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The Deer and the Cauldron Chapter 15

CSI

Chapter 15
Alliance undergoing concern over the wind and the rain, with a casual order roaming the extensive Rivers and Mountains.

Hearing the sound of gongs, Kangxi draped his clothes over his shoulder and got up, an Imperial Bodyguard came to report that something bad had happened in the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, but as for the details, he was not clear. Kangxi was feeling anxious when Wei Xiaobao came in; he hurriedly asked, “Is Empress Dowager well? What happened?”

Wei Xiaobao replied, “The Empress Dowager told your servant to retire to my own room for the night, and to come back tomorrow to the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful. Who would have thought … who would have thought something bad happened in the Palace. I don’t know what it is, your servant is trying to find out.”

“I am going to pay my respect to the Empress Dowager,” Kangxi said, “You come with me.”

“Yes,” Wei Xiaobao replied.

Kangxi was very filial to the queen mother, without changing clothes, he draped a long robe over his shoulder and hurriedly went out the door. While walking quickly he asked, “Empress Dowager wanted you to serve her, why did you come to my place?”

“Your servant heard the sound of gongs, I was concerned over Your Majesty’s safety, so I rushed over,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “I really … really deserve to die.”

As soon as Kangxi left his bedroom, the eunuchs around him, as well as a large number of Imperial Bodyguards, followed him, more than a dozen lanterns were lighted all around them. He noticed Wei Xiaobao’s clothes and hair was in a complete mess, but how could he guess that it was because Wei Xiaobao had been crawling underneath the Empress Dowager’s bed? He thought it was because of his loyalty in protecting his master, his wholehearted concern over the Emperor’s safety that without having enough time to change properly, he rushed to the Emperor’s room; Kangxi was quite pleased and was reassured.

Walking several more zhang ahead, two Imperial Bodyguards rushed over and reported, “The assassins broke into the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, they killed an eunuch and a palace maid.”

Kangxi hurriedly asked, “Was the Empress Dowager’s sacred self being disturbed?”

“Dolong Zongguan has already had the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful surrounded tightly to protect the Empress Dowager,” the Imperial Bodyguard replied. Kangxi was slightly relieved.

In his heart, Wei Xiaobao said, “Even if he led a hundred thousand troops and horses to protect the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, it’s already too late.”

It was not too far from the Palace of Heavenly Purity to the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful; they arrived after winding around the Hall of Mental Cultivation and the Taiji [Supreme Ultimate] Hall. They saw the area was as bright as daytime with lanterns and torches, row after row of several hundred Imperial Bodyguards surrounded the Palace, perhaps even a mouse would not be able to pass through, let alone any assassin. Seeing the Emperor, the Imperial Bodyguards kneeled down together. Kangxi waved his hand while quickly entered the Palace. Wei Xiaobao lifted the curtain on the door. Kangxi walked through the door and saw the chests, baskets, and all kinds of stuffs scattered around the bedroom, blood flowed everywhere, two corpses lay on the floor; he was so scared that his heart was thumping madly. “Empress Dowager, Empress Dowager!” he called.

From the bed came the reply in low voice, “Is it the Emperor? Don’t worry, I am alright.” It was the Empress Dowager’s voice.

To say that Wei Xiaobao was mildly shocked was an understatement; he thought, “The old wh0re did not die. I was really muddleheaded, why didn’t I stab my dagger onto her body? She is not dead, I may be dead soon.” Turning his head around, he was thinking of running away, but outside was fully packed with the Imperial Bodyguards; if he ran away, in less than three steps he would have been captured by them. In his fright his legs went weak, his head dizzy, he felt he was about to collapse.

Kangxi rushed toward the bed and said, “Empress Dowager, you, Senior, were frightened. Child was not able to protect you satisfactorily, it was a grave sin indeed. Those rice bucket Imperial Bodyguards must be punished severely.”

Panting, the Empress Dowager said, “No … nothing. It was just an eunuch and a palace maid fighting … they ended up killing each other. It has nothing to do with the Imperial Bodyguards.”

“Is the Empress Dowager well?” Kangxi asked, “Has it alarmed you?”

“It hasn’t!” the Empress Dowager replied, “I was just angry looking at those servants. Emperor, you may leave; tell everybody to go away.”

Kangxi said, “Quickly summon the imperial physician to check the Empress Dowager’s pulse.” Wei Xiaobao was hiding behind him, he did not dare to comply, for fear that the Empress Dowager would see him, or recognize his voice as soon as he opened his mouth.

The Empress Dowager said, “No, don’t summon the imperial physician, I will feel better after sleeping. You don’t need to move these two people’s … these two servants’ bodies … My heart is really troubled, I don’t want to hear people making noise in here. Emperor, tell … tell everybody to leave quickly.” Her voice sounded very weak, she was gasping for breath, obviously the injury she received was not light.

Kangxi was very anxious, but he did not dare to disobey. Actually, he wanted very much to investigate thoroughly why these eunuch and palace maid fight, so that the Empress Dowager was this angry. Although the two of them had died, they had committed such a big crime that their family members must be examined. However, listening to the Empress Dowager, it was obvious that she did not want this matter to be made public, so much so she did not even allow the bodies to be removed. He had no choice but to pay his respect to the Empress Dowager and withdrew from the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful.

Having narrowly escaped from mortal danger, Wei Xiaobao’s legs were still weak, holding on to the wall, he also walked out. Kangxi was busy thinking with his head down, he thought that what happened tonight in the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful was quite major, there must be a secret in it, but the Empress Dowager clearly did not want him to get involved. Only after walking with head hung low for a good while did he finally look up and saw Wei Xiaobao was following behind him. “The Empress Dowager wanted you to serve her,” he said, “Why are you following me here?”

Wei Xiaobao was thinking that come daybreak he was going to run away from the Palace anyway, hence he felt there was no harm in him saying whatever came into his mind. “The Empress Dowager has just said that her heart is really troubled, she would be angry at the sight of an eunuch. Seeing the Empress Dowager’s holy self is not too well, your servant thought that it would be better to leave her so that she won’t be annoyed.” Kangxi nodded.

Returning to his personal chamber at the Palace of Heavenly Purity, he waited until all the eunuchs serving him had withdrawn before saying, “Xiao Guizi, stay here!” Wei Xiaobao complied.

Kangxi paced back and forth from east to west and back from west to east. After quite a while he asked, “What do you think, why did that eunuch fight the palace maid to their deaths?”

“I may not be able to guess correctly,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “There are so many palace maids and eunuchs with very bad temper in the Palace, they quarrel frequently, sometimes they fight in secret, it’s just that they never let the Empress Dowager and Your Majesty know.”

Kangxi nodded. “Go tell everybody not to mention this matter anymore to avoid provoking the Empress Dowager’s anger,” he said.

“Yes!” Wei Xiaobao replied.

Kangxi said, “You may go!”

Wei Xiaobao paid his respect, turned around and left, thinking, “This time I leave, I will never see you again.” He turned his head around to cast another glance at Kangxi.

Kangxi was also looking at him with a smiling expression on his face. “Come back here,” he said. Wei Xiaobao turned around and walked back. Kangxi opened a golden box by the head of his bed and took out two pieces of pastry. “We have been busy for half a day, your tummy must be very hungry!” he said with a laugh, and then gave the pastries to him.

Wei Xiaobao received the pastries with both hands, thinking that the Empress Dowager was dangerously ruthless, she concealed a man in her bedroom; there would come a day where she would harm the Emperor, while the Emperor was kept in the dark inside a drum, he did not know anything. The Emperor treated him very well, just like a friend or a brother, if he did not make the Emperor aware of this matter and he was killed by the Empress Dowager, Wei Xiaobao thought he was really lacking yi qi. Thinking to this point, a vision appeared in his mind, in which all the muscles and bones in Kangxi’s entire body were broken, his corpse lying on the ground in a miserable condition. His heart ached, he could not hold tears from flowing out of his eyes.

“What is it?” Kangxi asked with a smile, he reached out and patted Wei Xiaobao’s shoulder, saying, “You want to be with me, don’t you? That’s easy; wait till the Empress Dowager is feeling better in a few days, I will talk to the Empress Dowager. To be honest, I also do not want to lose you.”

Wei Xiaobao was overwhelmed with excitement; he thought, “Tao Gong’e said that if I tell the Emperor the truth, he would unavoidably want to kill me to shut my mouth. A hero or a warrior can do anything, but has no choice but to uphold yi qi. If a real man must die, so be it.” Placing the two pieces of pastry on the table, he grabbed Kangxi’s hand and with a trembling voice said, “Xiao Xuanzi, can I call you Xiao Xuanzi again?”

Kangxi laughed and said, “Of course you can. I have already said that whenever there’s nobody else around, we will be just like in the past. You want to have a martial art contest, don’t you? Come, come, come, let the horse come out.” While saying that, he flipped his hands to grab Wei Xiaobao’s hands.

“There’s no hurry to have a martial art contest,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I have a secret important matter I want to tell my good friend Xiao Xuanzi. I simply cannot tell my master, the Lord of Ten Thousand Years, if His Majesty hears it, he will immediately chop my head. But Xiao Xuanzi is my friend, so it is alright.”

Kangxi did not know the gravity of this matter; in his young frame of mind, he only felt that this was all very amusing. Hurriedly he pulled Wei Xiaobao to sit side-by-side on the bed and said, “Tell me quick, tell me quick!”

Wei Xiaobao said, “At this moment you are Xiao Xuanzi, and not the Emperor?”

Kangxi smiled. “Right,” he said, “Right now I am your good friend Xiao Xuanzi, not the Emperor. I have been the Emperor all day long, without any really caring friend; there is no fun in that.”

“Alright,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I’ll tell you everything. If you want to chop my head, I can’t do anything about it.”

Kangxi smiled and said, “Why would I want to chop your head? How can a good friend kill his good friend?”

Wei Xiaobao took a very deep breath, and then said, “I am not the real Xiao Guizi, I am not a eunuch, I killed the real Xiao Guizi.”

Kangxi was flabbergasted. “What?” he asked.

And so Wei Xiaobao briefly narrated his family background and his origin, followed by how he was captured and brought to the Palace, how he poisoned Hai Dafu that he turned blind, how he pretended to be Xiao Guizi, how Hai Dafu taught him martial art; he explained everything in detail.

Listening to this part, Kangxi laughed and said, “Damn it, take your pants off, let me see.”

Wei Xiaobao knew that the Emperor was astute, how could he not personally verify this kind of important matter? He took off his pants immediately.

Seeing Wei Xiaobao really had not been purified to be a eunuch, Kangxi laughed aloud and said, “Turns out you are not a eunuch. Killing the little eunuch Xiao Guizi is not that serious. It’s just that you can’t live in the Palace anymore. Otherwise I would assign you to be the Chief of the Imperial Bodyguards. Although that servant Dolong’s martial art is not bad, the way he handles his affairs is very muddleheaded.”

Wei Xiaobao buckled up his pants and said, “I thank you very much for that, but I am afraid it won’t work. I have heard some secrets relating to the Empress Dowager.”

“Related to the Empress Dowager?” Kangxi asked, “What is it?” When asking that question, there was a nagging feeling in his heart that something was not right.

Wei Xiaobao clenched his teeth and started to recount what he heard that night at the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, when the Empress Dowager was talking to Hai Dafu. When he heard that his father, the Emperor Shunzhi, had not died but had become a Buddhist monk at the Qing Liang Temple on Mount Wutai, Kangxi’s shock was not a small matter. This delight particularly had made him as if he was jolted and was giddy with excitement. He was shaking all over as he grabbed Wei Xiaobao’s hands and with a trembling voice said, “Is this … is this really true? My Fu Huang [father emperor] … Fu Huang is still alive?”

“It was exactly what I heard from the Empress Dowager and Hai Dafu,” Wei Xiaobao replied.

Kangxi stood up and loudly shout, “That’s … that’s marvelous! Marvelous! Xiao Guizi, come daybreak, we will go immediately to Mount Wutai to have an audience with Fu Huang, we will invite him, Senior, to return to the Palace.”

Kangxi ruled the land under the heavens, in everything he could do as he wish, his only regret in life was that his father and mother died prematurely. Sometimes in the middle of the night the memory of when his father and mother were still alive came back to him in a dream, and he could not bear but shedding some tears and weep. This moment, after listening to Wei Xiaobao, although unavoidably he had some doubt, he was so happy that his heart was turned upside down.

“I am afraid the Empress Dowager would not approve,” Wei Xiaobao said, “All along she concealed it from you, there must be an important reason behind it.”

“That’s true,” Kangxi said, “What reason that might be?” When he first heard that his father had not died, the delight had clouded his inner feelings, but as he thought about it further, countless doubts started to emerge.

Wei Xiaobao said, “I don’t understand anything about any important matters in the Palace, I can only repeat word for word everything that the Empress Dowager and Hai Dafu were saying.”

“Yes, yes!” Kangxi said, “Tell me quick, tell me quick!”

Hearing about how Empress Duan Jing and Empress Xiao Kang were harmed, Kangxi sprang up and shouted, “You … are you saying that Empress Xiao Kang was … was murdered?”

Seeing Kangxi’s expression underwent huge changes, his eyes were bulging, the muscles on his face were continuously twitching, Wei Xiaobao could not help but was scared; with a trembling voice he said, “I … I don’t know, I was only repeating what Hai Dafu told the Empress Dowager.”

“What did they say, exactly?” Kangxi asked, “You … repeat the whole thing.”

Wei Xiaobao had a very good memory, when he recounted the exchange between the Empress Dowager and Hai Dafu that night, even his intonation was very much alike those two people.

Kangxi was staring blankly for half a day; he said, “My own mother … my own mother was unexpectedly murdered by others?”

