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The gossip trickled in to the teahouse where Lanfen worked, and by the evening, she was fairly drowning in rumor.
"I heard a man screaming when I walked through the woods," said a merchant to his dinner companion, holding his teacup in a shaking hand.
Lanfen moved quickly to wipe the table where his tea spilled and could not help hearing the companion say, "I saw smoke where no one is known to be living."
A stranger at the far end of the table added, "I have heard people speak of strange noises and stranger lights at night."
Lanfen listened with half an ear because she was also remembering that she needed to bring the bedding in from being aired and have a midnight snack prepared for the guest staying in the west room. Things that happened in the mountain passes were not her concern; Madam Yun's displeasure was.
The rest of the evening was much of same with both villagers and travelers coming in and out of the inn's restaurant. It had been very busy this week because the merchants were moving their wares before the winter snows came. If they did not do it now, they would lose any profits until spring when the mountain passes were clear again.
Lanfen paused at the top of the three steps that led into the recessed dining area. One man's eyes caught hers, but it was a questioning look, wondering why this girl was allowed in the main room. She was used to those kind of looks. Travelers didn't always approve of how Madam Yun ran her inn - which was run as she pleased and not even the Emperor could have told her differently - but the villagers knew that if Madam Yun chose to have girls serving and men in the kitchen, then that was what she would have.
She quickly checked to see if any guest needed anything, but as she stared above their heads, her gaze was drawn to the woman standing in the open doorway.
It was not the woman's clothes that caught the eyes, though her blue robe was the color of the deepest parts of the river and worked with bronze thread at her feet. It was not that she looked disheveled or that she was traveling alone.
It was her hair that startled a person; hanging past her waist and streaked with pure white though she could not be much older than Lanfen.
The dining room had gone quiet as the other guests stared at this strange traveler with hair unbound like a savage or a woman who had just risen from someone else's bed.
"I need a room, a meal, hot water and--" The woman's eyes flicked over the crowd and stopped on Lanfen. "--you to attend me."
Lanfen bowed her head and said, "Immediately, Lady." Even though she did not know who this woman was, Lanfen would treat her with all due care. She acted like nobility, though she looked like she'd been living in the woods for a week, and Lanfen was not taking any chances.
The woman walked through the silent dining room, ignoring the stares that followed her. By then Madam Yun had left the kitchen. She always seemed to know when something was up before anyone could tell her and the look of the strange traveler did not change her serene countenance. "Welcome to our humble inn. Anything we can provide is yours."
The woman turned her head and Lanfen heard the faintest rattling like... bones in ghost stories. "I've told the girl what I need. If it's not sufficient, then you will know."
Madam Yun smiled the smile she used on very wealthy guests, then said, "Of course."
Within very short order, the mysterious lady was eating the restaurant's finest foods, including some that she had described and the chef had remembered from his youth. Lanfen had busied herself with heating enough water to fill the tub. Everything smelled delicious and she was glad the sound of pouring water drowned the growls of her belly.
Madam Yun came in with another bucket of water. When she leaned over to pour it in the tub, she whispered into Lanfen's ear. "Do as she says. She wears the robes of Emei, even if she does not carry a sword."
A pugilist from the Emei Sect! She almost dropped her bucket. She would not look over her shoulder and stare. She would not!
Then Madam Yun left her with the woman pugilist. Lanfen sat in the corner on her knees and waited for commands. The room was quiet, but each time the woman moved her head, she heard the rattling. It was not bones, could not be bones, but it reminded her of other things. Bamboo in the autumn wind. Dice rolling on a wooden floor.
"Don't be so frightened, girl."
Lanfen flinched. Was it that obvious? She saw that her robe was bunched in her hands and smoothed it out deliberately. "Yes, Lady."
Next was the bath and it went quickly; the woman did not take her time in the tub, but soaked only as long as was decent before rising and allowing Lanfen to help dry and dress her. By now it was late and Lanfen was tired. She looked forward to curling up on a mat in the corner of the kitchen with the other girls. There would be no midnight giggling tonight by the time she put her head down, but perhaps that was for the best.
The woman must have been reading her thoughts because she said, "You are not done. Come here. Put out your hand."
