Chapter 15 – A Dark Night on Lake Hu
April 19. Before dawn.
Soft wind blew across still water, the moon and stars sank. Lamplight grew brighter. In the blackness preceding dawn, lamps are the brightest thing in the world.
This is because a lamp sacrifices itself. It burns itself to shine on others.
People are the same.
If a person sacrifices themselves up, no matter how black the surroundings, light will shine forth.
Gao Tianjue. So, this person was Gao Tianjue.
“End the heavens, destroy the earth; wipe the whole lot out.”
This mysterious person who only appeared in legends, now sat in front of him.
Xiao Jun was an orphan. By the time he was born, Gao Tianjue was already one of the most feared figures in Jianghu.
The two of them shouldn’t have any relationship whatsoever. But now, for some mystical reason, their fates seemed to be tied together.
Gao Tianjue suddenly asked, “Do you wish to remove my mask to see what type of person I am?”
“At first, I did.”
“As of now, I don’t,” said Xiao Jun, “because I realized something.”
“I can’t see your face, but neither can you see mine. On the way here just now, you walked very slowly. The reason is because you can’t see.”
When people use masks, they will leave two holes which will reveal their eyes.
But the silver mask had no eye holes, only a single hole for the mouth.
He could drink tea, but could not see.
Only a blind person would use such a mask. How could the universally famous Gao Tianjue be blind?
Xiao Jun didn’t ask.
He knew the question must touch on something deeply painful to Gao Tianjue.
“You can’t see me, therefore I do not wish to see you.”
“Do you think that’s fair?” asked Gao Tianjue.
“Then I suppose there’s no harm in telling you something else that’s very fair.”
Xiao Jun didn’t ask about what he referred to.
He’d noticed that this entire time, Gao Tianjue’s kept his left arm concealed in the black cloak.
But then, he suddenly stretched it out.
What he stretched out was not an arm, but a glittering, silver pincer.
“I cut off your arm, and someone else cut off mine.” Gao Tianjue’s voice contained a sneering pain that anyone could hear. “Is that not fair?”
Xiao Jun didn’t answer the question. Instead, he retorted, “Does the person who chopped off your arm resemble me? Is that why you cut off mine?”
Gao Tianjue laughed loudly.
“Laughing” is an innately joyful thing, not only for oneself, but for others.
But the face of Gao Tianjue’s gray-robed subordinate was suddenly covered in fear.
—Could this be because he knew the source of the laughter was not joy, but calamity and misfortune?
Xiao Jun’s palms grew wet with cold sweat.
He felt an indescribable fear in his heart. It was not because he had never heard such fearsome laughter before, but rather, because he had.
In that moment, he suddenly remembered many things. Some seemed real, but others seemed the stuff of nightmares.
Nightmare, not nightmares, he couldn’t tell.
Gao Tianjue’s laughter suddenly ceased. The gray-robed subordinate’s face grew rigid, and Xiao Jun awoke from his reverie.
Nothing had changed in the cabin. Around the boat, Daming Lake was as tranquil as ever.
But to them, it seemed as if everything under heaven had changed. They felt some type of enormous pressure in their hearts.
There was no wind in the cabin, nor had Gao Tianjue moved. And yet suddenly, it seemed as if his cloak were billowing.
The cover of the tea bowl flipped up three inches into the air, then shattered into pieces.
Then a clattering sound rang out as the window slammed shut, shredding the window paper and sending pieces fluttering about like hellish butterflies scattered about by a demon in hell.
A thrumming sound arose from a seven-stringed zither which lay on a wooden rack in the corner, and the pearl curtain in the doorway began to rattle.
Then a cracking sound rang out as the zither strings snapped. The curtain’s pearls fell to the ground like tears. All the sounds stopped. The two gray-robed men who had been standing guard outside were nowhere to be seen.
There was nobody at all on the deck. Nobody knew what was happening.
Except Gao Tianjue.
