Murong Fu state: "Mister Duan, thank you for showing mercy. There is no enmity between you and I. From today onwards, Gusu Murong Family acknowledges your superior skills."

Feng BoE cried out: "Surnamed Feng (I) is an incompetent learner; one (my) life is insignificant. Master, no matter what happens, you must not admit defeat because of Surnamed Feng (me)." Duan Yanqing's throat 'gu gu' laughed: "Surnamed Feng is a worthy hero!" He then withdrew his steel staff.

With a * jump, Feng BoE recovered with a 'hu' sound. With his sabre, he performed a ferocious chop at the top of Duan Yanqing's head, yelling: "Take this blade of mine!" Duan Yanqing raised his steel staff and applied it against his sabre. Feng BoE can feel a particularly strong power rattling towards his palms. The sabre instantly left his grasp and there was a sharp pain at his waist. Duan Yanqing's staff has landed a blow on his waist and with the impact, Feng BoE flew several feet away. Next, his right hand made a small movement, channeling his internal energy through the steel staff and into the sabre. With a 'ting ting dang dang' series of noises, the sabre has disintegrated into ten over pieces and the sabre bits flew out like projectiles in various directions. Either jumping high or dodging low to avoid the flying sharp shrapnel, Murong Fu, Madam Wang and the others are frightened out of their wits.

Murong Fu clasped his hands, praising: "Mister Duan's divine skills are peerless. You have my admiration. Shall we dissolve our enmity and become friends?"

Duan Yanqing challenged: "Earlier, you wanted to prepare 'Drunken Bees' to harm me, now that you have lost to me, what other ideas do you have?"

Murong Fu enquired: "If the two of us work together, it will be highly beneficial to both parties. Prince Yanqing, you are the rightful Emperor of DaLi country but your precious throne has been hijacked by somebody else. Why aren't you trying to snatch it back?" With an odd eye, Duan Yanqing took a sideway glance at Murong Fu. In a ghostly voice, he asked: "What has that got to do with you?" Murong Fu insisted: "If you want to become the Emperor of DaLi, you cannot do it without my input." Duan Yanqing icily sniggered: "I don't believe you are willing to assist me; more likely, you cannot wait to kill me with one sword slash."

Murong Fu explained: "Since I am willing to assist you in becoming the Emperor of DaLi, I have my own agenda as well. Number one, I hate the kid Duan Yu to the core. At Mount Shaoshi, he forced me to commit suicide and also cause the disgrace of Murong Family reputation in the martial arts world. I must kill the kid Duan Yu and assist you in becoming the Emperor in order to vent the frustration in my heart. Number two, after you become the Emperor of DaLi country, I have a favour to ask of you."

Duan Yanqing recognize that Murong Fu is full of tricks and does not bear any good intentions towards himself. But after listening to his words, he believed him to a certain extent. After all, he personally witness Duan Yu using Six Meridian Divine Sword on Murong Fu, forcing him to a corner and beating him to a pulp on Mount Shaoshi. When he recollected this incident, he felt uncomfortable as well. Although Duan Zhengchun is his prisoner, he is fully aware that he will capitulate under Duan Yu's Six Meridian Divine Sword as well. In case he ran into Duan Yu and they starting fighting, he would definitely perish under Duan Yu's invisible sword energy. Therefore, the only option left is to threaten him with the lives of Duan Zhengchun husband and wife. However, he is not confident that this method would be successful in suppressing Duan Yu. Thus, he interrogated: "Compared to Duan Yu, Mister's martial arts are inferior. How do you plan to overcome him?"

His face turning slightly red, Murong Fu explained: "Not by force but by strategy. Regardless, that fellow Duan Yu is now my prisoner. I will simply hand him over to Senior (you)."

Duan Yanqing was overjoyed. His greatest fear has always been Duan Yu's powerful martial arts, which are superior to his own. Now that Murong Fu has Duan Yu under lock and key, his biggest worry has been resolved. However, he is concerned that Murong Fu is blatantly lying and trying to deceive him. He quizzed: "You say you are capable of taking Duan Yu as your prisoner, I wonder if that is purely your own imagination and empty words."

Murong Fu smiled slightly and introduced: "This is Madam Wang, my Maternal Aunt-in-law. That kid Duan Yu has been apprehended by my Maternal Aunt. She was thinking of using this kid to exchange a hostage with Senior. We wanted to lure Senior here for this sole purpose as well."

At this point in time, Madam Wang is scouring the area, trying to locate the whereabouts of Duan Zhengchun. Hearing Murong Fu's words, she quickly turned back.

Duan Yanqing's throat 'ji ji gu gu' probed: "I wonder which hostage is Madam interested in?"

Madam Wang's countenance turned slightly red. In her heart, regardless of day or night, the person she has been thinking of and pining for is nobody but Duan Zhengchun. However, she is a single mother and found it difficult to confess her feelings to a stranger. She was momentarily speechless.

Murong Fu supplied: "Duan Zhengchun, the father of this kid Duan Yu, has offended my Maternal Aunt years ago. Her hatred for him is as deep as the ocean. My Maternal Aunt only requires Senior to make a commitment. When Senior has ascended the throne of DaLi, Senior must hand Duan Zhengchun over to my Maternal Aunt. At the time, whether it is killing or dismemberment, fried in oil or incineration, my Maternal Aunt will call the shots."

Duan Yanqing broke out laughing. He thought: After he abdicates, I initially wanted to execute him. Since you are willing to act on my behalf, I could not ask for more.

Still, he felt that the proceeding is going exceedingly smooth and is afraid of hidden tricks. He probed again: "Mister Murong, you say that after my coronation, you have a favour to ask of me. I wonder if that favour is within my ability or not? Please indicate your wishes upfront. Otherwise, I will be branded a dishonorable man if I fail to return your favour in the future."

Murong Fu revealed: "Since Your Highness Duan has made this request, I will take you into complete confidence. Since we are negotiating such a huge transaction, the secrets of my heart will be not be shielded from you. Gusu Murong Family are the royal descendants of the defunct Great Yan Empire; following instructions left by our ancestors, we, the Murong Family, seek to revive the Empire of Great Yan. My strength is limited, making it difficult for me to accomplish any great tasks. When Your Highness has officially become the ruler of DaLi country, Murong Fu wants to borrow ten thousand soldiers and sufficient rations from DaLi Country. These resources will be utilized to restore Great Yan."

When Duan Yanqing witnessed Murong Bo preventing Murong Fu from committing suicide on Mount Shaoshi, he more or less predicted that Murong Fu is a royal descendant of Great Yan. Now that Murong Fu is divulging such a confidential secret to himself, his sincerity is evident. He thought: If he wants to restore the Yan Empire, he would become an enemy of Great Song and Great Liao. My DaLi is a small country with limited population. We can barely defend ourselves; how can we afford to provoke the bigger nations? Moreover, I am newly coroneted and have yet to win the support of the people. Getting involved in war is out of the question. Forget it. Right now, I will pretend to agree. When we come to that stage, I will simply dismiss him. After all, drastic times call for drastic measures. As a result, he professed: "DaLi is a small country with impoverished citizens. Drafting ten thousand soldiers is no easy feat. Five thousand soldiers are what I can promise you for now. I wish you success in your pursuit. Great Yan and DaLi will forever be allied states."

Tears running down his face, Murong Fu made a deep prostration. He swore: "If Murong Fu is able to restore the glory of my forefathers, for generations to come, we will be a protective vassal state of DaLi and we will never forget His Majesty's debt of gratitude and kindness."

Hearing Murong Fu now addressing him as 'Your Majesty', Duan Yanqing was ecstatic. Furthermore, Murong Fu's voice is choked with emotion, indicating that he was moved to tears. He hurriedly reached out with his hand and helped him up, acknowledging: "Mister has been too polite; where is the kid Duan Yu?"

Before Murong Fu can respond, Madam Wang interrupted him and questioned: "Duan Zhengchun that fellow, where is he too?" Murong Fu answered: "Your Majesty, we welcome you and your followers to my Maternal Aunt's residence for a rest. Duan Yu has been secured and we will present him to you shortly."

Duan Yanqing cheerfully accepted: "That is wonderful." Abruptly, a long and piercing noise was produced from his navel area.

Madam Wang was alarmed. Soon she could vaguely hear the sounds of hoof beats coming from a distant place. Briefly later, with the 'long long' noise from wagons, a few donkey wagons are sighted driving towards them. In a short span of time, four horse riders appeared, escorting three large wagons on the main road. With a lunge, Madam Wang moved first and made a dash for the wagons. In her heart, despite knowing that Duan Zhengchun is in within the wagons, she could not wait any longer. Cutting between the first two horses, she reached out with her hand, wanting to part the wagon curtain of the first large vehicle.

All of a sudden, a human head consisting of a wide mouth and beady eyes, large ears and a protruding forehead appeared right before her eyes. The human head loudly bellowed: "What are you trying to do?" Madam Wang had a great shock and her body instinctively leapt away. Taking a closer look, this hideous looking man is holding a whip in his hand and is probably the person driving the wagons.

Duan Yanqing commanded: "Third Brother, this is Madam Wang. We are going to her residence for a rest. Regarding the guests in the wagons, bring all of them too!" The wagon driver is indeed Divine Croc of the Southern Seas.

As the wagon curtain of the large wagon is pushed aside, a person gingerly stepped out.

This person's expression is downcast and he is dressed in a heavily creased silk robe. For Madam Wang, he is indeed the Duan-Lang that she has been yearning for relentlessly. Almost hysterical and tears running down her cheeks, she rushed towards him and called: "Duan… Duan… You… How are you?"

When Duan Zhengchun heard her voice, he was deeply astonished. Turning his head and seeing Madam Wang in front of him, his countenance changed drastically. He got romantically involved with plenty of women all over the world, and among all of them, Madam Wang is the most persistent of all. Qin Hongmian, Ruan Xingzhu and the others are satisfied as long as they are in his company. Madam Wang is the most demanding out of all of them. By resorting to violence and weapons, she demanded that he kill his official wife Dao Baifeng and marry her instead. How could Duan Zhengchun agree to such a treacherous arrangement? When things became irreconcilable, he was forced to leave without notice and flee for his freedom. In his wildest imagination, he never expects to run into her when he is at his most deplorable state.

Duan Zhengchun may not subscribe to a monogamous relationship but for each of his lovers, he treats them with absolute earnestness and adoration. In a split second, all his attention is geared towards the well-being of Madam Wang. He cried: "Ah Luo (pet name), run away quickly! This old fellow in green robes is a Great Evil. Don't be captured by him." His body slightly bent, Duan Zhengchun positioned himself between Madam Wang and Duan Yanqing. He urged non-stop: "Quickly run away! Quickly run away!" Actually, his main acupoints have been sealed by Duan Yanqing and to take a step is already considered a strenuous task. There is no way he could have protected Madam Wang.

From the 'Ah Luo' cry, feelings of care and love borne out of wholesome sincerity can be detected in the tone. Madam Wang's anger-filled chest instantly melted into gentleness. In front of Duan Yanqing and Nephew, she could not reveal her true feelings. She coldly snorted at once and chided: "Mud Buddha crossing the river (idiom), you cannot even defend yourself. He is a Great Evil; are you a Great Benefactor?" Turning to Duan Yanqing, she invited: "Your Highness, please!"

Duan Yanqing is aware of Duan Zhengchun's character. Observing his reaction and expression, he knew Duan Zhengchun cared for instead of hated Madam Wang. With regards to the grievance Madam Wang had against him, he estimated there is more love than hatred involved. He pondered: The relationship between these two people is more than meets the eye; I should be careful and not fall into their trap.

With his amazing skills and courageous heart, Duan Yanqing bravely stepped into the residence without any fear or worry.

As part of the plan to capture Duan Zhengchun, Madam Wang specially purchased this villa and constructed many new structures inside. After the main door is a large garden fully planted with camellia. Under the reflection of the moonlight, the flowers gracefully swayed, creating an aura of elegance.

Scanning the layout of the camellia, Duan Zhengchun noticed the resemblance between this layout and the one in Madam Wang's Gusu garden. Reminiscing about the happy times he had with her, his chest was pained and he whispered: "So… So this is your residence." Madam Wang coldly laughed: "You recognize it?" Duan Zhengchun whimpered: "I recognized it. How I wish I stayed with you and grow old together in Gusu Moon Flower Manor……"

Divine Croc and Yun Zhonghe have led the prisoners from the two large wagons into the residence as well. One of the wagons contained the four ladies, Dao Baifeng, Madam Zhong Gan Baobao, Qin Hongmian and Ruan Xingzhu. The other wagon is occupied by Fan Hua, Cui Baiquan, Guoyan and two other ministers of DaLi. All the nine of them have their main acupoints sealed by Duan Yanqing.

Originally, Duan Zhengchun has dispatched Ba Tianshi and Zhu Danchen to escort Duan Yu to Xixia to apply for the Prince Consort. Shortly thereafter, he received Emperor Baoding's emissary and royal decree, giving him a deadline to return to DaLi and ascend the throne. Emperor Baoding himself will ordain as a monk at Sky Dragon Monastery. The Imperial family of DaLi is dedicated to Buddhism and many of the kingdom's Emperors will abdicate and ordain as monks in their later years. Therefore, although Duan Zhengchun is saddened at this decree, he did not find it unusual. With Qin Hongmian and Ruan Xingzhu in tow, he immediately headed south at a slow pace. He planned to secretly house the two ladies in DaLi city and keep Princess Consort Dao Baifeng in the dark. Unexpectedly, Dao Baifeng and Gan Baobao caught up to him consecutively. Following that, he received a warning from Lingjiu Palace's female disciple, indicating a formidable foe who has laid an ambush in the road ahead and advised Duan Zhengchun to take extra precautions. After discussing with Fan Hua and the others, they concluded the 'formidable foe' to be none other than Duan Yanqing. This nemesis is truly difficult to overcome and avoidance is the best strategy. As a result, the group changed directions and headed eastwards. Unknown to him, this message came from Ah Bi, who learned about it from Madam Wang's personal maid. Ah Bi only knew half the story: The ambush is genuine; however, Madam Wang has no intention of harming Duan Zhengchun.

When Duan Zhengchun changed his route, all the traps and ambush laid by Madam Wang were activated by Duan Yu instead. To make it worse, Duan Zhengchun actually ran into Duan Yanqing for real. At a fierce battle on a red sand beach near Double Phoenix Station, Duan Zhengchun's side was completely routed. Gu Ducheng was killed and dumped into the river by Divine Croc, and his body remained unfound. All the others had their acupoints sealed by Duan Yanqing and were therefore captured.

Murong Fu instructed his four men consisting of Deng Baichuan and the others to stand guard outside the residence. Making himself the host, he started ordering the maids and manservants to see to the needs of the guests.

Madam Wang stared and scrutinized the four ladies Dao Baifeng, Gan Baobao, Qin Hongmian and Ruan Xingzhu. She realised that each of them exerts a different womanly aura and they are all attractive in their own ways. There is nothing shameful about each of them and the terms 'horny vixens' and 'cheap women' used to describe them in the past are ill-suited. In some ways, these women are the types that will be adored by both genders wherever they go.

In the neighbouring chamber, Duan Yu heard the arrival of both his Father and Mother as captured prisoners of their nemesis. He was delighted and worried at the same time. He heard Duan Yanqing questioned: "Madam Wang, once my issue has been resolved, I will naturally hand Duan Zhengchun over to you. His fate will lie in your hands. Where is that kid Duan Yu?"

Madam Wang clapped her hands three times and two waiting maids came to the door and bowed deeply, ready to receive any orders. Madam Wang barked: "Bring that Duan kid here!"

Sitting on a chair, Duan Yanqing's left hand is placed on Duan Zhengchun's right shoulder. He still possesses a strong phobia for Duan Yu's Six Meridian Divine Sword. On one hand, he is worried that Madam Wang and Murong Fu are setting a trap for him, making use of Duan Yu to kill him. On the other hand, even if Madam Wang and Murong Fu are completely honest, Duan Yu's martial arts are peerless. In case he manages to free himself on the spot, it will be disastrous. By putting his hand on Duan Zhengchun's shoulder, he hoped that Duan Yu would not act rashly for the sake of his Father.

Footsteps sounded and four maids entered the hall, carrying Duan Yu's body horizontally. Both his hands and legs are fastened with twine; he mouth is stuffed with a walnut and his eyes are blindfolded with black cloth. Looking at him, nobody could tell if he is dead or alive.

Zhennan Princess Dao Baifeng gasped: "Yu-Er! (Child Yu)" and wanted to dash towards him. Madam Wang stretched her hand and pushed her shoulder, demanding: "Sit still!" Her main acupoints sealed and her strength gone, Dao Baifeng fell back into the chair after being shoved by her. She is unable to move anymore.

Madam Wang explained: "This kid has been sedated with sleeping drugs. He is not dead but has not regained his consciousness. Prince Yanqing, do you wish to verify his identity and make sure we have the correct person?" Duan Yanqing nodded his head and affirmed: "There is no mistake." Madam Wang is only aware of the potency of her 'Drunken Bees' but she does not know that Duan Yu has consumed the Crimson Buffalo Toad. After a temporary faint, he has recovered his senses. As his body is being tied down, it does seem like he is still in a state of unconsciousness.

Duan Zhengchun bitterly laughed: "Ah Luo, why did you go after my Yu-Er? He did not offend you."

Madam Wang snorted 'Humph' and did not answer. She is reluctant to reveal her longing for Duan Zhengchun in front of others but she does not want to reply him with nasty words either.

In his mind, Murong Fu is concerned that Madam Wang will reignite her love for Duan Zhengchun and ruin his grand plans. He therefore lied: "Of course he offended my Maternal Aunt. He… He seduced my Cousin Yuyan and violated her purity (virginity). Maternal Aunt, this kid deserves to die; there is no need for him to recover his senses…" Before he could finish, the shocked Duan Zhengchun and Madam Wang exclaimed in unison: "What? He… He and…"

His face as white as a sheet, Duan Zhengchun turned towards Madam Wang and softly asked: "She, her name is Yuyan?"

All along, Madam Wang has a horrible temper. After enduring for so long and with this new turn of events, she could not hold it in any longer. With a loud 'Wa', she burst into tears, cursing: "It is all your fault, you heartless cad and conscienceless scoundrel. Besides harming me, you harmed your own child too. Yuyan, Yuyan… She… She is your flesh and blood." Turning around, she used her foot and started kicking Duan Yu's body haphazardly. She scolded: "You lecher, you are worse than a beast. You conscienceless loafer; you won't even spare your own sister. I… How I wanted to slice you up like the animal you are, turning you into mincemeat."

With her sudden outburst and kicking, everyone present was completely appalled. The four ladies Dao Baifeng, Qin Hongmian, Gan Baobao and Ruan Xingzhu are familiar with Duan Zhengchun's amorous character. They instantly realised that he had an affair with Madam Wang and she had given birth to a daughter named 'Yuyan'. Unfortunately, Duan Yu got involved with her romantically. Qin Hongmian immediately thought of her own daughter Mu Wanqing while Gan Baobao was reminded of her own daughter Zhong Ling. Both ladies felt awkward and ashamed too. The remaining crowd of Duan Yanqing, Murong Fu and the others are slower to comprehend but eventually, everybody understood the full picture.

Qin Hongmian rebuked: "You cheap maid! That day, my daughter and I went to Gusu and wanted to assassinate you. However, you vixen spirit managed to evade us. Instead, you sent some measly fighters and weaklings to keep us occupied. I hate myself for not being able to kill you then. What right do you have to kick others?"

Madam Wang utterly ignored her and continued kicking Duan Yu indiscriminately.

Divine Croc of the Southern Sea identified his Master lying on the ground, and using his arm, he pushed Madam Wang on the shoulder and bellowed: "Hey, he is my Master. When you kick my Master, it is like you are kicking me. If you call my Master a beast, then aren't you calling me a beast too? You shrew, with a 'Ka La', I will break your snow white and tender neck."

Duan Yanqing chided: "Yue the Third, you shall not be disrespectful with Madam Wang! This kid surnamed Duan is a shameless scoundrel. By twisting logic, he deceived you into becoming his disciple. It is good that we can get rid of him today, otherwise, your reputation in the martial arts world would be ruined."

Divine Croc insisted: "He genuinely earned the right to become my Master and there was no deceit at all. How can I allow him to be hurt?" As he spoke, he reached out with his hand and wanted to untie the ropes binding Duan Yu. Duan Yanqing advised: "Third Brother, listen to me. Get out your Crocodile Shears and cut off this kid's head." Shaking his head persistently, Divine Croc asserted: "Not possible! Big Brother, today, Yue the Third will disobey you. I must save Master at all costs." As he spoke, he applied some force and one of the twines binding Duan Yu snapped at once.

Duan Yanqing was greatly alarmed. He thought: if Duan Yu is freed, his ability to use the Six Meridian Divine Sword will be restored as well. When that happens, nobody is his match. Besides the failure of becoming the Emperor of DaLi, my life will be endangered too.

In his state of anxiety, with a 'hu', he stabbed out with his staff, pointing at the back of Divine Croc. With his powerful internal energy in circulation, the steel staff went through the body and protruded out of his chest.

Divine Croc of the Southern Sea only felt a terrible pain on his back and chest as the steel staff burst out of his chest. For a minute, he was confused and as he turned his head and looked at Duan Yanqing, his eyes are still full of doubt, not understanding why Big Brother Duan would abruptly take his life. All along, Duan Yanqing has an evil nature. Being the head of the Four Great Evils, his attacks are naturally fatal. In addition, he has an extraordinary phobia regarding Duan Yu's Six Meridian Divine Sword. There is no way he can accept Divine Croc untying his bonds. Although he does not have any intention of killing Divine Croc, his staff pierced a critical part of his body anyway. Meeting his gaze, Duan Yanqing had a flash of regret and guilt but these feelings disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. Moving his right hand, he retracted the steel staff from his body and barked: "Fourth Brother, bury him. This is a good example for those who dare to defy Big Brother."

With a loud yell, Divine Croc of the Southern Sea collapsed onto the floor. Blood began gushing out of the two wounds on his back and chest. His pair of eyes still wide open; he truly died with regrets. Grabbing his corpse, Yun Zhonghe dragged it outside. Although Divine Croc and himself are two of the Four Great Evils, they are on bad terms with each other. Many a time, Divine Croc had disrupted his lustful conquests. Due to his inferior martial arts, he was forced to relent. Now that Divine Croc has been murdered by Big Brother, he was secretly delighted.

Everybody knew Divine Croc of the Southern Sea is Duan Yanqing's comrade-in-arms. Because of a disagreement, Duan Yanqing executed him in a brutal manner. Such a sighting is rare and everybody present is horror-struck.

Duan Yu can feel the warm blood from Divine Croc's wounds running over his own face and neck. He was greatly depressed as he thought: Having been his Master for such a long period, I haven't taught him anything useful. Instead, Divine Croc came to my rescue several times. Today, he even died for me.

Duan Yanqing icily laughed: "Either you are with me or you are against me! (dead)" Lifting his steel staff, he was about to thrust it into Duan Yu's chest.

Suddenly female voice rang out: "Outside Sky Dragon Monastery, Under the Bodhi Tree, an unkempt beggar, a long-haired bodhisattva!"

When Duan Yanqing heard the four words 'Outside Sky Dragon Monastery', his steel staff froze in mid air as he waited to hear the rest of the sentence. Hearing the full quote, the steel staff is quivering uncontrollably and he slowly withdrew the weapon. Turning his head and catching the gaze of Dao Baifeng, he felt as if she has a lot of stuff tell him. Heavily stunned, Duan Yanqing stuttered: "Guan… Guanyin bodhisattva…"

Dao Baifeng nodded her head and whispered: "You… Do you know who does this kid belongs to?"

Duan Yanqing's brain started to swirl and turn fuzzy. He felt as if he has travelled back in time to a specific full moon night more than twenty years ago.

That day, he finally made it back to DaLi from the eastern sea, arriving outside the Sky Dragon Monastery.

At Huguangdao, Duan Yanqing was simultaneously attacked by a group of powerful enemies. Although he managed to eliminate all his adversaries, he himself suffered heavy wounds. Both his legs are broken and his face was badly disfigured. An enemy warrior made a horizontal cut at his Adam's apple and he lost his voice as a result. In fact, he hardly resembled a human being. His whole body is extremely filthy and smelly; maggots are crawling all over his wounds and a few dozen flies are flying around him with a 'weng weng' noise.

Nevertheless, he is the Crown Prince of DaLi country. That year, his Father the Emperor was killed by corrupted ministers. In the ensuring confusion, he fled DaLi. After attaining a good set of martial arts, he decided to return. Presently, the ruler of DaLi country Duan Zhengming is his Cousin but the real person sitting on the throne should be him instead of Duan Zhengming. He is aware that Duan Zhengming is a beloved ruler and is well-liked by the population. Regardless of the civil service or the military, everyone worships him as the new Emperor. Nobody will remember him, the missing Crown Prince, anymore. If he suddenly appeared in DaLi, his life would be in danger. In order to get into the good books of the ruling Emperor, he will become a valuable target. Initially, his martial arts has reached a high level and even an army of ten thousand men do not strike fear in him. However, he is severely wounded at the moment and even a common foot soldier would be able to overcome him.

He struggled along the way and finally arrived outside Sky Dragon Monastery. His only hope lies in getting Grandmaster Kurong to seek justice for him.

Grandmaster Kurong is the blood brother of his Father, his own uncle and the uncle of Emperor Baoding Duan Zhengming as well. Grandmaster Kurong is an accomplished monk, while Sky Dragon Monastery is the spiritual sanctuary for the DaLi Country Duan Family. For generations, the Emperors of DaLi would ordain as monks in this monastery. He dared not show up within DaLi City and decided to seek an audience with Grandmaster Kurong first. According to the reception monk, Grandmaster Kurong is meditating in seclusion and the seclusion began five days ago. He is not sure how long the seclusion will last and even if the seclusion has ended, Grandmaster Kurong has indicated that he will not entertain any visitors. He advised Duan Yanqing to leave a message or the reception monk could make a report to the abbot on his behalf. The reception monk has been very kind and polite with him despite his inhuman, smelly and beggarly appearance.

But Duan Yanqing dared not reveal his true identity. Using his forearms, he crawled to a Bodhi tree beside the monastery, deciding to wait for Grandmaster Kurong until the end of his seclusion. But then he thought: The monk already said Grandmaster Kurong would not entertain visitors even after his seclusion. The longer I stay in DaLi, the more dangerous it is for me. Once someone recognizes me… Should I flee for my life right now?

His entire body is burning with fever and his wounds are painful, numb, or itching. The suffering is almost unbearable. He then thought: I am tormented by this extreme pain; how much longer can I endure? Why don't I die right now and end all these agony?

He wanted to stand up and smash his head against the Bodhi tree in a suicide attempt. However, he is exhausted, famished and thirsty. Lying on the ground, he remained motionless, unable to find neither the courage to live on nor the courage to take his own life.

When the moon has risen to the top of the sky, he suddenly noticed a lady in white coming out of a mist and slowly approaching him.

Among the woods and vegetation, a thick mist has formed. The lady in white has long hair running over her shoulders and she seems to be walking without actually stepping on the ground. With the moon behind her face, her features are indistinctive and unclear. However, Duan Yanqing remembered her as a gorgeous and breathtaking beauty. He felt that this lady is exquisitely delicate like Guanyin bodhisattva. He imagined: It must be a bodhisattva coming into the human realm in order to save me, this displaced Emperor. Under the Heavens, there are countless people seeking protection; Guanyin bodhisattva must be answering their prayers. If you help me to regain my throne, I will build a statue and monastery in your memory and worship you for generations.

As the lady got nearer and nearer, she turned sideways. Duan Yanqing can now see the side of her face, which turned out to be completely white and without blemish. Out of a sudden, he heard her softly mumbling to herself: "I am whole-heartedly devoted to you; yet you… did not spare any thought for me at all. You cheated on me with one woman after another, totally disregarding the vows we made while kneeling in front of the bodhisattva. Again and again I have forgiven you but right now, I will never forgive you. You are unfaithful to me; I, too, will be unfaithful to you. Behind my back, you seek out other partners; I will seek out a third party too. You, men of Han race, do not respect us, women of Baiyi race, as humans. You bully me and treat like a cat, a dog, a pig, a cow. I… I must take revenge. We, women of Baiyi race, will not respect you, men of Han race, as humans either."

Her words are hardly audible and she is generally talking to herself. Still, her words are filled with deep hatred.

In his heart, Duan Yanqing became dejected. He realised: "She is not Guanyin bodhisattva. She is just a Baiyi race lady who has been bullied by a Han race fellow."

Baiyi is one of the major races of DaLi country. The race is known for attractive females with white and tender skin, their beauty standards surpassing those of Han females. Unfortunately, the males of this race are mostly weaklings. With their inferior numbers, this race is often ostracized by the Han race. Witnessing the lady walking further and further away from him, Duan Yanqing had an inspiration: I was wrong. Although Baiyi ladies are known for their refined features, this heavenly beauty apparition could hardly be conjured by them. Furthermore, she is dressed in a white robe that resembles a sheet of ice. There is no way Baiyi ladies could have access to this kind of high quality clothing material. This must be a bodhisattva in human form, I… I must not miss this opportunity.

Currently at the brink of death, only a bodhisattva could save him and offer him salvation from his predicament. Totally desperate, this was the only thing he could still cling onto. As the bodhisattva continued walking away from him, he crawled towards her with every last ounce of strength. He wanted to shout: "Bodhisattva, save me!" but all his throat could produce are a few rasping noises.

The lady in white heard some noises from under the Bodhi tree and turned her head. At first, she identified something crawling on the ground, something that looks neither like a human nor an animal. Upon closer inspection, she discovered it was an extremely filthy beggar with blood and dirt all over his body. Taking a few steps towards him, she scrutinized and found out that this beggar is heavily injured. Regardless of his face, body and arms, they were all covered with wounds. Almost all the wounds are still bleeding and infested with maggots, releasing a pungent smell.

The lady herself was brimming with hatred and is dying to exact vengeance for her husband's cheating ways by cheapening herself in a self-destructive manner. When she first noted the horrible appearance of this beggar, she was sickened and wanted to escape at once. But then she thought: I am going to find the ugliest, dirtiest and most detestable man in the world and make love to him. You are a Lord, a General, so I will intentionally make love to a repulsive beggar.

Without a single word, she gradually removed her clothes and approached Duan Yanqing, easing herself into his bosom. Stretching out her arms as white as the snow petals of white camellia, she hugged his neck…

A thin layer of translucent clouds floated across the sky, shielding the moon; as if the moon is beckoning them to cover its own eyes, for it is unwilling to witness this unwholesome development. Such an illustrious and prestigious Madam, contributing her alluring body with snow-white skin to such a beggar who is all covered with wounds and dirt.

After the lady in white has departed, Duan Yanqing felt as if he is in dreamland. Did it really happen or not? Is it just a hallucination or was it really a bodhisattva in human form? In his nose, there are still traces of her bodily fragrance. Turning his head, he saw the words on the muddy ground which he inscribed with his finger not too long ago: Are you Guanyin bodhisattva?

He had written these seven characters to ask her the question and the female bodhisattva nodded her head. Suddenly, a few drops of water landed on the ground beside the words. Are those her teardrops or are those the dew from Guanyin bodhisattva's salicaceae plant? From what he understood, Guanyin bodhisattva once transformed into a lady and went around, salvaging people who are drowning in the sea of samsara. He concluded: It must be Guanyin bodhisattva in human form. Guanyin bodhisattva has come to inspire me, telling me not to give up easily. I am not an ordinary person; I am the son of Heaven (emperor). Otherwise, why would I have this experience?

At this juncture when his thoughts are alternating between life and death, Duan Yanqing unexpectedly received his deliverance from this long-haired Guanyin in white. He was instantly invigorated and believed that his life is not meant to end this way. In the future, he would definitely regain his throne. His present predicament and injuries became insignificant at once. With his thoughts straightened out, all he could see is a glorious life ahead. The dawn is about to break. No longer interested in Grandmaster Kurong's seclusion, he kneeled in front of the Bodhi tree and deeply kowtowed, expressing his appreciation for Guanyin bodhisattva's kind intervention. Breaking two branches off the Bodhi tree, he placed them under his armpits like crutches and left in high spirits.

He dared not linger within DaLi country and headed far south into the impoverished wastelands. After tending to his injuries, he practiced his family martial arts incessantly. In the first five years, he learnt how to replace his feet with two staffs and even managed to use the steel staffs to execute . After another five years of hardcore training, Duan Yanqing headed to Lianghu (Two Lakes) and completely annihilated the households of his enemies, not even sparing the servants or the pets. With his brutal methods, rumours started spreading about his ruthlessness. Eventually, he earned the title of: Greatest Evil (under the sky). In his following adventures, he proceeded to recruit three followers Ye Erniang, Divine Croc of the Southern Sea and Yun Zhonghe. He actually snuck back into DaLi several times and tried to organize an uprising, however, on each occasion, Duan Zhengming's regime is resilient and stable, forcing him to retreat empty-handed. The most recent case is his chess and internal energy competition with Reverend Huangmei (Yellow Brows). Victory was almost within his grip, but unexpectedly, the kid Duan Yu came barging in halfway and caused him to suffer another loss.

Back in the present timeline, he was about to thrust the staff and stab Duan Yu to death, destroying the successor of Duan Zhengming and Duan Zhengchun. Out of the blue, Madam Duan recited the four verses: "Outside Sky Dragon Monastery, Under the Bodhi Tree, an unkempt beggar, a long-haired bodhisattva."

These sixteen characters are easy to recite but to Duan Yanqing, they struck him like a lightning bolt on a clear sky. In his heart, he wondered: Is it possible… Is it possible… that she is Guanyin bodhisattva?

Madam Duan slowly raised her hand and undid her hair bun. Thousands of silky hair strands cascaded down her neck, overflowing her shoulders and some partly covering her face. She now looked like an exact duplicate of the Guanyin bodhisattva he met that fateful night under the Bodhi tree outside Sky Dragon Monastery. Duan Yanqing's doubts are gone. He realised: I thought she was a bodhisattva; instead, she is Zhennan Princess Consort.

Actually, in that same year, when his wounds are half-recovered; his fever has subsided and he is able to think rationally, he already knew the Lady in White who rescued him that fateful night is a human being and not a bodhisattva. However, he is unwilling to surrender this fantasy and kept on brainwashing himself: That was a bodhisattva (in white)! That was a bodhisattva (in white)!

Now that he finally comprehended the truth, in his mind, a giant suspicion arose: Why did she do what she did? What made her choose me, an unkempt beggar with a body full of bleeding wounds?

Lowering his head, he was deep in thought when suddenly, a few drops of water landed on the floor. It reminded him of that fateful night. Was it tears or was it dew from the salicaceae plant?

Raising his head, he observed Madam Duan's lovely eyes are now brimming with tears. At this moment, even his granite heart turned soft. In a hoarse voice, he asked: "You want me to spare the life of your son?" Madam Duan shook her head and whispered: "He… Around his neck is a small gold plaque, and it is engraved with his eight characters (y/m/d/t of birth)." Duan Yanqing was bewildered: Instead of asking me to spare the life of her son, she is asking me to look at some silly gold plaque of his. What is this all about?

Ever since he understood the truth behind 'Outside Sky Dragon Monastery, Under the Bodhi tree', he was naturally filled with admiration and gratitude for Madam Duan. Reaching out with his staff, he unsealed her main acupoints before bending over to take a look at Duan Yu's neck. Spotting an extremely thin gold chain, he pulled it out. True enough, attached to the chain was a minute piece of rectangle-shaped gold plaque. On one side, it was inscribed with four words 'Long and Healthy Life'. When flipped over, a row of small words read: Born on DaLi Baoding Second Year Eleventh Month Twenty-Third Day.

Duan Yanqing was stunned when he read the words 'Baoding Second Year'. He recalled: Baoding Second Year? It was the Second Month of that year when I was attacked by a group of foes and ended up outside Sky Dragon Monastery with critical injuries. Ayo, He… He was born in the eleventh month; a span of ten months in between. Ten months is just right for a full pregnancy. He… He… He turned out to be my son?

His face has been cut in a few places before and all his facial nerves are impaired. Therefore, he is unable to express signs of fear, happiness or surprise on his face. Nevertheless, in a flash, his face looks as if it is drained of blood. In his heart, there is an unspeakable emotion. Turning to Madam Duan, he saw her gently nodding her head and whispering: "Retribution! Retribution!"

