Li Xiong was just as his name suggested—a baby bear. He stayed in the prison for a little less than half a month. Every day, he sat cross-legged with his face to the bars, looking helplessly at the door as he waited for Lei Jingzhe to come and take him away. Seeing as he was young, the wardens all loved to tease him. He was a strong but simple-minded boy who did not get angry even when he was made fun of. The only thing was that he had a terrifying appetite; he could eat a meal for three people in one setting.
The warden opened the door for a shackled Li Xiong, who asked with pressing urgency, “Has my big bro come to pick me up?”
The warden clapped Li Xiong on the back and said nothing to him. Qiao Tianya had arranged for a horse carriage to come and take Li Xiong away. Fearing that Li Xiong might make a racket and stir up trouble on the way, the warden made a special point of securing the fetters around Li Xiong’s ankles. Li Xiong was not used to riding in the carriage, and all that swaying made him dizzy. Finally, he arrived at the place, but when he got off the carriage and saw the mansion entrance, he refused to move his feet.
“I’m not going in.” Li Xiong stood where he was, like a stake nailed to the ground. No matter how they pushed and shoved him, he remained absolutely still. “This place is too big. Once I enter, my big bro won’t be able to find me.”
The weather was oppressively hot, and everyone was sweating profusely just by standing there. The warden, afraid of offending them, was overwrought with anxiety, and so he attempted to hoodwink Li Xiong, “Go in first. We’ll bring you out after you go in.”
Li Xiong found this man to be very much like a weasel with how his eyes shifted around when he spoke; he looked like a liar, so Li Xiong shook his head sullenly and refused to budge. The warden tried his best to persuade him, but to no avail, so he steeled himself and squeezed in together with the others behind Li Xiong in an attempt to push him inside.
Li Xiong’s heels scraped across the ground. Annoyed from the pushing, he jerked his arms and bellowed, “I’m not going in! Nope!”
The men behind him stepped back in unison from the force. The warden saw him struggling and was worried those shackles could not hold up, so he hurriedly ordered, “Hold him down! Don’t let him make a commotion!”
When Li Xiong saw them pouncing towards him, he spontaneously spread his legs in a horse stance1 to hold his body firm and steady. His suntanned face raged with fury. The warden strained himself to the limit and exerted all his strength, but Li Xiong did not budge the slightest. It looked like they were going to be delayed at the entrance.
Ji Gang happened to return from his stroll outdoors with Fei Sheng following at his side. Even from afar, he saw the crowd at the entrance along with the horse carriage parked in the middle of the road. With a hand at his back, he was just about to inquire when he saw the wardens exclaim out loud just as Li Xiong threw all of them off him.
“Such strength!” Fei Sheng cheered and watched Ji Gang’s expression.
Ji Gang was a practitioner of the Ji Clan’s boxing style, and he valued strength most. Sure enough, his eyes lit up and said, “Where’s this lad from?”
Fei Sheng hurried over. He did not need to ask; he could more or less guess from the way the wardens were dressed. He clutched, then immediately released the Xiuchun blade at the side of his waist, before lifting the chain on the ground with one foot as he said, “Out of the way. I’ll truss him up!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan was in the room waiting for Kong Ling and the rest when he heard the commotion before the courtyard. He lifted the bamboo blinds. When he saw Ji Gang entering, he could not help but be taken aback. “Shifu, what’s wrong?”
Ji Gang handed his birdcage to Qiao Tianya and had him hang it up on the veranda. He bent over to scoop up a few handfuls of water from the copper crock to wash his hands. “Picked up a lad before entering. Take a look, see if he is the one you want?”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, they saw Fei Sheng drag in a sturdy lad with iron chains as though he were hauling in a bull. The lad was still throwing a tantrum, and he yanked Fei Sheng towards himself. Fei Sheng was, at the very least, the vice commander of the Imperial Bodyguards, and yet his clothes were already drenched in sweat just from the short distance of pulling and dragging.
“Oh!” Ding Tao poked his head out from the room and yelled, “That’s him, Li Xiong!”
Shen Zechuan asked, “What’s happening?”
Fei Sheng wanted to answer, but the chain suddenly went taut, and his entire body was thrown backward and quickly dragged over.
Li Xiong pulled at the chain, struggling until cracks appeared on his wooden shackles.2 He dragged Fei Sheng round and round the courtyard. Fei Sheng’s back scraped across the beds of flowers, and mud splattered all over his neck. He had the intention to put on a display of his prowess, but discovered that he could not still his body at all.
Qiao Tianya was about to react in that instant, but Ji Gang put out an arm to block him from moving and bellowed, “Tao-zi!”
