Chapter 43: Ah-qiao cried.
Shen Qiao held his forehead, feeling almost speechless. “I don’t think this is what you can describe as a ‘coincidence’ anymore.”
Yan Wushi slowly picked up the cup which was placed upside down on the table and poured himself half a cup of water. But he didn’t drink it. He just set it there. “It’s such a small world. People can bid farewell in the morning and meet again at night. I would say we’re pretty destined.”
Shen Qiao asked, “What brought Sect Master Yan here?”
Yan Wushi asked back, “What brought you here?”
Shen Qiao said, “I’m going to Ye City, the capital of Qi.”
“I see. What a coincidence. I’m going to Ye City too.”
Divided between tears and smiles, Shen Qiao asked, “I’m going there to look for a certain someone. It can’t be that you’re also looking for someone there, can it?”
“That’s a funny statement you just made. Why can’t I be looking for someone there?”
Shen Qiao stopped paying attention to him and finished his tea and desserts in silence. After paying the bill, he went back on the road with his bamboo stick.
Yan Wushi stood up too. With his hands clasped behind him, he followed behind Shen Qiao at an unhurried pace.
They remained around seven or eight steps apart, not any closer, nor any further.
Despite all of this, Shen Qiao kept his own pace. After entering the City of Liang Prefecture, he first booked a hotel to put down his close-to-no-weight travelling bag, then ordered some food and enjoyed it slowly on the second floor.
It was a little past noon. Most guests had already finished their lunch and left. The second floor was already empty, but the first floor was still quite lively. The noon market had just opened. Many people were carrying goods over their shoulders as they rushed towards the market.
Shen Qiao ordered a pot of plum juice. He had only taken half a gulp when Yan Wushi showed up at the corner and slowly walked up the stairs.
He smiled at Shen Qiao and said, “I don’t see the happiness and surprise you’d usually find on people’s faces when they run into an old friend in a distant land.”
Shen Qiao replied helplessly, “I’d be happier if Sect Master Yan didn’t come just for me.”
“I didn’t come for you.”
He sat down next to him while Shen Qiao called over the waiter and asked him to bring up another pot of plum juice and a new set of tableware.
Yan Wushi laughed, “Ah-qiao can’t wait to draw a line with me!”
Shen Qiao didn’t take it seriously, “I remember that you always cared a lot about things being clean and don’t like to share a pot with others.”
Yan Wushi didn’t say anything.
Shen Qiao asked, “If Sect Master Yan didn’t come for me, then why are you here?”
Yan Wushi said, “Yuwen Yong has made the final plan on the war against Qi. The news made the Qi people so extremely worried that there was even discord within the Harmony Sect.”
He didn’t use the new pot that the waiter just brought. Instead, he picked up the one Shen Qiao was using and poured some into his bowl, then took a sip from it.
“Yuan Xiuxiu wanted to cooperate with the Cleaning Moon Sect, but Sang Jingxing was against it. They ended up with a fallout. Yuan Xiuxiu sent me a message saying Sang Jingxing was in Ye City right now. She wants me to assist her in killing him.
Back then when the Sun Moon Sect disintegrated, Sang Jingxing, as the only disciple of the last sect leader Cui Youwang, actually developed a rather intimate relationship with Yuan Xiuxiu and became the superior Chief Elder in the Harmony Sect instead of seeking a reunification of the Demonic Sect. However, if anyone were to look down on him because of it and thought he wasn’t capable enough, then they couldn’t possibly be more wrong.
Even though he was a murderous lunatic with a special interest in beauty and countless enemies, his skill in martial arts was top-notch. Among the Top Ten, his ranking was particularly hard to locate. Some said he could be ranked as one of the Top Three while others disagreed.
It was said that he was able to absorb all of Cui Youwang’s martial power before the latter died. Some extreme versions even claimed that Sang Jingxing was so disgraceful that he killed his own master for martial power. Even though no one saw it with their own eyes, because of the horrible reputation he had, most people didn’t mind adding one more line to his list of crimes.