Wei Xiaobao said, “Empress Xiao Kang is … is … is your mother?”

Kangxi nodded. “You may continue,” he said, “Do not omit a single sentence.” His heart was broken, tears flowing down his face.

Wei Xiaobao then recounted how the murderer had used the ‘Transforming Bones Soft Palm’ to kill Empress Duan Jing’s son, Prince Rong, and then murdered Empress Duan Jing and Consort Zhen. After Emperor Shunzhi left home to become a Buddhist monk, the Empress Dowager murdered Empress Xiao Kang. He also recounted how the undertaker who prepared Empress Duan Jing and Consort Zhen for burial had accepted Hai Dafu’s order to visit the Mount Wutai and report everything to Emperor Shunzhi, how Emperor Shunzhi had sent Hai Dafu back to the Palace to make thorough investigation, and finally how the Empress Dowager and Hai Dafu had exchanged some palm strikes. He did not dare to say that it was he who killed Hai Dafu, he only said that because Hai Dafu was blind, he was not the Empress Dowager’s match, so that he died under her palms.

Kangxi calmed himself down, then he asked in detail what happened that night; he often cross-examined Wei Xiaobao by repeatedly asking the same question, until he was convinced that Wei Xiaobao could not possibly make up the story. He looked up in deep thought for a while, and then asked, “Why did you wait until today to tell me all these things?”

“The implication of this matter is too great,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “How can I dare to make irresponsible remarks? But tomorrow I am going to run away from the Palace, I won’t come back; I thought that it will be very dangerous for you to be alone in the Palace, so I can’t conceal it from you anymore.”

“Why do you want to go out of the Palace?” Kangxi asked, “Are you afraid the Empress Dowager will harm you?”

“Let me tell you this,” Wei Xiaobao said, “The palace maid who died at the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful tonight was a man, he was the Empress Dowager’s Shixiong.”

The fact that a palace maid in the Empress Dowager’s palace was actually a man was naturally unthinkable, but tonight Kangxi had just learned that his father, the late Emperor, unexpectedly was not dead, plus his own mother was murdered by the Empress Dowager, whom he had always had solemn affection to. When he heard that a palace maid was actually a man in disguise, he did not feel strange at all; besides the little eunuch in front of him turned out to be a fake eunuch. “How do you know?” he asked.

Wei Xiaobao said, “After I listened to the Empress Dowager and Hai Dafu that night, the Empress Dowager always wanted to kill me to shut my mouth.” Thereupon he told Kangxi everything, how the Empress Dowager had sent Rui Dong, Liu Yan, as well as groups of eunuchs one after another to kill him. He also related how he heard the Empress Dowager was talking to a man at the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, how that man, who disguised himself as a palace maid, was killed by the Empress Dowager, but the Empress Dowager also suffered injury. Naturally he did not tell the whole truth; he did not mention Tao Gong’e, neither did he mention anything about him killing Rui Dong and Liu Yan, and him stealing several copies of the ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’, and so on.

“That man was the Empress Dowager’s Shixiong?” Kangxi muttered to himself, “From the tone of his voice, it seems that the Empress Dowager was forced to accept someone else’s order, I wonder who that person might be? Could it be … could it be that person knew there was a fake palace maid in Empress Dowager’s bedroom, and thus …”

Listening to Kangxi touching upon the subject of Empress Dowager’s ‘adultery’, Wei Xiaobao did not dare to open his mouth, he only shook his head. It was only a moment later that he said, “I don’t have any idea.”

“Summon Dolong here,” Kangxi said.

Wei Xiaobao complied, he thought, “Is the Emperor going to deal with the Empress Dowager? Is he going to order Dolong to arrest the old wh0re and behead her? Shall I run away as quickly as possible? Or should I stay and help him?”

Dolong was just burning with anxiety; there was accident after accident in the Palace. Although the head above his neck might not be removed, the hat above his head, and the plume above his hat, might be highly unstable. Hearing that the Emperor had summoned him, he hastily came to the Palace of Heavenly Purity.

Kangxi instructed him, “There is nothing at the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, you may immediately withdraw the Imperial Bodyguards all around the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful. The Empress Dowager says that hearing the Imperial Bodyguards standing outside, her heart is very much troubled.”

Dolong noticed that although the Emperor’s expression looked rather strange, he did not say even half a word of blame. Dolong was ecstatic, he busily kowtowed and went out to transmit the order.

Kangxi’s heart was still filled with all kinds of suspicion; he asked Wei Xiaobao a lot of detailed questions. After a long time, he presumed all the Imperial Bodyguards had been withdrawn. He said, “Xiao Guizi, you and I will scout around the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful tonight.”

“Are you going to personally scout around?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

“Exactly!” Kangxi said. First, it was a matter of great importance, he could not simply listening to a little eunuch impersonator’s one sided story and suspected the queen mother who raised him up; second, ‘dangerous night spying mission’ was something that people who learn martial art must do. Now that an opportunity had presented itself, how could he let it off easily? He was the Emperor, he could not go out of the Palace to test his skill, being a ‘nightwalker’ in the Palace was better than nothing. It’s just that he had already ordered the Imperial Bodyguards around the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful to be withdrawn, so that when he did the ‘night mission’, it could not be compared to ‘wulin professionals’.

Wei Xiaobao said, “The Empress Dowager has already killed her Shixiong, right now she is sleeping peacefully to nurture her injuries, I am afraid we won’t find anything.”

“We haven’t gone scouting, how do you know we won’t find anything?” Kangxi said. Immediately he changed into a casual dress, and wore a pair of thin-soled light boots, it was precisely the same attire he always wore when he had martial art contest against Wei Xiaobao. He fetched a yaodao saber[1] from the head of his bed and hung it on his waist, then they went out from the Palace of Heavenly Purity’s side door.

Numerous Imperial Bodyguards and eunuchs were standing in layer upon layer on guard duty around the Palace of Heavenly Purity, as soon as they saw the Emperor, they all kneeled down hurriedly. Kangxi ordered, “Everybody stand, no one is allowed to move randomly.” It was the Emperor’s imperial edict, who would dare to disobey? Therefore, more than two hundred Imperial Bodyguards and eunuchs were standing straight on their original position, nobody dared to move.

Kangxi took Wei Xiaobao to the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful’s garden. It was very quiet, nobody was around. He crawled under the Empress Dowager’s bedroom window and crouched down to listen attentively. He heard the Empress Dowager was coughing incessantly, in that instant, his feeling bubbled up like a tide, it was a mixture of sorrow, bitterness, and excitement. Hearing the Empress Dowager’s coughing, he felt like he wanted to rush in and cry in her bosom, but he also wanted to wrap his fingers around her neck and interrogate her sternly: what actually happened to his father and his own queen mother? For a moment he hoped that everything Xiao Guizi told him was a lie, but he also hoped that it was entirely the truth. He did not stop shaking, all the hair on his body stood up on its end, a slight chill penetrated his bone and marrow.

The candle in the Empress Dowager’s bedroom was still burning, it flickered continuously, making the paper on the window pane sometimes bright, sometimes dark. After a while, he heard the voice of a palace maid saying, “Empress Dowager, I have finished sewing.”

“Hmm,” Empress Dowager said, “Put this palace maid … palace maid’s body inside … inside the quilt sack.”

“Yes,” the palace maid said, “What about the eunuch’s body?”

The Empress Dowager angrily said, “I only told you to wrap the palace maid, why do you … do you care about any eunuch?”

“Yes!” the palace maid busily said. And then they heard the noise of something was dragged along the floor.

Kangxi was unable to show restraint any longer, he craned his neck to peep through the crack on the window, but all the cracks on the Empress Dowager’s bedroom window had been sealed with greased lime, not even a narrow slit existed. In the former days, he had heard Wei Xiaobao’s story about the trick and taboo of the nightwalker of the Jianghu, which was passed on by Mao Shiba along the way from Yangzhou to Beijing. Now, seeing the window was without any crack, which was what he had expected, immediately he moistened his finger with his saliva and lightly wet the window paper, exerting a light force on his finger, he made a tiny hole on the window without making the slightest bit of noise.

Through the hole he could see the embroidered screen on the Empress Dowager’s bed was hanging low, a young palace maid was trying to stuff a body on the ground into a big cloth sack. The corpse was wearing palace maid attire, but the head was completely bald that it did not have even a single strand of hair. After stuffing the corpse into the sack, the palace maid picked up a wig from the floor. After hesitating for a moment, the palace maid also stuffed the wig into the sack; with a low voice she said, “Empress Dowager, I have finished … finished wrapping!”

The Empress Dowager said, “Have all the Imperial Bodyguards outside with drawn? I seem to hear some voices.”

The palace maid went to the door, looked out for a while, and then said, “There’s nobody outside.”

The Empress Dowager said, “Drag the sack to the lotus pond, put four large rocks into the sack, use … use string … (cough, cough) to tie the sack’s mouth, and then … and then … (cough, cough) push the sack into the pond.”

“Yes,” the palace maid replied, her voice trembled, obviously she was very afraid.

The Empress Dowager said, “After you push the sack into the pond, dig up a lot of dirt and toss it on top of the sack, don’t let anybody see it.”

“Yes,” the palace maid replied again, and then she dragged the sack out of the room and to the flower garden.

Kangxi thought, “Xiao Guizi said that that palace maid was a man, most likely he was right. If there was no huge secret surrounding this matter, why must the Empress Dowager sink the corpse into the pond to erase any trace of it?” Seeing Wei Xiaobao was standing by his side, he could not refrain from reaching out to grab his hand. Both of them felt the other’s hand was moist and cold.

A moment later they heard splashing noise as the sack containing the body fell into the lotus pond, followed by the sound of mud and dirt thrown into the pond. Another moment later the palace maid returned to the bedroom. Wei Xiaobao had already recognized her voice, she was Rui Chu, the little palace maid.

“Is everything done?” the Empress Dowager asked.

“Yes,” Rui Chu replied, “Everything is done.”

The Empress Dowager said, “There were originally two corpses in here, how come the other one suddenly disappear? If someone asks you tomorrow, how are you going to explain?”

Rui Chu said, “Your servant … your servant does not know anything.”

“You are serving me in here, how can you not know anything?” the Empress Dowager said.

“Yes, yes!” Rui Chu said.

“What do you mean ‘Yes, yes!’?” the Empress Dowager angrily said.

With a trembling voice Rui Chu said, “Your servant saw that dead palace maid stood up, turns out she was only injured, she did not die at all. She slowly … slowly walked out. That time … that time the Empress Dowager was sleeping peacefully, your servant did not dare to alarm the Empress Dowager, I saw the palace maid walked out of the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, I don’t know … I don’t know where she went.”

The Empress Dowager sighed and said, “So that’s what happened. Amitabha Buddha, she is not dead but walked out on her own. That’s very good.”

“Exactly,” Rui Chu said, “Thank the Heaven and thank the Earth, she is not dead.”

Kangxi and Wei Xiaobao waited a moment longer, the Empress Dowager did not speak anymore, she seemed to fall asleep; therefore, they quietly, step-by-step, left and returned to the Palace of Heavenly Purity. They saw the Imperial Bodyguards and eunuchs were still standing straight, motionless. Kangxi laughed and said, “Everybody can move as you wish!” Although he was laughing, the sound of his laughter and his speech was very dry and heavy.

Back to his bedroom, he fixed his gaze on Wei Xiaobao and did not say anything for a long time. Suddenly tears flowing down his face, he said, “Turns out Empress Dowager … Empress Dowager …” Wei Xiaobao was at a loss of what to say.

Kangxi thought for a moment longer, then he clapped his hands, two Imperial Bodyguards appeared on the bedroom door. Kangxi said in a low voice, “I have a secret mission I want the two of you to do, but you must never leak it out. There is a large sack in the lotus pond in the garden of the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, I want the two of you to bring it here. The Empress Dowager is sleeping peacefully, if you two make the least bit of noise and awaken the Empress Dowager, you will lose your own heads.” The two guards bowed in compliance and left. Kangxi was still sitting on his bed, silently pondering everything over and over in his head.

A good half a day[2] later, finally the two Imperial Bodyguards, lifting a dripping wet big cloth sack, came back outside the bedroom door.

“Did you wake up the Empress Dowager?” Kangxi asked.

The two Imperial Bodyguards replied together, “Your servants do not dare.”

Kangxi nodded. “Bring it in!” he said. The two Imperial Bodyguards complied, they brought the cloth sack in. “You are dismissed!” Kangxi said.

Wei Xiaobao waited until the Imperial Bodyguards had left, and then he closed and bolted the door before untying the rope on the sack’s mouth and dragging the corpse out. Although the corpse’s face was clean-shaven, the hair roots were clearly visible. There was a lump on the corpse’s throat, and its chest was flat, undoubtedly it was a male. The muscles on this man’s entire body were bulging, his knuckles were protruding, a sure sign of someone who had an extensive training in martial art. Apparently this man masquerade a palace maid in the Palace only recently, otherwise, with this kind of appearance, which was ugly even for a man, how could he masquerade as a palace maid and not being discovered?

Kangxi drew out his yaodao and cut open the man’s pants. After taking a glance, his anger rose; brandishing his saber repeatedly, he chopped the part between the corpse’s loins into a pulp.

Wei Xiaobao said, “The Empress Dowager …”

“What Empress Dowager?” Kangxi angrily said, “That s1ut forced my Fu Huang to leave, murdered my mother, defiled the imperial court with illicit sexual relations, and did many injustice. I … I want to cut her body into ten thousand pieces and execute her whole family unto the third generation.”

Wei Xiaobao heaved a deep sigh; immediately he felt relieved, “The Emperor no longer recognize her as the Empress Dowager, whatever bad things that old wh0re has done, I know everything, he can’t possibly kill me to shut my mouth.”

