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Demi Gods & Semi Devils Book 3
XXIII - Empty promise of cows and sheep at the frontier outpost
Chinese title: 天龍八部 -Original novel written by Jin Yong (Louis Cha)
Wuxia Novel Fan Translation by forgot password @spcnet
Chapter 23: The Promise Made About the Cattle and Sheep of the Northern Land Came to Naught
Xiao Feng put Duan Zhengchun lightly on the ground and retreated several steps.
Ruan Xingzhu took a deep bow to express her gratitude and said: “Chief Qiao, first you saved my daughter. Now you’ve saved him… him… I really don’t know how to thank you.” The people such as Fan Hua and Zhu Danchen also came over to thank him.
Xiao Feng said sternly: “Xiao Feng saved him totally out of self-interest. All of you need not mention it. Prince Duan, I ask you one question. Please answer honestly. That year you made a big mistake that in your heart you’ve been ashamed of, right? Though this mistake might not have stemmed from your true intentions, you harmed a child to the point of being wretched for life and not knowing its own parents. Is that right?” Every time thinking about the fact that both his parents had died tragically outside Yanmen Pass, he was in agony, so he was unwilling to state it clearly in front of everybody.
Duan Zhengchun’s face reddened greatly all over then immediately turned pale. He lowered his head, saying: “Yes, all my life I’ve been troubled by this matter. Every time thinking about it, I feel very uneasy. But the blunder was already made. It’s hard to make up for it. Heaven has shown pity on me and today allows me to meet a parentless child of that year again. But… but… alas, I’ve wronged other people all the time.”
Xiao Feng said in a severe voice: “You already know that you made a big mistake and made other people suffer, but why have you still continuously committed one wrongdoing after another since then?”
Duan Zhengchun shook his head and said in a low voice: “My conduct has been improper, my virtue has been deficient, and in my life I’ve really done too many absurd things. I feel deeply ashamed thinking about them.”
After hearing Madam Ma say Duan Zhengchun’s name in Xinyang, Xiao Feng had day and night thought that after finding Duan Zhengchun he would execute him by dismemberment. He had been determined that he would only take Duan Zhengchun’s life after making him taste sufficient bits and pieces of suffering. But just now, seeing that Duan Zhengchun was benevolent and righteous to his friends, bold and generous to his enemies, and did not look like a despicable evildoer, he could not help but become suspicious, thinking: “His killing of my parents outside Yanmen Pass was due to misunderstanding. Everyone can make this kind of mistake. But he killed my foster parents--Qiao Sanhuai and his wife--, and harmed my benevolent master XuanKu. Those are absolutely unforgivable crimes. Could there still be other details in this?” He was never rash in his actions, so he asked Duan Zhengchun directly, wanting him to personally answer before he himself decided. Duan Zhengchun, with a deeply embarrassed expression, had said that he had committed grave mistakes which had made him feel uneasy through his life, and that today he had met a parentless child of that year again. As for the matters such as murdering Qiao Sanhuai and his wife, and murdering Venerable XuanKu, he had admitted that “his conduct had been improper, and his virtue had been deficient.” Observing all of this, Xiao Feng knew clearly and firmly at once. His face seemed to be covered by a layer of grim frost, and he made a ‘humph’ sound with his nose.
Suddenly, Ruan Xingzhu said: “He… he’s always been like this. I don’t… don’t blame him.”
Xiao Feng turned to her and saw that she was having a smiling expression and looking at Duan Zhengchun with her pair of starry eyes which was exuding tenderness and love. His anger surging up, he let out a ‘humph’ sound and said: ‘Well, so he’s always been like this.” Then he turned his head back and said to Duan Zhengchun: “Tonight, at the 3rd watch (midnight to 2 a.m), I’ll be waiting on that bluestone bridge. I have something to discuss a little with you, sir.”
Duan Zhengchun said: “I’ll definitely arrive on time. I dare not repay this great debt of gratitude with words, but you’ve come here from afar, why not go into that small house over there to for a few cups?”
Xiao Feng said: “How is your injury, sir? Do you need to rest for a few days?” Unexpectedly, he seemed to turn a deaf ear to the invitation to drink wine. Slightly baffled, Duan Zhengchun said: “Brother Qiao, many thanks for your solicitude. This minor injury is not significant.”
Xiao Feng nodded, saying: “Then that’s good. AhZhu, let’s go.” When he had walked two steps, he turned his head around and said to Duan Zhengchun: “There’s no need to take those good subordinate friends of yours along.” Seeing that the people such as Fan Hua and Hua Hegen all were completely loyal brave fellows, he felt that it would certainly be a pity if they went to the bluestone bridge with Duan Zhengchun and thus unavoidably died at his own hands one by one.
Duan Zhengchun thought that this man’s words and actions were rather strange. Even the Emperor, also his brother, only smiled about all of these many romantic demerits of his. This man, however, had denounced him in stern words in front of everybody. This was a bit too unduly, but Xiao Feng was the person who had saved his life, so he said: “Just as you instruct, honorable brother.”
Pulling AhZhu’s hand, Xiao Feng left immediately without turning his head around.
Xiao Feng and AhZhu went to a farmhouse and bought some rice to cook and two chickens to boil to eat their fill. Because there was no wine, the meal was unavoidably somewhat boring. Seeing that AhZhu seemed to be full of worries and all along she had not said anything, he asked: “I’ve found my archenemy. You should feel happy for me.”
AhZhu smiled, saying: “Yes, I should be happy.”
Seeing that her smile was very unnatural, Xiao Feng said: “Tonight, after killing this fellow, we’ll immediately go north to the outside of Yanmen Pass to gallop on horseback, go hunting, and pasture cattle and sheep, then we’ll never go any step inside the Pass. Oh, AhZhu, before seeing Duan Zhengchun, I took an oath that I’d kill his whole family without sparing even fowls and dogs. But unexpectedly this fellow has personal loyalty, so I think only the one who did the deed should be responsible for it. There’s no need to find the other members of his family.”
Azhu said: “Having this humane thought, you’d amass a lot of credit in the Underworld and future blessing.”
Xiao Feng burst out laughing and said: “My pair of hands has killed many people. What credit in the Underworld or future blessing would there still be for me”’
Seeing AhZhu’s elegant eyebrows wrinkling, he asked again: “AhZhu, why aren’t you happy? You don’t want me to kill again, right?”
AhZhu replied: “It’s not that I’m unhappy, but somehow my stomach is aching very much.”
Xiao Feng stretched out his hand to check her pulse and felt that it was beating unsteadily and hastily. He said softly: “The journey has been hard on you. I’m afraid you’ve caught a cold. I’m gonna ask the granny to cook a bowl of ginger soup for you to drink.”
When the ginger soup had not yet been done, AhZhu shivered all over repeatedly and said in a quavering voice: “I’m cold, I’m cold.”
Xiao Feng, sympathizing with her very much, removed his robe and wrapped it around her body. AhZhu said: “Big brother, after getting your revenge tonight, you will have fulfilled your great goal. Naturally I should go with you. Hopefully I would get somewhat better.”
Xiao Feng said: “No! No! You stay here to rest and have a sleep. When you wake up I’ll have already brought Duan Zhengchun’s head back.”
AhZhu sighed and said: “I’m feeling very ill, big brother, it can’t be helped. I’m unable to go with you. I really want to accompany you and be together with you. I really don’t want to be separate from you… You… You’re such a lonely man. I’m not treating you well.”
Hearing her speak in such a deeply tender manner, Xiao Feng was touched. He held her hand and said: “We’ll only be separated from each other for a while. What’s the big deal? AhZhu, you treat me really well. I don’t know how I should repay your kindness.”
AhZhu said: “We won’t be separate for just a while. I feel that it will be very long, very long. Big brother, after you leave me, I’ll be all alone. And you’ll be all by yourself, too. You had better take me beyond Yanmen Pass immediately. We’ll go pasture cattle and sheep like this. And you’ll take revenge on Duan Zhengchun one year later. Is that all right? Let me be with you for one year first.”
Xiao Feng gently stroked her beautiful hair, saying: “We’ve found him with great difficulty. After settling this score tonight, we’ll never return to the Central Plains. Duan Zhengchun’s martial arts are far inferior to mine. He can’t use the ‘Six Meridians Divine Sword’ either. But if we waited for one year, we’d have to go to Dali. The Duan Family of Dali has very many experts, if your big brother encountered a master of the ‘Six Meridians Divine Sword’, I’d probably lose. It’s not that I don’t want to listen to you, but there’re many problems in this.”
AhZhu nodded and said in a low voice: “That’s right. I shouldn’t ask you to wait for a year then go to Dali to find him and get your revenge. You absolutely mustn’t go into the tiger’s den alone.”
“Ha-ha,” Xiao Feng laughed and lifted the empty bowl up and took a gulp. He was in the habit of drinking with big bowls. At the moment there was nothing in the bowl, but doing so was still good enough. He said: “If I, Xiao Feng, was alone, even if the Duan Family in Dali is a dragon’s lair or tiger’s den, I’d still rush in without worrying the least about life and death and dangers. But now I already have little AhZhu. I want to take care of you and be with you for life, so Xiao Feng’s life is very precious.”
AhZhu leaned on his bosom, her back slightly shaking. Xiao Feng gently caressed her hair. There was a feeling of quietude and warmth in his heart. He thought: “Having such a wife, what is there still to regret?” In an instant, he could not help letting his mind gallop to the frontier and his heart fly beyond the Pass. He thought that a month later, he and AhZhu would ride on horseback together in the prairies, go hunting and do shepherding without having to take precautions against being harmed by the enemy, and without worry and anxiety. How carefree and relaxed would they be! But he had not yet repaid the man in black for the great kindness of saving his life at Juxian Manor that day, so he was unavoidably uneasy. However, because this kind of great hero of course did benevolent deeds without hoping for repayment, Xiao Feng thought that in this lifetime he would have no choice but to owe him this debt of gratitude.