Shen Qiao heaved a heavy sigh, “Sang Jingxing must have put in a lot of effort for Yuan Xiuxiu to establish the Harmony Sect. Even if they see each other as enemies now, there’s no need to kill each other!”
Yan Wushi sneered, “Even Mount Xuandu has cases where martial brothers tried to plot against each other, let alone a place like the Demonic Sects, where the law of the jungle is even more cruel and blunt. Nowadays, Sang Jingxing has his owner power sector inside the Harmony Sect, and his disciples pay only lip service to Yuan Xiuxiu. This has virtually undermined Yuan Xiuxiu’s power. She might not say anything in public, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t hate him on the inside. Otherwise, why hasn’t she avenged you for killing Sang Jingxing’s disciple, Huo Xijing, right in front of her face?”
Shen Qiao said, “There’s a great possibility that Yuan Xiuxiu wants to use your hand to eliminate Sang Jingxing.”
“Even if that’s the case, won’t Sang Jingxing’s death benefit me as well? The Harmony Sect can’t compete against the Cleaning Moon Sect without Sang Jingxing. After the Zhou succeed in annexing the Northern Qi, these people won’t even have the power to stir up trouble anymore.”
Shen Qiao shook his head, then raised his bowl, “Then I can only wish you success in what you pursue.”
Their soup bowls clinked, producing a crisp, pleasant echo. Shen Qiao remembered when they first met each other. He never thought that one day, he and Yan Wushi could chat face-to-face peacefully like this. He couldn’t help but raise a smile.
Yan Wushi saw the smile on Shen Qiao’s face. He averted his eyes and picked up a piece of asparagus with his chopsticks. “Weren’t you looking for someone? How did it go? Did you find them?
“Not yet. I heard they went all the way north. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch up with them.”
“You’re looking for Yu Ai and his group, aren’t you?”
Shen Qiao wasn’t going to hide it from him, “Yes. Now that I’ve recovered some of my martial arts, I can defend myself again and am not afraid of what Yu Ai might be scheming. Even if we can’t come to an agreement, I can at least leave with no problems. I heard that he brought two Elders as well as Martial Sister Gu with him on his way to Eastern Tujue. I want to find an opportunity to talk to Sister Gu first.”
Yan Wushi said, “Since Yu Ai has already left Mount Xuandu, the sect is now in a headless state. Why don’t you first go back to Mount Xuandu and take back the sect leader position? This way, he won’t be able to do anything even after he gets back.”
Shen Qiao shook his head, “Yu Ai is very careful in what he does. Even for the previous poisoning, he didn’t reveal anything about it. Now that he dared leave Mount Xuandu for Eastern Tujue just like this, I can only assume that he must have everything planned out so that he is not worried about me coming back. He couldn’t have done all of these things himself. From the very beginning, apart from those who were kept completely in the dark from the truth, there must be other people on Mount Xuandu who support him. If I return to Mount Xuandu right now, it would be no different than walking right into his trap. On the contrary, the people that he decided to bring with him on the trip might actually be the ones he had the hardest time controlling. I witnessed Martial Sister Gu grow up since she was still a child, and I still have some confidence in her.”
Yan Wushi listened to him carefully and then nodded with a smile, “Then I’ll wish you the best as well.”
Normally, even if he were to talk softly, there would still be some mockery in his tone. It was very rare for him to speak so normally and calmly this time. Shen Qiao responded with a smile, “Thanks.”
It was still a good amount of distance from Liang Prefecture to Ye City. The two of them stayed one more day in the City of Liang Prefecture and then set off for the north. After they left the city, the closer they were to Ye City, the more refugees they saw. Shen Qiao had been to Ye City before, but the scene appeared to be even more depressing than last time. He couldn’t help but stop and look ahead. In the far distance, refugees were heading towards the capital direction as they walked slowly along the dried-up river bed, all of them looking extremely low-spirited and lifeless.
