"It was me." Yang Ping was given a cigarette. Both his hands were shackled to the table and only his fingers could move. His fingers held the cigarette and he moved his face closer to draw on it. A large breath of nicotine entered his lungs, flowing around his chest like mist around a mountain before being exhaled out. He also breathed out a groan. "It was me who found someone to start the fire. But it wasn't on purpose, I didn't want to kill so many people."
Captain Miao's brows rose past his hairline. He thought, "Not on purpose" again. Does this pack of bastards have any other excuse?
"Why would I lie to you? There's no need for me to do that." Yang Ping stared at the smoke curling up from his fingertips and said nonchalantly, "Actually, as long as there were some casualties, I would have achieved my goal. Having so many people die and the matter getting so big, getting on the newspapers and T.V., and having a pack of police officers refusing to let it go does not benefit anyone, right? At that time, I really did not think that the rundown factory would have flammable and explosive items, and that it would explode right after it was set on fire. That pack of useless idiots from Travellers' Sect really know how to pick a place, they can forget to add salt even when eating shit."
"Was it your idea to have a false kidnapping?" Captain Miao asked coldly.
"How could it be," Yang Ping turned up the corners of his lip in a false smile. "Could I think of such a rotten idea? It's obviously from those Beggars' Sect elders who want to start trouble yet don't dare to. They have holes in their brains. I ask you, if you fake a kidnapping, can you fake it for the rest of your life? Don't those people have to come back anyway after a couple of days? There are old people and children in the group, and their brains don't work very well. Once someone lets the truth slip, it will become a joke. Back then, when they came to me to discuss this thing, Wang Jiusheng happened to be with me. Wang Jiusheng and I are not friends but the two of us shared the same goal, which is to get Zhang Meizhen to fuck off to somewhere far. Because it wasn't convenient to let the Beggars' Sect people see Wang Jiusheng, I told him to stay out of the way for a while. After I got rid of those two idiots, Wang Jiusheng came out and told me that we could turn this thing from fake to real."
Yang Ping's tone when talking about this sounded like he was saying "I ate noodles yesterday." The deaths of so many people seemed to only be a moment's carelessness that resulted in burning the gravy. The purplish tracks of his veins floated on his skin, covering the back of his hands and his temples. The forensic investigator said that it should be the result of something similar to stimulants, together with a method of usage that had yet to be studied. This was their so-called "demonic skill" which could awaken a body's hidden potential and allow him to employ a strength that was beyond his body's capabilities for a short period of time.
Any kind of drug that affected the body's nervous system would change the physiology of the brain to a certain degree. Captain Miao didn't know if Yang Ping was born cold-blooded or if he had practised his demonic skill until he had lost himself. Either way, he really did not seem human.
"After that, the two of us split up and acted separately. He went to arrange for a few of the hotblooded idiots under him to kidnap those people while I went to look for two of my brothers and got them to search everywhere for a few little hoodlums who couldn't last long anymore, and had them start the fire… they're the kind of people who had offended their enemies or have high-interest debts."
"Did those people know the consequences of their actions? Did they know that there were people inside the factory they set fire on?" Captain Miao pressed in.
Yang Ping smiled. "Your questions are truly naive and innocent. Didn't I say just now? These people wouldn't last long, they were at the end of the rope and had no other way to survive. Put yourself in their shoes and think; at that time, if someone came and gave you money and agreed to arrange for you to leave town and become a new person, would you care what they were asking you to do? Of course they wouldn't dare kill someone directly but just throwing a cigarette butt took no effort. As for what happened after they threw it, who cares! Comrade Officer, when you're my age, you'll understand. Every hero is living their nightmare, every coward dares to cover their eyes and take a gamble out of desperation."
At first, Captain Miao thought that those words were rather reasonable. Half a beat late, he realised what was going on. The key point in Yang Ping's last sentence was in the first half, "Every hero is living their nightmare"—at this point, he could still stay calm and feel sorry for himself!
Yang Ping was shriveled and thin and small. His appearance was fierce and from head to toe, there wasn't anything that could make a person like him. When he was young, his mother had refused to take care of him. When he grew up, his father cut off ties with him. His scoundrel friends chased after fame and profit, and had come to him and then left him. His wife and child regarded him as the source of all misfortunes in their lives. Hence, all he could do was to become ever more narcissistic, to the point of driving himself to the brink of death and back, his feelings as deep as the ocean.
"Who knew what kind of terrible fengshui that old factory had. Not a single person managed to escape, they all died in the fire. We really didn't expect that," Yang Ping said. "This trouble we caused was a little too big. We panicked. The follow-up on this matter was all planned by Wang Jiusheng alone. The idiots from Travellers' Sect bore the crime and entered the police station while the rest were sent away, including the brothers under me."
"To the flour factory in the neighbouring province?" Captain Miao asked.
"Mm, I think so." Yang Ping nodded. "They should have gone to the flour factory later on. I'm not sure either. They should have been transferred to quite a few places. Wang Jiusheng has so much money, how hard could it be for him to make arrangements for two people? I was busy practicing martial arts and didn't have the time to care about these things."
Captain Miao's gaze fell on the vicious-looking veins on his hands. "What kind of martial arts were you practising?"
Yang Ping glanced at him, his gaze as light as a feather. "You're an outsider, you won't understand even if I tell you."
"Where did you learn it from?"
"All the demonic and unorthodox paths in the world are under the Xu clan," Yang Ping answered calmly. "This skill of mine is called 'Rebirth.' Only someone who's naturally born with a deficiency and whose meridians have been completely destroyed can practise it. How much suffering it entails, hah, it's not something you young people who only watch T.V. and play with your phones after work can even begin to imagine. Only the most hard-headed person can learn it. It's like it's specially made for me. Maybe Heaven knew that if I couldn't take my revenge on Wei Xiao, I would never rest in peace."
"Why would they impart it to you?"
"If they didn't, it would die out. No one can practise it." Yang Ping spread his hands. "The Xu clan were at their peak more than thirty years ago, during Xu Zhao's time. Count for yourself, how old would Xu Zhao be if he's still alive now? Somewhere between 110 and 120. He would be a fucking centenarian, wouldn't he? Once Xu Zhao, their backbone, is gone, those 'Xu clan people' become worse day by day. Internally, they have no one who can control things and they only know how to fight among themselves. Every day, they either brainwash the old people left behind in the rural mountains or come up with some nonsense like Paradise to go around and swindle people. I'm the Young Master of Beggars' Sect. Me hanging out with them is giving them face."
"Who introduced you to them?"
Yang Ping laughed, a deeper meaning hidden inside. "Your reaction is quite quick. It was also Wang Jiusheng."
"After that fire, I didn't have much contact with Wang Jiusheng. One day, he suddenly came to look for me. He said, that brat Zhu Cong had somehow wrapped himself around Wan Mu Chun's Wei Huan's thigh and was investigating the old case. I said, who gives a shit about Wan Mu Chun, Wei Xiao was just a little bastard who only knows how to hide himself. What new thing can his useless disciple do? So Wang Jiusheng told me that Wei Huan had already revolted from his sect and had officially gone back to the old ways of his sect's ancestors. For the sake of tracking down people, he sold himself to the Xu clan and accepted jobs from them to kill people. Wei Huan is nothing but the Xu clan could not be looked down on… But everyone is just trying to survive. If you have money and power, then you have the basis for a partnership. There's nothing that can't be discussed."
"We ate together a few times and both sides were quite sincere. The Xu clan lacked capable people who could help them do things. For me, as long as I could take revenge on Wei Xiao, anything was fine. As for them, they had obtained the Paoding Jieniu skill anyway so Wei Huan did not have much use anymore. Furthermore, that kid was just like Wei Xiao, always thinking that he was on some high moral ground and really did not listen to anyone. Meanwhile, Zhu Cong was a time bomb."
"Hence, you people lured Wei Huan and Zhu Cong to the flour factory and planned that explosion. Weren't those people in the flour factory your brothers? You people killed your own men too?"
"They were the ones who were heartless first, they can't blame me for being faithless," Yang Ping said coldly.
"What do you mean?"
"They're both nothing good. After Wang Jiusheng arranged for them to be sent out of town, all they did was eat and laze every day. They said that they have evidence of what happened back then and made their living through blackmail and extortion. There were many times when they knew that I definitely would not have money so the target of their blackmail was Wang Jiusheng. This was something Wang Jiusheng told me later on. Wei Huan and Zhu Cong were investigating the old case and fought their way there, and the two of them were pissing their pants from terror. This time, those two heartless trash looked for me. They wrote a letter to me, asking me to find a way, and even threatened me by saying that if Zhu Cong found them, it would be over for all of us. That letter fell into Yang Qing's hands. That old bastard nearly beat me to death!" Yang Ping scoffed. "Since that was the case, it was just nice that I could cook them all in the same pot and silence them."
