Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sword of the Yue Maiden

*** Originally translated by an anonymous translator at (  I changed the proper nouns to pinyin (personal preference) and tried my hand at some editing (mainly the grammar but also some localization.)  The anonymous translator also included an introduction and background essay, which I've retained.  This is a Chinese martial arts fantasy story by the internationally renowned author Jīn Yōng. You can find more of his translated works at ***

- Background -

Liveried: Wearing a livery, which in this case is distinctive clothing worn by retainers.

Qi: Chi; Chakra; Internal energy.

This is the only short story written by Jīn Yōng. Because of its short length, you can't really see Jīn Yōng's full talent at story-telling. However, this translation can give you some idea of what a martial arts story is like. My clumsy translation can't really do the original justice, but I hope I have stirred your interest enough that you'll go out there and find out more about Chinese culture, history, and legend. It may not be easy, but I assure you, what you find will never be dull.

This story is based on real historical events that occurred during the 5th century B.C. It's a period between what's known as the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring Kingdoms period. China was yet to be united under the First Emperor. The so-called Hàn race didn't exist yet. China was divided into big and small kingdoms, dukedoms, and counties which warred with each other constantly.

It all started when the king of Chǔ slept with his son's fiancee. Bad move for any era. The king feared that his son would turn against him. His fear was fanned into action by the allegations of an ambitious minister who wanted to destroy the crown prince's faction. The resulting purge destroyed many clans and families. One of the family, almost peripheral to the whole thing, was the House of Wǔ. The youngest son, Wǔ Zǐ Xū, escaped and vowed bloody vengeance.

After a long and dangerous journey through several kingdoms unwilling to help, he arrived at the newly founded kingdom of Wú (No, the Chinese characters for the Wú in Wǔ Zǐ Xū is actually different from the character for Wú in the Wú kingdom). He helped Prince Hé Lǘ assassinate his cousin the king in a convoluted power struggle. Then he built up the kingdom of Wú from a barely civilized kingdom to a modern kingdom with the best trained army in the known world. Sun Tzu, who wrote the immortal Art of War, served in Wú at this time.

When Wǔ Zǐ Xū was ready, he managed to convince King Hé Lǘ to invade Chǔ. At the time Chǔ was a superpower and Wú was an upstart kingdom, but the upstart kingdom managed to utterly destroy Chǔ's army. Unfortunately, Wǔ Zǐ Xū's vengeance was hollow. The object of his vengeance had already died several years ago. In his rage, Wǔ Zǐ Xū exhumed the body of the dead king and flogged it until it fell to pieces.

The kingdom of Wú proved itself incapable of absorbing the far larger kingdom of Chǔ, so Wǔ Zǐ Xū had to take his army back to Wú. Then Hé Lǘ began a series of wars to establish hegemony over the rest of China. During one of those wars he ran into the kingdom of Yuè. The Yuè people were even more primitive than Wú was a few decades before, but they were great fighters. They were ruled by King Gōu Jiàn. In a pitched battle, King Hé Lǘ was struck by a poison arrow and died.

Hé Lǘ's son Fū Chā became king. He was intent on avenging his father. A personal guard was ordered to remind him of this fact periodically by saying, "Fū Chā, did you forget to avenge the death of your father?" Fū Chā eventually rallied his army and destroyed the army of Yuè. King Gōu Jiàn became a prisoner of Fū Chā for several years. However, Fū Chā was not a brutal man. Instead of annexing the kingdom of Yuè and turning Gōu Jiàn into a slave, he released Gōu Jiàn after extracting an oath of fealty from the king of Yuè.

Unfortunately, that gesture of mercy was completely lost on King Gōu Jiàn. Gōu Jiàn, like Wǔ Zǐ Xū and Fū Chā before him, was possessed by a burning desire to avenge the wrongs done him.

Gōu Jiàn hired two wise men from the kingdom of Chǔ. One of them was Fàn Lí, the other was Wén Zhǒng. The two began to build up the barbaric kingdom of Yuè so one day their king could challenge the power of Wú. Many legends are associated with this period of history. One of the legends was the legend of the Yuè Maiden.

- The Sword of the Yuè Maiden -

"After you."

"After you."

The two swordsmen turned the points of their blades downward. With their right palms grasping their sword hilts and their left palms covering the back of their right hands, they bowed deeply to each other in a warrior's salute.

Before they fully raised from their bows, there was a sudden flash of white, followed by the sound of clanging. The two swordsmen each retreated one step as the audience gave out a soft cry.

The swordsman in blue slashed three times; the liveried swordsman blocked each slash. The swordsman in blue shouted and slashed his sword from his upper left straight downward. The slash was powerful and fast, but the liveried swordsman was too agile to be caught. A simple jump got him out of the way, his body barely bobbed after his left foot touched the ground. He immediately followed with two slashes. The swordsman in blue stood still with a grim smile as he lightly moved his sword to block the attacks.

The liveried swordsman suddenly began running around the swordsman in blue. He ran faster and faster. The swordsman in blue merely stared at the point of his enemy's sword. He was ready to strike if that point ever moved to attack. The liveried swordsman would run in one direction, then the other. The swordsman in blue started to feel a bit dizzy and yelled, "Are you fighting or running for your life!?" But the liveried swordsman continued running. The swordsman in blue attempted to cut him down a few times, but his sword always fell short.

The swordsman in blue pulled his sword back to the side of his body and slightly lowered his right leg. The liveried swordsman thought he saw an opening and lunged at the swordsman in blue's left shoulder, but the swordsman in blue was merely luring his enemy. His sword circled into a direct thrust at the liveried swordsman's throat. The thrust was too fast to be avoided. Surprised, the liveried swordsman threw his sword toward the heart of his enemy, hoping to force the swordsman to abort his attack in order to save his life.

But the swordsman in blue didn't attempt to defend himself. With a quick thrust of his arm, the point of his sword entered the liveried swordsman's throat. The liveried swordsman's thrown sword bounced off the swordsman in blue's chest with a loud clang and fell to the ground. The swordsman in blue laughed coldly and pulled his sword back. He was wearing a round plate of iron over his chest, just under his garments, so the sword did him no harm. The liveried swordsman's throat spurted blood and his body convulsed. Servants stepped in to remove the body and began to wipe up the blood on the ground.

The swordsman in blue sheathed his sword. He stepped forward and bowed toward the north of the hall where the king sat. The king wore a purple robe and had a strange appearance: His neck was excessively long and his mouth was as sharp as a bird's beak. He smiled and announced, in a croaking voice, "The victor has wonderful skill with the sword. Award him ten pounds of gold." The swordsman in blue knelt down on his right knee and bowed, "Thank you for the reward." The king waved his left hand. An official on his right shouted, "Swordsmen of Wú and swordsmen of Yuè, second contest!"