In his memory, he had encountered such scenes countless times. It was a world almost completely separated from the world of the pugilists.
In fact, most people who were able to make a name for themselves in the pugilistic world had a few extra coins in their pockets. While some of them were big landlords themselves, some came from families that ran large businesses. For example, the Six Harmonies Association conducted trades both by water and by land, and their businesses extended to almost the entire world. It was a true giant of its sort. As for the Cleansing Moon Sect, there was even less to be worried about. Due to its close relationship with the imperial court of Northern Zhou, it had many businesses and estates not only in the capital, but also many other cities in Zhou.
Even the Purple Mansion of Mount Xuandu who had insisted on staying away from the secular world for the last couple generations had in fact, as early as the time of their founding father, bought out all of Mount Xuandu. Even the farmland at the foot of the mountain cultivated by the people living in Xuandu Town were rented from Mount Xuandu. The generations of Mount Xuandu’s sect leaders were all kind-hearted people that they would only ask for fair rental fees, but even in that case, the money they collected, together with the products produced on Mount Xuandu, were already enough to for its disciples to live a stable life.
Only by having a prosperous and carefree life could a person concentrate on studying martial arts and probing further down the path. If they couldn’t even feed themselves, not knowing when their next meal was going to be, how could they possibly be in the mood to practice their skills?
Looking at these refugees in front of him, their children faced natural calamities as well as man-made disasters since their births and were unable to fill their stomachs. More cruelly, some of these children might even become their parents’ “reserved rations”. Even if there existed one or two geniuses among them with outstanding aptitude in martial arts, they could very likely lose their lives even before their talents were discovered.
“Ah-qiao’s being soft-hearted again!” Surprisingly, Yan Wushi didn’t ridicule him this time. Instead, he sighed in a half-smiling, half-emotional tone.
Shen Qiao shook his head. “Actually, I was an orphan, too. I don’t know who my parents are. They left me in a desolate and uninhabited land. From what I heard, my health was really bad and I almost died when I was still in my swaddling clothes. Maybe this was why my parents abandoned me, or maybe they were just too poor to raise me. Fortunately, I met my master and my life was saved. Therefore, every time I see these people, I always feel sorry for how little I have done for them. If I realized this earlier when I was still in Mount Xuandu and reopened the sect to the secular world, I might’ve been able to take in more children from poor families as disciples and thus save a few more lives.”
Yan Wushi said, “Life is never fair. Some people are born with silver spoons in their mouths and never have to worry about money, but some have to struggle against poverty, not even having any relatives to rely on. There are few people like you who can put themselves into other people’s shoes. Most people resemble Chen Gong. They are filled with insatiable desires, not knowing what they are capable of, and they never stop wanting more. Even if Mount Xuandu takes in more disciples, it just means that it might get a few more thankless wretches like Yu Ai.”
Shen Qiao smiled helplessly, “But it’s also possible that we might get a few more talented people who can help those in distress and save the morals of the time!”
Yan Wushi didn’t think so, “Whatever you want, you have to fight for it yourself. You can’t just hope that someone else is going to help you. No matter whether they live or die, it’s their own choice and it has nothing to do with others.”
Shen Qiao didn’t say anything else.
Not far from here, a couple were walking towards them, quarreling as they went while dragging a little boy that was nothing but a bag of bones. Both Shen Qiao and Yan Wu-shi had sharp ears, so they were able to hear part of the argument.
In fact, they had exchanged their own child with other people for this little boy, and were on their way to find an empty place so they could prepare him for the pot. The original intention was to prevent other people from seeing and snatching the boy, but they ended up fighting each other over the distribution. The husband thought the legs and the back of this boy were his only meaty parts so he wanted to keep them to himself. Meanwhile, the wife insisted that she should have the right to pick the “food” first since the child they used for the exchange was the one she delivered herself after ten months of suffering. The two of them seemed too weak to walk already, yet suddenly, they managed to start a fight.