Xiao Feng noticed that it was gradually getting dark. Leaning on his bosom, AhZhu was already sleeping deeply. He took out 3 Qian of silver (~ 4 g), gave it to the farmer, and asked him to prepare a vacant room. Then he carried AhZhu and set her down on the bed, covered her with a quilt, lowered the bed’s curtain, and sat in the hall of the farmhouse with his eyes closed in meditation. Not long after, he felt deeply asleep.
After sleeping for more than four hours, he opened the door and walked out. He saw that the new moon was hanging above the tops of the trees at an oblique angle, and in the northwest corner, dark clouds were gathering. It appeared there would likely be a big thunderstorm tonight.
Xiao Feng put on his robe and went towards the Bluestone Bridge. After going 5 li or so (0.5 km) he arrived at the river bank. He could see the reflection of the moon in the river, but half of the sky in the west side was already full of dark clouds. At times, there were several bolts of lightning shot out from the clouds, illuminating the surroundings. But after the lightning was gone, it seemed to be even darker. In a distant graveyard, will-o’-the-wisps were fluttering to and fro on the grass.
Xiao Feng went faster and faster. Before long, he arrived at the Bluestone Bridge. Taking a look in the direction of Ursa Major (constellation containing the Big Dipper), he noticed that it was not yet past the second watch (10 p.m – 12 p.m), still early. He thought: “Because I want to settle the big score, I couldn’t remain calm and have unexpectedly arrived one watch earlier.” In his life, he had had many appointments in which his life had been at stake, and he had met not just a few opponents who were better at martial arts and more renowned than Duan Zhengchun. However, tonight he felt unusually uneasy in his heart, and he was lacking the indomitable, do-or-die spirit of the past.
Standing at the side of the bridge and looking at the water which was slowly flowing under it, he thought: ‘That’s right. In the past I came and went alone and didn’t have to take care of anyone. But tonight I have AhZhu in my mind. Oh, this’s really known as ‘when immersed in love, a hero loses heart’.’’ As he thought this, some tender feelings could not help emerging from the bottom of his heart. The trace of a smile was visible on his mouth. He thought: “If AhZhu was standing here with me, it’d be much better.”
Knowing Duan Zhengchun’s martial arts were nowhere near as good as his own, he thought there was no need to be worried about the outcome of the duel tonight. Seeing that the time of the appointment had not yet come, he sat down beneath a tree beside the bridge to concentrate his mind and do breathing. Gradually, his Lingtai (an acupoint at the middle of the back) became empty and clear, and stray thoughts no longer existed.
Suddenly, lightning flashed, followed by a boom of thunder. Then a bolt of lightning struck down from the mass of clouds. Xiao Feng opened his eyes and thought: “There’s going to be heavy rain in an instant. Is it already near the 3rd watch?”
Right at this moment, he saw a man walking slowly on the road leading to the Little Mirror Lake. It was none other than Duan Zhengchun.
He walked up to Xiao Feng, took a deep bow with hands clasped and said: “What, may I ask, does Chief Qiao want to instruct me by summoning me?”
Xiao Feng slightly tilted his head and looked askance at him. Suddenly, he was burning with rage. He said: “Prince Duan, the purpose of my making an appointment with you here-could it be you don’t know what it is?”
Duan Zhengchun sighed and said: “You do this because of the incident outside Yanmen Pass that year when I listened to the words of an evildoer by mistake, was stirred up by them and harmed your mother to death, causing your father to commit suicide. It was really a big mistake.”
Xiao Feng said sternly: “Why did you also harm my foster parents--Qiao Sanhuai and his wife--, and murder my benevolent master Venerable XuanKu?”
Duan Zhengchun slowly nodded and said sorrowfully: “I only hoped to conceal this matter. Who would have thought that I would sink more and more deeply and eventually wouldn’t be able to extricate myself from this?”
Xiao Feng said: “Ha, who’d have thought you’re a straightforward fellow? Will you punish yourself, or gotta wait for me to go into action?”
Duan Zhengchun said: “Chief Qiao, if you hadn’t shown your skills and saved me, today at noon I would have lost my life beside the Little Mirror Lake. It’s all thanks to your favor, sir, that I could live a half more day. Chief Qiao, if you want to take my life, then you should just do it.”
At this moment, there was a bang of thunder, and raindrops, big as soya beans, suddenly poured down noisily.
Hearing his bold and generous words, Xiao Feng could not refrain from feeling touched. Usually, Xiao Feng liked to make friends with heroes and brave men, so after he had seen Duan Zhengchun, observing that this man had a heroic bearing and was straightforward, he had taken a liking to him. If this was an ordinary mistake, then even if it was a great insult to Xiao Feng himself, he would have already dismissed it with a laugh, and gone drinking tens of bowls of spirit with Duan Zhengchun. But the deaths of his parents did not allow him to live under the same sky with the enemy, how could he let Duan Zhengchun pass at this juncture? He raised a hand and said: “As a son and a disciple, I’m not allowed not to get revenge for the deaths of my parents and master. You killed my father, mother, foster father, foster mother, and my first benevolent master, five people altogether, so I’ll attack you with five blows of my palms. After you’ve undergone five palm attacks of mine, whether you’ll be dead or alive, the enmity in the past will be written off at a stroke.”
Duan Zhengchun forced a smile and said: “Exchanging 1 life for only 1 palm attack, this retribution is a bit too easy on me. I deeply appreciate your great kindness.”
Xiao Feng thought: “Don’t think that your Dali Duan Clan’s martial arts are preeminent. I’m afraid you won’t be able to withstand the force of one blow of my palm.” Then he said: “Watch out for this palm.” His left hand moved in a circle, and his right palm struck out with a ‘hu’ sound.
Suddenly lightning flashed, followed by a boom of thunder in mid air. The thunder strengthened the force of the palm, so this palm attack of Xiao Feng was executed with the power of heaven and earth, and wind and thunder. With a ‘peng’ sound, it hit Duan Zhengchun’s chest squarely. At once, Xiao Feng saw he stood unsteadily and fell down. A ‘pai’ sound was heard as he bumped against the railing of the Bluestone Bridge. He drooped weakly, motionless.
Xiao Feng was startled: “Why didn’t he raise his hands to meet my attack? And why is he so bad?” He jumped forwards, grabbed the back of Duan Zhengchun’s collar and lifted him up. He was alarmed. His ears heard ceaseless rolls of thunder, and the heavy rain was sprinkling water on his face and his body, but he felt nothing. He only thought: “How has he become so light?”
Today at noon, when going into action and saving Duan Zhengchun, he had lifted him up for quite a while. A person with excellent martial arts could immediately detect the difference of even 1 jin or half a jin (0.6 kg) in weight in their hands. But at this moment, Xiao Feng felt that Duan Zhengchun’s body had suddenly become lighter by tens of jin. A burst of indescribable fear suddenly emerged in his heart. He broke into a cold sweat all over.
At this moment, a bolt of lightning flashed again. Xiao Feng stretched out his hand and made a grab at Duan Zhengchun’s face. In his hand was a pile of squishy matter which fell away after just a wipe of his hand. In the light of flashes he could see clearly, and so he shouted involuntarily: “AhZhu, AhZhu, so it’s you!”
He felt that his whole body had not the slightest strength, so he could not help but kneel down, hugging AhZhu’s legs. He knew that the palm attack just now had been executed with all his power, so not even a first-class hero or bold man in wulin would be able to remain unharmed without using their palm attacks to receive it, to say nothing of this fragile little girl AhZhu. This blow of the palm certainly had broken all her ribs and crushed her five internal organs. Even if Divine Doctor Xue was here and gave her immediate treatment, he would still surely have a hard time snatching her life back.
AhZhu leaned against the railing of the bridge. Her body slowly slid down and fell on Xiao Feng’s body. She said in a low voice: “Big brother, I… I… treated you very badly. Are you angry with me?”
Xiao Feng said loudly: “I’m not angry with you. I’m angry with myself.” As he finished, he raised his hand and brought it down on his own head in a fierce blow.
AhZhu made a slight move with her left hand, wanting to prevent him from hitting himself. But she was unable to raise her arm, so she said: “Big brother, you must promise me that you’ll never ever harm yourself.’
Xiao Feng cried: “Why are you doing this? Why? Why?”
AhZhu replied in a low voice: “Big brother, unfasten my gown, and take a look at my left shoulder.” On their thousand-of-li journey, Xiao Feng and she had travelled together and lodged in the same inns, but from beginning to end, they had always controlled themselves and observed etiquette. At this moment, hearing her tell him to unfasten her gown, he was startled. AhZhu said: “I’ve already belonged to you. My… my… whole body is yours. Just take a look… take a look at my left shoulder, then you’ll understand.’
Xiao Feng’s eyes were full of tears. Noticing that she was of sound mind when saying those words, he still had a faint hope. Immediately, he propped her up with his left palm put against her back, then hurriedly channelled his internal energy and constantly transferred it into her body, hoping that he could make up for his blunder. His right hand slowly undid her gown, exposing her left shoulder.
A long bolt of lightning flashed across the sky. Everything before his eyes was lit up. He saw that the skin of her shoulder was whiter than snow, but there was a ‘Duan’ character, deep red as blood, tattooed on it.
Xiao Feng was both amazed and grieved. Not daring to look at it for long, he pulled her gown and covered her shoulder. Then he gently embraced her, saying: “There’s a ‘Duan’ character on your shoulder--what does it mean?”
AhZhu replied: “When my father and mother gave me to other people, they tattooed it on my shoulder so that… so that we would recognize each other someday.”
