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author: eve


Many thanks to Grace Tjan who beta-read this story.

"Young lady! I say - you, young lady over there!"

The high, clear voice interrupted Huixin's daydream of a future where everyone in jianghu called her Great Heroine Zhen Huixin. Even so, she was sure the voice was addressing someone else. Huixin was only a speck among the flow of humanity near the Longxing city gate, and not an interesting speck at that. Her clothes were faded with wear, her hair casually tied back without any ornament - the very definition of a scruffy teenage girl.

"Young lady!"

Intrigued in spite of herself, Huixin turned toward the direction of the voice. Three steps away from her was a group of travelers: a curtained palanquin with four bearers, an assembly of attendants, two children on a black horse, and a thickset man on another, sleeker black horse. The palanquin bearers put down their burden as a woman's face peered out from behind the peach-colored curtain. Catching Huixin's eye, she pushed the curtain open more widely.

"Why are we stopping?" the thickset man boomed out. It was, Huixin would learn, his natural mode of speaking. He reined in his horse and squinted over his shoulder. "Is there any trouble, madam?"

From where she stood, Huixin could smell the spicy aroma of hotpots and the faint tang of fresh oranges. They reminded her of this morning's meager, unfulfilling breakfast at a rundown inn. Passersby rushed past, some of them glancing at the palanquin in idle curiosity.

"No trouble," the lady in the palanquin said. She was round-faced and in her mid-twenties, with the well-groomed aura of a wealthy merchant's daughter. "I simply want to speak with this young miss here."

"Yes, ma'am?" Huixin said, too quickly, and one of the attendants pushed out his lower lip. True heroes, Huixin knew, didn't get discouraged when people looked down on them. All the same, she became painfully conscious of her appearance.

"You're heading out of Longxing, I believe. Where are you going?"

"Lehua." It was the closest town to Longxing and the only place Huixin could mention by name. She needed to keep moving to avoid her teacher, though with no real destination in mind. That was one bright side (if you could call it that) of running away - the thrill of constantly guessing where your feet might carry you.

The thickset man slipped off his horse and strutted over to the palanquin. "What's going on?" he demanded.

"Husband," the lady in the palanquin said, "she is going to Lehua. What a coincidence, since we're going there, too. The roads are full of dangers, not a suitable place for a lone young girl. Would you mind traveling with us, Miss?"

The children, a boy and a girl of about seven years old, regarded Huixin with detached curiosity. They were probably used to their mother addressing paupers on the streets. Huixin smiled. "Thank you very much, ma'am, but I don't want to be a nuisance."

"Not at all!" The reply came not from the lady, but from her husband. He grinned at Huixin, showing a mouthful of large teeth. "My wife is right, it's not safe for young girls to travel on their own! Who are you going to meet in Lehua, your relatives?"

"My parents died and I'm going to my grandfather's." This was the story Huixin gave to everyone who asked. Later, after she reached Lehua, she must find a way to refuse offers of escorting her to the fictional grandfather's house. This loud man seemed to be the type who would insist on doing that. "Thank you, sir."

"Don't mention it! What's your name?"

"My surname is Zhen."

"Mine is Han. So it's settled? Let's go."

Just a group of travelers like any other, Huixin thought, having noticed that three of the attendants were burly and carried swords. A better-guarded group than most, that was all. As long as they didn't keep asking about her background, she should be fine.

***

Her teacher, though stern, had never mistreated Huixin; neither was he the reason she had run away. She simply longed to experience the world by herself, unaccompanied by an adult. Following this brash decision, she had been on the road for four days. She had joined groups of other travelers and, when alone, stayed away from isolated paths.

She hardly felt lonely, which was a surprise. Ever since her parents died, she had always lived with other people. Now she was all on her own, and it wasn't dreadful at all. One reason for this was having learned martial arts, through which she had gained greater self-confidence. Another was the sheer bliss of not having to account to another person. This must be why her own teacher preferred being alone, rarely mingling with wulin folk.

