Chapter 8 - Peacock Manor
A person’s face is a mask to begin with! If one can change one’s face at will based on one’s environment or mood, no one can read that person’s expressions and discover what secrets lie hidden in that person’s mind.
What type of mask could possibly be more clever and ingenious than one’s face?
The faces of people with high status and of high standings are usually unreadable masks.
When Mingyue Xin saw Qiu Shuiqing, the first question in her mind was, “I wonder what type of mask he wears on his face?”
Regardless of what mask he might wear, for the master of the Peacock Manor to personally welcome them is certainly something to be happy about.
Brilliant and beautiful are the plumes of a peacock. Brilliant and beautiful is the Peacock Manor.
Dark green tiles glowed with jade brilliance under the rays of the setting sun. The white stone steps were as beautiful as jade, passing between golden walls. It seemed as though this entire place was built out of gold, pearls, jewels, and jade.
Several peacocks spread their plumes beneath a peach tree in the garden. Upon the pond floated mandarin ducks.
Several girls dressed in silks quietly walked past the soft, verdant grass, disappearing into the depths of a forest of flowers, disappearing into this multicolored, splendid garden.
The wind carried the faint scent of drunken pleasure. From afar, it sounded as though someone were playing the flute. The world seemed filled with peace and harmony.
All three great gates to the house were wide open. Nary a single gatekeeper could be seen.
Qiu Shuiqing was right there, standing on top of those white stone steps, calmly gazing at Fu Hongxue.
He was a very conservative person, in words and deeds. Even if his heart was bursting with joy, he definitely wouldn’t reveal any hint of it.
When he saw Fu Hongxue, he only lightly smiled. “I didn’t imagine that you would come, but you came at a perfect time!”
Fu Hongxue asked, “Why is this a perfect time?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “We happen to have a guest here tonight, and he’s not any ordinary guest.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Who?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Gongzi Yu.”
Fu Hongxue shut his mouth. No expression could be seen on his face whatsoever. Unexpectedly, Mingyue Xin also remained composed.
Qiu Shuiqing glanced at her, then glanced at Yan Nanfei, who had been carried to this place. “They are your friends?”
Fu Hongxue neither admitted to it nor denied it. Even he wasn’t sure whether they were friends or enemies.
Qiu Shuiqing didn’t ask again. He only turned his body sideways and said, “Please enter.”
Two people carried Yan Nanfei into the room, with Mingyue Xin following behind them. She suddenly came to a stop. Staring at Qiu Shuiqing, she said, “Manor-master, aren’t you going to ask why we are here?”
Qiu Shuiqing shook his head.
Since you are friends of Fu Hongxue, there is no need for me to ask. Since there is no need for me to ask, there is no need for me to speak.
He was always a man of few words.
Mingyue Xin, however, refused to shut up. She said, “Manor-master, even though you didn’t ask, I am still going to tell you.”
Since she insisted on telling him, Qiu Shuiqing listened.
Mingyue Xin said, “We have come for two reasons. First, to avoid misfortune. Second, to beg for medical assistance. Manor-master, can you take a look at his illness?”
Qiu Shuiqing finally spoke. “What type of illness is it?”
Ming Yuexin said, “Anxiety.”
Qiu Shuiqing suddenly turned his head and stared at her. “Anxiety can only be treated with mental medicine.”
Mingyue Xin said, “Yes, I know…”
Just as she spoke these three words, Yan Nanfei shot out of his stretcher like an arrow from a bow.
Mingyue Xin made her move as well!
One of them was in front of Qiu Shuiqing. The other was behind him.
With one in front, and the other behind, they had sealed away all of Qiu Shuiqing’s escape paths!
There is no such thing as a perfect, flawless technique. This assault of theirs, however, approached flawlessness.
No one could discover a flaw in their movements, and no one could block or dodge this attack. As a matter of fact, nobody could have possibly imagined that they would suddenly attack like this.
Their attack was undoubtedly carefully planned in advance, and undoubtedly had been practiced many times.
And thus was the master of the Peacock Manor, whose fame shook the world, defeated on the doorsteps of his very own home, without even a chance to counter-attack.
In the blink of an eye, the two of them sealed several major acupoints on his arms and his legs.
Qiu Shuiqing actually didn’t fall down, because they were supporting him.
Although his body was now stiff and inflexible, the expression on his face was still calm. Even if you searched the whole world over, you couldn’t find more than ten people who would be able to maintain their calm in this situation.
After Mingyue Xin launched her attack and struck out with her palm, she lightly took another breath, then finished her earlier words. “It’s precisely because I know that anxiety can only be cured with mental medicine, that we have come here to find you.”
Qiu Shuiqing didn’t even glance at her. He only coldly stared at Fu Hongxue.
Fu Hongxue remained totally expressionless.
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Do you know why they came here?”
Fu Hongxue shook his head.
Qiu Shuiqing said, “But you brought them here.”
Fu Hongxue said, “That’s because I too am curious as to why they wanted to come here.”
The two of them only spoke three sentences. The flower garden which had been filled with peace and tranquility suddenly became filled with a murderous air.
