Chapter 39: Stay away from Yan Wushi since disaster will strike soon.
It had been several hundred years since the Eastern Wu established their capital in this city. During this period of time, the Eastern Jin migrated to the South; and, using the Yangtze River as a natural barrier, they seemed to have kept off all the tumultuous wars of the North. Hence, Jiankang became the most flourishing city not only in the Central Plains, but also throughout the whole world. Merchants from all over gathered there; travelers and wanderers came and went. By day, an endless stream of extravagant carriages flowed through the streets, and come nightfall, countless lanterns formed a woven fabric illuminating the night sky till the next dawn. The brothels never rested; they awaited all throughout the nights with scented beds and silken boudoirs.
Although cities like Chang’an and Ye City were also capitals, having experienced all those years of warfare, they more or less appeared a little worn out, which only made people long even more for places like the Jiangnan area where things were relatively peaceful. They thought of it as heaven on earth, and there were even sayings like “Jiankang is the land of splendors where earthly blooms thrive.” The Northern Zhou officials like Yuwen Qing might not express it verbally, but they all more or less yearned for Jiankang City in their hearts. As for the servants who came together with them, there was no need for them to hide their feelings — in fact, they had already revealed their admiration wholeheartedly. This seemed to greatly flatter the officials of the Southern Chen who came to receive them, for they couldn’t help but point out and introduce their visitors to the various sceneries inside the city as they proceeded.
After they entered the city, Yuwen Qing and his men rested at the guest villa provided by the Chen, and Yan Wushi was no exception. With his identity and status, along with the fact that he had saved Yuwen Qing’s life, the latter consciously left the main courtyard to Yan Wushi and moved into the side yard himself. However, his poor concubine, Yu Zi, was greatly frightened that night and had fallen gravely ill afterwards. She was bedridden for quite some time and just started getting better after they settled down inside the city.
The Harmony Sect made no other movement after failing that assassination attempt. At first, Yuwen Qing was still worried and scared, but he gradually relaxed as he thought of Yan Wushi’s presence. It would be considered a great humiliation to Yan Wushi as the sect master of the Cleansing Moon Sect if he let the assassins succeed. For martial artists, their pride was more important than their own lives. Thinking to this point, Yuwen Qing was completely relaxed and brought his beloved concubine with him to tour Jiankang City every day as much as they liked as he waited for the Emperor of Chen’s summon.
One day, Shen Qiao was listening to the servant girl reading a book to him when someone came to his door, saying that Yuwen Qing had come to visit him.
Shen Qiao nodded at Ruru, and the girl set down the book to open the door.
Yuwen Qing first looked around after he came in, then asked, “So, Junior Preceptor Yan is not here?”
Shen Qiao laughed, “We don’t stay in the same room. If Senior Official Yuwen needs to talk to him, then you’ve come to the wrong place. However, I heard that Sect Master Yan went out early this morning. He seems to have some business today.”
Yuwen Qing let out a few hollow laughs, “That’s good, that’s good. It’s fine if the Junior Preceptor isn’t here. The man is fearfully strong. I’m actually more nervous while talking to him than talking to His Majesty!”
Ruru couldn’t keep herself from giggling.
Yuwen Qing had always been forgiving towards beautiful girls. Upon seeing this, he didn’t get mad and even smiled at Ruru.
It ended up making Ruru feel a little embarrassed.
Yuwen Qing then smiled to Shen Qiao, “The weather is very fine today. Mister Shen, would you like to go out for a stroll? Jiankang is located on the banks of the Huai River. I heard that many ferries go up and down the Huai, and there are markets near every crossing. Why not take a look and get some fresh aquatic delicacies? We can ask them to prepare a feast tonight!”
Upon finishing, he seemed to have recalled else, “You come from a Daoist origin, but there are no rules that require you to be a vegetarian, right?”
Shen Qiao said, “No, there’s not. Since my eyes are bad, however, I’ll probably be a burden to your outing.”
