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Ode to Gallantry Chapter 2

Chapter 2 - A Young Man In Deep Trouble

Shi Qing took two steps forward, and raised his clasped fists towards Geng Wanzhong and Wang Wanren. "Younger Brother Geng, Younger Brother Wang, this younger sister here has courage and insight so remarkable that they exceed those shown by men. She must be none other than the jianghu's(1) well-known Woman Warrior of the Winter Plum, Sister Hua. As for the other four brothers, would Brother Geng please introduce us."

Geng Wanzhong's face became stern. Instead of responding to Shi Qing's request, he said, "There is nothing better than meeting you, Manor-Master Shi, and your wife here, for it saves us a trip to Jiangnan."

By then, Shi Qing had realised that these seven people were not friendly at all.   He had initially thought that the seven were sore after being defeated by Xie Yanke, yet he had always been on good terms with Geng Wanzhong. Both of us has just met in a place far away from home, so should the meeting not be a joyful one? Why is Geng Wanzhong so detached and cold? He has always referred to me as "Elder Brother Shi", but why has he suddenly changed the form of address?   Then, a thought hit Shi Qing: Could my precious son have created some trouble?

He quickly put the question forth: "Brother Geng, did my naughty little boy make you angry? Please allow my wife and me to offer our apologies. Come, come, come, I will play host and invite all seven of you to a drink inside Bianliang City."

When An Fengri saw how friendly Shi Qing was towards the disciples of the Snow Mountain School, and how the very same disciples did not bother
 
to cast a single glance at himself, he realised that it was not even necessary for him to introduce himself or make any exchange of greetings. Standing alone in the sidelines, he was put off and upset by what he had seen: Hmmph, what is so great about the Snow Mountain School anyway?   If they treated others with the same benevolence and uprighteousness shown by Manor-Master Shi, they would gain true respect from others.

Hence, he turned to Shi Qing and Min Rou, clasped his fists and said, "Manor-Master Shi, Mrs Shi, I take my leave."

Shi Qing returned the honour and replied, "Stockade-Master An, please do not take offence. My son, Shi Zhongyu, is studying the arts under the tutelage of Elder Brother Feng at the Snow Mountain School. In my eagerness to ask after my son, I have forgotten to be courteous to you."

Well, I cannot blame you then, thought An Fengri. So, he responded aloud: "Well said, well said!" Then, he turned and led his men away.

Geng Wanzhong and his group did not utter a single word until An Fengri and his men were long gone. Even then, they looked at one another with awkward expressions on their faces, as if they were upset and embarrassed at the same time. No one seemed willing to open his mouth and speak.

Shi Qing had sent his son to study martial arts under the tutelage of the Dragon of Wind and Fire Feng Wanli of the Snow Mountain School for an important reason. The child had been excessively stubborn and stupid, yet Min Rou had sheltered him in simply too many ways.   Consequently, he had not been able to discipline the child. Now, looking at the faces of Geng Wanzhong and the others, Shi Qing began to fear that his son had created a sizeable disturbance at the school. So he smiled and said, "Greetings to Old Master Bai and Mrs Bai; greetings to the Dragon of Wind and Fire Brother Feng."

By then, Wang Wanren could no longer contain himself. He bellowed: "My teacher and his wife are considered fortunate to have survived the irritation of your little ... little ... little ..." He wanted to say "little bastard" but a glance at Min Rou's worried and pitiful countenance eventually forced him
 
to restrain himself and swallow the last word after uttering "little" three times.

Although he had stopped himself from using the derogative, everyone knew what he had wanted to say. After all, this act of not scolding anyone was as good as a generous helping of verbal abuse.

Min Rou's eyes turned red. "Elder Brother Wang," she said, "my Yu'er is really terribly mischievous. Since he has offended all of you, I ... I ... I will offer my apologies first." She sank to the ground in a deep curtsy, prompting the seven disciples of the Snow Mountain School to return the gesture in a hurry.

Wang Wanren raised his voice and said, "Mrs Shi, this little ... little ... fellow that you have given birth to is really too worthless for words. If only he bears half a fen (equivalent to about 5%) of similarity to you and your husband, then ... what else is there to say? I would not consider him having offended me. Besides offending my teacher and his wife ... that Elder Brother Bai of mine has such a fiery disposition ... Manor-Master Shi, I do not mean to live off one person while secretly helping another, but I must inform you that my Brother Bai is going to burn your Xuansu Manor(2) down. You ... you had better avoid him. As for your offer of drink, I cannot accept it regardless of what you may say. If Brother Bai finds out, it would be strange if he did not fall out and sever all ties with me."

Despite the lengthy speech, nothing was divulged about the mistake that Shi Zhongyu had actually committed.

Shi Qing and Min Rou became increasingly concerned: We have always had a good relationship with the Snow Mountain School, so why is Bai Wanjian so furious that he must burn Xuansu Manor down? Thus, they could not help themselves but reply: "Damn that audacious boy!   How could he even dare to offend Old Master Bai and his wife?"

"We should not linger in this place of conflict," said Geng Wanzhong. "Let us find another place to talk." He pulled his sword out of the ground and added, "Manor-Master Shi, Mrs Shi, after you."
 