The killing aura came from the blades of forty nine swords and sabres. Light reflecting off the the sabres and shadows cast by the swords flickered, but the people wielding the weapons did not. With the life of the master of their manor in the hands of others, no one dared to make any rash moves.
Qiu Shuiqing suddenly let out a sigh. “Yan Nanfei, Yan Nanfei. How could you do something like this?”
Yan Nanfei was very startled. “You knew who I was all along?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “All the land within an eighty li radius belongs to the Peacock Manor. As soon as you entered my territory, I knew who you are and learned everything about you.”
Yan Nanfei also let out a sigh. “It seems as though the Peacock Manor really isn’t a place where one can come and go as one pleases.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “It’s precisely because I know too much about you and your origins, that you were able to subdue me thusly.”
Yan Nanfei said, “Because you didn’t imagine that I would act like this?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “I truly did not.”
Yan Nanfei forced a smile. “To be honest, even I can’t imagine it.”
Mingyue Xin interjected, “He had no other choice. His illness really is too severe.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Do I have medicine that can save him?”
Mingyue Xin said, “You do. Only you do.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “What medicine is it, exactly?”
Mingyue Xin said, “A secret.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “A secret? What secret?”
Mingyue Xin said, “The secret of the Peacock Plume.”
Qiu Shuiqing shut his mouth.
Mingyue Xin said, “This isn’t solely a case of us coercing you. This is a trade.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “What will you use to trade?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Another secret. It’s also a secret of the Peacock Plume.”
Dusk had fallen. Lanterns were lit. The room was quiet, tastefully laid out, and peaceful. Qiu Shuiqing undoubtedly was a man of elegant tastes.
A pity that his guests were not here to appreciate his refined tastes. As soon as they entered the room, Mingyue Xin went straight to the main point. “Actually, I too know that the Peacock Plume was lost during the era of your great-grandfather, Qiu Fengwu.”
This was a secret. A secret that no one in the martial world knew.
For the first time, Qiu Shuiqing’s expression changed. “How do you know this?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Because Qiu Fengwu took the Peacock Painting and went to find a person. He begged that person to build a second Peacock Plume.”
The Peacock Painting was another secret. It contained within it the graphs and charts needed to build the Peacock Plume.
No one knew whether the Peacock Painting came first, or the Peacock Plume came first. Everyone was certain, however, that with the Peacock Painting, it would be possible to create a second Peacock Plume.
Mingyue Xin said, “However, this line of thinking is wrong.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “How do you know this line of thinking is wrong?”
Mingyue Xin said, “The construction of the mechanisms in a hidden projectile is a very complicated procedure that requires a very high degree of skill.”
Not only did it require a calm, steady, sure hand, it also required metallurgical knowledge as well as an understanding of the principle tenets of hidden projectiles.
Mingyue Xin said, “The person whom Qiu Fengwu sought out was naturally the best artisan of his time.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “The best artisan of that time was said to be Madame Xu of Sichuan’s Tang family.”
The poisonous hidden projectiles of the Tang family had been world-famous for over four centuries. It was taught to daughter-in-laws, but never to daughters.
Madame Xu was the elder daughter-in-law of the Tang family at that time. Embroidery and manufacturing hidden projectiles were said to be her two consummate, unequalled skills.
Mingyue Xin said, “However, although Madame Xu spent six years of painstaking care and labor, exhausting herself so utterly that even her hair turned white, she was unable to create a second Peacock Plume.”
Qiu Shuiqing simply watched her, waiting for her to continue.
Mingyue Xin took out magnificent, resplendent golden tube before she continued. “Within those six years, Madame Xu did produce four Peacock Plumes. But although they looked identical to the original, and were constructed strictly in accordance with the design mandated by the Peacock Painting, for some reason they lacked the mysterious, magical power of the original.”
Gazing at the golden tube in her hand, Qiu Shuiqing said, “This is one of them?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Correct.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Recently, a person nicknamed ‘Peacock’ appeared in the martial world…”
Mingyue Xin said, “His Peacock Plume is one of them as well.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “You gave it to him?”
Mingyue Xin said, “I didn’t personally give it to him. I only arranged for him to stumble across it.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Because you intentionally wanted the rumor to be spread throughout the world the secret of the disappearance of the Peacock Plume.”
Mingyue Xin did not deny it.
Since the Peacock Plume appeared in the hands of others, naturally it could not be at the Peacock Manor.
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Why did you do this?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Because I began to suspect something.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Suspect what?”
Mingyue Xin said, “The Peacock Plume is the lifeline of the Peacock Manor, and every successive master of the Peacock Manor has been an extremely careful, extremely steady person. Thus…”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Thus you always doubted whether or not the Peacock Plume actually went missing.”
Mingyue Xin nodded. “Supposedly, the Peacock Plume was lost by Qiu Yifeng, the father of Qiu Fengwu. Qiu Yifeng possessed amazing intelligence and ability. How could he possibly have done something so foolish? Perhaps he was merely testing his son’s ability to deal with sudden, unexpected situations when he claimed he lost it.”
Although her words were logical, there was no real proof behind them.
Mingyue Xin continued, “Thus, I intentionally revealed this secret, so as to cause the enemies of the Peacock Manor to come here.”
Qiu Shuiqing coldly said, “Not a single person was able to leave alive.”
