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The Legend of the Condor Heroes Chapter 12


Chapter 12 –The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse
LOCH-12Suddenly, Wanyan Kang understood, “She is telling me that we are not related by blood at all!” He took her right hand in his and smiled. Mu Nianci’s face reddened, she struggled lightly but did not loose his grasp, letting him to hold her hand; her head hung even lower.

Huang Rong was on the point of cutting up the chicken when they heard a voice behind them: “A third portion please; I will take the back-end portion!”

The two youngsters jumped; how had somebody been able to approach them without them realizing it? They turned and beheld a beggar, older but forceful. The man had a rectangular face, a goatee and vigorous but rather massive limbs. His clothes, frayed everywhere, were, however, very clean. He held with one hand a green stick, made from translucent bamboo like jade, and carried on his back a large red gourd. He looked so eager and impatient that one had the impression that if his portion was not offered, he was going to seize some by force! Before the two young people had time to answer, without much ado, he was already sitting down in front of them. He took his gourd, opened it, and a heady alcoholic perfume spread itself in the air. He thirstily swallowed several mouthfuls before capping it again. To Guo Jing he said, “A drink for you, little urchin!”

Guo Jing found the man rather impolite, but sensed distinctly that he was no ordinary individual, so he did not dare to show disrespect. “No, thank you,” he said courteously, “I do not wish a drink at the moment, but you having one won’t bother me.”

“And you, little girl,” the beggar asked Huang Rong, “Do you drink?”

Huang Rong shook her head. Suddenly, she saw that the hand which held the gourd had only four fingers; the index had been severed at the first knuckle. She started and thought of the conversation between the Taoists and the Freaks, which she had overheard outside the window of the inn the other day, concerning the ‘Divine Nine-Fingered Beggar’. “Could this be a stroke of luck,” she wondered, “that we meet by chance, that Elder? Let’s try to probe him a little…” The eyes of the beggar were fixed on the chicken held in her hand and he salivated in anticipation. She could not stop secretly laughing. She then cut out the bird into two and the end portion was handed to him. Captivated, the beggar seized it and took a full bite. While devouring it, he did not cease praising, “Delicious! Delicious! Even I, who am the leader of all the beggars, could not improvise such a delicious ‘Beggar’s Chicken’!” Huang Rong smiled and offered the other piece to him.

“But no,” protested the beggar, “neither of you have eaten yet!” This attempt at manners was in vain and purely a formality, since it did not prevent him from seizing what was offered to him. In a flash, there remained nothing but bones!

He tapped his belly then and exclaimed, “Ah, my belly, my belly! Hasn’t it been a long time that you have been starved of such good chicken?”

Huang Rong burst out laughing, “By the greatest good chance, I prepared ‘Beggar’s Chicken’ and here it has entered the majestic belly of the leader of the beggars! It’s a true honor!”

The beggar burst out laughing, “Little girl, you are quite brave!” He withdrew from his pocket several gilded projectiles. “Yesterday,” he explained, “I saw several individuals brawling about something unknown to me The missiles which one of them launched shone like gold. I was the one who benefited from it and I took some of them. In fact, the inside is cheap metal, but outside, to look good, it is genuine gold. Little urchin, take them and have fun. When necessary, you can get some money for them.”

Guo Jing shook his head, “We regard you as a friend, and when one invites a friend to eat, one does not accept payment!” By saying this he honored the Mongol’s rules of hospitality.

The beggar, feeling thwarted, scratched his head. “Then, I am also embarrassed! I have no trouble begging for scraps from people, but today, you provided me such good chicken! Such a benefit, that I cannot return it, that…”

“Why speak about benefit and repayment, for such a small chicken?” Guo Jing said. “To be honest, we stole this chicken…”

“We took this chicken in passing,” confirmed Huang Rong, “and you ate it as you passed here, very well done…”

The beggar burst of laughing. “You two,” he said, “funny enough, I like you well. Good, if you have any wishes, just ask.” Guo Jing, understanding that he proposed to help them, which again infringed the rules of hospitality, shook his head again.

But Huang Rong intervened. “In fact, this ‘Beggar’s Chicken’ is really not a great thing; I have other small dishes that I would readily make for you to taste. Why won’t you come with us?”

“Splendid!” exclaimed the beggar, enchanted. “Splendid!”

“What is your honorable name?” asked Guo Jing.

“My surname is Hong, and as I am the seventh in my family. You kids can call me Qigong.”

“It is indeed him,” Huang Rong thought, “The ‘Divine Nine-Fingered Beggar! But he seems to be younger than the Taoist Master Qiu, so how could he be a contemporary of a master of the Quanzhen Seven? Hmm…Actually, my dad isn’t old, yet he is a peer of Qigong! That must be explained by the incompetence of those seven old Taoists, who wasted their time!” She’d always held some resentment against Qiu Chuji for his wanting to force Guo Jing to marry Mu Nianci.

They headed south and arrived in a small town, where they took a room in an inn. “I’ll go to the market,” Huang Rong said. “It’s better for you men to rest a little.”

“She…isn’t she your little wife?” Qigong asked Guo Jing with a smile while watching her leave. The young man reddened, not daring to agree nor to disagree. Qigong burst out laughing, and then began to drowse in a chair. More than one and a half hours later, Huang Rong finally returned and settled in the kitchen. Guo Jing wanted to help her but the girl laughingly closed the door. Another half an hour passed.

Qigong yawned, stretched, and inhaled deeply. “That smells very good,” he said. “But what could that be? It’s odd…” He stretched his neck, trying to look through the door of the kitchen. Looking at him, both impatient and longing, Guo Jing could not stop himself from secretly laughing. Delicate aromas emerged from the kitchen, but Huang Rong remained invisible.

Qigong could not hold still any longer; he scratched his head, rubbed his cheeks, rose, and sat down, again and again as if he were on burning coals. “I am like that,” he confided to Guo Jing, “I have this unpleasant vice of gluttony; when I think of eating, I forget everything else!” He opened his right hand and showed its four fingers. The man said, “The ancients said: ‘index finger moves’.* That’s completely true! Each time I see or smell a dish that is original or exquisite, the index finger of my right hand cannot prevent itself from quivering. Once, because of it, I messed up an extremely important matter. Then, I got so angry with myself that, with a stroke of a knife, I sliced off my index finger!” [*The Chinese word for the index finger, ‘shi zhi’, literally translates as ‘food finger’.] Guo Jing started as Qigong sighed, “But I cut off my finger in vain, because my gluttony remained.”

At this moment Huang Rong entered, smiling, carrying a large wooden tray which she placed on the table. On the tray, were three bowls of white rice, a wine cup and two large bowls containing the main dishes. Guo Jing smelled a delicious, extremely appetizing aroma. In one of the large bowls were laid out roasted beef sticks which, apart from their scent, did not seem exceptional. The other contained a clear soup the colour of jade, in which floated many red cherries and ten pink petals. At the bottom lay young fresh bamboo shoots. The association of the three colors – red, white and green, formed a multi-coloured whole that was extremely pleasant to the eye. The sense of smell was also engaged because the soup emitted the delicate scent of lotus. Huang Rong poured wine in a cup which she placed in front of Qigong while smiling. “Qigong, taste my dishes and tell me what you think of them!”

Hong didn’t need to be told twice! Without even drinking the wine, he brandished his chopsticks and seized two meat sticks that he consumed voraciously. An exquisite taste filled his mouth; this was not mere beef! As he chewed, different flavor sensations struck him; sometimes oily and juicy, sometimes a succulent freshness. Flavors succeeded themselves in complex and unpredictable variations, like the blows of a martial arts expert. Startled and delighted, Qigong examined the sticks more closely and saw that each of them was formed by four small intertwined sticks. He shut his eyes to savor the taste better. “Hmm,” he said, “there is mutton thigh on one stick, another of pig ears in milk, a third one of calf kidney, and the last one…the last one…”

“If you guess,” Huang Rong said with a grin, “you’re really fantastic…”

She had barely finished her sentence before Qigong cried, “Deer thigh mixed with rabbit!”

“Bravo!” applauded the girl. “Well guessed!”

Guo Jing was completely stunned. “These meat sticks needed so much work!” he said to himself. “Qigong is truly astonishing to have been able to distinguish the five different meats!”

“There are only five meat types,” Qigong went on, “but the blend of pork and mutton gives a certain taste, the deer with beef another… how many variations there are, that, I can’t say?”

“If one does not count the order of the variations,” Huang Rong said with a smile, “there are twenty-five, corresponding to the five times five petals of the plum flower. Just as the meat stick resembles a flute, this dish has a name …it is called ‘Plum Flowers Fall to the Jade Flute’s Song’ The ‘variations’ mentioned in your question means that there is a placement sort to the test. Qigong, you passed the test, you are the master of all gourmets!”

“Bravo!” the beggar said to himself. No one knew whether he applauded the name of the dish or his own skillfulness in discerning the tastes. Then he placed two cherries in a spoon and said, laughing, “This bowl of lotus-leaf soup, with those bamboo shoots and cherries, is so pretty to look at, one almost regrets to have to eat it!” He swallowed and cried, “Ah!” Then he said to himself, astonished, “Eh?”. He took two more and exclaimed again, “Ah! The freshness of the lotus leaf, the taste of the bamboo sprouts, the sweetness of the cherries, all that leaps to the taste buds; but what’s more, the cherries, after having been pitted, have been filled something…”

“In the cherries,” Qigong said while hesitating, “what’s there?” He closed his eyes again, trying to recognize the taste. “This is lark’s meat!” he mumbled to himself. “No…if this is not partridge, then it’s turtledove! Yes, that’s it, it’s turtledove!”

He opened his eyes, saw that Huang Rong raised her thumb and couldn’t help feeling very pleased with himself. “So what’s the complex name of this soup with lotus leaves, bamboo sprouts, cherries and turtledove?” he asked.

“Elder Hong,” Huang Rong said, “you haven’t mentioned one more ingredient.”

“Ah yes?” Hong said, astonished. He regarded the soup again. “Yes,” he agreed, “there are these flower petals…”

“Exactly!” confirmed Huang Rong. “Can you figure out the name of this soup from these five ingredients?”

“If this is a riddle, I declare I’ve lost. Tell me quickly…”

“I’ll give you a clue,” Huang Rong said, “You just need to think about the ‘Book of the Odes’!”

Note: The Book of Odes is also known as the Book of Songs (Shi Jing in Chinese), one of the Five Classics. The Four Books and Five Classics were the standard texts that all scholars studied back in the day. The other four Classics are the Book of Changes (Yi Jing) – this one features a lot in the wuxia genre, Book of History (Shu Jing), Book of Rites (Li Ji) and the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chun Qiu). The Four Books are the Great Learning (Da Xue), the Doctrine of Mean (Zhong Yong), the Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu) and Minces (Meng Zi).

“Ah no!” Qigong protested, “I know nothing in the books!”

“The flower hints at a beauty’s complexion,” explained Huang Rong, “the cherries to her small mouth, isn’t that right?”

“Ah, this is therefore the ‘Beauty’s Soup’?”

“No,” Huang Rong said, shaking her head, “The bamboo is a symbol of modesty so it characterizes a gentleman, just as the lotus is the most eminent of the flowers. Thus, bamboo and lotus relate to a gentleman.”

“Oh,” Qigong said, “this is therefore the ‘Gentleman and Beauty’s Soup’?”

“What about the turtledove?” Huang Rong said. “Indeed, all these elements meet again in the first poem in the ‘Book of the Odes’ that finishes thus, ‘The gentleman is in good company’. Thus, this soup is called the ‘Soup of Good Company’!”

Qigong burst out laughing. “Since there is such a complex and strange soup, it’s good that it has such a complex and strange name. Very well! Very well! You’re a complex and strange little one yourself and I would like to know which complex and strange father sired you…In any case, this soup is truly exquisite and much better tasting than the soup with cherries that I ate, approximately ten years ago, in the kitchen of the Imperial Palace.”

“You have a pass to the imperial kitchen?” asked Huang Rong. “Tell me of a dish and I’ll try to prepare something that will please you just as well.”

Qigong devoured the soup and didn’t have time to reply. He stopped when he had reached the bottom of the bowls. “In the Imperial Kitchen,” he explained, “there are lots of good things of course, but nothing compares to the two dishes here… Ah, if there was it would be the ‘Five-flavored slices of Mandarin Duck’. That was delicious, but I don’t know how it was prepared.”

“And it was the Emperor that invited you?” asked Guo Jing.

“Absolutely,” Qigong said while laughing, “the Emperor treated me, but he didn’t know it! I lived hidden on a big beam of the Imperial Kitchen for three months and tasted each of the dishes intended for the Emperor. If I found it to my taste, I kept it for myself; otherwise, I left it to him! The cooks believed that there were ghosts about!”

“This person really is excessively gluttonous,” thought Guo Jing and Huang Rong to themselves, “but he is also insanely audacious!”

“Young lad,” Qigong said, laughing, “your little girlfriend is the best cook in the world; your happiness is assured! Goodness! Why didn’t I meet such a woman when I was young?” He seemed sincerely sorry. Huang Rong, with a hint of a smile, prepared the remainder for Guo Jing and herself. One bowl of rice was more than enough for her, while the young man put away four big bowls. As for the exquisite arrangement, it did not seem to make a difference to him.

