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Thread: The Mandate #1

  1. #61
    Senior Member Ren Ying Ying's Avatar
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    Lanxi stared at the image of his back, standing under the shade of another willow tree at a distance away, on the other side of the paved pathway. His white robes swayed along with the draping willow branches in the gentle spring wind. But why was she always the one chasing after his shadows? Did he actually see her? Or did he only see a stepping stone to the King? Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, as long as she is able to see him. That is all she hoped for. But now that he has finally reached his destination, does he still need the stone?

    “Stop staring,” Lanyi suddenly spoke out. “You’re being too obvious.”

    “Huh? What? What’s too obvious?” Lanxi pretended to not understand what Lanyi was referring to.

    “Oh come on. How long have we known each other? You don’t think I know what’s going on in that head of yours?” Lanyi rolled her eyes, “Plus, pretty much the entire servant quarters knows about it.”

    “Eh?” Lanxi suddenly felt a burning sensation running up her cheeks. She quickly stared away. Was it really THAT obvious?

    Lanyi sighed and spoke tenderly, “It is better break off your feelings for him now. He’s leaving for battle in a few days. Once they capture Donghai, they may never return to Luoyang, again.”

    She will even be denied the opportunity to chase his shadow? Is this the last that she will see of him? Lanxi stared back at the figure standing under the green willow branches. Her vision quickly blurred as tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. She clenched her jaw and swallowed her tears. Her eyes began to burn as she was afraid that a teardrops might fall down her cheeks if she blinked. This was public space. She must not cry.

    “Even if they did, with Prince Ying becoming the new King of Donghai,” Lanyi continued, “His office will at least be that of a Chancellor, Prime Minister, or equivalent. At that time, he won’t be looking at a lowly maid.”

    “He’s not like that…” Lanxi spoke quietly but firmly. Was she trying to convince Lanyi or was she trying to convince herself?

    Suddenly, Lanxi saw him turn around. Was he looking at her?

    No. His eyes appeared to be following a group of people stepping on shore, walking down the paved pathway separating her and Zhou He. As they walked in between, their bodies blocked her view of Zhou He. Lanxi recognized the one walking in front to be Yue Fei’er. “Strange,” Lanxi thought. “I have never seen that expression on her face before.”

    Behind Yue Fei’er followed two men. From the way they were dressed, they appeared to be the captives tied in ropes earlier. Behind them, a few servants and maids followed. As the last servant exited her frame of vision, Zhou He once again appeared in her sight. This time, she saw his face instead of his back. Was he looking back at her? Or was it just a figment of her imagination?
    Last edited by Ren Ying Ying; 08-23-11 at 05:11 AM.

  2. #62
    Senior Member Ren Ying Ying's Avatar
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    Xue Qian quietly followed behind Yue Fei’er. He stared down at the ground and watched the movement of their feet. He was afraid what he might do if he actually looked up at her instead. He could hear her voice speaking, but he wasn’t quite sure what she was saying. She pointed to something, but he couldn’t see any architecture or landscape. He wasn’t sure if he was walking in heaven or hell. There she was, right in front of him, the one he dreamed of day and night. The one he travelled all the way from Hanzhong to Luoyang for. Yet, he did not know what to say to her. The words that ran through his mind while at the Zhao Long inn could not find their way to the tip of his tongue.

    Huo Yuan rolled his eyes and tried his hardest to contain a snicker. //He puts on such a pompous attitude normally and now he’s more bashful than a little girl. He’s worse than a lost puppy.// Still, he decided to make the most out of his tour of the Palace and carefully listened to the everything Yue Fei’er said and tried to remember every turn and building structure. They say to know your enemies as well as you know yourself. This tour might come in handy one day.

    Finally, they stopped at a terrace on a high hill overlooking the entire Imperial Garden. Yue Fei’er stood by the railings to point out each of the buildings that she knew off.

    After Yue Fei’er finished speaking, Xue Qian finally mustered up the courage and stepped in closer to her near the railing. “Have you been doing well these days?” He asked.

    “Thank you for your concern, Count Xue. His Majesty treats me very well. I have been very happy,” she replied coldly. Everyone in the Xiwu court had been aware of Xue Qian’s pursuit of Yue Fei’er. Of course she knew of it, too. Neither was she oblivious as to why Xue Qian had come to Luoyang.

    Xue Qian’s heart sank into his stomach. He came all the way to Luoyang just to hear this? Impulsively, he grabbed her wrist and asked, “Do you love him?”

    Yue Fei’er quickly jerked her hand away from his grip and replied sternly, “What do you think? He is my husband. I suggest you, Count Xue, to watch your actions or you may get us both killed. You may not care if you get hanged, but I have more important things to do.”

    With that, Yue Fei’er turned around and briskly walked away. Xue Qian watched the shadows of her back disappear as she faded into the distance.

    ************************************************** *************************

    It was late evening and the sun only simmered beyond the horizon. Huo Yuan and Xue Qian were to have dinner in the guest quarters of the Palace. Suddenly, a servants showed up hesitantly at the door and handed Xue Qian a letter before quickly exiting.

    Xue Qian ripped open the seal and pulled out the letter. He recognized the handwriting. It belonged to Yue Fei’er!

    “There were too many pairs of eyes watching us during the day. There is nowhere in the Palace without ears or eyes. In the southwest corner of Luoyang, there is a Wu Yuan Shrine. Meet me there at midnight.”

    Xue Qian could not stop smiling as he folded the letter and stored it in his sleeve. Was he in Heaven? “Let’s go,” he motioned to Huo Yuan.

    “You know midnight is still a few hours away, don’t you?” Huo Yuan raised an eyebrow. He hasn’t even finished his dinner yet!

    “I can’t stand staying this Palace,” Xue Qian replied. “It’s like a cage. Come on, there’s better food outside anyways.”

    “At the Zhao Long Inn?”

    “The owner there might die of a heart attack if he saw us again.”

    ************************************************** *********************************

    Luoyang Town

    The two men decided to spare the owner of the Zhao Long Inn of a heart attack and dined at another restaurant in the southwest region of Luoyang. An hour before the onset of midnight, Xue Qian decided to head over to the Wu Yuan Shrine.

    Huo Yuan quickly followed behind.

    Xue Qian looked at Huo Yuan quizzically, “Are you coming, too?”

    Huo Yuan rolled his eyes and spoke in a low voice, “You do know that you are being followed, don’t you?”

    Xue Qian’s eyes widened.

    “Most likely, the King has sent someone to spy on us. He does not fully trust us and may still believe that we are with the assassin,” Huo Yuan whispered. “It’s going to be suspicious if we don’t stick together thanks to your little lie during the day. Anyways, you’re not planning to meet your little lady with is the tail, are you?”

    “What do we do, then?” Xue Qian asked. “I can’t not show up. I can’t stand her up.”

    “It seems the southwest region of Luoyang is particularly dark, with many deserted shrines and winding alleys. Perhaps we can lose him somewhere.”

    The two walked down the street and turned at a dark corner alley. As it was almost midnight, most families have already blown the lamps and buried the fires. The moon served as the only source of light. The night was in dead silence. The only sounds that Xue Qian could hear were their own footsteps and the occasional rat scuttling across the road.

    As they turned down a few more alleys but Huo Yuan was still able to sense the footsteps behind them. His face began to darken. The number of feet have increased. In fact, they were being surrounded!

    THUD! Xue Qian quickly jumped and turned around to see what caused the sound comming from behind. A masked man laid on the ground. His eyes wide open, but his breathing had stopped.

    “Count Xue, aren’t you glad we got rid of your tail for you?” a voice suddenly sounded from the other direction.

    Xue Qian turned around again and saw a man dressed in black. A dozen other men dressed in black outfits jumped down from the roofs on both sides of the alley.

    From the sound of their feet landing on the ground, Huo Yuan could tell that all of them were well versed in the lightness skill. //There are not ordinary soldiers...//

    “We’ve been waiting for you for a while, Count Xue,” the bodyguard continued.

    “You mean, you were sent by…” Xue Qian began.

    “Yes, Count Xue. We were sent here by Her Highness the Princess to guide you.”

    “Ah, good then…” Xue Qian smiled in relief. However, his smile soon disappeared as he saw the men in black begin to pull out swords and knives. The blades glistened under the moonlight, as if they had lives of their own.

    The bodyguard smiled, “We will be guiding you to Hell.”
    Last edited by Ren Ying Ying; 08-28-11 at 06:41 AM.

  3. #63
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    "Damn. Your dream lady wants to kill you." Huo Yuan remarked.

    For the first time, there was no reply from Xue Qian. His face was pale and his mouth opened and closed repeatedly like a goldfish, as though he wanted to say something but couldn't. Huo Yuan almost laughed at the sight of Xue Qian. Gone was his arrogance and in its place was fear, immense fear for his life.

    Pulling out his spear, Huo Yuan prepared to fight a way out. It was very likely they would not make it out alive. He sighed.

    "To think I would die with a Xiwu noble! What would my forefathers say?" He lamented.

    Physical response came, with the swords swinging at them.