In his entire life, Duan Yanqing has never gotten himself involved in a romantic relationship and knows nothing about the joy of raising a family. Out of nowhere, he discovered that he actually had a son, his own flesh and blood. Overwhelmed with joy, his feelings are indescribable. Right now, compared with all the fame and riches, power and even the throne, nothing is as treasured as having a son of his own. Bowled over with surprise and delight, he felt like dancing and shouting to celebrate. With a 'Dang' sound, the steel staff in his right hand fell onto the floor.

Following that, in his brain, Duan Yanqing started to feel giddy. His left hand lost its strength and with another 'Dang', his other steel staff dropped onto the floor too. In his chest, he could feel a loud and clear voice wanting to shout out: "I have a son!" Peeping at Duan Zhengchun and identifying a puzzled expression on his face, it is clear that he has no idea what his wife is talking about.

Scanning the faces of Duan Zhengchun and Duan Yu, Duan Yanqing observed a squarish face and a sharp face; even their features do not share any similarities. In fact, Duan Yu's handsome and refined appearance is about 70%-80% similar to himself when he was around the same age. In his mind, all the doubts are being replaced by unspeakable pride. He thought: Even if you become the Emperor of DaLi instead of me, so what? I have a son and you don't.

At this juncture, his brain exhibited signs of dizziness again. Nearly blacking out, he thought: I must be overly excited.

'Gu dong!' A noise suddenly reverberated. A person has collapsed near the door and it happened to be Yun Zhonghe. Duan Yanqing was surprised and secretly cried: "Not good!" His left palm forming a claw in mid air, he activated his internal energy to suck the steel staff back into his hand. Startlingly, no internal energy came out of the claw movement and the steel staff on the floor did not move at all. Duan Yanqing was terrified beyond words but without revealing his emotions, he used his right palm to perform the claw movement too. The steel staff remained motionless. When trying to activate his internal energy, there was no response from his body. With that, Duan Yanqing realised that he has unknowingly fallen into the enemy's trap.

Murong Fu commented: "Your Highness Duan, there is someone else you needed to see urgently in a side hall, would you please come with me?" Duan Yanqing quizzed: "Who is this person? Mister Murong, please invite this person out instead." Murong Fu answered: "He has lost the ability to walk; I have to trouble Your Highness to make a short trip."

Listening to his words, Duan Yanqing was enlightened. Without a doubt, the culprit behind the poisoning is Murong Fu. Fearing his superior martial arts and worried about the effectiveness of the toxin, Murong Fu dared not reveal his poisoning scheme yet. Therefore, he wanted him to take a walk and see if his internal energy is still in circulation. However, since he entered the house, he has been paying close attention to his surroundings. He neither tasted the refreshments nor inhaled any special fragrances, how did he get poisoned? He deduced: When I was distracted with joy after listening to Madam Duan, I must have neglected my surroundings, giving him an opportunity to poison me. He plainly exposed: "Mister Murong, we, the Duan Family of DaLi are not experts in poison. You should have used against me instead."

Murong Fu chuckled: "Your Highness Duan is an accomplished martial arts expert; how can I treat you like a commoner? Junior's (My) was procured from Xixia during that occasion. I have improved the formula and this version does not irritate the eyes. Your Highness Duan once served Xixia's Elite Guild as a mercenary. Now that Junior is using as a returning move, it does fulfill Gusu Murong Family tradition of "

Duan Yanqing was secretly alarmed. On that particular occasion, the top warriors of Xixia's Elite Guild incapacitated and abducted scores of members from Beggar's Sect by using . In a twist of events, the warriors of Xixia, including General Helian Tieshu, Divine Croc of Southern Sea and Yun Zhonghe were poisoned instead and detained by Beggar's Sect. Fortunately, he got hold of the antidote and saved everyone. At that time, on the wall, the words were displayed, indicating the culprit behind the poisoning is Gusu Murong. From that incident onwards, it is not surprising for Murong Fu to possess this poison. After such a long period of time, Duan Yanqing has forgotten about this critical information. In his heart, he could only blame himself for being too careless. He instantly closed his eyes and kept his silence while secretly circulating his energies, hoping to force the poisonous gas out of his body.

Murong Fu laughed: "It is futile to expel poison by circulating one's energies…" Before he could finish speaking, Madam Wang scolded: "Why did you poison Maternal Aunt too? Quickly bring me the antidote." Murong Fu reassured: "Maternal Aunt, Nephew has offended you. In a short while, I will provide the antidote to Maternal Aunt first." Madam Wang raged: "A short while? Why must I wait for a short while? Quick, quickly bring me the antidote." Murong Fu explained: "I am deeply sorry Maternal Aunt, but the antidote is currently not with Nephew."

Dao Baifeng Madam Duan already had her main acupoints unsealed; however, before she knew it, she was rapidly immobilized by . Among those present in the hall, only Murong Fu who has inhaled the antidote beforehand and Duan Yu with his immunity are not poisoned by the toxin.

Nonetheless, Duan Yu is in great agony as well and his heart is filled with indescribable bitterness. When he heard Madam Wang saying 'It is all your fault, you heartless cad and conscienceless scoundrel. Besides harming me, you harmed your own child too. Yuyan, Yuyan… She… She is your flesh and blood', his chest and esophagus became blocked and he nearly fainted. When he was eavesdropping on Madam Wang and Murong Fu from the neighbouring chamber and learnt about her affair with his Father, his heart is already in a state of anxiety, dreading that Wang Yuyan will be like Mu Wanqing and the others, eventually becoming his own sister. Now that Madam Wang has personally spilled this fact in front of everybody, there are no more grounds for suspicion. In that split moment, he felt as if his world is turning upside down. If not for his bounded hands and feet, and the stuffing in his mouth, he would have gone berserk, running around like a madman and screaming at the top of his lungs. He was deeply grieved and can feel a lump of energy jammed at his chest area, unable to pass through. Meanwhile, his hands and feet are turning stiff and icy cold. Distressed, he wondered: Ayo, according to Uncle, this must be fire deviation. The deeper my internal energy, the more dangerous it is. I… How did I come to such a stage?

Initially fearful, Duan Yu changed his perspective and thought: Yuyan is my half-sister as we share the same Father. Our relationship eventually cannot come to fruition. What is the point of living on? Isn't it better to fire deviate and let my body decay into dust? Gone are my senses and awareness, and I can avoid a lifetime of trauma.

Duan Yanqing tried to activate his internal energies three times but it is hopeless. Instead, the discomfort in his chest became worse. He thus decided to sit down with his eyes closed and refused to speak or move.

Murong Fu explained: "Your Highness Duan, although Junior has poisoned you, I meant no harm. As long as Your Highness agrees to a condition of mine, Junior will instantly present the antidote to you with both hands and even kowtow to ask for Your Highness's forgiveness." His tone carried a deep sense of humility.

Duan Yanqing frostily laughed: "Surnamed Duan (I) has lived to such an advanced age and has been through countless trials and tribulations. Do you truly believe I will succumb to your wishes just because I am your hostage?"

Murong Fu swore: "Junior dared not. Everyone here can be a witness. Junior will first make amends to Your Highness before respectfully begging Your Highness for a favour." As he spoke, both his knees buckled and he instantly kneeled on the floor. 'Dong Dong Dong Dong', he kowtowed four times and his mannerisms are extremely courteous.

Everyone was amazed when Murong Fu put up this huge show of respect out of the blue. Presently, he is practically running the show and the lives of everybody are basically in his hands. Even if he adhere to the code of the martial arts world and has offended Duan Yanqing, a senior figure and expert, a deep bow would have been sufficient. There is no need for him to go all the way and discard his status by kneeling down and kowtowing.

Duan Yanqing was particularly confused too. However, after seeing his earnest show of respect towards himself, the displeasure in his heart subsided to a certain extent. He commented: "As the saying goes: One gives respect because one needs a favour. Mister has performed an overwhelming act of respect. I dare not accept it, nevertheless, I wonder what instructions does Mister have for me." In his speech, he became more polite as well.

Murong Fu articulated: "Your Highness already knew about Junior's lifelong ambition. To revive the Great Yan Empire, we are talking about decades of hard work. Today, I will first support Your Highness in ascending the throne of DaLi country. Since Your Highness is childless, I humbly beg Your Highness to adopt me as your foster son. With the two of us working hand-in-hand, a bright future lies ahead. Wouldn't that be a perfect win-win scenario?"

When Duan Yanqing heard the six words 'Your Highness is childless' from Murong Fu's mouth, he emotionally gazed towards Madam Duan. As the four eyes meet, countless messages were conveyed in that moment. Duan Yanqing chuckled once 'Hey Hey' but did not reply. In his heart, he thought: If we had this conversation a while ago, it would have been a perfect win-win scenario. However, now that I know I have a son, how can I let you inherit the throne?

Murong Fu added: "The lands of Great Song were inherited from Later Zhou Dynasty Cai Family. That year, Zhou Taizu Guo Wei is childless and adopted Cai Rong as his son. Cai Shizong is a brilliant strategist and talented hero. By strengthening the military and conquering his neighbours, he led Later Zhou Dynasty to a prosperous era. After hundreds of years, historians are full of praise for Guo Wei's sacrifice. My proposal is similar; Your Highness, please consider." Duan Yanqing asked: "You really wish to be my adopted son?" Murong Fu affirmed: "That is right."

Duan Yanqing thought: Presently, I am poisoned and the only solution is to agree to his terms first. Once I am cured, I will kill him at once.

Thus he plainly state: "In that case, are you going to change your surname to Duan? After you become the Emperor of DaLi, you must discard your ambition to revive the Empire of Great Yan. The Murong Family legacy will be vanquished. Can you commit to all of these?" He easily predicted that Murong Fu would come up with some alternate plans. Once he became the ruler of DaLi, in the coming years, he can appoint his trusted subordinates in critical court positions and proceed to kill those who oppose him and those loyal to the Duan Family. He will then revert his surname back to Murong and may even go as far as to change the country name from DaLi to Great Yan. Such a possibility is not unexpected. As a result, he intentionally made things difficult for him by ask these three tough questions. This strategy is named , misleading Murong Fu that he is sincerely considering his request. If he agreed too easily and quickly, Murong Fu will assume that he is insincere and full of deceit.

Murong Fu was silent for some time before replying in an undecided voice: "With regards to these…" Actually, he already planned out various strategies to execute once he is the Emperor of DaLi and they are not far from Duan Yanqing's predictions. He also thought that if he agreed too easily and quickly, it would appear insincere and deceitful. Pretending to think deeply about these issues for some time, he then committed: "Although Junior is not an unfilial and ungrateful person; for the sake of the big picture, we can occasionally overlook the small details. Since I am acknowledging Your Highness as my father, my loyalty will naturally be towards the Duan Family and this will never waver."

Duan Yanqing burst out laughing and cheered: "Wonderful! Wonderful! Old Gentleman (I) has been wandering the martial arts world all my life. Spouseless and childless, I unexpectedly gained an excellent son in my later years. This is immensely comforting. You, my son, is young and handsome. To bring me joy at this advanced age, my life has truly not been wasted. In my entire life, this is the happiest event that has ever taken place. Guanyin Bodhisattva my savior, disciple (I) is moved to tears. Even if I dedicate the rest of my life to honouring you, Guanyin Bodhisattva in White, I cannot even repay 0.01% of your benevolence." Choking with emotion, two rows of tears flowed down from his cheeks. Lowering his head and putting his palms together respectfully in a praying posture, he happened to be directly facing Madam Duan.

Madam Duan nodded her head slowly, her eyes never leaving her son who is lying on the floor.

Duan Yanqing's words are obviously meant for his real son Duan Yu. Except for Madam Duan, nobody else understood his hidden meaning. Everybody presumed he has agreed to Murong Fu's request and has accepted him as a foster son. In the future, he will definitely pass the throne to him. Additionally, his speech is full of sincerity and contentment. There is not a shred of doubt in anyone's mind. For them to witness 'The Greatest Evil under the sky' shedding tears in front of a crowd, it must be a first in history.

Murong Fu was overjoyed: "Your Highness is a senior hero in the martial arts world. I believe you will honour your pledges and not renege on your promises. Foster Father my elder, please accept your child's kowtow." His knees buckled and he kneeled on the floor again.

Suddenly, from outside the door, someone loudly hollered: "Not right! Not right! This arrangement must never be allowed!" Pushing the door curtain aside, a man strode into the hall in big steps. It is indeed Bao Butong.

Murong Fu stood up at once. His face changing colour slightly, he turned his head and questioned: "Third Brother Bao has something to add?"

Bao Butong reasoned: "Mister is the illustrious royal descendent of Great Yan Murong Family, why should the surname be changed to Duan Family? Reviving Great Yan is a huge undertaking and we are faced with near impossible odds. We are willing to do our best and whatever it takes to accomplish this mission, even at the cost of our lives. If we succeed, it would be wonderful, if not, at least we are upright and honourable heroes. If Mister acknowledged this neither human nor ghost looking fellow as your Foster Father, even if you become the Emperor, there is no glory in that. In addition, for a surnamed Murong to become the Emperor of DaLi, it is not as simple as it looks."

Listening to his disrespectful language, Murong Fu was incensed. Nevertheless, Bao Butong is his trusted confidante and his service is still required. Unwilling to reprimand him directly, Murong Fu plainly state: "Third Brother Bao, there are many intricacies involved. You may not see the big picture now but I will gradually explain it to you in the future."

Bao Butong shook his head and disagreed: "Not right! Not right! Mister, Bao Butong may be dumb but your agenda is not hard to guess. You wanted to emulate Han Xin; by temporary suffering some ridicule, you are actually planning for bigger things in the future. Today, you will switch to surnamed Duan Family. When you hold ultimate power in the future, you can switch back to surname Murong and even changed the name of DaLi country to Great Yan. By sending an army to attack Song and Liao, you can recover the old territories of Great Yan. Mister, although your heart is pure, but with this circumstances, you would have become dis-loyal; un-filial; in-human; un-righteous. This guilt will haunt you forever and even onlookers will feel that the result is not worthwhile. In my opinion, you are better off without this throne."

Murong Fu was completely mad with anger. He boisterously demanded: "Third Brother Bao's words are too harsh. How will I be dis-loyal, un-filial, in-human and un-righteous?"

Bao Butong elaborated: "You seek refuge with DaLi and betray them in the future, that is dis-loyal. You acknowledged Duan Yanqing as your Father and pledge allegiance to Duan Family, that is un-filial to Murong Family. When you switched back to Murong, you are un-filial to Duan Family. When you annihilate the opposing court officials of DaLi in the future, that is in-human. You…"

Before he could finish speaking, there was a sudden 'Bo' sound as a heavy palm stroke hit him squarely on his back where his heart was located. He then heard Murong Fu finished with an icy tone: "I betray my friends for benefits, that is un-righteous." This palm attack is a soft but powerful stance; by hitting on the two critical acupoints 'Lingtai' and 'Zhiyang' of Bao Butong, it was meant to be a fatal blow. Never in his wildest dreams did Bao Butong imagine this Mister, whom he has been serving from youth to adulthood, to suddenly take his life. With a Wa!' he vomited a mouthful of fresh blood and collapsed on the floor, dead.

When Bao Butong was rebutting Murong Fu, the three men Deng Baichuan, Gongye Qian and Feng BoE are standing at the door and listening in. Although the three agreed that Bao Butong might have gone slightly overboard in his speech, it was packed with righteous reasons. When they witness Murong Fu using a palm attack on Bao Butong, the three were badly shocked and rushed into the hall together.

Hugging Bao Butong's body frame, Feng BoE called: "Third Brother, Third Brother, how are you?" He saw two streaks of transparent tears running down Bao Butong's cheeks. By sensing his nose for activity, he observed that Bao Butong has stopped breathing. He realised that right before his death, Bao Butong was utterly heartbroken. Feng BoE roared: "Third Brother, although you have stopped breathing, I am sure you have one last question for Mister: Why did you kill me?" As he spoke, he turned his head and stared at Murong Fu with suspicion. His eyes are glowing with hostility.

Deng Baichuan loudly declared: "Mister, Third Brother Bao is fond of rebutting people. You knew his characteristic all along. Even if he spoke with insolence towards Mister and performed an act of insubordination, Mister can choose to punish him verbally or even physically. That should be more than enough; why is there a need to take his life?"

As a matter of fact, Murong Fu was not annoyed by Bao Butong's insolent language. What he detested was his straightforward and candid speech that actually divulged the scheme he is secretly harbouring. With this disclosure, Duan Yanqing will be less likely to accept him as a Foster Child and hand over the throne to him. Even if he did become the Crown Prince, Duan Yanqing would place restrictions around him, making it impossible for him the execute the revival of Great Yan. In his state of panic, he was forced to make a killing move. Otherwise, this easily attainable Emperor throne would be gone with the wind. Taking in the words of the two men Feng BoE and Deng Baichuan, he thought: This matter has put me in a serious dilemma. I would rather offend the two men Feng BoE and Deng Baichuan than arouse the suspicions of Prince Yanqing.

Therefore, he detailed: "I considered Bao Butong's offensive remarks to be insignificant. He has been my loyal follower for so many years, why would I bear to hurt him over a few brazen sentences? However, I am keeping good faith in acknowledging His Highness Duan as my Father. He barged in and sowed discord between my Father and I, how can I tolerate this?"

Feng BoE thundered: "In the heart of Mister, are you claiming that Bao Butong, who has been risking his neck for you for ten over years, is peanuts when compared with that Duan Yanqing?" Murong Fu insisted: "Fourth Brother Feng, there is no need to flare up. I am fully committed to seeking refuge with DaLi Duan Family and have no other agenda. Third Brother Bao is narrow minded and jealous of my good fortune, forcing me to use a deadly move." Gongye Qian coldly demanded: "Has Mister made up his mind with no possibility of recourse?" Murong Fu swore: "That is right."

The three men Deng Baichuan, Gongye Qian and Feng BoE exchanged looks with one another. Sharing the same conviction, they nodded their heads in unison.

Deng Baichuan proclaimed: "Mister, we, the four brothers may not be sworn brothers. However, we are willing to share life and death. Mister is also fully aware that we are extremely close-knitted." His long eyebrows curling up, Murong Fu disparaged in an ugly voice: "Is Big Brother Deng trying to exact vengeance for Third Brother Bao? The three of you can attack me simultaneously, Murong Fu has nothing to fear." Deng Baichuan let out a long sigh and explained: "We are the descendants of Murong Family Court Ministers; how can we afford to offend Mister? There is a wise saying 'Stay if compatible, leave if not'. The three of us will not serve Mister any longer. When Gentlemen part ways, we part amicably. We hope Mister realizes what he is actually doing."

Watching these three men about to depart, Murong Fu realized that in the future, when he is in DaLi, he would no longer have anyone trustworthy that he can rely on. Faced with this huge inconvenience, he must now persuade them to stay on at all costs. With that, Murong Fu reminded: "Big Brother Deng, Second Brother Gongye, Fourth Brother Feng, the three of you are familiar with my character and will not suspect me of betraying Duan Family in the future. I have no dissatisfaction with the three of you, why do we need to part ways? Back then, my Father treated the three of you with kindness and generosity. Furthermore, the three of you promised my Father that you will do your very best to support me. With this separation, wouldn't that be breaking the promise the three of you made a long time ago?"

His face colour turning metallic green, Deng Baichuan asserted: "It is perfectly fine with me if Mister does not bring up the name of Old Master. But since you did, it means he is still your Father. By changing your surname and betraying your country, how can you account to Old Master? We did swear to Old Master, dedicating our entire lives and all our energies to supporting Mister in reviving Great Yan and glorifying the reputation of Murong Family. However, we did not swear to support Mister to glorify DaLi and the reputation of Duan Family." His words caused Murong Fu's face to alternate between shades of green and white, and at the same time, rendering him speechless.

The three men Deng Baichuan, Gongye Qian and Feng BoE took a deep bow in unison, their heads almost touching the floor. In one voice, they announced: "Farewell Mister!" Feng BoE placed the corpse of Bao Butong on his shoulder. The three men strode out of the door in large steps and did not turn back.

Murong Fu dryly laughed a few times before turning to Duan Yanqing and explained: "Foster Father, please judge for yourself. These four men are the family-followers of Child and have served me for many years. To prove my loyalty to DaLi Duan Family, Child has personally killed one of them and discarded the other three. Child is entering DaLi alone. This should be enough to prove my undying allegiance and absence of selfish agenda."

Duan Yanqing nodded his head in agreement: "Good! Good! Excellent!"

Murong Fu remarked: "Child shall now relieve Foster Father of the poison." Sticking his hand into his bosom, he retrieved a small porcelain bottle. About to hand it over, he had an epiphany: Once I have gotten rid of the poison from his body, I will never be able to blackmail him again. In the future, I must keep staying in his good books and never clash with him. His most hated rival and biggest adversary is that kid Duan Yu; let me kill this kid first.

With a 'Shua' sound, his long sword has left its sheath. He announced: "Foster Father, Child's first contribution to you is to kill the kid Duan Yu. By getting rid of him first, Duan Zhengchun shall become heirless and he will be forced to hand over the Emperor's throne to Foster Father."

Duan Yu thought: Yuyan has become my sister too; I have already lost the will to live. If you will kill me with one sword stab, I cannot ask for more.

First, he hoped for a quick death and second, his internal energy has gone haywire. Even if he wanted to resist, it is helpless. Thus, he could only wait for his life to be taken away from him.

Seeing Murong Fu turning towards Duan Yu with his sword, the faces of Duan Zhengchun and the others turned completely pale. 'Ah!' Madam Duan let out a tragic shriek.

Duan Yanqing praised: "Child, your filial piety is commendable. However, this kid is atrocious and has offended Father on several occasions. His Uncle and Father have hijacked my throne, causing me to become a handicap and an incomplete person. Father wishes to kill this scoundrel personally in order to vent the hatred in my heart."

Murong Fu acknowledged: "Yes." Turning around, he was about to hand his long sword to Duan Yanqing when he realised: "Ayo, Child is muddle-headed. I should relieved Foster Father of the poison first." Returning the sword into the sheath, he retrieved the small porcelain bottle again. With a quick scan, he noticed Duan Yanqing's eyes are gleaming with pride and he is gesturing to someone else. By following his gaze, he saw Madam Duan nodding her head slightly and her face is expressing feelings of gratitude and joy.

With this observation, Murong Fu's suspicions were aroused. Of course he could never imagine that Duan Yu is the child of Duan Yanqing and Madam Duan. Duan Yanqing would rather lose his own life than let anyone harm his precious son. Even the throne seems insignificant at this point. The first thought that came to Murong Fu was: Is it possible that Duan Yanqing and Duan Zhengchun are in cahoots? After all, they are brotherly cousins and members of the DaLi Duan Family. As the saying goes ' Blood is thicker than water', why should the Duan Family brotherly cousins care about me, an unrelated outsider? But on the other hand, for this scheme to succeed, the only way is to gain the trust of Duan Yanqing by accomplishing some challenging missions.

Turning his head to Duan Zhengchun, he extorted: "Lord Zhennan, when you return to DaLi, how soon can you take over the throne and after becoming Emperor, how much time do you need before transferring it to my Foster Father?"

Duan Zhengchun is full of despise for Murong Fu. He coldly state: "My Imperial Brother has a deep cultivation of internal energy and his health is excellent. Conservatively, he will at least be able to serve another thirty years as the Emperor. When he passes the throne to me, I must at least perform my duties well and create wealth for my citizens. A minimum of thirty years should be good enough. Sixty years later, my son Duan Yu will be eighty years old. Even if he only serves as the Emperor for twenty years, we are looking at an eighty years time frame…"

Murong Fu interrupted: "Nonsense, who can afford to wait that long? I limit you to one month before your coronation and one more month after that for your abdication and transfer of throne to Prince Yanqing."

A long while ago, Duan Zhengchun has fully grasped the circumstances in front of him. Duan Yanqing and Murong Fu wanted to make use of himself as a ladder and step into the Imperial throne of DaLi. Once he has transferred the throne to Duan Yanqing, they would kill him instantly. However, they dare not lay a finger on him right now. Even if an enemy is coming to harm him, they would do their best to protect him. However, Duan Yu is in extreme danger. He burst out laughing and state: "My throne will only be handed over to my son Duan Yu. I do not mind abdicating earlier in his favour. To ask me to give the throne to anyone else is strictly impossible."

Murong Fu was infuriated: "Very well, I will kill the kid Duan Yu with one sword stab first. You can go ahead and give the throne to his ghost!" As he spoke, with a 'shua' sound, he pulled out his long sword again.

Duan Zhengchun laughed even harder and challenged: "What kind of person do you think I, Duan Zhengchun, am? If you killed my son, do you think I will still allow myself to be manipulated by you? If you want to kill him, be my guest. In fact, you can go ahead and kill all of us too."

Murong Fu was momentarily undecided. Right now, killing Duan Yu is as easy as lifting a hand. However, he is afraid that Duan Zhengchun will commit suicide out of revenge for his son's death. When that happens, even Duan Yanqing's Emperor dream will be crushed. If Duan Yanqing cannot become the Emperor, he himself is even much further away from all of it. In his hand, the long sword is shimmering with flashes of green light. When exposed on his snow-white face, it reflected an ugly green shade. He tilted his head and stared at Duan Yanqing, wanting to hear his instructions.

Duan Yanqing ordered: "This person has a strong character. If he commits suicide now, our grand scheme will burst like a bubble. All right, the kid Duan Yu shall be kept alive for now. Since they are in the hands of us Father and Child, we can be assured that he won't die yet. Give me the antidote before I speak further."

Murong Fu replied: "Yes!" but he thought: Prince Yanqing just made an eye gesture to Madam Duan, what is the meaning behind it? Without solving this mystery, I should not recklessly give him the antidote. But if I delay any longer, it may cause him to lose him temper. What should I do?

Coincidentally, Madam Wang cried out: "Murong Fu you rascal. You said you would cure Maternal Aunt's poisoning first. After acknowledging a new Father, why are you doing everything to please that ugly freak? Don't blame me for cursing, he resemble neither a human nor…"

Hearing her words, Murong Fu was pleased at the coincidence and humbly excused himself from Duan Yanqing: "Foster Father, my Maternal Aunt has a fierce character; if her words offend Elder (you), please pardon her. To prevent her from spouting more unpleasant words, Child will relieve Maternal Aunt of her poison first and will come back to cure Foster Father without delay." As he spoke, he placed the porcelain bottle below Madam Wang's nostrils.

Madam Wang inhaled a breath of stinking, vomit-inducing odor. About to curse out loud, she can now feel the strength returning to her four limbs. Shifting her attention to Duan Zhengchun, Madam Duan and the three ladies Qin Hongmian, Ruan Xingzhu and Gan Baobao, she could not suppress her jealousy any more. She directed in a loud voice: "Fu-Er (Child Fu), quickly kill these four cheap women for me."

Murong Fu had an epiphany: Maternal Aunt mentioned earlier that Duan Zhengchun has a headstrong character and will never bow to threats. However, he is willing to give up his life to safeguard his wife and mistresses. Why don't I exploit this weakness and threaten his women instead?

Holding his sword, Murong Fu walked to the front of Ruan Xingzhu. Turning his head to face Duan Zhengchun, he probed: "Lord Zhennan, my Maternal Aunt has ordered me to kill her. What do you think?"

Duan Zhengchun is on the verge of a breakdown and he has run out of tricks. He could only face Madam Wang and swore: "Ah Luo, in the future, I will listen and follow your each and every wish. I will be at your beck and call. Between the two of us, must we create this never-ending feud? By instructing someone to kill my woman, do you think I will still love you with the same amount of affection?"

While Madam Wang is mad with jealousy, she does agree with the words of Duan Zhengchun. For the past ten odd years, she has transformed his abandonment and heartlessness into a special hatred. This special hatred is so extreme she actually found happiness whenever she kills a man from DaLi or a man surnamed Duan. However, the second she saw him again, all the old feelings of love and attachment resurfaced and are increasing as time goes by. She ordered: "My good Nephew, please hold your blade. Let me think over this for a while."

Murong Fu proposed: "Lord Zhennan, once you promised to transfer the throne to Prince Yanqing, all your official wife and unofficial ladies will come under my protection. No harm will come to them." Duan Zhengchun coldly sniggered 'Hey Hey' but remained nonchalant.

Murong Fu pondered: This person is famed for his philandering ways. He would rather surround himself with beautiful women than focus on managing the country. To make him agree to throne transfer, the only solution is to go through his female companions.

Lifting his sword and pointing the tip at the chest of Ruan Xingzhu, Murong Fu gave an ultimatum: "Lord Zhennan, we are heroes and men of honour. Let's settle this once and for all. Once you nodded and gave your consent, I will immediately relieve everyone of their poisoning. Junior will lay a banquet to make amends and turned our enmity into friendship. Wouldn't that be an ideal outcome? If you still insisted on having your way, my sword will simply stab her."

Duan Zhengchun turned his gaze towards Ruan Xingzhu and can see the horror emanating from her lovely eyes. Deeply sympathetic, he thought: I actually do not mind giving my consent. The throne of DaLi; how can it be compared with Sister Zhu? However, this traitorous devil will kill my Yu-Er (Child Yu) instantly in order to please Prince Yanqing.

He cannot bear to watch any further and turned his head away.

Murong Fu called out: "I am going to count to three. If you refuse to agree, do not blame Murong Fu for being merciless." Stretching his voice, he announced: "One… Two…" Duan Zhengchun turned his head back and stared at Ruan Xingzhu. His face is filled with gentleness and love, but with a sense of helplessness. Murong Fu yelled: "Three… Lord Zhennan, are you still maintaining your stand?" In the heart of Duan Zhengchun, all he could see is the beautiful setting years ago when he and Ruan Xingzhu are dating for the first time. Suddenly, with a tragic 'Ah!' shriek, Murong Fu's long sword has penetrated her chest.

Madam Wang could recognize the facial muscles twitching on the face of Duan Zhengchun, signaling that he is in great pain. He seems even more upset than if the sword had been pierced into his own body. She exclaimed: "Quick, quickly save her. I did not ask you to really take her life. We are just scaring this heartless fellow only."

Murong Fu shook his head and thought: This deep vendetta between him and me has begun. By killing one more or killing one less makes no difference at all.

The tip of the sword now pointing at the chest of Qin Hongmian, Murong Fu hollered: "Lord Zhennan, to think that everyone in the martial arts world praised you, saying you are a man who treasures friendship and love. Now, you would not even say anything to save the life of your lover! One, two, three!" At the word 'three', with a 'chi' sound, Qin Hongmian was murdered.

By now, Gan Baobao is terrified out of her wits and her face is drained of blood. Still, she steadied her nerves and proclaimed: "If you wish to kill, just go ahead and kill. There is no need to blackmail Lord Zhennan. I am the wife of Zhong Wanchou and am not related to Lord Zhennan. Do not tarnish the reputation of my Wanchou Valley Zhong Family."

Murong Fu coldly chuckled once and ridiculed: "Who does not know Duan Zhengchun has plenty of kept women? Be it virgins, widows or married women, all are welcomed." Repeating his threats to no avail, he killed Gan Baobao too.

Madam Wang was secretly lamenting. Although she killed without blinking an eye in her daily routine, but witnessing Murong Fu killing three of Duan Zhengchun's lovers in such a short span of time, her heart is thumping wildly. She dared not exchange looks with Duan Zhengchun and cannot imagine the expression on his face right now.

However, she heard Duan Zhengchun's soothing voice saying: "Ah Luo, despite our past relationship, you still do not understand me. Among all the women under the sky, you are my only true love. Although I got involved with many other women, those are just temporary flings. Why would I leave a place for them in my heart? Your Nephew has killed three of my lovers but it does not matter. As long as he does not hurt you, I would be relieved." These few sentences of his are filled with tenderness but when Madam Wang heard them, she grew cold with fear instead. She knows that Duan Zhengchun now hates her to the core and is provoking Murong Fu into killing her. She exclaimed: "My good Nephew, you must not believe his words."

Half believing and half doubting his words, the tip of Murong Fu's long sword is now naturally pointing towards Madam Wang's chest. From the tip of the sword, fresh blood is dripping off, landing onto the lower part of her collar.

Madam Wang is fully aware of her Nephew's viciousness. In order to fulfill his dream of becoming a ruler, even his Maternal Aunt can be disregarded. As long as Duan Zhengchun continued to expound love and concern towards herself in an intentional manner, Murong Fu will use her life to threaten Duan Zhengchun. She cannot help but ask in a shaking voice: "Duan-Lang! Duan-Lang! Do you really hate me so much that you are trying to cause my death?"

Perceiving her horror-struck eyes and pitiful facial expression, Duan Zhengchun was reminded of their past relationship. His heart softening at once, he berated: "You cheap shrew! With lard blinding your heart, you chose to be consumed by years of meaningless jealousy, causing three of my beloved women to die an unnatural death. If my hands and feet are freed, I will personally slice you into ten thousand pieces. Murong Fu, quickly stab her with your sword! Why haven't you killed this smelly hag?" He knew that the more he scolded, the less likely Murong Fu would kill his Maternal Aunt.

Madam Wang caught all the subtle hints. Initially, Duan Zhengchun deliberately expressed love and tenderness for her, wanting to lure Murong Fu into killing her and taking revenge for the three ladies Ruan Xingzhu, Qin Hongmian and Gan Baobao. When he changed to give her a scolding instead, it shows that he has forgiven her. However, for the past ten over years, she has been pining for Duan Zhengchun day and night. Unexpectedly reunited with her lover, her emotions are already in turmoil. In front of her, there are three female corpses lying on the floor and a long sword dripping with blood is pointing at her chest, adding to her anxiety level. When she heard Duan Zhengchun scolding her and using terms such as 'cheap shrew' and 'smelly hag', compared to their past vows of love and sweet nothings, they are worlds apart. Her tears uncontrollably started flowing down and she mourned: "Duan-Lang, the words that you told me in the past, have you forgotten all of them? Why didn't you leave a place for me in your heart? Duan-Lang, I am still fully devoted to you. The two of us have been separated for so many years; finally we get to see each other again. You… Why didn't you have any kind words for me? I gave birth to a daughter, our daughter. Her name is Yuyan. Have you seen her? Do you like her?"

Duan Zhengchun was secretly alarmed. He thought: Ah Luo is losing touch with reality. If I repeated the loving words I told you in the past, would you still be alive?

Therefore, he barked in a sharp tone: "You caused the death of three of my beloved ladies. I hate you to the core. Ten over years ago, our relationship has already ended. Our love and feelings are extinct. Right now, I can't wait to give you a few heavy kicks to vent the unhappiness in my heart."

In tears, Madam Wang wailed: "Duan-Lang! Duan-Lang!" Suddenly, she leapt forward, pushing her body against the sharp sword in front of her.

For that split moment, Murong Fu was indecisive. On one hand, he wished to withdraw the long sword but on the other hand, he did not want to. In that window of hesitation, the long sword has pierced the chest area of Madam Wang. Murong Fu withdrew his hand and the sword. Fresh blood starting gushing out of Madam Wang's chest wound.

In a trembling voice, Madam Wang asked: "Duan-Lang, you really hate me so much?"

Noting the sword has penetrated deeply into her critical body part and that she is unlikely to survive, Duan Zhengchun could not hold back and two streams of tears are now flowing down his cheeks. In a crying tone, he reassured: "Ah Luo, I am scolding you in order to preserve your life. At our reunion today, I am filled with indescribable happiness. Why would I hate you? My devotion to you will forever be the same as the day I gave you a stalk of Moon Flower."

The corner of Madam Wang's mouth curled into a smile. She whispered: "That is great. I knew… I knew that in your heart, there is a permanent place for me, a place where I will never be abandoned. The same goes for me too. I will never desert you… You once promised me, in the future, the two of us would go to Mount Wuliang in DaLi, to the same mountain cave I lived with Mother when I was young. From that day onwards, the two of us will enjoy each other's company in the cave and never come out. Do you still remember?"

Duan Zhengchun answered: "Ah Luo, of course I remembered. We shall head there tomorrow and have a look at your Mother's Jade Statue."

Her face glowing with delight, Madam Wang panted in a low voice: "That… That is wonderful… On that stone wall, there is a reflection of a precious sword. It is both red and green in colour. So pretty looking… Have a look, have a look, did you see it…" Her voice went softer and softer until her head tilted sideways and she died there and then.

Murong Fu icily questioned: "Lord Zhennan, these beloved ladies of yours are dying one by one because of you. Are you telling me that even your official wife Princess Consort has to die too?" As he spoke, the tip of his sword is slowly inching towards the chest of Madam Duan.