The little boy that they exchanged back just stared at them blankly on the side, letting them fight over the right to eat him first. His face was expressionless, as if his consciousness had already left him long ago.
Shen Qiao had reached the end of his forbearance. He stepped forward and seized the boy. Seeing their “food” was taken, the couple stopped fighting and pounced on him immediately.
They had not eaten for days. Even a strong woman could take them down single-handedly, let alone someone like Shen Qiao. However, after the little boy was brought back by Shen Qiao, there was not even a tiny change in the boy’s expression. Not to mention gratitude, there was no trace of even the slightest amount of relief after one’s survival.
“What’s your name? Do you want to eat something first?” Shen Qiao asked, reaching an arm out to him.
Before his hand had touched him, the little boy fell straight toward him, then became silently still.
Shen Qiao was shocked. He hurried over to check on him only to find out that the boy had been seriously ill since a long time ago. He was already at death’s door. While the couple were dragging him, he was already experiencing his terminal lucidity —— even gods would have no means to save him, and his heart had already failed by now. He could hold on no more.
Whether Shen Qiao chose to save him or not made no difference to him at all.
His eyes were not completely closed, as if he still kept the last bit of longing and accusation for this world.
Judging by the scars on his body and the ribs poking out under his skin, this little boy probably never lived even one good day in his life. Perhaps he never even understood why he had to be born and endure these miseries.
Shen Qiao did not move for a long time, staring unblinkingly at him. Suddenly, he reached out and passed his hand across the boy’s face, tenderly closing his eyelids.
Yet, another hand came and covered Shen Qiao’s eyes, then gently wiped off the wet traces of tears at the corners.
“You didn’t cry even when Yu Ai betrayed you, but now you are crying over someone you don’t even know?”
“Everything I experienced, whether they were setbacks or predicaments, were things I could endure. But this little boy… He probably has never hurt anyone. The reason Heaven let him be born into this world should not be for him to suffer. Everyone has the right to live. No matter how hard life is, there should at least be hope for him to see a way out.”
If someone else had said these words, Yan Wushi would definitely mark them as hypocritical. Even now, he could never and would never do the things that Shen Qiao had done. However, from the disdain in the beginning to now seeing Shen Qiao doing things like this, he didn’t even feel strange or surprised. Something had changed in an unconscious and natural way.
“You are too naive. Who is responsible for giving him hope? Other people need to live too. They too need to plan for themselves. Why do they need to treat him nicely?”
Shen Qiao stood up and said, “I’m willing to treat him nicely, but it’s too late.”
Yan Wushi said apathetically, “You can save at most one or two people by yourself. There are many people in this world in a similar state as him, yet you are blind to them. Isn’t this hypocrisy?”
Shen Qiao said, “If this chaos can come to an end one day and the world is under one person’s rule again, then even if such things will not disappear completely, at least there will be a lot less of them. By that time, not only one or two people will be saved, but hundreds of thousands of people, isn’t that right?”
Yan Wushi didn’t care to respond. He walked straight to the side and, using his palm as blade, created a deep pit under the tree with his inner qi. The pit was rectangular and leveled at the bottom.
Shen Qiao immediately knew what he meant after seeing his movement. He smiled and said, “Thanks.”
He carried the little boy’s remains and kept him flat while placing his body into the pit. Then he swept the dirt around the pit to flatten it out.
In such a turbulent era, it was good enough for not leaving one’s bones on the moor. If a gravestone was placed, people might think there were funeral objects underneath. It would then attract thieves and robbers instead.
After everything was settled, Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi entered the city.
The inside and outside of the city were as different as two worlds.
It was said that after Gao Wei, the Emperor of Qi, heard about the years of famine and the countless refugees out there, not only did he not ask the officials to provide disaster relief, but he even built a Poor’s Village inside the Hualin Garden in the capital. Dressed up as a beggar himself, he asked the eunuchs and servant girls in the palace to pretend to be travelling businessmen and passers-by so that he could experience the fun of begging himself. Therefore, when people in Ye City talked about the Hualin Garden, their faces were not filled with admiration for the royal garden, but with a vague, tacit ridicule.
