Chapter 69: No, I want you.
When Shen Qiao and Yan Wushi returned to the royal capital of Tuyuhun, it was already winter. There were a lot fewer merchants who stopped by on their way to the western countries. The entire city looked somewhat lonely and desolate, completely different from when they first left.
“But this is only temporary,” said the peddler selling sugar figurines on the street. “It’s quite difficult to travel west during winter, so many caravans set off in autumn and come back next spring. There will be more people once winter is over!”
He was a member of the Han ethnic group. More than ten years ago, he met a Tuyuhun girl while passing by with a group of travelling merchants. Ever since then, he settled down and established his family here.
Shen Qiao seemed to have a kind of natural attraction or affinity that would make anyone around him extremely comfortable as if they were bathing in a spring breeze. Yan Wushi had stood in front of the stall for quite a while just now, but the peddler didn’t speak to him. However, when Shen Qiao came up and asked a few questions, the peddler immediately started chatting casually with him as if they were old friends.
“There were actually quite a lot of Han people in the city. Even the royal and noble Tuyuhun families can speak the Han language and wear Han-style clothes. It’s just that this place is too far to the west after all, and most people won’t leave their hometowns easily.”
Shen Qiao smiled, “That’s true. Your wife must be a very wise and beautiful lady to be able to make you stay. Also, I can tell from the way you talk that you must be a scholar who reads a lot. But because of her, you are willing to stay in this place that is thousands of miles away. The deep love between you and your wife really makes others jealous!”
After hearing Shen Qiao’s praise, the peddler scratched his head. Looking both proud and a little embarrassed, he said, “I am very flattered. I only went to a few years of private school when I was young and am not worthy of being called a scholar! Where did you come back from? You look quite travel-worn. Did you come back here with a travelling caravan to spend the winter?”
Shen Qiao said, “We have been travelling west for a while. Now seeing that the weather is getting colder with each passing day, we dared not continue, so we came back. We heard that there was a Coiling Dragon Fair in the capital city a few days ago. It must have ended by now, I assume?”
The pedder replied, “It ended a long time ago, and people are already gone. However, it was quite crowded this year. So many martial artists came, but since I mainly sell sugar figurines, my business did not do much better. On the contrary, after those people arrived, many people drew their swords against each other on the street during those days. I was so scared that I went back and hid in my home for a few days!”
Shen Qiao asked, “Are you saying that there are no more pugilists in the city now?”
The peddler said, “Yep. They all left not long after the fair ended. Do you see those inns? All of them were once fully booked. But now, they can’t get enough customers even with discounts! Anyways, I heard that Zhou destroyed the country of Qi. Who knows if we will have even fewer travelling merchants from the east next year because of it!”
Shen Qiao was originally worried that if the news of Yan Wushi’s “death” spread out, Yu WenYong’s life would be in danger. However, he did not expect that a huge incident like this would happen within the few months since they left Chang’an. He couldn’t help but glance at Yan Wushi beside him.
The latter was wearing a veil, so others couldn’t see his expression clearly.
Shen Qiao asked, “Country Qi was destroyed? I didn’t expect it to be this fast. Was there not any resistance?”
The pedder sighed, “Who knows. Perhaps the Zhou army was too strong. Now that I think about it, my hometown is in Qi. Even though I have been living in this faraway place in Tuyuhun, I sadly still hear news of the muddle-headed country leader for the past many years. But I never thought that a large country like Qi would disappear just like that!”
Shen Qiao replied, “The unification of the Northern countries is still a good thing to the people. Once everything quiets down, there will only be more caravans travelling back and forth between the Western Regions, not less.”
The peddler broke into another smile, “That’s true. I’ll take your words then. I’m still waiting for the Central Plains to become truly peaceful one day, so I can take my wife and my son back to see my hometown!”
His conversation with Shen Qiao lasted for quite a while. He wished to continue, but upon seeing Yan Wushi stand silently beside Shen Qiao, seemingly taking an interest in the sugar figurines, he suddenly remembered that he still had a business to run. He laughed hurriedly, “This lady must be your wife. Is she also from Tuyuhun?”
Shen Qiao said, “She is my little sister.”
Yan Wushi interrupted, “Wife.”