Lying on the floor, Duan Yu could hear Ruan Xingzhu, Qin Hongmian, Gan Baobao and Madam Wang dying one after another under the sword of Murong Fu. When Madam Wang mentioned Mount Wuliang Stone cave, the Jade Statue and the Sword reflection on the wall, he heard all these information but he cannot be bothered at all. But when he heard Murong Fu using his Mother's life to threaten his Father, he started breaking out in cold sweat. Unable to hold back, he started shouting: "Do not hurt my Mother! Do not hurt my Mother!" However, a walnut is stuffed in his mouth and no sound could be produced. He tried to struggle with all his might but because his body has been paralyzed by internal energy blockages, he could not move an inch.

He heard Murong Fu's sharp voice: "Lord Zhennan, Again, I am going to count to three. If you are still unwilling to agree to transfer the throne to Prince Yanqing, your Princess Consort will die because of you." Duan Yu yelled at the top of his voice: "Don't you dare hurt my Mother!" In the background, he vaguely heard Duan Yanqing advising: "Hold your hand. This matter needs to be reconsidered." Murong Fu insisted: "Foster Father, this matter is of utmost importance. If Lord Zhennan will not transfer the throne to you, our grand scheme will fall apart. One…"

Duan Zhengchun interrupted: "If you want my consent, you must first accept one of my conditions." Murong Fu insisted: "Either you give your consent or you do not. I am not going to fall for your delay tactic. Two… How is it?"

Duan Zhengchun let out a long sigh and professed: "In my entire life, I have committed plenty of sins. Now that all of us are dying together in the same place, it is only a deserving conclusion." Murong Fu counted: "So I take that as a No. Three…"

When Murong Fu said the word 'Three', he saw Duan Zhengchun turning his head away and ignoring him. About to thrust his sword into the chest of Madam Duan, he heard Duan Yanqing bellowing: "Stop!"

Murong Fu hesitated slightly and turned his head to face Duan Yanqing. Out of the blue, he saw Duan Yu spring up from the floor and is now trying to head-butt him in the stomach. Murong Fu slanted his body to one side to avoid the blow. Frightened out of his wits, he thought: This kid has been stung by 'Drunken Bees' and poisoned by . With these two powerful sedatives in his body, how can he possibly jump up?

In the beginning, when Duan Yu realised that Wang Yuyan is his own sister too, he was bitter with grief, causing his internal energies to go haywire in his meridians. But when he heard Murong Fu saying he is going to kill his Mother, all his bitterness and thoughts about Wang Yuyan were cast aside. The same goes for his fear about fire deviation, which, incidentally, allowed his internal energy to return to their natural pathways. Whenever someone cultivates internal energy, by using their thoughts, they can guide the internal energy to move along the meridians. During fire deviation, they would usually try to reverse the energies stuck in the wrong meridians. Since they are focused on the wrong meridians, their attention would be misguided. The more anxious they are, the further the internal energies will travel down the wrong meridians. Duan Yu is fully concentrated on the safety of his Mother; without any interference from his thoughts, his internal energies are able to resume the proper pathways. When he heard Murong Fu stating the number 'Three', he forgot that he is still being tied up and hurriedly jumped on his feet. Based on his hearing, he dashed head first towards the sound of Murong Fu's voice and was surprised that his body is under his control again. Missing Murong Fu, his shoulder crashed heavily onto the side of a table. Forcing his two hands apart, the twine ropes binding his wrists severed at once.

With both his hands freed, he heard Murong Fu cursed: "D@mn this kid!" Without thinking, Duan Yu pointed his finger and shot out from in the direction of Murong Fu's voice. Murong Fu bent his body to evade and countered with a sword stab. His eyes blindfolded by a black cloth and his mouth stuffed with a walnut, Duan Yu is still in a state of panic. Being unable to speak is inconsequential, but when he cannot see the exact location of Murong Fu, he cannot act recklessly, for he may injure his Mother by accident. In his confusion, he did not even think of removing the black cloth that is covering his eyes.

Murong Fu thought: Since he is able to free himself from those bonds, his ability cannot be underestimated. I must kill him before he regains his eyesight.

With that, he executed the move and his sword sped towards Duan Yu's chest in a horizontal slice.

Duan Yu is pointing his fingers haphazardly without any effect. When he heard the whistling of the advancing sword, he hastily avoided based on his hearing. With a 'pu' sound, the tip of the long sword has pierced the corner of his shoulder. Feeling a sharp pain, Duan Yu instinctively jumped up. Within the abandoned well, he has absorbed Jiumozhi's profound internal energy. With a simple jump, he actually flew up by several feet. With a 'pong' sound, he smashed his head heavily against one of the house beams. While in mid air, he thought: I am blinded. Only he can kill me but I cannot kill him, what should I do? I do not mind being killed but if I am dead, I cannot save Mother and Father.

Exerting strength with both his legs, with a 'pa' sound, the twine ropes circled around his ankles were severed as well.

Duan Yu was elated and he recalled: Excellent! Back at the millhouse, Murong Fu disguised himself as Xixia Country's General Li (Yanzong) and was trying to kill me but he could not because I was using .

The minute his left foot touched the floor, he took a half sidestep and titled his body, smoothly escaping one of Murong Fu's sword attacks by a few inches. The three persons Duan Yanqing, Duan Zhengchun and Princess Consort Duan observed the green flashes of the long sword as the sword tip barely went past Duan Yu's stomach. The danger was too close for comfort and the three of them were completely stunned at the encounter. Of course, Duan Yu's sophisticated evasive tactics added to the element of surprise. In fact, everything that happened was a perfect coincidence. If Duan Yu is able to see and did not execute , based on his ignorance of martial arts, it would be impossible for him to dodge this formidable and lethal sword attack from Murong Fu.

With each sword stance quicker than the previous one, Murong Fu is still unable land a hit on Duan Yu. Noting that Duan Yu is still keeping the black cloth blindfold on, he grew more and more frustrated and ashamed of himself. He is unaware that Duan Yu is confused and nervous; instead, he assumed that Duan Yu is ridiculing him and using the blindfold to spite him for his incompetency. He thought: I cannot even win against a blindfolded opponent, how can I face the world?

He was so furious that fire seems to be coming out of his eyes. In a series of green flashes, his sword stance has transformed into what appears to be a giant green ball. As this green ball rolled all over the hall, it is trying to trap Duan Yu within a circle of deadly and fatal sword stances.

Du Yanqing, Duan Zhengchun, Madam Duan, Fan Hua, Hua Hegen, Cui Baiquan and the others are being pushed back by the sword aura. It felt as if gusts of cold wind are blowing incessantly at them. The hair on their heads and faces are being shredded and falling onto the floor; scratches and tears are starting to form on their sleeves and collars.

Within the sword encirclement, Duan Yu is moving randomly with his body twisting and turning in unique positions. From the outside, it looks as if he is taking a leisurely stroll in a garden. Meanwhile, Murong Fu's long and sharp sword is not even able to touch his clothes. Despite Duan Yu's relaxing appearance, his mind is racing with thoughts: I can only defend and not attack; my eyes are blinded; if Murong Fu stabs my Mother or Father with his sword, what can I do?

By now, Murong Fu recognizes that Duan Yu is the real threat and nemesis. He is not bothered about killing Madam Duan. By now, he has executed over a hundred moves and yet, he has failed to hurt his rival. He guessed: This kid is capable of , and avoided my sword because of its whistling. I shall change to , a light and noiseless attack. This kid would be unable to dodge any longer.

Once he switched his swordplay, his sword is now thrusting at a slow pace. Unfortunately, Murong Fu is unaware that Duan Yu's is an autopilot skill and does not consider the attacks of the enemy. Regardless of a thunderous and stormy sword stance or a silent sword stance, this is independent.

Based on Duan Yanqing's vast experience and incredible foresight, he instantly saw through Murong Fu's ruse and his concern for Duan Yu was aroused. Witnessing Murong Fu's laggard sword stance which concealed the piercing sound of the weapon, he was shocked. Using his throat, he warned in a hoarse voice: "Child, you must quickly kill that kid Duan Yu. If he removed the black cloth from his eyes, I am afraid the two of us will perish at his hands."

Murong Fu was shaken and he thought: You fool, why did you remind him?

Indeed, his words have enlightened a lost soul. Duan Yu was momentarily dazed before he swiftly used his hand and removed the black cloth covering his eyes. Suddenly, his eyes were exposed to brightness, causing him to see spots as well as an icy long sword approaching him from the front. He does not know any martial arts and cannot think of any countermeasure. In his anxiety, he mixed up his footwork. With a 'chi' sound, his left leg was injured by Murong Fu's sword and he fell down on the floor.

Murong Fu was thrilled. Lifting his sword, he stabbed downwards. Lying sideways on the floor, Duan Yu countered with a . Murong Fu speedily leapt backwards to evade. Although fresh blood is gushing out of Duan Yu's leg, his is smooth and forceful. Soon, the hall is filled with his sword energy, instantly coercing Murong Fu into dodging here and avoiding there like a destitute.

In the past on Mount Shaoshi, Murong Fu is already outmatched by Duan Yu. The current Duan Yu has obtained Jiumozhi's enormous well of internal energy; his is even more powerful and harder to suppress than before. After a few moves, a light 'zheng' sound was heard. Murong Fu has lost his grip on the long sword. The sword flew straight up and embedded itself on one of the roof beams. Next, a 'bo' sound rang out and Murong Fu's shoulder has been injured by the sword energy. He knows that if he continued to linger around, he would be killed by Duan Yu. With a loud shout, he escaped through a window and fled for his life.

With the support of a chair, Duan Yu stood up and called out: "Mother, Father, are you all right?" Madam Duan instructed: "Quickly tear out your collar and bandage your wound." Duan Yu assured: "That is not urgent." From Madam Wang's corpse, he retrieved the small porcelain bottle from her lifeless hand and allowed his Father and Mother to inhale the antidote first and cure them of their poisoning. By following his Father's guidance, he used his internal energy to unseal their critical acupoints. Madam Duan immediately set out to bandage Duan Yu's wounds.

Duan Zhengchun stood up and plucked out the long sword from the roof beam. The blade of this sword has been stained by the fresh blood of the four ladies Ruan Xingzhu, Qin Hongmian, Gan Baobao and Madam Wang. Every one of them shared an intimate relationship with him and a vow to grow old together. Duan Zhengchun may have been a philanderer and an unfaithful partner; nevertheless, during each of his passionate encounter, his devotion to the lady is absolute. How he wished he could dig his heart out and cut his body into equal parts for each of his lovers. In front of him, the four female corpses are lying on the floor. Madam Wang's head is resting on Qin Hongmian's thigh, while Gan Baobao's body is lying horizontally across Ruan Xingzhu's belly. When these four ladies are alive, they suffered greatly due to their separation from him. Broken hearted and dejected, there is more sadness than happiness in their lifelong saga. At the end of the day, they all had to die an unnatural death because of him. When Ruan Xingzhu was killed by Murong Fu, Duan Zhengchun has already decided to commit suicide in the name of love. Presently, he has no other worries. Duan Yu is a grown man with a good education and competent martial arts. DaLi Country will not lack a wise and capable ruler. There is nothing left for him to accomplish. Turning to Madam Duan, he swore: "Madam (Wife), I have let you down. In my heart, all these women and you are exactly the same, each and every one of you is my cherished true love. My love for them is real, my love for you is equally real!"

Madam Duan cried out: "Brother Chun, you… you must not…" She rushed towards him.

In order to save his Mother, Duan Yu forced himself to engage Murong Fu. After Murong Fu escaped through the window, he could barely think straight. Suddenly, he recalled: Earlier on, I experienced fire deviation. How did I recover?

Turning numb and soft, his body started to freeze out of the blue. Gradually, he curled into a ball on the floor and for the time being, he is unable to stand up.

By the time he heard the tragic cry of Madam Duan, Duan Zhengchun has already stabbed his own chest with the tip of the sword. Madam Duan hurriedly used her hand to pull out the long sword. Her left hand pressing onto his wound, she was crying as she said: "Brother Chun, Brother Chun, even if you have one thousand or ten thousand women, I will still love you the same. Sometimes, I would be upset with you and get angry, but… that is the past already… And that is because I still love you…" However, Duan Zhengchun positioned the sword to pierce his heart. The sword stab killed him instantly and he can no longer hear her words.

Madam Duan picked up the long sword and is about to stab herself in the chest too. But when she heard Duan Yu yelled out: "Mother! Mother!", she was distracted and missed by a few inches, stabbing her abdomen instead.

Seeing both his Father and Mother lifting the sword to commit suicide, Duan Yu was frightened out of his wits. His legs seemed to be filled with vinegar, as they felt sour and numb simultaneously. Lacking the strength to walk, he used his hands and crawled over, calling: "Mother, Father, you… the two of you…" Madam Duan coaxed: "Child, Father and Mother are passing on. You… You must take good care of yourself…" Duan Yu sobbed: "Mother, Mother, you must not die, you must not die. Father? He… What happened to him?" Reaching his hand, he cradled his mother's neck. He thought of pulling the sword out of her body but he is afraid that when he pulled it out, he may cause her to die even faster. Thus, he held his hand. Madam Duan advised: "You must learn from your Uncle and be a good Emperor…"

Duan Yanqing suddenly interrupted: "Quickly give me the antidote. I can save your Mother." Duan Yu blew his top and roared: "It is all your fault, you traitorous villain. You kidnapped my Father and caused him to die unnaturally. Our feud will never be erased!" Abruptly standing up, he grabbed one of the steel staffs on the floor and is about to chop down on Duan Yanqing's shoulder. In a shrill voice, Madam Duan screamed: "No!"

Duan Yu was taken aback. Turning his head, he declared: "Mother, this person is our greatest nemesis. Child is going to take revenge for you and Father." Still using her shrill voice, Madam Duan forbade: "No! You… You cannot commit such a heinous crime!" Filled with doubts, Duan Yu inquired: "I… I cannot… commit such a heinous crime?" Gnashing his teeth, he hollered: "I must kill this traitorous villain." He raised the steel staff again. Madam Duan coaxed: "Put your head down beside me and let me explain it to you."

Duan Yu lowered his head and planted his ear besides her lips. His mother softly revealed: "Child, this Duan Yanqing, he is your real Father. Your Father was unfaithful to me and in my frustration, I did something unfaithful to him too. Afterwards, I gave birth to you. Your Father does not know this and all along, he assumed you are his son, but you are actually not. Your current Father is not your real Father, this person is your real Father. You must never hurt him; otherwise… otherwise you would have committed the heinous crime of killing your own Father. I have never loved this person before, but… but I cannot allow you to commit this sin. This sin will send you to hell upon your death and you would not be able to enter the Western Paradise. I… At first, I do not wish to tell you these, as it reflects badly on your Father. Now, I have no choice and must tell you the truth…"

In this short span of time of less than two hours, unexpected huge revelations kept happening one after another like a chain of lightning strikes, causing Duan Yu to be shocked beyond words. Hugging his mother's body, he wailed: "Mother, Mother, this cannot be true! This cannot be true!"

Duan Yanqing repeated: "Quickly give me the antidote so that I can save your Mother." Duan Yu could tell that his Mother's breathing is becoming more and more shallow. Without further thought, he picked up the small porcelain bottle on the floor and gave it to Duan Yanqing.

Once he recovered his strength, Duan Yanqing immediately fetched his steel staff. With a series of 'chi chi chi chi' sounds, he has sealed the acupoints around Madam Duan's wound. Madam Duan shook her head and insisted: "You must never touch me again." To Duan Yu, she instructed: "Child, I still have something to tell you." Duan Yu lowered his head again.

Madam Duan softly detailed: "Although this person and your Father share the same surname and are from the same generation, they are not considered blood brothers. Your Father has many daughters, Miss Mu, Miss Wang, Miss Zhong, etc. You can marry whoever you want… In Great Song, this may not be permitted, as they believe in marrying someone with a different surname. In DaLi, we do not care about this restriction. As long as they are not siblings, they can get married. With so many ladies, you can marry all of them too. That would be wonderful. You… Do you like it?"

Duan Yu's tears are still running non-stop and he cannot think about this question now.

Madam Duan sighed once and lamented: "My good child, it is a pity I cannot see you wearing the Dragon (Emperor) robes, sitting on the Imperial throne, and be an obedient… obedient little Emperor with my own eyes. But I know for sure that you will be very obedient…" Suddenly, she used her hand and press down on the hilt of the sword, causing the weapon to pass through her body.

Duan Yu yelled out: "Mother!" Springing onto her body, he saw his Mother slowly closing her eyes and the corner of her mouth curling into a smile.

Duan Yu called again: "Mother!" Without warning, he felt his back turning numb. Soon thereafter, the critical acupoints on his waist, legs and shoulders are being sealed by someone. A sublime voice entered his ear: "I am your Father Duan Yanqing. To preserve the reputation of Lord Zhennan, right now, I am speaking to you via . Have you clearly heard the words of your Mother?" The last two passages Madam Duan conveyed to Duan Yu were done in a soft tone. Nonetheless, at that point in time, Duan Yanqing's poisoning has been cured and his internal energy has been restored. He overheard everything and knew that Madam Duan has disclosed to Duan Yu the secret of his heritage.

Duan Yu called out: "I did not hear anything! I did not hear anything! I only want my own Father and Mother!" When he said he wanted his 'own Father and Mother', he is in fact admitting that he has heard the words of his Mother.

Duan Yanqing was infuriated: "You are unwilling to acknowledge me?" Duan Yu called out: "No! No! I do not believe! I do not believe!" Duan Yanqing whispered: "Right now, your life is in my hand. Killing you is as easy as flipping my palm. Moreover, you are indeed my son. By not acknowledging your birth father, aren't you extremely unfilial?"

Knowing that his Mother would not lie to him, Duan Yu was dumbfounded. However, for the past twenty years, he has been addressing Duan Zhengchun as his Father. In return, Duan Zhengchun has been showering him with love. How could he suddenly accept a stranger as his Father? Furthermore, the death of his Father and Mother are partly due to Duan Yanqing. To acknowledge the enemy as his Father is impossible. Gritting his teeth, he swore: "Kill me if you want. I will never acknowledge you."

Duan Yanqing is perplexed and disappointed. He thought: Although I have a son, he does not regard me as his father. This means he is not my son.

In a blink of an eye, his evil nature was aroused. Lifting his steel staff, he poked towards the back of Duan Yu. The staff was about to come in contact with the back of Duan Yu's clothes when he cannot help but softened his heart. Letting out a long sigh, he thought: I have been leading a life full of hardship. At first, I am kinless and all alone. After much difficulty, I finally have a son. How can I bear to kill him with my own hands? Whether he acknowledges me or not, he will forever be my son. Now that Duan Zhengchun is dead, there is no way I can compete with Duan Zhengming. However, the throne of DaLi country will one day end up in the hands of my son. Although I cannot be the Emperor myself, the end result is the same if I had been the Emperor. I guess my wish is considered fulfilled.

Duan Yu called out: "Since you are going to kill me, what are you waiting for?"

Duan Yanqing unsealed his acupoints and using , he proposed: "I will not kill my own son! Since you are unwilling to acknowledge me, you can kill me with and take revenge for Duan Zhengchun and your Mother." As he spoke, he puffed his chest and waited for Duan Yu to make his move. Presently, his heart is filled with self pity and self blame. Since that year when he was critically injured, these feelings have been dominating his mind. Only by committing evil deeds can he vent out these feelings. Right now, he felt that he has led a wasted life with no worthy accomplishments. He might as well die under the hands of his own son and put an end to this misery.

Using his left hand, a confused Duan Yu wiped away his tears. On one hand, he wanted to use and kill this Great Evil in front of him in order to avenge his parents. However, his Mother stated very clearly that this person is his own birth Father; how could he bear to kill him?

While waiting, Duan Yanqing saw Duan Yu raising his hand and putting it down, and then raising his hand again in an indecisive manner. In an awe-inspiring manner, he barked: "As an upright and worthy hero, if you want to make a move, just go ahead. What is there to fear?"

Duan Yu clenched his teeth and shrunk his hand. He concluded: "Mother will not lie to me. I will not kill you."

Duan Yanqing was ecstatic and burst out into laughter, knowing that his son eventually acknowledged himself as his Father. Filled with delight, he propped himself with the two staffs and cheerfully went on his way. He did not even spare a single glance at Yun Zhonghe who has fainted and is still lying on the floor.

Still hoping for a miracle, Duan Yu went and felt his Father and Mother for a pulse and checked their breathing. When he finally accepted they would not come back to life, he collapsed on the floor and started crying his eyes out.

After crying for a long time, he suddenly heard a female voice behind him saying: "Mister Duan, our condolences. We are too late in our rescue mission and we deserve death for our incompetence." Duan Yu turned around and saw several ladies standing at the door. The two ladies in front shared a similar appearance. Recognizing the two of them to be two of the four sisters from Xu Zhu's Lingjiu Palace, he could not tell if they are Plum, Orchid, Bamboo or Chrysanthemum. His face is covered with tears from his lonely crying session. He sobbed: "My Father and Mother are dead!"

The two girls from Lingjiu Palace are Bamboo Sword and Chrysanthemum Sword. Bamboo Sword explained: "Mister Duan, when my Owner learnt about Mister's parents meeting some danger on their journey, he ordered Maid (me) to lead some warriors and embark on a rescue mission. Unfortunately, we were too late." Chrysanthemum Sword updated: "Miss Wang Yuyan and the others were locked up in a dungeon. They have been rescued and are in good shape. Mister can put your mind at ease."

Out of nowhere, from afar, a sharp whistling sound pierced the air. Bamboo Sword explained: "Sister Plum and Sister Orchid are on their way here!" A brief moment later, sounds of hoof beats can be heard. More than ten riders raced to the front of the house. The first two arrivals are indeed Plum Sword and Orchid Sword. The two girls dashed into the house and catching sight of the corpses all over the floor, they stopped dead in their tracks and exclaimed: "Ayo! Ayo!"

Plum Sword saluted Duan Yu and articulated: "My Owner severely begs the pardon of Mister Duan, saying there is a certain matter which he has let Mister down. However, it cannot be helped. My owner has broken his promise and is feeling guilty toward Mister. He seeks Mister's forgiveness."

Duan Yu has no idea what she is talking about. In a choking voice, he replied: "We are Foster Brothers, there is nothing to forgive. My Father and Mother are dead; I cannot be bothered with other issues."

By now, the five men Fan Hua, Hua Hegen, Fu Sigui, Cui Baiquan and Guoyan have inhaled the antidote and their acupoints have been unsealed. Noting Yun Zhonghe still lying on the floor, Hua Hegen's anger was aroused. With one chop, the cruel and merciless Yun Zhonghe was beheaded. The five men paid their respects to the corpses of Duan Zhengchun husband and wife before grieving tragically.

When the sun is up, Fan Hua and the others went to procure coffins. By afternoon, the ladies of Lingjiu Palace Zhu Tian faction delivered Wang Yuyan, Ba Tianshi, Zhu Danchen, Mu Wanqing and Zhong Ling to the residence. After being stung by the venomous 'Drunken Bees', they are still in a daze and have yet to regain consciousness.

Without any delay, Duan Yu, Fan Hua and the others buried everybody except for Lord Zhennan husband and wife. Since the residence is located within the territory of DaLi, Fan Hua summoned the local county and provincial officials. When the officials learnt that Lord Zhennan husband and wife had 'died of sickness' within their area of governance, they were shocked beyond comprehension and some nearly fainted. In their hearts, they feared punishment for negligence and lack of proper hospitality. Luckily, Minister Fan did not censure them. They rapidly scrambled about and canvassed men and wagons, making preparations to transport the coffins of Lord Zhennan husband and wife. Worried that more incidents may happen along the way, the female disciples of Lingjiu Palace escorted Duan Yu all the way back to the capital city of DaLi. During the journey, Wang Yuyan, Ba Tianshi and the others started waking up.

The news of Lord Zhennan dying a royal death while travelling and royal descendent Duan Yu escorting the coffin back to the capital has spread throughout the capital city of DaLi. Lord Zhennan has made significant contributions to his country and is worshipped by the population. Thousands of officials and commoners lined the streets inside and outside the city for over five kilometres in order to pay their last respects and mourn his departure. The air is filled with their lasting cries of grief. Duan Yu, Fan Hua, Hua Hegen, Ba Tianshi and the others entered the Imperial palace at once to report Lord Zhennan's death circumstances to the Emperor. Wang Yuyan, Plum Sword and the others were ushered by Zhu Danchen to a nearby inn.

In the Imperial palace, Duan Yu noticed that both eyes of Duan Zhengming are now red and swollen due to excessive crying. He was about to kneel down and pay his respects when Duan Zhengming embraced him and asked: "Child, why… why did it come to this?" The two men Uncle and Nephew continued hugging each other.

Duan Yu did not hold anything back and honestly communicated everything without concealment, even revealing the secret between Madam Duan and him. Finishing, he kneeled and paid his respects. He sobbed: "If Father is not the birth Father of Child, Child would be a b@st@rd, I can no longer… no longer stay in DaLi."

Duan Zhengming was utterly flabbergasted and sighed a few times: "Retribution! Retribution!" Reaching his hand out, he supported Duan Yu up and concluded: "Child, this new discovery of your parentage is only known to two people in the world, you and Duan Yanqing. Actually, it is not necessary for you to disclose this fact to me. But since you are straightforward and fearless, it showcases your honest character. Both your Father and I are heirless. Let's skip the fact that you are surnamed Duan; even if you are not surnamed Duan, I have decided to appoint you as my successor. This throne rightfully belongs to Prince Yanqing but I have been occupying (in a bad way) it for decades instead. I am frequently tormented by guilt. Since Heaven has made this arrangement, it is indeed the best possible outcome. I cannot ask for more." As he spoke, he stretched his hand and removed the yellow cloth cap from his head. His head is clean-shaven and on the top, there are twelve moxibustion marks.

Duan Yu was taken aback and he exclaimed: "Uncle, you…" Duan Zhengming reminded: "Remember that day when we were resisting Jiumozhi at Sky Dragon Monastery? Grandmaster has ordained me and given me the precepts. You were there to witness everything." Duan Yu acknowledged: "Yes." Duan Zhengming continued: "Since I am becoming a monk, the throne must be passed to your Father. Because your Father was in the Central Plains at that time, and the country cannot do without a ruler, I dare not disobey Grandmaster's command and temporary ruled the country on your Father's behalf. Unfortunately, your Father passed away on his return journey. Today, I shall cede the throne to you."

Duan Yu was completely astounded: "Child is young and inexperienced, how can I accept such heavy responsibilities? Additionally, Child's birthright is doubtful, Child… I… better disappear into the wilderness…"

Duan Zhengming barked: "From today onwards, your heritage shall never be brought up again. Your Father and your Mother, how did they treat you?"

Duan Yu whimpered: "Their dedication is immeasurable, as deep as the ocean and as high as the mountains."

Duan Zhengming advised: "That is the way. If you wish to repay your parents for your upbringing, you must preserve their good name. As an Emperor, you only need to remember two things. First, you must love your citizens. Second, you must be open to good advice from your officials. You are benevolent by nature and the commoners will not be oppressed. In the future, when you are older, you must never take your intelligence for granted and start altering our national policies. Most importantly, you must never start a war with our neighbouring countries."

Chapter - 49 Worthless Authority the Circle of Life a Life Without Fear

In the Imperial Palace of DaLi, Duan Zhengming is ceding the throne to his Nephew Duan Yu. He advised Duan Yu on two things, one, love his citizens and two, accept good advice from others. In addition, he warned Duan Yu to never to edit the national policies or wage wars. At the same time, thousands of kilometres away north of DaLi, in the capital of Great Song, inside Bianliang Palace, Chongqing Court inner chamber, the sickness of Grand Empress Dowager (Grandmother of Emperor) has taken a turn for the worse. She is giving her last instructions to her grandson, Emperor Zhao Xu: "Child, our founding ancestors went through indescribable hardships to create our Empire. Thanks to their excellent groundwork, we are able to enjoy days of peace. However, during your father's regime, there were some new developments that almost took place. Till today, the common folks still retain some fear of these developments. Do you understand the reason behind this?"

Zhao Xu answered: "Child often heard from Granny, saying that Imperial Father took the advice of Wang Anshi and wanted to introduce new reforms. However, these reforms cause the people to suffer extensively."

The dried and wrinkled face of Grand Empress Dowager moved slightly as she sighed: "Wang Anshi is educated and talented. Initially, he is not an evil man and his intention is to benefit the country and the people. However… Ai… However, your Father is anxious for results and demanded the reforms to be implemented instantaneously and speedily carried out. Unfortunately, some things cannot be rushed. More haste, less speed. In all the confusion, things ended up worse than before."

As she spoke until here, she paused for a while and continued: "Furthermore, he does not appreciate dissent. He loves it when others sing praises of him, saying he is the Son of Heaven. When someone criticizes him for a bad decision and gives him an alternate suggestion, he would throw a tantrum. Many officials have been sacked or dispatched to faraway provinces as punishment. With this attitude, who would dare to offer an honest yet unfavourable opinion?"

Zhao Xu lamented: "Granny, it is a pity Imperial Father's work is incomplete. All his commendable projects have been slandered by villains."

Grand Empress Dowager was shocked. In a shaking voice, she questioned: "What… What commendable projects? What… What villians?"

Zhao Xu explained: "Imperial Father spearheaded the Crops stockpile reform, Horse management reform, Insurance reform, etc. Aren't these reforms useful in building the nation's wealth and strengthening our army? And yet we have these nincompoop scholars Sima Guang, Lu Gongzhu, and Su Shi coming in to disparage them."

The countenance of Grand Empress Dowager took a change. She tried to force herself to sit up but her body is at its weakest state. Even when she tried to lift herself higher by one or two inches, she found it to be particularly challenging. Meanwhile, she was coughing non-stop. Zhao Xu commented: "Granny, do not be upset. You need to rest more and take care of your health." Although he is giving advice, there is no tone of concern or love in his voice.

For a while, Grand Empress Dowager had a coughing fit. Gradually, it calmed down and she probed: "Child, you have been an Emperor for nine years. However, for these nine years… for these nine years, the real Emperor is Granny. In everything that you do, your instructions must come from Granny. You… In your heart, you must be very frustrated and full of hate for Granny, am I right?"

Zhao Xu cajoled: "Granny is acting on my behalf as Emperor because you adore me and is afraid I would be exhausted. All the subordinates listened to Granny; all the decrees were issued by Granny. Child is free and idle; what is bad about that? Why would I blame Granny?"

Grand Empress Dowager sighed once and softly revealed: "You are exactly like your Father, thinking you are clever and talented, and wanting achieve a major accomplishment. All along, in your heart, you have been hating me, I… Do you think I don't know about this?"

Zhao Xu smiled and confessed: "Of course Granny knows about it. In the palace, the Commander of the Palace Guards is Granny's trusted crony. In the Inner Court, the Head Eunuch is Granny's confidante. Within the Imperial Court, all the high-ranking ministers are appointed by Granny. Besides obediently complying with Granny's instructions, would Child dare to do anything or say anything that could be contradicting?"

Both her eyes staring at the top of the bed-curtain, Grand Empress Dowager predicted: "You must be waiting for this day all your life. Once I died of sickness, you… you can then showcase your capabilities." Zhao Xu remarked: "Child is able to become Emperor because of Granny's intervention. That year, when Imperial Father passed away, if not for Granny's support, the senior officials of the Imperial Court would have appointed Prince Yong or Prince Cao. Granny's immense debt of gratitude; Child would not dare to forget. However… However…" Grand Empress Dowager demanded: "However what? What do you wish to say? Just say it; there is not need to be wishy-washy."

Zhao Xu replied: "Child has heard rumours, saying Granny chose Child as Emperor because Child is young and Granny can represent Child to rule over the Imperial Court." He courageously said these words but his heart is thumping furiously. Stealing a few glances at the door, he identified the eunuchs stationed there as his trusted cronies. They will guard the chamber well and he was able to relax a little.

Grand Empress Dowager slowly nodded her head and commented: "Your words are not incorrect. I do want to run the country as my own. Over the past nine years, how did I fare?"

From his bosom, Zhao Xu produced a roll of paper and asked: "Granny, for the past nine years, the praises and commendations of Imperial Officials are numerous. If I repeat them, Granny would find it tiresome. We have a messenger from the North today, and he brought us a petition that was submitted from the Prime Minister of Liao to the Emperor of Liao. The petition mentioned about Granny's governance. This is the private discussion of our enemy's Imperial Court, is Granny interested to hear about it?"

Grand Empress Dowager sighed: "If they praise me, it is good, if they criticize me, it doesn't matter too. I… I don't think I can make it past tonight. I… I don't even know if I can see tomorrow's sunrise. The Prime Minister of Liao, how did he judge me?"

Zhao Xu spread open the roll of parchment and read: "In the petition, the Prime Minister made the following observations: Since *Curtain-politics begun, capable officials have been recruited and the new reforms have been discontinued. For the past nine years, the Court is free from corruption and the country is safe and prosperous. But formalizing ties, the Court is free from favouritism and even relatives do not enjoy special treatment. All the tribute items and valuables presented to the authority are transferred to the national treasury and not even a single object has been taken for personal use…" When he read up to this point, he paused for a while and could see the soulless eyes of Grand Empress Dowager suddenly glimmering with rays of joy. He concluded: "… This person is the female equivalent of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun!"

*(During Court Session, the Grand Empress Dowager will sit behind the Emperor, semi-concealed by a curtain. From TV shows, the curtain is not a cloth curtain but vertical rows of beads forming a partition. From that position, the GED will conduct the Court session via the Emperor. Emperor will be manipulated by her like a Puppet to a Puppet Master.)

Grand Empress Dowager murmured: "Female equivalent of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun! Female equivalent of Emperor Yao and Emperor Shun! Even for these two Emperors, they eventually cannot escape the fate of death." Out of nowhere, in her increasingly slow-witted brain, a light of inspiration was illuminated. She inquired: "Why did the Prime Minister of Liao Country start paying attention to me? Child, you… you must take note of this. They know I am dying soon and are going to take advantage of you."

The young face of Zhao Xu glowed with pride. He disparaged; "They wish to take advantage of me? Humph, it is easier said than done. The Khitans have spies in Eastern Capital (of Song) and they knew that Granny is afflicted with serious illness; however, don't we have our own spies in Upper Capital (of Liao)? We did get a copy of their Prime Minster's petition, right? The Khitan officials are having a discussion, saying that when Granny… Granny has moved on from this world, if the Ministers and Generals remained the same; there are no new laws and the people are living a secured life, so be it. But if Child decided to… Humph Humph, act blindly without thinking… act blindly without thinking, they themselves will come and act blindly without thinking too."

Grand Empress Dowager faintly enquired: "If this is true, are they sending their army southwards (to attack us)?"

Zhao Xu replied: "That is right!" Turning his body, he walked over to the window. Look at the Big Dipper shining in the sky, his eyes traced the formation and finally, gazing at the North Star, he murmured: "Our Great Song is packed with well-trained soldiers and abundant provisions. With our superior numbers, there is no need to fear the Khitans. Even if they do not move southwards (to invade), I may instead head north and challenge them! "

Grand Empress Dowager is hard of hearing. She implored: "What did you say? Who are you challenging?" Zhao Xu strode back to her sickbed and elaborated: "Granny, Our Great Song population is ten times more than Liao Country. Our provisions are thirty times more than theirs, isn't it? With ten against one, would we lose against them?" Grand Empress Dowager questioned in a trembling voice: "You wish to wage war against Liao Country? That year, even when the valiant and astute Emperor Zhenzong personally led an army against them, the end conclusion was the Agreement of Chanzhou. You… You dare to wage war against them?"

Zhao Xu was infuriated: "Granny has always despised Child, treating Child as if Child is still a breastfeeding baby who knows nothing about the world. Even if Child is inferior to Emperor Taizu and Taizhong, Child could definitely surpass Emperor Zhenzong." Grand Empress Dowager whispered: "Even for Emperor Taizhong, he lost his battle against the Northern (Liao) Country and retreated with heavy injuries. The wounds did not heal, which led to his Imperial death." Zhao Xu insisted: "These are separate matters and cannot be discussed concurrently. That year, we failed to defeat the Khitans, but that does not mean we will never be able defeat them."

Grand Empress Dowager realised she has many things to convey. However, she can feel her strength gradually leaving her body and her eyesight is starting to cloud. With her mind mostly obscure, she found it challenging to speak out too. Still, in the depths of her heart, a persistent and clear message is throbbing relentlessly: "War is merciless, lives will be in peril, this confrontation must never take place."