Captain Miao fell silent for a while. He studied Yang Ping, then suddenly laughed.
The one thing Yang Ping hated the most in his entire life was to be laughed at. His face immediately turned tense. "What are you laughing at?"
"You," Captain Miao said. "Uncle, you're quite amusing, do you know? You think you're working with him but actually, you're a pawn that Wang Jiusheng used to exchange for Wei Huan. The flour factory is Wang Jiusheng's business, his territory. Those two foolish brothers of yours sent you a threatening letter from someone's territory, you still believe that Wang Jiusheng and you are both their victims? How did you come up with that?"
When Yang Ping saw the photos Wang Jiusheng had sent to Gan Qing, he knew at once that he had been betrayed. Otherwise, he wouldn't be sharing everything so easily. However, he was still unable to tolerate other people pointing out how he had been fooled. His nostrils immediately flared in anger, resembling two blackholes.
"The reason why Wei Huan and Zhu Cong could find out about the flour factory was because they heard that your own father had, for some unknown reason, beaten you until he broke your legs. They thought it was strange, that was why they investigated the people who had been by your side back then. You are the lure that Wang Jiusheng put out, the scapegoat he had prepared," Captain Miao said each word slowly and clearly. "Didn't you realise that Wang Jiusheng had been plotting the whole thing from start to end, yet he had never once stepped forward to do anything himself?"
The grey-shirted man from Travellers' Sect strode into the hall where the Martial Arts General Assembly was being held. The moment he opened his mouth, he drew everyone's eyes to him. "Yang Qing, do you dare answer the question of why you broke your only child's legs back then and ousted him from Beggars' Sect?"
Holding on to his walking stick for support, Old Sect Leader Yang slowly stood up.
Grey Shirt strode to the front. One of his accomplices squeezed out from somewhere, a very old-fashioned tape recorder in his hands. Grey Shirt swiftly and smoothly ripped open the envelope and took out a photo from inside. In the photo were three young people. Yang Ping was in the middle and the three of them had their arms around each other's shoulders. "Are there any old members of Beggars' Sect who remember that Young Master Yang had been very showy when he was young? If he didn't have two followers beside him, he would not step out of the house. But now, where are these two people who had followed him like a shadow? Without anyone knowing, they have disappeared. Don't you all think it's strange?"
After saying that, he took out a roll of magnetic tape from the envelope. It was the kind used in old-fashioned phone recorders for landlines and it looked very worn.
Grey Shirt held the magnetic tape up high above his head, showing it to everyone. Then, he let out a scoff and gave Zhang Meizhen a look of challenge. He took the mic from her and put the magnetic tape into the tape recorder.
After a round of static from decades ago, there was the sound of a man's tearful voice. "Yang-ge, this is not the same as what we agreed on. When you told us to do that, you didn't say that so many people would die! What should we do now?"
"Didn't I say that I'll first send you two out of town to hide for a while?"
Once this voice came out, the elderly were in an uproar. It was Yang Ping.
"Then, can we still come back? Yang-ge, I beg you, tell us something certain. Every day, Xiao-Qi and I have nightmares the moment we close our eyes."
In the recording, Yang Ping said, "Why are the two of you so useless? Even Travellers' Sect aren't pissing their pants and they have the bigger share in this matter. They won't find out about us. Those few people who set the fire, unless they don't want to live anymore, they won't let it slip. You guys won't be implicated. Furthermore, can the victims' families explain themselves in this matter—who were the ones who planned this fake kidnapping in the first place? Why am I sending the two of you away to hide? It's exactly because I'm afraid you two weaklings would fall into the trap! Don't worry, after a few months, at most one or two years, no one would remember this thing anymore. You two can come back and do whatever you should."Beggars' Sect's Old Song stared blankly for a long while, then looked up at Yang Qing in disbelief. "Old Sect Leader…"
Beggars' Sect immediately responded, "This kind of recording can be falsified."
"Exactly." Grey Shirt smiled, unruffled. "Back then, before these two brothers fled Yanning, they had indeed been shrewd and remembered to record the call. But they probably never thought that this thing would only be dug out after so many years, and that technology would advance so quickly."
"Good question. It's because we Travellers' Sect are also the victims." Grey Shirt clapped his hands and pointed at Ruan Xiaoshan and tsk-ed. "Look, just look at what this person has become. Senior, you were jailed for seven years for nothing, did you know? From start to end, someone had been leading you around by the nose!"
Ruan Xiaoshan seemed to be dumbstruck. He stood by the side, numb and stiff, and let out a soft ahh like his soul had left his body.
Grey Shirt sighed and shook his head. "The two people in the photo are also really pitiful. Yang Ping threw them aside once he was done using them and didn't care at all what happened to them. These two people went on the run to hide. When the Elder Zhu's descendant pursued them for their lives, they really had no other way to survive and wrote a letter to Young Master Yang for help but in the end, it was like throwing a stone into the ocean. Later on, these two were killed so that they would not talk and died in a small, unknown flour factory. Perhaps they had some sort of premonition before their deaths; they entrusted these things to our North Branch Master. Sect Leader Yang, what those two souls who died unjust deaths had written in the letter before their deaths, you have seen it. Do you still remember?"
Yang Qing finally opened his eyes and looked at the other man in serene quietness. For some reason, when he saw the old man's gaze, Grey Shirt suddenly could not continue speaking.
Yang Qing—the last sect leader of Beggars' Sect, Chuan Lin Feng of the Five Supremes—finally opened his mouth. "The letter said, 'We did things for you. You had agreed to protect us. You had also agreed that when the storm was over, you would let us return to Yanning. But we've been on the run for more than ten years and they are also all dead now.'"
The clamour in the hall instantly turned into pin-drop silence.
"Everyone, Meizhen did not finish her words just now. Getting Little Master Yu to invite everyone here today was my wish." Yang Qing slowly took a step forward. "I am here to confess my guilt."
Meanwhile, in a room in a five-star hotel in Yanning, Wang Jiusheng slowly took out a pair of binoculars from his pocket and looked out at the cityscape from the window.
Beside him, a middle-aged man with a tacky appearance was pacing about anxiously. If Ruan Xiaoshan was there, he might not even be able to recognise this middle-aged man dressed completely in branded goods as the little brother of his who had worked in the guest house back then, the one who claimed to have overheard Beggars' Sect secret plan and set them on the path that destroyed their lives.
"President Wang, will that nonsense work?" the middle-aged man asked. "It… Even if it's taken to the police station, can it be evidence?"
"No," Wang Jiusheng said unhurriedly. "It's been more than thirty years. Even the most ironclad evidence has rusted through completely."
"But when forced so far, Yang Qing would admit his guilt himself," Wang Jiusheng said. "Otherwise, how would he explain why he had thrown Yang Ping out of Beggars' Sect for unclear reasons? The authorities require rigorous evidence but Yang Qing doesn't, Yang Qing wants his reputation. Back then, he concealed that letter out of selfish interests and he might not have had even a good night's sleep in all these years. At this point, would he still argue his way out? Don't worry, he doesn't have the tongue for it… Oh my, here it comes."
The middle-aged man looked up curiously at him. Wang Jiusheng passed the binoculars to him and pointed out, "There, see that? Police cars… They came here following our people."
The Travellers' Sect disciple who delivered the envelope to Grey Shirt had just driven the car into a small courtyard when he was surrounded by police cars that appeared out of nowhere. Without waiting for him to react, the police swarmed up and very efficiently cuffed him and took him away.
The small courtyard was barely 500 meters away from the hotel where Wang Jiusheng was hiding. Through the binoculars, he saw everything clearly.
"The cut-off mobile signal at the event hall, the police lying in wait—they want to lure me out." Wang Jiusheng let out a soft laugh. "This is the work of that Little Master Yu… Are the little brats nowadays all so good at playing clever little tricks?"
The middle-aged man wiped the cold sweat on his face and muttered, "This is so suspenseful."
"What suspenseful, I already knew this would happen," Wang Jiusheng said. "Furthermore, even if I go with the police, what can they do to me? I'm only avoiding them because they're troublesome. Let's go, this place is too near, we'll move somewhere a bit further."