Xiao Feng said in a tremulous voice: “This ‘Duan’ character, this ‘Duan’ character…”
AhZhu said: “Today, when they discovered an identification mark on Miss AhZi’s shoulder, they knew at once she was their daughter. You… You… Did you see the mark?”
Xiao Feng replied: “No. It was improper for me to see it.”
AhZhu said: “She… She is also tattooed with a red ‘Duan’ character on the shoulder, which is the same as mine.”
Xiao Feng suddenly understood. He said in a quavering voice: “You… You’re their daughter too?”
AhZhu said: “At first I didn’t know. Only when I saw the word on AhZi’s shoulder did I know that. She has a gold locket too, which is the same as my gold locket. Both are engraved on with 12 characters. The characters on her locket are:
‘Lakeside bamboos are emerald green. They herald quietude and plenty of happiness.’
(湖边竹，盈盈绿，报平安，多喜乐 – Pinyin of the 1st 3 words: Hu Bian ZHU - Bamboo)
And the characters on my locket are:
‘Celestial stars are sparkling. They’ll glitter forever. You’ll be well forever also.’
(天上星，亮晶晶，永灿烂，长安宁 – Pinyin of the 1st 3 words: Tian Liang XING - Star)
I… I have never understood the meaning of the poem. I only thought it used nice words that rhyme. But it turns out it contains the name of my mother. My mother is that woman Ruan… Ruan Xingzhu. This pair of lockets was given to my mother by my father. After giving birth to me and my sister, she gave each of us a locket, tying them around our necks.”
Xiao Feng said: “Now I understand. I’ll think of a way to cure your injury at once. Let’s slowly talk about this matter later.”
Azhu said: “No! No! I must speak to you clearly. If I’m delayed for another while, there won’t be enough time. Big brother, please wait until I’ve finished.”
Xiao Feng could not bear to go against her will. He had no choice but to say: “Alright, I’m gonna listen to you to the finish. But don’t exert yourself excessively.”
AhZhu smiled, saying: “Big brother, you’re really nice, taking me into consideration in everything. How can you dote on me so much?”
Xiao Feng said: “Later on I’ll dote on you 100 times as much, 1000 times as much.”
AhZhu smiled and said: “This is enough, this is enough. I wouldn’t like you to treat me too well. If I became unruly, then who would control me? Big brother, I… I hid at the back of the bamboo house and eavesdropped on the conversation between my father, mother and younger sister AhZi. It turns out my father is already married. He and my mother aren’t lawful husband and wife. They gave birth to me first, and one year later they gave birth to my younger sister. After that my father wanted to return to Dali. My mother didn’t let him go. The two of them had a big quarrel. My mother even hit him, but my father didn’t strike back. After that… after that… there was no way, so they couldn’t help but break up. My maternal grandfather was very strict when it comes to family reputation, if he’d known about this affair, he surely would’ve killed my mother. My mother dared not take me and my sister home, so she had no choice but to send us into other people’s houses. But she hoped we would be able to recognize each other someday, so she tattooed a ‘Duan’ character on my and my sister’s shoulders. The person who adopted me only knows that my mother’s surname is Ruan. In fact, in fact, my surname is Duan…”
Feeling even sorrier for her, Xiao Feng said in a low voice: “You’re such a miserable child.”
AhZhu said: ‘When my mother gave me to another family, I was just over a year old. So of course I couldn’t recognize my father. I couldn’t even recognize my mother’s face. Big brother, you’re also like this. In the Apricot Forest in the evening of that day, when I heard them talking about your origin, in my heart I felt very sorry for you because both of us are similarly miserable children.”
Lightning flashed nonstop. One crash of thunder was heard after another. Suddenly, a big tree on the river bank was struck by lightning and fell down with ‘ka-la-la’ sounds. However, because the two of them were paying no attention to external things, even though Heaven and Earth were changing greatly, they were still totally unaware of that.
AhZhu continued: “Who’d have thought the person who harmed your parents to death is my father? Alas, Heaven’s predestination is really too cruel to us. Besides, besides… it was I myself who tactfully discovered the name of my father from Madam Ma. If I hadn’t disguised as Bai Shijing and tricked her, she surely wouldn’t have been willing to say my father’s name. They say that there is Heaven’s will in the dark. I’ve never believed it. But… but… in your opinion, can I believe it now?”
Xiao Feng raised his head. The dark clouds, which were all over the sky, had been blocking the moon insomuch that there was not the slightest hint of light. A long bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, brightly illuminating the surroundings. It seemed as if Heaven had just suddenly opened its eyes.
He lowered his head dispiritedly, nonplussed in his heart. He asked: “Do you know for sure Duan Zhengchun is your father?”
AhZhu said: “This can’t be wrong. I heard my parents hug my younger sister, cry bitterly and tell her how they had abandoned me and my younger sister. My father even said that, in this life, he’d find and bring me back, no matter what. They couldn’t have guessed that the daughter they gave birth to was crouching outside the window. Big brother, just now I pretended that I was ill, but I disguised myself as you then went and told my father that the appointment at the Bluestone Bridge tonight was canceled, and every mistake was written off at one stroke. Then I disguised as my father and went to meet you… to let you… to let you…” As she said to here, her breathing was already faint like the threads of a cobweb.
Xiao Feng transferred more internal energy through his palm to keep AhZhu from exhaustion. He said tearfully: “Why didn’t you tell me? If I had known he is your father…” But he could not say the words following that, because he himself did not know what he should have done if he had known beforehand that Duan Zhengchun was the father of his beloved either.
AhZhu said: “I tossed and turned and considered for a very long time. Big brother, I wanted to be with you for life so much. But how could that be possible? Could I beg you not to seek revenge for the deaths of your five relatives? Even if I talked rot and begged you, you would still give your consent. So, in the end, that was out of the question.”
Her voice became lower and lower as she said this. It was still thundering endlessly, but to Xiao Feng, every word AhZhu said was more soul-shattering than the sky-shaking thunder. He held his head in his hands tightly, saying: “You could’ve told your father to run away and not to keep this appointment! Or if your father is a hero or brave man and is unwilling to break this appointment, you could’ve disguised as me and made another appointment with your father so that we’d meet at a distant place and in the distant future. Why should you, should you make yourself suffer like this?”
AhZhu said: “I want you to know that it may not be due to his true intentions at all that a person killed others. Of course you don’t wanna harm me, but you hit me with a blow of the palm. My father harmed your parents to death, and that’s also a blunder he made without intent.”
Xiao Feng had always been looking intently at her with his head lowered. During the several times when lightning flashed, he saw that the look in her eyes was infinitely tender. His heart was stirred. Suddenly, he realized that the deep love she had for him was really beyond his previous imagination. And he suddenly understood: “Though Duan Zhengchun is her real father, he didn’t bring her up at all. If she had merely wanted to make me understand that unintentional mistakes could be forgiven, she wouldn’t have had to lose her life in vain like this.” He said tremulously: “AhZhu, AhZhu, you surely have another reason. It wasn’t because you wanted to save your father, and nor was it because you wanted me to know that it was an unintentional blunder. This's for my sake! This's for my sake!” Then he rose, embracing her.
AhZhu had a smiling expression on her face. Seeing that Xiao Feng had eventually understood her underlying intention, she could not help feeling happy. She knew that she was at the end of her life. Even though she had not hoped that her lover would know the intention concealed at the bottom of her heart, he had eventually realized it…
Xiao Feng said: “This’s entirely for my sake, AhZhu, is that right?”
AhZhu said in a low voice: “Yes.”
Xiao Feng said loudly: “Why? Why?”
Azhu said: “The Duan Family of Dali has the ‘Six Meridians Divine Sword’. If you killed their Southern Garrison Prince, how could they be willing to leave you alone? Big brother, we can’t read the words in that ‘Muscle Changing Sutra’…”
Xiao Feng suddenly understood. His eyes could not help brimming with tears. Then tears rolled down his face.
Azhu said: “I have one thing to beg of you, big brother, are you willing to promise me it?”
Xiao Feng replied: “I’ll promise you even 100 or 1000 things, not to mention one thing.”
Azhu said: “I only have one younger sister. The two of us haven’t been able to be together since childhood. Keep an eye on her, I beg of you. I’m worried she would go down the wrong road.”
Xiao Feng forced a laugh and said: “Wait till you’ve gotten well, we’ll find her so that you’ll have a reunion.”
Azhu said softly: “Wait till I’ve gotten well… Big brother, then I and you will go outside Yanmen Pass to ride on horseback, go hunting, and pasture cattle and sheep. Do you think my younger sister will be willing to go there?”
Xiao Feng replied: “Of course she’ll go. Her elder sister and her brother-in-law invite her, how will she still not go?”
Suddenly a ‘hu-la’ sound was heard. From the cavity under the bridge, a person moved out, saying: “How shameless! What is elder sister? What is brother-in-law? I won’t go.” This person was small and slender, and was wearing a suit of waterproof clothes. She was none other than AhZi.
After accidentally hitting Azhu with a palm attack, Xiao Feng had totally focused his mind on her. Otherwise, with his skills, he definitely would have noticed that there was a person hiding in the water beneath the bridge. But because, firstly, it had been thundering and raining heavily, and secondly, his mind had been in great turmoil, so he had been unable to detect AhZi until she showed herself. He could not help being slightly shocked and called: “AhZi, AhZi, you quickly come and see your elder sister.”
Azhu slightly pouted her small lips, saying: “Originally I hid under the bridge to see you and my father fight and to have a jolly time. Who’d have thought you’d hit my elder sister? You two haven’t finished rattling on and saying loving words. I don’t like to hear. You two can talk about love, but why drag me into this?” As she finished saying, she moved towards them.
Azhu said: “Good sister, later on big brother Xiao will look after you, you… you’ll look after him, too…”
AhZi said with a giggle: ‘This ugly rustic barbarian--I’ll ignore him.”