After some time, she took a deep break and slowly remarked: "Child, for these nine years, I have been monopolizing all the authority and did not spend any time analyzing situations with you. This is Granny's fault. I always thought I have many more years to live and wanted to wait until you are older before exposing you to all of these. By then, you would have a better understanding. Unexpectedly… unexpectedly…" She made a few dry coughs and continued: "We do have superior numbers and ample provisions. But the people of Great Song are feeble compared to the bravery of the Khitans. Moreover, if war really breaks out, the battlefield will be lined with the remains of our soldiers and commoners. The casualties will be high, many properties and infrastructure will be destroyed. Under the sky, countless people will lose their families and their lives. There will be broken families everywhere. As the ruler, in our minds, we must always remember this word: Humanity. Let's not even consider the unknown outcome of the war. Even if we are totally confident of victory, this war is better left unfought."

Zhao Xu reminded: "Our sixteen prefectures of Yanyun have been seized by the people of Liao. Every year, we still have to pay tributes of gold and money. We are like their vassal state or worse, one of their tribes. As the Emperor of Great Song, how can Child endure this insult? Shall we be bullied by the people of Liao forever?" The more he spoke the louder he became: "That year, when Wang Anshi introduced the reforms, such as the Horse management reforms and Insurance reforms, these are meant to strengthen our country and our coffers, eventually redeeming the ridicule faced by our ancestors. As an Imperial descendent, by taking revenge for our forefathers, it is an act of great filial piety. For his entire life, Imperial Father has been working hard for the same reason, isn't it? Child must continue Father's unfinished projects, if anyone gets in my way, they will end up like this chair." He suddenly pulled out a sword from his waist and chopped a chair beside him into two parts.

Except for leading the army to war or conducting a military inspection, the Emperor is unarmed. Witnessing this child abruptly pulling out a sword and chopping the chair, Grand Empress Dowager could not help but was greatly taken aback. In her semi-conscious state of mind, she thought: "Why is he carrying a sword? Is he here to kill me? Or does he want me to stop controlling him from behind like a puppet master? This Child is brave but reckless, I am going to force him to abdicate." Although she is affectionate by nature, but after having complete authority for so many years, whenever she felt a threat to her power, she would instantly find a way to get rid of her enemy. Even family members will not be spared. In that split second, she forgot that she herself is at the end of her lifespan and would soon depart from world of the living.

In his mind, all Zhao Xu could think about is how to conquer his enemies and reclaim the sixteen prefectures of Yanyun. He fantasized himself riding a tall steed, leading a hundred thousand brave soldiers and overrunning Upper Capital (of Liao), forcing Emperor of Liao, Yelu Hongji to surrender and make a formal apology. Raising his sword high up in the air, he bravely declared: "The critical affairs of the Country were all ruined by a bunch of cowards and nincompoops. They called themselves Noblemen but are actually a bunch of greedy, selfish and gutless villains. I… I must punish them heavily."

Grand Empress Dowager regained her clarity and thought: "This Child is the Emperor of the day. He has his own thinking and I can no longer manipulate him. I am an old lady on my deathbed. He is a young and vigorous Emperor. He is the Emperor. He is the Emperor." She tried her best to speak as loudly as possible and praised: "Child, you have this strong ambition and Granny is happy for you." Zhao Xu was pleased. Returning his sword into the sheath, he asked: "Granny, my words are correct, isn't it?"

Grand Empress Dowager tested: "Do you know what is a surefire strategy that guarantees victory?" Zhao Xu frowned his brows and mused: "By picking capable generals, training tough soldiers, rearing sturdy horses and stockpiling our provisions, we can pit ourselves against the people of Liao on the battlefield. There is a good chance of victory but there is no guarantee." Grand Empress Dowager suggested: "You, too, know that there is no guarantee of victory on the battlefield. Nevertheless, our Great Song can get them to yield without going to war." Zhao Xu remarked: "By letting our people rest and governing the country with good policies, we can get them to yield without going to war. This is what you mean, right? Granny, this is the pathetic scholarly opinion of Sima Guang and the others. What good can they achieve from this?"

Grand Empress Dowanger sighed once and slowly advised: "Lord Sima is well-read and experienced. Why do you label his advice as pathetic scholarly opinion? You are the ruler of a country and must constantly study Lord Sima's book . For more than a thousand years, the prosperity, decline, failure and demise of each dynasty is documented in this book. Our Great Song has fertile land and dense population. We outnumber the Country of Liao by ten to one. As long as war does not break out, another ten, twenty years later, we would be even stronger and richer. The people of Liao are brave and warlike. As long as we guard our borders well, they will soon be fighting among themselves. After a few internal conflicts, their country will be severely weakened. Two years ago, when the King of Chu rebelled, many of Liao's soldiers were killed and injured."

Zhao Xu slapped his thigh and recalled: "That is right. Actually, at that time, Child was thinking of leading an army up north and mount a pincer attack. Since the people of Liao are having an internal strife, they would find it difficult to deal with us. Ai, it is a pity we lost this once in a lifetime golden opportunity."

Grand Empress Dowager scolded in a sharp voice: "You kept wanting to start a war with Liao. You… You… You…" She suddenly sat straight up with her right index finger outstretched, pointing ferociously at Zhao Xu.

When Grand Empress Dowager abruptly demonstrated a show of authority, Zhao Xu was so shocked he took three steps backwards, stumbling in the process. His hand on his sword hilt and his heart thumping furiously, he nearly fainted. He cried out: "Quick. Somebody come quick."

When the group of eunuchs heard the summons of the Emperor, they dashed into the chamber at once. In a shuddering voice, Zhao Xu asked: "She… She… Look at her. What is happening?" Earlier on, his words are full of bravery and ambition, wanting to fight to death with the Khitans. Now, an illness-stricken old woman is demonstrating her authority and he was instantly shocked out of his wits and is at a loss of what to do. A eunuch took a few steps towards her and scrutinized her for a while. Gathering his courage, he sent out his hand to test for a pulse. He concluded: "Reporting to Emperor, Grand Empress Dowager's 'dragon' body has ascended to Heaven."

Zhao Xu was overjoyed and he laughed loudly, exclaiming: "Wonderful! Wonderful! I am the Emperor now! I am the Emperor now!"

Actually, he has been an Emperor for nine years; however, he was an Emperor in name only and lacks the accompanying authority. All his powers were held by the Grand Empress Dowager. It was at this moment when he is truly the Emperor.

With Zhao Xu personally in charge, the first thing he did is to demote Minister of Rites Su Shi to Dingzhou as the Prefectural Governor. Su Shi's fame has spread all over the country and he carried all the heavy responsibilities. At loggerheads with Wang Anshi, he opposed the new reforms. Since the beginning of Grand Empress Dowager curtain-politics, she mainly relies on Sima Guang and the brothers, Su Shi and Su Zhe. Now that Grand Empress Dowager is dead, the Emperor has sacked Su Shi from the Imperial Court and sent him to manage the common folks instead. A worrying shadow was casted on the minds of the people. They imagined: The Emperor is going to implement the new reforms and cause misery to the populace again! Of course, there are some who are secretly delighted. When the Emperor resumed the reforms, there is an opportunity for them to get promoted and making a killing.

Presently, most of the positions in the Imperial Court are occupied by officials formerly appointed by Grand Empress Dowager. Hanlin Scholar Fan Zuyu petitioned: "The late Grand Empress Dowager has a penchant for fairness and equality. By sacking officials Wang Anshi and Lu Huiqing, the reforms are reverted back to traditional methods, thereby reversing the damage to society and turning our country away from danger and back on the path of peace. The disappointments faced by the people are now replaced by hope. As proven by the petition between the Prime Minister and Emperor of Liao: Southern Dynasty (aka Great Song) implements humane policies; we can guard Yanjing well and prevent any issues with the border forces. Your Majesty has been paying attention to our enemy country; by testing, we will know the results. Today, Your Majesty is personally involved; the villains will no doubt be shaken; and the greedy will temporary stop and observe further. Official (I) hopes Emperor will remember the tough times our ancestors underwent, as well as the hard work done by the late Grand Empress Dowager. Regardless of the inconveniences, no immoral personnel must be employed. By sticking to the good, the firm and the steady, with the external forces and the internal forces working hand-in-hand, you can govern with full righteousness and everything under the sky will be our good fortune!"

The more Zhao Xu read, the angrier he became. Throwing the petition on the table, he demanded: "Regardless of the inconveniences, no immoral personnel must be employed, these two lines are well-expressed. However, who is the righteous and who is the villain?" As he spoke, his eyes are fuming with energy as he stared at Fan Zuyu with hostility.

Fan Zuyu kowtowed and reported: "Your Majesty, please judge for yourself. When Grand Empress Dowager came into power, there are numerous petitions by officials and commoners, describing the reforms as inapplicable and harmful to the country. By following the will of the people, Grand Empress Dowager made changes to the policies. By sacking or removing the culprits behind the reforms, Grand Empress Dowager is serving her people. These sacked or demoted officials are naturally the villains."

Zhao Xu coldly sniggered once and hollered loudly: "Those officials are sacked by Grand Empress Dowager; what have they got to do with me?" Waving his sleeve, he concluded the court session.

Zhao Xu is sick of meeting his officials. However, being new in power, it is inappropriate for him to sack the whole bunch of them. He immediately issued personal edicts and promoted Yue Shixuan, Liu Weijian, Liang Congzheng and others. He rewarded these men because they are his close associates and supporters. For several days in succession, he faked illness and refused to hold a court session.

A eunuch delivered a petition and the words are written with plump and powerful strokes. The sender is Su Shi. Zhao Xu noted: "That Big Beard Su has beautiful handwriting; I wonder what rubbish he has written." The petition goes like this: Even at the border side, official is on alert. Unable to meet you before my departure, we are now miles apart. There are some things I wish to communicate but it is more difficult now.

Zhao Xu commented: "I purposely avoided you and your big beard. I never want to see you again in my life." He continued to read: There is always something we can learn from history and our ancestors. Only when it is dark can you see the stars; only when you are still can you see what is moving. All the truths will be revealed to you. Your Majesty is more intelligent than other people, young and energetic…

Zhao Xu guffawed once and thought: This Big Beard is useless but he is good at flattery. By saying I am intelligent, young and energetic, he actually means I am young and na?ve.

He continued to read: Official (I) is humbly advising Your Majesty to do nothing for now and spend time investigating the reforms. By weighing all the pros and cons, suitability and unnecessary, three years later, when the truth is out, you can take action on them. Afterwards, there will be no hatred from the people and Your Majesty will not have any regrets. From my perspective, if Your Majesty acts on the reforms now, it is too early. By waiting just a little longer, everything will be made clearer. Official is concerned there are some greedy officials who will advise Your Majesty to change quickly, because there are benefits for them. Therefore, Your Majesty must take note of this. By the time of the Agricultural Deity Temple blessing, the world will be a fortunate one.

Finished with the petition, Zhao Xu pondered: Everybody says Big Beard Su is a talented man with peak intelligence; the rumours are true after all. He predicted I am determined to emulate my late father and restart the new reforms. Thus, he came to hinder my plans and wanted me to wait for three years. Humph. 'When the truth is out, you can take action on them. Afterwards, there will be no hatred from the people and Your Majesty will not have any regrets.' He is simply putting it nicely but the meaning is still the same. He says that if I were to fast-track everything and go all out on the reforms, the people would bear hatred and I myself would experience regrets.

In a fit of anger, he tore the petition to shreds at once.

Days later, during Court, Fan Zuyu presented another petition: At the beginning of Xuning, officials Wang Anshi and Lu Huiqing introduced three new reforms which is a big shift from our traditional policies, allowing many villains to harm our country. Plenty of existing officials are removed from their Imperial Court positions and several new officials throughout the country are promoted into the Imperial Court. By deploying the army against borderland tribes, bad foreign relationships are created. The country is filled with despair and many people are homeless.

Reading up till here, Zhao Xu was infuriated. He thought: On the surface, you are disparaging Wang Anshi and Lu Huiqing, in reality, aren't you reprimanding my Imperial Father?

He continued reading: Cai Que built prisons; Wang Shao dug rivers; Zhao Nao launched five creeks; Shen Qi disrupted transportation; Shen Kuo and the others revive our western conflicts with no less than two hundred thousand military and civilians casualties. The previous Emperor has expressed his regrets and demands the Imperial Court assign this blame to him personally.

The more read, the more furious Zhao Xu became. Skipping a few lines, he read: The people are suffering and society is in disorder. Fortunately, Grand Empress Dowager came in and salvaged the situation, allowing the people to find a solution to their haywire situation…

Reading up to this sentence, Zhao Xu cannot endure it any longer. Slamming the Imperial Dragon table, he stood up.

Zhao Xu is eighteen years old. Besides the authority of an Emperor, he also possesses the rashness of his youth. By suddenly throwing his tantrum in Court, his officials were traumatized. In a sharp tone, he censured: "Fan Zuyu, based on your petition, aren't you defaming the late Emperor with evil language?" Fan Zuyu kowtowed relentlessly and replied: "Your Majesty, please judge for yourselves. Official (I) would never dare to do so."

Exercising his authority for the first time, Zhao Xu was secretly pleased to witness his officials' terrified expressions. His anger slightly subsided; he still maintained a fierce appearance on the outside. He roared: "The late Emperor is a gifted talent. With his excellent ambitions, he was ready to eradicate all the barbarians and unite the world. Unfortunately, he passed away at the prime of his life. With me continuing the leftover projects of late Emperor, what is there to be upset about? Yet, all of you are chattering nonstop and criticizing the reforms of late Emperor instead."

Among the rows of officials, a senior minister presented himself. With a lean outlook, he carried an aura of authority. It turned out to be Prime Minister Su Zhe. Zhao Xu was annoyed as he thought: This person is Big Beard Su's younger brother. These two brothers are partners in crime; nothing good can come out from either.

Su Zhe reported: "Your Majesty, please judge for yourself. The late Emperor has many good qualities and is more praiseworthy compared to our forefathers. For example, during his twelve-year reign, he refused to accept any honorary title. Junior and senior officials are full of praise for him but he always humbly reject these compliments. Even if he made some mistakes during his governance; it is only human to err. Father has begun a new legacy and the son will complete it. This is being filial to your ancestors."

'Humph!' Zhao Xu snorted once and coldly asked: "Father has begun a new legacy and the son will complete it; what do you mean by this?" Su Zhe elaborated: "Let us use Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty as an example. By attacking the barbarians and constructing expensive palaces, he bankrupted the national treasury. By imposing tax on salt, steel, alcohol and roads, he is impoverishing the people. Unable to make a decent living, several rebellions were staged. When Emperor Wu passed away, Emperor Zhao inherited the throne and instructed Huo Guang to banish these rules, stabilizing the Han dynasty." Zhao Xu snorted again as he thought: You are comparing my Imperial Father to Emperor Wu of Han!

Su Zhe noticed the displeased expression of the Emperor and realised he is in a perilous situation. He pondered: If I continue speaking and irritated the Emperor, he may order my execution in a fit of anger. But if I do not reflect the wishes of the people, the country will be in turmoil again. Tens of thousands of commoners will be miserable, hungry and cold. There would be homeless people everywhere. As a senior minister, how can I allow such an occurrence? Today, I shall risk my insignificant life to repay the deep gratitude of Grand Empress Dowager.

He continued: "During Later Han Dynasty, Emperor Ming wanted to find out the truth about his country. To draw a conclusion, he mistakenly believed some rumours spread by indecent soothsayers. By conducting an erroneous and ruthlessly investigation, many people lived in fear and horror. When Emperor Zhang came into power, he understood the gist of it all. By introducing humane and generous policies, the people are overjoyed and peace reigned once again. These are examples of sons' finishing their fathers' works. These are saintly acts of great filial piety."

Su Zhe correctly guessed that although Zhao Xu was crowned Emperor at the age of ten, for the past nine years, he must obey every instruction laid out by Grand Empress Dowager, causing him to secretly accumulate hatred over the years. Now, he must have decided to destroy the legacy of Grand Empress Dowager and restore the reforms initiated by Emperor Shenzong. This is also a display of filial piety towards his father. As a result, he intentionally emphasized the words 'These are saintly acts of great filial piety' in his advice to the Emperor.

In a loud voice, Zhao Xu interrogated: "Emperor Ming of Han dynasty is an admirer of Confucian teachings, there is nothing deplorable about that. By comparing Emperor Wu of Han with late Emperor, what is your agenda? Are you opening defaming late Emperor? Emperor Wu of Han is an inferior military commander. In his twilight years, he even issued a bereavement decree self-censuring himself. His behavior is ridiculous and he was a laughing stock among his people. How can he be compared to late Emperor?" The more he spoke, the louder his voice grew. He was extremely agitated.

From the Official Platform, Su Zhe went to the centre of the Imperial Court and kneeled down, kowtowing perpetually and dare not speak again.

In the hearts of many senior officials, they thought: When the late Emperor introduced the reforms, many commoners are affected and are living an insecure life. Compared to him, Emperor Wu of Han is a better Emperor.

Nonetheless, nobody dared to speak up or debate on behalf of Su Zhe.

With a head of flowing white hair, another senior minister presented himself. He is named Fan Chunren. He calmly state: "Your Majesty, please calm down. Su Zhe's words may have been inappropriate but that is an indication of his loyalty to Emperor. Your Majesty is still new in the matters of the Imperial Court; experienced ministers must be treated with respect and cannot be berated like servants. Furthermore, in his later years, Emperor Wu of Han regretted his past actions. By showing remorse for his wrongdoings, he cannot be considered bad Emperor."

Zhao Xu argued: "There is a saying: Emperor Qin; Han Wu (Emperor). Emperor Wu of Han is perceived on the same level as the tyrannical Qin Shihuang*. Doesn't that prove your theory wrong?" Fan Chunren explained: "Su Zhe is highlighting their circumstances and developments, not their personal character."

(For more information about him, readers can look up another of my translation: A Step into the Past, OP Jean)

Listening to Fan Chunren's debate, his wrath was appeased. He barked: "Su Zhe, come back!" From the centre of the Imperial Court, Su Zhe returned to Official Platform. He dare not occupy his previous station but instead kneeled down at the end of a row of officials. He pleaded: "Official has offended Your Majesty, I beg to be exiled to a faraway prefecture (instead of being executed)"

The same day, an edict was passed down. Su Zhe was demoted to Duanming Scholar and sent to Ruzhou to serve as the prefectural Governor. Unexpectedly, even a Prime Minister can be demoted to a minor prefectural role.

The Imperial Court affairs of Southern dynasty have been conveyed by spies to Upper Capital (of Liao). The Ruler of Liao, Yelu Hongji, learnt about the Imperial passing of Grand Empress Dowager and the young Emperor Zhao Xu demoting senior ministers. From these gestures, it is apparent to him that Zhao Xu is planning to restart the new reforms. Unable to hold back his joy, he instructed: "Prepare an entourage for Southern Capital (of Liao), I need to speak with Khan Xiao (Feng)."

Yelu Hongji added: "Southern dynasty has plenty of spies in Upper Capital, if they discovered I am heading to Southern Capital, they may take some precautions. Let us travel light and fast instead. There is no need to inform Southern Khan about our visit either." At once, he led three thousand armoured troops and headed south. In light of King Chu's recent rebellion, the Empress is personally staying behind and guarding Upper Capital. Another hundred thousand protective riders and soldiers will head south in several batches.

In less than a day, the Imperial Entourage has arrived at the outskirts of Southern Capital City. That day, accompanied by twenty odd bodyguards, Xiao Feng is hunting at the northern suburbs. When he learnt about the abrupt arrival of Liao's Ruler, he raced his horse northwards in welcome. Identifying a large white banner with a yellow top some distance away, he immediately got off his horse and walked towards it. When it is near enough, he got onto his knees and paid his respects.

Yelu Hongji laughed boisterously and jumped off his horse, commenting: "Brother, although we are formally Ruler and Subject, we are actually blood brothers. It is not necessary for such a great show of respect." Helping him up instantly, he cheerfully enquired: "Are there plenty of wild beasts?" Xiao Feng answered: "After days of bitter cold, the wild animals have fled southwards. After half a day of hunting, all we got were some grey wolves and musk deer, nothing extraordinary." Yelu Hongji is extremely fond of hunting as well. He suggested: "Let us head to the southern suburbs then." Xiao Feng informed: "The southern suburbs is the border between Southern dynasty and us. Official (I) is afraid to disrupt the friendship between the two countries and has strictly forbidden my subordinates from hunting there." The eyebrows of Yelu Hongji frowned slightly and he probed: "So there is no pillaging too?" Xiao Feng responded: "Official has banned that as well." Yelu Hongji proposed: "Today, we brothers are having a reunion. By breaking the rules once, there is no big deal." Xiao Feng accepted: "Yes!"

The sound of horns filled the air. Yelu Hongji and Xiao Feng rode side-by-side southwards and took a detour around the city walls of Southern Capital. Behind them, the three thousand armoured troops are trailing. After riding for about ten kilometres, the armoured troops separated into east and west sections and spread out like a fan. By shouting at the top of their voices, coupled with the neighing of horses and barking of dogs, they are rustling the forest animals. As they close in from four directions, among the bushes, foxes and hares were disturbed out of their hiding places.

Yelu Hongji is not interested in killing these small creatures. After a prolonged period, there are still no sightings of large beasts such as bears or tigers. Disillusioned, he was about to express his disappointment when he suddenly heard sounds of yelling. From the southeast corner, ten odd men of Han-descent are running towards him. From their burly figures and dressing, they are woodcutters and hunters from Southern dynasty. Unable to herald any wild beasts, the soldiers of Liao knew their Ruler is displeased. Coincidently, in their encirclement, they managed to round up these ten odd southerners. By coercing with horses and battle cries, they forced the southerners in the direction of their Ruler.

Yelu Hongji was jubilant: "Great timing!" Raising his gold-glided and jade-embedded steel bow, he mounted a condor-feathered wolf-tooth arrow. A few sounds of 'chi chi chi chi' rang out as he fired with rapid succession. Without missing any of his targets, he shot down six men in the blink of an eye. The remaining southerners were stricken with fear and turned around, fleeing for their lives. However, with the Liao soldiers threatening them with sharp pikes, they were forced turn back again.

Xiao Feng cannot endure the sight any longer. He called out: "Your Majesty!" Yelu Hongji laughed; "The balance is yours. I want to witness the miraculous archery skills of my brother!" Xiao Feng shook his head and pleaded: "These men are innocent, please spare them!" Yelu Hongji chuckled: "There are too many southerners. Once we kill all of them, there will be peace under the sky. Being born as southerners is their crime." As he spoke, he shot arrow after arrow. Using less than half his quiver, more than ten men of Han-descent were shot down. Some died on the spot; some were shot in the abdomen area and are still alive. Lying on the ground, they were groaning in agony. The Liao soldiers loudly applauded in unison: "Long live our Ruler!"

If Xiao Feng wanted to intervene, he could easily shoot down the feathered arrows of the Emperor of Liao. However, by shaming the Emperor in front of the army, it is an act of great disrespect. Nonetheless, his strong feelings of disapproval are unconsciously reflected on his face.

Yelu Hongji smiled: "How is it?" About to pack his bow, he suddenly noticed a rider cutting across the hunting encirclement, speeding swiftly like the wind. Identifying the rider's clothes to be from Han-descent, Yelu Hongji did not bother to question further. Drawing his bow and mounting an arrow, with a 'sou' sound, the arrow whistled towards the rider. The rider stretched out a hand and using two fingers, the arrow was pinched from mid air. By now, Yelu Hongji's second arrow has arrived. Using the left hand, the rider plucked the arrow from the air as well. All along, the horse never stopped galloping and the rider is now racing towards the Liao Ruler. Yelu Hongji fired more arrows in succession. With each arrow closely behind the previous arrow, their tips are almost touching. Nevertheless, the faster he shoots, the rider still caught the arrows by matching his speed. Before anyone knew what was happening, seven arrows have been shot and seven arrows have been intercepted.

The bodyguards of Liao Ruler shouted war cries and leveled their lances. By blocking the front of their ruler, they wish to prevent any cause for alarm.

When the rider got close enough, Xiao Feng could recognize the person. Utterly flabbergasted, he called out: "Ah Zi, is that you? You must not be impolite to the Emperor."

The rider burst out into giggles and leapt off her horse. Handing the seven wolf-tooth arrows to a bodyguard, she kneeled down and paid her respects to Yelu Hongji. She pleaded; "Your Majesty, please do not take offence at me for intercepting your arrows." Yelu Hongji guffawed: "Great skills! Great talent!"

Standing up, Ah Zi called: "Brother in law, are you here to fetch me?" Both her legs springing, she flipped to the front of Xiao Feng's horse.

Xiao Feng noticed her pair of eyes is flashing energetically. Surprised and thrilled, he inquired: "Ah Zi, how did you regain your eyesight?" Ah Zi laughed: "Your Second Brother cured me, isn't it wonderful?" Xiao Feng took another look at her and suddenly, his heart froze. He could discern an indescribable gleam of severe agony from her eyes. Logically speaking, she has regained her eyesight and has reunited with him; thus, she should be filled with happiness. But why did her eyes reveal this feeling of misery and wretchedness? Judging from her laughter, it is completely full of delight and joy. Xiao Feng thought: "Ah Zi must have suffered some injustice on her way home."

Ah Zi suddenly let out a shriek and pounced to her front. Simultaneously, Xiao Feng can sense someone about to ambush him from the back. Turning around instantaneously, he saw a three-pronged pitchfork flying towards his chest. Ah Zi reached out her left hand and seized the weapon. Using the momentum, she swung it around and stabbed it into the chest of a man lying horizontally on the ground. That man is a hunter of Han-descent; after being shot by Yelu Hongji, he has yet to die. Using every last ounce of strength, he hurled his hunter pitchfork towards the back of Xiao Feng. He noticed Xiao Feng wearing the attire of a highly ranked Liao Official. He hoped to kill him and avenge himself for dying without a proper reason.

Pointing at the corpse of the hunter, Ah Zi cursed: "You pig; you dog; trying to kill my Brother in law? You have overestimated yourself!"

Seeing Ah Zi stabbing the hunter to death with one thrust, Yelu Hongji was elated. He praised: "Excellent. Your moves are nimble and decisive; it is indeed noteworthy. Earlier on, that fork attack naturally cannot hurt our Southern Khan. But in case he was injured because of that, it would have disrupted Emperor's (my) big plans. My fair lady, how should I reward you?"

Ah Zi replied: "Your Majesty, you have conferred a high ranking official title for my Brother in law. It seems fun so I want to become an Official too. I do not need to be highly ranked like my Brother in law but don't give me a low rank either. Otherwise, I will get ridiculed." Yelu Hongji laughed: "In Great Liao, we have women in charge of households but no women holding official posts. How about this? You are already a Lady-in-waiting, a noblewoman. I shall promote you by one rank, making you a Princess. What should be your title? All right, you shall be titled: Pingnan (Flatten South) Princess!" Pouting her delicate mouth, Ah Zi opposed: "I don't want to be a Princess!" Yelu Hongji was bewildered: "Why not?" Ah Zi explained: "My Brother in law and you are blood brothers; if I become a Princess, compared to you, wouldn't I be one generation lower?"

Yelu Hongji noticed Ah Zi is especially affectionate towards Xiao Feng. And despite his high-ranking position, Xiao Feng has kept away from lust. According to ordinary customs of Liao people, sitting in such an esteemed position, having three or four concubines is a forgone conclusion. Even marrying thirty or forty companions is nothing extraordinary. Assuming Xiao Feng has feelings for Ah Zi too but did not marry her as she is too young, Yelu Hongji smiled and explained: "Your Princess title is Grand Princess, the same generation as my sister, not my daughter. Besides conferring you the title of 'Pingnan Princess', I shall fulfill another wish of yours. What do you think?"

Her charming face blushing, Ah Zi asked: "What is my wish? How did Your Majesty know about it? You are the Emperor and you cannot make promises that you cannot keep." Ah Zi has a fearless character; even when speaking to Yelu Hongji, she did not adhere to the proper manners between a Ruler and his subjects.

The laws of Liao Country are considered barbaric. In addition, Xiao Feng is Yelu Hongji's trusted benefactor. Even though Ah Zi spoke carelessly, Yelu Hongji only chortled and demanded: "If you do not want the Princess promotion, I will take it back. One, two, three, are you in?"

Ah Zi joyfully paid her respects and acknowledged in a soft voice: "Ah Zi thanks Your Majesty for his kindess." Xiao Feng bowed too and acknowledged: "Many thanks to Your Majesty for your kindness." He treats Ah Zi like his very own sister. Since she has accepted the promotion by the Ruler of Liao, he, Xiao Feng, should express his gratitude too.

Yelu Hongji thought his assumption was correct and imagined: I shall throw him the biggest wedding celebration of all times. Afterwards, I would order him to invade Song. At that time, I am sure he will do his utmost best.

In his mind, Xiao Feng, on the other hand, was analyzing: The Emperor has made a trip to the South, what is his agenda? Why did he give Ah Zi the Princess title of 'Pingnan'? Pingnan, Pingnan, could he be thinking of sending an army to invade the Southern dynasty?

Holding Xiao Feng's right hand, Yelu Hongji mentioned: "Brother, the two of us have not seen each other for some time. Let's talk over there."

Riding side-by-side, the two men and their spirited steeds galloped towards the south. A brief moment later, they had ridden more than five kilometres. The flatlands were covered with overgrown grass and some cornfields in the vicinity were being overrun by weeds and thistles. Xiao Feng analyzed: The people of Song are afraid of our pillaging; therefore, they chose to abandon these thousands of acres of fertile farmland.

With a slap of his whip, Yelu Hongji directed his horse up a small hill. Stationing his horse at the peak of the hill, he glanced around with an air of complacency. Xiao Feng trailed him up the hill and following his southerly gaze, he could see mountains upon mountains, land as far as the eye can see, right to the end of horizon.

Pointing his whip to the south, Yelu Hongji articulated: "Brother, more than thirty years ago, my Imperial Father brought me here. He too, pointed at the beautiful territory of Great Song." Xiao Feng acknowledged: "Yes."

Yelu Hongji questioned: "Since young, you grew up in the land of the Southern barbarians and are familiar with the life and climate of the Southlands. Compared to living in the south, is it more comfortable there than our Northern Country's bitterly cold environment?" Xiao Feng replied: "Everywhere is the same. In terms of comfort, as long as life is orderly and quiet, the heart would be happy and comfortable. The northerners are not used to the southern climate; the southerners are not used to the northern climate either. Since Heaven has made this arrangement, it cannot go wrong. If we insist on switching the population, we are only looking for trouble."

Yelu Hongji inquired: "You, as a northerner staying in the southlands, is probably used to the climate. By moving back here, wouldn't you be at a discomfort?" Xiao Feng answered: "Official is a wanderer in the martial arts world. Everywhere I go, that is my home. You cannot compare me with the ordinary farmers and villagers. Official has benefitted from Your Majesty's gift of shelter and a proper home to call my own. With a highly ranked position and a generous income, I am deeply grateful. What more can I ask for? I am more than satisfied."

Yelu Hongji turned his head back and scrutinized his face. Xiao Feng felt it was discourteous to stare back at him so he shifted his gaze away with a smile. Yelu Hongji gradually state: "Brother, although we are Ruler and Subject, we are also foster blood brothers. After a long separation, why are you less friendly than before?" Xiao Feng elaborated: "That year, Official is unaware that Your Majesty is the Ruler of our Great Liao. As a result, I did not pay attention to the difference in our status and lacked the appropriate manners. After I know the truth, how could I continue to blatantly regard Your Majesty as my brother?" Yelu Hongji sighed: "As the Emperor, ironically, I am no longer in the position to acquire genuine friendship and confidantes. Brother, if I accompanied you in wandering the martial arts world with complete freedom and lack of constraints, I am afraid I will get addicted to the joy of doing so."

Xiao Feng cheerfully recommended: "If Your Majesty is fond of it, it can be arranged. In the Central Plains, Official has two foster brothers. One of them is Xu Zhu Zi from Lingjiu Palace, the other one is Duan Yu from DaLi. They are passionate and true buddies who are willing to go through the depths of hell with you. If Your Majesty is interested to meet them, Official can invite them for a tour of Liao Country." Since he returned to Southern Capital, Xiao Feng has to interact daily with other officials, generals and soldiers. He finds his speech and character incompatible with this range of people. Deeply yearning for the two men Xu Zhu and Duan Yu, he hoped to invite them to Liao Country for a reunion and an extended stay.

Yelu Hongji was delighted: "Since they are the foster brothers of Brother, they are my brothers too. You can dispatch an urgent messenger and invite both of them to Liao Country. Emperor (I) can confer them with two high ranking positions." Xiao Feng chuckled: "Inviting them for a tour is fine; these two brothers cannot cope with the lifestyle of an Official."

After a period of silence, Yelu Hongji implored: "Brother, from my observation of your expression and language, it is apparent to me that there is some missing gap in your life. My wealth is unlimited and I rule the four seas; is there anything beyond my reach? Why don't you tell Brother your unfulfilled wish?"

Xiao Feng was touched. He confessed: "To be honest with Your Majesty, there is a deep regret in my heart. I have committed a huge blunder and there can be no recourse." He went on to give a rough summary of the circumstances leading to his wrongful killing of Ah Zhu.

His left hand slapping his thigh, Yelu Hongji hollered: "No wonder Brother is still single at the age of thirty-odd years old. You are cherishing a memory of an old flame. Brother, although you made this irreversible mistake, if we were to trace the origin, these Southern Han barbarians are the true culprits. Especially those beggars from Beggar's Sect; all of them are a bunch of ingrates. You need not worry; I will plan a military campaign and invade the southern barbarians. I will completely annihilate all the martial artistes from Central Plains, including the Beggar's Sect. This way, we can avenge the death of your mother at Yanman Pass and the group bullying of you at Hero's Gathering Manor. Since you have a preference for the beauties of Southern barbarians, I will pick one or two thousand for your pleasure; nothing is impossible."

Xiao Feng's face revealed a tinge of bitter laughter. He thought: Since I killed Ah Zhu by mistake, I will never marry again. Ah Zhu is Ah Zhu. In all of history, all the countries and all the four seas, there is only one Ah Zhu. She cannot be replaced by one thousand or even ten thousand women of Han-descent. The Emperor is used to having thousands of pretty concubines for companionship, how would he understand the meaning of 'true love'?

Thus, he replied: "Many thanks to Your Majesty for your kindness. However, the vendetta between Official and the martial artistes of Central Plains have been resolved. Official has personally taken the lives of numerous martial artistes too. Vengeance begets vengeance. There is no end to this. If we go to war, the world will be ruthlessly ravaged; this cannot be taken lightly."

Yelu Hongji burst out laughing and described: "The people of Song are feeble and are only good for entertainment. In a real battle, they can hardly hold their own. Brother is brave and unrivalled, if you lead an army to conquer the South, the southern barbarians' demise is guaranteed. Nobody will be ruthlessly ravaged. Brother, do you know why I made this trip to the south?" Xiao Feng replied: "I am waiting for Your Majesty to enlighten me."

Yelu Hongji smiled: "The first matter is to reunite and happily bond with my brother, updating myself with current affairs. In this trip to the West, Brother must have fully comprehended the strengths and weaknesses of Xixia Country as well as the headcount of their army and horses. In Brother's opinion, do we have the means to conquer Xixia?"

Xiao Feng was taken aback. He pondered: The Emperor's ambition is overwhelming; besides harbouring thoughts of occupying Great Song, he has intentions to dominate Xixia as well.

Therefore, he shared: "When Official made this journey to the west, my sole intention is to join the festivities for Xixia Princess's wedding application. The thoughts of military intelligence gathering and invasion did not cross my mind. Your Majesty can judge for yourself. Official is a man with a background in the martial arts world. In close combat, I am fairly confident of holding my own ground. In terms of military deployment and fielding an army, I have zero knowledge."

Yelu Hongji jested: "Brother need not be too modest. With regards to Xixia's grand invitation for a Prince Consort, it was a strong start but a weak finish. Eventually, everything ended without a proper conclusion. It is hilarious. Actually, that day, Brother should have brought a hundred thousand soldiers to Xixia and marry the Princess. It would be wonderful if you can escort her back to Southern Capital." Xiao Feng smiled at him and thought: Because he has a strong army at his command, the Emperor thinks he can do whatever he wants.