Lanfen did both, though the second she did with her eyes down, not knowing what to expect. Something heavy and oddly shaped was laid in her hand. She stared at the scissors. "I don't understand."
"I need you to trim my hair," the woman said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"You - you want me to cut it off?" Lanfen could not bring herself to wrap her fingers around the instrument in her hand. No one cut their hair. Not voluntarily.
"Not cut it off," the woman said sharply. She gathered a rope of it in her hand, strands mixed black and white in fingers, and fanned it apart. "The ends need to be trimmed and I cannot do it myself."
It looked like someone had hacked at the hair with a knife. Swords flashed in her thoughts and, if Madam Yun was correct, then it was entirely within the realms of possibility.
The woman sat in a chair, her hair falling down her back like a cloak, and Lanfen knelt on the floor behind her. She began to cut, very, very carefully. She had never done this before, but she would do it correctly if she must.
Before the first snip of the scissors was done, before the first pieces had dropped to the wooden floor, there was a length of hair around her throat, thick and strong like a rope. It did not squeeze, but Lanfen knew that if she tried to move, if she even swallowed wrong, it would tighten.
In front of her, the rest of the woman's hair moved like disturbed snakes, twisting and writhing. And she saw, yes, bones on leather thongs and sharpened pieces of bamboo braided in underneath.
She could not see the woman's face, but she heard the strain in her voice. "I am trying to relax, but sometimes it is difficult."
Lanfen waited, breathing as softly as possible, and slowly, oh so slowly the hair unwrapped itself and went to the floor again.
And continue she did. She took each cut slowly and each time a length of hair lifted up and reached out, as if it wasn't sure if she were an enemy or a friend. By the time she was almost done, the woman's hair only rippled at the bottom and she could not hear the bone and bamboo.
Lanfen held back a sigh of relief as the last hairs fell on the floor. "I am done, Lady."
The woman did not hold back her sigh at all. "Thank you."
"Winter Tiger!" a man bellowed from somewhere. "We know you are here! Come and face us!"
"Ah, just in time, girl." The pugilist stood up and Lanfen could not help herself in trying to brush the hairs off the bottom of her robes. "Get up, get up, I have no time for niceties like that. If I do not go now, your inn will be firewood and I will not have that on my head."
The woman stalked out of her room with the sound of chattering bone following her, and now Lanfen saw the likeness of a tiger in her. That is to say, she had never seen a tiger alive but once she had gone with her mother to visit her eldest cousin who worked in a rich merchant's home as a maid and she had seen a screen with a tiger hunting a deer, all power and poise, crouching in the snow. This woman was nothing like a painting, but Lanfen almost feared for whatever person fell in her vision. She did not think they would last much longer than that deer.
She followed Winter Tiger to the balcony that opened into the dining area. Below were at least a dozen dangerous looking men, the kind Madam Yun would keep the young women in her care from by serving them strong wine laced with other things that made them pass out at the table after only one bottle.
There was a moment of silence while Winter Tiger stared down the men below. "Are you bugs so desperate for satisfaction that you'll disturb a peaceful inn and so dishonorable that you fight indoors?"
The most dangerous looking man, a man who matched Winter Tiger's stare, shouted, "We are the bugs that killed Tianyuan and captured Summer Tiger. We will fight where we please."
A toss of her head and the air rumbled with bamboo and bones, but now it was answered by the thunder of her voice. "You killed Tianyuan? Or did you mean your clan? For I cannot see a bug like you ever besting him."
The man spit his contempt for her on the wooden floor. "My clan's leader did. I was there. I saw it. Tianyuan is dead and Summer Tiger is our prisoner. Now surrender to us or end up just like your master!"
"You bugs know nothing." The inn was filled with the sound of her rattling hair, and rattling men, too, as they gripped their weapons tighter. "I called Tianyuan 'Teacher' but he has not called me student for years. As well he shouldn't have - I learned a technique without his permission."
With that Winter Tiger leapt over the banister and Lanfen ran forward to see her land like a cat below, in the midst of the men. All who stood there took a step back as she snarled like her namesake, lips curled and eyes wild. "But I learned it very well and you will not kill or capture me as easily as you did them!"