Suddenly Xiao Feng felt Azhu, who was leaning on his bosom, slightly tremble. Her head drooped and her beautiful hair spread over her shoulder. She was motionless. Horror-stricken, he called: “Azhu, Azhu.” He checked her pulse at once, but it had already stopped beating. It seemed as if his heart had also already stopped. He held out his hand and checked her breathing, but she no longer breathed. He called loudly: “Azhu! Azhu!” However, even if he called 1,000 or 10,000 times, Azhu would not be able to answer him. He hastily transferred his internal energy into her body, but all the while Azhu did not move at all.
AhZi, seeing that Azhu had stopped breathing and died, was also shocked. She stopped grinning cheekily and and said angrily: “You beat my elder sister to death. You… you beat my elder sister to death.”
Xiao Feng said: “Yes, it’s I who beat your elder sister to death. You should take revenge for your elder sister. Quick, quickly kill me!” With his two hands, he lowered Azhu’s body. Then he held forth his chest, crying: “Quickly kill me.” He really hoped AhZi would draw a knife and stick it in his chest, thus finishing all his troubles with death and freeing him from endless sufferings.
AhZi, seeing his facial muscles twitching and his frightening expression, could not help being extremely scared. She retreated several steps and cried: “You… Don’t kill me.”
Following her, Xiao Feng walked forwards several steps. He reached for his chest and, with a ‘chi’ sound, ripped the cloth that covered the chest, exposing his skin. He said: “You have poisonous needles, poisonous thorns, poisonous awls… quickly puncture me to death.”
In a flash of lightning, AhZi saw that deep blue wolf head tattoo on his chest with fangs bared and teeth showing, looking ferocious, so she was even more frightened. She suddenly uttered an exclamation, turned around and ran away very fast.
Xiao Feng stood in a daze on the bridge. He was extremely grieved and infinitely remorseful. He raised his hand and with a ‘peng’ sound he hit the stone railing, causing stone bits to scatter around. He kept dealing one blow of the palm after another. Then, a loud ‘hu-la-la’ sound was heard as a block of the stone railing fell into the river. He wanted to wail but was unable to weep anyway. A bolt of lightning flashed, shining clearly on Azhu’s face. Those deep love and deep concerns still remained on the tips of her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth.
Xiao Feng let out a scream: “Azhu!” Then, carrying her body, he rushed into the wilderness.
It kept thundering and raining heavily. He ran up the mountain for a while then ran down the valley for another while, totally not knowing where he was. His mind was in chaos, insomuch that it seemed to have gone blank.
The thunder gradually stopped, but it kept raining heavily unceasingly. In the East, dawn was breaking and the sky slowly lightened. Xiao Feng had been rushing around for four hours, but he was not tired in the least. He only wanted to punish himself as much as possible, and only wanted to die immediately to be with Azhu forever. Uttering hoarse cries of distress, he rushed around chaotically. Unconsciously, he suddenly returned to the Bluestone Bridge.
He mumbled to himself: “I’ll go find Duan Zhengchun, find Duan Zhengchun, and ask him to kill me in revenge for his daughter’s death.”
Before long, he arrived at the side of the lake. Xiao Feng yelled: “Duan Zhengchun, I killed your daughter. Come and kill me. I definitely won’t strike back. You quickly come out and kill me.” Carrying Azhu horizontally in his arms, he stood before the Square Bamboo Forest. After he had waited awhile, the forest was still silent, and no one came out.
He walked into the forest and stopped before the bamboo house. After kicking the door open, he walked into the house and said loudly: “Duan Zhengchun, be quick and kill me!” The house was empty and without anyone. He searched everywhere once, from the rooms in the wing to the backyard, but did not find Duan Zhengchun and his subordinates. Even the owner of the bamboo house Ruan Xingzhu and AhZi were not here either. The utensils and furnishings in the house were still the same as before. It seemed everyone had gone away hurriedly, and in their hurry they had not had enough time to take along anything.
He thought: “That’s right. AhZi brought the news. She only thought I still wanted to revenge myself on her father. Even if Duan Zhengchun was unwilling to run away, that surnamed Ruan woman and his subordinates would certainly force him to run far and fly high. Ha-ha, I’ve come here not to kill you, but to ask you to kill me, ask you to kill me.”
He yelled several times again: “Duan Zhengchun, Duan Zhengchun!” His voice went very far, but he could only hear the rustle of high winds brushing bamboos. There was not the least bit of human voice.
There was nobody beside the Little Mirror Lake and in the Square Bamboo Forest, only silence. Xiao Feng felt that it seemed there was only him left under Heaven. Ever since Azhu had breathed her last, he had not yet put her down for even a minute. For many times he had channelled his internal energy into her body with the hope that Heaven would show pity on him and let her survive the serious injury, just like when she had taken a palm attack of Abbot XuanCi previously. But that time, the force of Abbot XuanCi’s ‘Great Diamond Palm’ (‘Buddha's Great Warrior Attendant Palm’?) hit the copper mirror in Xiao Feng’s hand, so Azhu was only affected by the shock. This time, Xiao Feng’s palm attack hit her squarely in the chest, how could he save her life? No matter how much internal energy he had channelled into her body, Azhu had always been motionless.
Carrying Azhu, he sat down before the house in a daze from the morn to midday then to sundown. By now, it had stopped raining, making visible the azure sky, and the setting sun was illuminating his body and Azhu’s with its dull light.
When he was beset by exceptional fellows at Juxian Manor, even though he was utterly isolated and the situation there was extremely dangerous, he did not waver in his determination in the least. Now, having made an irredeemable blunder with his own hands, he felt more and more lonesome. He felt that he should not live on in the world. ‘Azhu has died in her father’s place, so I can’t find Duan Zhengchun to get revenge. What else do I have to do? The great undertaking of the Beggars Clan, the grand ambitions and lofty goals of the past all are not worth caring. I’m a Khitan, what great undertaking and grand ambition can I have?’
He walked to the backyard and saw a gardening hoe put at a corner of a wall. He thought: “Will I stay here with Azhu forever?” He was still carrying Azhu in his left hand and did not want to let go of her for even a short while regardless. Lifting up the hoe with his right hand, he went into the Square Bamboo Forest, dug a hole then dug another hole. The two holes were side by side.
He thought: “When her parents return, they’ll probably dig up the grave to see what actually happened. I must put up a tablet in front of the grave.” He broke a bamboo section, cut it into two, went into the kitchen, smoothed them with a kitchen knife then walked into the room in the west wing. He saw paper, ink, brushes, and inkstones on the table. Putting Azhu horizontal on his knees, he ground ink, picked up a brush, and wrote on a piece of bamboo: “The grave of a rash Khitan Xiao Feng.”
Then he picked up the other piece of bamboo and muttered to himself: “What do I write, ‘The grave of Madam Duan of the Xiao Family’? Though she and I had a promise of marriage, we haven’t got married. At her death she was still a young lady who was pure like jade and clear like ice. Wouldn’t calling her ‘Madam’ mean disrespect to her?”
Temporarily unable to decide, he raised his head and considered for a while. By chance, he saw a calligraphic scroll hanging on the wall. It had quite a few columns of words. He conveniently read from the top down:
We are too bashful and drunk to sing,
Your elegant hands fasten fragrant silk.
Leaning on the flower in the candlelight,
I secretly pass on my deep thoughts.
The aroma of wine has risen to your eyes.
Mistaking red for emerald, I am in a daze,
Lovingly turning around,
You wrinkle your eyebrows.
Meeting awhile but long we shall part.
The spring has ended again,
As he was not a learned man, the words he knew were limited. However, this poem did not have any difficult characters, so he could see that it was a romantic amorous poem. It seemed the poem talked about drinking wine, getting shy, singing, how the people in the poem met each other for a while but would separate for a long time, and how sad they felt about that. He looked confusedly at the scroll and was in no mood to understand what the poem was about. He only absently read it from start to finish. And he saw two rows of words written below the poem:
“A record of the visit I paid Zhu mei (~ my dear Zhu) in my youth to supplement the wall. Having a partner with eyes bright like stars and a waist slender like a bamboo in my company, I have lost my awareness of Heaven and Earth, years and months. Duan the Second of Dali scrawling in his intoxication.’
Xiao Feng mumbled: “He was really happy. Having a partner with eyes bright like stars and a waist slender like a bamboo in his company, he lost his awareness of Heaven and Earth, years and months. Duan the Second of Dali scrawled in his intoxication. Duan the Second of Dali, hum, so this scroll was written by Duan Zhengchun to give his lover Ruan Xingzhu, and was also about the affair between Azhu’s father and mother. How can they hang it openly here? Have they no shame? Ah, that’s right. Duan Zhengchun’s subordinates can’t come in this room.”
At once, he stopped paying attention to the scroll, thinking: “What should I write on Azhu’s grave tablet?” He knew that with his shallow command of language, even if he considered more, he would not come up with anything. So he wrote four words ‘The grave of Azhu’. Then he put the brush down and rose to his feet. He wanted to plant the bamboo tablets before the holes, bury Azhu carefully then commit suicide.
He turned around and carried Azhu’s body in his arms. His eyes caught sight of the scroll on the wall again. Suddenly he jumped up and exclaimed: “A’yo”. Then he said loudly: “Wrong! Wrong! This matter is wrong!’
He took a step towards the scroll and looked at the several rows of words on it again. He saw that the handwriting was round, smooth, elegant and unconstrained. It seemed as if there was a voice saying loudly in his mind: “That letter! The letter the ‘Leading Big Brother’ wrote to Chief Wang--its words aren’t like this. They’re totally different to this.”
