"Shit!" Yu Yan cursed into the receiver. "He can still escape in this situation, what the hell are you guys doing!"
The few officers who were "fucking things up" upstairs felt that it was terribly unjust. When they heard this criticism, they only wanted to shout back downstairs, "Do it yourself if you can!" They didn't dare fight back, while the elderly army was brimming with fighting spirit and was not holding back at all. An elderly man lifted a large broom and smashed it down on them.
"Do you officers do anything proper at all the whole day? If you're so great, go arrest Osama bin Laden! You officers only know how to persecute the people!"
"Sir, please put down your weapon, let us talk properly… Stop hitting! You guys are the one persecuting the police!"
The suspect who escaped through the window was scraggly and unkempt. His face was wrinkled and he looked around the age of sixty, yet his movements were abnormally nimble.
He didn't free-fall to the ground; instead, he grabbed the window frame and swung like a monkey, swinging himself to the top of a tree in the residential area. His limbs curled in and he protected his face with his hands. The dried branches buffered his landing. Before he reached the ground, his body was already unfolding swiftly in midair. Both his hands caught on to a tree branch and with a swing, he leaped directly over the heads of the landbound police officers!
"After him!" Yu Yan picked up his police baton. "Detour to the front and arrest him!"
This scene wasn't like the time when they went after the qigong master. There weren't many little alleys here. Once they were out of the residential area, it was a wide and flat road.
He silently thanked modern technology. No matter how good that person's qinggong was, as long as there were no cracks for him to slip into, he definitely could not outrun cars.
A few police cars responded and drove ahead, their sirens piercing through the air. Ahead was a blockade; behind were pursuers.
A sinister expression flashed past the fleeing suspect's face. Suddenly, he turned his body in the air and swiftly threw something at the relentlessly pursuing Yu Yan.
Yu Yan only saw him move and didn't see clearly what he had thrown. But in that instant, he was attacked by a sense of danger that he had never felt before. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and there was only a single thought left in his mind: Shit, I'm dead.
Right at that moment, a hand pressed on his back, forcefully pushing him down. Yu Yan had been rushing forwards and he lost his balance and nearly sprawled on the ground. At the same time, something brushed past the back of his head and a clink rang out!
Yu Yan stumbled a few steps. His knees weakened and he fell kneeling on the ground. Barely over the shock, he turned his head back to look.
What he saw was that the person who had pushed him down with a hand was Yan Hao and in Yan Hao's hand was a dull black metal rod. A few small throwing knives were stuck to the metal rod, their blades reflecting a cold light. They had all been thrown at him just now by the suspect!
Yan Hao didn't have time to speak to him. With a few leaps, he chased after the suspect. The other person repeated his old tricks; his hands opened and there was a sharp, whistling sound carried by the wind. It was another batch of throwing knives!
Yan Hao brandished the strange metal rod in his hands like a windshield wiper, swinging it around so fiercely that even the wind could not pass through and only a blur could be seen. Those small throwing knives were again drawn towards that strange metal rod. Yan Hao went forward a couple of steps, catching up with the suspect, and turned his body, his leg sweeping out. The suspect's face changed and he leaped abruptly to dodge. But he didn't realise that there was a thick and sturdy tree branch right above his head.
With this leap, his head collided directly against the branch and he gave himself a concussion on the spot. Without making a single sound, he fell unconscious to the ground.
The police officers who had caught up, "..."
The large tree shook slightly.
Traditional qinggong was said to be unscientific precisely because of this—before studying, there were no systematic rules and training, and no one taught the students the fundamental safety rule of "Open your eyes and ears." If a person ran so fast and even climbed up high for no reason, how could there not be an "accident"?
Who among those experts who flew here and there with their qinggong hadn't banged their heads a few times? Everyone was just united in keeping it a secret from outsiders for the sake of preserving their immortal-like image.
The police officers swarmed up and put handcuffs on the suspect.
"There's something in his pocket… Wait a minute, this is… Oh my god!" A few officers searched the suspect's body and found the blades of a dozen surgical knives, all fixed to a projectile launcher that looked like a children's toy. When the switch was pressed, the sharp blades would be fired out. At a short distance, it was extremely lethal. "Old Yu, you're lucky to be alive."
"Why, thank you." Yu Yan's legs were still a little weak. He limped over and forced a laugh as he patted Yan Hao on the shoulder. "Why are you here?"
Yan Hao spoke like the buzz of a mosquito. "Sect Leader Yang asked me to come here. He said that these people might be related to demonic sects and was worried that you guys would be in danger."
Yu Yan exhaled. After a close brush with death, he was still feeling the fear now and was a little out of breath. He rested his hands on his knees, bending at the waist, and tilted his head to study the metal rod in Yan Hao's hand. "What kind of martial arts skills is it that you have, is it internal energy? You can even attract those small knives?"
The expert walks among the common people, the wise man does not reveal his face!
Yu Yan couldn't help feeling deeply respectful.
Yan Hao answered shyly, "Magnet."
Yu Yan, "..."
"It's specially for defending against hidden weapons," Yan Hao said awkwardly. "I have a bit of myopia and also astigmatism… It's from looking at the computer screen too much. I can't see clearly if other people use hidden weapons."
Officer Yu's head which was looking up from between his arms dropped back down. He thought, It's game over for you righteous sects.
A colleague ran over. "Yu-ge! Are you all right? Ai, how should we handle this suspect? He gave himself a concussion, do we put him in custody or take him to the hospital?"
Oh well, Yu Yan straightened up painfully and thought, it's good enough anyway. The evil sects are about the same level as them.
"First…" Yu Yan shot a glance downwards and was suddenly stunned. "Wait."
He drew near the unconscious suspect and realised that there was a very small bump on the person's temples. It was like the wrinkles on a person's finger pads when they had soaked in the water for too long.
Yu Yan drew closer and examined it for a few seconds. He put on gloves and carefully pulled that piece of skin, and unexpectedly pulled off a layer of skin from the suspect's face!
It was a very thin layer of film. It seemed to be made of something like plastic or silicon. On top, it was moulded with very realistic age spots and wrinkles. But unlike the "human-skin masks" in television series which could be peeled off in one piece, this was like spring pancakes. It was put together piece by tiny piece, the shape of each piece tailored and trimmed with meticulous detail. The places where they were affixed to were all the areas on a person's face that easily wrinkled and where the flesh was not smooth, so that there was a natural contour and even by touch, nothing strange could be detected!
Beneath the mask was the face of a man in the prime of his life. His skin was a little red from being tugged on by the mask and his features looked fierce.
With this face, even if he were to ask for directions on the streets it was likely that no one would dare give him a detailed answer. But once the mask was on, in a flash he transformed into a kindly and friendly old man who could very easily gain the trust of his "peers."
"Go back and check whether this man has a criminal record." Yu Yan breathed out lightly. "These demonic sect people sure have lots of tricks."
At the same time, in another residential area in Yanning City, a small bus stopped under the shade of the trees. A young man came down from the bus—it was the man who had taken Old Mr. Zhou away, Xu Shaowen.
This time, he was clearly being more careful. The medium-sized bus had been switched to a low-key small bus, he didn't dare stop at a busy spot, and the body of the bus was even marked with the logo of a fake tour group to fool any onlookers.
The bus driver pulled down the brim of his cap and said behind Xu Shaowen, "I've already said before, slender streams flow the longest. Don't be too greedy, be more careful when you pick your targets and pick less people. Wait until these people have been groomed, then let them run errands and cast the net on our behalf. Don't bring so many people to the operations base, the base is where we train our core members. But you guys just had to scheme to make some quick money and took away so many people in one go! Now, great, you've alerted the police, haven't you?"
"You think I want to entertain so many old men and old ladies at the same time? It's all because we haven't met the quota for this year! It's already the end of the year, what else can we do?" Xu Shaowen's face turned cold. "Those who conduct their operations in the rural areas can easily increase their followers by converting a whole village at a time, what would they know about the competition we face in the big city? Just one district alone already has two groups selling health supplements, one for practicing qigong, and even the ones for acupuncture, moxibustion and weight loss are starting to shout slogans and form cliques. And the rent is also so damned expensive! I heard that that useless group of trash, the Chun division, were completely eliminated not long after they got to Yanning... Ai, it makes me want to switch branches. This is the last batch for the year. I've calculated it, if we fill up the bus this round, our mission is done… Someone's here!"
The elderly were usually the type to fight to be the first rather than to be the last. Before the appointed time, most of them were already there.
Beaming from ear to ear, Xu Shaowen greeted them one by one. This time, he even gave each of them a small flag and a small red cap, and they looked completely like a proper tour group.
"Please go up slowly, there is water on the bus… I believe that our ten-day trip will be an extremely happy one. Not only can we enjoy the beautiful scenery, we can also nourish our souls… Ai, Sir, you are…"
Xu Shaowen helped the last old man up the bus and looked at the unfamiliar face with some misgivings. "Have you participated in our activities before?"
The old man was leaning on his walking stick, his body curled like a small lump. He looked at Xu Shaowen with a rather lost expression.
An old man who had gotten on the bus earlier quickly poked his head out. "I was the one who brought Old Yang along. In the past, we played weiqi together. He really can't stay at his home anymore, he's almost sleeping on the streets. I feel sorry for him so I brought him along."
Xu Shaowen's brows furrowed lightly.
"Xiao-Xu, just bring one more along. It's not like Old Yang doesn't have the money. He just doesn't have any other choice. He's over ninety already. He's too old, tour agencies all take a look at his identification and immediately ask where his family is. Once they hear that his family is not there, they'll either not dare to take him on or want to make a police report."
The moment Xu Shaowen heard the old man's age, he cursed in his heart. Tour agencies didn't want to take the old man in, their own demonic organisations also didn't want to take him in! If he just breathed the wrong way, he might cross to the other world just like that. What on earth were these old fools living so long for, were they cultivating to attain spiritual enlightenment?
He was just trying to find an excuse to refuse when Old Yang took out a paper packet with faltering hands and pushed it to his chest, saying anxiously, "I just went to the bank this morning to line up and withdraw it. Old Feng said I'm an extra person, I was afraid that you wouldn't want me so I withdrew a bit more. There's 100,000 in total. Young man, please take me along."
Xu Shaowen's ears twitched. He turned back to exchange a look with the driver.
The driver nodded slightly at him. There was an extra 60,000. The two of them could split it and treat it as overtime fees.
Xu Shaowen pretended to hesitate. After a long while, he reluctantly nodded. "This is not quite following the rules… Ai, I really feel sorry for you. All right, I'll bear the responsibility for this!'
Old Yang tottered up the bus, holding onto him for support.
"Ninety already." Xu Shaowen's hand was warm and strong. Like he was carrying something that wasn't very heavy, he easily helped Old Yang into the bus. Out of professional habit, he said without thinking, "If my grandfather was still alive, he would probably be the same age as you. In the past, I liked to listen to him talk. He lived for almost a century. He knew everything that had happened and I was never bored no matter how long I listened. Your family members really don't know how to appreciate you."
Old Yang was briefly stunned. For a moment, the faintly pleading expression on his face disappeared. His eyelids dropped down and his gaze was rather resigned.
The small bus full of red-capped elderly and bearing the logo saying "Red Sunset Tours" stealthily blended in with the traffic and left Yanning City. A rather rundown car quietly stuck close behind.
In his office, Yu Lanchuan was in a meeting to discuss a business contract and was expounding on the last risk management point. He saw his phone lit up with a message from Han Dongsheng: We're following them.
Got it. Yu Lanchuan raised his cup of coffee and with that as a cover, replied quickly: The location tracker is already in place. Beggars' Sect also has people keeping watch.
Han Dongsheng was a little worried. Little Master Yu, what if they happened to have an expert holding down the fort? Sect Leader Yang's age is so advanced and I really don't have the confidence to fight against other people right now. Can you really not release an Alliance Leader's Command?
Other than looking at his WeChat, Yu Lanchuan was multitasking and debating with his work colleagues. "Solving the problems is a job for the relevant departments. Risk Management Department only points out the risks. Concealing information from shareholders is a legal risk. Did I say anything wrong?"
His fingers were not idle. Under the conference table, he sent a message: I won't. This involves the law on disorderly conduct. You guys can release the command yourselves if you want to.
Han Dongsheng, "..."
Suddenly, Yu Lanchuan's phone vibrated again. He thought it was Han Dongsheng but when he glanced down, it turned out to be Gan Qing.
Gan Qing had sent him a photo of a beaded bracelet with the comment: Fortune beads for the new year, delivery on the way. Little Master Yu, remember to pay the bill.
Yu Lanchuan was puzzled. What did she mean, was she forcing him to buy her goods?
Daylight hours during the winter were always exceptionally short. Night fell very quickly, concealing the ulterior motives some people had in their hearts.
At ten p.m., Paradise turned off the lights on time, not wasting any bit of electricity. Old Mr. Zhou lay down for half an hour. His surroundings were pin drop silent. He pulled his bag out from under the bed, stealthily clambered up, and tiptoed his way out.
"Old Zhou?" Old Wu in the next bed woke up at the slightest noise and suddenly called out. "What are you doing?"
Old Mr. Zhou trembled. "I… I'm going to the toilet."
Old Wu looked at him in the darkness. "Bringing your bag with you to the toilet?"
Old Mr. Zhou stood at the door for a while, at a loss for what to do. He was used to being honest and could not do something like deceiving his companion and running away on his own. In his entire life, he had not been good at lying and he really did not know how to come up with lies. Hence, he gritted his teeth, walked to Old Wu's bed and, in a soft voice, told him everything he had noticed.
Old Wu fell silent for a while. "I also felt that I slept very deeply after the afternoon activity but when it's night time, I can't sleep."
Old Mr. Zhou said, "That's why there's something wrong! Let's leave together."
"But we've already paid…"
"Who cares about the money now," Old Mr. Zhou said urgently. "Let's leave first. We'll make a police report and get the money back."
Old Wu hesitated for a while. Finally, he was persuaded. Without even taking his things, he followed Old Mr. Zhou to slip out of the small building. The people there might have thought that these old people were all very foolish and didn't need to be monitored strictly; one guard at the door was asleep while the other one had left for a smoke break. Without much effort, the two old men reached the back door of the agricultural tourism chalet.
Old Mr. Zhou said, "I must escape today. Otherwise, they want to give me an individual 'additional class' tomorrow. If I'm alone, I'll have no choice but to drink that water, I won't be able to fool them…"
Right at that moment, there was a flash of vehicle lights before them. Following that, there was the sound of honking. Old Mr. Zhou nearly had a heart attack. He pulled Old Wu to crouch down in a corner.
They saw that it was a small bus with the logo of a tour group. The napping door guard heard the noise and came to the backyard to open the door for them, yawning all the while. "Doctor Xu" who had conned them into coming there was the first to get off. Close on his heels, a few swaying figures came down from the bus. From their appearance, they looked like elderly people whose movements were rather sluggish.
Old Mr. Zhou sighed. "Another batch. How much money do they want to make?"
Right then, Old Wu suddenly said beside him. "There's no bus stop nearby, how are we going to leave? Is there someone coming to pick you up?"
"No." Old Mr. Zhou's attention was still on the small bus and he spoke without thinking. "I know that the gate at the backyard faces north. If we walk out that way and walk for over ten miles, there's a long-distance transport hub. I saw it when we were on the way here. The two of us walk slow. At our pace, by the time we get there it should be daylight. We can get on a bus and leave."
"Oh." Old Wu nodded slowly. "No one's coming to pick you up."
"Wha-" All of a sudden, the person next to him gave him a hard push and Old Mr. Zhou fell sitting on the ground.
Right after that, he heard his "comrade-in-arms" who was escaping with him swiftly stand up, run out a few meters and shout, "There's someone here who wants to run away! He even wants to betray the advisor!"
The bus's headlights swept towards them abruptly. Old Mr. Zhou stood rooted to the spot, dumbstruck. With that one shout, Old Wu had awakened the sleeping little courtyard and the surrounding area was instantly lit up.
A few seconds later, a group of employees ran out of the building. Xu Shaowen's face was rather cold. He made a chopping motion with his hand at the driver next to him, then turned to face the batch of newly-arrived elderly. He quickly put on a pleasant expression. "This old sir's mental state isn't very good. It's all right, we will isolate him. When he has stabilised, we will send him home… It's late, come, everyone, please mind your step. Let us go in and rest."
"Wait a minute."
Old Yang, the last to get down from the bus, tapped on the ground lightly with his walking stick. Under Xu Shaowen's gaze, he slowly straightened his back that was curved like a question mark.
The original plan made by Old Yang and the others should begin with Sect Leader Yang himself investigating the matter to see if this was purely a nest of swindlers or if there was a big demon holding the fort. After he had figured out the situation, they would decide on how to carry out the next step.
After all, this place was filled inside and out with old people who couldn't be handled roughly.
Director Yu had helped to look over the plan himself and had considered practically all the possible risks and their mitigation steps. But among those, there wasn't one that was "Old Yang is exposed before he achieves his goal."
Sect Leader Yang was a jianghu veteran, the very antonym of "hairless upper lip, can't work without a slip." If even he was unreliable, was there anyone that could be counted on in the whole wide martial arts world?
If Old Mr. Zhou was younger by twenty years, Old Yang would definitely hold back from saying anything. There was time aplenty for him to first infiltrate in and wait for a chance to pull Old Mr. Zhou over to their side.
But Old Zhou was already over seventy. Both his physical body and his spirit had deteriorated into a reed-like skeletal frame with barely any vitality. People in their seventies all had this type of reed-like skeletal frame. Even without anyone colliding into him, he would sway on his feet when there was no wind. There was no time to wait.
The cold in Xu Shaowen's eyes did not go away. "Grandpa Yang, is anything the matter?"
While he spoke, three or four people clad in white robes charged forward, seizing Old Zhou half by force. Old Zhou didn't know if it was because he fell on his butt just now or because he was scared witless but his legs weren't listening to him. Both his legs dangled down to the ground as he was dragged away.
Old Yang seemed to be exerting a lot of effort to stretch out his neck. He gripped his walking stick and tottered forward a few steps, pretending to be startled. "Is that… Is that Old Zhou? He's my downstairs neighbour, what happened to him? What is going on?"
Xu Shaowen narrowed his eyes. "You can see so clearly even in the dark. Grandpa, your eyesight is pretty good."
"What?" Old Yang seemed to be rather hard of hearing. He angled his head towards Xu Shaowen but didn't answer him. He looked towards his fellow elderly companions who had gotten down from the bus with a perplexed expression and said, "Old Zhou is a good person. A few days ago, he disappeared suddenly. His family is nearly going mad from worry and even made a police report. Who knew he would be here! Why didn't he call his family? Ai, Xiao-Xu, quick, tell those people to let him go. I think he's going to need to go to the hospital!"
Xu Shaowen's eye twitched. These old people were very easily obsessed. It was easy to deceive them into taking out money, handing the money over and getting aboard the pirate ship but a moment's impulse could not last long. The first night they arrived at the operations base was when they most easily felt regret and their hearts most easily swayed. A very practised set of flowery words was needed to keep them happy in the first place.
