Chapter 32: Spring Comes Early
The woman in black got carried away and grabbed him. “You can’t go out right now. That bastard Seven Spells is still searching around Huayin, and people from Cloud Terrace Temple are all over Huayin and Mt. Hua. How can you take such a risk when you haven’t recovered yet? Just come with me to Tong Pass first. After a couple weeks, once things have settled down, you can go back. Is that okay? Even if it’s not, I’m too worried to let you take that risk.” She saw Wenchang thinking it over. She took down a wine gourd hanging from the wall and handed it to him. “Please relax for a few days and calm down. Being too hasty will get you nowhere. If you throw your life away you’ll accomplish nothing. Here, I prepared this bottle of of Taibai wine. You can drink it all if you have the tolerance of Li Taibai. It’s nearly spring, the time of the thaw. It’s not easy to get around. I don’t know if we’ll make it to Tong Pass today or not as the carriage can’t go very fast. We might have to spend the night here on the mountainside.”
Wenchang took the wine gourd, his mind all mixed up. He took a drink, then remembered his manners. “Thank you, this wine is really good.”
“It’s Xi’an’s most famous liquor. It’s said to be Immortal Poet Li Taibai’s favorite wine. I hope you like it.”
Wenchang was all out of sorts, but of course he liked it. The wine could dispel his worries, and he soon finished it all.
“Looks like I have to lie low,” he said dejectedly as he hung the wine gourd back on the wall.
The woman in black smiled sweetly and boldly stroked his cheek with her delicate hand, so intimately it made him shift uncomfortably. She spoke to him in her most gentle voice, “Little brother, you’re all confused, but why? A man of the jianghu must have extraordinary ambition. Only then will he be able to deal with any dangers that present themselves in the future. Relax! I think I know what you’re going through. I’m a woman of the jianghu, all by her lonesome, but if I can do what I can for you I would be deeply honored. Oh! Why are you frowning with that heavy, worried face? Why don’t you smile for me? Your smile makes one’s heart pound, you…”
The wine had gone to Wenchang’s head. It had been drugged with some strange potion that was now taking effect, bringing out his natural urges and intensifying them. He felt spring was already here; his blood was boiling. A queer light shone in his eyes as he stared at her pretty face. That face was beckoning him, that voluptuous body tempting him. He forgot himself. In his eyes nothing else existed except her.
He suddenly grabbed her, his face flushed, and said in a thin voice, “Miss, you… forget. Do you know how… how captivating you are?”
His hand was trembling, his strength increasing.
She giggled shyly and fell into his arms.
The coachman was an old servant. He let the horse trot lightly. Outside the carriage it was bitter winter, but inside spring had arrived.
The wine had been laced with a strong aphrodisiac, not poison. It didn’t make one lose one’s natural instincts, but stimulated them. What were natural instincts? There’s a thousand different answers, ten thousand different opinions, as it should be! In any case, it is what it is. Actually, an experienced woman didn’t need any outside help to easily handle a young man who was still wet behind the ears. In this world, only women preserved their honor; there were very few men like that.
Noon. In three hours the horse carriage traveled twenty miles.
This area was a branch of Mt. Hua, mountain peaks extending into the distance all the way to Tong Pass, which was actually the northeast tail of the Hua mountain range. Taking the public road, the three peaks were obscured by mountain ridges, indicating this was still a mountainous area.
It was said that Mt. Hua and Mt. Shouyang opposite Tong Pass had once been a single mountain, but the Yellow River raging from the north had no path to course through. The river god Ju Ling saw this and opened up the mountain range with his hand and tamped it down with his foot, creating a path for the river. It was said his hand and footprints could still be faintly seen. His hand was so powerful that if it was used to hit someone it would have been like the palm of a gigantic spirit, thus the allusion. Since Mt. Hua and Mt. Shouyang had once been one mountain, it was clear that everything south of Tong Pass was a mountain area.
Inside the carriage they clutched each other tightly, snuggling as they rested.
One of the carriage wheels suddenly caught on a log laying to the side and the carriage came to a halt.
“Why did we stop?” Miss Black asked, her eyes closed.
The old coachman’s voice came back, “In response, master, someone is blocking the road.”