From the east end of the hall, another liveried swordsman walked out from his group. This man was tall of stature and held a great sword. The sword was nearly four feet in length with an extremely thick blade, the sword was obviously quite heavy. From the west end of the hall, another swordsman in blue walked out. He was of medium height and his face was crisscrossed by at least twelve or thirteen sword scars to the point where it no longer looked human. He must have fought hundreds of battles with countless swordsmen. The two swordsmen knelt to the king, then they saluted each other.

The swordsman in blue straightened his body and smiled. His scarred face made the smile seem ugly and cruel. The tall swordsman shivered, then sighed deeply and held his sword with both hands.

Suddenly, the swordsman in blue howled madly like a wolf and thrusted his sword. The tall swordsman cried, lifted his great sword and sliced down towards his opponent's head. The swordsman in blue dodged while his sword made a slash from left to right. The tall swordsman lifted the great sword and whirled, making a noise like a great wind. The great weight of the sword didn't slow him down in the slightest.

The two made thirty passes at each other. The swordsman in blue couldn't oppose the weight of his opponent's sword. He kept retreating. All the other liveried swordsman began to show hope on their faces as they anticipated their side to win at last.

Then the tall swordsman made a great cry like the sound of a thunderclap and made a horizontal slice with his great sword. The swordsman in blue couldn't avoid it. He could only block it with his own sword with all his strength. Clang! The two swords met. The great sword broke and half of the blade flew away. The swordsman in blue wielded a far sharper sword. Then the swordsman in blue made a vertical cut which opened up the tall swordsman from throat to crotch. The tall swordsman howled and kept on howling as he fell to the ground. The swordsman in blue regarded his fallen opponent for a while before returning his sword to the sheath. Then he knelt toward the king. His face couldn't disguise his joy of victory.

The official said, "The victor's skill with the sword is impressive. Award him ten pounds of gold." The swordsman in blue bowed in thanks. There were only eight swordsmen in blue. They were badly outnumbered compared to the fifty liveried swordsmen standing at the east side of the hall. The official said, "Swordsmen of Wú and swordsmen of Yuè, third contest!" Again, one swordsman from each walked to the center of the hall. The sword of the swordsman in blue trembled and shone like bright silk. The official exclaimed, "Good sword!" The swordsman in blue thanked him for his praise. The official then said, "We have seen one-to-one contests twice. This time, two against two!"

Two more swordsmen entered the arena. Like those before them, the four swordsmen saluted the king first before saluting each other. Then their swords flashed as the combat began. This time, each of the two swordsmen on the same side needed to reinforce each other. After a few passes, a liveried swordsmen's sword was cut in half by his enemy's sword.

This liveried swordsman was very courageous. He held up his broken sword and jumped toward his enemy. His opponent's sword flashed and cut away not only his right arm, but his right shoulder. Then the sword impaled his heart. The other pair was still fighting. The victorious swordsman in blue watched for a while, then his sword flashed. Again, the liveried swordsman's sword was cut into half, leaving him wide open. His opponent's sword entered his chest and exited his back.

The king laughed and clapped, "Excellent swords! Excellent sword skills! Award them wine and gold. Let us see one contest of four against four!" Four swordsmen from each side began combat. The swordsmen from the east side had already lost three contests. These four fought desperately with all their skills. Even if they lost their lives, they meant to win at least one contest. Two swordsmen in blue concentrated on one liveried swordsman. The other two swordsmen in blue defended them against the other three liveried swordsmen. They made no attempt to attack, all they did was prevent the other three liveried swordsmen from aiding their comrade, and their defense seemed impenetrable. The two attacking swordsmen in blue easily killed their lone opponent. Then they repeated their tactic again and killed another liveried swordsman.

The other liveried swordsmen watching the competition saw the death of their comrades. They drew their swords, ready to aid their comrades and chop the swordsmen in blue to bits.

The official cried out in a clear voice, "Those who've learned the way of the sword, must obey the laws of the sword!"

His voice was authoritative. The liveried swordsmen quieted down. By now everyone could see that the swordsmen in blue used different styles of sword skills: The two who defended specialized in defense; The two who attacked specialized in attack. The attackers always outnumbered their victim because the defenders watched their back. They could even win against six, or maybe even eight, opponents because the swords of the two defenders formed a sword net which could easily handle five or even six swordsmen at once.

The two defenders had cornered a liveried swordsman so he was virtually neutralized while the two attackers already killed the third liveried swordsman. The two defenders moved left and right and watched for more enemies while the two attackers began on the lone swordsman. Even though the liveried swordsman had no hope of winning, he still didn't throw down his sword and admit defeat. Suddenly the four swordsmen in blue shouted loudly and their four swords impaled the liveried swordsman from four directions.

The liveried swordsman died immediately, but his eyes and mouth opened as wide as round saucers. The four swordsmen in blue pulled out their swords at the same time. The four wiped their swords off on the soles of their shoes, then they returned their swords back into the sheath. Their movements were completely synchronized.

The king laughed and clapped his hands together again. "Excellent sword skill! The swordsmen of the Great Kingdom are truly invincible. Today is truly special to be treated to such a spectacle. Award each swordsman ten pounds of gold!" The four bowed in thanks. They all bowed at the same exact angle. No one knew how long they practiced to achieve such precision.

A swordsman in blue turned, picked up a long box covered in gold paint, turned towards the king and said, "Our king thanks the generous gifts of Your Majesty. His Majesty ordered us to return the favor with one precious sword. This sword is newly forged in our kingdom for the enjoyment of Your Majesty."

The king smiled. "Thank you. Minister Fàn, bring it over here."

The king was Gōu Jiàn, King of Yuè. The official was Fàn Lí, the royal advisor. The liveried swordsmen were the Royal Guards of Yuè. The eight swordsmen in blue were the messengers sent by Fū Chā, King of Wú. Years ago, Gōu Jiàn had been defeated by Fū Chā and now he waited for a chance to get his revenge. While he was submissive to the Kingdom of Wú on the surface, he secretly trained soldiers in preparation for an attack on Wú. In order to test the skill of Wú warriors, he sent out the best of his swordsmen. He did not expect that the Wú swordsmen would easily kill eight of his finest swordsmen. He was shocked and angry, but he showed none of it. Instead, he praised the sword skills of the Wú swordsmen and showed his heartfelt admiration.

Fàn Lí took the long golden box. The box felt very light, as though it were empty. He opened up the cover. Before the other people in the hall could see what was in the box, Fàn Lí's face was illuminated by a faint blue light. Everyone cried in surprise.

Fàn Lí took the box to Gōu Jiàn and bowed, "Please look, Your Majesty." Gōu Jiàn saw that the box was lined with red silk. The sword inside had a very thin blade. The light it reflected flowed on its surface like water. Gōu Jiàn cried, "Excellent sword!"

Gōu Jiàn grasped the hilt and lifted up the sword. The blade trembled slightly, almost as though he could break the blade with a flick of his wrist. "The sword blade is too thin. It might look good, but it has no practical use," Gōu Jiàn silently thought.