Who would have known that before he could put those flowery words to use, he met with this incident. The elderly people who had just got down from the bus looked at each other with doubt. All around, the sound of whispers rose.
"What is going on?"
"Why do I feel that this is rather frightening?"
"Actually, I didn't inform my family either… Ai, maybe I should give them a call. Hmm… why is there no signal?"
"My phone has no signal too…"
Xu Shaowen said patiently, "Maybe the nearby cell tower is under maintenance, the signal isn't very good these couple of days. Everyone, please don't worry."
Before he could finish speaking, he heard Old Yang shout from beside him. "Old Zhou!"
Old Mr. Zhou who was being kidnapped heard his voice and turned his head with much effort. When he saw a familiar face, his soul that had scattered in all directions returned to its rightful place and he started struggling. "Help! Don't drink their water, they've added something-"
Xu Shaowen, "..."
This old fool!
The man beside Old Zhou quickly grabbed his collar and pressed a few times in the area between his chest and his neck. Just like that, Old Zhou was like an old turtle whose neck was being pulled by someone. He extended his neck stiffly and didn't speak anymore.
He was dragged into the small building.
Sect Leader Yang's pupils contracted. He gripped his walking stick.
Xu Shaowen said, "This sir had been tormented by his children all this while, his mental state is really not very good. He said a few words during the afternoon sharing session but perhaps our effort to help him see things clearly wasn't done very well, so his mind is a little confused at night-"
"Surely not!" Old Yang raised his voice, cutting him off again. "I know Old Zhou's children, they are all good children. They didn't torment him."
Xu Shaowen's eyes were like a viper's, looking over dangerously. "It was Grandpa Zhou himself who said so."
Old Yang knew that there was no way things could end well today so he decided that he might as well stop pretending to be foolish. He said slowly, pausing between each word, "Tormenting the elderly is against the law. Did you make a police report?"
"Xiao-Xu." Right then, an old lady who had just gotten down from the bus was the first to speak. "I'm afraid my daughter will panic when she can't find me. How about I don't participate this time? You can call me the next time you organise an activity."
"Xiao-Xu, me too…"
"You can deduct the transport cost."
"I want to withdraw too. Who here wants to continue?"
The red-capped elderly swiftly fell into silence. No one spoke.
Xu Shaowen thought that the driver was right. In the past, this operations base of theirs was for training their loyal core members. The "hurdle" to get in had been very high. Those who were brought back were all loyal believers who had performed well outside. Only then did they have the right to be brought here to receive a more thorough and focused brainwashing, so that they could go back afterwards and continue to help them expand their downlines.
Now, for the sake of their mission and to make quick money, they brought everyone here including the foolish and the witless. The risk was very large because the moment someone made a fuss about refunds, it was very easy for the situation to go out of control. It was not possible to send them all back. Old people were all miserly; if they thought that their money had been swindled, they would definitely not let it go. Once they leave the operations base, the police might be immediately summoned here.
He said, "Before we came here, everyone signed the agreement. It stated clearly that if you withdraw halfway, there will be no refunds. Did everyone read it properly?"
When the red-capped elderly heard this, they immediately blew up. Some of the old comrades were very good at making a scene and when they heard these unreasonable words, they rolled up their sleeves and got ready to unleash all the skills they had.
"So, I would like to ask everyone not to worry and just enjoy yourselves." Xu Shaowen smiled coldly, the tip of his true intentions revealed. He had just finished speaking when a large group of people clad in white robes appeared out of nowhere around them, surrounding them and the bus. "Don't worry. Ten days later, we will send all of you safely home."
Han Dongsheng put down the binoculars. "I don't know why but Sect Leader Yang and the rest had a conflict with the people from the evil cult the moment they got down from the bus. They're surrounded now. Little Master Yu, what should we do?"
Yu Lanchuan's reply was brief. "Wait."
But Han Dongsheng did not plan to wait anymore. He sometimes felt that he was so used to being bossed around that he had become a spineless and cowardly man who was not in command of his own spirit, and only knew how to wait anxiously.
Waiting for his salary to increase, longing for his bonus to be paid, hoping that he would make it to team leader before his retirement… even if it was just an assistant leader role.
Sometimes when he dreamed, he would dream of his workplace giving their employees subsidised staff housing, like how things were in the past.
These so-called "dreams" were in poor taste and were nothing to be proud of. If the young people were to hear them, they would definitely snort disdainfully.
But in truth, they were also very far away. The faded and fatigued middle-aged people could break their brains trying and yet still could not find a way to realise those dreams.
Han Dongsheng pulled up the zipper of his coat. From the car trunk, he took a truncheon and left the car.
Old Yang held his walking stick across his chest. "Xiao-Xu, if you're not being reasonable, we won't be polite either."
Xu Shaowen angled his head towards him, a mocking expression on his face. He wanted to see how these old fools who were fit to be displayed in a museum would be impolite but before he could see clearly, the stick blurred in front of him. It smashed down on his head in the Strike form of the Dog Beating Staff, a lethal whistling sound accompanying the walking stick made of hardwood. Xu Shaowen was startled and hurried to cover his head and dodge. The walking stick did not stay its course; midair, it turned to the Poke form and lanced towards him. In an instant, it pierced through the gap between Xu Shaowen's arms, hitting right at his guts.
Xu Shaowen retched. He retreated several steps and a few people caught and held him up. His eyes widened in anger. "Dog Beating Staff! You… Who are you?"
Old Yang tightened his face. The passing years had drained his lips until only a thin line remained and they were pressed tightly shut. His ramrod straight back even had an aura faintly reminiscent of depthless pools and highest peaks. He said unhurriedly, "Young man, those of you with the surname Xu are a little out of control."
The big demon Xu Zhao was reported to have numerous disciples. Below him, for the sake of showing that they were his filial and worthy descendants, all his disciples took his surname.
Xu Shaowen spat angrily, "Meddlesome old fool!"
A few white-robed people charged forward. Old Yang swung his upper arm and the walking stick weighing five or six pounds moved as flexibly as tree vines. In the first place, Beggars' Sect was a sect that was proficient in fighting in groups and also fighting against groups. Old as he was, his Tangle form could keep ten vicious dogs barking but unable to get near him.
It was the first time the red-capped elderly behind Old Yang saw a nonagenarian fighting in real life. All of them stretched out their necks and felt that they too could fight for another 500 years.
Right at that moment, the red and blue police lights suddenly flashed from the front yard, followed immediately by the sound of police sirens!
The entire courtyard was like an exploded hive. The white-robed evil cult employees all rushed to the backyard.
Old Yang sent a white robe flying, then planted his walking stick on the ground and panted heavily. He didn't dare go forward to stop the flow of humans—after all, he was old now. Playing some tricks to exchange a few moves with young people who knew to respect the old and cherish the young was still possible, but brandishing his old arms and legs in a real fight took too much strength.
A red-capped old lady stood on tiptoe and pulled at him. "You're too amazing! Will you start a qigong class? I'll be the first to register!"
Old Yang, "..."
The fleeing evil cult members rushed into the backyard. The few at the front all squeezed into the buses there. For a moment, no one could be bothered to take care of anyone else and the buses charged their way out to escape even before the doors could be closed.
The engines let out an explosive roar. The fleeing evil cult members did not care at all if they hit anyone.
Suddenly, from among the shadowy figures of the trees by the wall, a few dark shadows fell down and leaped into the middle of the little courtyard. Their movements agile, they charged towards the few elderly people who were standing there foolishly instead of dodging the buses and pushed them towards the trees at the wall and other safe spots.
"Sect Leader Yang!"
The Beggars' Sect disciples had arrived.
Old Yang finally felt relieved. He felt like he had nearly sprained his old back. "Don't let them escape!"
"They won't!" A Beggars' Sect disciple turned around and smiled at him. "We threw the alarm into the front yard, the police are all at the back!"
Old Yang was momentarily stunned. From behind him, the ear-piercing sound of the buses braking could be heard again.
The evil cult members who were rushing out of the backyard just now were panicked and directionless. They practically stomped on the brakes until it touched the floor but who would have guessed that some outrageous people had scattered the road with long nails that punctured the tires on the buses. The big bus and the small bus lost air like they were letting out farts and collided together.
Right after that, lights shone towards them. The confused evil cult members finally realised that there was a row of police cars behind the long nails, quietly lying in wait in the darkness, waiting for their opportunity to attack.
"Little Master Yu said that this group of old men and old ladies have been infused with a load of Paradise and that their brains have been washed until there's barely anything left. They will definitely not listen to us. At the crucial moment, they will definitely insist on standing on the side of the criminals and might even act as shields for them. It is not feasible to 'rescue' them, we can only make these evil cult members abandon them," the Beggars' Sect disciple said in delight. "Hahaha, Old Sect Leader, Little Master Yu is really crafty!"
Old Yang was supporting his back with a hand, a hint of a smile on his face. But before his smile could unfurl, he heard a startled cry from beside him. "What's that!"
Old Yang turned his head and his face immediately changed. "Get out of the way!"
His voice was drowned out by a loud sound. He saw a glaring, bright light shine out of the first floor of the small building behind him. The windows shattered into pieces, falling all over the ground, and the boom of the explosion shook them until their brains were trembling along with the earth. Close on its heels, thick smoke and fire rose.
This rundown agricultural tourism chalet did not have gas piping. The kitchen used old-fashioned gas tanks and someone had exploded the tanks!
The winter in the north was dry, so it was already a season where fires happened frequently. The chilly and dry night wind swept through the building and the tongues of the flames instantly grew a few meters higher.
As the wind sliced past, all those near the building could smell kerosene.
The person who set the fire not only exploded the gas tanks, they even poured fuel on the first floor. The floors above were filled with old men and old women who hadn't escaped in time!
The Beggars' Sect disciple who had been laughing like a fool just now had his smile frozen on his face.
Suddenly, a shadow flashed past him, charging directly towards the fire.
"Dongsheng!" Old Yang shouted the person's name but Han Dongsheng seemed to not hear him. Old Yang clapped the dumbstruck Beggars' Sect disciple next to him. "Put out the fire and save them!"
The elderly people in the upper floors who were startled awake were like in a steamer basket. They all crowded at the windows, their jumbled wails and cries for help so raucous it made those hearing them feel agitated and distraught. The thick smoke roiled and curled towards the sky. This place was really too out of the way, who knew what century it would be before the fire brigade arrived. The police who had been leisurely lying in wait couldn't be bothered with the evil cult suspects anymore, they all rushed forward to put out the fire.
The air was scorching hot, yet sinisterly cold. The intense convection sent the ash and dust flying. Old Yang instructed the red-capped elderly in the courtyard to run outside. For a moment, he couldn't breathe. He gripped his walking stick and patted his chest.
Right at that moment, someone chuckled lightly from not far away. "I was wondering who it was, so it's Sect Leader Yang. Just look at you. At this age, you should admit that you're old. Why are you still indulging in these wild antics like the young?"
Old Yang slowly straightened up. The fire illuminated half his face.
He saw a tall and broad man clad in a black robe walking towards him calmly. His hand was even carrying Xu Shaowen who Old Yang had just now poked until he curled up like a large shrimp. This was the "advisor" who had been giving classes to Old Mr. Zhou and the others.
While the evil cult members were fleeing in panic after hearing the police sirens, he had unexpectedly stayed behind in the small building, methodically and unhurriedly pouring kerosene and setting fire.
Old Master Yang gripped his walking stick tightly. "You are…"
"You might not know me. I'm the head disciple under my shifu." The black-robed man smiled and let go of Xu Shaowen. "This unworthy kid is my disciple. It's almost New Year's, so he came to help the juniors prop up the situation and gain some accomplishments. Who knew he would be so lucky to meet the Dog Beating Staff techniques. It's truly the greatest joy of his life."
Old Master Yang said, "You're Xu Zhao's disciple!"
"I've brought shame to the old man again," the black-robed man said. He spread his hands, both of them were holding a three-edged dagger each. "Sect Leader Yang, why don't you give me a chance to make up for it?"
Xu Shaowen clutched his belly and retreated to the side, a sinister smile on his face.
Before the black-robed man finished speaking, there was a blur and he was already right in front of Old Master Yang. Old Yang could only swing his walking stick up but that man wasn't like those inferior goods who only knew to run when they heard police sirens. Old Yang had already felt that his back wasn't feeling too good just now. The hardwood walking stick also wasn't the Dog Beating Staff and was extremely heavy. He could just barely hold up against a few moves. For a second, his strength could not keep up and the three-edged dagger scraped past the glossy walking stick like a lightning bolt, aiming right for his throat.
Old Yang detected a metallic smell.
His heart thumped heavily. I've grown old, he thought.
Then, in the instant the ice-cold three-edged dagger reached his throat, the black-robed man abruptly leaped up and scrambled a few steps to dodge.
At the same time, a hand stopped Old Yang's upper back from falling backwards.
Old Master Yang turned his head, startled, but all he saw was a hood that was securely concealing a face…
The Dog Beating Staff Techniques have eight principles, of which some were used by Old Yang in this chapter. They appeared in the wuxia stories by Jin Yong. The eight principles are
绊 (trip), 劈 (strike; I've seen this translated as 'block'), 缠 (tangle; also translated as 'trap'), 戳 (poke), 挑 (pick), 引 (lure). 封 (seal; I've seen this translated as 'steal' but based on the character I think it should be seal), and 转 (turn).
Other than his own disciple, this black-robed so-called "advisor" did not care the least bit for the good-for-nothings who were making a huge fuss, much less for the group of "cash cow students" in the building who were stretching out their necks and shouting for help. The money was already in his hands, this place was rented and the rental hadn't been paid yet. A fire would burn everything up nice and clean; he could take the money and leave, go back home for the Lunar New Year and build a new lair next year.
The whole world was full of young people who could not find employment anyway. He could easily conceal himself with a shell company, put out an ad on recruitment websites and instantly hire a new batch.
As for murder and arson, he wasn't at all bothered about that. To him, the only thing to fear about murder was being punished by the law and sent to prison. The prerequisite for that was the police had to catch him, and that was impossible.
If he could take the life of this old Beggars' Sect leader, it would be easier for him to explain himself to the higher-ups.
But right now, the black-robed man's expression that had been relaxed and delighted the whole time suddenly changed.
He saw a row of blades sticking out of the ground, pierced into the soft mud at an angle. The blade sections that were exposed above the ground were all about the same length, the distance between each one also nearly equal. They lined up in a row all the way to his feet. He hadn't dodged in time just now, there was a small cut at the bottom of his front lapel!
In the many years the black-robed man had dominated his way through the land, he had never been at such a disadvantage.
Old Master Yang was equally shocked. His mouth dropped open and he called out an indistinct "Wei." Then, he recalled something and swallowed his words back in.
Right, Wei Xiao was already dead.
Furthermore, the hand that was supporting his back seemed a little thinner. Even though the footsteps were light, they had a touch of a careless, sluggish feel to them, and were not as subdued as that man's were all those years ago.
Right at that moment, Xu Shaowen opened his mouth and asked the question the other two wanted to know the answer to. "What is your business here?"
The hooded person replied, "I came to make some inquiries about a certain matter and just happened to bump into you guys being busy. My apologies for disturbing."
Even though she kept her voice very low and steady, she was after all the neighbour he bumped into nearly every day. Old Yang immediately recognised the voice and lifted his head to stare at her back in disbelief—this was the young lady staying at Zhang Meizhen's home!
Gan Qing didn't look at him. Her attitude lazy and relaxed, she strolled forward a couple of steps. Xu Shaowen retreated involuntarily, nervously watching her pair of hands that were tightly wrapped with black cloth strips.
"If I may ask… a while ago, there was a group of people who worshipped a wooden memorial tablet carved with 'Wan Mu Chun' and used dotted red lines to teach other people how to slit throats on the spot." Gan Qing asked politely, "Are they related to you?"
"Wan Mu Chun." The black-robed man was first momentarily stunned. Then, he looked at the blades on the ground and understood something. "How are you related to Wan Mu Chun? A disciple?"
Gan Qing chuckled. "How could that be? Wan Mu Chun didn't have disciples. I'm just an old acquaintance who likes to talk too much."
"The 'Chun' division is indeed our people." The black-robed man studied this hooded and masked person before him. Perhaps he felt that she was nothing good either, so he said frankly, "In the past, due to a fateful coincidence, our sect got to know a descendant of Wan Mu Chun and was passed on a small and inconsequential part of their martial arts skills. Unfortunately, our disciples were all unworthy."
"Oh, he said that he's Wan Mu Chun's… descendant." Gan Qing emphasised the word "descendant" heavily. She asked in a very peculiar tone, "Was he called Wei Huan?"
"That's right, it was him." The black-robed man nodded. "Was he your friend too?"
"No." Gan Qing suddenly laughed. Right after that, without saying a word, she immediately broke the peace. A blade spun between her fingers. Under the light from the fire, it looked like a miniature lightning bolt striking towards the black-robed man's throat. "I don't…
"...pick up friends from the trash can."
In an instant, the black-robed man had goosebumps all over. But his reaction was extremely quick; in a flash, he had retreated to a safe distance. He raised his three-edged blade and slashed out.
"Careful!" Old Yang shouted.
In this kind of close combat, the range of the opponent's weapon was the "safe distance." Gan Qing only had a small blade in her hand, her range was only the length of her arm and was equivalent to fighting barehanded. Furthermore, when the black-robed man was on guard, the killing power of thrown knives was very limited. Even if it was the legendary Little Li Flying Dagger, the blade that flew out was just over three inches long. It couldn't become the blade Li Xunhuan had rid the land of bandits with like a razor blade getting rid of stubble.
With the two three-edged daggers, the black-robed man guarded all his vital spots so securely that not even the wind could get through. There was a chaotic round of clangs and the blades that were knocked away flew everywhere. As a bystander, Xu Shaowen was also in the line of fire, and he covered his head and scurried off to hide behind a large tree.
"Catch!" Old Yang was afraid that Gan Qing would be at a disadvantage and threw his walking stick to her. Gan Qing reached out and caught it; the hardwood walking stick spun a half circle in her hand and swept horizontally to parry the black-robed man's three-edged dagger. The man let out a roar and suddenly exerted his strength. The three-edged blade that was stabbing forward was like a lance, pushing Gan Qing away together with the walking stick. At the same time, the other three-edged dagger swept towards her.
Who knew if it was because Old Master Yang wanted to flaunt his wealth or if it was some other reason, the wooden walking stick was long and heavy. It was extremely inconvenient for her to use. This time, she didn't dodge in time and the three-edged dagger hit its target on her forearm with a scraping sound.
She should be wearing some sort of protective gear on her forearm; the sound was like metal clashing. Her arm wasn't cut but the impact on her bones had to be quite heavy. For a moment, Gan Qing's right arm lost strength and the walking stick in her hands tilted. Her hood fell back. On either side of her face, wisps of hair fell to curl beneath her jaw. The face hidden by the mask looked like it was only the size of a human palm.
So it's a foolish little girl, the black-robed man thought. Pretending to be a wolf.
The three-edged blade curved around the walking stick and pierced straight at her stomach. Right now, Gan Qing's weight was on her left leg. The black-robed man could tell that she didn't have enough strength in one hand to knock the three-edged dagger away and could only dodge by using her left leg as a pivot. Hence, without waiting for her to move, his other three-edged dagger swept across, sealing off the space where she could dodge to!
