Chapter 53: Today will become your death day.
The path to Chiban is tortuous,
Even the official road spirals on endlessly.
The cold wind seeps into my bones,
Even my flesh is covered in ice.
—— Excerpt from Shen Yue’s poem
It wasn’t the first time Shen Qiao visited Chang’an, and this time, his mindset was already different.
He entered the city alone. Even though he was carrying a sword and was wearing a Daoist robe, because of his sickly appearance, his bad eyes, and his slow gait, he didn’t look like someone from the pugilistic world at all. Rather, he resembled a traveling Daoist Priest who brought with him a random sword just to protect himself from the turmoil in the world. One could not feel the slightest threat from him.
The city was filled with talents from all over the world, just like how he remembered it. But this time, it appeared to be even more lively than before.
He asked around a bit more and finally learned that many of them were on their way to the Coiling Dragon Fair that was held in the capital of Tuyuhun, all because some trouble-lover had spread the news that The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang would appear in the fair this year. There were also rumors that the Tai’a Sword which was once a burial object of the First Emperor of Qin and later unearthed by the King of Western Chu would also be there.
It was no longer news that three of the remaining scripts of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang were owned by Northern Zhou, the Tiantai Sect, and Mount Xuandu respectively. They were already claimed, but people had never given up trying to obtain them. However, to this day, no one was truly able to seize any of the three remaining scripts, so it was clear how difficult it must be that even ordinary martial arts experts could not do it. As for the one kept in the Tiantai Sect, not to mention other people, even grandmasters such as Yan Wushi and Ruyan Kehui might not be able to escape unscathed.
The remaining two volumes were scattered around the country, and no one knew where they were. The Six Harmonies Association obtained one of them. Originally, they intended to transport it to the south among other escorted goods, but Yan Wushi ruined the plan. The book was destroyed, and from then on, it no longer existed in this world.
Thus, if a volume of The Strategy of the Vermillion Yang really appeared at the Coiling Dragon Fair, then it would become the only ownerless one in this world. Obtaining this one would be much easier than searching all over the Tiantai Sect or Mount Xuandu or challenging the experts within the Imperial Palace of Zhou. How could a martial artist not covet it?
People were attracted by wealth, but for martial artists, the temptation of money was not even comparable to unrivalled martial arts skills. For example, Qi Fengge was able to freely roam the pugilistic world only because he was the number one martial artist in his time, and everyone had to yield to his whims and pleasures. How mighty he must have been! Wasn’t this what a man was born for?
As for the Tai’a Sword, it was once the national treasure of Chu and later fell into the hands of the Emperor of Qin. It was always believed to be the King’s Sword, therefore despite being a great weapon itself, it had way more symbolic meaning behind it than practical value. It was said that whoever seized the sword was going to rule the world, which made it almost comparable to that famous Heirloom Seal of the Realm. As a result, both Southern Chen and Northern Zhou paid extremely high attention to this year’s Coiling Dragon Fair and even sent their men to confirm the news.
No matter what kind of objectives they all had, one thing was certain: Shen Qiao was not going to be lonely on this trip.
Seeing that the inns were all packed, he decided to go on a little further and put up the night in the town outside the city.
To his surprise, outstanding men gathered here from all over the world —— not only did he see the disciples of major sects everywhere, but even those small sects that few people knew of had dispatched their forces one after another. While some of them were just here for the bustling scene and to open their minds, some also wanted to see if they could profit off these disturbances. All in all, as Shen Qiao kept on, the sky turned completely dark, but even the inns in the small town outside of Chang’an seemed to have been filled.
He stopped by a few and was informed by each one of them that even the storage rooms had been taken. A sense of helplessness grew inside him. His bad eyes made it very inconvenient to camp in a field: he could still make out blurry outlines of everything during the day, but at night, he was no different from being completely blind. How ironic. The trip all the way from Mount Tai had been so smooth while a big city like Chang’an was causing problems for him.
