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The Deer and the Cauldron Chapter 32

Chapter 32
Breaking singing voice continued by string instrument, dancing sleeve capable of listening to prolonged guest’s boasting.

The next day he went to find out about Wu Sangui’s injury. Wu Sangui’s second son came out to meet him, thanking the Imperial Envoy officer for his visit, telling him that Wu Sangui’s condition did not change, that right now he was sleeping peacefully, that it was inappropriate to disturb him. Wei Xiaobao asked about Xia Guoxiang, but was told that he was on duty leading the troops to quell a disturbance, to guard against the unrest among the people, and that there was some changes going on in the city. When asked about Wu Yingxiong’s condition, he did not give specific answer.

Wei Xiaobao had a faint feeling that there was great suspicion rising within the Ping Xi Wang Mansion, almost to the point of hostility. If he insist on rescuing Mu Palace people, it would be difficult to succeed. Rescuing Ah Ke would be more difficult than difficult. Perhaps if he stir up the Palace to resort to force immediately he would only deliver his own little life in Kunming.

Another day passed. He was having a discussion with Qian Laoben, Xu Tianchuan, Qi Biaoqing, and the others, when Gao Yanchao walked in, announcing that an old Taoist Priestess was seeking an audience. Wei Xiaobao was surprised. “Old Taoist Priestess? Why is she looking for me? Is she asking for alms?”

“Subordinate asked her the purpose of her visit,” Gao Yanchao replied, “She said she received orders to deliver a letter to the Imperial Envoy Daren.” While saying that, he presented a letter in yellow envelope.

Wei Xiaobao frowned and said, “I must trouble Gao Dage to open and look, what is written in there?”

Gao Yanchao opened the envelope and took out a piece of yellow paper, looked at it for a moment, and read, “Ah Ke in trouble …”

As soon as Wei Xiaobao heard those four words, he sprang up and anxiously said, “What Ah Ke in trouble?” The Tian Di Hui warriors did not know about Jiu Nan and Ah Ke; they all just stared at him with a blank look on their faces.

Gao Yanchao said, “That’s what’s written in this letter. It has neither a head nor a tail, and there is no signature either. It only says for you to come with the bearer, to take the trouble of visiting the writer to discuss a plan to save her.”

Wei Xiaobao asked, “Is the Taoist Priestess outside?”

Gao Yanchao has just said one sentence, “She is outside,” Wei Xiaobao had already bolted out the door.

When he reached the side room beside the front door, he saw a grey-haired Taoist Priestess sitting on a wooden bench, waiting for him. The Imperial Bodyguard on duty loudly announced, “Imperial Envoy Minister has arrived.”

The Taoist Priestess stood up and bowed to pay her respect. Wei Xiaobao asked, “Who sent you to see me?”

The Taoist Priestess said, “Would Daren please step out? You will find out at the appointed time.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “Where are we going?”

“Please come with Pindao [impoverished Taoist, referring to self],” the Taoist Priestess said, “It’s not convenient to talk here.”

“Very well,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I will come with you.” He shouted, “Prepare a carriage, saddle the horse!”

“Would Daren take the carriage?” the Taoist Priestess said, “That way we won’t alarm other people.”

Wei Xiaobao nodded. He went out the door together with the Taoist Priestess and climbed into the carriage. Afraid that it was the enemy’s trap, Xu Tian Chuan, Qian Laoben, and the other followed some distance away. The Taoist Priestess gave the direction they were to take, the carriage headed west, and went out of the western city gate. Seeing the landscape was getting more and more desolate, Wei Xiaobao was feeling slightly uneasy; he asked, “Where are we going?”

“We will arrive soon,” the Taoist Priestess replied.

After traveling for more than three li, they turned north. The road narrowed, it was barely enough for one carriage. Shortly afterwards they arrived in front of a tiny Buddhist nunnery. “We are here,” the Taoist Priestess said.

Wei Xiaobao jumped down the carriage. He saw a wooden tablet on top of the door to the nunnery. There were three characters written on the tablet, the first one was ‘Three’, the other two he did not recognize. Turning his head and taking a glance, he saw Gao Yanchao and the others in the distant, presumably they would wait around this place; thereupon he followed the Taoist Priestess into the nunnery.

He saw all around him the nunnery was untainted by even a speck of dust. The courtyard was adorned with several bushes of camellia, and a Chinese redbud tree [Cercis chinensis]. In the middle of the sacrificial hall there was an image of Guanyin [Goddess of Mercy] in white. The image’s appearance was very beautiful, in the dignified Buddhist imagery, there was thirty-percent of prettiness.

Wei Xiaobao mused, “I heard among Wu Sangui’s wife, there is one nicknamed Four-sided [or Four-Faced] Guanyin, there is also one nicknamed Eight-sided [or Eight-Faced] Guanyin. I wonder if they are really as pretty as Guanyin Pusa [Bodhisattva]. Damn it, the big traitor’s luck in love is not shallow.”

The Taoist Priestess led him to the eastern side chamber, and served him tea. Wei Xiaobao opened the teacup lid, a burst of delicate fragrance greeted his nostrils. The tea inside the cup was dark green, unexpectedly it was a freshly brewed Longjing tealeaves. He felt a bit strange, “These Longjing tealeaves were brought all the way from Jiangnan to this place, the price would be prohibitive. How can the Taoist Priestesses or Buddhist nuns in this nunnery be this ostentatious?”

The Taoist Priestess returned with a lacquered wooden tray in her hands, with assortment of eight different delicacies, arranged on white tray cloth. There was pine-nut candy, hickory cake, walnut flakes, rose cake, apricot candy, mung bean cake, lily crackers, and osmanthus scented red bayberry preserved in honey. All were Suzhou-style light refreshments, and all were exceptionally exquisite. Wei Xiaobao was not a stranger to this kind of Jiangnan delicacies, when he was at the Yangzhou brothel in the past, when the patrons arrived and the procuress [lit. female brothel keeper] wanted to entertain the guests, taking advantage when nobody was watching, he often nibbled a slice or two pieces. Unexpectedly coming across an old friend in a tiny Buddhist nunnery in Yunnan, he was very happy. “Laozi is back at the Yangzhou’s Lovely Spring Courtyard,” he mused. After serving the light refreshments, the Taoist Priestess withdrew immediately.

There was a copper incense burner on the small side table, a thin wisp of blue smoke rose up in spirals, the scent was that of precious sandalwood incense. Wei Xiaobao was familiar with this kind of scent; each time he came to see the Empress Dowager at the Palace of Compassionate and Peaceful, he would always smell this sandalwood fragrance. Suddenly he sprang up in fear. “Aiyo! Not good! Could it be that the old wh0re is here?”

He heard intermittent sound of footsteps outside the door. A woman walked in. She put her palms together toward Wei Xiaobao and said, “Nun [or Priestess, see footnote] Jijing[1] pays her respect to Wei Daren.” Her voice was clear and supple, she spoke in Suzhou accent.

The woman was approximately forty-years old, she was wearing light yellow Taoist gown, she had a beautiful face [orig. ‘like painting’], so clear and attractive that it was difficult to describe with words. In all his life Wei Xiaobao had never seen such a beautiful woman. He was holding the teacup with both hands, and was about to drink; but right now his mouth was open wide, unexpectedly he was unable to close it. In that instant he was dumbstruck and was at a loss to know what to do. The woman smiled and said, “Wei Daren, please sit down.”

“Yes, yes,” Wei Xiaobao absent-mindedly replied. His knees went soft, he plopped down into his chair, the tea in his hand splashed, the front piece of his jacket was immediately wet for the most part.

In all her life, the beautiful woman had seen many men all over the world lost their soul and dropped their spirit when they saw her for the first time, hence she was not the least bit surprised; but Wei Xiaobao was only a fifteen, sixteen years old teenager, unexpectedly he was also intimidated by her peerless glowing countenance. The beautiful woman smiled and said, “Wei Daren is young yet have great talent. I heard that in the past Gan Luo became the prime minister at the age of twelve, Wei Daren actually do not lose to him.”

“I don’t dare,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Aiyo! All those women, Xishi, Yang Guifei[2], are definitely inferior to you.”

The beautiful woman raised her sleeve to cover half of her jade cheek; she smiled sweetly, immediately hundreds of charms grew without restraint. Following which her countenance turned solemn as she said, “Xishi, Yang Guifei, they all women with cruel fate. Xiao Nuzi [little/lowly woman, referring to self] only regrets that the Heaven bestowed me with such countenance, and thus harming the common people under the heavens, making their lives miserable. Because of that I now live with the clear lantern of Buddha as my companion, persistently live in repentance. Ay, even if I strike through the wooden fish [Buddhist instrument] or chant the sutra until it rots, I still cannot redeem even one of the ten thousand sins of my past.” Speaking to this point, her eyes turned red, she could not stop the tears from flowing down.

Wei Xiaobao did not understand what she was talking about, but seeing how when she smiled the divine light was meeting and parting, how in her distress she looked so lovely and moving, he could not help but feeling compassion toward her. He did not even know her background, but the blood in his breast bubbled up, he only felt that even if his body was torn and his bones crushed for her sake, he would take it ‘as sweet as syrup’ [an idiom from the Book of Songs: to endure hardship gladly]. Striking his chest he stood up and fervently said, “Who bullied you? I will stake my life for you. Whatever difficulty you have, please feel free to hand it over to me. If I cannot deal with it, I, Wei Xiaobao, will cut my head and give it to you.” While saying that, he raised his right palm and chopped it heavily on the back of his own neck. Such a lofty spirit of a real man was indeed rare, but this time it was not the least bit superficial.

The beautiful woman stared at him for half a day; she said with a sob, “Wei Daren’s righteousness reaches the cloud in the sky, Xiao Nuzi does not know how to repay it.” Bending her knees, she suddenly kneeled down and gracefully prostrated herself in front of him.

“Not right, not right,” Wei Xiaobao called out. Promptly he also dropped down on his knees and ‘dong, dong, dong’, kowtowed to her several times, saying, “You are immortal descending into the world, Guanyin Pusa reincarnated; you deserve my kowtows.”

The beautiful woman said in a low voice, “I really don’t deserve this.” Holding out her hands, she pulled his arms and helped him up. The two of them stood up together.

Seeing several drops of tears hanging on her cheeks, sparkling and translucent like beads of pearl, Wei Xiaobao busily stretched out his sleeve and gently wiped her face. “Don’t cry, don’t cry,” he said tenderly, “Even a gargantuan problem, we will deal with it fair and square.”

Based on that beautiful woman’s age, she could be his mother. But in her appearance, manners, speech and expression, there was sweetness, charm, grace and loveliness that other people could not help but feeling tenderness and pity toward her. “Actually, why are you sad?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

The beautiful woman replied, “After Wei Daren saw the letter, you came immediately, Xiao Nuzi is really grateful …”

“Aiyo!” Wei Xiaobao exclaimed, as he slapped his own forehead, “Muddle head! It is for Ah Ke’s sake …” He stared blankly at the beautiful woman; suddenly he came into realization, “You are Ah Ke’s Mama!” he loudly said.

The beautiful woman said in a low voice, “Wei Daren is very smart. I was not going to tell you, but you have guessed correctly.”

“That was easy,” Wei Xiaobao said, “The two of you look very much alike, but … but Ah Ke Shijie is inferior to … to your beauty.”

A blush appeared on the beautiful woman’s face, her bright, smooth and white, soft skin exuded a tender pink color, as if she had just applied a layer of rouge on her jade-white face. “You call Ah Ke your Shijie?” she asked in a low voice.

“Yes,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “She is my Shijie.” Without concealing anything, he told her how he first met Ah Ke, how he was beaten by her that his arm bones were dislocated, how he did obeisance to Jiu Nan and took her as his master, how they came together to Kunming. He even told her how he adored Ah Ke, but Ah Ke did not even consider him in her eyes; all kinds of feeling and reasons, he calmly gave her a straightforward account. Only about Jiu Nan’s real identity, as well as his intention to bring Wu Sangui’s conspiracy to a bad end, which he thought the implication would be too great, he skipped completely and did not mention even a single word.