Shi Qing acknowledged the request with a nod and headed towards the west with Min Rou. Their horses followed after them at a leisurely pace.

Along the way, Geng Wanzhong introduced Shi Qing to five of his brothers and sisters-at-arms who responded with courteous words of aadmiration for the couple. After seven or eight li (about 3.5 to 4.0 km), they came upon three chestnut trees, standing ramrod-straight by the road.

Geng Wanzhong spoke first: "Manor-Master Shi, can we speak over there please?"

"Very well," replied Shi Qing.

The party of nine went under the generous canopies of the trees, and sat down on several rocks and the roots of the trees themselves. By then, Shi Qing and his wife were extremely anxious, yet they did not venture to make any queries.

Geng Wanzhong began: "Manor-Master Shi, you and I have always been on friendly terms, so do not take offence with the unpleasant words that I am about to say. In my humble opinion, it is still better for you to hand your son over to us. I will do my best to plead his case before my teacher and his wife, as well as my Brother Bai and his wife, and perhaps enable your son to get away with his life. Even if he ends up losing all his martial arts abilities, it is still better than having both our families become enemies and get into a fight."

Shi Qing was mystified. "I have not seen my son even once after he went to your school three years ago," he said. "I really do not know what has happened, so I hope that you will tell me everything, Brother Geng. You do not have to conceal the facts."   He had always addressed Geng Wanzhong as 'Worthy Younger Brother Geng', but now that the latter seemed to be very angry, he feared that this very term of address might be met with a strong rebuff.

"Do you really not know?" asked Geng Wanzhong. "No!" answered Shi Qing.
 
Geng Wanzhong knew Shi Qing well. As the Master of Xuansu Manor, the latter had a reputation of such renown that he would certainly not deceive anyone with lies. Since he had declared that he did not have any knowledge about the matter, his words had to be true. Hence, Geng Wanzhong said, "So, you really have not idea what has..."

By then, Min Rou could no longer contain herself. "Is Yu'er not in Lingxiao City(3)?" she asked, interrupting Geng Wanzhong as he spoke.

He nodded.

Wang Wanren said, "If that small ... small fellow was still in Lingxiao City, a hundred lives would not have been sufficient to keep him alive."

Anger crept into Shi Qing's heart: I ordered Yu'er to study martial arts under your tutelage because of my respect for Old Master Bai and Brother Feng, as well as my high regard for the pugilistic techniques of the Snow Mountain School. So even if Yu'er is young, stubborn and innately stupid, you should still consider our dignity when our son violates the rules of your school. You cannot have him killed as you wish. Furthermore, if you say that your Snow Mountain School excels in martial arts and is thus able to overwhelm us by sheer numbers, does reason really not exist anymore in the realm of the rivers and lakes?

Yet, Shi Qing remained calm and collected. Responding in a unaffected voice, he said, "I have known long ago that the rules of your school are very strict. I sent my son to Lingxiao City to study martial arts because I wanted him to be more disciplined."

Geng Wanzhong's countenance became slightly sterner. "Manor-Master Shi, that is an overstatement," he said. "Shi Zhongyu's ridiculousness, shameless and extreme viciousness are not the products of having studied at our Snow Mountain School."

"He is only a young child," Shi Qing responded in a calm voice. "Where do we begin to describe him as ridiculous, shameless and extremely vicious?"
 
Geng Wanzhong turned to Hua Wanzi and said, "Sister Hua, please go and look around, and see if anyone has come."

"Yes!" answered Hua Wanzi. She took up her sword and walked away from the group.

Shi Qing and his wife exchanged a glance. They knew that Geng Wanzhong had sent Hua Wanzi away because he was about to say something that would normally not be brought up before women. Hence, their hearts could not help but fall deeper into worry.

Geng Wanzhong sighed. "Manor-Master Shi, Mrs Shi," he said, "as you know, my Brother Bai does not have any sons, but a daughter instead. That niece of mine is only thirteen years old this year. She is a clever, witty, innocent and lovable girl. Brother Bai loves her dearly, while my teacher and his wife treat her as if she is their own hearts and livers. My niece can be considered the little princess of Lingxiao City, and we adore her as if she is a phoenix."

Shi Qing nodded. "So that unworthy son of mine has offended the little princess, has he not?" he asked.

"'Offence' is a very mild way of putting it," answered Geng Wanzhong. "He
... he was so bold and reckless that he actually had our niece bound by the hands and feet, before having her stripped totally naked with the intention of violating her!"

"Ah!" cried Shi Qing and Min Rou as they leapt to their feet in shock. The latter turned deathly pale as well.

"How ... how can that be?" asked Shi Qing. "Zhongyu is only fifteen years old. There must be an misunderstanding in this matter."

"We initially thought that it was extremely ridiculous as well," said Geng Wanzhong.   "But it has turned out to be absolutely true. The two maids who served my niece rushed into the room when they heard the sounds of struggle and shouted out for help at once. One of them had an arm hacked off, while the other had a thigh chopped off. Then, both of them lost
 
consciousness. The presence of the maids and the alarm they had raised alerted your son, so he did not dare to attack my niece again. He fled the scene after that."