Mingyue Xin said, “Thus, I felt that my conjecture was certainly correct. The Peacock Plume must still be in your hands.”
Qiu Shuiqing once more shut his mouth, but his sharp, keen, eagle-like gaze never left Mingyue Xin.
Mingyue Xin continued, “Afterwards, Qiu Fengwu did not seek out Madame Xu again. Naturally, this was because he found the original Peacock Plume.”
Qiu Shuiqing was silent for a long time. Finally, he said unhurriedly, “Perhaps he never should have sought her out to begin with.”
Mingyue Xin said, “But he trusted her. Before Madame Xu was married, the two of them were friends.”
Qiu Shuiqing coldly laughed. “There are many people in the world who would sell out their friends.”
Mingyue Xin said, “But Madame Xu did not sell him out. Aside from the direct heirs of the Tang family, no one else knows this secret!”
The light in Qiu Shuiqing’s eyes grew even more keen. “And you? What relationship do you have to the Tang family?”
Mingyue Xin grinned. “I never intended to hide this from you to begin with.”
She slowly continued, “I am the eldest daughter of the Tang family. My original name was Tang Lan.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Why is it that a child of the Tang family would become a courtesan?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Although the Tang family specializes in using poisonous hidden projectiles, our rules are much stricter than that of the Seven Great Sects. The children of the Tang family have never been allowed to get involved in the matters of the martial world.”
Her voice was tranquil but unyielding. “But we are determined to come out and do something.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “What is your target?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Oppression. Our goals can be summarized in four words.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “To revolt against oppression?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Right! To revolt against oppression!”
She continued, “We do not dare to go against the rules of our family. So as to allow ourselves to move about more freely, I have hidden myself within the courtesan’s world. Over the past three years, we have organized ourselves into a force which can resist oppression. Unfortunately, we still aren’t strong enough.”
Yan Nanfei said, “This is because our enemy is even more tightly organized, and their force is even greater.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Who is their leader?”
Yan Nanfei said, “A person who deserves to die.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “He is the source of your anxiety?”
Yan Nanfei admitted to it.
Qiu Shuiqing said, “You want to use my Peacock Plume to kill him?”
Yan Nanfei said, “Use violence to defeat violence, and kill to stop a killer!”
Qiu Shuiqing looked at him, then looked at Fu Hongxue. He suddenly said, “Release the acupoints on my legs, then come with me!”
They walked past a giant, beautiful mural, passed through a maple grove, and a clump of bamboo. Just after they crossed a bridge with nine bends, the lamp light seemed to scatter and dissipate.
The dark courtyard seemed to carry an unspeakably gloomy, sinister, desolate aura. Even the lamp light shied away from it.
Compared to the magnificent, splendid, palace-like pavilion from earlier, this was a totally different world.
The tall, lofty building was filled with a ghastly cold.
There were over a hundred small lanterns lit within the room. Giving off a sad, eerie light, they looked like so many will’o’the’wisps.
In front of every small lantern was a memorial tablet.
A name was carved onto every memorial tablet. Each and every single name belonged to an illustrious figure. Several of the names belonged to people who, not long ago, were brief celebrities of the martial world who considered themselves without peer!
After seeing the row of memorial tablets, Mingyue Xin’s expression also became very solemn.
She knew that these were all people who died to the Peacock Plume. She hoped to add another memorial tablet and another name to this place.
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Our ancestors feared that their descendants would accumulate too much evil karma through their killings, and so set up a memorial site here, so as to help expiate their sins and propitiate the souls of the damned!”
Next, he took them into the heart of the Peacock Manor. They entered through a paved path through the tomb.
The path they took was tortuous and winding. An innumerable number of iron bars and railings could be seen.
Everyone silently followed behind him. They felt as though they had suddenly entered the mausoleum of some ancient, long-dead emperor. The place was gloomy, damp, and mysterious.
The very last iron gate was formed from a steel plate which was over three feet thick. It weighed more than a thousand jin.
There were thirteen locks on the gate.
“The thirteen keys were originally guarded by thirteen different people. Nowadays, though, trustworthy friends are become fewer and fewer in number.”
Thus, nowadays only six people guarded the keys. All of them were old men with white and gray hair. They numbered amongst them trusted family friends of the Peacock Family and illustrious old veterans of the martial world.
They all had different backgrounds and various statuses. However, their friendship and loyalty were equally trusted by Qiu Shuiqing.
Their proficiency in martial arts, naturally, was even more worthy of trust. Qiu Shuiqing simply clapped his hands, and all six of them appeared out of nowhere like ghosts. The person who appeared the fastest had a gaze like an eagle, and moved like an eagle as well. His experienced, wizened face was crisscrossed with scars and healed wounds. He appeared to be the “Immortal Eagle of Heaven,” Gongsun Tu, whose fame shook the world in years past.
The keys were attached to them with an iron chain. The very last key was held by Qiu Shuiqing.
Mingyue Xin watched as he opened the very last lock. By the time she turned her head around, the six guardians had disappeared. It was as though the ancestors of the Qiu family had specially sent the six of them from the netherworld, to act as guardian ghosts over this forbidden area.