Having only a limited knowledge of characters, he should not be able to recognize a person’s handwriting. But the characters on this scroll were beautiful and skillful, and had neat spacing. The characters on that letter, on the other hand, were skewed and angular. At first sight, anybody could know that it was the handwriting of a man of martial arts in jianghu. The difference between the two styles of writing really was so big that anyone could recognize it. He gazed at the characters on the scroll with his eyes wide open. It seemed he wanted to look for the big secrets and big schemes hidden in these several rows of characters.
His mind was in a whirl and full of thoughts of the letter that he had seen in the Apricot Forest outside the city of Wuxi that evening--the letter that the ‘Leading Big Brother’ wrote to Chief Wang. Venerable Zhiguang had torn off the signature of the letter and swallowed it into his stomach to make him unable to know who had written the letter. But the handwriting of the letter had been engraved deeply and very clearly on his mind. The writer of the letter and ‘Duan the Second of Dali’ who wrote this scroll were definitely not the same person. There was absolutely no doubt about it.
But could the ‘Leading Big Brother’ entrust the task of writing the letter to another person? After pondering a little, he knew this was definitely impossible. Because Duan Zhengchun was capable of easily writing this kind of nice-looking characters, he certainly was a man who was familiar with penmanship. If he wanted to write a letter to Chief Wang to discuss such an important matter, what reasons could he have to ask another person to write the letter on his behalf? And he had no reason to ask another person to write an amorous poem for his own lover on his behalf.
The more he thought, the more doubtful he became. He thought repeatedly: “Could it be that ‘Leading Big Brother’ isn’t Duan Zhengchun? Could it be this scroll wasn’t written by Duan Zhengchun? Impossible, impossible, besides Duan Zhengchun, how can there be another ‘Duan the Second of Dali’ who wrote this kind of amorous poem and hung it here? Could it be Madam Ma lied? That’s also impossible. She and Duan Zhengchun don’t know each other, one in the North, one in the South, one is a widow of a rustic fellow, and one is a member of the nobility. What enmity between them can there be that she could make up lies on purpose to trick me?”
After he had known that the ‘Leading Big Brother’ was Duan Zhengchun, all the doubts and suspicions in his mind had been swept away, and he had only been thinking about how to get revenge. At this moment, when he saw the calligraphic scroll, all kinds of doubts and suspicions emerged in his mind: “If that letter wasn’t written by Duan Zhengchun, then the ‘Leading Big Brother’ isn’t him. If it’s not him, then who’s the ‘Leading Big Brother’? Why did Madam Ma wanna lie to other people? What cunning schemes and conspiracies are there in this? I killed Azhu by mistake. But Azhu was willing to die for me. This way, a layer of unredressed wrong has been added to her unredressed wrong. Why didn’t I see this scroll before? But this scroll has been hung in a room in the wings, how could I see it? If I had died to follow Azhu without seeing it, that would’ve been a case of death ending all troubles. Why didn’t I see it earlier or later? Why did I see it just a short while before my death?”
The setting sun was about to disappear behind the mountains. The last sunbeams gradually moved away from where he was standng. Suddenly he heard two people advancing towards the bamboo forest from the side of the Little Mirror Lake. These two people were still far off. Concentrating his mind and listening, he noticed that the incoming people were two women. He thought: “Probably AhZi and her mother are coming. Hum, I want to ask Madam Duan if this scroll was written by Duan Zhengchun. Of course she hates me tremendously for killing Azhu. She surely wants to kill me. I… I…” At first he wanted to ‘strike back under no circumstances’, but he immediately changed his mind: “If Azhu really died unjustly, then it’s another person who killed my father and mother, and so this prime villain has borne one more blood debt, and one more life. Could it be that Azhu wasn’t harmed to death by him? If I don’t settle this score, how will I be able to die easily?”
He heard the two women draw closer and closer and go into the bamboo forest. Then, after a short while, he also heard the sounds of their conversation. One woman said: “Be careful. This harlot doesn’t have good martial arts but she’s up to all cunning tricks.”
The other woman, who was young, replied: “She’s all by herself. Mom, you and I will always be able to finish her off.”
The considerably older woman said: “Say no more. Once we go into action, let’s use our most dangerous skills. There’s no need to hesitate.”
The young woman said: “If father knows…”
That senior woman said: “Humph, you still call him father?” After that, there was no sound of talking, but he heard the two women moving with stealthy steps. One of them went to the main entrance, and the other went to the back of the house. Apparently they wanted to jointly attack from the front and the rear.
Xiao Feng was rather mystified, thinking: “Judging from their voices, these two women aren’t Ruan Xingzhu and AhZi. But they’re a mother and a daughter, too. They’ve come here to kill a lone woman. Oh, probably they want to kill Ruan Xingzhu. But that girl’s father disapproves of this.” This matter had flashed through his mind, but he did not paid attention to it any longer. He was still sitting in a trance.
After quite a while, a creaky ‘ya’ sound was heard as someone shoved open the door and came in. Xiao Feng did not raise his head the least bit. He saw a pair of fine feet in black shoes walk up to him and stop at a distance of about four chi (33.33 cm). After that, the side window was pushed open and a person leaped in and stood next to him. Hearing the sound of that person’s leap, he knew they did not excel in martial arts.
Still, he did not raise his head. With Azhu in his arms, he pondered deeply: “The ‘Leading Big Brother’ is Duan Zhengchun, or he is not? Is there anything unusual in Venerable Zhiguang’s words? Did Elder Xu have any cunning scheme? Is there any flaw in Madam Ma’s words?” Truly, thoughts were surging up in his mind like tidewater, and he was utterly confused.
He heard the young woman ask: “Hey, who are you? Where’s that harlot Ruan?”
Her voice was cold and her tone was totally disrespectful. Xiao Feng did not pay attention to her. He was only thinking about all kinds of suspicions. The older woman said: “Is there any connection between you, sir, and that harlot Ruan Xingzhu? Who’s this woman? Quickly say.”
Xiao Feng still paid no attention to her. The young woman said loudly: “Are you deaf or dumb? Why don’t you say a word?” Her tone was brimming with anger. Still, Xiao Feng ignored her and kept sitting motionless and like a stone statue.
That young woman made a stamp. The long sword in her hand slightly shook, and the blade shook. With a buzzing noise, she thrust the sword at Xiao Feng’s temple at an angle. When its tip was only several cun (3.333 cm) away from his temple, she shouted: “If you keep acting the fool, I’ll let you taste a bit of misery.”
Xiao Feng was in a very dangerous situation but he did not care about it in the least. He was only contemplating all kinds of unanswered doubts and suspicions. That young girl slightly pushed her arm forwards. The long sword was thrust forwards, and it went past the side of his neck at a distance of around one cun. Xiao Feng clearly heard the approaching direction of the sword, so he did not dodge or parry it, as if he was totally unaware of it. The two women looked at each other in amazement. The young girl said: “Mom, could this fellow be an idiot? The girl he was carrying seems to be dead already.”
The woman said: “He’s probably acting fool. There can’t be anyhing good in the house of this harlot. Give him a hack of the saber first. Then we’ll torture and interrogate him.” Just as she finished speaking, she brought the saber in her left hand down on Xiao Feng’s shoulder.
Xiao Feng waited until the saber was half a chi away from his shoulder to turn over his right hand, stretch it out forwards and catch the back of the blade with two of his fingers. The saber seemed to be fixed to the air and stopped coming down. He slightly pressed forwards with his fingers. The handle of the saber at once hit an important acupoint on the shoulder of that woman, rendering her immobile. Then, conveniently, he slightly shook his hand, his internal energy was channelled in the blade, and the steel saber was snapped in two with a ‘pai’ sound. He casually tossed the section in his hand on the floor. All along, he did not raise his head and look at the woman.
The young girl, seeing that her mother had been subdued by him, was very frightened. She leapt backwards. Continuous ‘chi-chi’ sounds were heard as she shot seven short arrows at him. Xiao Feng picked up the broken saber and knocked all the arrows down with one stroke. Then he waved his hand slightly, and the broken saber flew out. With a ‘pai’ sound, the handle of the saber hit her waist. “Ah,” that young girl cried. One of her acupoints had been hit squarely. And she was immediately rendered motionless.
That woman asked in fright: “Are you injured?”
The young girl replied: “My waist is hurting a lot, but I’m not injured. Mom, he’s blocked my ‘Jingmen’ acupoint.”
The woman said: “He hit my ‘Zhongfu’ acupoint. This… this fellow’s martial arts are very formidable.”
The young girl said: “Mom, who is this fellow? How could he best the two of us without standing up? I think he probably used some evil technique.”
The woman dared not be fierce anymore. She said to Xiao Feng mildly: “There’s no enmity between me, my daughter and you, sir. Just now we went into action rashly and offended you. It was our fault. I pray that you are magnanimous and will go easy on us.”
The young girl hastily said: “No, no, we’ve been defeated, that’s all. Why should we ask for forgiveness? I don’t like it. If you have the guts then just kill me with a hack of the saber.”
Xiao Feng vaguely heard the words of the mother and her daughter. He only knew that the mother had begged for mercy and the daughter was very stubborn, but he paid no attention to what they had said, not even a single sentence.
By now it was already pitch-black inside the house. After a while, it got completely dark. Xiao Feng had always sat it his original place, carrying Azhu and not making a move. Ordinarily he was very quick-witted, and when encountering difficulties, he had always been very fast in decision-making. If there was something that he was unable to understand, he would put it aside at once
and temporarily ignore it, and he would definitely not hesitate or waver. But having accidentally killed Azhu today, he was exceedingly grieved and had become dazed and benighted. It seemed as if he was just a demented madman.
That woman said in a low voice: “Try to rush your internal energy to the ‘Huantiao’ acupoint. Maybe that would affect the channels and you’d be able to open the blocked acupoint.”
The young girl said: “I already tried it. Totally useless…”
The woman suddenly said: “Hush! Someone is coming!”