The beautiful woman listened quietly. When he finished, she sighed and said quietly, “How can a wife be involved in something of a paramount importance? A hero is helpless to overcome his passion. Young beauty is the source of trouble. The problem at hand can’t be more clear. Wei Daren has a future full of promise …”

Wei Xiaobao shook his head. “Not right, not right,” he said, “Young beauty is the source of trouble; I have heard the storytellers said the same thing, that Daji[3], Yang Guifei, were responsible for causing the harm of the nation. Actually, if there was no wretched man, no wretched emperor in the world, even if the woman was more beautiful, she can’t possibly bring the harm to the country. Everybody said that for the sake of Chen Yuanyuan, Ping Xi Wang surrendered to the Qing Dynasty. In my opinion, if Wu Sangui was really loyal to the Ming Dynasty, eighteen Chen Yuanyuan would not make his granny Wu Sangui surrenders to the Qing Dynasty.”

The beautiful woman stood up, gracefully kneeled down and bowed respectfully to him and said, “Thank you Wei Daren for seeing clearly, for distinguishing the unredressed injustice that plagued jianqie[4] for all eternity.”

Wei Xiaobao hurriedly returned the propriety. He wondered out loud, “You … you … Ah … aiyo, that’s right, I am indeed a complete muddle head. If you are not Chen Yuanyuan, where in the world would there be such … such … a beautiful woman like you? It’s just that, ay, I am more and more confused; aren’t you Ping Xi Wang’s Wangfei [wife of the king]? Why are you here living a pious life? How can Ah Ke Shijie be … be your daughter?”

The beautiful woman stood up and said, “Jianqie is indeed Chen Yuanyuan. The story behind it is complicated and not easy to express succinctly; but first, Jianqie needs help from Wei Daren, hence I do not dare to conceal anything; second, I have just heard how Wei Daren is able to recognize Jianqie’s unredressed injustice, in my heart I am very grateful. For more than twenty years Jianqie has suffered enough insult from the people all over the world, they put the blame of the fall of our country on Jianqie’s head. At the present age, only two gifted scholars understand that Jianqie has received unjust treatment. One is the great poet Wu Meicun, Wu Caizi [gifted scholar]. The other is precisely Wei Daren.”

Actually, Wei Xiaobao was completely ignorant and did not have any knowledge of national affair, he did not have any clue if Chen Yuanyuan was wronged or not. It’s just that he saw how in her frightened state she did not lose her graceful appearance; he admired her greatly. Plus he utterly detested Wu Sangui, and she was Ah Ke’s mother. Even if she had a thousand shortcomings, committed ten thousand mistakes, it was not a mistake at all. In his mind, not even half of it was not Wu Sangui’s fault.

Listening to her praising him as a gifted scholar, he was self-conscious; he waved his hand and hastily said, “I don’t know a single character as big as a watermelon. If you want to call me a gifted scholar, you might as well add two characters ‘dog fart’ in front of it, then it will become ‘dog fart gifted scholar’ Wei Xiaobao.”

Chen Yuanyuan smiled and said, “Being able to write verses and literary works will make you no more than little gifted scholar; having knowledge and experience, having responsibility, will put you into the great gifted scholar category.”

Hearing these few words of flattery, Wei Xiaobao could not stop the bones in his entire body from going soft; he thought, “She is the world’s number one beauty, yet unexpectedly she said I am a big gifted scholar. Ha ha … turns out laozi’s talent is really not low. Damn it, ever since I came out of my mother’s womb, this is the first time I have ever heard this.”

Chen Yuanyuan stood up. “Would Daren step inside?” she asked, “Let Xiao Nuzi relates everything to you.”

“Yes,” Wei Xiaobao replied. He followed her along a gravel pathway in the garden, toward a small room.

The room was bare, no table, no chair, but there were two putuan [meditation mat] on the floor. A scroll of calligraphy hung on the wall, it looked densely populated with a lot of characters. Next to the scroll hung a pipa [Chinese lute].

Daren please sit down,” Chen Yuanyuan said.

She waited until Wei Xiaobao was seated on one of the putuan before she walked over to the wall and took the pipa down, carried it in her arms, and sat down on the other putuan. Pointing to the calligraphy scroll on the wall she said softly, “This is the long poem the Great Gifted Scholar Wu Meicun wrote for Jianqie. It is called ‘Yuanyuan Song’ [yuan literally means circle/round]. Today we are brought together by fate, I’d like to play and sing for Daren, but the grime will be clearly heard.”

Wei Xiaobao was greatly delighted. “Wonderful, wonderful,” he said, “But when you sing several verses, you must explain it to me, I am a dog fart gifted scholar, my learning is very much so-so.”

Chen Yuanyuan smiled. “Daren is too modest,” she said. Thereupon she tuned the pipa, ‘ding ding dong dong’, she plucked the strings several times, and then said, “I have not played for a long time, please don’t blame me for being rusty.”

“There is no need to be polite,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Even if you played wrong, I would not know.”

He heard she lightly and slowly twirled her fingers and plucked several notes, and sang in a drawn-out voice[5], “At that time when the emperor abandoned the human world, Wu crushed the enemy and captured the capital, bearing down from Jade Pass. The six armies, wailing and grieving, were uniformly clad in the white of mourning. One wave of headgear-lifting anger propelled him, all for the sake of the fair-faced one.”

Singing these four lines, she said, “It is talking about the time Chong Zhen, the Son of Heaven returned to the heaven, Ping Xi Wang and the Manchurian Qing joined arms, defeating Li Zicheng and advancing into Beijing. The officers and soldiers were all wearing mourning apparel for the Emperor. Hence Ping Xi Wang sent his troops, it was actually for me, this unlucky woman.”

Wei Xiaobao nodded and said, “You are such a beautiful woman, Wu Sangui surrendered to the Great Qing for your sake, I can’t really blame him. If it were me, Wei Xiaobao, I would surrender as well.”

Chen Yuanyuan rolled her beautiful eyes; she thought, “You are just a baby, yet you are also teasing me.” However, when she looked at him, she saw his solemn expression and knew that he was being sincere; she could not help but was touched by the friendship shown. She continued to sing, “The fair-faced one, drifting and fallen, was not what I longed for. The offending bandits, smote by heaven, wallowed in wanton pleasures. Lightning swept the Yellow Turban, the Black Mountain troops were quelled. Having wailed for ruler and kin, I met her again.”

She explained, “Here he was talking about Wangye defeating Li Zicheng. The poem says: Li Zicheng’s endeavor failed because he himself was no good, after he reached Beijing, his conduct was preposterous. When Wangye saw this verse, he was very unhappy.”

“That’s right,” Wei Xiaobao said, “The song obviously says that the defeat of Li Zicheng was not his merit at all.”

Chen Yuanyuan said, “The later section of this song tells the story of Jianqie’s life.” She sang, “Meeting for the first time going through the field of Dou Family, the singing and dancing of the nobleman’ gate was like flower. Allowing the display of konghou [Chinese harp] craft in the midst of grief, waiting to fetch the General in lacquered carriage. In the Huan Hua [lit. washing/rinsing flower] of hometown Suzhou, little girl Yuanyuan as delicate as openwork silk gauze. Dreaming to roam the Fu Cha’s[6] park, the palace beauty supports the rise of the sovereign king. In the front was a lotus picking person, in front of the door was a strip of pond.”

The melody tender and charming, winding and turning, the sound of pipa was undulating slowly, just as a breeze rising and falling, or a gently ripple of the water of the lotus pond.

Chen Yuanyuan said in a low voice, “Here the poem is comparing Jianqie to Xi Shi; it’s rather overpraised.”

Wei Xiaobao shook his head and said, “Incorrect comparison, incorrect comparison!”

Chen Yuanyuan was slightly startled. Wei Xiaobao continued, “How can Xi Shi be superior to you?”

A slight blush appeared on Chen Yuanyuan’s face. “Wei Daren is making fun of me,” she said.

“I am not making fun of you at all,” Wei Xiaobao replied, “I have a strong reason. I heard people say that Xi Shi was from Zhuji [county level city] of Shaoxing [prefecture], Zhejiang [province]; although she was beautiful, Shaoxing people speak ‘niang ge jian tai ta ta jiao[7]’, how can they compare to you, Suzhou people who speaks coyly and string all words together?”

Chen Yuanyuan laughed sweetly, “Turns out there is that reason,” she said, “Come to think about it, King Wu Fu Cha [see previous note] was also a Suzhou native, how could he like Xi Shi?”

Wei Xiaobao scratched his head and said, “That King Wu Fu Cha’s ears were not too clear, so it was possible.”

Chen Yuanyuan covered her mouth as she squealed, her face blushed profusely, her glance was graceful, her cherry lips were trembling slightly, her anxious look lasted for a while, yet her overall appearance seemed sweet and charming. Wei Xiaobao only felt comfortably warm, as if he was drunk, and in his confused mind he did not know where he was.

He heard she continued singing, “A pair of oars flying on the surface of the strip of pond, where could the heroic family return to? How could they know that there were not born under an unlucky star? Right now, only tears wetting the clothes. The scent of sweet-smelling grass links the apartments of the Palace, nobody pities the beautiful woman [orig. bright eyes and white teeth]. Insisting on returning home, the Eternal Alley was closed to respectable families, it only leans to let the new sound of guests to enter.”

Singing to this point, she sighed gently, and said, “Jianqie came from the windblown dust [i.e. prostitution], I don’t need to conceal my origin …”

“What do you mean coming from the windblown dust?” Wei Xiaobao asked, “Please don’t speak in literary terms with me, I don’t know anything about literary terms.”

Chen Yuanyuan said, “Xiao Nuzi was originally a Suzhou house’s prostitute …”

Wei Xiaobao slapped his knee and called out, “Wonderful!”

Chen Yuanyuan’s face looked hurt, she said in a low voice, “That is Jianqie’s unkind fate.”

Wei Xiaobao was happy and excited. “You and I are kindred spirits,” he said, “I also came from the windblown dust.”

Chen Yuanyuan opened wide her pair of as-clear-as-water phoenix eyes, she started blankly at him, while saying in her heart, “Obviously he does not understand the meaning of ‘coming from the windblown dust’.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “You came from a brothel, I also came from a brothel; only you are from Suzhou, I am from Yangzhou. My Mama is a prostitute at the Lovely Spring Courtyard of Yangzhou. Only her appearance cannot be compared to you; one is heavenly, the other is down to earth.”

Chen Yuanyuan was greatly surprised; she asked in a tender voice, “You are not joking?”

“Why would I joke with you?” Wei Xiaobao said, “Ay, I was just too busy. I should have sent people to fetch Mama, I should not let her be a prostitute anymore. But I saw that at the Lovely Spring Courtyard, she was living a cheerful life, bustling with noise and excitement; if I brought her to Beijing, I am afraid she would be in low spirit.”

Chen Yuanyuan said, “A hero is not afraid of low family background. Wei Daren is open and candid, you do not refuse to talk about it, it is precisely the natural quality of a hero.”

“I only told it to you,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I have never told it to anybody else; otherwise, people would point their fingers at me and call me a wh0re’s b@stard. I can’t take it. In front of Ah Ke, you must not mention it even more. She is already looking down at me; if she found out about it, she would never pay any attention to me forever.”

“Wei Daren, don’t worry,” Chen Yuanyuan said, “Jianqie won’t talk too much. Actually, Ah Ke, she … her own Mama is not any wise and virtuous woman from a well-known family.”

“It would be best if you do not mention it,” Wei Xiaobao said, “She hates prostitutes the most, she said that this kind of woman is extremely bad.”

Chen Yuanyuan hung down her head and said in a low voice, “She … she said that brothel’s women are … are extremely bad?”

Wei Xiaobao hastily said, “Please don’t feel sad, she was not talking about you.”

Chen Yuanyuan was low-spirited. “Naturally she was not talking about me,” she said, “Ah Ke did not even know that I am her Mama.”

Wei Xiaobao was surprised, “How can she not know?” he asked.

Chen Yuanyuan shook her head and said, “She does not know.”

