Chapter 20 – The Grandmaster and the Zither-Playing Servant
The world became even darker. The man slowly walked out from the darkness, into the light.
His face was also pale, just like Fu Hongxue’s. So white, it was translucent. So white, it was terrifying.
His eyes were very bright, but they carried an indescribable sort of emptiness and melancholy.
The big fellow stared at him in shock. He couldn’t help but ask, “If you know he is going to kill you, why did you come?”
The man said, “I must come.”
The big fellow said, “Why?”
The man said, “Because I also want to kill him.”
The big fellow said, “You must kill him, no matter what?”
The man nodded. “In every person’s life, there are a few things he must do which he doesn’t wish to, because he simply doesn’t have any room for choosing.”
The big fellow looked at him, and then looked at Fu Hongxue. He seemed both surprised and perplexed. This sort of affair was something which a person like him would never understand. But he already felt a murderous aura. The few square feet of this stall seemed to have suddenly become an execution ground. In fact, the killing aura was even stronger, even more fearful than that of the execution ground.
The gaze of the man who walked out from the darkness turned to Fu Hongxue. His gaze became even more melancholic.
Men without emotion shouldn’t feel this sort of melancholy.
Xiao Siwu used to be a man without emotion.
He suddenly let out a sigh. “You should know that I originally didn’t want to come.”
Fu Hongxue was still silent. He seemed to have become drunk long ago, numb long ago. Even the hand with which he gripped his sabre seemed to have lost that boulder-like stability it once had. But he still gripped his sabre in his hand, and his sabre had not changed.
Xiao Siwu looked at his sabre. “I believe that sooner or later, there will be a day when I can defeat your sabre.”
Fu Hongxue had said long ago, “I will wait for you.”
Xiao Siwu said, “Originally, I wanted to wait until that day came before I sought you out.”
Fu Hongxue suddenly said, “Then you shouldn’t have come now.”
Xiao Siwu said, “But I am already here.”
Fu Hongxue said, “You knew that you shouldn’t have come. Why did you still come?”
Xiao Siwu suddenly chuckled. His chuckle was filled with cynicism. “Haven’t you done things which you know you shouldn’t have done?”
Fu Hongxue closed his mouth.
There were some things which he knew he shouldn’t have done, and yet insisted on doing them. Even he couldn’t control himself.
These things had a sort of irrestible lure to them to begin with.
In addition to that, there were things which you know you should not do, and yet the circumstances force you to do them. Even if you wanted to escape, you could not.
Xiao Siwu said, “I’ve already sought you out three times. All three times, I wanted to kill you, but all three times, you let me go.”
Fu Hongxue was silent again.
Xiao Siwu said, “I know that you never wanted to kill me.”
Fu Hongxue suddenly asked, “Do you also know why I don’t want to kill you?”
Xiao Siwu said, “Because it has been a long time since you faced a true match. You, as well, want to wait for that day and see whether or not I can defeat your sabre.”
Fu Hongxue admitted to it.
To be invincible and unconquerable isn’t as pleasant a thing as some might imagine. When a man reaches the point of being without an equal opponent, he is even more lonely than being without friends.
Xiao Siwu said, “But I know that you will no longer wait anymore. This time, you will definitely kill me.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Why?”
Xiao Siwu said, “Because you are already incapable of controlling yourself.”
His eyes were dull and empty. He looked just like a dead man, but his smile was still filled with cynicism. “Because you already are no longer the Fu Hongxue of bygone days.”
Now, all you are is an executioner.
He didn’t say those words. His dagger had already flown out; fast, accurate, and deadly!
Although he knew that this dagger of his would definitely be defeated by Fu Hongxue, when he struck, he still used all of his strength.
Because he was ‘sincere’. At least, his dagger was ‘sincere’.
The significance of the word ‘sincere’ lies in professionalism and precision. The energy to work unflinchingly with perseverance, to not give up any opportunity until the point where all hope is lost, to never abandon the last bit of strength.
It wasn’t easy to do this.
