The 1st day of the second month of the lunar calendar.
Li Village, the Temple of Maternal Grace.
It had started snowing in the middle of the night, and hadn’t stopped. The courtyard of the temple had just been swept clean, but it had already been covered with a layer of silvery white.
The morning bell had already been sounded. The cold wind carried with it the indistinct sound of Buddhist chants as it flowed into a meditation room on the right hand side of the courtyard.
Sima Chaoqun sat silently on a prayer mat, listening, quietly drinking from a cold bottle of alcohol that he’d brought last night.
It was as cold as ice, but as he drank the baijiu, it felt like a scorching fire.
Zhuo Donglai had entered the room, and was staring at him coldly.
Sima Chaoqun pretended not to notice.
Zhuo Donglai finally spoke. “Isn’t a too early to be drinking?” he asked coldly. “If you want to drink today, shouldn’t you wait until a little bit later?”
“Because you’re about to face a very formidable opponent. It’s very possible that he’s more powerful than either of us imagine.”
“So if you want to drink, you should at least wait until after the duel.”
Sima Chaoqun suddenly laughed.
“Why should I wait until then? Have you forgotten that I am the forever invincible Sima Chaoqun?” An indescribable derision filled his laughter. “In any case, I won’t lose. Even if I drink a whole jug, I still won’t lose. Because you’ve definitely arranged everything ahead of time, arranged every detail.” Sima Chaoqun laughed loudly. “That kid Gao Jianfei can’t get away with losing, and can’t get away without dying.”
Zhuo Donglai didn’t laugh, but he didn’t admit to what Sima Chaoqun said. Neither did he deny it. His face was completely expressionless.
Sima Chaoqun looked at him. “This time can you tell me what you arranged?”
Zhuo Donglai was silent for a long time. “Some things just happen,” he said indifferently. “There’s no need to arrange anything.”
“So you let Gao Jianfei, by chance, encounter some things like that.”
“Every person will eventually encounter things like that. Whatever people encounter them, they will all be equally helpless.”
He suddenly walked over and grabbed the bottle of baijiu from the short table next to the prayer mat, and poured a bit into a glass of clear water.
The alcohol and the water mixed together instantly.
“This is a very natural thing, isn’t it?” asked Zhuo Donglai of Sima Chaoqun.
“Some people are just like this,” said Zhuo Donglai. “When they meet, they will mix together like alcohol and water.”
“But after they mix together, the alcohol becomes diluted, and the quality of the water also changes.”
“People are the same. Exactly the same.”
“Some people change after they meet. If they meet a certain person, they will become weaker.”
“Just like the alcohol mixed into the water.”
“Correct. Chance meetings. Chance partings. Anyone would be helpless.” His voice was still completely indifferent. “There are many situations like this in heaven and on earth.
Sima laughed again.
“Why do you treat me so well?” he asked. “Why do you arrange everything so carefully for me?”
“Because you are Sima Chaoqun.” Zhuo Donglai’s answer was simple. “And because Sima Chaoqun must never be defeated.”
During the Tang Dynasty, Gao Zong had the Great Wild Goose Pagoda built for his late mother, the Empress Wende(1). The preeminent monk Xuan Zang translated Buddhist sutras there(2). It originally had five stories, and was a Buddhist place of worship for the western regions. Later it was built up to seven stories, and became a Seven Story Buddhist Pagoda.
Gao Jianfei stood at the bottom of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda.
The pagoda cast no shadow, because the sky was too cloudy, and no sunlight existed to cast a shadow.
No shadow existed in Little Gao’s heart either. His heart was a blank space, with nothing in it at all.
But in his hand was a sword. A sword wrapped in coarse cloth, a sword that few people had ever seen. There was only a sword, no box.
She had not taken the box with her. She shouldn’t have gone, and yet she left. She should have taken the box with her, and yet she didn’t.
Little Gao left the box in the small room.
What should have stayded behind didn’t, and what shouldn’t have been left behind was still there?
He didn’t know how long he had been there, and he didn’t know when he had arrived.
He only knew that he was there, because he had already caught sight of Zhuo Donglai and Sima Chaoqun.
He wore a set of sharply contrasting black and white clothes (3). His eye, too, were sharply contrasting black and white. Snow white, pitch black. Whenever Sima Chaoqun made an appearance, this was the impression he made on people.