But Gan Qing didn't dodge. She suddenly let go of the walking stick and ducked down. Like a spring, she curled up in a ball and the three-edged dagger just barely missed the top of her head. Then, before the others could see clearly, she suddenly sprang up again. In just one step, she was perched right before the black-robed man. The man let out an anguished shriek and one three-edged dagger fell to the ground—Gan Qing had stabbed a blade into his wrist that was holding that lethal weapon!
It was a double-ended blade. When one end was stabbed into the black-robed man's wrist, at the same time, the other end was pushing into Gan Qing's finger.
Her fingers were obviously also flesh and blood. How deep the blade was embedded in her opponent's wrist was also how deep it stabbed into her finger. Blood flowed out, trickling along the curve of her finger tips and soaking the cloth strips wrapping her hand but she seemed not to feel it at all. She carelessly wiped the blood on her palms and picked up the fallen three-edged dagger.
The fire illuminated her eyes. Both her eyes were cold and looked rather like the eyes of someone who did not care for their life.
For some unknown reason, the black-robed man shuddered. He charged forward with a roar, his three-edged dagger dancing up and down and confusing the eye. Gan Qing darted and weaved between the strikes, feet barely touching the ground, evading all the while.
The black-robed man shouted, "Kill her!"
This seemed to be a signal. His voice was still hanging in the air when Xu Shaowen suddenly poked his head out from where he was hiding behind a tree. He took out a illegally made gun from somewhere and fired at Gan Qing's back!
The firing of the gun was lost in the sound of explosions.
The car fire extinguishers in the police cars were as effective as throwing a cup of water on a cartful of burning firewood. The fire could not be stopped at all, the tongues of flames grew ever greedier.
Old Mr. Zhou had been locked into a solitary isolation room on the second floor. Along with the explosions, pieces of plaster fell non-stop from the ceiling. Outside, there was the jumbled sound of voices. He pounded on the door. "Is there anyone out there? Let me out!"
But, right now, it was too chaotic inside the building. No one noticed at all the noise he made pounding on the door. Very quickly, smoke started to seep into the room through the gaps of the door.
Han Dongsheng picked up a few bed sheets that were being dried in the garden and wetted them with water from the tap for watering plants. He carried them, together with a car fire extinguisher wedged under his arm, and detoured around the building to the side that was further from the kitchen. He jumped up and just managed to hang on to the window frame on the second floor.
His body was too heavy. The heart was willing but the body was incapable. Han Dongsheng sighed inwardly.
Right after that, the veins on his neck bulged out fiercely. He exerted all the strength he had in his arms and pulled himself up with nothing more than that. He smashed the glass on the window, tied the wet bed sheets into a rope and shouted at the panicked and directionless elderly. "This way!"
The police had also rushed over. Han Dongsheng grabbed an old man that was nearly scared into crying and pushed him directly to the window, tossing him out. Below, the police hurried to catch him.
Waves of heat billowed at him. Han Dongsheng took off his coat and sweater, and shouted at the elderly in a voice that was running out of strength. "Look for wet towels or wet clothes and cover your nose and mouth… cough…"
The confused old men and old ladies were like headless flies. They squeezed together in the narrow corridor and it seemed like there was going to be a stampede. Han Dongsheng held his breath and charged over. He grabbed these old people who had been knocked about until they seemed to have changed shape, one in each hand, and raced against time to send them outside.
The uncontrollable fire was growing bigger and bigger. A few Beggars' Sect disciples also charged over and helped to carry the people out. All the fat in Han Dongsheng's body was nearly cooked out of him and his face was smudged with black marks from the smoke and ash, yet his heart was even more agitated than his body—he still hadn't found Old Mr. Zhou!
"Dad!" Han Dongsheng passed the old lady in his hands to someone from the Beggars' Sect. He waded against the flow of the people and headed inside. "Are there any more people inside? Dad!"
Locked in the isolation room, Old Mr. Zhou lifted a wooden chair and smashed it against the door with all his might but the large door did not budge even an inch!
He thought of the qigong books he had read before. In this desperate situation, he tried to use the "internal energy" in his core but when he sucked in a huge breath, half of it was smoke and his entire body, core included, was thoroughly smoked. Old Mr. Zhou choked and coughed, his eyes tearing. His fingers scrabbled desperately at the gaps of the door. "Help, help… cough…"
It was strange. People like him, when they registered to join Paradise, they all felt that their lives were dull and bland, that there was nothing worth living for anymore. They just wanted to find a place where they could console themselves so that they wouldn't be so lonely as they walked towards death.
But when a disaster suddenly fell on them, these elderly people realised with a shock that they actually still had such a strong desire to live.
Old Mr. Zhou had inhaled smoke until his mind was befuddled. His fingernails were broken from his scrabbling and blood was coming out. Yet, he was still subconsciously scratching at the door with both hands.
A hazy thought emerged in his head. My Zhou-Zhou hasn't finished primary school yet.
Away from the fire, Gan Qing seemed to be quite familiar with these shameless methods. At the very second the black-robed man shouted, she had leaped away and the illegally made gun missed its target. Xu Shaowen cursed and was preparing to aim again when there was a pain on the back of his head—Old Master Yang had knocked him unconscious.
Old Yang panted heavily. He raised his head to look around, tense.
The black-robed man took the chance when Gan Qing was dodging the gun to seize the upper hand and was essentially pushing her back. The two three-edged daggers clashed in the air. The black-robed man swept his leg across. Gan Qing just barely managed to retreat out of the way. She stepped on the black-robed man's shin and at the same time, raised the three-edged dagger above her head and smashed it down on the man's head.
She was wearing a pair of old and worn shoes on her feet. They were very large, with very blocky and unfashionable square tips. The style even seemed to be men's style—the kind worn by middle-aged or old men.
The black-robed man raised his leg to shake her off. Right at that moment, from beneath Gan Qing's slovenly-looking shoes, a metal awl suddenly shot out. The black-robed man was basically stabbing his own leg on the awl!
That blood curdling shriek made even the experienced Sect Leader Yang shudder.
These two people—one fired a sniper's shot behind the other's back, the other hid mysteries beneath her feet. As the saying went, "The little demon is one foot tall, the big demon ten feet"; when competing, neither had a lower limit!
Gan Qing seized the black-robed man's uninjured arm. The little blade between her fingers made a slit like it was sewing. Without holding back, she snapped his tendons and bones, everything done smoothly in one breath.
Old Yang finally regained his voice. He shouted in a rush, "Don't kill him!"
His shout was just in time. Gan Qing's hand that was brushing against the man's throat paused. Her fingers curled back nimbly, breaking the skin on the man's throat, then curving around to the back of his neck and pounded down…
The black-robed man fell to the ground silently, one of his legs crippled.
Old Master Yang was still looking at her in shock. "You… You…"
Gan Qing avoided his eyes. She stretched her hand out to fiddle at her heel. The awl under her shoe fell out. She rubbed her feet against the ground to get rid of the blood, then glanced towards the chaotic scene of the fire. "I'll go take a look."
"Wait!" Old Yang called out.
Gan Qing turned a deaf ear to him. In an instant, she had slipped meters away.
"Dage! There's no one else inside! Hurry up and get out!" In the small building, two police officers carrying one elderly person each pulled Han Dongsheng. "The fire is spreading up! This building is all wood, it'll burn until it collapses!"
In a fluster, Han Dongsheng turned the faces of the two elderly people around—neither were Old Mr. Zhou. Without a word, he shook off the officers' hands and ran towards the smoke and fire.
The wet towels could temporarily cover his nose and mouth but could not cover his eyes. Both of Han Dongsheng's eyes were bloodshot. He searched everywhere around him, almost losing all hope.
Right then, he heard a weak scratching sound.
Han Dongsheng widened his eyes. He very quickly identified where the sound was coming from and hurried over. He crashed forcefully against the door a couple of times. "You inside, move away!"
However, Old Mr. Zhou had no more strength to move away. He couldn't even recognise his family member's voice. He slid down the door, delirious.
Han Dongsheng retreated a few steps, then ran up to the door. He curled his shoulders in and crashed his entire body against the door, throwing it open violently. The unconscious Old Mr. Zhou was also pushed away.
Han Dongsheng scrambled to him and reached out to check his breathing. In the chaotic scene, he could not sense anything conclusive. He lifted the old man onto his shoulders and ran outside.
Another round of explosions came from downstairs. The white fluorescent lights hanging from the corridor ceiling trembled and crashed down, but Han Dongsheng could no longer see clearly what was happening.
In an instant, a coat flew towards him and wrapped around the fluorescent tube in midair, crashing it against the wall with a bang. Han Dongsheng stumbled; someone held him up.
Through eyes that were filled with tears from the smoke, he saw clearly the person who had come. "You…"
On the ground below, the police were shouting and yelling. Gan Qing took the unconscious Old Mr. Zhou from him and pushed the old man out the window.
With a thunderous boom, half the building collapsed.
 "小魔头高一尺，大魔头高一丈" (the little demon is one foot tall, the big demon ten feet) is a twist on the idiom "道高一尺，魔高一丈" which translates to "virtue is one foot tall, the devil ten feet." It refers to the need to always be vigilant to stave off evil, for every gain in one's cultivation, there will be even more interference from evil influences. Here, neither Gan Qing nor Black Robe are "virtuous," hence they are the "little demon" and the "big demon."
When Han Dongsheng texted Yu Lanchuan to tell him that there was a change in the situation, Yu Lanchuan had just walked out of the meeting room. He nearly collided head-on with his assistant who was carrying coffee.
"Director Yu, do you still want coffee?"
Yu Lanchuan's mouth was full of the taste of burnt coffee and even the smell was enough to make him gag. He tilted his head back and waved her off. He quickly replied Han Dongsheng's message, then contacted the Beggars' Sect people and Yu Yan before going to the washroom to wash his face. When he returned to his office, before he could even take a breath, he saw that the project director he had supported in the meeting just now had already been waiting for some time.
On the outside, project directors were like "envoys from the borders." Each of them carried a corner of their business on their backs but their lives were actually not that grandiose. Unless their performance was exceptional or they were the boss's relatives, they spent most of the year at their stations. They had none of their own people in the "imperial court" and their line of communication to the higher-ups was not a smooth and unimpeded one. Every time they came back to the headquarters to fight for resources, they had to cross great distances and suffer great injuries.
This project director was handling a project related to the operation of nursing homes for the elderly. However, in the recent couple of years, the entire corporation was moving towards an asset light model. Matters related to real estate were all counted on the support of the "stepmother." He was aware that his personal friendship with Yu Lanchuan was only on a lukewarm level—Yu Lanchuan abided scrupulously by the rules and regulations of the workforce elite and was in a league of his own in the entire Risk Management Department; like the imperial secret police of the Ming dynasty, his personal friendships with everyone was on a lukewarm level. He never thought that Yu Lanchuan would lead the entire department to work overtime for two nights and, in his role as someone from the middle management, support him at the meeting with the board of directors.
"Director Yu, thank you for your hard work," the project director greeted him enthusiastically. "Please let me treat you to a meal, whenever it is convenient for you."
Yu Lanchuan gave him a professional work smile. "You're welcome, Director Bian."
The project director settled down in Yu Lanchuan's office and noticed that there were a few fliers on Yu Lanchuan's desk, advertising things like health supplements and magnetic therapy. There was also one for something called "Paradise" and on it was written: Are you already retired and staying at home? Are you at a loss for what to do with your life? Do you feel lonely even though your children and grandchildren are all around you? Do you feel as though you are becoming someone unneeded, and it is only in front of those swindlers full of flowery words that you can find just a little bit of a sense of existence?
The print quality of the Paradise flier was exceptionally good. The project director picked it up for a closer look and smiled. "The line of thought is very similar to the ads for our project. What is it selling? It seems quite high-end… I have a relative who has a whole bunch of these nonsense at home and even their coffin money has been swindled away. To be honest, we steal a lot of marketing ideas from them."
"It's nothing like that," Yu Lanchuan said. "It's not high-end, it's just a normal evil cult."
The project director, "..."
"I have a friend who's a police officer. He only recently tracked them down. Since Director Bian happened to be here today, I brought them over for you to have a look. Isn't this the topic that you guys are popularising recently?" Yu Lanchuan asked. "I heard that you are also planning to make a public service announcement. Tell me about it in detail. Have you prepared a plan? Do you have a script?"
The project director beamed happily and tried to curry favour with him. "We have prepared the plan but we've barely started on the rest yet. Previously, we spent a long time digging into our budget but could only gather enough funds to make the plan. Director Yu, we are kids picked up by the stepmother. Our days in the corporation aren't easy. In the future, we need to butter you up more."
Yu Lanchuan gave him an inscrutable smile. "You can skip this kind of words, Director Bian. We are all working for the boss, what power do I have? If I listen to too many words like that it'll get to my head."
The project director saw that this method wasn't working and immediately retreated as though nothing had happened. "Of course, of course."
"This year isn't easy for us, next year isn't looking good either. In the meeting, everyone was talking big, wanting to get a piece of the resources. Who knows, they might accidentally hit on the next big thing. I'm someone who doesn't like to take risks. I don't want to be involved in things that I don't understand, that's why I picked our side." Yu Lanchuan pushed his glasses up. "But the more the corporation's resources are biased to one side, the heavier your responsibility is. Today, I've helped you talk big. In the end, if the return on capital doesn't look good, neither of us can explain ourselves. Director Bian, close the door. Let us be frank with each other."
The project director sighed. "Director Yu, the corporation's evaluation criteria isn't fair. Everything depends on the return on capital. For different businesses… it is not comparable!"
"The businesses may be different but the shareholders' money is still the same. Water flows to the deeper end," Yu Lanchuan said. "There has always been some noise within the corporation about selling off some of the more traditional sectors-"
The project director panicked at once. "We're not a traditional sector. We have new ideas!"
"Don't get agitated, Bian-xiong." Imperceptibly, Yu Lanchuan changed the way he called the other man. He stood up and poured a cup of tea for him. "We all know what 'ideas' mean. Don't use this word to humour me."
Director Bian wiped his face.
Yu Lanchuan turned on his tablet in front of him. He opened the PPT slides they had talked so big about in the meeting and placed the tablet on the pile of health supplements and evil cult fliers. "Unless you can really make this reality."
The project director's eye twitched. His gaze landed on the PPT slide.
When recommending their own projects to the corporation, everyone would madly rely on the idea of being "high-end, elegant and classy." Whatever term was popular in society at the moment, they would freeload on that popularity. If their projects were really not at all related to any of those terms, they would come up with a similar term and forcefully slap it on. They could not appear to be less trendy than anyone else.
The PPT slide that Yu Lanchuan had opened was especially shameless. The heading was Horizontal Alliance, Vertical Alliance—Combining Cultural Industries, Creating Real Estate IPs.
The project director no longer remembered clearly who was the one who added this phrase. He stared at the tablet sitting on the pile of fliers and blanked out for a while. He had seen this kind of cobbled-together grandiose rhetoric with vague meanings until he was numb to them. His subordinate added it in and he didn't look closely when reviewing the slide. He never thought that the bosses would take it seriously and pounce on him during the meeting to ask him about it. If it weren't for Yu Lanchuan smoothing things over, he nearly wouldn't have been able to leave the meeting in one piece.
The project director said, "In the current market, the service for looking after the elderly focuses on the elderly who require assisted living—which is to say, those people who are unable to perform daily living activities. Their children are busy with work and can't take care of them, that's why they think of nursing homes. But back when we did the feasibility report, we think that there are not many things that specialise in providing services to the elderly who are still healthy and capable of performing daily living activities. It is a gap in the market."
Yu Lanchuan rested both elbows on the desk, his face calm and composed. "The investors think that the target market is not ideal because these people are conservative, miserly and have limited spending power. The rate of return will not look good."
"That's a stereotype. Just look at those fanatical health supplement fans and you'll know. It's not that the market has no potential, it's you who haven't found the critical point for these people. At that time, what I thought was, doesn't our corporation also have cultural companies under our name? Our marketing budget will have to go somewhere anyway, we might as well keep the money within our corporation. So we are discussing with them to get them to help make a short movie at a low cost. If, by chance, we can have a public screening, we can earn some money from ticket sales and we might even break even…" The project director laughed bitterly. "Great, now it has become one of the key tasks for the year. Isn't that strange?"
Yu Lanchuan had a "none of my business" look on his face. In his heart, he thought that it was not the least bit strange. He raised an eyebrow, pretending not to understand. "I've helped you guys obtain funds from the corporation and the project charter is signed. What other difficulties are there? Bian-xiong, I thought that money opened all doors."
The project director clenched his teeth and rolled up his sleeves. "All right, we'll throw caution to the wind this year. We'll fight those selling health supplements for their business."
Yu Lanchuan chuckled, his meaning unclear. "These words really don't sound like they have much spirit."
"That's true too, why would we want to fight for business with a pack of swindlers? Last week, I had a meal with the boss of a commodity trader. Their business is full of rotten people and rotten matters. Every three or five days, there would be a few people jumping off the building or drinking pesticide. They're on good terms with the Ministry of Public Security."
Yu Lanchuan nodded. "Old Chang from the cultural sector is on a business trip today. I've made an appointment for a video call with him."
"That's right. If they want to film this thing, they need to inform the Ministry of Public Security too," the project director said. "If we can really persuade them to do a strict crackdown on the organisations in the market, we can publicise it at the same time. Then… shall we move fast? I'll make a call now."
"The military order is hanging above both our heads after all," Yu Lanchuan said.
After sending off the Director Bian who talked like they were old friends right from the start and ending the video call, the lights of the CBD were already switched on, lighting up the area. Food delivery workers from all sorts of places were at the bottom of the buildings, making calls to get people to collect their food.
Yu Lanchuan's back was stiff. He stood up and took a couple of hard stretches. He picked up his coat and found time to glance at his phone; there was nothing from Han Dongsheng. The last message from the Beggars' Sect people was "Going well."
In Yu Lanchuan's opinion, it was only natural that everything would go well. The hardest part of this matter was leading the police to this evil cult's nest.
Looking at the time, Old Yang and the others should be coordinating from the inside and the outside, and should have scooped up the entire nest.
However, after purging one nest, there were still thousands, tens of thousands of nests hidden in the back alleys. Yu Yan was right, without a large scale crackdown, they were like wild grass that grew after the spring wind.
If things could go even a little bit better…
Yu Lanchuan sent Yu Yan a message: Are you done? The "crackdown" you want might have a chance of happening.
In this era, work and personal lives were two sides of the same coin. One needed to have capital speaking up for them, otherwise no one would help them shout their demands, no one would pay them any attention. If a person spoke purely of ideals and public welfare, more often than not, people would either think that they were a naive student or someone planning to pick a fight and cause trouble.
Yu Lanchuan poured the dregs of his tea into the flower pot. He thought, What fucking use is the Alliance Leader's Command?
A call from Yu Yan came right then. He had probably seen the message.
The other end of the call was very noisy. Yu Yan was shouting into the receiver, "Master Lan, was it you who got Teacher Meng-Meng to come here?"