Anybody who was capable of doing this would be successful at whatever they do. Unfortunately, he no longer had any opportunities left, because he took a path he should not have taken.
Because Fu Hongxue had already drawn his sabre!
A flash of sabre light. A human head falling to the ground.
Fresh blood sprayed out like a red mist underneath the dim yellow light.
The light turned red, but his face was still pale.
All the blood in that big fellow’s body had frozen. Even his breathing seemed to have stopped.
He also used a sabre. He also killed. But now, he had seen Fu Hongxue’s sabre. Now, he knew that what he used, couldn’t be really be considered a sabre at all.
He even felt that he himself couldn’t really be considered to have killed someone before.
The light turned a dim yellow again.
He lifted his head up, and suddenly realized that Fu Hongxue was no longer underneath the light.
The place where there was no light, naturally was the darkness.
“Originally, I really could have spared him. Why did I still kill him?”
Fu Hongxue stared at the sabre in his hand. He suddenly understood why Xiao Siwu had to come!
Because he knew that Fu Hongxue could no longer control himself, he believed he had a chance to defeat Fu Hongxue.
He was impatient to give it a try, so he was already unable to wait for that day.
Waiting was, after all, a very painful thing. He was, after all, still young.
Fu Hongxue’s judgement wasn’t wrong. He himself knew that he wasn’t wrong.
Who was wrong?
Regardless of who was wrong, the pressure and burden in his heart had already become incapable of being lightened, because the person he killed was someone which he definitely would not have killed in the past.
“Can it be that I truly am no longer capable of controlling myself?”
“Can it be that I truly have become an executioner?”
“Can it be that I will go crazy, sooner or later?”
Not a speck of dust alighted on the table. Not a hint of sound was in the room. Gongzi Yu was deep in thought.
“Xiao Siwu has already gone?” He had just asked that question.
“What method did you use to induce him to go?”
“We made him believe that he had a chance to kill Fu Hongxue.”
“And the result?”
“And the result was that Fu Hongxue killed him.”
“Xiao Siwu was also the first to strike?”
Gongzi Yu was deep in thought. The person he was pondering was definitely Fu Hongxue. Only Fu Hongxue was worthy of him deeply pondering.
Aside from Fu Hongxue, there was no one else who was capable of arousing his interest.
Outside the window, it was already deep dusk. The scent of flowers quietly blew about in the night wind. He suddenly chuckled. “He is still killing, still taking lives in one sabre. But he’s almost finished.”
He asked again, “Do you know why he is almost finished?”
He wasn’t looking at Gu Qi, but rather someone standing behind him.
Nobody would notice this person, because he was simply too silent, too peaceful, too ordinary, just like Gongzi Yu’s shadow.
Nobody would pay attention to his shadow, but this question of Gongzi Yu’s wasn’t directed towards Gu Qi. It was directed to him.
Can it be that Gu Qi was not capable of explaining this, but he was? Could it be that he knew more than even Gu Qi?
“When someone is almost finished, they will reveal openings.”
“Just like the openings which appear when a dam bursts.” Although the example he used was very strange, it was simple and correct.
“Fu Hongxue already has openings?” Gongzi Yu asked again.
“He originally didn’t want to kill Xiao Siwu. He already spared Xiao Siwu three times, but this time he was unable to control himself.”
“This is his opening?”
Gongzi Yu’s laughter became all the more joyful. “Do we now no longer need to send him people to kill?”
“We can send him one more.”
The shadow used an even queerer expression. “In all the world, the only person who can kill him is Fu Hongxue, and only Fu Hongxue can kill himself.”
What was even more ruthless than killing?
Forcing someone to kill himself was more ruthless, because the experiences before that are longer and more painful.
A long night. So long, it was frightening.
The long night was already almost over.
Fu Hongxue halted. He looked at the milky white morning fog rise amidst the bamboo and the flowers.
He finally had endured this rather long night. How much longer could he endure?
He was exhausted. Thirsty. Hungry. His head was about to split. His lips were so chapped, they were splitting as well. He didn’t know where he was right now, much less whose bamboo patch this was, whose flowers these were.