 I translated the name of Yang Ping's "skill" as "Rebirth" but the original name is "脱胎换骨" which literally means "to be reborn and to change bones." The phrase comes from a Taoist concept about achieving the Way and shedding one's mortal body, but is now more commonly used to describe someone turning over a new leaf.
"Your car is pretty good." Wang Jiusheng crossed his legs and caressed the genuine leather interior of the car. "It looks low-profile on the outside but it's really comfortable to sit in. Hey, Xiao-Chen, am I doing wrong by you by making you, the regional vice president, be my driver?"
The middle-aged man who was driving laughed along. "In the past, I only carried trays for other people and couldn't even make my way into the back kitchen. Were it not for you, would I be where I am today? It's only right that I do this."
Halfway through his words, he suddenly stopped meeting Wang Jiusheng's eyes in the rearview mirror. Pretending to be concentrating on the road, he reached out and turned on the air-conditioner. His hands slipped from the steering wheel, leaving a sweaty patch.
But the seat was blocking the view and Wang Jiusheng did not see that. He relaxed and stretched out his body, looking through the window at the streets of Yanning rather interestedly. "By following the right boss, you're already much better off than most people in the world. Slowly, you will understand. People whose minds are unclear are the majority. Look at that group—Yang Qing, Yang Ping, Zhang Meizhen—they hold smartphones in their hands, order food delivery and take the high speed rail, but their brains are still stuck in the last century. The times change so fast, do they think that the saying 'old gingers are the spiciest' applies to them?"
The driver agreed with him without really paying attention. Maybe it was because he had become a "president" now; his ability to bootlick had deteriorated and he couldn't come up with any flattery.
Fortunately, Wang Jiusheng didn't care. "The Xu clan are all idiots. As for the loathsome beggars in Beggars' Sect, they don't even qualify as idiots, they only have chamber pots on top of their necks. In my opinion, in the entire Yanning City, if you go through them one by one, only that Yu Lanchuan can just barely be considered a normal person. After all, his academic qualifications are high, it's just that he's a bit immature… Hey, do you feel that the words I'm saying are rather conflicting? First I say that having experience is no longer useful, now I'm saying that the young are immature."
The driver, "..."
Wang Jiusheng might have felt stifled being on the little island where he did not understand the local language, his urge to express his views was intense and after asking the question, he answered it himself like one of those inferior teachers teaching a class. "Actually, it's not. Human affairs come and go, yet after thousands of changes, they remain the same at the core. You need to know how to refine your experience and grasp that 'core,' and not just blindly do work for show. All that stuff about reputation and jianghu chivalry are just like a cup of wine in the spring wind during peach season, they would all 'change,' they are dregs. In the past, when your brothers got into a fight and you threw punches to help, that was brotherhood. Try and do the same now, and you'll be sentenced to a few years behind bars! I just don't understand, what year is it now? That group of fools in the Xu clan are still playing at collecting demonic skills? If you train until you become Dongfang Bubai, can you dodge bullets and missiles? What is it that doesn't change? It is power, authority. Sects can go out of existence but with power, your prestige remains. Even without a title, you are still an uncrowned king. I remember back in that year, how our Futongda began… Xiao-Chen, are you going the wrong way?"
"Aiyo… I am! I forgot to turn, your words were too interesting. I… I've always been out of town these few years and I'm not familiar with the roads in Yanning in the first place…"
"It's fine, we're not in a hurry anyway. Make a few more rounds." Wang Jiusheng waved, unbothered. His spirits high, he continued his lecture, "That is how you refine your experience. When you look at something, you can't only look at the surface. You have to see what kind of lesson this story is teaching us. This time, you pick up a piece of meat jerky under the table; the next time, you still only know to search under the table—that's what dogs do!"
He had barely finished speaking when the driver made a sudden turn, turning left at an intersection that clearly indicated "No left turns," then pulled the emergency brakes.
In the backseat, Wang Jiusheng was not wearing a seatbelt and his entire body was flung left and right. "You…"
"President Wang, I-I'm sorry." The driver was frozen in his seat, the words coming from his mouth trembling at the same frequency as his body.
Wang Jiusheng suddenly understood what was going on. His eyes flew open. "Chen Dazhu, what are you doing?"
"I-I-I don't have a choice, President Wang, I really… am just a hoodlum, I'm not capable of anything else… I still have a wife and children, my wife just gave birth to our second kid… Sh-She will kill them! She threatened me with my whole family, I really don't dare…"
A person who betrayed their friend when they were in their teens, when they have grown to the age of forty-five years, the price for their betrayal is a little higher.
Back then, Chen Dazhu betrayed Ruan Xiaoshan and the others; of course he could also betray Wang Jiusheng now. A dog, other than knowing how to pick up meat to eat from under the table, can't change their habit of eating shit. President Wang had imparted his teachings on how to overcome difficulties for free, his arguments and conclusions systematic and logical, but it appeared that he had forgotten to link theory to reality.
Wang Jiusheng froze for two seconds. His reaction could not be considered slow; while the driver was too busy mumbling his regrets to lock the doors, Wang Jiusheng seized the chance and sprang up, tearing the car door open and fleeing.
The sound of police sirens suddenly came from nearby.
Regardless of whether or not the police being there was just a coincidence, the police would definitely not cooperate with someone who threatened a member of the public with "I'll kill your entire family." In his fright, Wang Jiusheng naturally thought, It must be the Xu clan.
Wang Jiusheng had returned to China for the sole purpose of fighting Zhang Meizhen for power. Due to the unique aspects of this activity, added with his own suspicious nature, he was afraid that there would be people within Travellers' Sect whose convictions were not firm and might spoil his plans, so he had only kept one person he trusted the most by his side. In that incident thirty-six years ago, this person had been in the same boat as him, sinking or swimming with him, and furthermore, had relied entirely on him to make his fortune. This person would definitely not go to Zhang Meizhen's side.
But he never would have guessed that instead of going to Zhang Meizhen's side, this man went to the Xu clan's side.
And, because of his suspicious nature, he hadn't kept enough people by his side.
Wang Jiusheng knew that the Xu clan was very displeased with him borrowing them to dispose of his enemies and also causing their people to be sacrificed, but both sides had known each other for so long and had always prioritised peace between them. Harmony brings fortune, and taking advantage of the other was a mutual thing. Even if there was a misunderstanding, they should let him clean up his problems first and then slowly explain himself. He could also compensate them!
This state of things did not benefit either side! Were they mad?
In the full light of the day, Wang Jiusheng ran for his life. He felt as though there were two shadows chasing him—one was the police, the other was the Xu clan.
The many years where he had been powerful enough to summon wind and rain had entirely been due to his plots and schemes. The little bit of martial arts he had practised when young had been returned to his damned shifu long ago. Like most middle-aged men, after running just a few steps, his rotten heart and lungs joined together to riot.
Wang Jiusheng's veins were pounding on his temples, black spots were appearing in his vision and his brain was blanking out. He didn't have the time to think carefully why the police would be here and could only pray desperately for the Xu clan people to bump into the police. But when he thought about it again, this was wrong! That Chen Dazhu knew too much about him. If he fell into the police's hands, then what?
While these jumbled thoughts were going through his head, he ran in a panic without caring where he was going. The vehicle sounds behind him were coming nearer and nearer; ahead, he could already see the front of the police car that was preparing to make a turn. They wanted to trap him in the middle!
Wang Jiusheng pressed harshly on his chest. Aiming for the wall by the road, he exerted an earth-splitting force and leaped up. A person is indeed capable of exceeding their usual performance in a moment of crisis, this leap seemed to let him retrieve the qinggong foundation he had when he was young. He ignored the scrapes the bricks left on him and with a flip, he reached the top. From above, he shot a look down and saw that the police were already blocking both ends. Meanwhile, the Xu clan people were probably afraid of the police and were not showing their faces.
This was still good. Being cornered by the police was better than being hunted down by the Xu clan. He could escape.
Wang Jiusheng panted for breath. His back was aching, his chest felt suffocated. He had medicine in his pocket but he didn't have time to take them. He turned around to jump down but right at that moment, a small gust of wind whistled sinisterly past his ears. Wang Jiusheng reflexively moved his head to dodge. Something brushed past his earlobes to land on the ground with a soft sound.
Then, someone laughed. "Oh my, President Wang. What a state you're in."
Wang Jiusheng lifted his head in disbelief. He saw that on a large tree not far away, someone seemed to be standing in midair near the treetop. In the late spring weather that was already heating up, she still wore a long coat, the hood and a mask hiding her face until only a thin sliver was exposed. Her knife-life gaze pierced out from that sliver.
She reached out her left arm. A silver blade spun between her long, slender fingers. Her voice was very low and heavy. "We finally meet."