During those four days, Huixin had met with no crooks, not even a dishonest street food vendor. How, she mused, would this affect her martial skills? Exercises were good, but nothing honed your skills like experience in real life. And experience meant actual opponents, a rarity for her so far.

***

As they traveled along the bank of the Gan River, Master Han talked to Huixin a good deal, seemingly delighted to find a person he could describe his family to. The Han family, he declared, had been in the furniture business for generations. All their products were first-class and graced the finest houses in large cities across three provinces.

"We use only the sturdiest yellow pear wood for our furniture," he said proudly. "Also, you won't find zitan tables and chairs that are more beautiful than ours!"

Knowing next to nothing about fancy furniture, Huixin could only nod in the right places. She walked with the attendants and behind the two children, who were unmistakably a pair of twins. They looked bored, barely responding to Huixin's attempts at small talk. The attendants who were not carrying swords acted as though Huixin didn't exist.

Away from the Gan riverbank, the group arrived at another, far smaller river. Two water buffalos stood in the middle of it, noses in the water and ignoring the travelers. One by one the humans, horses, and palanquin went across a stone bridge. Beyond the river was a path overgrown with tall bushes and shrubs.

"Master Han, pardon me, but is this area safe?" Huixin asked. "That path through the bushes seems very narrow."

"Worry not, little miss!" Master Han guffawed. "I've taken that path before to visit my in-laws. Besides, the guards will protect us."

One of the burly, sword-carrying men said, "Master Han, I heard there's a new gang of bandits in this area. We'd better take another path, somewhere more open and less deserted."

"Don't be such cowards," Master Han scoffed. "Strong, armed men like you shouldn't have trouble dealing with small fries!" To Huixin, he added, "These men are from a highly reliable armed escort service in Longxing. Their customer safety rate is very high!"

The path through the bushes was wider than Huixin had expected. But she still felt hemmed in, as though half-caught in a trap. The children similarly looked ill at ease. Even the horses balked, and had to be persuaded to advance one step at a time.

Suddenly the bushes rustled, so noisily that there was no mistaking the deliberation behind it. Huixin ground to a halt while the horses neighed and the attendants chattered uneasily. Then warlike howls exploded all around them; the children screamed and the palanquin bearers, white-faced, dropped their charge.

"You three! Protect us!" Master Han shouted at the guards.

A dozen black-clad figures burst out from the bushes. Roaring at the top of their lungs, they swung their swords around without coming near the travelers. Amidst the distressed cries, Master Han and the attendants struggled to calm the horses. In less than five seconds, the black-clad people had blocked the path in both directions.

The hired guards, looking intimidated like everyone else, pointed their swords at the bandits, for bandits these intruders surely were. Madame Han stumbled out of the palanquin and ran to her children. The three of them held hands, pale and shivering.

A bandit, broad-shouldered and missing one front tooth, swaggered forward. "Han Yong, give us your money!" he bellowed. "After that we'll let you leave."

"Miserable rats!" Master Han yelled. "You know my name, so how dare you rob us?"

The men and women in black broke into merry laughter. So far they hadn't threatened to harm the Han family, or even gone near them. Huixin took a deep breath, drawing on her internal energy, in case the bandits changed their minds.

"It's because we know who you are that we're here at all," sneered the gap-toothed bandit. "Pay your dues, now."

"What dues? You're mad!" Master Han glowered at the guards. "Why are you just standing there? Kill these insolent scums!"

The three guards stood rooted to the spot. It occurred to Huixin that their fighting skills might be mediocre at best. The bandits, besides being greater in number, were also more muscular than the guards.

"Brother Meng!" one of the bandits shouted at the gap-toothed man. "Most of their money must be kept inside the palanquin. That's how Han Yong does it when he travels. Since Madame Han has been kind enough to step out, let's take everything!"

Meng started toward the palanquin, and Master Han pointed a trembling finger at him. "Stop! Go near me and my family, and I'll send troops after you all. They'll burn down your headquarters with you in it!"