He had walked for too long. He stopped here only because there was the sound of zither music.
Empty, ghost-like zither music. It seemed to have arisen out of nowhere, just like the morning fog.
He didn’t want to stop here. He didn’t know why he stopped here either.
The illusory zither music sounded like a faraway call from a dear one.
He had no dear ones, but he could hear this zither music. His spirit immediately was filled with a strange feeling, and then his entire person merged with the zither music. The bloody affairs of killing suddenly became distant and far away.
This was the first time he felt totally relaxed since he had killed the brother and sister of the Ni family.
Suddenly, with a clanging sound, the zither music ended. From within the small garden, a voice said, “I didn’t expect that there would be a good friend appreciating my music outside. Why don’t you come in and sit?”
Without even thinking, Fu Hongxue pushed the door open and walked in.
The small garden was filled with luxurious, beautiful flowers and trees. There are three or five humble sheds, and a white-haired old man wearing a grey garment that had already come out to welcome his guest.
Fu Hongxue actually paid him formal respects. “I am an uninvited guest. How dare I trouble you, old sir, to personally welcome me?”
The old man smiled. “It’s easy to find an honored guest, but hard to find a friend who appreciates one’s talents. If I don’t personally welcome you, wouldn’t I be a disrespectful person? In that case, how could I study the zither?”
Fu Hongxue said, “Yes.”
The old man said, “Please enter.”
The room was tall and refined. A zither was on the table.
It was a classically elegant zither, appearing to be at least a thousand-year old antique. But part of the zither strings had been scorched.
Fu Hongxue’s face changed. “Can this be the legendary zither which has been said since antiquity to be the number one zither in the world, the ‘Scorched String’ zither?”
The old man smiled. “Sir, you have a fine eye.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Then, old sir, would you be Grandmaster Zhong?”
The old man said, “This useless old man truly is surnamed Zhong.”
Fu Hongxue bowed deeply yet again. This was the first time he had ever paid such respect to someone. He wasn’t actually paying his respects to this person, but to his unparalleled, best-in-the-world zither skills. A lofty, unique skill with the fine arts; a lofty, unique character. All of these should receive the same respect.
The wooden couch didn’t have a speck of dust on it. Grandmaster Zhong took off his shoes and walked onto the couch, sitting down on his knees. “You sit as well.”
Fu Hongxue did not sit. The blood and filth on his body hadn’t been washed off for a long, long time.
Grandmaster Zhong said, “Although this useless old man has only one zither and one table in this house, the people who can come in aren’t many.”
He stared at Fu Hongxue. “Do you know why I invited you in?”
Fu Hongxue shook his head.
Grandmaster Zhong said, “Because I can tell that although your clothes are not tidy, your heart and soul are like a bright mirror. Why should you, then, feel a sense of inadequacy or inferiority?”
Fu Hongxue sat down as well.
Grandmaster Zhong smiled. He stroked the zither strings with his hand. With a sweet sound, the ghostly zither melody once more seized Fu Hongxue’s soul.
He was still gripping his sabre in his hand, but he suddenly felt as though this sabre was unneeded. This was also the first time he had this feeling. The zither melody seemed to have taken him into an entirely different world, a world without sabres, a world without sin.
Why must men kill men? Not only did they themselves kill people, they forced others to kill people as well.
The hand with which Fu Hongxue gripped his sabre had already loosened. Originally, he really had almost collapsed, but within the zither melody, he freed himself.
Although the sound came from far away, it entered the ears clearly. Just at this moment, a clanging sound suddenly came from far away. It also seemed to be a zither melody.
The hand with which Grandmaster Zhong was playing the zither suddenly trembled. All five of the strings suddenly snapped.
Fu Hongxue’s face changed as well. The world suddenly became deathly still. Grandmaster Zhong sat there without moving, seeming totally dejected. He appeared to have suddenly aged ten years.
Fu Hongxue couldn’t help but ask, “Grandmaster, did you hear an evil omen?”
