Chapter 16: It’s lonely at the top
The twenty-fifth of the second month, around the third watch. (1)
Somewhere in the distance, someone beat a drum to sound out the third watch.
Every night contained a third watch, and the third watch of every night always seemed to carry a sort of desolate and mysterious beauty.
The third watch of every night was the time most likely to stir people’s emotions.
Zhuo Donglai sat wrapped in his marten coat, pouring a cup of fine wine in unison with the third watch drum. During this soul-stirring watch, he should be the happiest person in Chang’an.
All his foes were defeated, and he had accomplished everything he needed to accomplish. After today, who could possibly challenge him?
And yet, could anyone tell whether, deep in his heart, he was really as happy as one would imagine?
Zhuo Donglai asked himself the same question.
—If he didn’t plan to kill Sima, why had he taken the time to defeat him? Why defeat the heroic idol that he himself had created? Wouldn’t he end up just as disappointed as all the other heroes in the world?
He didn’t know the answer to these questions.
—If he didn’t plan to kill Sima, why not just give in to him? Why not just quietly acquiesce?
Zhuo Donglai didn’t know.
He only knew that he could not have attacked with the edge of the blade. He could never allow Sima Chaoqun to die by his hand. Just as he could never kill himself.
In some aspects, he was a part of Sima Chaoqun, and parts of himself had been replaced by Sima.
But he truly believed that even without Sima Chaoqun, he would continue on living, and the Great Protection Agency would continue to exist.
By the time he finished his fourth cup, his spirits had lifted, and he was preparing to have one more drink before lying down to sleep.
As his hand reached out to pour the wine, his heart suddenly dropped and his pupils constricted.
He had suddenly noticed that the box beneath the lamp was gone.
There were guards surrounding the area day and night. No one could easily sneak into this room, and no one knew that this ordinary, old-fashioned box was a fearsome and mysterious weapon.
Who would possibly risk their life to come here to take it?
There was a shattering sound as the crystal drinking vessel in Zhuo Donglai’s hand was crushed. He suddenly realized that it was very likely he had made a mistake. He suddenly thought back to Zhuo Qing’s expression just before he died.
And then he heard someone knocking on the door.
A strapping young man pushed open the door and entered; tall and broad-shouldered, with large hands, his clothes were well arranged, albeit ordinary, his expression serious and sincere.
The Great Protection Agency was a very large, and strictly organized. Every job, every action, was overseen by someone. But not many received direct orders from Zhuo Donglai, so among the lower ranks, few had the chance to see him face to face.
Zhuo Donglai had never seen this young man before, but he could guess who he was.
“Zheng Cheng.” Zhuo Donglai looked at him calmly. “I understand you have performed many services for Zhuo Qing recently. But you should know that this isn’t a place that anyone can just casually enter.”
“Your disciple knows.” Zheng Cheng was respectful and sincere in his response. “But I couldn’t not come.”
“A month ago, he took me in as one of his direct subordinates and began giving me assignments. When he asks me to do something, I cannot disobey.”
“It was Zhuo Qing who told you to come here?”
“Yes,” said Zheng Cheng. “To speak for him.”
“To speak for him?” said Zhuo Donglai harshly. “Why does he need you to speak for him?”
“Because he is dead.”
“If he wasn’t dead, you wouldn’t come?”
“Correct,” said Zheng Cheng calmly. “If he was still alive, I wouldn’t reveal what he told me even if I were thrown into a vat of boiling oil.”
“You needed to wait until after he died before coming?”
“Correct. His orders were that if he died, I must come to see Mr. Zhuo within two hours, and transmit his words without any omissions.”
Zhuo Donglai looked at him coldly. He had suddenly noticed that Zheng Cheng’s attitude and manner of speaking were just like Zhuo Qing’s.
“He’s dead,” said Zheng Cheng, “so your disciple came. I didn’t dare not to.”
The shattered fragments of the crystal drinking vessel glittered under the lamplight. Each piece seemed to shine like Zhuo Qing’s eyes as death approached him.
Zhuo Donglai thought of his attitude before he had died, and after a long time he asked Zheng Cheng, “When did he give you these orders?”
“This evening.” (2)
“This evening?” Zhuo Donglai’s pupils constricted again. “Of course it was this evening.”
At that time, he and Sima Chaoqun had already arrived at the cemetary-like house.
At that time, Zhuo Qing could have found time to wash himself and change clothes.
But, he didn’t do things the way he normally did. What he did, he would only reveal to Zhuo Donglai after his death.
Zhuo Donglai stared at Zheng Cheng.
“At that time he knew he was about to die?”
“For the most part. He told me that he most likely would not live past sunrise tomorrow.”
“He had a nice life, how could he die?”
“He knew that someone was planning to kill him.”
“Who was this person?”
“You.” Zheng Cheng looked straight at Zhuo Donglai. “He said it was you.”