    "Get back!" Huo Yuan shouted. He swept his spear in mid-air, stunning the assassins as they jumped back to avoid the blade tip cutting open their stomachs. More assassins jumped in and attacked Huo Yuan from the sides. Given that he was blocking their access to Xue Qian, they knew they had to get rid of him first. But Huo Yuan was fast, swinging his spear to his side and in a blink of an eye had already stabbed out at all of the assassins at the side, driving them off.

    Assassins from the other side came at him again, Huo Yuan pulled back his spear in an instant and sent a powerful jab toward them. The spear hits home, piercing through an assassin's chest and the leftover force knocked away his companions.

    "Argh!" The assassin screamed in agony, his blood splattering onto the ground generously.

    The bodyguard raised his hand, stopping his men from further movement.

    "Ah. The Huo Family Spear. Let me guess... you are a Xiang citizen? The son of General Huo Long?" He asked, but the smile on his face showed that he already knew the answer.

    Huo Yuan did not lower his guard. If anything else, the man's questions only raised his guard. This man knew his father. Just who is he?

    "But I thought someone of your status should be fighting in the war against Pan."

    Huo Yuan narrowed his eyes, not answering.

    "Xiwu is Xiang's enemy. And Pan has turned against Xiang... for Xiwu. Why do you defend him? You should kill him." The bodyguard said.

    "Or maybe, I can save his sorry a$$ and tell the King of Pan a very good story right away." Huo Yuan smirked.

    The bodyguard's face darkened. "You are asking for it."


    Quietly, the bodyguard leapt forward, twisting his body around and thrusting out his sword. Seeing that the man was shooting toward him like a torpedo, Huo Yuan did not dare block the blow and instead stepped aside, evading the attack.

    "Care... careful!" came Xue Qian's stutter.

    // Ah. He's finally speaking. // Huo Yuan thought.

    "He uses twin blades..."

    "What?!" Huo Yuan caught a glimpse of another silver and quickly brought his spear up to block, only to see the bodyguard swinging another blade at him! Huo Yuan tried to duck but another assassin had closed in!

    // Argh. I'm done for! //
    Last edited by Guo Xiang; 08-23-11 at 12:16 PM.
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  4. #64
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    The time when the men of Donghai would leave for war is getting closer and Prince Ying noticed that his right-hand man Zhou He was out of sorts. That was very unusual, since Zhou He was always sharp and alert, and if he was worried about something he doesn’t let it show.

    Concerned about Zhou He, Prince Ying purposely had him come along to stroll in the imperial garden where he would ask his friend and advisor about his recent uncharacteristic behaviour.

    Zhou He, on the other hand, did not have the mood to stroll around. He only went because Prince Ying was insistent on touring around the beautiful imperial garden before they leave the palace. It was only another few days away. He had not spoken to Lanxi about it yet, but was there a need to? She should already know and should have expected it.

    “So… what’s troubling you?”

    He finally asked, Zhou He thought. He just knew the prince have got a reason dragging him out to stroll in the garden that nobody of the Donghai faction really cared about right now, even for the prince.

    “It’s nothing, Your Highness. I’m just worried about the incoming war… we are waging war on our own people after all.” Zhou He replied.

    “It’s not like you to worry about such things.” Prince Ying said, feeling disappointed that his closest aide was not speaking the truth. “Even if you are, you wouldn’t show it on your face… and you would have told me about it.”

    Zhou He smiled. The prince knew him well, but perhaps it was also that the prince was improving on his observation skills. Looks like there was no longer a point in covering it up.

    “No… it’s just that… for some reason, I thought of that girl from five years ago.”

    Prince Ying stared blankly at Zhou He for a moment before realization crossed his face. “You don’t mean, that girl?”

    “I do mean her, Your Highness.” Zhou He replied, amused at Prince Ying’s reaction.

    “Why do you think about her out of the blue?”

    “I don’t know… She said she would be back… though she did not say when. But just yesterday…” Zhou He shook his head. “She just came to my mind suddenly… as though it’s some sort of… premonition.”

    Prince Ying looked at his friend worriedly. That can’t be good, especially now that they are going to war. His friend and advisor can’t afford to be distracted or hurt at this time.

    “What would you do if she does appear?” Prince Ying asked.

    Zhou He looked at Prince Ying and smiles.

    He has no idea, too.
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  5. #65
    Senior Member patricia n's Avatar
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    Nighttime. Two palace guards stood outside the main entrance and without knowing how or why, their accupoints were sealed. Although they guarded the palace, their internal energy was quite low even though their main function was to prevent intruders and to alert all other night guards when intruders arrived. Sensing that they couldn’t move, both screamed out to warn all their comrades of the break in and to activate the trap. To their surprise, they learned that their mute accupoint was also sealed. Despite their eyes roaming in panic, they stood helpless as a shadow quickly passed through the entrance as it grabbed one of the guards.

    The shadow whispered, “Use your eyes and guide me to the prison. Misguide me and I will slowly torture you.” Knowing that the guard was muted, the shadow snapped the guard’s left thumb and dislocated it immediately. The overwhelming pain failed to cause the guard to pass out as much as he would prefer to faint to avoid enduring the injury. Seeing that the intruder moved on to his right thumb and began to perform the same maneuver, the guard rapidly rolled his eyes to the left.

    Under normal circumstances, the guard had little tolerance for pain and any form of torture would distract him from thinking fully; it certainly is interesting how his fear of death motivated his mind to function at its fullest capacity despite the horrific sensation he was currently experiencing.

    When the shadow saw the guard hesitated in guiding him, the shadow dislocated his right thumb, “Do not try to delay this.” The shadow soon moved on to the guard’s right index finger to dislocate it.

    The guard knew that he was doomed. He tarried in hopes of another guard catching them as he was familiar with the night guards’ routine around the palace floor. Unable to bear the pain, the soldier continued guiding the shadow until they had reached the prison’s entrance. It was a tall door. Two tall men standing on top of one another could barely touch the top of the door.

    The shadow swiftly knocked out the guard and surprisingly relocated all the fingers he dislocated. One foot all around the entrance, the walls protruded out about a foot as well. The shadow jumped up and sat on its protrusion. He threw a silver ingot through the barred window at the top of door.

    The guards on the inside saw a beautiful silver ingot and all ran towards it. A silver ingot was worth more than several month’s worth of salary for all those guards, so to see such an object, how could it not be beautiful in their eyes. As they all hurried towards the ingot, they saw that the silver ingot quickly got small in size and became black. But even before they realized that the ingot was fake, they had already fainted from the fumes released by the object. How were they to know that a silver chemical was firmly packed all around a black rock to be made into a sliver ingot? Once that chemical was release into the air, it quickly activated and vaporized. The noxious gas blanketed all surface of the body quickly and put its victims to a deep and long sleep.

    Hearing some men snore, the shadow swung his body upside down, using his feet to hang onto the protrusion. He peeped through the window and saw a bunch of keys hanging loosely on the belt of the only guard in red. The shadow swiftly threw a curved dagger at the belt. One quick swish later, the string tying the keys were cut from the belt and the curved portion of the dagger slid through the loop of the keychain. A string was tied at the blunt end of the dagger. With an easy tug at the other end of the string, the shadow was able to obtain the set of keys.

    Upon entering the prison, the shadow dragged the palace guard into the prison and closed the prison door to avoid suspicion. He opened a small jar containing the antidote to the noxious gas. He muted and immobilized the guard in red before placing the antidote under his nose. Using the same torture tactic as previously, the shadow lowly whispered, “If you do not cooperate, I will dislocate every finger. When you have none left, I will move up your arms and then dislocate your elbows. Do you understand?”

    The guard used his eyes to nod.

    “Show me where the king’s assassin’s comrades are.”

    Seeing the guard look confused, the shadow moved on to dislocate many of his fingers. However, the guard continued to remain confused. After awhile the shadow requested that the guard guide him to the most secured prison cell where the worst palace offenders were locked. Once he arrived there, the shadow knocked the guard senseless and relocated all his fingers. He ran up and down looking for Huo Yuan and Xue QIan, but neither were to be found.

    The shadow went back and woke up another guard to ask about Huo Yuan or Xue Qian’s whereabouts. Regardless of how many times he repeated this procedure, nothing changed. All guards were always confused, and no one knew anything.

    Disappointed, the shadow knew that he had to leave soon before he was discovered. Just as quickly and as carefully as he entered the palace, he left it.
    Last edited by patricia n; 08-25-11 at 03:28 AM.
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  6. #66
    Senior Member Allen D's Avatar
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    **continue from post 63**

    Ai Lang had been following Huo Yuan and Xue Qian ever since they had been apprehended. He had been with them in the palace, lurking in the shadows, not wanting to reveal himself due to his weakened state. He followed them just in case things got too dicey. After all, Huo Yuan was the son of Ai Lang's former general and he did not mean for him to be captured, Ai Lang just needed to get away from his pursuers. As it seemed, things were getting pretty dicey from Ai Lang's point of view. Ai Lang had been watching the fight unfold from a nearby rooftop and he saw that Huo Yuan had gotten himself surrounded. Thinking fast, Ai Lang pulled some shingles from the roof and threw that at Huo's attackers.