Behind the steel gate was a large stone room. The walls were covered with bluish green moss, and six lamps burned.
Underneath the ghastly, gloomy glow of the lamps, all sorts of strange, exotic weapons could be seen on many wooden racks. Some of them not even Yan Nanfei had seen before, and it was unknown as to whether they had been used by the ancestors of the Qiu family, or by the Qiu family’s enemies. Although these weapons were still here, their skeletons and framework had long since rotted away.
Qiu Shuiqing pushed aside a giant boulder, revealing a steel cabinet hidden behind it. Could it be that the Peacock Plume was hidden in here?
Everyone watched with bated breath as he opened the steel cabinet and reverently, respectfully withdrew a wooden box from within.
No one imagined that within the wooden box, there lay not the Peacock Plume, but a thin yellow skin.
Mingyue Xin didn’t try to hide her disappointment. Wrinkling her forehead, she said, “What’s this?”
The expression on Qiu Shuiqing’s face became even more solemn and respectful. “This is a person’s face.”
Disappointed, Mingyue Xin said, “Is it skin that was carved from a person’s face?”
Qiu Shuiqing nodded. His eyes were filled with sorrow. In a dejected voice, he said, “This person lost something that was extremely important. He felt as though he no longer had any face or any right to continue living. Before he committed suicide, he told his servants to carve his skin from his face after his death, to serve as an admonition for future generations.”
He did not say this person’s name, but everyone knew who it was he was speaking about.
The news of Qiu Yifeng’s sudden death was, in that time, a story which caused great suspicion. Only now did Qiu Shuiqing reveal the truth of the matter.
All the hairs on Mingyue Xin’s body began to rise. After a long time, she let out a long sigh. “You shouldn’t have revealed something like this to me.”
With a calm expression, Qiu Shuiqing said, “I didn’t want to reveal this either, but I needed for you to believe me. The Peacock Plume disappeared long ago from the Peacock Manor.”
Mingyue Xin said, “But those people who recently died at the Peacock Manor…”
Qiu Shuiqing interrupted her. He coldly said, “There are many ways to kill someone. It isn’t necessary to use the Peacock Plume.”
Mingyue Xin stared at the human-skin within the wooden box. When she thought of the tragic and pitiful suicide of that man, who took his own life to atone for his sin, she wished that she had never come here.
Yan Nanfei clearly felt a similar regret in his heart. Just at this moment, a clanking sound could be heard as the metal gate swung shut!
Next, a series of clicking sounds could be heard. Obviously, the thirteen keyholes outside had all been locked.
The expression on Mingyue Xin’s face changed. Yan Nanfei sighed. “As we should not have come here, nor heard this secret, much less disturbed the rest of this elder’s spirit. We do deserve to die.”
Qiu Shuiqing calmly watched them, not revealing any expression on his face.
Yan Nanfei said, “But my life still belongs to Fu Hongxue. Fu Hongxue doesn’t deserve to die.”
Qiu Shuiqing coldly said, “I do not deserve to die either.”
Yan Nanfei stared at him, astonished. Mingyue Xin interjected, “This wasn’t your intention, then?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “It is not.”
Mingyue Xin was even more shocked. “Then who locked us in here? Who could possibly enter such a secret area?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “There are at least six people who do.”
Mingyue Xin said, “But all of them are your good friends.”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “As I said earlier. There are many people in the world who are willing to sell out their friends!”
Fu Hongxue finally spoke. “Out of those six people, there only needs to be one traitor.”
Mingyue Xin said, “Who are you referring to?”
Fu Hongxue did not reply. Instead, he asked Qiu Shuiqing, “Was the person who opened the very first lock Gongsun Tu?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Yes.”
Mingyue Xin interrupted, “Is it that ‘Immortal Eagle of Heaven’, the Gongsun Tu who should have died many times over by now?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Yes.”
Yan Nanfei asked, “His very last duel to the death, was it with Gongzi Yu?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “Yes.”
Yan Nanfei looked at Mingyue Xin. Mingyue Xin looked at Fu Hongxue. All three of them shut their mouths.
There was no need to ask anything further.
Everyone in the martial world was astonished at how Gongsun Tu managed to survive his fight with Gongzi Yu.
Only now did they realize that there was nothing astonishing about it at all. Gongzi Yu intentionally let Gongsun Tu live, while bribing him at the same time.
Now, the only question which needed to be asked was, “Is there a second way out of here?”
Qiu Shuiqing’s response was very succinct. A secret storehouse for precious goods really should not have a second way in or out!
Mingyue Xin let out a breath. It seemed as though her entire body was about to collapse.
The metal gate was three feet thick. The stone walls were six feet thick. No matter who was locked within this stone room, the only thing they could do was to await death.
Yan Nanfei suddenly asked, “Is there any wine here?”
Qiu Shuiqing said, “There is. There’s only one jug of wine. Poison wine!”
Yan Nanfei grinned. “Poison wine is better than no wine.”
Why would a person waiting for certain death be afraid of poisoned wine?
He located the jug of wine, then broke open the seal. But suddenly, there was the flash of a sabre and the jug of wine was also shattered.
Fu Hongxue coldly said, “Don’t forget that your life still belongs to me. Even if you want to die, you need to allow me to kill you.”