“We apologize, Daoist Priest, but we’re currently fully booked. Even the firewood storage has been taken. There’s really nothing I can do to get you another room!” The servant at the inn smiled at him bitterly, twisting his hands in awkwardness.
Just as Shen Qiao was about to ask again, he heard a sweet, delicate voice next to him, “I reserved a premium room. It’s quite spacious. You’re welcome to share a bed with me if you don’t mind.”
The lobby was packed with people. Those who were close to them, after seeing that an astounding beauty was giving the glad eye to a sickly priest were almost instantly offended.
Someone teased, “If this young lady feels lonely, you should at least find someone stronger. This priest looks like he can be blown away by the wind. Are you sure he can fill your need?”
People immediately started laughing on the side.
The beauty smiled sweetly, “But I am fond of handsome priests like him, not dirty-minded guys!”
As soon as she finished, the person who had been teasing her screamed. More than half of his hair was missing without him even noticing how. He felt with his hand and was too shocked to speak.
The beautiful girl laughed, “I’m in a very good mood today because I get to meet an old friend. I don’t want to see blood. You guys should really try your best to behave. Just in case my friend refuses to talk to me, then you’re out of luck.”
While they were still talking, Shen Qiao had already left the tavern.
“Who the hell are you?!” The person who just lost half of his hair shouted, threatening in manner but cowardly at heart.
But the girl disdained to deal with them anymore. She moved, leaving them nothing but a fragrant scent at the place she once stood.
“My name is Little Peony. Don’t you think it’s a lovely name?”
Her voice was still lingering in their ears. They looked at each other, all of their faces changing in anger, “Bai Rong from the Harmony Sect?! Why did this wicked woman come too?!”
Bai Rong left the inn. Seeing that the person in front of her had already become a distant silhouette, she gritted her teeth and used her lightness skill to catch up, shouting, “Shen Qiao! Stop!”
Perhaps he had heard her, and the silhouette finally stopped.
Shen Qiao turned around and sighed lightly, “What can I do for you?”
Having grown up in the Harmony Sect, Bai Rong had seen the most vicious mind and the most filthy look possible for a human being. She thought her heart must have turned into stone a long time ago, incapable of being moved by anything anymore. But at this moment, when she saw how compelled and unwilling Shen Qiao was to see her, a strong sense of grievance rushed to her head.
“Priest Shen, you sure turn a cold shoulder on people fast. Back then when you were hiding in the White Dragon Monastery, we went searching for you under my master’s order. If I hadn’t bought time for you, you wouldn’t be standing here today. Is this how you repay me? With this attitude?”
Seeing that Shen Qiao didn’t respond, she couldn’t help but let out a sneer, “Don’t tell me you’ve counted the deaths of those two Daoist priests on me as well. The Elder in my sect was standing on the side, and Xiao Se was also glaring at me, ready to catch my mistakes. Are you asking me to risk myself for two strangers?”
Shen Qiao shook his head, “I need to thank you for what happened that day, but Brother Zhu and Chuyi are also dead. This is a crime done by the Harmony Sect. A wrong has its source. I will ask them to pay for it sooner or later. Many things are already irrevocable, and it would be meaningless to argue over whose fault it is now.”
Bai Rong bit her lower lip. After a moment of silence, she said, “I heard you wanted to take down my master with you at the risk of losing all of your martial arts, and were severely injured by him to the point that you almost died. You…are you feeling better now?”
“I’m okay. Thank you for asking.”
“Master was also injured pretty badly. He was worried that Yuan Xiuxiu would take the opportunity to get rid of him completely, so he found himself a secret place to recuperate. No one knows where he is.”
“Not even you?”
Bai Rong smiled bitterly, “Why? Don’t tell me you really think he trusts me.”
Shen Qiao knew she was probably feigning that expression just to make him sympathize with her, but he still didn’t have the heart to make any harsh remarks.
Bai Rong said softly, “I know you want to find my master and get revenge. Even if I know where he is, I won’t tell you, let alone that I don’t. The current you is far from being his match. I can’t watch you throw away your life like that.”
