There were insufficient clues to pin down who the man with the tadpole-shaped birthmark, so the four decided to begin from tracking the bounty hunters as they headed towards the capital. It was a reckless gamble but Hu Yuan still had contacts within the city, and Zhao Xinglan would be safely situated in her own home.
“Where do you even get information on bounties?” Hu Yuan asked, checking in the rear-view mirror while his brother sat behind him tapping away on Hu Yuan’s datapad. He would have let Hu Wen drove, except that would be akin to letting a tiger play with a slaughtered lamb. The one time he had been a passenger Hu Wen on their escape had been a terrifyingly blurry experience. Hu Yuan remembered no detail of their surroundings on that leg of the journey, since they had whizzed past everything at top speed.
“The fact that you have to ask tells me you have been living a really sheltered life,” Hu Wen replied. “You’re the leader of the pugilists around the Ping An region and you don’t know where to find the bounty lists?”
“Be nice to Brother,” Leng Xiang chided. She was sitting next to her husband. From the mirror, Hu Yuan could see her hand resting on Hu Wen’s knee; his fingers tightened on the steering wheel.
In the front passenger seat, Zhao Xinglan was affecting a nonchalant air. She hummed to herself and gazed out the window at the passing scenery. There was not much to see. Trees in the distance, bushes by the road, farmhouses here and there with people and cattle in the fields. Now and again, the younger woman would glance at the rear-view mirror or twist her fingers in her clothes. When she realized that Hu Yuan was observing her, she pursed her lips and turned her face to stare out the window.
After about an hour on the road, Hu Wen exclaimed, “Got it. Ma Quan from Anxi says he’s met the man we’re asking about.” He fell silent for a moment, and then cursed. “Three thousand silvers? Fuck you, Quan, that’s daylight robbery.”
A flurry of taps and swipes later, Hu Wen swore again and flung the datapad onto the dashboard. Startled, Hu Yuan almost swerved off the road and had to fight to bring the car back under control. The wound in his side stung, an impatient reminder that he was, in fact, an injured man.
“What was that for?” Hu Yuan shouted. “We could have died.”
“Ma Quan says either we pay him for the information, or he sells us to the next bounty hunter for a share of their prize. But he did let slip about that man with a birthmark loitering around his shop, talking to his clientele. Only thing is, we don’t know if he’s still there.”
Three thousand silvers would have been nothing to the Hu family a week or so ago. It was remarkable how a change in circumstances changed a person’s perspective. They had about twenty silvers left on them in generic banknotes, and a dozen quarter-taels in spare change, which could last them a whole month if they were extremely frugal and did not require necessities such as food or shelter.
Leng Xiang reached in front and motioned for the datapad. After a moment’s hesitation, Zhao Xinglan took it and passed it to her. To everyone’s surprise, Leng Xiang broke the datapad into two and threw the pieces out the window.
“What the fuck?” Hu Wen yelled and peered out the back of the vehicle. “Now what was that for?”
“Whoever that man is, he’s looking for us. If he’s in Anxi, he can’t have gone far.” Leng Xiang leaned back. “We should go there.”
“And if he doesn’t, you can keep hurting his bounty hunters,” Zhao Xinglan piped up. She glanced at Hu Wen over her shoulder. “Break a few limbs, perhaps. Or necks.”
“I don’t have to break anything,” said Leng Xiang. “I just need to be visible.”
“Sister, don’t put yourself at risk.” Hu Yuan’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel.
“We’re in the light and our enemy is in the shadows. Since this man with the tadpole birthmark is looking for us, then let him come to us in a place of our choosing.” Leng Xiang smiled. She looked more like a bloodless statue than ever, the facets of her violet eyes twinkling as she blinked. “Anxi, you said? Let’s go there.”
“That’s about a hundred li northwest of my summer residence.” Zhao Xinglan grunted as she shifted in her seat, trying to find a comfortable position.
Briefly, Hu Yuan contemplated stopping the vehicle. It was not for a particularly pressing reason, except he wanted to look Leng Xiang in the eye and extract a promise from her: Promise me you will not take a life.
“I thought we were going to drop Miss Zhao at her home?” he said instead. “We can’t take her with us, not in her condition.”
