“Jiang Hu is anywhere but here.”
He was standing on the peak of Sword Valley, his back was facing me, and his white gown was rattling with the wind. I couldn’t figure out his expression or the bitterness in his voice.
Renowned as The Gentleman Sword, my master was a leading authority in martial arts circles. Sword Sect which he was in charge of was so orthodox that Imperial Court made it their talent pool, my elite senior fellow disciples would get sourced by them every year.
They were sourced to kill.
I was too young to have a clue, “where are they taking my seniors?” Once I asked him.
Master answered me indifferently, “To Jiang Hu.”
No idea what Jiang Hu was, but Imperial Court had been appealing to me since then.
I was determined to assist a brilliant ruler, to uphold justice, to help the weak.
Imperial Court never landed their eyes on me. Disheartened I was, but I practiced martial arts skills more diligently. Every time when I practiced swordplay, Master would approach to me and speak in a grave tone with sincerity, “Eleven, keep this in mind, life or death doesn’t depend on your swordplay skills…”
It baffled me.
The year of Gengwu, spring, Ling’bo City, heavy rain.
Master told me I was ready and ordered me to finish somebody, one of my senior disciples sourced by Imperial Court.
Master said my senior fell in love with an imperial concubine, he killed her after a failed elope and became an outlaw. I originally intended to turn him down because I didn’t have the heart to kill my senior disciple. Master promised me that he would recommend me to His Majesty once it got settled.
I couldn’t resist the bait.
It was raining in torrents that day. I didn’t spot him until I reached out for two hundred lis (500m per li). He was drinking in a bistro, no living soul was seen, other patrons were killed by him with corpses piling up on the side. They died from a mortal hit on the skull by the swor
I closed my umbrella, sat across him, kept mute.
“Eleven, long time no see.”
Senior put his chopsticks down and talked to me like nothing had happened. He spoke so gently, making it unbelievable that the scene was committed by him.
I didn’t know how to reply so I kept looking down at my sword in hand.
“Eleven, Sword Sect is so boring, so are Master and you. A sword is no more than a sword, a blade is no more than a blade, you all talk so rigidly, everything underwhelms me there.” Senior said that while he fondled a cup in his hand, without any emotion coloring his tone, and he continued, “Such a shame when a man with a sword in hand shies away from Jiang Hu.”
“Senior, what is Jiang Hu?”
I raised my head, looking forward to his answer.
“Leave Sword Sect, Jiang Hu will come to you!”
Abruptly, he pulled out his sword from his belt. Such a fierce draw, the sword charged directly to my face, that move could be fatal. My heart sank, realizing it was an unavoidable fight. What made me bitter was my senior emerged as a changed man, far from the figure who used to teach me to always play fair and square.
I was still haunted with mixed feelings when I went back to the sect with Senior’s corpse on my back.
The Subdue Sword Set consisted of thirty-two moves, senior resorted to all the fatal ones to fight me, but I got the upper hand and finished him on the skull. Unlike the records in Pavilion of Martial Arts Spectrum, Senior died a quick death. He didn’t linger or leave any last notes, not even a word about the Imperial Concubine, only peace could be seen on his face.
“Why didn’t behead him?”
Master saw I was soaking wet yet still went through all the trouble of carrying Senior’s corpse on my back, he felt speechless.
“A renegade he is, I still don’t want to damage his corpse for old time sake.”
Master nodded, asking two juniors to take Senior’s corpse away.
“I’m leaving for the capital city tomorrow morning to report to His Majesty, you can rest assured.” Master shot a look at me, his tone was still indifferent as usual, he didn’t seem to have touched by senior’s death.
“Master, what is Jiang Hu.”
After s long silence, I raised my head and looked at Master’s back, waiting for an answer.
Master stood with his hands clasped behind the back, “Anywhere is Jiang Hu but the Sect. But once you set foot on Jiang Hu, you will know Sect is better than anywhere.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Jiang Hu lives up to its appeal, it also disappoints the swordsmen. Still too early to address this, it will come to you at the right moment.” I couldn’t figure out his expression or the bitterness in his voice just like that year.
“It’s all void what we are seeing, thank you for enlightening me.”
I bent over to salute with the fist-holding etiquette and showed myself the way out hurriedly.
Master and Senior both said the same thing, which made me looking forward to joining Imperial Court even more, along with the Jiang Hu. “Life or death doesn’t depend on your skills”, what Master said still baffled me. As a disciple of Sword Sect, I couldn’t be more proud of my skills, it was my skills that made it possible to assist a brilliant ruler, to uphold justice, to help the weak, and to finish a villain when encounter one, but why…
I set off to Imperial Court which I had been hankering for half a month after Master’s capital city trip.