Wang Jiusheng stood where he was, dumbstruck. For a moment, he even forgot about the police who were still in mad pursuit behind him.
Wei Huan, Wei Xiao… They died by his hands one by one. But like its name, Wan Mu Chun could "steal into the night along with the wind." For countless nights he had dreamed of them, frightened into waking by that three-cun-and-two-fen blade; or, a suspicious shadow would scare him until his heart beat irrhythmically and he would neorotically check every door and window.
And right when he thought that Wan Mu Chun had been completely eliminated, the nightmare that had haunted him for years suddenly became reality.
But wasn't she already dead?
Weren't they all already dead?
Weren't all these killers like vampires, hiding in the places that were pitch dark?
Wang Jiusheng's lips started to turn purple. The veins on his neck bulged out along with his harsh breathing.
The person on the tree leaped up, light as a feather, not even shaking the tree branches. Like a specter, she pressed in on him, step by step. Her getup was similar to Wei Xiao but her manner was more like Wei Huan, refusing to let go of him. Every step she took closer seemed to compress his breathing space a little more. Wang Jiusheng thought he could smell the metal blade. He strained to raise a hand and clutched his chest. His feet seemed to be trapped in a mire, unable to move an inch.
The next second, that terrifying murderer suddenly disappeared into thin air. Wang Jiusheng's vision blurred and he thought, I'm dead!
The only thing the police who were charging over saw was their target Wang Jiusheng originally wanting to flee, then suddenly having an epilepsy. His hands waved wildly before his eyes; then, with his arms and legs shaking, he fell from the wall just like that. Amidst the chaos, he seemed to have pulled the metal zipper on his clothes up to his neck and when the chill touched his neck, he let out an anguished, blood-curdling scream.
That scream was too terrifying. It made the police at the very front think that he had accidentally injured himself and they quickly ran over to look. They saw that Wang Jiusheng was completely unharmed and that his entire body was convulsing, one hand covering his throat and the other hand clutching his chest, straining desperately to breathe.
"Call the ambulance!"
"Does this guy have heart problems?"
"How many evil deeds must he have done to be so scared at just the sight of police cars… Hurry up, hurry up, someone come and give him CPR!"
Yu Yan ran over with his colleagues. He looked up and glanced at the large scholar tree beside the wall. The fragrance of the flowers wafted to his nose, no sight nor sound of the person remained.
A debt owed must be paid, a life owed must be returned.
A coward carrying a thousand catties on his back would one day have no more strength to go on and collapse under the weight of mountains.
The person who schemes would find himself deserted and alone in the end.
The blinding rays of the sun shone into the pin drop silent Martial Arts General Assembly. Yang Qing squinted his old, blurry eyes, so dazzled by the light that a little bit of tears were leaking out.
The police officer keeping watch at the back door made a hand signal at Yu Lanchuan. They came in stealthily and took away the few remaining Travellers' Sect members in the hall. The last two police officers came to stand before Old Yang and the old members of Beggars' Sect. "The few of you should come with us and record a statement."
Yang Qing nodded. He passed his walking stick to Zhang Meizhen, then smoothed out his clothes and sank to his knees, trembling all the while. Facing the crowd, he pressed his head to the ground.
Zhang Meizhen stood at the side and looked at his back. Speaking of which, it was strange; she had once felt that he was so tall and broad, and that he could always stand perfectly straight upright no matter what was happening. That noble spine of his on his back was like a mountain ridge. But when he knelt now, he became small, so small he could shrink into a small ball. His shirt and long pants draped loosely on him, the soul and fleshly body inside dried out like the dregs of medicine left overnight.
This time, she no longer had tears because her eyeliner was not very waterproof. She would turn into a ghost once her tears surged out.
"Zhang… Branch Master Zhang, what do you…" At the side, the old Travellers' Sect members that she had invited exchanged looks and called out to her hesitantly.
Zhang Meizhen fished out the red-coloured bat made of agate from her pocket. She cupped it in both hands and studied it for a while. "Let's disband."
"Beggars' Sect should disband, Travellers' Sect should also disband." She waved her hands, tossing the red Five Bat Token away without a care. "Everything's over."
The Five Supremes' very last remaining breath scattered to the wind.
Ruan Xiaoshan let out a mournful wail. More than the voice of a human, it sounded like an old crow announcing a death.
The moment the police entered, they started clearing the place.
Zhang Meizhen threw away the Five Bats Token and left on her own. The guests let out a sigh, and the people who had been involved in the past affair also left in twos and threes. Ruan Xiaoshan and a few others sobbed until their strength was exhausted, finally realising that time had flowed by like water and nothing could go back to the way it was in the past. And so, holding on to one another for support, they staggered out.
In the large hall, all that remained were a few living creatures scattered here and there… as well as the light shining through the windows.
Han Dongsheng stood up and helped to tidy up the aftermath of the event. From nowhere, an indescribable feeling rose in his heart. When he stood up, he heard his knees creak and so, for the sake of dispelling the melancholic feeling, he struck up an idle conversation with Yu Lanchuan. "After sitting for so long, my back and legs can't bear it anymore. I've really gotten old."
"When you have time, you should train a bit," Yu Lanchuan answered easily.
"Where would I find the time?" Han Dongsheng smiled. "I have the old and the young to take care of at home. That gremlin kid is also not sensible. Every other day, his teacher would call me over to receive an admonishment. My lousy job doesn't pay much either. I always have to work overtime but I also can't not work… I want to be promoted to deputy team leader this year. Speaking of that, it doesn't mean much but I can earn 2,000 more each month. Ai, you must think I'm ridiculous, speaking of these petty matters in front of Little Master Yu…"
"Why would I? Who doesn't want to be promoted and get a higher salary? I'm also waiting for a pay rise so that I can pay off my loan quicker," Yu Lanchuan said.
Yan Hao gave Qiao-Qiao a light tug. Qiao-Qiao looked up in confusion. She was just in a daze, like a hole had opened up on top of her head and her soul could no longer be kept inside. And with nothing holding it down, her soul would fly away just like that, up to the sky. Yan Hao didn't know how he should advise her, so he also went to help put away the chairs and tables. He half-listened to Han Dongsheng and Yu Lanchuan talking, and couldn't help following their conversation and thinking of the future.
He was in his twenties already. He couldn't keep depending on Boss Jiang. Yan Hao considered that he wasn't very good at studies and didn't like interacting with people, and he also probably couldn't do service-oriented jobs, so he should probably learn a skill… the kind that quietly worked behind the scenes. In the future, as long as he was hardworking, he could make a living no matter where he went.
Everyone had hopes for the future, yet no one dared hope for too much. They were all going through the ups and downs of life, but were also all working hard to maintain their usual way of life.
Qiao-Qiao suddenly shivered like a dreamer falling unexpectedly into the mortal realm. She stared at the bustle before her, at a loss for what to do. After spacing out for a long while, she bent down and collected her own walking corpse of a body, then left on her own without a sound.
Yu Lanchuan signalled the confused Yan Hao with his eyes. Yan Hao stared blankly for a while, then hurried after her.
Han Dongsheng sighed. "Fortunately… she's still young."
Fortunately, she was not yet eighteen. Her life had just begun, there was time for her to start over, and there was also enough time for her to defeat expectations and make a comeback. She didn't have to squander the rest of her life when it could be much better.
Han Dongsheng suddenly asked, "Little Master Yu, will the Martial Arts General Assembly still go on at the end of this year?"
"No. There's no one to help me organise it and I don't have that much time anyway," Yu Lanchuan said. "When I get back, I'll create a group chat and our friends from all over can communicate with each other online. On festive occasions, everyone can exchange red packets and greetings, and that's good enough."
Han Dongsheng followed his gaze and looked at the empty event hall.
Yu Lanchuan was someone very aware, very capable, with solid martial arts skills and an upright character. When he first moved into No. 110, the old people all had high hopes for this young descendant of the Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang, hoping that decades later, he could be like Old Alliance Leader Yu and use different means to once again realise the dream left by the old jianghu even as it deteriorated day by day.
Who would have thought that he would be too aware, Han Dongsheng thought, and would decisively and efficiently wake them up from this "dream" in Yanning City.
In his final years, Old Alliance Leader Yu Huaide had not bothered himself with the affairs of the world. He lived like an immortal, free as the clouds and the wild cranes. Thinking of it, he had probably come to understand that this was an era where great waves would wash away the sand. But as the head of the Five Supremes, he probably could not be at peace with that.