Yuwen Qing laughed again. “Mister Shen has saved my life before, and I was the one burdening you at that time. Is there a need to be so polite?”
Shen Qiao did not object any further. “Then I’ll be in your care.”
The villa was not far from the ferry crossings, so Yuwen Qing didn’t get a carriage. Instead, he decided to walk with Yu Zi and everyone else. Originally, he was worried that it would be inconvenient for Shen Qiao, but although the other had to rely on the bamboo stick in his hand, his speed wasn’t any slower than the rest of the group’s, nor did he need anyone’s support. He walked abreast Yuwen Qing, just like a normal person.
Yuwen Qing discovered that Shen Qiao did not bring his sword. He asked, “Mister Shen, where’s your sword?”
As if he knew what Yuwen Qing was worried about, Shen Qiao replied with a smile, “Senior Official Yuwen, there’s no need to worry. If we run into any enemies, I can still keep them at bay with this stick of mine. Besides, this is Jiankang City after all. With the Linchuan Institute overseeing the place, the Harmony Sect won’t be so daring as to attack us right here.”
Having his worries laid bare, Yuwen Qing blushed out of embarrassment. “No wonder I feel it has been much more peaceful ever since we entered the city. Even the Junior Preceptor considers it safe enough to go handle matters while leaving us by ourselves. So that’s why.”
Shen Qiao explained, “The Chen wishes to form an alliance with the Zhou. They won’t be able to explain it to the Emperor of Zhou if they let you get attacked by an assassin within Jiankang City. Therefore, they will definitely do their best to ensure your safety. There are expert martial artists guarding the guest villa at all times. It’s just that you aren’t aware of it.”
Yuwen Qing leaned closer to him and whi spered, “Mister Shen, I know you are not like those boy-toys out there, and I wouldn’t dare to look down on you. Since the Junior Preceptor isn’t around today, I finally have the courage to tell you the truth. Do you know what those people in Chang’an City think of you?”
Shen Qiao only replied with a smile.
Yuwen Qing thought he didn’t know about it and explained in a euphemistic tone, “They all say you’re like a dragon trapped inside the shallows and have no choice but to depend on Sect Master Yan in order to save yourself, that… Ahem, that you even gave up your strength and integrity as a person. We’ve travelled together throughout the trip, and you even saved my life, so I’m well aware that you’re absolutely nothing like that. However, it’s just like how the saying goes, ‘Rumors are powerful enough to melt metal.’ The mass spreading of them can obscure any truth! Stay away from Junior Preceptor Yan if you find the chance. Why let others smear and humiliate you like that for no reason? Gosh, even I get mad when I hear those words!”
Shen Qiao knew the reason he said these words was because of what he saw that day in the carriage. The matter was too complicated to be explained in a few minutes, so he could only reply, “I really appreciate your kindness, but you’re mistaken. Sect Master Yan and I are not in that kind of a relationship. Sect Master Yan’s temperament is a little… erratic, so his actions often surprise others.”
“I know. I know! There’s no way you’re a boy-toy that’s attached to Junior Preceptor Yan, and neither do I discriminate against homoxesuxual people. However, with your current situation, if you and Junior Preceptor Yan… umm… ahem… have mutual affections, I’m afraid that the rumors and slanders will harm you, not him!”
Shen Qiao explained helplessly, “…We don’t have mutual affections. I’m not homosexual either.”
“I know. I know! This isn’t something to tell others about. We can just keep it in hearts!”
Shen Qiao: “…”
He suddenly lost the will to speak. No matter what Yuwen Qing said afterwards, he just let it flow through his ears without actually listening to it.
The ferrying crossing was simmering with the noise and people shouting, and on the ground were the displays of various kinds of goods. Quite a few people came by foot to walk and shop around like Yuwen Qing’s group, while many others came by horses or carriages. Some were also seeing off their families or coming down the ferries. For a moment, the place was so crowded with a throng people and an endless stream of horses and carriages that they were almost going to trample each other.