The martial arts circle had always placed a premium on self-control in sexual matters, even among those who were involved with the Dark Deeds (hei1 dao4) of robbery, murder and arson. These crimes were often deemed as the day's work for these men, but anyone among them who committed a sexual offence was despised by all. Hence, even bandits, thieves and other members of the Green Wood (lu4 lin2 dao4) were not easily moved to rape or violate a woman, much less someone who was held up as a member of a chivalrous organisation.

Consequently, Min Rou became so distressed at the news that colour drained from her face. Tugging at her husband's sleeve, she asked, "What
... what are we going to do now?"

Shi Qing was deeply shaken by the unexpected news as well. If he had heard that his son had killed someone, gotten into deep trouble or broken some rules, he would have accepted the responsibility on the boy's behalf regardless of its magnitude. Yet, he was now at a loss, for he did not know how this issue should be dealt with.

Gathering his thoughts, Shi Qing said, "In that case, the Heavens have extended their protection to Miss Bai. She is still as pure as jade and as chaste as ice, for that unworthy and unfilial son of mine did not violate her, did he?"

"No!" answered Geng Wanzhong with a shake of his head. "Although that is the case, the issue remains. You know how my teacher is when it comes to things like this. He ordered us to track the young fellow down at once, saying that anyone who spotted the boy could have him killed immediately. To my teacher, it was unnnecessary to have him seized alive."

Wang Wanren chipped in: "My teacher says that his friendship with you goes beyond the superficial, so if the young fellow is captured, he will have to you due consideration and spare your son's life. Hence, it would be simpler to have the boy stabbed to death outside."
 
Geng Wanzhong shot him a sideways glance, as if reprimanding him for speaking more than necessary.

"Our teacher did give us these instructions," said Wang Wanren. "Did I say it wrong?"

Ignoring him, Geng Wanzhong continued his conversation with Shi Qing: "It would not have been such a serious matter if your son had hurt only two maids. My niece may be young, but she has a fiery and unyielding personality. She was so ashamed after suffering the humiliation that she cried for two days. On the third day, she went out quietly through a window in the dead of the night and leapt into a bottomless ravine."

"Ah!" cried Shi Qing and Min Rou again.

"Has ... has she been rescued?" asked Shi Qing in a trembling voice.

"You know how deep the ravines outside Lingxiao City are," answered Geng Wanzhong. "A stone that falls into any of these ravines will become dust, what more a human being. Would such a lovely and tender little girl not become meat-sauce if she jumped in as well?"

Ke Wanjun, a Snow Mountain disciple who was about 27 or 28 years old, added indignantly: "Well, the most unjust consequence of this mess has fallen on our Eldest Brother-at-arms. He had his right arm chopped off by our teacher for no reason at all!"

Shi Qing was shocked: "The Dragon of Wind and Fire?"

"Who else?" asked Ke Wanjun in return. "Our teacher deeply regretted the loss of his grand-daughter, yet he was not able to capture your son. So he threw a great tantrum in the main hall and reprimanded Brother Feng for being lenient with his students. He also blamed him for being a horseshit teacher who only knows how to eat. As the scolding increased, our teacher became angrier. Suddenly, he drew Brother Feng's sword from its scabbard and chopped his arm off. Then, our teacher's wife spoke up, saying that our teacher should not be so irritable until he had to vent his anger on someone else. Subsequently, the elderly couple got into an argument right in front of
 
all the disciples. Things became so bad that our teacher ended up slapping his wife. Our teacher's wife left in a fit of anger and vowed never to step into Lingxiao City again."

Shi Qing felt terribly ashamed: I ordered my only son to study under the tutelage of Feng Wanli because I admire his martial arts skills, but little did I know that it would turn him into a disabled man. Feng Wanli's swordplay techniques are powerful and swift like the violent gale and the raging fire; that is why he is nicknamed the 'Dragon of Wind and Fire'. He has many enemies; now that he has lost his pugilistic abilities, I am afraid that he will not dare to take a single step away from the Great Snow Mountain for the rest of his life. Sigh, I have really done a disservice to a good friend.

Then, he heard Wang Wanren say: "Younger Brother Ke, you feel that our Eldest Brother has suffered an injustice. Has our Brother Bai not suffered an injustice as well? Not only has his daughter been harmed, his wife has gone mad."

As Shi Qing and Min Rou listened, they became so startled that they found themselves wishing for a hole in which they could hide. They really did not know that their son's misbehaviour in Lingxiao City had resulted in so many tragic consequences.

Turning a blind eye to the feelings of shame, Shi Qing asked: "Why ... why does Mrs Bai not have the peace of mind?"

"What else could the reason be, except for the work of your precious son?" said Wang Wanren.   "After our little niece died, Brother Bai blamed his wife for not taking good care of their daughter and thus allowing her to run away through a window. Sister-in-Law Bai was already filled with remorse, so after hearing her husband's words, she could not stop wailing: 'A'Xiu, your mother is the one who caused your death! A'Xiu, your mother is the one who caused your death!' Her mind became muddled and confused after that. Now, two sisters-at-arms have to keep watch her around the clock, for fear that she too would jump into the ravine. Manor-Master Shi, should my Brother Bai then not go and burn your Xuansu Manor down?"
 