Yelu Hongji added: "In Brother's trip to the south, the second matter is to give Brother a promotion and a raise. Brother, receive your edict." Xiao Feng protested: "Official is deeply grateful for the kindness, I dare not ask…" Yelu Hongji loudly proclaimed: "Southern Khan Xiao Feng, receive your edict!" Xiao Feng hastily flipped off his saddle and prone down on the ground.

Yelu Hongji declared: "Southern Khan Xiao Feng is loyal to his country and is a trusted confidante of Emperor. He is hereby promoted to the position of King of Song and Pingnan Grand Commander of the three armies. The end."

Xiao Feng hesitated and did not know how to react. He remarked: "Official did not make any contributions and dare not receive this immense kindness." Yelu Hongji was agitated: "What? Are you rejecting my edict?" Xiao Feng noticed his tone has turned grim. Knowing he cannot refuse this offer, he kowtowed and accepted: "Official Xiao Feng gives his thanks." Yelu Hongji burst out into laughter and commented: "That's the way, Brother." Getting off his horse and supporting him up with both hands, Yelu Hongji revealed: "Brother, on my trip to the South, Southern Capital is not my last stop. The final destination for my Imperial Entourage is Bianliang (Capital of Song)."

Shocked again, Xiao Feng stuttered in a quivering voice: "Your Majesty wants to advance to Bianliang, in… in that case…" Yelu Hongji chuckled: "As Pingnan Grand Commander of the three armies, Brother can pave the way for me. We will ride straight to Bianliang. In the future, Brother's King of Song residence shall be that kid Zhao Xu's Bianliang palace." Xiao Feng inquired: "Your Majesty is saying we are going to war with Southern dynasty?"

Yelu Hongji explained: "We are not going to war with Southern dynasty; it is the southern barbarians who are looking for trouble. When the old hag Grand Empress Dowager is governing Southern dynasty, everything is established and systematic. Although I have designs on the South, I am not fully confident of success. Now that the old woman is dead, that breastfeeding kid Zhao Xu is sending men to create trouble in the North. By training his army; drafting more soldiers; breeding more horses; stockpiling their provisions; hey hey, if this kid is not planning to attack me, then who is he targeting?"

Xiao Feng reasoned: "Although Southern dynasty is training their army, we can safely ignore them. For the past few years, Song and Liao do not have any armed conflict and the two countries are generally at peace. If Zhao Xu chooses to invade us, we will naturally give him a beating he will never forget. I believe he is fearful of Your Majesty's prowess and would not dare to act recklessly. We need not lower ourselves and be bothered with that kid and his antics."

Yelu Hongji supplemented: "There are issues that Brother is unaware of. Southern dynasty possesses vast territory and a dense population. Their productivity is high and the country is rich. If a wise ruler ever sits on the throne and wants to pick a bone with Great Liao, we will be the losing party. Fortunately for us, this kid Zhao Xu is a good for nothing. By exiling his loyal ministers and even demoting Big Beard Su, the Imperial Court of Song is presently in disharmony and the people are questioning his ability to lead. This is a once in a lifetime golden opportunity. If we do not take action now, there is no better timing."

Raising his eyes and scanning the south, an imaginary illusion appeared before Xiao Feng: Tens of thousands of Liao soldiers are marching into southern terrain. Many houses are set ablaze and the air is blanketed with thick smoke from their burning. Countless men, women and children are being trodden by horses; many of them are squirming on the ground and groaning in pain. As the soldiers of Liao and Song hacked one another to death, one by one, riders are falling from their horses. Everywhere he looked, the ground is awash with fresh blood and there are large piles skeletal remains……

Yelu Hongji loudly announced: "For generations, our Khitan ancestors are eager to claim Southern dynasty and consolidate it into our Liao territory. Many attempts have been made but they all ended in failure. Today, Heaven has given me this opportunity and victory shall be mine. My good Brother, in the future, your name and mine shall be forever etched in history; isn't that wonderful?"

Both his knees on the floor, Xiao Feng kneeled down and kowtowed several times, pleading: "Your Majesty, Official has a request." Yelu Hongji was slightly stunned and probed: "What do you want? As your Elder Brother, if it is within my means, there is nothing I will not allow." Xiao Feng begged: "For the sake of tens of thousands of lives from both countries Song and Liao, I beseech Your Majesty to retract your order to invade the South. We Khitan people are used to rearing livestock as the main form of livelihood. Even if we own the lands of Southern dynasty, it serves no purpose. Moreover, war is merciless and perilous; victory is unpredictable. If we suffer any setback, it would damage Your Majesty's flawless reputation."

Noting Xiao Feng's advice and his obvious reluctance about invading the South, Yelu Hongji thought: Regardless of whether it is a Khitan Imperial family member, noble, general or minister, whenever the word 'Southern Invasion' is mentioned, everyone will be supportive and delighted. Why is Xiao Feng opposing this idea instead?

Taking a side glance at Xiao Feng, he noticed his eyebrows are tightly-knitted, revealing that he is deeply worried. Yelu Hongji pondered: When I conferred him as the King of Song and Pingnan Grand Commander, why was he unhappy? In Great Liao, it means he is second in authority. Except for me, he answers to no one and everyone is at his disposal. I get it. Although he is of Liao-descent, since young, he was groomed by the Southern barbarians and he is probably skewed towards them. In addition, his parents are citizens of Great Song. When he hears that I wanted to invade the Southern barbarians, he is doing his utmost best to oppose me. In this case, even if I force him to lead an army into the Southlands, he would be holding back. Therefore, he said: "My mind is firm on the Southern invasion. Brother need not say more."

Xiao Feng proposed: "Going to war is an affair that affects the entire country. Your Majesty must consider it carefully. If Your Majesty must invade the South, please choose another capable leader instead. If Official is leading the army, I may fall below Your Majesty's expectations."

On his trip to the South, Yelu Hongji was initially full of enthusiasm. By rewarding Xiao Feng with a huge promotion and getting him to invade the south with an army of elite Liao soldiers, he was doing this because he treasures the blood brother relationship he had with Xiao Feng and is using this as a way to show his appreciation. He anticipated Xiao Feng to be overjoyed and grateful, however, Xiao Feng is a wet blanket and even rejected the promotion of Pingnan Grand Commander. Greatly discontented, he coldly hissed: "In your heart, is Southern dynasty more important than Liao Country? You would rather be loyal to Southern dynasty and be disloyal to my Great Liao?"

Xiao Feng prostrated himself on the ground and swore: "Your Majesty, please judge for yourself. Xiao Feng is a Khitan descendent and my allegiance lies with Great Liao. If Great Liao is in danger, Xiao Feng will undergo any kind of danger and protect my country. Even if I have to die ten thousand times, I will still do it."

Yelu Hongji berated: "This kid Zhao Xu has been eyeing and lusting over the territories of Great Liao. As the saying goes: First Mover Advantage, Last Mover trapped in Cage. If we do not strike first, the next round, our country and race could be annihilated. You talk about protecting your country and dying a thousand times; however, when I ask you to lead an army for your Country, you ask me to retract my order instead?"

Xiao Feng pleaded: "In my entire life, Official has taken many lives and does not wish to stain my hands with blood again. Your Majesty, please allow Official to resign and retire into the wilderness."

Hearing his request to resign, Yelu Hongji was even more furious than before. The intention to kill instantly manifested in his heart. With his hand pressing on his sabre hilt, he was ready to pull out his weapon and chop down at Xiao Feng's neck. Before he acted, he had a change of mind and thought: This person possesses consummate martial arts; if I failed to kill him in one slash, I will be the one to die today. Furthermore, back then, he accumulated a large merit when he quelled the rebellion for me. Additionally, he is my foster family. If I killed this high-performing official today just because we had a verbal disagreement, it reflects badly on my sense of righteousness and gratitude.

Letting out a long sigh, Yelu Hongji moved his hand away from the sabre hilt and concluded: "Our opinions are different and coercion is meaningless. When you get home, please think it over. I hope you will change your mind and accept my order for the Southern invasion."

Although Xiao Feng is prone on the ground, he can immediately sense what is going on around him. If someone near him twitches his eyebrows or raise his thumb, it cannot escape his detection; how can he fail to realise Yelu Hongji has placed his hand on the sabre hilt and harboured thoughts of killing him? He can predict that things would only get worse if this conversation is continued, even to the point of severing of relationships. Hence, he swiftly acknowledged: "Official will comply!" Standing up, he led Yelu Hongji's horse to his side.

Without saying anything, Yelu Hongji jumped onto his horse and rode swiftly away. Earlier on, Ruler and Subject rode side by side towards the south; on the northern return trip, one is in front and one is behind, with a fair distance between them. Xiao Feng recognizes that Yelu Hongji is now suspicious of himself. If he follows him too closely, Yelu Hongji may feel threatened. Additionally, he has rejected his request to lead a southern invasion so he might as well stay far behind him.

Back in Southern Capital City, Xiao Feng invited the Emperor of Liao to spend the night in his Southern Khan residence. Yelu Hongji laughed: "I am not going to impose on you any further. You can calm down and straighten your thoughts regarding these intricacies and weigh the pros and cons again. I will return to the Imperial Encampment." Xiao Feng respectfully escorted Yelu Hongji back to the Imperial Encampment.

From Upper Capital, Yelu Hongji has brought a large quantity of precious sabres, exquisite swords, spirited steeds and beauties as a gift for Xiao Feng. Xiao Feng gave his thanks and brought the presents back to his Khan residence.

Xiao Feng delegated most of his official paperwork and is not particularly fond of books or academic works. As a result, there is no Study room in his Khan residence. Most of the time, he and his generals would sit on the floor of the main hall, indulging themselves in meat and wine. This habit is pretty close to what he used to do with his fellow beggars. For the Khitan generals, this is their standard routine in their desert tents as well. Faced with an easy-going and open-minded Khan who treated them with sincerity, all his subordinates are thrilled to be under his jurisdiction.

In this moment, Xiao Feng has returned from the Imperial Encampment and the sky is already dark. Stepping into the main hall, under the flickering lights of the giant cow-oil lamps, he spotted a purple-robed young girl lying on a tiger skin. It was Ah Zi.

Hearing his footsteps, Ah Zi leapt up and pounced on Xiao Feng, hugging his neck. Looking into his eyes, she inquired: "Are you unhappy to see me here? Why is your face so melancholic?" Xiao Feng shook his head and answered: "It is because of something else. Ah Zi, I am excited to see you. In this world, you are the only person that I am concerned about. I am always afraid that some harm will befall you. With you back at my side and your eyes healed, I have no more worries."

Ah Zi smiled: "Brother in law, besides my eyes fully healed, the Emperor even made me a Princess. Are you happy for me?" Xiao Feng state: "Princess or not, Ah Zi is still Ah Zi. Earlier on, the Emperor wanted to promote me again, Ai!" As he spoke, he let out a long sigh. Picking up a cow leather pouch, he pulled open the stopper and drank two big mouthfuls of wine. Scattered around the main hall are leather pouches of wine, allowing Xiao Feng to drink whenever he has the urge and without summoning a servant. Ah Zi chuckled: "Congratulations to Brother in law, you have been promoted again!"

Xiao Feng shook his head and disclosed: "Emperor intended to promote me to be the King of Song and Pingnan Grand Commander, thereby getting me to lead an army to invade South dynasty. Think about it, if we start a war, how many officials, soldiers and commoners will lose their lives? I refuse to accede to his request and earned the wrath of Emperor."

Ah Zi was puzzled: "Brother in law, you are acting strange again. I heard people saying you killed countless martial arts heroes at Central Plains Hero's Gathering Manor without a tinge of regret. These Central Plains barbaric heroes have terrorized you in the past; today, the Emperor is giving you an opportunity to vent your frustration, why are you unhappy instead?" Lifting the leather pouch, Xiao Feng drank another big mouthful of wine and let out another long sigh, explaining: "That day, the two of us, your sister and I, were being surrounded and attacked. If I did not fight back at full prowess, we would be dismembered into pieces. It was an act of desperation. That day, there were many good friends among those that I was forced to kill. Whenever I reminisced about that event, it pains me greatly."

Ah Zi guessed: "Ah, I knew it. That year, you were forced to kill other people for the sake of Ah Zhu. In that case, right now, can you kill those barbarians of South dynasty for my sake?" Xiao Feng shot a glare at her and chided: "We are talking about human lives but you are speaking as if we are slaughtering cows and sheep. Although your Father is from DaLi, your Mother is a Song citizen of Southern dynasty."

Ah Zi pouted her mouth and turned around. She begrudged: "I already know that in your heart, a thousand Ah Zi cannot be compared to one Ah Zhu. Ten thousand Ah Zi in the mortal world also cannot be compared to Ah Zhu who has left the mortal world. It looks like I must quickly die before you will finally begin to yearn for me. If I had known… I… I would not have travelled so far in order to visit you. You… When did you ever care about me?"

From her words, Xiao Feng deduced a secret grudge and was instantly alarmed. He recalled the time when she ambushed him by firing a secret poison needle, with the intention of keeping him by her side at all times. He advised: "Ah Zi, you are still young and only care about having fun and being cheeky, you do not understand how adults operate…" Ah Zi interrupted: "What is this adult children nonsense? For a long time, I am not longer a kid. You promised my sister to take care of me. You… You only cared that I have food to eat and clothes to wear, but… but when did you ever take care of what is in my heart? You never care about what is on my mind." The more he heard, the more traumatized Xiao Feng was and he dared not complete his sentence.

With her back now facing Xiao Feng, Ah Zi continued: "When I lost my eyesight, I know you will never love me and I decided to stay away from you too. Now that my eyes have recovered, you still chose to ignore me. I… In what ways am I inferior to Ah Zhu? Am I less pretty than her? Am I less clever than her? Just because she is dead, you have been frequently pining for her. I… How I wish I was the one being killed by your palm strike and you will yearn for me the way you yearn for Ah Zhu…"

At the peak of her misery, she abruptly turned around. Pouncing into the bosom of Xiao Feng, she started crying her eyes out. Xiao Feng was at a loss of what to do and what to say.

After sobbing for some time, Ah Zi added: "Why do you regard me as a kid? During that stormy night beside the small bridge, I witnessed you killing my sister and crying your heart out. From then on, I became extremely fond of you. I told myself: 'You need not be so upset, although you lost Ah Zhu, I will be like Ah Zhu and treat you with love and sincerity.' I made up my mind that I will accompany you for the rest of my life. However, you are against the idea so again, I told myself: 'Fine, if you do not allow me to accompany you, I will turn you into a handicap and manipulate you into accompanying me for the rest of your life.'"

Xiao Feng shook his head and declared: "That is all in the past; there is no need to bring them up."

Ah Zi exclaimed: "There is no past. In my heart, that memory is as fresh as today's memories. This is not the first time we are going through this but till now, you have never spared a single thought for me."

Gently caressing Ah Zi's silky hair, Xiao Feng whispered: "Ah Zi, I am more than twice your age and can only take care of you like an uncle or an elder brother. In my entire life, I have only been in love with one lady before and she is your sister. There will never be a second lady who can replace Ah Zhu; and I have decided to never fall in love again. The Emperor has presented me with more than a hundred beauties but I did not even bother to take a look at them. I care for you only because of Ah Zhu.

Angered and distressed, Ah Zi suddenly stretched her hand out and with a 'Piak' sound, she gave Xiao Feng a heavy slap to his face. If Xiao Feng wanted to evade, how could this slap land on his face? Looking at Ah Zi's pale face, trembling body and the tinge of misery in her eyes, he was terribly anguished and ultimately cannot bear to avoid her slap.

Right after the slap, Ah Zi was instantly filled with regrets and wailed: "Brother in law, it is all my fault. You… You slap me in return too, slap me in return!"

Xiao Feng enquired: "Isn't that being childish? Ah Zi, if you look carefully, in this world, nothing is a big deal and you need not get so depressed! Why are your eyes gleaming with misery and wretchedness? Brother in law is a boorish man. It must be tormenting for you to stay by my side!"

Ah Zi realised: "There is a tinge of misery and wretchedness in my eyes? Ai, it must be the fault of that ugly freak." Xiao Feng queried: "Who is the freak and what did he do?" Ah Zi replied: "My pair of eyes came from that ugly freak, the iron-masked man." Xiao Feng was momentarily stupefied and asked again: "Ugly freak? Iron-masked man?" Ah Zi revealed: "That chief of Beggar's Sect Zhuang Juxian, who else? Actually, the whole episode is absolutely hilarious. His real name is You Tanzhi but I gave him an iron mask to hide his identity. He was the son of You Ju, Second owner of Hero's Gathering Manor and the same person who scattered lime into your eyes. Somehow, he mastered some unorthodox martial arts and keep staying by my side, doing his very best to get into my good books. I was thoroughly deceived by him. When my eyes were blinded and could not depend on anyone, I was forced to politely address him as Mister Zhuang. Now that I think about it, it is such a shameful experience."

Xiao Feng was puzzled: "So the Beggar's Sect Chief Zhuang is the Iron-masked freak whom you have been playing tricks on. No wonder his face is badly scarred. It must have been inflicted when he tried to take out his mask. The Iron-masked freak is You Tanzhi? Ai, you have gone too far with your bullying and have treated him harshly. It is rare for him to treat you kindly in return without bearing a grudge."

Ah Zi icily state: "Humph, what do you mean by rare? Doesn't he have a selfish motive? He wanted to make me happy so that I will marry him."

Recollecting the events that occurred on Mount Shaoshi, Xiao Feng remembered You Tanzhi staring at Ah Zi with deep affection in his eyes. However, he did not pay much attention to him back then. Therefore, he interrogated: "Since you know the truth, did you kill him in a fit of anger and dig out his eyes?" Ah Zi shook her head and swore: "No, I did not take his life. He willingly gave me his pair of eyes too." Xiao Feng was even more bewildered than before and probed: "Why is he willing to dig out his two eyes and give it to you?"

Ah Zi detailed: "This person is a complete moron. After we arrived at Piaomiao Peak Lingjiu Palace, we located your Foster Brother Xu Zhu and invited him to treat my eyes. Consulting his medical notes for half a day, Xu Zhu Zi says it is necessary to replace my eyes with a fresh pair of eyes from another living person. Lingjiu Palace is staffed with Xu Zhu Zi's subordinates; since he is helping to cure my eyes, I surely cannot ask him to sacrifice the eyes of his followers. I instructed You Tanzhi to go downhill and kidnap a passerby but this fellow started crying instead, saying that once my eyes are cured and is able to see his face, I will no longer pay any attention to him. Although I insisted I would not ignore him, he simply refused to take my word for it. Behind my back, he actually got himself a sharp knife and looked for Xu Zhu Zi, saying he wanted to give me his eyes. When Xu Zhu Zi refused to comply, that Iron-masked man started cutting himself on his body and his face. He threatened to commit suicide if Xu Zhu Zi did not change his mind. Forced by circumstances, Xu Zhu Zi was helpless and replaced my eyes with his."

As she spoke, Ah Zi is speaking as if it is an ordinary matter but when her words entered the ears of Xiao Feng, he was filled with dread and horror. In his life, he has encountered numerous life-threatening moments and earth-shattering fights; however, this is the worst experience he could possibly imagine. Both his hands quivering, with a 'pa' sound, he discarded the wine pouch he was holding and repeated his question: "Ah Zi, so You Tanzhi gave his eyes to you willingly?" Ah Zi replied: "Yup." Xiao Feng uttered: "You… You are truly a cold blooded human; when someone offers to give you his eyes, you accepted it without a second thought?"

Hearing his stern voice, Ah Zi's eyes were blinking rapidly and she was about to break down into tears again. Suddenly, she whimpered: "Brother in law, if your eyes have gone blind, I would be willing to give you my eyes too."

Listening to these two sentences, Xiao Feng can sense the truthfulness and sincerity in her voice. He cannot help but was deeply moved, and enquired in a gentle voice: "Ah Zi, Mister You is fully devoted to you. You have no idea how fortunate you are. Except for him, you cannot possibly find another admirer as faithful as him. Where is he now?"

Ah Zi guessed: "He is probably still at Lingjiu Palace. Piaomiao Peak is full of dangerous and steep paths. Without his eyes, how could he possibly come down?"

Xiao Feng wondered: "Ah, maybe Second Brother could get the eyes of a death sentence convict for him." Ah Zi elaborated: "It cannot be done. That little monk… no, Xu Zhu Zi said so himself. My eyes are blinded because that old villain Ding Chunqiu's poison had damaged my corneas. However, the nerves are still intact so it can be salvaged. For the Iron-masked freak, his eyes are being dug out so the nerves are severed and it cannot be replaced."

Xiao Feng ordered: "You must quickly look for him and stay by his side and never leave him again." Ah Zi shook her head and protested: "I am not going, I will only stay by your side. He is as ugly as a demon. I would feel nauseas when I take a longer glance at him, how could I possibly stay beside him for the rest of my life?" Xiao Feng angrily berated: "He may be ugly in terms of appearance but his heart is a hundred times more lovely than yours! I do not appreciate your companionship and I do not want to see you again!" Stomping her feet, Ah Zi started crying and stammering: "I… I…"

Both of them heard some approaching footsteps from beyond the door. Two sentries announced in unison: "The decree has arrived!" Following that, the door to the hall was opened. Xiao Feng and Ah Zi turned around simultaneously and saw an emissary of the Emperor entering the hall.

The etiquette of Liao Country Imperial Court is not as complicated as Song Dynasty Imperial Court. When the Officials meet the Emperor's emissary, it is good enough to listen to the decree in a solemn manner. It is not necessary to change into Court Attire, put up an incense burner and kneeled down for the decree to be read. The emissary loudly proclaimed: "The Emperor has summoned Pingnan Princess for a discussion."

Ah Zi replied: "Yes!" Wiping away her tears, she followed the emissary.

Staring at Ah Zi's back as she walked away, Xiao Feng thought: You Tanzhi's absolute commitment to her is almost unheard of. However, during Ah Zi's first awakening of love, we were coincidently spending plenty of time together. When she was badly injured, I did not observe the boundaries between men and women, and took care of her relentlessly, causing her to have a child-like infatuation towards myself. I must force her to return to the side of Mister You since she received such a huge debt of kindness from him. Even Heaven will not tolerate her for abandoning this blind man.

As he heard the footsteps of Ah Zi and the emissary gradually fading away and eventually disappearing, his thoughts shifted to Yelu Hongji's Southern invasion decree: Why did the Emperor summon Ah Zi? He must be trying to get her to persuade me to accept his order and invade Song. If I insisted on defying his decree, it is a challenge to his legitimacy. Earlier during our southern suburb disagreement, the Emperor has revealed his intention to kill by pressing his hand on the saber hilt. Still, he displayed an incredible act of self-restraint due to our brotherhood and his care for me as a loyal subject. Nevertheless, if I upheld his decree and invade Song, leading an army to butcher tens of thousands of Song citizens, how can I live with myself? Moreover, Father is now a monk at Shaolin Monastery; if he learns that I am leading an army to attack the south, he would be remarkably displeased. Ai, if I disobeyed the command of my Ruler, I am disloyal; if I disregarded our brotherhood, I am unrighteous; if I invade the South and slaughter the commoners, I am inhuman; if I violate my Father's legacy, I'm unfilial. Loyalty and filial piety cannot coexist; brotherhood and humanity cannot be simultaneously accomplished, what should I do? Forget it! Forget it! Forget it! This Southern Khan designation is not suitable for me; I shall seal my Study (office) and return my Seal (of authority), deserting the army and leaving without notifying the Emperor. But where should I flee to? The world is vast and yet, there is no place for me, Xiao Feng.

Lifting the cow leather wine pouch, he drank another two mouthfuls of wine and thought: When Ah Zi is back, we shall ascend Piaomiao Peak together. First, she can be reunited with Mister You; Second, I can hang around Second Brother's place for a while until I make further plans.

Accompanied by the emissary, Ah Zi arrived at the Imperial Encampment. Meeting Yelu Hongji, she blurted out at once: "Your Majesty, you can take back the post of Pingnan Princess, I quit!"

As predicted by Xiao Feng, Yelu Hongji summoned Ah Zi because he wanted to get her to persuade Xiao Feng to accept the southern invasion decree. Hearing her initial outburst, he frowned his eyebrows and furiously berated: "When the Imperial Court confers a title, it is a matter of national importance and not some child's play. It is not for you to decide if you want it or not!"

All along, because of Xiao Feng, he has been treating Ah Zi like family too. Compared to his past easy going attitude towards Ah Zi, this time round, his tone is especially stern. With a loud 'wa!' Ah Zi started bawling at the top of her voice. Stomping his feet, Yelu Hongji scolded: "What a mess! What a mess! This is unbecoming!"

Out of the blue, from the back of the tent, a delicate female voice sang out: "Your Majesty, what is troubling you? What have you done to frighten this little girl into crying?" As she spoke, with the jingling sounds of accessories, a Noble Lady came out from behind a screen.

This particular lady has lovely eyes that sparkle like crystal, luscious hair and a sweet smile. Ah Zi recognize her as Concubine Mu, the favourite pet of the Emperor. Between sobbing and sniffling, she protested: "Concubine Mu, please say a word of fairness. Your Majesty scolded me when I simply said I did not want the title of Pingnan Princess."

Seeing her pitiful and tearful appearance, Concubine Mu scrutinized her carefully. She has not seen Ah Zi for some time and Ah Zi is much taller now and her features are more refined. Shooting a glare at Yelu Hongji, Concubine Mu covered her mouth and giggled: " Your Majesty, since she does not want to be Pingnan Princess, why don't you confer her the title of Pingnan Concubine?"

Yelu Hongji slapped his thigh and chided: "Nonsense! Nonsense! I conferred this child as Princess for the sake of Brother Xiao. One Pingnan Grand Commander and one Pingnan Princess, they would have the most glamorous wedding celebration money can buy. Unexpectedly, Xiao Feng is unwilling to be promoted to be Pingnan Grand Commander and this young lady does not wish to be Pingnan Princess either. I get it! You are a Southern barbarian; that's why you oppose our Southern invasion too, am I right?" In his tone, there is a hint of animosity.

Ah Zi clarified: "I don't care if you invade the south or not! You can invade the east or the west, none of it matters to me. But my Brother in law.... Brother in law wanted me to marry a blind and ugly freak who has no eyeballs." Blown away by this revelation, the confused Yelu Hongji and Concubine Mu questioned: "Why?" Ah Zi is reluctant to divulge the full story so she plainly stated: "My Brother in law is not fond of me so he is forcing me to marry somebody else."

At this point, someone outside the tent softly called out: "Your Majesty!" Yelu Hongji walked out of the tent and discovered the newcomer is his confidante whom he had dispatched to act as Xiao Feng's bodyguard. The bodyguard whispered: "Reporting to Your Majesty: Xiao Feng has sealed the entrance to his Study. He has also wrapped his golden Seal in a yellow bag and has hung it on a ceiling beam. From the looks of it, he... he... He seems to be planning to desert his position."

Upon hearing this report, Yelu Hongji cannot hold back any longer and became highly agitated and infuriated. He exclaimed: "He's rebelling! He's rebelling! Does he still regard me as his Emperor?" After a quick brainstorming, he demanded: "Summon the Imperial Encampment Commander!" A brief moment later, Imperial Encampment Commander Du appeared before him. Yelu Hongji ordered: "Lead your men and horses, I want the Southern Khan Residence completely surrounded." He then added: "Convey my instructions, the city gates must be closed and secured. Nobody must be allowed to enter or exit." He was deeply afraid that Xiao Feng would lead his subordinates into staging a rebellion and issued orders restlessly, summoning the senior generals who are deployed under the jurisdiction of Southern Khan.

From within the tent, Concubine Mu heard the endless blowing of horns and frantic galloping of horses. She guessed something is amiss. For the Khitan race, the lines between men and women are indistinct. Thus, she simply exited the tent and asked Yelu Hongji in a low voice: "Your Majesty, what is going on? What made you lost your temper?" Yelu Hongji angrily cursed: "Xiao Feng that scoundrel, he doesn't know what's good for him and actually wanted to betray and desert me. This scoundrel is loyal to Southern dynasty and must be heading there to expose our invasion plans to the Southern barbarians. He knows too much about Great Liao's military secrets; if he manages to flee to Southern dynasty, he will become the greatest threat to me." Concubine Mu muttered: "I often heard Your Majesty mention that this scoundrel possesses peerless martial arts skills. If we fail to rein him in and allow him to break through our encirclement, it will be a seed for future calamities." Yelu Hongji agreed: "Activate Flying Dragon camp, Flying Tiger camp and Flying Leopard camp, proceed without delay to the exterior of Southern Khan Residence as reinforcements." A bodyguard of Imperial Encampment acknowledged the decree and left to convey the instructions.

Concubine Mu offered: "Your Majesty, I have a plan." Leaning to his ear, she whispered for some time. Yelu Hongji nodded: "It sounds workable, if it succeeds, Emperor will reward you generously." Concubine Mu smiled: "To be able to make Your Majesty happy is a generous reward itself. Your Majesty has been very kind to me already; there's nothing else I desire."

Outside the Imperial Encampment, plenty of soldiers and horses are on the move. Sitting in the tent, Ah Zi cannot be bothered at all. She has seen countless incidences of Khitan people making all sorts of noises and running all over the place. During their frequent hunting expeditions, the chaos is exactly the same, so she's used to it. It never cross her mind at all that Yelu Hongji is commissioning his soldiers and horses for the sake of capturing Xiao Feng instead. Sitting on a camel saddle, her heart is tingling: Brother in law is fully aware of my love for him, but he... He did not care about my feelings and wanted me to accompany that ugly freak. I... I would rather die than go. I won't go! I won't go! I'll just won't go!

As she thought over these matters, the tip of her right foot carelessly kicked a tiger's head on the carpet. Suddenly, a hand gently pressed on her shoulder and Ah Zi had a minor shock. Raising her head, entering her view is the warm and kind gaze of Concubine Mu. The concubine giggled: "Little Sister, are you lost in your thoughts? You are thinking about your Brother in law, am I right?" Hearing her accurate prediction about her innermost and private thoughts, both cheeks of Ah Zi blushed red unconsciously. She lowered her head and kept quiet.

Sitting down beside Ah Zi, Concubine Mu took one of her hands and caressed it gently. In a soft voice, she mused: "Little Sister, men are coarse beings with violent tempers. Especially men like our Emperor and Southern Khan. They are the present generation's heroes and leaders. To win their affection is truly challenging."

Ah Zi nodded her head and felt that her words made perfect sense. Concubine Mu added: "In the palace, the harem is filled with thousands of ladies. Those prettier than me and those who knows how to win the Emperor's favour are immeasurable. However, I am the Emperor's pet. Half of it is my own ability while the other half is thanks to the guidance of an old monk from Upper Capital Shengde Temple. Little Sister, although your Brother in law has not given his heart to you, you need not be frustrated. When the Emperor and I are returning to Upper Capital, you can come along with us. By going to Shengde Temple and begging the esteemed monk, I'm sure he will have a solution for you."

Ah Zi was puzzled: "What can that old monk do?" Concubine Mu declared: "I am going to tell you his method; however, you must never ever tell it to anybody else. You must first make a solemn vow that you will never divulge this secret." Ah Zi swore: "If I revealed Concubine Mu's secret, may I be hacked into pieces and die a horrible death." Concubine Mu insisted: "It is not that I don't trust you but the consequences of this matter is too far-reaching. You must make a vow with a heavier penalty." Ah Zi agreed: "All right! If I leak out your secret, may I... May I be killed by my Brother in law in one palm strike." As she said this, her heart is filled with a bittersweet sensation.

Concubine Mu nodded: "Being killed by your loved one in one palm strike is definitely a hundred times worse than being hacked into pieces. I'll trust you. My Good Sister, that esteemed monk has magical powers and he is able to perform miracles. After I kneeled and begged for his assistance, he presented me with two bottles of holy water. By sincerely praying and conveying my secret wishes to the water, I must covertly let my ideal partner consume a bottle. For his entire life, that man will only love me and me alone. Till his death, his heart will not waver one bit. I already made the Emperor drink one bottle. Now, I am left with this other bottle." As she spoke, she retrieved a small, garnet-coloured porcelain bottle from her bosom. She held the bottle tightly in her hands, as if she is afraid that the bottle might drop. Actually, the ground is covered with a thick layer of carpet. Even if it really drops, the bottle will remain intact.

Ah Zi was delighted and surprised. She begged: "Good Sister, please let me have a look." Since young, she has been a disciple of Xingxiu Sect; with regards to these kind of bewitching tricks, she had no qualms about their efficacy. Concubine Mu warned: "Taking a look is fine but please handle it carefully." With both hands holding onto the porcelain bottle, her manner was serious and solemn as she handed it over. Receiving the bottle, Ah Zi pulled out the stopper and put the bottle to her nose for a quick sniff. The liquid carried a light fragrance. Concubine Mu reached out with her hand and took back the porcelain bottle. When she replaced the wooden stopper, she exerted some strength in pushing the stopper, as if she is afraid the holy water will evaporate. She remarked: "Initially, I don't mind sharing this bottle with you. However, I am afraid that the Emperor will have a change of heart in the future so I'm reserving this holy water as a back up."

Ah Zi quizzed: "According to what you mentioned, after the Emperor drank a bottle, he became wholly dedicated to you?" Concubine Mu smiled: "That is my experience so far; however, I don't really know how long the effect will last. Otherwise, why did the esteemed monk give me two bottles? My bigger worry is this holy water falling into the hands of another concubine. If she secretly fed it to the Emperor, even if he still loves me, his love would be divided..."

At this point, from outside the tent, Yelu Hongji's voice rang out: "Ah Mu, come outside to me, I have something to tell you." Concubine Mu happily replied: "I'm coming!" As she swiftly rushed out, with a 'ta' sound, the little porcelain bottle dropped from her bosom without her knowledge.

Ah Zi was thrilled and excited. The minute Concubine Mu stepped out of the tent, she instantly dived to her front and picked up the porcelain bottle. Stuffing it into her bosom, she thought: I will quickly let Brother in law drink some of this. After that, I'll add some clear water to it before returning it to Concubine Mu. After all, she is already the favourite pet concubine of Emperor and this holy water is currently useless to her.

Without any delay, she hastily made an opening at the back of the tent and quietly slithered out. Like a ninja, she returned undetected to the Southern Khan residence.

Observing the residence exterior overflowing with soldiers and riders, Ah Zi assumed the Southern Khan is formulating a military expedition. Walking into the main hall, she saw Xiao Feng pacing up and down the corridor of a water-feature wall with both hands behind his back. He appears to be bristling with impatience.

The second Xiao Feng laid his eyes on Ah Zi, he glowed with ecstasy and sighed with relief: "Ah Zi, it is great to see you back here. I fear that the Emperor might detain you and you are unable to get out of the predicament. Let's begin our journey; any delays and we might not make it." Ah Zi was puzzled: "Where are we going? Why are we in such a hurry? Why does the Emperor want to detain me?"

Xiao Feng hushed: "Listen for yourself!" As the two of them became silent, from outside the Khan Residence, there were sounds of hoof beats, the clanking noises of armour and the clattering sounds of weapons. Regardless of north south east or west, these noises were generated from all different directions. Ah Zi probed: "What is going on? Are you leading the army to war?"

Xiao Feng bitterly laughed: "These troops are not under my command. The Emperor is now suspicious of me and is planning to capture me." Ah Zi cheered: "That's excellent. We have not had a proper fight for some time. Let the two of us clear a bloody path out of here." Xiao Feng shook his head and disagreed: "The Emperor has treated me extremely well. First, he conferred me as Southern Khan. Now, he personally travelled to see me and gave me an additional promotion. He is now suspicious of me because I am determined not to invade the south. If I injured his troops, it is a dent on our brotherhood and I will be ridiculed by all heroes under the sky, saying I, Xiao Feng, is an ingrate and have let my Brother down. Ah Zi, let's leave immediately. By sneaking away without saying goodbye, he would fail to apprehend me and that is good enough.

Ah Zi inquired: "Mm, let's get out of here. But Brother in law, where are we heading to?" Xiao Feng answered: "To Piaomiao Peak Lingjiu Palace." Ah Zi's face turned gloomy at once. She swore: "I am not going to meet that ugly freak." Xiao Feng ordered: "We are in the middle of a crisis now; after we leave this danger zone, we can then decide if we are going to Piaomiao Peak or not."

Ah Zi thought: Since you have the intention to escort me to Piaomiao Peak, it clearly demonstrates your lack of consideration for my feelings. It is better to let you drink the holy water as early as possible and make you fall in love with me; when you love me, you will naturally listen to me. If I drag any longer, I fear that Concubine Mu will make her way here and demand the return of her porcelain bottle.