A horse behind them had either been frightened or badly handled by its owner, and it started dashing toward them, forcing everyone to scatter as they dodged it. Shen Qiao ended up being separated from the rest of the group because of that, but he wasn’t worried since Yuwen Qing had people on his side protecting him anyway. He followed the stalls along the river bank and slowly walked back to the street market. Sometimes, when he heard those peddlers shouting about things he was interested in, he would even stop and feel the goods with his hands. Although the peddlers saw he was blind, since his manner and the way he dressed didn’t look like that of a beggar, they didn’t dare to belittle him. On the contrary, they even enthusiastically marketed their goods to him.
“Mister! Please take a look at what I have! They’re all weaved by the finest bamboo strips! I’ve got baskets, stools, and everything! Here are some little toys for your children at home to play with!” Seeing that Shen Qiao had crouched down, the peddler picked up a bamboo ball and put it in Shen Qiao’s hands. “Feel it! It’s very smooth! You won’t find a thorn on it!”
“It’s smooth indeed.” Shen Qiao smiled as he gently stroked it with his hands. “I’ll take one then.”
Just then, he heard a child’s voice next to him, “Uncle! Uncle! My younger brother broke my little bamboo chick. Dad sent me here to buy another one!”
The peddler probably knew her parents as he replied, “Your brother’s being naughty again, isn’t he? But I don’t have any more bamboo chicks here. The one I gave you last time was the last one I had. Those take a long time to make. Uncle is quite busy right now. I’ll make one for you some other day!”
The little girl asked, “Then if I stay here and help so that Uncle can finish selling them earlier, can Uncle make a bamboo chick for me sooner?”
The peddler broke into laughter, “What can you help me with? You should go back home now. Your mom and dad will be worried if they don’t see you!”
“Oh…” The little girl sounded so disappointed that she was almost going to cry.
Shen Qiao suddenly asked, “Do you still have bamboo strips with you?”
The peddler was puzzled, “I do. Does Mister want to buy bamboo strips?”
“Right. May I borrow some bamboo strips to make something right here? I’ll pay you afterwards according to the set price.”
The peddler laughed, “Mister is being too polite about it! Of course you may!”
He handed a handful of bamboo strips to Shen Qiao. “It seems like you can’t see well. Are you still able to weave things?”
Shen Qiao laughed as well, “I made some for my brothers and sisters when I was young. I still remember a little.”
Even though he said he only remembered a little, his fingers were moving quite fast. He nimbly tied a knot on the bamboo strip, wrapped it to the back, and inserted its end into the hidden slot he made earlier. In just a short amount of time, a lively little chick was born!
The little girl shouted in surprise, “A chick! It’s a chick!”
Shen Qiao handed the bamboo chick to her and smiled, “I don’t know what the original one you had looked like, so I just made a random one. It might not look very pretty.”
“It’s very pretty! Thank you, brother! You’re the best!”
The peddler commented a little sourly on the side, “I’m not that much older than this mister. You call him ‘brother’, yet you call me ‘uncle’!”
Shen Qiao gave a hearty laugh.
The little girl hopped away. Shen Qiao’s legs were getting a little numb from squatting for too long. He stood up and returned the bamboo strips to the peddler together with the money for the bamboo ball. The peddler refused to take it, but he insisted and shoved them into the peddler’s hands. “May I ask which direction I should go in order to get to the guest villa for foreign ambassadors?”
“So Mister is an ambassador that has come to the Chen on a diplomatic mission?” the peddler suddenly realized. “The villa is not very far from here. However, since the place is very crowded, and your eyes aren’t very good, you won’t be able to find it by yourself. I’ll take you there!”