"He should, he should!" answered Shi Qing. "My wife and I are terribly ashamed. Even if we have to travel to the ends of the earth, we will capture that unfilial boy and send him to Lingxiao City, so that he can be slowly dismembered to his death in memory of Miss Bai. "

Min Rou gasped in shock and fainted into her husband's arms.

Shi Qing responded by stimulating her philtrum(4), but it took quite a while before she regained consciousness.

Wang Wanren went on: "Manor-Master Shi, I am afraid that there are two more lives belonging to our Snow Mountain School that must also be added to the account of Xuansu Manor."

"Two more?" asked Shi Qing in surprise. He had weathered many a violent storm in his life, but none of them had been as cruel as the one that he was currently faced with. When his second son, Zhongjian, was killed by his enemies years ago, he was extremely sad and angry. Yet, the experience was nothing like the shame and fear that he had in his heart now.   He wanted to speak, but no words came out.

"After this incident, our teacher sent eighteen disciples out under the leadership of Brother Bai," said Wang Wanren. "Their destination is Jiangnan; their purpose is to burn your manor down. In addition in
addition ...." At this point, he began to stammer, as if he was hesitant to go on. Meanwhile, Geng Wanzhong kept giving him warning glances, as if to prevent him from continuing.

By then, colour had drained from Shi Qing's face, for he had guessed what Wang Wanren had wanted to say. "They are to capture my wife and me," he said, "and take us the Great Snow Mountain, so that we can pay for Miss Bai's death with our lives."

"That is an overstatement," said Geng Wanzhong immediately. "We are not audacious people. Even if we were bold enough to do it, how can we move you to visit us with the superficial pugilistic skills that we have?   My teacher says: 'Your son must be found no matter what. Although he is young, he is actually very sharp, for how could he have disappeared without
 
a trace, given the dangerous topography of Lingxiao City and the many pursuers on his tail?'"

"Yu'er must be dead," said Min Rou as tears streamed down her face. "He must have fallen into a ravine too."

Geng Wanzhong shook his head. "No," he said. "His footsteps led towards the foot of the mountain. Later, we found the marks of a sled as well. Well, I am embarrassed to say that we, as a large party of adults, have been unable to capture a fifteen-year-old boy. My teacher did indeed issue you with an invitation to Lingxiao City, so that both parties can discuss a fitting solution to this incident."

"You put in many ways," Shi Qing responded in a calm voice, "but you still want us to pay for Miss Bai's death with our lives. Brother Wang says that there are two more lives; what is that actually about?"

"The eighteen disciples that I mentioned earlier went about their tasks in two groups," answered Wang Wanren. "The first group, comprising of nine people, headed to Jiangnan. The other group, led by Brother Geng, looked for your son all over the Central Regions and met with some misfortune. Trouble never comes alone.  "

"Younger Brother Wang, you do not have to continue," said Geng Wanzhong at once. "The matter is not related to Manor-Master Shi."

"Why not?" asked Wang Wanren. "If not for that boy, how could Elder Brother Sun and Younger Brother Zhu have died dubious deaths? Furthermore, we do not know who the enemy really is. How are you going to report the matter to our teacher when we get home? If our teacher becomes angered, I am afraid that you may lose an arm too. Manor-Master Shi and his wife have friends in many places, so what is wrong with asking them for some help?"

Recalling his Brother Feng's tragic dismemberment, Geng Wanzhong realised that he really did not have any explanation for the deaths of Sun and Zhu. Hence, it was not a bad idea to ask Shi Qing and his wife for help. So he said to his brother-at-arms: "All right, speak if you wish."
 
"Manor-Master Shi," Wang Wanren began, "three days ago, we heard that a man with the surname of Wu had obtained the Black Steel Symbol and gone into hiding by pretending to be a fried-cake seller in Hou Jian Ji outside the city of Bianliang.   After a quiet discussion, my brothers and I felt that it is a matter of luck when it comes to capturing Shi Zhongyu. After all, where are we going to start looking for him, given that the immense population of the Central Regions? If we cannot find him in ten years, I am afraid we would not be able to return to Lingxiao City for ten years as well. On the other hand, if we get the Black Steel Symbol, we would be able to go back to our teacher with a suitable replacement for our failure to capture your son. During our discussion, someone cursed your son, saying that he deserved death for being so audacious at such a young age. Suddenly, we heard a loud laugh in an aged voice: 'Wonderful, wonderful! What a rare boy! Such talent and character is unrivalled in his time!'"

Shi Qing and Min Rou exchanged a glance. It was more difficult hearing someone praise their son in this manner than having them scold and curse him.

Wang Wanren went on: "At that time, we were talking in a guest-house. The four walls of the room were made of bricks, but the voice penetrated the walls and sounded so clear, as if the speaker was in front of us.   The nine of us spoke softly, so we did not know how he heard us."