Kangxi raised his saber and hacked the corpse several more times, momentarily his indignation was difficult to endure. He was thinking of sending some Imperial Bodyguards to detain and interrogate the Empress Dowager, but then he had a second thought, “Fu Huang is not dead, but became a monk on Mount Wutai; this is a very important matter. As soon as this information leaks out, it will create quite a sensation among the officers and common people of the world. I must not act recklessly.” Thereupon he said, “Xiao Guizi, early tomorrow morning, I will go with you to Mount Wutai to verify the truth.”

“Yes!” Wei Xiaobao replied. He was extremely delighted. Traveling together with the Emperor, going to Mount Wutai was definitely more fun than being stifled in Beijing.

But Kangxi’s knowledge, experience and understanding was far above Wei Xiaobao’s, after a careful consideration, he immediately remembered that when the Emperor was going on an inspection tour, it was an extremely grand occasion, which would require at least several months of preparations. Along the way, hundreds of government officials must be prepared to welcome and protect the Emperor; it would be a lot of trouble, he could not simply go whenever he wanted to. He also remembered his own young age, he had not taken over the government for too long, the princes, dukes, and the ministers of the imperial court had not submitted to him yet; if the Empress Dowager seized the opportunity while he was out of the Capital to seize the government and usurp power, he should consider that she might oust him and set up another ruler in his place. Moreover, if his father emperor was in fact dead, or perhaps he was still alive, but was no longer on Mount Wutai, while with much fanfare he went up the mountain to seek an audience, but failed to see the old Emperor, not only he would be the laughingstock of all the people in the world, but he would be ridiculed by the later generations as well.

After thinking for a while, he shook his head and said, “It’s no good, I can’t casually leave the Capital. Xiao Guizi, you must go for me.”

Wei Xiaobao was quite disappointed, “I must go alone?” he asked.

“You must go alone,” Kangxi said, “Wait until we investigate clearly that Fu Huang is indeed on Mount Wutai, I will fix a good way to deal with that s1ut in the Capital, then the two of us will go up the mountain together. It’s a completely safe plan.”

Wei Xiaobao thought that since the Emperor already decided to deal with the Empress Dowager, he could not easily decline to go alone to Mount Wutai for an inquiry. “Alright,” he said, “I’ll go to Mount Wutai.”

Kangxi said, “According to our Great Qing’s customs, an eunuch cannot leave the Capital unless he is accompanying me. It’s good that you are actually not a court eunuch. Xiao Guizi, later on you won’t be a eunuch anymore, you’d better be an Imperial Bodyguard. However, everybody in the Palace has already known you, if you suddenly cease to be an eunuch, they will feel strange. Um, I can declare to the people that in order to capture Oboi, you received my order to disguise yourself as a eunuch. Now that the prime criminal has been eliminated, naturally the masquerade cannot continue. Xiao Guizi, in the future you must study a bit, I will appoint you as a high-ranking official.”

“That’s nice!” Wei Xiaobao said, “But I have a headache as soon as I see a book. I will study a little bit less, then you can appoint me as a little bit lower-ranking official.”

Kangxi sat in front of the table, he raised his writing brush and started to write a letter to his father the Emperor: he reported clearly that he had been unfilial, that only today he learned that Fu Huang was still alive, that his heart was unusually happy, that he would go up the mountain in the next few days to respectfully welcome the Emperor’s holy self back to the Palace, to again manage the ten thousand affairs of the state, while the son would also receive a parent’s favor once again. But after thinking several more lines of characters, he suddenly thought, “If this letter fell into a wrong hand, it would be greatly inappropriate. If Xiao Guizi got captured or even killed, this letter could be found by others.”

He took the sheet with half a page already written, and burned it over the flame of the candle, and then he took up his writing brush and wrote: “Imperial edict: the Imperial Bodyguard Deputy Chief Wei Xiaobao, hereby being granted by the Emperor himself to wear Yellow Magua[3], is being sent to visit the Wutai Mountain region on official business. Various provinces’ civil and military officials are ordered to give assistance. By the Emperor himself.” Finished writing, he affixed the imperial seal and handed it over to Wei Xiaobao, saying with a laugh, “Now you are an officer, take a look, what officer are you?”

Wei Xiaobao opened his eyes wide, but all he could recognize was his own name, the character ‘five’ [‘wu’ from wutai], ‘one’ [‘yi’ from ‘yidai’ – region], and ‘civil’ [‘wen’ from ‘wenwu’ – civil and military], six characters altogether. But he only recognized the character ‘wei’ and ‘bao’ of his name simply because they came on either side of the character ‘xiao’, if they were standing alone, he would not have recognized them. He shook his head and said, “I don’t know what officer. It is personally appointed by Your Majesty, so it can’t be a petty official, can it?”

Kangxi laughed and read the imperial order. Wei Xiaobao stuck out his tongue and said, “It’s Deputy Chief of the Imperial Bodyguards; awesome, awesome! And I get to wear the Yellow Magua?”

Kangxi smiled and said, “Although Dolong is the Chief, he does not get to wear the Yellow Magua. If you handle this assignment well, when you return to the Palace I will promote your official position. It’s just that you are still too young, if your position is too high, it would be too unseemly. We’ll do it slowly.”

“High-ranking or low-ranking official, I don’t care,” Wei Xiaobao said, “As long as I can be with you frequently, it would be very good.”

Kangxi was both happy and sad, he said, “You must be very careful, your mission is top secret, if not absolutely necessary, do not show this imperial edict to anybody. You may go now!”

Wei Xiaobao bade Kangxi farewell, he saw a streak of marble white color of the dawn on the eastern horizon. He returned to his residence, quietly opened the door and came in. Fang Yi had not slept at all. “You are back,” she said happily.

“Everything is fine[4],” Wei Xiaobao said, “We can leave the Palace now.”

Mu Jianping woke up in a daze, “Shijie was very anxious,” she said, “She was afraid you ran into danger.”

Wei Xiaobao smiled and asked, “What about you?”

“Of course I was worried too,” Mu Jianping said, “Are you alright?”

“I am alright, I am alright,” Wei Xiaobao replied.

They heard the noise of activities, the Palace gates were opened, one after another the civil and military officials entered the Palace to wait for the morning court. Wei Xiaobao lighted the candle on the table, he examined the two girls’ attire and did not find any flaw; he laughed and said, “The two of you are too pretty, you need to rub some dirt on your face.” Mu Jianping was somewhat reluctant, but seeing Fang Yi reached down to the ground to get some dirt and rubbed it on her face, she followed suit.

Wei Xiaobao put the three copies of sutra he snatched from under the Empress Dowager’s bed into his bundle. He took the silver hairpin from his pocket and handed it over to Fang Yu, saying, “Is this the hairpin you were looking for?”

Fang Yi blushed, she slowly held out her hand to take it, saying, “You are willing to brave danger, it was to … was to fetch this hairpin of mine.” Her heart was touched, her eyes turned red, she turned her head to look another way.

Wei Xiaobao laughed and said, “It’s not that dangerous.” While in his heart he said, “This is called ‘good deed has its own reward’. If I did not go to get this hairpin, I would not get to wear the Yellow Magua.”

He took the two people toward the back of the imperial city and left the Palace via the Shen Wu Gate. By this time the sky had not brightened, the Imperial Bodyguards at the gate only saw Gui Gong-gong with two little eunuch companions going out of the Palace. Other than uttering some flattering words, who would dare to ask a single question?

After leaving the Palace for a dozen of zhang or so, Fang Yi turned her head around to look back at the Palace gate, all sorts of feelings welled up in her heart, everything she underwent seemed to happen a lifetime ago.

On the street, Wei Xiaobao hired three sedan chairs, he told the porters to go westward toward the Chang’an Street, where they alighted and took another small sedan chair to Tian Di Hui, about two streets away, where they finally got off. He said, “Your Mu Palace friends have all left the city yesterday. I must consult my friends to see where we must send you.” After being bestowed the title Imperial Bodyguard Deputy Chief wearing Yellow Magua, he was conscious that he had become a grownup, moreover, he was under an imperial edict on mission to investigate an enormously important matter, suddenly he felt like he must shed the glib-tongue way he used to talk. Besides, his Shifu was not far away, he did not dare to act wantonly.

Fang Yi asked, “You … where are you going?”

“I do not dare to stay in Beijing much longer,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I must go, the farther the better. I must wait until the Empress Dowager is dead, all is calm, then I will dare to come back.”

“We have good friends in Shijiazhuang, Hebei,” Fang Yi said, “If you … if you don’t look down on us, why don’t you … why don’t you come with us to temporarily make yourself scarce?”

“That’s right,” Mu Jianping said, “You are the benefactor who saved our lives, you are one of us. If the three of us travel together, it will be somewhat more fun.” The two of them looked at him with hopeful eyes. Mu Jianping looked naïve and earnest, but Fang Yi looked shy.

If Wei Xiaobao did not bear an important mission, accompanying two beautiful women on a long journey would, by far, be more interesting, would be extremely free and unfettered; but this moment he had no choice but would have to think of a way to make an excuse. He said, “I promised a friend to handle a very important matter for him, I cannot go to Shijiazhuang at this time. Both of you are injured, it would be inconvenient for two young ladies to hasten on with your journey. I will ask one or two reliable friends to escort you to go first. Let us rest for a while, eat until we are full, then we can talk it over slowly.”

Presently they arrived at Tian Di Hui’s lodging. As soon as the brother guarding outside the lane saw that it was him, he quickly led them in. Gao Yanchao went out to greet them; he was very surprised to see he was accompanied by two little eunuchs. Wei Xiaobao whispered in his ear, “It’s the Mu family’s Xiao Gongye’s sister, the other one is her Shijie. I saved them out of the Palace.”

Gao Yanchao invited the two ladies to take a seat in the hall and served them tea. He pulled Wei Xiaobao to the side and said, “Zongduozhu has left the Capital last night.”

Wei Xiaobao was delighted; first, he was most afraid Shifu would inquire about the progress of his martial art training, second, he was not sure whether he should confide with Shifu about Kangxi’s order. Hearing Shifu had already left the Capital, it was as if a large rock was lifted off of his mind. But on his face he showed an utmost disappointment. He stomped his foot and said, “This … this … this … Ay, why did Shifu have to leave so quickly?”

Gao Yanchao said, “Zongduozhu instructed subordinate to inform Wei Xiangzhu that he, Senior, suddenly received an urgent report from Taiwan, and must hurry back there to handle the matter. Zongduozhu wanted Wei Xiangzhu to be very careful, to act as circumstances dictate. If it is inconvenient for you to stay at the Palace, you must leave the Capital to escape temporarily. He also said he wanted Wei Xiangzhu to diligently train martial art. He was wondering if the poison inside Wei Xiangzhu’s body has been completely cleared up, if you feel something is not right in your body, you are to let Zongduozhu know immediately.”

“Yes,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Shifu keeps thinking about my injury and martial art training, I am deeply grateful.” It was not a false statement, hearing in his rush Shifu was still thinking about his well-being, he was deeply touched. “What happened in Taiwan?” he asked.

Gao Yanchao replied, “I heard the mother and son of the Zheng family are at odds with each other; they killed a minister, probably there is an internal strife. Zongduozhu has quite a prestige, whatever the turmoil over there, he, the Senior, will be able to settle it as soon as he arrives, Wei Xiangzhu does not need to be anxious. Li Dage, Guan Fuzi, Fan Dage, Feng Dage, Priest Xuanzhen, and the others are coming with Zongduozhu. Xu San Ge and subordinate are staying in the Capital to wait for Wei Xiangzhu’s orders.”

Wei Xiaobao nodded and said, “Get someone to invite Xu San Ge over.” He thought, “Not only the ‘Eight-arm Ape’ Xu Tianchuan has superior martial art skill, he is very astute, and is an old man. No one is better than him to escort these two ladies to Shijiazhuang.” He also thought, “The mother and son in Taiwan are at odds with each other and killed people. They are no different than the Empress Dowager and the Emperor in Beijing.”

He returned to the hall to eat some noodles and dimsum with Fang and Mu, two girls. Mu Jianping ate less than half a bowl of noodles, she could not bear not to ask, “Are you sure you can’t come with us to Shijiazhuang?”

Wei Xiaobao cast a glance toward Fang Yi; she stopped her chopstick and she stopped to eat. She was looking down, but her eyes were filled with earnest hope. Wei Xiaobao could not restrain his heart from burning; he really wished he could take these two girls with him to Mount Wutai, but immediately thought better: “What kind of important mission am I in? Taking these two injured young ladies will be a hindrance and will draw unnecessary attention, which absolutely must not happen.” Thereupon he sighed and said, “After my business is done, I will come to Shijiazhuang to visit. Where does your friend live? What’s his name?”

Fang Yi slowly lowered her head and pinched a string of noodle with her chopsticks, but did not put it in her mouth; she said in a low voice, “That friend opened a mule and horse dealership at the Shijiazhuang’s western market. He is called the ‘Fast Horse’ Song San [lit. Song the third].”

“Fast Horse Song San, got it,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I will definitely come to visit you.” Suddenly a mischievous look appeared on his face, as he casually said, “How can I not come? How can I give up this pair of ‘bashful flower obstructing the moon’ first wife and second wife?”

Mu Jianping laughed and said, “You have been well-behaved only for less than half a day, and you are back to your flippant and glib-tongued way already?”

Fang Yi firmly said, “If you really regard us as your good friends, we … we will hope for your visit every day. But if you are being frivolous and won’t respect others, you … you don’t need to come.”

Wei Xiaobao had bumped into a nail; he only felt the fun had been lost. “Alright,” he said, “If you don’t like to banter, I won’t say anything at all.”