“Why would I want him dead?”
“Because he had done too many things for you, and knew too much. You wouldn’t leave him for Sima Chaoqun.”
“He could see that you and Sima Chaoqun had reached a breaking point, and regardless of whether it was because of Sima or yourself, you would first send him to his grave.”
“He calculated things so well. Why didn’t he just flee?”
“Because he had no time. He never imagined things would happen so quickly, and it was too late to make another plan. Before you and Sima fought, you would call for him. If you found that he had fled, you would drop everything and pursue him. At his current level of power, he could not escape your control.”
“When the time came, the worst that could happen is that he would die. Why didn’t he try to fight?”
“Because when the time came, Sima’s grief was most likely subsiding, and his determination wavering. It would be even more difficult to avoid death if you and Sima reunited. You know what kind of person he is. He wouldn’t let that happen.”
Zhuo Donglai’s fists clenched into balls. “So he would rather die than allow Sima and I to be reunited?”
“Correct,” said Zheng Cheng. “If the two of you are united, you will succeed. If you are split apart, you will be defeated. He had to seek vengeance for himself, and this was his only opportunity.”
Zhuo Donglai laughed coldly. “He’s already dead, yet he can still seek revenge for himself?”
“Correct. He told me to tell you that you killed him, and he will make you regret it. Before he died, he dug a grave for you. Sooner or later the day will come for you to lie down it it. And he told me to tell you that that day will arrive soon.”
Zhuo Donglai stared at him. One word at a time he said, “But I’m not dead yet. I can kill you in the time it takes to raise a hand. And I can let you die without a proper burial.”
“Then how can you dare to stand in front of me and speak so rudely?”
“Because these are not my words, they are Zhuo Qing’s.” Zheng Cheng’s facial expression did not change. “He told me what to tell you word for word. If I left anything out, it would be disloyal to you and unfaithful to him.” His attitude was very solemn and sincere. “I don’t have the qualifications to be a disloyal, unfaithful person.”
“Not qualified?” Zhuo Donglai couldn’t help but ask. “What qualifications must one have to be disloyal and unfaithful?”
“To be an openly disloyal and unfaithful person, people must hate you, yet treat you with the utmost respect. If you want to be a disloyal and unfaithful person without those qualifications, then you definitely deserve to die without a proper burial.”
Zhuo Donglai stared at him for a very long time. And then one word at a time asked, “Am I qualified to be this kind of person?”
Without hesitation, Zheng Cheng responded, “Yes.”
Zhuo Donglai suddenly laughed.
He shouldn’t have laughed. What Zheng Cheng said was not funny, not even one word of it. Anyone who heard what he said would agree that it was not amusing at all.
And yet he laughed.
“Well said. Very well said.” Zhuo Donglai smiled. “If a person is qualified to be unfaithful and disloyal, what in the world could cause worry?”
“Most likely nothing,” said Zheng Cheng, sincerely. “If I can reach that level one day in my life, I wouldn’t worry about anything.”
“Then work hard,” said Zhuo Donglai. “I really hope you achieve your goal.” He laughed. “Zhuo Qing must have calculated that I wouldn’t kill you, because at this time, I need people like you.”
Zheng Cheng looked at him, his eyes filled with respect, the same way that Zhuo Qing had looked at him in the past.
“There’s another person,” said Zheng Cheng. “Someone else who is very likely more useful than me.”
“Gao Jianfei. He has been waiting for you. I’ve asked him to leave, but he just stays. It doesn’t matter how long I say he needs to wait, he won’t leave. He says he has nowhere else to go.”
“Then let him wait,” said Zhuo Donglai coolly. “Although, being forced to wait is not easy. Treat him well. Whatever he wants, give him.”
Zheng Cheng stepped back slowly. It seemed he was waiting for further questions from Zhuo Donglai.
But Zhuo Donglai had no questions. In fact, he had already closed his eyes, and seemed to have fallen to sleep.
In the lamplight, his face seemed very tired. Pale white, weak, and tired.
And yet, as Zheng Cheng looked at him, his eyes were filled with veneration, a respect and fear that spilled forth from the bottom of his heart.
It was because he was different from others. His viewpoint and reaction to matters were different.
Zheng Cheng left, closing the door behind him. And when the cold wind hit him, he realised that the crotch of his pants was thoroughly soaked.
Zhuo Donglai was not like other people.
In situation where others would be heartbroken or furious, he would laugh. In situations where others became amazed and excited, his reaction was extraordinarily cheerless, to the extent that sometimes he had no reaction at all.
He knew Gao Jianfei had arrived, and he awaited him with the fervor of a love-smitten teen awaiting a lover.
He knew that the tear stains on Gao Jianfei’s sword could instantly transform into bloodstains, the blood of his enemies.
And yet this seemed to provoke no reaction.
The box on the table was gone, and the box’s owner, just settled into the little courtyard, was also likely gone.