"Fuck, that's not the point… the building is gonna collapse soon from the fire." Yu Yan's voice shifted further away and he shouted at someone on his side. "How long more before the fire brigade reaches? There's no way we can put out such a large fire! Everyone inside, hurry up and get out!"
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Fire? What's on fire, why-"
Before he could finish his words, a foreboding sound came from the other end.
Someone shouted, "It's collapsing!"
Yu Yan cursed. He threw out a "Talk to you later" and hurriedly hung up.
Yu Lanchuan stared blankly on the spot for two seconds. Then, he broke into a run.
In the precarious small building, Han Dongsheng's body running out of energy was a small matter. The more serious matter was his body running out of water.
In the first place, he sweated more than others. In the scene of the fire, he had been constantly running around and his entire body had been grilled until it was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Now, the weight on his shoulder was lifted—someone had taken Old Mr. Zhou away—and his brain seemed to have forcibly shut down. He immediately lost control of his body.
Han Dongsheng stumbled a couple of steps and fell to the ground. All the noise beside his ears congealed into a single thread and went away, leaving him behind.
The fire had spread to this side. The bed sheets left outside had dried and caught on fire. Everyone was shouting.
But each floor on this building was much taller than the standard height. The fire on the first floor was spreading over and the people below could not come up at all.
A large piece of the low quality mass-produced ceiling boards had fallen. Gan Qing used the three-edged dagger she had taken from the black-robed man and pried the board away. A shower of dust fell on her. She accidentally inhaled some of it and choked until she nearly coughed her lungs out.
The floor beneath her feet was trembling. The small building was starting to collapse from the other side. The sound of splintering wood was pressing in without pause, the ferocious tongues of flames devouring everything in their way. Sparks were flying everywhere. The three-edged dagger was so hot it was nearly burning her hand. She thought she smelled something scorched.
In a moment of desperation, Gan Qing grabbed the back of Han Dongsheng's collar. However, Han-dage was probably twice the weight of his father-in-law. When Gan Qing grabbed him, Han Dongsheng himself did not budge an inch while his collar that already had some loose threads was torn away completely.
Han Dongsheng's heart was pounding wildly. His arms and legs were as limp as noodles. He tried a few times to stand up but his body refused to listen to him. Hallucinations flashed past his eyes.
He suddenly had an illusion this was not the first time something had struck him to the ground, and not the first time he was sprawled like a dog in desperate straits and could not get up.
He seemed to be used to his position.
"Go… You go…." Han Dongsheng mumbled.
She could not hold on to the three-edged dagger anymore. Gan Qing tossed it aside and coughed a couple of times. "What did you say?"
Even his elbows that were propped against the floor was shaking, almost collapsing. His right arm was the first to fall weakly. "I…"
There was a shattering sound. Gan Qing turned her head swiftly. The window frame near them was distorting in the heat, the alloy bars nearly splintering under the pressure. The yellowing ceiling boards above their heads split open, a black seam opening up and reaching towards them.
"I want to ask you to…" Han Dongsheng's voice was almost inaudible. He didn't know if Gan Qing could hear him. For a moment, he also could not straighten out his muddled feelings. He only felt that he seemed to have something that he could not leave behind but when the words were at his lips, he didn't know where to start talking. Out of nowhere, he said, "Tell Beibei… the money is not… is not in the stock market…"
What the hell is he talking about?
Gan Qing was completely lost. She could not make out his words so she directly took action—she sent a few small blades flying, throwing them all accurately and mercilessly at the gaps between Han Dongsheng's fingers.
If it was said that the ten fingers were connected to one's heart, then the tender flesh between them could be said to be connected to one's soul.
Han Dongsheng was completely caught off guard. All his mumbling to himself that was stifled in his throat turned into a blood curdling shriek. Under that intense stimulation, all the vitality in his entire body blazed up again.
Colour returned to his ashen face at a speed that could be seen with the naked eye. His head jerked up.
That vicious and merciless demoness said indifferently, "Oh, no need to thank me."
Han Dongsheng let out a roar. He curled his fingers in, leaving a bloody handprint on the floor, and propped himself up with a strong push against the floor.
Right at that moment, the alloy window bars broke completely. The glass panes in the middle shattered into pieces, and the wooden frame and a large piece of stone smashed to the floor.
Han Dongsheng shouted, "Move aside!"
Gan Qing responded by angling her body and letting him pass. Han Dongsheng covered his head and rumbled past her like a large artillery shell, knocking out a human-shaped hole in the loosened wood and stone wall, and then falling directly to the ground. Gan Qing didn't hesitate anymore and squeezed out close on his heels.
There was a loud boom. The small building collapsed completely into a pile of rubble.
The rescuers and the people being rescued all scattered and ran away from the scene. Some of them turned their heads back in a fluster and looked towards the scene of the fire. What they saw was the pure white walls of Paradise tearing apart, revealing a vicious demonic face.
That place was an illusion gone up in flames, a dream of Nanke.
For the first time, Yu Lanchuan regretted that he had rented his car out for the sake of saving money. Rushing for time, he borrowed a car from his colleague and sped towards Paradise's nest.
"The number you are calling is not in service."
This woman's phone seemed to be only for the purpose of conducting scams in her WeChat Moments. Once there was something urgent, her phone could never be contacted!
Yu Lanchuan thought of Gan Qing's message that came out of nowhere and nearly threw his phone out the window.
Right at that moment, his phone rang. Yu Lanchuan just barely caught his phone that was nearly slipping out of his hands. "Hello?"
"It's me," Yu Yan said quickly. "There's been an accident."
"What's the situation?"
"This pack of evil cult members are more insane than I thought. At first, I thought that they just wanted to swindle some money. In the end, just now, someone saw that they had no escape and set the place on fire. They wanted to take the chance when we were putting out the fire to run away. Teacher Meng-Meng and Old Han were both in the fire, the building collapsed just now..."
Yu Lanchuan's pupils contracted. Right at this moment, the car reached an intersection and the lights changed to red. The car in front of him had already stopped. He stomped on the brakes and the friction between the wheels and the road resulted in a screech that made his teeth ache.
"Hello, hello, hello? Master Lan? Are you okay?" On the other end, Yu Yan heard the sound of the car braking. "Be mindful of traffic safety!"
For a moment, Yu Lanchuan's ears seemed to be blocked by something. Yu Yan's long-winded chattering on the phone turned hazy and unclear. It was like someone had hit him on the head with a truncheon and his hands nearly lost grip of the steering wheel.
Right then, the lights changed. The car behind him honked impatiently. Yu Lanchuan was startled by the piercing sound and his hearing came back for the moment.
All he heard was the last part of Yu Yan's sentence in the call. "...sent to the nearby hospital for emergency treatment."
 A Dream of Nanke 南柯一梦 is an opera about a man who had a fantastical dream only to wake up and realise it was all an illusion
Sect Leader Yang was a respected leader. His feud with those from the demonic and unorthodox sects was a long-standing one.
Han Dongsheng had a family member involved in the matter. He could not shirk his duty.
But why had she gone over to join the excitement?
She usually behaved in an exasperating "I'm very godly, I'm just pretending to be a coward, everything is within grasp of my hand" manner and had endless tricks up her sleeve. In actual fact, she was afraid of the dark and also afraid of ghosts; she couldn't earn enough for even a pot of vinegar even swindling and conning people for a month; she easily offered to treat someone to a meal but turned right around and skived off; before fighting, she would have to wrap her hands up or they would tremble like someone with Parkinson's...
Wan Mu Chun stayed hidden from the world for such a long time, just to produce someone so unreliable?
All sorts of scrambled and jumbled thoughts were rising and falling in Yu Lanchuan's mind. His spiking blood pressure was close to making his heart explode. Before he could understand why exactly he was panicking, he had already screwed up his role which should have been "sit in a tent and devise strategies," turning it instead into "seize the road in a mad scrabble."
The roaring of the engine and the sound of his own heartbeat filled the small space. A hazy thought suddenly came to the surface, gradually turning clear amidst the static noise.
The fifteen-year old teenager he had suppressed in his heart for so many years forcefully threw off fifteen years' worth of dust. From all those long years, he revealed a face that was nearly unrecognisable.
He thought, I've only just finally managed to find you…
Yu Yan said "Hello?" into the phone a few times. On the other end, Yu Lanchuan had hung up. Yu Yan was just about to call again when he was cut off by a call from a higher-up and he hurried to explain how a "looking for elderly people who ran away from home" case ended up with them risking their lives to fight criminal suspects.
The police were so busy they were going insane. Some of them stayed at the scene to wait for the fire brigade and to catch the criminal suspects.
Those who went along to the hospital not only had to take care of this group of elderly who had received a great shock, they also had to explain the situation to the hospital and contact the family members one by one. They didn't have enough hands to go around, each one of them so busy they could barely stay still.
Han Dongsheng sent off the police officer who came to check on him, then slowly sat down on the wooden chair in the waiting area outside the emergency treatment room.
Old Mr. Zhou had inhaled not an insignificant amount of smoke and ash, and had been sent in for emergency treatment. At the moment, his condition was still unknown. Even though the officer consoled him and said that he would definitely be okay, what if…?
In that case, that breakfast where everyone let him down would likely become the final memory his family gave him.
But thinking further, even without that "what if," Old Mr. Zhou was already past seventy years of age. According to Beibei, her family didn't have any sort of longevity gene. Old Mr. Zhou had already lived past the age where his parents and siblings passed away. He was nearly the longest living person in his extended family. His life had entered a wasteland without milestones or markers. Every work day where he was given the cold shoulder by his family could be the day he finally came to his end.
But to "treasure" was too hard. It was just like being "hardworking," "steadfast" and "disciplined." Everyone knew the reason why they should be like that but only the exceptional ones could do it.
Han Dongsheng's injuries were not serious. Other than the scrapes and scratches from crashing around in the building when it was on fire, the rest could be taken care of with rehydration and inorganic salt. His most serious injuries were caused by his ally—the skin between his fingers on one hand was full of blade cuts. Not a single finger could be moved and the doctor had bandaged his hand until it resembled a large pig trotter.
Waiting alone outside the emergency treatment room, Han Dongsheng initially wanted to sit upright properly. But as he sat, the fat on his back and his stomach started to make him hunch down. The successive days of shock and alarm, the restless nights—they all attacked him at once. He was too exhausted, so tired that he could not even open his eyes.
He was like a lump of heated butter. From a cubic form, he collapsed into an irregular shape and continued to melt into liquid, dripping down below the chair.
Suddenly, he heard footsteps coming. Han Dongsheng twitched and opened his eyes, and saw Gan Qing walking towards him.
Gan Qing took a longer time than him. In her opinion, the cut on her finger could be handled just by sticking the finger into her own mouth and giving it a lick. There was no need to go to the hospital. However, what happened was, she had just jumped down from the building when she was stuffed into an ambulance for some unknown reason. Those doctors making a huge fuss for nothing not only gave her an injection, they also insisted that coming into contact with blood was a risk and made her go for a lab test.
"I'm just here to ask… cough, about that…" Gan Qing pointed at his pig trotter. "...do I need to compensate you for the medical fees?"
"Ai, what are you saying? I still don't know how to repay you for saving my life. Were it not for these cuts from you, I might have to leave my last words." Han Dongsheng smiled very politely at her, revealing gleaming white teeth which gleamed all the more in contrast with his soot-blackened face.
Gan Qing handed him a wet tissue. The two of them had survived a crisis. They made some small talk but they weren't very familiar with each other and didn't really have much to talk about, so they both fell into silence.
Han Dongsheng's face was covered in black ash. After wiping, the wet tissue in his hand became a black rag. If he held it in his hand and gave it a squeeze, he could squeeze out mud.
He slowly wiped his uninjured hand. After a while, he suddenly said, "When I came out of that building, I thought, if I was really trapped inside, Beibei would have to bring up our child on her own… how would she survive?"
Gan Qing glanced at him. However, she was a single woman with no dependants and had never had to support a family. No matter what she said, she would sound like an armchair critic, so she did not say anything.
Han Dongsheng's words to her gradually became words to himself. Talking to yourself in front of other people was always very awkward because even if the other person was not responding, their attitude was contained in their silence—I don't want to respond to you, you're stupid. But a tree hollow wouldn't be like that because a tree didn't have the ability to view humans with biased eyes. It was strange. When Gan Qing leaned silently against a corner of the wall, she was just like a wooden stump and Han Dongsheng couldn't help wanting to pour out everything in his heart to her.
"After that, I thought, maybe I was just thinking too much." He laughed self-deprecatingly. "A man like me isn't useful for much. Whether or not I'm there, it'll be fine. She might even have a better life without me."
"I might… just not be the kind of person who can be successful."
"She has always been quite disappointed in me."
Gan Qing shifted her weight to her other leg. Her arms were crossed before her chest and she was only half-listening. Her eyes were looking straight at the stairs.
The woman was disappointed in her husband who did not strive to advance, the old father was disappointed in the love he gave out that did not get any response, the man with no achievements looked back in a fluster and was disappointed in himself.
Han Dongsheng propped up his jaw with one hand. His eyelids were a little swollen from staying awake. "Sometimes, when it's all quiet at night, I can't help thinking how nice would it be if humans could relive their lives once more."
There were finally some slight ripples in Gan Qing's calm gaze. She seemed to be drawing in a deep breath, the muscles on her neck tensing visibly beneath her skin.
"Yeah," she said almost inaudibly. "How nice would it be if we could relive our lives once more."
Right at that moment, there was the sound of hurried, jumbled footsteps. Someone ran stumbling over and fell sprawling on the ground at the last flight of steps. It was Zhou Beibei, her hair dishevelled.
Her fall was too forceful and the two people there lost in their thoughts were startled back to reality. Han Dongsheng saw that it was her and quickly helped her up. "Ai, don't you know how to lift your legs when walking!"
Zhou Beibei didn't wait until she was standing up. Still kneeling, she wrapped her arms around his legs.
"Dad is okay. It's just that he's old and has inhaled some smoke." Han Dongsheng raised his own large pig trotter. With one hand, he supported Zhou Beibei's elbow and pulled her up. "Didn't I tell you to stay at home and wait with Zhou-Zhou? I can take care of things here… What's wrong?"
Zhou Beibei refused to stand up. She buried her face in his waist, not budging an inch.
Han Dongsheng held her by her shoulders and gently pried her off his body. "I'm dirty…"
He paused abruptly because he saw that Zhou Beibei's eyes were reddened. The two of them looked at each other in silence for a few seconds; then, all of a sudden, her tears fell.
She was a woman who only spoke in complaints and had not a single pleasant word to say. Her resentment had blocked her windpipe and her throat, and she could not speak clearly. She could not give voice to any of the thousands, tens of thousands words in her belly. All she could do was sob and wail her heart out.
At first, her crying made Han Dongsheng panic but after a while, he seemed to understand something from her crying. His hand slowly fell to the top of Zhou Beibei's head and he let out a sigh.
Gan Qing watched them with the eyes of a bystander. She smiled, then quietly got into the elevator at the side and went downstairs to leave.
It was pandemonium in the hospital. All the families who had an elderly member missing had rushed there. Some were crying from overjoy, some were hopping mad with anger. There was also a man wandering around lost in the hospital corridor. He happened to bump into Gan Qing when she exited the elevator, and came over to pull her to a stop and ask, "May I ask if there is an old lady with the surname Lin here?"
Before Gan Qing could reply, a police officer rushed up and after reasoning with the man in every possible way, persuaded him to leave.
"That's Old Madam Lin's son," someone said from behind her. "The old lady who was the first to go missing."
Gan Qing turned around and saw Sect Leader Yang slowly walking towards her, leaning on his walking stick.
Old Yang said, "Old Madam Lin had participated once in an activity of this Paradise group—in actual fact, these people just fed them a bit of diluted low-quality hallucinatory drugs which made them dizzy and fall asleep—and the participants even thought that they experienced their souls leaving their bodies. After being duped by that group of people a few times, she had complete and unwavering belief in them and felt that the qigong master she was following previously was a swindler. She even helped to expand the downline. She was the one who urged Old Mr. Zhou and the others to join. Joining the training this time required 40,000 yuan in cash. The old madam didn't have that much money on hand, so she went to look for that qigong master and wanted to get back some of the money she had spent on rewarding him before. Who would have known she had a bit of cardiovascular illness in the first place and had also taken this evil cult's drugs, and on top of that, she couldn't get her money back. Her emotions were agitated and just like that, she was gone… Her body has been found but it was her daughter-in-law who went to identify it. Her son still refuses to accept it."
Gan Qing said rather indifferently, as though the matter was not related to her, "If everyone had a countdown to the end of their lives hanging above their heads, it's likely that no one would ever want to leave their homes and go on long trips."
"Gan Qing, right?" Old Yang turned his head to look at her. "Wan Mu Chun's knife techniques. Your shifu was Wei Xiao."
"In the past, yes." Gan Qing was usually polite and docile at No. 110. Every time he bumped into her at Zhang Meizhen's home, she would either be cleaning the floor or cooking. Yang Yifan always thought that she was like a little nanny who was being oppressed by the old demoness.
At this moment, her hands were folded behind her and she stood a few steps away from Sect Leader Yang. She had finally shed her mask, revealing her true face. She was even slightly taller than the old Sect Leader Yang. Her eyelids were drooping down a little, revealing a touch of obstinate pride that was difficult to describe. "Later on, I revolted and broke ties with him."
Old Yang was stunned.
"It's a family matter, it doesn't bring trouble to anyone else so I won't say more." Gan Qing smiled an inscrutable smile and waved at him. "It should be easier to look for a place at the end of the year. Sect Leader Yang, you don't have to worry. I'll move out once I go back."
"Wait a minute-"
Before he could finish speaking, he saw a Beggars' Sect disciple from the "clean clothing section" running over hurriedly. "Sect Leader!"
He saw Yang Yifan following behind the disciple, charging over in a bold and forthright manner. The Dog Beating Staff was wedged under her arm.
Old Yang's face changed. He hadn't told his granddaughter about going on this wild adventure. He was afraid that she would be suspicious and that the people from the evil cult would recognise the Dog Beating Staff, so he had even left it behind on purpose!
At this moment, Yang Yifan looked like she wanted to snap the Beggars' Sect sacred item right there and then.
Old Yang said hurriedly, "Fan-Fan, if there's anything, let's talk properly. Don't-"
But Yang Yifan slaughtered her way to stand before him, only to sigh and stuff the Dog Beating Staff into Old Yang's hands, then grabbed the hardwood walking stick from him.
Old Yang blinked. He stared at her in a daze.
Yang Yifan held the wooden walking stick in her hand, trying its weight. "This is heavy. It's probably not convenient to use. Why didn't you say something earlier?"
The over ninety years old Sect Leader who was still capable of fighting barehanded was like a primary school student who had made a mistake. He mumbled, "You purposely asked someone to help buy it. It's pretty expensive…"
"So what?" Yang Yifan cut him off. "At festive occasions, I buy Hermès and diamonds, and give them all out to the young pretty boys everywhere as though they cost nothing. I do that to stop their mouths, so that they'll work for me after taking my gifts, so that in the future, they will only obediently follow me around and other than money, they won't demand time and energy from their patron. Are you also a young pretty boy that I'm keeping? Why are you acting according to their standard? If you don't like it, just say so!"