The crunch of footsteps was heard. Then someone pushed the door open and came in. It was also a woman. With several ‘ca-ca’ sounds, that woman used a fire-striking knife and a flint to set the kindling afire. Next she lit the oil lamp. When she turned around and suddenly saw Xiao Feng, Ahzhu and the two women, she could not help exclaiming an ‘Ah’ sound. Never could she have thought that there were other people in the house. So, when suddenly seeing four people, either sitting or standing, all of whom were motionless, she jumped out of her skin at once. Her hands loosened and the fire-striking knife and the flint dropped, making two clanking noises.
Suddenly, the woman who had entered the house earlier shouted severely: “Ruan Xingzhu, it’s you!”
The woman who had just entered the house was none other than Ruan Xingzhu. Turning around, she saw that the person who had just said was a middle-aged woman with a young girl, who was wearing only black clothes, beside her. These two people were rather beautiful, especially the young girl. But she had never seen either of them. Ruan Xingzhu said: “Right, I’m Ruan. Who are you two?”
The middle-aged woman did not answer. She only continuously looked at her carefully. Her face was full of fury.
Ruan Xingzhu turned around and said to Xiao Feng: “Chief Qiao, you already killed my daughter, what are you still doing here? My… my… my poor daughter!” As she finished saying, she wept loudly and rushed to Azhu’s body.
Xiao Feng kept sitting in a daze. After a good while, he said: “Madam Duan, my sin is very serious. I beg you to draw a knife and kill me.”
Ruan Xingzhu sobbed: “Even if I killed you with a slash of the knife, I wouldn’t be able to revive my poor daughter. Chief Qiao, you said I and Azhu’s father made a blunder that we’ve been ashamed of and harmed a child to the point of being wretched for life and not knowing its own parents. These words are true. But… if you wanted to defend somebody againstan injustice, you should’ve found Prince Duan and killed him. Why did you kill my Azhu?’”
In this moment, Xiao Feng’s mind was rather slow. Only after a short while did he shiver with fear in his heart, asking: “What’s the blunder that you’ve been ashamed of?”
Ruan Xingzhu wept, saying: “You already know clearly. Why do you insist on asking me? Both Azhu … Azhu and AhZi are my daughters. I didn’t dare bring them home so I gave them to other people.”
Xiao Feng said in a quavering voice: “Yesterday I asked Duan Zhengchun if he had made a blunder that he’d been ashamed of. He admitted frankly. So this shameful matter was only giving Azhu … and AhZi to strangers?”
Ruan Xingzhu said angrily: “I already did this shameful thing, how can it still be insufficient? What bad kind of woman who specializes in doing shameful things do
you think I am?”
Xiao Feng said: “Yesterday Duan Zhengchun also said ‘Heaven has shown pity on me and today allows me to meet a… a parentless child of that year again.’ When he said now he had met this parentless child again, he was talking about AhZi, and not… and not me?”
Ruan Xingzhu said angrily: “Why should he want to talk about you? Are you the child he abandoned to other people? You… What rot are you talking? Could I give birth to an animal like you?” She detested Xiao Feng, but afraid of his outstanding martial arts she dared not go into action and only scolded him.
Xiao Feng said: “Then, when I asked why he has still continuously committed one wrongdoing after another since, why did he admit that his conduct had been improper and his virtue had been deficient?”
Ruan Xingzhu’s cheeks, which were being covered with tears, slightly reddened. She said: “He has a loose nature. It’s always been so. After he’s played around with one woman, he’d play around with the second woman, the third woman, the fourth woman, debauching himself with one after another, but… who needs you to meddle in other people’s business?”
Xiao Feng mumbled: “Wrong, wrong, completely wrong!” After being in a daze for a long time, suddenly he stretched out his hand and slapped himself heavily in the face, making continuous pai-pai-pai-pai sounds. Frightened, Ruan Xingzhu jumped to her feet and retreated some steps. She only saw that Xiao Feng kept beating himself with all his strength and every blow of the palm was very heavy. After a short while, his cheeks had already swollen up considerably.
Then, a soft ‘ya’ sound was heard as someone else pushed the door open and came in. This person cried: “Mom, have you taken that scroll…” She was none other than AhZi. Before she had finished speaking, she saw other people in the house, and saw Xiao Feng was repeatedly beating himself with his right hand while carrying Azhu with his left hand. So she could not help being so frightened that she was dumbfounded.
Xiao Feng cheeks swelled, then their skin broke. After that, his face and his hand were full of fresh blood, then blood spattered ceaselessly on the walls, the table, the chairs… Everything was spattered with blood. Even Azhu’s body and that scroll hanging on the wall were also covered with small red drops of blood.
Because Ruan Xingzhu could not bear to see this brutal sight, she covered up her eyes with both hands. However, she still heard the continuous ‘pai-pai’ sounds, so she called out: “Don’t beat anymore, don’t beat anymore!”
AhZi squealed: “Hey, don’t dirty the words my father wrote, or I’ll ask you for compensation.”
She jumped onto the table, stretched out her hands and took the scroll that was hanging on the wall. It turned out she and her mother returned only to fetch this calligraphic scroll.
Startled, Xiao Feng stopped beating and asked: “Is this ‘Duan the Second of Dali’ really Duan Zhengchun?”
Ruan Xingzhu countered: “Other than him, whom else?” When she mentioned Duan Zhengchun’s name, she could not help showing a feeling of passionate pride on her face.
These several words cleared up a doubt in Xiao Feng’s mind: This scroll was really written by Duan Zhengchun. That letter to Chief Wang was not written by him. And so the ‘Leading Big Brother’ probably is not Duan Zhengchun.
A thought immediately emerged in his mind: “There must be very important secret facts in Madam Ma’s setting up Duan Zhengchun. I should untie this knot first, and everything will come to light.” As he thought so, his intention of committing suicide disappeared at once. The beating he had given himself just now had left his face covered with fresh blood, but thanks to it, he had been able to vent the remorse and sorrow in his heart. Thereupon, he rose, carrying Azhu’s body in his arms.
AhZi, having seen the two bamboo tablets he had written on the table, said laughingly: “Ha-ha, no wonder I saw two holes outside. I’ve been puzzled. So you want to die and be buried together with my sister? Well, well, well, you’re really too passionate!”
Xiao Feng replied: ‘I accidentally fell into the cruel trap of a villain and harmed Azhu to death. Now I must find that villain and avenge her first. Then I’ll follow her to the Underworld.”
AhZi asked: “Who’s that villain?”
Xiao Feng replied: “At the moment I have no clue. I’ll go investigate this.” As he finished, he went out with large strides, carrying Azhu.
AhZi laughed and said: “Are you going to find the villain while carrying my sister like this?”
Xiao Feng was slightly nonplussed. Temporarily, he had no idea. He thought if he carried Azhu’s body to go on a thousand-li long journey, it would eventually be improper, but it was difficult for him to let go of her because he was really attached to her. He looked at Azhu’s face in a daze. Tears rolled straight down his gory, damaged face. Mixed with fresh blood, the tears became reddish drops and fell onto Azhu’s pale face. Truly, this was dripping with tears of blood.
When Ruan Xingzhu saw his heartrending situation, all her abhorrence of him vanished in an instant. She said: “Chief Qiao, this blunder was already done. It’s already impossible to redeem. You… you…” Originally she wanted to advise him to restrain his grief, but she herself could not refrain from bursting into tears. She said tearfully: “It’s all because I’m no good. It’s all because I’m no good… Why did I give my nice daughter to other people?”
Suddenly, the young girl who had been rendered motionless by Xiao Feng interrupted: “Of course it’s all because you’re no good! Other people were being happy husband and wife, why did you come and break up their family?”
Ruan Xingzhu raised her head and asked the young girl: “Why do you say that, Miss? Who are you?”
The young girl replied: “You’re a fox spirit (~ a wanton woman). You’ve made my mother so miserable. You harmed me… harmed me…”
AhZi stretched out her hand to slap her in the face. Unable to move, that young girl saw the incoming blow of the palm, but she could not dodge it.
Ruan Xingzhu hurriedly held out her hand and pulled AhZi’s arm, saying: “AhZi, you can’t act rudely.” Then she turned to the middle-aged woman and surveyed her. Seeing that the woman was holding a steel saber in her right hand and there was broken saber on the floor, she suddenly understood, so she said: “That’s right. You use two sabers. You… You’re ‘Asura Saber’ Qin… Qin Hongmian… elder sister Qin.”
This middle-aged woman was none other than another lover of Duan Zhengchun’s--Asura Saber Qin Hongmian, and the young girl wearing black clothes was her daughter Mu Wanqing. Qin Hongmian did not blame Duan Zhengchun for having love affairs everywhere, but she loathed
the other women for being prurient and seductive and snatching her sweetheart. Therefore, after receiving a message from her shimei (younger female fellow disciple) Gan Baobao, she and her daughter Mu Wanqing had at once gone to assassinate Duan Zhengchun’s wife Dao Baifeng and another lover of his, with the result that they had failed to kill either. When she learned that Duan Zhengchun had another mistress called Ruan Xingzhu, who was living in seclusion beside the Little Mirror Lake, she immediately took her daughter along to go to kill this woman.
Qin Hongmian, seeing that Ruan Xingzhu had recognized her, shouted: “Right, I’m Qin Hongmian, who needs a harlot like you to call me elder sister?”
Temporarily, Ruan Xingzhu was unable to guess why Qin Hongmian had come here. She was also afraid that if this love rival and Duan Zhengchun met each other, they would rekindle their old feelings, so she laughed and said: “That’s right. I said incorrectly. You’re much younger than me, and you have such a great beauty too. No wonder Duan lang (~ dear Duan) is so fascinated by you. You’re my younger sister, not elder sister. Younger sister Qin, Duan lang misses you every day. You’re engraved upon his mind. I really envy you your good fortune.”