Zhuo Qing had set his mind on revenge.
If he had wanted to find the most fearsome possible enemy for Zhuo Donglai, Xiao Leixue was definitely the ideal choice.
Fragrance of the Gentleman was not the type of drug that once used was effective forever.(3) If not continually administered, Xiao Leixue’s power would be completely restored in two or three days.
That could possibly be Zhuo Donglai’s appointed time to die.
Apart from that, there were many other things Zhuo Qing could have done, things that would create many regrets for Zhuo Donglai.
His accounts, his wealth, his communications, his secrets, all could be used by Zhuo Qing to betray him, along with every disloyal subordinate.
—What tomb had Zhuo Qing excavated for him as he approached death?
If this had been happening to someone else, Zhuo Donglai would have used all his power and methods to investigate the situation.
But right now, he did nothing.
Zhuo Donglai fell asleep. Really fell asleep.
First, he walked into his bedroom and closed the window. In a secret location at the head of his bed was hidden button, which he pushed.
Then, from a dark cabinet in another hidden location, he pulled out a tiny, jewel-encrusted container. From within the container, he extracted a light green pill, which he swallowed. It was a medicine that could help him to sleep peacefully no matter the circumstances.
He was extremely exhausted.
A glorious victory would usually make a person extremely exhausted.
And under the circumstances, the only thing that could help one to restore clear-headedness, was sleep.
The key to life and death, victory and defeat, was usually decided in a fleeting instant of time. When the time came to make decisions like that, one needed to be completely clear-headed.
And so he needed sleep. As far as he was concerned, nothing was more important.
And no one could judge the importance or weightiness of a matter better than Zhuo Donglai.
As he fell asleep, he thought only of one person.
He didn’t think of Zhuo Qing, who had died so horribly beneath his blade, nor Xiao Leixue, who might come to claim his life at any time.
He thought about his brother, his brother whose whole life had been death. The brother with whom he had lived in their mother’s womb for ten months, with whom he had struggled to receive nutrients and blood.
He had never seen his brother. His brother was only a murky, hazy shadow in his heart.
But in that dim, illusory moment before entering sleep, the blurry shadow suddenly transformed into a person, a person who he could see very clearly.
And it looked like Sima Chaoqun
Far way, someone sounded out the night watch on a drum. The third watch had passed.
Such a dull drum beat, dreary and emotionless. Once the third watch has come, one cannot stay behind in the second watch.
Sima Chaoqun clearly recalled having just heard the drum beating, and he remembered that it was the second watch.
He had heard quite clearly.
At that time he was already somewhat drunk. But despite having drunk about 7 or 8 bottles, he was merely tipsy. His head was extremely clear.
He clearly remembered that he had been in a tiny wine shop, drinking. Other than him, there was a big table of customers. They were all young men, 18 or 19 years old, holding four of five women at least twice their age. They were shooting their mouths.
They were praising Sima Chaoqun, saying he was the greatest hero in the world, a rarity under heaven, and how they were friends with him.
They were bragged happily, and their audience listened happily.
There was only one person who wasn’t happy, and that was Sima Chaoqun.
And so he drank without regard to his life.
He remembered clearly that as they happily shot their mouths off, he had suddenly stood up and slapped the table. “What is Sima Chaoqun? He’s f*cking nothing! He’s not even human. Not worth a copper coin! Not worth a fart!”
The more he cursed, the happier he felt. But the people listening weren’t happy. One of them suddenly turned over the table, and they charged over, ten in total. He split one of their noses in two.
These things, Sima Chaoqun remembered clearly, better than a young schoolboy could remember the Thousand Character Classic. (4)
He even remembered that one of the women, her face painted with rouge so badly that she looked like a wild animal, had taken a wooden clog off her foot and smacked him in the head with it.
After that, he didn’t remember anything.
At that time, he’d heard the second watch being sounded, and now it was the third watch. (5)
Before, he’d been sitting in a tiny wine shop, drinking. Now he was lying down, in a dark, treeless, windless, moonless alley. His head seemed eight times heavier than normal and his throat was like a kitchen stovepipe. Pain wracked his entire body, like he was a pair of old pants that had been scrubbed over and over again on a washboard.
—Had that fat woman’s red-lacquered clog really beat his head?
—How had he arrived to this place?
—What had happened in the past few hours?
Sima Chaoqun couldn’t remember.
The past few hours were blank, like a page that had been torn from a book.
Sima Chaoqun wanted to struggle to his feet when he realized that another person stood in the dark alley, looking at him strangely.
“Are you really the matchless Sima Chaoqun? How did you end up like this?”
Sima Chaoqun decided to ignore him, to pretend that he hadn’t even seen him. But the man seemed insistent on being seen. He walked forward and lifted Sima up by the arm.
Moments before, he had been unable to rise, no matter how much effort he expended. But now he rose easily, and stood straight.
