When she returned home after running away for the second time, her father called her into the main room and handed her the vest. The last light of the setting sun made the microscopic wires glint like fish scales and she wondered if she too would become a fish if she wore it. It was lighter than the feathers of the birds that lived only on her father's island, lighter than the peach blossoms of the maze surrounding her small house, lighter than the wind that pushed her boat away from home. In her tiny, white hands, it looked like a second layer of skin. Newer. Stronger.
"Wear this," her father commanded, his face hidden in shadow now that the last light was gone from the sky.
"Because you're a girl, you're my daughter, and you're too strong-headed. Any one of those would be enough to get you killed in the world outside this island but all three - "
He stopped and she watched as the lines around his jaw tightened like fists ready to strike. For once, Huang Rong knew enough not to argue further. She walked to her bedroom, where the shutters were thrown open so that she could always imagine she was sleeping outside. Anywhere but in this house. Anywhere but on this island. She put the vest on that night and, outside of careful showers, never once took it off again.
When Ouyang Ke demanded that she take off the vest in exchange for Guo Jing's life, her first thought was of her father. She thought of the lonely figure standing perfectly still atop the roof of the house made of bamboo and leaves with the moon a clear, round, unblinking eye behind him. The green flute, older than her mother's tomb (which was the oldest thing in Huang Rong's heart, much, much older than land or seas or islands filled with traps), forever poised in front of his lips, belting out a tune that made her feel both loved and so terribly alone. She thought of her father, one of the four most powerful men in the world, living alone on an island with a deaf-mute servant and a little brat who looked more and more like his dead wife as the years went on. That vest, the one Ouyang Ke was forcing her to take off, was stripping from her like a fish-wife would strip off the scales and skin of a fish, was the only love Huang Yaoshi, the Eastern Heretic himself, could stand to give his daughter.
She wished her mother had been given such a vest. One strong like love was strong, light like strength was light, deadly like daughters are deadly as they come screaming out of the womb.
"My masters say your father is mad," Guo Jing told her soon after her identity was revealed. Sitting beside him, under one of the tallest trees of the forest, as night fell around them, Huang Rong felt the wind blow thick, green leaves through her hair and considered how peach blossoms were so much more beautiful under the sharp light of the moon.
"He's not mad," she murmured. Peach blossoms. Islands. Vests.
Flute songs that were powerful enough to tear down houses, rip open hearts, blow men apart.
"It's not madness."
Some days, dressed like a beggar boy out on the road, with no proof of her heritage but an incomparable beauty beneath layers of grime and a thin vest under layers of clothes, Huang Rong missed home desperately.
There was a crazy man who lived on the island with her, her father, and the mute. He had a thick beard, dirty hair, and his breath always smelled like her father's wine when he talked to her through the opening of the cave. Even though her father told her never to talk to the crazy man, Huang Rong knew he would tell her stories if she brought him food and so, every so often, she would bring a big basket of newly prepared dishes and push it through the mouth of the cave.
"I used to be best friends with a king," Zhou Botong said through a mouthful of chicken. "That was before he became my sworn enemy. That was more his decision than mine though."
"Why were you sworn enemies?" Huang Rong asked, images of murder and great betrayal dancing through her child's mind.
"A woman," the crazy man answered. "It's always because of a woman. Look at your father."
Huang Rong's father said that Zhou Botong killed her mother, but he also said his disciples did as well. Huang Rong's father said that everything and everyone killed her mother, never daring once to voice the truth. Huang Rong's mother's murderer looked Huang Rong in the eye every day as she combed her hair and dressed. Mirrors don't lie but fathers do.
The crazy man didn't lie though. He told Huang Rong so and she believed him implicitly. He had no reason to lie. The island was his home and his prison and maybe that's why Huang Rong trusted him so. They had more in common than the cause for her mother's death.
"I'm one of the most powerful men in the world," Zhou Botong told her another time. She had brought him dumplings and quail that day.
"I could kill half this world, your father included, if I wanted to."
"Then why don't you?"
His eyes, like little daggers made of stars, sparkled with mirth as he took a large bite out of the dumpling in his hand.
"Because there's no fun in murder and life is meant for nothing but fun. Remember that too, brat. If you're not having fun, there's no point in living."
Huang Rong remembered. Because Zhou Botong was stuck inside her father's cave for the rest of his days, where fun was probably the last word one would think of in regards to such a place, Huang Rong was going to have fun for him.
Zhou Botong told her that the world was her playground and its people were her toys and because she was beautiful and smart, Huang Rong never thought differently.
Until Guo Jing.
Your master is your second father.
That was what they taught you in the world of martial arts. Sifu was greater than the heavens and the earth and all the people in between.