    Despite being injured, Ai Lang was still able to put a lot of power behind those shingles and they traveled at blazing speeds, easily nailing their marks. The assassins attacking Huo all let out a grunt as they fell to the ground. Huo nervously opened his eyes and saw that his attackers were dead, shingles sticking out of their backs and necks.

    Then Ai Lang showed himself, using his lightness skill to land in front of Huo Yuan. Xue Qian too was quite confused by what was happening. It seemed that te man who had framed them earlier, was now helping them.

    "You..." Huo Yuan said sternly, to Ai Lang.

    "I'll explain myself after we resolve this situation," said Ai Lang as he pulled his sword from his waist.

    "It better be good," said Huo Yuan

    Xue Qian quickly ran to the sides of Huo Yuan and Ai Lang. All three men had their backs turned to one another, as more and more attackers surrounded them.

    "Doesn't look good," said Huo as he observed the situation.

    Huo too had noticed that Ai Lang had multiple injuries and that they were slowing him down, tiring him.
    Last edited by Allen D; 08-26-11 at 01:45 AM.
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  7. #67
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    As the day when the Donghai men would leave the capital for war closes in, the King of Pan decided to hold a banquet in honour of them to wish them victory.

    The King of Pan did not hold back the purse strings, as many performance troupes were engaged and all sorts of exotic foods were laid out in the hundred tables large banquet. The imperial chefs had even whipped up the most famous dishes from the different states, and the guests were in the hundreds, ranging from royalty to fourth grade officials and their family.

    Zhou He glanced at the crowd, all seated at their respective tables and having fun laughing, eating and drinking and enjoying the numerous performances. // Looks like it’s turning into some sort of circus. // He thought.

    The Donghai tables were the closest to the King’s, as they were the main leads. At the King’s table were the King and his princes, the Queen, Lady Yi and Xiwu Princess Yue Fei-er. Standing behind Lady Yi was Lanxi and Lanyi. Zhou He stole a few glances at Lanxi but he quickly looked away whenever Lanxi or someone else from the table seems to look at his direction.

    Now that he has gotten what he wants and they are leaving for war soon, there was no more reason to keep up with this relationship, he told himself. Besides, if they do win the war, they would not be returning to Pan. This would be the best time to let go.

    As the dancers completed their dance and retreated from the main stage, the King turned to Yue Fei-er.

    “Well my dear. I don’t seem to see Count Xue. Where is he?”

    “He’s not feeling well and has been advised to rest in.” Yue Fei-er replied.

    “Oh I see.” The King did not ask further. Seeing the now empty stage, the King frowned. “The night is still too young to end! There should be another entertainment!”

    At this moment, Xiwu Chief Envoy Zhang Duo Qian stood up from his table and bowed respectfully.

    “If Your Majesty permits, I do have an idea.”

    “Oh? What is it?” The King was interested. Perhaps Xiwu has different entertainment that could hype up the atmosphere even more.

    “But this entertainment requires the cooperation of Lord Zhou He… I’m not sure if Lord Zhou would be receptive to it…” Zhang Duo Qian hesitated.

    Prince Ying and Zhou He looked at each other before looking at Zhang Duo Qian in surprise.

    “Oh? What has it got to do with Lord Zhou?” The King arched a brow in curiosity.

    “Lord Zhou’s skill with the sword is renowned. It would be an honour if we from the Xiwu could see it with our own eyes, so we propose that he duel with a swordsmanship expert from Xiwu.”

    “What? But…” The King was hesitant. Zhou He was a guest afterall and he’s going to war soon. What if he gets hurt?

    “Don’t worry, Your Majesty. It will just be a friendly duel, nothing more than that.” Zhang Duo Qian reassured. “Besides, we can take this as a friendly martial exchange.”

    The King turned to Zhou He.

    “Lord Zhou, what do you think? It wouldn’t hurt. Besides, you’ve been here for three years yet I’ve yet to seen your famous swordsmanship!” the King said.

    The King has already opened his mouth… it is obvious he wanted it… and he could be offended if a rejection takes place so publicly, Zhou He thought.

    “It is my honour to be able to exchange pointers with a Xiwu martial artist.” Zhou He replied.

    Prince Ying puts a hand on Zhou He’s arm. “Boyan, be careful. Don’t get hurt.” He said.

    “Don’t be too concerned about this, Your Highness. It’s just a friendly martial exchange.” Zhou He smiled.

    “Great!” The King of Pan was pleased. “So where’s your warrior, Lord Zhang?”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.” Zhang Duo Qian smiled. He turned, nodded his head and a young woman stepped out from behind him.

    Zhou He’s smile faded when he saw the young woman.

    She walked to the aisle and stopped at a short distance from the King’s table, and just next to the Donghai table. She knelt down.

    “Yushen from Jiancheng greets the great King of Pan.”

    Zhou He bit his lower lip. So his premonition has come true.

    “Oh? So you are the one Lord Zhang speaks of? But you are so young and you are a woman!” The King was surprised. “And Jiancheng… isn’t that the number one school in Xiwu?”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.” Yushen smiled at the King’s remark on Jiancheng. “Yushen might be a young woman, but that is of no relevance in Jiancheng. We at Jiancheng only recognise those with strength.”

    “Hahaha! Then I shall be expecting your performance against Lord Zhou!”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.” Yushen replied as she got up from the floor. She turned to Zhou He and smiled at him.

    “After you, Lord Zhou?”

    “… No… after you.” Zhou He replied.

    Prince Ying noticed Zhou He’s strange behaviour and realisation strikes him. This woman must be the one from five years ago! When and how did she get here?

    “All right.” Yushen agreed as she walked to the stage. Zhou He followed right behind her almost absent-mindedly. Right before she appeared, the duel was stated to be a friendly martial exchange. But now, can he trust her not to attempt separating his head from the neck?
    Last edited by Guo Xiang; 08-27-11 at 01:37 AM.
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  8. #68
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    Yushen and Zhou He’s eyes locked as they stood on the stage.

    As she smiled at him and moved her hand to the sword on her belt, Zhou He had a déjà vu feeling. Except that five years ago it wasn’t so public. But surely she wouldn’t come up with that sore loser attitude again now that they are dueling in the open.

    He smiled at the memories and pulled his sword out of the sheath. She would move first, like five years ago, he thought.

    True enough, as soon as his train had thoughts ended, Yushen had taken a big step forward, swinging her sword toward his waist in a move so fast the blade was no more than a flash of silver. The audience gasped; surely Zhou He wouldn’t be able to block that fast blow, and if he couldn’t, won’t he end up seriously injured or dead?

    But they had underestimated Zhou He. Yushen was fast, but Zhou He was no slow cow. In a split second he turned his sword inward and blocked the blow with the sword hilt. In a quick moment he smacked the offensive sword away and stabbed toward Yushen’s chest. But she quickly withdrew her sword hand and parried away Zhou He’s blade before taking in another step to close in on Zhou He, and shooting out two fingers to jab at his throat.

    The audience gasped again and Prince Ying leaned forward nervously. Wasn’t this supposed to be a friendly duel? The fight had only gone through the first few moves and it was already turning deadly?

    Zhou He’s free hand shot out, the palm hitting onto Yushen’s wrist, turning around it before pushing her hand away, easily disintegrating her attack.

    The audience clapped in excitement. “Good move!” They shouted.

    // This is strange. The way they are moving… they acted too fast to be true. Boyan’s hand already looked like it was on stand-by right before she attacked his throat and she seems prepared for his straight stab. It’s as though they knew what the other party was going to do beforehand! // Prince Ying thought. This can’t be staged, can it, he wondered.

    Prince Ying was correct that both Zhou He and Yushen were completely aware of what the other were going to do beforehand, but he was wrong on the account that it was staged.

    As Zhou He parried away another attack from Yushen, he thought, // Strange! She is using the same old moves from five years ago and in the exact order! I don’t know what she is up to… but fine, I will continue to play along… //

    Finally, the two swords clashed and Zhou He and Yushen stared into each other’s faces. They were so close they could feel the other’s hot breath.

    // This is it… This was where we… no. She can’t be wanting to replicate that. //

    He was right; she didn’t. Yushen pulled back, taking two steps behind.

    “Lord Zhou He’s swordsmanship lived up to its reputation. I am impressed.” Yushen said with a bow, signalling the end of the duel.

    Surprised, Zhou He was slow to react.

    “Oh… uhh… yes… thank you… I mean, Jiancheng’s swordsmanship is as impressive…” He muttered.

    The audience applauded and cheered. While there were numerous heart-dropping parts in the duel where the two seemed to be going for the kill, it had been relatively harmless afterall.

    At his table, the King of Pan, too, was clapping happily. “Hmm. That young lady is like a thunderstorm, striking out fast and relentlessly and was everywhere… but Lord Zhou is like a mountain, steady and immovable; he hasn’t taken more than three steps after so many rounds! Excellent swordsmanship from both sides! But I wonder who would win had the fight gone on?”

