It was a fine sunny day in early fall.
The rays of the sun shone through the thin paper window, striking her fine silky skin.
The water was slightly warmer than the sun light. She languidly reclined in the tub, resting her delicate feet high on the edge. The sunlight touched her soles as gently as a lover's hands.
She was greatly pleased.
After traveling for more than half a month, what in the world could be more relaxing than a hot bath? Her whole body seemed to melt into the water. She left only her eyes, half open, to admire her own feet.
This pair of feet had climbed mountains, waded through water, walked in the burning desert for three days, and crossed frozen rivers.
This pair of feet had kicked three hungry wolves and a bobcat to death, squashed countless vipers, and kicked Cloudy Sky, the notorious bandit of Mount Qilian, off a cliff.
Yet now this pair of feet looked so delicate and exquisite, flawless without a single scar. Even those young ladies of noble families, who never stepped out of their houses, might not have such perfect feet.
She was more than satisfied.
Water was still heating on the stove. She added more to the tub. The water in the tub was hot, but she wanted it even hotter. She liked the excitement generated by the HEAT.
She liked all kinds of excitement.
She liked to ride the fastest horses, climb the highest mountains, eat the most spicy food, drink the strongest liquors, and use the sharpest knives to kill the most vicious men.
Some say excitement makes people age faster, but this saying did not apply to her. Her breasts were still firm, her waist still slender, her belly still flat, her long legs still slim, and her skin did not have any wrinkles anywhere.
Her eyes were still bright and her laugh was still alluring and radiant. Whoever saw her would find it hard to believe that she was thirty-three years old.
In the past thirty-three years Feng Siniang had never allowed herself to be mistreated. She knew what to wear on what occasions, what to say to which kind of people, what food to go with what liquor, and she knew which kind of kung fu to kill which kind of people. She knew about life and she knew how to enjoy it.
Few people were like her. She was one of a kind. Some envied her, and some were jealous of her. She was completely pleased with herself, except for one thing - she was lonely.
No excitement of any kind could dispel the feelings of loneliness.
Now, the last thread of fatigue had dissolved in the water. She picked up a white silk cloth and used it to rub her body.
When the soft silk cloth touched her skin, it always brought joy beyond description, yet how she wished it were a pair of a man's hands -- the hands of a man she liked.
However soft a silk cloth was, it could not match a pair of lover's hands; nothing in the world can take the place of lover's hands!
Gazing fixed at her smooth, translucent, and nearly flawless body, somehow she felt a prick of unspeakable sadness.
All of a sudden, several big holes were torn in the windows, the door, and the wooden walls, and out of each hole stuck a head, each with a pair of lustful eyes.
Some were giggling uncontrollably; some were gawking with their eyes almost popping out, completely speechless. At the sight of naked beautiful women, most men act like dogs - hungry dogs. The hole above the window had the best position, being closest and commanding the best view. The head sticking out from this hole had a fat face and an ugly caruncle on the top, giving an illusion of one head on top of the other. The sight of it was revolting, yet the other heads did not look any more pleasant.
Even a man in the bath would certainly be terrified by the presence of so many intruders. Yet Feng did not seem disturbed at all, just sitting comfortably in the tub and rubbing her hand with the silk cloth.
Without lifting her eyes, she gazed at her elegant fingers and rubbed them carefully. When she was done, she smiled faintly and said. "Haven't you ever seen a woman taking a bath?"
All of the men broke out into loud guffaws. A young man with a pimpled face, who had stared with the widest eyes and laughed the hardest, said with a laugh, "Not only have I seen women bathing, but I'm also an expert in bathing women. If you allow me to rub your back, I guarantee that you will be more than satisfied."
Feng smiled alluringly and said, "Good! It happens that my back is itching. Why don't you come on in?"
His eyes narrowed with excitement. The young man laughingly banged the window open, eager to leap in, only to be pulled down by the big guy with the caruncle on top of his head. Shutting off his broad grin, the young man glared at the big guy, "Xie Laoer! You have several wives already. Do you have to fight with me over this chick?"
Before the young man could finish his words, the big guy slapped him hard, sending him flying out of the room.
Feng smiled sweetly and said, "If you rub my back as hard as you hit people, I don't think I can take it."
Xie Laoer glared at her, his eyes as hideous and vicious as those of a snake, his voice more raucous than that of a rattlesnake. "Do you know what kind of place this is?"