—Open, powerful, knowing the difference between right and wrong.
At this moment, in this silvery white world, all of the radiant glory and honor belonged to this person. Zhuo Donglai was only a mere shadow cast by his brilliance.
Zhuo Donglai seemed to know this, and hence would always stand to the side, so as not to obstruct the brightness.
The first thing that Little Gao noticed at was Sima Chaoqun’s shining white eyes and black pupils.
If he walked a bit closer, and looked carefully, he might be able to see the traces of red in the whites of his eyes, strands of blood that seemed to be kindled by the burning fire of his heart.
But sadly, Gao Jianfei couldn’t see.
Other than Zhuo Donglai, no one accompanied Sima Chaoqun.
“You are Gao Jianfei?”
Sima Chaoqun looked at Little Gao. Looked at his eyes, his facial expression, his appearance. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda did not cast a shadow, and yet it seemed as if his entire person were enveloped by darkness.
Sima Chaoqun looked at him quietly for a long time, then suddenly turned around and began to leave.
Zhuo Donglai didn’t obstruct his way, didn’t move, didn’t even blink.
Gao Jianfei rushed forward to bar his way.
“Why are you leaving?”
“Because I don’t want to kill you. Beneath my sword, defeat is death.” In his coldness, he did not seem at all as if he had been drinking. “Actually, you should know already that you have been defeated. Because you are an empty person, as empty as a rice sack without a grain of rice in it.”
Neither an empty person nor an empty rice sack can stand up. Without standing up how could one achieve victory?
Anyone could understand this truth.
Except for Gao Jianfei.
Because he was already empty, and how can an empty person understand truth?
And so he started to unwrap his cloth bundle. The cloth bundle was not empty.
The sword inside the cloth bundle could take a person’s life in an instant. And just the same, it could give another person justification to take his life in an instant.
Siima Chaoqun had stopped walking, and was looking off into the distance.
He wasn’t looking at Gao Jianfei, because he knew that the young man was drawing his sword, and that there was no way to stop him.
He also didn’t look at Zhuo Donglai, because he knew Zhuo Donglai would have no reaction to what was happening.
But in his eyes could be seen a faint look of sorrow.
—How could such a worthy life become so meaningless after encountering such circumstances?
His hand gripped his sword, because in a situation like this, he had no other choice.
A click sounded out as the sword was freed from the scabbard, but Sima Chaoqun did not draw it.
Because at that exact moment, the shadow of a person flitted down like a meteor from the top of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
What dropped down from the top of the pagoda was not just a shadow, but a person. But the speed was incredible, so fast that Sima Chaoqun couldn’t see the person clearly. He could only see a murky gray shadow that grabbed Gao Jianfei.
Then Gao Jianfei flew up, not gradually, but as fast as a bird.(4) In an instant, he had already reached the third story of the pagoda.
In the blink of an eye, the shadows of both people had already reached the seventh story of the Buddhist pagoda.
And then they disappeared from sight completely.
Sima Chaoqun was about to pursue when then he heard Zhuo Donglai speak. “You didn’t want to kill him,” he said coolly. “Why are you going to chase him?”
It had stopped snowing. An old monk had brought tea and then left.
Sometimes coming, sometimes going, sometimes falling, sometimes stopping. The pitiless snowflakes and the indifferent old monk were both like this.
Aren’t people this way too?
Sima Chaoqun again sat on the prayer mat, drinking from the same unfinished bottle of cold alcohol. A long time passed, then he suddenly asked Zhuo Donglai: “Who was that person?”
Sima gave a cold laugh. “You know which person. The reason you told me not to give chase is because you were afraid of him.”
Zhuo Donglai stood and walked to the window. He opened it, closed it, then turned to face Sima.
“There are many great masters in the martial world, and many unique skills. When two experts face each other, victory and defeat is usually determined by their current situation and circumstances. Ever since Little Li’s Flying Dagger went into retirement, there are almost no truly unmatched experts left.”
“Almost none left? Or absolutely none left?”
“I can’t be certain.” Zhuo Donglai’s voice seemed a bit hoarse. “But someone once told me that in one of the lesser known places of the world, there is a person like that.”