“He’s come,” he said with a deep sigh. One word at a time, he said: “He’s already come.”
Big Boss Tang stared at Ingot, her eyes and mouth wide.
Her eyes were not small to begin with. As of now, though, they were twice as large as normal. Her mouth was not small either, but currently it seemed large enough to be able to swallow two whole eggs.
She was thirty-four years old, and had seen many things in her life, yet at the moment, she looked like a little girl who had been frightened half to death. Right now, it seemed as if she were not more than seven or eight years old.
What Ingot just said really had startled her.
“What did you just say?” She shook her head. “You didn’t say it. I must have misheard. You didn’t say anything.”
“Actually, I did say it,” replied Ingot, his face completely straight. “I said it very clearly, every single word.”
“But I didn’t hear.”
“You did hear.”
“You absolutely did.”
“I absolutely didn’t,” said Big Boss Tang.
Ingot stared at her, then, shouting in a voice like that of a drowning person crying for help, repeated himself.
“I want you to marry me.”
Big Boss Tang was yet again shocked. This little devil shocked her so badly she felt as if her soul had departed.
“My god,” she said hoarsely. “My god.”
“Did you hear me this time?” asked Ingot. “Or should I say it again?”
“I beg you, please, listen to me.” Big Boss Tang didn’t seem anything like a Big Boss now. “If you say it again, I’ll go jump into a river and drown myself.”
“Why would you drown yourself?”
“Even a deaf person five streets away could hear what you said just now.”
“What’s wrong with that?” said Ingot, staring at her. “I’m never afraid of people hearing anything I say.”
“You might not be afraid, but I am.”
“What are you afraid of?” he said, slapping his chest. “With me here, what do you have to fear?”
Big Boss Tang moaned, and it looked as if she might pass out onto the table at any moment.
“Do you know how old I am?” she said. “I’m just about old enough to be your grandmother.”
“Right, right, right. You’re almost old enough to be my grandmother. My grandmother is only one hundred and one years old.” Then he deliberately asked, “How old are you, by the way?”
“Well I’m not that old, but I am over thirty. At the very least I’m old enough to be your mother.”
“My mother? Hahaha!”
“What does hahaha mean?”
“Hahaha means that you’re just about to really piss me off. My fourth sister is just over thirty, and you say you’re old enough to be my mother? Are you trying to get me angry?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Then let me tell you something. My oldest sister is old enough to be your mother,” he said in all earnestness. “If you want to come home with me, the only way you can do it is by being my wife. And you have no other choice but to be my wife.”
Big Boss Tang covered her ears with her hands.
“I didn’t hear anything,” she said. “You didn’t say anything and I didn’t hear anything.”
“Okay, then I’ll say it again.”
And he did, in a voice even louder than the last time. “I want you…”
This time, he only got half of the sentence out, because Big Boss Tang lurched forward and used her hands to cover his mouth.
Her hands were warm and soft.
Her body was also soft.
Ingot knew, because as she lurched forward, he seized the opportunity to embrace her. She wanted to push him away, but couldn’t.
“You little devil, you’re really a good-for-nothing.”
“I’m not good-for-nothing, I’m a person. A man.”
“You’re a bullshitter,” she said. “At the very least, I’m ten years older than you.”
“My third and fifth brothers-in-law are both over ten years older than my sisters,” argued Ingot courageously. “If a thirty-year-old man can marry a girl in her teens, why can’t a thirty-year-old woman marry a boy in his teens?”
“You’re obviously drunk.”
“I’m not, I’m not…”
Who was “he?” Who had come?
The glass-like waters of Daming Lake were suddenly split by a white wave.
A small boat sliced through the waters like a sharp knife cutting through silk. It sped forward like an arrow.
A tall man in a black robe stood at the front of the boat, his arms clasped behind his back. His long robe rippled in the breeze.
The stars had disappeared, as had the moon. This was the darkest period of night, and though his features could not be distinguished, anyone could sense his mighty dignity.