Guests were now peering over the balcony, but at the first sight of battle, they fled back inside. Lanfen, however, found her feet were stone and could only watch the fight below.
She had heard of pugilists - who had not? - but their world was not hers and she had never seen one fight. She watched as Winter Tiger swung her head around and around, her hair fanning out and clearing away the men. Those that did not move fast enough found their arms and faces striped with a thousand cuts and tears from the hidden barbs in her hair. Those that were especially slow found their throats slit and they were the first to fall.
A sword came at Winter Tiger and her hair wrapped around it, pulling it from its master's hands and flinging it across the room. Those with staves found the wood thrust back into their chest. Then just as quickly she was on them, pushing and touching their acupressure points, leaving them helpless so that her locks could strangle their breath out of them. These dozen attackers could not get past the defense of her hair.
"Winter Tiger!" Lanfen heard Madam Yun's voice though she could not see her; she heard that voice in her nightmares of unwashed dishes and badly served customers. The woman must have been standing in front of the door to the kitchens, under the balcony. She must have heard the commotion and come to investigate - and she must have been very angry to use that voice.
"I cannot carry a sword, Madam Yun! You know this!" Lanfen heard Winter Tiger shout back.
"Then it is good that I can." And Lanfen did not believe her eyes when stout Madam Yun, who never moved faster than a bustle, leapt out into the open dining room, drew a sword and brought its blade down on a man's head.
Now the fight was more evenly matched with these two women moving back to back, defending and attacking as if they had practiced it for years. But that many men made Madam Yun's face bead with sweat, no matter how easily she used the sword and they caused Winter Tiger to pant when she had a moment to catch her breath.
Then their formation was broken somehow and each woman had a man at her back and her front. Madam Yun dealt with hers using an overhead sword flourish but Winter Tiger did not seem to see her enemy.
Lanfen leapt over the banister, but her fall was hard and she narrowly missed breaking something. The sword was falling and it was heading for Winter Tiger's back but Lanfen moved and--
this is how she dodged the drunk merchant while carrying four bowls of soup on the tray and--
this was how she ducked so that the cook with the hot skillet in hand did not hit her in the face and that was quick steps around the geese that attacked her when she brought the feed and--
here was how she scooped up dishes from the kitchen without missing a beat and--
this was Lanfen deflecting the sword stroke with a metal serving tray and that was Lanfen stabbing the man in the throat with the scissors she still had in her hand.
Then she fell backwards over an upturned stool, all her grace lost.
A tangle of hair wrapped around her waist before she could hit the floor and flung her across the room, out of the way of another attacker. It was the most dangerous man, but his sword was no match for Winter Tiger's attacks.
And then there were the three of them; two standing and looking around the room as if they wished there were more enemies to fight and her, sitting on the floor, hurting very much.
Madam Yun put her sword in its scabbard with a grim efficiency and walked towards the stables, already yelling for the manservants outside.
Winter Tiger came over to her and offered Lanfen a hand to help her up. She took it and then grew red when Winter Tiger bowed to her. She could only offer the woman's scissors back, now covered in blood. She couldn't believe she was such an idiot and began trying to clean them with her robe, but the pugilist gently took them away.
"You saved my life." Lanfen nodded, but all she could see was that Winter Tiger's hair was now a mess again, and they'd worked on it for so long. She almost missed her saying, "Pack your things. You are coming with me. What is your name?"
"Lanfen," she said, automatically ducking her head in a bow. Her head bobbed up as she realized what had been said. "Coming with you? Why?"
Winter Tiger frowned. "Lanfen, it is unfortunate but you cannot stay here. You fought members of an unorthodox faction. Someone is bound to tell them what you have done. If you stay in this inn, more will come and I will not be here to protect you."
"But won't Madam Yun be here, Mistress Tiger?"
"Only pugilists call me 'Winter Tiger.'" The woman smiled and it made her serious face beautiful. "My sister would call me Ming Xue."