However, even in the face of the danger of the Northern Zhou’s army pressing in on the border, the city appeared to be just as peaceful, happy and prosperous, not much different from what Shen Qiao had seen during his previous visit.
The roads were filled with precious horses and magnificent carriages; buildings were painted with gold and silver powders; luxurious brocade dresses fluttered in the wind; hair was decorated with jade hairpins; and the air was suffused with subtle fragrances —— All of these together formed the dazzling array of prosperity in people’s eyes. This was the visage of Ye City, the capital city of Qi, a world of glory and wealth.
At first glance, those travelers who had just arrived wouldn’t be able to find any poor people in this city. They might even feel ashamed for their own unseemliness, questioning whether they were themselves too poor and pedantic. However, if one were to take a look at the hidden alleys on the side, they could occasionally spot a few ordinary citizens wrapped in simple clothes who appeared to be quite ill-fitted with the strikingly flourishing sight around them.
Finding a few people in such a big city was not something one could easily accomplish in a day or two. Yu Ai and his group might have lodged at some Daoist monasteries, or they might have changed into normal clothes to hide their identities. If it was the second case, looking for them would be as difficult as searching for a needle in a haystack.
The two of them parted right after they entered the city. Yan Wushi didn’t say where he was going, neither did Shen Qiao ask about it. He only said, “Take care of yourself, Sect Master Yan. I wish you the best.”
Yan Wushi asked, “Are you going to look for an inn to stay?”
Shen Qiao thought for a moment, “I’ll try to look them in the surrounding Daoist monasteries first. If I can’t find them, then I’ll stay in the monastery.”
Yan Wushi nodded, “I still have some business to deal with.”
He turned around and left without saying what business he had. In just the blink of an eye, he had already disappeared from Shen Qiao’s line of sight.
For a moment, Shen Qiao stood where he was and watched as the latter disappeared into the sea of people. He couldn’t help but pull a smile and started to leave as well.
He hadn’t walked far before a large troop approached from the other end of the street. The soldiers leading the way were driving pedestrians away as the latter rushed to the sides in a fluster in order to avoid offending the noble and getting themselves in trouble.
Shen Qiao yielded to the side together with the rest of the crowd. The next second, he heard someone asking from behind, “Which prince or princess is it this time?”
Another person laughed as he replied, “You’re wrong. Judging by the honour guards, it should be the Commandery Prince of Chengyang!”
As if he was suddenly enlightened, the first person let out a sound of surprise, “Ah! Is he that Commandery Prince of Chengyang whom the Emperor deeply favors?”
The other person said in a meaningfully tone, “That’s right. It’s him.”
The Commandery Prince of Chengyang, Mutipo, was so famous that his name was known to almost everyone. However, his fame did not come from his ability or political achievements, but from the Emperor.
There was also a very unpleasant history between Shen Qiao and this Commadery Prince. Because of him, Mu Tipo could never be a man again. He probably hated Shen Qiao to the bone. Shen Qiao was not afraid of him, but since he was looking for Yu Ai, there was no need to cause more trouble. As soon as he heard the conversation, he retreated even further to the back of the crowd and planned to take shelter in a nearby shop.
Right then, he heard someone commenting puzzledly, “That’s not the Commandery Prince of Chengyang.”
Shen Qiao turned back. Unfortunately, the person who was riding high up on the horse was also looking in his direction.
Their eyes met. Shen Qiao calmly looked away as if nothing happened, but the other person was slightly shocked.
“Oh! That’s indeed not the Commandery Prince of Chengyang. He’s the new favorite of His Majesty. People say that he was recommended to His Majesty by the commandery prince. Nowadays, His Majesty likes him even more than Concubine Feng!”
“Concubine Feng? Is that the one who… is she?”