When Qin Hongmian heard Ruan Xingzhu praise her for being young and beautiful, the anger in her heart disappeared three-tenths. And when she heard Ruan Xingzhu say that Duan Zhengchun missed her every day, her anger disappeared another three-tenths. She said: “Who wants you to sweet talk like this? You’re sure used to flattering other people.”
Ruan Xingzhu said: “This young lady is your precious daughter, right? Well, well, well, younger sister Qin, it’s a hard job to give birth to such a beauty…”
Noticing that the two women were harping on about romantic matters, Xiao Feng became impatient and did not want to hear more. As a straightforward and resolute fellow, after the heartbreaking sorrow was gone, he at once pondered how to handle important businesses in the future.
Carrying Azhu’s body, he walked to the side of a hole and set her down in it. He grabbed the soil with his pair of big hands and slowly scattered it on her body. But all along he did not scatter soil on her face.
He looked at Azhu without blinking. With just several more handfuls of soil scattered on her, he would never be able to see her again. His ears seemed to vaguely hear her voice promising to go outside Yanmen Pass to ride on horseback, go hunting, pasture cattle and sheep, and be with him for life. Less than a day before, she had still been saying these words which sometimes were affectionate, sometimes were witty, sometimes were serious, and sometimes were mischievous. But from today on, he would never hear them again. From now on, the vow to pasture cattle and sheep at the frontier had come to naught.
Xiao Feng knelt beside the grave for a very long time. But still, he was unwilling to scatter soil on Azhu’s face.
Suddenly he rose. With a long howl, he stopped looking at Azhu and pushed out his two hands at the same time, shoving all the soil beside the grave onto her body and face. Then he turned around and walked into the room in the wing.
He saw Ruan Xingzhu and Qin Hongmian were still talking unceasingly. Even though Ruan Xingzhu was grieved, she was still artfully persuasive in speech and made Qin Hongmian totally pleased. The enmity between the two women had already been removed. Ruan Xingzhu said: “Chief Qiao, this younger sister of mine offended you, but it was unintentional. I beg you to unblock their acupoints.”
Ruan Xingzhu was Azhu’s mother so Xiao Feng certainly listened to her to a reasonable extent, let alone the fact that he already wanted to release these two people. At once, he came near, stretched out his hands and gave Qin Hongmian and Mu Wanqing a tap each on their shoulders. The two of them only felt a stream of internal energy run from their shoulders to their blocked acupoints. In an instant, they were already able to move their limbs freely as usual. The mother and the daughter exchanged a look. In their hearts, they exceedingly admired Xiao Feng for the depth of his internal energy.
Xiao Feng turned to AhZi and said: “Younger sister AhZi, could you please let me have a look at your father’s calligraphic scroll?”
AhZi said: “I don’t want you to call me younger sister this, younger sister that.” Despite saying so, she dared not disobey him and still handed the scroll over to him.
Xiao Feng unfolded the scroll and studied the words Duan Zhengchun had written several times again. Ruan Xingzhu’s face turned a deep red all over. She said bashfully: “What’s so interesting about these things?”
Xiao Feng asked: “Where’s Prince Duan, now?”
Ruan Xingzhu’s face changed color greatly. She retreated several steps and said in a tremulous voice: “Don’t… don’t… don’t go find him again.”
Xiao Feng said: “I won’t find to make things difficult for him. I only want to ask him some things.”
Ruan Xingzhu of course was unwilling to believe him. So she said: “You already accidentally killed Azhu. You shouldn’t find him again.”
Xiao Feng knew that by no means would she be willing to say, so he did not ask her anymore. He rolled up the scroll, returned it to AhZi and said: “With her last words, Azhu told me to take care of her younger sister. Madam Duan, later on, if AhZi encounters any difficulty, as long as Xiao Feng can offer any help, just tell me, I definitely won’t decline.”
Ruan Xingzhu was very glad, thinking: “If AhZi has a supporter of great abilities like him, in her life, misfortune will turn into luckiness and accidents will turn into good things”’ So she said: “I thank you very much, then. AhZi, quickly thank big brother Qiao.” She changed ‘Chief Qiao’ to ‘big brother Qiao’ to make AhZi and him become closer.
AhZi immediately pouted her lips and said with a scornful expression: “What difficulty will I have to ask him to help? I have a master who is without equal under Heaven and many shixiongs (older male fellow disciples), why should I be afraid of being bullied by someone? He’s like a clay Bodhisattva fording a river, unable to protect himself. He can’t handle his own matters and only makes mistakes, how can he still want to help me with my problems? Humph, the more he’ll help, the more problems he’ll create, won’t he?” She let out a torrent of words with her clear and carefree voice. Several times Ruan Xingzhu gave her hints with the eyes to stop her, but AhZi pretended that she did not see them.
Ruan Xingzhu stamped her feet and said: “Alas, this child makes insolent irresponsible remarks. Chief Qiao, please show some consideration for Azhu and don’t take offence at them.”
Xiao Feng said: “My surname is Xiao, not Qiao.”
AhZi said: “Mom, this fellow doesn’t even know his own surname. He’s a big idiot…”
Ruan Xingzhu shouted: “AhZi!”
Xiao Feng took a bow with his hands folded, saying: “I must now bid you farewell.” Then he turned to Mu Wanqing and said: “Miss Duan, don’t use these poisonous missiles of yours anymore. They are useless. On the contrary, if you meet an enemy of better skills, you’ll unavoidably be harmed by them.”
Before Mu Wanqing had replied, AhZi said: “Elder sister, don’t listen to his nonsense. At worst these missiles will miss the enemy, what harms can they have?”
Paying no attention to her, Xiao Feng turned around and walked out. When his left foot passed through the door, he took a swing with his right sleeve, causing a gust of wind with a buzzing sound. All the seven short arrows that Mu Wanqing had shot at him earlier and had been knocked down by him, came off the floor at the same time and flew fiercely towards AhZi like lightning. “Aiyo,” AhZi only uttered an exclamation. How could she dodge in time? The seven short arrows skimmed across the top of her head, the sides of her neck and the sides of her body before, with a ‘pai’ sound, sticking deep up to the feathers in the wall behind her simultaneously.
Ruan Xingzhu hastily rushed forwards, embraced AhZi and cried in fear: “Younger sis Qin, quickly take out the antidote.”
Qin Hongmian said: “Where’s she wounded? Where’s she wounded?” Mu Wanqing hastily took the antidote out from her bosom and went examine the condition of AhZi’s injuries.
After a short while, AhZi somewhat regained her composure. Only then did she say: “They… they didn’t hit me.” Then the four women looked at the seven short arrows on the wall at the same time, and all of them gasped with astonishment and their faces changed color.
It turned out Xiao Feng remembered Azhu’s last words, which asked him to take care of AhZi, but he heard her say “I have a master who is without equal under Heaven and many shixiongs, why should I be afraid of being bullied by someone?” For this reason, he swept away the arrows with the wind of his sleeve and gave her a scare, lest the little girl, who was ignorant of the immensity of the world and impertinent due to her strong backing insomuch that she looked down on the heroes and bold men under Heaven, unavoidably suffered in the future.
He walked out of the bamboo forest, went to the side of the Little Mirror Lake, found a big tree with luxuriant branches and foliage, and jumped onto it. He wanted to find Duan Zhengchun to ask clearly why Madam Ma deliberately cast the blame on him, but Ruan Xingzhu simply was unwilling to reveal his whereabouts, so he himself had no choice but to follow in secret.
Before long, he saw the four women come out. Qin Hongmian and daughter went ahead of Ruan Xingzhu and her daughter. It looked like Ruan Xingzhu was seeing the guests out.
The four women walked to the side of the lake. Qin Hongmian said: “Elder sister Ruan, you and I feel like old friends at the first meeting. Because the former ill will between us has been dispelled, a matter of hatred in my mind has been eliminated. Now I want to go find that lowly slave surnamed Kang. Do you know where she is?”
Startled, Ruan Xingzhu asked: “Younger sister, why do you want to find her?’
Qin Hongmian said resentfully: “Originally I and Duan lang were living happy days. It was all because of the tricks of this lowly slavish fox spirit…”
Ruan Xingzhu thought for a little while and said: “That Kang… this harlot Kang Min, hum, I don’t know where she is. When you’ve found her, please give her several more stabs of the saber on my behalf.”
Qin Hongmian said: “That goes without saying. I’m just afraid it won’t be easy to find her. Alright, see you later! Humph, if you meet Duan lang…”
Ruan Xingzhu slightly shivered and said: “What should I do?”
Qin Hongmian said: ‘You give him two heavy slaps in the face for me, one slap to settle my account, and one slap to settle my daughter’s account.”
Ruan Xingzhu laughed gently and said: “How can I meet this heartless damnable fellow? Younger sister, when you see him, give him two slaps in the face for me as well, one for me, and one for AhZi. No, slapping won’t be enough. Next you give him two kicks for me. He fathered his daughters but didn’t take care of them, making me and my daughter so wretched and lonely…” As she finished, she shed tears.
Qin Hongmian consoled: “Sister, don’t be sad. After we’ve killed that harlot Kang, we’ll return to be your companions.”
Xiao Feng, hiding on the tree, heard very clearly the conversation between the two women. He thought that Duan Zhengchun was not bad at martial arts and rather benevolent and loyal to his friends, but he had abandoned himself to his love of feminine beauty, so he did not count as a hero. He saw Qin Hongmian pull Mu Wanqing, salute Ruan Xingzhu and her daughter and leave at once, then Ruan Xingzhu hold AhZi hand and go back into the bamboo forest.
Xiao Feng considered: “Ruan Xingzhu sure will go find Duan Zhengchun, but she’s unwilling to go together with Qin Hongmian, that’s all. She said that she came to take this scroll so Duan Zhengchun is definitely waiting not far up ahead. I’m just going to observe from here.”