Huang Rong didn't really believe that, like she didn't really believe anything or anyone except for Guo Jing, until the North Beggar. It seemed as though all those years dressed as a beggar and a boy was simply in preparation for the day when she would meet a real beggar, the king of all beggars in fact. She trusted him because he reminded her of Zhou Botong, with joyful eyes and a limitless infatuation with food, only older and wiser. She trusted him because, when he looked at her, he didn't see a girl or the Eastern Heretic's daughter. He saw a beggar, like himself, ready to trick their way through life.
"Those fancy clothes don't fool me," he told her calmly the evening after she had convinced him to take her and Guo Jing on as disciples. His hands, big and dirty, not like hers at all, lied contentedly on his big hill of a belly.
"Not at all," he answered as his eyes began to close. "You were made like the rest of us."
He chuckled to himself.
"Imagine! The Eastern Heretic's daughter as my disciple! I've met your mother, little girl, and you may have her looks and you may have her uncanny mind, but you're not much like her. That was a lady, through and through. You - you're a beggar. Don't worry. I won't tell the boy."
They both looked over to where Guo Jing, his brow creased together in adorable frustration, was practicing that day's lesson.
Huang Rong shook her head and smiled. Even masters weren't right all the time.
"He already knows."
There's another. A man whose body Huang Rong will never see, whose voice she will never hear, and whose mind she will never know, but who has haunted her life from before she was born. Her mother died because of his books. Her father was driven mad by them. Zhou Botong was haunted and imprisoned for their sake. Ouyang Feng made her life unbearable because of them.
Her master died because of them. All of them. Everyone in her life.
They all wanted this man's books. They all wanted his title as the greatest and the most powerful. They all wanted and they all suffered because of it.
If she could, Huang Rong would have burned both volumes in a blazing fire outside of her mother's tomb and when there was nothing left but ash and smoke, she would have breathed it all in, filled her lungs until they burned like love and sorrow burned, and then released it in one giant breath.
All suffering would then disappear into air, leaving room for nothing but honor and love.
In her entire life, the only person who didn't want those books was Guo Jing.
When she asked him on the boat, glad to be the most beautiful girl in the world for the first time in her life, if he would allow her to follow him always, she didn't know that his yes meant yes, meant that she was the first thing in his life that he wanted for himself (not like the princess his king wanted him to marry, the victory his masters wanted him to win, the revenge his mother wanted him to get), meant that he was good and honorable and honest, but he was also learning to be selfish where she was concerned. He was Guo Jing and he was good and Huang Rong had never imagined that such a possibility existed.
But she should have remembered Zhou Botong's words because he told her that a woman would taint even the holiest of men.
She should have paid attention.
He was going to marry someone else, a Mongolian princess Huang Rong had hated on sight. If he didn't marry the princess, after her father had took him and his mother in even though they weren't Mongolian, he would be disloyal. That was not an option. And yet. He begged her not to go. He saw the tears in her eyes and knew the scorn his respected masters carried for her and her father and still he could not let her go. She was his disloyalty.
There was a war raging and everyone wanted him, their son, their disciple, their best fighter on their side. While the Ghengis Khan demanded he return home to fight his war, while his masters demanded he return to fight their battles, while the world demanded he return and eliminate the evil forces that were tearing it apart, he wandered around a mountainside, with a dying girl on his back, incapable of seeing anything other than the cure that would restore Huang Rong's life. She was his selfishness.
In the back room of the hut, as they poured her energy into his healing body, he lunged at her. Afterward, they convinced themselves it was the magic of her father's flute, capable of driving even the most honorable men to reckless behavior. They didn't talk about the look in his eyes, stripped of honor and control, naked for the first time ever. If it wasn't for her vest -
She was his lust.
He was destined to be more than a good man. All of them - his mother, his masters, the Mongolians, Yang Kang - could see that and they all wanted to be a part of his greatness.
It was only after he had deserted her on her island, sobbing and begging him not to go, out of some misguided sense of honor and duty, that she finally allowed the truth passage into her heart.
On that battlefield, with his masters all trying desperately to kill her father, she felt his eyes burn through her skin, but she refused to let hers move to meet his. He must have wondered why, this stumbling boy who was slowly becoming one of the greatest men of their age.
But Huang Rong wasn't a silly Mongolian princess. She wasn't a peasant girl, an aristocratic maiden, or even some girl lucky enough to have been taught martial arts.
She was raised to do more than survive. She was raised to be the best.
Guo Jing may be a great man one day, but that was nothing new. Huang Rong had been surrounded by the great and the powerful since the day she was born. What he has to learn, she has lived with for years.
When she finally turned to look at him, the relief washing over his face was more than enough to confirm what she already knew. It was as familiar as the vest under her shirt, the cave by her house, the Dog-Beating-Stick in her hand, and the books she will remember until the day she dies. It was familiar like heart was familiar, always beating the same rhythm, louder than words or pain.
I know now, she shouted to him across the battlefield with nothing but unflinching eyes and closed lips. I know who I am now. And I'm not good like you. I can't be. You can't be good and great at the same time.
Then Huang Rong did what she did best.
Goodbye, Guo Jing.