When Han Dongsheng came back to himself and turned around, Yu Lanchuan had already left at some point.
The police dispersed. The mobile signal at the event hall finally returned. Yu Lanchuan's phone that had been silent for a long while vibrated. He looked down; there were two messages, one from Yu Yan telling him that Wang Jiusheng and his accomplice had been arrested, but Wang Jiusheng had over-exerted himself while running away and his heart illness suddenly flared up so they had to send him to the hospital.
The other one was from a certain meme queen. It was a WeChat meme of a grimy face and the caption: I've come crawling back for food.
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Director Yu emphasised efficiency in everything and never replied to this kind of meaningless and pointless message. So he put his phone away and walked towards his home, his face impassive. After a few steps, his solemn expression slowly cracked, revealing a smile.
Just like that, another month passed. The mantis emerged, the shrike began to sing, the mockingbird fell silent; the first sign of the coming summer heat.
"Is Meng-Meng back? She started updating her translations again in her WeChat Moments a couple of days ago."
"Star Dreams is not open, will she still work there in the future?"
"I don't know about the shop but I don't think she's leaving. She seems to be running the Weibo for Star Dreams now. In the past couple of days, the official Weibo has been updating diligently. There is a lot of interesting stuff, it's not like in the past when all it did was try to sell things."
Old Sect Leader Yang paid a visit to the police station and very quickly came back. Even though he had concealed information, the incident had happened too long ago and had passed the statute of limitations. On top of that, he was already so old. After coming back, he informed Yang Yifan and then left Yanning to return to his old home. Zhang Meizhen accompanied him. She entrusted Gan Qing with the task of looking after her house.
Before she left, Gan Qing helped her pack. The luggage was stuffed until it was bulging. In the end, there was still a large pile of lipstick and lip gloss left, at least thirty to forty tubes, and there was really no space for them. Gan Qing searched for nooks and crannies to stuff them in, and ended up with a face covered in sweat. "Meizhen-jie, isn't it enough to just bring any two lipsticks?"
Was her entire body covered in lips?
Zhang Meizhen rolled her eyes. "The colours aren't the same, the textures are different and the shades are also not alike. They can't replace each other. What do you know, you're colourblind and you don't care."
"...Oh, okay," Gan Qing said.
Previously, Zhang Meizhen had once left all these superficial desires behind when she decided to visit Yang Qing at the hospital but it seemed like it was only for a short while. After coming back, her true self was exposed at the speed of light and she dressed herself up more gorgeously than ever, displaying to the fullest extent the true essence of a demoness.
Gan Qing strained to pull the zip shut on the last bag, then turned to look at Zhang Meizhen who was carefully applying mascara on her lashes. She asked suddenly, "Meizhen-jie, do you still…"
...love that man?
"Nothing." Gan Qing felt that since she was from a younger generation, it wasn't appropriate for her to ask this kind of question so she swallowed it back down. I guess she should have deep feelings for him, she thought. Otherwise, why would she accompany him back to his old home?
"You want to ask about Old Yang, don't you?" Zhang Meizhen removed the excess mascara with a cotton swab and said nonchalantly. "Old Yang probably doesn't intend to come back anymore. Cemetery plots in Yanning are too expensive. Even though his kid is quite generous, that old fool doesn't have much wealth to leave to her so he wants to save money for her wherever possible. His old home has everything he needs. When the time comes, he can be buried together with Yang Ping's mother. The space is already there."
"As for me, I'm just accompanying him for this part of the journey," Zhang Meizhen said. "We've known each other for so long after all."
Gan Qing stared blankly. She could sense a hidden meaning in those words.
Zhang Meizhen turned around and patted her head. "What's important is loving yourself. Once you truly love yourself, if you have any energy left over, you can try loving someone else; if you don't, then forget it. There's also no need to love so seriously, be more relaxed and carefree. That's better for everyone, isn't it?"
Gan Qing looked up at her. Zhang Meizhen tsk-ed. "Forget it, I don't think you need me to tell you this. You're a heartless little thing, you… Ai, speak of the devil."
Before she could finish speaking, someone pressed the doorbell. Zhang Meizhen raised her voice and called out, then pulled the door open and said to Yu Lanchuan, "Hi, handsome. Here already?"
Yu Lanchuan bent down and picked up her luggage. "The car's waiting downstairs."
"All right, all right, I'm leaving now. I won't stay here and stop you two from dating, will that be fine?" Zhang Meizhen sighed and instructed Gan Qing, "Don't forget to take in my deliveries for me!"
Gan Qing walked her to the car and sighed, "I know. If any old, middle-aged, or fresh young meat comes looking for you, I'll get them to take a number and get in line."
With her back to Gan Qing, Zhang Meizhen waved and got into Yang Yifan's car.
Probably because village roads weren't easy to drive through, Yang Yifan had gotten an off-road vehicle from her company. The lines of that car were clean and sleek, announcing its grand arrival as it came to a stop in the courtyard. It emitted an aura of wildness that could not be contained. Compared to it, the little passenger cars and commercial vehicles in the courtyard looked like demure daughters from humble families. Yu Lanchuan also couldn't help going with the norm and taking a few extra looks.
Gan Qing nudged him with her elbow. "Stop staring. When I have money, I'll buy one for you."
Upon hearing that, not only did Yu Lanchuan not feel touched, he even looked at her in shock. "Aren't you afraid you'll sprain your tongue from telling such lies? I'm not going to wait for you, what if I wait until I die and still haven't received it? Am I going to have to borrow 500 years from Heaven?"
Gan Qing, "..."
Yu Lanchuan gave her a look full of pity. "Have you gone so mad from being poor that you're hallucinating?"
Gan Qing checked her bank account balance and could not say anything. She shut her mouth dejectedly and returned home to work. Firstly for practise and secondly to earn some quick cash, she was helping a bunch of quack public accounts that talk a lot of mysterious nonsense to get some astrology information from the outside web, then translate word by word and edit them. There was even an illegal publisher who had gotten wind of her and contacted her recently, asking her to help compile a bestseller that combined the arcane arts and chicken soup motivational stories. She was still considering whether or not to accept it because she was also self-studying how to do interpretation.
The jobs she had were all small jobs. They were time-consuming and paid pennies.
At the start of every month, Gan Qing had lofty aspirations, desiring to support one dearly expensive Yu Lanchuan; at the end of every month, she would look at her account balance and fall to her knees.
There was a saying that went like this: Money is hard to earn, shit is hard to eat. Settling down for the long-term was much harder than entering university and learning knife skills with her left hand.
Truly, a heroic spirit never lasted long.
The news about Futongda being a large-scale money launderer and related to gang activities broke out. No one in that bunch of people could escape. The people below them could not hold out anymore and started to sell out Wang Jiusheng. This was the news brought by Officer Xiao-Yu when Little Friend Liu Zhongqi was just starting his summer holidays.
Yu Yan didn't come empty-handed; he brought with him a pile of drinks and fruits to celebrate Yu Lanchuan successfully usurping—no, smoothly getting promoted.
"Master Lan, you're steadily on your way to the peak of your life." Yu Yan crouched on the floor, helping him open his delivery package as he spoke. He tsk-ed, seeing that Yu Lanchuan had bought a bunch of household products which meant that he planned to give the old apartment a thorough cleaning. "You're really Director Yu now. When will your new name card be printed? Give me one, let me get a bit of that Director Yu immortal aura and enjoy the fun."
From the kitchen came Director Yu's aloof voice. "What's so fun about that? In the past, I have also doubled as a board member for quite a few companies that were under us, don't make a fuss just because you're ignorant… Go away! You're not allowed to touch the wok, get back to your prepwork!"
Yu Lanchuan swiftly removed Gan Qing from beside the wok to prevent this punk-style cook from creating an overly avant-garde flavour. "You're just the kitchen help in charge of prepwork, don't keep trying to usurp the position of head chef. Get your role right!"
Yu Yan said in shock, "You make someone help out in your own home, and only let them be a kitchen help? Why is it that someone like you can break out from the ranks of bachelors?"
Gan Qing poked her head out and said softly, "The result of being spoiled."
Amidst the sizzling sounds of cooking, Yu Lanchuan did not hear her words clearly but he intuitively felt that the two of them were not saying anything good about him. Hence, one hand holding the spatula, his other hand reached out and grabbed the back of Gan Qing's collar and pulled her back.
"Why are you getting all handsy again…"
Before she could finish speaking, she saw Yu Lanchuan take from the side a meatball that had been fried and carefully blew on it, then brought it to her mouth with a serious expression on his face.