“Who?” Sima Chaoqun seemed suddenly excited. “Who is this person?”
“He is surnamed Xiao. The same character Xiao as the line from the poem, ‘the desolate waters of the river Yishui.’ His full name is Xiao Leixue.” (5)
“The ghastly aura of the sword, the desolate waters of the river Yishui,
Heroes shed no tears, their tears become righteous shed blood.”(6)
Gao Jianfei thought he must be sleeping. It had happened when he had started to unwrap his sword. He had suddenly fallen into a dream and flew up into the air.
Actually, he really couldn’t tell what was a dream and what was real. When someone uses a delicate and ingenious method to seal your pressure points and send you into unconsciousness, you will usually be like this.
When he awoke, he heard someone singing softly. Within the quiet singing there seemed to be the ghastly spirit of a sword, and an indescribable, desolate melancholy.
“The wanderer sings three songs, and sings only for heroes;
The wanderer never settles down, the heroes shed no tears.”
The singing stopped suddenly, and the singer slowly turned around. A waxen, yellow face; a pair of tired, expressionless eyes; a set of simple gray clothes.
A quiet and ordinary person, whose hand clasped a solitary, old-fashioned, ordinary box.
The cold alcohol burned like fire in Sima Chaoqun’s heart and veins. And yet his heart was not warm. “What kind of person is he? Have you ever seen him?”
“I haven’t. No one has ever seen him. Even if someone saw him, they wouldn’t know who he was.”
The wind blew, urgent and cold. It was very urgent, and extremely cold.
They were up high, on the top level of the great seven story Buddhist pagoda.
“It’s you. You again.” Gao Jianfei looked around disappointedly. “Who are you anyway? Why did you bring me to another damn place like this?”
“This place isn’t damned. But if I hadn’t brought you here, someone’s soul would have been damned. A soul dead and damned.”
“And the dead, damned soul would be me?” (7)
“How do you know I would have died?”
“Because of your sword.”
In the man’s tired, expressionless eyes, there seemed to suddenly shine a bit of light. Just like the star that hangs forever on the horizon of the far north; remote, mysterious, and bright.
“Past events vanish like smoke; the famous swords of the past are buried deep. That sword of yours is an unparalleled weapon. No sword in the past five hundred years could match up to it.”
“The person who made it was the first great master to appear after Ou Yezi, and was also the greatest swordsman of his time.(8) But in his entire life, he never used this sword. In fact, he never even unsheathed it for others to see.”
“Because the sword is too terrible. If it is unsheathed, it must drink human blood.”
His face was expressionless, covered as it was with wax-like disguise material. But in his eyes could be seen an unspeakable sadness.
“When this sword came out of the forge, the master could see its evil air, an incurable evil. And thus, he couldn’t help but shed tears. The tears dropped onto the sword, and left behind tearstains.”
“So that’s where the tearstains on the sword come from?”
“If the master could see the demonic air of the sword, why didn’t he just destroy it?”
“Because the sword was created too perfectly. Who in the world,” he said, “would have the heart to take the perfect result of painstaking effort, and simply destroy it? Besides, after the sword left the forge, it became a magical weapon. Perhaps you could destroy its form, but not its spirit. And sooner or later, what it required would be paid.”
Little Gao finally understand what he meant. “There are some things in heaven and earth that cannot be exterminated.”
“And so, if you drew the sword today, then you would die under it. Because today, you were definitely not a match for Sima Chaoqun.” He stared at Little Gao. “Now you should be able to understand, the duel may be fair, but not completely.”
“When a person reaches a certain point, and gains enough power, they can create situations to weaken an opponent’s power, and ensure their own victory. This type of thing usually leads others into extreme misery.” It was a fact. A cruel and ruthless fact.
Little Gao had no ability to offer denial. Because now he was finally beginning to see clearly, to learn the lesson of heartbreak.
“Therefore, if you really want to go up against Sima Chaoqun, the only method is to catch him by surprise, to assassinate him. Because you will never truly have an opportunity to have a fair fight with him.
Little Gao clenched his fists.
“Why are you telling me these things,” he asked. “Why did you save me?”
“I didn’t kill you, and I don’t want you to die by another’s hand.”