Grandmaster Zhong neither heard nor asked. Zither music came from far away again. Cold sweat actually poured down from his forehead. When the zither melody came again, this noble, elegant, lofty old man suddenly jumped to his feet, then rushed out wearing only a set of white socks.
A gust of wind blew by the door. The broken zither strings danced in the wind, as though the spirit of the zither had come to life and wanted to leave with him and see who was playing the zither from afar.
Fu Hongxue left with him as well.
The zither strings snapped. The man aged. It seemed as though even the flowers in this garden had suddenly turned wan and pallid.
Why was this?
At the end of the long alley was a long street. At the end of the long street was a marketplace.
Right now, it was the morning market. The marketplace was filled with all sorts of people, filled with all sorts of sounds.
The people were all common people. The sounds were all common sounds. What did this refined grandmaster Zhong come here to look for? The previously spotless white socks he was wearing was already covered with mud and grime. He stupidly stood there, gazing hither and to, looking as though he were a young housewife who had lost her purse.
Why would a world-famous zither-god suddenly become like this?
Fu Hongxue originally wasn’t a man of many words, but at this moment, he couldn’t help but ask, “Grandmaster, what are you looking for?”
Grandmaster Zhong was silent, a strange expression on his face. Only after a long time did he respond, “I am looking for a person, I must find this person.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Who?”
Grandmaster Zhong said, “An incomparably elite person.”
Fu Hongxue said, “What area is he an elite in?”
Grandmaster Zhong said, “Zither.”
Fu Hongxue said, “His zither skills are higher than your own?”
Grandmaster Zhong let out a long sigh. Gloomily, he said, “One sound from him is enough to make me never again dare to touch the zither.”
Fu Hongxue’s features couldn’t help but change. “Grandmaster, do you already know where he is?”
Grandmaster Zhong said, “The zither sound came from here. He should be here as well.”
Fu Hongxue said, “This is only a marketplace.”
Grandmaster Zhong sighed. “It is precisely because this is a marketplace that he is able to display his real abilities.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Why?”
Grandmaster Zhong’s gaze was far away, as though he had lost something but also gained something. “Because although he himself is in a vulgar, common place, his heart is far away amongst the clouds. The tens of thousands of vulgar, common things in the world can no longer stir his clear, water-like heart.”
Fu Hongxue was silent. He slowly raised his head, then suddenly said in a loud voice, “Grandmaster, can he be the person you are speaking of?”
There was a butcher’s stall in the marketplace.
No matter what type of marketplace it was, there would be a butcher’s stall.
Where there was a butcher’s stall, there would be a butcher.
All butchers feel themselves to be out of the ordinary, believing themselves to be nobler than the other street peddlers.
Because they can kill. Because they aren’t afraid to bleed.
This butcher was in the middle of chopping meat. There was a very large butcher’s block next to the meat, and beneath the block there was a man resting.
A lazy-looking man in white.
The ground was both wet and filthy. Many married women bought vegetables here while wearing spiked shoes. But this person didn’t care. He lazily rested in the middle of the muddy ground. On his knee, there was a zither.
He seemed to be playing the zither, but the zither produced no sound.
Grandmaster Zhong had already walked over to him. He respectfully stood in front of him, then bowed to the ground.
But this man was looking at his hand. He didn’t even lift his head.
Grandmaster Zhong’s expression became even more solemn and respectful. He actually referred to himself as a ‘student’. “This student is named Zhong Li.”
The man in white dully said, “Can it be the god of zither music, Grandmaster Zhong?”
Cold sweat suddenly emanated from Grandmaster Zhong’s face. He haltingly said, “Noble sir, when you touched the strings of your zither, you shocked and overawed the world. Why have you stopped playing?”
The man in white said, “I am afraid.”
Grandmaster Zhong was astonished. “Afraid? Afraid of what?”
The man in white said, “I am afraid that you will commit suicide by ramming your head against that ‘Scorched String’ zither of yours.”
Grandmaster Zhong’s head sunk. Sweat fell down like rain, but he couldn’t help but ask, “Noble sir, do you come from afar?”