“Oh, it’s fine. Go to Anxi, the three of you can find whatever man you’re talking about and deal with him, and I’ll drive myself home,” said Zhao Xinglan, her eyes twinkling with good humor. “I’m sure you can find your way to me after that, Wen-ge.”
Hu Yuan wished he had a better plan than that, but both the women were right. They needed to lure this mysterious stranger who was able to hide qi out into the open, and Leng Xiang seemed to be the one target this man was interested in.
Apparently, the person whom Jiang Hong wanted to meet had arrived in the middle of the night, but took till mid-morning to get in touch with her. Jiang Hong, Du Kuang and Wan Zongran followed a beggar boy out of the hill town to the cemetery on the facing hilltop.
The gray headstones, set in neat rows facing south, were clean and free of moss, though some of the names had been eroded over the years, and the grass was tall enough to reach the knees. Amid the many headstones, two to three dozen beggars of varying ages lounged. Some were singing, some were napping, and a few seemed to be gambling with dice. About four rows of graves away, someone had set up a simple tent with a faded yellow canvas sheet, where a young man sat, drinking from a wine flask. He was dressed in patched clothing that was probably green or blue to begin with, but was now a faded dark gray. A long green bamboo stick about as half as tall as the man leaned against his hip.
Wan Zongran was not fooled, though, by the assembled beggars’ relaxed poses. Every single beggar tensed fractionally when the three outsiders passed by them, and they seemed to be arrayed in a specific formation.
Walking carefully next to the chief constable, Du Kuang murmured, “It’s the Dog Beating Formation.”
“Surely I’m not that big a threat, even if I’m a dog of the law,” Wan Zongran joked.
Du Kuang chuckled. “No. It’s for me.”
Although Wan Zongran knew Du Kuang was powerful, he wasn’t sure the blind swordsman could defend himself against so many opponents. He was about to ask when the beggar in the tent called out to Jiang Hong from where he was seated.
To Wan Zongran’s surprise, Jiang Hong ran over and hugged the beggar. “Qi-gege!”
He’s her older brother? Wan Zongran wondered, and then blinked in surprise when the beggar kissed Jiang Hong on the cheek and the lips. Oh. Not a sibling.
Du Kuang shook his head and muttered something about immodesty.
Jiang Hong stood up and hauled the beggar who kissed her to his feet. “Qi-gege, this is Brother Kuang, and this is the Chief Constable of Ping An, Wan Zongran.”
“I know,” said the beggar. He did not put his hands together in the pugilist style as he added, “I am Wu Liuqi.”
Du Kuang inclined his head in Wu Liuqi’s direction. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Master Wu. Or should it be Chief Wu?”
“Not chief,” said Wu Liuqi. “Chief Si is still hale and hearty, thanks be to the heavens.” He narrowed his eyes slightly at the blind man. “So, this is the Mad Swordsman my foster father told me about.”
“He and I met under… less than ideal circumstances,” Du Kuang replied with a wry smile.
“You almost killed him that day in the Gate of the Drifting Snow.” Wu Liuqi affected a nonchalance that didn’t reach his eyes. His right hand tightened its grip around his stick.
Jiang Hong placed a hand on his elbow and he covered hers with his left hand.
“I killed a lot of people that day. I’m glad I didn’t kill him.” Du Kuang bowed deeply this time. “And I thank you, for coming all the way out here.”
The corner of the beggar’s mouth twisted in a humorless smile. “I didn’t do it for you.” Turning his head, Wu Liuqi said, “Hong-meimei, I’m forbidden from taking anyone not from the Six Paths there. Tell me what you’re looking for, and I’ll do my best to find it for you.”
“We want information, and we don’t know what it is until we see it,” Wan Zongran interrupted. He stepped forward, to be met with three beggars in his way, their sticks barring his path. “And this involves the government. I know you beggars don’t like it when the government is involved.”
Wu Liuqi whistled sharply and the three beggars retreated three steps, still on guard. Sauntering out of the tent, Wu Liuqi walked up to Wan Zongran. It was surprising to the constable that Wu Liuqi was a hand taller. The slouch affected by the beggar had masked his height. Up close and past the layers of grime, Wan Zongran could see that Wu Liuqi was a good-looking man, though he had a tooth missing – the right canine – and smelled vaguely of overripe fruit and meat.
Perhaps the constable had stared too long. Wu Liuqi mistook Wan Zongran’s scrutiny for judgment. “I may be a mere beggar,” he said in a low voice, “but you’re the ones asking me for a favor, Chief Constable.”