Gan Qing looked at him. Yu Lanchuan lowered his gaze, hiding the apprehension in his eyes. "Don't just stand around and do nothing, help me check the taste."
Gan Qing took a bite from his hand. Yu Lanchuan looked at the top of her head and pressed his lips together, nervously observing her response. He had studied abroad for many years and knew how to cook, but he didn't like cooking so his skills were mediocre. Gan Qing had grown up by the side of a great chef. Even if she had now become someone who could survive on eating trash, he didn't want her to bear any more ill-treatment.
Gan Qing was very encouraging; she had always said nice words like they didn't cost anything. "Mm, it's just right, delicious! Little Master Yu is good at everything he does."
After hearing that, Yu Lanchuan was half reassured. He studied her expression carefully and seeing that she wasn't forcing herself at all, he was completely reassured. Then, while being all elated, this man also put on an act. He lifted his chin. "As if I need your nonsense."
Yu Yan could not bear to watch anymore. He quietly retreated from the kitchen, then faced Liu Zhongqi who was crouched on the sofa memorising study notes and pointed behind him. "The result of being spoiled."
This time, Yu Lanchuan heard him. "Old Fish, if you have nothing to do, go downstairs and buy a packet of sugar. Don't disturb the exam candidate!"
With a self-important air, Yu Yan said, "I am a guest! How can you order a guest around, so shameless!"
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
"I'll go, I'll go," Gan Qing said hastily.
After saying that, she seemed to realise that something was wrong and was stunned for a moment.
"Oh, you are not a guest," Yu Yan said.
Yu Lanchuan turned around like nothing had happened, pretending to devote all his focus to opening a bottle of soy sauce and sniffing it like it was a precious bottle from the '82 vintage. There was a hint of a smile on his face.
Gan Qing bent a finger and flicked the jeering Yu Yan, then turned to go downstairs to the nearest grocer. She got the sugar; then, after thinking for a while, she picked a few cartons of ice-cream from the freezer and paid for them together. Yu Lanchuan liked ice-cream but was too embarrassed to admit it. Every time she bought some, he would share his outlook on her future prosperous measurements when she hit middle age until she did not feel like eating anymore. The next time she went to look for the remaining half of the carton, it would have disappeared.
In the peak of summer, the cicadas' droning was clamorous. However, there was a tree-lined corridor shaded from the sun in front of No. 110 Courtyard and when walking there, a person would have a feeling of contentment, of their exhaustion settling into tranquility.
Gan Qing came out of the small shop, holding the bag of ice-cream. Without realising it, her feet were walking in time to the music playing in the shop, her steps sometimes light and sometimes heavy, full of delight and humour.
Just as she was about to walk past the intersection, the rhythm of her feet was suddenly disrupted. On the opposite of the road, an old lady who was enjoying the cool breeze stared at her with a face full of horror. At the same time, the wind whistled past her...
Without any warning, a van charged towards Gan Qing at a very tricky angle. The front of the van was very flat—practically a level surface—unlike normal sedan cars that had a protruding "nose." This way, even if Gan Qing could react in time, there was no way she could push on the car hood to propel herself up. Her only choice was to run but a human could not outrun a motor vehicle being driven at an insane speed. Even Yan Hao could not do it, much less her, and she had also just walked to the middle of the road. There was nothing before and behind her, and it was impossible for her to reach the side of the road in two steps and look for cover.
Gan Qing felt as though she was the fisherman in the poem, drowsing in blissful intoxication in the east wind, and suddenly, someone was splashing a bowl of cold water onto her face. Her mind hadn't yet realised what was happening but her body was already a step ahead and moving. In a split second, Gan Qing had taken a small, quick step forward. She had no time to think carefully, her hand reached out and—acting completely on instinct—she grabbed the van's side mirror. Both the mirror and her swung towards the van door; Gan Qing curled her body as small as it could possibly go and she just barely scraped past the madly charging van. One of her flip-flops fell off, the supermarket bag she was holding also flew somewhere, the ice-cream scattering all over the ground to be crushed under the wheels of the can, dying an untimely death on the road.
The side mirror could not support the weight of a human. It broke off with a snap and in that instant, Gan Qing grabbed onto the roof of the van with five fingers. She got a good look at the person in the van.
It was a stranger, male, in his forties. The bones on his face were protruding, the skin stretched thin and barely covering them. In his eyes, there was a red gleam that didn't seem human. On the other side of the window, he unexpectedly met Gan Qing's eyes. Then, his lips split in a smile and he gave the steering wheel a fierce twist. The van swung abruptly and was about to crash into the side of the road!
Gan Qing's entire body was like the hem of a skirt being lifted by the wind. Blood rushed into her fingers that were holding onto the roof until they flushed purple and her nails broke at once. It was impossible for the strength in the fingers of one hand to bear such a huge pressure. Gan Qing was thrown off. With unimaginable strength, her waist twisted in midair and in that rushed, chaotic instant, she at least managed to land on both feet.
Half-crouched on the ground, before she could stand, the van again crashed into the corner of the roadside shop like it was committing suicide, trying to pin her in the middle. There was nowhere she could dodge. Right then, an off-road vehicle suddenly charged over and collided with the back of the van. Hit on the back, the van bounced up, two wheels lifting off the ground, and crashed onto two large trees. The driver's head came into intimate contact with the left-side window and he was knocked unconscious.
Skid marks full of murderous aura marred the ground. It was only now that the customers in the shop whose windows and door had nearly been crashed into realised what had happened. The row seated near the window all stood up and ran deeper into the shop where they stood with their necks stretched out, resembling a row of inclined bars that were shocked senseless.
All at once, Gan Qing was entirely covered in cold sweat that soaked through her thin T-shirt. She lifted her head and looked towards the off-road vehicle that had saved her life. She saw a robust man with tattoos on his body and a cigarette dangling from his mouth push open the door and got down. He looked at the dented front bumper with a solemn face. It was none other than the boss of the pet store where Qiao-Qiao worked.
Qiao-Qiao had resigned and left. Other than Yan Hao, she didn't leave her contact information with anyone. The cats and dogs in the store had been listless for a few days now. The boss also couldn't hire anyone at short notice so he had no choice but to watch the shop himself every day, resulting in both humans and animals being "watched" until a gloomy cloud hung over them. The nearby pet owners who needed to be away for a short while and wanted to board their pets with the store, when they saw this man, they no longer dared to send their cats or dogs there.
The pet store boss made a phone call. He came forward and pulled the van door open and poked his head in for a look, then said to Gan Qing, "Hey, this kid is still breathing —"
Before he could finish speaking, the van driver suddenly snapped open his eyes. A cold glint struck at the pet store boss, followed by a soft sound. Gan Qing knocked away the dagger the van driver was holding with the back of her hand and elbowed the pet store boss out of the way. In the narrow space, the two of them fought at a speed that blurred the eyes. The driver suddenly let out a hoarse scream. The dagger fell with a clang. There were blood marks on the spot between his thumb and his second finger.
The pet store boss reacted pretty quickly, taking a step forward and kicking the dagger away. Without waiting for Gan Qing to react, his fist that was the size of a large bowl swung towards the van driver's face. The van driver's face already had protruding bones on both sides and a concave middle and the punch nearly gave him a meteorite crater. Two lines of blood trickled from his nose and he fell backwards, once again unmoving.
Gan Qing, "..."
The pet store boss shot Gan Qing a look. Without saying a word, he took out a bundle of rope from the trunk of his own car. He dragged the van driver out, tossed him on the ground and tied him up. When he was done, he kicked him with the tip of his foot and said to Gan Qing, "I called the police already. Do you know this man?"
Gan Qing didn't know the man but she recognised the technique in that one dagger strike. The glint of the blade was cold as frost and quick as lightning, lasting just an instant, striking up from the bottom—it was the fundamental skill of her own sect.
This man was from the Xu clan.
She was silent for a while and the pet store boss also didn't press for an answer. He squatted on the roadside and smoked his cigarette, going through his contact list to look for the auto repair and the insurance company. His voice was a little unclear when he spoke. "I don't know what you guys are doing but since you're not ordinary people, you shouldn't force yourself to live ordinary lives, should you? Otherwise, the bystanders around you will suffer misfortunes along with you."
Gan Qing followed the direction of his gaze and saw that from the shop whose only crime had been to be in the wrong place, the bystanders were coming out in a single file. But no one dared come near, they circled her far in the distance, taking photos with their phones.
She muttered softly, as though to herself, "But I… am just an ordinary person."