Old Yang, "..."
The Beggars' Sect disciple beside them heard President Yang's outrageously perverse words and shrank his neck back and hunched his shoulders, not daring to utter a sound. He saw Old Yang's smoke-blackened "old pretty boy" face turned from black to red, then from red to greenish-white. Finally, Old Yang could bear it no longer. He raised the Dog Beating Staff and waved it at Yang Yifan. "Whatever next! Is that something a person should say? You disgraceful, unfilial thing!"
Gan Qing quickly walked away to give him space so that she wouldn't affect this old man putting his Thirty-Six Dog Beating Techniques to use. Her hands in her pockets, she headed outside.
She really liked No. 110 Courtyard. It was busy and chaotic, beautiful and cheerful… and most importantly, it was cheap.
She probably couldn't continue at Boss Meng's place too. She probably had to change jobs.
What could she do?
Fortunately, it was near the end of the year. Everywhere in Yanning was short of hands. It shouldn't be hard to find a job as a waitress. She could make do for the time being.
When Gan Qing walked out of the hospital building, the northwest wind attacked her head-on, wrapping all around her. She breathed out a puff of white air. She felt that she had lived too comfortably for the past nearly half a year and had become fussy. She was unexpectedly even a little melancholy.
She had originally been the kind of person who lived her life without a fixed home. She was just cleaner and more presentable than the vagrants at the roadsides.
I've forgotten my roots, Gan Qing thought rather self-mockingly.
Right then, she saw a car charge into the parking lot. Before it came to a proper stop, a familiar face rushed down and immediately charged towards the police car that was parked there.
Yu Yan was on the phone with his colleague who was at the scene of the fire. Yu Lanchuan charged up to him, breathing in broken pants, and tugged at him. "Where is she?"
"...Here." From not far away, someone responded hesitantly. "Little Master Yu, I think I heard you calling for me?"
Yu Lanchuan snapped his head around. His knees weakened and he stumbled.
Yu Yan held him up. "Did you work overtime until you have low blood sugar? In that case, you should go back and rest, why did you come here?"
Yu Lanchuan pushed him away.
Gan Qing was standing a few meters away from him, her posture casual and relaxed. Her hands were in her pocket, her coat gone somewhere, and on the inside, she was wearing a cotton vest that was covered in ash. It was extremely tacky. Even though her face had been wiped clean, a few locks of hair were a little singed and she was still covered in grime all over. And it was with this appearance that she crashed into his line of sight.
Yu Lanchuan didn't know why but his heart rate that had been like a hurricane the entire way here did not slow down. Instead, it went up a level.
His long, unwavering gaze made Gan Qing uncomfortable. She thought there was something on her face so she raised her hand to wipe her face with her sleeve without fuss. Only then did Yu Lanchuan's gaze slowly fall on her bandaged right hand.
After wiping a while, Gan Qing didn't see any dirt. Baffled, she looked at Yu Lanchuan with a raised eyebrow. Staring into each other's eyes like this was a little awkward, so she found something to say. "All right, since we happened to bump into each other here, I can say goodbye to you guys. In these couple of days, I plan to-"
The two words "say goodbye" seemed to trigger something in Yu Lanchuan. He suddenly went up to her and grabbed her wrist and dragged her towards his car.
Yu Yan called out, "What's going on? Teacher Meng-Meng, why are you saying goodbye? Ai, Master Lan, why aren't you saying anything? Hey!"
 "Talking into a tree hollow" is somewhat similar to "yelling into the void"—basically it means a place you can just pour your thoughts into. The difference between the two is that the former is generally about secrets; telling them to a tree hollow is safe because it can't talk and hence can't tell the secret to others. It is a reference to the folk tale The King with Donkey's Ears. You can find the story easily online (it's not a Chinese folk tale, I think), but the relevant part here is the barber digging a hole in the ground to whisper his secret. In the Chinese version (according to Baidu anyway), instead of a hole in the ground, it is a tree hollow.
Gan Qing's mask had just fallen off—not the one she had been wearing on her face.
When she was dragged away by Yu Lanchuan, her thoughts were on something unrelated: Even though I said that I had broken ties with my shifu, shouldn't I act like someone who had gone through Wan Mu Chun's specialised training… For example, something like "Do not come within ten centimeters of me; otherwise, my lethal self-defense mechanism will be activated, my hand may easily slip and take your life."
Sadly, she did not have such a defense mechanism in place. If she did, there was no way she could get on public transport where humans were compressed until they resembled funeral portraits.
By the time she came back to herself, Yu Lanchuan had already pushed her into the car without saying a word.
And she had not resisted.
Gan Qing herself couldn't quite understand it. Maybe it was because she had just taken a walk in the hospital building behind them and had been affected by the joys and sorrows of the reunions and separations in life.
She was infected.
...Or maybe she just wanted to hitch a ride.
Gan Qing rubbed her own wrists. She looked at Yu Lanchuan's tense side profile and said thoughtlessly, "If there's anything, let's talk nicely. What you did just now, if it was someone else they would be yelling for someone to catch the pervert."
Yu Lanchuan's ears turned red in an instant. He didn't look at her and only said coldly, "Yelling for someone to come catch you? Put on your safety belt."
Gan Qing didn't want to listen to yet another lesson on traffic safety so she had no choice but to obediently put on the safety belt. "Why the hot temper? I notified you beforehand. Why, did I spoil the strategy the alliance leader had deployed in the Asian Pacific region?"
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Why did you come here?"
"That useless bunch of people who worshipped the 'Chun' memorial table mentioned that they have a 'shifu.' We never found out who this 'shifu' is." Gan Qing saw that the car had a fortune cat decoration whose arm was waving back and forth, and couldn't resist taking it to play with. "Wan Mu Chun's martial arts skills aren't passed on to outsiders. You guys know that too. That day when you and Sect Leader Yang were talking outside the door, I heard the conversation. I came to have a look."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "You looked until you ended up in the hospital?"
"Ai, Little Master Yu," Gan Qing said with a bright smile. "I just saw quite a few scenes of heart-wrenching crying. If you continue on like this, I'm going to think that you're worried about me… ah!
Yu Lanchuan's leg spasmed and stepped extra fiercely on the accelerator. Instantly, the car was like a whipped horse. The infrastructure around the remote hospital was not optimal and the road surface was like a pockmarked face. This "shadowless step" technique of Yu Lanchuan's first drove the car into a large pothole, then drove it back out bouncing and leaping. If it weren't for the safety belt restraining her, Gan Qing would have come close to taking flight. "I'm just teasing you a bit and you want me to die with you? Shouldn't the most powerful move be left for fighting the final boss?"
Yu Lanchuan squeezed out two words from the gaps of his clenched teeth. "Speak. Properly."
"Even though public morals are degenerating day by day, who would have thought that an expert in murdering people and setting fires would lower themselves to swindle the elderly in a rural tourism chalet," Gan Qing said. "If I hadn't come, were you counting on an old man over ninety years of age to engage in combat with him? Using my skills in front of Sect Leader Yang is the same as self-reporting which sect I'm from. When I go back, I'll need to move out. Do you think I wanted this?"
Yu Lanchuan asked stiffly, "Who's making you move out?"
"I'm taking the initiative to do it of my own will. It doesn't look nice to be ousted directly," Gan Qing said mildly. She rubbed the fortune cat's little waving paw. As though she was afraid that this alliance leader next to her who got his post by depending on his apartment was not familiar with his job, she kindly explained further. "Since you know that that old man Wei Xiao had once been named in the Alliance Leader's Command, you should know that in the eyes of you righteous sects, 'Wan Mu Chun' is about the same as that pack of people that just got arrested. If I continue to stay there, Old Sect Leader Yang and the others will suspect that I have other intentions."
"Where will you go?"
"I haven't thought of that, I'll have a look around first," Gan Qing said frankly, not thinking much of it. "I might need to stay in Yanning for a while longer. After all, there are still some matters that aren't wrapped up yet."
Matters that aren't wrapped up yet… Is it Travellers' Sect?
"I thought that since you've stayed at No. 110 for so long…" Yu Lanchuan said, "...you would…"
...think of us as...
"...at least be a little unwilling to leave."
Gan Qing turned on the car's stereo system and flipped through the music catalogue. The car owner's taste was very old-fashioned. Once the music was turned on, the sound of "The New Dream of Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies" flowed out.
"The beauty of the rivers and mountains are sublime," Gan Qing had not picked up on the subtle implied meaning between his lines at all and was carelessly speaking nonsense, "Yet, in the end, this is not my home."
Yu Lanchuan finished the poem, "I ask; when will be the day I return… Where are you planning to return to?"
That single question had Gan Qing stumped. Her movements paused.
The music continued to sing. "Draw a knife to cut off the water, the water flows ever more. Raise a cup to drown the sorrows, the sorrows grow ever more. Tomorrow morning, the cool wind flows in all directions…"
Right as they reached a crossroad, the lights turned red. Yu Lanchuan stopped the car behind the white line, his eyes staring at the countdown timer above the lights.
The two of them fell into silence for the moment.
The light from the occasional passing car shone through the windows. Her face brightened and darkened in turns, her cheeks a little dry from being rubbed too hard with wet tissues. She carried nothing with her on her body, even her coat had been tossed aside in the burning building. She played with the decorations in the car absent-mindedly, like someone hitching a ride, like a passerby about to go on a long journey to somewhere far.
The countdown timer on the lights decreased steadily from forty seconds like it was closing in on something. When the digit on the left turned to "1," Yu Lanchuan's hand that was gripping the steering wheel was suddenly covered in a sheen of sweat. The timer again changed swiftly from "10" to "9." The corner of Yu Lanchuan's eye twitched slightly. Like he was being rushed by the number of seconds on the timer, he blurted out, "I am."
Gan Qing asked, "Mm? You're what?"
05, 04, …
"Just now, you said that I scolded you because… I'm worried about you. That's what I meant."
Gan Qing turned her head in surprise.
His face expressionless, Yu Lanchuan spoke rather incoherently, "I'm not continuing what we were saying just now… I just… jumped back a bit…"
"Ah." Gan Qing made a sound in response, a little at a loss. "I understand."
The countdown timer ended and the lights changed to green. But Yu Lanchuan didn't move. Fortunately, this road wasn't a single lane and the traffic flow was sparse.
He reached out and turned off the stereo system. After that, he immediately regretted it because once the space inside the car turned quiet, even the slightest change in the sound of his heartbeat was clear.
Gan Qing made a sound, "Ermm…"
The light's green.
"I…" Yu Lanchuan opened his mouth almost at the same time as her.
Both of them closed their mouths at the same time.
"You first," Gan Qing demurred.
"I don't judge a person by their background and I care even less about the so-called 'lineage' of their skills," Yu Lanchuan said. "What year is it now, are we still as backwards as that terrible vest you're wearing?"
Gan Qing, "..."
"Yu Yan called me and said that the building was on fire and that you were inside. Right after that, someone on that side of the call shouted that the building was collapsing…" Yu Lanchuan couldn't continue speaking anymore. He turned the music on again.
Gan Qing's lashes quivered as though they couldn't bear the weight and fell downwards again. "You rushed here in the middle of the night because of that?"
Yu Lanchuan stomped on the accelerator. "What other reason is there!"
The car had just leaped past the white line when the lights changed to red again. The law-abiding Little Master Yu quickly braked again; there was a heavy thump and the two of them were jolted nearly out of their seats. Yu Lanchuan cursed in a low voice. "I didn't even find out what happened and just borrowed this car from someone and rushed here. In the end, you act like there's nothing wrong and say that you're leaving the moment I see you. Are you even human?"
Gan Qing really wanted to say that this was an unrelated matter but for some unknown reason, when the words were right at her lips, she couldn't say them.
When she walked along the hospital corridors, it was like watching numerous emotional scenes from drama shows. She saw them with her eyes, yet they did not touch her heart. Unexpectedly, she was also being dragged into a "plotline" and for a moment, she was at a loss for what to do.
There was someone who, upon hearing just some fragmentary words, had driven at top speed for a few hours to rush from Yanning's city center all the way here to look for her.
This person had also rushed to the cemetery in the eastern suburbs in the middle of the night and climbed the walls to get in, just to stop her from looking for Wang Jiusheng on her own...
The current little alliance leader was such a warmhearted person?
She suddenly fell silent. The sweat on Yu Lanchuan's hands was making his hands slippery. The engine of his heart seemed to have a few collapsed cylinders and was thumping more and more wildly, jumbling together with the old song from the last century playing from the car's stereo system to become static noise.
Since he was young, Yu Lanchuan had been a "flower on a high mountain ridge" that waited for the other sex to confess their feelings to him. His self-esteem hung high on the precipice of a snowy mountain and was only responsible for sparing the occasional glance to the people confessing to him to indicate his lack of interest. This was practically the first time he was giving in and saying such words… and she dared to remain silent?
Pah, Yu Lanchuan thought. What did I say? I certainly did not confess my feelings… Stop singing, so annoying!
His embarrassment had turned to anger. The second the lights changed, he got the car moving and turned off the music again. With the music off, he felt awkward but with it on, he felt that it was noisy. After he turned it on and off repeatedly a few times, Gan Qing finally couldn't bear it anymore and said, "Little Master Yu, please spare its life."
"Don't assume too much," Yu Lanchuan said coldly. "It's just because you saved my life once when I was young and I'm returning the favour."
"Thank you," Gan Qing said. "Erm… I don't have to strip to make things equal, right?"
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Gan Qing said, "After all, I don't have a doggy-"
Gan Qing felt that Little Master Yu was close to making a police report, so she willingly and obediently made a zipping motion across her lips.
Yu Lanchuan became the second heat source after the air-conditioning, steam rising from his head the entire way back to Yanning. Maybe it was the warm air roasting her that made her sleepy or maybe she didn't want him to feel awkward; whatever the reason was, Gan Qing just closed her eyes and rested next to him.
Yu Lanchuan quietly turned the temperature up on the air-conditioning. He felt that Gan Qing had a face that naturally had a touch of coldness. No matter how high the temperature of the air roasting it was, the capillaries beneath her skin refused to show even a hint of a flush, like they were being frugal with her vitality.
Her right hand was resting on the car door, the cloth-wrapped fingers dangling in midair, trembling slightly beyond her control. They didn't look at all dangerous; instead, it gave one the urge to take them and hold them in their own hand.
I might have gone mad, Yu Lanchuan thought.
Older-than-average young man so busy with working overtime that he has no energy to look for a partner, starts having his imagination run wild the moment he sees someone of the other sex who looks acceptable.
Wait a minute… who's older-than-average? Definitely not me, I'm in the prime of my life! Yu Lanchuan's mind theater was full of scrolling comments. Isn't she just an uncultured village bumpkin, how is she acceptable? She's just the level of an ordinary passerby!
There was another red light. Yu Lanchuan couldn't stop himself from turning his head to glance at her. He took off his coat and threw it over her body.
Gan Qing was definitely awake. She was just acting dumb and keeping her eyes closed. Her lashes moved slightly.
Yu Lanchuan quickly withdrew his gaze. ...Her lashes are longer than an ordinary passerby's.
For some reason, there were many red lights on this journey. The drive was bumpy and fitful, and when they returned to the city district, it was already past midnight. Yu Lanchuan stopped the car at No. 110's entrance. Gan Qing "woke up" right on time. "You need to find a place to park, right? I'll get off first."
As she spoke, she removed the coat on her body as though nothing had happened, smoothed it out and folded it, and pushed the car door open.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "What happened to your hand?"
Gan Qing looked at the bandages on her finger. "Didn't I say just now? I met a tough thorn that wasn't easy to handle. I cut myself in the process."
"No." Yu Lanchuan lowered his eyes, his gaze falling on her right hand that had a slight deformation. "What I'm asking is, what happened to the muscles and tendons of your arm?"
Gan Qing paused.
Yu Lanchuan cleared his throat, covering up rather conspicuously. "I'm not being a busybody. My stepfather was a doctor before he resigned. I can help you ask if there is any possibility of treating it. Actually, if it had been treated in time when you were injured…"
"I don't know, I've never had it treated," Gan Qing said.
Yu Lanchuan was stunned.
Gan Qing shrugged. "It was my own choice. Why would I get it treated?"
"Your own… what?"
"Ai, what kind of look is that?" Gan Qing flashed him a smile. "Don't worry, I'm not crazy, I'm not sociopathic, and I definitely don't have a tendency to self-harm. Little Master Yu comes from a learned family, so you should know the rules, right? Ne Zha cut his flesh to return them to his mother and carved his bones to return them to his father. I revolted and broke ties with my sect, and made a clean break with my former shifu. So of course I would need to leave something behind—I returned the over ten years' of martial arts skills in my right arm."
Yu Lanchuan stared at her, dumbstruck.
"That's right, the jianghu is a vicious place." As Gan Qing spoke, she pushed open the car door and got down. "The demonic sects are black-hearted and ruthless, and are capable of anything… I'll head up first. Thank you for the ride. Get an early rest."
In the biting cold of an early morning at the end of the year in Yanning, she stretched her body and then walked into the small building. Even Zhang Meizhen who went out to party everyday had already returned home and was fast asleep. Keeping her movements quiet, Gan Qing washed up and returned to her room and tidied her belongings.
Her belongings were not many —just a few everyday clothes and some daily necessities. After she got up tomorrow, she would take a day off from Boss Meng to give the room she had lived in a thorough cleaning. She would take down the curtains and the bed sheet to wash, and then she could take her leave of Madam Meizhen. There would be no trouble at all.
Gan Qing put the little dog plush that her ex-roommate, Miss Night Owl, had given her on the windowsill. She tore off the note the night owl roommate had left her and planned to leave the dog to Zhang Meizhen as a souvenir. She was not going to bring it with her.
"On what do you build your life?" Miss Night Owl asked her from across time and space.
A good question. Gan Qing crumpled the note into a ball and threw it into the trash can. However… humans aren't flowers or grass or trees, why do they need to have a fixed thing beneath their feet to "build their life" on?
Living like the floating duckweed was also living. There was nothing wrong with that.
Yu Lanchuan's sudden and rather sorry way of getting close to her did not mess up her plans. Gan Qing rested her head on her hands and lay face-up on the bed. She thought back on this special part of her life, savouring it, then swallowed it as though it was a sweet snack she had obtained unexpectedly.
Good thing it's me, Gan Qing thought. A man and a woman all on their own, if it were someone else, they would be letting their imagination run wild.
 "The beauty of the rivers and mountains are sublime; yet, in the end, this is not my home; I ask, when will be the day I return" ("江山信美，终非吾土") is from the poem 平湖乐 by the Yuan dynasty poet Wang Yun.
As a delicate and refined old lady, as usual, Zhang Meizhen slept in a cloud of perfume until the sun was high in the sky.
The moment she opened her eyes, she felt that there was something different about the house. Hence, she followed the noise to the kitchen and saw that Gan Qing was making egg rolls stuffed with meat floss.
Zhang Meizhen stared at her absent-mindedly for a while, thinking that she must have not slept enough. She turned her head back to check the time, then poked her head into the kitchen to ask Gan Qing doubtfully, "Little Nun, shouldn't you have left the house to go recite the western sutras?"