Fang Yi was somewhat apologetic, she said in a gentle voice, “Even bantering has its own propriety, its own time, and its own place. You … are you angry?”

Wei Xiaobao cheered up, he quickly said, “No, no. As long as you are not angry, I am fine.”

Fang Yi laughed, and then gently said, “Toward you, nobody can be really angry.”

Fang Yi was smiling so sweetly that even though her face was smeared with dirt, her beauty was very difficult to cover. Wei Xiaobao immediately felt a burst of warmth going through his body, he ate mouthful by mouthful of noodle soup and temporarily could not find anything to say.

Suddenly they heard footsteps in the courtyard, an old man walked in, Xu Tianchuan had arrived. He went straight to Wei Xiaobao and bowed to pay his respect, there was only happiness across his face, as he respectfully said, “How are you, Senior?” He was being very discreet, seeing there were outsiders present, he did not address Wei Xiaobao as ‘Wei Xiangzhu’.

Wei Xiaobao cupped his fist to return the salute and said with a laugh, “Xu San Ge, let me present to you two friends. These two are ‘Iron Back Blue Dragon’ Liu Laoyezi’s distinguished disciples. This one is Miss Fang, this one is Miss Mu, she is Mu Palace’s Xiao Junzhu.” To Fang and Mu, two girls he said, “This is Xu San Ge, he is acquainted with Liu Laoyezi and your family’s Xiao Gongye.” He was afraid Fang and Mu, two ladies still harbor a grudge, so he quickly added, “At first there was a tiny bit of grudge between them, but presently the resentment has been resolved.” After the three of them had exchanged propriety, he said, “Xu San Ge, I have a favor I’d like to ask you.”

Hearing that these two women who were disguised as little eunuchs were unexpectedly important personage of the Mu Palace, Xu Tianchuan thought that since Mu Jiansheng and the others already knew Wei Xiaobao’s real identity, naturally these two young ladies were also well-informed of the fact; thereupon he said, “Whatever Wei Xiangzhu wishes to send me, subordinate will accept your orders.”

But Fang Yi and Mu Jianping did not know Wei Xiaobao’s real identity. Hearing Xu Tianchuan addressed him as ‘Wei Xiangzhu’, they were greatly surprised.

Wei Xiaobao smiled and said, “These two young ladies had the same fate as Wu Lishen, Wu Laoyezi, and Liu Yizhou Liu Dage, they had fallen into the enemy’s hands inside the Imperial Palace; they came out just now. Have Mu Family’s Xiao Gongye, Liu Yizhou Shixiong and the others left the Capital?”

Xu Tianchuan said, “Numerous heroes of the Mu Palace have left the Capital safely yesterday. Mu Xiao Gongye also asked me to make discreet inquiry on Xiao Junzhu’s whereabouts. I asked him to set his heart at ease, since he has entrusted this matter to Tian Di Hui, we will definitely find Xiao Junzhu.” While saying that, there was a hint of smile on his face.

Mu Jianping asked, “So Liu Shige is with my Gege?” She asked that question on Fang Yi’s behalf.

Xu Tianchuan replied, “Zaixia sent them off out of town separately. Liu Shixiong went with Liu Laoyezi, they were heading south.” Fang Yi blushed as she lowered her head.

Wei Xiaobao thought, “Hearing your sweetheart is out of danger, your heart must be in full bloom.” Little did he know that this time his guess could not be more wrong. The thought in Fang Yi’s mind was: “I gave him my words that if he saved Liu Shige’s life, I would marry him and be his wife, and will be steadfast to the death. But he is a court eunuch, how can I marry him? He is very young, but can pull a hundred tricks. What’s this ‘Wei Xiangzhu’ business anyway?”

Wei Xiaobao said, “These two young ladies strenuously fought the Imperial Bodyguards in Qing Palace, and have suffered injuries. Presently they want to go to a friend’s house in Shijiazhuang to recuperate from their wounds. I am thinking of asking Xu San Ge to accompany them.”

Xu Tianchuan was delighted, “I ought to serve in this capacity,” he said, “Wei Xiangzhu has given me a very good assignment. Subordinate has wronged the Mu Palace’s friends, but Mu Xiao Gongye has saved my life instead, I am very ashamed in my heart. If I can accompany these two young ladies to their destination safe and sound, I can somewhat repay one out of ten thousand kindness he had shown me.”

Mu Jianping cast Xu Tianchuan a glance, what she saw was a small and thin old man with a bent waist and a hunched back, someone who could give up his ghost any minute. He talked about escorting her and her older martial sister, perhaps along the way they would have to look after him instead. Much less Wei Xiaobao did not go, so she was already quite disappointed. She was unable to restrain the disappointment from appearing on her face.

But Fang Yi said, “In all honesty, we do not dare to trouble Xu Laoyezi’s honorable self, we only asked you to hire a large carriage for us, and then we will be off on our own. Our injuries are nothing serious; you really do not need to take the trouble.”

Xu Tianchuan laughed and said, “Miss Fang does not need to be too polite. Wei Xiangzhu has already issued the order, whatever happens I simply must accompany you. Both ladies are exceptionally skilful in martial arts, you really do not need an old man incurring your dislike on the side. This old man really does not have the ability to do this ‘accompany’ word. But I can run errands and do odd jobs like serving the ladies in finding an inn to stay, waiting on you for a snack during the journey, hiring carriage, buying stuffs, and do all kinds of tricks, so that along the way the ladies do not need to waste your time to deal with characters like mule dealer, carriage driver, inn waiters, shop attendants.”

Seeing she could not decline anymore, Fang Yi said, “We don’t know how to repay Xu Laoyezi’s great kindness.”

Xu Tianchuan laughed aloud. “What is there to repay?” he said, “I am telling the two ladies the truth: my admiration towards our Wei Xiangzhu shows no bound. Don’t look at his young age; in reality, he has an extensive divine ability. Not only he has saved my old life, just yesterday he helped this old man vented my anger. I was just thinking in my heart, how can I handle several matters for him to express my gratitude, who would have thought that today he is sending me on an assignment? Even if the two ladies do not allow me to accompany you, this old man will have no choice but be tactful; I will precede you on your journey to manage your trip, to open a way when you come across a mountain, to build a bridge when you meet a river, to wait upon you until you arrived at Shijiazhuang safe and sound. Let’s not mention from Beijing to Shijiazhuang is only a few days journey, even if Wei Xiangzhu ordered the old man to follow the two ladies all the way to Yunnan, I will simply go, I will accompany you to your destination.”

Mu Jianping noticed that although his appearance looked wretched, his speech was actually very charming. “What anger he helped you vent yesterday?” she asked, “Yesterday, he … was he not in the Imperial Palace?”

Xu Tianchuan laughed and said, “That traitor Wu Sangui has a dog official under his command called Lu Yifeng. He kidnapped the old man, beat me up and insulted me; he also took a medicated plaster and stuck it on my mouth. Luckily your esteemed older brother sent people to save me and take me out. Wei Xiangzhu promised me that he would have someone break this dog official’s legs. I thought that this time Wu Sangui’s dog son came to Beijing, the number of capable people he brought along must be very great. Last time that servant Lu Yifeng has suffered some trouble from me, he would know better than to go out alone, it would not be easy for us to seek revenge. Who would have known that at the Zhong De Tang [lit. Hall of Virtue Cultivation] drugstore of the western town district yesterday I met a doctor friend specializing in external injury, who mentioned that the Ping Xi Wang dog den was sending people out, carrying a dog official everywhere to find an injury doctor. I found this matter to be really strange, they went to see injury doctors one after another; a total of twenty, thirty doctors, but they did not let those doctors to treat him. They only told the doctors that this dog official was called Lu Yifeng, a muddleheaded scoundrel. Ping Xi Wang’s dog son personally took a stick and broke both of his dog legs, and wanted him to suffer the pain for seven days and seven nights, without allowing him to be treated.”

Fang Yi and Mu Jianping were completely baffled; they asked Wei Xiaobao, “Where’s the logic in that?”

“That dog official has offended Xu San Ge,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “Naturally we want him to suffer a lot of pain.”

Mu Jianping asked, “Why did the Ping Xi Wang dog den’s people bring him everywhere to let everyone know?”

“That kid Wu Yingxiong wanted people to pass the news to me,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “I told him to break that dog official’s legs, he wanted me to know that he has completed the task.”

Mu Jianping was even more puzzled, “Why did he obey you?” she asked.

With a smile Wei Xiaobao replied, “I was just talking rubbish, I lied to him and he believed me.”

Xu Tianchuan said, “Originally I wanted him to die a horrible death, but then I thought that this dog official was being carried around like a prisoner being paraded through the streets, with his legs broken without he was allowed to seek treatment; it would be too easy for that servant if I killed him. Yesterday afternoon I finally saw him with my own eyes, 9 out of 10 of that dog’s life has gone, his pants were rolled up, exposing his two broken legs, swelling and purple. He was so much in pain that he cried, calling on his mommy. Ladies, won’t you say it gives this old man reason to be delighted?”

By this time Gao Yanchao had returned with three large hired carriages, waiting outside the door. He was also a competent member of Tian Di hui, but according to the Society’s law – a violation of this law was punishable by beheading, if it was not absolutely necessary, the less they reveal their true colors the better. Therefore, he did not appear before Fang and Mu, two ladies.

Wei Xiaobao deliberately considered, “In my bundle I have a total of five copies of ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’, I do not have the slightest idea what these books are for, but there were so many people staking their lives to steal and rob these books, so there must be a great reason behind it. If I bring them along while I am hastening on with my journey, I might lose them.” After pondering for half a day, he finally found a solution. He called Gao Yanchao over and spoke to him quietly, “Gao Dage, I had a good brother in the Palace who was killed by the Tatars’ Imperial Bodyguards. I brought his ash out to give him a proper burial, could you send someone to buy a coffin?”

Gao Yanchao complied. He assumed that since Wei Xiangzhu‘s good friend was killed by the Tatars, he must be a patriot in the resisting Qing movement, thereupon he personally selected a top quality coffin made of Liuzhou wood. He knew that this Wei Xiangzhu was really extravagant, from the three hundred taels given to him, he still had more than thirty taels, so other than the coffin, he also bought some burial clothes, earthen jar for the ashes, lime, silk paper, oilcloth, spirit tablet, spirit banner, ritual paper money, and everything else needed for burial; all were top quality products. He also bought several sets of men’s clothing, shoes and hats for Fang and Mu, two ladies, to change into, as well as dry rations, cake and pastries for the journey. He also ordered a coroner and a lacquerer. By the time all the goods were delivered, Wei Xiaobao and the two ladies had already been asleep for four hours.

Preceding the others, Wei Xiaobao changed into an ordinary man’s attire. He mused, “I am on a mission to Mount Wutai on an imperial order, I might be very busy, how can I find time to train martial art? I must not let Shifu’s martial art manual to be stolen.” Thereupon he wrapped the five copies of the sutra along with his Shifu’s manual inside layer upon layer of oilcloth completely and tightly. And then he went to the kitchen to get a big handful of firewood ash and put it inside the earthen jar, thinking, “It would be best if there was a real corpse inside the coffin, so that even if someone opens the coffin to look, there won’t be any suspicion. But in such a short period of time, I can’t find a bad person to kill.” Therefore, he took some water and wiped it on his eyes and face, and then with a sorrowful expression he went to the rear hall, holding the oil cloth package and the urn of ashes with both hands. He put the oil cloth package and the urn of ashes in the coffin, and then he knelt down and cried loudly.

Xu Tianchuan, Gao Yanchao, as well as Fang and Mu, two ladies, were waiting in the main hall. Seeing him kneeling down and weeping bitterly, there was no suspicion in their hearts, they thought it was definitely his good friend’s ashes; they also kneeled down to pay their respects.

Wei Xiaobao had seen how the deceased’ family members returning propriety during a funeral service, he scrambled to the side of the coffin and kneeled down and kowtowed to return the four people’s respect. In a moment the coroner placed the silk paper, lime and other things in the coffin, and nailed the coffin’s lid. The lacquerer then began painting.

Gao Yanchao asked, “What is the patriot’s honored surname and great name? It would be better if we paint his title on the coffin.”

“He … he … he …” Wei Xiaobao was sobbing and sniffling continuously, while his mind was churning; he said, “His name was Shi Guidong.” That is, Shi Song, Xiao Guizi and Rui Dong, three people’s names put together; he thought, “I killed the three of you, right now I am kowtowing to you and burning some ritual paper money for your use in the netherworld. Shouldn’t your wronged ghosts stop entangling me now?”

Seeing how bitter he was crying, Mu Jianping tried to console him, “Manchurian Qing Tatars killed our good friends; there will come a day we will kill them all, to avenge and wipe out the grudge of our good friends.”

Still crying, Wei Xiaobao said, “Naturally the Tatars must be killed, but this good friend’s enmity absolutely cannot be avenged.”

Mu Jianping opened wide her pair of beautiful eyes; she looked at him in a daze while thinking, “Why not?”

The four of them rested for a while, then they took their leave from Gao Yanchao. Wei Xiaobao said, “Let me send you off for a while.” A happy expression appeared on Fang and Mu, two women’s faces.

The two women rode on a large carriage, Wei Xiaobao and Xu Tianchuan separately took the other two carriages. The three carriages left from the Eastern Gate. After traveling eastwards for several li, they turned south. Seven or eight li later, they arrived in a small town at the outskirt of Beijing. Xu Tianchuan ordered the carriages to stop, he said, “Sending off the lord for a thousand li, in the end we must part. The day is no longer early, we will drink some tea in here and then take our separate way!”

They entered a roadside teahouse, the shop attendants promptly served them tea. The three carriage drivers sat on another table.