Ding Tao uttered an acknowledgment, stuffed his book into his robe, and nimbly leaped over the railing on the veranda. Fei Sheng was still being dragged around. Ding Tao chased after them for a few steps, but knew he could not stop Li Xiong by pulling him, so he stepped down on the chain and called out, “Li Xiong—”
But he slipped, and his foot got caught in front of the chain. The moment Li Xiong tugged at the chain, Ding Tao fell over backward. Quick-witted as he was, he used both arms to protect his head and shield his cheeks with his elbows as he fell into the soft, loose soil with a “thud” and tumbled. Flower stems stabbed into his outer arm, blocked by the dogskin arm guard he had just secured on himself.
Fei Sheng hooked a foot around the edge of the stone to bring himself to a stop and felt the sharp pain from the chain winding tightly around his arm. Gritting his teeth, he flipped over to his feet and pulled hard until he was almost leaning backward in a crouching position. His veins bulged, and he could not help but cuss, “This darn bearlike strength!”
Ding Tao leaped to his feet3 and ran for a few steps before he sprang. Using the momentum from a kick on the railing to propel himself forward, he landed on Li Xiong’s back. He pulled at Li Xiong’s back collar with one hand, clamped his legs around Li Xiong’s nape, and raised a fist, but he did not punch him. Instead, he yelled, “Let go!”
Li Xiong’s shoulders sank from the weight. He was thrown off balance by the force of impact when Ding Tao pounced on him. He bent slightly at the knees to stabilize himself, then released the chain and reached back with one hand to pull Ding Tao off him. He had only just stretched out his hand halfway when he was encumbered by the shackles. Flying into a rage, he whipped his upper body around in an attempt to throw Ding Tao off. Ding Tao held on like a monkey, but while he did not slip off, the book in his robe fell out.
Ding Tao’s was the most skilled in qinggong, which was imparted to him by none other than his old man himself. Their family worked as guards in Libei, and they always brought a notebook along with them while on the job to record every single incident regardless of its significance. This book was far more important than their own lives. In order to prevent the book from falling on the battlefield, Ding Tao’s old man mastered the qinggong skill specifically used for the purpose of fleeing for his life. A pity that his old man eventually died chasing after his book, slit in the throat by another.
Ding Tao was anxious upon seeing the book slip, and reached out an arm to catch it, but Li Xiong grabbed his arm instead and flung Ding Tao over one shoulder and slammed him to the ground like a fish he had caught from the stream.
A loud thud rang out. Ding Tao’s entire back slammed onto the ground, and he yelped soundlessly from the pain. Even so, his feet swiftly caught hold of the book even as Li Xiong clutched Ding Tao’s collar and hauled him off the ground. Too preoccupied to bother about the blows, Ding Tao tossed the book up with his legs and caught hold of it with one hand. In the next moment, he was slammed down to the ground again.
This time, Ding Tao could not hold back. He choked and coughed, feeling the bile in his stomach rise. He lifted his legs and wound them around Li Xiong’s arm, then turned over and used the momentum to fling Li Xiong to the ground. Li Xiong’s shackle broke from the impact. He rolled to his feet and bulged his eyes in a glare as he charged towards Ding Tao with a raised fist. Halfway there, his whole arm suddenly felt immensely heavy, as if he had, in a blink of an eye, struck a steel plate. Even with that astonishing strength of his, his arm would not budge.
Ji Gang held Li Xiong’s fist in one hand, and rebuked, “Back off!”
Li Xiong was reluctant, but his legs did not seem to obey him, as he was beaten back a few steps by this white-haired old man. Unable to maintain his balance, especially after just getting up, he fell on his butt.
Ji Gang flicked his sleeves and pulled Ding Tao up from the ground.
Ding Tao stuffed the book back under his robes and said, “Grandpa! He hurt me so much!”
Ji Gang patted the soil off Ding Tao’s back and said, “I told you a long time back that you will sooner or later end up on the short end of the stick by resorting to trickery and evasive tactics! When you jumped on him earlier, you should have used the ‘Bullfight’ move on him. Why did you hesitate?”
Ding Tao wiped the sweat on his face, feeling very aggrieved. “He ate the sweets I gave him, and just yesterday he was still chummy with me.”
Only then did Qiao Tianya fold his arms as he leaned against the pillar. He whistled at Fei Sheng and quipped, “Old Fei, not up to it, huh.”
Fei Sheng simply took off his filthy outer robe and laughed as he cursed, “Son of a bitch, why don’t you try? This lad’s strength is out of this world.”
Shen Zechuan was a little surprised. Xiao Chiye was the strongest person he had ever seen. He could draw the hundred-jin Conqueror’s Bow relying on just his arm strength alone, with no need for external aids. It was easy for Xiao Chiye to hoist him over one shoulder while getting up a horse or heading into a river. But even Xiao Chiye was not this frightening when he was Li Xiong’s age.
“Which one of your parents is from Biansha?” Ji Gang pulled Ding Tao behind him, took a few steps forward, and asked Li Xiong.