There was no one else on the small boat, no sail, no punt-pole, no one pulling the oars, no one at the helm.
But the boat had already arrived, faster than anyone could have imagined.
Lowering his voice, Gao Tianjue asked, “Do you know who it is?”
“Yes. It’s him.”
Li Xiao, Three Fearsome Laughs, General Li Xiao.
Xiao Jun knew that Li Xiao was Wu Tao. But this person didn’t look at all like Wu Tao.
He had become someone else, because as of now, he had no reason to conceal his identity.
Gone was his belly. All the fat on his body had miraculously disappeared.
His narrow, pointed forehead was now wide and sanguine, his previously ashen face now glowed like white jade.
—Was he really that ordinary, low-class businessman whose coin purse had been stolen away?
Xiao Jun couldn’t believe it.
He had never believed that anyone in the world could possess such miraculous appearance-changing techniques, nor had he believed that anyone could change so much.
But right now, he couldn’t disbelieve.
This was the person he wanted to kill, and yet, he suddenly felt indescribable fear and admiration for him, the kind of feeling a hot-blooded youth has in his heart upon seeing his idol.
Xiao Jun did not understand this feeling, but it caused him to realize something.
—There seemed to be two people battling inside him, battling with two swords. When one sword stabbed back, the other stabbed forth, and both chopped at his heart.
This cause his heart to be constantly filled with contradiction and pain.
“You will only have one chance, and you must take it. Your attack must hit him in a vital spot.”
Xiao Jun hadn’t forgotten what Gao Tianjue had repeated to him three times.
But when the chance came, would he attack? He wasn’t sure.
The little boat floated on the lake. The man had already reached Gao Tianjue’s boat.
A moment ago, the small boat had been quite some distance away.
But now, the man stood in the cabin, and Xiao Jun could see his features clearly.
He had a distinct profile, seemingly carved from fine jade. A wide face and straight nose, and a smile that seemed to contain an air of cynicism.
His eyes radiated brilliance and power, as well as melancholy and heartbreak.
He stood straight and tall, like a javelin.
It would be hard to find someone else in the world who could match his dashing air, his imposing manner, his elegant demeanor.
Why would a person like this have an air of melancholy? Could it be that his heart felt the same type of confusion and pain as Xiao Jun?
Gao Tianjue didn’t see him. He couldn’t see anything. The strange thing was, it seemed he could actually see more than anyone else.
Even stranger, even though no one could see Gao Tianjue’s face, it seemed this person could.
They faced off, staring at each other, as if both parties could see the other’s face.
Gao Tianjue’s silver mask glittered in the flickering lamp light.
Masks do not display emotion or expression. But the mask did seem to carry expression, an expression that no one except the two of them could understand. Then it seemed as if the silver flicker turned into a roaring flame.
The expression on General Li’s face was impossible to describe. And then it was expressionless, as if he had suddenly donned a mask of ice.
“So it’s you,” General Li said. “I knew you would find me sooner or later.”
“You came looking for me,” said Gao Tianjue coolly. “I didn’t come for you.”
“Now that we’re here, it doesn’t really matter who went looking for whom.”
“I didn’t look for you, nor can I see you. I said before that I would never look at you again for the rest of my life.”
“So that’s why you’re wearing such a mask as this?”
“And what if I decide I have to look at your face?”
General Li laughed coldly. His body had already flown into the air.
General Li hadn’t paid any attention whatsoever to Xiao Jun, hadn’t even glanced at him. It was almost as if he didn’t even know someone else was in the cabin.
But Xiao Jun was paying attention to them, to the expressions, to their conversation.
He awaited his chance.
He did not know when the chance would come for him to strike, so he waited.
And had no chance.
Li Xiao stood there, unmoving, off guard, like a wooden statue.
But this wooden statue had been carved perfectly. Every stroke had been carved in precisely the correct position, every line cut flawlessly. His body contained no flaws whatsoever.
So, though off guard, he was invulnerable.
