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Tuesday, 22 July 2008 20:07

Chapter 24 - Grand Flag Waving In The Setting Sun


 
The distinctive flag of the 'Hall of Ten-Thousand Horses flapped majestically in the wind. If you stood from afar it sometimes looked like a lover's handkerchief waving goodbye. The five bold words in red were the blood and tears of those lovers.

Those five words were probably written with blood and tears.

There was a person standing quietly in the grasslands watching that flag waving in the wind. His body was lean and thin and it carried an indescribable sense of loneliness and solitude.

He stood in a sea of bluish-green blades of grass like an obstinate tree. Trees are tough and unyielding, lonesome and solitary. But do trees suffer the same pain and hatred in their hearts?

Ma FangLing caught sight of him, caught sight of the sabre in his hand.

A cold, emotionless person. An ominous, foreboding sabre.

But for some reason when she saw him, her heart filled up with inexplicable warmth. Like the taste of warm alcohol as it goes down your throat.

She really shouldn't be feeling this way.

Only a lonesome person could understand the feeling one gets upon seeing another lonely soul. But she didn't want to think anymore, her horse raced towards him.

Fu HongXue didn't even seem to notice her -- at least he didn't turn his head.

She dismounted and stood gazing at the flag as well. When the wind blew, she could hear her own hurried breath. The winds weren't very heavy. It was as if they were being supressed by the magnificence of the setting sun. But there was enough wind to set that grand flag in motion.

"I know what is on your mind." Ma FangLing suddenly said.

Fu HongXue didn't hear her, he refused to listen.

"You're thinking to yourself that the day will certainly come when you can tear down that flag." Ma FangLing said.

Fu HongXue shut his lips, he refused to speak.

But he couldn't stop Ma FangLing from talking on. She laughed coldly and said, "But that day will never come! Never!"

Veins started to rise on the back of Fu HongXue's hand.

"So I'd advise you to just leave, the farther the better."

Fu HongXue suddenly turned his head and stared at her. His eyes were ablaze and looked like they wanted to engulf her in its flames.

Then, he pronounced, "You know that what I want to cut down isn't that flag, but rather Ma KongQun's head!"

The tone of his voice was sharper than his blade.

Ma FangLing took two steps back unknowingly and shouted back, "Why do you hate him so much?"

Fu HongXue suddenly smiled. Revealing his snow white teeth, his smile was like that of an enraged beast. Anyone who saw that smile would know exactly how great the hatred in his heart was.

Ma FangLing took another half a step backwards and shouted, "You'll still never be able to take him down. He is much stronger than you could ever imagine. You're simply no match for him!"

She was shouting. The angrier one was, the louder one's voice usually became.

Fu HongXue's voice was still very calm, "You know that I can kill him. He's already old, too old. He'll probably bleed himself to death."

Ma FangLing gritted her teeth, but her entire body had already fallen limp. It felt as if she didn't even have the strength to be angry. All she could feel was dread.

She lowered her head and said sullenly, "You're right, he is old. He's nothing but a powerless old man now. Even if you did kill him, what joy would it bring?"

A cruel glimmer filled Fu HongXue's eyes, "Are you begging me to spare his life?"

"I ... yes, I'm begging you. I've never begged anyone before in my entire life."

"You think that I'll agree?"

"If you will agree, I'll ..."

"You'll what?"

Ma FangLing's face suddenly blushed red, she lowered her head and replied, "I'll do anything you ask. If you want me to walk, then I'll walk. If you want me to run, then I'll run."

As soon as those words left her mouth, she regretted saying them at all. She didn't know why she said what she did, she wasn't even sure whether she meant it or not. Could it be that she was just trying to feel him out? Could it be that she anxiously wanted to have him since that day?

Feeling someone out like this was too silly, too dangerous, and too fearsome.

Luckily Fu HongXue didn't refuse. He just stared at her coldly. She suddenly realized that the look in his eyes was not only cruel, but felt even more intolerable as they stared at her in a cynical sort of way.

It was as if he was saying, "You refused me the last time, why are you coming back to me now?" Ma FangLing's heart sunk into her chest. This unspoken ridicule was even worse than being rejected.

Fu HongXue looked at her and suddenly said, "I only want to know one thing. Are you begging me for your father's sake? Or for your own?"

He didn't wait for a response. As soon as his words were finished, he turned and started to walk away. His left leg took a step forward, and his right leg dragged along from behind. His strange and awkward gait had somehow turned into a form of mockery as well.