Shen Qiao nodded, “Thank you for letting me know, but I have no plans to look for him for now.”
“Then who’re you looking for? Are you going to the Coiling Dragon Fair in the royal capital of Tuyuhun? Do you want to save Yan Wushi?”
She had always been exceptionally smart and guessed Shen Qiao’s purpose in coming in no time.
Seeing that Shen Qiao did not answer, Bai Rong sighed, “Mister Shen, do you have any idea what you’re doing? It’s true that Yan Wushi’s martial arts has reached the apex, and few people in this world are his match. But even an immortal will not be able to survive the joint attack of those five martial experts. He has treated you like that. How can you just forgive him? Even a cat or a dog remembers those who harm them and dare not come near them the next time, let alone people. Do you really love him that much?”
Shen Qiao frowned, “Do I have to love him in order to save him?”
“If you don’t, then why bother risking your own life? There’s no way you can hold off five enemies all by yourself, however strong you might be. You can’t do it, Yan Wushi can’t do it, my master can’t do it, even if Qi Fengge comes back to life, he won’t be able to do it! The Coiling Dragon Fair is on September 9th, but the ambush is on the 8th. Today is already the 5th. Even if you hurry now, you still won’t make it on time!”
Shen Qiao remained silent. Even her always-smiling face showed a rare trace of anger. “I just don’t want to see you throw away your own life! Do you really not understand?”
Bai Rong liked him. Shen Qiao was not a piece of wood. He felt it.
For someone like Bai Rong who by nature only did things that benefitted herself, she would never risk her life or betray her sect simply because she liked Shen Qiao. She wouldn’t even disobey her master for his sake. She was willing to offer Shen Qiao a little convenience and a little help when capable, without harming her own interests —— this was already a very rare thing for her to do.
But she didn’t understand Shen Qiao, and neither did Shen Qiao intend to explain any further. He didn’t want Bai Rong to mistake his attitude. It would be better for her if he drew a clear line between them from the very beginning.
“Thank you very much for your advice, but I have to go.” He stared at Bai Rong. “The Harmony Sect may be a dangerous or even cannibalistic place in other’s eyes, but you seem to enjoy it like a fish in water.”
“After all, you scorn wicked women like me. That’s it.”
Shen Qiao shook his head, “You misunderstood what I meant. I know you will not be content with being just an ordinary disciple in the Harmony Sect. I have no right to tell you what to do. All I hope is for you to take good care of yourself and not become someone like Huo Xijing and Sang Jingxing. You’re different from them.”
‘You’re different from them.’ Bai Rong felt a lump in her throat, but she didn’t show it on her face. She quickly replied with a sweet smile, “Then why don’t you stay with me? That way you can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t become like them!”
“I’m sorry.” That was all he said before he turned around and left.
Bai Rong stomped her feet and shouted, “Shen Qiao!”
However, using the Rainbow Shadow, Shen Qiao glided across the sky like a bird, not even stirring up any dust. In the blink of an eye, he was already meters away, his robe fluttering in the wind, until he finally disappeared without turning back.
September 8th. At Fuqi City, the royal capital of Tuyuhun.
The Western Regions always had more sandstorms than rain, but this year had been a little unusual. It had been raining non-stop for days since fall. Even the surface of the royal castle, which was covered in dust all year round, seemed to have gained a new shine.
Under the influence of the Central Plains culture, the nobility and aristocrats in Tuyuhun all spoke and wrote using the Han Chinese language; even the Han style clothes were a popular trend. With the Coiling Dragon Fair opening in a few days, many Central Plains people also gathered inside the city. At first glance, it almost felt like one was back in Chang’an.
Outside the city, there was a pavilion called the Yin-Yang Pavillion. The date which it was built was no longer known, but the name came from its location: the pavilion was sitting between the mountain on the left and the body of water on the right —— dividing Yin from Yang one might say.
For most of its parts, the pavilion was built intimating the Central Plains style. Only in fine places like cornice and eaves one might occasionally spot that exotic taste. After so many years, even the majority of the three characters “Yin-Yang Pavillion” had peeled off, revealing the original wooden lustre underneath the black paint.