The man did not seem willing to release him. Compassion and sadness filled his eyes. “Boss, you’re drunk. Let me give you a hand.” He continued, “I’m Ah Gen, boss, don’t tell me you don’t remember me?”
“Ah Gen.” The name seemed familiar.
Only people who had accompanied him in the early days would call him “boss.”
Sima suddenly slapped the man on the shoulder, gripped his arm firmly and laughed.
“Good fellow, where have you been hiding all these years? Did you get married? Did you get divorced?”
Ah Gen also laughed, and it seemed as if hot tears were about to seep from his eyes.
“I never imagined you would remember me, boss, the old gambling addict that I am. And yet you do, as useless as I am.”
“If you’re a gambling addict, then we two are equally useless.” He pulled on Ah Gen and said, “Come, let’s go find a place to drink.”
“Boss, you can’t drink any more. If you hadn’t finished that last half jug of wine just now, how could those little bastards have hurt even a hair of yours?” His voice was filled with sorrow. “Boss, if you hadn’t drunk so much that your body was weakened, how could those little bastards have beaten you this way? How could that fat b*tch have knocked a hole in your head with her clog? Those brats would normally piss themselves in fear just hearing your name.”
“So I really just got beaten up?”
Sima was really doubtful, but after he rubbed his head and ribs, he had no choice but to believe.
“It looks like I really did get beaten up.” He suddenly laughed heartily. “Good. A good beating makes me happy. I never imagined that getting beat up was such a happy thing. I haven’t been this happy in years.”
“But boss didn’t let them take advantage. You also gave those little bastards a good beating, sent them scurrying off like stray dogs.”
“That’s not good.” Sima let out a sigh. “They didn’t deserve to be beaten by me.”
“Do you know why they beat me up?” Sima said. “Because I took the great hero of their heart, Sima Chaoqun, and rained down curses on him, said he isn’t worth a copper coin.” He laughed again. “Sima Chaoqun got beaten up because he cursed himself. If the heroes of the world found out, those little bastards would laugh until their teeth fell out.”
Ah Gen didn’t laugh. He just muttered, “If Mr. Zhuo was here, the boss wouldn’t get drunk.” He suddenly lowered his voice, talking half to himself. “Mr. Zhuo, why couldn’t you be with the boss this time?”
“Why would he be with me?” Sima laughed and laughed. “He’s him, I’m me. He’s a great hero, and I’m just a coward. The fact that he hasn’t chopped my head of to use as a chamber pot is really an honor.”
Ah Gen looked at him, shocked. A long time passed, and then he haltingly asked, “Don’t tell me Mr. Zhuo has rebelled?”
“He’s rebelled. Rebelled against what?” Sima was still laughing. “The Great Protection Agency has always been his. What the hell am I?”
Ah Gen looked at him, tears finally flowing from his eyes. He suddenly kneeled down. He smacked his head on the ground three times as he kowtowed. “Ah Gen deserves to die. Ah Gen has let down the boss.”
“You didn’t let me down. There’s only one person under heaven who has let me down, and that’s myself.”
“But there is something that the boss doesn’t know. I would rather be beaten to death than let it go unsaid”
“I haven’t been by the boss’s side all these years because Mr. Zhuo sent me to Luo Yang to go undercover in the Lion Clan. And I couldn’t tell you. Mr. Zhuo knows that the boss has always been an open and aboveboard person. He didn’t want the boss to know about what was happening.”
“And I didn’t want to know.” Sima Chaoqun let out a long sigh. “Zhu Meng, the little bastard, must have no idea how many of his subordinates were sent by Zhuo Donglai. He’s pretty much the same as me, a one-hundred-percent bastard.”
Ah Gen stared at him for a long time, his eyes filled with a strange, flickering light. “Does the boss want to meet that bastard?”
Sima’s eyes also gleamed. “Which bastard are you talking about?” He raised his voice and asked, “The bastard who’s like me, Zhu Meng?”
“You know where he is? How do you know where he is?” He stared at Ah Gen. “Don’t tell me you’re one of the eighty-six men who came with him here to die?”
Ah Gen kneeled again. “Ah Gen deserves to die. I let down the boss. But Zhu Meng is like the boss, a courageous and upright hero, who believes in righteousness. I can’t betray him at a time like this. So, I came to Chang’an with him, prepared to accompany him in death.”
He kowtowed again, his face dripping with blood. “Ah Gen deserves to die. Even though I’ve betrayed the Great Protection Agency, in my heart I’ve never felt any ill will toward the boss. If I did, then I will become a farm animal after I die.”
Sima seemed stupefied upon hearing what he said. And yet, he suddenly laughed. “Good. Very good, Zhu Meng. You got the people Zhuo Donglai sent to spy on you to follow you through hell and high water. You really are a true man.” Laughing heartily, he said, “Cleats and Ah Gen are also true men. Compared you, Sima Chaoqun doesn’t even count as a dog’s fart.”