Shen Qiao: “…”
The peddler: “…”
Shen Qiao reckoned that Yan Wushi probably said it intentionally because he was unhappy about having to wear women’s clothing, but he couldn’t say anything in front of an outsider, so he only coughed and quickly explained, “She is my cousin. She’s a little stubborn, so please do not take it as an offense.”
The peddler wouldn’t think much if Shen Qiao hadn’t tried to explain. But as soon as he did, the other person immediately started picturing two cousins eloping to a land thousands of miles away because their family could not accept their love. He quickly nodded, “I understand! I understand!”
Shen Qiao, however, was at a complete loss and thought to himself: What do you mean you understand? I don’t even understand it myself.
On the other side, Yan Wushi pointed a finger to the sugar figurines and said, “I want this.”
His voice was deep and low and didn’t sound like a woman’s voice at all, but the peddler did not question it. After all, due to the sand and wind outside the Great Wall, some Tuyuhun girls also sounded hoarse.
After hearing Yan Wushi’s words, the peddler’s spirit was immediately uplifted. “What shape would you like? I can make just about anything!”
Yan Wushi said, “Horse, cattle, sheep…”
Shen Qiao found it both funny and awkward, “One should be enough. What are you going to do with so many of them?”
Yan Wushi said, “I’ll have just one then.”
The peddler laughed, “Alright! Would you like a horse, a cattle, or a sheep?”
Yan Wushi pointed to Shen Qiao: “I want him.”
The peddler stared blankly at him. “What?”
Yan Wushi said, “Make him.”
Even though Shen Qiao was never involved in a romantic relationship, after the misunderstandings from earlier and seeing the mild, ambiguous glance from the peddler, it was impossible for him to not understand what the other person must have mistaken.
He said to the peddler, “She’s just joking. How about making a sheep then?”
Yan Wushi objected, “No, I want you.”
He then asked the peddler, “Is it okay?”
The peddler, as if he had sensed the burning glaze through the veil, hurriedly said, “Yes, of course!”
Shen Qiao held his forehead in desperation.
The peddler’s skill was definitely not bad. In less than a minute, a realistic-looking sugar figurine had already appeared in his hand.
All in all, figurine was made of sugar syrup. It was impossible to show clear facial features, but the figurine man’s pose of walking forward while carrying a cloth bag on his back definitely resembled some of Shen Qiao’s grace.
Shen Qiao laughed, “Difference in profession really makes one feel worlds apart. Looking at this handcraft of yours, I’m sure this level of skill can only be obtained with years of practice!”
The praise made the peddler quite happy, and he let out a laugh: “You flatter me!”
Yan Wushi took the sugar figurine and brought it behind the veil, snapped off its head with his teeth, and started crunching it.
Shen Qiao: “…”
To avoid attracting too much curiosity and attention from the peddler, Shen Qiao quickly paid the money and pulled Yan Wushi away.
Zhou’s successful elimination of Qi meant that the North would soon be unified. Chen and Tujue undoubtedly would not want to sit and watch Zhou grow stronger. It was certain that they would think up every possible way to lay their hands on Zhou, for the crown prince of Zhou, Yuwen Yun, currently showed no traits of a wise ruler. Therefore, as soon as Yuwen Yong was dead, Zhou would be left without a leader and be scattered like a box of sand.
Yan Wushi must appear in Chang’an as soon as possible. He must show up next to Yuwen Yong and let everyone see that he was still alive.
By proving that he had survived safely and soundly under the attack of the top five martial experts, Yan Wushi’s reputation and status would surely rise to an even higher level. Whether this kind of fame was a good thing or not, everyone would hesitate in taking action against Yuwen Yong for fear of Yan Wushi.
However, the problem was that even if Yan Wushi did not die, he was severely injured and the flaw in his Demonic Core had not been cured yet. Additionally, not only had his temperament changed drastically, but he had also split into multiple personalities, some of which even spoke ill of himself. They might be able to trick ordinary people, but it would be very hard to get past the smart ones, especially geniuses like Dou Yanshan and Duan Wenyang —— they could easily see through it.
While Shen Qiao was mulling over the situation, Yan Wushi had already finished gnawing the waist portion of the sugar figurine and started moving towards its thighs.
Seeing the way he looked right now, who could believe that this person was Yan Wushi? If he acted like this in front of Duan Wenyang and others, he would probably be beaten up so badly without even ashes left.
Shen Qiao couldn’t help but heave a long sigh. He dragged Yan Wushi into an eatery. After they sat down, he asked, “You heard what the person just said. Do you have any thoughts?”
