"Move aside! Everyone, move aside! Where's the family! One family member, go with the ambulance! Does the patient have any drug allergies? Any slow-onset illness?"
"I… No, he doesn't." Yang Yifan crouched on the ground. Her ears were full of noise and clamour that were pressing in on her until it felt like her brains were congealing into a lump. Just now, she had relied completely on intuition to perform CPR and she didn't know if she did it correctly. Her hands and legs were shaking hard now and she couldn't stand.
A pale hand stretched out towards her and grasped her by her elbow. The skin on that hand was already hanging loose, yet there was polish on the fingernails. Those nails seem to want to pierce through her thick winter clothing and into her flesh.
Zhang Meizhen picked her up from the ground. "Get up."
"Wait a minute." An old man dressed as a clean clothing section member of Beggars' Sect came forward to block them. This man's voice was abnormally loud; when he opened his mouth, the sound was like beating a gong. The tiny No. 110 Courtyard didn't seem able to contain his volume and his voice echoed around them. "Miss, shouldn't you first hand over the Dog Beating Staff?"
Zhang Meizhen snorted. "Tian Zhanpeng, don't you think you're being embarrassing?"
"I'm not the one who's embarrassing. We all know who that person is!"
The paramedic in the ambulance turned around and shouted, "What is it that's so important that you people must talk about it at this moment?"
"Let her go over first!"
"The Dog Beating Staff…"
"The Dog Beating Staff!"
"Sacred item… Dog Beating Staff…"
The clamour was so noisy that Yang Yifan's head ached like it was splitting apart. Right at that moment, Zhang Meizhen hung a small plastic bag around Yang Yifan's neck, like she was hanging a key on a primary school student. Before she could see clearly what was in the bag, Zhang Meizhen put one hand on her back and pushed her forward. "Hurry up and go."
Tian Zhanpeng was one of the four Nine Pouch Elders of Beggars' Sect. He was wearing a sleek and shiny leather jacket and there was a patch made from sackcloth over his chest, looking like a badge of honour. When looked at closely, it could be seen that he actually could not bear to sew it on directly and had attached it with a safety pin!
In the darkness, this old man was like a lump of donkey dung with leaves stuck on it. When he saw Yang Yifan ignoring him, he stretched out a hand to stop her.
Right then, there was a whistling sound as a vicious wind suddenly slashed over. Tian Zhanpeng withdrew his hand back reflexively. The thing brushed against his hand and fell to the ground, striking against the bricks with a clear and crisp ringing sound. A chain whip had appeared in Zhang Meizhen's hand at some point!
The chain whip was very long. Like a viper, it broke apart the large group of Beggars' Sect members who were gathered together.
No one had thought that this old lady would make a move without saying a word. Those who were nearly licked by the whip were each and every one of them startled and confused. The noisy crowd quieted down in an instant.
Yang Yifan finally broke free. Once she leaped into the ambulance, it drove off with a low rumble.
The whistling wind, the shouted curses, the debates, the sound of the medical equipment… as well as the "Dog Beating Staff" that was brought up again and again, they all coiled around her ear, looping repeatedly without rest.
Yang Yifan propped her elbows on her knees, her hands covering her ears. Her hair on either side of her head had fallen forward. She pushed it back harshly.
A paramedic said to her, "When someone around forty or fifty years old has symptoms like numbness in their chest or their back, pain in their elbows or stomach discomfort, they would already need to be very careful, much less someone who's so old! When the old man said he's not feeling well, did the family not pay attention?"
Yang Yifan looked up at a loss.
She hadn't had the time to listen.
She had so many matters to worry about—a public relations crisis, handling the police, an entire company's worth of staff to support, defending against competitors taking the chance to step on her while she was down, the brand partners waiting for her explanation… Grandpa didn't know anything and the one line he had said the most to her had always been, "That's enough from you," as though anything she did was something bad that he had to rein in at the last second.
What was considered "enough"?
Every year, the various big name brands would release all sorts of fanciful and fabulous new products, white foam on the crests of the waves of fashion that build up and crash in looping cycles. The beautiful items that they created were like transient flowers, born amidst joyous clamour, then falling out of fashion at the speed of a galloping horse.
The voices the people let out were like the wind blowing across the grain fields; before one wave had settled, the next one had risen. Every road, when walked to the end, was a narrow one. Countless people squeezed in, countless people fell off. Tearful recollections and accusatory laments frequently sounded from all directions, making someone who was right in the middle feel a sense of danger, of being ambushed from all sides, as though there were dead ends everywhere.
Meanwhile, the era was like a volcano beginning to rumble, ready at any time to burn off the road ahead and leave only a hanging precipice. No one had a guide on how to pass through safely. They could only warn the people around them repeatedly, "You have to become a better version of yourself; only then can you take on any change without having to change yourself." This was equivalent to bullshit. The definition of "good" was so wide, who the hell knew what "a better version of yourself" meant.
Thus, they could only create mirage after mirage—a bright and radiant outer appearance was "good"; exquisite and luxurious items were, of course, also "good"; not reading more than a hundred books a year was not worthy of being called "good"; the poetry in your heart and the distant dream was the high-class "good"... And then, all these "good" things, big and small, were tossed in all directions, leading to everyone chasing madly after them while raising a hue and cry everywhere.
Everyone was running, no one dared to stop. Who dared to be "enough"?
Yang Yifan suddenly realised that it was abnormally quiet. She thought for a while, her mind sluggish, then realised that her phone was not with her. It might have been dropped just now when she clashed with those people or perhaps, in this day of pandemonium, she had put it down somewhere carelessly.