His laughter was hoarse and sorrowful, and yet, he did not shed a tear.
Not a single tear.
Zhu Meng also shed no tears.
When he had watched Cleats killed in battle, when he had held him in his arms, he’d shed no tears.
He’d shed blood.
Even though it had flowed from his eyes, what had flowed out had been blood.
Die Wu still bled constantly. No one in the world could stop her blood from flowing.
Because what flowed from her wounds was no longer blood, but the soul of a dancer.
And the soul of the dancer had already transformed into a butterfly.
—Who had ever seen a butterfly shed blood? Who knew the color of the blood of a butterfly?
Shedding blood. Why must people shed blood, and how is it that they never know how repulsive it is? The butterfly knows.
Because her life is beautiful, temporary, and she does not allow people to see the ugly side of her.
“Help me cover myself with the quilt. Cover my legs. Don’t let anyone see my legs.”
This was what Die Wu had said, four times, before she slipped into unconsciousness.
Actually, she had no legs.
It was because she had no legs that she was would not allow anyone to see. If anyone had the heart to say that this was some type of irony, then it was a fundamental weakness of humanity, and that person’s heart must have been transformed by evil spirits into iron and stone. The thick, heavy quilt covered Die Wu’s body, just like a layer of thick, dark clouds will cover the sun before a rainstorm.
Die Wu’s face completely lacked any lustre or color, just like the small bowl of lamp-oil on the wooden table in the small room, which would soon grow dark.
Zhu Meng sat in the lamplight watching over her. He didn’t move and didn’t speak. He neither drank a drop, nor shed a tear.
The little room was dark and damp and cold.
Thirteen men remained of his subordinates, and they seemed to watch over him the same way he watched over Die Wu. Their hearts were as grieved and hopeless as his. And yet they still lived.
—Why had Ah Gen not returned after being sent out to collect information and buy food? And then he returned. And Sima Chaoqun was with him.
They saw him return with someone, a tall stranger. His hair, coiled into a bun, was in disarray, his clothing ripped and torn, his body covered with wounds, without a weapon in his hands.
But regardless, at this time, Ah Gen should not have brought a stranger to this place.
Because even though this down and out stranger seemed like nothing more than a chased beast with nowhere to go, beasts are beasts, filled with danger, just as capable of hurting people.
Even though he carried no weapon, he did have an imposing manner which seemed sharper than any blade.
Every person in the room gripped a broadsword in hand, a broadsword they had vowed never to part with until the moment of death.
Each sword was moments away from being unsheathed.
Only Zhu Meng sat there unmoving. And then he suddenly gave an order that his subordinates had trouble comprehending.
“Light the lamps and candles. Stoke the fire.” His order was direct and simple, but very strange. “Light anything that can be lit.”
No one understood what Zhu Meng meant, but Sima Chaoqun understood.
He had never seen Zhu Meng before.
But as soon as he had entered this shabby, dark, damp little room, as soon as he caught sight of Zhu Meng sitting there next to the bed like a rock eroded by the wind, he knew he had caught sight of the person he most wanted to see.
The little room originally had only one small, dim lamp.
Shining lamplight should be joyous, but in tragic circumstances like these, brighter light is useless.
And yet Zhu Meng, his voice deep and horse, ordered, “Light all the candles and lamps and torches. Let me lay eyes on our honored guest.”
The lamplight flared. When Zhu Meng spoke, his orders were usually followed.
A small lamp, seven candles, and five torches were enough to light the small room as if it were day, enough to illuminate the face of every person present. Every scar and wrinkle could be seen clearly.
Sorrow and mourning, hatred and fury, all give birth to wrinkles, wrinkles deeper than the wounds inflicted by sharp swords.
Zhu Meng slowly stood up and turned around, at long last faced off against Sima Chaoqun.
The two men looked at each other quietly, appraising each other. It seemed as if the only sound left under heaven was the sound of the flickering flames.
It seemed as if the only people left under heaven were these two men.
Two men, their bodies covered with scars, their hearts filled with sadness. Two men in dire straights, completely and utterly defeated. Only they existed.
As they stood there facing each other, it seemed as if no one else existed.
“You’re Sima Chaoqun?”
“Does it look like I am?”
“It doesn’t look like it. The invincible Sima Chaoqun really shouldn’t look like this. But, I know you are Sima Chaoqun. You definitely are.”
“Because other than Sima Chaoqun, no one else under heaven has this appearance. And yet you look like a person who has just seen eight-hundred and eighty-eight vengeful ghosts.”
Sima agreed. “Not many people besides me are able to see eight-hundred and eighty-eight vengeful ghosts. But one other does exist.”
“Other than you?” asked Zhu Meng. “Someone surnamed Zhu? Zhu Meng?”
“It seems so.”