Yan Wushi lifted up the veil and shoved the rest of the figurine into his mouth. He stared at Shen Qiao expressionlessly, his cheeks moving up and down as he crunched on the candy.
Even Shen Qiao who was extremely good-mannered could not help but feel the corner of his mouth twitching slightly upon seeing this, “Even though you are Xie Ling right now, you should be able to understand what I said, right?”
Yan Wushi replied with an affirmative sound.
Shen Qiao asked, “What’s your plan then? Should I take you directly to your disciples in Chang’an?”
Yan Wushi said, “No.”
He seemed unwilling to talk and even frowned slightly. After quite a while, he finally said, “Send them. A message.”
Shen Qiao nodded, “That works too. We can wait for Bian Yanmei to receive your message and come meet you first, then you two can discuss the next best thing to do. The Cleansing Moon Sect has quite a big influence in Qi. Once we get to Qi territory, we should be able to find the sect members, right? How should I contact them?”
Yan Wushi said, “I don’t remember.”
He meant “Xie Ling” didn’t remember.
Shen Qiao felt the impulse to sigh again, “Nevermind. This can wait till we get back to Northern Zhou.”
While they were talking, the waiter had already brought the food over. The place was much nicer than the town they stayed at previously, and they could order a lot more than just lamb soup and oil pancakes. In fact, they could even find Manchurian wild rice on the plate, which was very rare during the winter.
The eatery was located at the center of the market. They sat next to the window on the second floor and could see many people doing small businesses down below —— vendors hawking their wares and customers bargaining for better prices. Right below them was a man dancing with a giant brush made of weasel bristle in his hand. As he flipped and jumped, the brush would leave an elegant and agile water trace on the ground. Looking closely at it, he was actually copying the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion, the famous calligraphy work of Wang Xizhi from the East Jin Dynasty.
The show was unique and amusing and soon attracted many people to gather around him. Not all these locals were literate enough to understand what he was writing, but the performer’s moves were so light and graceful that people cheered with every stroke.
Seeing that Yan Wushi was watching attentively, Shen Qiao also threw a glance. However, when he saw the writing that the brush left as it moved across the floor, it plucked a string in his heart, and he suddenly felt enlightened by it.
The man’s performance couldn’t even be considered as martial arts. They were just some rough street fighting techniques. But the man was smart. He combined them with Western Regions style dances, so he looked like he was dancing as well as juggling while doing calligraphy in between the gaps. In the other people’s eyes, the performance was rather fresh and amusing. Even if the rich ones gave only a few copper coins, the money would be enough to support the performer’s livelihood.
But the man didn’t skimp out on his work just because the others were only expecting some light entertainment. Even though the Preface to the Poems Collected from the Orchid Pavilion written on rough ground with a giant brush wasn’t good —— if it was in the Central Plains, countless experts would immediately express their disdain. The man wrote each stroke with complete focus as if he was too absorbed with his own dance that he had already forgotten about his own existence. He stared fixedly at the ground, fully focusing on the strength applied to each stroke and the structure of the characters, refusing to show any carelessness.
The Way of martial arts was rather profound. It required talent, diligence, and most importantly, it required the ability to comprehend. One could very likely train hard for many days or even many years without seeing any progress. However, if they could find that occasional light of truth, they would suddenly comprehend everything and immediately enter a whole new realm.
Now, as Shen Qiao watched the performer’s movements, a picture naturally appeared in his head.
In that picture, the performer became Shen Qiao himself, and he was no longer holding a brush but a sword in his hand.
The highest good is like water.
Water gives life to all creatures yet it does not strive;
It flows in places men reject ——
It is like the Way.
The waves of the ocean,
The jaggedness of the mountains ——
All are like the great Way,
They match their subtle beauty and share their dust.
The sword danced in his hand, moved and flowed like clouds and water. The moves were very similar to those of the Azurewave Sword Arts of Mount Xuandu, but Shen Qiao knew they were different. It was a set of techniques he created himself.
The set of sword arts slowly took form inside his mind. Shen Qiao almost forgot everything around him, forgot the fact that he was still inside a tavern, and that Yan Wushi was still next to him. He immediately jumped to his feet and rushed towards the city outskirts so fast that it almost looked like he was gliding through without touching the ground.
He could not wait to test out this new set of sword techniques!