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SMOKE OF THE PAST
“I won!” giggling and triumphant, lotus huang headed for the doors.
“You are a disciple of Twice Foul Dark Wind.” Tiger Peng leaped over to block her. “I won’t make trouble with you. But you cannot leave until you’ve explained why your shifus sent you here.”
“You promised to let me go if you couldn’t name the school of my kung fu within ten moves. Surely a martial master like you would not go back on your word?” Lotus smiled sweetly.
“Your last move, Hallowed Turtle Steps, is part of Twice Foul Dark Wind’s repertoire. Who else could have taught you that?” Tiger Peng snapped.
“Do you truly think their paltry skills are worthy of my attention? I have never met Twice Foul Dark Wind—”
“We won’t be fooled by your lies!”
“But I know them by reputation,” Lotus went on, ignoring the interruption. “I know they don’t shy from evil deeds. I know they are disloyal to their Master. I know they are cruel and savage in all their dealings. I know they are the most depraved characters of the whole wulin. How could Master Peng think that I am associated with such scoundrels?”
Tiger Peng looked over to his companions. He could tell they were also convinced that she had learned her kung fu from Twice Foul Dark Wind. But no student of the martial arts would heap such insults on their teacher. It would be an irreparable breach of every moral code.
“Young lady, you have won this time. I am most impressed by your skill.” He stepped aside. “May I ask your name?”
“Why, thank you. I am Lotus.”
“And your family name?”
“Let’s just say it’s not Peng.”
Of the five men of martial learning in the banqueting hall, Lotus Huang had defeated three: Browbeater Hou, the Three-Horned Dragon; his martial brother Hector Sha, Dragon King of the Daemon Sect; and now their friend Tiger Peng the Outlaw, Butcher of a Thousand Hands. The fourth Master, Lama Supreme Wisdom, had suffered an injury from the previous evening when he fought the Taoist monk Jade Sun Wang Chuyi, and was currently confined to his seat.
All eyes were now on the last of their number, Gallant Ouyang. He was their only hope of finding out why this young girl had broken into the palace of the Sixth Prince of the Jin Empire and why she was spying on them.
Dressed head to toe in a pure white scholar’s outfit, Gallant Ouyang cut a dashing figure among the bulky, bellicose men. He flashed his most winning smile and stepped forward. “I should like to sample a few of my lady’s kung fu moves.”
Known as the Master of White Camel Mount, he prided himself as a connoisseur of beauty as well as of the martial arts. Together with his uncle, Viper Ouyang, who was one of the greatest martial masters of the age, he was a formidable figure in the Western Regions. Over the years, he had collected—often by force—many pretty girls to serve as his concubines and had taught them kung fu in his spare time. He was in the habit of taking them with him on his travels. On this trip to the Central Plains as a guest of the Sixth Prince Wanyan Honglie, twenty-four of these concubines had come with him, though four had met their end on the journey. The women rode camels and disguised themselves as young men, donning all-white robes.
Lotus looked him up and down. “The girls in white, outside, came here with you, didn’t they?”
“The sum of their beauty is less than half of your charm,” Gallant Ouyang gushed.
The compliment brought a tinge of pink to Lotus’s cheeks. “You seem more reasonable than the old uncles, here.”
Gallant Ouyang was sure that he had a collection of beauties to rival the imperial harems of the Jin or Song Empires. Yet the exceptional grace of this teenage intruder eclipsed all his concubines. They now appeared common and repulsive in comparison. Despite her tender age, Gallant Ouyang had been smitten from the moment he caught sight of her. And now as she had turned her eyes on him, addressing him with her gentle, soft voice, he could feel the urge to possess her weakening his whole being, and his usual eloquence vanished without a trace.
“I’m leaving now,” Lotus said to Gallant Ouyang. “If they try to stop me again, you’ll help me, won’t you?”
“Of course, but in return you must call me shifu and stay with me always.” He found his voice at last.