Cocking her head sideways, she was lost in thought for a moment before slowly said, “The Empress Dowager of the Son of Heaven Chong Zhen was surnamed Zhou, she was also Suzhou native. Son of Heaven Chong Zhen doted on Concubine Tian. The fight between the Empress Dowager and Concubine Tian was very fierce. The Empress Dowager’s father Jia Dingbo bought me out of the brothel and sent me into the Palace, hoping to take away the favor from Concubine Tian …”

“That was a great idea,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Concubine Tian would be in big trouble.”

“It was not such a big trouble,” Chen Yuanyuan said, “Son of Heaven Chong Zhen worried about the affairs of the nation, he was not interested in women. I haven’t lived in the Palace for long when the Emperor ordered the Empress Dowager to send me out of the Palace.”

“Strange, strange!” Wei Xiaobao loudly exclaimed, “I heard that Emperor Chong Zhen had eyes but failed to see; he only believed treacherous officials but had Yuan Chonghuan, a greatly loyal minister, killed. Turned out he did not have any foresight toward men, but he did not have any foresight toward women even more, that he did not want a woman like you. Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk.” He shook his head repeatedly, thinking that among the strange things in the world, nothing was more strange than this.

Chen Yuanyuan said, “Some men like scholarly honor [in imperial exams] and the riches that come with it. Some like gold, silver and jewels. As the Emperor, he had to think about how to solve the country’s problems. Not everybody loves good-looking women.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “I want scholarly honor and riches, I also want gold, silver and jewels. I want good-looking women even more. One thing I don’t want is being the Emperor; even if it given to me, I won’t do it. Aha! In this city of Kunming, there is a dear friend of mine who is the number one high-ranking official under the heavens, he has become the richest old man in the world, he married the number one beauty in the world, unexpectedly he still toys with the idea of becoming the Emperor.”

Chen Yuanyuan’s countenance changed slightly. “Are you talking about Ping Xi Wang?” she asked.

“I won’t mention any names,” Wei Xiaobao said, “In short, it is not you, Chen Yuanyuan, and it is not me, Wei Xiaobao.”

Chen Yuanyuan said, “The next part of the song talks about how I met Ping Xi Wang. After he asked for me from Jia Dingbo, he left for Shanhai Pass to guard the border, leaving me behind at his house in Beijing. Not long afterwards, Li … Li … Li Chuang[8] attacked the Capital.”

She sang, “The sitting guest flies the goblet toward the red sunset, the sorrowful song of string, to whom would it complain to? The youngest of Marquis Bai Xitong, looking back, time and again the flowering branch was chosen. The morning brings the frail bird out of the cage, when will it cross the Milky Way? The end of the military document ordering hateful killing was extremely urgent, hurting the people who must be painstakingly left behind. Wanting to meet deep kindness, wanting to see each other is difficult, the dynasty’s ant thieves crowd Chang’an. With pity thinking about the willow at the front of the women’s storied building, looking at the horizon as white cotton wadding.” Singing to this point, the pipa stopped, she stared blankly at the wall, lost in thought.

Wei Xiaobao thought the song had reached its end, he clapped and cheered, “Are you done?” he asked, “You sing well, your singing is wonderful, your singing is top-notch.”

Chen Yuanyuan said, “If I died at that time, the song would naturally end here.”

Wei Xiaobao’s face turned deep red; he thought, “Damn it, laozi is uneducated. Li Chuang broke into Beijing, my Shifu’s father Emperor Chong Zhen’s song has come to an end. But Chen Yuanyuan’s song has not ended.”

Chen Yuanyuan said in a low voice, “Li Chuang seized me away. Afterwards, Ping Xi Wang snatched me back. I was not a human, I am only an object; whoever is stronger, he can take me away.” She sang, “Searching everywhere the green pearl is encircled in the inside, the powerful call of golden eagle coming out of purple-red tree fence. Were it not for the brave soldier achieving complete victory, would the beautiful woman return on a horse? The woman on the horseback called, the silver hair on the temples stood in fright. The candle flame forge ahead to the battlefield, streak of tears left red marks of makeup across her face. Dreary beating of the drums on a personal expedition toward Sichuan, thousands of riders and chariots heading toward Jinniu [lit. golden ox, district of Chengdu, Sichuan]. Sloping valley going deep above the cloud in the painting on the multi-story building, vanishing beyond the pass toward the sunset as seen through the vanity mirror. The incoming news filling the rivers and villages, red Tallow tree [sapium sebiferum] has gone through ten seasons of frost. The master who teaches singing still has pity, taking the gauze-silk (female) companion down memory lane. Old nest shared by clay swallows, flying to the tip of the branch, they transformed into a pair of phoenix, constantly conveying their deep grief to the respected senior generations; some men arrogate to themselves the marquis king position.”

When singing about ‘arrogating to themselves the marquis king position’, she seemed to be entranced. This time Wei Xiaobao did not dare to ask whether she had finished singing or not; he had made up his mind, “Unless she says that she is finished singing, I am not going to ask too much, so that I won’t make a fool of myself.”

He heard she said grimly, “I came with Ping Xi Wang when he invaded Sichuan, where he was conferred the title ‘King’. When the news reached Suzhou, all my former sisters of the courtyard were envious, saying that my luck was good. They still have to do that kind of shady business in the courtyard until they are old.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “When I was at the Lovely Spring Courtyard, I often heard they say something like ‘every night there is someone new in the bridal room’, ‘freshness is exciting’, nothing wrong with that.”

Chen Yuanyuan cast him a glance; seeing that he did not seem to be sarcastic, she gently sighed and said, “Daren, you are still young, you don’t understand this kind of distress.”

Plucking her pipa, she sang, “At that time receiving reputation by association, noble grief causing famous warrior prolonged struggle. One piece of jewel ten thousand pieces of anxiety, slender waist wandering along the fortresses and mountains along the Great Wall. Misplaced blame like a gale made the flowers fall, colors of spring without boundary covering the heaven and the earth. Taste and smell of the demise of the nation coming from everywhere, turning-over envoy minister received notoriety. How could a wife consent to shut down such a matter of paramount importance? Reluctant hero is full of affection. The bones of the entire family turn to dust, a generation of festive female clothing reflecting youthful perspiration.”

With eyes brimming in tears she stopped her pipa. “Gifted Scholar Wu Meicun knew that although my fame spread all over the world, my heart was in pain,” she said while sobbing, “Common people scolded me as the young beauty who brings disaster to the water, harming the Great Ming’s rivers and mountains. Gifted Scholar Wu knew that I was a mere young girl, what can I possibly do? Be it good or bad, it’s the men who did all these things.”

“That’s right,” Wei Xiaobao said, “When the Great Qing’s troops and horses attacked by the thousands and tens of thousands, you are only a delicate and pretty young woman, how could you possibly stop them?” He thought, “She could play and tell stories this well, just like the mister storyteller at Suzhou singing ballad with pipa accompaniment. I could banter with her several sentences, or provide vocal accompaniment to her singing, I can be the assistant to the mister storyteller. If the two of us going to Yangzhou and open a business at the teahouse, I guarantee we will cause a sensation within the Yangzhou city walls, so much so that the teahouse will burst at its seam. I will hold the signage over her head, naturally I would also enjoy the limelight.”

While he was feeling very pleased with himself, he heard she continued singing, “The lord did not see, when the baby first rose in the hall, it was like the mandarin ducks lodging for the night. One will never be satisfied to look at the flowery Yue maiden, the cry of bird arose from the fragrant dusty footpath, the wooden shoes were lined with green moss. A thousand li of worry moved out of the Palace, pearl song, green jade dance, out of ancient Liang prefecture. For the sake of the lord, do not sing the Wu Palace song, to the southeast day and night the Han River flows.”

When she sang the word ‘flow’, she held the last note long, seemingly unending, while the pipa climbed higher and higher, gradually drowning the singing voice. After a moment, the pipa gradually slowing and softer, like the water trickling down a distant creek, until it finally died down.

Chen Yuanyuan heaved a deep sigh, tears streaming down her face, with a choking voice she said, “I am displaying a disgraceful performance.”

Standing up, she hung the pipa on the wall, and then walked back to the putuan and sat down. She said, “The last part of the song was talking about King Wu Fu Cha perishing for the country. I did not understand it in the past, the song was talking about my life’s story, why did it mention the Wu Palace? Even if it was comparing me to Xi Shi, it is already mentioned in the front. Wu Palace, Wu Palace, could it be that it is talking about Ping Xi Wang’s Imperial Palace? In recent years I started to understand. Wangye drilled the troops and trained the horses extravagantly, I am afraid … I am afraid … ay, I exhorted him several times, but he was offended and was very angry. I left home in this San Sheng An [three sages nunnery], wearing my hair leading a pious life, repenting of my whole life’s sin, hoping that everybody will live in peace and harmony, spending the rest of my life in here. Who would have thought … who would have thought Ah Ke … Ah Ke …” Speaking to here, she broke into a noiseless sob.

After listening to her song for half a day, Wei Xiaobao was enchanted by her beautiful voice, by the melody of the song, which was very pleasant to listen to, so much so that he completely forgot the purpose of his visit. As soon as he heard her mentioning Ah Ke, he sprang up and asked, “What actually happened to Ah Ke? Did she really assassinate Ping Xi Wang? She is your daughter; that makes her Wangye’s Junzhu [princess, see last chapter, Xiao Junzhu]. Aiyo, it’s bad, it’s bad.”

Chen Yuanyuan was startled. “What’s bad?” she asked.

Wei Xiaobao’s mind was in turmoil, “No … nothing,” he casually replied. Actually, he suddenly realized that since Ah Ke had already looked down on him, now that she was Ping Xi Wang’s princess, the distant between she and this son of a prostitute was even farther away.

Chen Yuanyuan said, “When Ah Ke was two years old, she suddenly disappeared in the middle of the night. Wangye sent people to search everywhere in the city, but there was no trace of her. I suspected … suspected …” Suddenly she blushed and turned her face away from him.

“What did you suspect?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

Chen Yuanyuan said, “I suspected it was Wangye’s personal enemy who kidnapped this girl, perhaps to threaten him, or to blackmail him.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “There are so many martial art experts working as bodyguards and military officers in the Palace, unexpectedly someone was able to sneak in [orig. ‘the gods did not know, the ghosts are not aware’] and stole Ah Ke Shijie away. That person’s ability must be very high.”

“That’s right,” Chen Yuanyuan said, “At that time Wangye was so angry, he had two bodyguard chiefs executed; he also had the Tidu [provincial commander] and Zhifu [prefectural magistrate] envoy of the City of Kunming removed. After searching for several days without finding any clue, Wangye was about to kill more people. Finally I managed to calm him down. For the last dozen of years, I have not heard any news about Ah Ke. I thought … I thought she had already died.”

“No wonder Ah Ke says that her surname is Chen,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Turns out she is taking your surname.”

Chen Yuanyuan leaned sideways. “She … she said her surname is Chen?” her voice quivering, “How did she know?”

Wei Xiaobao had a sudden inspiration, “Day and night the old traitor is always afraid that someone would come to assassinate him, the security around him must be very strict,” he mused, “Perhaps kidnapping a baby out of the Palace is more difficult than assassinating him. In this world, other than Shifu Jiu Nan, I am afraid there is nobody else.” He said, “Most likely the person who kidnapped her told her that.”

Chen Yuanyuan slowly nodded and said, “That’s right. But … but why didn’t he say that her surname was … was …”

“That her surname was Wu?” Wei Xiaobao said, “Humph, there is nothing necessarily radiant with Ping Xi Wang’s surname.”

Chen Yuanyuan was gazing out the window, she was staring blankly as if she did not hear him. Wei Xiaobao asked, “And then what happened?”

“I thought about her a lot,” Chen Yuanyuan said, “I hoped the Heaven would pity me; as long as she did not die, I hoped one day I can see her again. Yesterday afternoon I received news from the Palace, saying that Wangye has been attacked by an assassin, and was seriously injured. I hurriedly went to the Palace to see him. Wangye was indeed attacked by an assassin, but he was not injured.”