    As Zhou He returned to his table, Prince Ying received him to the seat personally.

    “I’m glad you are all right. The fight took on a tone that is too serious to be friendly!” Prince Ying said in a hushed voice.

    “… No worries, Your Highness. Everything’s okay.” Zhou He reassured Prince Ying simply. He looked toward the Xiwu table where Yushen was well received by the Xiwu officials.

    It can’t be a coincidence she turned up here at this time.
    Last edited by Guo Xiang; 08-27-11 at 01:24 AM.
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    Senior Member Ren Ying Ying's Avatar
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    Lanxi wiped the cold sweat off her palms. Any expert of martial arts could easily see that the competition between Zhou He and Yusheng was more than just friendly exchanges. The audiences may have gasped for excitement at every dangerous exchange, but Lanxi felt her heart skip a beat every time Yusheng’s blade came dangerously close to Zhou He.

    Yet, as the fight wore on, Lanxi noticed that the stances exchanged between Yusheng and Zhou He were too well matched, as if they were performing a choreographed dance rather than a competition. But such an idea was indeed hard to believe. Yusheng is suppose to be from Jiancheng, the number one school in Xiwu. How would she know Zhou He, who is from Donghai?

    Lanxi shook her head. She must be thinking too much. But the more days she goes without seeing Zhou He, the stranger the thoughts that creep into her head. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep her thoughts away from him, especially as the day he leaves Luoyang looms closer. She needed an answer from him.

    ************************************************** *********

    The feast came to an end. The guests were still socializing with each other as they exited the hall. Although Prince Ying was an important guest in the feast, he did not wish to partake in the socialization. There was nothing to celebrate in attacking his own people.

    After making sure that Prince Ying has safely retreated to his room, Zhou He let out a sigh of relief. It certainly had been a long evening. Even though the competition with Yusheng ended well, he still had an uneasy feeling. What did she really want? Certainly there was more to just repeating the same stances as last time and then retreating.

    Suddenly, Zhou He felt someone grab his left wrist. Instinctively, he twsited his forearm and flipped his hand to grapple his attacker’s arm, but he stopped as soon as he recognized his attacker.

    “Lanxi?” He his eyes widened with surprise. But now that he has thought about it, he should have known. Who else in this Palace has the lightness skill to be able to sneak up to him without him noticing until she had already touched his hand?

    But before Zhou He could speak further, Lanxi had already pulled his arm and dragged him to a better concealed spot in between two decorative rocks. She looked at the ground for a few seconds. Then, she took a deep breath and stared directly into his eyes, “What am I to you?”
    Last edited by Ren Ying Ying; 08-27-11 at 03:43 AM.

  10. #70
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    Zhou He stared back into Lanxi’s eyes but soon looked away, even though he did not pull away his arm, which Lanxi was still holding onto tightly.

    “… You know it’s impossible between us…” He begun but was swiftly cut off by Lanxi, “Don’t give me that nonsense. Just tell me what am I to you.”

    Lanxi would have none of his excuses anymore. No matter if it was possible or impossible, she had to hear it from him. Does he love her or not? Does he even care about her?

    “I…” Zhou He hesitated. His initial plan was to simply make use of Lanxi, but over time he had grown attached to her. She truly loved him and he felt guilty for making use of her, but for the greater good he was willing to cut away things that mattered less. Love, for example.

    “You are nothing to him.”

    Lanxi and Zhou He turned in surprise. Leaning on one of the rocks was Yushen who was looking in with a smug look on her face.

    “What…” Lanxi was angered, not so much for the intrusion but for the insolence.

    “Tell her, Boyan. Tell her the truth. Tell her you never loved her.” Yushen smiled, gazing gently at Zhou He whose expression had darkened.

    Seeing that Zhou He still refused to speak, Yushen stood straight and took a step forward.

    “Well, since Boyan won’t talk, let me speak for him then.” She smiled. “Don’t you know he already has a wife and two daughters back home? Even though they are no longer around, but you are talking about a man full of hatred and hopes of revenge for his family, and who also wants to fulfill his lord’s ambitions? What could you hope to achieve from this man? Give up everything for you? Don’t be foolish.”

    “Stop it.” Zhou He shut his eyes tightly. He did not need to be reminded of what happened to his family. “… What do you want?”

    “I’m helping an old friend?” Yushen cocked her head, pretending to look confused. “We did have a history five years ago… right?”

    Zhou He opened his eyes and stared at Yushen.

    “… I’m not biting your bait.”

    Yushen giggled. “Who’s setting any?”
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    It was difficult not to believe Yusheng’s words. From the way Yushen and Zhou He interacted, it was clear that they knew each other. //Then that competition from earlier…She even addresses him so casually!// But she still had to hear it from his mouth to believe it!

    “Shut up! This is between me and him only!” Lanxi snarled at Yushen, who only smirked back, as if taking more pleasure the more upset Lanxi looked.

    Lanxi tightened her grip on Zhou He’s sleeve. “I know that I am only an old palace maid. I don’t expect you to give up anything for me, or even give me anything. I just want to know what I am to you. Was I just a stepping stone for you?”

    “Lanxi, it’s not that simple…” Zhou He trailed off.

    “See? He won’t give you a straight answer. Is that not clear enough what he thinks? Are you really that thick skinned that you need a man to reject you directly?” Yushen mocked again.

    Lanxi stared at Zhou He for him to give her an answer, but he still hesitated. That was all she needed. Yushen was right. His silence was his answer. Perhaps she doesn’t need to be humiliated with his direct rejection. Without another word, she let go of his sleeve and turned around to leave, disappearing as quickly as she had appeared.

    Zhou He sighed again. This was probably the best for both of them. Then, he turned his attention to Yushen.

    **********************************************

    Lanxi kicked open the door to her room. To her surprise, she found Lanyi sitting at the table with a few small wooden boxes in front of her.

    After seeing Lanxi’s face and actions, Lanyi greeted her, “Wow, for such a festive night, it seems like there are a lot of gloomy faces.”

    Lanxi pouted as she sat down next to Lanyi and poured herself a cup of tea. The warm liquid soothed the burning of her chest. “Who else was gloomy?" It was nice to know she wasn’t the only one suffering these days.

    “Young master come in here earlier with a face longer than his horse. He dropped of these perfume boxes that he said he brought from out west. And then he stormed out.” Lanyi shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe I should find something to be upset about and join you guys.”

    Lanxi chuckled, but her voice became muffled. She sniffled and tried to hold back her tears, but her eyes won’t listen to her. Finally, she gave up. She was too tired to fight the tears anymore. They rolled down her cheeks. Lanxi buried hear head into Lanyi’s arms and sobbed uncontrollably.
    Last edited by Ren Ying Ying; 08-27-11 at 05:05 AM.

  12. #72
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    “… So what is it that you want?”

    Yushen raised a brow. “What do you mean? Five years ago I did say I’d be back to challenge you again.”

    “Hah…” Zhou He scoffed. He isn’t in a particularly good mood after what happened with Lanxi. He thought what he did was for the best, but why was he feeling so down and beaten?

    “What’s with that laughter? You don’t think much of me, do you?” Yushen was cross at how dismissive Zhou He seems to be.

    “Listen, I’m going to war soon. I do not wish to waste any of my energy on such meaningless things…”

    “Meaningless?” Yushen was angered, “What do you mean?! Meaningless? After robbing me of my pride and dignity, you think you can just walk away from it?”

    Zhou He sighed. Five years have passed but the young woman still has not come to terms with her defeat.

    “I’ve told you… there’s nothing shameful in losing… besides…”

    “Besides, I was a kid, right?” Yushen glared at Zhou He. That’s what she hated about him the most. She was only a kid. He didn’t take her seriously back then, and even now he’s not taking her seriously either!

    “Well, a kid with impressive accomplishments. You did snuck into three bandit lairs and killed the leaders right under the noses of the bandits and got out unscathed…” Zhou He said slowly.

    “You said that five years ago, but still, I’m only a kid..” She stared hard at him.

    Zhou He remained silent.

    Taking in a deep breath, Yushen said, “Well, as you can see I’m no longer a kid… so it’s time to take things seriously. Let us just arrange a time and place…”

    Zhou He raised his hand, interrupting her. “Forget. I won’t go. As I said, I’m leaving for war soon…”

    “That’s right. That’s why it must be done before that!” Yushen snapped, surprising Zhou He to silence. “Are you so confident you will win this war? Donghai might be in crap state now, but its armies are still huge and powerful. And half of this war’s outcome depends on whether those Donghai princes will stop their infighting and unite against your lord. If you die, then there’s no way we can finish this off. And mind you, I won’t allow you to die before we are done!”

    // Still as crude as ever. But she has analyzed the situation very well. She has indeed grown up. // Zhou He thought. // I don’t think I can say ‘no’… she has come so far, even entering the palace just for this. She will be pestering me until I say ‘yes’… and I can’t afford distractions during the war. //

    “All right.” Zhou He relented. “Where and when do you intend to do it?”

    “Well, I heard that the southwest wing of the palace is under renovation. We shall meet there tomorrow midnight.”