The leader of the swordsmen in blue took out a piece of gauze from his pocket and threw it into the air. "Please, Your Majesty, point the edge of the sword upward so it will meet this falling gauze. You will see that this sword is not as it looks." The thin gauze fell upon the edge of the sword, but the gauze didn't stop falling. It kept falling, as two separate gauzes. The people on the hall cheered.

The swordsman in blue further explained, "This blade might be thin, but it will not break even if it blocks a heavy weapon."

Gōu Jiàn said, "Minister Fàn, try it."

"Yes," nodded Fàn. He walked in front of a liveried swordsman, took out the sword and said, "Let's try it.  Draw." The liveried swordsman bowed and drew his sword, but he didn't dare to strike. Fàn Lí cried, "Strike!"
The swordsman cut downward, Fàn Lí met it with his sword. The blade of the liveried swordsmen was cut into two pieces. Before one of the pieces flew into him, Fàn Lí dodged with great agility. The people inside the hall cheered. Were they cheering the sharpness of the blade, or the agility of Fàn?

Fàn Lí placed the sword back in the box and put the box next to the feet of the king. Gōu Jiàn said, "Swordsmen of the Great Kingdom, you are invited to the next hall for a feast and awards for the contest." The eight swordsmen in blue bowed and left the hall. When Gōu Jiàn waved his hand, all the swordsmen, servants, and ministers left. Except for Fàn Lí.

Gōu looked from the sword to the blood on the ground and asked, "What you do think?"

Fàn Lí answered, "Not all the Wú soldiers are as good as these eight. Not all swords wielded by them are as sharp as this one. But from this small example, we can see the rest. The most terrifying aspect is their technique of group fighting. They used the methods of Sūn Wǔ (Sun Tzu). I believe that they currently have no match in the world."

Gōu Jiàn nodded, "Fū Chā sent these eight just to give me this sword. What does he have in mind?"

Fàn Lí answered, "He wanted to show us the difficulty of achieving vengence."

Gōu Jiàn became angry. He took up the sword and made a backhand stroke. The stroke cut halfway through the back of his chair. "Even if the difficulty is one thousand, ten thousand times greater than this, Gōu Jiàn will not retreat from his goal! One day, I will capture Fū Chā, king of Wú, and cut off his head with his own sword!" he shouted. Another stroke of the sword split the chair in half.

Fàn Lí bowed and said, "Congratulations, Your Majesty."

Gōu replied, in surprise, "After seeing the ability of the Wú swordsmen, what's there to congratulate me about?"

Fàn Lí said, "As long as Your Majesty has the determination, anything can be accomplished. Concerning this difficulty, I must discuss it with Minister Wén."

Gōu Jiàn nodded. "Good, summon Minister Wén." Fàn Lí left the palace and ordered the palace servant to summon Minister Wén Zhǒng. Wén Zhǒng shortly arrived on a speedy horse, then the two walked back into the palace.

Fàn Lí was originally a native of Wǎn, in the Kingdom of Chǔ. He was not a man concerned with the details of etiquette and he often did things no one else expected. People of his homeland called him "Fàn the Crazy." When Wén Zhǒng came to be the magistrate of Wǎn, he heard of the Fàn Lí's reputation. He sent subordinates to summon Fàn. The subordinates said, "That Fàn is the famous crazy man of this land. Nothing he does makes any sense." Wén Zhǒng smiled, "When a man tries to do something different, other people always say that he is mad. When a man has a superior opinion, the common of wit will call it stupid. How can you understand Master Fàn?" So Wén Zhǒng went to visit Fàn himself, but Fàn avoided him. Fàn expected that Wén would not give up so easily, so he borrowed some proper clothes from his brother. When Wén came back, Fàn was ready. The two talked and found that they had much in common.

They both felt the kingdoms were weak. The kingdom of Chǔ was large, but chaotic. The only kingdoms which could rise to command the rest were located in the southeast. Wén Zhǒng resigned his position and went to the kingdom of Wú with Fàn Lí. At the time, the king of Wú's favorite was Wǔ Zǐ Xū. The two lived in the capital for a few months and saw that Wǔ Zǐ Xū was indeed a wise man. They were not necessarily better than him.

After some discussion, they decided that although Yuè was a smaller kingdom, they could put their talents to better use there. Gōu Jiàn received them warmly and gave them both high positions.

Then Gōu Jiàn ignored the advice of Wén Zhǒng and declared war on the kingdom of Wú. His army was defeated near the shore of Qián Táng River. Gōu Jiàn was surrounded at Kuanì Jī Mountain and would have died with his kingdom, but he listened to Fàn Lí and Wén Zhǒng's advice and bribed the Prime Minister of Wú. Shortly after, Fū Chā listened to his Prime Minister instead of the wiser Wǔ Zǐ Xū's advice and agreed to a peace treaty. Gōu Jiàn lived in Wú as a hostage for a few years before being released. After that, Gōu Jiàn slept only on beds made of thorny branches and often drank the bitter juice of beef gall bladders to remind himself of the humiliations he suffered. He used Wén Zhǒng's Nine Methods to subvert Wú and strengthen Yuè.

The Nine Methods were:

One: Pay respect to the gods and spirits.

Two: Give Fū Chā vast amounts of money to make him feel secure and to soften him through luxury.

Three: Borrow food from Wú and return seeds which would not grow, causing famine in Wú.

Four: Give Fū Chā beautiful women, such as Xī Shī and Zhèng Dàn, so that Fū Chā would pay more attention to the beautiful women than the affairs of the kingdom.

Five: Give Fū Chā engineers so he would build expensive palaces that would drain the kingdom's economy.

Six: Bribe the ministers of Wú.

Seven: Distance Fū Chā from his wise ministers. (The wise Wǔ Zǐ Xū was eventually forced to commit suicide as punishment for a false charge of treason.)

Eight: Hoard food so the kingdom of Yuè would have a great reserve available.

Nine: Make weapons, train soldiers, and wait for the chance to rebel.

Eight methods had succeeded, but they had run into great difficulty with the ninth. Everyone could tell that the eight warriors of Wú were better than anyone Yuè could produce. Fàn Lí told Wén Zhǒng the results of the contest. Wén Zhǒng frowned, "Brother Fàn, the sharpness of their swords is a major problem. Also, the way their swordsmen worked together in groups... it's in accordance to Sūn Wǔ (Sun Tzu)'s Art of War."

Fàn Lí replied, "Yes, decades ago, Sūn Wǔ (Sun Tzu) helped the king of Wú. They destroyed Chǔ, the most powerful kingdom in the world at the time. In his book it's said, 'If I concentrate my forces and the enemy's forces is fragmented into ten parts, then I can use my unified one to attack each of his ten fragments. Then I will outnumber my enemy and the battle will be over.' Wú used this principle to achieve superiority against our swordsmen."

