“Greetings, Wudang’s Elder Shou.” Even if I couldn’t recognise other styles, there was no way I could mistake Wudang’s mental cultivation taught only to direct disciples.
Wudang was home to many venerated elders. Besides Patriarch Daoist Shenfa, there were three senior elders of the same seniority. They were assigned the titles Tortoise, Crane and Deer. Although Wudang was a dao sect, their disciples consisted of daoists and non-daoists. Two of the three senior elders weren’t daoists.
Elder Shou was assigned Tortoise, but Elder Tortoise just sounded ridiculous, which was why the martial world conferred him the title Shou and called him Elder Shou. The logic behind the title was because the Shou character and first part of the term title of “elder” suggested a long lifespan. He was the oldest among the three elders and was the friendliest amongst them. It came as no surprise, then, that he rarely had any disputes with anyone. He was able to end conflicts between other allies without lasting consequences – if any at all.
Emperor Yuansheng silently reflected, “How did I miss that when Ming Feizhen noticed? I’m now sure the hook and then circle hand movement he performed to defuse Young Master Ling and Lie Shang’s internal energy is Wudang’s mental cultivation. It seems the rumours Elder Shou is on par with their patriarch are true. Based on his execution of the technique, Wudang’s Universe Empyrean Style, a style taught exclusively to direct disciples, he must’ve mastered it quite thoroughly.”
“I knew it!” blurted Emperor Yuansheng.
Get out of here! Had I not said anything, you’d still be guessing this time next year!
In spite of me easily identifying him, Elder Shou still smiled affably: “Impressive, Young Master Zhong. It seems this old one will have to accept this drink.”
Elder Shou took the cup from me and knocked it back in one chug. He wiped his mouth and pulled the corners of his lips up again, exuding an unfettered and suave aura: “Since this old one accepted your drink, he should repay the favour. How about a divination?”
Elder Shou chortled as he took out a golden tortoise shell from his sleeve. The shell was made from metal. Most people in the pugilistic world would recognise it and know it was an item Elder Shou made famous through his usage.
Ostensibly, Elder Shou’s divinations were always correct. He, understandably, was renowned for his divination skills even amongst Wudang. Emperor Yuansheng instated a member of Wudang as preceptor of state because he believed in their divination skills. Owing to the same reason, he nudged me over to Elder Shou as soon as the latter offered to perform a divination for me and suggested, “It is not big deal. Consider it some fun.”
Elder Shou pulled out a bench to sit and gestured for me to join him. He took out three copper plates and inserted them into the shell. He shook the shell and tossed them out. He rinsed and repeated six times, puzzling me enough for me to question, “May this one ask what the result says?”
Elder Shou smirked: “This old one humbly greets you, Master Ming.”
… His divination was just a ploy to fool everyone! He recognised me from the get-go! I was saying nobody sane would be named Zhong Hualiu. Eighteen brothels by Yangtze River? Damn troll!! I knew he was screwing with me!
Smiling back, my lips moved ever so slightly as I used ventriloquism to say, “You recognise me, Elder Shou.”
“Though your hair colour and appearance has changed, this old one recognised you as soon as you spoke.”
Elder Shou and I weren’t exactly friends; however, I had visited Mount Wudang a fair number of times, so it wasn’t surprising he remembered me. I owed him a favour for keeping my identity a secret.
“Please pardon this one’s rudeness. He has to put on the act for this secret job.”
“Master Ming, if you are so polite to this old one, this old one’s next three generations will still be bragging of the honour.”
“Please do not kill this one.” I slowed down the rate I poured a drink and smiled helplessly: “This humble one does not carry himself well. The martial world defines him as ridiculous more often than not. Those who would be polite enough would call him Master Ming. In actuality, it is but a title for someone bearing a mountain of trouble.”
“You are being too humble, Master Ming. Had it not been for Night Fortress taking in Jiangnan’s bandits and rogues formerly belonging to other groups or wandering around, the Seven White Champion Princes would massacre them under the banner of perfection and peace. Even if they drove the unorthodox groups out of Jiangnan, it would still be a bloody massacre no less brutal than massacres unorthodox sects would commit. It is best for everyone thanks to your kindness and open mind. When this old one visited Hangzhou during your absence, Night Fortress’ members were somewhat out of line, but nobody actually started trouble without rhyme or reason. Jiangnan should be grateful to have you.”
That was quite touching to hear. Night Fortress’ classification was always in a grey zone. The Seven Champion White Princes didn’t consider Night Fortress an unorthodox sect due to its affiliation with Mount Daluo. Having said that, they wouldn’t touch Night Fortress with a ten foot pole because of Night Fortress’ ambivalent practices. Few people in the martial world’s orthodox sects were willing to look to Night Fortress’ good side.
“You are too kind, Elder Shou. That being said… what made you decide to assign this one a father who ran an empire of brothels when you recognised this one…?”
“Oh, that? Hahahaha. Do you still remember your shifu infiltrating Mount Wudang the night this old one and his two juniors were busy with a ritual and stole Changmen Sect’s manual…?”
Wait, you’re trying to even the score now?! I didn’t even know my shifu stole the manual from you three! Shifu, judging from Elder Shou’s expression, I must ask if you beat him back then!
“And, your shifu has yet to return the secret manual.”
Oh, wait. Right, right, he was right. Shifu never asked me for it back after he told me to learn it. After I finished learning it, I put it… I think I placed it under one of the uneven table legs at the cottage I lived at when I retired. By the way, that manual was solid! Like, solid solid! It was perfect for the job! Well, I couldn’t actually tell Elder Shou that. I doubt even he could remain cordial if I told him that.
“Hahaha, this old one can overlook him stealing it and even him reading it, but he still hasn’t returned it after twenty years. Look, Master Ming, this old one is not trying to be a jerk, but nobody wants to embarrassed. Am I right?”
While Elder Shou maintained an amiable smile on the surface, he was seething inside. That had to be why he smeared my image! Bloody bugger screwing with me when he knew I was acting!
“Absolutely, absolutely. This one will be sure to reprimand him for it. We will be sure to return it to you in one piece and sealed.”
I nodded, poured wine and massaged Elder Shou’s shoulders whilst complaining about my shifu’s unscrupulous deeds to finally win a small friendly smile from Elder Shou.
Emperor Yuansheng: “Adding massage to flattery. He’s taking flattery to new heights.”
I kept going, asking how Wudang’s patriarch was doing and promising I’d pay a visit until Elder Shou was satisfied. Voice loud, he stated, “Since this was a misunderstanding, this old one shall leave it there. See you in Huzhou!”
Elder Shou vaulted through the hole in the roof to leave and needed only one step prior to perform the impressive feat. Emperor Yuansheng raised a thumb: “Wudang’s Cloud Ascending Ladder is truly marvellous.”
Suddenly, Elder Shou came back via the roof. Emperor Yuansheng asked, “What happened? Did you throw your back out?”
Elder Shou ignored Emperor Yuansheng and gave me a smile: “Young Master Zhong, could you give back the three copper plates…?”
Copper plates? What copper plates?
I gazed at the dark sky and whistled.
Wow, I don’t see anything.
Everyone shot me piercing, scornful gazes…