“Not always, surely?”
“My disciples are unlike any others. Not only are they all female, they are also always by my side, and they all come at once when I call.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Gallant Ouyang whistled and a flutter of white robes appeared. Twenty women filed in and took their place in a line behind their shifu. Some were tall, some short, some slim, some buxom. They were dressed the same, but each was dazzling in her own way. They had been standing at attention near the Hall of Perfumed Snow since the start of the banquet, in case their master needed them.
This was the first time Tiger Peng and the others in the room had clapped eyes on all of Gallant Ouyang’s women and they were instantly beside themselves with envy.
Lotus had hoped that the women’s entrance would be enough of a distraction to allow her to escape, but Gallant Ouyang was too quick for her, planting himself by the doorway.
Fanning himself idly with his gentleman’s folding fan, the leering dandy let his gaze rest on Lotus as his concubines regrouped. They now flanked him protectively, blocking the way out like two screens. Their eyes fixed on Lotus with sadness and jealousy. They knew they were about to lose favor with their fickle master.
Knowing she would not stand a chance against this human blockade, Lotus said, “If your kung fu proved worthy of the title shifu, I’d happily call you that so no one could trouble me again.”
“You wish to try my skills?”
“It would be my pleasure. I promise I won’t raise a hand against you.”
“You think you can win without using your hands?”
“You can’t imagine the thrill our encounter has given me. How could I lift a finger against you?”
The men sniggered at Gallant Ouyang’s suggestive reply—though, having seen her martial skills, they all doubted his claim. Unless he used sorcery, surely there was no earthly way he could defeat her without taking the offensive.
“I don’t trust you. You must tie your hands.”
Gallant Ouyang obliged, removing his belt and holding it out for Lotus. She took it with a smile, but his confidence made her uneasy.
I’ll just have to take it one step at a time, she said to herself as she summoned her internal strength and tugged the belt to test how strong the fabric was. To her surprise, it did not give. Could it be woven from metal threads?
By now, Gallant Ouyang had folded his hands behind his back, waiting for her to bind them.
Lotus wound the belt around his wrists and secured it with a tight double knot. “So, how do I win?”
Extending his right leg, Gallant Ouyang placed the tip of his foot on the ground, three feet from his body. Then, suddenly, he pivoted on his left, quickly scoring a perfect circle, half an inch deep, into the stone floor. His extraordinary control and internal strength was evident to all.
“The first to be pushed beyond the perimeter loses this fight,” Gallant Ouyang explained.
“What if we both end up outside?”
“Well, then I lose.”
“And, if you lose, you promise you won’t stop me from leaving and you won’t come after me.”
“Of course. But, if you lose, you must come with me without a word. The Masters here will be our judges.”
“Alright!” Lotus stepped inside the ring and immediately launched two palm strikes, Willow in the Wind and Stars in the Sky. Balancing supple strength in her left hand with vigorous force in her right, she sliced at his shoulder and his back.
Gallant Ouyang adjusted his stance slightly, but, staying true to his word, did not lift a hand. He simply tilted a little to the side and let the blows fall on him.
Lotus immediately realized her mistake. His superior neigong internal-strength training bounced the force of her blows back at her. She was being attacked by her own inner energy! The impact nearly sent her reeling out of the circle. Fighting him was no longer an option.
She paced along the perimeter, turning ideas over in her head. After a few laps, she announced, “I’m stepping outside this circle now by my own choice, not because I was pushed out by you. You said that if we both cross this line, then you lose. And you also promised that, if you lost, you wouldn’t stop me from leaving and you wouldn’t come after me.” She ambled out of the ring, then quickened her stride in case the men found another excuse to detain her.
Gallant Ouyang cursed himself, but it would be ungentlemanly to break his own rules. All he could do was watch the glittering golden loops bobbing in her hair as she walked away.