Unlike the Sect, I was dazzled by the bustling in capital city. Top of the lofty palaces were decorated with crimson encaustic tiles, corners of which were hung with copper bells. Even the road was layered with bricks made of white jade, one layer after another, no soil to be seen.
I saw the princes, I also saw the Leader of Imperial Guards who I reported to, but I didn’t see any of my seniors.
I led a different life from that day.
The official salary I received allowed me to live an extravagant life, my superb skills made me outstand among my peers, and even the girls in the palaces landed their eyes on me. There was one dissatisfaction that I was never assigned with tasks of great importance, only with trivial ones.
Master used to say “Contribution doesn’t match the ambitions”, it applied to my case.
“Flowers begin to fade in autumn while chrysanthemum starts to bloom.” I thought to myself.
As time went by, the day marked my anniversary of being an Imperial Guard was approaching. Sword Sect became dust-laden memory, both Master and my seniors turned vague and unfamiliar in my heart. I finally cracked “Anywhere is Jiang Hu but the Sect.”
This day, the Leader of Imperial Guards summoned me.
Must be another mission.
I felt so dizzy when I got the mission, it seemed like heaven and earth were spinning.
Another assassination. Object was Master.
I was at a loss with the token in hand.
Leader’s snort pulled my conscious back, I had to face the fact.
“Eleven, how long have you been serving at Dragon Tiger Hall?”
“Slightly more than one year.”
“Do you have any idea why I haven’t assigned you any weighty mission?” Leader was fondling with his jade ring on the thumb (used to protect the archer's thumb) with his eyes half closed.
“I don’t”, I took half step back and lowered my head.
Leader raised his head, staring at me, “With your superb skills and cautious actions, you deserve to be assigned with important missions. But you are a total blockhead for a swordsman!”
I couldn’t help but clench my fists, I had never been insulted on my swordsmanship since I first started to learn the art of swordplay at five.
“Swordsman is supposed to attack swiftly yet swiftly, he should always keep collected even Mount. Tai collapsed right in front of him, you can’t deliver that.”
I was about to rebuke, Leader interrupted me, “You have affections in your heart, a swordsman should be affectionless.”
“How to become affectionless?”
I raised my head and looked at him.
Leader smiled, “Romance is affection, siblinghood is affection, parenthood is affection, friendship is affection…”
He looked at me and put my hand tightly with the token together, “Master and Disciple also harbor affection!”
When I saw Master again, he was standing on the peak of Sword Valley, just like the old days.
White gown was rattling and grey hair was flowing.
“Eleven, long time no see.”
My lips were closed, I was used to brutal fights since I joined Dragon Tiger Hall, my skills had improved a great deal. I just didn’t have the heart to make any move against Master, I couldn’t look at him either.
“Master, an Imperial Guard’s job is to kill.”
Reverently, I put the token on the ground and I trembled, “The name on the token is bound to vanish in Jiang Hu within three days, no exception.”
Master was unperturbed, he looked at me and raised his hand gently, implying that the battle could initiate when I was ready, “You are hell-bent on winning, while my mind settles as stilled water, you are here on a mission while I feel reluctant to confront you. A master-disciple battle is cruel, I won’t draw my sword for a doomed-to-fail battle. Eleven, go ahead…”
My nose twitched with bitterness, heart filled with sorrow, “Master, is this Jiang Hu?”
“Jiang Hu stands anywhere but here, as you have realized, any further explanation would be redundant, you have become Jiang Hu yourself.”
I had never felt more ashamed, feeling that Jiang Hu was such a sinister being. Senior who died under my sword flashed through my mind. I bowed to Master and was about to draw my sword, only to find myself suffocated in the chest, I raised my head to look at Master and I saw the sharp sword pierced through my chest.
“Alas, Eleven…Life or death doesn’t depend on your swordplay skills, but your acting skills. After all these years I put you out there, you still fail to apprehend it. So mediocre.”
Unbearable pain seized me, and I lost focus in my pupils.
This was the first time that I saw Master’s expression, quite indifferent it was and compassion filled up his eyes. His white gown was rattling with the wind and he was standing perfectly straight and firmly, just like the old days.
This also was the first time that I figured out the bitterness in his words. “Jiang Hu stood anywhere but Sword Sect”, little could anyone expect Sword Sect was no exception.
I was too weak to utter my last words, let alone report to Leader.
If I could utter anything, I would tell Master this.
“It’s all void what we are seeing.”
“Thank you for enlightening me.”