“And you don’t want this sword to fall into another’s hand.”
“Correct.” His answer was very straightforward.
“But you already have the most fearsome weapon in the world,” said Little Gao. “Don’t tell me you want this sword too?”
“I don’t,” he replied coolly. “If I wanted it, it would be mine already.”
Little Gao couldn’t argue with this point. “Then, what relationship do you have with it? Is there some special connection between you and the sword?”
The man’s hand suddenly shot forward and grasped Little Gao’s wrist.
Little Gao began sweating, a cold, painful sweat that covered his whole body.
He knew that he had touched his person, touched his heart in a way that he did not wish to be touched.
How could a person as strong and callous as this have a weak spot in his heart?
“Your box and my sword are both products of the same hand. Do you and I also have some special connection? Why don’t you tell me the truth?”
Little Gao had to ask these questions, even if his wrist shattered. He had to ask.
Unfortunately, he didn’t get an answer.
The man had already let go of his wrist, and flown away.
A sheet of silvery white surrounded the giant pagoda; the man and his box disappeared like a snowflake into the whiteness.
The sky was beginning to darken. Little Gao stood there for a long time, thinking. There were many things he just couldn’t figure out.
He could not collect his thoughts.
No matter what he started thinking about, he couldn’t help but end up thinking about her.
—Who was she? Where did she come from? Where did she go?
—Who were the people trying to kill her? Did she really meet him because Sima Chaoqun wanted her to, because he wanted Little Gao to fall in love with her?
—Did she really leave because Sima Chaoqun wanted her to? In order to make Little Gao heartbroken and hopeless?
Regardless, Little Gao was determined to find her, and make things clear.
But, there was no way to find her.
He had no idea where to even start looking.
He was a young person making his way for the first time in Jianghu, with no experience, no friends, no one to help him. What was he supposed to do?
Other than using his sword to kill people, what was he capable of?
Who could he kill? Who should he kill?
Who could tell him?
The sky grew darker, the evening bell had sounded, and the fragrant aroma of congee and rice wafted up from the kitchen in the rear courtyard. A few monks, late to arrive, hurried back in their cleats to catch their evening meal.
The cleats treading on the ice and snow made Little Gao suddenly think of Zhu Meng.
Zhu Meng in Luoyang.
(1) Gao Zong was an emperor of the Tang dynasty. He built the pagoda when he was emperor. But his mother’s posthumous title was Empress Wendeshunsheng (literally “the civil, virtuous, serene, and holy empress) or Empress Wende. http://goo.gl/LfZHBS http://goo.gl/X2P8HO
(2) Xuan Zang is of course the famous monk who’s journey was the inspiration for the Chinese Classic “Journey to the West.” http://goo.gl/6TCO25
(3) The word used here to describe his clothes as black and white is an idiom that can also imply knowing the difference between right and wrong.
(4) Here is a little play on words, since his name “Jianfei” means to fly up gradually.
(5) Xiao Leixue’s name is pretty unique, and doesn’t sound like a real person’s name. The Xiao part is a common surname, but the character itself also means “desolate or dreary,” as Zhuo Donglai emphasizes when he explains which “xiao” character it is. Incidentally, that poem is from the Song Dynasty, and is a relatively sad poem written to a departing loved one. The Leixue part of his name contains two characters. The first is 泪 as in “tears.” The second is 血 as in “blood.” So his given name could also be literally translated as “Tears of Blood” or “Blood Tears.”
(6) Okay, I apologize, but after knocking my head against the wall for, well for a while, I couldn’t think of a really good colloquial way to translate the Chinese here. And the literal translation just doesn’t make sense in English, and doesn’t sound cool. There is some word play based on the expression 见鬼 jian gui, which literally means to see a ghost, but is usually translated as a mild epithet such as damn, or hell, or something like that. You see this expression in the subtitles of English movies a lot. The original Chinese is better than my translation, and here is how it would be literally translated: “Why did you suddenly again bring me to a ‘see a ghost’ place like this?” “You cannot see ghosts in this place. But if I didn’t bring you to this place, you would see a ghost. A newly dead ghost.” “This newly dead ghost is me?”
(7) Ou Yezi was a famous sword maker from the Spring and Autumn period http://goo.gl/Jd8J9R
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