"I have something on so I took the day off. I'll talk to you about it in a while." Gan Qing didn't turn her head. "Shall I make rolls with chicken floss or beef floss for you?"
"I don't eat that kind of junk food, who knows what has been added to them…" Zhang Meizhen muttered.
Gan Qing said, "This isn't junk food, I made the meat floss myself."
Zhang Meizhen turned to look at Gan Qing's room. There was a large luggage bag at the door. The curtains had been taken down and were piled neatly on the washing machine. Gan Qing had probably been afraid of waking her up with the noise so she hadn't turned on the washing machine. Zhang Meizhen frowned. She suddenly realised something and slowly stood straight.
"Beef is more fatty so it's more fragrant," Gan Qing said.
"Oh, sure." Zhang Meizhen had just woken up and her mind was not very alert. Her focus was led astray and it was a while before she realised what was going on. "That's not the main point. Where did you go yesterday? Why did you pack your things?"
Gan Qing grabbed a handful of meat floss and scattered them over the egg crepe, then laid a piece of cheese on top. The food sizzled in the non-stick pan. She said, "I hitched a ride and went with Sect Leader Yang and the rest to have a look, and accidentally got into a fight… I'll put one less spoon of sauce. You have high blood pressure, it's not good to eat too much salt."
"My blood pressure right now is indeed not low." Zhang Meizhen flipped the hair on her shoulder to her back. "What do you mean? You're staying at my place, do you need permission from that Yang fellow?"
Coincidentally, Meizhen-jie had just finished speaking when someone pressed the doorbell. Old Master Yang seemed to have picked the time when she got out of bed to come here, just for the sake of letting her vent her morning grouchiness on him.
Who knew what grudges and enmity the older generation had; to outsiders, Sect Leader Yang had the bearing of a man long used to being revered but when he was at Zhang Meizhen's place, if Meizhen-jiejie pointed to the east he wouldn't dare strike west. He was the respected sect leader of Beggars' Sect, yet not only was he shouted at every day, he also did not get many pleasant looks.
The moment Zhang Meizhen opened the door and saw him, without waiting for Old Yang to say anything, she slammed the door shut and yelled outside. "This is the Cave of the Silken Web, the demons' nest. It's not convenient for us to receive you people from the reputable and righteous sects, please kindly fuck off!"
Old Master Yang's voice came from the other side of the door. "Let me explain…"
"A dog carried away my hearing aids, I can't hear you!"
"Open the door first. There are people coming and going in the corridor… Ai, it doesn't look good for me to be standing here."
"Go back home and look in the mirror. You can stand anywhere and you still won't look good."
Gan Qing held a spatula in her hand. A forty-episode drama series full of melodrama was already playing in her head and she couldn't help feeling amused. She turned off the stove and went over to open the door for Old Sect Leader Yang herself.
Zhang Meizhen snorted coldly. "Don't let your walking stick touch the floor of my home. It will sully the purity of your Dog Beating Staff."
With that, she slammed the bathroom door shut and went to wash up.
Sect Leader Yang entered the apartment, all downcast and dejected. His legs were still rather stiff. His age was advanced after all. Last night, he had brandished a hardwood walking stick around in a fight; today, he couldn't raise his upper arms. His face was rather ashen, he probably hadn't slept well and who knew what time it was when he got back from the hospital.
"I'm making breakfast right now. Would you like to have some?" Gan Qing asked politely. "Do you want-"
"He doesn't dare." Zhang Meizhen's sinister voice came from the bathroom. "He's afraid you'll poison him and that holes will rot through his guts and stomach after eating!"
"Don't trouble yourself." Old Master Yang waved his hand. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Gan Qing's packed belongings. He recognised the bag—when she carried her luggage here, it was him who asked Yu Lanchuan to help her carry it up.
Leaning on his walking stick, Old Master Yang studied Gan Qing and asked, "So you are… the child that Wei Xiao brought here back in that year?"
Gan Qing smiled.
"Ai, I couldn't recognise you." Old Master Yang extended his hand and gestured. "Back then, you were only this tall. Your shifu-"
"Former shifu, he died many years ago." Gan Qing unhurriedly cut him off. She poured him a glass of water. "Please have a seat. I haven't finished making breakfast. I've made an appointment with an agent to check out rooms in the afternoon. I will need to leave soon."
Old Master Yang said, "I came to look for you for this very reason. Yesterday, it was too chaotic at the hospital and I didn't have time to thank you."
Gan Qing smiled. "There's no-"
"It's not just about yesterday night. After midnight, Xiao-Chuan called me and we talked for half the night. It was only then that I knew that the reason why so many things could go smoothly in the past was because you lent a hand." Old Master Yang had heavy dark circles under his eyes, proving that the "half the night" was a realistic estimate and not rhetorical. "Otherwise—just take that kidnapping incident for example—that kid Yan Hao would have had to face the consequences. When they were surrounded by the Travellers' Sect people a few days ago, if you hadn't helped them break out, it would probably be difficult for them to come back in one piece. In the past half a year, the blundering younger generation have caused quite a lot of trouble for you. You deserve this thank you."
Yu Lanchuan had left for work early in the morning. The kitchen window in 1003 opened into the corridor. When Gan Qing was making breakfast, she sensed him standing outside the window for a while.
Yesterday, he had rushed all the way to somewhere so far away and then busied himself making calls here and there when he got back.
Did he… not sleep at all for the whole night?
For a moment, Gan Qing wasn't sure what the feeling in her heart was. She was someone who liked being a wallflower. Even though it was not to the extent of the "sparrow" downstairs who was afraid of other people looking at him, she was also not used to being in the center of attention. If someone did something specially for her, even if it took barely any effort on their part, she would feel a little like there was something crawling under her skin.
"On the Yangtze River, the new waves overpower the old waves," Old Master Yang said. "Based on your age, you have probably only met your grand-master a handful of times. I don't know what happened within your sect but… if, in the afterworld, Chun-xiong knew what had happened, he would probably be rather gratified. Yan Hao came all the way here from thousand of miles away in the south to seek shelter with us; Xiao-Chuan's house is still being renovated so he's staying here temporarily; for the sake of sending his child to school, Dongsheng brought his family, old and young, back to No. 110 after leaving for ten years; and you are also staying here at Meizhen's place by a fated coincidence. Isn't this what is meant by the coincidences and forces of life that we cannot predict, and everything following the law of nature? For me to be able to see the Five Supremes gather again in my lifetime is the greatest joy I can have. Young lady, if you leave, it would be a regrettable loss for the Five Supremes."
Gan Qing lowered her head and smiled. "It's been nearly a hundred years, there's no meaning to having this title now. Sect Leader Yang, you should have heard yesterday, right? I'm someone who revolted and broke ties with my sect. Aren't you going to ask what I've done?"
"What I should know, I will know one day. If I force my way to find out before the right time, I might miss the big picture." Old Master Yang didn't mind her distant and thorny attitude. He only said, "Xiao-Chuan has that kind of temperament, yet he was on the phone the whole night for you. Meizhen also took the initiative to keep you here. My old eyes are blurred, am I going to compare the ability to see things clearly with them?"
After saying that, he slowly stood up. "I won't disturb the two of you having breakfast. If I stay here any longer, Meizhen is going to give me dirty looks."
Gan Qing, "..."
"By the way…" At the entrance, Old Master Yang suddenly thought of something and turned around to say to Gan Qing, "You probably don't remember but that time when Wei Xiao brought you here to No. 110, it was actually the last time he showed his face in the martial arts community. He said that when he was young, he had caused not an insignificant amount of trouble and offended a lot of people, and that he reaped what he sowed. He didn't mind what happened to him but because he had the little you by his side, he had a lot more to worry about. It wouldn't be convenient for him to continue stirring up the jianghu, so he planned to conceal his identity and live in seclusion."
From then on, Wei Xiao became the cook Wei Changsheng.
Gan Qing stared at him blankly.
Sect Leader Yang leaned on his walking stick and walked out. "Your shifu, he definitely loved you a lot."
Gan Qing sent the old man off. Her soul had flown off to who-knew-where and she messed up and burned a piece of egg crepe.
Zhang Meizhen turned the suction on the exhaust hood up a notch and fanned the smoke in the kitchen. "What are you doing? Not planning to live anymore?"
Gan Qing quickly scraped the burnt bits off the pan and cleaned the ash on the spatula. Right at that moment, the doorbell rang again.
1003 was usually so tranquil it was like a country of its own but it was exceptionally lively today. Zhang Meizhen opened the door and saw Little Friend Han Zhou who was on summer holiday standing there holding a paper box.
The boy with the brightest future prospects in the entire building looked at Madam Meizhen and broke into a huge smile. He promoted himself a few generations ahead and the first thing he said when he opened his mouth was, "Hello, Meizhen-jie. Can I get a free meal here?"
"..." Zhang Meizhen's expression changed a few times and her tone softened quite a bit involuntarily. "No respect for age, who are you calling that? Even your dad calls me 'Grandma.' These gremlin kids, who are they learning from? Each and every one of them is a smooth talker. Ai, come on in."
"This is a cake my mum bought. She asked me to bring it up for the jiejies here to try. My grandpa is still in the hospital, my parents are there to accompany him." Little Friend Han Zhou held the paper box higher. "Gan Qing-jiejie, my dad asked me to pass you a message. He said that when my grandpa is discharged from the hospital, he will definitely bring him here to thank you. It was lucky for them that you stay at No. 110, you must not move out… Are you going to move out?"
Gan Qing hesitated. "Erm…"
Han Zhou hopped up on a chair. His legs could not reach the floor and dangled down. This future patron of love propped his chin up on both hands and said gloomily, "Then, take me along too. I want to wander the world with you. Why confine ourselves to the mortal realm and suffer… suffer… ai, suffer what again? Anyway, what I mean is I don't want to go to school."
The adults in his family didn't have time to look after him recently. During his holidays, this brat had the run of the house and was probably living in the T.V. already.
Gan Qing took the last egg roll out of the pan. Yet another unexpected visitor had arrived. Luckily, she had made extra or there wouldn't be enough to go around.
This time, it was Liu Zhongqi who had come. He had just come back from school and was like a large rabbit being hunted by a wolf. Without even putting his bag down, he entered in a fluster and said in alarm, "Our last exam in the morning was English. I compared answers with the others, I think my life is going to end. Teacher Meng-Meng, quick, help me estimate my score!"
Gan Qing, "..."
After much effort, she finally got rid of Team Elderly, Team Children and Team "Heart Entirely Set on Studies" who had come together to wear her down one after another. It was even more tiring than fighting three hundred rounds with the evil cult members in the outskirts. Before she had the time to soak the curtains, it was already the time for her appointment with the real estate agent and she left in a rush.
She took the bus around the city and looked at a few rooms—all of them weren't anything remarkable. With her budget, of course there wouldn't be any good rooms. The only place where the conditions were acceptable was a haunted house near a cemetery.
Gan Qing got down from the bus. Her finger swiped across her phone and she hesitated over whether or not to tell the agent to book the haunted house. Near the bus stop, a beggar who was picking out bottles from the trash can saw her from far away and grinned at her, and even gave her a deep bow. Gan Qing nodded in reply. All of a sudden, she couldn't bring herself to tap on the "Send" button on the message.
She wrapped her coat tighter around herself and walked into the darkness of the night, feeling a little lost.
For the first time in her life, there were people urging her to stay. She was a little unsure of what to do.
She had just reached the vicinity of No. 110 Courtyard and hadn't passed the intersection yet when a shadow suddenly flashed over to her. Gan Qing's leg reflexively stepped back—toes lightly touching the ground, posture adjusted so that she could kick out at any time—and only then did she see that the person stopping her was Yan Hao.
"It's you." Gan Qing lowered her ankle. "Why, did Little Master Yu give you a call too?"
He was really not picky with the people he chose.
Yan Hao stared blankly. "Wh-What?"
Gan Qing, "..."
Oh, she accidentally assumed too much.
"What's the matter?"
"That… That man." Yan Hao stammered and pointed at a man who was pacing around the intersection and said, "He's walking around this place. He said the police told him that his mother 'departed' by this road…"
Gan Qing followed his gaze and recognised the man at the intersection—she had seen him yesterday at the hospital. He was the son of Old Madam Lin who had unfortunately passed away.
After Old Madam Lin failed to get back the money she had spent on rewards and passed away from heart failure, the Travellers' Sect people were afraid of bearing the responsibility and had furtively taken her body away to be buried.
"Her body was indeed taken away through this road." Gan Qing asked Yan Hao, "What's the matter?"
"I want to tell him something… b-but I don't know how to say it." Yan Hao fidgeted restlessly. He had been beaten up by Gan Qing before, had been rescued by her before, and had taken back his figurine from her hands. Hence, he could just barely consider her an acquaintance and could speak a few words with her. But for him to strike up a conversation with a stranger was asking too much of him. "I don't have proof… and might not say it correctly, can you help me tell him…"
Gan Qing was completely confused by his scrambled words. "What proof? Help you what? Wait, wait, wait… take a deep breath, there's no hurry, first arrange your sentence order."
"His mother… that is, Old Madam Lin…" Yan Hao followed the guidance of the grammar teacher, Teacher Meng-Meng, and forced out the subject of his sentence, "...went missing… from this road… Qiao-Qiao might have seen her. Qiao-Qiao is…"
"The girl at the pet store, I know," Gan Qing said, "And then?"
Yan Hao felt that he couldn't say it clearly so he fished out a notebook from his pocket. In it were the written chats between him and Qiao-Qiao:
That night, I saw someone riding an electrical three-wheeled cart pass by here. The words were written in the girl's delicate handwriting. There was a human-sized sack on the cart. The rider also made a phone call and said stuff like "Yanning is a busy place with prying eyes, it's troublesome." Then, he accidentally rode into a pothole and the things on the cart fell off.
The sack was moving.
"I, a neighbourhood police officer from the local police station, have not been transferred to the Serious Crime Division due to my outstanding achievements in my work, have I?" Yu Yan sat on a plastic chair in the pet store, his face dumbstruck. "My main job right now should be to prevent the residents of this neighbourhood from setting off fireworks or firecrackers illegally, pour my heart and soul into the end-of-the-year thief-catching season, and also work hard to find the culprit of the high-rise burglaries from a while ba- ah! What's this!"
Before he could finish speaking, a hairless cat leaped out of Qiao-Qiao's hands and onto the tabletop like a bolt of lightning. A pair of large eyes peeked out, studying Yu Yan.
Yu Yan leaped three feet into the air. "What's this? It looks so scary! An alien?"
The hairless cat angrily meow-ed at him.
Yu Yan said in shock, "Fuck, this buddy here sounds like a motor!"
The National Railway Administration had already announced the start of the year-end Lunar New Year migration. The usage of the pet-boarding service at the pet store also increased in tandem. Yu Yan's shout started off a chorus of cats and the dogs, the barks and meows coming from upstairs and downstairs, all of them raising their voices together with him. It was basically a disaster.
Qiao-Qiao ran over angrily and carried the hairless cat to the cat bed. She turned her eyes to look at Yu Yan and swiftly made a string of gestures in sign language.
Gan Qing translated at the side. "She said that this is a beautiful lady and that you should apologise to her."
"What, a female cat? Why does a female cat sound like that? Are you sure it's not a lady pretending to be the big bro?" Yu Yan said, then turned towards Gan Qing. "Wait a minute, how do you know what she's gesturing? You can even understand sign language?"
Gan Qing said modestly, "A little. I threw in some guesses."
Yu Yan gave her an incredulous look. Just like how he did not understand why he, as a neighbourhood police officer, had to risk his life fighting criminal rings, he did not understand why she, as someone who "knew a little" of everything, had to lower herself to "babysit" a little scam shop.
"But just 'You saw it' is not enough to draw any conclusion. It was pitch dark, what if you saw wrongly? Even if you did not see wrongly, it might not have been a person inside," Yu Yan said to the mute girl, Qiao-Qiao. "It could be a cat or a dog—those cheap meats sold by the roadside stalls that come from illegal small manufacturers, a lot of them use stray cats and dogs as the source ingredient. There are people who specialise in gathering them… Of course, this is also illegal. That's why the person riding the three-wheeled cart had a guilty conscience and said those words on the phone that you overheard. There's nothing suspicious about that."
Qiao-Qiao could not refute him. She pursed her lips and did not make a sound.
Seeing that she was young, Yu Yan patiently explained to her. "Furthermore, for missing cases that end in death like Old Madam Lin's, we wouldn't be able to determine at the start whether it was accidental death or intentional murder, the forensic doctors would definitely need to perform an autopsy. There's no way we would just believe what they said. The result of the autopsy proved that Old Madam Lin died from heart failure. Otherwise, do you think I don't want that bullshit qigong master to wear his seat out in prison? Because of him, I was nearly beaten up by a gang of hoodlums!"
At this point, Gan Qing lifted her head to look at him.
"There's nothing I can do," Yu Yan spread his hands at her. "The ones who organised the assault on the police were those few unlicensed cab drivers. Old Madam Lin's death was because of her own anger and is considered accidental… Speaking of which, there's a stronger connection between that and the hallucinatory drugs that Paradise group made her take blindly. The qigong master and his gang could at most be slapped with a 'privately concealing a body' offence."
Yan Hao was not used to cutting into a conversation in front of so many people. He turned his head to look out the window at the street outside. Old Madam Lin's son had walked far away following the street, and was no longer within sight.
"It was right that you stopped the two of them from telling the old lady's family this," Yu Yan sighed and said to Gan Qing. "A family member dying in unclear circumstances, no one can accept it willingly. At this time, you can tell him any baseless rumours and he will believe it. If, for a moment, he can't think clearly, who knows what he'll do."
Qiao-Qiao hurriedly stretched out a hand and made some gestures. Gan Qing lightly held her wrist.
"Death from heart failure can happen in many ways, " Gan Qing said. "The autopsy can only prove the cause of death but it's difficult to determine what triggered it, isn't it?"
"Hmm?" Yu Yan questioned.
Gan Qing said, "For example, I see someone who is so worked up that something seems wrong with them but not to the extent that they're dying. Not only do I not call the ambulance, I also stop them from leaving and even do something to trigger them further. In the end, I literally scare her to death. How would you judge that? For example, like this-"
As she spoke, she suddenly reached out and swiftly jabbed Yu Yan a few times. Yu Yan's heart thumped; half his body was numb.
He couldn't move!
Yu Yan was stupefied. This was the legendary "hitting the acupoints"!
"It's not that amazing." Gan Qing seemed to know what he was thinking. "It just numbs you for a bit. Use your strength and try to move, and it'll be fine."
He exerted his strength to move the spots Gan Qing had hit just now. Indeed, he could move again and he realised that the feeling of being nailed down was just a psychological effect.
"Most people don't have the strength to hit the acupoints," Gan Qing said. "Furthermore, during a fight, no one will obediently stand still and let you jab all you want. In reality, this so-called 'hitting the acupoints' can't cause any harm so it also won't leave any marks on the body. But it should be enough to frighten an old lady who's seventy or eighty years old."
Want money? Dream on.