As a result, Ah Zi immediately replied: "That's a good idea too! Let me get some spare change of clothes."

Rushing to the back hall, she got herself a bowl. Emptying the holy water from the porcelain bottle into the bowl, she added plenty of wine. In her heart, she chanted a secret prayer: Bodhisattva, please hear me. I wish that after Xiao Feng has consumed this holy water, he will love me, Ah Zi, whole-heartedly; he will marry me as his wife and never think about Sister Ah Zhu again!

Back at the hall, she offered: "Brother in law, have this bowl of wine to increase your alertness. Once we leave, we will never come back again."

Receiving the bowl of wine, under the candlelight, Xiao Feng noticed Ah Zi's hands were trembling slightly and her eyes are shimmering with an unusual brilliance. Her expression displays both joy and tenderness. He cannot help but was moved, thinking: That year, when Ah Zhu was completely devoted to me, she had this similar expression on her face! Ai, it looks like Ah Zi is fully dedicated to me too!

Finishing the large bowl of wine, Xiao Feng checked: "Have you packed your clothes?" Seeing that he has consumed the holy water, Ah Zi was overjoyed and exclaimed: "Forget the clothes, let's go!"

Xiao Feng carried a bundle on his back; inside the bundle are some clothes and gold ingots. He whispered: "They are preventing me from fleeing to the south. I shall travel northwards instead." Holding Ah Zi's hand, he quietly opened a side door. Scanning the exterior, he observed two sentries patrolling side by side towards his direction. Xiao Feng hid behind the door and coughed once, causing the two sentries to rush over and investigate the noise. His fingers flashed out and the two sentries were immobolised. Dragging them into the shadow of some nearby trees, Xiao Feng whispered: "Quickly change into their armour outfit." Ah Zi was thrilled and praised: "Excellent plan!" Xiao Feng and Ah Zi rapidly plucked the armour from the sentries and wore it on their own bodies. Each of them holding a long pike, they began their escape by marching side-by-side away from the residence. Ah Zi wore her helmet in a low position and it was pressing on her eyebrows. Peeping at Xiao Feng, she noticed him trying to shrink his body and is walking in a bent posture; she was secretly humoured at his antics. After taking twenty over steps, they encounter a 10-men sergeant from the Imperial Encampment on patrol with his entourage of ten Imperial troops. Moving to the side of the path, Xiao Feng and Ah Zi raise their pikes and saluted the sergeant.

The 10-men sergeant nodded his head and was about to walk past them. Under the illumination of the fire torches, he caught sight of Ah Zi's ill-fitting body armour that was almost touching the ground. Aroused, he inspected her closely and noticed that the sabre sheath hanging from her waist is dragging on the floor. Annoyed, he threw a punch towards her shoulder and roared: "What are you wearing?" Ah Zi knew their ruse has been exposed; flipping her hand for a hook, she managed to hook his wrist and kicked his waist with her left foot. The sergeant yelled 'Ayo!' and collapsed at once.

Xiao Feng shouted: "Let's go!" Pulling her wrist, he sped away from the scene. Unaware that the two disguised sentries are Xiao Feng and Ah Zi, the remaining ten Imperial troops raised the alarm, shouting: "There are spies here! There are spies here!" After they covered some distance, Xiao Feng and Ah Zi saw ten over riders approaching them from the front. Lifting the long pike, Xiao Feng executed a horizontal sweep and all the riders were cleanly knocked off their horses. With a lift from his right hand, he sent Ah Zi up a horse while he himself flew onto the back of another horse. Turning their horses around, they raced towards the Northern city gate.

By now, the generals and soldiers surrounding the Southern Khan Residence have received word about their activities and are in pursuit from all over the city. Xiao Feng rode like the wind. As he predicted, 80% of the Liao Imperial troops are stationed along the southern route in order to prevent him from escaping towards the Southern dynasty. On his northern route, the troops were scattered and limited in numbers. When these soldiers encounter Xiao Feng, their hearts are secretly cowering. Although they are forced by military orders to approach and hinder him, whenever Xiao Feng roared and rode towards them, the soldiers would involuntarily make way for him. Ultimately, all they could do is to chase after Xiao Feng and shout at him to stop. By the time Imperial Encampment Commander Du has arrived with reinforcements, Xiao Feng and Ah Zi are long gone.

As Xiao Feng arrived at the north gate on horseback, he saw that the city gates have been tightly secured. Before the city gate, more than a hundred troops were clustered closely together, brandishing their long pikes and blocking the road. If Xiao Feng chooses to kill his way through, these hundred odd Liao soldiers are not his match. However, he only seeks to escape with his life and does not wish to injure any more of his fellow countrymen. Stretching out with his left hand, he grabbed Ah Zi and brought her onto his own horse. With a light tap of his right foot on the stirrup, both his legs are now standing on the back of the horse. Taking a deep breath, he flew (using Qing-gong) towards the city gate. Under normal circumstances, this leap is insufficient to propel him to the top of the city wall. However, he was well prepared for this. When his body started to fall, he stabbed the wall with the long pike in his right hand. Using the embedded pike as a stepping-stone, he easily landed on top of the city wall.

Scanning the external northern surrounding of the city, Xiao Feng observed that it was wholly pitch black and no fire torches were lighted. It is evident that no one expected him to flee the city in the northern direction and no soldiers were dispatched to secure this area. Projecting his voice, Xiao Feng announced to the soldiers in the city: "Please report to the Emperor, saying Xiao Feng has offended Your Majesty and dare not resign in person. Xiao Feng will never forget the immense kindness and goodwill of the Emperor."

Seizing Ah Zhi by the waist, he turned around. Once he jumped off the top of the wall, he would be a like fish in the open sea or a bird in the open sky. All his worries would be gone forever.

Slightly excited, he was about to leap off the wall when suddenly, his abdomen was hit by a bout of pain; followed by both his arms aching and turning numb. Even his left arm that was holding Ah Zi's waist automatically loosened. Next, both his knees turned soft and he half-fell half-sat onto the floor. In his stomach, he felt such excruciating pain, as if a thousand small knives were cutting and slicing the organ. He cannot help but snorted 'humph' once. Ah Zi was terrified and exclaimed: "Brother in law, what happened to you?" His entire body convulsing and his teeth chattering, Xiao Feng stuttered: "I… I… was… was badly… badly poisoned… Wait… I'll activate… activate my internal energy to force out the poison…" He immediately circulated his energy to 'Dantian' point and wanted to force out the poison from his abdomen. If he did nothing, it is not so bad. The moment he activated his internal energy, his four limbs and his hundred odd bones were instantly seared with agonizing pain. The 'Dantian' energy was barely activated before it subsided again. In between, Xiao Feng could hear loud sounds of hoof beats as thousands of riders rode northwards from their southern positions. As he tried to activate his energy again, he realised he cannot feel his four limbs at all. Acknowledging the incredible potency of this poison which cannot be purged out by internal energy, Xiao Feng urged: "Ah Zi, you better leave quickly, I… I cannot accompany you any more."

By reassessing the situation, Ah Zi had a huge revelation, realizing that she herself was being scammed by Concubine Mu into serving Xiao Feng with holy water. That was no holy water but a strong poison instead. Alarmed and filled with regrets, she hugged Xiao Feng's neck and wept: "Brother in law… it is my fault. I was the one who fed you the poison." Xiao Feng was shocked and puzzled. He questioned: "Why do you wish to harm me?" Ah Zi sobbed: "No! No! Concubine Mu gave me a bottle of water. She lied to me, telling me that if you drink it, you would love me forever and will… will marry me as your wife. I am so stupid. Brother in law, I will die together with you. We shall never be apart again." As she spoke, she whipped out her waist knife and is about to slice her own neck.

Xiao Feng yelled: "Hold… Hold it!" His entire body felt as if he is being barbequed alive and being cut opened by steel knives. With both his internal organs and external body wretched by pain, he could barely organize his thoughts. After a long while, he finally comprehended Ah Zi's explanation. He assured: "I will not die and you need not commit suicide either."

'Zhazha' the noise generated by the opening of the heavy city gates entered their ears. Hundreds of cavalry soldiers dashed out of the northern gate and assembled into military formation among sounds of loud shouting. As tons of troops rushed over from the south of the city in relentless waves, they poured out of the city. Sitting on the top of the city wall, Xiao Feng glanced to the north and could see fire torches lighting up the city exterior for several kilometres, resembling a few fire dragons zigzagging towards the north. Turning his eyes southwards, nearly half the city is lighted by fire torches. He thought: In order to catch me, a single person, the Emperor went to the extent of activating every single soldier from the Imperial Encampment.

From inside and outside the city, the generals and troops shouted in unison: "Rebel Xiao Feng, surrender at once!" His abdomen undergoing another round of unbearable pain, Xiao Feng whispered: "Ah Zi, you must quickly find a way to escape." Ah Zi uttered: "I personally fed you with a fatal poison, how can I live a lonely life by myself? I… I… I will die together with you." Xiao Feng bitterly smiled: "This is not a fatal poison but a poison designed to weaken my body and incapacitate me."

Ah Zi was instantly cheered and quizzed: "Really?" Turning around, she pulled Xiao Feng up so that she can carry him on her own back. However, her figure is rather petite and Xiao Feng is exceptionally burly. Although with Ah Zi's support, Xiao Feng managed to stand up, however, both his feet are still planted on the ground. At this point in time, ten over Khitan warriors have already scaled the city wall. Holding their sabre in one hand and a fire torch in the other hand, they remained fearful of Xiao Feng and dare not get too close to him.

Xiao Feng advised: "Resistance is futile. Let them come and take me prisoner!" Ah Zi wailed: "No! No! If anyone dares to touch you, I will kill him on the spot." Xiao Feng reasoned: "You must not kill because of me. If I am willing to take any more lives, I can simply adhere to the decree and lead an army to invade the south. We would not have landed in our present circumstances." Raising his voice, he commanded: "By cowering in fear, how can you call yourself a Khitan warrior? Come, let us meet the Emperor together."

The group of warriors were utterly stumped. Bowing in unison, they respectfully obeyed: "Yes! We are only acting in accordance with the errand in the decree; if we are discourteous to Khan, we seek Khan's understanding!" Although Xiao Feng was appointed as the Southern Khan for a limited time, he treated his subordinates well and his fame has spread throughout the Northlands, earning the deep respect of all the Khitan warriors. Among the crowd, everyone is shouting 'Rebel Xiao Feng' because everyone else is doing the same. But when they come face to face with him, the natural respect they had for him swelled up and they immediately halted their insolent behavior.

Supported by Ah Zi's shoulder, Xiao Feng struggled to stand up. His five viscera and six bowels are hurting as if they are being grappled and bitten. The troops stood a few metres away from him and have sheathe their weapons, watching him as he slowly took one step after another down the stone steps from the top of the city wall. When Xiao Feng reached the bottom of the steps, all the generals and soldiers instinctively flipped down their horses (in a mark of respect). Whether inside or outside the city, the tens of thousands of troops suddenly became absolutely noiseless.

By the light of the fire, Xiao Feng witnessed these sincere, solemn and respectful expressions. His heart bursting with a gush of warmth, he thought: If I invade the south, among the tens of thousands of troops here, I believe less than half would be able to return to the Northern country alive. If I were able to save these countless lives, even if the Emperor sentences me to death, I would die without regrets. My only fear is that after the Emperor has executed me, he would get another general to lead the army to attack the south.

As he thought up to this point, his chest area is experiencing another bout of severe pain and his body is tottering on the verge of collapse. A general led his own horse towards Xiao Feng and helped him onto the steed. Ah Zi got onto another horse as well and followed him from the back. Surrounded by escorts, they headed south back to the Khan residence. Although the generals and troops captured Xiao Feng and have accomplished a difficult mission, no one felt any joy or pleasure. The air is filled with sounds of metal armour going 'qiang qiang' and tens of thousands of iron horse shoes striking the stone street steps. Besides these sounds, no happy cheers or celebratory wishes were heard.

As the row of riders and escorts went through the North Avenue and came to White Horse Bridge, Xiao Feng rode his horse up the bridge. Out of nowhere, Ah Zi flew up from her seat. By springing both her feet from the saddle, she took a far leap. With a light 'chi' sound, she dived into the river. Witnessing this occurrence, Xiao Feng could not help but was alarmed, but his shock was swiftly replaced by delight. He recalled the first time he encountered this cheeky lady. That time, she pretended to drown to death by submerging herself in a small lake. Her water abilities are extraordinary and ultra rare, allowing her to even deceive both her parents. This time round, by using the river to escape, it is the best possible outcome for her. Thinking that he would not have the chance to see her again in the future, he felt a tinge of disappointment. Xiao Feng hollered in a loud voice: "Ah Zi, why did you commit suicide? The Emperor will not make things difficult for you, why did you choose to drown yourself?"

Listening to Xiao Feng's words and noting that Ah Zi did not resurface after sinking into the river, the generals and soldiers assumed she really committed suicide. The Emperor's decree is for the capture of Xiao Feng only. Whether Ah Zi is dead or has escaped, nobody could be bothered. After a brief wait on the bridge and unable to detect anything from the river, everyone continued riding with Xiao Feng in the lead.

Chapter - 50 Getting Ruler to Break an Arrow

Back at the Khan residence, Yelu Hongji refused to grant an audience to Xiao Feng; instead he instructed Imperial Encampment Commander Du to lock Xiao Feng up. The Commander knew that Khan Xiao Feng is blessed with amazing strength and vigor, how could an ordinary jail cell restrain him? After some analyzing, he ordered his men to procure the thickest and heaviest iron chains and iron shackles to secure the hands and feet of Xiao Feng. Additionally, he imprisoned Xiao Feng in a large steel cage. This particular steel cage is the same one Ah Zi used to keep her ferocious lions. Each of the cage's steel bars is as thick as a person's limb.

Outside the steel cage, a hundred Imperial Encampment troops are deployed. Each of them armed with a long pike, they formed four circles around the cage. If Xiao Feng tries to pull any stunts from inside the steel cage, the troops can use their pikes and thrust it into the cage. Regardless of Xiao Feng's strength, it would be impossible for him to remove the iron chains and iron shackles, and break out of the cage in a short time. Outside the residence, another battalion of soldiers are putting the property under strict surveillance. Fearing the generals and soldiers previously under the command of Xiao Feng are still loyal to him and may break him out of prison, Yelu Hongji transferred all of them away from Southern Capital.

Leaning on a railing inside the steel cage, Xiao Feng gritted his teeth and endured the excruciating pain from his abdomen. He could not be bothered with anything else. A full day later, on the night of the second day, the effects of the poison gradually subsided and the pain diminished accordingly. Bit by bit, Xiao Feng recovered his strength, but given his present predicament, how could he possibly escape? He realized that worrying is meaningless; after all, he has experienced many situations which are much more life-threatening than this. Still he wondered if he, Xiao Feng, who had led a heroic life, would die as a captive in this steel cage. Lucky for him, the Imperial troops regarded him as a worthy hero. Although he was closely supervised, there were no lack of excellent manners, food and wine. Xiao Feng drank to his heart's content. Days later, a pile of earthen wine jars started piling up beside the steel cage.

Yelu Hongji still refused to visit him. Instead, he dispatched a few eloquent influencers to come and persuade him into changing his mind. They advised: The Emperor is magnanimous and treasures their relationship. Therefore, no additional punishment is meted out. Xiao Feng should express regret for his offence and plead for forgiveness.

Xiao Feng did not even bother to cast a glance at these influencers. Minding his own business, he joyfully poured and drank his wine.

With this exact scenario repeating every day, soon, more than a month has passed. The four influencers did not exhibit the slightest display of frustration and simply repeat their tiresome advice again and again, making statements such as 'The Emperor has treated Xiao Feng well; if Xiao Feng wants to preserve his life, he must listen to the Emperor', 'The Emperor is divine and far sighted. Even a hundred generations later, no one would surpass him. The judgment of the holy Son of Heaven cannot be wrong. It is your duty to follow his directed path', etc. These influencers apparently knew that their persuasion is hopeless against Xiao Feng, nevertheless, they continue to jabber on and on relentlessly.

One day, Xiao Feng's suspicions were aroused. He thought: The Emperor is not a fool; why would he engage these nagging idi0ts to try and persuade me? There must be something amiss!

After some silent contemplation, he had an epiphany: I got it. The Emperor has already deployed his forces and is ready to launch his southern military campaign. However, he sent these irrelevant personnel to keep me engaged in this place. I am obviously at his mercy and he could kill me anytime. Why is he going to such lengths?

Xiao Feng evaluated the circumstances more deeply and finally comprehended everything: The Emperor is a self-proclaimed hero. In order to prove me wrong, he would personally field an army and attack the south. When he has conquered the territories of Great Song, he would then come to me and brag about it. He is fearful of my strong character and believes that if I learnt about his invasion, I would starve myself to death in a fit of anger. Therefore, he sent these vulgar rascals to occupy my attention with nonsensical ramblings.

A long time ago, Xiao Feng has already cast aside his sense of life, death, safety or danger. Since he is trapped within the cage without any possibility of escape, he is even less concerned about his own fate than before. Although he is reluctant to lead an army for a Southern invasion, he is not a saint who is constantly worried about humanity and world peace. Assuming that Yelu Hongji has launched his assault and that a disastrous calamity is inevitable, except for letting out a long sigh and indulging in another ten bowls of wine, he decided to stop dwelling on this issue.

Hearing the four influencers still chattering non-stop, Xiao Feng abruptly interrogated: "Has our Khitan main army crossed the Yellow River?" The four influencers were stunned and glanced at one another in silence. Seconds later, one of the influencers affirmed: "Khan Xiao's prediction is accurate. Our main army is ready to set off anytime. Although we have not crossed the Yellow River, it will be a matter of time." Xiao Feng nodded: "So, our main forces have yet to set off. I wonder when is the auspicious day?" The four influencers winked at one another. One of them declared: "We are only low ranking bureaucrats and are not aware of military affairs." Another one reminded: "Once Khan Xiao has changed your mind, the Emperor will personally come and discuss military and national issues with Khan."

Xiao Feng snorted once and did not continue with his questioning. He thought: If the Emperor managed to conquer Great Song like a hot knife through butter, he would definitely escort me to Bianliang for a reunion. If he failed and retreat in disgrace, he would be ashamed to see me and would order my execution. At the end of the day, do I wish for him to vanquish Great Song or do I wish for him fail miserably? Hey Hey, Xiao Feng ah Xiao Feng, this is a question that cannot be easily answered!

It is the evening of another day and the four influencers swaggered into the holding chamber again. The soldiers guarding Xiao Feng have been listening to their pointless ranting and are absolutely sick of it. The minute they saw the four men, they would frown their eyebrows and step away from the cage. For more than a month, Xiao Feng did not display any signs of struggle or escape; therefore, the soldiers monitoring him are not as vigilant as before.

The first influencer coughed once and remarked: "Khan Xiao, the Emperor has a decree for your acknowledgement. If you still choose to disobey, your crime would be inexcusable." Xiao Feng has heard these words being repeated a few hundred times. However, this time, he felt something peculiar about this person's voice; it is as if this person is afflicted with some throat disease. He cannot help but take a look at him. Once he saw the influencer, he was astounded.

The influencer was winking and making funny faces at him. Xiao Feng inspected him closely and realised that this influencer is different from the one before. Scrutinizing this person carefully, he was both thrilled and surprised. This person has sparse and misplaced pieces of beard hair sticking all over his face. A layer of light ink has been smeared over the face as well, causing it to be shadowy and dreadful looking. By focusing underneath the yellow beard, Xiao Feng could distinguish a small mouth, a sharp nose and several pretty features. It is Ah Zi in disguise. The influencer lowered his voice pitch and vaguely instructed: "The Emperor's words will never be wrong. By following the Emperor's command, it will be beneficial to you. Here, this is the Imperial Decree by our Great Liao Emperor. You should respectfully go through it a few times." As he spoke, he produced a piece of paper from his large sleeve and turned it to face Xiao Feng.

By now, the sky is gradually darkening and a few Imperial soldiers are lighting up the lanterns and candles situated all over the main hall. Using the illumination of the candlelight, Xiang Feng peered at the piece of paper. Eight tiny words were written: Major reinforcements have arrived; tonight, you will be freed.

Xiao Feng snorted once and shook his head. Ah Zi reassured: "This time round, our forces are truly significant. With excellent fighters and sturdy horses, this battle is as good as won. Victory is within our grasp and you need not worry about anything at all." Xiao Feng reminded: "It is precisely that I wanted to avoid bloodshed that the Emperor has imprisoned me here." Ah Zi disputed: "To win a battle, it is the strategy that counts, not the number of deaths and injuries."

Xiao Feng turned his eyes towards the other three influencers. Either by using a folded fan or their large sleeves, the three of them are trying their best to cover their faces and are unwilling to exchange glances with anyone. They are naturally the accomplices of Ah Zi. Xiao Feng sighed once and remarked: "I deeply appreciate your kind gestures. However, the enemy has mounted a strong defense of the city. To attack it by force, the chances of victory are slim..."

Before he could finish, he was interrupted by some Imperial soldiers yelling: "Venomous snakes! Venomous snakes! Where did these countless snakes come from?" From the door frame and window frame, numerous venomous snakes are slithering into the compound. Raising their heads and flicking their tongues, the snakes wriggled into the hall, throwing everyone into chaos. Xiao Feng was inspired: Observing the formations of the venomous snakes, they resembled the work of my Beggar's Sect brethren!

Using their long pikes and waist sabres, the Imperial soldiers started smacking the snakes. An Imperial Lieutenant loudly commanded: "The Imperial soldiers guarding Khan Xiao must stay in their respective positions. Those who disobey will be executed!" This Lieutenant is especially alert. Noting the abnormal behavior of these snakes, he is afraid that Xiao Feng would take the opportunity to escape among the confusion. As commanded, the Imperial soldiers surrounding the steel cage remained steadfast in their posts, the tip of their long pikes pointing at Xiao Feng inside the cage. Nevertheless, the soldiers cannot help but glance to their sides, keeping a lookout for the venomous snakes. If any snake came close enough, they would beat it with their pikes.

Amidst the chaos, another din broke out from the back of the Khan residence: "Fire! Fire! Come and put out the fire! Come and put out the fire!"

The Lieutenant barked: "Kai Huer, report to Commander Du and ask him if we should relocate Khan Xiao!" Kai Huer is a 100-men Master Sergeant. Acknowledging the order, he turned around and was about to speed off when he was interrupted by a man roaring fiercely at the hall entrance: "DO NOT BE TRICKED BY SPIES INTO ABANDONING YOUR POSTS! If anyone tries to break Xiao Feng out of prison, stab him (XF) to death with your pikes!" It was Commander Du himself. Brandishing a long sabre, he stood at the hall entrance with an awe-inspiring aura.

Out of nowhere, someone hurled a tiny green snake towards his face. As Commander Du raised his sabre to intercept the flying snake, sounds of 'chi chi' pierced the air. Hidden projectiles have been fired. In a few seconds, all the lanterns and candles in the main hall have been extinguished and the hall instantly became pitch black. Hit by secret projectiles too, Commander Du shouted 'Ah!' as he collapsed on his back.

Retrieving a superior dagger from her sleeve, Ah Zi reached into the steel cage and with a few 'ka ka ka' sounds, she cut opened the chains binding Xiao Feng's shackles. Xiao Feng thought: This animal cage has steel bars that are solid and thick; even if you have a better dagger, it would take you some time to cut through it.

At this moment, he suddenly felt the ground below his feet caving in. Outside the cage, Ah Zi whispered: "Quickly escape through the underground tunnel!" Next, a pair of hands reached out from the ground and latched onto Xiao Feng's feet; with a downward pull, Xiao Feng's entire body was being dragged into the ground. It is DaLi country's tunneling expert Hua Hegen at work. Using more than 10 days, he constructed a tunnel that leads straight to the bottom of Xiao Feng's steel cage.

Pulling Xiao Feng, Hua Hegen crawled through the tunnel. His crawling speed is amazing and it felt like they were walking on normal ground. In an instant, they have travelled more than half a kilometre. Helping Xiao Feng on his feet, Hua Hegen led him out of the tunnel. At the entrance of the tunnel, three persons with huge grins on their faces came up and welcomed them. They turned out to be Duan Yu, Fan Hua and Ba Tianshi. Pouncing at Xiao Feng and giving him a bear hug, Duan Yu called out: "Big Brother!"

Xiao Feng laughed loudly and praised: "I have heard rumours about Minister Hua's divine skill. After experiencing it first hand today, I am full of admiration."

Hua Hegen merrily acknowledged: "To receive such a tremendous commendation from Khan Xiao's esteemed mouth, this has got to be the highlight of my career!"

Their present location is not far from the Southern Khan Residence and all around them, they could hear the shouting of Liao soldiers. Blowing a horn, a rider rode past the house they were hiding and hollered in a loud voice: "The East gate is under attack by enemies. The Imperial troops are to stay put and guard your original positions. No departure is permitted!" Fan Hua suggested: "Khan Xiao, let's break out via the West gate!" Xiao Feng nodded his head in agreement: "Excellent idea! Has Ah Zi and the others made their escape?"

Before Fan Hua could answer, the voice of Ah Zi was heard from the tunnel: "Brother in law, you still care for me after all." Her voice is filled with feelings of happiness. With a 'ka la chi' sound, she popped out of the tunnel. Removing the beard stuck on her chin, her entire head and face is full of mud and dust, giving her a filthy appearance. But in the eyes of Xiao Feng, since the day he met her, she is at her prettiest.

Unsheathing her superior dagger, Ah Zi is prepared to cut the shackles on Xiao Feng. However, the shackles are tight and pressing on his flesh; if she uses too much force, she would undoubtedly wound him. It is a challenging task indeed. Handing the superior dagger to Duan Yu, Ah Zi advised: "Brother, you should do it." Receiving the superior dagger, Duan Yu activated his internal energy and cut the shackles like he is cutting a piece of wooden board.

At this juncture, another three persons exited the tunnel. They are Zhong Ling, Mu Wanqing and an 8-pouch disciple from Beggar's Sect. This particular disciple is an expert snake handler. The scattering of snakes in the main hall and the ensuring chaos is a trick devised by him. When this disciple saw that Xiao Feng is safe and unhurt, he wept with happiness, saying: "Chief, you…"

It has been a long time since anybody addresses him as 'Chief'. Appreciating this Beggar's Sect disciple's expression, Xiao Feng was swelling with emotions too. He complimented: "It must be hard on you." With this praise, the 8-pouch disciple is overwhelmed with gratitude and honour, and tears continued streaming down his face.

Fan Hua urged: "The soldiers and riders of DaLi country are already attacking the East gate, let's make our escape among this pandemonium! Khan Xiao, you should refrain from making any moves or someone might recognize you." Xiao Feng agreed: "That is right!" The nine of them sped out of the main door of a house. Xiao Feng turned his head back for a look and realised the tunnel entrance is in an abandoned tiled house. On the outside, the house is an ordinary looking building. In Khitan language, Ah Zi yelled: "Fire! Fire!" Fan Hua, Hua Hegen and the others copied her yelling and started shouting too. Perceiving the absence of Liao soldiers in the streets, Fan Hua, Ba Tianshi and the others started setting fire all over the area. In a few minutes, several locations are burning ferociously.

The nine of them continued to flee westwards. Duan Yu and the others have disguised themselves as Khitan people. By now, the city is in complete disarray and no one paid any attention to them. Occasionally, when they detect a large platoon of Khitan riders on their tail, the nine of them would hide in the shadows of nearby structures. Passing through ten odd streets, a horn was heard bellowing from the north and large groups of people started shouting: "Bad news! Bad news! The enemy troops have taken the North gate and the Emperor has been captured by them!"

Xiao Feng was shocked. Halting, he pleaded: "The Emperor of Liao has been captured? Third Brother, the Emperor of Liao is my Foster Elder Brother; although his treatment of me is lacking in humanity, I cannot go against the code of brotherhood. You must not hurt him…" Ah Zi giggled: "Brother in law, you can put your mind at ease. These shoutings are from the thirty-six Cave Chiefs and seventy-two Island Chiefs of Lingjiu Palace. I taught them these few Khitan phrases and got them to practice until they became eloquent. Right now, by shouting these phrases, rumours will start spreading and this will add to the instability of the population. The Southern Capital City is originally fortified with a heavy military presence; in addition, the Emperor is protected by tens of thousands of Imperial troops. How could he be easily captured?" Xiao Feng was delighted and surprised. He quizzed: "The subordinates of Second Brother are here too?"

Ah Zi responded: "It is not only the subordinates of Little Monk; Little Monk is here himself, in fact, even the wife of Little Monk is here too." Xiao Feng enquired: "Wife of Little Monk?" Ah Zi giggled: "Brother in law, this is something you are ignorant about. The wife of Xu Zhu Zi is the Princess of Xixia. However, her face is constantly shielded by a veil; except for Little Monk, nobody else is allowed see her genuine appearance. I asked Little Monk: Is your wife a beauty? Little Monk always smiled and evaded my question."

Although Xiao Feng learnt about this unbelievable development while he is on the run, he could not help but feel rather happy for Xu Zhu. In the same context, he glanced towards Duan Yu. Duan Yu chuckled: "Big Brother need not worry too much, Little Brother is completely satisfied with this arrangement. Second Brother did not break his promise either. This matter deserves a lengthy explanation, let us slowly communicate it to you at a later occasion."

As they spoke, the group of them have covered more distance. In front of them is a parade square with a tall platform. The platform itself is burning like a bonfire. In front of the platform, there are two flag poles and the two giant flags on the poles are burning furiously too. Xiao Feng knows that this parade square is the training ground for Southern Capital City and is used by the Liao army for military training. However, he has never seen the tall platform before and does not know when it was constructed.

Facing Duan Yu, Ba Tianshi reported: "Your Majesty, by burning the Liao Emperor's inspection platform and commanding flags, it is considered an inauspicious sign for the Liao army. Yelu Hongji's plan to invade Song is likely to be abolished." Duan Yu nodded: "That is right."

Hearing Ba Tianshi addressing Duan Yu as 'Your Majesty' and Duan Yu nodding his head, Xiao Feng was stunned once again. He inquired: "Third Brother… Have you become the Emperor?" With a sad tone, Duan Yu revealed: "My Father unfortunately lost his life during his journey home. My Imperial Uncle has forsaken the throne for monkhood and is now a monk at Sky Dragon Monastery. Little Brother was ordered to inherit the throne. Little Brother is talentless and undeserving; by occupying this seat of great importance, I am filled with inadequacy."

Xiao Feng was thunderstruck: "Ayo! Uncle has passed away? Third Brother! You are the Ruler of DaLi country; how could you put yourself in personal danger and take such a huge risk for me? If anything were to happen to you, how… how… would I be able to account to the people of the entire DaLi country?"

Duan Yu chuckled once and remarked: "DaLi is but a small country at the secluded southern borderlands. The term 'Emperor' is just a polite form of address. Little Brother is muddle-headed and barely resembles a proper Ruler, how could I live up to the title of Emperor? When others address me as 'Your Majesty', I am filled with awkwardness. The two of us are as intimate as flesh brothers; since a big catastrophe has befallen, wouldn't it be unreasonable if Little Brother does not come and share the burdens of Big Brother?"

Fan Hua added: "When Khan Xiao strongly dissuaded the Emperor of Liao against the invasion of Song, everyone within our (DaLi) country is full of gratitude. If the Emperor of Liao conquered Great Song, his next step would surely be an invasion of DaLi. Our country has a small army and incompetent generals, how could we withstand the elite Khitan soldiers? When Khan Xiao saved Great Song, it is as good as saving DaLi. DaLi will naturally dedicate our full support to Khan. This is the right protocol."

Xiao Feng pointed: "I am only an ordinary martial artiste who is unwilling to see a war erupt between two countries, resulting in countless deaths and destruction. I dare not claim any credit for myself."

As they were speaking, they suddenly discovered a massive fire burning at the Southern gate. Squeezing between the soldiers and riders, many groups of commoners comprising of men, women and children are rushing towards their direction. The displaced population commented: "Along with numerous heroes, Southern dynasty Shaolin Monastery has conquered the Southern gate." Someone in the crowd uttered: "Southern Khan Xiao Feng has rebelled. Besides pledging allegiance to Song dynasty, he already killed the Emperor of Great Liao." A few Khitan folks gnashed their teeth and scolded: "This Xiao Feng betrayed his own country and is now working for the enemy. We hate him so much we wish we can chew his meat off and swallow it into our bellies." A person was frantically asking: "Was Your Majesty really killed by the traitor Xiao Feng?" Another person replied: "How could it be false? With my own eyes, I saw Xiao Feng riding a white steed towards the front of Your Majesty. With a spear thrust, he pierced a hole in the chest of Your Majesty." Another old folk wondered out loud: "How could this traitor Xiao Feng be so ruthless? Is he a Khitan like us or a Han-race person?" Another guy cursed: "I heard he is a Southern barbarian disguised as a Khitan. This traitor is evil to the max, he is indeed worse than beast!"

Hearing these people insulting Xiao Feng, Ah Zi was critically annoyed. Lifting her horse whip, she lashed it towards the group of Khitan people. Xiao Feng raised his hand to intercept and successfully parried the whip. Shaking his head, he whispered: "Let them say whatever they want." He then queried: "Are the esteemed monks of Shaolin Monastery here as well?"

The 8-pouch disciple reported: "Update to Chief: When Miss Duan escaped from Southern Capital, she ran into Elder Wu (Changfeng). She told Elder Wu that in order to safeguard the territories of Great Song as well as the lives of tens of thousands of commoners, Chief has clashed with the Emperor of Liao regarding a Song invasion. As a result, Chief was imprisoned in Liao Country. Elder Wu did not believe her, saying that Chief is a Liao descendent and has no reason to defend Great Song. He immediately sneaked into Southern Capital and conducted his own investigations. Finally, he realised that Miss Duan is indeed telling the truth. Elder Wu instantly activated our Sect's 'Green Bamboo Decree' and spread the news about Chief's selfless sacrifice to all the heroes in the Central Plains. Within the Central Plains, the martial arts world is heartened by Chief's noble deed. With the esteemed monks of Shaolin Monastery providing leadership, plenty of heroes have come forward to volunteer in this mission to rescue Chief."

Recalling that day in Hero's Gathering Manor where Xiao Feng is forced to oppose the heroes of Central Plains and even killed a considerable number of them; in a twist of events, today, the heroes of Central Plains are coming to save him instead. Xiao Feng experienced grief and gratitude simultaneously.

Ah Zi joked: "With all the beggars in Beggar's Sect spreading the news, how can there be a faster way than theirs? Ayo, this is bad, what a waste! What a waste!" Duan Yu wondered: "What has gone to waste?" Ah Zi replied: "My Divine Wood Grand Cauldron. It was placed in the centre of the hall with a burning incense to attract the snakes. In my haste, I forgot to take it along with me." Duan Yu laughed: "This kind of unorthodox stuff is better lost than found, what is the use of having it?" Ah Zi jeered: "Humph, what do you mean by unorthodox? Without this treasure, it would be tough to summon so many venomous snakes in such a short time; my Brother in law's escape would be hindered too."

As they spoke, sounds of 'ping ping pang pang' can be heard. It is the sounds made by clashing of weapons. Under the illumination of the fire spots, various Liao soldiers were seen attacking one another. Xiao Feng was puzzled: "Yi, why are they fighting among themselves…" Duan Yu explained: "Big Brother, those with a white cloth tied around their necks on our side." Ah Zi produced a white cloth and handed it to Xiao Feng, recommending: "You should tie one around your neck too!"

With a quick scan, Xiao Feng realised the Liao soldiers are unable to distinguish between friend and foe. In the midst of the chaotic skirmish, many of the Liao soldiers are killed by their own comrades. On the contrary, for the fake Liao soldiers with a white cloth around their necks, they are able to easily kill a Liao soldier with every sabre chop and every pike thrust. His eyes witnessing the people of Liao being slaughtered and their corpses lining the ground, Xiao Feng held the white cloth with both his hands trembling uncontrollably. In his heart, a loud voice cried out: "I am a Khitan, not a Han! I am a Khitan, not a Han!" He refused to tie the white cloth around his neck.

At this moment, with 'zha zha' noises, the two heavy city gates are slowly being pulled open. Hauling Xiao Feng, Duan Yu and Fan Hua dashed out of the city.