Unused to it, she checked her whole body but could not find her phone. However, she noticed the little plastic bag Zhang Meizhen had hung around her neck.
She opened it for a look. Inside was a wad of cash.
That was right. She had left in a hurry and didn't even take her purse with her.
The noise that could give a person tinnitus was far away now. She was holding this stack of paper bills and depended on an old man whose fate was still uncertain for mutual survival.
The darkness of the night in Yanning finally became vast and empty.
Despite the fact that the leading character had left the scene, things did not quiet down at No. 110 Courtyard.
Tian Zhanpeng pointed at Zhang Meizhen and said in great fury, "This matter concerns our Beggars' Sect. Why is a demoness like you from Travellers' Sect interfering?"
Zhang Meizhen raised her chain whip. "I do what I like."
"Elder Tian, don't waste words with her anymore. The Dog Beating Staff!"
Tian Zhanpeng hmph-ed and turned to say to his own followers, "Ever since Old Alliance Leader Yu passed away, our old Sect Leader was deceived by these people and this courtyard fell into darkness. All sorts of demons and monsters come here. Our sect's sacred item must not stay in this place. Since Old Sect Leader does not have the ability even if his heart is willing, then we should take care of the Dog Beating Staff in his place!"
When he finished speaking, numerous bootlickers fawned on him.
Tian Zhanpeng led a rousing call. "Up to the sixth floor! We will go welcome the Dog Beating Staff!"
Before his followers could shout their agreement, Zhang Meizhen pulled her chain whip taut with both hands. "You dare?"
Tian Zhanpeng scoffed. "In consideration of your advanced age, I initially did not want to embarrass you but you refuse! When you were young, you had hundreds of tricks up your sleeve. Your advances were rejected so you went around seducing people, sleeping with all those dirty and smelly people. In the end, you became a widow but you still wrap yourself around our old Sect Leader and refuse to let him go."
Zhang Meizhen laughed, not at all bothered. "'Dirty and smelly'? Oh my, how could you be so unfilial and say that about your father? Quick, say some positive things and then burn some paper money during Qingming and your mum here won't tell on you."
"You're asking for death!"
He took out a metal club from somewhere and swung it at Zhang Meizhen. In an instant, numerous clinks and clanks sounded. The wooden weiqi board under the tree was swept away by the chain whip and split apart. Both these people were in their seventies; yet when they fought, it was unexpectedly ferocious. The bystanders that had nothing to do with the matter watched with wide eyes and opened mouths, and for a moment, didn't know whether or not they should call the police.
The other three sect elders of Beggars' Sect stood by and watched with their hands unmoving. They had no intentions at all of helping, afraid that others would say that they were bullying her with their strength in numbers. The old and crafty Elder Zhao said to Elder Tian, "Old Brother, we will leave this matter to you and go to welcome the Dog Beating Staff."
The chain whip wrapped around the metal club in Tian Zhanpeng's hand, nearly taking it out of his hands. When he heard this, he was immediately enraged until he was like a gourd. He roared, his veins bulging, and gripped the metal club with desperate strength. He aimed a kick at Zhang Meizhen's stomach.
Zhang Meizhen straightened the chain whip and blocked his kick but also staggered a couple of steps back herself. "You people dare to enter a private residence?"
Elder Zhao said peacefully, "Of course not. We will leave right after we welcome the Dog Beating Staff. We definitely do not dare to touch anything inside the Sect Leader's house. The few of you, go look for plastic bags to cover our shoes so that we don't dirty the Sect Leader's floor."
"Stop there!" Zhang Meizhen shouted.
"You stop there!" Tian Zhanpeng retorted.
When Zhang Meizhen turned around, he seized the chance and swung the club at her back.
Right at that moment, something long pierced in horizontally, pushing the metal club away with a clang. Tian Zhanpeng felt a numbness between this thumb and forefinger, and even had dust thrown on his face. He spat a couple of times and stared—it turned out to be a broom with a long handle.
Yu Lanchuan stabbed the broom he had taken from the reception office into the ground and swept a couple of times in a very civilised manner. He undid the button at his collar. "Intentional injury. Have you thought it through? At your age, imprisonment at any term is equivalent to life imprisonment."
Tian Zhanpeng said, "Who are-"
Elder Zhao was stunned. "You are… Little Master Yu?"
"Yeah." Little Master Yu nodded. "I met you once during the assembly in autumn and we also exchanged a few words then. Old Master Zhao, I trust you are in good health?"
"Thank you for your well wishes." Elder Zhao smiled. He did not think highly of this young man. "I will surely look for Little Master Yu another day to have tea. Today, our Beggars' Sect has some internal matters to take care of so I will not disturb you. We are also very sorry to the neighbours here for creating such a huge disturbance. We will leave immediately after going up to welcome the Dog Beating Staff."
Yu Lanchuan raised an eyebrow and gave him a strange look. "Sect Leader Yang wants to give the Dog Beating Staff to you people and is even troubling everyone here to go upstairs and take it yourselves?"
"The Dog Beating Staff belongs to our Beggars' Sect in the first place. Sect Leader Yang is currently in hospital and is not able to take charge of matters for the time being. Naturally, the few of us will look after the Dog Beating Staff on his behalf," Elder Zhao said.
"Oh, it belongs to Beggars' Sect." Yu Lanchuan nodded and spoke like he was making idle conversation. "When was Beggars' Sect officially registered and became a legal entity?"
Elder Zhao's eye twitched.
"Or… did you people even sign an agreement regarding the ownership of the Dog Beating Staff?" Yu Lanchuan asked.