Yan Nanfei said, “When do you plan to make your move?”
Fu Hongxue said, “When all hope is lost.”
Yan Nanfei asked, “What hope do we have right now?”
Fu Hongxue said, “As long as you are alive, there is hope!”
Yan Nanfei laughed loudly. “Wonderful! Well said! So long as there is a single breath left in my body, I won’t forget those words.”
Fu Hongxue didn’t say so much as another word. It seemed as though he had suddenly become fascinated by the various weapons on the wooden shelves.
He slowly walked over to them, carefully examining every single weapon.
The cold, gloomy room gradually became hot and suffocating. Qiu Shuiqing blew out three of the lanterns. Fu Hongxue suddenly removed a chain whip from one of the shelves.
The chain whip was made out of links of pure steel. It should be extremely heavy, and yet it didn’t seem as heavy as it appeared to be!
Fu Hongxue muttered to himself, then asked, “What is the origin of this weapon?”
Qiu Shuiqing didn’t directly answer him. First, he withdrew a very thick accounting book from a cabinet. He blew the dust off of it, then flipped for ten or so pages before unhurriedly saying, “This was left behind by Hai Dongkai.”
Fu Hongxue asked, “Hai Dongkai, of Jiangnan’s Thunderbolt Hall?”
Qiu Shuiqing nodded. “The explosive devices of the Thunderbolt Hall were hidden projectiles that were famous throughout the world. But after the appearance of the Peacock Plume, their prestige began to decline. Thus, Hai Dongkai organized people to come attack us, intending to destroy the Peacock Manor. Unfortunately, he died to the Peacock Plume before he even had a chance to strike.”
A ray of light suddenly seemed to shoot out of Fu Hongxue’s eyes. After repeating this to himself, he asked again, “He died to the Peacock Plume before he even had a chance to strike?”
Qiu Shuiqing nodded again. “Although this happened more than a century ago, the events were recorded in this ledger very clearly.”
Mingyue Xin said, “I’ve heard of this elder before as well. I seem to recall that his nickname was something like the ‘Thunderbolt Whip’?”
Fu Hongxue slowly nodded, then once more began to walk along the wall!
With his right hand, he gripped his sabre. With his left, he held the whip. Suddenly, he closed his eyes. Although the way in which he walked was very peculiar, his face seemed as calm and peaceful as that of an old monk.
Watching him, everybody held their breaths. The stone room became as quiet as a tomb.
Suddenly, there was a flash of a sabre.
This sabre flash was much brighter than any which Yan Nanfei had ever seen before.
With this slash, Fu Hongxue clearly used his internal energy. Although his eyes were firmly shut, this strike landed precisely on one of the cracks on one of the stone walls.
He didn’t use his eyes to see. He used his heart!
As soon as his sabre struck out, it sank into the stone wall.
Fu Hongxue let out a long sigh as he pulled the blade of his sabre from the wall. Just as he finished sighing, he struck out with the chain whip in his left hand, forcefully inserting it into the opening his sabre made in the wall.
At this moment, there was a sudden booming sound. The chain whip exploded within the opening in the stone wall.
The stone wall which had been fashioned using six feet of solid rock exploded as well. Broken stones scattered all over the place, flying about like rain.
And then, everything was quiet once more. A large hole had been blown into the stone wall.
Fu Hongxue had already sheathed his sabre. He only said in a light voice, “The explosive weapons of Jiangnan’s Thunderbolt Hall are really without peer.”
Qiu Shuiqing, Mingyue Xin, and Yan Nanfei quietly gazed at him. Their eyes were filled with respect. “How did you know that this chain whip was filled with explosives?”
“I didn’t know!” Fu Hongxue said. “I only felt that the whip seemed to weigh less than it should. Thus, the insides of it were probably hollow. As fortune would have it, I suddenly thought of Hai Dongkai.”
Hai Dongkai’s midnight assault on the Peacock Manor was one of the most famous war stories of the martial world.
Of the seventy two greatest battles the martial world had ever seen, at least seven occurred at the Peacock Manor!
And yet, the Peacock Manor almost miraculously continued to remain standing in good health. But as soon as they walked out, they discovered that the Peacock Manor which had braved fire and misfortune for so long had turned into a large pile of rubble. Its nine great courtyards, thirty-six towers, and eighty square li of terrain had been turned into debris!
The fresh blood had not yet fully dried. And so, Qiu Shuiqing stood in the middle of blood-soaked rubble.
Eighty square li of land. Five hundred lives. Thirty generations of fame. They had all been destroyed!
It was as though an evil miracle had taken place!
Qiu Shuiqing neither moved, nor shed tears. This sort of hatred and enmity could no longer be washed away by tears.
The only thing he wanted to shed was blood!
But he could not find the person who had caused this disaster. The sky was gloomy and dark. The land all around them was barren and still. It seemed as though the four of them were the only living things in the world.
Yan Nanfei stood off to one side, far away. It seemed as though he were even more pained than Qiu Shuiqing.
Fu Hongxue had been staring at him for a long time. He coldly said, “You are blaming yourself and condemning yourself. You feel you brought this misfortune upon him?”