Qigong shook his head while sighing. “Like a bull chewing on peonies! What a shame! What a shame!” Huang Rong put a hand in front of her mouth to stop herself from laughing.

“Bulls… do they like peonies?” Guo Jing asked himself. “There are many bulls in Mongolia but no peonies; indeed I have never seen bulls eating peonies. But why does he keep saying ‘What a shame’?”

Qigong patted his stomach and said, “Good. You are both practitioners of martial arts; I saw that right away. The little one that went to so much trouble to prepare such exquisite dishes for me certainly has a devious motive, such as, persuading me to give you some instruction. Is that not correct? Good, I recognize that after having eaten so well, it would be inconsiderate of me to leave without giving something in return. Come, come with me!” He took up his gourd and bamboo cane, and went out.

Guo Jing and Huang Rong followed until they were outside of town. “What do you want to learn?” Qigong demanded of Guo Jing.

“Martial arts are so varied,” said the young man to himself, “if I want to learn something, how is he so sure that he’ll be able to teach it to me?”

While he reflected, Huang Rong had begun to speak’ “Qigong, his kung fu is inferior to mine so he gets angry often because he’s always trying to best me.”

“When did I get angry?” Guo Jing protested. Huang Rong glanced at him, telling him to be quiet.

“For my part,” Hong Qigong said while laughing, “I have the impression that all his movements are firm and assured; that means that he has a good basis of neigong. How would he be inferior to you? Why don’t you two match skills a little?”

Huang Rong moved aside some steps and called, “Jing’Ge ge, come on!” Guo Jing hesitated.

“If you don’t show what you’re capable of,” Huang Rong said, “how do you expect this Elder to correct you? Get ready!” She jumped at him and attacked with a palm stroke; Guo Jing blocked the blow, but she already had changed tactics, and attacked with a kick.

“Well done, little one!” Qigong said. “Pretty move!”

“Fight seriously,” Huang Rong advised in a low voice.

Guo Jing concentrated and executed conscientiously the powerful ‘Southern Mountain Palm’ taught by Nan Xiren. Huang Rong defended herself nimbly, jumping upwards and back. Then suddenly, she modified her technique and executed the ‘Peach Blossom Island Divine Sword Palm’ technique, created by her father. This palm technique resembled its name, ‘Divine Sword’, for it was adapted from a sword technique. She moved her arms in all directions; her opponent was encircled by the palm shadows, unable to determine if they were feigned or real. It was as though the wind had arisen in the woods dropping a thousand flowers. The beauty of the gestures resided in their lightness and their aerial grace; so well that Huang Rong resembled a butterfly taking flight. Since her neigong lacked power, her blows were not as violent and as terrifying as they should have been. It mattered little, for Guo Jing, stunned by the multiplicity of the shadows in front of his eyes, had lost all means to resist. In some seconds, he received four palm blows, on the shoulders, on the chest and on the back. He was not injured, since Huang Rong had not struck with force. She stepped back with a smile.

“Well done, Rong’er!” Guo Jing exclaimed with genuine admiration. “What a beautiful palm demonstration!”

“Your father is so powerful,” Hong said in an icy voice. “Why do you want me to give lessons to this simple-minded one?”

Huang Rong was startled. “According to Father,” she said to herself, “since he created this ‘‘Peach Blossom Island Divine Sword Palm’, he has not ever used it himself; how did this Elder recognized it?” “Qigong,” she demanded, “you know my father?”

“Indeed, he is the ‘Eastern Heretic’ and I, the ‘Northern Beggar’; don’t you think that we had occasion to match skills?”

“He matched blows with Father,” Huang Rong said to herself, “and managed to survive; that’s really astonishing. Now I understand how the ‘Northern Beggar’ can be ranked alongside the ‘Eastern Heretic’!”

“And how did you recognize me?” she demanded again.

“Just look at yourself in a mirror!” Hong replied. “Your nose and your eyes, are they not as those of your father? At first, I did not think about that; I only felt that your face appeared familiar to me, but your demonstration revealed everything! Do you believe that this old beggar does not recognize the kung fu of Peach Blossom Island? Even if I never had seen this palm, I would not doubt that a crafty fellow such as your dad would have been able to invent it. Heh…heh…and the names of your two dishes, what were they? ‘Plum Flowers Fall at the Jade Flute’s Song’, and the ‘Soup of Good Company’; it was doubtless your dad that invented them.”

“You really can read minds,” Huang Rong said, laughing. “Then, according to you, my dad is very strong, isn’t that right?”

“Of course he is powerful,” Qigong said coldly, “but he is not the most powerful in the entire world!”

“Then, surely you’re the most powerful in this world?” Huang Rong exclaimed while applauding.

“Not necessarily,” Qigong said. “Twenty years ago, all five of us, ‘Eastern Heretic’, ‘Western Venom’, ‘Southern Emperor’, ‘Northern Beggar’ and ‘Central Divinity’, met at the summit of Huashan (Mount Hua), to match ourselves. The confrontation lasted seven days and seven nights. Finally, ‘Central Divinity’ revealed himself to be the most powerful, and we all gladly recognized it.”

“Who then is this ‘Central Divinity’?” asked Huang Rong.

“Your father never told you?”

“No. Father said that, in the martial arts world, there are more bad things than good and that there was no point for girls from good families to hear bout it. He scolded me very fiercely; he didn’t love me anymore so I ran away. He doesn’t want anything to do with me…” With a sad face, she lowered her head.

“That old monster!” Qigong swore. “What …!”

“I won’t allow you to insult my father!” Huang Rong exclaimed.

“What a pity that I was always too poor!” Qigong exclaimed, laughing. “No one ever wanted to marry me! Otherwise, I would have had a kind girl like you, and never would I have left you…”

“Indeed!” Huang Rong said, laughing. “If I leave, what will you do for food?”

“Fair enough!” Qigong agreed with a sigh. “Well, to answer your question, the ‘Central Divinity’ is Wang Chongyang, founder of the Quanzhen Sect. But, since his death, it’s difficult to say who’s the world’s most powerful.”

“The Quanzhen Sect?” Huang Rong said. “There is a fellow called Qiu, another called Wang, and yet another named Ma. They are all cow-nosed Taoist priests. I found their kung fu rather pathetic! When they fought, they were either poisoned or injured in two or three stances.”

“Ah yes? They were doubtless disciples of Wang Chongyang. It seems that, among his seven disciples, Qiu Chuji is the most powerful… But, it is certain that they are not even close to their martial uncle, Zhou Botong.” Upon hearing this name, Huang Rong was startled; she was about to say something, then stopped herself.

Guo Jing, who had been content to listen to their conversation, interrupted, “It’s true, Master Ma said that they had a martial uncle, but he did not mention the name of this Taoist master.”

“Zhou Botong is not a Taoist,” Hong Qigong replied. “He is a secular person, who was personally taught by his martial brother, Wang Chongyang… Eh, I say, my simple-minded one, you seem rather clumsy to me! Does your father-in-law, so fine and so crafty, really appreciate you?” Guo Jing, who didn’t think he had a ‘father-in-law’, spluttered, not knowing how to reply.

“My father has yet to see him,” Huang Rong said, smiling. “If you would be kind enough to give him some pointers, then, thanks to you, my dad will have some appreciation for him!”

“Little rogue,” Qigong grumbled, “who has learned not even a tenth of her father’s kung fu, but who has inherited all his trickery and cleverness! I don’t like your flattery or your toadying! And also, I never take disciples! Who wants a stupid one like that? You planned to get me to teach your dumb little husband! Huh, this old beggar will not fall into such a trap!”

Huang Rong bowed her head, red faced. She never had applied herself to learn martial arts. Her father himself was so powerful, yet she had not learned seriously from him; why would she want to learn from Qigong? But Guo Jing’s kung fu was not up to the mark and his six Shifus considered her to be a ‘little witch’, so she rejoiced at having met a master such as Qigong. She hoped that he would pass on a little of his knowledge to her loved one so that, in front of his masters and in front of Qiu Chuji’s Taoists, Guo Jing would not have to be afraid, like a mouse in front of the cats. Qigong was very gluttonous and always grinning but he was not stupid; he had seen through her act all along!

The old beggar, muttering to himself, left without a backward glance. The two young people stood silently for a long moment.

“Rong’er,” Guo Jing finally said, “this Elder has a rather unique character!” Huang Rong heard a light rustle in the foliage above their heads and realized that Qigong had made a loop before returning, discreetly, to the top of the tree.

“He’s a really kind person,” she then said. “And his kung fu is much stronger than my father’s.”

“He hasn’t shown his skills,” Guo Jing wondered aloud, “how do you know that?”

“My dad told me so.”

“What exactly did he say?”

“He said that, in today’s world, there was only one person who could beat him, and that was the Divine Nine-Fingered Beggar, Hong Qigong. Unfortunately, since this Elder is always wandering, he has seldom had the occasion to see him and exchange pointers.”

In fact, after he had moved away, Qigong had used his incomparable qinggong and had returned to the top of the tree, high above the heads of the young people. He wanted to hear their conversation and to assure himself that they had not been sent by Huang Yaoshi to steal his skills. The words of Huang Rong filled him with pride. “So,” he said to himself, “Huang Yaoshi never wanted to accept my superiority; but deep within himself, he admires me nonetheless!” How could he have guessed that it was all pure and simple invention by the girl?

“I didn’t learn great things from my father,” Huang Rong went on, “but that’s my fault. I enjoyed having fun too much and never wanted to apply myself! Having had the good fortune to meet Elder Hong and had he wanted to give me some lessons, it would have been much better than learning from my father! What a shame I offended him without intending to!” Then she started to sob. At first she pretended and Guo Jing tenderly tried to console her. Then she thought about the death of her mother, the intransigence of her father and started to truly weep. Qigong, atop his tree, was nearly convinced.

“I heard father say,” Huang Rong continued while sobbing, “that Elder Hong had an exceptional skill of incomparable power that even Wang Chongyang feared. It’s called… It’s called… What is it called? I can’t remember… Anyway, I had it on the tip of my tongue all this time and I wanted to beg him to teach it…to you- it’s called…it’s called…” Indeed, she did not know of any such skill and talked in a rambling way.

Hearing her hesitate, seemingly searching for the name without finding it, Qigong could not hold back and cried as he jumped to the foot of the tree, “It is called the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’!” Guo Jing and Huang Rong bounded up in surprise, one’s surprise was real, the other’s was feigned…

“Ah, Elder Hong,” Huang Rong cried, “how did you get up in the tree? By flying? Yes, that’s it, the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’! Exactly! How could I have forgotten it? Father often told me that the kung fu that he admired most in the world was the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’!”

Qigong was delighted. “Then your dad knows what the truth is! I believed that, after the death of Wang Chongyang, he considered himself to be the most powerful in the world!” He turned towards Guo Jing. “Indeed, your kung fu isn’t inferior to that of your little friend. The problem is that your palm technique is not at all up to the mark. Little girl, you return to the inn!”

Huang Rong realized that he was going to give a lesson to Guo Jing and she went away, well satisfied. Qigong addressed Guo Jing solemnly, “You will kneel down and promise me that, without my permission, you will not transmit my kung fu to anyone else, not even to your crafty little woman!”

Guo Jing was greatly embarrassed. “If Rong’er insists that I teach her,” he said to himself, “how can I refuse?” “Sir,” he said, “I do not want to learn from you. What does it matter if she is more skilled than me?”

“And why not?” Hong asked.

“If she wants me to teach her, I cannot refuse without offending her and I cannot accept without offending you…”

“Simple-minded though you are,” Hong Qigong said, laughing, “you have a good heart and you speak directly. That is good. Very well, I will teach you a stroke called ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. I would imagine that Huang Yaoshi has enough pride that he won’t, although he would desire to, copy my superior skills. In any case, our schools are completely different; I cannot learn his kung fu and he cannot learn mine…” At that, he bent his left knee, pivoted and straightened his arm, made a circle with the upright hand and pushed outwards with the other. His palm touched a great pine and ‘craack’, its trunk snapped! Guo Jing stood petrified, shocked by the power contained in this blow.

“This tree could not move,” Qigong said, “if it were human, it would obviously try to avoid the blow. The difficulty of this technique is to strike precisely so that your opponent cannot, no matter what, avoid it and so well that once you land your blow, ‘craack’, the enemy will collapse like this pine!” He repeated the demonstration twice, explaining in detail how to concentrate and project the internal energy. It was only one stroke, but the lesson took more than an hour.

Guo Jing was not clever but he had a good basis in neigong. To learn a move such as this, made with simple movements but having unequaled power, suited him perfectly. He trained conscientiously and, at the end of two hours, had grasped the majority of this technique…

“In that little imp’s technique,” Hong said, “there are many more feints than real attacks. If you try to follow her, she will run around you as if you were a donkey and you will always fall. You will never be as quick as her. You will think that, after all these feints, the next blow will be real, but no, it will be a feint! And the blow following you will believe to be a feint, but she will strike a real blow and you will be in trouble!” Guo Jing nodded his head in agreement.