Raucous laughter broke out from Tiger Peng. Though he was none the wiser as to why this girl was eavesdropping on them, it gave him great pleasure to see her outwitting Gallant Ouyang.
Just as Lotus was reaching the doorway, she felt a gust of air sweeping overhead and something enormous fell in front of her. She twirled sideways to avoid being crushed. As she found her footing, she was greeted by the sight of the wooden armchair containing Lama Supreme Wisdom, who was half a head taller than her even when sitting down.
The lama pulled out a pair of copper cymbals from his crimson vestment and struck them together before Lotus could say a word.
Lotus’s ears rang painfully, and she was dimly aware that the noise did not match the cymbals’ appearance. They must be made of steel rather than copper.
The harsh sound was followed by a flash. The cymbals were now flying horizontally at her. Their edges glistened with the chill of sharp blades.
They’ll cut me in three!
Instead of ducking, Lotus leaped and dived straight at the airborne cymbals. She squeezed between them with a push from her right hand and a tap from her left foot, but the desperate move propelled her headlong into the seated lama. Unable to halt her momentum as she landed, she slammed into the monk’s waiting palm, which was raised in his deadliest kung fu, the Five Finger Blade.
“No!” Gallant Ouyang shouted as gasps of shock echoed around the banqueting hall. He lunged, but he was too far away to intervene. He watched the lama’s monstrously large hand slap against Lotus’s dainty back. The bones of this delicate flower would surely be crushed. Then a shriek tore at his ears and, at the same time, he noticed Lotus flying through the doorway as Lama Supreme Wisdom jerked his hand back.
The monk howled. A peal of laughter from beyond the hall came as the reply.
She didn’t sound like she was hurt. The thought was quickly chased away by a torrent of questions in Gallant Ouyang’s mind. How had she managed to stay unharmed by such a powerful strike? Did he pull his hand away before channeling his inner strength? But why would he do that?
Lama Supreme Wisdom held up his right palm. It was a grisly sight. The flesh was pierced and torn with dozens of small wounds. He stared at his mutilated hand as he declared in a voice laced with pain and terror: “Hedgehog Chainmail.”
“That’s the most coveted treasure from the armory of Peach Blossom Island in the Eastern Sea!” Tiger Peng could not believe his ears.
More interested in Lotus than her attire, Gallant Ouyang slipped outside. The dark night had long engulfed her retreating form, but he was secretly pleased that was the case. If she could get away, that meant she wasn’t hurt. I shall hold that heavenly creature in these arms, he promised himself as he whistled to gather his concubines. Together, they headed into the palace grounds to find the beguiling young woman.
“How did the little girl get her hands on something like that?” Hector Sha wondered aloud.
“What is Hedgehog Chainmail, brother?” Browbeater Hou asked.
“You’ve seen a hedgehog, right?” Tiger Peng answered for Hector Sha.
“She wears this steel shirt under her dress. No weapon, blade, or spear can cut through it. And it’s covered in short spikes. Like a hedgehog.”
Browbeater Hou stuck his tongue out. “Thank the heavens I never tried to punch her.”
“I’ll bring her back here!” Hector Sha declared.
“Watch out for the chainmail, brother!” Browbeater Hou said.
“Of course! I’ll drag her by the hair!” Hector Sha rushed out with Tiger Peng, leaving his martial brother Browbeater Hou scrambling after them.
The Sixth Prince Wanyan Honglie had much enjoyed the diversion. It had granted him further insight into the skills and personality of his wulin guests. But, at that moment, his son Wanyan Kang ran into the hall with the news of his Consort’s abduction.
The palace was thrown into a tumult. The Princes organized the search parties, and the lanterns and torches made the black sky as bright as day. The sound of marching soldiers and whinnying horses broke the silence of the night.
Copyright © 1959, 1976, 2003 by Jin Yong (Louis Cha)
English translation copyright © 2018 by Gigi Chang
Illustrations © Jiang Yun Xing