Yan Nanfei slowly nodded his head. Several times, he wanted to speak, but forbore. Contradictions wracked his heart, increasing his pain.
Finally, he was no longer able to resist. He suddenly said, “This is the third time!”
Fu Hongxue said, “The third time?”
Yan Nanfei said, “The first time was the Phoenix Assembly. The second time was the Ni Family Garden. This is the third time.”
He spoke very quickly, because he had already decided to reveal all of the secrets.
“In this day and age, the person with the highest level of martial arts ability isn’t you. It is Gongzi Yu.” His words were very honest and frank. “Although your sabre has nearly reached the level of being all-conquering and unstoppable, you yourself still have weaknesses.”
“How about you?” Fu Hongxue said.
“I practice the sword of the heart, the sword of the intention. When heart and mind come together, there is nothing one cannot do. Originally, this is a style which approaches the highest levels of swordsmanship. If I can master it, I will be invincible.”
“You cannot master it?”
“It is as though mastery of this style is blocked by thirteen locks. I know I have all the keys to the locks, but after I open twelve of them, I cannot find the thirteenth.”
Yan Nanfei forced a laugh. “Thus, whenever I execute my strikes, I feel as though my power does not come from the heart. Sometimes, when I send out an attack, it clearly is about to land on target, but when it actually reaches the target, it’s actually off by an inch.”
Fu Hongxue asked, “How about Gongzi Yu?”
Yan Nanfei said, “Not only is his martial arts all-conquering and unstoppable, it is invulnerable as well. In the entire world, there are perhaps only two things which can defeat him.”
Fu Hongxue said, “One is the Peacock Plume?”
Yan Nanfei said, “The other is Sorrowful Book of Yin and Yang and of Heaven and Hell Mingling.”
Within this book was recorded the seven most vile, vicious martial arts techniques in the history of the world. According to legends, when this book was written, the heavens wept blood, ghosts wailed at night, and after the author finished the very last word, he himself vomited blood and died.
Fu Hongxue naturally heard of this legend as well. “But as soon as this book was written, it disappeared. No one in the world has ever seen it!”
Yan Nanfei said, “This book definitely was lost a long time ago, but it just as definitely resurfaced recently!”
Fu Hongxue asked, “Where did it reappear?”
Yan Nanfei replied, “The Phoenix Market.”
A year ago, when he went to the Phoenix Market, he went for the purpose of finding this book. Fu Hongxue happened to be there as well.
Yan Nanfei said, “At the time, I was certain that you must have gone there to find the book as well. I felt that it was very likely that you too had been bought and paid for by Gongzi Yu, which is why I attacked you.”
But he had lost.
Although he wanted to kill Fu Hongxue, Fu Hongxue hadn’t wanted to kill him. Thus, all of these tragic, mysterious, and dangerous events had occurred.
Yan Nanfei said, “After I battled you, my mind fell apart. It took me four hours before I was able to go to the Phoenix Market again.”
But by then, the Phoenix Market had been turned into a ghost town. Without question, it had been sacked by the subordinates of Gongzi Yu!
Yan Nanfei said, “That morning, four of the Seven Heroes of the Ni Family had visited the Phoenix Market. They arrived and left in a hurry, and at first they didn’t arouse anyone’s attention. But I couldn’t help but want to go talk with them and find out what was going on. I didn’t imagine that as a consequence of my trip, their precious courtyard, which had been painstakingly maintained for over thirteen generations, would be turned into a barren wasteland.
After thinking for a moment longer, he added, “That was the day I first met Mingyue Xin. She hadn’t been there for more than five days.”
Fu Hongxue clenched both his fists tightly. After a long time passed, he finally said slowly, “Although to this very day you still have not actually seen the Sorrowful Book, who knows how many people have been destroyed due to it.”
Yan Nanfei’s fists were also tightly clenched. “Thus, I must kill Gongzi Yu and avenge the deaths of those murdered souls.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Thus, he must kill you as well.”
They stopped speaking, because at this time, Qiu Shuiqing slowly walked over towards them.
His face was still expressionless. Even his sharp, keen eyes had turned hollow and dull.
He stood in front of them for a long time, as though he were a man made from wood. Only then did he mumble, as though he were sleepwalking, “The members of the Qiu family are all dead now. But their corpses remain. Only one person is missing.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Gongsun Tu?”
Qiu Shuiqing nodded. “It isn’t an easy feat to totally eradicate every member of the Qiu family. They must have casualties of their own as well. However, they’ve taken them all away!”
Yan Nanfei couldn’t resist saying, “These people have always been very neat and tidy in handling their affairs, not leaving behind any trace.”
Fu Hongxue said, “But this many people couldn’t have simply disappeared. No matter where they go, they’ll have left some clues of their passing behind.”
Qiu Shuiqing looked at him. In his eyes could be seen an expression of gratitude. He suddenly said, “My wife is often sick, so I have another woman in the city. By now, she is six month’s pregnant. If she gives birth to a son, he will be the last descendant of the Qiu family.”
He slowly added, “Her surname is Zhuo. Her name is Zhuo Yuzhen. Her father’s name is Zhuo Donglai. He is a master of darts.”
Fu Hongxue quietly listened to him. He paid very careful attention to every word.