Xu Tianchuan assumed Wei Xiangzhu and his two companions would certainly have some personal matters they need to discuss; with hands behind his back he strolled out to enjoy the scenery.

Mu Jianping said, “Gui … Gui Dage, you are actually surnamed Wei, aren’t you? And what is a Xiangzhu?”

Wei Xiaobao laughed. “I am surnamed Wei,” he said, “Given name Xiaobao; I am the Xiangzhu of Green Wood Hall of Tian Di Hui. This moment I can’t no longer conceal it from the two of you.”

“Ay!” Mu Jianping sighed.

“Why did you sigh?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

“You are the Xiangzhu of Green Wood Hall of Tian Di Hui,” Mu Jianping said, “How did … how did you become a court eunuch in the Palace? Isn’t that … isn’t that …”

Fang Yi knew that she was going to say ‘such a pity’, but first, it was rather improper for her to say it out loud, second, she did not want to arouse Wei Xiaobao’s downheartedness; and thus she interrupted, “For the sake of our country’s great cause, a hero and warrior does not hesitate to humiliate himself, indeed he is worthy of our complete admiration.” She presumed Wei Xiaobao must have received Tian Di Hui’s order to mutilate his own body and entered the Palace to be an undercover agent; he was definitely worthy of other people’s admiration.

Wei Xiaobao showed a faint smile; “Shall I tell them that I am not a eunuch?” he mused.

Suddenly they heard Xu Tianchuan shouted, “Good friend, you still don’t want to reveal your true colors until now?” He stretched out his hand to strike the shoulder of a carriage driver on the right.

Xu Tianchuan’s right palm was just about to land on the carriage driver’s shoulder, the carriage driver leaned sideways, Xu Tianchuan’s right palm hit an empty air, but his left fist had already reached the carriage driver’s right waist. The carriage driver flipped his hand to pull and push, and thus redirected the fist outwards. Xu Tianchuan then brought his right elbow to strike the back of the driver’s neck. The carriage driver raised his right hand to feign a strike on the crown of Xu Tianchuan’s head. If Xu Tianchuan continued his elbow strike toward the driver’s neck, then it was as if he was delivering the top of his own head toward the man’s palm. Immediately he exerted his strength on his feet and leaped backward. Altogether he had launched three moves: a palm strike, a punch and an elbow strike, all were delivered using a very swift and fierce technique, but unexpectedly the carriage driver was able to neutralize each move without too much trouble.

Xu Tianchuan was startled and angered at the same time; he expected this man to be a martial art expert from the Imperial Palace, who was acting under orders to arrest them. Immediately he waved his left hand to signal Wei Xiaobao, three people, to run away quickly, while he himself entangled the enemy to give the three people an opportunity to get away. But how could those three forego yi qi? Fang Yi was injured, it would be difficult for her to fight. Wei Xiaobao and Mu Jianping drew their weapons and rushed forward in a converging attack.

The carriage driver turned around and said with a laugh, “The Eight-armed Ape has good eyesight!” His voice was rather sharp. The four of them saw that his face was yellow and swollen, his clothes were filthy, his overall appearance was ugly; momentarily they could not tell his age.

Hearing him calling his nickname, Xu Tianchuan was even more shocked; he cupped his fist and said, “Who are you, honored sir? Why do you impersonate a carriage driver and play tricks on Zaixia?”

The carriage driver said with a laugh, “I would never dare to play tricks. Zaixia and Wei Xiangzhu are good friends, knowing that he is leaving the Capital, I have come to send him off.”

Wei Xiaobao scratched his head, “I … I can’t remember seeing you,” he said.

The carriage driver laughed and said, “Last night the two of us joined hands to fight a powerful enemy, how can you forget?”

Wei Xiaobao suddenly saw the light, “Ah,” he exclaimed, “You … you are Tao … Tao …” He inserted the dagger back into his boot, and rushed forward to pull her hand; only now did he know that the carriage driver was Tao Gong’e in disguise.

Tao Gong’e applied paste of butter, water and starch on her face, so it was difficult for others to know whether she was happy or angry, but her eyes were shining with delight as she said, “I was afraid the Tatars would send people to stop you, and thus I disguise myself to escort you for a while, unexpectedly Xu Laoyezi has a keen vision, I can’t deceive his eyes.”

Looking at Wei Xiangzhu’s expression, Xu Tianchuan knew this person was a friend and not a foe; he was delighted, but also ashamed. He cupped his fist and said, “Honored Sir’s martial art is superb, my admiration, my admiration! Wei Xiangzhu karma’s is good, he always makes friends with martial art experts everywhere.”

Tao Gong’e laughed and said, “I don’t dare! May I ask Xu Dage, in my disguise, which part has revealed the flaw?”

“There was no flaw,” Xu Tianchuan replied, “It’s just that along the way I noticed the way honored sir waving the whip and urging the mule was unlike ordinary carriage driver. Honored sir did not move your wrist but the whip was extended very straight; you did not raise your elbow but the whip was pulled back immediately. I am afraid not too many friends among the carriage drivers in Beijing possess this kind of brilliant martial art.” The five of them laughed heartily.

Xu Tianchuan continued with a laugh, “If Zaixia was more sensitive, seeing honored sir’s martial art skill, I would not have dared to put out a hand to offend, it’s just that this old man did not know what’s good for me. I can’t help it.”

“Xu Dage has spoken discreetly,” Tao Gong’e said, “I do not blame you at all.”

Xu Tianchuan cupped his fist again. “I don’t dare,” he said, “May I know your honored surname and great given name?”

“This friend is surnamed Tao,” Wei Xiaobao said, “With Xiongdi he has a … a life and death friendship.”

Tao Gong’e seriously said, “That’s right, it’s a life and death friendship. Wei Xiangzhu has saved my life.”

Wei Xiaobao hurriedly said, “Why did Senior say that? We were cooperating to kill a scoundrel, that’s all.”

Tao Gong’e smiled. “Wei Xiongdi, Xu Dage, Fang and Mu, two ladies,” she said, “I bid you farewell.” Cupping her fist, she leaped onto the driver seat of a large carriage.

“Tao … Tao Dage,” Wei Xiaobao called, “Where are you going?”

Tao Gong’e laughed and said, “From the place I come, to that place I will return.”

Wei Xiaobao nodded. “Very well,” he said, “I hope to see you again later.” Straight away she drove the large carriage without saying anything else.

“Xu Laoyezi,” Mu Jianping asked, “Is that man’s martial art skill really high?”

“Superb martial art!” Xu Tianchuan said, “What’s more amazing is that she is a woman.”

“She is a woman?” Mu Jianping asked in surprise.

Xu Tianchuan said, “When she leaped onto the carriage, she swayed her waist from side to side, no doubt the style looked good, but unavoidably it looked sissy; she is definitely a woman.”

“Her voice is too high,” Mu Jianping said, “It did not sound like a man’s voice. Wei Dage, is her … her original appearance attractive?”

“Forty years ago, perhaps she was attractive,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “But forty years later, you will still be much more attractive than she is now.”

Mu Jianping laughed and said, “How can you compare me to her? Turns out she is a granny.”

Recalling that very soon he would have to leave them, Wei Xiaobao could not help but feeling sad. Thinking that he was about to embark on a journey alone, he could not help but was somewhat afraid. From Yangzhou to Beijing he was travelling together with Mao Shiba, a Jianghu veteran. In the Palace, although repeatedly running into danger, he knew almost everybody. In desperate moments, he often turned danger into safety by relying on his quick-wit. This time going to Mount Wutai in Shanxi, while admittedly he had never travelled this road before, what bothered him more was that he did not even know what the outcome of his mission would be. He had never travelled long distance alone; he was, after all, only a child, so it was hard for him to avoid feeling timid. For an instant he thought about going back to Beijing to ask Gao Yanchao to accompany him to Mount Wutai, but he remembered that this matter concerned Xiao Xuanzi’s lot in life, if he let someone else know, he would be unfair to a good friend.

Xu Tianchuan only knew that Wei Xiaobao was going back to Beijing. “Wei Xiangzhu,” he said, “It’s getting late, please hurry back. If you are too late, I am afraid the city gate would have been closed.”

“Yes,” Wei Xiaobao replied.

Fang Yi and Mu Jianping said, “We hope after your business is done you would come to Shijiazhuang to see us. We will be waiting for you.” Wei Xiaobao nodded, his heart was bitter-sweet, he could not say anything.

Xu Tianchuan invited the two women to get into the carriage, while he himself sat by the driver’s side. The carriage started to move southwards. Wei Xiaobao saw Fang and Mu, two girls leaned out of the carriage and waved goodbye. The carriage travelled for about thirty zhang, then made a turn, and disappeared behind a row of red willow trees.

Wei Xiaobao mounted the remaining carriage. He ordered the driver to turn westward, not returning to Beijing. The carriage driver was somewhat hesitant, Wei Xiaobao took out ten taels of silver and said, “Ten taels to hire you three days, is it enough?”

The carriage driver was delighted; he busily said, “Ten taels is enough for even a month. Xiaode [the humble one, referring to self] will serve Master well; Master wants to go we’ll go, Master wants to stop we’ll stop.”

That evening they stopped at a small town about twenty li southwest of Beijing, to rest and lodge for the night at a small family inn. Wei Xiaobao wiped his body and washed his feet; without waiting for dinner he lay down on the kang[5] and fell asleep.

When he woke up the next morning, he felt his head was about to crack, his eyes were heavy, he was not able to open it for a long time, his four limbs were even more limp and painful that he could move only with difficulty; it was as if he was in a nightmare. He wanted to shout, but nothing came out of his mouth. When he was finally able to open his eyes, he saw three men lying down on the floor. He was shocked and was only able to stare blankly for half a day. Calming himself down, he struggled to sit up, only to see someone was sitting in front of the kang, looking at him, smiling.

“Ah!” Wei Xiaobao exclaimed in surprise.

The person laughed and said, “Are you awake only now?” It was none other than Tao Gong’e.

Finally Wei Xiaobao was relieved. “Tao Jiejie, Tao Gugu[6], what … what happened?”

Tao Gong’e laughed and said, “Look, who are these three people?”

Wei Xiaobao crawled down from the kang, but his legs were soft, he fell kneeling down, but quickly sat up, then reaching out his hand for support, he managed to stand up. He saw the three people had already died for a while, but he did not recognize any of them. “Tao Gugu, did you save my life?”

Tao Gong’e laughed. “In the end, are you going to call me Jiejie, or Gugu?” she asked, “Just don’t call randomly, thus showing no respect for your elder.”

Wei Xiaobao also laughed. “You are Gugu, Tao Gugu!”

Tao Gong’e smiled and said, “You are traveling alone, next time you must be a bit more careful with what you eat and drink. If you were together with that eight-armed old monkey, you would not have fallen into these people’s trick.”

“Someone drugged me with knockout drug last night?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

“More or less,” Tao Gong’e replied.

Wei Xiaobao thought for a moment, then he said, “Most likely it was the tea, when I drank it, there was a bit of sour taste, and a bit of sweetness too.” He thought, “I myself have a big bundle of knockout drug on me, but I ate other people’s knockout drug. Damn it, if I did not have a taste of knockout drug this time, how would I know it tastes bitter-sweet?” He then asked, “Is this a ‘black inn[7]’?”

“This is actually a white inn,” Tao Gong’e replied, “But when you came in, it turned black.”

Wei Xiaobao was still having a splitting headache, he put out a hand to hold his forehead and said, “I don’t understand that one.”

Tao Gong’e said, “Not long after you entered the inn, there were other people came in, they tied up the shop owners, husband and wife, and the inn attendant, and turned this white inn into a black inn. One of the men took the attendant’s clothes and put some medicine powder into the teapot and delivered it to you. I saw you were changing clothes; I thought I would wait until you finished changing before giving you a warning. Unexpectedly, other than changing clothes, you were also wiping your body. I waited for a moment before coming back, but you already drank the tea. Fortunately it was only knockout drug, not a poison.”

Instantly Wei Xiaobao blushed from ear to ear; when he was wiping himself last night, he was fantasizing what would it feel like if Fang Yi really became his wife and he was embracing her tightly? At that time his emotion was surging, the situation was beyond his control. Although Tao Gong’e was not young anymore, she was, after all, a woman; looking at this kind of disgraceful situation from outside the window, naturally she could not bear to look too much.

Tao Gong’e said, “When we parted yesterday, I went back to the Palace, but I noticed inside and outside were peaceful without any commotion, there was no announcement about the death of the Empress Dowager, I felt very strange. After hurriedly changing my clothes, I went to the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful to look. I saw everything was as usual, turned out the Empress Dowager did not die. I know something was wrong. At first I thought the Empress Dowager had died, so the two of us can continue living in the Palace. But since last night we failed to kill her with a blade, we have no choice but must leave the Palace immediately. I wanted to rush over to tell you, so that you won’t rush into the Palace and thus delivering your own life.”

Wei Xiaobao pretended to be surprised. “Ah!” he exclaimed loudly, “Turns out the old wh0re did not die, it’s very bad!” While in his heart he was ashamed, “In my haste yesterday, I forgot to mention this, I thought you already knew.”

“I was just turning around to leave,” Tao Gong’e continued, “I saw three Imperial Bodyguards walked out of the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful. Their action was sneaky, I thought the Empress Dowager must have sent them out to arrest me, but I noticed they were not heading toward my residence. I did not have time to pay them any more attention, I returned to my dwelling and packed up, I also changed clothes again, and slipped out of the Palace via the Catering Department’s side door.”