“Therefore, to fight her, the clever way is to completely put the thought of whether it is a feint or not out of your mind. When she attacks you with a palm blow, whether it is a feint or not, return it with a blow of ‘The Proud Dragon Regrets’. Against the power of your attack, she will be forced to withdraw and defend herself; so much so that all her tricks fall into water!”

“And after that?” Guo Jing asked.

“What do you mean, ‘and after that’?” Hong replied, his face suddenly darkening. “You great idiot, do you think she is able to withstand this blow that I taught you?”

“But if she can’t withstand it,” Guo Jing said, very worried, “won’t she be injured?”

Qigong shook his head and sighed. “If, in such a blow one seeks only to send out the force and not to keep it, if one cannot somehow control its lightness or its power, firmness or softness, how can one consider himself a master of these unique ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’?”

Guo Jing was eager to agree, but he had made a mental decision. “Since I haven’t learned to control my force perfectly, I won’t fight with Rong’er!”

“You don’t believe me?” Hong Qigong said. “In that case, try it!” Guo Jing took up the position, imitating his senior’s posture, picked a pine with a particularly slender trunk and struck it with a violent blow. The pine shook but was not at all broken.

“You big fool,” Qigong said, “Why are you shaking this tree; to catch squirrels or to drop pinecones?” Guo Jing, red with shame, laughed with an air of denial, not knowing how to reply.

“I already demonstrated it for you.” Hong Qigong said. “It is necessary to put the opponent in a position such that it cannot back up or get away. Your blow just now had enough force, but all the pine needed to do is shake itself a little for it to escape the full force. It is necessary that you learn to approach and strike in such a way that the tree cannot budge, in order to be able to break it in one go.”

This was, for Guo Jing, enlightening. “Then,” he cried joyously, “It’s necessary for the force to be particularly swift, delivered in such a way that the opponent has no time to defend himself!”

Qigong shot him a bleak look. “Absolutely! That goes without saying! You’ve sweated blood for such a long time and you only now understand this truth? One really can say that you aren’t clever! For this stroke, known as ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’- it’s essence is not found in the word ‘Proud’ but rather in the word ‘Remorse’. If one concentrated only on pure violence, brute power, a little force in the muscles would suffice. If that were true, how could this technique be admired by Huang Yaoshi? As the old saying goes: ‘The Proud Dragon itself regrets, the surplus will not last a long time’. This is the reason that if there is transmission, there must be retention. When you send out a force of ten, it is necessary to preserve within yourself a force of twenty. The day when you know to appreciate the full meaning of the concept ‘Remorse’, then you will be able to say that you have understood thirty percent of this stroke. Just as a fine old wine that has had time to age at first tastes not very strong, but afterwards it releases its full heady flavor, that explains the concept ‘Regrets’.”

Guo Jing didn’t understand anything about these matters, but he tried to memorize them in order to reflect upon them later. To learn martial arts, he always had adopted the same method: ‘To that which others may assimilate in a morning, I will devote ten days!’ Then he concentrated on the study of the palm technique. At first, the pine absorbed each of the blows that it received. Towards the end, these blows became more and more powerful, but the tree shook less and less. He realized that he had progressed and rejoiced somewhat. His palm had become red and swollen, but he did not treat it and continued to train with determination, never relaxing.

Hong Qigong, who had initially laughed at his persistence, had stretched himself on the ground and snored contentedly. Little by little, Guo Jing felt more comfortable as he attained a mastery of his energy…to carry the blow and to keep it. He brought his breath into his dan tian, advanced his palm violently, and withdrew his force immediately; so well that the tree did not move at all. Delighted, the young man repeated it in the same way while concentrating his force on the edge of his palm. He heard a ‘craack’, and the small pine broke apart.

“Bravo!” Huang Rong, who had seen the scene from a distance, cried. She approached slowly, carrying a heavy shopping basket.

Before even opening his eyes, Hong Qigong had smelled the delicious aroma of the food that she brought. “That smells good! That smells very good!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. He seized the basket from the girl’s hands and opened the lid. He beheld a dish of roasted frogs thighs, a very fat duck suited to the ‘Eight Treasures’, and a big bowl of white and immaculate money noodles. With joyful sounds, he pounced on the food, continuously praising as he devoured it. But, since his mouth was full, one couldn’t understand anything he said. In an instant, the bowls containing the frog thighs and the duck were emptied. Realizing that Guo Jing again had not eaten, the old beggar felt a little ashamed of his gluttony. “Go on, eat up,” he said, “these noodles aren’t bad…” And as he felt really bothered, he added, “They are even better than the duck!”

Huang Rong laughed and said, “Elder Hong, you haven’t yet tasted my best dishes!”

Surprised and delighted, the old beggar eagerly asked, “What dishes? What dishes?”

“You can’t name them all,” Huang Rong replied. “For example, stir-fried Chinese cabbage, steamed tofu, stewed eggs, sliced meat…”

As a well-informed gourmet, Qigong knew well that it was in the simplest dishes that the true masters really showed their talents. The same applied to martial arts…wondrous execution of the simplest techniques…that was the hallmark of the great masters! These words of Huang Rong’s delighted him so much that his expression was almost imploring. “Good, good!” he said. “I always said that you were a brave little girl. Do you want me to buy you cabbage and tofu? Please?”

“It’s not worth your while,” Huang Rong said, laughing. “What you buy may not necessarily suit me.”

“Fair enough,” Qigong said. “No other but you can choose your ingredients.”

“Just now,” Huang Rong said, “I saw him break the trunk of a pine; he’s already more powerful than me!”

“Not at all,” Hong Qigong protested, shaking his head. “He isn’t up to standard at all! It’s necessary that the point where the trunk breaks be perfectly neat. Look, it’s all twisted like a saw’s teeth…what pathetic kung fu! Besides, this pine is as slender as a stick, no, as slender as a toothpick! This kid isn’t up to the mark at all!”

“But if he attacks me with this palm,” objected Huang Rong, “I will not be able to defend myself. This is all your fault! If he bullies me later, how will I resist?”

Qigong, who wanted to get back into her good books and did not want to keep annoying her, clearly saw that she was being devious. “So what, according to you, must I do?”

“Teach me a skill with which I can beat him. After that, I’ll cook for you.”

“Very well, we’re agreed,” Qigong said. “He only learned a single blow; it’s easy to beat him. I will teach you a fist technique called ‘Wandering Strides’.” No sooner had he finished speaking, he rose to his feet to demonstrate. He jumped to the right and to the left, with grace and nimbleness, while his big sleeves flew…

Huang Rong, quick to learn, silently memorized every movement. When the old man had finished the complete chain, she had already half-learned it. After he had given all the supplementary instructions, it didn’t take more than two hours for the girl to execute perfectly the thirty-six movements of the ‘Wandering Strides’. In the end, she executed the skill at the same time as Qigong. They moved together and leaped in concert, the one to right, the other to the left, twirling like a jade swallow and gliding like a great eagle in the skies. At the end of the thirty-six movements, they landed on their feet at the same time. While looking at each other they burst into laughter and Guo Jing applauded vigorously.

“This little one is a hundred more intelligent times than you,” Hong Qigong said to Guo Jing.

“So many movements and variations,” marveled the latter while scratching his head, “how did she learn so quickly? And how does she manage not to forget? Me, when I learn the second movement, I’ve already forgotten the first one!”

Qigong burst out laughing, “Indeed you absolutely cannot learn this ‘Wandering Strides’! Even if you memorized the steps, you are incapable, in practice, of producing the spirit of striding! Executed by you so painstakingly and clumsily, this fist technique would become a real chore!”

“You’ve got a point!” Guo Jing laughingly conceded.

“The ‘Wandering Strides’,” Hong said, “is a kung fu that I practiced in my youth. I taught it to the little girl because it compliments her style of kung fu. It actually doesn’t match my current kung fu style.. Thus, I haven’t used it myself once during the past ten years.” What he implied was that the ‘Wandering Strides’ was a lot less powerful than the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’.

Huang Rong was delighted. “Elder Hong, if I beat him again he’ll surely be unhappy; please teach him some other blows.” She herself had no real intention to learn and it was only a pretext to push the old beggar to give more lessons to her love. If she really had wanted to learn martial arts, she had at her disposal a great master in the person of her father, all of whose skills she never could have learned.

“This dumb kid,” Hong said, “He hasn’t even fully digested the single blow that I taught him. He’s bitten off more than he can chew! As long as you prepare me lots of dishes and I will grant all your wishes!”

“Very well then,” Huang Rong said, smiling. “Ill leave for the market.” Hong Qigong laughed heartily and returned to the inn leaving Guo Jing alone in the pine forest where he resumed training with determination, late into the night.

That night, Huang Rong indeed prepared a cabbage dish and a plateful of tofu for Qigong. She had carefully selected the most tender cabbage heart, then she stir-fried with chicken oil and duck leg filaments. But the plateful of tofu was really extraordinary – she had cut a ham in two and then dug twenty-four small spherical cavities in which she placed balls of tofu, before closing the ham and beginning to steam it. At the end of cooking, the flavor of the ham had passed into the tofu, while the ham itself was left out. After tasting this dish, Hong was naturally overwhelmed. This steamed tofu had a name inspired by Tang poetry and was called ‘Full Moon Night on the Twenty-four Bridges’. [Note: This refers to poetry composed during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). The most famous poets of the era were Li Bai (sometimes known as Li Po) and Du Fu.] If the girl had not had at her disposal the family technique called ‘The Orchid Skims the Point’, her ten nimble and delicate fingers would not have been able to cut twenty-four small balls in the fragile mass of the tofu. To do it demanded as much delicacy as engraving characters on a grain of rice or sculpting a boat in a nutshell. It would have been easy to cut pieces of tofu in cubes, but where has one seen square full moons?

After dinner, each retired to bed. Hong Qigong was astonished to see Guo Jing and Huang Rong going to separate rooms. “Huh? Aren’t you husband and wife? Why don’t you sleep in the same room?”

Huang Rong, who had joked with him without reserve, felt embarrassed. Her cheeks blushing and looking upset she said, “Elder, if you continue to talk nonsense, I won’t cook for you tomorrow!”

“What’s this?” Hong was astonished. “When did I talk nonsense?” After a moment’s reflection, he realized, “I’m old and senile, indeed,” he said, laughing. “You’re clearly dressed like a girl and not a wife. You are therefore promised to each other secretly, without the consent of parents or a matchmaker or a wedding ceremony. Don’t worry; I will be your go-between. If your father does not accept, I’ll challenge him to a duel and we’ll fight, my goodness, for seven days and seven nights if we have to, until he yields!”

Huang Rong was worried about this matter and she feared that her father would not like Guo Jing. The words of the old beggar filled her with joy and she returned to her room, her face radiant.

The next day, Guo Jing went back to the pine forest at dawn. He practiced about twenty rounds with much sweat and rejoiced at the progress he accomplished. Suddenly he heard a voice speaking amongst the trees.

“Shifu,” a voice said, “we must have traveled more than thirty li this time, isn’t that right?”

“Indeed,” replied another voice, “you’ve achieved some progress in endurance…”

This voice seemed very familiar to Guo Jing, who then saw four individuals appear, the first of which had white hair and ruddy complexion. It was none other than his number one enemy, Liang Ziwong, the ‘Ginseng Immortal’! He shivered internally and took to his heels. But Liang Ziwong had already recognized him: “Where do you think you’re going?” he called out while leaping forward in pursuit. The other three men were his disciples and seeing their Shifu running after an enemy, they split up in order to surround the young man.

“I need to get out of the pine forest and back to the inn in order to be safe,” Guo Jing said to himself, while running even faster. But the first disciple of Liang Ziwong barred his way and shouted, while crossing two palms, “Little bastard, kneel!”

He attacked with a technique of qinna [capture and control] taught by his master and sought to seize Guo Jing by the chest. The young man bent his left leg slightly; with his extended arm turned in, he made a circle with his right palm and struck out powerfully. It was precisely the blow that he had just learned, ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. His opponent felt the sudden power and attempted to evade it, but it was so powerful that it broke his arm and threw him a distance of a zhang [3.3m /11+ft] or so, making him lose consciousness. Guo Jing never would have believed that his blow was going to be so strong but could not delay a moment and resumed his flight.

Surprised and irritated, Liang Ziwong jumped in front of him. Guo Jing had just left the pines when he found the ‘Ginseng Immortal’ in front of him. Very frightened, he got in position and launched once again his newly learned ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. Liang Ziwong did not know this blow but, sensing its power, knew that he could not handle it. He had to roll to the earth to avoid it. Guo Jing took the opportunity to flee again.

When Liang Ziwong recovered, the young man had reached the front of the inn. Guo Jing hollered, “Rong’er, disaster! It’s the evil one that wants to drink my blood!”

Huang Rong poked her head out the window. “How did that old monster get here?” she asked herself. “That’s fine; I’ll try out this new ‘Wandering Strides’, which I have just learned, on him. Jing ge ge,” she cried. “Don’t be afraid of that old crust. Begin the fight; I’ll come to help you and we’ll teach him a good lesson!”