Shi Qing and Min Rou became alert at once: There is nothing strange about hearing someone's words through a brick wall. The wall could have a hole or crack in it, or the listener could be hidden below a window in the wall. The speaker inside the room could also be shouting without realising it. But for someone to speak through a wall and be heard in an extremely clear manner, his internal strength must be very rich. So, these people from the Snow Mountain School met a highly-skilled pugilist. This is indeed having one trouble follow another.

Ke Wanjun said, "We were stunned after hearing the voice. Brother Wang called out: 'Who is he that is so impatient with life, to eavesdrop on our conversation?' The man did not respond. However, a short while later, we heard the old scoundrel say: 'A'Dang, how many people have we killed
 
today?' A female imp answered: 'Only one.' The scoundrel said: 'Then, we can kill two more.'"

"Ah! 'Not More Than Three a Day!'" said Shi Qing.

Geng Wanzhong, who had been silent for quite a while, responded at once: "Manor-Master Shi, do you know the old scoundrel?"

Shi Qing shook his head. "No, I do not know him," he replied. "However, my late father mentioned that there is such a man in the martial arts circle. His nickname is 'Not More Than Three a Day', for he allowed himself to kill only three people at the most. After the third killing, his heart would soften, so he could not take a fourth life."

"Damn! Is it not enough to kill three people a day?" said Wang Wanren in anger. "This evil, sinister and crafty person has actually been allowed to live until this day!"

Shi Qing did not respond. Instead, he thought: I have heard that this Senior Ding tends to tread the fine line between the upright and the unorthodox. Although he is a cruel man who enjoys killing people, I have not heard of him committing any great and evil crimes. Most of his victims seemed to have deserved their punishments as well. Shi Qing knew that the Snow Mountain School would be offended by this information, so he did not share it.

"What is the name of the scoundrel?" asked Geng Wanzhong. "Which clan or school is he from?"

"As for as I know, the man's surname is Ding," answered Shi Qing, "but I do not know what his given name is.   Since he is nicknamed 'Not More Than Three a Day', most of the older generation know him as Ding 'Not Three' Ding Busan."

"Well, he is indeed neither three nor four ( busan-busi), a shady character who makes frivolous remarks!" said Ke Wanjun in an indignant voice.
 
"There are three of them altogether," Shi Qing continued. "His older brother is called Ding 'Not Two' Ding Bu'er, while his younger one is known as Ding 'Not Four' Ding Busi."

"What rubbish!" roared Wang Wanren. "Neither two nor three, and neither three nor four! There are actually people with such horseshit for names!"

Geng Wanzhong spoke up: "Brother Wang, do not use vulgarities in front of Sister-in-Law Shi."

"Yes," Wang Wanren replied, before turning to Min Rou and adding, "I am sorry."

Min Rou smiled and said, "I think those are just nicknames. No one would give themselves such strange monikers, would they?"

"Well, the three Ding brothers have quite a reputation in the martial arts circle," said Shi Qing to the Snow Mountain disciples. "It is likely that Old Master Bai has a conflict with them; hence, he is unwilling to mention their names. Consequently, you have not heard of them. What happened after that?"

"The scoundrel uttered more nonsense!" answered Wang Wanren. "He said: 'Is there someone called Sun Wannian? And also someone named Zhu Wanchun? Come out, both of you!' By then, we had reached the ends of our tethers, so the nine of us went out together, only to find the courtyard empty. There was no one there, so we started looking for him. I went up to the roof, but I did not see anyone at all. Then, Younger Brother Ke went into the room next to ours for a look. The door had been ajar. There was only a lighted candle in the room and nothing else. We felt that the whole affair was very strange."

"Suddenly, we heard the scoundrel's voice coming from our room! He said: 'Sun Wannian, Zhu Wanchun, why did both of you stare at my grand- daughter on the road to Jingzhou? Why did you pass frivolous comments and exchange lecherous looks? My grand-daughter may be young, but she is quite pretty. You beasts! You must have been entertaining dirty ideas in your hearts! So I am not accusing you unjustly, am I? Come in here at
 
once!' Brother Sun and Brother Zhu became so angry that they rushed into the room with their swords. Brother Geng said: 'Be careful! Let us attack together!' Just then, the light in the room went out. Everything fell silent. I shouted: 'Brother Sun, Brother Zhu!', but they did not respond. There were no sounds of clashing weapons in the room either. A chill entered our hearts. We quickly shook a fire-booklet(5) alight, and saw our two brothers kneeling on the floor with their swords by their sides."

"Brother Geng and I rushed forward.   When we tried to pull Brother Sun and Brother Zhu to their feet, they collapsed. They were dead, but there were no injuries or other marks on their bodies. We do not know what strange methods the old scoundrel used to murder them. Much to our embarrassment, we have not seen the scoundrel or his impish grand- daughter since."

Ke Wanjun chipped in: "Well, we did not notice the two on the road to Jingzhou. Even if Brother Sun and Brother Zhu had actually looked at his grand-daughter, it should not have been such a big issue."

Shi Qing and Min Rou nodded. For a moment, no one spoke.
Then, Shi Qing said, "Brother Geng, when did that niezhang(6) cause so much trouble in Lingxiao City?"

"On the tenth day of the twelfth month," answered Geng Wanzhong.