Wei Xiaobao was shocked. “So he was only pretending to be seriously injured?” his voice was quivering.

Wangye said,” Chen Yuanyuan continued, “He pretends to be seriously injured so that the adversary would act blindly without thinking, and thus he could catch everything in one net.”

Wei Xiaobao was greatly taken aback. “He is indeed pretending,” he mumbled, “I … I am such a big fool, I should have guessed early on.” He said in his heart, “The big traitor is indeed very suspicious of me.”

Chen Yuanyuan said, “I asked him what kind of person was the assassin. Wangye did not say anything, but he took me to a side room. On the bed sat a young woman, her hands and feet were shackled. I did not need to take a second look, I knew she was my daughter. She looked exactly like me when I was her age. As soon as she saw me, she stared at me blankly, and then asked, ‘Are you my Mama?’ I nodded; and then pointing to Wangye, I said, ‘Greet your father[9]’. Ah Ke angrily said, ‘He is the big traitor to China, he is not my father. He killed my father, I want to avenge father.’ Wangye asked her, ‘Who is your father?’ Ah Ke replied, ‘I don’t know. Shifu told me that when I see my Ma, Ma will tell me’. Wangye asked her who her Shifu was, she was unwilling to talk. But eventually she revealed that she had received her Shifu’s order to assassinate Wangye.”

Listening to here, Wei Xiaobao understood about 70, 80% of the story. He presumed his Shifu Jiu Nan hated Wu Sangui to the bones; killing him alone was not enough to vent her anger, hence she kidnapped her daughter, taught her martial art, and sent her to assassinate her own father [orig. fuqin, formal]. He stood up, went to the window, and thought, “That’s right, Shifu has never liked Ah Ke. Although she taught her martial art styles, she did not pass on the least bit of internal energy cultivation. Although Ah Ke’s style is indeed brilliant, it is actually a big mess; it encompasses different martial art styles from all kinds of school and sect. Old Monk Cheng Guan has such profound knowledge, yet he could not figure out her school. Um, Shifu did not let her enter the Tie Jian [Iron Sword] School; I, Wei Xiaobao, am actually the first disciple of Tie Jian School.” Thinking about the viciousness of Jiu Nan’s revenge, he could not help but shiver with fright.

Chen Yuanyuan said, “Her Shifu has deep plans and distant thoughts, he hated Wangye so much that he set up this stratagem. If Ah Ke succeeded in assassinating Wangye, his big enmity would be avenged. If the assassination failed, Wangye would still find out that the assassin who was trying to take his life was his own flesh and blood daughter; needless to say, his heart must be grieved.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “Right now there is no problem. She has not stabbed Wangye, your family is reunited instead. You can explain everything to Ah Ke, won’t everybody be happy then?”

Chen Yuanyuan sighed. “If only it’s that easy,” she said, “Then I would thank the Heaven and thank the Earth.”

“Ah Ke is your own daughter,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Anybody with eyes will be able to see that. If it was not a ‘fish sink, goose alights’ [see note 5, Chapter 31] mother, you would not give birth to a ‘bashful flower obstructing the moon’ daughter.” In describing beautiful women, the only phrase he knew was ‘fish sink, goose alights’ and ‘bashful flower obstructing the moon’, eight characters [chen yu luo yan, xiu hua bu yue], therefore, those were the only phrases he repeatedly used.

After a short pause, he continued, “Wangye did not wish to let Ah Ke go, could it be that he wanted to have her flogged? She was kidnapped when she was only two, how could she know her own origin? Therefore, how can he blame her?”

Chen Yuanyuan said, “Wangye said, ‘Since you don’t recognize me, naturally you are not my daughter. Forget the fact that you are not my daughter, even if you were my flesh-and-blood daughter, by committing this kind of rebellious defiance against your superior, disregarding the law and natural morality, I must not let you live.’ While saying that, he rubbed his nose.”

Wei Xiaobao smiled, “Does he like to rub his own nose?” he asked.

Chen Yuanyuan’s voice trembled, “You don’t know,” she said, “That is Wangye’s habit; when he rubbed his nose, that means he wanted to kill people; it never fails.”

“Aiyo!” Wei Xiaobao cried out, “How can that be good? He … has he killed Ah Ke?”

“For the time being he has not,” Chen Yuanyuan replied, “Wangye … he wanted to investigate who the mastermind is, he also wants to find out who Ah Ke’s father really is.”

Wei Xiaobao laughed and said, “Wangye is overly suspicious; really, it’s getting silly. As soon as I saw you, I knew you are Ah Ke’s Mama. How could he not be Ah Ke’s Papa? It must be because Ah Ke was trying to assassinate him, he became very angry.” Speaking to this point, his expression turned serious as he said, “We must quickly think of a way to save Ah Ke. If Wangye rubs his nose again, it won’t be too good.”

Chen Yuanyuan said, “Xiao Nuzi brazenly invited Daren to come over, it was precisely to discuss this matter. I am thinking that Daren is the Imperial Envoy Minister, sent by His Majesty himself, Wangye would definitely want to give you some face. Ah Ke masqueraded as a palace maid serving the Princess, as long as Daren personally appears, saying that the Princess wanted her maid back, I have no doubt that Wangye would not refuse.”

Wei Xiaobao bent the index finger of his right hand and continuously tapped it onto his own forehead. “Idiot, idiot,” he said, “I have fallen into his trap.”

“This plan of yours,” he said, “Not only I have thought about it ahead of you, I have even executed it. Who would have thought this big … big Wangye is one step ahead of me, he had the little idiot’s hands and feet tied up. I have already asked Wangye for the assassin, and Wangye has already given her to me, it’s just that she was not Ah Ke.”

Thereupon he told her in details how Xia Guoxiang brought him to the dungeon to identify the assassin, how he saw a well-acquainted young woman, how he believed the rumor was false, i.e. the assassin was really not Ah Ke, how he convinced Xia Guoxiang that the young woman was indeed a palace maid serving the Princess, and how he ended up taking her out of the prison. He also said, “This servant Xia Guoxiang has prepared a scheme beforehand, he spoke in loud voice in front of the several hundred people in front of the Mansion, stating that he has handed over the Princess’ palace maid to me; how could I come back to him and ask for the second person? Needless to say, this servant would definitely talk officiously, saying something like, ‘Wei Daren, you must not play a joke with Xiao Jiang. The Princess’ palace maid has assassinated Wangye, Xiao Jiang boldly acted for the sake of Wei Daren’s face, risking the cap on my head, risking Wangye’s flogging and martial punishment, I let Daren take her away. Hundreds and thousands of people in front of the Palace are my witness. Wangye has ordered: he is hoping that Daren would discipline the palace maid rigorously, that you would investigate who was behind it? Now Daren comes again to ask for someone else. This … this joke may be too much.” He was imitating Xia Guoxiang’s accent and mannerism, and was actually doing a pretty good job.

Chen Yuanyuan knitted her eyebrows. “Daren is right,” she said, “Son-in-law Xia is indeed that kind of person. Turns out … turns out they have already set up a trap to shut Daren’s mouth.”

Wei Xiaobao stomped his foot and cursed, “His granny, that male …” he cast a glance toward Chen Yuanyuan and said, “If they touch a strand of Ah Ke’s hair, laozi will fight that big … big b@stard to the death.”

Chen Yuanyuan pulled her sleeve and bowed to him with cupped fist, saying, “Daren cherishes my daughter this much, Xiao Nuzi wants to express my gratitude in advance. It’s just that …”

Wei Xiaobao hastily returned the propriety and said, “I am going to lead our troops and horses to crash into Ping Xi Wang Mansion, to kill him until he is in a sorry state. If I can’t save Ah Ke out, I will take the big traitor’s surname. Laozi won’t have Wei as my surname, my surname will be Wu! Damn it, laozi will be Wu Xiaobao!”

Seeing how agitated he was, and how he was speaking nonsense, Chen Yuanyuan was rather scared. She said in a gentle voice, “Daren’s good intention toward Ah Ke …”

“What Daren or Xiaoren?” Wei Xiaobao cut her off, “If you consider me as one of your own, you must call me Xiaobao. I should have called you Auntie[10], but thinking about that damned Uncle, I am seething with rage.”

Chen Yuanyuan walked over and gently put her hand on his shoulder; she said, “Xiaobao, if you don’t look down on me, you can just call me Ah Yi [Auntie[11]].”

Wei Xiaobao was delighted; he said, “I’ll call you Ah Yi. When I was at the Lovely Spring Courtyard in Yangzhou …” Speaking to this point, he suddenly stopped.

Actually, Chen Yuanyuan also understood that at the Lovely Spring Courtyard, he called all the prostitutes ‘Ah Yi’. She understood worldly affairs, and understood Wei Xiaobao’s good intention; she said, “I am extremely happy to have such a good nephew as yourself. Xiaobao, we must not use force against Wangye, in the City of Kunming, his troops and soldiers are numerous; even if you defeat him, he could kill Ah Ke with one stab first, and then you and I, two people, will be grieving for the rest of our lives.”

She was speaking with the soft accent of the Wu dialect; first, her voice was very pleasant to listen to, second, in her speech she was treating Wei Xiaobao as one of her own. Upon hearing her, the rage that was filling his heart immediately vanished into thin air. “Good Ah Yi,” he asked, “Then what should we do to rescue Ah Ke?”

Chen Yuanyuan pondered for a moment before saying, “I could urge Ah Ke to admit Wangye as her father. Even if he were more heartless, he would not kill his own flesh-and-blood daughter …”

Suddenly from outside the door someone was shouting loudly, “Acknowledging the bandit as one’s father, how can this be so?”

The curtain on the door rose up, a big and tall old monk walked in in large strides. He had a thick steel monk’s staff in his hand, which he stomped onto the floor. The iron rings on the head of the staff created a random ‘dang dang’ noise. The old monk had a square face, he had an ash-grey beard underneath his chin, his eyes were flashing like lightning, his overall appearance was impressive. Just by standing like that, he looked like a small mountain covering the doorway. His waist was sticking out his back straight, like a tiger or a lion, his grandeur was indeed overwhelming.

Wei Xiaobao was startled; he withdrew three steps back, and almost wanted to hide behind Chen Yuanyuan. Chen Yuanyuan, however, looked happy. Her countenance brightened as she walked over to the old monk and said softly, “You have come!”

“I have come!” the old monk replied. His voice turned lower, his eye turned gentler. Their gaze met, their eyes revealed admiration and joy.

Wei Xiaobao was greatly surprised, “Who is this old monk?” he wondered in his heart, “Could he be … could he be Ah Yi’s lover? An old customer when she was still a prostitute? Monk visits prostitute; that is out of question. Um, not surprising, actually, when laozi was a monk, I also went to a brothel.”

“Have you heard?” Chen Yuanyuan asked.

“I have heard,” the old monk replied.

“Thank Heaven and thank the Earth,” Chen Yuanyuan said, “That child is still … still alive. I … Wah!” suddenly she broke out crying and threw herself into the old monk’s bosom.

The old monk reached out with his left hand and gently stroked her hair. “Whatever happens we must save her,” he said consolingly, “Don’t worry.” His majestic voice was brimming with deep emotion. Chen Yuanyuan buried her face in his bosom as she sobbed softly.

Wei Xiaobao was amazed and scared at the same time, he did not dare to move at all. “The two of you regard me as a dead man,” he mused, “Laozi better act as a dead man.”

After crying for a while, Chen Yuanyuan sobbed, “You … can you really save that child?”

“I will do everything possible,” the old monk replied in an awe-inspiring voice.

Chen Yuanyuan straightened up and wiped her tears. “What shall I do?” she asked, “Tell me, what shall I do?”

The old monk frowned. “In short,” he said, “We must not let her acknowledge the traitor as her father.”

“Yes, yes,” Chen Yuanyuan said, “I was wrong. Because I wanted to save the child, I was not thinking about you. I … I have offended you.”

“I understand,” the old monk said, “I don’t blame you at all. But she must not admit him as her father. She must not, absolutely not.” His voice was not loud, but there was strong imposing aura in it that if there were ‘thousand troops ten thousand horses’ in front of him, they would bow their heads and obey his commands.