“I know that,” Wan Zongran replied sharply. Then he took a deep breath and made himself relax before cupping his fists and bowing. “I meant, it would be very magnanimous if you could bend the rules for us, just for once.”
Wu Liuqi snorted and strolled past Wan Zongran, the tip of his stick trailing a thin line in the earth behind him. “No can do. This is not the headquarters of the Beggar Sect; this is the origins of the Six Paths, and it would take permission from the Six Elders before I dare open it up to strangers.”
“The Six Elders?” Wan Zongran was lost. “I thought the Six Paths were just, you know, six affiliated schools in the river and the lake.”
Casting a pitying glance over his shoulder, Wu Liuqi sighed and jerked his head at the tent. “Come on, take a seat. It’ll be another hour before my father gets here, so I might as well tell a story.”
“This fight will be to the death,” said the old monk to his six disciples. “The death will likely be mine.”
The six disciples remained silent, except for Bu Jian, the youngest, who let out a sob. The old monk smiled and gathered the eleven-year-old boy in for a hug. Three months before he was to take the tonsure and now the child had to learn to let go of attachments.
“If I should perish, and I am likely to, all of you must return to lay life,” said the old monk. He raised a forbidding hand when Bu Sheng, the eldest disciple, made to speak. “It is to protect you from persecution.”
Bu Sheng knelt and touched his forehead to the ground nine times. The rest followed his example.
“Master, if Elder Tianyuan should prevail, what would you have us do to honor you?”
The old monk nodded to himself, before telling them to get up. “Live your lives fully, away from strife; that would be the greatest honor.”
“But your teachings!” the third disciple, Bu Gou, protested. “You have shown us so much. Surely we must spread your knowledge to the masses, and let them praise your name and wisdom.”
“If you do so, you endanger them,” the old monk rebuked sharply. Then he sighed. “I will give you each a new name and a purpose, then, as my parting gifts. Bu Sheng, come forth.”
The stout man stood and sat before his teacher. The monk put a hand on his head.
“Thirty-three years you have served me since you were nine years old, and never have you uttered a complaint. You see much of what I see; you understand much of what I understand. On you I lay the heaviest burden: to live freely, to wander the world, and to find those whose fate it is to learn what you know. But I charge you to acknowledge that you have received instruction from me. From tomorrow on, you will be You Ren, wandering and virtuous.”
Next was Bu Mie. His round, pockmarked face was damp with tears. The old monk patted his head too as the disciple sat down.
“Twenty-five years you have followed me. While you have struggled learning the sutras, you have mastered the study of medicine far better than any of your brothers. I see and admire your kindness and your soft heart. Protect these qualities, Bu Mie; I rename you Bai Cao, a hundred herbs, and may you have healing hands all your life.”
Third in line were the twins, Bu Gou and Bu Jing, who had been rescued as infants by the old monk twenty-two years ago. Bu Gou’s jaw was clenched tightly, while Bu Jing looked their teacher in the eyes with a small, resigned smile.
The old monk said to Bu Gou, “Your heart was ever in the study of swordsmanship. Remember always that the sword is an instrument designed to harm and to kill. Do not let the beauty of sharp steel conceal its bloodthirsty nature from your eyes. There are many in the world longing to wield a blade. Teach them, and teach them to use the sword only at uttermost need. Do not let blood and death stain your inner spirit. I rename you Jian Cheng, a loyalty to the sword.”
To Bu Jing, the old monk said, “Of all six, you are the one least attached to earthly desires, and the one closest to the Way. I have little to teach you, but I will ask that you to find a way to connect everyone. I rename you--”
“Master, I have a new name for myself,” Bu Jing interrupted. “I only need your blessing.”
The old monk laughed. “Of course you do. What name do you wish to have, my child?”
“One two three?” The old monk’s grin widened. “Of course. Of course. You are starting something new, are you not? Yi Ersan it is then.”
The fifth disciple, Bu Zeng, sat before the old monk and tilted his thin face up. “Master, I don’t think you’ll lose,” he said.