Shen Qiao thanked him, then commented, “But your stall here…”
The peddler laughed, “It doesn’t matter. I carry these bamboo goods and sell them here every day. They aren’t worth much. We stall-keepers around this area all know each other. I can just ask them to look after it for me for a while. You’re a guest from afar. How can I let you get lost here!”
He led Shen Qiao along the river as they walked back. “The main road is very crowded and therefore it is easy to get lost. It’s a lot quicker to take this alleyway right here!”
Holding Shen Qiao’s arm as he guided him, the peddler smiled, “If Mister is planning on staying a few more days here, you might as well take a few more walks inside the city. Most of the foods in the South are very delicate and prepared with great care. I’m sure you’ll fall in love with them if you just…”
There was a small swishing sound, so small that one could almost ignore it. The peddler didn’t realize it and was still talking, but Shen Qiao’s expression changed slightly. He swung his bamboo stick, making the tiny needle change its direction and plunge into the wall instead.
At the same time, the peddler’s voice came to an abrupt stop as he collapsed to the ground.
While the person was attacking Shen Qiao, they also went after the peddler at the same time. Shen Qiao didn’t have three heads or six arms. He could block the attack on his side, but he didn’t have enough time to protect the peddler as well. In the end, his help still arrived a little late.
“Which friend is it? Why do you have to hide yourself?” He crouched down to check on the peddler and was somewhat relieved that the other person had only passed out.
“Shen-lang. You can be so kind even when talking to a bamboo-goods seller. Why are you always so mean to me then~?”
A familiar, fragrant smell wafted forth along with the sweet and cute voice.
Shen Qiao slightly frowned. “Bai Rong?”
Bai Rong was sitting on top of a wall, grinning, with her legs crossed together as she swung them back and forth. She was holding a peony in her hand, which she might have picked up from somewhere.
“It’s been such a long time~!”
Shen Qiao said, “It appears to me that we just met the night you tried to assassinate Yuwen Qing.”
Bai Rong said, “Do you not understand what ‘One day apart seems like three years’ means? So many years have passed already!”
Let it be Yan Wushi or Bai Rong, Shen Qiao could not get used to dealing with their almost flirtatious words, so he could only remain silent.
Bai Rong’s eyes wandered around as she came up with an idea in her mind. She threw the peony in her hand towards Shen Qiao, “Here! Catch it!”
Shen Qiao caught it on reflex. He thought it was some kind of hidden weapon and was slightly shocked after finding out that it was just a flower.
Seeing the expression on his face, Bai Rong was even more overwhelmed with joy. “You thought I’d throw weapons at you! Am I such an evil person in your eyes?
Shen Qiao shook his head, “You’re not.”
Bai Rong pressed on, “Not what?”
Shen Qiao said, “When you tried to assassinate Yuwen Qing, his concubine and her servant should not have survived. However, you did not kill them, which proves that you’re not a murder-addict with no moral baseline. I really ought to thank you on their behalves for having mercy on them.”
Bai Rong blinked at him, “How do you know I was having mercy on them? I could’ve been too lazy to make unnecessary moves.”
Shen Qiao smiled, but he did not argue with her.
“Alas, you’re so good-looking when you smile. You should smile more often. It makes me feel very happy inside that you think so fondly of me. Is it okay if I kiss you?”
Her body moved as soon as she finished.
Shen Qiao thought she was really coming over to kiss him. After taking a few steps back unconsciously, he finally realized that the other person was still sitting on top of the wall — she was totally teasing him.
Bai Rong was laughing so hard that she almost fell from the wall. “Shen-lang, how can you be so adorable? I can’t help but like you more and more!”
Shen Qiao asked, “Is there something that you’ve come to me for?”
“Am I not allowed to come to you if I don’t have anything?” Bai Rong asked back with a smile. “Alright, there’s no harm in telling you. I’ve been trailing you from afar in the hope of finding an opportunity to poison you so that I could knock you out and drag you away. Unfortunately, you’ve been very alert and I haven’t found a chance to approach you until just now. I was finally able to strike a conversation with you after so much difficulty.”