Suddenly they heard the sound of thumping boots outside the door, someone let out a long laugh and said in a loud and clear voice, “An old friend has graced Kunming with his presence, Xiao Wang’s face is a lot brighter!” It was none other than Wu Sangui’s voice.

Immediately Wei Xiaobao and Chen Yuanyuan’s countenance changed. The old monk acted as if he did not hear anything, only his eyes suddenly brightened.

‘Swish, swish!’ out of the blue white light flashed, two swords slashed, the curtain hanging on the door was cut. Wu Sangui appeared at the doorway with a smile on his face. Followed by ‘Crash, bang!’ plaster, dust, and fragments of wood flew everywhere, the four walls, along with the windows on them, were demolished by men wielding iron sledge-hammers. On each hole several guards appeared, some with strung bows and arrow, some with raised lances in their hands. The tip of the arrows and lances was aimed inside. Wu Sangui only needed to issue an order, the arrows and lances would immediately fly into the bodies of the three people inside, turning them into hedgehogs.

“Yuanyuan, come out!” Wu Sangui shouted.

Chen Yuanyuan hesitated. She took a step forward, stopped, and shook her head. “I won’t come out,” she said. Turning her head around, she gently pushed Wei Xiaobao’s shoulder and said, “Xiaobao, this matter has nothing to do with you, you go out.”

Wei Xiaobao knew she sincerely wanted to protect him, and was deeply moved. “Laozi won’t go out,” he said loudly, “Hot piece mama, Wu Sangui, if you have guts, go ahead and kill laozi as well.”

The old monk shook his head and said, “The two of you go out. The old monk should have died more than twenty years ago.”

Chen Yuanyuan walked over to him, pulled his hand and said, “No, I will die together with you.”

Wei Xiaobao loudly said, “Ah Yi have yi qi, do you think Wei Xiaobao is greedy for life, afraid of death? Ah Yi, I will also die together with you.”

Wu Sangui raised his right hand and angrily shouted, “Wei Xiaobao, you conspire with big rebel against the law. I will kill you and present a memorial to the Emperor, explaining everything, my merit will not be small.” Turning to Chen Yuanyuan, he said, “Yuanyuan, why are you so muddleheaded? Still not coming out?”

Chen Yuanyuan shook her head. Wei Xiaobao said, “What do you mean conspiring with big rebel against the law? You are falsely accusing good people.”

In his extreme rage, Wu Sangui laughed instead. “Little baby,” he said, “I’ll say you still don’t know who this old monk is. He has kept you hoodwinked inside a drum. By the time you reach the gate of hell, you still don’t know for whom you have delivered your life.”

The old monk sternly said, “Laofu [old man, referring to self] has never changed either my surname or my given name. The Emperor of Heaven has bestowed me the surname Li and given name Zicheng.”

Wei Xiaobao was shocked. “You … you are Li Chuang, Li Zicheng?” he stammered.

“That’s right,” the old monk said, “Xiao Xiongdi, you go out! A real man is fully responsible for what he’s done. The Ol’ Li has undergone hundreds of battles, I have lived for more than seventy years; I don’t want a little Tatar official like you to accompany me delivering our lives.”

Suddenly white shadow flashed; someone leaped down from the roof, pouncing toward the top of Wu Sangui’s head. Wu Sangui let out an angry roar; the four guards behind him moved their swords together toward the white shadow.

The shadow flicked his sleeve, a gust of strong wind swept away, jolting the four guards backwards; followed by a palm strike toward Wu Sangui’s back. Wu Sangui could not hold his stand; he was thrown into the room. Just like Wu Sangui’s shadow the person also leaped in, his palm hacked down and struck Wu Sangui’s shoulder. Wu Sangui grunted and fell sitting down on the floor. The person then put his palm on the ‘tian ling’ [sky spirit] acupoint on the top of Wu Sangui’s head, and barked his order to the guards surrounding them, “Quickly release the arrows!”

This turn of events happened so quickly that the guards were taken by surprise. Seeing their Wangye had fallen into the enemy’s hand, who dared to make any move?

“Shifu! Shifu!” Wei Xiaobao called out happily. The person who jumped down from the roof and subdued Wu Sangui was precisely Jiu Nan.

When Wei Xiaobao went to the Three-Sage Nunnery, she followed him in secret, and all along she had been hiding on the roof. When Ping Xi Wang’s Mansion guards arrived by the thousands and surrounded the Three-Sage Nunnery, Gao Yanchao and the others, who were guarding outside the nunnery, did not dare to move rashly. Jiu Nan’s qinggong had reached the pinnacle, she curled up underside the eaves, unexpectedly the guards did not detect her presence.

Jiu Nan stared at Li Zicheng. “Are you really Li Zicheng?” she asked in a majestic voice.

“That’s right,” Li Zicheng replied.

“I heard you were killed on Mount Jiugong, turns out you are still alive today?” Jiu Nan asked.

Li Zicheng nodded. Jiu Nan asked, “Was Ah Ke born to you and her?”

Li Zicheng sighed. He cast a glance toward Chen Yuanyuan, and then nodded.

“I should have known,” Wu Sangui angrily said, “Only a traitor and rebel like you can sire that …”

Jiu Nan kicked his back; she cursed, “Both of you are traitors and bandits, ‘half-jin eight-liang’ [half-pound eight-ounce]; I don’t know which one is a bit more wicked.”

Li Zicheng raised his monk staff and stamped in on the ground, ‘Bang! The green brick immediately shattered into several pieces. “Lowly Nun!” he shouted, “Who do you think you are, dare to speak nonsense like that?”

Seeing his Shifu had arrived, Wei Xiaobao’s courage was greatly boosted; although Li Zicheng was intimidating, he did not fear him the least bit. “You dare to offend my Shifu, are you bored of your life?” he shouted back, “You are a traitor and rebel; my Shifu, the Senior has never said anything incorrect …”

Suddenly he heard ‘whoosh, whoosh’ noise; three lances flew in from outside the window, swiftly shooting toward Jiu Nan. Jiu Nan slightly turned her head to evade, the sleeve of her left arm swept, it coiled around two lances, which she then threw back out the window, while with her right hand she caught the third lance. ‘Ah, ah’ two blood-curdling screech were heard outside the window, two guards were hit by the lances on the pit of their stomach, and died instantly. Jiu Nan placed the tip of the third lance right in the middle of Wu Sangui’s back.

Wu Sangui called out, “Don’t act rashly, everybody withdraw ten steps.” The guards chorused their compliance, and withdrew several steps.

With a cold laugh Jiu Nan said, “What a coincidence. In this tiny meditation room today we have the number one big rebel without any equal since time immemorial, and the number one big traitor without any equal since time immemorial.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “And we have the number one beauty without any equal since time immemorial, and the number one martial art master without any equal since time immemorial.”

Jiu Nan could not stop her grave and stern face from revealing a slight smiling expression. She said, “Number one martial art master? How could I dare? But you are the number one little smart-aleck without any equal since time immemorial.”

Wei Xiaobao burst out in laughter, Chen Yuanyuan also chuckled; but Wu Sangui and Li Zicheng pulled their faces, their minds racing, trying to find a way to escape. All their lives these two men were used to lead large armies, they were ambitious and ruthless characters who were used to fighting in one place after another all over the world, God knows the number of dangers, difficulties and bad risks they had encountered in all their lives; however, in the situation they were currently facing, unexpectedly they were at their wits’ end. They racked their brains thinking about dozens different scenarios, yet they felt none would be effective.

With stern voice Li Zicheng shouted to Jiu Nan, “What do you want?”

Jiu Nan laughed coldly and said, “What do I want? Naturally I want to kill you with my own hands.”

“This Shitai,” Chen Yuanyuan said, “You my daughter, Ah Ke’s Shifu, aren’t you?”

With a cold laugh Jiu Nan replied, “I took your daughter away, I taught her martial art not because of kindness, I want her to assassinate the big traitor with her own hands.” While saying that, she added the strength of her right hand a little bit, the lance sank down, the tip of the lance penetrated about half a cun into Wu Sangui’s flesh. “Ah!” he could not bear not to cry out in pain.

“This Shifu,” Chen Yuanyuan said, “He … he is a total stranger to you, Senior; he has neither grievance nor enmity with you.”

Jiu Nan tossed her head backward and laughed aloud. “He … he has neither grievance nor enmity with me?” she said, “Xiaobao, tell her who I am; also make the big traitor and the big rebel, two people, to understand clearly.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “My Shifu, the Senior, is the Princess born to the Emperor Chong Zhen of the Great Ming, Princess Changping!”

“Ah!” Wu Sangui, Li Zicheng and Chen Yuanyuan exclaimed together; they were all stunned.

Li Zicheng laughed aloud. “Very good, very good,” he said, “I have caused your father’s death in the past, today I can die in your hand, it is a hundred times better than dying under this big traitor’s hands.” While saying that, he took two steps forward, and drove his monk staff to the ground. The tail of the staff went about a chi into the floor. With both hands he pulled his clothes, ‘rip!’ the front part of his robe was torn, exposing his hairy chest. “Princess,” he said with a laugh, “Make your move. The Ol’ Li didn’t die under the traitor’s hands, didn’t die under the Tatars’ hands, but I am losing my life under the Great Ming Princess’ hand; that is very good!”

In all her life, Jiu Nan hated Li Zicheng to the bones, but she always thought that he had already died on Mount Jiugong of Hubei (province), hence it would be difficult for her to avenge this great enmity with her own hand. Today she found out that he was still alive, it was an unexpected delight. However, presently she saw his heroic and open-minded spirit, how in the face of death he maintained his calm and did not show the slightest bit of fear; she could not help but admiring him in her heart. She coldly said, “Sire is indeed a real man. I am going to kill your enemy first today, before taking your life. I’ll let you see it with your own eyes your enemy lose his head, so that you can die happily.”

Li Zicheng was greatly delighted; he cupped his fist and said, “Many thanks Princess, zaixia cannot thank you enough. In all my life my greatest hope is that I will see with my own eyes this big traitor die a violent death.”

Seeing Wu Sangui was groaning under the lance, without any strength to resist, Jiu Nan was unwilling to kill him with the spear just like that; she said to Li Zicheng, “You might as well fulfilling the desire of your heart; come and kill him!”

Li Zicheng was delighted. “Thank you very much!” he said. Looking down toward Wu Sangui he said, “Traitor, in the battle of Shanhai Pass, your braided troops helped you, hence I was unfortunate and my troops lost. Right now you are captured by the Princess, if I kill you just like that, it will be too easy for you; even if you are dead, you won’t be convinced.” Looking up, he said to Jiu Nan, “Your Highness the Princess, please release him, let me stake my life to see who would live and who would die.”

Jiu Nan lifted up the lance and said, “I want to see who would kill whom first.”

Still crouching on the floor, Wu Sangui groaned several times. Suddenly he sprang up, seized the monk staff, and ferociously swept it across Jiu Nan’s waist.

“Reckless thing!” Jiu Nan scolded. The lance in her hand turned around, pressing the monk staff down. She exerted her internal energy, Wu Sangui felt his arm numb and aching, the monk staff fell to the ground. The tip of the lance swiftly moved toward his throat. Although Wu Sangui was a brave soldier, in front of martial art expert with profound internal energy like Jiu Nan, he was as helpless as a baby that he was unable to withstand a single move. His face turned ash-grey as he repeatedly withdrew, but the tip of the lance was always pointing at his throat.

Li Zicheng stooped down to pick up the monk staff. Jiu Nan turned the lance around and handed it over to Wu Sangui, saying, “The two of you fight fair and square.”

“Alright!” Wu Sangui shouted. His lance went straight toward Li Zicheng. Li Zicheng waved his monk staff to parry, followed by a counterattack with the staff. Thereupon these two men were engaged in a fierce battle in this tiny meditation room.

Jiu Nan pulled Wei Xiaobao away and told him to stand behind her, to guard against the staff and the lance from injuring him.