Ma FangLing clenched her fists and teeth but couldn't keep on her feet as she crumpled to the ground. The dirt was hot; salty, hot and bitter. Her tears tasted just the same. Before she pitied herself, but now, she hated herself. She hated herself to the point of madness, she hated herself to death. She wished that the earth would just split open and swallow her whole. Before she wanted to destroy the people who had abandoned her, now she only wanted to destroy herself.

________________________________________

The rays of the sun shined onto the street. Not a single figure was on the street, but behind the cracks of doors and the slits of windows, numerous eyes peered out cautiously at a single person.

At Lu XiaoJia.

He was bathing in a giant wooden tub over six feet tall that lay in the middle of the street. The water was quite deep, when he stood inside the top of his head was fully submerged. A set of brand new garments as white as snow was folded neatly on a wooden plank beside the tub. His sword rested there as well, along with a large bag of peanuts.

He only had to reach out to grab his sword, he only had to reach out to grab his peanuts. Just then, he reached for a peanut, cracked it open, and tossed it into the air. As soon as the peanut fell into his mouth, a look of cheerful satisfaction came over his face.

The sun was burning hot, the water was steaming as well, but there wasn't a single bead of sweat on his face. As if the water wasn't hot enough, he called out, "Hot water, more hot water." Two people immediately came rushing forth from the narrow doors carrying pots. One of them was Ding LaoSi, the other was Hu JiShou. He sported two rat-like whiskers over his mouth, he was the shopkeep of the foodstuffs store. His appearance really was like that of a food pilfering rat.

"Why is it only you two? Where is the one surnamed Chen?"

"He'll be here any moment now, he probably went to find you a woman like you had requested. There aren't many women around these parts." Shopkeeper Hu said.

As soon as his words were finished, he suddenly saw a woman that was definitely worth seeing.

She strolled along to the ringing of bells. Her laughter was just as pleasing to the ears as the ringing of bells. The rays of the sun reflected off her entire body in an exquisite golden glow, yet her skin still looked as white as snow. She had on a thin white gown. When the wind blew, men's hearts would undoubtedly stop. Her soft, fine hands and long, delicate fingers were holding on to another man's hand.

Shopkeeper Hu couldn't help but stare. All the pairs of eyes behind the windows and doors couldn't help but stare as well.

They all could somewhat recognize that this was the same girl that was so incredibly 'fond' of Lu XiaoJia. But none of them would have imagined that she would be holding on tightly to Ye Kai's hand and that she would suddenly show up here. A woman's heart can change rather quickly, but not as quick as this?

Ding LingLin could care less what anyone else thought. There was no one else in her eyes except for Ye Kai. She smiled at him and said, "Today is a perfect day for killing humans, yet why do some people choose to kill swine instead?"

"Kill swine?" Ye Kai replied.

"Why else would you need to much scalding hot water?" Ding LingLin asked.

Ye Kai smiled, "I've heard that you need scalding hot water when giving birth as well."

"Strange, the instant this baby was born, it's already fully grown."

"Could it be a demon?"

Ding LingLin nodded sarcastically and replied, "It must be some kind of monster."

Someone from behind one the doors couldn't help but let out a chuckle. But that chuckle quickly turned into a frightened gasp. A peanut shell flew through the small open crack of his door and knocked out his front two teeth.

The expression on Lu XiaoJia's face was as cold as iron. He looked as if he was sitting in freezing water as he stared at Ding LingLin and said, "So it is the lethal Miss Ding."

Ding LingLin's eyes moved as she replied alluringly, "Lethal is such a harsh word, why don't you refer to me by something a little more pleasant?"

"I should have figured it was you, there aren't many people who dare to impersonate my name." Lu XiaoJia said.

"Actually, your name doesn't sound very pleasant either. I always wondered why people referred to you as the 'Plum Blossom Deer'." Ding LingLin replied.

"Perhaps because the antlers on a deer are extremely sharp, and can kill anyone that they touch." Lu XiaoJia said.

"Maybe they should call you the 'Great Water Ox' instead. Aren't their horns even sharper?" Ding LingLin replied.

Lu XiaoJia lowered his head. He realized that trading words back and forth with women was a futile act, so he suddenly changed the subject and asked, "How is your eldest brother?"

Ding LingLin smiled and replied, "He's always been very well. Just recently, he won a fine new sword from dueling with the 'Flying Whale Swordsman' of the Southern Seas. You know how much he adores fine swords."

"And your second brother?"

"Of course he's doing well also. Just recently, he raided the 'Wind Tiger Hall' in Hebei and left the entire place a mess. He also cleaved off the heads of the three tigers. You know how much he enjoys killing bandits." Ding LingLin replied.