Wei Xiaobao smiled and said, “Turns out Gugu dressed up as a Catering Department’s sula.”  [see Chapter 13] The Catering Department had always used a lot of sula for odd jobs like chopping firewood, carrying coals, killing chickens, washing vegetables, lighting the stove, washing pots and pans, and so on. Practically all low-grade works were performed by sula. These sula were able to go in and out of the Catering Department, very few people would pay them any attention.

Tao Gong’e said, “As soon as I left the Palace, I saw those three Imperial Bodyguards again. They have changed clothes, they carried a bundle on their backs and rode on horses, obviously they were on a long journey.”

“Ah,” Wei Xiaobao exclaimed, he stretched out his left foot to kick a corpse, saying, “They must be these three friends who opened the black inn?”

Tao Gong’e smiled and said, “Actually, I should thank these three friends. If they did not lead the way, how could I find you? Who could have thought that you detoured westward? They left the city via the western gate and asked around along the way, if anybody had seen a thirteen, fourteen years old boy traveling alone. They really did receive the Empress Dowager’s order to get you. By the evening, they found this place, so I followed them here.”

Wei Xiaobao was very grateful in his heart; he said, “If Gugu did not save me, by this time I can’t even answer Yanluo Wang’s [Yama, King of Hell] question. He would ask, ‘Wei Xiaobao, how did you die?’ I would have to answer, ‘Reporting to the Great King: I am muddleheaded, and can’t make head or tail of it!’”

Tao Gong’e had lived deep inside the Palace for decades, normally very seldom did she had a chance to talk to someone else. She found Wei Xiaobao’s talk very amusing talk. “This kid!” she said with a laugh, “Yanluo Wang would surely say, ‘Drag him down and beat him up!’”

Wei Xiaobao laughed and said, “But isn’t it true? Lord Yanluo’s beard would stick up, and he would shout, ‘Being muddleheaded and can’t make head or tail of it when you were alive is alright, how come after you die you are still muddleheaded? If all I have here are muddleheaded ghosts, won’t I turn into muddleheaded Yanluo Wang?’” They both burst into loud laughter. “Gugu,” Wei Xiaobao asked, “What happened next?”

Tao Gong’e said, “I heard them talking among themselves in low voice in the kitchen, one man said, ‘The Empress Dowager’s imperial order, it is best to capture this little demon alive, otherwise we can kill him with a slash of the saber; but the thing he has in his possession, we must bring it back at all cost, not a single one must be missed.’ Another man said, ‘This little demon dares to steal the Buddhist scripture the Empress Dowager reads every day, truly he is bored of living. No wonder the Empress Dowager is so angry. Empress Dowager instructed us that those several copies of scripture are the most important.’ Xiao Xiongdi, did you really steal the Empress Dowager’s Buddhist scripture? Your Zongduozhu ordered you to steal it, didn’t he?” Saying that, she fixed her gaze on him without blinking.

Wei Xiaobao suddenly understood, “That’s right, the object she was looking for in the Empress Dowager’s bedroom must be those several copies of ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’.” But on his face he feigned a perplexed expression, “What Buddhist scripture?” he asked, “Our Zongduozhu does not worship Bodhisattva, I have never seen him reading any scripture.”

Although Tao Gong’e’s martial art skill was high, but since childhood she had lived in the Palace, toward the ways of the world she knew very little. Although both of them were of the same Palace, day in and day out Wei Xiaobao intermingled with the Emperor, Empress Dowager, princes and dukes, high-ranking ministers, Imperial Bodyguards and court eunuchs, he was always swaying back and forth among treacherous plots, so he had enough practice to be quick-witted; practically his entire body was his weapon. Tao Gong’e, on the other hand, only worked together with a couple of old palace maids, she did not even talk more than a couple of dozen sentences in a year, and she barely saw anybody else. In term of craftiness and resourcefulness, the difference between these two people was simply too far, it was even greater than the disparity between their respective martial art skill levels.

Seeing Wei Xiaobao’s innocent expression, Tao Gong’e thought, “I have just saved his life, he must be very grateful to me, how can a little child like him tell a lie? Much less I have personally searched his belongings?” She nodded and said, “I saw them opening up your bundle and searched through it. They found a lot of jewels and several hundred thousand taels of banknotes, and were green with envy, so they talked it over how to share the booty. Upon hearing it, I was angry, so I came in and took care of them.”

“Damn it,” Wei Xiaobao cursed, “The old wh0re Empress Dowager knew about my wealth and sent some Imperial Bodyguards to murder me for my money, using the knockout drug and opening a black inn. That old wh0re is doing some lowly shady business, she not a good thing.”

“I don’t think it was her idea,” Tao Gong’e said, “What the Empress Dowager wants is Buddhist scripture, not jewels or money. Those several copies of Buddhist scripture concern a matter of great importance. I was thinking, could it be possible that you gave those books to Xu Tianchuan and the two ladies to be brought to Shijiazhuang? Since the enemy has been eliminated, I thought I would let you rest for a while, so I rushed on horseback to the south to catch them up. I found their carriage outside an inn. I was thinking of searching quietly, but that man Eight-Armed Ape was very vigilant. As soon as I set my feet on the roof, he had already detected my presence. I can’t tell him anything, so without any better option I fought him one more time.”

“He is not your match,” Wei Xiaobao said.

“I really did not want to offend your Tian Di Hui,” Tao Gong’e said, “But I had no choice. After sealing his acupoint, I apologize to him profusely, I asked him not to be angry with me. Xiao Xiongdi, next time you see him, please tell him again that I am really sorry and had no choice. I went through those three people’s luggage, I even searched through their carriage, but did not find anything, so I unsealed their acupoints and riding a horse, I rushed back here.”

“Turns out while I was muddleheaded and did not know anything, you have done these many matters,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Tao Gugu, how did you know I belong to Tian Di Hui?”

Tao Gong’e smiled and said, “I drove the carriage with you for half a day, how could I not hear what you were talking about? You are this young, yet have become the Green Wood Hall’s Xiangzhu, in Tian Di Hui you are in charge of a very big responsibility, aren’t you?”

Wei Xiaobao was very proud of himself. He laughed and said, “Indeed, it can’t be considered small.”

Tao Gong’e was lost in thought for half a day, then she asked, “You have been with the Emperor for a long time, have you ever heard him mentioning some Buddhist scripture?”

“He did,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “The Emperor and Empress Dowager seem to hold this annoying Buddhist scripture in a very high regard. Actually, damn it, what’s the use? The Empress Dowager is so bad that even if she chanted ‘Amitabha Buddha’ ten thousand times a day, Bodhisattva won’t possibly bless her …”

Without waiting for him to finish, Tao Gong’e busily asked, “What did they say, exactly?”

Wei Xiaobao said, “The Emperor sent me and Songgotu Daren to Oboi’s mansion to take inventory of that criminal’s confiscated property, he told me repeatedly that I must find two copies of some ‘four’ sutra. I think there is a ‘two’ character and perhaps a ‘ten’ character.”

Tao Gong’e looked very excited. “Right, right!” she said, “It must be the ‘Forty-two[8]-chapter Sutra’. Did you find it?”

Wei Xiaobao said, “I am totally illiterate, how would I know if it is ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’ or ‘Fifty-three-chapter Sutra’? Later on Songgotu Daren found it and I gave both copies to the Empress Dowager. She was very happy, she rewarded me with many candy, cakes and pastries. Damn it, the old wh0re is really stingy. Instead of giving me gold or silver, she treated me as a child and deceived me, and only gave me candy, cakes and pastries. If I knew she was that bad, I would have thrown those two copies of sutra into the kitchen stove of the Catering Department, to be used as fuel to cook …”

“Don’t burn, don’t burn!” Tao Gong’e hastily said.

Wei Xiaobao laughed and said, “I know I must not burn it; if the Emperor ask Songgotu Daren, my trickery would be exposed immediately.”

Tao Gong’e muttered to herself, “If that’s the case, the Empress Dowager has at least two copies of the ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’?”

“Perhaps she has four,” Wei Xiaobao said.

“She has four?” Tao Gong’e said, “How … how do you know?”

Wei Xiaobao said, “When I was hiding under her bed the other night, I overheard she mentioned to that man who was disguised as a woman that originally she had one copy, from Oboi’s residence she got two copies, and then she sent the Deputy Chief of the Imperial Bodyguards Rui Dong to get another copy from some banner commander’s office.”

“That’s correct,” Tao Gong’e said, “It was from the Bordered Blue Banner’s Banner Commander’s office. So she has a total of four copies in her hand; perhaps she has more … five, or six.” She stood up and paced back and forth several paces before saying, “Those sutra are extremely important. Xiao Xiongdi, I do hope you can help me to steal those several copies of ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’ from the Empress Dowager.”

Wei Xiaobao hesitated; he said, “In the event that the old wh0re’s injury is heavy, eventually she won’t live. I am afraid she might bring those sutra along in her coffin.”

“That is unlikely to happen,” Tao Gong’e said, “I am worried that the Jiaozhu [Cult Leader] of the Shen Long Jiao [Divine Dragon Cult] would make a move by acting swiftly and get there first, then it would be really bad.”

It was the first time Wei Xiaobao had ever heard about the Cult Leader of the Divine Dragon Cult. “Who is that?” he asked.

Tao Gong’e did not answer. She was pacing around the room several times. The window paper gradually turned bright, soon the sun would shine. She turned around and said, “It’s not convenient to talk in here, I am afraid the walls have ears. Let us go!” She carried the three dead bodies outside the inn and dumped them onto the carriage.

She killed those three men with a jolt of her heavy hand, they did not shed any blood at all, the corpses were clean. She said, “They tied the innkeeper and your cart driver, let them struggle free on their own.” Sitting together with Wei Xiaobao on the driver seat, she drove the carriage westward.

Seven or eight li later, the sky had already brightened. Tao Gong’e tossed the corpses on a graveyard and piled large piece of rocks to cover them. Returning to the carriage, she said, “Riding on the carriage, we can talk while hastening on our journey, no need to fear someone is listening.”

Wei Xiaobao laughed and said, “I wonder if someone is listening under the carriage.”

Tao Gong’e was startled. “Right,” she said, “Your thought is more thorough than mine.” Brandishing the whip, she coiled the whip, ‘Shua!’ and struck the bottom of the carriage. Repeatedly she struck three times before she was convinced nobody was hiding underneath the carriage. She laughed and said, “I don’t know anything about guarding against the bad act of the Jianghu people.”

“Then I am worse than you are,” Wei Xiaobao said, “You are always a step ahead of me, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to save me last night.”

By this time the carriage was traveling along a main road, all around them were quiet open space. Tao Gong’e slowly said, “You have saved my life, I have also saved your life. The two of us can be considered friends in times of tribulation, in life and death. Xiao Xiongdi, based on our age, I can be your mother, I can look after you and won’t abandon you, just call me your Gugu. Are you willing to consider me as your Gugu, you be my nephew?”

Wei Xiaobao thought, “I won’t lose anything by being a nephew, besides, I have already called her Gugu anyway.” Thereupon he hurriedly said, “That’s wonderful, but I have something really bad I need to tell you. I am afraid after you find out, you won’t want me to be your nephew anymore.”

“What is it?” Tao Gong’e asked.

Wei Xiaobao said, “I don’t have a dad, my mom is a wh0re in a pleasure house.”

Tao Gong’e was startled, but instantly a happy smile appeared across her face as she said delightedly, “Good nephew, a hero is not worried over low family background. Our Taizu Huangdi was a monk, was a hoodlum riff-raff, yet it was irrelevant. You do not even conceal this kind of fact from me, it goes to show that you are being sincere to your Gugu, naturally I won’t conceal anything from you either.”

Wei Xiaobao thought, “My mom is a wh0re, Mao Shiba Dage is already aware, eventually I cannot conceal it from anybody. If you want to swindle someone else, the most hidden secret in your heart must be shaken out first.” He jumped down at once and kneeled and kowtowed, saying, “Nephew Wei Xiaobao pays his respect to Gugu.”

For decades Tao Gong’e lived deep within the Palace, she had no relatives no family members, she had even less friendship and heard less friendly talk; hearing how affectionate Wei Xiaobao called her, she could not help but was very touched. Hastily she also got down from the carriage and said, “Good nephew, from now on I have a close relative in the world …” Speaking to this point, she could not refrain from shedding some tears. She was smiling and wiping her tears at the same time, saying, “Look at me, this is a very happy occasion, yet your Gugu is crying.”

The two of them climbed back onto the carriage. Tao Gong’e held the reins with her right hand, and held Wei Xiaobao’s right hand with her left, letting the mule walked step by step slowly. She said, “Good nephew, my surname is Tao, it’s my real surname, my humble given name is Hongying; I entered the Palace when I was twelve. By my second year I was already serving the Princess.”

“Princess?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

“Yes, Princess,” Tao Hongying replied, “Our Great Ming’s His Majesty Emperor Chongzhen’s own princess.”

“Ah,” Wei Xiaobao said, “So Gugu entered the Palace during our Great Ming’s Emperor Chongzhen.”

“Exactly,” Tao Hongying replied, “When the Emperor Chongzhen left the Palace, he swung his sword to cut off the Princess’ arm. When I heard that Princess had run into misfortune, I rushed out, thinking to save her. In my panic, I fell heavily and my forehead hit the stone steps and I fainted. By the time I came to, His Majesty and the Princess had already gone, the Palace was in total chaos, nobody cared about me. Not too long afterwards, that Chuang [lit. rushing] thief[9] entered the Palace, and then the Manchurian Qing Tatars drove away the Chuang thief and took possession of the Imperial Palace. Ay, that was many, many years ago.”

“Wasn’t the Princess the Emperor Chongzhen’s own daughter?” Wei Xiaobao asked, “Why did he want to hack her to death?”