Zhu Meng laughed heartily.
He really laughed, the way he usually laughed when he heard something like this, a laughter that could be heard by anyone within in ten miles.
He laughed, and yet his face contained no trace of laughter. And it seemed as if the men standing around him couldn’t hear him laughing.
Because there was actually no trace of true laughter.
There was no laughter, no weeping. The others could neither laugh nor weep.
And yet their eyes filled with hot tears.
They were not Zhu Meng, they were not Sima Chaoqun, and so they could shed tears.
They could shed blood and they could shed tears.
But the only thing they had left were tears of blood.
Zhu Meng looked at these men, good men who would die before leaving his side, and it seemed his own bloodshot eyes would soon spill forth with blood.
“This time we were defeated. Thoroughly defeated.” His voice was hoarse. “But we don’t surrender to defeat, and don’t surrender to death.”
“I know,” said Sima Chaoqun sadly. “I know everything that happened.”
“But when we arrived, you weren’t in Chang’an.”
“Correct. I wasn’t here.” Sima Chaoqun sighed. “I didn’t realize you would arrive so quickly.”
“So you went alone to Luoyang?”
“I wanted to go alone to see you, to resolve the issues between us. Resolve things, just you and me.”
“You really wanted that?”
Zhu Meng suddenly let out a long sigh. “I didn’t misjudge you. I knew that if you were in Chang’an, you would at least give us a chance, an honorable fight to the death.” His voice was filled with grief and indignation. “We came here to die, but for us to die in such a despicable, cunning plot, we can not accept death in this way.”
“I don’t blame you. If you were in Chang’an, this type of contemptible, shameless thing would not have happened.”
“You’re wrong,” said Sima Chaoqun solemnly. “And regardless of whether or not I was here, it was my responsibility.”
“Because at that time I was the ultimate head of the Great Protection Agency, and I maintain ultimate responsibility. Injustice has a source, debt has a debtor. This debt must be repaid by me.”
“You came today to repay the debt?”
“Can you repay the debt fully?” asked Zhu Meng, his tone harsh. “How can you?”
“Even if I can’t repay it fully, I must try,” said Sima Chaoqun. “How do you want me to repay? However you want me to repay it, I will, otherwise, there was no point in coming.”
Zhu Meng stared at him, and he stared at Zhu Meng. The strange thing was, no hatred or animosity existed in their eyes. Instead, they were filled with respect and veneration.
“You said ‘at that time you’ were the ultimate head of the Great Protection Agency,” said Zhu Meng suddenly. “What about now?”
“It doesn’t matter now what type of position I have, I still bear complete responsibility.”
“Because you are still Zhu Meng, and I am still Sima Chaoqun.”
The others could see that within the eyes of this completely defeated man shone forth an unencroachable dignity. “Today, I must repay the debt, because you are Zhu Meng and I am Sima Chaoqun. No matter the circumstances, this cannot change. Even if my head is removed and my blood is spilled, even if my family is destroyed and my people are dead. It cannot change.”
—It really was this way.
—A head can be removed, and blood spilled, but the spirit will never yield, and can never be destroyed.
This was the spirit of personal loyalty of the men of Jianghu, the courage and uprightness of Jianghu.
Zhu Meng stared at Sima Chaoqun, his eyes also filled with unencroachable dignity.
“You are my mortal enemy. The hatred between us is deep; who knows how many people have died because of it? How can we coexist with the vengeful ghosts of those driven to their deaths?”
“I, Zhu Meng, have roamed Jianghu my whole life. I kill with a wave of my sword, and revel in exacting vengeance. I’ve never really taken notice of anyone. Except for you, Sima Chaoqun.” His voice trembled with agitation. “Today, please accept my obeisance.”
Then he really did pay obeisance, this man who bowed to no man. He suddenly dropped to the ground and prostrated himself before Sima Chaoqun.
Sima Chaoqun also dropped to the ground and bowed to Zhu Meng.
“I pay homage to you, a true hero, a true man,” said Zhu Meng hoarsely. “But after this, you and I must be separated by death.” One word at a time, he said, “Because I must still kill you. I have no other choice.”
Sima Chaoqun solemnly responded: “Yes. This is what life is like for people in Jianghu. We have no other option.”
“It’s good that you understand.” Zhu Meng’s voice grew more hoarse. “It’s good you understand.”
He stood, and once again looked over his subordinates.
“This is Sima Chaoqun, the man who destroyed the Lion Clan.” Zhu Meng’s voice was deep and he spoke very slowly. “Because of his desire to achieve unprecedented hegemony, who knows how many of our brothers died tragically on the street, their bones unable to be properly buried? Who knows how many of our sisters became widows, and were forced into prostitution just to eat?”
Everyone listened quietly, their tear-filled eyes streaked with lines of blood, the veins on their forehead bulging.