“Make them move,” she said lazily.
“That might not be so easy.”
Outside, they heard the sound of hooves on snow.
Miss Black sat up slightly in Wenchang’s arms. Her hair and hairpins were a mess, her shirt and skirt in disarray, her full, soft, pale breasts partially exposed, her translucent skin and deep cleavage bared to the bitter cold breeze blowing in. But she wasn’t cold. Her eyes were still closed as she said lazily, “Show them the pattern on the side of the carriage.”
“In response, master, I think they are here for yourself.” The old man’s voice was still calm.
“Who is it?”
“Looks like Black Flag Sovereign’s men.”
Miss Black sat up straight. She looked startled.
Wenchang’s face also sank. Wasn’t Black Flag Sovereign the ‘One Pilgrim Two Sovereigns’ Black Flag Sovereign Chang Jian? Heavens! He had been in the jianghu for three days and on the first day had run into Mountain Demon Shan Tang and Seven Spells White Crane Hermit. Now here was Black Flag Sovereign Chang Jian. What a coincidence. Three of the Thirteen Greats in three days. Really too coincidental.
Miss Black put her clothes in order hastily and buttoned on her cape and strapped on her sword. She whispered, “If we come to blows, remember not to carelessly get involved. Best not to leave the carriage. Careful. You stick your head out first, but don’t get out.”
She forgot to put the stolen section of the scroll painting back into her robe, leaving it laying next to Wenchang. He was busy getting dressed himself, so he didn’t pay any attention to it either.
Miss Black pulled back the window curtain lightly and looked out, waiting for the moment to get out of the carriage.
Wenchang pulled back the curtain on the other side, opened the window, and stuck his head out to look.
They were in a valley surrounded by small mountain chains, the peaks capped pure white, several black-clad riders spread out, five riders blocking the public road half a mile ahead while they prepared to search the light carriage. Another six riders whipped their horses and galloped over and stopped in front of them, while two riders flanked them on both sides of the carriage.
“Commoners state their names, men of the jianghu state their monikers,” said one of the men in black ahead of them in an intimidating manner.
The old coachman smiled faintly. “Tigers reside deep in the mountains, flood dragons in the lakes and seas, but they all come from the same source.”
What he meant was they were from the same walk of life, but weren’t wandering the jianghu, instead were secret, behind-the-scenes big shots.
“Please state your monikers!” the man called again.
“Crouching tigers and hidden dragons do not reveal themselves.” Which is to say, their names should not be divulged, so no need for them to investigate into it.
“Search it!” the man yelled.
The riders on either side approached to search the carriage.
“Hold it!” the old coachman fumed. “Are you sirs going to ignore jianghu taboos?
The man ignored the coachman’s protests and sat easily in his saddle, his face serious. “We are here on orders to search any suspicious persons. Since you arrogantly insist on not stating your nicknames, don’t blame us for acting presumptuously.”
“On whose orders, honored sir?” the old coachman said sternly.
The man reached back and took a banner bag from off his back and took out a one-foot, eight-inch black flag. The flag itself was black, with a black iron pole and black tassels. It unfurled in the wind, revealing a triangular-shaped flag with a large word, “Chang” in silver. It was a normal flag, nothing special. He raised it high and waved it in a circle, calling out, “When the black decree is waved, the world obeys.”
Aside from a few famous masters, in general, anyone in the jianghu who saw the Black Flag decree would respectfully withdraw in fear. The Black Flag Sovereign was the spiritual leader of the followers of the black path. He had sat soundly as alliance head for twenty years. He was famed and peerless amove the masters of the black path. Men of the jianghu respected the Black Flag decree. If a dispute broke out, whoever carried the decree could mediate the problem. There were three kinds of Black Flag decree. One was silver and had sixteen flags, each with a word carved on the flagpole. The sixteen words were from the trigrams: “Qian, dui, li, zhen, yi, kan, gen, kun, xiu, rest, wound, birth, stop, admire, death, startle, hear.” The second decree was gold. There were twelve, each marked with the names of a double-hour. The third one was a red decree, five of them arranged by east, south, west, north, and center. The three kinds of flags were separated into three ranks and were used by top masters of the black path in each jurisdiction. The red decree was the highest, the silver decree lowest. The decree flag could not be taken out unless it was important, but if it was taken out it possessed unparalleled authority. Friends of the black path must abide the instructions, and if you were not a man of the black path you still must politely withdraw to show your respect. Any person fool enough to disobey or oppose the decree was seen as looking down on the sovereign, and he was in for disaster. He would be punished violently, with frightening results.