    “Right.”

    Yushen was starting to walk off when she stopped and turned to look at Zhou He.

    “Oh yes… I have to warn you… if you still think of me as the kid from five years ago, you are going to be in very big trouble tomorrow midnight. So before you go there, be sure and know of the fact that you are facing a new me, and underestimating me will be the end of you.”

    Zhou He watched her leave.

    He thought of Lanxi and sighed. He can never make up to her enough.
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  13. #73
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    Continued from posts 65 and 66

    The bodyguard using the twin blades moved away from the shingles in a timely manner, hence he was uninjured despite the rapid speed at which they were hurled in his direction. He was upset that someone interfered with his plan. He did not expect Xue Qian and Huo Yuan to receive help at this hour; this third person certainly made things more difficult for him.

    Xue Qian kept on muttering, “Twin blades, he uses the twin blades…” His incoherent speech only led to more confusion on Huo Yuan and Wang Ai Lang’s part. The group of masked men circled in on the trio as their defense weakened.

    “Xue Qian, who is this person?” Huo Yuan inquired as he took a step backwards when the men moved in on him.

    The bodyguard with the twin blades knew that by this point, Xue Qian had identified him. His assignment was to kill Xue Qian, but now it was even more important to do so before the mastermind behind this ambush was named.

    He raised his arms and with immediate succession, his right and left arms swung forward as he parried against Huo Yuan’s spear and Wang Ai Lang’s sword. Both saw that his target was primarily Xue Qian and moved swiftly to protect him. Huo Yuan and Wang Ai Lang were neither this person’s match and also because they were outnumbered and Wang Ai Lang was heavily injured, it was a simple matter for this handler of the twin blades to break apart the trio. The bodyguard pushed his left blade up; Wang Ai Lang saw that he had an opportunity to parry offensively. Ai Lang rotated his right wrist in multiple full circles, commanding his sword to flex and wrap around the blade. With each circular motion, the pressure of the sword wrapping around the blade increased until it became impossible for the masked man to withdraw his blade. Unfortunately, Ai Lang was not at his full potential and he also did not know the inner strength of his opponent. The bodyguard swiftly moved his right blade forward, released his hand from the left blade, exerted his inner energy towards the right blade, and pushed and swirled the right blade around the left blade, peeling Ai Lang’s sword off of it. The right blade pushed forward towards the sword’s grip and the energy shocked Ai Lang and caused him to fall backwards.

    Huo Yuan was fighting against the other masked men and heard Ai Lang crying in pain as he fell. “We’re doomed…Am I to die today?” He thought.

    Suddenly, he saw the men who surrounded him fall. He looked behind him in Xue Qian and Wang Ai Lang’s direction. The masked men surrounding them also fell one by one. Some were killed or injured by daggers and others were killed or injured by arrows. Arrows continued to shoot towards the masked men, killing some more and mostly missing others. However, the daggers that went forward hit its target every time.

    The man with the twin blades saw his men dead or wounded. Clearly this was unexpected. He spun in a torpedo and used his twin blades to shield his entire body from the arrows. Where did these other people come from? If he didn’t order his men to retreat now, then they would all suffer or die now that they no longer had the upper hand. But if he retreated, then how could he explain their loss? It would be too embarrassing when this victory was supposedly secured when the letter was sent to Xue Qian. As he was deep in his thoughts, he narrowly missed an arrow that almost hit his shoulder. The arrow slid past his right shoulder and scraped his robe but missed his skin. He thought, “Who is helping them? There are few martial arts experts who use daggers. Wu Haocun is the most accurate in his aim, but once he releases his dagger, his victim cannot escape death. Also, he has retired. Who else can it be? The person shooting the arrows is obviously an amateur with decent aim…I…I..I can’t die tonight. There are more important matters to attend. For Xiwu’s sake, I will suffer this humiliation. My men cannot die in such an unworthy manner!” He quickly yelled the signal to retreat and all his men left.

    After the men left, a figure swiftly somersaulted towards the trio. This figure was also dressed in black, but his mask was off.

    Huo Yuan immediately recognized him and cupped his hands in appreciation, “Elder Wu, thank you for saving us. But why are you dressed like this?”

    Wu Haocun smiled, “You’re welcome. I went to the palace prison to look for you but did not expect to find you here on my way back home. Actually,” Turning around to look at the bushes, Haocun wondered, “ I am curious as to who also helped you tonight.”

    “You mean, there is someone else here?” asked a surprised Huo Yuan.

    Wu Haocun requested, “Friend, please step out and reveal yourself. We would like to show you our appreciation.

    A tiny shadow stepped out from amongst the bush and Xue Qian said with amazement, “You?”

    Haocun looked at him and said, “Feng, I thought I told you to wait for me at the inn?”

    Feng responded, “I waited but you never returned so I became worried. If something happened to you then it would be my fault since I was the one who asked you to save them.”

    “Huh! Why would you want to save us?” Xue Qian asked in disbelief.

    “As if I care to save you! But this Huo Yuan here, he at least deserved to be saved.” Retorted Feng.

    Xue Qian took a step towards Feng, “Why you little…”

    Huo Yuan stood in the way, “Don’t, he just saved your life.”

    Wu Haocun looked at the unfamiliar face and asked, “May I please have the honor of learning your name?”

    Wang Ai Lang had been tending to his injuries and was not too involved in the discussion, thus he did not introduce himself earlier. Seeing the man ask him politely, he responded, “I’m Wang Ai Lang.”

    Huo Yuan suddenly remembered, “Xue Qian, earlier, you kept on repeating yourself saying ‘twin blades this, twin blades that.’ Do you know who that masked man is?”
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  14. #74
    Senior Member Guo Xiang's Avatar
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    “Lanxi, Lanxi! Are you listening to me?”

    Lanxi’s head jerked up and found herself looking at a not-so-happy Lady Yi. Beside her stood Lanyi and Yiquan who looked worried.

    “Yes, Your Ladyship.” Lanxi replied instinctively but Lady Yi was not fooled.

    She did not, however, prod further since this was a good day. Not only was she was out in the imperial garden with her brother whom she had not seen for a long time, her 13 years old son Prince Jing and six years old daughter Princess Fuzhen were also there.

    By palace protocols the children were to be raised by the Queen and this was one of the rare times when she could see them thus she was in a very forgiving mood. Even if Lanxi seemed to have lost her soul since early this morning.

    As Prince Jing and Princess Fuzhen ran into the garden to play, Lady Yi called out, “Be careful!”

    It was then her eyes caught sight of someone else at the other side of the garden – the Xiwu swordswoman called Yushen. Lady Yi remembered her name since she was quite good-looking and seemed to be very skilled with the sword. Besides Lanxi and Lanyi, Lady Yi didn’t know of many women who were that skilled.

    But there was someone else… Lady Yi frowned when she saw who it was.

    Prince Kang, skulking behind Yushen.

    // Ah, that good-for-nothing Prince Kang… what is he up to this time? //

    Knowing that Prince Kang was always bullying his younger siblings, she was about to call out to Prince Jing and Princess Fuzhen when she saw something curious.

    Prince Kang was sneaking up to Yushen from behind and was reaching out to her when she suddenly turned around, blocking Lady Yi’s view of Prince Kang.

    They seemed to be talking, but Lady Yi wasn’t sure since she could only see Yushen’s back. There seemed to be odd flashes of colours around her that lasted for about five seconds. Then suddenly, something very curious and surprising happened.

    Prince Kang stumbled backward, an expression of utter horror and fear plastered onto his pale face. He then nodded furiously before running away hurriedly.

    Lady Yi stared in disbelief. What had that Xiwu woman done to make Prince Kang react in such a manner? The young man was never acquainted with fear, even when it comes to his father-king.

    // These Xiwu women are most certainly something! //

    ****

    Yushen was strolling in the garden, relaxing before midnight comes. Zhang Duoqian insisted on having some servants follow her around to show the way on the pretext of being concerned she wouldn’t be able to find her way around, but she knew he was afraid of what she could be up to. He was already worried enough when she suddenly showed up in his quarters in the palace.

    But how could those servants keep up with her if she didn’t want them to? And right after she shook them off, she noticed a young man shadowing her on secret. Before she went off for this stroll, Zhang Duoqian had warned her about this certain prince with a reputation. She knew he must be the young chap who’s following her.

    She allowed him to follow her, just waiting for him to take action, curious at what he would do. He reaches out with his hand and she smiled to herself.

    // This lecherous boy…! //

    Yushen made a sudden turnaround, stunning the young man who had very much expected to be able to take her by surprise.

    “What are you doing?” She questioned, eyeing his extended hand.

    As if embarrassed at being caught red-handed, Prince Kang flared in anger.

    “How dare you address me as ‘you’?? Who do you think you are?!” He reprimanded in a bid to win back some face.

    “I know who I am. But I don’t know who you are.” Yushen pretended to be ignorant. As long as she can keep him from revealing who he was, she can always play ignorant.

    “What? Certainly you must have seen me last night, you lowly servant.” Prince Kang spat angrily.