"That's right, bark on like the dog you are," Meng said, unimpressed. He grinned at the guards. "Hey, fellows. In case you haven't noticed, we're robbing your employer. Do your job and fight us."

Both the guards and Master Han turned red with anger and humiliation. Huixin stepped forward to stand directly in front of Meng, and the bandits watched her with interest. "I won't let you hurt this family," she stated.

"Whoa, what is this?" Meng scratched at his chin. "Han Yong, you actually hire children now?"

"You think because there's many of you, it's all right to persecute others."

Meng's eyes turned cold. "Little miss, you're right. Someone here likes to persecute others, but that someone isn't me or my friends."

The robbers murmured with agreement. Huixin waited for Master Han to refute Meng's words, but his lips had disappeared into a tight line. Madame Han gripped her children's hands more tightly.

"Master Han is an honest furniture seller," Huixin said, a little haltingly. "You must've mistaken him for someone else."

"Bullshit." Meng spat at Master Han's horse. "It's him, the corrupt official. His family's in the furniture business, but he's a magistrate. Anyone with enough gold can buy his services. Thanks to him, poor, innocent people who can't afford to give bribes are sent to prison. Am I right, Han Yong?"

Master Han bowed his head. His children's eyes grew wide - with fear, wonder, or both. Huixin also stared at Master Han, bewildered. Her uncle and teacher taught her that corrupt officials were vile creatures, lower than insects. They made the common folk suffer, often with impunity. Huixin had never imagined that one of those creatures could be hearty and friendly like Master Han.

"No way," she said, half to herself. "He asked me to join him and his family, because it's dangerous for young girls to travel alone."

"Even corrupt officials do good deeds sometimes." Meng cocked his head at his comrades. "Search the palanquin!"

At once three bandits rushed toward the palanquin. The children and attendants whimpered. Madame Han gave a muffled sob, covering her mouth with her sleeve. At the sound, Meng turned to her.

"Madam, you have such pretty jewelry there," he said. "Such pure-looking jade bracelets! Must've cost you a fortune." He took a step toward her.

Huixin was standing near one of the petrified guards. Without pausing to think, she struck an acupoint on his right hand, causing him to cry out and drop his sword. In one single movement, Huixin snatched the sword and swung it at Meng.

Ducking to one side, Meng yanked out the saber hanging from his belt. Huixin's sword clashed with Meng's saber for one brief second before she pulled back, then lashed out with a series of rapid slashes. The other bandits cheered, some of them stepping aside to give Huixin and Meng more space.

"Help her! Attack those other bandits!" Master Han ordered the guards. The man whose sword Huixin had seized blinked slowly, while his two friends exchanged uncertain glances. "Useless rice pots!" Master Han raged. "I should've fired you from the start!"

Though Huixin was faster than Meng, he wielded his saber with greater ease, since it was his own instead of a borrowed weapon. The two of them dodged and cut, exerting internal energy to react faster and sharpen the strikes. Shredded leaves scattered in the air; severed twigs clung to Huixin's skirts. Swamped with both exhilaration and anxiety, she tried not to let the latter overcome the former.

Slice, step back, strike out with internal energy; more powerful slashes, keep the distance, close the distance, aim for vital points. Huixin's whole being was submerged in the intensity of the duel, her mind narrowed down to one goal - to bring down Meng right this minute.

She whirled, leaped, hit, forcing Meng away from Master Han's family. Little good it did them, since the other bandits were now ransacking the palanquin. Later Huixin would be amazed at their efficiency, since the palanquin was swept clean in only ten seconds. Master Han snarled at the bandits to stop, but he might as well talk to the shrubs.

"You damned brat!" Meng jumped to the left. "Helping a corrupt official! Is your father one of them?"

"Don't you dare curse my father!" Huixin retorted. The bandits had had their loot heaped on the ground, making her feel like a complete failure. Among the loot, a small pile of gold ingots stood out like a beacon.

"So what are you defending that animal for?" Meng growled. "To get paid?"