“Haha. That’s right. She’s that concubine who was stripped of her clothes by the Emperor. His Majesty sold her body to the officials. They could see her naked for a thousand pieces of gold!”
The comment was immediately followed by dubious laughter from the surrounding crowd.
What could one make of the country when its emperor and officials were all like this?
Thinking about the Yuwen Yong he had met, Shen Qiao shook his head and disappeared back into the crowd.
The Northern Qi was a supporter of Buddhism. Therefore, as a Buddhist capital, Ye City had nearly no Daoist monasteries. Shen Qiao asked a few passers-by, but most of them didn’t know if one existed in the city. In the end, an old man finally told him, “There’s a White Dragon Monastery in the west side of the city. It’s a pretty lonely place. Only two young Daoist priests and an old abbot live in it. Not many people go there.”
Shen Qiao thanked the old man for his help and quickly found the White Dragon Monastery. It was simple and crude indeed. Looking from outside, except for the three characters written on the wooden plaque above the main entrance which could still be considered as readable, the rest of the places were all covered with moss, the tiles weather-beaten. It must have been many years since it was last cleaned and repaired.
The old man said there were two young Daoist priests that lived here. But Shen Qiao didn’t see any of them as he walked through the half-closed gate all the way to the little court in the center. It was not until Shen Qiao raised his voice and asked for the third or fourth time that a young priest boy finally yawned his way out.
“What have you come here for, mister?”
Shen Qiao greeted him with a salute, “Young Daoist priest, may I ask if a group of people asked to stay here a couple days ago? They should have been led by a young man who brought with him a lady and two old men, and perhaps some other disciples. The man has a red mole under his ear. They may or may not be wearing Daoist robes. ”
The little priest shook his head, “Not that I know of. Our monastery has always been pretty quiet and lonely. It’s been a long time since someone visited!”
Shen Qiao was slightly disappointed. Seeing that the sky was getting dark, he asked, “Then may I ask if there are any guest rooms available? Do you think I could stay the night?”
“We do. But it hasn’t been cleaned for quite some time. You’d have to clean it yourself.”
“Thank you. It’s good enough to have a place to spend the night. May I ask if the abbot of the monastery is here? I should at least thank him for letting me stay in his place.”
“Nah, there’s no need. My master doesn’t see outsiders. You’re just asking for a place to stay, not to borrow money, so it doesn’t matter whether you see him or not.”
He guided Shen Qiao through the monastery’s main hall to one of the rooms in the backyard. When the door was opened, the dusty mildew smell greeted them right away. Even the young Daoist priest himself started to cough non stop as he fanned hard in front of his nose.
“Look how dirty this place is! Are you sure you are fine with staying here?” He peered at Shen Qiao from the corner of his eye.
Shen Qiao briefly scanned the room. The bed was dirty, but broomstick and wiping cloth were handy. There was also a well right outside. With just a bit of cleaning, the room would do just fine. In fact, when he was still the sect leader of Mount Xuandu, the place he lived in wasn’t as luxurious and comfortable as others might have imagined.
“I’m fine. Thank you very much, young priest.”
Since he said yes, the little priest didn’t bother with it any further, “There’s no food past noon, so the kitchen has already closed. You’d have to cook something yourself if you want to eat. Water jugs and cups can be found in the kitchen, but we don’t have any rice or noodles. If you want to buy food, there’s some in the market just across the street. But you have to hurry up. They might close soon.”
With a reception as bad as this, it was no wonder that the monastery had close to no pilgrims despite being located in the capital city. Apart from the fact that most people in Qi were Buddhists, the host’s attitude was probably very problematic as well.
However, Shen Qiao didn’t say anything. He just agreed to everything with a smile. Right after the little priest left, he immediately started sweeping the floor and cleaning the bed.
Not long after, the little priest returned, his face covered in excitement. “Mister! Hurry up and take a look outside! There are several carriages parked out there loaded with things. The people said those were for you!”