“Rong’er doesn’t know the power of this old monster,” Guo Jing said to himself, “that’s why she speaks so recklessly.” But Liang Ziwong had already jumped on him. In the face of the violence of the attack, the young man had no other option but to launch once more his ‘The Proud Dragon Regrets’. Liang Ziwong twisted and dodged several feet to the side, but his extended arm was almost touched by the force of the palm and it left a burning and painful feeling. The ‘Ginseng Immortal’, frightened inside, was amazed that this kid, in the space of some few months, had progressed so much. “This must be,” he thought, “due to the absorption of the precious blood of the snake.” This thought absorbed him and he jumped again to the attack. Guo Jing defended himself again with the same blow. Conscious that he could not oppose it, Liang Ziwong retreated. Noting that the young man seemed not have at his disposal other such fearful blows to press his advantage, Liang’s fear lessened. “Little idiot,” he shouted, “Do you know only that one blow?”

Guo Jing tumbled right into his trap, “With even this one blow,” he replied, “you still won’t be able to avoid it!” He advanced, launching once again his ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. Liang Ziwong dodged and jumped behind Guo Jing to attack him. He turned and attempted to attack again in the same manner, but his opponent once more slipped behind him. The young man, who only knew how to make frontal attacks, was completely disturbed and could not manage to face him.

Seeing him on the verge of losing, Huang Rong called out, “Jing ge ge, let me take me care of him!” She sprang forward and interposed herself between the two fighters, attacking Liang Ziwong with palms and kicks, who returned the attack. Guo Jing retreated two steps to watch them. Huang Rong had learned well this wonderful ‘Wandering Strides’ technique, but, aside the fact that she had learned it too recently to truly master it, Liang Ziwong was in fact a lot stronger one than she. Therefore, without the protection given by her soft armour, she already would have received several blows and certainly would have been injured long ago. Before even deploying the full thirty-six movements of the ‘Strides’, she was losing form badly. The disciples of Liang Ziwong, supporting their injured elder brother, observed the fight and, seeing their Shifu winning, shouted encouragement to him.

Guo Jing prepared to assist Huang Rong when all of a sudden Hong Qigong was heard to shout from behind the window, “His next blow is called ‘The Evil Dog Blocks the Road’!”

Very surprised, Huang Rong observed that Liang Ziwong, legs firmly spread in the ‘Horse Stance’ and the fists stretched horizontally, was indeed taking the stance of the ‘Evil Tiger Blocks the Road’. She couldn’t prevent herself from laughing inside. “Hong changed the name of this blow, but how was he able to guess that it would be that one?”

Then she heard the old beggar shout again, “And his next blow is ‘The Stinking Snake Inhales Water’!”

She realized that this was the ‘Green Dragon Inhales Water’, in which one lengthened the fist forward, thus unveiling a weakness to the back. The Beggar Clan leader had no sooner finished speaking than she had already slipped behind Liang Ziwong. He attacked effectively with the ‘Green Dragon Inhales Water’, but the girl, warned in advance, had the advantage and attacked from behind. He avoided the danger only because of his exceptional technical mastery, which allowed him to change position right in the middle of a movement and to fly further away. He landed on the tips of his toes, surprised and furious at the same time. “Who is the powerful master that hides in the shack?” he shouted towards the window. “Why don’t you show yourself?” But there was only silence behind the window. Liang Ziwong was lost in bewilderment. “How could this person succeed in predicting my blows?”

Fortified by the support of a great master, Huang Rong now feared nothing. She had regained the initiative and launched herself to the attack. Liang Ziwong resorted to killer blows so that the girl was forced to yield the upper hand. “Don’t fear anything!” Hong Qigong shouted. “He will do a ‘Monkey with a Rotten Bottom Climbs the Tree’!”

Huang Rong burst out laughing, raised her fists and attacked downwards. Liang Ziwong had chosen the ‘Phenomenal Gorilla Climbs the Tree’ and had, after jumping into the air, prepared to attack downwards. But Huang Rong had preceded him and if he continued the jump he would simply offer his head to her falling fists. He had to change his technique immediately! In a fight, if the opponent knew in advance all your blows, it would not take long for him to overcome you! The ‘Ginseng Immortal’, fortunately for him, was a lot stronger than Huang Rong and this allowed himself to extricate himself from a bad situation at the last moment.

He suddenly jumped back and shouted at Guo Jing, “If you persist in not fighting yourself, I won’t hesitate to be ruthless towards this girl!” Changing his tactics and rained down blows like hail in a storm; so much so that Huang Rong absolutely could not adjust and Hong Qigong had not the time to call out his blows in advance. Seeing his dearest friend in danger and reduced to dodging right and left, Guo Jing leapt forward and sent out once more his ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. Liang Ziwong jumped back.

“Jing ge ge”, Huang Rong said, “give him three blows!” She turned and went back into the inn.

Guo Jing prepared, awaiting the approach of Liang Ziwong. No matter what technique the ‘Ginseng Immortal’ employed he replied with ‘The Proud Dragon Shows Remorse’. His opponent, surprised and furious, wondered, “Where on earth did this dumb little fellow learn this strange blow and why only that one!” But even if he knew only this one blow the dumb little fellow had to be respected and Liang Ziwong could do nothing. Having reached a stalemate, the two held their positions.

“Silly boy,” Liang Ziwong then shouted. “You’d better watch out!” He jumped at his young opponent, who continued using his time-tested defense. Liang changed direction in mid-flight and suddenly struck with three ‘Accupoint Piercing Bones’ that sped towards the young man from three different directions. As Guo Jing hurriedly dodged, Liang Ziwong thrust himself forward with lightning speed and seized him by the nape of his neck. Very frightened, the young man struck an elbow blow at the chest of his opponent. To his great astonishment, he had the impression that his elbow had sunk itself in a soft mass, like cotton.

Just as Liang Ziwong prepared himself to deal a fatal blow he heard Huang Rong scream, “Old monster! Look here!” Knowing that she was very crafty, he decided not to take any risks. He struck Guo Jing upon the ‘Jianjing’ accupoint so that he was unable to move, before turning his head. He saw the girl advancing slowly and saw that in her hand was a bamboo stick, its green as clear as jade. This froze him in terror. “Hong…” he stammered, stunned, “Clan Master Qigong!”

“Why haven’t you released him!” threatened Huang Rong.

At the time he heard someone calling out his blows before he even carried them out, Liang Ziwong was very surprised, but he had not thought that it could be Hong Qigong. Now, with the appearance of the green bamboo stick, he realized that the voice behind the window was indeed the person that he dreaded most in the world. Terrified, he quickly unsealed Guo Jing.

Brandishing the stick, Huang Rong approached him and said severely, “Senior Qigong wants to ask you how you dare to do evil here again? What impudence!”

Liang Ziwong dropped to his knees: “Your servant did not know that Clan Master Qigong was here,” he stuttered. “Even if I had courage, I would never have dared to offend Clan Master Qigong.”

“Nonetheless, this fellow is very powerful,” Huang Rong said to herself, astonished, “How is it that he is so terrified at just the mention of Hong’s name? And why does he call him Clan Master Qigong?” But she didn’t allow any of her thoughts to show and assumed a threatening air. “And which punishment do you deserve?”

“I beg you to please say some words in my favor to Grand Master Qigong! Say to him that Liang Ziwong recognizes his great sins and that he implores Clan Master Qigong to spare his life!”

“Say a word in your favor? Why not? But several words, this would be really too much to ask. In the future, you mustn’t cause trouble for either of us.”

“Your servant offended you in his ignorance,” Liang Ziwong said. “If you do not think harshly of me, then in the future, I will not dare to do…”

Huang Rong, very proud of herself, smiled and re-entered the inn hand-in- hand with Guo Jing. They found Hong Qigong sitting at a well-laid table with a knife in his left hand and chopsticks in his right, in the process of treating himself. “Master Qigong,” Huang Rong said, laughing. “He’s on his knees and doesn’t dare to move even a hair.”

Hong Qigong replied, “Give him a hiding to vent your anger; he certainly won’t dare to defend himself.”

By the window, Guo Jing saw Liang Ziwong kneeling petrified, with his three disciples behind him, also kneeling, all four looking miserable. He felt pity for them and said, “Senior Qigong, why not forgive him?”

“Little good-for-nothing,” Hong reprimanded. “Someone comes here to trouble you and you aren’t capable of defending yourself. Yet you accept the situation and you want to forgive your enemy! How can you be so foolish, I ask you?” Guo Jing wasn’t sure how to reply.

“I’ll take care of him,” Huang Rong said, laughing. She took up the bamboo stick and went out of the inn. Liang Ziwong remained kneeling respectfully, his face full of fear.

“Hong Qigong said that if you persist in doing evil,” Huang Rong thundered, “then it is absolutely necessary to cut your throat today! Fortunately for you my Jing ge ge has a good heart and he did not stop pleading your cause, so much so that Qigong finally agreed to spare you.” She wielded the stick and struck him a blow on the buttocks while screaming, “You go in!”

Liang Ziwong spoke to the window, “Clan Master Qigong, I want to see you, to thank you for sparing my life!” Only silence greeted his plea. Liang Ziwong did not dare to rise and continued to kneel humbly. After a short while, Guo Jing came out and waved his hand, Senior Hong is asleep,” he said in a low voice. “Do not disturb him…” At that, Liang Ziwong got up, shot a hate-filled look at the two young people, and left along with his disciples.

Huang Rong, heart full of joy, re-entered the inn. She saw Hong Qigong lying on the table snoring. She touched him on the shoulder to awaken him, “Qigong!” she called. “Your precious magic stick has wonderful power. Since you’re not using it, why not give it to me?”

Hong raised his head, yawned and said, “You speak so lightly about it” he said, laughing, “That is the work instrument of your teacher! A beggar without a dog-beating stick, how would that look?”

Huang Rong continued to tap it while simpering, “You have such powerful kung fu! People even fear the sound of your voice. Why would you need this stick?”

“You conniving imp!” Hong said, laughing. “Quickly, prepare some dishes for me and I’ll explain it for you presently…” Huang Rong obeyed and quickly went into the kitchen to prepare three small dishes.

With his right hand holding a wine cup and his left squeezing the bone of a ham that he slowly gnawed, Qigong began: “The proverb says ‘That which resembles itself assembles itself’. The lowly have to form a clan; the outlaws of the highway who rob the passersby form a clan, we others that freely pass our lives begging food leftovers also form a clan…”

“I understand,” Huang Rong exclaimed while clapping her hands. “That old man Liang called you ‘Clan Master Qigong’, are you the chief of the beggars!”

“Precisely. As we wander, and someone sets the dogs on us, if we did not group together in a band, how could we survive? The ordinary citizens, in the north of the country, are for the moment under the authority of the Jin; in the south, they are under the authority of the Song emperor; but every beggar in the country…”

“Whether they be in the south or the north,” interrupted Huang Rong, “are under your authority!”

“Eh, yes!” Qigong agreed with a smile. “This bamboo stick and this gourd have been passed on from generation to generation, since the end of the Tang dynasty. In other words, it has passed on from one leader of the Beggar Clan to the next. For we beggars, this is like the jade seal of the little emperor.”

“Just as well you didn’t give it to me,” Huang Rong said, sticking out her tongue.

“Why not?” he replied.

“If every beggar in the country came to find me to sort out their affairs, that would be a catastrophe!”

“You are right,” Qigong sighed. “Since I am lax and of a lazy nature, the weight of being Clan Master of the Beggar Clan is too heavy for my shoulders. Since I can’t find a person to whom I can entrust it, I’ll have to bear with…”

“So that’s why old Liang fears you so much. If all the beggars in the country came after him, he would be in big trouble. If each one dropped a louse in his collar, that would trouble him until the end of his days!” Hong Qigong and Guo Jing burst out laughing.

“No,” the old beggar said at last, “it’s not just for that; he’s also afraid of me.”

“Why is that?” she said.

“Nearly twenty years ago, he was committing an evil deed when I fell upon him…”

“What evil deed?”

“That old monster,” Qigong hesitantly said, “believed a section of the adage: ‘Gather the yin to nourish the yang…’ He had obtained for himself several virgins and he violated their bodies, supposedly to obtain immortality.”

“What’s that, ‘to violate the body’?” Huang Rong asked. The girl, whose mother had died in childbirth, had been raised and taught by her father. After the treachery and escape of Chen Xuanfeng and of Mei Chaofeng, Huang Yaoshi, furious, had crippled his other disciples and they had all fled. No others remained on Peach Blossom Island other than some mute servants. Because of this, no one had spoken to the girl of the things that happened between men and women. Since then, she had met Guo Jing and she felt a joy and an incredible softness in his company. When she was separated from him even for a moment, a feeling of melancholy and an unbearable solitude overcame her. She believed that being husband and wife meant nothing more than never parting from each other; that was why for so long now she had considered Guo Jing as her husband, without knowing the nature of conjugal relations. Her question therefore put Qigong in great difficulty.

“To violate the body of the virgins,” the girl insisted, “is to kill them?”