Shi Qing nodded. "Today is the twelfth day of the third month," he said. "Three months have passed since Brother Bai left Lingxiao City, so he must have burnt Xuansu Manor down a long time ago. Brother Geng, Brother Wang, firstly, my wife and I will have to track that niezhang down. Once he is captured, we will have him tied up and sent to Lingxiao City, so that our apologies may be offered to Old Master Bai, Brother Feng and Brother Bai. Secondly, we want to investigate the movements of 'Not More Than Three A Day' Ding Busan. Since my wife and I are unable to move him to visit your school, we will supply Old Master Bai with the
 
information he needs to personally put an end to this matter. We take our leave!" He raised his clasped fists and bowed.

"Is ... is that all?" asked Ke Wanjun. "Are you leaving us with just a few sentences?"

"Brother Ke, do you have something to say?" asked Shi Qing in return.

"Since we cannot find your son, we have no alternatives but to invite you and your wife to Lingxiao City," answered Ke Wanjun. "You can see our teacher and present him with a suitable explanation for the matter."

"We will naturally have to visit Lingxiao City," said Shi Qing, "but there must first be signs of positive outcomes for the issues at hand."

Ke Wanjun looked at Geng Wanzhong. Then, he looked at Wang Wanren. Finally, he said in a huff, "If our teacher knows that we have met you but failed to invite you for a visit ... then ... then ..."

Shi Qing understood his intent. Ke Wanjun was thinking of seizing victory by sheer numbers and taking the couple to the Great Snow Mountain by force. Since they could not capture the son, the parents would do as well. Hence, Shi Qing said, "Old Master Bai enjoys high prestige and commands universal respect as the pillar of strength in the Western Frontiers, and I have always honoured him as if he was my own teacher. If Brother Bai were here on his father's orders and wanted us to visit Lingxiao City, we would naturally obey him. But now ... mmm, let us do it this way!"

Removing the black scabbard and sword from his waist, he turned to Min Rou and said, "Remove your sword as well."

His wife did as she was told.

Shi Qing took the pair of swords in his hands and presented them horizontally to Geng Wanzhong. "Brother Geng," he said, "please hold our weapons in your custody."
 
Geng Wanzhong knew that the razor-sharp Twin Swords of Black and White were among the rarest blades in the martial arts circle. Shi Qing and Min Rou loved them as dearly as their own lives, so the act of handing the swords over meant that they were honouring the Snow Mountain School. Consequently, the couple would have to visit Lingxiao City to retrieve their blades.

Geng Wanzhong wanted to say a few modest words, but Ke Wanjun spoke first: "My niece's life, Brother Feng's arm, my teacher's wife's departure, Sister-in-Law Bai's madness, as well as Brother Sun and Brother Zhu's meaningless deaths ... can these two metal swords really make up for them all? Brother Geng may have a friendship with you, but I, Ke, do not know you at all! Shi, you must go to Lingxiao City today regardless of whether you want to or not!"

Shi Qing smiled. "My son has offended your school deeply," he said. "Yet, there is nothing I can say beyond words of apology and guilt. Brother Ke, you are an up-and-coming Snow Mountain disciple with strong martial arts skills. Although I have yet to make your acquaintance, I have long admired you."   As he spoke, he continued holding the pair of swords in his hands and waited for Geng Wanzhong to receive them.

Ke Wanjun thought: An intense fight is unavoidable if we want to take these two people back to the Great Snow Mountain with us. But it is good that the man has voluntarily presented us with their weapons, a true example of the saying, 'He who sins should not live'. Concerned that Shi Qing might suddenly renege on his word and take back the swords, Ke Wanjun took two steps forward, put his hands out and grabbed the swords tightly with the seizing techniques of the Snow Mountain School. "In that case, give us your weapons," he said.

As he retracted his arms, he suddenly felt a very strong suction coming from Shi Qing's palms that caused the swords to remain tenaciously stuck to them. As a result, Ke Wanjun could not take them away. Shocked, he tugged forcefully at the weapons with the strength of his arms and a shout: "Rise!"
 
At that moment, the suction in Shi Qing's palms vanished.   A loud crack was heard, followed by a cry of pain: "A-yo!" Ke Wanjun's wrists were both dislocated.   Apparently, he had exerted a force of several hundred jin (1 jin is about 500g) on the swords when he tried to take them. With the suction gone, the entire weight of the force acted on his own wrists and dislocated them.

Ke Wanjun's fingers loosened and the swords fell back into Shi Qing's hands.

All the onlookers could clearly see that Shi Qing's palms had been open during the brief episode. None of his fingers had moved. So it was entirely Ke Wanjun's fault for exerting his strength in an erroneous way that resulted in having his wrists broken by several hundred jin of force.

Both hurt and angered, Ke Wanjun lifted his right leg and sent a forceful kick towards Shi Qing's abdomen.

"Do not be rude!" shouted Geng Wanzhong at once, pulling his brother away by the back of his shirt and causing the kick to miss its target. He knew the extent of Shi Qing's internal strength. If the kick had struck him, Ke Wanjun's right leg would certainly have broken.