To move without moving; to not move, and therefore move. Defeat tranquility with motion, defeat change with unchangeableness.
It was a state of Zen.
Even if Xiao Jun wanted to make a move, he had no chance to. But, he noticed something strange.
It seemed the two of them knew each other, and perhaps had once been friends. And yet, some irresolvable hatred existed between them.
Were they enemies or friends? Who could tell?
The motionless General Li suddenly moved.
No one could possibly describe this movement.
It seemed slow, and yet so fast that it couldn’t be seen clearly. It appeared clumsy and awkward, and at the same time as graceful and elegant as a soaring phoenix.
Gao Tianjue wanted him dead and in the ground. But he didn’t want Gao Tianjue dead.
He simply wanted to take off that mask, ugly and beautiful, mysterious and fearsome.
Gao Tianjue wouldn’t let him.
Gao Tianjue also moved.
The two of them, motionless, suddenly sprang into motion. They moved like the wind, like the ripples, the catkins, the clouds amidst the wind. Like the wind amidst the ripples and catkins and clouds.
Xiao Jun’s heart sank deeper.
He’d always thought of himself as one of the peak masters in Jianghu. Most others also thought this way.
But now he knew how laughable it was.
His martial arts couldn’t compare to that of these two. Completely incomparable.
He had never imagined that anyone in the world could possibly have martial arts like them.
But now he was watching it with his own eyes.
How could he make a move? How could he have a chance to make a move?
Their shadows flickered, and the lamp light went out.
But the darkest part of night had passed. The first rays of the morning sun shone down on Daming Lake.
The contending shadows suddenly parted, and General Li appeared directly in front of Xiao Jun. His hand shot out like lightning, and he grabbed Xiao Jun’s right arm. His only arm.
Xiao Jun had no time to react. He could only hear General Li say in a low voice: “You can’t stay here, come with me, now.”
By the time he finished speaking, Xiao Jun had left the ground, and was flying along with General Li.
He couldn’t resist.
And then, as they flew out of the cabin, he suddenly saw his chance.
In that moment, pale rays of morning sun shone onto General Li’s back.
His back was empty. This was the first time in his entire life that he had exposed his back to someone, and it would undoubtedly be the last.
He never imagined that Xiao Jun would attack, never imagined that he now had another arm.
When he saw the sun shining on General Li’s back, the short sword held in the steel pincer shot out, stabbing into the ribs below his left shoulder, directly into his heart.
The move seemed like the reflexive reaction of someone who grabbed a hot coal; it didn’t even pass through Xiao Jun’s conscious mind.
—This person was his enemy, and this was his only chance. He had to seize the opportunity to attack.
The thought had taken root in his heart, and so he didn’t even need to think in order to act.
He had finally seized his chance. Because of all his experience in life, his reaction was fast.
This reaction speed was born from his countless bitter battles and painful training.
He should have been quite pleased with the attack.
But for the rest of his life, whenever he thought about it, he felt a stab of pain.
Even though his sword had stabbed General Li, he felt as if he had stabbed his own heart.
The glitter of the sword was no longer visible.
General Li’s body shrank inward and he slid off the blade, writhing in mid-air.
His head turned to face Xiao Jun, and the sun shone down onto his face.
His face did not contain the dread of someone facing death, nor indignation at being plotted against. It was only filled with regret, remorse and sorrow.
Xiao Jun looked upon his face.
He would never be able to forget the expression he saw.
By the time the drops of blood fell onto the deck, General Li had already descended into the waters of the lake.
Water sprayed everywhere, and he sank down.
Ripples spread out, and each ripple contained the blood of General Li.
Before the ripples had subsided, Xiao Jun heard Gao Tianjue’s laughter.
He should be laughing.
General Li was finally dead, exactly according to his plan. He should be quite pleased with himself.
And yet his laughter contained not even a drop of joy, but instead was filled with pain and sorrow.
Why was this?
Xiao Jun would never be able to forget that sad, shrill laughter.