“No,” Hong responded, “when a woman undergoes such an outrage, this is sometimes more painful than death itself. The proverb says: ‘To be dishonored is grave, to die of hunger is nothing’. That says well what I want to say…”

Huang Rong did not understand. “Does that mean to cut the ears or the nose with a knife?”

“Pah!” Qigong said, bothered, “not at all! Little imp, you better ask your mother when you get back home…”

“My mother is dead…”

“Ah!” said the beggar. “Then you will understand after your wedding night with our silly young fellow!”

Huang Rong reddened, understanding at last that it was a matter of shameful things. She said softly, “If you do not want to explain… Therefore, you fell on the old monster in the process of committing this evil deed…this was in past then?”

Qigong, relieved to see that she did not put up anymore embarrassing questions, continued, “Well, I intervened, that’s right. I caught this rascal, gave him a good thrashing and pulled out all his hair! Afterwards, I obliged him to take those girls back to their homes and to promise solemnly that he would not try it ever again. If he resumed doing it, he would regret ever having been born! It would seem that, for all these years, he never broke his promise and that’s the reason why I spared him today.” He said then, “Goodness, did his hair grow back?”

“Oh yes!” Huang Rong said while bursting out laughing. “Pulling out all the hair…that would have been really funny!” The three finished the meal.

“Master Qigong,” Huang Rong then said, “now, even if you wanted to give me this bamboo stick, I wouldn’t want it. But we cannot remain close to you all our lives! What if we come across this Liang fellow, and he says to us: ‘Well little brat, last time you sheltered yourself under the name of Clan Master Qigong and you hit me with his bamboo stick, today I’m going to avenge myself. I will pull out all of your hair!’ What will we do then? When my Jing ge ge fought with him, his one and only blow, ‘The Proud Dragon Regrets’, is of course powerful, but that means little all the same, true? I am sure that Liang will say in his heart: ‘Clan Master Qigong has kung fu of infinite power, but when it comes to teaching a disciple; this is really not that troublesome!”

“I well know,” Qigong said, “that you utter all these stupidities, so provoking and threatening, so that I’ll teach all my skills to you two! Well, so long as you prepare some good dishes for me, I won’t disappoint you.”

Huang Rong, delighted, took Hong Qigong by the hand to go into the pine forest.

Hong imparted to Guo Jing the second blow of the Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’, called ‘Flying Dragon in the Heavens’. In this stance it was necessary to jump into the air and strike from the top down; an extremely powerful attack. Guo Jing took three days to assimilate it. During these three days, Qigong took the opportunity to experience ten more delicious dishes even better than the others. Huang Rong, for her part, asked nothing from him for herself; provided that he continued to teach her loved one. This was more than enough to satisfy her.

In the space of a month, Qigong taught Guo Jing fifteen of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’, from ‘The Proud Dragon Regrets’ to ‘Sighting the Dragon in the Field’.

These ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ were Qigong’s ultimate skills. He had originally learned them from his Shifu and they were instrumental to his reputation. The number of blows was of course, limited, but each of them was full of exceptional power. At the time of the first Huashan tournament, when the Five Supreme Masters measured themselves, these Eighteen Palms were not completely up to the mark, but they did give rise to respect and general admiration. Thereafter, Qigong often expressed his regret that if he had concentrated all his efforts to perfect this technique some years earlier, the title of “First in the Martial World” might not have fallen to the Grand Master of the Quanzhen Sect, Wang Chongyang, but to himself!

At first, Hong had no intention of passing on to Guo Jing more than two or three of these Eighteen Palms, which would have been more than enough for him to defend himself. But Huang Rong was really an unparalleled cook; every day she prepared new dishes of exceptional taste, never repeating herself. The old beggar could not resolve himself to leave. So, day after day, he ended up teaching the fifteen blows. Guo Jing did not understand the stances quickly, but the little that he learned, he retained and repeated day and night. Working with such determination he achieved a good mastery of the fifteen blows and what he lacked in power, time and practice alone could give to him. Thus, in a little more than a month, his kung fu had achieved such progress that he was no longer the same person!

That morning, after breakfast, Qigong said, while sighing, “My children, we’ve been together for more than a month, it’s time we took leave of each other.”

“Ah no,” Huang Rong protested. “I have many more simple dishes for you to taste…”

“There are not endless banquets, but there is an infinity of dishes… I never have, in all my life, taught anybody for more than three days. This time, I’ve done that for more than thirty days! If this continues it’ll be a catastrophe!”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, you will strip me of all that I know!”

“You’ve started a good work; why not take it to the end! Teaching him the Eighteen Palms would be a real accomplishment!”

“Pah, that would be an accomplishment for you two, but not for me…” Huang Rong, worried, wondered what stratagems she could invent to get Hong to teach the three remaining blows to Guo Jing, but the old beggar did not give her the time. Flipping his gourd over his back, he left without speaking another word.

Guo Jing chased after him, but Qigong went so quickly that he disappeared in a wink. The young man raced into the pines and called, “Qigong, Qigong!” Huang Rong had followed him and added her calls to his. Suddenly, a shadow arose from the pines; it was Hong, who addressed them angrily, “Dirty kids, what are you still bothering me for? If you want me to teach you more, that is absolutely impossible!”

“You have already taught us too much,” Guo Jing said. “I am more than satisfied, how could I want more? It’s only that I did not thank you again for your kindness!” He knelt then and kowtowed, striking the ground with his forehead, several times.

Qigong’s expression changed: “Stop,” he shouted, “That which I taught you is nothing other than a suitable payment for the small dishes that she prepared for me. There has never been a relationship of master and disciple between us!” At that, he also knelt and kowtowed in front of Guo Jing.

Stunned, he attempted to kowtow again, but Qigong extended a hand and touched a pressure point, freezing him with his legs half bent. The beggar released him only after having prostrated himself four times in front of him: “Remember,” he cautioned, “Never mention that you kowtowed to me and that you are my disciple!” Understanding that he had a stubborn character, Guo Jing didn’t attempt to contradict him.

“Grand Master Qigong” Huang Rong sighed, “you were so good to us and now we must part. I had the intention of preparing some simple dishes for you, but… unfortunately… I fear that this is not possible anymore…”

“And why not?” Qigong asked.

“Many people want to do evil to us… aside from that old monster the ‘Ginseng Immortal’, there are many more evildoers! One day, we will end up dying at their hands!”

“What is death?” Hong said with a smile. “Everyone must die one day.”

“Of course”” replied Huang Rong while shaking her head, “it’s not a big deal to die, but I’m afraid that they will capture me and, learning that I received your teaching and that I cooked for you, they will force me to cook for them all those dishes that I prepared you. This would be a stain on your reputation!”

Qigong knew well that the girl was trying to trick more skills out of him, but, the thought that someone might force her to cook, while he himself could not taste those succulent dishes, caused a feeling of great anger. “Who are these villains that scare you?” he demanded.

“There is,” Huang Rong replied, “a certain old monster of the Yellow River, Sha Tongtian. He eats in such a disgusting way! What a shame it would be for him to have my delicious dishes!”

“There’s no need to fear Sha Tongtian!” Qigong said while shaking his head. “In one or two years, this dummy Guo Jing will be stronger than him. There’s nothing to fear…”

Huang Rong mentioned the Tibetan monk Ling Zhi and Peng Lianhu. To which Qigong replied again, “Nothing to fear!”

But when Huang Rong mentioned the young master of White Camel Mountain, Ouyang Ke, Hong Qigong seemed taken aback. He questioned her about the techniques and moves of this new opponent, before nodding his head. “That’s indeed him!”

Seeing the seriousness of his face, the girl became serious herself, “He’s very powerful, isn’t that right?”

“There’s nothing to fear from Ouyang Ke!” Qigong said. “It’s his uncle, the old West Venom, who is fearsome.”

“The old West Venom? No matter how fearsome, he cannot be stronger than you, isn’t that right?”

Qigong didn’t reply. He thought for a while, before he stated, “At one time, we were equals. But that was twenty years ago… In those twenty years, he’s surely trained harder than lazy and gluttonous me. Huh, but to beat this old beggar, nonetheless, won’t be easy…”

“Then he certainly can’t beat you!”

“We will see,” Qigong said, shaking his head. “Since the nephew of the old West Venom, Ouyang Feng, is after your head, we must be careful. I will eat your cooking for fifteen days. But let’s make one thing clear…if, during these fifteen days, you present the same dish to me twice, I’ll get up and say good-bye…”

Huang Rong was delighted. She decided to give the full measure of her talents. Not only did she not repeat the same dish, but she prepared infinite variations in the accompaniment of noodles and rice for every meal. Fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, boiled dumplings, fried rice, rice porridge, sticky rice, flower-shaped buns, rice flour noodles and a type of bean soup. Qigong, for his part, took pains to teach the two young people the art of adapting oneself to all the fighting positions, to react and to better defend themselves. But he never taught the three blows lacking from the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’. Guo Jing, of course, deepened his mastery of the fifteen stances, and he equally increased the power of all the martial arts he had learned with the Six Freaks of Jiangnan. Hong Qigong had, before the age of thirty-five, practiced much diversified kung fu and learned innumerable fist and palm techniques. From among them he deliberately chose bizarre types for Huang Rong, but it was just as a joke. These techniques were beautiful to look at, simple and direct, but their real effectiveness in battle was far inferior to the Fifteen Palms Guo Jing had learned. Huang Rong desired only to have fun, so without really applying herself in this apprenticeship she had learned them to amuse herself.

Guo Jing was practicing his palms one evening, when Huang Rong climbed a tree to gather bamboo shoots and plums for an unconventional dish called ‘The Three Friends of Winter’, which has three distinct flavors.

Hong Qigong couldn’t stop himself from drooling. Then he suddenly bent over into a thicket of grass and fished out a two-foot-long blue snake.

“Snake!” Huang Rong shouted.

With his left hand, Hong Qigong lightly pushed Huang Rong on her shoulder, forcing her back a few feet. The thick patch of grass rustled again, revealing more snakes. Hong Qigong struck each snake with the dog-beating stick on the center of its head. The blow immediately killed them. Huang Rong cheered. Suddenly, two snakes silently slithered behind her and bit her.

Hong Qigong knew the blue snakes, although small, possessed a highly venomous poison without comparison. Alarmed, he tried to think of a way to neutralize the poison. The sound of continuous hissing was heard, as a hoard of snakes materialized about ten zhang away. “How do you feel?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” Huang Rong laughed. Fear struck Guo Jing when he saw the two snakes still hanging onto Huang Rong.

Hong Qigong told Guo Jing to be careful. In his anxiety Guo Jing had already removed a snake. He noticed blood dripping from its head. They were already dead. Hong Qigong understood. “Your father gave you his soft hedgehog armor.” When the snakes bit Huang Rong, they were immediately killed by the spikes on her armor, which pierced their heads. Just as Guo Jing went to pull the other snake off Huang Rong more snakes emerged from the forest. Hong Qigong placed a yellow herb in his mouth and chewed. By this time, over a thousand snakes had emerged from the forest. Many more were out of the sight.

“Master Qigong, let’s get out of here,” Guo Jing said.

Hong Qigong didn’t answer. Instead, he unstopped his gourd and took a large swig from it. He mixed the yellow herb with the wine, which he spit from left to right, creating an arc in front of the three.

When one blue snake attempted to cross the medicated wine, it immediately died. None of the other blue snakes dared to cross the wine after that. Indeed, the ones in the front attempted to retreat, but more snakes were emerging from the forest. Both groups crashed into one another causing a writhing chaotic mass. Huang Rong clapped her hands and shouted with pleasure. The forest suddenly emitted a strange noise just before three men dressed in white emerged from it. They used a pole to herd the snakes as if they were oxen. Huang Rong found this all amusing. But then she suddenly felt like vomiting. Hong Qigong struck at a snake with his dog-beating stick. He then took the snake and used two fingers to extract its gallbladder.

“Quickly swallow this,” he said to Huang Rong. “Don’t bite or chew it or you will feel pain.” After swallowing the gallbladder, Huang Rong’s chest immediately felt at ease.

“Jing ge ge, do you feel dizzy?” Huang Rong said. Guo Jing shook his head.

Because he had drunk the blood of the giant snake, Guo Jing had become impervious to over a hundred poisons. The snakes also felt fear whenever they smelled the scent of the blood on Guo Jing. When they emerged from the forest, they were really after just Hong Qigong and Huang Rong.

“Master Qigong, these snakes were raised by people,” Huang Rong said. Hong Qigong nodded and angrily glared at the three men in white. The three men were also angry after they saw Hong Qigong feed the gallbladder to Huang Rong. They reorganized the snake line.

“You three bastards!” one of them shouted. “Are you tired of living?”

“No, you must be the three bastards who are tired of living!’ Huang Rong shouted back.

Hong Qigong clapped Huang Rong on the shoulders in approval. The three men became even angrier. The sallow-cheeked, middle-aged man standing in the middle thrust the long pole at Huang Rong with a surprising amount of force. Hong Qigong pressed the dog-beating stick against the pole, which immediately stopped. Startled, the man pulled on the pole with both of his hands. Hong Qigong shook the dog-beating stick and shouted, “Be gone!”