    “There are too many people last night. Were you even there? Sorry, I didn’t notice.” Yushen replied sweetly.

    “Argh!” Prince Kang stamped his feet in frustration, “How rude! Don’t think just because you are from Xiwu and is a friend of that Zhang Duoqian I will be afraid of you! I’m going to teach you a lesson!”

    He raised his hand and swing it hard toward Yushen’s face, but the corner of his eyes caught a myriad of colours and a sudden chill down his spine stopped his hand instinctively.

    That moment of instinct saved him, for he saw that he was only a hair away from a blade that had appeared out of nowhere. Yushen held that blade low, vertically right in front of her, with the edge facing out. Had Prince Kang not stopped his hand on time, he could have been injured.

    Yushen smiled when she saw the young man’s face paling.

    “How lucky of you, young man.”

    “Wha… what?” Prince Kang was confused.

    Yushen quietly took out her handkerchief and brushed it lightly against the blade. Prince Kang’s eyes widened when he saw the handkerchief split into half.

    “The next time you pester me, I won’t be so sure if Lady Luck will still favour you so. You hear me?”

    Prince Kang gulped as he stumbled backward, his face a sheet of white and eyes filled with terror.

    “Now get out of my sight.”

    Prince Kang nodded in fear before he turned and fled the scene. Who knew a woman could be so dangerous??

    Yushen could have laughed. That useless prince! He obviously thought he could bully her based on the simple but flawed reasoning that she was of a low position. One who only dared to bully the weak are weaklings themselves who could never stand up against the strong. And for someone like Prince Kang, with his position and ego, he would never suffer the humiliation of letting others know how he was beaten and threatened by a nobody. She would be safe, and he would be shivering in his bedroom.

    Sheathing her sword and pocketing the sliced handkerchief, Yushen turned around to see Lady Yi looking on curiously from a distance. At the banquet last night, Zhang Duoqian had briefly told her who’s who so she knew who Lady Yi and the man beside her were.

    She saw Lanxi and smiled at her.

    Yushen walked over and held her palms together to pay respects to Lady Yi.

    “Greetings to Lady Yi and Lieutenant General Yi.”
    Last edited by Guo Xiang; 08-28-11 at 12:42 PM.
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    Senior Member Ren Ying Ying's Avatar
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    //That b*tch! What does she want?// Lanxi clenched her fist behind her back as she tried to keep calm and remain civil. Even though the events of the previous night were still fresh in her mind, she was clear headed enough to know that she shouldn’t act out in public.

    Lady Yi nodded at Yushen’s greeting and smiled. “Miss Yushen, you certainly gave an unforgettable performance last night. I see you are by yourself? How rude of us not to have provided you a guide to show you around the palace. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have had to see some unsightly things.” Clearly, she was referring to Prince Kang.


    ************************************************

    Luoyang Town, Midnight continued from post 73

    “Who he is?” Xue Qian repeated after Wu Haocun. “Who is he…” He trailed off, as if his eyes stared off into space.

    “Snap out of it!” Huo Yuan yelled at him. “You almost got us killed!”

    Xue Qian’s eyes finally came back to earth. “Him? He is Xiwu Envoy Zhang Duo Qian’s trusted bodyguard…”

    “Xiwu Envoy? Why is Xiwu after you guys?” Wu Haocun asked again.

    Xue Qian stared deep into thought. “Why are they after us…” his voice trailed off again. It was clear why they would want him dead, but he did not want to say it out loud. Saying it out loud would mean that he must acknowledge the connections between the events and the people. He was not ready to come to face with the facts just yet.

    Seeing that the situation was going nowhere, Huo Yuan quickly added in, “Elder Wu, I don’t think this can be explained in a few words. This place still isn't very safe. Why don’t we find a better spot to speak and clear up everything?”
    Last edited by Ren Ying Ying; 08-29-11 at 01:10 AM.

  16. #76
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    Wu Haocun nodded in agreement and turned to face Feng, “Do you know of a good and secretive place for us to discuss matters?”

    Feng debated within himself. He had a good hideaway in Zhao Long Inn when he needed to get away from his colleagues to bathe; he wasn’t sure if he wanted to give up this location. However, he saw the urgency of the situation and meekly gave in to their request, “If you quietly follow me back to the inn, there is this one place that no one uses.”

    The group of five quietly returned to the inn without disturbing a soul. Feng took them to the east wing of the inn, past beyond the outhouse. Xue Qian eyes widened in horror when he saw that they began to enter the dirty and unkempt area of the inn. A large piece of wood that was hastily broken hung from the side of a narrow door, its splintered end threatening to pierce anyone who dared to enter beyond it. Even in the darkness, Xue Qian saw the cobwebs shimmering as the moonlight hit them, hanging from the corners of the doorway. He hesitated, but Huo Yuan pushed him from behind and forced him to pass through the narrow doorway.

    Once they all entered safely through, Feng took out a small torch and lit it. He whispered, “Just keep following me. We’re not there yet.” The group meandered through a narrow path and with the small amount of light, they observed dust had long ago settled heavily on the floor, the walls had holes and cracks in them, and almost every space was covered in cobwebs. They soon reached the end of the pathway and came across a small room. Multiple broken jugs lined the end of one wall. Feng rotated the smallest jug, and the wall to the right of the jug opened up, revealing a stairway leading down.

    Everyone followed him downstairs and the wall immediately closed behind them. Once the wall closed behind them, Feng grabbed the large torch that hung on the left wall and lit it. To everyone else’s surprise, the stairway abruptly ended after twenty steps. At the bottom was a very large and clean room, devoid of broken wood and cobweb. Feng turned around and explained, “No one will come here. I think I’m the only person who knows of this place. I accidentally discovered it when boss asked me to put away all broken materials in the storage room; no one else will do it because they think the area is haunted.” At this point Feng smirked, “In actuality, I was the one who caused the disturbance down here when cleaning up and they thought it was a spirit wandering the area.”

    In the well lit room, everyone could see each other and saw how much injury Huo Yuan, Wang Ai Lang, and Xue Qian suffered during the ambush. Also in the well lit room, everyone noticed that Feng’s bow was old and beaten up and his bin of arrows on his back was empty. When Feng saw the eyes staring at his back he said, “It’s a good thing the masked men left when they did; otherwise, I would not be able to help much.”

    Huo Yuan asked, “Why did you pretend to not know martial arts all this time?”

    “I never pretended. I really know very little martial arts. My archery skills are much superior compared to my martial arts. When I was younger, Father taught me how to hunt to help get food for the family. We were always poor so we had to survive in the wild. And when he died…well, I had to improve on my skills or else it would be difficult for me to survive. Fortunately, I got lucky enough to work at Zhao Long Inn and not have to worry about my daily meals. Anyhow, shooting at people isn’t really that much different than aiming for animals. It’s just a matter of being quick with the eyes and being precise.” Feng stopped saying much more after that, for he realized that he may have revealed too much about his past. What if these people found out who he really was?

    Feng put away the bow and bin. Huo Yuan, Wang Ai Lang, and Xue Qian felt somewhat embarrassed as they all grew up in a life of luxury and never had to worry about when their next meal would be. And here was a poor rascal who helped save their lives.

    Nevertheless, still angered by Feng’s behavior towards him in the past, Xue Qian snickered, “How convenient that you always had your bow and arrows hidden. When were you planning to take it out to use on me?”

    Feng stared at him and said disgustingly, “You! You’re such an ungrateful jerk. Prior to tonight, I’ve always only used my bow and arrow when traveling between Luoyang and home to somewhat protect myself. If I had an extra arrow, I wouldn’t mind using it on you now.”

    Xue Qian backed away when he saw that Feng had the potential to hurt him when he wasn’t looking and kept silent after that.

    Wu Haocun interfered, “Mister Xue, please do not take to heart Feng’s threats.” He paced back and forth before he finally said, “I don’t know what the relationship between you men are, but the city is in lockdown because of the king’s assassin.” He turned to look at Wang Ai Lang, “I do not know if you are or not, but judging by your injuries, you fit the description of the assassin. Furthermore, you also framed Huo Yuan and Xue Qian. I’m not sure what your intentions are, but it is imperative that I leave this city. ”

    At the mention of this, Huo Yuan became upset when Wu Haocun reminded him that Wang Ai Lang accused him of being involved in the assassination. He jumped in and interrupted Wu Haocun’s train of thoughts, “You jerk! Fortunately because of Xue Qian’s ties with the new consort, the king of Pan believed our innocence. Why the hell did you get me involved?”
    Last edited by patricia n; 08-30-11 at 04:37 AM.
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    // Political intrigues are indeed messy. // Yushen thought.

    But then again, isn’t that the same with anywhere else, including Jiancheng? To succeed in Jiancheng usually means you are talented, but to climb to the top indicates acumen for politics. She had seen her own fair share of politicking and backstabbing at Jiancheng to know the treacherous terrain there. If one is not a prey, then he is the predator. Likewise, one can only be a pawn or mastermind.