"If I hadn't known, I wouldn't have come."
She gave another smile and said, "This place is Mount Jumbled Rocks, also called Bandit Mountain as everyone living on this mountain is a bandit. Even the manager of this small inn is a bandit, though he looks like an honest man."
Xie grunted, "Since you know what kind of place this is, how dare you come here?!"
"What does it matter? I didn't come for you. I just came to take a bath."
Xie grinned with malice. "Why do you have to take a bath here instead of anywhere else?"
Her eyes twinkling, she said softly, "Perhaps I happen to like to have bandits watching me bathe. Isn't it exciting?"
Xie suddenly turned his hand over and slapped the window sill, crushing big pieces of wood, which indicated he was pretty good at Iron Sand Palm kung fu.
Feng did not seem to notice. She just gave a little sigh and murmured to herself, "Luckily I didn't ask this rough-mannered guy to rub my back."
Xie flew into a rage. "Stop beating around the bush. Why on earth did you come here? Spit it out!"
She smiled. "You're right. I wouldn't have come all the way here just to take a bath."
His eyes shining, Xie said, "Did someone send you here to gather some sort of information?"
"It's not like that. I just came here to visit an old friend of mine."
"But we don't have your friend here."
She laughed. "How do you know it isn't so? Who said that I cannot make friends with bandits? Perhaps I'm a bandit myself too!"
His face darkened. "Who is your friend?"
She said leisurely, "I haven't seen him for a long time. I heard that he has been doing pretty well in recent years and become the leader of the bandits in Guanzhong. I wonder if you know him." (Note: Guanzhong is the old name of Shanxi Provience, the cradle of Chinese civilization.)
His face fell again. "There are thirteen gangs in this region, and each gang has its own leader. I don't know which one you are referring to.
"He seems to have become the chief of the thirteenth gang."
Xie was stunned and then started guffawing. Pointing at her, he sneered, "A woman like you could be qualified to be our chief's friend?"
She said coolly, "Why wouldn't I be qualified to be his friend? Do you know who I am?"
Xie stopped laughing and began to weigh up this woman. He said coldly, "Who are you? Could it be possible that you are Feng Siniang the Enchantress?"
Brushing his question aside, she asked, "Are you "Twinhead Snake" Xie Bude?"
Feeling very smug about being recognized, he grinned, "That's right. Whoever sees me - Twinhead Snake - has to die. No one can get away."
She said, "If you are Twinhead Snake, then I have to be Feng Siniang."
Hearing this, Twinhead Snake felt as if his head was bursting into several pieces.
He couldn't believe this but he had to.
His feet started to draw back, and the other men retreated even faster.
Suddenly they heard Feng cry out: "Freeze!"
When everyone had stood still, she smiled again, her smile still so lovely and charming.
She put a smile into her voice. "Do you think you can get away so easily with peeping at a lady bathing?"
"What do you want to do with us?" said Twinhead Snake.
Though his voice was quivering slightly, he still stared with wide eyes. When his eyes lighted on her bare breasts, he became bold again and grinned maliciously. "Do you want to let us take an even closer look?"
Seeing what he implied, she gave an amused chuckle. "Well, do you think just because I'm still undressed, I wouldn't dare to jump out of the tub to go after you?"
"That's right. You cannot kill sitting in the bathtub, unless you carry weapons even when taking a bath."
Feng raised her hands laughingly, "Do you think my hands look like they can kill?" This pair of hands looked as delicate and graceful as orchards. "No, I don't think so." replied Twinhead Snake.
"I don't think so either, but the strange thing is that sometimes they do kill."
She waved her hands in the air, then a dozen silver rays shot out from among her fingers.
Then screams of great pain were heard here and there. In every eye of the men was imbedded a silver needle. No one had seen where the needles came from and no one had been able to dodge them.
She sighed again and murmured, "Have you never heard the saying that whoever peeks at women bathing will get 'needle-eyes' (Chinese slang referring to 'hordeola')?"
All of the men were frantically rolling around on the ground with their hands covering their eyes.
The cacophony of their yowls did not make Feng cover her ears, as she was still gazing at her own hands.
After gazing for a long time, she closed her eyes and sighed, "Such fine hands are not used to do embroidery but to kill. What a pity!"
All of the sudden, all of the squalls stopped, almost simultaneously.
She frowned and called out, "Huaping, is that you?"