As they talked, they arrived in front of Gōu Jiàn. Gōu Jiàn was staring at the gifted sword. After a long while, Gōu Jiàn lifted up his head and said, "Minister Wén, years ago Wú had a husband and wife team of swordsmiths, Gàn Jiàng and Mò Yé. Yuè had Ōu Yě Zǐ. Now, all three have died. Wú still has great swordsmiths, yet we have no one to succeed Ōu Yě Zǐ."

Wén Zhǒng said, "I have heard that Ōu Yě Zǐ had two students. One is named Fēng Hú Zi, the other is called Xuē Zhú. Fēng Hú Zi is in the kingdom of Chǔ. Xuē is still in Yuè."

Gōu became glad and said, "Summon him. And order someone to go to Chǔ with gold so we can get Fēng Hú Zi here as well."

The next morning, Wén Zhǒng reported that he sent someone to Chǔ. Meanwhile, Xuē Zhú had already arrived. Gōu Jiàn granted Xuē an audience and said, "Your master Ōu Yě Zǐ once forged five swords under my father's orders. How do you grade those five swords?"

Xuē quickly replied, "I've heard my master say that he forged five swords for the King: Three large swords and two small swords. They are Trembling Reed, Pure Edge, Defeater of Evil, Fish Intestine, and Great Tower. Trembling Reed is now in Chǔ while Defeater of Evil and Fish Intestine are in Wú. Your Majesty still has Pure Edge and Great Tower." Years before, Prince Hé Lǘ of Wú heard of the swords and asked Gōu Jiàn's father for some of them. Gōu Jiàn's father feared the might of Wú and gave Hé Lǘ Trembling Reed, Defeater of Evil, and Fish Intestine. Using Fish Intestine, Hé Lǘ assassinated his cousin, the king, and took the throne. Trembling Reed was lost in a river and later found by the king of Chǔ. The King of Qín heard of this and asked for it. Even after a few wars, the king of Chǔ still refused to give it up. "My master said that of the five swords, Defeater of Evil is of the highest grade. Pure Edge and Trembling Reed are next. Fish Intestine is lower and Great Tower ranks last. When Great Tower was forged, the alloy was not pure, so it was only a sharp sword and not a truly precious sword."

"So," Gōu Jiàn asked, "Are you saying my Pure Edge and Great Tower are not as good as Fū Chā's Defeater of Evil and Fish Intestine?"

Xuē dared not admit that Gōu Jiàn's swords was inferior, but Gōu Jiàn knew the answer anyway.

Fàn Lí broke the silence. "You have the skill of your master. You can forge a few swords of your own, they might not be inferior to those owned by Wú."

Xuē shook his head. "I cannot forge swords anymore."

"Why not?" asked Fàn Lí.

He sadly answered, "Thumbs and index fingers are required for forging swords. I am a cripple."  Xuē held up his hands. On both his hands, the thumb and the index fingers were gone.

Gōu Jiàn quickly asked, "Did your enemy cut off your fingers?"

"No, my fellow student did it," replied Xuē.

"Your fellow student?" Gōu Jiàn asked, "You mean Fēng Hú Zi? Why did he do it? Ah! It must be you're better than him, so he cut your fingers off in jealousy!"

Xuē remained silent.

"I was thinking about inviting Fēng from Chǔ, but now I realize he won't come because he fears your vengeance," said Gōu Jiàn.

Xuē said, "Your Majesty is indeed wise, but Fēng is no longer in Chǔ. He is in Wú."

Ko Chiang was startled. "He... He's in Wú? What's he doing there?"

"Three years ago," Xuē explained, "Fēng came to my home and brought out a precious sword for me to inspect. I was astounded. That sword was Flowing Fabric, forged by my master for Chǔ. The blade was covered in runes that flowed like water. I heard from my master that he forged three swords for Chǔ. That was one, the others were Dragon Spring and Peace."

"Then," Gōu Jiàn interrupted, "The king of Chǔ must have given it to Fēng."

"Indirectly," Xuē said. "Fēng said that after the army of Wú destroyed the capital of Chǔ, Wǔ Zǐ Xū took the sword from the grave of the previous king. He'd heard of Fēng's skills, so when Wǔ Zǐ Xū returned to Wú he gave the sword to him as a gift. He said the sword was a legacy from our master and that Fēng was the rightful owner."

"Wǔ Zǐ Xū let the sword go? He is truly a great hero to let such a treasure go." Gōu Jiàn laughed. "Fortunately, Fū Chā has already taken care of him for me." Gōu Jiàn paused before asking, "What did Wǔ Zǐ Xū want in return from Fēng?"

"Wǔ Zǐ Xū merely said that he admired our master," Xuē answered. "Fēng felt grateful after he received the sword, so he went to Wú and thanked Wǔ Zǐ Xū in person. Wǔ Zǐ Xū treated him as an honored guest."

Gōu Jiàn nodded, "That's how he made people become loyal enough to die for him."

"Your Majesty is wise," Xuē said, "But Fēng didn't understand Wǔ Zǐ Xū's true intentions, so he asked again and again how he could repay the great favor done to him. Wǔ Zǐ Xū merely said he would not ask anything of an honored guest."

"The old fox!" exclaimed Gōu Jiàn.

Xuē said, "Fēng finally told Wǔ Zǐ Xū that his only skill was in forging swords. In return for Wǔ Zǐ Xū's favors, he told Wǔ Zǐ Xū he would forge a few precious swords for him."

Gōu slapped his thigh. "Got him!"

"But," Xuē continued, "Wǔ Zǐ Xū said the kingdom of Wú already had many precious swords and needed no more. Besides, the forging of a precious sword is a tremendous labor. Years ago, when Gàn Jiàng and Mò Yé were forging their sword, the sword refused to come into being until Mò Yé flung herself into the fire. Wǔ Zǐ Xū had no intention of repeating that kind of tragedy."

"He didn't want Fēng to forge swords for him? Strange," Gōu Jiàn thought out loud.

Xuē nodded. "Fēng was baffled too. Later, Wǔ Zǐ Xū visited him again. He explained that the army of Wú was almost capable of fighting with superpowers like the kingdoms of Qí and Jìn. Wú's warriors were courageous, but their skills in chariot warfare were inferior. Moreover, their swords and spears were not sharp enough. Fēng began discussing the techniques behind sword forging with Wǔ Zǐ Xū. In the end, what Wǔ Zǐ Xū wanted wasn't a few precious swords with mysterious powers, what he wanted was thousands and thousands of sharp swords."

Gōu Jiàn understood. He looked towards Fàn Lí and Wén Zhǒng. Worry filled Wén Zhǒng's face. Wén Zhǒng asked, "Minister Fàn, what do you think?"

"Even though Wǔ Zǐ Xū was crafty, he was not wise enough to escape Your Majesty's schemes," Fàn Lí answered.

Gōu Jiàn laughed, "I am afraid that I've never been Wǔ Zǐ Xū's match."

"Wǔ Zǐ Xū is already dead. What more can he do to threaten Yuè?" said Fàn Lí.

Gōu Jiàn laughed again. "True. Xuē Zhú, did Fēng finally begin forging swords?"