Tao Hongying sighed and said, “Princess was the Emperor Chongzhen’s own daughter, she was the daughter he most doted on. By that time the Capital had already fallen, the evil troops had already entered the city, His Majesty was determined to sacrifice himself, he was afraid the Princess would be disgraced by the traitors; therefore, he wanted to kill the Princess first.”

“So that’s what happened,” Wei Xiaobao said, “To kill one’s own daughter is really not easy. I heard Emperor Chongzhen later hung himself on the Coal Hill, is that right?”

“Afterwards I heard people say so,” Tao Hongying replied, “The Manchurian Qing Tatars were led through the pass by Wu Sangui, they defeated the Chuang thief and occupied our Great Ming’s rivers and mountains. From all the eunuchs and palace maids in the Palace, eight or nine out of ten were let go, they said they were afraid those people would be unreliable. At that time I was still very young, plus my injury from the fall was quite heavy so that I was lying down in a dark room, nobody cared about me. It was more than three years later that I met my Shifu.”

Gugu,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Your martial art skill is this high, your Shifu, the Senior’s martial art skill was naturally even more amazing.”

“My Shifu said that there are a lot of capable people in the world,” Tao Gong’e replied, “Our martial art skill cannot be considered anything special. My Shifu had received my Tai Shifu’s[10] order to enter the Palace and become a palace maid.” Brandishing the whip in the air, she made a ‘crack!’ noise before continuing, “The reason my Shifu entered the Palace was exactly those eight copies of the ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’.”

“Altogether there are eight?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

“Altogether there are eight,” Tao Hongying replied, “The Manchus have eight banners: yellow, white, red, and blue, four plain banners, and four bordered banners. Each banner’s commander has one copy, altogether there are eight copies.”

“That’s exactly right,” Wei Xiaobao said, “The two copies of sutra we got from Oboi’s house have different colored envelopes, one has yellow envelope with red border, the other has plain white envelope.”

Tao Hongying said, “Turns out the color of the eight sutra envelopes are identical to the eight banners’ color; I have never seen any copy.”

Wei Xiaobao pondered in his heart, “I have five copies in my possession, that means there are three more. In the end, what is so strange about these eight sutras? I am sure Gugu knows. I must find a way to sound her out.” Feigning ignorance, he said, “Turns out your Tai Shifu, the Senior, was also a devout worshipper of Bodhisattva. The Buddhist scriptures of the Palace are naturally precious; some people said that those scriptures are written using golden ink.”

“That’s not it,” Tao Hongying said, “Good nephew, what I am going to tell you today, you must never divulge it to anybody else. Please make an oath.”

To Wei Xiaobao, ‘making an oath’ was extremely trivial and ordinary; he could make an oath in the morning, and had totally forgotten about it in the afternoon, he could make an oath in the afternoon, and had totally forgotten about it by the time he went to bed. Much less out of eight copies of sutra, he had already had five, how could he easily tell the secret to other people? He hastily said, “By the Emperor of Heaven and Empress of Earth, if Wei Xiaobao leaks the secret of the ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’, may he suffer the most terrible fate, may he die just like that turtle Shixiong of the old wh0re who dress in drag.” While in his heart he said, “I will never dress in drag and sleep with that old wh0re, so I can’t possibly die like that turtle Shixiong of hers.” He did believe that when he made an oath, he would have to answer to it someday; consequently, when he made an oath, he would always leave a room to maneuver.

Tao Hongying laughed. “This oath is actually very fresh and weird,” she said. “Let me tell you: When the Manchurian Qing Tatars entered the pass, they did not expect to obtain our Great Ming’s rivers and mountains. Manchu people are very few, their soldiers are not many; they would be perfectly contented if they could occupy the area outside the pass for a long time. Therefore, when they entered the pass, whenever the eight banners’ soldiers saw gold, silver and jewels, they would immediately snatch it away. They moved all these money and valuables to outside the pass. At that time the one wielding power was Emperor Shunzi’s father’s younger brother the Regent Prince, but each of the Manchu’s Eight Banners also have some power. That time the Eight Banners’ commanders got together to draw the secret location where the treasure was collected, and each commander of the Eight Banners held one piece of the map …”

Wei Xiaobao sprang up. “Ah!” he exclaimed loudly, “I know it!” Unable to contain his joy, the carriage shook. He sat back down and said, “These eight pieces of the map are hidden in those eight copies of the ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’.”

Tao Hongying said, “It appears that it’s not entirely like that, but only those Eight Banners’ commanders knew clearly. Forget that no one among us, Han people, knows; I am afraid even among Manchu princes and dukes, and high-level ministers, only a few know about it. My Shifu said that the mountain on which the Manchu hid those jewels is the location of their dragon’s vein[11]. That the Tatars can occupy our Great Ming’s rivers and mountains, ascend the throne and become the Emperor, it is entirely dependent upon this mountain’s dragon vein.”

“What is a dragon’s vein?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

Tao Hongying replied, “That is an extremely good place according to feng shui; the Manchu Tatars ancestors were buried on that mountain, their descendants prospered greatly, they came to China and became the Emperor. Shifu said that if we can find that treasured mountain and cut off the dragon’s vein, plus dig out their graves, not only the Manchurian Tatars would fail to be the Emperor, everything they have would die inside the pass. This treasured mountain is that important, and that was the reason my Tai Shifu and my Shifu spent their hearts and blood to find the location of this mountain range. This great secret is hidden inside those eight copies of ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’.”

Gugu,” Wei Xiaobao asked, “How did your Tai Shifu know this Manchu people’s matter?”

“This matter is complicated and not easy to express succinctly,” Tao Hongying replied, “My Tai Shifu was originally a Han woman of Jinzhou [prefecture level city in Liaoning province], who was captured by the Tatars. That Tatar was the Bordered Blue Banner Commander. My Tai Shifu said that after the Tatars entered the pass, they saw how big our China is, how many people we have, they were both delighted and afraid. The commanders of the Eight Banners successively held several meetings for many days, there were heated arguments during the meetings, they could not settle on any single idea.”

“What were they arguing for?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

Tao Hongying said, “Some banner commanders wanted to occupy the whole China, some others said that Han people were this many, if they rose in rebellion, a hundred Han people could fight one banner man, how could the banner man live? It would be better if they loot the whole place and return to outside the pass; it would be much safer. Finally the Regent Prince made a decision; he said that while plundering and transporting the gold, silver and jewels outside the pass, they would establish an emperor in China. If the Han people rebelled and the situation became critical, the banner men would withdraw to the Shanhai Pass.”

“Turns out the Manchurian Qing Tatars at that time were really afraid of us, Han people,” Wei Xiaobao said.

“Why not?” Tao Hongying said, “Even now they are still afraid. It’s just that we are not of one mind. Good nephew, the Tatar young emperor is very fond of you, if you can search out the location of those eight sutras, we could steal those sutras and break the Tatars’ dragon’s vein, then those gold, silver and jewels could be used to cover the expense of raising a militia [orig. ‘righteous army’ – volunteer army]. So long as we raise arms, the Qing troops would be frightened and flee outside the pass.”

Wei Xiaobao did not have any zeal to breaking the dragon’s vein or raising militia, but thinking about that mountain hid an innumerable wealth, he could not help but palpitating with eagerness. “Gugu,” he asked, “Is the secret of this treasured mountain really hidden inside those eight sutras?”

Tao Hongying replied, “My Tai Shifu told my Shifu that one day the Bordered Blue Banner Commander got drunk and told his young Manchurian wife that when he died, he wanted to pass on a copy of sutra to the young wife’s son, and not giving it to his first wife’s son. The young wife was really not happy, saying what’s so rare about a Buddhist scripture. The Banner Commander said that it was their Eight Banners’ lifeblood; it was more important than anything, and roughly mentioned the origin of the Buddhist scripture. Tai Shifu was eavesdropping outside the window, only then did she understand the fact. Afterwards Tai Shifu trained martial arts, my Shifu also learned from her, Senior, for many years. Tai Shifu attempted to steal the sutra, as a result, she was beaten and was seriously hurt. Before her death, she told Shifu to infiltrate the Palace and become a palace maid, to find a way to steal the scripture. There were martial art experts in the Bordered Blue Banner Commander’s mansion, she thought her effort of stealing the scripture in the Palace would likely go smoothly. Who would have known that not long after Shifu entered the Palace, she found out that the imperial ground was even more strictly guarded, palace maids cannot carelessly wander around, so stealing the scripture became extremely difficult. When she was talking to me, she found out about the Great Ming’s Princess, her heart remembered her old ruler with fondness, and thus she accepted me as her disciple.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “No wonder with thousand ways, a hundred plans the old wh0re is trying to get hold of the scripture. She is a Manchurian, she can’t possibly want to break the dragon’s vein, presumably she wants to obtain the treasured mountain’s gold, silver and jewels. But she is the Empress Dowager, she could have anything she wants, what does she needs the treasure for?” He also thought, “Then why did the old turtle Hai kept this matter constantly in his mind? Why did he always want me to go to the Upper Study Room to steal the book? Hmm, perhaps he did not really want the scripture, he only wanted to trick me into revealing who was the mastermind who sent me to poison blind his eyes, or perhaps to investigate who the real assassin who murdered Empress Duan Jing. He must be thinking that the mastermind and the assassin was the same person. I am afraid I do not have the ability to deceive the old turtle Hai into revealing his mind; perhaps even Yan Luo Wang do not have that ability.”

How could Tao Hongying guess that Wei Xiaobao’s thought had turned toward Hai Dafu? She said, “Perhaps there is something else, something strange in the treasured mountain, which even Tai Shifu did not know. Not long after Shifu entered the Palace, she fell ill and died. At the death’s door, the Senior imploring me over and over again, telling me to find a way to steal the scripture. She warned me that stealing the scripture is extremely difficult, based on my own strength, I might not succeed, so she wanted me to take a reliable disciple inside the Palace and pass the secret of the sutra onto her. This generation failed, the next generation would try again, never to let this secret to be buried and forgotten.”

“Yes, yes!” Wei Xiaobao said, “If this great secret is lost in transmission, those countless gold, silver and jewels would be … it would be a great pity.”

“The gold, silver and treasure is not important,” Tao Hongying said, “But to let generation after generation of the Tatars occupying our Han people’s rivers and mountains would be the greatest regret.”

Gugu is right,” Wei Xiaobao said. But in his heart he was thinking, “It would be the greatest regret indeed if those gold, silver and jewels by the thousands and tens of thousands are not taken out and being spent.” He was still very young; about the massacre of Han people by Manchu soldiers, he only heard it from others, he had never personally experienced it. Among the Manchu people in the Palace at that time, only the Empress Dowager was hateful to him. Although Hai Dafu also conspired against him, in the end he did more harm to Hai Dafu than Hai Dafu did harm to him. The rest of the people, from the Emperor down, all had treated him very well, so he had never thought the Manchus were fiendish, bloody and cruel people. He was also aware however, that if he did not receive the Emperor’s favor, those Manchurian nobilities and ministers could not possibly show that kind of warmth or flatter him like that. But when all is said and done, he saw more kindness and less brutality from those Manchus; therefore, the enmity between the races, the hatred of his nation, was rather dull in his heart.

“These past few years,” Tao Hongying continued, “I haven’t received any disciple. The number of palace maids I saw is not many, the ones I met were either stupid and muddleheaded, or flirtatious and narrow-minded, all they think about daily was how to be lucky to have the Emperor’s visit so that they could rise from the palace maid to imperial concubine. How can we tell this great secret of ours to this kind of people? In recent years I often worried that if this situation continues, not only I could not obtain the slightest clue of the scriptures’ whereabouts, I could not get a good disciple either. When I die later, I would bring this secret to my grave, then the Manchu Tatars would sit steadily on our rivers and mountains. The fact that I would wrong Tai Shifu and Shifu needs not be mentioned, worse yet, I would become great sinner toward our Han people. Good nephew, I came across you inadvertently and could tell you all about this matter, in my heart I am really happy.”

“I am also very happy,” Wei Xiaobao said, “But not because of the sutra or whatever, I don’t even think about it in my heart.”

“Then what makes you happy?” Tao Hongying asked.

“I don’t have any relative,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “My mama is like that, I seldom see my Shifu, but now I have an aunt, a good aunt. Naturally I am very happy.” His mouth was sweet, he knew how to coax Tao Hongying and made her happy.

Indeed she was very happy; she smiled and said, “And I get a good nephew, so I am also very happy.” After a short pause, she asked, “Who is your Shifu?”

Wei Xiaobao replied, “My Shifu is the Zongduozhu of Tian Di Hui, surnamed Chen, given name Jin at the top and Nan at the bottom.”

Even such a famous personality like Chen Jinnan, Tao Hongying seemed to hear it only for the first time. She simply nodded and said, “So your Shifu is Tian Di Hui’s Zongduozhu, his martial art must be superb.”

“It’s just that the time I follow my Shifu is too short,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I haven’t learned any skill. Good Gugu, how about you teach me some?”

Tao Hongying hesitated before saying, “If you have never learned any martial art, naturally I would be happy to pass on everything I learned to you. But most likely your Shifu’s martial art is completely different to my martial art school, I am afraid it would be harmful if you learned it. In your opinion, your Shifu and I, whose martial art skill is stronger?”

When Wei Xiaobao asked Tao Hongying to teach him martial art, his intention was only to make her happy. Supposing that Tao Hongying really agreed to teach him, he would have tried to make other excuses instead. Once he started martial art training, he would not be able to go to Wutai Mountain, much less his natural character was that he only loved to loaf around and play, without any patience to learn martial art. Hearing her saying that, he seized the chance by saying, “Gugu, in front of you, I can’t tell a lie.”

“Naturally it is better for a little child to be honest,” Tao Hongying said.