Beyond the city gates, the city exterior is well lighted by fire torches. Countless beggars from the Beggar's Sect are clutching their horses and waiting in anticipation. When they saw Xiao Feng rushing out of the city, they instantly cheered boisterously: "Chief Xiao! Chief Xiao!" With their torches waving and their outrageous welcome, it is truly an earth-shattering occasion.

A line opened up between the fellowship of beggars, forming two fire dragons on the left and right. A rider rode through the line and ended up in front of Xiao Feng. On the horse was an old beggar who is riding with both his hands raised above his head. Grasped in his hands is the Dog-Beating Staff, the token of the Chief of Beggar's Sect. Rolling off his saddle, he kneeled on the ground and reported: "As requested by the brethren, Wu Changfeng hereby returns the Dog-Beating Staff of Beggar's Sect to Chief. We deserve death for our stupidity; with lard blinding our hearts, we wronged a good man and caused Chief to undergo countless sufferings. We could not separate the wheat from the chaff. We hope Chief is magnanimous and would not hold it against losers like us; on account that we are a bunch of fatherless and motherless orphans, please resume your post as the Chief of our Sect. The lot of us were badly scammed by villains and we deserve death for saying Chief is a Khitan barbarian dog. The traitorous disciple Quan Guanqing has been killed and dismembered by us to avenge the injustice faced by Chief." As he spoke, he offered the Dog-Beating Staff to Xiao Feng.

His heart turning sour (with ache), Xiao Feng declared: "Elder Wu, I am indeed a Khitan descendent. I fully appreciate the immense comradeship between each one of you and I; I can never be thankful enough. Regarding the position of Chief, it is impossible for me take it up again." As he spoke, he reached his hand out and helped Wu Changfeng to his feet.

Wu Changfeng is completely at a loss. Scratching his head and ear, he persuaded: "You… You say you are a Khitan descendent? You… You must be reluctant to be Chief. Chief Xiao, please let go of the old grudges and stop holding them against us!"

Before anyone could react further, from within the city, loud sounds of drumming can be heard. It appears that a battalion of Liao soldiers is getting ready to storm out of the city. Duan Yu warned: "Elder Wu, let's get moving! The Liao soldiers are well-trained; once they get into battle formation, we would be unable to resist them."

Xiao Feng also knew that the Beggar's Sect and the Central Plains heroes are gaining the upper hand because they launched a surprise attack on the enemy. If they are engaging the Liao Army in a proper battlefield, how could the thousands of martial artistes withstand the tens of thousands of Liao soldiers with their elite training? Moreover, if such an event were to take place, both sides would suffer heavy casualties and it would be a violation of his original intention. He advised: "Elder Wu, regarding the appointment of the Sect's Chief, we can slowly discuss it at a later date. You must quickly give the order for our brethren to retreat towards the West."

Elder Wu acknowledged: "Yes!" Giving the command, the brethren of Beggar's Sect did an about-turn. The rear section of the fellowship became the leading section as everyone swiftly rode westwards. Soon thereafter, led by Xu Zhu Zi, the females disciples of Lingjiu Palace, as well as the warriors from thirty-six caves and seventy-two islands cut a bloody path and reunited with everybody. After riding for several kilometres, under the command of Fu Sigui and Zhu Danchen, the warriors of DaLi country managed to join them too. However, the monks from Shaolin Monastery and the heroes from Central Plains are still missing in action. Everyone could vaguely hear the sounds of fighting and killing from the Southern Capital City.

Xiao Feng surmised: "Shaolin Sect and the Central Plains heroes must have been entangled in the city warfare. Let us wait for a while more." After some waiting, the sounds of killing and fighting from the city became louder and louder. Duan Yu volunteered: "Big Brother, please wait here. I shall go and fetch them." Leading the DaLi warriors, he rode back to the Southern Capital City.

By now, the sky is gradually brightening and Xiao Feng is awfully anxious. He cannot tell if the Central Plains heroes have managed to make their escape, however, the sounds of killing and fighting has increased significantly. Although the warriors of DaLi have rejoined the fighting, a prolonged period has passed without any signs of the heroes escaping the city and reuniting with him.

Riding a swift horse, a scout from Beggar's Sect approached them and reported: "Thousands of armoured Liao soldiers have besieged the West gate; the warriors of DaLi are unable to break through their encirclement and the heroes of Central Plains are unable to break out either." With a gesture of his right hand, Xu Zhu decided: "I'll lead my warriors from Lingjiu Palace to mount a rescue." Leading two thousand odd warriors from the mountainous tribes and the female fighters from Lingjiu Division, he sped towards the Southern Capital City on horseback.

Sitting on his horse, Xiao Feng glanced towards the east. He could decipher many thick columns of smoke emitting from within the Southern Capital City. With so many outbreaks of fire all over the city, it must be a chaotic environment. An hour later, another scout reported: "The Duan Emperor of DaLi as well as Mister Xu Zhu Zi from Lingjiu Palace have cut a bloody path and breached the city defenses."

In all his past fights, Xiao Feng is usually the first man in the frontline. This time round, he was inversely far away from all the action. Growing worried and deeply concerned, he could not longer hold back his impatience and declared: "I will take a look for myself!" The three ladies Ah Zi, Mu Wanqing and Zhong Ling advised simultaneously: "The people of Liao are after you; you mustn't take this risk." Xiao Feng disregarded: "That's not an issue!" Urging his horse forward, he rode towards the city with the Beggar's Sect at his heel.

Arriving at the external site of the Southern Capital City West gate, Xiao Feng could see hundreds of corpses outside the city walls, on the city walls and on both sides of the city moat. Some of the corpses belong to the soldiers and generals from the Liao army but there are plenty from Duan Yu and Xu Zhu's faction as well. The city gates are neither fully open nor fully close. Grasping giant sabres in their hands, two Island Chiefs are stationed beside the city gates and are ferociously chopping at the waves of Liao soldiers charging at them. No matter what it takes, they will not allow the city gates to be closed.

Xiao Feng abruptly heard loud sounds of hoof beats from the southern and northern directions. Alarmed, he warned: "This is bad, large battalions of Liao soldiers are surrounding us from the south and the north. We would be trapped if we stay in this spot." Snatching a metal-tip spear, he broke it into half. Flying up, he embedded the spear tip into the city wall. Using the momentum, he flipped himself up again and embedded the spear tip into a higher section of the city wall. With a few flips, he reached the top of the city wall. Scanning the city, he observed that the western sector is scattered with many pockets of Central Plains heroes. These heroes have been divided by the endless supply of Liao soldiers until they could no longer assist one another. The heroes may be highly-skilled but if they have to fight several people concurrently, after a prolonged battle, they would surely be overcome by the staggering numbers.

Standing on the city wall, Xiao Feng shifted his gaze between the city interior and the city exterior. Choosing a particular side is the hardest decision he has to make. The heroes have come to rescue him; surely he cannot simply watch them die one by one under the blades of the Liao soldiers. But if he chooses to enter the city and aid them, he would be publicly acknowledging Liao country as the enemy. He would be a traitor to his country, a renegade helping the enemy. Not only would he be unable to face his ancestors, he would be cursed for ages by his own countrymen. When he escaped from South Capital and sought refuge in another country, at most, people would label him as 'disloyal'. But if he turn around and attack Liao, he would be labeled as a war criminal.

All along, Xiao Feng has always acted in a clear-cut manner with no loose ends. With the current dilemma, his decisive nature is now muted. With a swift glance, he saw several Khitan warriors embroiled in a bitter fight with two elderly Shaolin monks beside the city wall. The first monk is brandishing a pair of monk's knives. Blood spouting out of his mouth, he is clearly suffering from heavy injuries. Taking a closer look, Xiao Feng identified him as Xuan Ming. The second monk is flourishing his meditation staff in a style to shield both of them from their attackers. Xiao Feng recognized him as Xuan Shi. Wielding their long sabres, two Liao soldiers chopped towards Xuan Ming. Badly hurt, Xuan Ming lacked the strength to block their attacks. Xuan Shi flicked the meditation staff and the tail of the staff sprung up, parrying the two long sabres backwards. 'Ah!' Xuan Ming violently cried out as his left shoulder was stabbed by another assailant. Xuan Shi lashed the staff in a horizontal swipe and delivered a bone-splitting blow to the Liao soldier. However, with this move, his chest is exposed. A Liao warrior plunged his spear at the opening and pierced the abdomen of Xuan Shi. Xuan Shi smashed his meditation staff downwards and the head of the Khitan warrior was shattered into pieces, with the warrior dying before himself. Haphazardly waving his monk's knives in unqualified strokes and with tears running down his face, Xuan Ming loudly wailed: "Martial Younger Brother! Martial Younger Brother!"

As he watched, Xiao Feng's blood started to boil. Unable to tolerate it any longer, he roared: "Xiao Feng is right here! If you must kill, kill me. Leave the innocent alone!" Leaping from the top of the city wall, both his legs were raised. Before he landed on the ground, he had already sent two Khitan warriors flying with two kicks. The moment his left foot touched the ground, he pulled Xuan Ming towards himself and his right hand retrieved Xuan Shi's meditation staff. Xiao Feng pleaded: "My rescue came too late, my sin is heavy indeed." Flourishing the meditation staff, he forced two Khitan warriors to retreat for several metres.

Xuan Shi bitterly smiled: "We falsely accused you of being a Khitan descendent, our sin is greater. Awesome! Awesome! The truth has come to …" Before he could say the word 'light', his head tilted sideways and his breathing stopped, indicating his death.

Protecting Xuan Ming, Xiao Feng fought the soldiers to his left, clearing a path to a few DaLi warriors who were surrounded by enemies. Dazed by the spectacular appearance of their Southern Khan, the soldiers and generals of Liao could not help but feel a shiver down their spines. With the meditation staff as a weapon, Xiao Feng lashed the soldiers nearer to him and jabbed the soldiers further from him. Although no lives were lost, everyone was injured. The troop of Liao soldiers consecutively retreated. Dashing left and right, Xiao Feng broke through several encirclements. Soon, he has gathered two hundred odd men in one cluster. He loudly commanded: "Do not get separated again!" Leading these two hundred odd men, he combed the entire sector. Once he saw a trapped comrade, he would guide the entire cluster towards the victim and rescue him. Like rolling a snowball, the cluster became bigger and bigger. When he has accumulated more than a thousand warriors, the Liao soldiers cannot hold them back any longer. Shaolin Monastery's Xuan Du, who is leading the Central Plains heroes, got together with Xiao Feng, Xu Zhu, Duan Yu, and their respective warriors. All at once, they dashed towards the city gates.

Wielding the meditation staff, Xiao Feng stood beside the city gate and allowed the three groups of people from DaLi country, Lingjiu Palace and Central Plains heroes to leave the city first. Standing at a distance away, the soldiers and generals of Liao country were shouting and threatening but nobody dared to step forward and launch an attack.

Xiao Feng waited until everyone has left before becoming the last man to leave the city. Turning his head back for a look, he observed piles of corpses everywhere. This battle has concluded with a high number of casualties and wounded. His eyes caught sight of two female warriors of Lingjiu Palace groaning and rolling on the ground in a pool of blood. Xiao Feng reentered the city, picked up the two ladies by their vests, and brought them out of the city.

The thunderous sounds of drumming pierced the air; the two battalions of Liao cavalry have finally arrived from the north and the south. Xiao Feng's heart sank tremendously. Each battalion of Liao cavalry is made up of at least ten thousand riders. For Xiao Feng and his teammates, after a bout of prolonged fighting, most of them are injured or exhausted. How could they resist the Liao reinforcements?

Xiao Feng called out: "The brethren of Beggar's Sect, stay put and intercept the enemy! Give your horses to the injured and allow them to retreat first!" The fellowship of beggars from Beggar's Sect roared in acknowledgement and swiftly dismounted their steeds. Xiao Feng hollered again: "Execute the Dog-Beating Grand Formation!" Clapping their bamboo clappers, the beggars chanted their formation verse and assembled into rows of human walls. Xiao Feng urged: "Master Xuan Du, Second Brother, Third Brother, quickly lead your followers and retreat towards the west. The Beggar's Sect will safeguard your departure!"

The sun illuminated the sky for the first time that day and shone brightly on the spear tips and sabre blades. With tens of thousands of iron hoof beats pounding the ground, it is truly an earth-shaking occasion.

Assessing the military might of the advancing Liao soldiers, Xu Zhu and Duan Yu instantly realised that the Beggar's Sect's 'Dog-Beating Grand Formation' cannot contain them. The two of them standing on Xiao Feng's left and right, they proclaimed: "Big Brother, we are sworn brothers. We will face difficulty and death together!" Xiao Feng remarked: "In this case, please instruct your followers to retreat first!"

Xu Zhu and Duan Yu separately commanded their subordinates to retreat. However, the disciples of Lingjiu Palace are unwilling to abandon their Owner; the warriors of DaLi will never allow their Emperor to face danger alone. Both groups of followers refused to move an inch. Right before their eyes, the armies of Liao soldiers are getting closer and closer. Even their arrows are striking the ground within metres of Xiao Feng and the others. Leading the Central Plains heroes, Xuan Du had already begun his retreat. Recognising the perilous circumstances, about ten heroes from Xuan Du's group ran back and rejoined the defending forces.

Xiao Feng was secretly lamenting. He thought: These folks are highly skilled in martial arts. Although we are gathered together, at most, we are a disorganised mob. Ignorant of military formations, how could we match the Liao soldiers? My death is inconsequential but if everyone else here is annihilated by the Liao army outside the Southern Capital City, that would... that would...

Still at a loss, Xiao Feng suddenly heard the rapid beating of the Liao Army military gong. It is a signal for the Liao army to retreat. The cavalry speeding towards them heard the gong too and immediately turned their horses around. With the frontline now becoming the rear line, both forces retreated towards their northern or southern origination. Xiao Feng was astounded and cannot comprehend any reason for this development. Next, he heard loud sounds of shouting and commotion from the flank of the Liao army. Spotting an area where plenty of sand is being stirred up, he realised another group of hostile cavalry forces has ambushed the Liao army retreating towards the North. Xiao Feng is even more puzzled than before. He thought: Why is there another cavalry battalion other than those from the Liao army? Is someone trying to rebel? The Emperor is being attacked on both fronts, his situation is detrimental indeed.

Identifying the predicament of the Liao army, Xiao Feng unconsciously became worried about the welfare of Yelu Hongji.

Leaping onto his horse, Xiao Feng scrutinized the rear section of the Liao Army. All he could see was various white flags waving in different spots. With a sudden downpour of arrows, countless Liao soldiers collapsed from their horses. Xiao Feng had an epiphany: "Ah, it must be my comrades from Nuzhen Tribe; I wonder how did they know about my whereabouts?"

The hunters from Nuzhen Tribe are the best archers ever produced. Brimming with courage, in groups of a hundred hunters per (military) company, they were riding Balikun horses and creating a scene wherever they rode. By zipping in and out of the Liao Army, in the blink of an eye, they completely demolished the Liao military formation. Although the Nuzhen hunters are smaller in numbers, every one of them is a fearless and super elite warrior. By ambushing the Liao army and catching them off guard, they gave the Liao Chief Commander an anxiety attack. The Liao Chief Commander recognized the unfavourable circumstances and is fearful that Xiao Feng may lead his warriors and riders for a counterattack. As a result, he hastily sounded a retreat back into the city.

Fan Hua is DaLi country's Minister of War and is naturally an expert on military strategy. Sensing an opportunity, he hurriedly advised Xiao Feng: "Khan Xiao, we should launch a swift counterattack. This is the best chance to destroy the enemy." Xiao Feng shook his head once. Fan Hua reasoned: "It is still a long distance to Yanmen Pass; if we do not use this opportunity to obliterate the Liao Army, we are planting the seed for a future calamity. The enemies outnumbered us vastly. We may not be able to retreat without suffering further casualties." Xiao Feng shook his head again. Unable to comprehend Xiao Feng's mindset, Fan Hua thought: Khan Xiao is reluctant to eradicate the enemy once and for all; is he trying to preserve some goodwill so that he can reconcile with the Liao Emperor?

Among the thick smoke, several groups of Nuzhen hunters are executing a killing spree on their horses. Bare-chested or clothed in animal skins, their arrows flew incessantly, resulting in a total massacre. At the entrance of the city gate, more than a thousand Liao soldiers were shot dead beneath the city wall as they were trying to retreat into the city.

With the front half of their heads clean-shaven and a small pigtail at the back of the heads, the Nuzhen hunters appear extraordinarily malevolent. Their entire faces stained with fresh blood, they have a habit of beheading their victims after shooting them to death. Afterwards, the heads of their victims would be hung around their waists. For some hunters, a long chain of more than ten heads is hanging around their waists. For the heroes of the martial arts world, they have experienced plenty of killings and violence. Nevertheless, this is the first time they are witnessing these cruel and merciless acts of the barbarians. Every one of them is badly traumatized.

A towering hunter stood on the back of his horse and loudly hailed: "Big Brother Xiao, Big Brother Xiao, Wanyan Ahguda is fighting the army for you!"

Xiao Feng rode forward and the two men clasped their four hands together. Ahguda cheerfully remarked: "Big Brother Xiao, that day, you left without saying goodbye. Brother (I) has been pining for you every day. Subsequently, my scout reported that you became a senior official in Liao country so I stopped trying to contact you. However, the Liao people are treacherous by nature; I fear that your good fortune will be short-lived. True enough, two days ago, my scout reported that you have been imprisoned by that Emperor who was raised by a b*tch. Brother hurriedly gathered my men and mounted a rescue. Fortunately, Elder Brother is alive and well. Brother is truly overjoyed."

Xiao Feng professed: "Many thanks for Brother's rescue effort!" He barely ended his sentence when a swarm of arrows flew down from the top of the city wall. The two men were pretty far from the city wall and the arrows failed to reach them.

Ahguda furiously cursed: "Khitan dogs! How dare you interrupt my conversation with Elder Brother!" Pulling out his long bow, 'chi chi chi', he fired three arrows towards the top of the city wall. Three sounds of tragic cries rang out as three Liao archers were hit. They toppled down from the top of the city wall. The Liao archers failed to hit Ahguda but Ahguda and his superior strong bow is able to reach the archers. With three arrows fired and three killed, the remaining Liao soldiers on the top of the wall sounded the alarm by shouting in unison. Everyone promptly kept their bows and raised their shields. From within the city, sounds of 'dong dong' drumbeats can be heard. The Liao army is consolidating their forces again.

Ahguda roared: "My kinsmen, listen up, the Khitan dogs are going to tunnel out of the dog's hole again. Let us go for another round of merry slaughter." The Nuzhen tribesmen responded with a loud ruckus; to the Central Plain heroes, it felt as if they are hearing ten of thousands of wild beasts howling in unison.

Xiao Feng knew that if the two forces were to clash again, both sides would suffer heavy losses. He quickly suggested: "Brother, you came here with the intention of rescuing me; now that I am out of danger, why bother fighting them? We have not seen each other for some time, let us find a quiet spot and we brothers can drink until we are drunk." Wanyan Ahguda agreed: "You are right, let's go!"

Nonetheless, the city gates started to swing open and a battalion of armoured Liao cavalry started gushing out. Ahguda scolded: "These Khitan dogs; we can never finish killing them." Positioning an arrow on his bow, with a 'sou' sound, the arrow flew out and pierced the face of the very first rider, causing the rider to fall off his horse. The remaining Nuzhen tribesmen released their arrows as well and each of their arrows is aimed at the faces of the Liao soldiers. These Nuzhen hunters are extremely precise with their arrows and each of their arrowheads is smeared with strong venom. Their victims would die on the spot and would not even have time to utter a sound. In a flash, the city gate area has added another hundred odd corpses. The dead soldiers, horses and armour started to form a small mound and completely blockaded the city gate. The surviving Liao soldiers were absolutely horrified. Securely closing the city gates, nobody dared to venture out anymore.

Leading his tribesmen, Wanyan Ahguda gathered near the city wall and taunted the Liao soldiers, cursing them at the top of his voice. Xiao Feng intervened: "Brother, let's go!" Ahguda replied: "Yes!" His halberd pointing at the top of the city wall, he loudly proclaimed: "Khitan dogs, listen well. You should count your blessings that my Big Brother Xiao did not lose a single strand of hair (injured). Today, I shall spare your lives. Otherwise, I will tear down the city wall and shoot every last Khitan dog to death."

Following that, he rode side by side with Xiao Feng towards the west. After riding for more than five kilometres, they arrived on a small hill. Ahguda jumped off his horse and from his saddlebag, he retrieved a leather pouch and handed it to Xiao Feng, commenting: "Elder Brother, have some wine." Xiao Feng accepted the pouch and with a 'gu du du' sound, he drank half the pouch and returned it to Ahguda. Ahguda finished the other half of the pouch and recommended: "Elder Brother, why don't you join me and reside next to Mount Changbai? Every day, we can go hunting and drinking, leading a carefree and delightful existence."

Xiao Feng is exceedingly familiar with Yelu Hongji's character. Today, at the Southern Capital City, he has been defeated by Wanyan Ahguda and also suffered a barrage of insults and scoldings. It is a great loss of prestige and Yelu Hongji would not take this lying down. In the near future, he would certainly activate his army for another challenge. The Nuzhen people may be fearless but their numbers are limited. It is hard to determine the eventual victor. By avoiding another confrontation would be the best outcome. Thus, Xiao Feng is trying to think of an exit strategy for them.

Recalling the days he spent below Mount Changbai, except for treating Ah Zi's injuries and in the absence of greed or power struggle, Xiao Feng was indeed living a carefree life. In the future, if he permanently dwells among the Nuzhen tribe, it would solve his homelessness issue too. As a result, he committed: "Brother, these heroes are from the Central Plains and they are here to rescue me as well. After I escorted them to Yanmen Pass, I will reunite with Brother."

Ahguda was thrilled: "The Central Plains barbarians are full of hot air; most of them have integrity issues. I do not wish to see them either." As he spoke, he led his tribesmen and rode towards the north.

Witnessing these foreign barbarians swiftly riding their horses in and out of the battlefield, as well as their ferocious nature, the Central Plains heroes thought: These barbarians are even more deadly than the Khitan dogs. Fortunately, they are the associates of Chief Xiao. As enemies, they would be my worst nightmare!

The different groups of warriors gradually gathered together and were chatting non-stop, discussing the horrendous battle that just happened outside the Southern Capital City.

Xiao Feng bowed until his head touched the ground and declared: "Many thanks to everyone for your bravery and kindness; you did not grudge me for my past misdeeds and travelled thousands of kilometres to rescue me. It will take me an entire lifetime to repay this huge debt of gratitude."

Xuan Du praised: "Chief Xiao is mistaken. The previous events occurred due to severe misunderstanding. As members of the martial arts world, giving assistance to one another is a common practice. Moreover, for the sake of hundreds of thousands of Central Plains lives, Chief Xiao disregarded your personal safety, and abandoned fame and fortune. Your righteousness and benevolence has spread all over the world. Everyone should be grateful to Chief Xiao instead."

Fan Hua loudly announced: "Dear heroes, after monitoring the Liao soldiers, I predict that they are sore about their losses today. Soon, they would come in pursuit. Does anyone have a good solution?" The various heroes began shouting: "We shall fight the Liao army to our deaths, why should we fear them!" Fan Hua advised: "The enemies outnumber us vastly, by fighting on these open plains, we are at a disadvantage. I have a suggestion: Let us retreat towards the West. First, we will be closer to the Song army and it is possible for them to send reinforcements. Second, after the enemy soldiers have chased us for a distance, their numbers would be limited and it would be easier for us to counterattack."

All the heroes present agreed with Fan Hua and got into action at once. The first convoy would be the Lingjiu Palace subordinates under the leadership of Xu Zhu. Leading the DaLi country soldiers and riders, Duan Yu formed the second convoy. Xuan Du and the Central Plains heroes would take the third convoy. At the rear, Xiao Feng and the Beggar's Sect's beggars would safeguard the retreat. With four convoys of warriors and riders travelling, each convoy must stay less than five hundred metres away from one another. Scouts on swift horses will act as messengers between each convoy and if any enemy presents themselves, the convoys can support one another. After wandering for a day, the convoys spent the night in the mountainous wilderness. Without being attacked by the Liao soldiers as the night passes, everybody gradually calmed down.

Early next morning, the convoys started moving again. Xiao Feng questioned Ah Zi: "Is Mister You still at Lingjiu Palace?" Ah Zi's petite mouth pouted and replied: "How would I know? It is a high chance that he is still up there. Being blind in both eyes, how could he descend the mountain?" In her voice, there is no tone of concern for him.

Today, they have arrived at Baile Fortress at the bottom of Mount Wutai. The men started lighting up fires to prepare meals. Along the way, Fan Hua deployed batches of warriors to guard the chokepoints. By tearing down bridges and laying obstacles on the road, he intended to slow down the pursuit of the Liao army.

During the third day, suddenly, from the east side, the smoke from fire beacons was rising into the sky. It is the signal that the Liao army is in pursuit. All the heroes were distressed. Some of the younger heroes volunteered to turn back and assist the ambushing small teams but were forcefully recalled by Xuan Du, Fan Hua and the others.

That particular night, the heroes are spending the night on a mountain slope. Around midnight, there were loud cries of terror. The heroes woke up in shock and saw that in the northern direction, the sky was brightly lighted up by some substantial burning. Xiao Feng and Fan Hua exchange a glance and both of them felt rather uneasy. Fan Hua whispered: "Khan Xiao, from your experience, is this a pincer attack executed by the Liao army?" Xiao Feng nodded his head. Fan Hua sighed: "I wonder how many households have been destroyed by this firestorm, Ai!" Xiao Feng is unwilling to speak badly of Yelu Hongji but he knew that after Yelu Hongji suffered a defeat at the hands of the Nuzhen Tribe, he would be greatly annoyed. All of his anger would then be vented out on the innocent commoners. As he led his army westwards, he would definitely kill every person and burn every house along his path.

The fire continued burning until daylight without any signs of diminishing. During the afternoon, in the southern direction, signs of fire were detected too. Under the bright glare of the sun, the fire itself is invisible. However, thick columns of smoke were escalating into the atmosphere.

Xuan Du was initially leading his followers in the front. Spotting the southern firestorm, he reined his horse at the side of the route and waited for Xiao Feng to catch up. He probed: "Chief Xiao, the Liao army is pursuing us from three different routes. Do you think Yanmen Pass can withstand the invaders? I already dispatched messengers to make timely reports to Yanmen Pass. However, the Pass Commander is a weakling and the Pass army is low in morale. I am afraid they cannot stand up to the superb Khitan cavalry." Xiao Feng was speechless. Xuan Du added: "The only worthy adversary for the Liao soldiers is the Nuzhen Tribe. If Great Song and Nuzhen Tribe became allies and execute a pincer attack from the south and the north, it would prevent the Khitan cavalry from thinking of conquering the south."

Xiao Feng caught his hint. Xuan Du wanted Xiao Feng to make contact with Wanyan Ahguda, the chief of the Nuzhen Tribe. However, Xiao Feng himself is a Khitan descendant, how could he collaborate with a foreign enemy and attack his own country? He abruptly asked: "Master Xuan Du, how is my Father doing in your esteemed monastery?" Xuan Du was momentarily startled and answered: "Your Father has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, and is currently meditating in the Rear Court of Shaolin. Regarding our trip to the Southern Capital, we did not inform him as we do not wish to stir up his worldly attachments again."

Xiao Feng state: "I really wanted to see my Father and ask him one question." Xuan Du made a 'mm' sound. Xiao Feng continued: "I wanted to ask him: If the soldiers of Liao attacked Shaolin Monastery, what would he do?" Xuan Du replied: "It is only natural to rise to the occasion and kill the enemies, thereby preserving the monastery and the Dhamma. The answer is pretty straightforward." Xiao Feng reminded: "However, my Father is a Khitan descendant, why should he side with the Han descendants and kill the Khitans instead?" Xuan Du muttered: "Chief Xiao is a Khitan descendant after all. By abandoning the dark side and joining the light side, you are truly admirable!"

Xiao Feng reasoned: "Master is a Han descendant and naturally regarded Han as the light side and Khitan as the dark side. For our Khitan people, we regard Great Liao as the light side and Great Song as the dark side. In the early days, my Khitan ancestors were massacred by the Jie tribe and bullied by the Xianbei tribe. By running to the east and fleeing to the west, they endured untold hardships. During the Great Tang dynasty, the military strength of your Han people is at its peak. In those days, incalculable numbers of my Khitan young warriors were butchered and immeasurable amounts of my Khitan young ladies were kidnapped. Today, the military strength of your Han people is tottering. My Khitan people are coming to invade and kill you instead. By taking turns to kill each other, when will we ever balance this blood debt?"

Xuan Du became silent. After a short while, he chanted: "Amituofo. Amituofo."

Guiding his horse, Duan Yu was approaching them and overheard the second part of their conversation. Sighing once, he recited: "The flames of war never ceases; battles are fought without an end; deaths arise from conflicts; the dying horses groan in agony; the birds feed on corpses; and perch on withering trees; soldiers die and dirty the land; the general's win is meaningless; despite knowing weapons are murder tools; even the saints have to employ them." Xiao Feng praised: "Despite knowing weapons are murder tools; even the saints have to employ them. My good Brother, your poem is excellent." Duan Yu corrected: "I am not the author. This is the work of Li Bai, the accomplished poet of Tang dynasty."

Xiao Feng recalled: "During the time I spent in this region, I often heard my countrymen sing a particular song." He then raised his voice and sang out loud: "By destroying my Mount Qilian, my livestock cannot reproduce. By destroying my Mount Yanzhi, my women lived in fear." Xiao Feng is bursting with energy and his song is able to reach a far distance. However, the song is filled with connotations of sorrow and pity.

Duan Yu nodded his head and enlightened: "This is a song composed by the Xiongnu tribe. That year, Emperor Wu of Han launched a massive invasion against the Xiongnu and conquered vast amounts of territory. The people of Xiongnu suffered untold hardships. To think that this song has been passed on until today." Xiao Feng remarked: "My Khitan ancestors were like the people of Xiongnu back then. Both of them went through indescribable sufferings."

Xuan Du sighed once and theorized: "When all the Emperors and Generals take up Buddhism and adopt compassion as their guiding principle, there will no longer be tragedies such as war and killings." Xiao Feng mused: "I wonder when will the world reach this level of maturity and achieve complete peace."

As everyone travelled westwards, it is clear to them that there are signs of burning from the three directions of East, South and North. As the fires did not subside, it is apparent that the Liao Army is burning every household along its path. Furious, the groups of heroes cursed them relentlessly and could not wait to fight the Liao Army to death.

Fan Hua suggested: "The Liao Army is catching up to us; soon, we would no longer have any room to retreat. Based on Brother's (my) opinion, why don't we split into four different routes? This will confuse the Liao Army and they would not know which group to pursue."

Wu Changfeng loudly protested: "Isn't that as good as admitting defeat? Minister Fan, you should stop overrating the enemy and belittling ourselves. Whether we win or lose, it must be a fight to the death with the Liao dogs."

As he spoke, the air was pierced with a 'sou' sound as a feathered arrow flew over from the southeast direction. A Beggar's Sect disciple was struck by the arrow and he collapsed onto the ground. The next moment, a company of Liao soldiers emerged from the back of a hill and charged towards them, shouting at the top of their voices. It turns out that this specific company of Liao riders has been riding non-stop from the back of the mountain range to launch a surprise attack. Therefore, they managed to avoid the ambushing heroes planted by Fan Hua. This surprise attack party of Liao soldiers consists of more than five hundred men. Wu Changfeng roared: "Attack!" and was the first to dash towards the enemies. The heroes have been stifling their frustration for a long time and everybody fought bravely, trying to take down as many enemies as possible. In terms of numbers, there are more heroes than Liao soldiers. In addition, the heroes are far more skillful in terms of martial arts. Amidst the sounds of loud battle cries, the Liao soldiers were surrounded and chopped to death so rapidly it is as if the heroes are chopping fruits and vegetables. Within an hour, more than five hundred Liao soldiers were utterly killed and dismembered. There were ten odd Khitan warriors who turned around and climbed the mountain in order to escape. Nevertheless, they were pursued by the Qing-gong experts from the Central Plains heroes and killed accordingly.

After scoring a victory, the heroes were happily cheering and their morale increased by leaps and bounds. Fan Hua, on the other hand, secretly communicated to Xuan Du, Xu Zhu, Duan Yu and the others, warning: "This encounter is merely a small company of Liao soldiers. Now that the first wave is over, the second batch of Liao soldiers would soon engage us. We must speedily retreat towards the West!"

His sentence barely ended when loud rumbling 'hong long long hong long long' can be heard coming from the eastern direction. When the heroes turned their heads towards the east instantaneously, they could see that plenty of dust and soil has been stirred up. Like the gathering of stormy clouds, half the sky has been engulfed by these dust clouds. In a split second, the heroes glanced at one another in complete silence as the 'hong long long hong long long' reverberated in the far background like the sounds of muffled thunder. From the noise produced, it is evident that an immense army of Liao soldiers is riding towards them and their numbers must be in the tens of thousands. The heroes are used to violence and bloody fights in the martial arts world, however, this is the first time they are facing a massive army charging at them at full speed. Compared to the army outside the Southern Capital City, this present Liao army is probably several times bigger. Although each hero is a bold and dauntless individual, when faced with this unexpected earth-shattering show of military might, each of them could feel their hearts beating at a faster rate and their palms dripping with cold sweat.

Fan Hua called out: "Fellow Brothers, the enemy is overwhelmingly strong, there is no value in a tragic death. By preserving our lives, we are opening ourselves to endless possibilities. Today, let us temporarily avoid a direct confrontation. When there is an opportunity, we would definitely launch a counterattack." The heroes instantly mounted their steeds and drove their horses westwards with a strong sense of urgency. Still, from behind them, the rumbling sounds of 'hong long long' continue to resonate endlessly.

This particular night, nobody stopped for a rest. Aware that Yanmen Pass is gradually getting closer and closer, the heroes pressed their horses consistently. Once they have crossed Yanmen Pass and took up a defensive position, they would be able to keep danger at bay. The invading army may be great in numbers but the Pass is not easy to overcome. Along the way, horses started to collapse and die of exhaustion. Some heroes activated their Qing-gong to travel while some horses are forced to carry two riders. By dawn the next morning, Yanmen Pass is less than five kilometres away and the heroes are able to heave a sigh of relief. They dismounted their horses and held them by the reins. By slowing down the pace, these beasts of burden are allowed to regain their stamina. However, from their backs, the 'hong long long hong long long' rumbling generated by tens of thousands of galloping horses became louder and louder.

Xiao Feng strolled down a ridge and came to a hillside. Out of nowhere, he noticed a giant rock and his heart shuddered once: Years ago, under the leadership of Abbot Xuan Ci, Chief Wang (Beggar's Sect) and many heroes of the Central Plains ambushed my Father, killed my Mother and many of my Khitan Warriors at this spot.

Taking a sideways glance, he could identify the obvious streaks left by an axe on a cliff wall; it is Xuan Ci's attempt to deface the inscribed message of Xiao Yuanshan.

Xiao Feng slowly turned around and caught sight of a flowering tree. In his ears, he could almost hear the voice of Ah Zhu speaking out from behind the tree where she was hiding: "Master Qiao, if you continue to exert your heavy blows, even this mountain peak will be shattered by you."

Although Xiao Feng is in a daze, the heartfelt words of Ah Zhu clearly manifested in his brain: "I have been waiting for you right here for five days and five nights. My only fear is you failing to show up (due to death). You… You came after all. I thank the Heavens for their protection. At the end of the day, you are well and unhurt."

His eyes brimming with hot tears, Xiao Feng walked over to the tree and caressed the trunk with his outstretched hand. Compared to the past occasion when he met Ah Zhu here, the tree has grown much taller. In that moment, Xiao Feng was utterly heart-broken and he completely forgot about his present predicament.

Suddenly, a high-pitched voice screamed out: "Brother in law, quickly retreat! Quickly retreat!" Ah Zi ran towards Xiao Feng and tugged at his sleeve.

Xiao Feng raised his head and scanned the distant environment. From the three directions of East, North and South, the long pikes of the Liao army are pointing to the sky like the branches of a thick forest. They have been surrounded by the Liao soldiers. Xiao Feng nodded his head and acknowledged: "Very well, let us speak further after we have retreated into Yanmen Pass."

