“You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life,
See that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Queen.”
--ABBA, ‘Dancing Queen’
Chapter 143 – Samsara
“What is this…” Nangong Xie muttered in confusion, but kept his eyes on the alluring, veiled woman on the stage. Her form-fitting qipao dress was short, accentuating her hips and exposing her long, creamy white legs.
At the back of his mind, he wanted to order his men to stay vigilant. But Huang Ming was alone, and there were no signs of other people in the brothel coming out to challenge them. Besides, he had brought over a hundred men and he had left part of them to encircle the building. There would be no escape for anyone…
When the musicians started to play a sonorous drum beat, Nangong Xie allowed himself to be distracted by the woman on the stage, and soon his doubts faded away when the woman started her performance. She was not the most voluptuous of women he had seen, yet the way she moved her slender build was tempting beyond measure.
When the music played and the lights dimmed, the woman began to sway seductively. She kept her hands folded and positioned so that her back was half-turned to the viewers. Other than the small bells on her wrists and ankles, there was nothing else to indicate her style of dance. There were no long strips of silk or feathered fans or other traditional accessories that were the hallmarks of female dances of the time: she stood there by herself on the stage, she was the highlight.
As the drum beat became deeper and rhythmic, her body rocked back and forth faster. Her hips swung beguilingly in a figure 8 pattern, somehow her side profile made it seem as if she was projecting her pelvis and posterior enticingly towards her audience. Indeed, some of the men had subconsciously raised their grubby hands before realizing the object of their desire was far away on the stage. Others swallowed their saliva and gulped visibly. All felt their hearts pumping, urged on by the deep drum beat.
The woman, still with her back half-turned towards the audience; looked over her shoulder and winked, driving the men wild. One could even see the hints of a smile underneath her veil. Then she raised her hands into the air and mesmerized everyone present by undulating her body from the head, chest, stomach and derrière and then back up again, like the waves of a sea.
The men were completely entranced, they did not even think it was possible for a woman’s body to move in such a manner. They did not know where to look: whether at the woman’s teasing eyes, her swaying hips or the way the qipao’s leg slit was riding up ever so slightly each time her legs moved.
With all their attention towards the dancer, none of the raucous men noticed the shadowy figures creeping up upon them…
“That’s the last of them,” a delicate looking man dressed in fur-lined robes said.
If Nangong Xie saw the one who spoke, the Handsome Scholar would have recognized him as the rude and cowardly gatekeeper who had tried to stop him from entering the brothel earlier. Only, the gatekeeper was not a gatekeeper. He was no longer holding a broom, but a red-tasselled sword that was still dripping with blood.
This was Muge Jian, the wandering swordsman who was also known as the Masking Sword. With him were a few of his compatriots of the martial underworld, answering Huang Lang’s call for aid against Prime Minister Tong Xuan. A few of these aloof figures eschewed the idea of involving themselves with the worries of the secular world, but Muge Jian was able to find a few like-minded martial artists to lend a hand.
They had waited until Nangong Xie’s men were distracted by the loud cheers, wolf calls and whistles from inside the brothel. It was a simple matter for the martial artists and master swordsmen to soundlessly descend and take advantage of their laxness. Now the contingent of men Nangong Xie had left outside to guard the brothel lay dead, their blood running in the streets.
“What are we doing at a brothel? This is not what I expected when you talked about calling in on a favour,” one of Muge Jian’s friends said sarcastically.
“I’d rather be rescuing a damsel in distress,” another complained.
Muge Jian chuckled. “Damsels in distress are not very common, I’m afraid.”
“What about those inside?” someone asked hesitantly, looking over at the brothel. They could still hear the rest of Nangong Xie’s men cheering and whistling within the pleasure house.
“You just want to go inside!” a heroic sword maiden sneered, causing the rest to guffaw.
Muge Jian smiled. “Let’s go, our work here is done.”
Nangong Xie was of course unaware of what had happened outside.
In fact, he was unaware of what was happening right under his nose in the brothel. The rearmost of his hired help had been killed silently, their bodies were dropped slowly and noiselessly on the floor. Each victim had their mouths clapped shut and their throats slit before they could shout a warning. Even if they could, it would be drowned out by the loud cheering of their brothers, distracted as they were by the seductive dancer on the stage.
But Nangong Xie had brought a lot of men, and such an operation to kill them all cannot remain undiscovered forever.
“I can’t wait to get my hands on her!” one of the men had shouted and elbowed his comrade beside him, only to discover that he was nudging air and his friend had disappeared. Puzzled, he turned around…
…Only to be greeted by the ghastly sight of men clad in black standing in sea of dead bodies: Corpses of his friends with grisly cuts across their throats, their eyes still bulging from the moment of their sudden demise.
A shriek of alarm brought an immediate end to the festivities. The music and the dance halted, and Nangong Xie’s men turned around to see what the man had seen.
Swords, daggers and axes were drawn, angry and frightened voices now filled the air as the two groups faced off. Nangong Xie’s thugs outnumbered the men in black, but they were the ones shocked by the smaller group who stood menacingly over the cold bodies of their comrades.
How had these assassins killed so many of them without notice? Even more ominously, these men in black were not wielding any visible weapons of their own, yet the gaping wounds on the throats of the men that they had killed were obvious marks of blade-like weapons.
Nangong Xie came to his senses and forcibly parted his men aside to see for himself what had happened. When he saw the carnage, he turned pale. He whirled back at Huang Ming who was still calmly seated and drinking his cup of tea.
All of the Handsome Scholar’s rage returned when he saw Huang Ming’s nonchalant attitude.
“You! You planned this!” he screamed, his eyes shaking wildly.
Huang Ming smirked. “Yes, yes I did. So what?”
The Handsome Scholar clenched his fists and raised as if to strike at Huang Ming. The rest of his men glared at Huang Ming murderously, eager to extract immediate revenge on the seemingly defenceless young man.
But Huang Ming shot to his feet like a bolt of lightning. In one smooth motion he caught and spun Nangong Xie around to be used as a shield, deterring his men from attacking. The Handsome Scholar was going to struggle when suddenly a hidden blade shot out from Huang Ming’s underarm to poke dangerously at his neck.
‘So that’s how…’ Nangong Xie and his men thought belatedly.
“What do you want?” Nangong Xie hissed, his eyes focused on the sharp pointy end of the blade that was so near his neck.
“We’re going to have a long discussion about the prime minister,” Huang Ming replied.
Unexpectedly Nangong Xie exhaled with relief, causing Huang Ming to frown.
“So you need me alive,” the Handsome Scholar said with a smile.
It reminded Huang Ming that despite the several times he had outsmarted him, the fellow in his grasp was still a crafty and deep fellow. This was the person who had abandoned his friends to ingratiate himself to Cao Shuang for business, and then to stick to Lord Fang La when he came to Tianxin City, only to worm his way to Prime Minister Tong Xuan.
This was a man with resolve and decisiveness, and he demonstrated it once more when he shouted:
“Don’t worry about me, attack!”
Caught in a ruse,
Surrender did the scholar refuse.