    Yushen can identify with Lady Yi because she recognised that both of them are aspiring masterminds, working their way to the highest level in the world they are in to the best of their ability.

    “Your Ladyship is too kind.” Yushen replied.

    “Chief Envoy Zhang is too much… to think he has been hiding such a beautiful and skilled swordsperson from us since day 1! We could have learnt from you.” Lady Yi smiles.

    // Hmm… is she suspecting I’m not part of the original entourage? If she does find out I sneaked into the capital during the lockdown and had also sneaked into the palace, it could spell trouble. //

    “Yushen thanks Your Ladyship for the compliments, but Yushen is but a lowly servant, not worthy of attention. Yesterday’s performance was only thanks to His Majesty and Lord Zhou’s spontaneity.”

    Lanxi’s fists tightened; she wanted so badly to slap Yushen’s pretentious face! What a different person from last night when she was mocking and taunting her!

    Lady Yi laughed demurely for a short while before she said, “Oh, look. Speak of the devil…”

    Everyone turned to the direction of Lady Yi’s gaze and saw Prince Ying and Zhou He nearby. Lanxi swallowed thickly at the sight of Zhou He and quickly averted her gaze. She should forget about him already. Yes. Forget. Forget him, she told herself.

    Having noticed Lady Yi, Prince Ying and Zhou He came up.

    “What a coincidence, Your Ladyship.” Prince Ying greeted. Zhou He bowed politely. “Zhou He greets Your Ladyship.”

    Lanxi bit her lower lip. Everything between them has ended, but why does it still hurt when he acted as though he didn’t see her at all?

    “Good day, Prince Ying.” Lady Yi returned the greeting. “Well well, Prince Ying. Miss Yushen here and I were just talking about the match last night. It certainly was a great match between Lord Zhou and Miss Yushen.”

    “It was…” Prince Ying replied smilingly, but in his heart he was feeling a little worried. Zhou He had admitted that Yushen was the girl from five years ago, but other than that he appeared and acted normally, as if he wasn’t bothered at all. But Zhou He’s calm behaviour gave him away. Just the other day he was worried about Yushen so how is it possible he could be so calm and unconcerned when she really did appear?

    Something was going on and Zhou He was keeping it from him.

    “Ah, if only the match could go on. His Majesty was really curious who could come up as the final winner, you know.” Lady Yi remarked.

    Yushen grinned, “Well, there could be an answer soon.”

    Zhou He stiffened while everyone else looked at Yushen in surprise.

    “Right, Lord Zhou?”

    Zhou He did not reply, but there was an odd look on his usual cool face.

    After exchanging a few more pleasantries, Yushen took her leave and so did Prince Ying and Zhou He. Before they went their own ways, Yushen and Zhou He glanced at each other, their eyes meeting momentarily.

    Zhou He saw the anticipation and confidence in her eyes and felt ill. He had no other way out.
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    Pan Palace, late night

    Lanyi didn’t need to be a genius to figure out that Zhou He wasn’t the only reason why Lanxi had bawled her eyes out acting strangely since this morning.

    Lanxi was obviously trying to roast that Xiwu swordswoman alive with those fiery eyes of hers, while completely trying her best to ignore Zhou He. If both noticed Lanxi’s behaviour, they must have chosen to ignore her altogether because both had no reaction.

    Lanxi had told her nothing the previous night but after seeing what happened today, Lanyi began to gently drill her sister. Lanxi gave away little but enough to confirm Lanyi’s suspicions that Yushen did have something to do with her sombre mood.

    // Could it be… ah…! That odd duel at the banquet! Is that why?? That Zhou Boyan and the Xiwu woman had something going on? But… when?! They are from different states, aren’t they? // Lanyi thought hard as she carried a tray of unfinished food to the kitchen. Lady Yi had called for supper at such an odd hour only to lose her appetite while waiting, causing Lanyi to travel to-and-fro the kitchen within 15 minutes.

    // And the Xiwu entourage hasn’t been here for long. That would mean… they knew each other at least three years ago, before Prince Ying arrived here for refuge? // Lanyi scowled.

    That dishonest Zhou He! The thought of him fooling around with Lanxi was bad enough, now it also seemed like he had something going on with a Xiwu woman! Lanyi shook her head. No wonder Lanxi was crying so hard; she gave her heart to a heartless cad who loved a younger woman from a hostile state (to Donghai, at least)!

    A rustle disrupted Lanyi’s thoughts and she turned to the direction of the sound, only to see Zhou He walking alone with a grave expression.

    // What is he doing out here at this hour? Why does he look so dead serious, like he’s dying the next minute? Strange! //

    Suspicious over Zhou He’s intents, Lanyi placed down the tray and quietly followed Zhou He from a distance so he wouldn’t notice her, since she wasn’t as adept at lightness skill as Lanxi was. She was keeping such a distance that she almost lost him a couple of times but each time he would just magically reappear, allowing her to continue following him.

    As they walked on, Lanyi realised Zhou He was making his way to the southwest wing that was supposed to be under renovation. At night, it was one of the more secluded areas of the palace. A perfect place for…

    // Trysts? // The word popped into Lanyi’s mind automatically, and images of Zhou He and Yushen flooded her head. She bit her lips and gritted her teeth. Did she really need to see that? Perhaps just to confirm their adulterous relationship and that it was truly over for Lanxi. Or maybe she just wanted to catch them in the act to shame them or… whatever.

    She will decide, the moment she sees with her own eyes.
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    Zhou He thought he was early, but Yushen was earlier. By the time he arrived, she was already there, waiting patiently.

    “Oh… there you are. I’ve been waiting for you.” Yushen smiled at the sight of Zhou He. Finally.

    When Zhou He didn’t say anything, Yushen continued, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. For the past five years, I’ve been thinking and wondering… imagining and fantasizing even… of our meeting today. I’m glad it finally materialised.”

    Quietly but firmly, she drew out her sword and pointed it at Zhou He. “The day when I will have my revenge on you have finally arrived.”

    Zhou He frowned. This was getting a little different from what he had thought. He never doubted it was going to be unpleasant, but what was this talk about revenge? Does she seriously hold such a grudge against him?

    Yushen smiled at Zhou He’s perplexed expression. She lowered her sword.

    “Do you remember how we met?”

    “Yes.” Zhou He replied, a little surprised at the change of topic. “… I went after you after you killed…”

    “Executed.” Yushen corrected.

    “After you executed that three bandit chiefs.” Zhou He relented. He wasn’t eager to start another argument.

    The bandits were so enraged by the murders of their chiefs that they actually entered into a coalition and attacked nearby towns and villages to search for the killer. It caused such a disturbance that the army had to be mobilized and Zhou He volunteered to apprehend the killer since the work was obviously done by a skilled pugilist.

    While the people she killed deserved deaths, nonetheless she had also caused an internal unrest and the deaths of many other innocents.

    “And you defeated me. I was… not good enough.” Yushen closed her eyes as if to chase away a nightmare she did not want to remember.

    Zhou He remembered. She was such an arrogant young woman back then, full of confidence and lacking of remorse over the trouble she had caused. What’s more frightening was that she had cut off the heads of the three bandit chiefs as trophies to bring home.

    He found her behaviour so disturbing he immediately disposed of the heads after defeating Yushen. He remembered her exaggerating display of anger and distress after he disposed of the heads. It was so distracting she managed to escape right under his nose.

    Right now, Zhou He wasn’t sure exactly what Yushen wanted revenge for. Was it for her defeat, or for those heads? He wouldn’t be too surprised if it’s for the heads but it’s still rather gross and disturbing. What did she want with them anyway? They were going to rot, stink and be crawling with maggots by the time she returned to Jiancheng.

    “Your humiliation of me… cannot be forgiven! You destroyed my world, and now I’m going to destroy yours.”

    Zhou He could not help but sigh in mirth. “Did you mean the defeat or the heads?” He couldn’t resist the dig.

    “Did I expect you to understand?” Yushen glared coldly at him. “No. But I will make you understand soon.”

    Without a warning, Yushen suddenly slashed her sword down at Zhou He. But he was prepared, as he swiftly pulled out his sword and blocked the blow. He was at a slight disadvantage, however, and he quickly parried away her sword and took a step back to regain his ground.

    Defeating her five years ago was already no easy task and remembering her vow to return for revenge, Zhou He had never stopped polishing his skills in preparation. He knew she would be stronger than before when she return, but the amount of strength she displayed was surprising.

    She was now thrice as fast than on the banquet’s stage, and her swordsmanship twice as complex and deadly. The banquet duel was truly a game to her. Zhou He had no doubts Yushen was currently lashing out at her very best.

    She moved quickly, her attacks coming onto him like a blizzard. Zhou He was having a hard time fending her off; each time he evaded a stab, a slash or another stab would follow up immediately. What makes it even better was the strangeness of her swordsmanship, as the strikes came from odd angles, making them unpredictable and hard to counter. He had no time to retaliate or to even go on the offensive; he could only be on the defensive.

    // This is bad! If this goes on, I would lose! // Zhou He thought worriedly. While he wasn’t too bothered about winning or losing, Yushen’s attitude spelt out the fact that she wasn’t going to let him go with a mere result.