"Yes, he went to Mount Mò Gān where one thousand swordsmiths were already working. He corrected and improved their techniques. Every sword in Wú is now sharper than anything made in the other kingdoms," Xuē answered.

Gōu Jiàn nodded. "So that's why."

"After one year," Xuē continued, "Fēng became too fatigued to continue, so he gave Wǔ Zǐ Xū my name. Wǔ Zǐ Xū readied lavish gifts and asked Fēng to invite me to work for him as well. I remembered the hatred between Wú and Yuè. If Wú's sharp swords could kill the people of Qí and Jìn, they could also kill the people of my home, so I counseled Fēng not to return to Wú."

Gōu nodded in approval, "You have great foresight."

Xuē smiled. "Thank for your praise, Your Majesty, but he didn't listen to me. That night he slept in my home. In the middle of the night, he suddenly put his sword at my neck, then he chopped off four of my fingers so I could never again forge another sword."

Gōu Jiàn became angry. "If he falls into my hands, I'll grind him into meat paste!"

Wén Zhǒng looked concerned. "Master Xuē, even though you cannot forge swords by yourself, you can still teach our swordsmiths. We, too, can make as many sharp swords as the Wú swordsmiths."

Xuē shook his head. "Minister Wén, both Yuè and Wú produce the necessary iron needed for sword blades. And while Yuè also produces copper, Wú produces the zinc we'd need."

"Wǔ Zǐ Xū put an order to guard the zinc mines and forbade all private mining, right?" said Fàn Lí.

Xuē showed surprise on his face. "So you already know."

Fàn Lí smiled. "No, I was merely speculating. But now that he's dead, his orders may not be followed anymore. We should be able to purchase zinc if we're willing to pay for it..."

"But," Gōu Jiàn said, "A source of water far away cannot extinguish a nearby wildfire. By the time we gather all the materials, train the swordsmiths, and start production, at least two or three years will have passed. That's not even accounting for any setbacks along the way. If Fū Chā dies before we're ready, won't that be the greatest regret of our lives?"

Fàn Lí and Wén Zhǒng bowed deeply. "Yes, we will find another way."

Fàn Lí walked out of the palace thinking, "His Majesty can't wait two or three more years? I can't even wait one more day...." A dull pain came to his chest as he remembered the image of the unmatched beauty who could stun the world.

Her name was Xī Shī. She lived next to Huàn Shā River. She was a special woman who looked as though she had gathered all the beauty of the land of Yuè into her being.  And Fàn Lí sent her away to the palace of Wú.

The road from the capital of Yuè to the capital of Wú was not long, only a few days by river, but that was long enough for love to grow beyond control. The white face of Xī Shī was full of pearl-like tears and her voice was soft as a whispering stream, "Shǎo Bó, promise me that you will come and get me as soon as possible. I will wait for you, day and night. Say that you will never forget me, forever and ever."

Vengeance against Wú could wait, as far as Fàn Lí was concerned, but Yí Guāng (his name for Xī Shī) was in the embrace of King Fū Chā. Love and jealousy gnawed at his heart. "I must find to way to make as many sharp swords as possible, even sharper than those wielded by the invincible Wú swordsmen..."

He walked aimlessly on the street. Eighteen armed guards followed him faithfully. They heard men loudly singing an Wú song.

"My sword is sharp! My enemy has no courage! My sword is sharp! My enemy has no head!"  Eight men in blue, arm in arm, swaggered down the street, showing no concern for the pedestrians who were hurrying out of their way. They were the eight Wú swordsmen. They were obviously very drunk.

Fàn Lí frowned. He could feel his anger rising.

The eight swordsmen stopped in front of Fàn Lí. One of them looked sideways at him with drunken eyes. "You... you're Minister Fàn, right?" he asked before breaking into uncontrollable giggles. Two guards leaped in front of Fàn Lí and said, "Don't be so rude. Make way!"

The eight swordsmen merely laughed and mimicked their words. "Don't be so rude. Make way!"

Two guards pulled out their swords and cried, "By royal decree, those who dare interfere with Minister Fàn's welfare are to be executed!"

One of the Wú swordsman's body swayed as he asked, "Execute you or me?"

Fàn's mind was working. Those men were the subjects of Wú. Even though they were rude, his men could not afford to fight them. Before he could tell his guards to pull back, a bright sword flashed. One of the Wú swordsmen returned his sword into his sheath, his face full of gloating pride. Fàn Lí's guards pulled out their swords and surrounded the eight Wú swordsmen.

The leader raised his head and laughed. "We never planned to return to Wú alive anyway. Let's see how big an army you need to kill us!" With a shout, eight swords leapt out of their sheaths. Eight swordsmen stood back to back, forming a circle.

Fàn Lí thought, "If one can not endure small slights, then one will never achieve great things." He shouted, "These eight are ambassadors from the Great Kingdom. Don't treat them with ill manners. Fall Back!" Then he retreated to the side of the street. His guards were angry enough to shoot fire from their eyes, but they dared not disobey him. They reluctantly retreated to the side of the street as well.

Suddenly, they heard the cries of a herd of goats. A young maiden dressed in a pale green robe was herding them down the street. The goats started to go around the eight Wú swordsmen. One swordsman, feeling cheated of a good fight, took his anger out on a goat and sliced it in half. The cut was so neat that even the nose of the goat was severed into two precisely equal parts. His seven friends cheered. Even Fàn Lí could not fault his sword skill.

The young maiden's bamboo stick moved and herded the rest of goats behind her. "Why did you kill my goat?" she demanded. The voice was feminine and clear, but it also contained anger.

The goat killer swung his sword in air a few times and laughed, "Little girl, I will cut you into half just like this goat!"

"Young Miss, please come over here. They're drunk!" Fàn Lí cried.

The maiden ignored Fàn Lí. "Even if you're drunk, that's no excuse to behave rudely."

The swordsman's sword circled above her head. "I was thinking of cutting off your head, but now I see you're quite pretty, I changed my mind.  I have a different idea now..." His seven friends laughed again.

Fàn Lí looked at her. She had an oval face, long eyelashes and clear, white skin. Her face was pretty and her body was slender, even seemingly frail. He cried again, "Young Miss, over here."

The Wú swordsman's sword reached out toward her belt. "Why don't you..." Before he could finish, the maiden's bamboo stick flickered and stabbed his wrist. The swordsman felt the sudden pain on his wrist and dropped his sword. The bamboo stick shot upward, stabbing the swordsman's right eye. The swordsman screamed as he covered his blinded eye.

Although the maiden's movements were simple, the Wú swordsman could not avoid or even block her bamboo stick. The other seven swordsmen were very surprised. One of them pulled back his sword and thrusted it toward the maiden's right eye. As the sword sped forward, everyone could hear a loud whoosh, revealing the strength behind the thrust. The maiden didn't even move her feet. Her bamboo stick flickered again. This time she stabbed the swordsman's shoulder. The stab was so fast that even though it started after his thrust, it arrived well before the thrust could reach her. The swordsman cried out in pain as all the strength went out of his thrust. Then the maiden's wrist flicked and the bamboo stick went into his right eye. The swordsman screamed like a butchered pig as his two fists waved aimlessly.