The man in white said, “I come from afar, but know not where I go.”
Grandmaster Zhong said, “Dare I ask for your honorable name?”
The man in white said, “No need to ask me. I’m just a zither-playing servant.”
A zither-playing servant? A man like this would be a zither-playing servant to someone else? Who was worthy of having an apprentice such as this?
Grandmaster Zhong couldn’t believe it. This truly was unbelievable for him. He couldn’t help but ask, “Based on your great talent, noble sir, how could you place yourself beneath another?”
The man in white dully said, “Because I’ve always been inferior to him.”
Fu Hongxue suddenly said, “Who is he?”
The man in white chuckled. “Since I know who you are, you should know who he is.”
Fu Hongxue gripped his sabre tightly again. “Gongzi Yu.”
The man in white laughed. “You really do know.”
Fu Hongxue suddenly struck out like lightning, seizing his hand. Who would have imagined that Grandmaster Zhong would rush forward and tightly grasp Fu Hongxue’s arm. He loudly shouted, “No matter what, don’t hurt his hands! This is an incomparable national treasure, the hands of a true grandmaster!”
The man in white laughed loudly. The butcher chopping the meat suddenly chopped his knife at the crown of Fu Hongxue’s head.
A vegetable peddler by the side of the butcher also used a weightbeam as an acupoint sealing device to attack, striking at Fu Hongxue’s ‘Qimen’, ‘Jiangtai’, and ‘Xuanyang’ acupoints.
The housewife carrying a vegetable basket also attacked, using the vegetable basket to cover Fu Hongxue’s head.
From behind, a peddler carrying two chickens on a carrying pole walked over as well. He actually pulled off his pole and used it to strike at Fu Hongxue’s waist.
Suddenly, a flash of sabre light. With a swishing sound, the pole was shattered, the vegetable basket disintegrated, the weightbeam was cut in half, and a butcher’s knife suddenly flew out, with a bloody hand attached to it.
The chickens and the ducks in the cage flew out. The marketplace became as chaotic as a pot of freshly made gruel.
The man in white beneath the chopping board had already disappeared.
A crowd of people gathered. The butcher, the vegetable peddler, the housewife, and the chicken seller had all disappeared into the crowd. But the zither melody could still be heard from far away.
Fu Hongxue parted the crowd and walked out. Outside of the crowd, there was still more people, but none of the ones he was looking for. However, he had already heard the zither melody.
Where the zither melody was coming from was where he was going. He didn’t walk very quickly. This seemingly entirely imaginary zither melody couldn’t be caught by anyone. What’s the point of walking quickly?
But he didn’t give up. So long as the zither melody was ahead of him, he would keep walking forward. Grandmaster Zhong actually followed from behind. His snow-white stockings were ruined now. Even his two feet seemed to be ruined. No one knew how long they had been walking.
The sun began to rise. They had long since left the market, left the city. The gentle spring wind blew across the lush seedlings in the fields. From far away, the mountains rose and undulated, and the earth was as gentle and warm as a virgin’s chest. They had entered ‘her’ embrace.
There were green hills in all directions and water everywhere. The zither melody seemed to come from the deep mountains and the watery depths.
The mountains were now deep, and the flowing water had stilled. There was a small log cabin next to a small lake.
There was a zither and a table in the cabin, but nobody there.
The zither strings still seemed to be quivering, and beneath the zither there was a short letter:
The sabre reveals openings, the zither strings snap,
The moon has fallen, the flowers have withered.
The young master [Gongzi] is like a dragon,
Hovering above the nine heavens.”
The empty hills were silent.
Grandmaster Zhong faced the faraway mountains. He was silent for a long, long time, before slowly saying, “This really is a good place. Those who don’t want to leave can stay. Those who cannot leave, why leave?”
Fu Hongxue looked at him from far away, waiting for him to continue.
Grandmaster Zhong was silent for another long period of time. “I no longer intend to leave.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Do you not wish to go, or are you unable to go?”
Grandmaster Zhong didn’t reply. Instead, he turned to look at him. Facing him, he asked, “How old do you think I am?”