You can't move, can you? We are even going to bury you alive. Let's see where you can go and ask for money.
Yu Yan was momentarily stunned. "Wouldn't that really be murder?"
"Not everyone will be condemned by their own conscience after killing a person. There are those who only care about which method of disposing the body is the least risky." A cat came near Gan Qing and she petted its head. "The amount of money Old Madam Lin wanted was too large, enough to go on the news. Elderly people like them can risk their lives to create a ruckus for the sake of their coffin money. If they really let her spread the fuss until it became big, it would be too troublesome. Inversely, it would be easier to handle if she was dead. They can wait for the storm to be over, then drag the body somewhere far and throw it on some rubbish pile somewhere. When someone finds it, it'll just be handled as a homeless elderly dying from sudden death.
Yan Hao couldn't stop himself from asking, "Th-Then what should we do?"
"There's nothing we can do. If that is really the case, then Traveller's Sect must have people who specialise in disposing bodies," Gan Qing said coldly. She turned to ask Qiao-Qiao. "Did you see clearly what the person riding the three-wheeled cart looked like?"
Qiao-Qiao shook her head. No, he was wearing a helmet.
"That's the specialised 'street cleaner.' Even if he's captured on CCTV, you won't find out who he is. The three-wheeled cart must be well hidden now and there won't be extraneous marks on the body. Travellers' Sect are jianghu veterans. It's not so easy to get anything on them." Gan Qing stood up. "Also, don't carelessly talk about what we discussed today. Did you hear what Officer Yu said? The situation is unclear, it might bring greater harm to the bereaved family."
Both Yan Hao and Qiao-Qiao stared at her.
"That's enough, this is just my impartial view. Don't look at me like that, you're making me feel like I'm sullying someone's pure, unstained soul." Gan Qing waved a hand, then thrust her hands into her pockets and walked out of the pet store. The hairless cat opened its eyes wide and stared at her retreating back, and let out a wheeze.
"Wait!" Yu Yan, who had just said that he only handled catching petty thieves, caught up to her. "Gan Qing, if there really is a possibility that what you said happened, we will investigate to the end!"
Gan Qing looked up at the gloomy sky and smiled at him. "Sure, good luck."
Yu Yan said, "You have past conflicts with Travellers' Sect. I, too, have past conflicts with them. In the future, why don't we all discuss together how to handle them? Lanchuan told me that you're leaving…"
Gan Qing finally felt her head aching slightly. "Does Little Master Yu want to be my manager? I haven't made my debut and he's already publicising my itinerary far and wide."
Yu Yan said, "The kidnapping incident when he was young left a huge impact on him. All these years, he could not forget the matter. He even filled a sketchbook with drawings of you as the model."
"Drawings… drawings of what?"
"Ai, this is too awkward. I feel like I'm being a matchmaker." Yu Yan took off his police cap and ran his hand through his short hair. "Teacher Meng-Meng, even though your anti-Mercury retrograde charm isn't very effective, I'm already used to getting new ones from you on a regular basis-"
Gan Qing interrupted him softly. "Officer Yu, you have investigated me, haven't you?"
Yu Yan was instantly speechless.
Gan Qing unhurriedly turned her head around. Under the stark white light of the streetlights, her face didn't have much colour. There was a small crack on her dry lips and one of her eyebrows was slightly raised. All of a sudden, she was no longer the friendly and cute "Teacher Meng-Meng." She kept her voice very low. "You've seen my file, you know what I did in the past. You still plan to keep me in your neighbourhood?"
For a moment, Yu Yan could not say anything.
Gan Qing drew in a breath of the bitingly cold northwest wind. Suddenly, she recalled what happened many years ago.
It was also a freezing cold winter's day. She walked on the road in a miserable state, the cold wind blowing on the wounds on her body until she could not feel them anymore. Blood dripped with every step she took. The scariest of all was the knife wound on her right arm—it seemed to pierce right through the girl's arm and her entire sleeve looked like it had been dredged out of a pool of blood. Near Mudpool Backlane, she collapsed onto the ground.
When she regained consciousness, her wound had already been cleaned. She realised that she was lying on her own little bed. There was a glass of hot milk on the bedside table.
Gan Qing stared blankly at the milk that had steam rising from it for a long while. Then, all of a sudden, she threw off her blanket and leaped up and limped out of the room in a rush. "Shi-"
Gan Qing twisted her head around and her gaze swiftly turned dull. "...Uncle Meng."
"Quick, go back to your room." Meng Tianyi kept his voice low and pushed her into the room. "I didn't dare send you to the hospital. I got your aunt to help you bandage your wounds. What on earth happened? Where did you go? What did you do? How did you get so badly injured?"
Gan Qing acted like she had not heard his questions. After falling silent for a while, she asked, "Where's my shifu?"
Meng Tianyi looked like he was in a dilemma."Your shifu is now… Mm, he asked me to look after you."
"Oh, I get it. He doesn't want to see me," Gan Qing said detachedly. "He didn't throw me out on the streets because he's afraid I'll cause trouble for him, isn't it? He purposely brought me back while he hid himself away?"
"What are you saying? Who on earth did you fight, my ancestor! Can you speak the truth for once so that your Uncle Meng knows what's going on? It's against the law to injure people. It wasn't easy for your shifu to let you study in Yanning. You're in Year 3 of senior high already. Take the exam, enter university and become an educated person, nice and steady, isn't that good? You skip school every day, get into fights and face disciplinary actions. You also don't study properly, the school even wants to expel you now! In that case, your life will be ruined. Why can't you be sensible… Hey, where are you going? Come back here!"
Meng Tianyi grabbed the girl's shoulders in a fluster but the injured Gan Qing slipped out of his hands like a fish. In just a few steps, she had reached the door. The bandages around her right arm fell to the floor.
"Gan Qing!" Veins bulged out on the corner of Meng Tianyi's forehead. He took a letter from his pocket and held it high. "Your shifu wrote this himself. If you still refuse to be sensible, then you can bear the consequences yourself!"
On the red seal of the envelope was written: My humble respects to all my ancestors of the sect of Wan Mu Chun.
A shifu would only write such a letter themselves when a disciple broke a sect rule and was ousted from the sect. The letter would be offered up to the masters of the sect to formalise the breaking of the master-and-student relationship. If Wei Xiao wasn't living in seclusion, he should even spread the news of the relationship severance far and wide so that all his allies and enemies would know that this disciple Gan Qing had nothing more to do with Wan Mu Chun from then on.
The young Gan Qing seemed to want to burn through that red paper with her eyes. She stared at the letter in Meng Tianyi's hand for a long time. "For who's sake… For what did I do this? I… He wants to break ties with me?"
"Your shifu let his anger get the better of him." Meng Tianyi thought he had scared her into submission. He coaxed her, "You too… Hey, Gan'er! What are you doing?"
Meng Tianyi turned pale with fright. He saw Gan Qing bring down the tip of her knife and slice open her already-injured arm like she was cutting open a delivery package. Blood splattered onto the door frame. Her arm fell limply by her side.
The pain was so great that veins bulged out on the corner of her forehead. She sucked in a breath and said slowly, pausing between each word. "Then, I will return this to him… let this be a clean break."
Meng Tianyi ran after her but the girl had already disappeared from sight. All she left was a trail of blood.
"I did." Yu Yan spoke suddenly, drawing back Gan Qing's attention. "When you appeared in Travellers' Sect territory the other day, your actions were really not like an ordinary person. I investigated once I got back… and I've also told Master Lan."
Gan Qing was stunned.
"Yu Lanchuan took the day off today, did you know?" Yu Yan asked. "I've known him for so long. He has only taken a day off once when his younger brother was kidnapped. He's… afraid that you'll leave."
Gan Qing seemed to realise something. She followed his gaze to look over and saw a very low-profile small black car stopped at the intersection not far away. It looked vaguely familiar… She seemed to have seen this car at other places today!
Gan Qing looked down and fished out her phone, and saw that there was an unread message. The real estate agent she had an appointment with earlier sent a message to apologise, saying that the haunted house that she had been wavering over whether or not to rent had been rented by someone else at a high price.
Gan Qing lowered her phone. She strode over to the car and knocked on the window.
The window wound down, revealing Little Master Yu's face.
"You're fighting me for a haunted house? And even offered a high price? You're really…" Gan Qing couldn't help swearing, then turned to leave. Yu Lanchuan quickly got the car moving and tailed her silently from a few meters away.
Gan Qing came to an abrupt stop. Yu Lanchuan immediately followed suit and braked. He was like a stray cat winding around her heels and refusing to leave.
The two of them locked gazes for a while. Yu Lanchuan's throat twitched. He watched her nervously.
Gan Qing said, "A haunted house that no one has wanted for 800 years was taken care of just like that. If I had known earlier, I would ask the agent for a commission!"
Yu Lanchuan was caught off guard by her tirade. After a while, he realised something and smacked the steering wheel hard, his lips turning up uncontrollably into a smile.
Half a month later, it was the New Year according to the old calendar. A pair of Spring Festival couplets were hung up at No. 110, large and red. Old Mr. Zhou was also finally discharged and returned home safe and sound. Zhou Beibei finally knew the truth of what happened to her family's apartment. She cried her heart out, perhaps because her hopes had turned to nothing or perhaps because her heart ached for another reason.
However, at the very least, she had now broken free. She no longer watched the stock market every day and no longer became anxious at just the slightest whiff of trouble in the market.
Yu Yan brought news that the crackdown targeting MLMs and scams in the city was about to start… However, after that experience, these elderly people who had been rescued all became staunch fighters for materialism. They wouldn't fall for new tricks anytime soon.
Even though Han Dongsheng's promotion prospects were as dismal as ever, even though Han Zhou's exam results still failed to meet the passing line, even though Liu Zhongqi was still waging a desperate battle against English, even though Yu Lanchuan's year-end bonus was less than expected…
They were still here. They still had to welcome the new year.
Carrying New Year's goods with her, Gan Qing arrived at that old apartment block and as usual, delivered them to the old lady living alone that she had been taking care of secretly.
Before she left, she looked deeply at the funeral portrait of a woman that hung in the living room.
That woman's surname was Chen and her name was Juan. Because she could not bear being abused by her husband, on a lonely and hopeless night, she had stabbed her drunk and unconscious husband eleven times with a knife. She had been sentenced to life imprisonment.
After six years behind bars, she died of illness in prison.
Her greatest wish had been for there to be someone to look after her old mother… the person who did not have the ability to live independently, the person who single-handedly pushed her past the point of no return.
Gan Qing remembered that she had been a very gentle woman.
 "Juan" 娟 juān is a female name and also a name commonly given to female victims of violent crimes in China.
— END OF BOOK 3 —
Book 4: Loss of Focus
Every time it was Spring Festival, cities like Yanning would become empty. Every road was wide open all the way to the horizon and every train at the subway was like a special carriage for reserved passengers only. The steaming hot urban heat island had its heat temporarily turned off. And so, on the eve of the Lunar New Year, the snow drifted down silently.
In the garden of No. 110 Courtyard, the evergreen pine trees were garlanded with snow-white frost. More than half the private cars occupying the courtyard had been driven away and the little courtyard was emptied out. Only the little electrical car that advertised the "Acupuncture, Moxibustion, Flower Garlands" one-stop service was parked all on its own at a spot near the gate. Someone had used their hand to draw on the snow covering the rear window and written the "auspicious" greeting: To Pro-mort-ion and Wealth.
Star Dreams's business wasn't very good recently. There was barely a single sale in a day.
A lot of people broadly categorised both New Year's Day and Spring Festival as "celebrating New Year's" but in actual fact, the latter was not the former and they were even as different as ice and fire. The Gregorian calendar's New Year's Day was the peak season for business at Star Dreams. The young people who came to buy lucky charms for the new year came wave after wave and Gan Qing had been so busy that she hadn't even had the time to drink a gulp of water. The Spring Festival a month later was an entirely different scene. Those noisily trendy young people seemed to have melted away in just one night, mingling with their own families, big and small. If it weren't because they could still make a sound online, it would seem as though they had disappeared from the world.
Since there weren't many customers, Gan Qing also did not stay in the shop and waste electricity. She closed the shop early and went home.
Boss Meng gave her a red packet and vacation days until the third day of the new year. It didn't matter to Gan Qing whether or not she was on leave, this job of hers didn't require her to rack her brains or exhaust her energy anyway. It was about the same as being idle. She turned the red packet over; it was quite thick so she was extravagant for once and went to a department store that was still open. She bought a box of éclairs and brought them home to eat. She didn't prepare any New Year's goods—New Year's goods came in bulk; she was celebrating alone and at most, she could only throw in an occasional half portion for Zhang Meizhen. If she hoarded too much, she would have to eat until she couldn't move.
Supermarkets don't even close shop during Lunar New Year's nowadays anyway. She could shop whenever she wanted to eat.
But with this, it felt like there was something missing from the celebration, like it was a shoddy job and there was something lacking about the feeling.
In the end, she had not resigned from her job and moved out. She just continued to stay at No. 110 in this uncertain state.
Perhaps people could really change. Gan Qing vaguely felt that if it was her past self, she would turn and leave the moment she decided to go, and wouldn't wait for others to finish saying even a single word.
At seventeen, the way she conducted herself and interacted with the outside world was like a hot knife slicing through lard. One cut and everything would be sliced cleanly regardless of what it was, without any loose ends at all. Now, she was like the lard that had been cut, sticky and soft and lumpy. She desired nothing more than what was enough to get by with, and she remained sticking to wherever she was placed… In any case, it was the same whether she was the knife or the lard, neither could escape the chopping board.
She was just about to enter the apartment when she bumped right into Zhang Meizhen. Zhang Meizhen had just got her lashes done and when she blinked, there was a breeze that made Gan Qing lean back. Without waiting for Gan Qing to speak, Zhang Meizhen caught her by her waist and reached back to pull the door shut. She pushed Gan Qing ahead, leaving no room for argument. "Go, go, go. Go downstairs and celebrate the Lunar New Year. We'll have New Year's Eve dinner with them."
Gan Qing, "I'll pass…"
Zhang Meizhen lifted her hand and turned off the apartment's main electrical switch. "Nonsense. If you don't come, who's going to make the food? Isn't this exactly what your sect practices?"
Gan Qing, "..."
Wan Mu Chun was really not one of the New Oriental Education culinary school branches.
Just like that, before she knew what was going on, Zhang Meizhen had brought her downstairs.
Old Yang's house was bigger. Yang Yifan had bought the next door apartment and opened the wall between the two units so it looked exceptionally bright and spacious.
Han Dongsheng and his family, Yu Lanchuan and his younger brother, Yan Hao… everyone was there and it was so lively that it was even a little noisy.
Old Master Yang was at the front door, holding the jade-green Dog Beating Staff. Once he saw Gan Qing, he beamed at her and said in greeting, "It's a new year."
Gan Qing answered on reflex, subconsciously replying with a New Year's greeting. "Sect Leader Yang, Happy New Year."
After saying that, she herself was stunned. This was something Wei Xiao had taught her when she was very young. Wei Xiao had said that when the older generation brought up the topic of the new year, she should be sensible and give them a New Year's greeting. She must not wait for them to take out the red packet and only make up for it then.
The things she had been taught since young were rooted deep inside her and would always slip out when she was unaware.
In the next moment, Old Master Yang had stuffed a red packet into the hands of the still-stunned Gan Qing.
"Ai," Gan Qing hurriedly withdrew her hands. "This isn't appropriate, I'm already-"
"It's mainly for good luck," Old Master Yang said. "The money inside is for you to help buy the ingredients… That pile of rubbish New Year's goods that Fan-Fan ordered came in a large box but when we opened it, it was all small pieces of meat about fifty or a hundred grams each. They can't be used at all. I made a list, the supermarket downstairs should still be open. Go, quick!"
"Yang Yifan!" Old Master Yang shouted into the house. "It's all your fault! Go along to carry the things!"
Yang Yifan was holding her phone up to take a selfie. She had stretched her neck out a kilometer long to show off her earrings and probably did not hear him because of that.
Yu Lanchuan draped his coat over his shoulder and stood up. "I'll go."
When putting on an outer garment, most people would first stretch out one arm and put it through the sleeve, then hunch their back to tug the garment on, and after that there would be a round of fumbling to locate the other sleeve. During this process, the coat would usually bunch up at the back of their necks and the outline of every curve and bulge on their backs could be seen through the tightened cloth. It was not a sight that was pleasing to the eyes. But Yu Lanchuan was different. He was like a male model ready for the catwalk. He draped his coat over his shoulder, showing off his shoulders and back that were straight like a clothes rack. As he walked, he put on a show with a cool, detached expression. When he was done being cool, he pulled the coat up a little by the collar, then extended both arms and slipped them through the sleeves. The bottom edge of the coat flared out with a bit of wind. It was full of elegance and confidence.
Gan Qing nearly had her head smacked by his elegant and confident elbow. She hurriedly took a few reverential steps back so as to not affect his performance.
In the supermarket, there were very few people. The promoters who usually put all their effort into marketing their products all had their hearts set on going home and didn't even make the effort to greet them.
Gan Qing pushed the cart, her feet stepping in time to the beat of the song "Gong Xi Fa Cai" playing in the supermarket. She followed idly behind Yu Lanchuan and realised that she didn't have to take care of anything.
Not only did Little Master Yu have a style when putting on his coat, he also had a style when browsing the supermarket. Every time Gan Qing came on her own to browse the supermarket, she really "browsed." She would push the cart between the shelves of goods, walking back and forth aimlessly. When she thought of something, she would get it. She would spend at least an hour. But not Yu Lanchuan. He seemed to be used to rushing for time and was efficient in everything he did. When he entered, he glanced at Old Master Yang's list, then rapidly planned his route. Like the autumn wind sweeping the fallen leaves, he picked the items as he walked. From the entrance to the exit, he did not reverse a single step. By the time he had gathered everything on the list and even including the time it took to pay, less than fifteen minutes had passed.
Gan Qing gasped in amazement. "I'll do it, I'll do it. You are the main purchaser, I am here to carry the bags."
Yu Lanchuan raised his arm, dodging her, and took the heavier bag. "Your arm can't carry it."
After saying that, he paused a while. As though he wasn't used to being nice, he had to add another line. "Your arm only has the ability to stir up trouble, it can't do proper work."
Gan Qing, "..."
This guy really knew how to make people like him.
At the supermarket exit, there were a few small stalls that were unexpectedly still opened. A girl was on duty at a "So-and-So English" booth all on her own. Whenever she saw someone, she quickly approached them and gave them a flier, her mouth rattling off a string of sentences like a machine gun. "Do you want to increase your monthly salary from 3,000 to 30,000? Do you want to achieve a breakthrough in your work and experience a huge leap in your social class? The largest gap between any two people is pulled wide during the time outside of the eight hours of work! When you come home from work, don't just lie on the sofa and watch variety shows! Your peers are already leaving you behind! Please take a moment to look at our TOEFL and IELTS training, and our Business English improvement classes. Our Spring Festival class starts on the fourth day of the new year. We have limited spots left. Let us accompany you on a rich and fulfilling holiday."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
The girl was in her early twenties. Perhaps she had just entered society not long ago and had yet to develop an eye for judging people and treating them accordingly to their perceived wealth, so she spouted the same set of lines to everyone. Yu Lanchuan almost felt offended.