"Your third brother?"

"He's doing the best out of them all. He competed with the NanGong brothers of GuSu for three days straight in the fields of song, chess, palms and swords. He came out victorious and went home with thirty jugs of finely aged 'Lady Red Wine' from the NanGong family cellars as well as a band of young female singers. You know how much Third Master Ding enjoys fine women and fine wine." Ding LingLin said.

"And what does your brother-in-law like?" Lu XiaoJia asked.

"That would be my sister of course."

"How many sisters do you have?"

"Not many, only six. Surely you've heard of the Family Ding, Three Swordsman and Seven Angels."

Lu XiaoJia suddenly laughed and replied, "Very good."

Ding LingLin glared at him and asked, "What?"

"What I meant was, it's good that there are many females and very few males in the Ding family."

"What's so good about that?"

"You should know that I'm not fond of killing women." Lu XiaoJia said.

"Oh?"

"I only have to kill three people then."

Ding LingLin seemed very amused and replied, "Are you preparing to kill my three brothers?"

"You only have three brothers, correct?"

Ding LingLin let out a sigh and said, "This isn't good."

"What?" Lu XiaoJia said.

"None of them are here right now, of course it isn't good."

"And if they were?" Lu XiaoJia asked.

"If any one of them were here, you'd be a corpse by now." Ding LingLin replied.

Lu XiaoJia stared at her. His eyes slowly shifted from her face to the pile of peanuts. It seemed as if he had finally found something pleasing to his eyes, so he looked very satisfied with himself. Even those two sharp eyes of his started to soften.

He picked one up, cracked it open, and tossed it into the air. The peanut glistened with a distinct luster under the sun's rays. He followed the peanut as it fell into his mouth and closed his eyes. Then, he let out a breath and started to chew slowly.

Warm sun. Warm water. Sweet peanuts. He found everything very pleasing.

Ding LingLin was not pleased at all. This all resembled a play, and this play was supposed to continue on. She had even carefully planned how the rest of it would end. Who would have guessed that Lu XiaoJia was such a lousy actor? It was as if he had completely forgotten the rest of the script and refused to go on. It was definitely frustrating.

Ding LingLin let out a sigh and turned towards Ye Kai, "By now, you should be able to see for yourself just what kind of person he is."

Ye Kai nodded his head and replied, "He really is a smart man."

"A smart man?" Ding LingLin asked.

"A smart man knows that it's much better to use your mouth to chew peanuts than to argue with woman." Ye Kai replied.

Ding LingLin was itching to use her mouth to bite him.

If Ye Kai had called Lu XiaoJia deaf or cowardly, then the show could've continued. Who knew that Ye Kai was such a lousy actor as well, totally uncooperative with her intentions.

When Lu XiaoJia finished chewing on that peanut, he sighed deeply and said, "So it turns out that women enjoy watching men bathe, why else would she still be here?"

Ding LingLin stamped her feet, tugged at Ye Kai's hand as her face blushed red and said, "Let's go!"

Ye Kai followed her away. When they turned their heads, they saw Lu XiaoJia laughing, laughing very heartily.

Ding LingLin gritted her teeth and dug her nails into Ye Kai's hand.

"Does your hand hurt?" Ye Kai asked.

"No it doesn't." Ding LingLin replied.

"Then why does my hand hurt so much?" Ye Kai said.

"Because you're an idiot, you never say what you're supposed to." Ding LingLin replied angrily.

"I never say what I'm not supposed to either." Ye Kai said with a bitter smile.

"You knew what I wanted you to say?"

"Anything I could've said would've been useless."

"Why's that?"

"Because Lu XiaoJia knew that we were trying to antagonize him, and he better than to let it bother him."

"How are you so sure that he's that clever?"

"Because if he wasn't, he'd be a dead deer by now."

"You seem to admire him quite a bit." Ding LingLin said with a cold smile.

"But he's not the one I admire most."

"Who is?"

"I am."

Ding LingLin couldn't help but laugh, "I can't think of a single admirable trait of yours."

"There is at least one."

"And what's that?"

"When people scratch me with their fingernails, I don't seem to notice at all."

Ding LingLin finally couldn't help but smile affectionately. She suddenly felt very satisfied with how everything turned out.

She didn't even notice the pair of eyes that were staring right at them.

Ma FangLing's eyes were filled with hateful jealousy as they walked towards Chen DaGuan's embroidery shop. They had chosen to wait there. They would wait there for Fu HongXue to arrive. They would wait there for that frightful duel to unfold.