His head was filled with white hair, and his face was filled with the marks and scars of having lived an exhausting life. He looked weary and old, older than when Fu Hongxue had first seen him.
He answered his own question. “I was famous when I was young. This year, I’m only thirty-five years old.”
Fu Hongxue looked at his tired face and his white hair. Although he did not speak, he couldn’t help but appear shocked.
Grandmaster Zhong chuckled. “I know I look very old. I’ve had white hair for many years now.”
His chuckle was filled with agony. “Because I have already exhausted all of my life’s energy. Although I have gained an amount of comfort and fame from the zither which others cannot even imagine, the zither has also swallowed up all of my marrow and my blood.”
Fu Hongxue understood his meaning. If a person became totally involved in one thing, it was as though he had made a pact with demons.
Everything you want, I will give you. But you must give me everything you have as well, including your life and your soul.
Grandmaster Zhong said, “Originally, this was a fair trade. I didn’t have any cause for complaint. But now…”
He stared at Fu Hongxue. “You study the sabre. If you were like me, and had given up everything for your sabre, but then suddenly discovered that someone could defeat you using a single flick of the finger, how would you feel?”
Fu Hongxue didn’t answer.
Grandmaster Zhong let out a sigh, then slowly said, “Naturally, you won’t understand this. To you, a sabre is only a sabre. It doesn’t have any other meanings.”
Fu Hongxue wanted to laugh, laugh loudly. But he naturally couldn’t laugh.
A sabre is only a sabre? Who could imagine the meaning which this sabre held for him? Hadn’t he also made a pact with demons, hadn’t he also given up everything? What did he get in return?
Aside from him, perhaps there was nobody else in the world who understood this better. But he didn’t speak. His suffering had entered his very bones. He couldn’t even vomit it out.
Grandmaster Zhong chuckled again. “But no matter what, since we can meet each other, it must be destiny. I want to play another song for you.”
Fu Hongxue said, “And then?”
Grandmaster Zhong said, “And then, if you want to leave, you can leave.”
Fu Hongxue said, “Won’t you leave?”
Grandmaster Zhong said, “Leave? Where can I leave to?”
Fu Hongxue finally fully understood his meaning. This was a good place. He had already intended to be buried here. To him, life was no longer a glorious thing. It was shame. He already had no purpose in life.
With a strumming sound, the zither music started again.
It was already dark outside. The darkness was like a fine gauze covering the mountain valley.
The zither melody was mournful, as though an ancient, beautiful white palace was telling a story of the misery of mankind.
Although in life, there would always be joy, it was always just momentary and fleeting. Only tragedy was eternal.
A person’s life was a very short thing to begin with. Regardless of who you are, you wouldn’t be able to avoid death eventually.
For what purpose did people live?
Why must they struggle and fight? Why must they be miserable and unhappy? Why is death the only eternal, peaceful answer to unanswerable questions?
And then, the zither began to speak of the beauty and peace of death, a beauty and peace which no one could ever describe using words. Only his zither music could express it.
Because he himself had sunk into a beautiful dream of death.
The death god’s hand seemed to be guiding his in playing the zither, coaxing men to give up everything and be forever peaceful in the dreamlands of death.
There, there was neither pain nor struggles against other men.
There, not only was there no killing, there was also no men forcing other men to kill.
This definitely was something which no one could resist.
Fu Hongxue’s hand was already starting to tremble. His clothes had already been soaked with sweat as well. Since life was so tragic, why must a man continue to live?
The hand with which he gripped his sabre became even tighter. Was he preparing to draw his sabre? Who was he going to kill with the sabre?
The only person who can kill him is Fu Hongxue, and only Fu Hongxue can kill himself.
The zither music became even more tragic. The mountain valley became even darker.
There was no light. There was no hope.
The zither music seemed to be calling out to him. And he seemed to see Yan Nanfei and Mingyue Xin, their faces filled with smiles and laughter.
Were they already at peace? Were they advising him to accept that peace and beauty? Fu Hongxue finally drew his sabre!