There was no sound outside other than the noise of the wind swaying the tree branches.
After a long while, she heard a click, the sound of a saber being inserted into its scabbard.
A smile came to her lips. "I knew it must be you. Other than you, who can kill seven people in such a short time? And who can wield a saber so swiftly?"
No response came from outside.
"I know you killed them to end their suffering. It's just that I wonder, since when have you got such a soft heart?" she said.
After a while, someone outside was heard saying, "Is that Feng Siniang?"
She smiled. "I'm glad that you still recognize my voice. That means you haven't forgotten me."
Huaping said, "Other than Feng Siniang, who else would carry Blue Needles while taking a bath?"
She gave a soft chuckle. "So you were peeping at me bathing too. Otherwise how would you have known that I was taking a bath?"
Huaping didn't seem to hear her question.
"If you wanted to look, why didn't you just come right in?" she said.
He seemed to draw a deep sigh. "Since you moved to the border areas six or seven years ago, everyone has been pleased with the ensuing peace. Why did you come back now?"
She smiled. "Because I miss you."
Huaping fell silent again.
"You don't believe that I miss you? If it's not that I miss you, why would I come to see you?"
He sighed again.
"Why are you sighing? You think there must be ulterior motives behind my visit? When you have prospered, you don't even want to see an old friend any more?" she said.
"I will see you when you're dressed."
"I'm dressed. Come on in!"
Huaping finally emerged from the doorway. His pale face became even paler when he saw that Feng was still sitting in the tub naked.
She giggled. "When someone wants to peek at me bathing, I kill him. Yet if you don't want to look, I will insist that you take a good look."
Huaping was really not tall at all, but no one would think he was short, as he seemed to be full of immense fiery energy.
He was dressed in a long black cape, revealing the red handle of his saber, which was the reason he could become the leader of the bandits in Guanzhong.
She said, "I heard that you killed "First Sword of Taiyuan" Gao Fei a few years ago. Is that true?"
"I heard that "Twin Swords of Taixing" the Ding brothers were also defeated by you. Is that true?"
"Uh-um." Huaping not only dared not look at Feng, but was also reluctant to talk. She laughed. "Both Gao Fei and the Ding brothers were among the best fighters, and you killed them all, which shows that your saber is getting even faster."
Huaping did not even mutter a word this time.
"I came back to Guanzhong this time just to see how fast your saber is." she said.
She smiled radiantly. "Don't worry. I didn't come to fight a duel with you. I neither want to be killed by you nor to kill you."
It took a while to regain his composure. He said coldly, "In that case, you don't have to see my saber."
"Why not?" she asked.
"My saber is used to kill, not to be viewed.'
With her eyes twinkling, she smiled. "What if I insist on seeing it?"
Huaping was silent for a long time and then said, "All right, I will let you." Though these few words were said very slowly, however slowly, it wouldn't take anyone too much time to finish them. Yet by the time these words were finished, his saber had shot out and returned to the scabbard again. In a flash a wooden bench near the door was chopped into two halves.
Indeed, Huaping's saber was stunningly fast.
Yet Feng chuckled again and shook her head. "What I want to see is how you use the saber to kill, not how you chop firewood. Do you have to keep the secrets of your saber technique even from an old friend?"
"Me keeping secrets?"
"Although you can use either hand to wield the saber, who in the fighting circle doesn't know that you are a lefty? Your left hand is at least twice as fast as your right hand."
Huaping turned pale again. After a long silence, he said, "Do you have to see me using the saber with the left hand?"
"Yes, I insist."
Huaping sighed bitterly. "All right, now you look!" Then he flung off his cape.
Feng had been laughing, but now she was staring mute. Huaping had been famous for his Lefthanded Divine Saber and known as the Fastest Saber of China. Yet now his left arm had been cut off from the shoulder. After a long silence, Feng let out breath with her voice quivering. "Was it chopped off?"
"Was it a sword or an ax?"
"It was a saber."
She gasped. "A saber? Whose saber could be faster than yours?"
Huaping closed his eyes and said, "Only one man."
Though he looked slightly sad, he didn't seem to be bitter. It was obvious that he was so awestruck by this man's swordsmanship that he almost felt his injury was justified.
Feng could not refrain from going further. "Who was it?"
Staring into the distance, Huaping said emphatically, "Xiao Shiyi Lang."