"Shut up and just fight!"

A laugh echoed across the narrow path. Huixin stiffened, recognizing a considerable amount of internal energy within the voice. The bandits looked up, and the laugh stopped.

"The young lady wishes so dearly to fight," the voice said. "Very well, I shall be her opponent."

"Leader!" the bandits cried out with glee.

Their leader had arrived! Huixin swirled around, for a moment forgetting that her unprotected back was an easy target for Meng's saber. However, instead of attacking her, Meng simply went to join his comrades.

A woman in dark green floated down from a tree, with a casualness that indicated superb mastery of qinggong or body-lightning gongfu. About thirty years old, she was square-jawed and remarkably tall. Meng hurried over to her as she landed in front of Huixin.

"Leader," Meng reported, "this girl insists on helping a blood-sucking official."

The woman's smile was thin. "What's your name, little sister?"

Still gripping the sword hilt, Huixin brought her hands together in a salute. "I'm Zhen Huixin. May I know your name, Elder?"

The woman glanced at Meng, who nodded and shouted at his comrades. They spread out, once again blocking the Han family's path. "Huixin," the woman said. "A pretty name. My surname is Wu. What is your relation to Han Yong?"

"There's none. I happen to be going in the same direction as Master Han and his family. Then we got stopped by Elder Wu's comrades."

Wu's smile widened. Huixin rifled through her memory for information on a highly skilled lady pugilist called Wu. Coming up with nothing, she surmised that Wu, like her own teacher, was a recluse. And an outlaw, she amended.

"So you didn't know Han Yong before you met him," Wu said. "My comrades would already have told you who he is - a magistrate who prizes riches above justice and compassion. I think you'd agree with us that he deserves to be robbed. The money we take from him will be given to the poor."

"How do I know you're not taking it all for yourselves?"

A polite chuckle. "You have a point. Generous robbers are, after all, the staple of legends rather than something one encounters in real life. What are you going to do, then? Continue to fight? There are thirteen of us and only one of you."

Huixin's teacher would have said she was in danger of dying as an unsung hero. "On the other hand, I'm sure Elder Wu is an honorable heroine, who wouldn't order twelve people to attack one single girl."

"No, I wouldn't, that's true." Wu started to walk toward Madame Han and the children.

"You devil!" Master Han yelled, while his family shrank and huddled closer together. "Stop! Stop right there!"

Tears spilled down Madame Han's cheeks while the children also began to weep. Stung out of her astonishment, Huixin ran after Wu. "Elder Wu, only lowlifes oppress the weak!"

"Which is what Han Yong has been doing, but let's leave that subject alone for now." Wu paused three steps away from Madame Han and the children. "I am, as a matter of fact, cordially inviting Madame, Young Master, and Young Mistress to our home. We will serve them our most delicious food, and they will sleep on our coziest beds. I personally guarantee it."

Master Han opened and closed his mouth like a landed fish. His face turned an alarming shade of purple as he scowled at Wu. Ignoring him, Wu smiled at Madame Han.

"Dear lady, don't be afraid," she went on. "I'm sure Master Han will come and collect his family soon, with five hundred gold ingots as a sign of good will."

"Stop dreaming!" Master Han barked.

Wu rapped out a command. Some of the bandits brushed past the attendants and, despite Master Han's protests, stood around his family. The hired guards looked as if they wanted to vanish into the ground.

"Miss Zhen, I bid you farewell," Wu said. "One day, if we should meet again, let's pretend today never happened."

"Are you going to hold Master Han's family hostage, at the price of five hundred gold ingots?"

"Farewell, Miss Zhen."

Huixin didn't budge. "Do you really give the money to the poor? Are Madame and the children really safe in your hands?"

"We do not require other people's trust or acknowledgement. And to be honest, I'm no longer interested in arguing with you. If you're not leaving right now, please don't blame me for being rude." Wu's voice and expression remained serene.