"Very funny, Little Master Yu"
"Not at all. I don't like to joke while taking in the northwest wind late at night." Yu Lanchuan passed through the crowd of Beggars' Sect people and walked towards the building entrance without any regard for anyone. He stood there. "Unless you take out a document detailing the lawful shared possession of the Dog Beating Staff, barging into a private residence and taking an item from it is breaking and entering. The police are on their way."
"Little Master Yu," Elder Zhao said with a false smile. "This is a family matter within the martial arts community. It isn't good to involve public officials, is it?"
"Such a major scene with so many people is a 'family matter'?" Yu Lanchuan asked.
"Little Master Yu, don't try to frighten us with that trick." Elder Zhao lowered his voice. "For generations, the Dog Beating Staff has been in the hands of the sect leader. When the sect leader retires, the staff should be returned. If you don't believe me, you can ask the Old Sect Leader. Would he dare say that it is his private property? So what if the police come? Will they arrest us all just because of one walking stick? If we insist on having the Dog Beating Staff today, Little Master Yu, none of you can stop us. We are all in Yanning, we are all people of the same path and we bump into each other frequently. I know you are a civilised man, don't make this unpleasant for everyone."
Yu Lanchuan smiled. His tone softened a little as he discussed with the other person. "Sect Leader Yang is still in hospital. The Dog Beating Staff doesn't have legs. Is it necessary for everyone to do this? Old Master Zhao, can't you wait a couple of days? Wait for him to wake up and say who he wants to give it to. I'll take leave from work to escort this sacred item of yours over, all right?"
Elder Zhao sighed. "Little Master Yu, it's not that I, Old Zhao, don't want to give you face. It really is because in this building of yours, there are the evil remnants of Wan Mu Chun, former members of Travellers' Sect… Even if I agree, the disciples under me won't agree. You need to be more understanding."
"I remember that the Alliance Leader's Command did not convict Wei Xiao of the crime. Why is it that when it comes to you, the moment you open your mouth, Wan Mu Chun becomes 'evil remnants'?" Yu Lanchuan's face turned cold. "I see that you are insisting on entering this residence tonight."
Elder Zhao did not say a word. Behind him, a few Beggars' Sect disciples charged forward together, squeezing past Yu Lanchuan to enter the building.
Yu Lanchuan suddenly brought the broom down forcefully. The long plastic handle smashed right at the kneecaps of the person in front. The person stumbled half a step, and then was knocked back by the broom swinging across and dragged down one of his companions as he fell. Of the remaining two people, one was struck on the leg while the other was hit by the broom handle until he was bleeding from the nose and falling from the stairs. The long and light handle spun in Yu Lanchuan's hand, then stopped in a horizontal position, blocking the doorway.
From his elevated position, he looked down on the Beggars' Sect mob. He felt that his vow not to fight against opponents of more than two was going to bite the dust right there and then.
Since ancient times, there was the saying, "Heroes disrupt order with their martial skills." In the past, Yu Lanchuan had felt that this saying had nothing to do with him but it turned out that there were some matters where actions spoke louder than words.
This was probably the first time the Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang that had been passed down to the current generation was seriously put to full use for a purpose other than to prevent sudden death from overwork—in other words, to make these fools listen to him speak.
This barbaric behaviour is truly a disgrace to civilisation, he thought.
Yu Lanchuan nodded politely at Elder Zhao across the mob. "Please, do try."
 诗和远方 translates literally to "poetry and distant" and means "an ideal life." It is from the line "这个世界不只有眼前的苟且，还有诗与远方"—"This world does not only consists of the tedious necessities before your eyes, there is also poetry and the far distance." This line was written by Gao Xiaosong.
苟且, which I translated as "tedious necessities," refers to doing something perfunctorily, just because it has to be done. In this context, it refers to the day-to-day matter that's annoying and stressful but has to be done to survive, practical things that put food on the table. In contrast, 诗与远方—"poetry and distant"—is imaginary, something that exists only in our hearts, whose only worth is in making life beautiful.
This phrase was apparently popular among a certain generation (those born in the '70s and '80s) as a motivational phrase.
 "Heroes break order with their martial skills" is from the saying "儒以文乱法，侠以武乱纪" which means "Scholars break laws with their words, heroes disrupt order with their martial skills." Basically referring to how scholars or heroes (heroes is not exactly the right term but is the closest I can get) use what they're good at if they want to bring change to the rules.
Tomorrow was not a public holiday. On this ordinary work night, those who had come along to start a ruckus at No. 110 were all core followers of the sect elders there.
These people really did make an attempt. They thought nothing of Yu Lanchuan who was dressed in a work shirt and leather shoes, and did not hesitate at all in taking action. While he was speaking, another four or five people charged forward.
The first floor of the small building of No. 110 Courtyard was not level with the ground, it was about a meter higher. Due to that, there was a flight of stone steps in front of the entrance, about ten steps in total, stretching from east to west for about two meters. There were railings on both sides and on the west side was the wheelchair access, separated by a railing.
Three people—left, center and right—charged towards Yu Lanchuan. They planned to keep him occupied while the remaining people used the wheelchair access to run up and detour around him to enter the building.
Yu Lanchuan held the broom with the head pointing upwards and retreated one step to the top of the steps. The people charging towards him stuck to him closely but he suddenly leaped forward and pulled the broom handle towards himself. The one in the middle was running up the steps and naturally raised both hands to block, exposing a gap below his chest. The plastic handle jabbed accurately at that spot; the man sputtered as his breath was literally knocked out of him.
At the same time, Yu Lanchuan used the force of the jab to leap nimbly backwards and swept the broom across towards the person on the left, shaking the dirt on the brush onto the man's face. When the other person covered his head and shielded his eyes in a fluster, Yu Lanchuan took the chance to shift his weight to his left side, then swung his right leg upwards and across to hit the person on the right directly on the waist.