Ding LingLin was somewhat upset that she was missing the chance to buy a couple new sets of clothes. Very few women could ever pass up the chance to buy new clothes.

Ma FangLing stared at their hands holding on tightly to each other, it felt like their hands were strangling her heart. How come no one had ever held her hand like that? She detested herself, she detested the fact that she never had another person's affection.

The corner of the walls was very dimly lit, not even the sunlight reached it. She felt like an orphan that had been abandoned by her parents at birth.

The hot water had arrived.

Lu XiaoJia watched as Shopkeeper Hu of the foodstuffs store poured hot water into the tub.

"Why hasn't the person arrived yet?"

"What person?" Shopkeeper Hu smiled coyly.

"The person you all wanted me to kill."

"He will be here."

"Him alone is not enough."

"Who else do you want to come?"

"A woman."

"I was just about to look for Chen DaGuan."

Lu XiaoJia did not bother to reply. His eyes were focused on Shopkeeper Hu's hand. Although they were yellow and wrinkled, they were very steady. The pail full of water seemed as if it was empty as he carried and poured it into the tub quite effortlessly.

Lu XiaoJia let out a laugh and said, "Everyone thinks you're the shopkeeper of the foodstuffs store. Are you really?"

"Of course ..." Shopkeeper Hu mumbled.

"But you don't look like it one bit." He suddenly lowered his voice and said, "I don't think you people needed to invite me here at all."

"Why's that?"

"When you people needed someone dead before, you did the killing yourselves."

The pail was empty, but the hand holding it up was still in the air. Finally, the pair of hands were lowered as Shopkeeper Hu voice lowered as well, "We invited you here to kill, we didn't invite you here to interrogate us about our backgrounds."

Lu XiaoJia nodded his head and smiled, "That makes sense."

"The price that you set forth, we have paid in full. And not one of us dared to ask about your background."

"But what about the woman I requested?"

"Woman ..."

Before shopkeeper Hu could finish his words, a loud voice interrupted, "That depends on what kind of woman you are looking for."

It was the voice of a woman. Lu XiaoJia turned his head and saw a girl walk towards him from behind the wall. A beautiful, young girl, but her eyes were filled with sadness and hatred.

Ma FangLing walked towards the middle of the street. The sunlight shined upon her face. Her face carried an extremely weird expression. Her expression was like someone who was being suffocated.

Lu XiaoJia's eyes went from her feet to her eyes and finally to her mouth. Her lips looked soft and moist, like a piece of ripe fruit.

"You're asking me what kind of woman I want?" Lu XiaoJia said with a smile.

Ma FangLing nodded her head.

"You're exactly the type of woman I want. You of course should know that."

"Then the woman you want is already here."

"You?"

"Yes, me."

Lu XiaoJia smiled.

"You think I'm lying to you?"

"Of course you wouldn't lie to me, but you should at least smile for me first."

So Ma FangLing smiled. No one could deny that she was smiling. Lu XiaoJia furrowed his eyebrows.

"You're still not satisfied?"

Lu XiaoJia sighed and replied, "I was never fond of women who looked like they were crying when they smiled."

Ma FangLing bit down on her lips. After a while, she replied softly, "Although I might not smile well, I can do other things much better."

"What else can you do?"

"What else would you like me to do?"

Lu XiaoJia stared at her. Suddenly, he picked up a towel from inside the tub and threw it towards her. All Ma FangLing could do was catch.

"Do you know what that is used for?" Lu XiaoJia asked.

Ma FangLing shook her head.

"It's for scrubbing backs."

Ma FangLing looked at the towel in her hands and started to tremble. She was trembling so hard that the towel slipped out of her hands. But she quickly picked it back up and held on to it tightly. It seemed as if she was grasping on to it with all the strength in her body, green veins bulged out from the back of her hand. But she was determined not to let it slip out of her hands this time. She wouldn't let anything slip out of her hands ever again. She had already lost too much.

Lu XiaoJia was still staring at her sharply, as if he was trying to pierce into her heart.

She bit down on her teeth and said, "I have one more thing to ask."

"I'm not fond of talkative women, but I'll let you ask just this once."

"Now that the woman you want is already here, why is the person you're supposed to kill still alive?"

"You don't want him to live?"

Ma FangLing nodded her head.

"You came, because you wanted me to kill him?"

Ma FangLing nodded her head.

Lu XiaoJia laughed, "Rest assured, I guarantee that he won't be alive for much longer."

- END CHAPTER 24 -