Huixin brought her fists together once more. "My good Elder Wu, I beg you to release Madame and the children. It's Master Han who's at fault. They mustn't suffer because of him."

The bandits snorted. Meng sighed, as if deploring Huixin's naivety. Wu raised an eyebrow, obviously sharing Meng's sentiment.

"Thanks to Han Yong, these people live in comfort. They sleep in warm houses while innocents sleep on a prison's hard floor. So you feel sorry for them, but not for those innocents? Perhaps my comrades are right, and you're being paid by Han Yong to protect him."

Huixin flushed. "I'm not."

"Like you yourself have said, I'm an honorable person. Han Yong's family is safe with me. By the way, have you noticed that Han Yong isn't asking you to leave? He depends on you to rescue his family. He may or may not reward you if you succeed, but he's sure to call you unsavory names if you fail."

Master Han's face went a deeper shade of purple. "Filthy, misbegotten robbers - "

"How about this," Wu cut him off. "Miss Zhen, we shall fight and I will deal you fifteen moves. If you manage not to get defeated by them, Han Yong and his family are free to go. However, everything we took from the palanquin remains ours."

"Deal!" Huixin retorted. "I'll hold you to your word. Watch out for my sword!"

She struck out, and Wu sprang off toward the nearest tree. Her foot brushed against the trunk and, in a single leap, she was already halfway up the tree. Admirable qinggong, but Huixin was determined not to be outdone.

"Elder, that was excellent!" She kicked at the base of the tree next to Wu's, propelling herself up; kicked the trunk of Wu's tree, propelling herself farther up; until she and Wu were at the same height above the ground. With one arm around the tree-trunk and the other hand holding her sword, Huixin faced Wu directly, ready and unsmiling.

"Little sister, you yourself are quite good," Wu said with a good-humored laugh. "Look out for my weapon!"

Tiny silvery objects shot through the air; Huixin lashed out with her sword, cutting the objects down in mid-flight. She missed one, however; it hit a short branch near her head. The silvery object resembled a sewing needle, only longer and more deadly-looking.

"One move!" the bandits yelled.

Her feet entwined around the tree-trunk, Wu twisted around to grab Huixin's hand. As Huixin's sword stabbed at Wu's own hand, Wu withdrew and gripped at the tree-trunk with her other hand. Her feet thus freed, she kicked out at Huixin's sword. The impact nearly made the weapon slip from Huixin's grasp, and she quickly hooked a finger around the hilt.

"Two! Three!"

The moves rushed past one by one, with the bandits keeping a noisy count below. Wu's balance was frightening in its effortlessness; she spun and twisted in the blink of an eye, hit and kicked out at Huixin seemingly without gauging the distance or strength required. Struggling to keep her own balance, Huixin responded to every attack, fast enough not to get hit or knocked off the tree.

More needles shot out at her. Jerking her head to one side, she cut them down once more; one needle slipped past her defense and got stuck in her hair. She slapped it away, hoping the needle hadn't been dipped in poison.

"Awesome! Go, Leader! Go!" the bandits roared, some of them stomping their feet. If Huixin were a grown man instead of a girl, she was sure they would also have booed at her.

The duel went on and past the thirteenth move. Huixin's arms and legs ached, a fact her teacher would have put down to insufficient exercise. Well, this was an exercise, and a refreshing one at that. Despite the aches, Huixin wished Wu had settled for twenty moves instead of fifteen.

Suddenly Wu's fingertips clamped on the end of Huixin's sleeve. Huixin yanked her arm away as a small dagger flew out of Wu's own sleeve. A little panicked, Huixin turned her head aside without looking, and bumped it against the tree-trunk. For a second stars exploded across her vision, while Wu's dagger streaked a tiny nick across her jaw.

Huixin slid down the tree-trunk, her irritation flaring up. She, disciple of Pearl Butterfly Chu Qingnian, was having such a hard time in a duel against a mere robber! Such a disgrace to herself and her teacher. She kicked at her tree and flew straight at Wu.