Elder Zhao said furiously, "Little Master Yu, do you insist on interfering in Beggars' Sect matters today?"
Yu Lanchuan struck one down and sent another flying. In his hands, the broom handle flew and swung around, and in just a short while, the unlucky one on the left who was flattened against the railing had all four limbs numbed, his entire body folded down until he was a human-shaped cushion. Yu Lanchuan's leg that had swung out did not land on the ground; using the "human-shaped cushion" as a fulcrum, he leaped right across the railing. As the wailing of the "cushion" played in the background, his broom very quickly and efficiently took care of the few people who were charging up via the wheelchair access.
Finally, he landed lightly on the ground.
"Not necessarily." Yu Lanchuan gripped the railing with one hand and turned his body half a circle. He flashed Elder Zhao a false smile. "I usually don't provide service free of charge, especially considering that your esteemed sect is an unregistered and illegal organisation. Please do not worry, I am even more unwilling than you to interfere in this. When Old Sect Leader Yang is discharged, you people can divide your assets any way you like and seize power however you want to. If, one day, Beggars' Sect has an IPO, I will definitely persuade my boss to invest."
Elder Tian, who had hurried over, used all his strength and just barely managed to suppress his question of "What if he can't be discharged?" However, his words might have been stifled but his expression was not. These words were clearly etched under his skin and a trace of them could be seen.
The lights from the residential units on the first floor shone out of the northern windows, illuminating Elder Tian's face and the words hidden under it.
Yu Lanchuan looked down and easily twisted off the broom handle, tossing the grimy brush to the side. He rolled up his sleeves and said, "Indeed. He's over ninety after all."
If a young person had a premature death, other people would still be willing to adhere to the principles of being a bystander as a mark of respect to the dead and keep their mouths shut.
However, old fools were not so lucky. Once a person reached seventy or eighty years of age, they automatically entered the ranks of "Should have died earlier" and "Still not dead yet." Only at the moment the coffin was closed would other people recall moments of the deceased's life with miserly reluctance and, for a brief second, spare a negligible bit of loss and sorrow.
Then, at the speed of light, they would recover their usual mood for fear that they would waste even a second in the great battle for their inheritance.
Elder Zhao's expression was cold. He gave Yu Lanchuan a thumbs-up. "Little Master Yu, your skills are good. You are indeed from a major clan. However, I fear that even your esteemed sect's Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang will be unable to stop the Nine Swords of Dugu. Don't think that just because you know a couple of techniques, you can stop a hundred people on your own!"
For some unknown reason, Yu Lanchuan suddenly wanted to laugh. He recalled that when he watched The Smiling, Proud Wanderer when he was young, the special effects for the "Arrow Breaking Form" in the television series looked very cool. It was the classic scene of one person defeating an entire gang. He had been very captivated after watching it, especially since he could be considered to be someone practising the sword. So, he went to ask Granduncle.
Granduncle took a couple of gulps from the spout of the small teapot and glanced at him. "How to defeat a group of people with one sword strike when they have surrounded you? Hmm… only one move allowed?"
The teenage Yu Lanchuan said longingly, "Yes, only one move!"
Granduncle muttered to himself for a few seconds, then replied, "There is one such move. We don't call it 'Arrow Breaking Form,' we call it 'Break the Cauldrons and Sink the Boats.'"
Yu Lanchuan had never heard of the Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang having this move and urged him to explain.
The old man muttered mysteriously and kept him in suspense for a long while before finally letting him bring his ear near so that he could verbally pass on their sect's supreme skill.
The great hero Yu Huaide said, "You just need to put your sword against your own throat and pretend that you're going to slit it open, then face them and shout, 'Whoever dares step near will be drenched in my blood!'—don't worry, unless you encounter those truly desperate and ready to die, most people wouldn't dare. Then, while they're scared witless, break free of the siege as fast as possible and run away, and that's it!"
"Break the Cauldrons and Sink the Boats" was an unparalleled great technique of their sect but unfortunately, a certain condition must be met to put it to use—the sword in his hand must be a real sword. With a broom handle… it was a bit of a joke.
Since he couldn't unleash the great technique, he could only hold on until the end.
Hopefully, those comrade officers would arrive quickly and turn up the volume on their sirens when they were coming.
One kilometer away from No. 110 Courtyard, the middle-aged man who had helped Gan Qing park the car walked into the depths of a little alley without telling anyone. In the alley was an unassuming house. The middle-aged man knocked on the door four times. From inside, someone asked warily, "Who's there?"
The middle-aged man answered, "I'm Xiao-Zhai, I'm under Elder Zhao."
The door cracked open a sliver in response. A head that resembled a big horse monkey peeked out. Big Horse Monkey was dressed in shabby and torn clothes—Beggars' Sect garb. He was none other than the person who had lured Gan Qing into the alley the other day.
Big Horse Monkey looked out warily, like he was afraid that opening the door any wider would be a waste of electricity. He spoke in a low voice. "Come in."
The middle-aged man who called himself Xiao-Zhai didn't want to slow-dance with Big Horse Monkey and was not willing to squeeze through the crack of the door. He moved backwards a little, then used force to push the door open. "Why are you being so sneaky?"
Big Horse Monkey was caught off guard and retreated a couple of steps under the force of his push. "You…"
Xiao-Zhai was already striding in, leaving no room for argument.
"You should be more careful near No. 110," Big Horse Monkey said, keeping his anger in check. "Be careful not to get noticed by anyone."