Chen Yuanyuan withdrew to the corner of the room; her countenance was deathly pale, she closed her eyes tight, yet the scene from her past flashed in her mind, “When I was in the Ming Dynasty Palace, when Chong Zhen came to visit at night fall, he highly praised my beautiful appearance. The next day the Emperor did not attend the morning court, he stayed in the bedroom in my company, he told me to sing songs for him, he told me to put on rouge and powder, he even picked up eyebrow brush and drew my eyebrows for me. He promised me that he would make me an imperial consort, and then in the future he would make me the Empress. He said that from now on, he would not cast another glance toward all the imperial concubines and consorts in the Palace.

The Emperor was very young; when he was laughing joyously and freely, he could suddenly anxiously stop in daze. He was the Emperor, but in my heart, he was no different than those young masters of nobility or rich families who visit the prostitutes at the courtyard. In three days, day and night he did not leave me even for a single step. Early morning the fourth day, I woke up before he did; I saw a bloodless face on the pillow next to me, his cheeks were hollow, his eyebrows knitted closely. He was anxious even in his sleep. I thought, ‘Is this the Emperor? If he is the Emperor, why is he unhappy like this?’

That day, he went to the morning court. When he returned in the afternoon, his countenance was even paler, his eyebrows wrinkled even tighter. He suddenly threw a fit at me, he accused me of interfering with the national affairs. He said that he was a brilliant ruler, hence he must not lose himself in female charms and turn into a muddleheaded ruler. He wanted to strive harder; therefore, he immediately ordered Empress Zhou to send me out of the Palace. He said that I was a witch who harmed the country, and that while I was in the Palace for three days, the rebel thief Li Zicheng had already broken through three cities.

I was not grieved; men are just like that, whenever something unpleasant happens, they always blame the women. The Emperor was worrying all day, his heart was scared; he was afraid of this man named Li Zicheng. At that time I thought, ‘Li Zicheng is such an amazing man, he can make the Emperor afraid; I wonder what kind of man is he?’”

Chen Yuanyuan opened her eyes; she saw Li Zicheng was brandishing his monk staff, striking Wu Sangui again and again. Wu Sangui was dodging and evading, fast and nimble, all along the monk staff failed to hit him. Chen Yuanyuan thought, “His movement is still very fast. These last several years, he still train martial art every day, because … because he wants to be the Emperor, he wants to lead his troops to attack Beijing.”

She remembered that when she left the Palace, she returned to the Zhou Guo Zhang [lit. the Emperor’s father-in-law] Mansion. One day, the Guo Zhang Mansion held a big feast, inviting many guests. She was ordered to come out to sing and dance, to entertain the guests. It was that night that Wu Sangui saw her. To this day, she could still remember it clearly, under the candlelight, she saw his eyes were burning with desire as he stared at her across the banquet table. In all her life she had seen this kind of stare too many times. Following the stare, the man, who was like a beast, may pounce on her, he may embrace her tightly, and may tear away her clothes. It’s just that at that time it was a public place with a big crowd …

Suddenly she thought, “When that baby high-ranking official saw me a moment ago, his eyes also revealed that kind of look. It’s so funny. Such a young baby also shows a burning desire toward me. Ay! All men are like that, old men are like that, little boys are also like that.”

She looked up and cast a glance toward Wei Xiaobao. She saw his face was full of excitement as he watched the fight between Li and Wu, two people. By this time Wu Sangui had begun to counterattack, the lance in his hand continuously attacked the enemy.

“He asked Zhou Guo Zhang for me,” she continued her reminiscing, “In just a few days, the Emperor sent him to guard the Shanhai Pass, to defend the border against Manchurian troops’ invasion. But Li Zicheng broke through Beijing first, Emperor Chong Zhen hung himself on the Coal Hill. Li Zicheng’s troops captured me, and presented me to him. This straightforward man, is he the one the Emperor Chong Zhen dreaded even in his sleep? He had broken into Beijing, but he was very busy. The Ming Dynasty’s officials were murdered by him by the dozens. His troops raped and pillaged Beijing, they arrested countless people, tortured them and demanded ransom for them; countless innocent common people were also massacred by them. But every night when he came to accompany me, he was always very happy, his laughter was very loud. His snoring was also very loud, he often woke me up in the middle of the night with the noise of his snoring. The hair on his arms, his legs, and his chest was very long, very thick. I have never seen a man like him.

Actually, Wu Sangui had already surrendered to him. But as soon as he heard that he had snatched me, he borrowed Manchurian troops, leading them to breach the Pass. Ay, this is the ‘One wave of headgear-lifting anger propelled him, all for the sake of the fair-faced one’ part. Li Zicheng led his army out to meet him, he fought Wu Sangui on a slab of stone. Manchu’s elite troops suddenly appeared, Li Zicheng’s army was utterly defeated. They said that on the slab-of-stone battlefield there was blood everywhere; along several dozen li road, there were dead bodies everywhere. They said that these people died because of me; it was me who caused these several tens of thousands people’s death. Have I really heaped such a heinous sin upon myself?

After his defeat, Li Zicheng returned to Beijing and ascended the throne as the Emperor, he called himself the Emperor of the Great Shun Country. He took me fleeing to the west, Wu Sangui was hot on our trail. Although Li Zicheng was defeated, his laughter was still very much straightforward. The soldiers and officers under his command numbered less and less as the days gone by, his situation was more and more unfavorable, but he did not seem to care. He said that he started with nothing, at worst he would end up with nothing; what’s so strange about that? He said that there were three things he was most proud of in all his life: first, he had hounded the Ming Dynasty Emperor to his death, second, he had been an emperor, and third, he had slept with the number one beauty in the world. This man’s talk was very vulgar; he said that among those three accomplishments, he was most proud of the third.

Wu Sangui also wholeheartedly wants to be the Emperor; he has never said it, but I know. It’s just that in his heart he is afraid, he always hesitates; he thought about making his move, but did not dare to do so. As long as he did not die today, there will come a day that he may become the Emperor. It’s all right if he became the Emperor here in Kunming, it’s all right if he became the Emperor only for a day.

Emperor Yong Li fled to Myanmar, Wu Sangui pursued him and killed him. People say that three Emperors have died in my hands: Chong Zhen, Yong Li, and this Emperor Li Zicheng of the Great Shun Country. How did I become responsible of Emperor Chong Zhen’s account? I wonder if Wu Sangui is going to die today. If he became the Emperor in the future, will they say that I killed another Emperor? The Great Ming’s rivers and mountains, several hundred thousand soldiers, several millions common people, plus four Emperors; it was I, Chen Yuanyuan, who killed them all. Yet I have not committed even a single bad deed, I have not even uttered any harmful word to anybody.”

Her ears kept hearing the ‘bing, bing, bang, bang’ of the weapons colliding with each other; when she looked up, she saw Li Zicheng and Wu Sangui were jumping high and crouching low, their fight was very fierce. Although these two men were already old, their movements were still very agile. In all her life, she was most afraid of watching men killing each other, and right now that loathing feeling was evident on her face. She also recalled what happened in the past, “After the crushing defeat, the troops and soldiers under Li Zicheng’s command scattered everywhere. Even in the night, he was no longer with me. Wu Sangui’s subordinates found me, and hastily presented me to their commander-in-chief. Naturally he was overjoyed. He said that people cursed him as the big traitor, but for my sake, bearing this bad reputation was worth it. I really appreciate his affection. I don’t care if he is the big traitor or a big loyal minister, because he was being true to me; for my sake, he would do anything. Other than him, nobody has ever treated me this way.

At that time I thought that from now on I would live a peaceful and happy life. I don’t care about first-pin rank Madame, or second-pin rank Madame; I only hoped that I would not have to run around in circles from one man’s hand to the other. But … but … after living in Kunming for several years, he was bestowed the title Qin Wang [Prince], and a Qin Wang must have a fujin [Manchurian word for ‘wife’]. His first wife has passed away early on. His younger brother Wu Sanmei came to me and told me that because of this fujin matter, Wangye was in great distress. By right, he should have taken me as his fujin, but everybody in the world knew my family background. If he reported my name so that the Emperor could confer an honorary title by imperial edict, unavoidably he would profane the imperial court. Naturally I understood that as a Qin Wang, he resented my background as a lowly woman, a prostitute; that I was not fit to receive honorary title by the Emperor. I did not want to make things difficult for him; without waiting for Wu Sanmei to finish, I told him that it was an easy matter, I told him to ask Wangye to pick a wise and virtuous woman from a famous family as his fujin, to avoid smearing his reputation. He came to apologize to me, telling me that he had indeed been unfair to me. Humph, becoming fujin or not, what’s the big deal? It’s just that eventually I understood that his affection to me had also reached its end. I moved out from the Mansion, because Wangye wanted to officially marry, he had to establish his fujin.

Right around that time, Li Zicheng suddenly appeared in front of me. He has become a Buddhist monk. I was scared out of my wits. I thought he had already died, and I was grieving for him for several days; who would have thought that he is still alive? Li Zicheng said that he wore Buddhist monk attire simply to deceive people’s ears and eyes, while it also give him the excuse of not shaving his head and wearing the Tatars’ attire. He told me that for the last several years he had been thinking about me daily; he had been living in Kunming for more than three years, and had always been looking for an opportunity to see me, until that day. Ay, could it be that his affection to me was a lot deeper than Wu Sangui’s?

Every night he came to accompany me, until finally I got pregnant with this little baby girl. I could not see him anymore, I must return to the Mansion immediately. I told Wangye that I missed him very much, and I wanted him to accompany me. Wangye has never had heartfelt fondness toward his fujin anyway, he happily took me back. Afterwards the baby girl was born. I wonder if he ever had any suspicion.

When the baby girl was a little over two years old, she suddenly disappeared in the middle of the night. Although I hate to part with her, I thought it was Li Zicheng who sent someone to kidnap her. She is his child, if he wanted her, then that’s good. He was alone, he must be distressingly lonely, if there was a child by his side, he would not feel so much alone and forsaken. Who would have thought … ay, who would have thought that that was not the case …”

Suddenly a drop of liquid fell on the back of her hand; when she looked down, it was a drop of blood. She was shocked and quickly looked up to the two men who were still fighting. She saw there was blood all over Wu Sangui’s face, but he was still brandishing his lance in a hard fighting. The drop of blood naturally was splashed from his face.

Outside the room, the officers and men were shouting and cheering loudly, some were hurling threats toward Li Zicheng and Jiu Nan, but nobody dared to join the fight for fear that they would hurt their Wangye.

Wu Sangui was panting continuously; there was fear in his eyes. Suddenly the tip of the lance changed direction and went straight toward Chen Yuanyuan’s chest.

“Ah!” Chen Yuanyuan cried out in alarm. “He wants to kill me!” This thought flashed in her mind.

‘Dang!’ the lance was parried by Li Zicheng. It was as if Wu Sangui had gone mad; he thrust his lance repeatedly, each one was directed to Chen Yuanyuan. Li Zicheng bellowed in rage, while desperately blocking and parrying; he was no longer able to attack Wu Sangui.

Wei Xiaobao was hiding behind his Shifu’s back, he was greatly astonished, “Why would the big traitor not attack the monk, but attacking his wife instead?” Bu he immediately understood, “Ah, right; he must be angry that his wife has sneakily met the monk, hence he wants to kill her to vent his anger.”

But Jiu Nan had been able to see Wu Sangui’s real intention, “This evil man is extremely treacherous. He cannot beat Li Zicheng, hence he resorted to this evil scheme.”

Sure enough, because Li Zicheng wanted to save Chen Yuanyuan, he was flustered and his mind was thrown into disorder, several gaps appeared in the movement of his staff. Wu Sangui’s lance changed direction again, ‘stab’, he suddenly hit Li Zicheng’s shoulder. Li Zicheng lost the strength of his right hand, his monk staff fell. Wu Sangui seized this opportunity to pounce, he pointed the lance toward the pit of Li Zicheng’s stomach. Laughing maliciously, he said, “Rebel, aren’t you going to kneel down and surrender?”

“Yes, yes,” Li Zicheng replied. Slowly he bent his knees.