By this time, the heroes have already gathered in front of Yanmen Pass. As Xiao Feng and Ah Zi rode side by side and arrived at the Pass, the doors of the Pass are still tightly shut. Standing at the top of the Pass, a Song Military Captain loudly announced: "By the orders of General Zhang, the Commander responsible for defending Yanmen Pass, please take heed of this notice: Since the group of you are citizens of Central Plains, it is your right to enter the Pass. However, you could be spies who are in cahoots with the Liao army. Therefore, everyone must abandon your weapons and allow our army to conduct a thorough search. For those who are unarmed, General Zhang will grant a special allowance and allow you to enter the Pass."

The minute he finished his speech, the heroes started rioting loudly at once. Some exclaimed: "We have travelled for thousands of kilometres and are doing our best to fight against the Liao soldiers, how could you suspect us of being spies?" Some explained: "We are armed as we require these weapons to assist General (Zhang) in his fight against the Liao army. If we discard our weapons, how could we fight against the Liao army?" Some of the ill-tempered heroes began to curse: "D@mn it, you are preventing us from entering the pass? Everyone, let's attack them!"

Xuan Du hastily calmed everyone down. Facing the Captain, he begged: "I have to trouble Captain to report to General Zhang: We are Song commoners who are loyal to our country. The enemy forces will be arriving soon. If we spend time conducting a search, the delay would cause us to miss the ideal timing for entering the Pass. If the doors of the Pass are opened later, it may no longer be safe."

The Captain already heard the various cursing by several heroes. Furthermore, he noticed that many of the people present are dressed in strange clothing with odd designs; they are definitely not from the Central Plains. He hollered: "Old Monk, you mentioned that everyone of you is a loyal citizen of Central Plains, I bet that many of them are not from Song, right? Fine! I shall compromise. The citizens of Great Song can enter the Pass but the foreigners are not allowed to enter. "

Exchanging looks with one another, the heroes were infuriated. The followers of Duan Yu are naturally the Officials and warriors of DaLi country. For Xu Zhu, his followers are a melting pot of different tribes and races, with warriors from Xiyu, Xixia, Tubo, Gaoli, etc. If the Pass is only opened to the citizens of Great Song, the majority of the heroes, namely, the convoys of DaLi country and Lingjiu Palace, would be shut out.

Xuan Du pleaded: "General, please judge for yourself. We have many friendly warriors among us; some of them are DaLi citizens, some of them are Xixia citizens. By joining forces with us, we fought the Liao Army as a united team. Why is there a need to differentiate if they are from Song or not?" On this northern expedition, Duan Yu kept his identity confidential. He must never reveal his true status as the Ruler of a country. This is to prevent the officials of Song dynasty from hatching some evil plot, such as kidnapping him as a hostage. Although DaLi is extremely far away from Liao country, it is not wise to publicly declare war on them. Therefore, Xuan Du did not mention that a VVIP from DaLi country is present at the Pass.

The Captain angrily scolded: "Yanmen Pass is a strategic checkpoint for Great Song's northern border, what else is more important than this? The massive army of Liao soldiers and cavalry is arriving any minute. If I opened the Pass haphazardly and gave the Liao soldiers an opening to break through, it would be a total disaster. Who can answer for this mistake?"

Wu Changfeng cannot tolerate the bickering anymore and loudly roared: "If you had talked less and opened the Pass earlier, wouldn't all these issues have been avoided?" The Captain furiously berated: "You old beggar, in front of Official (me), how dare you speak up?" With a wave of his right hand, on the battlements, more than a thousand archers appeared with their arrows notched onto their bows and they were aiming at the bottom of the Pass. The Captain barked: "Quickly get lost. If the group of you continue to stay here and spread baseless rumours, causing the soldiers to waver, I shall release the arrows." Xuan Du let out a long sigh and was at a loss.

Yanmen Pass is wedged between two mountain peaks that are so tall, they seemed to penetrate the clouds. This Pass is named 'Yanmen' (Goose Door) because when the migratory geese fly southwards, even they have to fly between the two mountain peaks. It can also be inferred that the area outside Yanmen Pass is a hostile terrain. Within the group of heroes, there are obviously some Qing-gong experts who can easily scale the peaks and make their escape. However, for those who lack this expertise, certain doom awaits them. Without a doubt, they would be annihilated in front of the Pass by the Liao army.

Limited by the mountain terrain, the Liao army is forced to gradually narrow down their frontline from the east and west convoys. Only the northern convoy can approach the Pass in a frontal confrontation. Except for the galloping sounds of hoof beats, the clanking sounds of armour and the fluttering sounds of the flags being blown by the wind, there is not a single sound uttered by the soldiers. Such is the strict military discipline of their elite training. Row by row, the Liao army took up the formation suitable for attacking the Pass. Reaching the line where the arrows from the Pass will not hit them, the army marched to a standstill. From afar, many flags are seen fluttering from the three directions of east, west and north. However, the actual number of Liao soldiers is hard to estimate.

Xiao Feng loudly proclaimed: "Gentlemen, please stay put in your original position and do not move at all. Please wait for me to explain to the Emperor of Liao." Without giving allowance for Duan Yu, Ah Zi or anyone else to protest, he rode forward as a single rider. Lifting both his hands high above his head to prove that he is not hiding any weapon or bow and arrows, Xiao Feng vociferously bellowed: "Your Majesty, the Emperor of Great Liao country, Xiao Feng has something to tell you. May I invite you to show yourself." As he hollered these words, he charged them with his profound internal energy, causing the words to ring through the air and travel a considerable distance. Among the tens of thousands of Liao generals and soldiers, no one failed to hear his message clearly. At the same time, the generals and soldiers could not help but turn pale.

After some time, within the Liao army, an outburst of drumming and blaring of horns erupted. Like splitting a wave, tens of thousands of Liao soldiers and riders separated into two sections. Holding eight giant fluttering flags made from golden yellow cloth, eight riders emerged from the gap. Behind the flag bearers, (military) divisions of pike men, axe men, archers and shield bearers swiftly rode out and formed into two rows. Finally, escorted by ten high-ranking generals dressed in armour and brocade, Yelu Hongji made an appearance.

The Liao army loudly roared: "Long live Your Majesty! Long live Your Majesty! Long live Your Majesty!" Their roaring reverberated in all four directions of the wilderness and echoed throughout the mountains and valleys.

From the top of the Pass, the Song soldiers witnessed the impressive military display of the enemy troops and were terrified at what they saw.

Using his right hand, Yelu Hongji raised his jeweled sabre high up in the air and the Liao army instantaneously became silent. Except for the occasional neighing sounds from the war horses, no other sound is produced. Lowering his jeweled sabre, Yelu Hongji boisterously laughed: "Khan Xiao, you promised to trick them into opening the Pass doors for the Liao army, why are the Pass doors still closed?"

Once he made this statement, the interpreter at the top of the Pass translated the meaning and informed General Zhang, the Pass Commander for Yanmen Pass. On top of the Pass, the Song soldiers instantly reacted passionately. Pointing to Xiao Feng, they wildly gesticulated and cursed at him.

Xiao Feng knew that Yelu Hongji's words are aimed at sowing discord, destroying his chances of entering the Pass controlled by Song soldiers. Feeling a slight tinge of sourness in his heart, he jumped off his horse at once. Taking a few steps forward, he pleaded: "Your Majesty, Xiao Feng did not live up to your expectations. Despite your deep acts of kindness, I have let you down. Currently, Your Majesty has to take the trouble to come here personally. I truly deserve death. I truly deserve death."

His words barely ended when out of nowhere, two human silhouettes flashed past him like two bolts of lightning. Ferociously zooming towards Yelu Hongji, the two silhouettes are actually Xu Zhu and Duan Yu in motion. Once the two brothers deduced that the circumstances are unfavourable, they realised that the only way to resolve the predicament is to kidnap the Emperor of Liao and hold him as a hostage. Moreover, it would guarantee the safety of everybody else. Signalling to each other, they flew towards Yelu Hongji separately from the left and the right.

When Yelu Hongji decided to lead the expedition personally, he took extra precautions against Xiao Feng as he feared that he may repeat the same incredible act of kidnapping and killing the King and Prince of Chu. Therefore, his personal bodyguards are prepared for such contingencies. The Imperial Commander Du shouted a command and the three hundred shield bearers rapidly assembled close to one another, using their three hundred shields to form a wall-like formation, blocking the front of the Liao Emperor. The pike men and axe men clustered tightly together behind the wall of shields.

The Xu Zhu of today has gained the essence of Tianshan Tonglao's prowess and also fully mastered the intricate martial arts carved in the stone chamber of Lingjiu Palace. His martial arts has developed to an amazing stage of invincibility, with his energy and strength at his beck and call; in short, he is an unstoppable force.

For Duan Yu, after he has absorbed Jiumozhi's lifetime of cultivated energy, his total accumulated energy is extremely abundant and has surpassed every practitioner since the beginning of time. When he activated his 'Surfing Nimble Steps', how could any of the Liao generals or soldiers catch hold of him?

Slithering to the east or sliding to the west like a slippery eel, Duan Yu forcefully squeezed himself through the less-than-one-feet gaps between the pike men and axe men. Many of the Liao soldiers tried to stab him with their long pikes but not only did they fail to hurt him, due to the close proximity with one another, their weapons stabbed their own comrades instead.

Both his hands outstretched, Xu Zhu is busy grabbing Liao soldiers by their vests and tossing them aside, gradually making his way towards Yelu Hongji. Two of the high-ranking generals urged their horses forward for a charge, with both their spears aiming at Xu Zhu's chest for a combined attack. Xu Zhu abruptly leaped up and used both his legs to divert the two spear tips. The two Liao generals roared in unison and maneuvered their spears, trying to shake Xu Zhu off. Utilizing the kinetic energy from the shaking spears, Xu Zhu jumped up high into the air, plotting his descend on the top of Yelu Hongji's head.

One slippery like an eel and one swooping down like a flying bird, the two brothers launched such perfect attacks that Yelu Hongji was greatly alarmed. Raising his jeweled sabre, he swiftly chopped at Xu Zhu who is still descending in mid-air.

Xu Zhu's left palm zipped out and latched onto the blunt side of Yelu Hongji's jeweled sabre. Using the momentum, he slide downwards and with a flip of his palm, he has seized Yelu Hongji's right wrist. In the same breath, Duan Yu has tunneled out from the mass of soldiers and placed an iron grip on the left shoulder of Yelu Hongji. The two men instantaneously barked: "Move!" Dragging Yelu Hongji's towering frame off his horse, they turn around and speedily fled.

All around them, the Liao generals and soldiers personally witnessed their own Emperor being captured by the enemy and exclaimed in shock. For a few seconds, they stood there at a loss and in a daze. Dozens of Imperial bodyguards struggled to rescue their Emperor with all their might but were sent flying by Xu Zhu's and Duan Yu's powerful kicks.

Having captured the Emperor of Liao, the two men were overjoyed. Abruptly, they saw Xiao Feng flying towards them and both of them called out in unison: "Big Brother!" Unexpectedly, with two sounds of 'hu hu', Xiao Feng executed two palms strikes and separately attacked the two of them. Observing the powerful palm attacks approaching them with the impact of a tsunami, the two men had a bad fright and were forced to meet the palms with their own. With two 'peng peng' sounds as the four palms collided, the force of the palms split the air around them. Xiao Feng dived forward and took this opportunity to pull Yelu Hongji towards himself.

By now, the Liao army and the heroes from the Central Plains began to charge southwards and northwards respectively. One side wishes to rescue their Emperor while the other side wishes to lend assistance to the three men, Xiao Feng, Xu Zhu and Duan Yu.

Xiao Feng loudly roared: "Nobody is allowed to move. I have some words I wish to say to the Emperor of Great Liao." The Liao army and the group of heroes stopped advancing at once. Both sides are afraid of hurting their own leaders by accident. Everyone resorted to shouting from afar and dare not charge forward or worse, release any arrows.

Xu Zhu and Duan Yu took a few steps back and remained at the back of Yelu Hongji. This is to prevent him from escaping back to his army and also to intercept any Khitan experts who may try to mount a rescue.

By now, the face of Yelu Hongji is completely devoid of colour. He thought: Xiao Feng has a strong character. Since I confined him in a lion cage and tortured him, he must have turned against me. Now that I am at his mercy, he would go all out in his revenge and would no longer spare my life.

To his surprise, Xiao Feng introduced: "Your Majesty, these two gentlemen are my Sworn Brothers. You can rest assured that they will not hurt you." Yelu Hongji snorted once and turned his head around, scanning Xu Zhu once and Duan Yu once.

Xiao Feng added: "This is my Second Brother Xu Zhu Zi, the owner of Lingjiu Palace. Third Brother is Mister Duan from DaLi. Official has mentioned their existence to Your Majesty before." Yelu Hongji nodded his head and praised: "Truly phenomenal."

Xiao Feng pleaded: "We will release Your Majesty back to the army at once. However, we desired a reward from Your Majesty."

Yelu Hongji almost cannot believe his own ears. He thought: Is there such an excellent bargain under the sky? Ah, I got it, Xiao Feng has changed his mind and wanted me to appoint the three of them as officials.

His face breaking out into smiles, he welcomed: "What is your request? There is nothing I cannot fulfill." Initially, he was speaking in a trembling voice but when he said these two sentences, he portrayed the dignity of an Emperor.

Xiao Feng reminded: "Your Majesty is the captive of my two Sworn Brothers. According to the tradition of our Khitan race, Your Majesty must redeem yourself with a prized possession." With a slight frown, Yelu Hongji questioned: "What do you want?" Xiao Feng remarked: "Lowly Official will take the liberty of representing my two Brothers to make the request. All we need is a promise from the golden lips of Your Majesty." Yelu Hongji laughed once and described: "Under the sky, there are not many things that are beyond my abilities. Go ahead and ask for the moon."

Xiao Feng replied: "We want Your Majesty to promise an immediate withdrawal of the Liao army; during Your Majesty's entire lifetime, not a single Liao soldier is permitted to violate the border between Song and Liao."

When Duan Yu heard this request, he was instantly thrilled. In his mind, he thought: Since the Liao army cannot cross the Song-Liao border, they naturally cannot fly over and invade my DaLi.

He quickly agreed: "That is right. Once you agree to these terms, we would release you at once."

But then he thought: Second Brother contributed more effort than me in the capture of the Liao Emperor. I wonder if he has any requests?

Facing Xu Zhu, he enquired: "Second Brother, do you want anything from the Khitan Emperor to redeem his freedom?" Xu Zhu shook his head and affirmed: "My terms are exactly the same."

Yelu Hongji's face turned sinister. In a deep voice, he challenged: "The lot of you actually possess the courage to blackmail me? What if I refuse these terms?"

Xiao Feng clearly declared: "In this case, Official and Your Majesty shall perish together, resulting in an undiscriminating double death. After all, when the two of us swore to become brothers, we also made a vow to die on the same year same month and same day."

Yelu Hongji shuddered once and contemplated: "This Xiao Feng is a desperado who fears neither the heavens nor the earth. He is someone who sticks to his words and does not make false promises. If I refuse to accept his terms, he would unquestionably offend me. It is definitely not worth my while to die under the hands of this boorish and uncultured fool." Therefore, he laughed once and clearly indicated: "Using my Yelu Hongji's life to exchange for decades of peace between the two countries of Song and Liao; my good Brother, you certainly placed an enormous value on my life!"

Xiao Feng reasoned: "Your Majesty is the Ruler of Great Liao. Under the sky, how can there be anything more valuable than the life of Your Majesty?"

Yelu Hongji laughed again and reflected: "Going by this logic, in the past, didn't the Nuzhen Tribe fail to get their money's worth when they only demanded thirty wagons of gold, three hundred wagons of silver and three thousand fine steeds?" Xiao Feng made a slight bow and did not answer him.

Yelu Hongji turned his head to the back and could see that the troops nearest to him were more than a hundred steps away and there is absolutely no way they can save him from this predicament. After weighing the pros and cons, he concluded that there is nothing more precious to him than his life. Thus, he retrieved a condor-feathered wolf fang arrow from his quiver and bent it with both hands. With a 'pai' sound, the arrow broke into two. Discarding the arrow onto the ground, Yelu Hongji swore: "I agreed to your terms."

Xiao Feng bowed and professed: "Many thanks to Your Majesty."

Yelu Hongji turned his head around and was about to lift his leg to take a step. However, he noticed that the four eyes of Xu Zhu and Duan Yu are still staring at himself. From their body language, he could tell that they have no intention of making way for him. Turning his head back towards Xiao Feng for a hint, he saw that Xiao Feng was keeping silent too. Yelu Hongji immediately understood their unspoken intention, realizing that the three men are fearful that he would go back on his word. He pulled out his jeweled sabre at once and raised it high above his head. At the top of his voice, he decreed: "The three armies of Great Liao, receive my command!"

Within the Liao army, the drums thundered once and halted instantly.

Yelu Hongji ordered: "The entire force shall return towards the north. The southern invasion is hereby cancelled." After a pause, he added: "In my lifetime, not a single Liao soldier is permitted to violate the border between Song and Liao." Ending his speech, he lowered his sabre and the Liao army started beating their drums again.

Xiao Feng bowed and remarked: "We honourably invite Your Majesty to return back to the army."

Xu Zhu and Duan Yu moved sideways to the left and right, gradually making their way to the back of Xiao Feng.

Yelu Hongji was simultaneously feeling surprise, cheer and disgrace. He desperately wanted to get out from this dangerous situation; however, he is reluctant to showcase his weakness in front of Xiao Feng and the Liao army. Forcefully composing himself, he slowly strode back towards his frontline.

From the Liao army, scores of Imperial soldiers raced out on their steeds, rushing to fetch their Ruler. At the beginning, Yelu Hongji's steps are still sluggish but he unconsciously started to walk faster and faster. He could feel both his legs losing their strength and he nearly fell down. At the same time, both his hands are trembling and sweat is literally dripping from his forehead. By the time the Imperial bodyguards have rode up to him, dismounted and reined the horse for him to climb up, Yelu Hongji's entire body had turned soft. With his left foot in the stirrup, he simply cannot flip onto the saddle. After two Imperial bodyguards came to support the back of his waist and giving it a strong heave, Yelu Hongji finally mounted the horse.

Witnessing the safe return of their Emperor, the tons of Liao soldiers loudly cheered: "Long live Your Majesty! Long live Your Majesty! Long live Your Majesty!"

By now, the Song soldiers on top of Yanmen Pass and the heroes at the bottom of the Pass have all heard the Liao Emperor giving orders to withdraw his army and never to violate the border in his lifetime. They broke out into thunderous applause and cheering as well. Everybody knew that although the Khitan people are violent and murderous by nature, they are people who keep their promises. In the years of foreign relations between Great Song and Great Liao, breaking of commitments is rare. Furthermore, this decree is personally issued by the Emperor of Liao in front of the two armies. If he chooses to back out on this promise, within the country of Great Liao, he would lose all his standing and respect. Needless to say, his occupation of the Imperial throne would be highly insecure as a result.

Yelu Hongji maintained a gloomy countenance. In his mind, he was feeling upset that he had been held hostage by the scoundrel Xiao Feng and was forced to make such a huge commitment. Although he was granted a safe passage back to his army, it was actually a major loss of prestige and a giant dent on the national pride of Great Liao. However, from the cheering of 'Long live Your Majesty' from the Liao generals and soldiers, he could tell that it is a favourable response from them borne out of genuine sincerity. His eyes slowly scanning the expressions of his soldiers, all he could read were faces radiating with happiness and colours of joy.

For the soldiers, since they can immediately return from the battlefield and reunite with their parents, wives and children; on top of being able to avoid the sufferings of war and the possibility of dying in a foreign land, they were naturally overjoyed. Although the Khitan people are brave and adept in warfare, in the chaos and skirmishes of war, there is no guarantee of survival. Today, since this calamity of war has been avoided, except for a few heroic generals who wished to profit from this military expedition, everybody else was in complete ecstasy.

Yelu Hongji's heart shuddered once as he had a realization: It turns out that these soldiers are reluctant to attack the Southern dynasty too. If I insisted on the southern invasion, there is no guarantee that I can conquer their territories without running into obstacles myself.

But then he thought: These Nuzhen barbarians are mostly evil. With them still active at the back of Khitan, it is a giant thorn in the flesh. I shall send some soldiers to annihilate these barbarians before making other plans.

Thus, he raised his jeweled sabre and loudly announced: "By orders of the Northern Khan, do an about turn and retreat back to the Southern Capital!"

Within the army, leather drums and horns began to play, transmitting the decree to the entire force. In response, from near to far, happy cheers filled the air.

Yelu Hongji turned his head back and saw that Xiao Feng is still standing motionlessly at the exact spot. Yelu Hongji coldly laughed once and loudly declared: "Khan Xiao, you have contributed such a tremendous merit on behalf of Great Song. In the near future, a high ranking official position and a generous salary awaits you."

Xiao Feng replied at the top of his voice: "Your Majesty, Xiao Feng is a Khitan descendant. Today, by intimidating Your Majesty, I have become a great sinner of the Khitan people. In the future, how can I face the Heaven and the Earth?" Picking up the two stalks of broken arrows that were on the ground, he activated his internal energy and thrust his arms towards himself. With a 'pu' sound, he stabbed his own heart.

'Ah!' Yelu Hongji shouted out in fright. Initially urging his horse a few steps forward, he then reined his horse to come to a stop.

Xu Zhu and Duan Yu were scared out of their wits. Both of them scurrying towards Xiao Feng, they exclaimed in unison: "Big Brother! Big Brother!" However, the two stalks of broken arrows have pierced the centre of his heart. Xiao Feng's eyes were tightly shut and his breathing has ceased.

Xu Zhu rapidly tore open the clothing covering his chest, wanting to salvage his life. However, with the arrows embedded in his heart, it is an impossible task. On the skin of Xiao Feng's chest, there is a green tattoo of a wolf's head baring its teeth and carrying an expression of malevolence. Prostrating on the ground, Xu Zhu and Duan Yu cried their hearts out.

The beggars from Beggar's Sect unanimously advanced towards them and got onto their knees to kowtow. Beating his chest, Wu Changfeng howled: "Chief Qiao, you may be a Khitan descendant but compared to us, the incompetent Han people, you are ten thousand times more heroic!"

The heroes from Central Plains started to crowd around. Many of them were discussing in hushed tones: "Chief Qiao is really a Khitan descendant? Why did he turn around and lend his assistance to Great Song? It looks like there are heroes even among the Khitan people."

"As a baby, he grew up within our Central Plains Han community and has learnt the values of righteousness and humanity."

"With both countries avoiding a war, he has accomplished a great merit as a mediator. However, there is no need to commit suicide."

"Although he has contributed immensely to Great Song, from the perspective of Liao country, he has become a traitor who has betrayed his country and assisted the enemy. He is committing suicide to atone for his mistakes."

"Fear? What is there to fear? Chief Qiao is such a heroic man; under the sky, there is nothing he feared."

Witnessing Xiao Feng committing suicide, Yelu Hongji was immediately thrown into disarray. He wondered: At the end of the day, is he doing a service or a disservice to my Great Liao? He kept persuading me not to invade Song, is he doing it for the benefit of the Song people or the Khitan people? He and I are Sworn Brothers and up till the last moment, he has been loyal to me. Today, by taking his own life in front of Yanmen Pass, he is definitely not greedy for fame and fortune. Still… why did he do it?

Shaking his head, Yelu Hongji bitterly smiled to himself. Turning his horse around, he rode into the ranks of the Liao army.

Among the sounds of hoof beats, the tens of thousands of Liao soldiers restarted their northern journey. The generals and soldiers frequently turned their heads back and gazed at the corpse of Xiao Feng.

With the sounds of birds crying 'wa wa', a flock of geese flew over the heads of the soldiers and continue flying over Yanmen Pass.

As the Liao army marched further and further away, the sounds of hoof beats became vague. Eventually, it descended into sounds of muffled thunder from the back of the mountains.

Xu Zhu, Duan Yu and the others are still standing by the side of Xiao Feng's corpse. Some of them are wailing at the top of the voices while some are silently tearing at the occasion.

Out of the blue, the shrill voice of a young girl pierced the air: "Move away! Move away! All of you should move away! After causing the death of my Brother in law, what is the use putting up a fake show with all the fake crying?" As she spoke, she stretched out her arms and forcefully pushed away the crowd. This young girl is Ah Zi. Xu Zhu and the others do not wish to contend with her; after being pushed by her, he simply stepped away.

Scrutinizing the corpse of Xiao Feng, Ah Zi stood in a daze for some time. Finally, she gently coaxed: "Brother in law, all of them are villains. You should ignore them. Only Ah Zi truly cares for you." As she spoke, she stooped down and lifted Xiao Feng's corpse. Xiao Feng is of massive build; although the top half of his body is being carried, his two legs are still dangling on the ground. Ah Zi added: "Brother in law, you are finally obedient. Although I am carrying you, you did not push me away. Yes, it is better this way."

Xu Zhu and Duan Yu exchanged a look and both men thought: She is so deep in grief that she is starting to lose touch with her sense of reality.

Still shedding tears, Duan Yu consoled: "Little Sister, Big Brother Xiao has perished for a worthy cause. The dead cannot be revived, you… you…" Taking a few steps forward, he wanted to carry Xiao Feng's corpse.

In a stern voice, Ah Zi hissed: "Don't you dare come and snatch my Brother in law, he is mine, nobody is allowed to touch him."

Duan Yu returned back to the crowd and winked at Mu Wanqing. Mu Wanqing caught his hint and walked over to Ah Zi's side. In a soft voice, she comforted: "Little Sister, Big Brother Xiao has passed on, we should discuss how to lay him to rest…"

Ah Zi abruptly screamed at the top of her voice, giving Mu Wanqing a bad scare and causing her to take two steps backwards. Ah Zi shrieked: "Move away! Move away! If you come near me again, I will kill you first with one sword slash."

Mu Wanqing frowned her eyebrows and shook her head at Duan Yu.

Out of nowhere, from the group of mountains on the left side of the Pass, someone called out in a loud voice: "Ah Zi, Ah Zi, I can hear your voice. Where are you? Where are you?" The voice carried a mournful tone and many of the heroes recognized the speaker as the ex-Chief of Beggar's Sect, You Tanzhi alias Zhuang Juxian.

The heroes individually turned their heads in the direction of the calling voice. Entering their sight is You Tanzhi who is holding a bamboo staff in each of his hands. The left staff is used to test the ground in front of him while the right staff is pressing on the shoulder of a middle-aged fellow. Together, they appeared from a mountain cavity. The middle-aged fellow is Big Brother Wu who was ordered to stay behind and safeguard Lingjiu Palace. From his haggard appearance and shabby attire, coupled with an expression of helplessness on his face, Xu Zhu and the others instantly understood his circumstances. He must have been held hostage by You Tanzhi and was forced to lead him in a search for Ah Zi. Along their journey, Big Brother Wu must have endured numerous sufferings.

Ah Zi was incensed: "What did you come here for? I do not wish to see you. I do not wish to see you."

You Tanzhi was elated: "Ah, you are here indeed. I can hear your voice. I finally found you!" The bamboo staff on his right hand became charged with internal energy. With a push, Big Brother Wu uncontrollably flew forward. The two men travelled with amazing speed. In the blink of an eye, they have arrived at the side of Ah Zi.

Xu Zhu, Duan Yu and the others have run out of ideas. Noting the arrival of You Tanzhi, they assumed that since this person is willing to present both his eyes to Ah Zi, their relationship must be extremely deep. Maybe he could persuade Ah Zi to change her mind. As a result, they moved a few steps backwards to avoid disturbing the conversation between the two of them.

You Tanzhi questioned: "Miss Ah Zi, how are you? Did anyone bully Miss?" From his deformed face, expressions of delight and concern were being portrayed.

Ah Zi demanded: "If there is someone bullying me, what will you do?" You Tanzhi hurriedly answered: "Who has offended Miss? Miss, tell me quickly, I shall fight him to death." Ah Zi coldly sniggered once. Pointing to everyone around her, she stated: "All of them have bullied me; you can kill all of them in one shot!"

You Tanzhi acknowledged: "Yes." To Big Brother Wu, he interrogated: "Old Wu, who are these bullies that have offended Miss?" Big Brother Wu replied: "There are tons of them, you cannot possibly kill all of them." You Tanzhi insisted: "Even if I cannot kill all of them, I must still do it. It is their fault for offending Miss Ah Zi."

Ah Zi angrily remarked: "I am now together with my Brother in law. We shall never be apart again. You get as far away from me as possible. I do not wish to see you ever again."

You Tanzhi was heartbroken. He stuttered: "You… You do not wish to see me ever again…"

Ah Zi loudly declared: "Ah, yes, my eyes are a present from you. My Brother in law says that I owed you a debt of gratitude and I should consistently wait on you. However, this is not to my liking." Suddenly, her right hand darted out and stabbed towards her own eyes. Ah Zi actually dug out both of her eyeballs and with some force, she threw them in the direction of You Tanzhi, screaming: "I'm giving them back to you! I'm giving them back to you! From today onwards, I no longer owe you anything. This way, my Brother in law will stop forcing me to accompany you."

Although You Tanzhi cannot see anything; but from the gasps of horror and fearful exclamations of the crowd around him, he could guess that a tragic turn of events has occurred. In a pleading voice, he wailed: "Miss Ah Zi! Miss Ah Zi!"

Carrying the corpse of Xiao Feng, Ah Zi gently remarked: "Brother in law, we no longer owe them anything. In the past, when I shoot you with a poison needle, that is because I wanted to be with you forever. Today, my wish is finally fulfilled." As she spoke, she carried Xiao Feng and started walking.

Seeing fresh blood seeping out of her empty eye sockets and flitting across her snowy white face, the heroes were horribly traumatized. When she walked near them, they hurriedly stepped away due to fright. She continued walking in a straight line and little by little, she got close to a deep ravine by the mountain side. Everyone shouted in warning: "Stop! Stop! There is a deep ravine in front of you!"

Duan Yu flew towards her in pursuit, calling out: "Little Sister, you…"

However, Ah Zi ran straight towards her front. Suddenly, she stepped into thin air and fell straight down into the bottomless ravine.

Duan Yu stretched out his hand and tried to grab her. With a 'chi' sound, he only managed to tear off a corner of her sleeve. Out of nowhere, he could feel a strong and swift gust of wind from his side. It is a sign that someone is zipping towards him. Duan Yu leaned to his left and made way for the newcomer. Unexpectedly, You Tanzhi flew past him and fell into the deep ravine too. Duan Yu exclaimed: "Ayo!" Peering into the ravine, all he could see were clouds enshrouded in mist. It is impossible to gauge the depth of the ravine.

Standing at the edge of the mountainous ravine, the heroes were sighing or gasping. For those with weaker martial arts, they could identify craggy sharp rocks at the sides of the ravine that resembled sharp knives or stinging swords. Needless to say, they were appalled. For Xuan Du and the other elderly members of the martial arts world who knew about Xuan Ci, Chief Wang and the others ambushing the Khitan warriors outside Yanmen Pass, they realised that the corpse of Xiao Feng's mother lies in the same deep ravine.

Suddenly, from the top of the Pass, sounds of drumming arose. The Captain who relayed orders loudly announced: "On orders from General Zhang, the Pass Commander for Yanmen Pass: Since the lot of you are not spies from Liao country, a special allowance has been granted for everyone to enter the Pass. It is absolutely essential that you behave appropriately and do not create a scene."

The group of heroes under the Pass let loose a torrent of insults: "We would rather die than enter this Pass that is controlled by you military dogs." "Because of you muddle-headed military dogs, Great Hero Xiao lost his life!" "Everyone, let's enter the Pass and kill the military dogs." Pointing their fingers at the top of the Pass, the heroes were slapping their hands and stomping their feet as they cursed relentlessly.

Facing the direction of the ravine, Xu Zhu, Duan Yu and the others kneeled down and made a few bows before climbing the mountains and leaving the area.

Noticing the heroes turning rowdy and causing a commotion, the Pass Commander of Yanmen Pass hurriedly changed his order and forbade anyone from entering the Pass. After the heroes cursed him for some time, they gradually dispersed and entered the territory by making a detour around the mountain. Relieved, the Pass Commander tabled a victory report at once and dispatched a swift messenger to deliver it to Bianliang. In his report, he stated how he personally led his army of generals and soldiers to engage the Liao army. After countless bloody skirmishes over several days, thanks to His Majesty's luck and blessing, the wise guidance of the Court Ministers and the subordinates fighting at their best, he managed to defeat the opposing army of more than ten thousand Liao soldiers. In conclusion, Southern Khan Xiao Feng, the notable general of Liao country was killed. Along with him, thousands of Liao soldiers were killed or injured. The Ruler of Liao, Yelu Hongji, failed in his conquest and was forced to retreat.

The Song Emperor Zhao Xu was delighted to receive the report and issued a decree for the border Pass, rewarding the three armies. For those below the rank of Captain, they received additional promotions. Zhao Xu regarded himself as a brilliant and valiant hero, surpassing his ancestors by leaps and bounds. For consecutive days, he hosted banquets to treat the Court Officials. Within the palace, he partied with the concubines. The singing of false praises is overwhelming to one's ears. In addition, many celebrations for this triumph are being laid out for months to come.

Duan Yu, Xu Zhu, Xuan Du, Elder Wu and the other heroes soon parted ways. Leading Mu Wanqing, Zhong Ling, Hua Hegen, Fan Hua, Ba Tianshi, Zhu Danchen and his followers, Duan Yu headed home to DaLi.

Entering the territory of DaLi, Wang Yuyan and the Imperial bodyguards of Dali are ready to welcome them at the border. Duan Yu updated them about the story of Xiao Feng and Ah Zi, causing them to be saddened and depressed. As the group of them travelled southwards, Duan Yu does not wish to alarm the commoners and ordered everyone not to change into their Court attire but remain in their present tradesmen disguise.

On the day they arrived at the Capital, Duan Yu wanted to visit Sky Dragon Monastery and pay his respects to Grandmaster Kurong and Imperial Uncle Duan Zhengming. As the sky is gradually darkening and they are still thirty kilometres away from Sky Dragon Monastery, the group decided to find a resting place and take a break. Out of nowhere, the voice of a child resonated from a nearby forest: "Your Majesty, Your Majesty, I have paid my respects to you, why haven't you rewarded me with sweets?"

Hearing these words, everyone became confused and wondered: How did someone recognize Your Majesty?

Walking over to the forest to investigate further, someone else spoke out from within the forest: "The lot of you must say: May Your Majesty live a long life! May Your Majesty live a long life! May Your Majesty live a long life! Then I will reward you with sweets."

This voice is extremely familiar. The speaker is none other than Murong Fu.

Duan Yu and Wang Yuyan were especially shocked. Holding hands, the two of them hid behind some trees and turned their gaze towards the source of the voice. Entering their vision is Murong Fu sitting on a block of clay tombstone. Wearing a tall paper crown on his head, he carried an air of dignity.

Several village kids are kneeling down in front of the tombstone. In a disorderly manner, they chorused: "May Your Majesty live a long life! May Your Majesty live a long life! May Your Majesty live a long life!" As they chanted, they kowtowed to him. Some of the kids are already sticking out their hands and pestering: "I want sweets! I want pastries!"

Murong Fu proclaimed: "My beloved Officials, please rise. Now that Emperor (I) has revived Great Yan and ascended the throne, every one of you will be well rewarded."

Right beside the tombstone stood a lady and she is turned out to be Ah Bi. Dressed in light green clothing, there are signs of misery and tiredness on her pretty face. As everyone watched, she retrieved some sweets and pastries from a basket and distributed them to the bunch of kids, announcing: "Everyone is very obedient. Come and play with us tomorrow too. There will be more sweets and pastries to eat!" Weeping as she spoke, her tears drip one by one into the bamboo basket.

The children happily clapped their hands and cheered: "See you tomorrow!"

Wang Yuyan realised that her Elder Male Cousin has gone mad due to his obsession with the revival of Great Yan. She cannot help but felt distraught.

Reading Ah Bi's expression, the feelings of sympathy swelled tremendously in the heart of Duan Yu. Initially, he thought of bringing Murong Fu and her back to DaLi and settling them down in a decent place. However, he noticed Ah Bi staring at Murong Fu with unlimited tenderness in her eyes. In the same context, Murong Fu's expression is full of contentment. Enlightened, he contemplated: "Each of us has to face our own fate. From our perspective, we may pity Brother Murong, Ah Bi, and their present circumstances. However, in their hearts, they are living a satisfactory life. Why should I disrupt their peaceful existence?" Lightly tugging Wang Yuyan's sleeve, he made a gesture.

Everybody quietly retreated and left the forest. From their last impression, Murong Fu is still sitting on the clay tombstone. Facing the southern direction, he is murmuring endlessly to himself.

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