"I didn't see any amazing people there." Xiao-Zhai dangled a cigarette from his mouth and shot a look at the surroundings. "This place is rented? A school district in the middle of the city, it can't be cheap. Keep an eye out for me and see if there are any other places nearby for rent."
Big Horse Monkey asked, "What for?"
"My second child was born last year," Xiao-Zhai found a chair and sat down. He gave Big Horse Monkey a cigarette and sighed. "Little brats grow too fast. When they start talking, we already need to start thinking about which school to send them to. We definitely can't afford homes in school districts, our only choice is to find a cheaper place to rent in advance. Ai, our brothers have to take care of the elderly and the young, it's really not easy. What are we working so hard every day for? Isn't it just to support our families? If you ask me, there are times when Old Sect Leader Yang really does not understand the pains of a normal, ordinary life!"
Big Horse Monkey accepted the cigarette. His expression relaxed slightly and he sat down opposite the other man.
At the gate of the house was a large cypress tree. The Three Friends of Winter remain evergreen even in the coldest days of the year and not only was the cypress blocking the northwest wind, it was also hiding a person's figure. Gan Qing lightly pushed apart the cypress leaves and pinched her nose hard. She stifled a sneeze, tears welling up in her eyes. A down jacket could easily rustle so for the sake of making it more convenient to follow the man, she had left her jacket in the trunk of Yu Lanchuan's car. The two Beggars' Sect members in the house had got together and chatted about school district residences and second childs for more than ten minutes already. Even though there was a large tree blocking the wind, her tight-fitting wool sweater was already frozen stiff by the cold air and chilled her to the bone.
In one ear was the howling of the northwest wind while in the other ear was the ceaseless chatter about "preschool to primary" and "primary to junior high." It made her head ache until it felt like it was splitting apart. She had just decided to give up and leave when, right then, the sound of dragging footsteps came from the other end of the little alley. Gan Qing quivered. She faintly sensed something and carefully held her breath, hiding herself behind the leaves of the tree.
The person who was coming had grey hair and was around sixty years of age. Slowly, he came under the glow of the street lights. Gan Qing saw that he had sallow skin and was sickly thin, the skin on his face resembling sandpaper from the marks of the passing years. Despite that, his delicately handsome looks could still be vaguely seen. It was just that this touch of beauty was unable to make him appear handsome and confident; instead, it made him seem gloomy and resentful, like a thick and dense demonic aura.
This man was very thin and small. His cotton clothes, patched and faded from repeated washing, were very loose. His legs were of unequal length and he walked with a very bumpy gait. Right as he was about to raise his hand to knock on the door, he suddenly keenly sensed something and his gaze swept around him, piercing as a falcon's.
Gan Qing's entire body was almost melded with the cypress tree. She hung near the top of the tree and swayed with the wind.
The man listened attentively for a few seconds but did not detect anything amiss. Finally, he knocked on the door. "It's me."
Gan Qing frowned. She realised that this man not only had legs of different lengths, his curled up fingers also looked very strange, like chicken claws that could not be extended.
Who on earth was he?
His four limbs were twisted like pretzels but he still had the terrifying aura of a highly-skilled master.
Big Horse Monkey and Xiao-Zhai's discussion came to an abrupt end. Both men came forward to welcome the newcomer. This time, Big Horse Monkey did not open the door a mere crack, he threw it wide open. "Elder Yang!"
Only the Nine Pouch members of Beggars' Sect could have the title "Elder." They were equivalent to the CEO, CFO and similar ranks under the chairman. Gan Qing had roughly heard that Beggars' Sect had four "Nine Pouch Elders"... but was there someone with the surname Yang among them?
Elder Yang only gave them a brief nod as though he treasured his words like gold. Swinging his uneven legs, he entered the house. The lights in the room grew a little brighter. A few seconds later, the sounds of whispered conversation could be heard. Xiao-Zhai reported to him about Yang Yifan being taken away by the police, as well as Elder Zhao and Elder Tian from the four main sect elders leading the charge to force the king to abdicate and angering Old Sect Leader Yang until he was hospitalised.
Elder Yang opened his mouth. His voice was soft yet sharp, a little like a boy's voice that had yet to fully mature. "Is that old man dead?"
"He was sent to hospital for emergency treatment," Xiao-Zhai said. "Please don't worry. Old Sect Leader has a strong martial arts foundation. If he's treated in time, he should be-"
"Why would I be worried?" Elder Yang cut him off. "He ruined my legs with his own hands and severed ties with me. Even if he dies, I don't have to wear mourning clothes for him. What does it have to do with me?"
Gan Qing was a little surprised—this thin and small man was actually Old Sect Leader Yang's son. In the darkness of the night, she kept her eyes on them. She was getting a whiff of a sinister plot from the way Beggars' Sect was using a pretext to start a ruckus tonight.
Yang Yifan wasn't someone who liked talking about her family matters. To outsiders, she had always only briefly explained it as "Both my parents are not here, they told me to take care of Grandpa." Later on, after hearing half the story from her during Lunar New Year, Gan Qing thought that "not here" meant that they had already passed away. She never thought that Yang Ping was still alive and that he and Old Sect Leader Yang had severed their father-and-son relationship.
What ulterior motives were hidden beneath all this?
"Have they gone to take the Dog Beating Staff?" Yang Ping asked.
Xiao-Zhai replied, "Yeah. I saw Elder Tian refusing to give up. Elder Zhao seems to have the same intention."
Big Horse Monkey scoffed, "What's the point of taking the Dog Beating Staff? Do they really think that everything the old man has done throughout these years was for nothing? They may have acted quick today and most people haven't had the chance to react. Just wait until tomorrow, we'll see if the matter of these people 'angering the old sect leader to death and seizing the Dog Beating Staff' can be kept a secret."