Wei Xiaobao mused, “I always thought that Li Zicheng was such an amazing man, but actually he is greedy for life …” He had just had that thought, suddenly Li Zicheng rolled away to evade the tip of the lance, grabbed his monk staff from the floor, and swept it horizontally toward Wu Sangui’s calves. Li Zicheng then sprang up, the monk staff struck down on Wu Sangui’s shoulder, and in the third strike the staff shot down onto the top of Wu Sangui’s head.

Wei Xiaobao did not know that when the circumstance was unfavorable, surrendering in order to take a breather and then seizing the opportunity to gain an upper hand, was exactly the tactic Li Zicheng was very good at in all his life. When he was leading the rebel troops in the past, on the seventh month of his seventh year Chong Zhen surrounded him and trapped him in the bottom of Juxiang Gorge at Xing’an county of Shaanxi Province, the imperial army laid a siege all around, there was no way out, the troops had no food, the horses had no straw; at a glance it looked like a total annihilation. Li Zicheng surrendered, and was taken into the imperial army. As soon as he was out of the plank road, he rose into rebellion again immediately. When he bent his knees to feign surrender to Wu Sangui just now, it was no more than executing his old trick once again.

Jiu Nan thought, “These two men are equally ruthless and crafty, no wonder the Great Ming’s rivers and mountains were lost in these two men’s hands.”

They all saw that if Li Zicheng’s third strike hit, Wu Sangui’s brains would burst out. Chen Yuanyuan suddenly jumped and threw herself on top of Wu Sangui’s body, “Kill me first!” she called out.

Li Zicheng was shocked, the momentum of his staff strike was swift and fierce, his right shoulder was injured, he had no strength in his right hand to hold the staff. Immediately his left hand pushed to the right, ‘Bang!’ the iron monk staff struck the wall. “Yuanyuan,” he angrily shouted, “What are you doing?”

“He and I were husband and wife for more than twenty years,” Chen Yuanyuan replied, “In those years he … he was sincerely treating me very well. I cannot let him die because of me.”

“Get out of the way!” Li Zicheng shouted, “He and I have enmity as deep as the ocean. I must kill him.”

“Then kill me too,” Chen Yuanyuan replied.

Li Zicheng sighed. He said, “Turns out … turns out your heart is still leaning toward him.”

Chen Yuanyuan did not answer, but in her heart she thought, “If he wants to kill you, I will also die with you.”

From outside the room, the officers and soldiers saw Wu Sangui fell, they also cried out loudly while surging forward. A general shouted loudly, “Quickly release Wangye, or all of you will die.” It was precisely Wu Sangui’s son-in-law Xia Guoxiang. He continued shouting, “Your companions are all here, if you harm a strand of Wangye’s hair, their heads will fall to the ground immediately.”

Wei Xiaobao looked outside, and saw Mu Jiansheng, Liu Dahong and the other Mu Palace people, and Xu Tianchuan, Gao Yanchao, Priest Xuanzhen and the other Tian Di Hui people, Zhao Qixian, Zhang Kangnian, and the other Imperial Bodyguards, Valiant Cavalry Canling [Regimental Commander] and Zuoling [Company Commander]; all of them with hands tied, each of them had a Ping Xi Wang military officer behind his back, with unsheathed saber placed on their neck.

Wei Xiaobao thought, “Even if Shifu could take me out of Kunming, all these friends will inevitably die. We want to kill Wu Sangui, but there is no hurry to do it at this time.” Thereupon he pulled his dagger and put it on Wu Sangui’s back; he said, “Wangye, all of us die together, there is no sense in it; it would be better for us to do a business transaction.”

“Humph,” Wu Sangui grunted, “What business transaction?”

Wei Xiaobao said, “You promise to let everybody go, my Shifu will spare your life.”

Li Zicheng said, “This traitor is a lowly person, a repeat offender; what he says cannot be trusted.”

Looking at the people with their hands bound outside, Jiu Nan also felt that she could not kill Wu Sangui today; she said, “You give an order to let everybody go, I will also let you go.”

“What about Ah Ke?” Wei Xiaobao said in a loud voice, “That female assassin?”

Xia Guoxiang shouted, “Bring the assassin here.”

Two Mansion guards pushed a young woman, which was none other than Ah Ke. Her hands were also tied behind her back, and a glittering saber was also placed on her neck.

Chen Yuanyuan said, “Xiaobao, you … you are always thinking of saving my child’s life.”

Wei Xiaobao said in his heart, “That’s strange, you did not ask your husband, did not ask your lover, but came to ask me. Could it be that Ah Ke was born for me and you?” But as soon as he saw Ah Ke’s lovely yet pitiful look, he had made up his mind, even if he did not want his own life, he simply must save her life; on top of that, he now saw Chen Yuanyuan’s lovely yet pitiful look as she beseeched him, he did not need to think twice.

“The two of you,” he pointed to Li Zicheng, “If you give me your word to allow Ah Ke to be my wife, how could I not save my own wife’s life?”

Jiu Nan glowered at him. “In time like this you still talk this kind of frivolous talk!” she shouted.

Although Chen Yuanyuan knew Wei Xiaobao only for a short time, yet her knowledge of his temperament and intention had already far surpassed Jiu Nan’s; she knew that if this little smart-aleck did not take advantage of other people’s misfortune, to fish in troubled water, he would not be a high-ranking official in such a young age. Thereupon she said, “Fine, I give you my word.”

Wei Xiaobao turned his head toward Li Zicheng and asked, “And you?”

There was an angry look on Li Zicheng’s face, he was about to curse, but then he saw the earnest pleading expression on Chen Yuanyuan’s face, hence he struggled to suppress his anger. “Humph,” he snorted, “Whatever she said, let it be that way.”

Wei Xiaobao giggled and turned toward Wu Sangui, “Wangye, you and I are ‘river water does not interfere with well water’, why not get the best of both worlds? You can be the Ping Xi Wang, let me be the Wei Jueye?”

“Very well,” Wu Sangui said, “What did I do to make life difficult for Wei Jueye?”

“Then issue an order to free all of my friends,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I will also ask my Shifu to release you. This is just like playing Pai Jiu [pai gow], in the front we have ten, at the back we have supreme, nobody loses nobody wins, nobody kills nobody pays. You are not thinking of making a big kill on the three directions, I will not shovel your bank. Not losing in gambling is better than everybody’s head falls down on the ground.”

“So be it,” Wu Sangui replied, while slowly standing up.

“Please ask Shizi to come here, and the Princess as well,” Wei Xiaobao said, “I will also have to toil Wangye to personally escort us out of the City of Kunming, and I ask that Shizi will accompany the Princess to go back to Beijing and bow to the heaven and the earth and get married there. Wangye, although we have had the agreement, I still cannot set my heart at ease, I need to have Shizi as my guarantee. If you suddenly change your mind and dispatch your troops to give us a chase, we will have no choice but to split Shizi with a saber. Wu Yingxiong, Wei Xiaobao, plus Princess Jianning, everybody will happily go together to see Yan Wang. Our journey to the underworld will be exciting and fun.”

Wu Sangui thought that this kid was indeed very shrewd; he would not easily let me go based on my words alone. Since he was presently in a dangerous territory, the sooner he escaped the better; therefore, after making a prompt decision he said, “Fair enough, we will do as you said.” Raising his voice, he called out, “Xia Zongbing, quickly send someone to fetch the Princess and Shizi and bring them here.”

Xia Guoxiang said, “I heard and obey. When Shizi heard the news, he promptly led the troops here.”

“Good filial son,” Wei Xiaobao praised, “What a little darling meek, garlic chives sautéed in leek!”

Not too long afterwards, Wu Yingxiong did indeed arrive leading his troops. His injury had not healed, he arrived outside the building, riding on a soft sedan chair carried by eight of his personal attendants.

Wu Sangui said, “Shizi has arrived, everybody can go.” He also issued an order, “Untie our friends’ hands.” To Wei Xiaobao he said, “You and Shitai follow me closely, let me take you out. If laofu go back on my word, naturally you could stab me on my back. Shitai’s martial art skill is superior, even I cannot escape her Tathagata Buddha’s palm.”

Wei Xiaobao laughed. “Wonderful,” he said, “Wangye is indeed frank and straightforward; when you lose, you lose, when you win, you win, you wanted to oppose the Ming, you opposed the Ming, you wanted to surrender to Qing, you surrender to Qing. Indeed there is not the least bit of wishy-washiness in you.”

Wu Sangui’s face turned ashen. Pointing to Li Zicheng he said, “This rebel, I wonder if he is also Wei Jueye’s friend?”

Wei Xiaobao cast a glance toward Jiu Nan. Before he could respond, Li Zicheng announced in a loud voice, “I am not this Tatars’ little dog official’s friend.”

“Good,” Jiu Nan praised him, “You, this rebel, actually have hard bones! Wu Sangui, let him go with us.”

Chen Yuanyuan looked at Jiu Nan, her eyes revealed her gratitude, but they also carried a pleading look. “Shitai …” she said. But Jiu Nan turned her head away, she was unwilling to meet her eyes.

Wu Sangui was only concerned over his own survival, he did not care whether he could kill Li Zicheng or not. Walking toward the opening, he called out, “Shizi is going to escort the Princess back to the Capital to have an audience with His Holiness, to respectfully escort the holy self of Her Highness the Princess.”

The sergeant under Ping Xi Wang’s command blew the bugle, the troops lined up in formation to send them off. Wei Xiaobao and Wu Sangui walked out of the room side-by-side, with Jiu Nan following closely behind them.

Wei Xiaobao walked toward the sedan chair and said, “Whether the goods is genuine or fake, one examination will confirm it.” He raised the sedan chair curtain and looked in. He saw Wu Yingxiong’s face was completely without color. Leaning inside, he said with a laugh, “Shizi, how are you?”

Wu Yingxiong called out, “Father, you … are you all right?”

Of course he was calling out to Wu Sangui, but Wei Xiaobao replied, “Very good, I am all right.”

When they were outside the Three-Sage Nunnery, he looked around; east, south, west and north, everywhere was tightly packed with troops and horses, their number could not be counted. “Wangye,” Wei Xiaobao praised, “Your troops and horses are indeed not a few. If you are going to attack Beijing, I think you already have enough.”

With a calm face Wu Sangui said, “Wei Jueye, when you see His Majesty, if you talk nonsense, I will certainly also present a memorial to the Emperor, reporting that you are colluding with the rebel thieves Mu Family of Yunnan and Li Zicheng.”

Wei Xiaobao laughed and said, “Uh, that’s strange. Li Zicheng only loves to collude with the number one beauty in the world, how could he collude with me, the number one smart-aleck in the world?” Wu Sangui was furious; he clenched his fist and wanted to punch the bridge of Wei Xiaobao’s nose very much.

Wangye must not be angry,” Wei Xiaobao said, “You, Senior, must calm down. Being an official for a thousand li is only for the sake of wealth. If I talk rubbish to His Majesty, whatever reward His Majesty bestows to me, it will fall short of what you, Senior, send as a gift year after year, what you spend in soldier’s pay and provision year after year. The two of us brothers are striking a business deal, when I return to Beijing, I will only praise you as a loyal and devoted minister, matchless under the heavens. I will do my best to protect Shizi, at New Year and other holidays, you will send a little bit of gold and silver as a gift to Xiao Jiang; what do you say?” While saying that, he walked alongside Wu Sangui.

“Wealth is merely worldly possessions,” Wu Sangui said, “If Wei Jueye really want to use some, I can’t see any reason why you cannot. However, if you really want to make things difficult for me, although laofu lives in Yunnan, with a massive military force at hand, I am not afraid of you.”

“Naturally,” Wei Xiaobao said, “With a lance at hand, Wangye’s bravery is unstoppable, you killed the rebellious thieves around the world that they piss in their pants in terror. Xiao Jiang is taking my leave today, the spending money Wangye promised earlier, please bestow it now.”

Listening to him chattering and unceasingly asking for bribe, Jiu Nan was getting more and more annoyed. “Xiaobao,” she shouted, “How could you talk so shamelessly like that?”