The man stumbled and flipped over, landing right in the middle of all the deadly snakes. He had luckily eaten a herb earlier, so the snakes were unwilling to bite him. Shocked, the other two men took a step back. “How was it done?” they said. Indeed, the other man had fallen so hard that he crushed ten snakes and felt sore all over.

One of his companions, a fair-skinned man, held out the pole to the sallow-cheeked man to support him. They were reluctant to fight again.

“Who dares to stop our snakes with that herb?” the sallow-cheeked man said. Laughing, Hong Qigong paid no attention to them.

“Who are you to send out so many poisonous snakes to injure people?” Huang Rong replied.

The three men looked at one another, trying to figure out how to respond when another man dressed in white appeared at the edge of the forest. He walked through a narrow path between the snakes while fanning himself. Both Guo Jing and Huang Rong recognized him as Ouyang Ke, the master of White Camel Mountain, whose presence amongst their ranks caused the snakes to disperse.

The three men welcomed their master and told him of Hong Qigong’s amazing ability and the situation that had just transpired. Ouyang Ke was surprised. Then he nodded.

“In their ignorance these three servants offended the old senior,” he said. “I apologize.” Then he turned to Huang Rong and smiled. “Ah, the lady is here,” he said. “I am at your service.”

Huang Rong turned her attention to Hong Qigong. “Master Qigong, you should take care of this bad egg,” she said.

Hong Qigong nodded and said to Ouyang Ke, “How can you lawlessly herd these snakes through the country in broad daylight? You obviously intend to use these snakes for reckless acts. Who do you intend to use them on?”

“These snakes have traveled a long distance,” Ouyang Ke said. “They can’t feed themselves in the conventional manner.”

“How many people have you hurt?” Hong Qigong said.

“We’ve herded the snakes through the country,” Ouyang Ke said. “Not many people were hurt.”

Hong Qigong glared at the other man. “Not hurt many people!” he said. “Your family name is Ouyang is it not?”

“That’s correct,” Ouyang Ke said. “The lady must have told you. And what is the venerable one’s name?”

“This man’s rank is a generation above yours,” Huang Rong said. “If he told you, he’d scare you to death!” But Ouyang Ke didn’t get angry. He laughed instead and cast a sidelong glance at her.

“You are the nephew of Ouyang Feng, aren’t you?” Hong Qigong said.

Ouyang Ke didn’t respond, but the three snake herders shouted in anger, “Old man, how dare you use the given name of our master!”

“I say what others do not,” Hong Qigong said with a smile.

The three snake herders continued to yell at Hong Qigong, when the beggar, who was on the ground with the dog-beating stick, suddenly appeared in sky like a large bird. He struck down three times so quickly that the three men had no time to react. Before their bodies hit the ground, Hong Qigong had already jumped into the air again.*

“Good move!” Huang Rong said. “Why haven’t you taught it to me yet, Master Qigong?”

When the three men arose they could not make a sound because Hong Qigong had hit them on the tiny muscle near the chin that connects to the jaw.

Startled, Ouyang Ke said to Hong Qigong, “Senior knows my uncle?”

“Ah, so you are Ouyang Feng’s nephew,” Hong Qigong said. “It’s been over twenty years since I’ve seen the ‘Old Poison’. Is he still not dead?”

Ouyang Ke grew angry, but he knew the level of Hong Qigong’s kung fu was very high. And because he knew his uncle, he must also be a senior of enormous ability. “Uncle has often said that he would never die before any of his friends,” Ouyang Ke said. “So he dares not go to heaven before you.”

Hong Qigong looked skyward and laughed. “Good! You turn my words around and insult me!” he said. “Now, why did you bring all these treasures?” he said, indicating the snakes.

“I have spent all my life in the West,” Ouyang Ke said. “This is the first time I have ventured to the Central Plains [zhong yuan]. The journey is lonely and solitary, so I thought I’d bring these snakes along for some fun.”

“That’s a lie,” Huang Rong said. “How can your journey be lonely and solitary with so many of your wives and concubines to accompany you?”

Ouyang Ke snapped open his fan and looked over it at Huang Rong. Laughing, he recited, “My distant heart held no one within, but today I have met its princess.”

Huang Rong made a funny face at Ouyang Ke and laughed. “I don’t need your compliments, just as much as I don’t need you to miss me,” she said.

Ouyang Ke was speechless: He was enthralled by the goddess-like Huang Rong and her pleasant expression.

“Your uncle rules the western region tyrannically, so obviously no one has disciplined you,” Hong Qigong shouted. “So you’ve come into the Central Plains with the idea of doing as you please. Well, today, I will give your uncle face and leave you alone. Get out of my sight right now.”

Ouyang Ke stopped himself from spitting out hateful words. Knowing himself to be no match for Hong Qigong, he began to retreat obediently, though his heart was full of distaste. “Junior bids you farewell. If senior makes it through the next few years without suffering any serious illness, please come to the White Camel Mountain for a visit.”

Hong Qigong laughed. “Little punk, you dare challenge me to a duel? If I do come, it will have nothing to do with an agreement. Your uncle isn’t afraid of me and I’m not afraid of your uncle. Twenty years before yesterday, in the early morning, a group of us fought one another and found ourselves to be evenly matched. We need not ever fight again.”

His face abruptly changed. “You are still here in front of me instead of being far away!” Hong Qigong shouted.

Ouyang Ke was startled again. “I’ve only learned thirty percent of uncle’s kung fu,” he thought. “This man doesn’t seem to be lying. I’ll accept this loss of face for now and get back at him later.” Ouyang Ke didn’t respond, and the three men, with their chins still aching, made no sound. Casting a glance at Huang Rong, Ouyang Ke turned and walked back into the forest.

The three men then made strange noises to direct the snakes, but because of the injury to their jaws, their voices at their loudest only came out as a weak rasp. Like a wave, the snakes moved back into the forest, leaving a trail of gleaming slime across the ground.

“Master Qigong, do you know where these snakes come from?” Huang Rong said. “Were they raised?”

Hong Qigong gave no response. He took a swig from his gourd, used his sleeve to wipe off the sweat from his brow and let out a sigh of relief. “So dangerous; so very dangerous!” he said.

“How so?” both Guo Jing and Huang Rong asked.

“Those poisonous snakes were only temporarily blocked by my efforts,” Hong Qigong said. “They would have soon been able to cross over. With so many snakes, they would have been like a flood. How would we be able to stop them? Luckily, those people were inexperienced and didn’t realize my ruse since I frightened them so much. If the ‘Old Poison’ had come, you two kids would have been in a terrible position,” he added.

“We wouldn’t stay — we’d run away,” Huang Rong said.

“This senior wouldn’t be afraid, but you two kids would run away,” Hong Qigong laughed. “But how would you flee if the ‘Old Poison’ sent out one of his palms?”

“Is that man’s uncle really that powerful?” Huang Rong said.

Hong Qigong laughed. “Powerful? ‘Eastern Heretic,’ ‘Western Poison,’ ‘Northern Beggar,’ ‘Southern Emperor’ and ‘Central Divinity’: Your father is the Eastern Heretic, and Ouyang Feng is the Western Poison. The number one martial artist, Wang Zhenren [Wang Chongyang], passed away. The remaining four of us, who fought against one another in eight pairs, were found to be equal. Is your father not fierce?” he added. “Is my own ability negligible?” [Note: Zhenren is a title for respected for Taoist priests.]

Huang Rong had secretly pondered these points before and was not able to put the pieces together. “My father is a good person, so why is he called ‘heretical’ and ‘evil?’ I don’t like his nickname.”

“Privately, your father probably likes his nickname,” Hong Qigong said with a laugh. “That man possesses a strange spirit. He follows his own unorthodox way — is that not perverse? I am convinced that the proper ancestry of all orthodox kung fu is through Quanzhen’s teachings.”

“You’ve learned Quanzhen’s neigong haven’t you?” he said to Guo Jing.

“Ma Yu taught me at length for over two years,” Guo Jing said.

“Indeed, indeed — you didn’t learn that in any short span of time,” Hong Qigong said. “Had you not, how would you be able to learn my ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ if you didn’t possess a good neigong basis?”

“Who is Southern Emperor?” Huang Rong said.

“Southern Emperor is indeed an emperor [huang di],” Hong Qigong said. Guo Jing and Huang Rong were surprised.

“Do you mean the emperor of the Song?” Huang Rong said.

Hong Qigong erupted in laughter. “That kid emperor is only strong enough to eat from a golden rice bowl. If there are two, he wouldn’t be able to pick it up! Southern Emperor is not the Song emperor. No, this Southern Emperor possesses very powerful kung fu. Between the three of us, your father and I were slightly inferior. But the ‘southern fire overcoming the western gold’? Indeed, the ‘Old Poison’, Ouyang Feng, was unable to overcome his star.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong wanted Hong Qigong to finish his story but the beggar was lost in thought and fell into silence. They didn’t press him. Hong Qigong looked skyward. His eyebrows creased as if he were pondering some sort of difficult problem. He walked back into the inn alone.

Suddenly, Huang Rong and Guo Jing heard the sound of tearing. As Hong Qigong passed through the gate into the inn, a nail got caught on his sleeve and tore a large hole into it. Huang Rong gasped in surprise. But Hong Qigong didn’t notice. He kept walking as if he were in a daze.

“I’ll mend it for you,” Huang Rong said. Huang Rong went to the proprietress of the inn and borrowed a needle and thread. Then she fixed the hole in Hong Qigong’s sleeve.

Hong Qigong shook himself from his reverie when he saw Huang Rong with the needle in her hand. He abruptly snatched the needle and ran outside the inn’s gate. Curious, Guo Jing and Huang Rong followed, only to see Hong Qigong throw the gleaming needle out. Huang Rong watched the needle arch and pierce a grasshopper. She shouted in delight.

“This will do,” Hong Qigong said, looking satisfied. “This style will do nicely.”

Guo Jing and Huang Rong waited for Hong Qigong to continue.

“Ouyang Feng, the ‘Old Poison’, loves to raise poisonous snakes and poisonous insects,” Hong Qigong said. “Coming up with a way to deal with all those blue snakes is not an easy thing.” He paused before continuing. “When I saw that young Ouyang and found him to be no good, and knowing his uncle who opposes everyone, I realized that you two needed some way to disperse the snakes since I might not always be around to save you.”

Huang Rong clapped her hands. “You would use the needles to pin the snakes to the ground.”

Hong Qigong smiled at Huang Rong. “This girl is so clever,” he said. “You say one sentence, and she already knows the next one.”

“You don’t want to use the yellow herb anymore?” Huang Rong said. “You just spit it out with the wine and the poisonous snakes will refuse to cross it.”

“That will only work for so long,” Hong Qigong said. “I have to practice this stance ‘Blossoms Rain from the Sky’, which uses needles. The snakes will approach in the future, and I will throw out these needles, hitting each snake, one by one. After I get enough needles, I will go and kill all those snakes in about a fortnight.” Both Guo Jing and Huang Rong laughed.

“I’ll go get you your needles,” Huang Rong said, before immediately heading off in the direction of the town market.

Hong Qigong sighed in admiration. “Jing’er, why don’t you have her split her intelligence and cleverness in half and give one half to you?”

“Split in half her intelligence and cleverness?” Guo Jing said. “You can’t split those apart.”

Huang Rong returned from the market around the next meal time. She removed from a food basket two packages of sewing needles, and, smiling, said, “I bought every single needle in town. Tomorrow, all the men are going to get an earful from their women.”

“Why?” Guo Jing said.

“Yelling at them would be useless!” Huang Rong said. “There’s not a single needle left to buy in the town.”

Hong Qigong burst into laughter. “Didn’t you two kids want me to teach you projectile kung fu? Let’s see how hard you can work You two kids won’t get another opportunity to learn from this old man. It turns out this old beggar was smart after all! By not marrying, I’m spared the torment of dealing with women” Laughing, Huang Rong followed him out.

“I don’t want to learn Master Qigong,” Guo Jing said.

“Why?” Hong Qigong said.

“Senior has already taught me so much kung fu that I haven’t practiced enough,” Guo Jing said.

Hong Qigong understood: Guo Jing refused to be greedy. The beggar had said he would no longer teach anymore kung fu to Guo Jing, but the recent emergency situation made teaching more techniques imperative. Nevertheless, if Guo Jing allowed Hong Qigong to teach him again, it would appear to be opportunistic. Nodding, Hong Qigong pulled Huang Rong by the hand and said, “We practice.”

Once alone, Guo Jing went out and practiced the first fifteen palms of the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ and thereby increased his understanding.

Huang Rong studied ‘Blossoms Rain from the Sky’ for ten days. She learned how to throw ten needles and simultaneously hit a person’s vital areas, but could not master hitting the vital points of multiple targets at once.

One day, Hong Qigong and Huang Rong were out practicing with the needles. The beggar threw them all at once. The needles fell to the ground in two groups — each ten feet across. Satisfied, he looked skyward and fell into contemplation. But his thinking was muddled, so he said aloud, “Old Poison, why did you train all those snakes?”

“With his kung fu already at such a powerful state, he can handle almost anyone near him,” Huang Rong said. “So what would the snakes be for?”