"Ordinary person?" The pet store boss looked at her hand. Her fingernail that was split into two left a trail of blood that was already congealing. The dried dark red clotted between her fingers, right where there was a bloodstained razor blade. "If you're an ordinary person, why do you carry blades with you?"
Gan Qing had nothing to say to that.
"Curve to the left… 'Xiao.'" The young girl held the pencil in an awkward grip, scribbling on the gridded writing practice book. "Shifu, this word is very hard. Why are there so many strokes… Aiyo."
"Even I am not complaining about the amount of strokes." Wei Xiao gave the back of her head a light smack. "That's your shifu's formal name."
The girl cocked her head and mulled over it for a while. "Aren't you called Wei Changsheng? Is Wei Changsheng your childhood name?"
Wei Xiao evaded her question, reaching a hand out to tap on her homework. "Have you finished writing and memorising? Don't get distracted."
The girl pouted. No longer racking her brains over her shifu's changing name, she sighed as she continued to do her homework. There seemed to be nails on her butt and it shook twice after every single stroke she wrote. Her eyes kept drifting towards the window.
"There are only a handful of characters in total. Finish writing before you go out to play. All you know is play!" Wei Xiao rebuked.
"Who wants to go out to play? Not me." The girl wrinkled her nose, pretending to be mature. "I want to go out and practise my knife skills. You said that when I'm eight, you will teach me Paoding Jieniu!"
Wei Xiao brushed her off and said, "You can't even reach the kitchen counter yet. There's no hurry."
"I didn't say I want to learn to cut ingredients!" the girl said. "I want to learn Paoding Jieniu, the one in the history of our sect. I even finished reading our sect's history by checking the dictionary! I want to carry on Wan Mu Chun's legacy in the future."
When Gan Qing was young, she had been thin and small-sized, and also mischievous. When outdoors, she wanted to touch everything and because of that, she was frequently sick. The reason why Wei Xiao taught her martial arts was so that she could strengthen her body and have a very strong foundation. He was a high-skilled expert, capable of grasping the entirety from just an example, and taught her everything except for Paoding Jieniu. Little Gan Qing's persistent nagging didn't work, so she hung around in the kitchen every day to watch him cut ingredients—supposedly, all of Wan Mu Chun's skills lay in the fingertips and would emerge when the knife was picked up, regardless of what was being cut—and then, fumble around and practise blindly on her own. She nearly sliced the veins on her own hands. Wei Xiao was afraid that she would destroy the results of her training by messing around like that so he had no other choice and could only give her a rough explanation, and instructed her not to use it and also not to bring up Wan Mu Chun when she was outside.
"Why can't I bring up Wan Mu Chun?"
"Because starting from your grand-master's generation, we have washed our hands clean of the past."
"So we can't bring up our name after that?"
"It will bring you trouble…"
"I'm not scared! When I'm older, I can beat them up until they have to crawl on the ground!"
Wei Xiao sighed as he looked at his little disciple who couldn't understand his serious words. "It's unlucky, my little disciple. The 'Chun' character refers to 'the silent rain,' existing everywhere and nowhere. You're a lively little girl, do you want to live in the shadow of a reputation? You shouldn't have anything to do with Wan Mu Chun."
The little disciple couldn't even understand his serious words, much less his serious and packed-with-hidden-meanings words. After listening, she only felt even more that her sect was so mysterious, so amazing. A small flame lit up in her chuuni soul and she began fanning it, obsessed.
Twenty years later, Gan Qing finally understood what her shifu had meant all those years ago.
She turned her head around to look towards the shaded street in front of No. 110 Courtyard. Just now, she had thought it refreshing and delightful, and it was only now that she was hearing the unceasing clamour of the cicadas in the undergrowth. In the gaps of the dense foliage, there seemed to be countless eyes staring at her; staring until she was again feeling as though there was the tip of a blade on her back before her cold sweat could dry off.
The police cars very quickly arrived and right on their heels was a call from Yu Lanchuan. "The grocer downstairs has ready-made sugar, you don't need to extract the cane juice yourself. Did you run off to the south to cut the canes? Hurry up and come back. I have an appointment in the afternoon with the person coming to change the windows."
"You guys eat first, I —"
A police officer ran over. "You still need to come with us and record a statement!"
On the other end of the call, Yu Lanchuan heard it. "What? What statement? Hello? Gan Qing, what did you do now? Gan Qing!"
The person who drove the van and crashed into her was a wanted criminal. His DNA and fingerprints were in the public security database. Apparently, he was a suspect in a past burglary and murder case and had been on the run the whole time. No one expected that this was where he would get caught. There were a lot of witnesses at the scene and on top of that, ever since she got to No. 110, she had been involved in so many matters that she was already a familiar face to the neighbourhood police. Hence, in just a few words, she finished explaining what happened and the police let her go back.
When she came out, she saw Yu Lanchuan and Yu Yan waiting on the other side of the street.
Yu Yan said, "My colleague told me already. These people have accomplices but don't worry, we will follow up on this. Be careful when you leave the house these few days. If there's any news, I will immediately inform you guys… If there's no other way, you can also request for protection."
Could they protect her for a lifetime?
Gan Qing smiled politely at him. She didn't reply.
Officer Xiao-Yu exhorted her a bit more before hurrying off to find out about the situation. Yu Lanchuan was left standing in silence on his own by the roadside.
"Didn't you say that you were getting your windows changed in the afternoon?" Gan Qing smiled at him as though nothing had happened. "Did you change the time?"
Yu Lanchuan didn't answer. He continued to stare at her without blinking.
Gan Qing walked over. She grabbed a hold of his hand and started to walk back.
From here to No. 110, there was a distance of two stops. During the peak of summer in Yanning, the high temperature and blazing sunshine lasted until around seven in the evening. Normally, Yu Lanchuan would definitely refuse to walk home, but today, he had a feeling that every step he took was one less step he had left to take, and he let her lead him as she wished.
Very quickly, their palms were covered in a layer of sweat, both sticking together. Yu Lanchuan walked slower and slower, finally coming to a stop. Gan Qing tugged forward and their hands slid apart amidst the sweat.
"My grand-master had the advantage of being in glory during his time, that's why he could take the opportunity to wash his hands of the old ways. My shifu changed his name and even the name on his grave is not his true name… But Wei Huan and I, we two unfilial disciples, when we were young, we had both thought ourselves very amazing and neither of us had listened to the advice of the old." After saying that, Gan Qing turned her head around. "After showing off our might, naturally there would be a price to pay."
Yu Lanchuan's teeth were clenched very tightly, his eyes slightly reddened. Wang Jiusheng had been arrested, Travellers' Sect had collapsed, Gan Qing had fulfilled her promise to return safe and sound. He thought that the crisis was over and that the thing he had been worrying about was just a baseless fear. Everything was returning to the right track.
But it turned out that there was no such thing as a lucky chance.
All he could do was to say, devoid of emotion, "Don't think too much now. I'll think of something…"
"The Xu clan's main camp is not even in Yanning. This bunch of people hide themselves in remote and desolate places. What can you come up with?" Gan Qing said.
"I don't care that they are in hiding. As long as they come to Yanning-"
Gan Qing let out a laugh and interrupted him. "One can be a thief for a thousand days, but not hide from a thief for a thousand days."
Yu Lanchuan could say nothing to that.
Since sixteen years ago, he had worked hard to break free of that sense of helplessness. He was disciplined, unyielding, calm and orderly. There was nothing he wanted that he could not get. Gradually, he had an illusion that there was nothing he could not do.
But it turned out that a person's life was like the dust floating in the air. A sense of helplessness was the exact thing that ran through their life from beginning to end. Growing up did not help, training to become an unparalleled swordsman did not help, getting promoted to the rank of domineering director also did not help.
"Then again, it makes sense that the Xu clan are afraid of me." Right then, Gan Qing suddenly turned around to look at him. "The rats hiding themselves here and there are all afraid of the spring wind that exists everywhere."
"I won't hide like my shifu. There's no end to it if I do that," Gan Qing continued to say. "Since they have come to find me, of course I should also pay them a visit… Mm, of course, it will be via legal means. I won't put you in a bind… Will you wait for me?"
"How long should I wait?" Yu Lanchuan asked. "One year, two years? Five years, or will it be ten years?"
Two steps away, Gan Qing fixed her eyes on him. She didn't say anything, because a promise carried the weight of a thousand pounds. She could not break her word. The things she could not be sure of, she didn't dare promise.
If a woman wanted to leave because of some reason or other, a carefree person might wave and wish her luck for the future. Both parties would change partners and from then on, never cross paths again.
A person with deep feelings might be willing to lower their dignity, retreat 3,000 miles and beg the other person not to leave.