Since Geng Wanzhong's knowledge of martial arts was significantly higher, he took a breath and directed his energy to each of his ten fingers before reaching slowly for the swords. As soon as the tips of his fingers touched the weapons, his body shook, as if he had just had an electrical shock. A burst of heat filled his chest, indicating that Shi Qing had channelled his energy through the swords to himself. Oh no! thought Geng Wanzhong in dismay. Shi Qing has prepared this trap to draw me into a duel of internal strength.

Duels of internal strength between martial arts practitioners were known to be the most dangerous of combat undertakings. With no room for manoeuvrering, the strong would survive but the weak would often die. If the internal strength of one party did not differ much from that of the other, the pair would often carry the fight on until one or both of them died. On
 
occasions where one or both parties wanted to stop the duel or give in to the opponent after a while, he/they would also be unable to do so.

Thus hindered by the circumstances, Geng Wanzhong had no alternatives but to exercise his internal strength in defence.   Hence, he did not expect the force of his own energy to rebound as soon as it hit that of his opponent.

Shi Qing turned his palms over lightly and placed the swords into Geng Wanzhong's hands. "We are brothers, so how can we ruin the relationship between us?" he said with a smile. "We take our leave!"

By then, Geng Wanzhong had broken into cold sweat, for his internal strength was really far beneath Shi Qing's: How could I be his match when the force of my energy rebounded as soon as it met his? Besides, he was already being very merciful by preventing me from injury and shame. Thus, Geng Wanzhong stood dumbfounded and embarrassed with the twin swords in his hands.

"We had better go to Bianliang City," said Shi Qing to his wife.

Min Rou's eyes turned red again.   "Our child ...," she began, only to have her husband shake his head and reply, "I would rather he suffer the same fate as Jian'er and be killed by someone's sabre. That would be a quick solution."

Tears rolled down Min Rou's cheeks: "You ... you ..."

Taking her by the hand, Shi Qing led Min Rou to the white horse and helped her onto the saddle. As the disciples of the Snow Mountain School watched the scene, they could hardly believe that this fragile-looking woman was the impressive 'Sword of Moral Integrity' that shook the realm of the rivers and lakes.

As the Twin Swords of Black and White rode away, Hua Wanzi returned. By then, Wang Wanren had already set Ke Wanjun's dislocated wrists, but the latter was still cursing his opponent at the top of his voice. After
 
ascertaining the cause of her brother's condition, she frowned and said, "Brother Geng, I am afraid this matter is not right."

"Why?" asked Geng Wanzhong. "Our opponents are so highly skilled in martial arts that all seven of us would not have detained them even if we worked together. Now that we have their weapons, we will be able to explain ourselves when we return to Lingxiao City." As he spoke, he unsheathed the swords. The White Sword was as cold as ice, while the Black Sword was as dark as ink. The weapons exuded such a spine-chilling air that Geng Wanzhong's muscles began to ache involuntarily, testifying that these were indeed rare and treasured blades. "Well, the swords are certainly real!" he said.

"Of course they are!" answered Hua Wanzi. "Since we are unable to detain the owners of these swords, do you think we have the ability to keep these blades?"

Alerted, Geng Wanzhong responded with a question of his own: "What do you think, Sister Hua?"

"Last year, while I was chatting with Sister-in-Law Bai about valuable swords and sabres, the little scoundrel Shi Zhongyu interrupted us and bragged about his parents' swords," replied Hua Wanzi. "He said that the Twin Swords of Black and White ranked as two of the sharpest blades under the sun. He also said that his parents were more willing to part with him and send him to the Snow Mountain School than to part with the swords. Apparently, they did not seem bothered about leaving their son for several years, but could not be separated from their swords for even a day. Although Manor-Master Shi has given us the swords, he might take them back in a few days with a devious scheme. How then would we handle him when he shows up in Lingxiao City later and asks for the weapons to be returned?"

"The seven of us will just have to keep our eyes on the swords," said Ke Wanjun. "After all, the swords cannot grow wings and fly away."

As for Geng Wanzhong, he muttered to himself for a while before speaking up: "Sister Hua's words are not mere statements of over-anxiety. Shi Qing
 
is not an ordinary man, so we must exercise extra caution so that we do not stumble again."

"It is always right to be careful," said Wang Wanren. "From this day forth, six of us men will take turns guarding this pair of cursed swords each night." After a pause, he added, "Brother Geng, Shi is now in Bianliang. Should we go there too?"

Geng Wanzhong thought: If I say that we should not go to Bianliang, I may give the impression of fearing the enemy. Furthermore, it will be very embarrassing in the future to say that I have passed by a renowned city of the Central Province without actually visiting it. Yet, it is terribly risky to enter Bianliang with the swords while Shi Qing and his wife are there.

As he muttered indecisively, a burst of loud rebukes was heard. A party of errand-runners for the governing authorities appeared on the main road, followed by four men bearing a large sedan-chair with heavy woollen covers in green. A person of governing authority had arrived.

Geng Wanzhong thought: Bandits have just pillaged and killed in Hou Jian Ji, so the seven of us cannot avoid being suspected of the crime simply by the act of gathering here with our swords. Things will become troublesome when the authorities are involved. Hence, he glanced at his team and said, "Let us go!"