Xiao Shiyi Lang!
The sound of these words caused an instant funny change in her facial expression. It was hard to tell. Was it anger? joy? or sadness?
Huaping murmured, "Xiao Shiyi Lang! Xiao Shiyi Lang! You should still remember him."
She nodded slowly. "That's right. I remember him. I surely remember him."
His eyes turning back to her, he looked into her eyes and said, "Do you want to go to see him?" He sighed and said, "You will have to turn to him sooner or later."
Feng shot back angrily, "Bullshit!"
"You don't have to try to deceive me. I know that you came back to China this time for a reason."
She stared with wide eyes, "Who said that?"
"Although I don't know exactly what you are up to, I guess it must be a heavy task. You are afraid that you cannot cope with it alone. You need to find a helper." He said with a ghastly smile. "That's why you came to me. Unfortunately, I'm not of too much use to you."
She sneered. "Even if your guess is correct, so what? I can always find someone else for help. Why does Xiao Shiyi Lang have to be the only candidate? It's not as if all of the other top fighters in the martial circle were dead."
"Yet who else other than he can help you?" he asked.
Feng rose to her feet still naked and cried out, "Who says so? I will find someone else. You will see."
Huaping closed his eyes again. "Who else is on your mind? Flying Doctor?"
"Exactly. He is my next choice."
Her eyes glistened with excitement. "Flying Doctor is not inferior to Xiao Shiyi Lang in any aspect. His Lightness Kung Fu (* a type of kung fu that makes extra-fast running and super-human leaps possible) is second to none. And the strength of his fingers can probably overwhelm ten Xiao Shiyi Langs combined."
Legend had it that Flying Doctor, Gongsun Ling, could use a single finger to stop a galloping horse. His Lightness Kung Fu, known as "Swallow Thrice Skimming Over Water", was without equal in fighting circles. Moreover, he was a distinguished doctor. Many people respectfully referred to him as Triple-Title Gongsun.
The place where Gongsun lived was unique. It was a tomb built of stone slabs. His bed was a coffin. He thought this was convenient, because even after he died, he wouldn't have to be moved.
A peculiar-looking lad answered the door. Feng Siniang fired a round of questions at him, "Is Mr. Gongsun at home?" "Where did he go" "Is he coming back today?" "When is he coming back?"
The lad only uttered a short sentence in reply. It consisted of only three words: "He's not in."
Feng was so mad that she almost wanted to give the lad a slap in the face.
Yet she was fully aware that there could be only one reason why Flying Doctor would be away: to visit his patients.
Although Flying Doctor had a peculiar temperament, he was not coldhearted.
She also knew that Flying Doctor wouldn't stay anywhere else for the night. He always slept in his coffin, in case he died in his sleep.
She could have sat there and waited for him to come back, but she was a living person. It gave her the creeps to sit on a coffin in a tomb.
She would rather sit by the road and wait.
It began to grow dark. A chill autumn breeze was blowing.
On the top of a small cliff by the trail, Feng found a nice spot and lay down. She gazed at the dark sky and waited for the first star to rise.
Few people ever notice how the first star rises.
This was Feng Siniang's style. She could always find herself something interesting to do. She never wasted her time.
Alas! How many people appreciate such quiet pleasures?
It was late. The stars came out.
Finally, in the shadow of evening she heard the sound of heavy footsteps. Along the trail trotted two bearers carrying a palanquin. Inside sat a haggard old man in a blue gown.
Looking tired, the old man appeared to be dozing.
The two bearers seemed tired, puffing and blowing like old cows. When they approached the hill, the bearer trotting in front turned his head and said, "It will be a long way up the hill. How about taking a break here before going on?"
The bearer behind said, "I've been very tired these past two days. How about trading places on the way up?" On an uphill road, the bearer in the back usually has to take all the weight.
The one in front jokingly scolded, "Bastard, you are being lazy again. Did you see Little Sweet Melon again last night? I bet you will die on her belly sooner or later."
The two men were talking and laughing, their pace slacking off. Feng could not tell if the old man was really asleep or just pretending that he didn't hear anything. His eyes remained closed.
When they got to the bottom of the hill, the bearers stopped and put the palanquin down slowly.
Then, without warning, almost simultaneously, the two men each pulled out a pair of long swords from within the supporting bars of the palanquin. Two swords were aiming at the old man's chest, and the other two aiming at his back.