“I thank you for the confidence you have in me,” said the old monk with a warm if tired smile. “If it were seven or ten years ago, I would have the same belief. But the end of my life is approaching. Seventeen years you have been my student, and in you I see a joy in being with people. I entrust you with the most dangerous task: to reside in a city, any city, and become a teacher. The people suffer because they do not know how to fight to protect themselves. Teach them the forms and the motions, that they can strengthen their muscles and bones. However, the use of qi should only be taught to those who are righteous and just. Choose your heirs wisely. You are thirty years old now, and can judge well enough. If you are in doubt, seek out your brothers.”
The old monk then beckoned to his youngest disciple, Bu Jian, and took the boy's thin hand in his own.
“Bu Zeng, I also entrust Bu Jian to your care. You may wish to remain brothers, or become uncle and nephew, or father and son; I only wish that you become family to each other. Bu Jian, I’ve not the great fortune to instruct you much beyond the reading of the Golden Heart Sutra, but Bu Zeng and your other older brothers will teach you what you ought to know.” The old monk patted both their heads. “I give you the surname I was born with: Chen. Bu Zeng, your new name is Yan, such that your line and influence will extend far beyond the city you reside. Bu Jian, I name you Fei, that you will rise to incredible heights in both your knowledge and your innate goodness.”
Thus, having addressed all his six disciples, the old monk nodded again and smiled. “Ah, you six are the last of my attachments. I go to battle tomorrow free of regret. If the gods are willing, I will slay the monster and bring about a lasting peace. If not, I hope whatever I do will deter him sufficiently and make him understand that there are better ways to attain what he wants.”
The old monk went to the agreed site of the fight alone on foot, reaching only just above midday. It was a lovely place. No village or town was in sight. Trees encircled the low hill, and one single pine grew tall and straight on the peak.
Elder Tianyuan was already there, with his three lieutenants. The lieutenants were identically dressed in black and gold armor, though the plumes on their helmets were blue, red and green. The lieutenants had no names: they were referred to as the Blue Demon, the Red Demon and the Green Demon.
The Elder himself was clad in his usual black tunic tied with a silver belt. At his waist hung a sword, three feet five inches long. The old monk knew the sword well – he had given it to Tianyuan, before he was the Elder.
Before he gave in to ambition and greed.
“Old friend,” said Elder Tianyuan, “it need not come to this.”
The old monk smiled and put his hands together. “Amitabha. You are right. It need not come to this.” He bowed and looked at Elder Tianyuan in the eyes. “You just have to stop. You have conquered all the cities in the west. There is no need for more.”
Elder Tianyuan sighed. He motioned to the three lieutenants, who crossed their left arms over their chest and retreated. The Elder unsheathed his sword and let the sheath fall to the grass at his feet.
“I don’t want to do this,” he said. His hair was flecked with white at the temples, and lines around his eyes and mouth were deeper than they had been the last time the monk had seen him.
The old monk removed his jiasha and folded the robes neatly. He set it on the grass and patted it, as if it were a faithful companion animal, before he retrieved two rings of meteor-iron hanging from his waist. Each ring was a foot in diameter; the metal had been given him by the Elder.
“Neither do I,” the old monk said. Then he smiled and added, almost cheekily, “I’ll stop if you do.”
Armed with nothing more than lanterns, the six disciples went to the site of the battle at moonrise, once the army of Elder Tianyuan had gone.
The jiasha was folded neatly, a pillow under the head of their master. On his chest were the two rings of meteor-iron, his age-spotted hands folded over them. The old monk appeared as peaceful as if he was asleep. Only the stillness of his body indicated otherwise.
The disciples wept as they knelt before the old monk and pressed their foreheads to the ground. Bu Sheng and Bu Mie began chanting a sutra, but they were interrupted.
Out of the shadows, Elder Tianyuan emerged. Bu Gou and Bu Jing sprang into a defensive stance immediately, while Bu Zeng dragged Bu Jian behind him. Bu Sheng and Bu Mie put their hands together and bowed their heads.
Elder Tianyuan said, “Bury your master here. From this day on, the land extending one li in every direction of his burial site belongs to you six. I will never enter this ground, nor will I hunt you or your families down, unless you intend to harm me.” The Elder turned and walked away.
Bu Zeng, the oldest and bravest, called out, “Why should we trust your word, Elder Tianyuan?”
“Because he was my friend.” Elder Tianyuan paused, as if to say something else, before he walked away, melting into the darkness outside the reach of their lanterns’ light.