Qiu Shuiqing let out a long breath. “I should attend to these matters personally, but I no longer am able to. If I bear more shame and cling to life, in the future, when I go to the netherworld, I will have no face left to meet the ancestors of the Qiu family.”
Yan Nanfei shouted in a fierce voice, “You cannot die. Don’t you want to get revenge?”
Qiu Shuiqing suddenly let out a laugh. His laughter was even more miserable than weeping. “Revenge? You want me to get revenge? Do you know what type of person Gongzi Yu is? Do you know how great his power is?”
Yan Nanfei naturally knew. No one knew better than him.
Aside from the Beggar’s Clan and the Seven Great Sword Sects, which had been long established historical organizations, at least half of the thirty nine other most powerful organizations of the martial world had extremely close relationships with Gongzi Yu. At least eight or nine of them were secretly under the direct command of Gongzi Yu.
In addition, the number of first-class masters who had been bought and paid for by Gongzi Yu were innumerable. In addition, there were one or two masters amongst his bodyguards who possessed a level of martial arts that was unfathomably deep.
Yan Nanfei was about to reveal everything he knew about Gongzi Yu, but Qiu Shuiqing was no longer interested in listening!
Qiu Shuiqing still stood there unmoving, but suddenly, fresh blood began to spurt from his ears, his eyes, his nostrils, and his mouth.
Just as he fell down, from far away the sound of a rooster crowing could be heard.
The Peacock Manor was surrounded on two sides by mountains and a third by water. The mountains were very steep. There was no one that injured people could be brought across them. The river water moved at a torrential pace. Even rafts covered by sheepskin could not pass it.
The Peacock Manor had been guarded tightly, and did not lack for experts. To totally eradicate everyone in the manor would have required at least thirty or fifty first class masters.
Even if the invaders had come by water or through the mountain passes, there was only one way they could have left!
In front of the manor was a thick forest. There was a wide, paved road by it, but not a single wheel track or hoofprint could be seen, nor was there any blood or footprints.
Mingyue Xin gritted her teeth. “No matter what, we must find a third person today.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Aside from Zhuo Yuzhen and Gongsun Tu, who else is there?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Peacock. I’ve already subdued him and sent him back undercover. I’m sure he can provide us with some clues.”
Yan Nanfei coldly said, “Unfortunately, every clue he gives us is possibly a trap.”
Mingyue Xin said, “A trap?”
Yan Nanfei said, “He fears you, but I guarantee that he fears Gongzi Yu more. If he didn’t leak out secrets out to Gongzi Yu, how could Gongzi Yu have come to the Peacock Manor at such a perfect time?”
Mingyue Xin said with hatred, “If your guess is correct, all the more reason for me to hunt him down.”
Fu Hongxue said, “But the first person we must find is not him. It is Zhuo Yuzhen.”
None of them knew Zhuo Yuzhen, but Zhuo Donglai was a famous person. He was a famous alcoholic.
He was already drunk when they found him. He lay drunk beneath the shade of a tree in his courtyard. However, as soon as he heard Qiu Shuiqing’s name, he jumped to his feet and cursed, “That old bastard! I treated him as a friend, but he went around behind my back and tricked my daughter into falling for him.”
They didn’t try to shut him up. The more angrily he cursed, the more he proved that the affair was real. As long as they could preserve this last bit of flesh and blood of Qiu Shuiqing’s family, it didn’t matter how much Zhuo Donglai cursed.
His daughter, however, couldn’t take any more. All of his cursing had caused her to be driven away. On top of her boudoir in her room, she had left a letter. A young girl with long pigtails was bent over the dressing table, weeping nonstop.
On the letter was written, “Your daughter was unfilial, and has disgraced your home. Because of this piece of flesh growing inside of me, I cannot kill myself to redeem the shame…”
The young girl said, “So the young miss left. I couldn’t stop her.”
“You don’t know where she went?”
“If I knew, I would have gone as well. Why would I stay here?”
If there was a drunken demon in the house, no one would want to stay. And so they left as well!
However, they still needed to find Zhuo Yuzhen. How were they supposed to find her within the sea of people?
Mingyue Xin suddenly said, “There’s a place where I’m sure we’ll find her.”
Yan Nanfei immediately said, “What place?”
Mingyue Xin said, “Since he didn’t want her father to know about their affair, Qiu Shuiqing certainly must have prepared a secret place for the two of them to have their trysts.”
Even the boss of the small drapery shop outside could find a lovers meeting place for his mistress, much less the master of the Peacock Manor.
Unfortunately, that place must be extremely well hidden. “Qiu Shuiqing has always been a very prudent, circumspect person. Aside from himself, who might know about this?”
“There’s one person who must know!”
“That little girl with long pigtails.” Mingyue Xin’s spoke with great certainty. “The relationship and affection between a young miss and her personal serving girl can be very close, almost like that between sisters. If I did something like this, there’s no way I could hide it from Xingxing!”
Xingxing was the name of her own personal serving girl.
“That little girl had a sly, clever look about her. She was just putting on an act for us earlier. Within the hour, she’ll go out to look for her.”
Mingyue Xin wasn’t wrong.
Before an hour had passed, the little girl secretly snuck out from the back door and crept down a side alley.