Hong Qigong slapped his head. “Of course!” he said. “It’s to deal with the Eastern Heretic and the Southern Emperor. Both the beggars and Quanzhen are numerous in manpower and the Southern Emperor is an actual emperor with many bodyguards and soldiers protecting him. Your father is a cultivated intellectual possessing many strange and powerful skills, which can help him face multiple enemies alone. When the ‘Old Poison’ fights alone, no one in his generation can completely face him. But if his enemy brings a companion and so on, then the ‘Old Poison’ facing them alone is in a terrible position.”

“Therefore, the ‘Old Poison’ raised the snakes to help him,” Huang Rong said.

Hong Qigong sighed. “Us beggars often catch snakes and raise them for food,” he said. “We’ve been able to do this with about seventeen or eighteen snakes. We sometimes even release them into fields at night to catch frogs. But the process isn’t easy at all. Now, the ‘Old Poison’ has actually had the time to catch innumerable numbers of snakes. Rong’er, the ‘Old Poison’ has spent a great deal of time on this, which means he must be planning something.”

“He is certainly planning something,” Huang Rong said. “But luckily for us, his nephew revealed the snakes.”

Hong Qigong slapped his head. “Of course, the Ouyang kid revealed the secret through his frivolousness,” he said. “But what does the ‘Old Poison’ know about what others have? These thousands of snakes could not have come from the western region. They must have been collected from the mountains in the East. Although that Ouyang kid betrayed a part of the plan, he might not have completely revealed the whole scheme in which he plays a part.”

“That’s not a good thing,” Huang Rong said. “Luckily, this ‘Blossoms Rain from the Sky’ style prepares us in advance to take care of those snakes when we meet them, as opposed to having to deal with them while fighting with the ‘Old Poison’ himself.”

Hong Qigong hesitated. “But suppose he wraps me up and prevents me from throwing the needles,” he said. “How would I deal with those thousands of snakes?”

Huang Rong thought for a while, “Just run away,” she said.

“Bah!” Hong Qigong said with a smile. “What kind of method is turning around and running away?”

Suddenly, Huang Rong exclaimed, “I’ve got it! I just thought of a good plan.”

Joyful, Hong Qigong said, “What kind of plan is it?”

“Just keep the two of us by your side,” she said. “Should we meet the ‘Old Poison’, you will fight him and Jing ge ge will deal with his nephew. I will simply use the sewing needles to kill all the snakes. The problem is Jing ge ge doesn’t know three of the strikes from the ‘Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms’ and might not be able to deal with those devious ones.” Hong Qigong stared.

“You are the devious one,” he said. “You just want to trick me into teaching your ‘Jing ge ge’ the last three palms. With regard to Guo Jing’s moral conduct, I would teach him all eighteen palms without any hesitation. But when did this boy become my disciple? He is so dull that if I took him as a disciple, I would be giving people the right to laugh at me!” Huang Rong laughed.

“I’m going to buy some groceries,” she said, knowing that food would make it harder for Hong Qigong to leave.

She went to the market and purchased many different kinds of vegetables and meats while making sure she bought ingredients with sufficiently unique tastes. With the groceries held in her left hand and her right practicing the “Blossoms Rain from the Sky” technique, she leisurely strolled back to the inn. Suddenly, she heard the sound of a bell approaching. In the distance, she saw a lone, female rider dressed in white nearing the inn very quickly. Huang Rong saw it was Yang Tiexin’s daughter, Mu Nianci, whom Guo Jing’s teachers wanted him to marry. Huang Rong’s heart turned sour and, as Mu Nianci got closer, she refused to make a sound. “What’s so good about this girl?” she thought. “Jing ge ge’s six masters and that ox-nosed priest of the Quanzhen Sect all want him to marry her.” After more thinking, Huang Rong grew angry. “Let me go fight her and relieve some of my frustration,” she thought. But when Huang Rong went to place the groceries in the inn, she found Mu Nianci already sitting at a table.

An anxious-looking innkeeper asked Mu Nianci what she wanted to eat and drink. “Bring me a bowl of noodles and some beef,” Mu Nianci said. The innkeeper quickly left to fill the order.

“How is simple beef any good to eat?” Huang Rong said.

Mu Nianci looked at Huang Rong. At first she couldn’t recognize her, but then she remembered it was the girl who had so suddenly left with Guo Jing. She exhaled. “Little sister is here too?” she said. “Please sit with me.”

“Did that smelly scholar, the fat dwarf, or the other ones come too?” Huang Rong said.

“No,” Mu Nianci said. “I came alone. They are all off somewhere together.”

At first Huang Rong feared running into Qiu Chuji, but she felt joy after learning Mu Nianci was there by herself. Blinded at first by the possibility of the Taoist’s presence, Huang Rong now examined Mu Nianci closely and noticed her small boots, dress and her hair entwined with a white flower, signifying that she was in mourning. And though she had lost weight and wore a sad expression, Mu Nianci remained elegantly beautiful as opposed to pitiable. Huang Rong then noticed a dagger worn at Mu Nianci’s waist.

“That is the dagger exchanged by Jing ge ge’s parents with her parents to mark their marriage,” Huang Rong thought. Unable to bear the thought, Huang Rong shouted, “Little sister, may I take a look at that dagger?”

The dagger was indeed the one Bao Xiruo gave away just before dying. It had been recovered after she and Yang Tiexin killed themselves and now served as a keepsake of the two adoptive parents.

Mu Nianci looked at Huang Rong and noticed her strange expression, but before she could do anything, Huang Rong had already reached out, taken hold of the dagger and casually removed it.

She looked at the weapon and noticed the two characters “Guo Jing” carved into its hilt. “This belongs to Jing ge ge,” she thought bitterly. “Why does she get to have it?” She removed the weapon from its sheath. A cold air immediately emanated from the weapon. “Good dagger!” Huang Rong said. She put the dagger back into the sheath and placed it within her shirt. “I’m going to go give this to Jing Ge ge,” she said.

Stricken, Mu Nianci said, “What?”

“The two characters engraved on the hilt proves who the rightful owner of this dagger is,” Huang Rong said. “I’m going to give it to him.”

Mu Nianci cried out angrily, “That is the only possession I have from my adoptive parents. How can you take it? Quickly give it back to me.” She stood up and walked towards Huang Rong.

“If you have a problem, come and get it!” Huang Rong shouted as she ran out of the inn. Huang Rong knew Hong Qigong was asleep in the forest and Guo Jing was up on the mountains practicing his palms. She ran to the left.

Mu Nianci pursued anxiously, fearing Huang Rong would ride the red horse. She continued to chase until she heard a loud noise, which she followed.

Huang Rong had taken a bend into a clearing surrounded by tall, locust trees. She stopped there and laughed.

“You’ve won,” she said. “You’re the better horse. Now let us match against one another to see who gets the bride’s dagger.”

Mu Nianci’s cheeks reddened. “Don’t joke little sister,” she said. “When I see this dagger, I see my adoptive father. Why did you take it away?”

Huang Rong’s brow dropped. “Who is your sister?” she shouted. She immediately jumped at Mu Nianci with her palm extended.

Mu Nianci tried to dodge, but Huang Rong used the ‘Palm of the Divine Sword Felling the Hero’. Employing the many and mysterious variations in the style, Huang Rong hit Mu Nianci twice in the ribs, causing a lot of pain. Angry, Mu Nianci turned to the left before also returning her own palm stroke, which was a violent strike.

“That is the ‘Wandering Strides’ fist!” Huang Rong shouted. “How is this possible?”

Mu Nianci was surprised upon hearing Huang Rong’s shout. “This was the style Hong Qigong passed on to me alone,” she thought. “How could she know about it?” Mu Nianci watched as Huang Rong retracted her left palm and attacked with her right as a fist. After three moves, Mu Nianci recognized the style to be none other than the ‘Wandering Strides’. Surprised, she jumped back. “Stop!” she shouted. “Who taught you this style?”

“I just figured it out myself,” Huang Rong said with a smile. “What’s so special about this rough and crude kung fu?” So saying, she attacked again with the ‘Wandering Strides’, employing its two central moves, ‘Alms Bowl at the Door’ and ‘Seeing a Benefactor’, in a continuous attack.

Mu Nianci became even more bewildered after avoiding another move, ‘Traveling the Seas Without Worry’. “You know Senior Hong Qigong?” she said.

“He and I are old friends,” Huang Rong said with a smile. “You can use this style. I’ll use the kung fu I know and then we’ll see who wins.”

With a menacing chortle, Huang Rong immediately attacked. She did not use the ‘Wandering Strides’ style. Instead, she employed the martial arts taught to her by her father to get the better of Mu Nianci, whose skills were taught to her by Hong Qigong. How could Mu Nianci block?

Mu Nianci tried to flee but she couldn’t. She watched a palm rise like a sword slashing across with a roaring wind. Feeling the spear-like force, Mu Nianci twisted her body to the side to dodge, but then felt pain in her neck as Huang Rong successfully hit her with ‘Brushing the Orchid Blossoms from the Road’. The palm had struck the neck vertebrae precisely where the blood vessels regulate the body, hands and feet. After being hit, Mu Nianci’s hands and feet immediately became numb and weak.

Huang Rong then stepped forward and pressed an acupoint on Mu Nianci’s waist. Mu Nianci immediately fell over. Huang Rong took out the dagger and laughed, before slashing at Mu Nianci’s cheeks with ten different strikes. None of them hit — but they were only one inch away from striking flesh.

Mu Nianci closed her eyes, expecting death, but to her surprise she felt a cool air near her cheeks that didn’t hurt. When she opened her eyes, she saw the dagger coming towards her eyes, only to see it stop next to her face. “If you’re going to kill me, kill me,” she yelled in anger. “Why all the threats and theatrics?”

“You are not my enemy, nor do I hate you,” Huang Rong said. “Why would I kill you? You just have to swear one oath, and I’ll release you.”

Although they were indeed not enemies, Mu Nianci refused to even consider giving an oath. “Lady, you threaten to kill me because you want me to swear an oath,” she shouted. “You must be dreaming.”

Huang Rong sighed with admiration. “It would be a real pity to kill a beautiful lady of marriageable age,” she said.

Mu Nianci closed her eyes and waited for death, but she heard not a sound.

After a moment, Huang Rong gently said, “Jin Ge ge and I have already shared our hearts. If you were to marry him, there is no way he would give you the same.”

Mu Nianci opened her eyes. “What did you say?” she asked.

“I know you won’t promise not to marry him,” Huang Rong said.

“Who is it that you like?” Mu Nianci said in confusion. “Who is it you think I want to marry?”

“Jin Ge ge, Guo Jing,” Huang Rong said.

“Oh him,” Mu Nianci said. “What do you want me to swear?”

“I want you to swear a heavy oath that you will not marry him,” Huang Rong said.

Mu Nianci giggled. “You put a dagger to my throat when I already cannot marry him,” she said.

“Is it true?” Huang Rong asked joyfully. “How can this be?”

“Although my adoptive father betrothed me to brother Guo Jing, honestly…” she said before lowering her voice. “Honestly, my adoptive father, despite all his wisdom, neglected to prevent me from giving my heart to someone else.”

“I’ve made such a bad mistake about you,” Huang Rong said ecstatically before immediately un-sealing Mu Nianci’s accupoints and massaging her numb hands and feet. “Elder sister, who have you matched yourself with?”

Mu Nianci blushed before cooing, “You’ve seen this person before.”

Huang Rong tilted her head and thought for a moment. “I’ve seen him before?” she said. “What kind of person around this town is worthy of ascending to elder sister’s level?”

Mu Nianci laughed. “In this world, this man is unrivaled by anyone except for your Jing ge ge,” she said. “Elder sister, is he so crazy that he hasn’t married you?” Huang Rong said with a smile.

“Is brother Jing crazy?” Mu Nianci said. “His character is honest, and his heart is chivalrous. I admire him very much. He treated my father and me very well that day when he helped us at the risk of his own life. I am very grateful for that. This quality of man is very rare in the world.”

Worried, Huang Rong pressed, “Did you say that you couldn’t marry him just so I wouldn’t put this dagger against your throat?”

Mu Nianci noticed how Huang Rong pressed the issue and concluded the imprudence she exhibited before wasn’t far off. She grasped Huang Rong’s hands and slowly spoke, “Little sister, your heart is already set on brother Jing. Finding another man his equal will be difficult even with all the thousands of men in the world, right?”

“Yes, I do believe it’s very unlikely to find another his equal,” Huang Rong said.

“If brother Jing heard your praises of him, his heart would be filled with joy,” Mu Nianci said. “During the contest my father set up in Yanjing, a man defeated me.”

Huang Rong understood. “I know now,” she said. “The person in your heart is the Little Prince, Wanyan Kang.”

“Yes, it is the young prince,” Mu Nianci said. “He is the one my heart wants. He’s a good person underneath. I can make him stop being rotten. ”

Though she spoke softly, Mu Nianci’s expression was very firm. Huang Rong nodded her head when she suddenly realized she felt the same way about Guo Jing as what Mu Nianci said in such simple words. They grasped each other’s hands and sat side-by-side below the locust trees with the sensation of shared feelings. Huang Rong thought for a moment. Then she gave the dagger back to Mu Nianci.