Just as they were walking quickly away, one of the errand-runners called out: "Stop the murderous bandits! The murderous bandits are making their escape!"

Geng Wanzhong ignored the shouts. Waving his hand, he urged his team to hurry on.

Just then, the errand-runner shouted: "The murderer's name is Bai Zizai, the leader of the Snow Mountain School who has grown old enough to die! The weak and dishonest Bai Zizai kills for wealth! How dangerous!"

All seven of the disciples of the Snow Mountain School reacted in surprise and anger, for their teacher, Bai Zizai, was actually known as the
 
'Gentleman of Impressive Strength and Virtue'. The errand-runner was already very rude to call out Bai Zizai's name in full, yet he carried his audacity a step further and referred to the man as 'weak and dishonest'.

Wang Wanren unsheathed his sword and shouted: "Son of a bitch! Let me cut off his rude tongue first!"

"Wait, Brother Wang," said Geng Wanzhong. "How did the governing authorities come to know about the name and title of our teacher? There must be an instigator behind them."   Almost at once, he leapt forward, raised his clasped fists and asked, "Who is the official who has come?"

A soft *zip* was heard before a projectile flew out of the sedan-chair and struck the Fu Tu acupoint on Geng Wanzhong's leg.   The projectile was very small but it moved with a tremendous amount of power.

His leg weakened, Geng Wanzhong fell to the ground. Unfazed, he lifted the sword in his hand and threw it forcefully towards the sedan-chair. Although he was no longer standing, this stroke -- called 'The Crane Flies to the Highest Heavens' (He4 Fei1 Jiu3 Tian1) -- was executed with such viciousness and accuracy that the sword ripped straight through the curtain of the sedan-chair. From the looks of things, the person inside -- the one who threw the projectile -- had been stabbed.

As delight filled his heart, Geng Wanzhong noticed that the four sedan-chair bearers were still running swiftly with their load. Then, quite unexpectedly, a horse-whip flew out of the sedan chair and wrapped itself around Wang Wanren's left leg. A pull and a sweep later, Wang Wanren was thrown aside. But the Inky Sword in his hands was gone, taken by the horsewhip.

"Is that Manor-Master Shi?" asked Hua Wanzi in a loud voice. At the same time, she unsheathed the White Sword and sent it towards the horsewhip. Another *zip* was heard as a second hidden weapon came flying out of the sedan-chair and struck Hua Wanzi on the wrist. Reeling in pain, she dropped the White Sword at once.

One of Hua Wanzi's brothers-at-arms quickly went forward to put his foot on the precious weapon. Just then, something flew out of the sedan-chair
 
and covered his head. The sudden loss of sight caused him to leap back hurriedly. Grabbing the object on his head and throwing it to the ground, he soon discovered that it was just an officer's hat. By then, the horsewhip had already wrapped itself around the White Sword and was in the midst of pulling it into the sedan-chair.

With a shout, Ke Wanjun and the others set off in pursuit of the stolen swords. A volley of *zips* followed as a stream of hidden weapons went forth from the sedan-chair and struck the Snow Mountain disciples on the face and the waist. Although none of these weapons were aimed at vital body parts, they managed to cause an extraordinary degree of pain. When the disciples took a look at the weapons that hit them, they were dumbfounded to see that these were buttons of yellow bronze. Apparently, these buttons had been pulled off some garments just before they were used as weapons.

By then, the disciples of the Snow Mountain School were quite certain that Shi Qing was the occupant of the sedan-chair.   Perhaps, even his wife was in there with him. So if they went forward and engaged the couple in a fight, they would simply end up with dust-covered heads and faces.

Ke Wanjun was so angry that he yelled like a child: "The young of the Shi Family is ridiculous and shameless, while the old are shameless and ridiculous! They say that they would leave their weapons behind, only to appear a moment later and snatch them away!"

As for Wang Wanren, he pointed a finger at the fast-disappearing sedan- chair and cursed its occupants at the top of his voice: "Scoundrels! Bastards!" He even jumped up and down on both feet.

Finally, Geng Wanzhong said, "If word of this matter gets out, it will bring no good to the reputation of the Snow Mountain School. We had better keep our mouths shut for now, until we get home and report the matter to our teacher." Looking back, he felt that their trip had been frought with nothing but trouble. He had always had an air of arrogance back in Lingxiao City, for he had considered the pugilistic techniques of the Snow Mountain School to be absolutely peerless. Yet, his hands and legs were
 
tied when these very techniques were used in actual combat. Hence, he could not help but sigh deeply as dejection filled his heart.

Definitions and/or words left (mostly) in their original form:

1. Jianghu = literally, "realm of the rivers and lakes".

2. Xuansu Manor = literally, Manor of "The Black and the White".

3.Lingxiao City = literally, City of "Reaching Up to Heaven".

4.Philtrum = the vertical groove on the median line of the upper lip.

5.Fire-booklet (huo3 zhe2) = a portable instrument that produces a small flame when shaken.

6.Niezhang (nie4 zhang4) = in this context, an offensive label for children that considers them as mediums of retribution for their parents' sins; also known as 'ye4 zhang4'.]

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