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author: eve

A/N: This story was previously posted on my site and then taken down. This is version 1.5, edited after I received comments from Grace Tjan.

"Do you think this place is safe, shixiong?"

During all their walks down starlit paths and across silent fields for the past four days, this was the first time Yuzhi had asked Jieming that particular question. He squeezed her shoulder reassuringly, pained by how bony it felt under his hand. One of the consequences of being on the run was that they rarely had time to sit down and enjoy regular, nourishing meals.

"No one seems to have been to this hut for weeks," he told his younger martial sister, peering at the ramshackle structure before them. The watery moonlight revealed dilapidated mud brick walls and a gaping hole where the door should have been. Wild animals might have already made this hut their lair. "So yes, I think it's safe. Stay close to me."

Together they stepped warily through the open doorway. Inside, the hut was cool and unfurnished. A shaft of moonbeam shone through a gap in the ceiling. The musty stink of neglect was there, though not as bad as Jieming had feared. Five more minutes, and they would get used to it.

"Shixiong," Yuzhi whispered.

The shaft of moonbeam fell on a human figure, sitting cross-legged in one corner and sleeping. It was a woman, swathed in a dark cloak, her long unbound hair falling over one shoulder. At the sound of Yuzhi's voice, she opened her eyes.

"Mistress, we're harmless, please don't be afraid," said Jieming. Yuzhi, who had known him for all fifteen years of her life, recognized the peacemaker tone at once. Whenever a quarrel broke out among their martial brothers and sisters, it was Jieming who would talk everybody out of their bad mood. "We're only looking for a place to stay for the night, like you."

The woman straightened up. Now that Jieming and Yuzhi had gotten a better look at her, they judged her age to be about thirty. The moonbeam illuminated a face so plain that Yuzhi sensed it was a disguise. The woman gestured at the swords slung across their backs.

"These are for our protection," Yuzhi explained. "We're on a journey, so we must guard ourselves against bandits. You know how they prey on people who travel in small numbers."

"Bandits," the woman repeated. Her voice was low and deep, soothing to the ear. "I've met a band or two of them myself. Lucky for me I managed to scare them away. Where are you two from, if you don't mind me asking?"

Jieming and Yuzhi exchanged swift glances. "We're from around the Min River," Jieming said with his most winning smile. "Here to visit our grandparents." He held his breath, waiting for the woman to ask why he and Yuzhi didn't look even remotely alike.

Instead she shrugged. "You must be tired after walking all day long. I won't bother you anymore. Good night."

Feeling less relieved than they ought to be, Jieming and Yuzhi walked over to the opposite wall. They sat down on the bare earthen floor, dropping their travel bundles from their aching shoulders. The woman had once again leaned against the wall, eyes closed.

"Go to sleep," Jieming told Yuzhi, then caught the glint of sadness in her eyes. "What is it?" he asked, concerned. Four days on the road and she had never so much as complained. Perhaps tonight the stress was finally catching up on her.

"Nothing. It's just that..." She let out a shaky breath. "As long as we're still alive, everyone will never stop searching for us."

He leaned toward her. "Are you sorry you came along with me?"

She wrapped her arms around herself. "Shixiong," she murmured, "even though you're only seven years older than me, I've always thought of you as I would my own father. You care for me more than shifu ever has. That's why I'm worried about you. I couldn't bear to let you be on your own."

Unable to feed another mouth, her parents had given her away to the School when she was small. Yuzhi cried day and night during the first few weeks; of all the seniors, Jieming was the most patient with her. Gradually she grew to think of him as a substitute parent. When he accidentally told her that he had killed their shifu, her first instinct was to go with him and keep him safe.

"It's not too late, even now," Jieming said. "You can still return. Tell everybody I've forced you to go with me against your will. They'll forgive you. Then you can continue with your life, put all this mess behind you."

"Let's say I do. Let's say I return and never see you again. Would you - would you think badly of me?"

Jieming shook his head firmly. "Never. This is my problem. I have no right to drag you into this. In fact, you must return to the School first thing in the morning. I'll be all right, I promise."

Yuzhi was about to reply when she happened to notice a movement across the floor. The woman had stood up, her cloak billowing about her. She advanced toward them, her gait light and well-controlled. Alarmed, Jieming and Yuzhi sprang to their feet.

"Min River," the woman mused aloud. "Or is it actually the Qionglai?"

Throat dry, Jieming unsheathed his sword and pointed it at her. "Who are you?"