The maiden made four moves and two Wú swordsmen were disabled. Even though she moved too fast to be seen clearly, the technique she used was clearly derived from some sort of high sword skill. Fàn Lí was both surprised and gladdened, but now he saw that the maiden had to face six Wú swordsmen. He hurriedly said, "Swordsmen of Wú! It would be bad for the honor of Wú if the six of you gang up on a defenseless girl. Even if you win with you superior numbers..." He clapped his hands together. His guards leaped into the street and surrounded the girl and Wú swordsmen.

The maiden smiled. "Six of them still isn't enough." She slightly rose her left hand. The bamboo stick in her right hand thrusted toward yet another swordsman's eye. She moved her stick and stabbed towards another swordsman's chest. Three swords sped toward her. She gracefully avoided all three swords, then she counterattacked. One swordsman was stabbed on the wrist and lost his hold on his sword.

Fàn Lí's guard was ready to leap into battle, but they could not penetrate the sword net formed by the Wú swordsmen. The maiden moved between the six swordsmen. Her long sleeves and long belt waved in the wind beautifully. Then the cries of pain came from one after another Wú swordsmen as their swords dropped to the ground. The fight was over. Each of the Wú swordsmen lost an eye. Some lost the right eye, some lost the left eye.

The maiden pulled back her bamboo stick. "You killed my goat. Now compensate me."

The Wú swordsmen were angry and scared. Some were roaring in fury. Some were shivering in fear. These eight were battle-hardened veterans. Ordinarily they would not lose control of their demeanor even if someone cut of both of their hands, but what happened to them was so beyond their comprehension that they had no idea how they should act.

The maiden sternly said, "If you don't compensate me for my goat, I will take your other eyes." The Wú swordsmen jumped back involuntarily.

Fàn Lí interrupted, "Miss, I will give you one hundred goats, but let these eight men leave."

The maiden smiled. "You're a nice man. I don't want one hundred goats. I only want one."

Fàn Lí said to a guard, "Accompany the ambassadors from the Great Kingdom back to the palace. Summon the physicians to treat their wounds." The eight Wú swordsmen left crestfallen, like cocks who had lost a fight.

Fàn Lí walked toward the maiden. "Young Miss, may I have the honor of your respected surname?"

"What did you say?" she asked.

He rephrased the question, "What's your name?"

"Oh, my name's A'Qīng. What's yours?"

Fàn Lí smiled and thought, "So she's just a simple country girl unversed in courtly manners. Yet... she learned this godlike sword skill. I only have to learn who her master is, then I can invite him to train the Yuè warriors. Wú will not be able to stand against us." His heart warmed as he realized that he was closer to bringing Xī Shī back. "I am called Fàn Lí. Young Miss, why don't you have a meal in my home?"

A'Qīng shook her head. "Sorry. I have to herd the goats to pasture."

"I have a large lawn in my home," said Fàn Lí. "Your goats can feed there, then I will compensate you with ten fat goats."

A'Qīng clapped her hands together and laughed. "You have a big lawn? Good, but I don't want any goats from you. You didn't kill this goat." She knelt to the ground and petted the dead goat. Then she sadly said, "Old White, bad men killed you. I can't save you this time."

"Sew the body back together and bury it next to this lady's house," Fàn Lí ordered a guard.

A'Qīng stood up. Her face was stained by tears, but her eyes was happy. "Fàn Lí, you won't let them eat Old White?"

"Of course not," said Fàn Lí. "That's your Old White. No one is permitted to eat him."

A'Qīng sighed. "You're nice. I hate letting other people kill my goats so they can eat them, but mother said that if we don't sell our goats, we won't have money for rice."

Fàn Lí smiled. "From now on, I will ask people to send your mother rice and good clothes. You don't have to sell your goats anymore."

A'Qīng became happy and hugged Fàn Lí. "You're a good man."

Fàn Lí held her hand, afraid that she might disappear like some immortal from legend. The goats followed them back to his mansion.

As A'Qīng herded her goats into the mansion she commented, "Your house is so large! How can you live here alone?"

Fàn Lí smiled at her. "Yes, I think this house is too big for me. Why don't you come live here with your mother? Who else do you have in your family?"

"It's just me and my mom. I don't know if my mom wants to come. She always says that I shouldn't talk to strange men, but you're a good man. You won't harm us."

Fàn Lí told A'Qīng to leave the goats in the garden and ordered his servants to bring out the best snacks for A'Qīng. The servants watched in horror as the goats devoured the expensive flowers in the garden. They were even more horrified when they observed their master watching the destruction with a happy smile. A'Qīng ate the pastries and drank the tea. Fàn Lí talked with her and discovered that she was innocent of the intrigues of the world. Finally he asked, "A'Qīng, who taught you your sword skills?"

A'Qīng's large, clear eyes opened wider. "Sword skill? No one ever taught me anything like that."

Fàn Lí realized he had to be more specific. "The way you used that bamboo stick. That's sword skill. Who taught that to you?"

A'Qīng shook her head. "No one. I've always known how to play with the bamboo stick."

Fàn Lí knew she was too innocent to lie. He asked her, "So you've known how to play with this bamboo since you were a child?"

A'Qīng thought for a moment. "No. When I was thirteen, Grandpa White came to ride my goats. I wouldn't let him and scared him away with my bamboo stick. He returned with a bamboo stick. Then I fought with him. At first, he always scored hits on me and I couldn't score hits on him. We played this everyday. Now, I score hits on him most of the time and he can't score hits on me. He isn't coming back as often now."

Fàn thought he finally found what he was looking for and asked, "Where does this Grandpa White live? Can you take me to him?"

"He lives in the mountains. You can't find him, he usually comes and finds me. I've never tried to find him," A'Qīng answered.

"I want to meet him. Is there a way?"

"Hmm... You can follow me to pasture. We can wait for him on the mountain side. I don't know when he'll show though." She sighed. "I haven't seen him for a while now."

Fàn Lí thought, "This is for Yí Guāng and the kingdom of Yuè. A little goat herding won't hurt." So he said, "Good, I'll accompany you and wait for Grandpa White." He thought, "Grandpa White must be the sword sage who taught this girl. He must have loved her youth and innocence, so he taught her through play. If he could make a young girl into such a great master, then he can surely give our warriors the ability to destroy Wú."

After the meal, Fàn Lí followed her to the mountain pastures. His subordinates didn't understand the reason. They were all baffled. Day after day, Fàn Lí went with A'Qīng to herd goats and sing songs, waiting for Grandpa White.

On the fifth day, Wén Zhǒng came to Fàn Lí's mansion and found a very worried chamberlain. Wén Zhǒng asked, "I haven't seen Minister Fàn for a few days now. The King is worried and ordered to me to visit. Did Minister Fàn come down sick?"