Li Xiong’s buttocks were hurting from the fall. His shackles were gone, but the fetters on his feet were still there. He was reluctant to come in in the first place. Fei Sheng’s treatment had sparked his rage, and this was followed by Ji Gang beating him back. Now seeing Ding Tao being coaxed by others after making his way back under the eaves, he pouted, threw his head back, and burst out wailing. He kicked his legs and cried, “Why are you people bullying me?!”
Shen Zechuan let his hands droop and said to Ji Gang, “This one’s still a child.”
Ji Gang observed the back of Li Xiong’s shoulders and said, “He was fighting in such a haphazard way earlier, relying fully on brute force… Feels a little like wrestling. Lad, tell me honestly, is one of your parents from Biansha?”
Li Xiong ignored Ji Gang. Nothing anyone said could register in his ears at this moment, as he cried particularly hard. He had been following Lei Jingzhe since young, and now, without him, Li Xiong was like a little tot abandoned on the streets—at a loss for what to do, and with nobody to turn to.
His cries gave Shen Zechuan a headache. Shen Zechuan did not sleep well last night, and long periods of standing made him feel tired all over. He said to Ding Tao, “Give him some more of your sweets.”
Ding Tao was feeling even more aggrieved now. He felt around his sleeve pocket slowly before finally digging out an oil paper. “……It’s melted.”
Qiao Tianya picked up a branch of blossoms from the ground and held it between his teeth. Looking at Li Xiong with a smile, he stepped over the railing and squatted down before him. He waved his hands and said, “This big brother shall remove your fetters for you and get someone to bring you some food. Do you want rice or noodles?”
Li Xiong hiccuped, his face glistening with snot as he sniffled, “I want meat.”
◈ ◈ ◈
The bamboo blinds were partially lifted, and it was cool inside the house.
Li Xiong sat cross-legged by himself before the small table, grabbing the meat with his hands and feasting on them with great relish. Ding Tao secretly counted the plates, feeling as if he was going to be full just from the counting.
“His mother is most likely a woman abducted by the Biansha Cavalry. It’s chaos along the Chashi River banks, and things like this were common occurrences during the earlier years. The Duanzhou garrison troops didn’t want to cross the border to give chase either.” Ji Gang half turned his body and studied Li Xiong. “But with a sturdy physique like this, his father is unlikely to be an ordinary person. I wonder how he fell into the hands of the bandits.”
“If he really has Biansha blood, then it’s not strange that he was abandoned.” Shen Zechuan recalled Li Xiong’s earlier display of strength. “Qudu case files have annual records of names of those reported to be abducted at the frontiers, with the highest numbers reported in Duanzhou. If those abducted women were to get pregnant, the Biansha tribes, unwilling as they were to raise the kids, would throw those women back along the banks of Chashi River. Though their original families wouldn’t want to take them back again either.”
Fei Sheng had just changed into clean robes. Seeing Qiao Tianya’s silence, he said, “It’s fine if he just happened to fall into the bandits’ hands. What I fear is that the bandits raised him for a specific purpose.”
“That won’t be the case.” Ji Gang shook his head slightly. “You’ve never seen the people from Biansha. They are just like us; not everyone can be born to be that big and tall. Look at Libei Armored Cavalry. Other than requiring you to have the requisite household registration to join the army, they also require you to have the physique, but not all of them are as sturdy as the Prince of Libei. I do think that this lad’s father isn’t likely to be an ordinary person; he would have been able to get some official posts in the Biansha Cavalry just with this strength alone. However, there is no one like that among the Biansha generals I know near Zhongbo.”
“Lad.” Qiao Tianya said as he drank the chilled soup, “You’ve had your meat. It’s time for you to talk.”
There was still meat in Li Xiong’s mouth, so he was too occupied to reply. He swept a glance over the group of people, finally resting his gaze on Shen Zechuan, and mumbled something.
Ding Tao leaned over and listened carefully for a moment before he turned his head to tell Shen Zechuan, “Young Master, he’s asking you why you are wearing an earring… Young Master’s wearing it because he wants to, what are you asking this for… Oh, you saw the same one before… not the same? So is it the same or not… uh-huh… Of course Young Master’s jade earring wasn’t bought with money… You’ve seen it before?”
Li Xiong swallowed the meat. Without bothering to wipe his mouth, he looked at Shen Zechuan and said, “I’ve seen you before, at ‘Gedale’4 of Chashi River!”
马步 horse stance, a common posture in Chinese martial arts and takes its name from the position assumed when horse-riding.
An example for reference
Specifically 鲤鱼打挺 carp kip-up, a martial arts move where one leaps from a supine position into a standing position.
- Again, for foreign names in this novel, we decided to go with pinyin for the time being due to unfamiliarity with the language involved and to avoid mistranslations with the actual names in its original language. If we do get official subtitles someday, we will replace them in the translation (the same goes for titles). Until then, please bear with us.