Yan Wushi stood in the pavilion with his hands clasped behind him. No one knew how long he had been there.
He was staring out of the pavilion with a rather relaxed posture, almost as if he was waiting for someone or simply enjoying the rain.
Far away, a person’s image appeared among the moist grass and woods.
He was wearing a black kasaya. There was not a single hair on his head. His face was extremely pretty; however, one could not help but notice a glimpse of marks left by age at the corner of his eyes. He was approaching slowly while holding an umbrella in one hand.
“May the lord Buddha preserve us. I hope you’ve been well since we last met, Sect Master Yan?”
He sounded like he was having a casual conversation, but his voice was so clear in people’s ears that it was not at all diminished by the distance between them.
Yan Wushi answered coldly, “You haven’t grown a single hair since we last parted at the Beyond Cloud Monastery, an obvious sign of how much you have been worrying and how vexing life must have been. Is living as an ordinary monk really that difficult for you?”
Xueting sensed the acrimony and sarcasm in his tone. He forced a smile, “Sect Master Yan’s words are just as unforgiving as usual!”
“I have an appointment with Duan Wenyang. Why did you show up? Don’t tell me that the former Grand Preceptor of Zhou has self-degraded himself to the extent of colluding with the Tujue people.”
Zen Master Xueting said, “Sect Master Yan’s reappearance in the pugilistic world has brought a reign of terror over the land, ruining everyone’s peaceful life. In my humble opinion, it’s better for you to find a place and focus on your martial arts enlightenment so as not to commit more murders in your hands.”
Yan Wushi burst into loud laughter, “I’ve always hated you bald donkey, you’re so full of your Buddhist doctrines. But today you’ve been smart, not spouting that nonsense and getting straight to the point. Good!”
Zen Master Xueting looked down, “Buddha can be forgiving and advises people to act kindly. ‘Put down the butcher’s knife, and one becomes a Buddha,’ they say. But for those that’re unrepentant, he can also exert the power of lightning and thunder. What’s the use of lecturing people like Sect Master Yan about the Buddha’s teachings? There’s no other choice than to subdue you through forceful means, to stop killing by killing.”
“Let me guess the reason why you and Duan Wenyang agreed to ambush me together. Yuwen Yong refuses to give the Buddhist sects any political importance, so you sent your men to infiltrate Tujue. Day after day, even the Taspar Khan became a Buddhist. However, the Tujue people are ruthless by nature, and the influence of Buddhism remains limited. You’re left with no choice but to turn your attention back to the Northern Zhou.”
“Yuwen Yong is very conscious about the Buddhist sects. Even if you wipe out the Cleansing Moon Sect, he still won’t put the Buddhist sects in an important position. Therefore, the best option is to kill me first, then Yuwen Yong, and make the crown prince Yuwen Yun the emperor. Unlike his father, Yuwen Yun is very fond of Buddhism —— I must say that your years of lobbying efforts weren’t wasted completely at least. As soon as he gains power, the Buddhist sects can once again resume their former glory in Northern Zhou.”
“May the lord Buddha preserve us. Yuwen Yong has too much blood on his hands. A wise ruler should never exploit the people and drain the treasury like this. His declaration of war towards Qi is so much more taxing on the mind and body of every citizen that it’s just a matter of time before it overwhelms them.”
Yan Wushi showed quite some interest, “Are you saying that the crown prince Yuwen Yun is the true wise ruler?”
Zen Master Xueting only replied, “The crown prince has a deep root in Buddhism. His clear heart is evidence of his fated affinity with the Buddha.”
Yan Wushi slowly pulled a smile, “Given what Yuwen Yun was like, it must take you some efforts to lie through your teeth like that. If all you want to do is to kill me, then bring it on! Where’s Duan Wenyang? Tell him to come out!”
As he finished, clear, bright laughter rang in the air, “Sect Master Yan is just as haughty as usual. Have you never thought of the possibility that today will become your death day?”