The chamberlain said, "Minister Fàn is healthy, but... but..."


"Minister Wén is the best friend of Minister Fàn. You can say things to him that are not appropriate for us to say. Why don't you try to talk some sense into him?"

Wén Zhǒng was baffled. "Sense? What's wrong with Minister Fàn?"

"Minister Fàn fell love with a little shepherdess. Every morning he leaves with her and doesn't return until after sundown. He won't permit any guards following him. He won't be bothered! Even when I have urgent affairs!"

Wén Zhǒng laughed and thought, "When Brother Fàn was living in the kingdom of Chǔ, everyone called him Fàn the Crazy. He never does things like other people."

At that moment, Fàn Lí was sitting on a mountain side grassland and telling A'Qīng the story of the goddess Xiāng Fēi. A'Qīng was sitting close to him and was listening intently; her large bright eyes never left his face. She abruptly asked, "Is Xiāng Fēi really that beautiful?"

Fàn Lí nodded. "Her eyes are clearer and brighter than the water in this mountain stream..."

"Does she have fish in her eyes?" asked A'Qīng.

Fàn Lí continued. "Her skin is like a cloud, but fairer."

"Are there birds flying in that cloud?" asked A'Qīng.

Fàn Lí continued obliviously. "Her lips are softer than the petals of this flower and redder. Her lips are moist, even moreso than the dew drops on this petal. When Xiāng Fēi stands next to the river, the beauty of her reflection makes all the riverside flowers wilt in shame. Even fish dare not swim in the water for fear of ruining her reflection. When her white hand is dipped into the river, it was so soft that it could almost melt into the water..."

A'Qīng beamed a smile. "You saw her, didn't you. How else can you describe her so clearly?"

"I saw her," Fàn Lí nodded. "I saw her very, very clearly."  Of course, he was referring to Xī Shī, not the goddess Xiāng Fēi.

He looked towards the north. His eyes looked past the wide, roaring river. Is the beauty in the royal palace of Wú? Is she with King Fū Chā? Is she thinking about me?

"Fàn Lí!" A'Qīng exclaimed, "Your beard is strange, can I touch it?"

"Is she crying or laughing?" thought Fàn Lí.

"Fàn Lí!" A'Qīng exclaimed, "You have two strands of white beard, just like my goats."

"When we parted, she wept on my shoulder. Her tears soaked half of my robe. I've never washed that robe. My tears were mingled with hers on that robe," thought Fàn Lí.

"Fàn Lí!" A'Qīng exclaimed. "Can I pull out one of your beard hairs? I'll pull gently, you won't feel a thing!"

"She said she loved riding in a boat and floating with the currents. When I bring her back, I'll leave my court position. I'll ride a boat with her, floating in rivers and lakes, for the rest of my life," thought Fàn Lí.

Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain on his chin. A'Qīng pulled out a strand of his beard, laughing prettily. The laugh abruptly stopped. "You're back!"

A green shadow flashed as A'Qīng shot forward. A green blur and a white blur were moving quickly around each other.

Fàn Lí happily shouted, "Grandpa White's here!" It took a while before the two combatants slowed down enough for him to get a good look. It was a huge surprise.

The one fighting A'Qīng wasn't human. It was a white ape.

The white ape, too, was holding a bamboo stick. The white ape performed intricate sword forms. The whooshing sound of the stick revealed the great strength it put into each form. But everytime he attacked, A'Qīng was always able to block or redirect the blow and counterattack using even more intricate sword forms.

When A'Qīng fought the Wú swordsmen, the forms she used were minimal. Only now could Fàn Lí witness the vast skill A'Qīng wielded. He was no expert in swords, but he had watched the Yuè swordsmen train for many years. He realized that the best swordsmen of Yuè were but children playing with toys when compared to A'Qīng and Grandpa White.

The white ape's attacks sped up faster and faster. A'Qīng slowed down instead. She stood still, but each time she thrusted her bamboo stick, the white ape was forced to jump back.

A'Qīng forced the white ape three steps, then she pulled back her stick and stood completely still. The white ape held his stick in two hands and jumped to attack. Fàn Lí saw the strength of the attack and cried out, "Watch out!" A'Qīng's stick moved too fast to be seen. There were two muffled sounds of impact, then the white ape's bamboo stick dropped to the ground. The white ape howled with pain and jumped up onto a treebranch. Then it leapt away. The howl was intense, but faded as the ape went further. The howl reverberated long after the white ape was gone.

A'Qīng turned back and sighed. "Grandpa broke both of his arms. Now he won't come play with me anymore."

"You broke his arms?" Fàn asked increduously.

A'Qīng nodded, "Grandpa was very angry today. Three times, he tried to leap over and kill you."

Fàn Lí said, in surprise, "Kill me? Why?"

A'Qīng shook her head, "I don't know."

Fàn Lí was secretly scared. "If A'Qīng didn't stop him, that white ape could have killed me as easily as blowing away a pile of ash!"

The next morning, Fàn Lí had A'Qīng face twenty of the best swordsmen of Yuè alone. Fàn Lí knew that A'Qīng could not teach other people how to use the sword the way she did, so the only way was for the Yuè swordsmen to imitate her.

The problem was no Yuè swordsmen could last even three passes from her. Whenever A'Qīng's bamboo stick moved, her opponent either lost his sword, or got stabbed in some delicate area.

The next day, she defeated thirty swordsmen. The third day, thirty more lost.

The fourth day, Fàn Lí went to ask her for another lesson, but he could not find her. He went to her home, but the house was empty. Fàn Lí sent hundreds of his servants and guards into the mountains to look for her, but no one could find any trace of her.

The eighty Yuè swordsmen didn't learn the ultimate sword skill from A'Qīng, but they saw the smallest portion of the smallest portion of it. All the swordsmen now knew the true heights swordsmanship could acheive. The eighty swordsmen tried to teach the small portion they could understand to their comrades. Even this pale shadow of a pale shadow of the ultimate skill was enough. The Yuè swordsmen became invincible.

Meanwhile, King Gōu Jiàn ordered Xuē Zhú to help forge thousands of sharp swords.

Three years later, Gōu Jiàn attacked Wú. The armies of Yuè and Wú met next to a lake. Five thousand Yuè swordsmen marched forward. Wú swordsmen met them. Yuè swords flashed and the Wú army was shattered.

King Fū Chā retreated to Yú Háng Mountain. The army of Yuè followed.

The second battle ensued. The Wú army was again defeated. Fū Chā committed suicide in order to avoid the cruel fate Gōu Jiàn had in store for him. Yuè took the capital of Wú.

Fàn Lí led one thousand swordsmen and rushed to King Fū Chā's resort palace, where Xī Shī lived. He ran into the palace, shouting, "Yí Guāng! Yí Guāng!"

As he ran past a long corridor, his footsteps echoed clearly, the corridor was hollow underneath. Xī Shī walked lightly, the rhythm of her steps was more enchanting than any music. Fū Chā built this palace, and this corridor in particular, in order to listen to the melody of her footsteps.