    // OK, calm down, Zhou Boyan. // Zhou He reassured himself as he parried away yet another stab. But this time he wasn’t so lucky, as Yushen’s blade made a sharp turn and sliced open his right forearm’s flesh.

    Zhou He grimaced while Yushen was absolutely delighted at the blood she drew from him. The pain almost had him drop his sword but knowing that too much was at stakes only made him grip tighter onto it.

    // She’s been attacking so quickly and without any breaks in between… there’s no way she can make this last even if she has strong internal energy. She’d need to catch a breather soon and that’s when I can make my move. //

    Zhou He leapt back as Yushen made a wide horizontal slice, cutting his robes. Had he been a bit slower, her blade would have made an incision on his torso. But that was when Zhou He saw his chance. Right after making the slice, Yushen paused for a second to take in a breath.

    That one second was enough.

    Zhou He made a full turn, swinging down hard on Yushen. Stunned and wary of the force, Yushen chose to evade instead of blocking. Zhou He did not give her a chance to recover – it’s his show time now.

    Steady as a mountain and fast as lightning was the Lan Swordsmanship’s essence, and now Zhou He was pulling off all stops, landing a flurry of lightning strikes at Yushen. Yet unlike her swordsmanship that dazzles the opponent by striking all sides and at everywhere, the Lan Swordsmanship was extremely focused and precise, putting all the firepower at a singular direction.

    Unable to cope, it didn’t take long for Yushen to lose all the ground she had gained, and she was forced into the corner of the wing in no time. Despite suffering several cuts on her clothing and was apparently losing, Yushen remained composed.

    Her eyes narrowed and darkened in hate as Zhou He’s blade cut across her shoulder.

    “You won’t win me like this! I will not allow it!” She yelled angrily as her right leg strikes toward Zhou He’s waist.

    Zhou He quickly blocked her knee with his left hand, but he was alerted to a flash of silver, which he wisely blocked with his blade. Cold sweat ran down his forehead. Had he not done that, the amount of force Yushen put on that blow could have chopped off his sword arm.

    // No! // Zhou He thought as he hastily jerked his head away when Yushen’s fingers came jabbing. // Wow. She was aiming for my eyes! She really wants me dead! But I’ve blocked off her leg, hand and sword, she’s got nothing on me now. //

    Then the unexpected happened.

    Zhou He felt a crushing pain on his forehead and he yelled out, stumbling backward.

    Before he could recover, cold steel touched his neck.

    “You’ve lost.”

    Zhou He looked up and saw Yushen grinning devilish at him, despite the bruise on her forehead. It should be hurting as much as his head does, but her hand on the blade was incredibly steady and was ready to stab into his throat any time.

    “Do you admit your loss?”

    Zhou He frowned. He didn’t like this one bit, but it was true he lost.

    “Yeah?” Yushen persisted, the blade tip pressing harder on his throat. Any more force and it will cut in.

    Left without a choice, Zhou He had to concede defeat.

    “Yes.”
    Last edited by Guo Xiang; 09-04-11 at 06:15 AM.
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    “Excellent.” Yushen pulled the sword away from Zhou He’s throat but at the same time kicked his sword out of his hand.

    Zhou He sighed as he watched his sword flying to the corner and hitting the wall loudly. “You have gotten what you want. I hope you are satisfied now.”

    Yushen stared at him in cold anger. “… What? Did you think this completes my vengeance? Zhou He, Your defeat at my hands is just the beginning.”

    Zhou He looked at her, stunned.

    “Oh… don’t worry. I won’t kill you here. I can’t possibly give Lord Zhang any trouble, can I?” Yushen smiled.

    Zhou He breathed in deeply. That was true and that was also why he dared to accept her challenge in the first place despite the sensitive timing. In fact, being in the palace was the optimal time to finish this off.

    “When I lost to you back then and made such a ruckus, you must have thought of me being some spoilt brat.”

    Zhou He kept quiet, knowing fully well that it isn’t wise to say anything now that he had lost his sword and she was still holding hers. But her sudden change of topic was so sudden he couldn’t help but worry. What was she getting at?

    “But the truth is, the moment you threw those heads away, I knew my life’s ruined.”

    She glared at him. “Of course I wasn’t taking those heads as trophies or souvenirs. I’m not that sick, and it wasn’t as if those bandit chiefs weren’t great lookers.”

    She paced around him slowly, the sword’s blade touching him every now and then.

    “Do you know how Jiancheng operates, Boyan?” She asked, switching to his courtesy name again.

    “No.” He replied.

    “Once a child is old enough, they will be evaluated on how suitable they are in learning martial arts. Those who are deemed as fit will be taken away to be trained.

    Training is tough and harsh and many children are looking to be accomplished enough to earn the attention of the top leaders, or perhaps even the Lord himself. Nobody wants to be just nobodies forever. The biggest chance to be noticed and receive the best advancement opportunities is when we become of age, when we receive a mission to test our calibre.”

    Yushen turned to Zhou He.

    “And executing those three idiots, is my mission.”

    Zhou He saw her sword hand tremble but made no movement. He knew the trembling was not a sign of weakness but rather anger. Although she did say she would not kill him here to cause trouble for Zhang Duoqian, it is hard to say what she would do if she is overcome by anger. Any impulsive move could result in serious injury or death for him.

    “Of course, it’s no use to just complete the mission. To prove that we did complete our mission, we must return with evidence of our success.”

    In a quick moment, Yushen had her blade at Zhou He’s neck again.

    “And those stinky heads are my evidence of success! Because of you, I returned empty-handed and I was considered to have failed my mission!” Yushen angrily kicked Zhou He.

    “I was originally viewed so favourably I was considered for leadership training! Had I brought those heads back, I would have been promoted and on my way to great prospects! But thanks to you, I was deemed a failure! Doors and opportunities closed and slammed in my face! I was condemned to the lowest rungs who are only fit to guard insignificant rooms and areas! I couldn’t even learn the better martial arts! Those who were weaker than me climbed further and achieved much more than me and they made sure to remind me of that fact! This is all because of you and your stupid self-righteousness! What right did you have to ruin my life!”

    Zhou He was so surprised at the revelation he did not resist Yushen’s continued kicking. He had thought she was a poorly brought up kid who thought little of laws and order; he certainly did not expect her life’s prospects and even the clan’s treatment of her to be so heavily dependent on those heads.

    If suffering this indignity could make her feel better, he would gladly accept it.

    On hindsight, she probably had not expected the bandits to attack innocents for revenge and did not plan it to happen. It just did and it was out of her control. The only thing she could do was to run, naturally.

    “What do you know about being treated worse than a dog! Being unable to fight back and being repeatedly humiliated by people who couldn’t even hold a candle to you by a mile! And you! You dare mock me! Calling and treating me like a child!”

    She continued to kick him viciously for another full minute before she stopped to catch a breath.

    “… I was so full of anger and hate I practiced hard on my swordsmanship. I really worked hard, so much more harder than I used to. Truth be told, it wasn’t so much because I wanted to get back at you than I had no other outlet to vent my frustrations.” She lowered her eyes, a pained expression in them.

    Zhou He lay on the ground motionlessly, his eyes focused on the ceiling. His body hurts too much to move and he’s too tired to say anything. But then again, Yushen didn’t seem to want him to talk either. His role now was to listen to her grievances… the grievances he had caused her unintentionally.

    “Thankfully… something good happened last year. Because of that, I was finally out of that hell and now I’m here, able to face you again.”

    Zhou He turned to look at her and to his amazement, her eyes had softened and were teary. He tried to guess what she was thinking but her expression was unreadable. She went down on one knee so she was closer to him, and looked straight into his eyes.

    “After what you did to me, I hated you so much. I couldn’t stop thinking about you and what you did. I really hate you… but at the same time… the mere thought of you inflamed such passion in my heart…”

    “Uhh…” Zhou He was taken aback, unsure how he should react.

    Yushen stared hard at him. “… Do you know what I want to do now?”

    “… No.”

    She pursed her lips but it soon spread into a sly smile. “I want to do… this!”

    Everything happened so quickly that Zhou He had only blinked his eyes once when he realized Yushen’s lips were locked onto his.

    // What?! // Zhou He stared at Yushen in plain shock and horror but she took no notice of it.

    Before long he felt a sharp pain on his lower lip and he quickly pushed Yushen away from him. The woman had bitten him!

    She laughed, wiping blood away from her lips. “How did you like that?” She burst into another round of laughter that sent chills down Zhou He’s spine as he touched his wounded lower lip.

    Her unpredictable moods and actions… has she gone mad?

    Zhou He quickly got up and shifted away from her, but she caught up with him and leaned in again.

    “Laid another finger on him and I will have your hide!” a woman’s voice boomed angrily.

    Yushen and Zhou He turned in surprise. When they saw who it was, Zhou He’s eyes widened in astonishment while a smile spreads across Yushen’s face.

    “Oh. So it’s you.” Yushen sneered.
    Last edited by Guo Xiang; 09-04-11 at 10:32 AM.
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