"Four days ago," the woman went on, ignoring Jieming's question, "Liu Chao, leader of the Qionglai Shan School, was found dead in his study. With a sword wound across his jugular, or so I heard. If there's a type of news that would spread like wildfire across jianghu, the mysterious death of a well-known martial school leader would be it."

Struggling to control his trembling hand, Jieming retorted, "So?" His voice came out sounding petulant, which embarrassed him.

"Liu Chao's disciples are more than devastated. They're also enraged, because it seems the culprit is Bao Jieming, a senior disciple. Eyewitnesses claimed they saw him bolt out of the study, bloody sword in hand, right before their shifu's body was discovered. His fellow disciples have been searching for him ever since." The woman paused. "Your turn now. Tell me your side of the story."

Despite the trembling that had reached all the way to his waist, Jieming grew irritated. "What the hell has this got to do with you? You damned busybody!"

During the exchange, Yuzhi had been watching the woman intently. Now realization hit her with the force of a slap. She had felt familiar with the way the woman carried herself - her gracefulness, and the little gestures that hinted at martial skills. Now Yuzhi understood why: it was because she had seen others carry themselves the same way, doing the same particular little gestures almost every day, before she went on this mad escape with Jieming.

The woman in the dark cloak had mastered Qionglai Shan martial techniques, was perhaps showing them on purpose.

"You - " Yuzhi stammered, and the woman's indifferent gaze shifted toward her. "You're Zhong Ma, aren't you?"

All color drained out of Jieming's face. "Zhong Ma? Zhong-shizi?"

Several years ago, the Qionglai Shan School had had a disciple called Zhong Ma. Her diligence, combined with an immense talent in martial arts, had earned her the reputation of being the most gifted disciple of her generation. However, she was also a very opinionated person, the type who developed her own views and stuck to them regardless. She never hesitated to scold her seniors, even her shifu, if she thought they were in the wrong.

After five quarrels too many with her seniors, she left the School of her own accord. Later she became famous as an assassin for hire, to the eternal shame of the Qionglai Shan School. Officially she had never existed, although every disciple in Jieming and Yuzhi's generation knew about her.

"Ah," murmured Zhong. "You know who I am, so there's no need for an introduction." Her sword flashed as she drew it out of her cloak. "Shall we begin?"

"You're not even a disciple of our School anymore!" Jieming burst out. "This is none of your concern!"

Zhong's tone remained calm. "When Liu Chao was my senior, he never tired in encouraging me to improve my skills. It was he that taught me hard work was far more important than talent. The other disciples thought I was in love with him, but I was simply grateful. He was an honorable man - "

"He was also inclined to suspect the worst in others."

" - and from what I've heard, also a competent leader. I might be an outcast, but I'm not letting anyone murder him with impunity, especially if he didn't deserve it. What did he do?"

The trembling grew more violent, to the point that Jieming could barely stand upright. "None of your business," he repeated.

Just like Yuzhi hadn't seen Zhong get up from the floor, now she similarly failed to notice Zhong moving closer toward Jieming. A blade flashed in the darkness, and Jieming leaped away from the wall. The front of his clothes was torn, revealing a thin red line across his bare stomach. As Yuzhi stared in horror, blood started to well up along the line.

Faster than a blink, Zhong's sword descended on Jieming, who ducked away from it. "Run!" he yelled at Yuzhi, as he countered Zhong's next attacks with sword strokes of his own. They ran and darted around the hut, sending dust flying in the air, their swords clashing and clanging. Yuzhi watched them, petrified with fear, her feet glued to the floor. Once, when Zhong's blade narrowly missed Jieming's jugular, Yuzhi's heart nearly knocked its way out of her back.

Minutes passed, and Jieming and Zhong fought on. Although he was mostly on the defensive, a couple of times Jieming struck back at Zhong, his panic tempered with calculation. On her part, Zhong was very light on her feet, strong and sure. She stabbed at Jieming from every angle imaginable, maintaining a perfect balance at all times. Seeing this, Yuzhi was swept with an unwitting, momentary admiration for Zhong: clearly the rumors about her talent hadn't been exaggerated.

Then a clever thrust from Zhong tore Jieming's sleeve right off his arm, and Yuzhi decided she had waited long enough. "Shixiong, I'll help you!" she shouted, rushing at Zhong with her sword held high.

Jieming was retreating toward the door, his face a pale blur. Instead of going after him, Zhong twisted her upper body around. As Yuzhi found herself gazing straight into the older woman's eyes, Zhong's free hand shot out, hitting several acupoints on Yuzhi's chest in rapid succession.