Wei Xiaobao laughed and said, “Shifu, you did not know, but the number of people under me is quite a lot. When I return to the Capital, the civil and military officials of the imperial court, the imperial concubines and court eunuchs in the Palace, all of them must be given a present. If the gift is unsatisfactory, everybody may put the blame on Wangye.”

“Humph,” Jiu Nan snorted, but she no longer say anything.

Actually, as the guest Wei Xiaobao demanded bribe, his main reason was to escape with their lives. He repeatedly talked about bribe with Wu Sangui, his intention was to occupy Wu Sangui’s mind, so that he would not change his mind or have the thought of killing them; besides, after giving the bribe, he could not possibly make things difficult for Wei Xiaobao. It was a standard practice of officialdom. By saying all those things, Wei Xiaobao was trying to make Wu Sangui feel relieved. Naturally Jiu Nan did not understand this reasoning.

As expected, Wu Sangui was really thinking, “He wants the money, this matter is easier to manage.” Turning toward Xia Guoxiang, he said, “Xia Zongbing, quickly get 500,000 taels of silver for Wei Jueye to give to the officers and men of the Imperial Bodyguards; also, prepare a generous gift for Wei Jueye, so that when he return to the Capital, he can distribute it for our behalf.” Xia Guoxiang complied, and turned toward his trusted aide to prepare everything.

Wu Sangui and Wei Xiaobao mounted their horses and rode side-by-side. Jiu Nan also mounted a horse and followed closely behind them. Knowing that this nun’s martial art skill had reached perfection, Wu Sangui abandoned all hopes of running away from her; he also thought, “Things ended this way, it is actually very satisfactory. Otherwise, even if I could kill this nun and this little smart aleck, kill Li Zicheng and all those rebellious thieves, injuring an Imperial Envoy carried a maximum penalty; I would be forced to deploy my troops immediately. This moment the help from the outside has not been properly decided; acting with confusion will only result in endangering this matter. Humph, when Beijing is broken later, will I have to be afraid that this little smart aleck would fly to the sky?” Therefore, he did not want to go back on the deal right away; along with Jiu Nan and Wei Xiaobao he went to Anfu Garden to fetch the Princess, and then escorted them out of the City of Kunming.

Although the soldiers had their suspicion, seeing their Wangye came out unscathed, they did not have any choice but to obey the orders and did nothing else.

Wei Xiaobao inspected the troops and horses under his command, undoubtedly Ah Ke stayed by his side, the others included Tian Di Hui and Mu Palace people, as well as Imperial Bodyguards, officers and men, nobody was lacking. He turned toward Wu Sangui and said with a laugh, “Wangye sends us off a long way out of town, you are extremely courteous. This time we received Wangye’s generous treatment, next time Wangye come to Beijing, let Xiao Jiang invite you.”

Wu Sangui laughed aloud and said, “I will definitely disturb Wei Jueye.”

The two men cupped their fists farewell. Wu Sangui walked toward the Princess’ sedan chair to pay his respect and bid her farewell, and then he stuck his head in Wu Yingxiong’s sedan chair and whispered something for a while, before leading his troops back to the city.

Although Wu Sangui’s troops did not show any sign that they intend to attack, Wei Xiaobao did not feel at ease; he said, “This fellow’s words cannot be trusted, let us leave quickly, the farther we are from Kunming the better.” Thereupon the group left immediately.

After traveling for more than ten li and did not see any troop chasing them, they stopped for a while to take a rest.

“Princess,” Li Zicheng said to Jiu Nan, “I have received your kindness in saving me so that I did not die under the big traitor’s men’s hands, I really am deeply grateful. Now please make your move.” While saying that, he took the saber he was wearing, reversed the hilt, and handed it over to her.

“Hey,” Jiu Nan mumbled, with an awkward expression on her face; she thought, “He is the big enemy who killed my father, how can I not avenge this enmity? But he has his hands tied waiting for the butcher, I can’t kill him just like that.” Turning her head toward Ah Ke, she cast her a glance, and muttered, “Turns out she … she is your daughter …”

“He is not my father,” Ah Ke said loudly.

“Nonsense,” Jiu Nan angrily said, “Your Mama admitted it herself, how can it be wrong?”

“Naturally he is your father,” Wei Xiaobao busily said, “He and your Mama have betrothed you to me to be my wife; this is called ‘a father and mother’s order …’”

Ah Ke’s heart was filled with resentment and indignation, yet she could not vent it out anywhere; suddenly she sprang up and punched Wei Xiaobao’s face. He was caught off-guard, the punch hit the bridge of his nose; immediately blood flowed in abundance.

“Aiyo,” Wei Xiaobao cried out, “You are murdering your own husband.”

Jiu Nan angrily said, “The two of you stop speaking unreasonable words! Stop making a mess!”

Ah Ke retreated several steps back, her small face was completely red; she pointed her finger to Li Zicheng and angrily said, “You are not my father! That woman is not my mother.” Pointing Jiu Nan she said, “You … you are not my Shifu. You … you are all bad people, you bullied me. I … I hate you …” She covered her face and cried loudly.

Jiu Nan sighed. “You are right,” she said, “I am not your Shifu, I snatched you away from Wu Sangui, not with good intention. You … you can go on your own. But your birth parents, you cannot not acknowledging them.”

Ah Ke stomped her foot and said, “I don’t want to acknowledge them, I don’t want to acknowledge them. I don’t have any father, I don’t have any mother, and I don’t have any Shifu.”

Wei Xiaobao said, “But you have me, your husband!”

Ah Ke’s anger shot to the roof, she picked up a stone and hurled it to him. Wei Xiaobao dodged sideways. Ah Ke turned around and ran along a small path toward the west.

“Hey, hey,” Wei Xiaobao called out, “Where are you going?”

Ah Ke halted her steps, turned around and hatefully said, “There will come a day that you will die in my hands.”

Wei Xiaobao did not dare to pursue anymore; he looked on helplessly as she ran away. Gloomy mood filled Jiu Nan’s heart, she waved her hand toward Li Zicheng without saying anything and rode off.

“Yuefu [father-in-law] Daren,” Wei Xiaobao said, “My Shifu won’t kill you, you’d better go quickly.”

In his heart Li Zicheng also felt inexplicably unhappy; he turned toward Wei Xiaobao and glowered at him. Being stared at like that, the hair on Wei Xiaobao’s body stood up; he was scared and withdrew two steps back. “Pei,” Li Zicheng spat on the ground, turned around and strode toward a small path.

Wei Xiaobao shook his head, thinking, “Even her own father and mother Ah Ke does not want to acknowledge, naturally she won’t acknowledge me, her husband, even more.” When he turned around, he saw Xu Tianchuan and Gao Yanchao standing behind him with weapons in their hands. The two men were afraid Li Zicheng would suddenly assault and harm their Wei Xiangzhu.

“This man turned the sky and the earth upside down in the past, and ruined out Great Ming’s rivers and mountains,” Xu Tianchuan said, “Until he is old he still carries the lofty quality of a hero like that.”

Wei Xiaobao stuck out his tongue. “He is very fierce,” he said; and then he asked, “Did you bring that Hantiemo?”

“He is a very important character,” Xu Tianchuan replied, “We did not dare to leave him.”

“Very good,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Gentlemen must be very careful in taking care of him, don’t let him escape along the way.”

The party continued their journey northward. Wei Xiaobao went over to Mu Jiansheng, Liu Dahong and the others to exchange some pleasantries. In their hearts Mu Jiansheng and the others were also very unhappy; they all thought, “All our lives were saved by him, from this day onward, how can our Mu Palace strive for superiority against their Tian Di Hui?”

“Wei Xiangzhu,” Liu Dahong said, “About toppling Wu Sangui or what have you, we cannot compete against Tian Di Hui anymore. Please report to Chen Zongduozhu on our behalf, tell him that henceforth the Mu Palace concede defeat to Tian Di Hui. Wei Xiangzhu’s kindness in saving our lives, I am afraid in our whole life we will never be able to repay.”

“How could Liu Laoyezi [old master] say such thing?” Wei Xiaobao said, “All of us were in mortal danger and we escaped alive; we all managed to snatch our lives back.”

“That little thief Liu Yizhou,” Liu Dahong hatefully said, “There will come a day when I will make mincemeat of him.”

“Was it him who disclose your secret?” Wei Xiaobao asked.

“If not him then who else?” Liu Dahong replied, “This kid … this kid …” Speaking to this point, his anger shot up to the heavens.

Wei Xiaobao said, “Did he remain at Wu Sangui’s place?”

“Most probably,” Mu Jiansheng said, “That day Liu Shifu sent him out to scout the enemy; he was captured by Wu Sangui’s men. That very same night, a large number of troops and horses surrounded our residence. The place we stayed was extremely secret, if that man did not tell, there is no way Wu Sangui would ever find us.” Speaking to that point, he heaved a deep sigh before continuing, “It’s a pity that Ao Dage has sacrificed his life for his country.” Cupping his fist toward Wei Xiaobao, he said, “Wei Xiangzhu, if Tian Di Hui has anything in the future, the one surnamed Mu will obey the order. The green mountain will not change, the crystal-clear water will always flow, let us part here.”

“This place is still the big traitor’s territory,” Wei Xiaobao said, “Let us be together, there is strength in number. When we leave Yunnan, we will go our separate ways.”

Mu Jiansheng shook his head and said, “Thank you for Wei Xiangzhu’s good intention, if we ever fall head first into the big traitor’s hands again, we will not have any face to live among the people.” Thinking, “Mu Palace is at home in Yunnan, if we still rely on Tatar officers and soldiers for protection, what else can we say?” Therefore, leading the Mu Palace people, he bade his farewell and left.

Mu Jianping walked at the very last of the line; after only a few steps, she turned around and said, “I am leaving, you … you take care of yourself.”

“Yes,” Wei Xiaobao said, “You must do the same.” Lowering his voice, he said, “You stay with your Gege, don’t come back to Shen Long [Divine Dragon] Island. I will think about you every day.”

Mu Jianping nodded; she said in small voice, “I will too …”

Wei Xiaobao pulled the horse he was riding and turned the reins over to her hand, saying, “I give this horse to you.”

Mu Jianping’s eyes turned red; receiving the reins, she straddled the horseback and rode away to catch up with Mu Jiansheng and the others.

[1] Orig. ‘chu jia ren’ – those who left home to become monk or nun (applicable to either Buddhist or Taoist). Jijing literally means ‘peace’ or ‘quiet’. Reminder: ‘Daren’ (lit. big person) is the term used by commoner/subordinate to address government official/superior.

[2] Xi Shi (c. 450 BC), famous Chinese beauty, foremost of the Four legendary beauties, given by King Gou Jian of Yue as concubine to King of Wu as part of a successful plan to destroy Wu. Yáng Guìfēi, or Yang Yuhuan (719-756), famous Tang beauty, consort of Emperor Xuanzhong, blamed for extravagance and killed as a scapegoat during the Anshi rebellion.

[3] Daji (c. 11th century BC), mythical fox spirit and concubine of the last Shang Dynasty Emperor Zhou Xin.

[4] Lit. lowly concubine; it can also mean ‘I, your servant’ (deprecatory self-reference for women).

[5] I found partial translation in The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, Vol. 2, edited by Kang-I Sun Chang and Stephen Owen, copyright Cambridge University Press 2010. Unfortunately, I can’t find the rest. Therefore, as you see the shift from highly polished sentences to crude, literal translation, you know where the real translator’s work ends and the half-baked translator’s work starts.

[6] 夫差, I am not sure what it is, a friend says that it was government official, like governor or deputy.

[7] 娘个贱胎踏踏叫, again, I don’t know what it is. Perhaps a saying or an idiom.

[8] Li Zicheng, the Roaming King (Chuang Wang), see also Chapter 27, note 1.

[9] Orig. ‘die die’ (pronounced dee-eh), also in subsequent sentences. See also Chapter 1.

[10] Orig. ‘bo mu’ – wife of father’s elder brother, a polite form of address for a woman who is about the age or older than one’s mother.

[11] Ah Yi – maternal aunt, a polite form of address for a woman who is younger than one’s parents.

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