"Wah!" the bandits chorused, either in mockery, excitement, or a combination of both.

Wu's right shin collided with Huixin's hand as Huixin slashed out at Wu's left shoe. Wu slid down several feet; Huixin withdrew to her tree, hooked the back of her left knee around the trunk. Her body thus positioned, her sword spiraled out toward Wu. At the last second Wu twisted away and Huixin's sword stabbed at empty space.

"Fifteen!"

Both Wu and Huixin leaped off the trees and landed on the ground. Huixin took a stance, sword held at the ready. Wu shook her head, and Huixin could have sworn Master Han's children sighed with disappointment.

"Are you going to release Master Han's family?" Huixin demanded.

"So Miss Zhen suspects I'd go back on my word."

Worried that she had offended Wu, Huixin lowered her sword. "That's not what I mean. I apologize."

"There's nothing to apologize for. Meng!"

Huixin gasped when Meng pulled Master Han off the saddle. "Hey! Hey!" she yelled over Madame Han and the children's screams. "Robbers, and liars, too?"

Meng yanked Master Han to his feet. "This piece of trash must die!" Meng shouted amidst Madame Han's sobs. "A greedy landlord confiscated my family's house and fields, and my parents died from the heartbreak. All because they couldn't afford to bribe Han Yong!"

Madame Han wept into her sleeve. It struck Huixin as odd that she didn't beg for forgiveness for her husband. The children wiped at their own tears, also without a comment.

"Where is it, your family's land?" Master Han babbled. "I'll give them back to you, just take me there!"

Before Huixin could see her moving, Wu was already standing in front of Master Han. Her fist smashed into his face; his head rocked back so hard it seemed ready to tumble off his neck. For a moment Master Han swayed, then crashed onto the grass.

"Land ownership can be regained," Wu said with her usual serenity. "But not lives that have been lost. Meng, take Madame Han and the children with us."

"Don't you hurt them..." Huixin stammered.

In three wide steps Meng reached the children's horse and took the reins. "Shut up, brat," he snapped at Huixin. "Buzz off. This family is no longer any of your business."

Huixin turned to Wu. "Elder, I beg your leniency."

"Five hundred gold ingots. That kind of sum won't make Han Yong go bankrupt." Wu flashed Huixin a winning smile. "From one martial arts opponent to another, I swear to you that I won't let his family come to harm."

Ignoring the attendants and guards, the bandits ushered Master Han's family away. Soon they disappeared into the bushes. Wu prodded Master Han's supine form with her shoe. Satisfied that he would regain consciousness soon, she spoke to Huixin.

"Believe it or not, we are selective in our targets. Escort services, wealthy folks who are charitable, officials who care for the people - they may pass safely. We also leave monks and priests alone. They never carry much money anyway."

When someone committed a sin, sometimes their family should also bear the consequences. Since Madame Han didn't beg the bandits to forgive her husband, she must have also known what sort of official Master Han was. That aside, Huixin felt sorry for the family.

"Just keep Madame and the children safe," she repeated.

"For five hundred gold ingots, we would do anything." Wu laughed at Huixin's expression. "Yes, of course they're safe. Until we meet again, Miss Zhen. You're a kind-hearted young person, but make sure you understand the choices you make."

After Wu left, Huixin returned the sword to the shamefaced guard. When she emerged from the narrow path to open land, her stomach felt hollow. In an ideal world, she would have been able to defeat the bandits, and Master Han's family wouldn’t have to be held hostage. But in an ideal world, officials wouldn’t cause suffering and death, and therefore lifelong grudges. It was all very muddled up.

A great heroine, Huixin thought, would defeat the bandits and punish the corrupt official herself. That sounded like a workload, yet feasible. All she needed to do was become strong enough to carry it out. Thus determined, she breathed more easily.

Make sure you understand the choices you make, Wu had said, and Huixin did understand. Not completely, not now, but she didn't expect to. As Wu also said, Huixin was young, with years of learning ahead of her - and more bandits to fight.
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