Xiao-Zhai said with a chuckle, "Exactly. When things turn into a mess later, we'll rely on Elder Yang to step forward and take control of the situation. After all, you are the true heir."
Yang Ping said mildly, "You can save those bootlicking words. Does it cost nothing to throw all those empty words around?"
Big Horse Monkey said, "We don't have to bother with the ones leading the ruckus. As for that girl, she surrounds herself with luxurious goods day and night. Even if nothing happens to her this time, the people in the sect don't like the way she acts. She won't be able to hold on to the Dog Beating Staff. And for the remaining matters, we will have to rely on Zhai-xiong to help out."
Yang Ping nodded. "Also, remember to take care of things on Wang Jiusheng's side."
In the darkness of the night, Gan Qing's eyes looked up swiftly.
Big Horse Monkey said, "Someone with ties to Wan Mu Chun moved into No. 110 Courtyard. I can see that Wang Jiusheng is truly scared this time."
"Don't look down on him," Yang Ping said. "Do you think that Wei Xiao was easy to handle back then? Even when the few of us were in top condition, we were ruined in his hands, let alone later on… Were it not because Wang Jiusheng enacted a plan to beat him down until he could not fight back, it's hard to say who would be the one dead right now. Furthermore, Wei Xiao lived in hiding right here in Yanning for so many years. People from both sides were looking for him but no one could find him. It was only Wang Jiusheng who could dig him out. This North Branch Master of Travellers' Sect has hidden depths."
Gan Qing's fingers that were holding onto the cypress tree dug into the tree trunk. Her heart was pounding hard enough to explode.
Big Horse Monkey said, "Wang Jiusheng had always thought that Old Zhai and I belong to Zhao. These two days, we have already sussed out where he hid that girl. We will quietly bring her out today. Didn't Zhao seize the Dog Beating Staff by force? When Travellers' Sect realise that the person they're hiding has disappeared, they will surely suspect that Elder Zhao could not keep the members quiet and is pushing them out to take the fall. When that time comes, we'll let them fight among themselves like dogs."
Yang Ping said, "I'll leave it to you."
A tendril of blood crept into Gan Qing's eyes. A blade seemed to grow out of her flesh, the tip slowly extending from between her fingers. Her fingers reflected in the body of the blade appeared eerily cold and pale, like the claws of a water demon in a horror movie.
Right at that moment, Xiao-Zhai suddenly hmm-ed. "There's a small accident."
"What?" Big Horse Monkey asked.
Xiao-Zhai made a noise of amusement and said, "Zhao and Tian were intercepted by someone, guess who? None other than that little alliance leader at No. 110 who's playing around."
The blade between Gan Qing's fingers that was "growing" outwards the whole time paused slightly.
"That's sick!" Xiao-Zhai said. "I think we don't even need to wait until tomorrow for Elder Zhao and the others to fall on their faces."
The broom handle in Yu Lanchuan's hands broke with a snap. He saw the cold glint of something metal in the hands of the Beggars' Sect member opposite him.
"Controlled weapons." He raised an eyebrow. "Do the respected and righteous sects also recruit this type of professional hoodlum?"
The person opposite him decided to give up on sneaking around. Under his hands were two concealed long daggers with blood grooves, a metal chain linking them together. They could be used to stab, pierce and slash at a close range, and the blades could also be thrown out.
The sharp edge of the blade split Yu Lanchuan's broom handle in the middle. Other than his glasses, the last metallic item on his body was his belt. He was now fighting bare-handed and was forced to retreat to the corridor entrance.
Right then, a whistling sound drew near. The chain whip struck down from the air, striking right on the metal chain in between the long daggers. With a cunning use of angles, it pulled downwards; the person holding the daggers nearly stabbed his own chin and immediately snapped his body back.
"Your mum here is not dead yet," Zhang Meizhen said.
She had just finished speaking when Yu Lanchuan heard someone call out. "Little Master Yu, catch."
Right on its heels, something flew over from behind him. Yu Lanchuan reached out and grabbed it and was shocked—that thing was an actual sword!
...Albeit—he saw when he drew it out for a look—a sword carved from peach wood.
Han Dongsheng walked towards him from the stairs, a copper clothes drying rack in his hands. He smiled at Yu Lanchuan, a little embarrassed. "When my dad was obsessed with qigong, he bought that from the 'master.' Supposedly, it will repel evil when hung on the wall. Just make do with it for now."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Great, he was now doing a Daoist ritual dance.
Han Dongsheng turned towards the Beggars' Sect members blocking the building entrance and withdrew his smile. In a soft and light tone, he said, "Tomorrow, the adults have to go to work and the children have to wake up early for revision classes. It is time to rest now. What is everyone doing here?"
After Han Dongsheng finished speaking, a black shadow fell swiftly on the covered bicycle racks. The new arrival resembled a large, graceful bird. The covered bicycle racks shook lightly a couple of times but there was not a single sound. It was none other than Yan Hao.
Yan Hao panted for breath. "G-Grandma Zhang told me to bring people here."
Zhang Meizhen grinded her teeth lightly. "...Good boy, you're sensible. You're the first to properly call me 'Grandma.'"
Yan Hao looked utterly confused.
They saw that at the entrance to No. 110, the two major jianbing groups and the beggars and vagrants who usually run errands for Old Yang were all there. And there were even more people rushing over...
 The name of the Han Jiang "supreme skill" as described by Yu Huaide is 破釜沉舟 "breaking cauldrons and sinking boats." It is an idiom that means risking everything for the sake of victory.