All strength ran out of Yuzhi's limbs, leaving her light-headed. Her sword fell from her nerveless hand; she slid down to the floor, unable to move, her insides churning. Paying no further attention to her, Zhong turned back to Jieming.

"Stop," Yuzhi croaked, but no sound came out from her mouth.

The duel continued. Each of Zhong's movement was relentlessly accentuated with a brisk combination of elegance and speed. Even from Yuzhi's limited viewpoint, it was all too clear that Jieming's self-confidence and spirit had plummeted to a depth where there was no going back up. All he did was evade Zhong's sword, offering almost no resistance, his own movements growing duller by the second.

A series of ruthless jabs from Zhong forced Jieming to parry them with his sword, but he was too slow. Zhong's blade slipped past his defense and, with a shove, she plunged it into his left chest. Seeing this, Yuzhi's own chest tightened, her heart a fistful of frozen muscles.

Jieming gave a quiet cough, as if in polite surprise. Then he collapsed, shuddering all over, before he lay still. His face was directly in Yuzhi's line of vision; drool and blood trickled from one corner of his mouth. The reek of urine, faint but unmistakable, wafted toward her nose.

The gut-wrenching sight and smell did it; at long last Yuzhi's tears of grief flowed out, dripped to the floor. Ever since she had fled with Jieming from their School, she had known that he was a dead man. He would never be forgiven, not only by their brothers and sisters, but also not by the entirety of wulin. But knowing was a far, far different thing from this assault on the senses.

Zhong bent down and wiped her blade on Jieming's trousers. "What's your name?" she asked, straightening up.

It took Yuzhi some time to realize that Zhong was addressing her. "Why do you care?"

"One day you may become a highly skilled pugilist, and I a frail old husk. When you come to kill me, I don't want to have to ask you for your name. Might as well learn it tonight."

Yuzhi surprised herself by chuckling. "Is that so? Then I won't give you the satisfaction."

"Yes, I should've expected that, Miss Luo Yuzhi." Yuzhi grunted, and Zhong added, "Forgive me for toying with you like that. Of course I know your name, and his. Like I said, murdering your own shifu will get you noticed by everyone in jianghu. Now, explain it to me."

Yuzhi frowned. "Explain?"

"What Liu Chao did that he had to die by his own disciple's hand."

"He..." The tears rose afresh, clogging up Yuzhi's nostrils and burning her eyes. "I don't want to tell you that, either."

Nodding - with approval, it seemed to Yuzhi - Zhong started toward the doorway. "Your sealed acupoints will unblock themselves after half an hour. If you want to avenge Bao Jieming, look for me anytime. You already know my name."

"I do," Yuzhi muttered bitterly. "I do know your name. I also know you're a master of disguise. Since you left the School, hardly anyone has ever heard you speak, so those can't be your real face and voice. Am I right?"

Without answering, Zhong strode out into the night, and the hut fell into a thick, suffocating silence.

Half an hour. Yuzhi had to go through another half an hour alone in this foul hut, with the man she had thought of as a parent lying dead nearby. It would be just her luck if hungry dogs or outlaws happened to stroll in, attracted by the possibility of shelter. Or - worse still - her martial siblings would finally close in on her tracks.

"Why, shixiong?" she groaned. "Why did you have to do it?"

On that day, presumably out of mischief, Jieming had sneaked into their shifu's study. He wanted to take a peek at a martial arts manual that only School leaders were permitted to read. Their shifu, returning early from a trip, discovered Jieming rummaging through his bookshelves.

Their argument escalated until Liu Chao challenged Jieming to a duel, believing him to have read the manual in secret all along. Liu Chao's fury proved to be his undoing; keen on punishing Jieming, he moved too fast and too eagerly. A moment of miscalculation on Liu Chao's part, and Jieming stabbed at his shifu's jugular instead of deflecting a strike as he had planned. It was a victory both quickly gained and horrifying.

"We all knew you were going to be the next leader," Yuzhi whispered to the dead man. "Why couldn't you just wait until the announcement?"

From outside the hut, wind-borne voices approached and grew closer. Her martial siblings, come to collect their dues. Being neither clueless nor lazy, they would have already picked up her trail days ago. Sheer, fear-fueled speed had been her only advantage.

She screwed her eyes shut, gripped by a bone-deep fatigue. With all her heart she wished the fatigue would go away; the end of the hunt was near, and she had to be ready to play the innocent victim, the kidnapped sister.

But who would ever believe her story of meeting Zhong Ma?

the end

March 2016

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