"If it's so effective, then why don't you join and get promoted?" A little crossed, he carelessly threw out this trump card. "What's the difference between 3,000 and 30,000? Either way, both are still equivalent to being dirt poor."
The girl was stupefied by the King of Cool's aura. For a moment, she didn't know how to respond.
Gan Qing felt that she looked rather pitiful, so she took the flier from her. "It's Lunar New Year's, why are you still manning the booth here?"
"The competition in the market this year is too great. Everyone goes for online classes nowadays and aren't willing to register for offline classes. We've not met the enrollment target for a few months now." The girl handing out fliers shrank back into her down jacket pitifully. "There's no bonus and I only get the basic pay every month. I don't have the money to go home to celebrate Lunar New Year's. Sister, can you do me a favour and register? You don't have to attend and you don't need to pay. Just leave a contact number. In the future, they might give you a call to try and sell their classes to you. If you find them annoying, just block them. For us who man the booths, our performance is measured based on the number of registrations."
Gan Qing didn't mind being bothered on the phone. Everytime she got a marketing call, she could even chat a bit with the other person. Hence, she easily helped the girl out and registered.
To show her gratitude, the girl gave her a packet of tissue that she had dug into her own pockets to pay the cost for. She also said cautiously, "Even if it can't increase your salary, it's a good thing to learn a foreign language. In the future, you won't need subtitles to watch American TV series… Ai, all right. Then, take care on your way back."
Yu Lanchuan still wanted to turn around and say something but Gan Qing pulled him away. "That's enough, Little Master Yu. The girl spends every day standing outside the supermarket entrance to give out fliers, she probably hasn't seen many successful people. This is what you call 'has eyes to see but fails to recognise Mount Tai,' it's understandable that she did not recognise someone venerable like you going incognito among us ordinary people. Life's not easy for any of us, don't say so much."
"They can market their stuff all they want," Yu Lanchuan said with a frown. "I just can't stand seeing them sell anxiety everywhere."
"The people's anxiety is not due to them selling it." Gan Qing huffed a laugh. "A fanned spark becomes a fire, but you need to have a spark to fan in the first place."
Yu Lanchuan suddenly thought of something. He paused, then pretended to bring it up casually. "That dim-witted younger brother of mine did better in his end-of-term English exam compared to the previous one. He said it's because you taught him. Your results in school must have been pretty good?"
"Nope," Gan Qing said. "That was my rebellious period. I thought that going to school was boring and frequently cut class and got into fights outside."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
The snow was lighter now, falling like feathers onto the people outside, almost indiscernible. Only the slightest shadow could be seen when the street lights or car lights shone on them.
When the two of them walked together, it was very awkward if they didn't talk. Perhaps Gan Qing was afraid of killing the conversation or perhaps there was magic in the air on the eve of the Lunar New Year that could invite a person to say a few more words.
She paused a while, then added. "Later on, I met an… older sister with a very good temper. She was fussy and long-winded and every day, she would go on and on regaling everyone with motivational stories. She had quite a number of Chicken Soup for the Soul books, stuff like 'In the world, there are only people who cannot think things through, there are no roads that cannot be walked through.' She could memorise those books from the first word to the last… At that time, I was completely fed-up with her."
Yu Lanchuan was rather surprised. Like someone getting the first glimpse of an aurora on a quiet night, without realising it, he was holding his breath in rapt attention. "A friend, or a teacher?"
"Neither, I think. I think I told you before that I have a friend who was abused by her husband. That was her," Gan Qing's voice drifted lazily in the north wind, carried along by the dancing snow in pauses and starts, without falling to the ground. "I found out about what happened to her from other people's idle conversations. At that time, I was young and spirited, and I disliked her a lot. Even though I never did anything, in my heart I thought that there are some people who deserve to be smacked… and she was one of them. She always looked like she wanted everyone to like her and made others feel that no matter how they treated her, she wouldn't fight back. The things she said were also very foolish and she didn't know that she made other people dislike her. But she was also thin and small, and also sick. She would tremble just from carrying a cup of water that was a little heavy. I didn't feel like I could bully her so I could only give her a cold face every time. She didn't know how to read other people's faces. She thought herself that I was pretty nice to her."
Yu Lanchuan glanced at the snowflakes on her lashes. His heart suddenly jolted. He couldn't help but feel that those words describing such a resentment for the world hid a girl with a very soft heart.
"She got a set of gaokao study materials from someone. Everyday, she read them aloud beside me but in actual fact, she hadn't even finished junior high. She couldn't understand the materials at all, especially not English. In an entire passage, there was barely a handful of words she recognised." Gan Qing let out a laugh. "I was a kid after all. Even if I flunked my studies, I couldn't control my competitive spirit. One day, I couldn't resist correcting her one time and since then, she clung on to me and asked me questions every day."
Yu Lanchuan asked softly, "And then?"
Content warning: Mentions of bullying, domestic abuse, suicide, murder and parental death.
"Of course…" Gan Qing stopped at the intersection, waiting for the lights to change. "I grew to dislike her even more."
"Young people usually look up to people who are strong," Yu Lanchuan said calmly. "If a person is neither beautiful nor cool, people in their teens usually won't like them. It's normal."
"Is this your own experience from raising a teenage younger brother?" Gan Qing asked.
Yu Lanchuan shrugged, affecting nonchalance. "Yeap. As long as you make him feel that you're stronger and cooler than he is, he will imitate you on his own volition and work hard to meet your expectations. It's a lot more effective than reasoning with him. These little brats all have no conscience, there's no use being nice to them."
As this Little Master Yu was so cool he was practically ice, for a moment Gan Qing couldn't tell if he was very secretly an expert in problematic youth or if he was the problematic youth himself. She could only say drily, "Yeah, in the future, you can apply the same method on me."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Gan Qing said, "Especially when it's time to 'carry out the law.'"
"I thought that…" Yu Lanchuan glanced at her from above. He wanted to unleash his usually rather domineering gaze but coincidentally, a gust of northwest wind suddenly lifted Gan Qing's mid length hair. The numerous intersecting strands disrupted Director Yu's line of sight and also seemed to slip into his throat. He was forced to cough to clear his throat before finishing his mocking remark that had gone off-track. "...you are already a gremlin child over the age limit."
"Even someone over the age limit doesn't have a conscience." The lights changed. Gan Qing moved her legs to cross the zebra crossing. "Look, everyone says that you should study hard so that you can get into a good university; work hard so that you can get promoted and increase your salary. Some foolish people might think that as long as they put in some effort, they will definitely be rewarded. In reality, perhaps there are other areas where there will definitely be a reward if you work hard but there's no certainty if you 'work hard to be nice to others.' Sometimes, the more you work hard, the more other people will take advantage of you and the more they will feel that you are below them… No matter where she went, she was the type to be bullied. In comparison, even though I didn't like to pay her any attention, I was still considered one of the few who were nicer to her. That's why I was her roommate for a period of time.
"That was when I found out that she was two completely different people in the day and at night. In the day, she couldn't tell who liked her and who disliked her. If someone said a few mean words to her, she seemed unable to understand their meaning. She was so foolish she seemed heartless. But at night, she didn't even dare to fall into a deep sleep because every dream she had was a nightmare. The first time I saw her having a nightmare and the way she shouted and struggled, I even thought she had gone crazy. It was like there was a demon sawing away at her neck with a blunt knife. When she startled awake, she would hug her blanket and tremble, her mind unclear. She would curl up in her bed for an entire night, counting every passing second and waiting for daylight. Then, she would wipe her tears and continue being a foolish and sweet girl.
"I had never met someone like that. From purely finding her annoying, I started suspecting that her mental state was abnormal and was a little curious about her.
"She studied every day without fail. Even if she didn't understand it, she would force herself to study, force herself to continue reading. But it's not easy to learn something you only half understand. She had to read out loud to focus her attention. Her voice was like a large mosquito buzzing, it was quite irritating. She had even been beaten up before because of this but she still did not change her ways."
"Usually when other people bullied her… things like shoving her a bit or slapping her, it was none of my business. Even if I saw it, I pretended that I had not. But there was one time when things got out of hand. A few people grabbed her by her hair and smashed her against the wall. I saw that they weren't controlling their strength and was afraid that there would be trouble, so I meddled a little.
"She should have a bit of a concussion that time. It was a long while before she could stand up. She wiped the blood from her nose and at the same time, smiled foolishly at me and asked me how to pronounce a word. I didn't know whether she really loved studying or whether she had a thing for getting beaten up, so I just said 'You must be mad.' She said… that she actually also didn't know what was the use of studying but she had heard other people say that her life was unlucky. The reason why she had been abused by her husband was because she was uneducated. That was why she believed in studying. It was rather like praying to the gods."
Prostrating on the ground, crawling, climbing. Her heart had been so sincere, her appearance so unsightly, her hard work so fruitless.
"I told her that it had nothing to do with being educated or uneducated. If a person gets beaten up, it is either because they are someone despicable or because the person beating them up is despicable. Or maybe both sides are despicable. There is no other reason. But she didn't believe me."
Yu Lanchuan said, "A person who has completely lost control of their life sometimes needs to have a simple and crude logic to hold on to, and will do something that other people might see as arcane."
Because she was uneducated, she didn't have the ability to go out and earn lots of money and support herself and her mother. She could only depend on a man's every breath, endure a man's every fist. And, when all the complicated factors that the person involved wasn't willing to examine were discarded, this matter could be simplified as "she was beaten up because she was uneducated." In that case, as long as she was educated, things would be better, wouldn't they? If she forcibly swallowed down everything in these books that she did not understand, surely she would be able to break free from this nightmare, wouldn't she?
"She said that people cannot resent fate. The more they resented, the worse their fate would be. So, if they do not want to die yet, they have to risk everything and work hard to survive. Other than this, there is no other way."
Chicken soup stories were an anaesthetic. When she could endure no longer, she would take the book out and read out a few passages, just like the slaves back in the days of the old society praying for salvation from hardship. Through the "teachings" that she had come up with herself, she prayed for her future and in it, she found a tiny bit of comfort.
"Unfortunately, she didn't have the time to finish reading even one textbook. I had stayed with her for just a few months when she was admitted to hospital for a serious illness. Before she left, she probably sensed something herself and left all her books and notes to me, and asked me to help her keep an eye on her mother if I had the chance to," Gan Qing said. "Not long after that, I heard that she died. On the other hand, that mother of hers has a very long life. She may look like a sickly lonely widow, but so many years have passed and it still doesn't look like she'll be dying anytime soon.
"When she was alive, she was very diligent in taking care of me. I also received an 'inheritance' from her, so I had no choice but to hold my nose and occasionally go to visit that old lady. Those few years, I had nothing better to do so I took the things she left behind and made up a little for the classes I had not paid attention to in school… Perhaps madness is infectious."
Without thinking, Yu Lanchuan asked, "Why did she…"
At that point, he suddenly realised that he had misspoke and abruptly cut himself off. He froze.
Gan Qing turned her head around. From a few steps away, she looked at him. "Hmm?"
She was wearing a down jacket with feathers coming loose that could be bought in the supermarket for less than a hundred yuan each. It had the smell of chicken feathers and had been stuffed until it was bulging. It was like carrying a tortoise shell. But for some reason, it didn't look oversized on her. When she looked back, Yu Lanchuan even had the feeling that the edges of her clothes were floating in the wind.
He saw her smile like she was completely unbothered and picked up the conversation for him. "Why did you stop? Did you want to ask why she 'went in'?"
Yu Lanchuan's throat strained to move and then got stuck. His mind was completely blank. He was like a murderer who had been exposed on the spot by Detective Conan and had no idea how to smooth things over.
"Murder," Gan Qing said briefly. "She took the chance when the man who beat her was drunk and stabbed him to death. She was sentenced to life imprisonment."
Yu Lanchuan could not say anything.
Gan Qing lowered her head and laughed. She continued walking ahead, and waved at him with her back to him. "It's not a taboo that can't be talked about. Didn't Yu Yan tell you? I also killed someone. The person I killed is called Wei Huan. But when I killed him, I was just a little short of eighteen years old. At that time, my shifu did not acknowledge me. I ruined my own arm and broke ties with my sect. I felt that the world was wide but there was nowhere I could go. For a moment, my chuuni tendencies took over and in a fit of anger, I went to turn myself in. That's why my sentence was light."
It was a while before Yu Lanchuan found his voice again. His words stilted, he asked, "Who was Wei Huan?"
Gan Qing didn't say a word. After a while, she finally said, "It's a family scandal… Based on family hierarchy, he was my shixiong, and also the target of my revenge."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "What? I thought your Wan Mu Chun-"
"Only has a single descendant in every generation," Gan Qing said. "That's right, but Wei Huan had been expelled early on, before I was even born. I heard that in his later years, my grand master was already regretting passing on Wan Mu Chun's martial art techniques. He said that Wan Mu Chun's skills are demonic skills that ruin a person's nature and make it easy for them to go astray in their cultivation… He was a great expert of his generation and was very perceptive, perhaps what he said was true."
"Wei Huan… Someone told me that he was my former shifu's son. I don't know if I should believe them. In any case, ever since I could remember, that old man was a bachelor and I've never heard him bring up Shiniang… Maybe he was extraordinarily gifted and had given birth himself?" Gan Qing let out a rather bitter laugh. "Otherwise, why was he willing to bear the blame for Wei Huan, no matter how filthy Wei Huan's reputation was? Wei Huan felt that after all the efforts he put in and all the suffering he endured to polish his knife techniques to perfection, it was too ridiculous to use them to cut tofu strips. He had always been wildly ambitious and wanted to return to the days before my grand master washed his hands clean of his past. That's why he was expelled later on."
"Return?" Yu Lanchuan asked. "To being a killer?"
"With Wan Mu Chun's martial arts skills, what is impossible?" Gan Qing smiled. "What other people can't handle, the dirty things they can't do, they can all be settled with a cut measuring three cun and two fen. If he wanted any amount of money, could he not get it? Why must he spend every day covered in the smell of grease and smoke, making food for other people, and earning just enough for a pot of vinegar a month? By right, someone who has been expelled should have their skills destroyed by their own shifu but he took his eyes of for a second and Wei Huan escaped… Thinking about it now, someone must have helped him. It may be someone from that group Xu Shaowen belong to that Sect Leader Yang mentioned."
"Wei Xiao had always regretted not listening to his own shifu's words and that the disciple he taught ended up so unworthy, so he had always tried to find out where Wei Huan was. Whenever he heard of some fishy murder case somewhere, he would rush there." At that point, Gan Qing paused a while. "That was when he took me in. My dad was killed by Wei Huan. At that time, Wei Xiao reached in time and called the police. Wei Huan was injured and ran away, and didn't have the time to do anything else. Due to the fright, my mum's mental state was unstable from then on. Wei Xiao felt very apologetic. He moved next door and took care of us for two years… One day, he was out of the house and when he got back, he found that my mum had killed herself. I was three years old, she locked me in a small room…"
Yu Lanchuan didn't expect that their casual conversation would go from subject to subject in such a way, each more shocking than the last. He was almost afraid to say anything now.
"Ai, why are you looking at me like that? I don't even remember this matter clearly," Gan Qing said. "I was too young. What would I know at three years old? My hometown was a very small town and there wasn't even a welfare centre. Back then, things like adoptions weren't very strict. I didn't have anyone to look after me at that time and didn't have any other relatives. Wei Xiao stepped in and took me away just like that. When I was older, by chance, I found out about these matters and I had always hated him. Wei Xiao had never told me… I even felt that the reason why he didn't teach me martial arts properly was because he was protecting that person and was afraid that I would take revenge on him."
After a while, Yu Lanchuan finally said carefully, "Actually, you don't have to…"
"Since you guys want me to stay here, I feel that I should be more frank." Gan Qing thrusted her hands into the pockets of her down jacket. "It is something I have done, the path I have taken. There's no need to keep it so secret."
Yu Lanchuan couldn't help furrowing his brows. When being honest about the past, shouldn't a person be sincere and honest, digging deep into themselves to reveal everything? This was the first time he was seeing someone confessing in such a cold and impartial manner. "You don't like owing a debt of kindness to others."
"I don't," Gan Qing said. Before Yu Lanchuan could comment, she smiled craftily. "I once read an article that said that if you want to make someone like you, you should ask them for help. They will help you because they want to keep up appearances but can't think of any reason why they are doing that, so they will have a misperception that they like you. After that, they will really have feelings for you. I'm a young and unmarried woman, I'm just afraid of starting a whole bunch of romantic problems."
Yu Lanchuan's breathing hitched. For some reason, his face was swiftly turning red. Gan Qing was actually shooting her mouth off but after saying that, she keenly sensed that the person next to her had his breathing and steps thrown into disarray, and was rather surprised. Her lashes quivered. Then, she continued to speak as though nothing had happened, "Just joking. Little Master Yu, don't call the police, okay? It's the Lunar New Year, it'll be too embarrassing if I have to pay a second visit to the cell for the crime of immoral behaviour."
Yu Lanchuan forced a change in the topic. "According to Yu Yan, Wei Huan's fingerprints and DNA shows that he was the suspect in many unsolved cases. He was an extremely vicious and dangerous person while you were still an underage girl at that time. You also turned yourself in. If your defence lawyer was reliable, it could be presented as legitimate self-defense and you wouldn't need to-"
"It was not legitimate self-defence. I went after him and killed him. But my martial arts were not up to par so I was also in a very bad state at that time. If I put on a pitiful act, no one would suspect anything… Like I said, I was chuuni." Gan Qing smiled very good-naturedly. "I didn't like the sound of the phrase 'legitimate self-defense' because I felt that what it implied was that that piece of shit found me and wanted to do something to me, while I was just a pitiful little thing who screamed in terror and accidentally killed him. So I told the police that if I didn't want to kill him, I could cut his throat twenty to thirty times and he would still be breathing. 'Accidentally' my ass."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
"Ai, talking about these unfortunate matters is enough to make me blush. Don't mind me," Gan Qing said carelessly. "Take responsibility for what you have done yourself, there's no need to hold on to great anger and deep grudges. However, I am truly indebted to everyone for not looking at me with biased eyes, I am deeply grateful for that. In the future, I can only be more diligent in cooking. Little Master Yu, stop being so careful and gentle and protective, it gives me goosebumps."
Yu Lanchuan had a vague feeling that he had accidentally stumbled into a forbidden area and was full of fear and trepidation, not daring even to breathe too deeply. In the end, not only had the owner of the area herself strode in openly and turned on all the lights, she even acted as though nothing had happened and greeted him in a "Hey bro, we're one person short, come join us for a round of mahjong" manner.
What a waste of his feelings!
"You're just thinking too much!" Yu Lanchuan said stiffly. "Who's being careful? Who's being gentle… and whatever! People like you are the very reason why society is not peaceful. After being reformed once, you still did not turn over a new leaf and spend every day either conning people or wandering around the edges of the law!"
Gan Qing sighed. "A very good day to our audience, this is Little Master Yu's Hour. Once again, we have come to the Today's Teachings segment…"