 "Big horse monkey" 大马猴 seems to be a legit type of monkey that lives in South Africa but I can't track down the exact English name. However, this monkey is also used as a sort of bogeyman to scare children in northern parts of China and in that context, is more like a monster than an actual animal.
 Not really relevant to the story, but I just want to note that the Three Friends of Winter generally refer to pine, bamboo and plum. Cypress is traditionally not one of them.
At No. 110 Courtyard, there were large trees almost thirty years of age and the mottled corners of the walls covered in spots of moss. At this moment, a street light hung above the empty flower bed, casting a pale glow on the two sets of troops in the courtyard and giving the scene a touch of fantasy.
In the balconies and on the corridors, the residents couldn't resist poking their heads out, watching this great evening show that they didn't have to buy a ticket for.
A few thousand years ago, due to natural disasters or man-made calamities, impoverished peasants were uprooted from the life-giving soil of their homes and after a period of seeking refuge, destitute and homeless, they were reduced to being beggars. The bitter cold of ice or frost or snow or rain, the vicious dogs and the poisonous snakes, were all their enemies. Blown about by the wind, they drifted until they reached somewhere to wait for death. Later on, the waning warrior class and the experts hidden among the common people organised these suffering people and taught them how to protect themselves, and to take care and console each other. Even if there was no place in the world for them to settle down, they would still have a home to return to. That was the beginning of Beggars' Sect.
Who would have thought that a few thousand years later, these "beggarly" sect elders draped in mink-fur coats would drive their cars and bring their followers who were seeking school district residences to "force the king to abdicate and seize the throne"?
Human affairs were like freshly-cooked food. Leave them there and as time passed, the flavour would change. No one could escape it.
Yu Lanchuan lightly swung the peach wood sword in a horizontal slash; unexpectedly, it really brought out some of the upright and honest spirit of the Seven Secret Arts swordplay. "Elder Zhao, why don't you ask around—if you really obtain the Dog Beating Staff, would your brothers outside obey you?"
At this moment, Elder Zhao had already faintly sensed that he had crossed the line.
He had initially wanted to quietly take the Dog Beating Staff and leave. Who would have thought that Yu Lanchuan actually dared to take the initiative to physically stop them? It had also never crossed their minds that so many people would still look up to Old Sect Leader Yang when he couldn't even take care of the minor matters in his family. Now that the ruckus had gotten this big, even if he obtained the Dog Beating Staff, the voices opposing him within Beggars' Sect would definitely be even louder.
What was more, he was not the only one wanting to take the Dog Beating Staff. Elder Tian and the other two sect elders were similarly eyeing it like tigers eyeing their prey. When the time comes, there would be no lack of shit-stirrers fanning the flames.
But right now, it was already not possible for him to give up halfway. If he shrank back at this moment, by tomorrow everyone would know that he, Elder Zhao, was already old and that not only had he failed to steal the chicken, he had also lost the rice he used as bait, and that this Yu Lanchuan from the younger generation had "stepped on him." How could he lift his head again in the future?
Elder Zhao clenched his teeth and took a step forward. He took the metal club one of his followers was passing to him. "I've heard that Han Jiang Xue is the leader of the Five Supremes. Little Master Yu, I hope you can give me some guidance."
Yu Lanchuan quickly said, "Nope, dream on."
Elder Zhao, "..."
Yu Lanchuan said, "If I see an old person of your age fall down on the streets, I might not necessarily dare to help them up. How would I dare to fight with you? I still have twenty-nine years to go on my house loan."
Zhang Meizhen scoffed. "Who knows, there might be some elderly people who have yet to learn how to behave and want to run a porcelain scam."
Elder Zhao had no choice but to choose between "porcelain scam" and "get stepped on" today. Trapped in an impossible situation, his fury was beyond control. He swung the club to point at Zhang Meizhen. "In that case, if I ask you for guidance, it won't count as a porcelain scam!"
Yan Hao hastily leaped down from the covered bicycle racks. The large metal claw he used for climbing walls was crossed at his chest. Elder Tian and his people followed suit, all of them taking out their various metal clubs and small knives.
The situation at the entrance of the little building was so tense it seemed on the verge of exploding.
Meanwhile, at the same time this was happening, the scene at the entrance to the courtyard was a different one. Most of the reinforcements Yan Hao had brought also belonged to Beggars' Sect. Strictly speaking, they were all from the same group. Even if the Beggars' Sect members who had come to the courtyard to cause a ruckus were not their friends, they were at least familiar faces. The remaining ones were petty traders from the nearby areas, also people they were used to greeting with smiles.
After this large troop of "reinforcements" arrived, they saw that the courtyard was filled with familiar faces and didn't know whether they should hoist the battle flags and shout war cries, or if they should launch an attack right away, so they decided to just look for acquaintances and begin chatting. Most of the disciples who came with the sect elders to make trouble were also not involved in the evil schemes and were just there as lackeys to play up the leaders' might. Since the people in front hadn't made them charge forward yet, they gathered comfortably in groups of three to five and started grumbling about the prices of goods and houses.
This was what was meant by the saying, "Too many chickens result in no eggs, too many humans result in foolish trouble."
At the front, weapons were drawn at opposing sides, the flames of anger hot enough to start a wildfire. At the back, it was "Guess how much I paid for a pound of chives the other day" and "My kid is attending two revision classes during the holidays"—"revision classes" and "chives" were like sparks that grew into a fire at the slightest wind, devouring everything in their path from the main entrance onwards.