“Every one of us vowed an oath in our hearts to never return to our home unless it was with his head. Even if we all die, we shall become evil spirits that haunt his soul.”
He pointed at Sima Chaoqun. “Now he’s here. You heard clearly everything he said. He came to repay his debt. A debt of blood must be repaid with blood.”
His blade-like eyes swept over his subordinates. “He’s alone, just like us, deserted and isolated, with no loved ones. But we have ourselves, brothers, and we must have vengeance. Now is the best opportunity. He can’t stand up to all of us by himself.” His voice grew in intensity. “You all have blades in hand. You can draw them and hack his head off right here.”
No one drew their blade.
They stood listening quietly, not willing to even look at Sima Chaoqun.
“Why don’t you do something?” Zhu Meng shouted. “Have your hands grown weak? Have you forgotten how to kill?”
Ah Gen suddenly stepped forward, and then prostrated himself before Sima Chaoqun and Zhu Meng.
“Boss, I know you came here with me because you were ready to die,” he said. “You have lived a worthy life, you can die without regrets. After you have died, I will arrange all your affairs, and then I will join you.”
Sima Chaoqun laughed heartily. “Good. You’re a good brother.” He laughed. “Well said. A worthy life. Die without regrets.”
Suddenly, there was a clanging sound as a blade dropped from someone’s hand onto the floor.
Zhu Meng looked at the person, and asked harshly, “Man Niu, you’ve always been a good man, never afraid to kill. How come you can’t keep ahold of your blade?”
Man Niu hung his head, his face covered with tears of blood.
“Clan Leader, you know that I’ve dreamed of cutting his head off. But now…”
“But now what?” Zhu Meng’s voice was even more shrill. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to kill him now?”
“I do, but if you ask me to kill him in this way, there’s no way that I can do it.”
“I don’t know why.” Man Niu kneeled, and slapped himself in the face with his sword. “I should die. I’m a coward who deserves to die. I know in my heart, but if the Clan Leader asks me to say it, I couldn’t.”
“You’re a coward, so you can’t say it, but I can say it,” said Zhu Meng. “You can’t do it because you suddenly realize that the man we have wanted to kill for so long is a true man. He’s brave enough to come alone to meet us, and therefore we should treat him like a true man. If we killed him like this, even if it’s for revenge, then we could never have the face to stand in front of the other heroes of the world.” He asked Man Niu, “Is that what you’re thinking in your heart?”
Man Niu banged his forehead against the ground, his face obscured by the tears of blood.
Zhu Meng’s knife-like gaze swept over his men. “And the rest of you?” he asked them, this group of men who had followed him through countless battles, who had narrowly escaped death with him, and who had nothing left except their lives. “How do you feel in your hearts?”
No one responded.
But the hands that gripped blades were wounded.
Even though they had already lost everything, they hadn’t lost their spirit of uprightness, loyalty and courage.
Zhu Meng looked at them, one by one, and his exhausted, expressionless eyes once again lit up. He lifted his head and said, “Good. These are true brothers. These are truly Zhu Meng’s brothers. Having befriended brothers like this, I can die without any feeling of bitterness.” He turned to Sima Chaoqun. “Do you see? Do you see what kind of brothers Zhu Meng has? Are any of them cowards?”
Sima Chaoqun’s eyes were red, had long since grown red.
But he shed no tears.
He stood there as straight as a spear. After a long time, he said, one word at a time, “Zhu Meng, I can’t compare with you. I’m not even good enough to wipe your ass. Because,” he said, “I don’t have brothers like these.”
It wasn’t spoken by some other person, it was spoken by Sima Chaoqun.
The matchless hero Sima Chaoqun.
Zhu Meng’s eyes contained no hint of self-satisfaction, but instead were filled with sadness, as if he were asking himself: —Why are we enemies and not friends?
He didn’t say it, though. Instead, he said, “No matter what, if you treat us well, we will not treat you poorly. But there’s one thing that can’t change.” His fists clenched. “I’m still Zhu Meng, and you are still Sima Chaoqun. And therefore, I must still kill you.”
This was a type of honour, just like an eternally unchanging love. The sea can dry up, rocks can whither away, but this type of honor will exist forever.
Because of this type of honor, men in Jianghu with nothing, without even roots or history, can still live forever in the hearts of those who value courage and uprightness.
“As you just said,” continued Zhu Meng, “this is a matter between the two of us. We should resolve it ourselves. Has the time come?”
Zhu Meng stared at him for a long time, and then suddenly said, “Give the great hero Sima a blade.”
Man Niu immediately grabbed his sword and carried it over with two hands. It was a steel broadsword, forged by a hundred hammer blows, its edge already nicked in several places.
“This isn’t a very good blade,” said Zhu Meng, “but in Sima Chaoqun’s hands, any blade can kill.”
“Yes.” Sima Chaoqun gently caressed the weak spots on the blade. “This blade is made to be a killing blade.”