In reality, followers of the black path had no administrative structure, and they were not strongly unified, and most did not recognize anyone else’s authority. They were used to a carefree lifestyle; they didn’t want anyone aware of their misdeeds. So, since ancient times no so-called alliance head or hegemon or whatever was much heeded, and few paid in any mind to someone holding sway over them. A man’s desires were boundless. Anyone who got in the way of another’s desires was in for some trouble, and to surmount that trouble required someone of exceptional ability. Black Flag Sovereign was exceptional among the exceptional, and his henchmen were also outstanding. Whoever crossed them would be swiftly met with an iron fist.
Men of the jianghu were used to a carefree lifestyle, but they didn’t cross the Black Flag Sovereign; they only muddled through the best they could. When the Black Flag decree appeared they held their tongues and made way. Without the Black Flag decree, people would still try to take care of their own problems, reluctant to get the Black Flag Sovereign involved. Problems were solved with a clean blade coming out red. Once the Black Flag Sovereign showed up to mediate there was nothing left to be said, and they’d have to wait until later to resolve their quarrel. After all, the Black Flag decree would not follow them around interfering forever.
The six major sects led the heroes of the light path. Over the past hundred years the martial fraternity had gradually fallen into disarray, small sects springing up everywhere, and resentful disciples of the large sects turned to internecine fighting. One after another they established their own sects, such and such sect fighting with such and such school for bragging rights, vying with the six major sects on this and that. Three people could be their own sect, two could be a school. You could get together a dozen children or good-for-nothing brats and erect a sect placard and show off. Anyway, no one controlled anyone else. It was a complete mess of sects and schools forming and some even flourishing.
Among friends of the light path, aside from the first-rate masters of the six major sects, most were wary of the Black Flag Sovereign, not daring to openly clash with anyone carrying a Black Flag decree. Therefore, Black Flag Sovereign Chang Jian was famed within the jianghu, not only maintaining his reign for twenty years without faltering, but even getting more and more powerful.
So many problems abounded, and the Black Flag decree wasn’t a miracle talisman. Sometimes when encountering some reckless, boorish fellow there would be some slip-ups. Over the last twenty years, four of the silver decree holders had been killed, as well as two gold decree holders. Even two red decree holders, North Road Hero and Capital Phantom He Kailiang had been beheaded ten years ago. The implications of this matter were vast, but it was still an unsolved mystery. Luckily, Sovereign Chang had plenty of men; when one was killed another replaced him, and those louts who dared look down on the sovereign were met with increasingly violent ends.
The black-clad man heard the old coachman’s confident tone telling him he was not allowed to investigate and was at a loss for a moment as to what to do. Then he took out the silver flag decree and gave the order.
The old coachman saw the silver flag decree and smiled faintly. “Sir, please make way.” He let off the brake and waited for the approaching riders.
The six men’s faces became stern as they roared in unison, “You’ve got a lot of guts. Tell the people inside to come out.”
Wenchang already had his head out the window. He heard Miss Black whisper to him using her secretive message skill, “Little brother, ask them why they’re here.”
He steeled himself and stuck an arm out the window. “Sirs, can you tell me why you’re here?”
The man on the left saw Wenchang’s dashing figure, and noticed he was young, and he really didn’t get it. Some nobody dared to defy the Black Flag decree? “We have received orders from our honorable superior to intercept and attack Mountain Demon Shan Tang and that old temptress Black Succubus Gu Zhen who stole the Autumn Mountain Mist painting in Laozi Valley.”
Wenchang was alarmed, but also relieved. Mountain Demon Shan Tang was who knows where, and he had never seen Black Succubus Gu Zhen before.
That’s odd. Miss Black was one of the ones who stole the painting, what did this have to do with that old temptress Black Succubus Gu Zhen? He drew a blank, but he was getting suspicious.