Lanfen swallowed. Sister? How could she refuse though? "Sister Xue, I can't go with you. My parents are here and--"
Madam Yun appeared next to them. This time Ming Xue bowed low, acknowledging the innkeeper as higher rank. Whatever had passed between them, it had been during a conversation of sword strikes and hand blows. "Madam Yun. I cannot thank you enough and I apologize for bringing such disarray into your home - into your retirement."
Madam Yun sniffed, ignoring both the thanks and the apology. "So that technique is what you broke your poor Master's heart over. And I hear you didn't even learn it correctly?" The innkeeper lifted a lock of Ming Xue's hair with her scabbard and it wrapped around the leather tightly. "Black and white. Too much yin. And that poor boy - I heard he went orange and black from the yang."
Winter Tiger nodded, red rising in her cheeks. "That is true."
"I suppose nothing can be done about it now," she said. "I heard you trying to take the fight outside, away from my inn. I appreciate your attempt to honor my retirement but it appears that I must re-enter the Jianghu. Your master's death cannot go unpunished and without Summer Tiger now... well, I--and the other Masters of the Wulin--cannot let this heretic clan go unpunished."
Something painful passed through Ming Xue's eyes, but by then Madam Yun had turned around. "And you, girl! We are going to your parents' house now. They will understand and if they do not, I will make them understand." She swatted at Lanfen, who dodged without thinking. That did not please Madam Yun at all. "To fight with such skill untrained - what have you been doing all these years in my inn? Practicing when I wasn't looking?"
"No, Ma'am!" Lanfen found herself bunching her robe in her hands again. "I just - you always told us to move quickly through the dining hall and you would yell if we spilled anything and--"
Winter Tiger laughed out loud then immediately covered her mouth with her sleeve.
"And one day a woman came into the inn to eat and she watched me and she said she'd been a maid once and showed me how to move a little more gracefully and then--"
"Serving Grace? She taught you Serving Grace Way?" Madam Yun groaned. "That meddlesome minx! I bet she smiled while she told you, too!"
But she did not explain who 'that minx' was or exactly what she had done. Madam Yun never did waste time on explanations. "Husband! I'm going to fight this heretic clan. Your sister is in charge of the inn until I come back!" Madam Yun's voice carried through the entire building. If there was an answer, Lanfen didn't hear it but it seemed to satisfy her employer - now, teacher? She did not know how Jianghu worked, but she imagined she would find out quickly.
Her old employer ordered her to grab this food or that, and the way she tapped her fingers on the hilt of her sword made Lanfen work even faster. Winter Tiger watched them and Madam Yun did not ask her to help.
Soon they had everything Madam Yun deemed necessary and were on the three best horses the inn had. First to her parents' house - who appeared to be too sleepy to argue with the kidnapping of their daughter - and then to the road leading back up the mountain after some arguing. Winter Tiger wanted to annihilate the heretics now, but Madam Yun insisted that they needed the assistance of other pugilists before it could be accomplished successfully. That meant going over the mountain and into the center of the kingdom.
"And if you are worried about Summer Tiger, they will not do anything to him until they have their matched pair." Under her breath, Madam Yun muttered, "I hope the boy is smart enough not to starve himself to death until we come to his rescue."
"As do I," the younger woman added firmly, urging her horse up the road towards the mountain.
But Lanfen could not help noticing how Winter Tiger's skin tightened at the corner of her eyes or how Madam Yun pursed her lips slightly, as if she had regretted saying anything.
Lanfen was not used to riding a horse, so Winter Tiger took her reins, allowing her to just practice holding on. Her mind was occupied by this until Madam Yun ordered, "Fill your eyes. We will not be back for some time, girl."
And she did. They were not very far up the mountain, but she had not realized how small her town was until now. She saw her house, the inn, and the road that snaked away into the hills. The early morning fog clung to the edges, as if it were a village built in a dream. It was beautiful and peaceful but it was not hers anymore. She opened her eyes wide, then shut them tightly, trying to imprint it in her mind like a woodblock transfer on white paper, trying to make a map in her memory.
When she opened her eyes again, both the women nodded at her, as if she had done something particularly well. Madam Yun turned her horse back up the trail. "Come. A meeting of Wulin is not arranged in a day. We have much to do."
And that was how Lanfen ended her first adventure - and began her new life - in Jianghu.