“Therefore, you have to promise me something.”
“If you have a chance to kill me, you must not under any circumstances show mercy.” Zhu Meng’s voice once again became sad. “Otherwise, if I then kill you, I may regret it for the rest of my life. Do you want me to hold regret in my heart for the rest of my life?”
Sima Chaoqun’s response was very understanding. “If I’m able to kill you in one move, then you won’t see the second move.”
“Good,” said Zhu Meng. “Extremely good.”
Zhu Meng’s blade gleamed as he unsheathed it.
Everyone else in the room stepped back. They were Zhu Meng’s brothers, through thick and thin.
But they all stepped back.
Since ancient times, people have been unable to avoid death. What was extraordinary about death?
But the dignity and loyalty of true men was something incapable of being tarnished.
Holding his sword horizontally, Zhu Meng asked, “If I die beneath your blade, my brothers won’t come after you. Zhu Meng can die under the blade of Sima Chaoqun with no regrets.”
And yet, he could not help but turn his head and glance back at Die Wu. It could be the last time he would ever lay eyes on her.
—I’m willing to die beneath your blade. I just hope that you will be able to take care of her for me.
He didn’t say these words. Instead, he said, “If you die beneath my blade, I will definitely take care of your wife and children.”
“My wife and children?” Sima Chaoqun smiled sadly. “I’m afraid my wife and children are waiting for me to die beneath your blade so that I can take care of them.”
Zhu Meng’s heart sank.
At this moment he realized that perhaps Sima’s sorrow and pain was much heavier and much deeper than his own.
But he had already unsheathed his blade. The blade’s course was set.
His heart’s course was set.
Life and death would be decided in a fleeting moment. Sadly, there was nothing in the world that could prevent this battle to the death.
And yet at this exact moment, at this fleeting moment—
He suddenly heard someone call out. The voice seemed to come from far away, from very far away.
But the person calling for him was at his side, a women who could at any time ask him to die for her, and he would.
A person who could not be forgotten even in dreams.
The departed have gone, but the emotions remain
Dance for the king, transform into a butterfly.
Zhu Meng didn’t look back.
His blade was in hand. His mortal enemy stood directly in front of the edge of his blade. His brothers were all watching him. He could not turn back. He was duty-bound not to.
“Zhu Meng,” the voice called again. “Zhu Meng.”
Such a distant call, and yet so near.
A call so near, and yet so far, as distant as home is in the dreams of a wanderer.
The home of a wanderer could only be found in the midst of deep, deep pain.
Zhu Meng looked back.
Another clanging sound rang out. Zhu Meng looked back, and as he did, his blade fell. Die Wu was looking at him.
She looking at him alone, and he looked at her.
In this fleeting moment, no one else existed. Nothing else existed.
All the resentment and hatred and fury and sadness had transformed into a butterfly.
And the butterfly was flying away.
The butterfly flew away, then flew back. Was it coming? Was it going? Was it a person? Was it a butterfly?
“I’m here, I’m here. I’m always here.”
He was there.
The blade was gone, the Lion Clan was gone, the boisterous, insufferably arrogant hero was gone.
But he was still there.
As long as she was there, he would be there.
“Zhu Meng, I made a mistake. You made a mistake, too.”
“Yes, I made a mistake.”
“Zhu Meng, why could I never understand how you felt about me?” said Die Wu. “Why did you never let me know? Why did you never let me know how much you love me? Why did I never let you know how much I need someone to love me?”
There was no response. Some things don’t need a response, because there is no answer.
“Zhu Meng, I’m going to die,” said Die Wu, “but you don’t need to die. I can die. You cannot.”
Her voice was like gossamer strands of fog.
“I can never dance for you again, but I can sing for you,” she said. “I’ll sing, you listen. I must sing, and you must listen.”
“Okay, sing. I will listen.”
No people, no resentment, no animosity. Other than the sound of her singing, there was nothing.
And she sang.
“Beautiful hair combed and wrapped into a bun, makeup lightly applied to the face;
Dark blue smoke and purple fog cover the gracefulness, catkins and gossamer strands float by with no set destination;
To never see each other is better than seeing each other, to have no emotions at all is better than having them;
When the singing is over and soberness sets in, the moon shines down on the quiet, empty courtyard.”
The gossamer strands gradually drifted further and further away, unceasingly.
She sang, and then she finished singing.
Everything under heaven ceased. At least, in this fleeting moment, everything ceased.
Even tears were not.
Zhu Meng stood there dumbly, looking at her. And then suddenly he vomited up a mouthful of crimson blood.
(1) This means it’s around midnight
(2) He literally references a time period that describes the period of day between 7 and 9 p.m.
(3) It is literally a “knockout drug” or drug that overpowers you.
(4) This is a classic text used by schoolchildren. http://goo.gl/I0Nzg
(5) This means that about three hours have passed, since each watch period lasted three hours
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