At the other end of the corridor, music came, like the sound of a happy mandolin and the clear sound of a zither. The soft voice said, "Shǎo Bó, is that really you?"

Fàn Lí felt blood rushing upward from his chest and shouted, "It's I! It's me! I've come for you!" His own voice seemed like the voice of a stranger, speaking from far away. He ran forward with uneven steps.

The music came down the corridor; a soft body entered his embrace.

The spring night was meltingly warm. Flower fragrance floated through the curtains, entering the chambers of the resort palace. Fàn Lí and Xī Shī talked about their longing for each other.

They suddenly became aware of the sound of a goat.

Fàn Lí smiled. "You couldn't forget you homeland? You have goats here?"

Xī Shī shook her head no. She wondered about the noise, but she couldn't concentrate on anything else in the presence of the man she loved. She held Fàn Lí's hand, and their hearts immediately beat faster.

Suddenly, the voice of a woman echoed the halls. "Fàn Lí! Bring out Xī Shī! I'll kill her!"

Fàn Lí stood up. Xī Shī felt his palm suddenly turn cold. Fàn Lí recognized A'Qīng's voice. Her voice came from outside of the resort palace.

Fàn Lí was scared and confused. "Why does she want to kill Yí Guāng? Yí Guāng had never wronged her." Then he understood. "She's not such a simple village girl after all. She liked me from the beginning." The understanding only made him more fearful.

He had gone through many, many difficult decisions as well as dangerous situations. The fear he felt when he was trapped with Gōu Jiàn in a Wú siege was far less than what he felt now. Xī Shī felt his palm trembling and covered with cold sweat.

Fàn Lí was not afraid of his own death, he feared for Xī Shī.

Fàn Lí pulled himself under control and said, "I need to go see her." He released Xī Shī's hand and walked out of the palace.

Eighteen swordsmen followed him. They all heard A'Qīng's cry. They were baffled and curious. Fàn Lí only saw the clear moonlight outside, but no one was visible. He cried out loudly, "Lady A'Qīng, please come here. We have things to talk about." But he heard no reply. He waited, but A'Qīng did not come. He ordered one thousand armored soldiers and one thousand elite swordsmen to be moved to the resort palace.

He returned to Xī Shī and held her hands again. He didn't say anything. He was scheming like he never schemed before. "Should I let one of the servant maids pretend to be Xī Shī and let A'Qīng kill her? Should I commit suicide before A'Qīng so she'll spare Xī Shī? Should I order two thousand archers surrounding this place and shoot A'Qīng full of arrows if she tries to force her way in?" Every plan he had was flawed. He didn't want to kill A'Qīng, who had made the destruction of Wú possible. He stared at Xī Shī. He felt warmth in his heart. "It's good that we'll die this way. At least we were able to spend some time together before we died. And we'll get to die together."

Hours passed. Xī Shī felt that Fàn's hand became warmer. He gradually lost his fear and began to smile.

The rising sun cast its rays through the window.

Suddenly the the sound of a fight came from outside the palace door. Then the incessant sound of weapons dropping to the ground. The sound drew closer and closer, like a giant serpent worming its way into the palace. Soon the sound of dropping weapons came from the walkways just outside the room they were in. Two thousand warriors were not enough to stop A'Qīng.

A'Qīng's voice clearly asked, "Fàn Lí, where are you?"

Fàn Lí calmly answered, "A'Qīng, I'm here."

Before he even finished the word "here", the curtain parted and a green shadow came flying in. A'Qīng, dressed in her usual green, stood before them. She pointed her bamboo stick at Xī Shī. As she stared intently at the face of Xī Shī, the killing rage on her face gradually disappeared. It was replaced with disappointment and self-pity, then with surprise and admiration, and finally, with worship. She whispered, "There... there really is such beauty under heaven! Fàn Lí, she is even more... more beautiful than you described." Her slender waist turned. With a cry, she flew up through the window. The cry became more and more distant until only its reverberation was left.

The surviving guards ran inside the room. One of them bowed. "Minister, are you all right?" Fàn Lí merely dismissed them with a wave of his hand. Then he held Xī Shī's hand and said, "Let's change into commoner's clothes. We'll row a boat upon Lake Tai and will never return to this place."

Happiness shone from Xī Shī's eyes. Suddenly she frowned and she reached toward her heart. A'Qīng's bamboo stick didn't touch her, but the pure qi from the stick had reached into her body and did her some slight harm.

Over the next two thousand years, everyone knew that the most beautiful sight in the history of the world was that of Xī Shī holding her hands in front of her bosom.

- The End -

You ask what became of them?

King Gōu Jiàn finally got his vengeance, but something had happened to him during all those years when the only emotion he could feel was hatred. Fàn Lí must have sensed it. He resigned his post and told his friend Wén Zhǒng to resign with him. He said, "Gōu Jiàn is someone who you can depend on during hard times, but it will be impossible to share good times with him." Wén Zhǒng didn't believe his old friend. He believed that he could finally enjoy the rewards he deserved.

Fàn Lí disappeared from history. Some said that he became a hermit. Some said that he became a merchant prince who had the wealth of kingdoms.

Xī Shī became to the East as Helen of Troy was to the West, the beauty who destroyed a great kingdom. Some say that Xī Shī ran away with Fàn Lí and they lived happily ever after. Some say that Xī Shī had died earlier when Gōu Jiàn's wife, fearing losing her husband, tied a rock to the woman's back and sank her in a lake, gloating, "Now, you never have to grow old." You can pick the ending you prefer.

Gōu Jiàn, as Fàn Lí predicted, became cruel and merciless. Wén Zhǒng was forced to commit suicide when he was wrongfully charged with treason; the end he inflicted upon Wǔ Zǐ Xū became his own end. Gōu Jiàn became full of pride and declared war with the great powers of northern China. The wars brought no decisive victory. Then he died. After his death, his kingdom fell apart. Eventually, Chǔ absorbed the territories of Wú and Yuè. The Yuè people fled south. Over the centuries, they were pushed further south by the expanding Chinese empire until they entered present day Vietnam, where they remain today.

Recently, an archaeological excavation in Húnán uncovered two bronze swords. One of them was thought to be the sword of Fū Chā, the other was thought to be the sword of Gōu Jiàn. The legends of the precious swords has some basis in fact. The swords Fish Intestine and Defeater of Evil were buried with King Hé Lǘ, Fū Chā's father. The locals swore that they periodically saw a white tiger standing upon the tomb of Hé Lǘ. The white tiger was the symbol of metal, so the locals believe that the tiger was the personification of the magic swords under there. You can choose to believe it or not.

As for the Yuè Maiden, she never existed in real history. She always existed in the land of legends and there, presumably, she roams still. Doubtlessly she has performed many great deeds there, deeds which will remain unknown until some scribe comes and tells the tales as they deserve to be told.

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