But Yu Lanchuan could do neither.
The last descendant of Wan Mu Chun could frighten Wang Jiusheng into heart failure just by shooting him a glance from far away. She was not someone who could remain within view of the crowd; by nature, she had to live out her life with a hood and a mask as company. She could not allow people to see her; if they did, she would become a live target in the shape of a human body.
Regardless of whether it was for the public good or for his own personal interest, Yu Lanchuan could not force her to stay and allow today's incident to happen again.
Then, was his only choice to wait?
If he waited… would he get what he wanted?
Gan Qing said that there would be no end to days spent in hiding, that was why she would rather fight it out with the Xu clan until the end. Yu Lanchuan believed that she knew her limits—she was no longer that hot-blooded girl who lacerated her own arm in a moment's impulse back then. Even when leaving a cut on Yang Ping's body, she could control the length of the cut accurately so that it would not count as a light injury. She might become a qualified "bounty hunter," living a wandering existence and getting rewards from public security bureaus everywhere… That was also a way to live.
But would there be an end to such days?
The Xu clan was everywhere. Just based on what they knew, there were those in the rural villages spreading their cult teachings, those instigating victims of domestic abuse to commit murder, those who swindle the elderly for their coffin money through any means… They came in all shapes and sizes, and were not limited to an isolated case. Even if she was skilled and courageous, and could take them down one by one without coming to any harm, they were like cockroaches that would not die. Destroy one nest and there would be a bunch who escaped the net. Throughout the process, she would also be forming new grudges without rest, falling deeper and deeper into the mess.
The sweat on Gan Qing's palm evaporated. She patted Yu Lanchuan. "Let's go back first and-"
Yu Lanchuan slapped her hand away.
Oh, he's angry, Gan Qing thought. She stared blankly, her fingers curling in a little. As though nothing had happened, she withdrew her hand and continued walking.
But all of a sudden, Yu Lanchuan caught up to her and wrapped her in a hug, his arms winding tightly around her waist. The smell of either her body wash or laundry detergent still remained on her, an indolent rose fragrance that melted into this tormenting summer's day. Her bones could be faintly felt on her back and her waist. When that thin body was in his arms, there was still so much extraneous space. He could not fill his arms, his heart; there was so much emptiness.
A drifting cloud suddenly stopped in its tracks, temporarily blocking out the sun. The corners of every building in Yanning City began to extend their shadows. The dancing reflections on the road resembling sparks of fire were extinguished at once. Yu Lanchuan suddenly felt as though he was holding a piece of paper, a painting, a beautiful illusion like flowers reflected in a mirror and moon in a lake; while his limbs were bound by an invisible string, his cumbersome body pressed to the ground by gravity. The moment he let go, she would drift far away.
Hence, all he could do was to tighten his arms desperately, binding her so tightly that her veins could be seen under her skin.
The things a person can not bear to part with is what keeps them imprisoned.
Gan Qing did not fight free. Her eyes followed the edge of the shadows, looking far into the distance. From the time she received the notification of Wei Xiao's death when she was in prison, her existence had been light as a feather, with nothing behind or ahead of her. It was Yu Lanchuan who had pulled her down into the dust of the mortal world, filling her ears and her mouth until she was on the verge of drowning in it.
Just a couple of days ago, she had even calculated her savings and acknowledged the fact that her ability to earn money was rather lacking. As the saying went, "One can't eat hot tofu with a hasty heart." Her only choice was to temper herself bit by bit and slowly save up. Director Yu supporting his family and paying off his mortgage was likely something she could not afford to interfere with. If she was lucky, when he finished paying off his mortgage, she might have saved up enough to buy a car and could throw it all away on a lavish purchase in exchange for a smile from him.
She didn't have much interest in studying. In the past, she had once studied assiduously for the sake of her family but her efforts had come to nothing. She also didn't place much importance in material possessions. She wanted to help Yu Lanchuan with life's little mundanities and necessities, but it would likely also come to nothing.
She was born with a fate where everything in her life would be unfinished.
Gan Qing thought, Can you don't change your windows?
Once this thought appeared, quick as lightning, it travelled to the tip of her tongue and then was swallowed down by her.
Because these words sounded like making a fuss for no reason, and were also rather selfish.
That night, Gan Qing packed her bags. In this one year, she hadn't added much to her belongings. They filled a bag—there were even less things than when she moved in. She sent a very long message to Zhang Meizhen, explaining that she wouldn't be able to help her receive her delivery packages in the future. Then, she opened the window and looked out.
With the price that No. 110 commanded now, it probably wouldn't share the same fate as the original Mudpool Backlane which had been demolished until it was unrecognisable. But she still didn't feel reassured, she still felt that she had to engrave everything into her mind. Even if the sights remained unchanged, the saying "Things remain the same but the people have changed" held true.
When Elder Yang was no longer around in the future, Yang Yifan probably wouldn't continue staying in this courtyard. She was too ahead of her time and did not fit in at all with chattering old residents of the neighbourhood. When Little Friend Han Zhou graduated from primary school, Han Dongsheng and his family would no longer need to spend so much on rent and would definitely move back to their own house. Qiao-Qiao had left. Yan Hao, too, would probably only stay for a few more days. He was still young, he shouldn't spend the rest of his life minding a laundry shop. Yu Lanchuan's house would apparently be handed over to him at the end of the month…
At that time, he probably would leave too.
Director Yu's future prospects were boundless. He could look for any random forum for arranged dating, upload his resume, and there would be plenty of young, beautiful and highly-qualified women willing to be interviewed for the position of his wife.
The distance between every two balconies on the old building was barely two meters. Gan Qing heard a noise coming from the window next door. She didn't turn to see and only said, "When the time comes, I'll send my new contact details to you."
Next door, Yu Lanchuan didn't make a sound.
"I won't use the number to contact anyone else. 200 a year should be sufficient," Gan Qing continued. "When you're free, top up for me. If the day comes that you don't want to keep in contact anymore, then just stop topping up."
The moment the phone runs out of credit, I'll understand.
After she finished speaking, the person at the side still did not respond. Gan Qing finally couldn't resist turning her head to look. "Little Master Yu, say something…"
The window on the next balcony was open but there was no one inside.
Gan Qing stared blankly. Right then, someone pounded on the front door from outside. Half a beat late, she responded and the moment she opened the door, Yu Lanchuan grabbed her shoulder, pushed her back abruptly, and pulled 1003's door shut behind him.
"I won't wait for you." He pushed her shoulders, pressing her against the narrow wall of the entrance hall.
Yu Lanchuan was like a moving basin of cold water. He could wear the tightest fitting shirt and appear cool and relaxed, and he came with his own low-temperature atmosphere. But right now, his entire body seemed to be burning up, even his breaths were more heated than usual, nearly scalding as they brushed across her skin.
He blinked bloodshot eyes and stared at Gan Qing, saying through gritted teeth, "Like hell I'll wait for you."
Then, a kiss as heated as his breaths fell, rushed and pained, giving her an illusion that it was searing into her skin when it landed.
Gan Qing heard his words clearly. She stiffened for a few seconds; then, she slowly lifted a hand and put it on his back.
I guess this is fine too, she thought. Let's… leave a memory.
Treat it as downing the final cup of wine before taking to our separate ways.
The droning of the cicadas suddenly changed pitch. From beneath the earth, the heavy water vapour rose straight up to pool high in the clouds. From far came the low rumble of distant thunder, stretching out long and unbroken like the sound of waves. The rain poured down, smashing the drab and tranquil summer night into a kaleidoscope, a thousand vibrant worlds contained in a thousand mirrors. Light and shadow swayed, a thousand shades of red in chaos, dizzying and dazzling.
A night was like an entire lifetime, and a mortal's lifetime was nothing more than a dream in the first place.
The next day, Unit 1003 of No. 110 Courtyard on Rongxian Street turned vacant, like it had never been lively before.
Three days later, Yu Lanchuan received a text message from an unknown number and a WeChat friend request. The message said, "Annual fee 200."
Yu Lanchuan topped up 200 yuan of credit for the number, not a cent more, like a silent agreement.
Like hell I'll wait for you, he thought. Just you wait and see.
 沉醉东风 (Drunk in the East Wind) is a verse by Bai Pu, a Yuan dynasty playwright.
In the web version, the epilogue consists of two chapters. In the print version, the first epilogue chapter is combined into the last chapter of Book 5. I have followed the split in the print version due to personal preference. So basically, there will be only one epilogue chapter in this translation before the main story closes.
— END OF BOOK 5 —