Suddenly there were soft sounds in a thicket, and two people in black clothes quietly walked out, but they were Qin Hongmian and her daughter returning. He heard Qin Hongmian say in a low voice: “Wan’er, how could you be so careless and easily tricked by them? There’s a pair of male shoes under the couch in elder sister Ruan’s bedroom. The toe caps are embroidered with two words, the left shoe has the word ‘Mountain’, and the right shoe has the word ‘River.’ Of course they’re your father’s shoes. The shoes are very new, and the mud on their sole isn’t dry yet. Obviously your father is near here.”
Mu Wanqing said: “Ah! So this woman surnamed Ruan fooled us.”
Qin Hongmian said: “Yes, how can she be willing to let that unfaithful fellow meet us?”
Mu Wanqing said: “Father has no conscience. Mom, you need not meet him.”
After keeping silent for quite a while, Qin Hongmian said: “I want to see him, but I don’t want to meet him. We’ve been separated for so many days, he’s already old, and your mother’s already old too.” These few sentences were very simple, but the words contained deep emotions.
Mu Wanqing said: ‘Alright!’ Her voice sounded very sorrowful. Ever since she and Duan Yu had parted company, her memory of him had grown day by day, but knowing clearly this was a love that would go nowhere, she dared not show the load on her mind before her mother.
Qin Hongmian said: ‘We only need to keep watch from here. I think your father will arrive soon.’ As she finished, she pushed the long grass apart and hid herself in it. After that, Mu Wanqing hid behind a tree.
In the dull starlight, Xiao Feng saw that Qin Hongmian’s pale face was slightly red. Obviously she was deeply stirred. He thought: ‘Love wears people out to such an extent.’ But he also immediately thought of Azhu, and could not help feeling a burst of pain in his chest.
Not long after, quick footsteps were heard on the path. Xiao Feng thought: ‘This person isn’t Duan Zhengchun. Probably his subordinate.’ Sure enough, when that person rushed near him, he recognized that it was Zhu Danchen, the fellow who had drawn in reverse on the bridge.
Ruan Xingzhu had already heard the footsteps, but she was unable to know who this person was. She only thought that it was Duan Zhengchun, so she called: ‘Duan lang, Duan lang!’ and quickly came out to meet him. AhZi came out with her.
Zhu Danchen bowed down to the ground, saying: “My Lord has ordered this subordinate to report that he has an urgent matter so he is unable to return today.”
Startled, Ruan Xingzhu asked: “What’s the matter? When will he return?”
Zhu Danchen replied: ‘”This matter is related to the Murong Family of Gusu. It seems the whereabouts of Mister Murong has been discovered. My Lord has gone north on a ten-thousand-li journey to find this man. My Lord said that: After handling his important matter, he would return to the side of the Little Mirror Lake at once for a reunion. Madam needs not worry.”
Tears welling up in her eyes, Ruan Xingzhu said in a voice choked with emotions: “He’s always said he’d return at once, but everytime he wouldn’t see me for 3 years or 5 years. I had a really hard time waiting for him to come here, yet…”
Zhu Danchen was exceedingly upset and indignant about how AhZi had angered Chu Wanli to death. Duan Zhengchun’s words had been passed on, so he was unwilling to remain here any longer. He bow slightly, turned around and left. From start to finish, he did not cast a look at AhZi.
Ruan Xingzhu, waiting until he had gone, said to AhZi in a low voice: “Your lightness skill is much better than mine. Quickly follow him, and leave identification marks on the way for me. I’ll follow soon after.”
AhZi pouted her lips, laughed and said: “You ask me to trail father, so what’s the reward?”
Ruan Xingzhu said: “Everything Mom has is already yours. What reward do you still want?”
AhZi said: “Alright, I’ll write a ‘Duan’ character on the corners of the walls then draw an arrow so that you’d know.”
Ruan Xingzhu hugged her daughter’s shoulders and said with gladness: “Good daughter!’
AhZi laughed and said: “Infatuated mommy!” Then she raised herself up and chased after Zhu Danchen.
Ruan Xingzhu stood beside the Little Mirror Lake for a long time. The she went along the small path. As soon as she had gone, Qin Hongmian and her daughter successively appeared. The two of them made gestures with their hands and followed behind her.
Xiao Feng thought: ‘AhZi already leaves signs on the way. It’ll be very easy to find Duan Zhengchun.’ When he had taken several steps, suddenly, in the moonlight, he saw his own reflection in the lake. He felt sad, disappointed, and very lonely, and his heart ached. He wanted to return to the bamboo forest to sit in front of Azhu’s grave again for a while. However, in an instant, his heroic spirit surged up, and he sent out a blow of the palm. The energy wind of his attack hit the lake and splashed water all around. The reflection in the lake also turned into a mass of fragments. With a long howl, he left with big strides.
During the next several days, he set out at daybreak and slept at night, drinking very much, but eating little. Every time he arrived in a town, he saw a ‘Duan’ character and an arrow showing the direction left by AhZi at the foot of a wall. Sometimes Ruan Xingzhu, after seeing them, scraped them off, but the vestige of the signs could still be recognized.
On the way to the north, it gradually got cold. One day, not long after he had gone outside, it started to snow heavily. Snowflakes floated to and fro, up and down in the air. Xiao Feng kept going until noon. Then he went into a small wine shop and consumed 12 or 13 bowls of spirits. When his craving for wine had not yet been slaked, the shop was already out of wine. Very disappointed, he ran for a while with big strides and came towards a big city. As he drew near, he was slightly shocked. It turned out he had arrived in Xinyang.
On the way he had only searched for the signs left by AhZi, and thought of his own worries, so he had paid no attention to his surroundings, so much so, that he had unexpectedly returned to Xinyang. If he really wanted to find Duan Zhengchun, it would be as easy as rasing his hand. Only rushing faster in a day or half a day and he would definitely catch up with Duan Zhengchun. But ever since the death of Azhu, his mind had always been empty. He did not know how he should pass the time. In his mind, he had always thought: “What should I do after catching up with Duan Zhengchun? When I’ve found the prime villain and got revenge, what should I do? When I’ve returned to the outside of Yanmen Pass alone to go hunting and pasture sheep in the great desert of wind and sand, what should I do?” As a result, he had not been in hot pursuit all along.
After entering the city of Xinyang, he saw a ‘Duan’ character written in charcoal at the foot of the city wall. Beside the character was an arrow pointing westward. He felt a burst of distress in his mind as he recalled that day he and Azhu, side by side, had gone to Madam Ma’s house in the west of the city of Xinyang to tactfully sound her out. Today, thinking back, he felt that every step at that time had pushed Azhu closer to the Underworld by one step.
After he had gone 5 or 6 li (0.5 km), the north wind became fierce, and the snow fell more heavily.
Following the signs left by AhZi, he went westward. These signs were new and had been left not long before. Some of the signs were left by scraping away the bark of trees and writing on them. On the trunks, the resin at the places scraped by the knife had not yet congealed. The direction of the signs was none other than Ma Dayuan’s house. Xiao Feng was secretly mystified, thinking: “Could it be that Duan Zhengchun knows Madam Ma framed him, so he finds her to settle the score? That’s right, when Azhu talked to me in her dying moment at the Bluestone Bridge, she mentioned Madam Ma. AhZi heard it, and she must’ve told her father. But we only said Madam Ma, how can he know that she is this Madam Ma?”
On the way, he had been depressed and rather dazed. But at this moment, as he met a very unusual matter, his spirit rose at once, and the vigilance that he had had when engaging in battles with strong enemies in former days was restored. Seeing an abandoned shrine by the roadside, he immediately entered it, closed the door, lay down and slept for six hours. Only at the 2nd watch (10 p.m to 12 p.m) did he come out and go towards the house of Ma Dayuan.
When approaching the house, he hid behind a tree and looked carefully at the surroundings. After he had observed for a while, a faint smile appeared at the corners of his mouth because he saw two people hiding on the northeast side of the house of the Ma Family. Judging from their appearance, they were Ruan
Xingzhu and AhZi. After that, he saw Qin Hongmian and her daughter hiding at the southeast corner of the house. In this moment, the heavy snow had not yet ceased so the four women all were covered with a layer of white snow. A dull yellow light came out through the window of the room in the east wing, and there was only silence. Xiao Feng broke a branch off and threw it to the east. A soft ‘pai’ sound was heard as it fell on the ground. Ruan Xingzhu and the other three women all looked in the direction of the sound. With a gentle leap, he already arrived at the underside of the window of the room in the east wing.
The weather was cold and the ground was frozen. All the windows of the Ma Family house had wooden boards. Xiao Feng waited for a while. He heard a gust of the north wind come whistling. Waiting until this gust of wind was about to reach the window, he lightly sent out a thrust of the palm. His palm force and that gust of wind hit the wooden board of the window at the same time. With a ‘ka-la’ sound, the wooden board was broken. Even the window paper inside was also left with a crack. Even though the people such as Qin Hongmian and Ruan Xingzhu were in the area around the house, they were not aware of this because the palm wind and the north wind completely coincided with each other. If there was someone in the room, they would not be able to detect this either. Xiao Feng put his eye next to the crack and looked inside. At first sight, he was dumbfounded, as if he did not believe his own eyes.
He saw Duan Zhengchun, wearing a short jacket and a small hat, sitting cross-legged on the edge of the earthen bed, holding a wine cup in his hand, grinning and looking at a woman who was sitting by the side of the small bed table.
That woman was wearing white mourning attire and had a light make-up on. The tips of her eyebrows and the corners of her eyes were brimming with passion. Her pair of watery glistening eyes looked as if they were about to shed water. Like smiling without smiling, like being angry without being angry, she looked sideways at Duan Zhengchun. She was none other than the widow of Ma Dayuan--Madam Ma.
- END OF CHAPTER 23 -