“Elder sister, let me return this to you,” Huang Rong said.

Mu Nianci did not take it. “Keep it — this is your Jin Ge ge’s possession,” she said. “His name is carved there on the hilt. With it everyday, I …” She paused. “If I should carry it everyday, it wouldn’t be very good.”

Huang Rong lovingly took the dagger and stowed it near her bosom. “Elder sister, you are truly good,” she said. After receiving the valuable dagger, Huang Rong was momentarily distracted from her thoughts. “Elder sister, what business has drawn you to the South alone?” Huang Rong asked. “Maybe little sister can help you?”

Mu Nianci blushed and lowered her head. “I don’t have any pressing matters at hand,” she said.

“In that case, I will take you to see Master Qigong,” Huang Rong said.

Mu Nianci felt joy. “Master Qigong is here?” she said.

Huang Rong nodded before grasping Mu Nianci’s hand and pulling her up. Suddenly, she heard a sound among the branches above. A piece of bark fell to the ground. In the distance, they could see one person’s shadow jumping happily from locust tree to locust tree. After a while, they could tell it was Hong Qigong.

Huang Rong picked up the bark and saw characters carved onto its surface with a needle. “Two dolls like this are very good,” she read. “But if Rong’er deliberately causes trouble again, then Qigong will hit your eldest child on the ear.” The bark was not signed at the bottom. Instead, a gourd was carved in its place. Huang Rong knew Qigong carved the bark and couldn’t help blushing. She knew Qigong had observed the whole fight and knew all about the particulars of the oath she wanted Mu Nianci to swear. Both people had entered the locust grove and did not even notice Hong Qigong. The pair walked hand-in-hand back to the inn.

Guo Jing, who was sitting inside after he finished practicing, was shocked to see Mu Nianci. He quickly said, “Sister Mu, did you see my masters?”

“Your respected masters and I left the capital together and went south to Shandong,” she said. “We split up there, and I have not seen them since.”

“Are my masters well?” Guo Jing said.

“Be at ease, brother Guo,” Mu Nianci said with a smile. “They are not angry with you.”

Guo Jing was indeed very worried, fearing his masters were very angry with him. He rose and fiddled with some tea and food as his simple mind was lost in thought. Mu Nianci turned to Huang Rong and asked how they met Hong Qigong. Huang Rong told the tale.

“Little sister, you are so blessed,” Mu Nianci said with a sigh. “You spent so much time with Master Qigong that you lived like a little family. But I only wanted to see him and he is not here.”

“He was looking after you,” Huang Rong said comfortingly. “He would have revealed himself if I tried to injure you. If I had hurt you, how could he not have acted?” Mu Nianci nodded in acceptance.

Guo Jing thought this was strange. “Rong’er, why would you want to injure sister Mu?” he asked.

“I cannot say,” Huang Rong said quickly.

Mu Nianci smiled. “She feared … feared I would,” she said without finishing. Although she started to speak of the matter, she felt shy about the subject.

Huang Rong reached out and tickled Mu Nianci’s armpit. “You dare to speak of it?” Huang Rong said with a smile.

Mu Nianci stuck her tongue out and then shook her head. “How would I dare?” she said. “Don’t you want me to swear an oath?” Huang Rong spluttered as she recalled trying to force Mu Nianci into swearing to not marry Guo Jing. Both her cheeks turned a bright red. Seeing their shared emotions, Guo Jing felt great happiness.

After eating, the three went into the middle of the forest and strolled about as they idled away their day. Huang Rong asked Mu Nianci how she had received instruction from Hong Qigong.

“It happened when I was very young,” Mu Nianci said. “I followed father to a river in Henan province. We stopped at an inn, and while I played at the entrance, I saw two beggars lying on the ground, bleeding profusely. No one was willing to help them for fear of getting themselves dirty.”

Huang Rong made the connection. “Oh, so you showed compassion!” she said. “You tended their injuries.”

“I could not do much for their injuries,” Mu Nianci said. “But I pitied them and took them to father’s room where I cleaned their wounds and bandaged them. When my father returned, he said I did the right thing, and then sighed and said how his former wife was kind hearted as well. Then my father gave the two beggars some money to help them with their injuries. They thanked him and left. After several months, we went to Xinyang, where we ran into those two beggars again, who had recovered from their wounds. They took me to a temple where I first met Hong Qigong. After praising me, he taught me the ‘Wandering Strides’ form, which took three days. On the fourth day, when I returned to the temple, the master had gone.”

Huang Rong said, “Master Qigong won’t allow us to teach his skills to others. But if you, my sister, would like to learn my father’s skills, I could spend the next few days teaching you some of them.” When she found out that Mu Nianci did not want to marry Guo Jing, a burden was lifted from her heart. Now she felt that she was a really nice person, so she wanted to make her a gift.

Mu Nianci said, “Many thanks, but at present I have some urgent matters to attend to. In future I would ask you even without you suggesting it.”

Huang Rong wanted to ask her what was it but one look at her face and Huang Rong knew she did not want to talk about it and thought, “From her shyness, it seems like she’s made up her mind. If she doesn’t want to mention it, it’s alright.”

Mu Nianci left the inn around noon in a hurry and only returned after dusk. Huang Rong noticed the joyful expression on her face but pretended that she did not notice. After their meal, the two ladies retired. Huang Rong saw her cheek resting on her palm and her heart seemed full of emotions, so she pretended to sleep. After a while, she saw her reach into her bundle and take something out, kiss it lightly and look at it fondly. Huang Rong looked over her back and saw that it was a piece of finely-embroidered handkerchief.

Suddenly Mu Nianci jerked around and the handkerchief fluttered. Huang Rong was shocked and immediately shut her eyes while her heart pounded. She only heard the slight breeze in the room and carefully lifted her eyelid. She saw Mu Nianci pacing around the room executing moves randomly. She said to herself, “Hey, that’s the handkerchief she snatched from that young prince during their sparring match.” She saw Mu Nianci smiling to herself, and felt that she was reminiscing of that day’s events as she was imitating Wanyan Kang’s movements and actions. She did that for some time before walking near her bedside.

Huang Rong closed her eyes tightly as she knew Mu Nianci must have been looking in her direction. After a brief moment, she sighed, “You’re really beautiful!” She suddenly turned around and opened the door and walked out. Huang Rong became curious and gave pursuit, utilizing her lightness kung fu [Qinggong] to follow her. Her Qinggong was better than Mu Nianci’s, but she kept her distance to evade detection. She saw her jump onto a roof and glance around. Mu Nianci then jumped to a larger building to the south. Huang Rong had been visiting the place daily to buy groceries, and knew that this was a rich man’s house, so she thought, “Most likely she’d run out of money, so she came here to ‘get’ some.”

Huang Rong saw that the door was brightly painted and there were two large lanterns suspended at the door inscribed with the words, “The Great Jin Kingdom’s Envoy” and there were four Jin soldiers guarding the door. She had passed this door numerous times but had never seen this before, so she thought, “She wants to rob the Great Jin’s bounty; that’s great, after she’s done I can also help myself.” She then followed Mu Nianci to the back courtyard and saw her hide at every other corner, so she followed suit.

They saw the candlelight coming from the kitchen and there was a man’s shadow there pacing about the room. Mu Nianci cautiously walked over and gazed at this shadow. After some time, the shadow was still pacing around while Mu Nianci was starring at him motionlessly. Huang Rong became impatient and thought, “Sister Mu is hesitating; why doesn’t she just barge in and immobilize him?” She went around the other side and thought, “I’ll help her by immobilizing him and hiding in one corner to surprise him.” Just as she was about to enter through a window, she suddenly heard the door open and a man went in, saying, “Reporting, sir, the Southern Imperial Court will send a special envoy here the day after tomorrow.” The man nodded and the messenger left.

Huang Rong thought, “So the guy inside is a Jin nobleman, Sister Mu must have some good reason for coming here and not for burglary; I shouldn’t interfere.” She dipped her finger in her mouth and poked a hole in the window panel and peeped in. She was surprised; it was none other than the young prince Wanyan Kang. In his hand was a black object, and when illuminated by the candlelight, Huang Rong saw that it was a head of a rusty spear. [Note: Window in those days were made of oiled paper.]

Huang Rong did not know that this spear was his father Yang Tiexin’s property and only felt that it had something to do with Mu Nianci, so she laughed to herself, “The two of you are really acting in concert; don’t tell me you’re inseparable.” She let out an uncontrollable laugh. Wanyan Kang was startled and quickly extinguished the candle, exclaiming, “Who’s that?” Huang Rong took this chance to sneak behind Mu Nianci and swiftly sealed her accupoints, rendering her immobile. Huang Rong laughed, “Don’t be afraid, I’m just letting you meet your sweetheart.”

Wanyan Kang opened the door and was about to run out when he heard a girl giggling, “Your sweetheart is here, catch!” Wanyan Kang exclaimed, “What?” A soft, warm and fragrant body landed in his arms, and the girl who spoke was swiftly over the wall laughing, “Sister, how can you ever thank me?” As the laughing faded, the girl in his arms struggled to get down. Wanyan Kang was shocked beyond words and immediately stepped backed, asking, “Who’s this?” Mu Nianci said softly, “Do you still remember me?” He felt her voice was familiar and stammered, “You… you’re Miss Mu?” She replied, “Yes.” He asked, “Who came with you?” She said, “It was a mischievous friend; I didn’t know she followed me.”

He stepped in and relit the candle, saying, “Come in.” Mu Nianci bowed her head and entered, sitting on a chair silently but with a thudding heartbeat. Wanyan Kang saw that she was blushing profusely and said soothingly, “Why are you here to find me at this time?” She did not reply. He thought of his parents’ deaths and said softly, “Since your father is dead, you can stay with me and I will regard you as my sister.”

Mu Nianci replied, “He was my foster father…” Wanyan Kang was surprised and thought, “She’s telling me we’re not related by blood.” He took her hand in his and smiled. Mu Nianci’s face reddened even more and her head bowed lower. Wanyan Kang’s heart was on fire and he hugged her, whispering into her ear, “This is the third time I’ve hugged you. The first was during our sparring match, the second was just outside and now there’s no one else around.”

Mu Nianci said “Mmm” and felt an extremely sweet flush inside, which was happening for the first time in her life. Wanyan Kang smelled her fragrance, felt her slender body and decided that it was so surreal. After a while he asked, “How did you find me?” Mu Nianci said, “I’ve been following you. Every night I stare at your shadow but I didn’t dare…” Wanyan Kang realized that her feelings were deep and was very touched, so he kissed her forehead. In the heat of passion he hugged her tightly and kissed her for a long time.

Mu Nianci whispered, “I’m an orphan… Don’t abandon me.” Wanyan Kang embraced her and stroked her hair, saying, “Don’t worry! You’ll always be mine and I’ll always be yours, OK?” Mu Nianci felt great joy in her heart and looked into Wanyan Kang’s eyes, and nodded. Wanyan Kang saw that she was blushing profusely and did not care anymore; he blew out the candle flame and carried her to the bed and tried to undress her.

Mu Nianci was somewhat intoxicated by his affection, but when he touched her, she hastily pushed him away and said, “No, we can’t do this.” Wanyan Kang hugged her and said, “I will definitely marry you. If my heart changes I shall die a horrible death.” She placed her hand over his mouth and said, “I believe you.” He then said, “Then allow me.” She pleaded, “No… no…” Wanyan Kang was really aroused and tried to undo her clothes. She struck out with half her maximum force. Wanyan Kang did not expect her to use her martial arts at this moment and he was shoved away. Mu Nianci jumped from the bed, snatched the spearhead and pointed it towards herself, saying, “If you force me I shall die in front of you.”

Wanyan Kang’s passion immediately turned to ice and he said, “Alright, let’s talk about this, don’t do that.” Mu Nianci said, “Though I’m a poor girl who wanders through Jianghu, I have my dignity and self-respect. If you truly love me, please respect me. I have no other wish in life but to be with you. In future… in future if I marry you I’d of course… obey you. But today if you try to violate me, I’d rather die.” Though she said this softly, she never hesitated. He silently admired and respected her, saying, “Don’t be angry, it’s my fault.”

He got off the bed and relit the candle. Mu Nianci heard that he knew his mistake and said, “I’ll wait for you at my foster father’s home in Ox Village. You can send… the matchmaker anytime.” She paused and said, “If you never show up, I’ll just wait for my whole life.” Wanyan Kang was really touched and quickly said, “Don’t worry, when my official business is complete, I’ll come immediately. In this life I shall never change my mind.”

Mu Nianci smiled shyly and turned to leave. Wanyan Kang shouted, “Don’t leave…let’s chat for a while more.” Mu Nianci waved and left. Wanyan Kang stood there and stared at her departing shadow and felt like it was but a dream. She did leave a few strands of hair behind from their struggle and those he placed in his pouch. When he first sparred with her, he did not think much about it, but he did not expect her to follow him here and stare at his shadow every night. Yet she strongly cherished her chastity, deeply earning his respect. He smiled and sighed.

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