The righteous scholar travelled the perilous peak.
The dark steel blade glimmered as it caught the sunlight. The young man feigned a thrust the sword at the left shoulder of his middle-aged opponent, then he struck at the man’s right shoulder. The man parried. The swords clashed loudly and hummed audibly as the blades vibrated from the force of the impact. The swords flashed again and three rapid moves were exchanged even before the hum faded.
The older man suddenly swung his sword downwards. The young man side stepped to the right to dodge the strike, and guided his opponent’s blade with his left hand. The tip of the sword nearly pierced the thigh of the older swordsman, but he instinctively shifted his legs and retaliated immediately.
Two persons sat on the eastern boundary of the practice ring. A Daoist nun about forty years old sat ashen-faced with her lips tightly sealed. An old man in his fifties sat six paces from her. He stroked his beard, seemingly pleased with what he saw. Around twenty disciples stood behind each of them. The western boundary was lined by ten over guests. The attention of the spectators was focused on the duellists in the practice ring.
Seventy exchanges have been dealt. The moves became faster and closer to hitting the target with each exchange, but the victor had yet to be determined.
The older man suddenly misjudged the force of his strike and appeared to lose his balance. The scene was so comical that a boy chuckled. He then quickly stifled his laugh with a hand over his mouth as he realised that it was improper for him to do so.
The younger duellist struck with his palm at his opponent’s exposed back. The older man stepped forward and avoided the attack. His sword suddenly swung in a circle and he shouted, “Strike!”
The sword struck the young man’s left leg, making him stagger. He stabbed his sword into the ground and steadied himself to continue the duel. However, his opponent had sheathed his sword and smiled, “Zhu shidi, thanks for going easy on me. Are you badly hurt?”
“The Eastern sect has won three matches. It appears that Jianhu Palace will house the Eastern sect for another five years. Xin shimei, do we still need to continue the contest?” The bearded man smiled, clearly delighted at how things have proceeded.
The old man stared at her and his tone became stern. “How can you forget the rules of our school, shimei?”
She snorted with displeasure and dropped the issue.
The old man was Zuo Zimu, head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Eastern sect. The nun was Xin Shuangqing, head of the Wuliang Sword School’s Western sect. The Wuliang Sword School was split into the Northern, Eastern and Western sects. The Northern sect has been in the decline in the past decade, while the Eastern and Western sects flourished with talent. The Wuliang Sword School was founded in the southern Mount Wuliang during the reign of the fifth Tang Emperor. The head of the school resided in the Jianhu Palace on Mount Wuliang.
Since the splitting of the school into three sect during the Song Empire, these sects held a duelling contest in the practice arena of Jianhu Palace every five years. The winning sect would reside in the palace for the next five years. When the sixth year comes, the sects would meet again to compete for the right of residence in the next five years. The winner is the best of five rounds.
During the five years between the contests, the defeated sects would train hard in hope of erasing the shame of their previous loss in the next contest. Likewise, the winners did not dare to become complacent.
The Northern sect won forty years ago but was evicted from the palace after their defeat five years later. The furious head of the Northern sect led his subordinates to the western face of the mountain, ending their participation in the contest and cutting all communications with the other sects.
In the thirty-five years since the exodus of the Northern sect, the remaining sects had their share of victories and defeats. The Eastern sect was the champion of four contests, while the Western sect had two wins to their name.
The duel between Gong and Zuo was the fourth match. Gong’s victory gave the Eastern sect three wins. Thus, a fifth bout was unnecessary.
Guests from other schools were seated along the western boundary of the practice ring. Some of the visitors were witnesses invited by the heads of the Wuliang sects, while the others came to watch the competition. They were notable individuals from the martial arts scene in Yun’nan. The exception was an unknown youngster dressed in cyan sitting at one end of the boundary. It was him who laughed when Zuo appeared to lose his footing during the duel.
The youth arrived in the company of the elderly wushi, Mawu De, from Pu’er, southern Dian. As a successful tea trader, Mawu was rich and influential. He was known for his hospitality and his easy-going nature. When any wushi in the jianghu is in dire straits, they can count on his unrestrained assistance. This made him very popular. However, his martial arts skills were mediocre.
When Zuo Zimu welcomed Mawu De, the latter introduced the youth with the family name Duan. That was the royal family’s name of the Dali Kingdom. Countless individuals bear the Duan family name within the boundaries of the kingdom. Hence, Zuo did not think much of the boy and assumed that he was probably Mawu’s disciple. Since Mawu’s martial arts skills were average, his apprentice would be no better. Zuo did not bother to say “I’ve long admired you”, but simply raised his hands with his left palm over his right fist in greeting before leading them into the guest seats. Zuo did not expect the youth to have the nerve to mock when his favoured disciple feigned a move to create an opening.
“The four disciples fielded by Xin shimei this year made impressive advancements in their swordsmanship. Especially in the fourth match, which we were lucky to win. Zhu shizhi is young but has made such progress in his training. With such potential, his future is bright indeed. Perhaps the Eastern and Western sects will have to swap places.” Zuo let out a hearty laugh, before abruptly turning to stare at Duan. “Brother Duan seems to disapprove when my second-rate disciple used the Staggering Step feign to win. Could Brother Duan please step into the ring and give my disciple a pointer or two? Brother Mawu has a resounding reputation in southern Dian. As the saying goes, there is no weak soldier under the command of a strong general. Brother Duan must be highly skilled.”
Mawu De flushed as he hurriedly said, “Brother Duan is not my disciple. How can I take in a disciple with my superficial skills? Please don’t tease me, younger brother Zuo. Brother Duan came to my humble abode in Pu’er and discovered that I was going to Mount Wuliang. He has heard of the peaceful and scenic Mount Wuliang, hence he came along to enjoy the sights.”