Wei Xiaobao said, “I have seen Shifu fought with someone with very good martial art, in only three moves he managed to subdue him; that man lost miserably. Gugu, I am afraid you are still inferior to Shifu.”

Tao Hongying smiled and said, “That’s right. I also believe I am inferior to him by far. When I struggled against that man disguised as a palace maid, if you did not stab him in the back, I would have been finished early on. I am sure your Shifu can’t be that useless.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “But that fake palace maid was really formidable; even now, when I remember him, I am still afraid.”

Suddenly the muscles on Tao Hongying’s face were twitching, her eyes revealed a frightened look, she stared straight ahead with blank expression on her face. “Gugu,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Are you feeling ill?”

Tao Hongying did not reply, as if she did not hear him. Wei Xiaobao asked her again. Tao Hongying’s body shivered, she said, “No … I am not.” ‘Splat!’ suddenly the whip in her hand fell to the ground. Wei Xiaobao leaped down the carriage to pick it up, and then he jumped back onto the carriage; his movement was very neat and nimble. He was feeling very proud of himself, hoping that Tao Hongying would utter some words of praise. But he saw she shook her head and said, “Child, after you made a decision, you should painstakingly train before you can succeed. With your martial art level right now, to deal with the eunuchs in the Palace, it is too good; but if you want to roam the Jianghu, it is too bad, you are actually inferior to people who do not know martial art at all.”

Wei Xiaobao’s face blushed deep red, “Yes!” he replied. But in his heart he wondered, “Although my martial art is not that good, why am I inferior to people who do not know martial art at all?”

Tao Hongying said, “If you do not know martial art at all, people would not easily kill you. But since you know martial art, your opponent will guard against your counterattack, when they make their move, they won’t easily spare you; won’t it be bad instead?”

Wei Xiaobao said, “What if I meet small bandits who beat randomly with some stick?”

Tao Hongying was taken aback, momentarily she was at a loss of what to say. A moment later she said, “That’s true, perhaps there are more small bandits in Jianghu than martial art experts.” She looked disturbed; pointing to a large tree on the right ahead of them, she said, “Let us take a rest before continuing our journey, let the mule eat some grass.” She drove toward the tree. The two of them jumped down the carriage and sat side by side on the tree root.

Tao Hongying was lost in thought again. Suddenly she mumbled, “Did he say it? Did he say something?”

Wei Xiaobao did not know whom she was asking, he raised his head to look at her, not knowing how to answer her question. The two of them looked at each other, one was waiting the other to answer, the other did not know what she was talking about.

After a while, Tao Hongying asked again, “Did you hear him saying anything? Did you see his lips moving?”

Seeing her strange expression, Wei Xiaobao was rather scared. “Gugu must be under a spell. Or did she see a ghost?” he mused. “Gugu,” he asked, “Whom did you see?”

“Who?” Tao Hongying said, “It’s that … that man who dressed as a fake palace maid!”

Wei Xiaobao was even more afraid. With a trembling voice he asked, “You saw that fake palace maid? Where … where is he?”

As if she had just awakened from a dream Tao Hongying said, “That night in the Empress Dowager’s room, when I fought that fake palace maid, did you hear him or see he opened his mouth to speak?”

Wei Xiaobao let out a breath; he said, “Um, so you are asking about that night. Did he say anything? I did not hear it.”

Tao Hongying pondered for a moment, and then she shook her head and said, “My martial art skill is far too inferior to his, he did not need to use any incantations.”

Wei Xiaobao was completely at a loss. “Gugu,” he said consolingly, “No need to think about him anymore, we have killed him early on, he won’t come back to life.”

“We have killed that man, he won’t come back to life,” Tao Hongying echoed. She seemed to be consoling herself, but when she said those words, her expression showed that deep in her heart she was extremely terrified.

Wei Xiaobao thought, “Although your martial art is good, you are afraid of ghosts. Just killing one person you are this anxious, much less it was me who killed that fake palace maid, it wasn’t you. You killed the old wh0re, actually you killed a tactless and impulsive person; you killed her half dead, half alive, in the end she still came back to live. How disappointing!”

Tao Hongying said, “Since he is dead, naturally we can forget about him, right?”

“That’s right,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “Even if he turned into a ghost, we don’t need to fear him.”

“What ghost?” Tao Hongying asked, “I am worried because he was the disciple of Divine Dragon Cult’s Jiaozhu. That … that … um, Empress Dowager called him Shixiong, it’s impossible, it’s definitely impossible. Looking at his martial art, it was totally different that hers, right? You really did not see him moving his lips when he was fighting, right?” She seemed to be talking to herself, her voice trembled, as if she was hoping Wei Xiaobao would confirm her speculation.

But how could Wei Xiaobao distinguish the fake palace maid’s martial art? He said loudly, “Don’t worry, you are right, that fake palace maid’s martial art was different. When he was fighting, his lips were shut tight, he did not utter a single word. Gugu, what kind of fellow is that Divine Dragon Cult’s Jiaozhu?”

Tao Hongying hurriedly said, “Hong Jiaozhu of Shen Long Jiao‘s [if you don’t mind too much, I’d like to use Shen Long Jiao from now on, in my mind ‘Divine Dragon Cult’ is just too clumsy] magical power is extensive, his martial art is deep and immeasurable, how can you casually call him a ‘fellow’? Child, even behind his back, your speech must not offend him. Da Jiaozhu [Great Cult Leader] Hong’s disciples and grand disciples are numerous and very well-informed, as soon as you utter a sentence or half a phrase disrespectful word toward him, it will be transmitted to his ear, you … just consider your life is over.” While saying that, she looked left and right, as if she was afraid a Shen Long Jiao Jiaozhu‘s follower was around.

“Shen Long Jiao Jiaozhu is that powerful?” Wei Xiaobao said, “Could it be that his power exceeds that of the Emperor?”

“Naturally his power is not as great as the Emperor’s,” Tao Hongying replied, “But if you offend the Emperor, you can run and hide, the Emperor may not necessarily able to find and seize you; but if you offend Shen Long Jiao Jiaozhu, even if you run to the ends of the earth, you won’t find a hiding place.”

“If that’s the case,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Shen Long Jiao has more men and greater force than our Tian Di Hui?”

Tao Hongying shook her head, “It’s not the same, it’s not the same,” she said, “Your Tian Di Hui is fighting the Qing, restoring the Ming; your deeds are just and honorable, all hero and warriors in Jianghu respect you deeply. Shen Long Jiao on the other hand, is substantially different.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “Are you saying that all hero and warriors in Jianghu are afraid of Shen Long Jiao?”

Tao Hongying had to think for a moment before responding, “What I understand about the Jianghu matters is very, very little; I only heard Shifu mentioning it a little bit. My Tai Shifu had such a superb martial art skill, yet she still perished under the hands of Shen Long Jiao disciple.”

Wei Xiaobao swore without any restrain, “Damn it, if that’s the case, Shen Long Jiao is our sworn enemy, why should we fear him?”

Tao Hongying shook her head, then slowly said, “My Shifu said that the martial art taught by Shen Long Jiao has countless changes, admittedly, it is very formidable; but even more difficult to resist is the many incantation practiced by their Cult, which they read as they are facing the enemy, which can make the opponent’s heart alarmed and trembling with fear, while the more they fight, the braver they become. When Tai Shifu was trying to steal the sutra from the Bordered Blue Banner Commander’s mansion, she was involved in a fierce battle against several disciples of the Shen Long Jiao. One of them started to read the spell, Tai Shifu’s fist wind and palm strength became weaker and weaker, until finally her lower abdomen was hit by a palm and she suffered a heavy injury. At that time my Shifu was watching from the side, she said that she mustered up her courage to rush forward to help, but after hearing the incantation, her whole body turned limp and painful, and she had a strong desire to kneel down and surrender, unexpectedly her fighting spirit was gone. When Tai Shifu was wounded, that person no longer read the spell, my Shifu immediately felt her courage surged back, she rushed toward Tai Shifu and took her away. When she recalled this event afterward, she always felt ashamed but was also scared, thus she repeatedly warned me that among the most dangerous things in the world, nothing surpasses fighting with Shen Long Jiao’s people.”

Wei Xiaobao thought, “Your Shifu was a woman, her courage was small, seeing the strength of the opponent, she was frightened and thinking about surrendering.” He asked, “Gugu, did you hear what kind of spell that man was reading?”

“I … I did not hear it,” Tao Hongying replied, “I was afraid that fake palace maid was a Shen Long Jiao disciple, that’s why I asked you if you hear him saying anything or see his lips moving during the fight.”

“Oh, so that’s the reason,” Wei Xiaobao said. He tried to think if he saw or heard anything from under the bed. “No, I did not. But did you hear it?”

Tao Hongying said, “That fake palace maid’s martial art was a lot stronger than mine, I fought him with everything I have, I neither hear nor see anything that happened around me. I just felt that after I fought him for a while, my heart suddenly became afraid, I wanted to run away. When I think about it, I feel very strange.”

Gugu,” Wei Xiaobao asked, “After you learned martial art, how many people have you fought? How many people have you killed?”

Tao Hongying shook her head and said, “I have never fought anybody, I have never killed even one person.”

“That’s the reason,” Wei Xiaobao said, “After killing several more people, you won’t feel afraid when you fight again.”

“Perhaps you are right,” Tao Hongying said, “But I don’t want to fight anybody, I don’t want to kill anybody even more, as long as I can safely and peacefully get those eight copies of the ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’ and break the Manchurian Qing Tatars’ dragon vein, I will be perfectly satisfied. Ay, but there is a 80, 90% chance that the Bordered Blue Banner Commander’s copy of ‘Forty-two-chapter Sutra’ has fallen into Shen Long Jiao’s hands. It would be very difficult to recapture the book from the Shen Long Jiao’s hands.” She was still wearing disguise on her face, Wei Xiaobao could not see her expression, but from her eyes, he could see clearly that deep in her heart she was still very much afraid.

Gugu,” Wei Xiaobao said, “What do you say about joining our Tian Di Hui?” He was thinking, “You are very scared! Our Tian Di Hui has many men and great force, we don’t have to be afraid of Shen Long Jiao.”

Tao Hongying was startled; she asked, “Why do you want me to join Tian Di Hui?”

Wei Xiaobao said, “Tian Di Hui’s main objective is to fight the Qing and restore the Ming, the same idea your Tai Shifu and your Shifu had.”

“That is actually a very good idea,” Tao Hongying said, “But let’s talk about it later. I must return to the Palace now. Where are you going?”

“You are returning to the Palace?” Wei Xiaobao asked in amazement, “Aren’t you afraid of the Empress Dowager?”

Tao Hongying sighed and said, “Since I was a child I grew up in the Palace. After thinking it over, only in the Palace I can live without fear, I don’t understand anything about the matter of the outside world. Originally I was afraid this great secret would follow me to my grave, but now that I have told it to you, even if the Empress Dowager kills me, it’s nothing. Besides, the Palace is very big, I will find a place where I can hide, where the Empress Dowager won’t find me.”

“Alright,” Wei Xiaobao said, “You return to the Palace, someday I will definitely come to see you. Right now Shifu has something for me to do.”

Tao Hongying knew it was inappropriate to ask about Tian Di Hui’s business, so she said, “When you are back to the Palace later, how are you and I going to meet?”

Wei Xiaobao replied, “When I am back at the Palace, I will pile up rocks at the burning ground, and will stick a piece of wood on the pile of rocks, with a picture of a bird on the piece of wood, then you’ll know that I am back. That same night, we can meet at the burning ground.”

Tao Hongying nodded, “Very good,” she said, “Let’s do it this way. Good child, the wind and waves in Jianghu are dangerous, in everything you must be careful.”

Wei Xiaobao nodded, “Yes,” he said, “Gugu, you must be careful yourself, the Empress Dowager, that old wh0re’s heart is vicious, you must never, ever fall into her plot.”

The two of them arrived at a town, Wei Xiaobao hired another carriage, they parted ways to the east and to the west. Wei Xiaobao saw Tao Hongying drove her carriage eastwards, he was unable not to turn his head to look at her back as he thought, “Although she is not my real Gugu, she treats me very well.”

[1] Yaodao is actually a type of saber commonly used by government official. The word ‘dao’ itself means ‘saber’. Following Pokit’s example in ‘Smiling Proud Wanderer’, I repeat the word ‘saber’ just to clarify it.

[2] I thought I’d better clarify this: two paragraph above (…did not say anything for a long time), the original character was 良久 (liang jiu), hence I translated it as ‘a long time’; in this paragraph, however, the original was 好半晌 (hao ban shang). I’ll leave it to your own discretion whether you want to interpret it as a literal 12-hour period or not. Just FYI, when Jin Yong meant specific period of time, he usually used ‘sichen’, or something like ‘the time needed to eat rice’ or ‘burning incense stick’ or something like that.

[3] Buttoned mandarin jacket of the Qing Dynasty.

[4] Orig. ‘ten thousand matters are greatly propitious’.

[5] A kang is a heatable brick bed common in northern China.

[6] Jiejie – older sister, Gugu – auntie, to be precise: paternal aunt.

[7] From the dictionary: ‘black inn’ is an inn that kills and robs guests (esp. in traditional fiction).

[8] In Chinese, ‘forty-two’ is written as ‘four’, ‘ten’ and ‘two’.

[9] Li Zicheng, the leader of peasant rebellion at the end of the Ming Dynasty, he called himself Chuang Wang – ‘The Roaming King’. The character ‘Chuang’ (闖) means to rush / to charge / to dash / to break through / to temper oneself (through battling hardships).

[10] Lit. ‘great’ shifu, in this case, ‘grand master’, shifu of shifu.

[11] My dictionary has an additional definition: terrain that looks like a dragon.

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