Her words were half-true and half-false. With truth and lies mixed altogether, Shen Qiao didn’t know whether he should believe her or not, so he could only secretly take more precautions.
“The chick you weaved for that little girl is so pretty. Can you make one for me too?”
Shen Qiao was slightly taken aback. He shook his head, “I don’t have bamboo strips at hand.”
He thought for a moment then offered the bamboo ball in his hand, “You can play with this bamboo ball first.”
Bai Rong snorted with a laugh, “Do you think I’m a child?”
Despite what she said, she quickly grabbed the bamboo ball from his hand and started tossing it up and down with her palm.
Shen Qiao asked, “Young Madam Bai, have you ever thought about leaving the Harmony Sect?”
Bai Rong was surprised, “Why do you suddenly…”
Halfway through the sentence, her face had fallen completely, though her voice was still as nonchalant as usual, “Sect Leader Shen must have caught wind of something from Sect Master Yan and thinks from the bottom of your heart that our Harmony Sect is a place so filthy and nasty that I’m unworthy to talk to you, the majestic sect leader of Mount Xuandu. Is that so?”
By the end, her voice was already steaming with murderous intent, as if she was going to kill Shen Qiao if the answer he gave was unacceptable.
Shen Qiao said, “No.”
Bai Rong changed her face faster than flipping a page in a book. In a mere instant, she was smiling once again like a blooming flower, “Or do you mean the Harmony is utterly gross for practicing dual cultivation regardless of people’s social ranking and seniority, so you want to persuade me to forsake the evil and join the camp of justice?”
Frowned, Shen Qiao said, “I just feel you may not enjoy staying there either.”
“Harmony Sect is where I grew up. Where else can I go if not there? The Cleansing Moon Sect? Or the Mirror of Arts? Do you consider homicide better than dual cultivation? The others refer to the Harmony Sect as the ‘Demonic Sect’, but is the Cleansing Moon Sect not a demonic sect too? I hope you don’t forget that Sect Master Yan has more blood on his hands than me! If you’re talking about those prestigious and upright sects who flaunt themselves as the noble and virtuous ones — skipping the fact that you aren’t even a sect leader anymore — even if you were still in charge of Mount Xuandu, would you offer to take me in? Even if you agree to do so, will the other people on Mount Xuandu agree with you?”
Her series of questions left Shen Qiao slightly baffled. After a while, he let out a sigh, “Yes, you’re right. It was inappropriate for me to say those words.”
He didn’t think much when he asked that question. He just felt that Bai Rong was different from someone like Huo Xijing. It was a pity for her to stay in the Harmony Sect.
Bai Rong’s voice sounded especially sweet, “I knew Shen-lang must think I was having a hard time living in the Harmony Sect. Ever since I saw you save even a horse, I realized you were a gentle and kind-hearted person. There aren’t many good people like you nowadays! I’ll carefully cherish your kind regards for me. I have my plans, however, so you don’t need to trouble yourself with worrying about me!”
“I’m going to tell you one more secret.” She suddenly jumped down from the wall and flew towards Shen Qiao, trying to pull his sleeve. Even though the latter quickly avoided her, it did not seem to make her unhappy. Instead, her face was laced with a sense of slyness. “If you continue to stay with Yan Wushi, nothing good will come since disaster will strike soon. You should hurry and stay away from him if you don’t want to be implicated…”
Before she could finish, Bai Rong’s face changed again, but it was not because of Shen Qiao. She stared straight ahead into the distance. Suddenly, she perked up, “I just remembered that I’ve still got important things to do. Shen-lang, there’s no need to see me off~!” Probably utilizing her lightness skill to its full extent, she disappeared without a trace immediately afterwards.
At first, Shen Qiao thought it was Yan Wushi’s arrival that had forced her to steal away, but he found out he was wrong in the next moment.
It was not Yan Wushi.