Mingyue Xin secretly watched her, while Fu Hongxue and Yan Nanfei watched Mingyue Xin.
“It’s never easy for an unmarried maiden to travel around by herself, so their trysting place can’t be too far away!”
Mingyue Xin was right once again. The place was only two alleys away, with high walls and a narrow doorway. It was a quiet and secluded courtyard, with a ginkgo tree growing in the middle and around ten or so Chinese roses growing on top of the wall.
The door wasn’t latched; evidently, the little girl was expected. The little girl glanced all around, then quietly pushed the door open, entered, then closed and locked the door.
A delicate fragrance floated down from the Chinese roses on the top of the wall, and the leaves of the ginkgo tree were blown to and fro by the wind. No human voices could be heard at all within the courtyard.
“Go inside first. We’ll wait for you outside!”
Mingyue Xin knew all along that the two men would not be willing to rashly charge into a young girl’s private bedroom. This is because they were real men, men amongst men.
They watched as she jumped over the wall. They waited for a long time. The roses still smelled just as sweet, but from within the yard could be heard a cry of alarm.
It was Mingyue Xin’s voice.
Mingyue Xin definitely wasn’t the type of woman who would be easily frightened.
The leaves of the ginkgo tree were so thick, they cast a shadow into the room, the insides of which were as dark as dusk. The body of the serving girl was bent over on the table. Her dark, oily pigtail had been wrapped around her throat. Her hands and her feet were as cold as ice.
Mingyue Xin’s hands and feet were cold as well. “We came just a little too late.”
The little girl had been choked to death. Zhuo Yuzhen was nowhere to be seen.
No one would choke themselves to death with their own pigtail. Who was the killer?
Yan Nanfei clenched his fists. “It seems as though the affair between Zhuo Yuzhen and Qiu Shuiqing isn’t something which was kept totally secret after all.”
Thus, Gongzi Yu’s subordinates arrived one step ahead of them!
Fu Hongxue’s face was pale white, but a hint of red could be seen in his eyes.
He was searching. He hoped that the murderer, in his haste, might have left some clues behind this time.
Just one act of negligence. Just a single clue. If it was there, Fu Hongxue would not miss it!
This time, he almost missed it, simply because this clue was too obvious.
There was a small mirror on top of the dressing stand. Someone had written three words on the mirror with rouge. The words were written very hastily and sloppily. Clearly, they had been left behind by Zhuo Yuzhen. In his haste, the man who had kidnapped her didn’t notice.
Why is it that the most obvious things are the things people pay the least attention to?
Blood red rouge. Blood red words. “Zi Yang Temple!”
Ziyang Temple was a very ordinary name. There were many Daoist temples named Ziyang Temple. But as luck would have it, there was only a single temple in this city by that name.
“How did she know they would take her to the Ziyang Temple?”
“Perhaps she overheard it. Perhaps her kidnappers numbered amongst them a priest of Ziyang Temple. She was born and raised here. Naturally, she’d recognize them.”
Either way, they would have to go and check it out. Even if this was a trap, they still had to go.
Unexpectedly, the courtyard of the Ziyang Temple was also covered by a vibrantly growing ginkgo tree. Incense smoke curled around about the main hall. Not a single person could be seen. But as soon as they entered the backyard, they could hear voices.
What a cold, desolate courtyard. What a cold, icy voice. It only said two words. “Please enter!”
The voice came from a guestroom towards the left. It seemed as though the people inside were waiting for them all along.
It seemed as though this was a trap after all. But when were these three ever afraid of others’ traps?
Without even thinking, Fu Hongxue walked over. The door was left unlocked. With a light push, he opened it.
There were four people within the room.
As long as he decided to do something, and as long as his sabre was in his hand, even if there were thousands of soldiers in front of him, Fu Hongxue wouldn’t shrink back in the slightest. Much less just four people!
One of the four was drinking wine. Two were playing chess. The fourth was a young man in white who was using a small knife to trim his nails.
No lamps were lit in the room. The young man’s face looked just like the blade of his knife; white with black showing through. So black, it was frightening.
Of the two playing chess, one was indeed a Daoist priest. His beard and his hair were all white, but his face was as red and ruddy as a baby’s. The other player wore black clothes and white socks. He was dressed simply, with only a ring on his finger. But the ring was made out of priceless Han jade, the value of which was enough to purchase several cities.
Fu Hongxue’s pupils suddenly contracted. His ashen pale face suddenly became flushed with a red color.
This was because the person who had been drinking with his head lowered, had begun to slowly lift up his face.
After she saw this person’s face, Mingyue Xin’s hands and feet turned ice cold again.
His face was criss-crossed with scars and wounds. His eyes were as keen as an eagle’s. It was the ‘Immortal Eagle of Heaven’, Gongsun Tu!
He was watching them as well, and within his keen gaze there was a hint of cruel mockery. “Please sit.”
There really were three empty seats in the guest room, and Fu Hongxue actually sat down.
It was always good to conserve a little bit of energy just before a vicious life-and-death battle was about to break out.
Yan Nanfei and Mingyue Xin both sat down as well. They too knew that the time had come for a battle where life and death would be determined in the blink of an eye.