Very quickly, the boundary between the two sides blurred and the ranks scattered. Finally, it spread to the "frontlines." The few people who were standing in confrontation had quite good hearing and they heard in unison a few lines carrying over clearly in the wind. "It went up again after Lunar New Year's? Aiya, it has already increased from 3.50 yuan to 6 yuan. We should talk to our friends running the jianbing stalls and tell them that they need to stop that."
Han Dongsheng sighed. He planted the copper clothes drying rail on the ground. "If you round it up, it's ten yuan already. It's better to make it myself at home from now on."
Yan Hao counted on his fingers how many days of breakfast his wages for a month could buy. Ten fingers was not enough, so he had no choice but to include the fingers of his metal claws in his calculations.
Yu Lanchuan glanced at his watch. It was already past ten at night. He still had to make a report on the progress of the projects to the board of directors tomorrow and hadn't finished going through the materials. His mood became very sour. "Everything's going through an upheaval, only our salaries remain unchanged."
The Beggars' Sect disciples who were fighting against him just now were also cubicle monkeys and his words made them sorrowful. They looked around them—even jianbing was soon going to be unaffordable for these people who were no longer young but they were still here fighting like crows and chickens, "stepping" on each other.
Was the mortal realm worth it?
Elder Zhao, "..."
Then, right when this crisis was about to dissipate into thin air, a row of screaming police cars arrived. Just as Yu Lanchuan had wished, the sirens were exceptionally loud. The police who came were shocked by the amount of people in No. 110 Courtyard, wondering in their hearts on what scale was this group brawl.
If this was Harry Potter, it would be the final battle of the magical world!
Hence, the police at the scene urgently requested for instructions from their work superiors and also received them: Take away the leaders.
In the little alley, Xiao-Zhai and Big Horse Monkey took their leave of Yang Ping and went their separate ways.
Gan Qing stared at the hazy silhouettes on the window of the house for a while, her face expressionless. Finally, without alerting anyone, she quietly fell to the ground from the large cypress tree and picked Big Horse Monkey.
Wang Jiake had been staying in the little guest house for a few days now. She was starting to feel increasingly uneasy.
The little guest house called itself a "no-frills hotel." In actual fact, it might not even meet the criteria for a "dangerous structure." It might also be operating without a license.
The door seemed to be made of paper paste and was not soundproof at all. Late in the night every night, she could hear drunken laughter and ruckus from outside. Sometimes, the noise wandered back and forth before her door without leaving, as though they were about to break in and enter at any time. She trembled in fear as she listened and could never resist getting up to check the anti-theft chain lock.
They had taken away her phone. They had only said that the high-interest loan people were calling her non-stop and were afraid that she would receive a shock if she saw it. All three meals in a day were brought up to her by attendants, the quality of the food too unbearable for words. She couldn't even go out for a breath of fresh air. There was one time when she had just stepped out of her room and hadn't even reached the staircase when a male attendant asked her where she was going and escorted her back to her room, leaving no room for argument. He left her with a line that made her hair stand on end: "Don't run around for no reason, we have CCTV."
At that moment, Wang Jiake finally realised that she might have walked out of the wolves' den only to enter the tiger's lair.
On the night of the third day, something even more freakish happened.
Ever since she came to this place, Wang Jiake had only washed her face simply and slept wearing her clothes. She could hardly bear it anymore. She recalled the various methods she had seen online and nervously inspected the bathroom a few times. She didn't find any cameras in the shower area so she rushed in and took a speed shower.
Who would have thought that she had just finished her shower when she heard someone using a room card to open the door from outside.
Wang Jiake only had the time to grab her long down jacket. She wrapped herself like a silkworm pupa and had just put on the chain lock when the other person entered without being invited. The anti-theft chain lock was pulled to its limit and fell off on its own just like that. That joke of a thing turned out to be purely decorative!
The person who opened the door was the driver who had sent her here. Right now, it was already nearly ten at night. The alcohol fumes on the driver's body assaulted her nose. His hand was half-heartedly holding up a bag with a half-eaten bread and he claimed to be "bringing food" to her.
Wang Jiake shrieked, "Who let you come in, get out!"
The driver tsk-ed and looked at her with narrowed eyes. Instead of leaving, he took two steps into the room and even closed the door behind him. "I brought you some food out of the kindness of my heart. Girl, you better not be ungrateful."
Wang Jiake felt a chill seeping out of her limbs and her entire body was shaking. She pulled a wooden chair towards her and blocked herself with it, the four legs pointing outwards.
"Are you serious? You even accompany people to drink, what's wrong with accompanying your bro here for a chat?" The driver smiled. He dug out paper bills of ten yuan and twenty yuan and tossed them onto Wang Jiake's bed. "How much for half an hour? Is this enough?"
For someone who didn't have the habit of shouting expletives and behaving like hoodlums, hoping to perform above expectations at a moment of crisis was usually an impossible wish. Wang Jiake's mind was blank. She could only retreat while repeating again and again, "What do you want to do? Are you mad? You're insane! Get out! Ahh!"
The driver grabbed one of the chair legs. Wang Jiake struggled desperately. The broken wooden chair twisted left and right in between the two people and knocked against Wang Jiake's wrist. Her slender wrist immediately reddened. She shrieked and the chair fell out of her hands.
Wang Jiake pressed her back to the window. She grabbed the railing there without realising it and the window swung open by accident while she was struggling. The wind blew in.
Wang Jiake shouted, "Help! He-"
The driver covered her mouth and pulled the zipper on her down jacket. Wang Jiake bit down on his hand. At the same time, panicking until she was losing her head, she jumped down from the second floor.
The driver quivered, immediately sobering up. He threw himself at the window.
The second floor was not considered high. Below was a fake lawn that was quite soft and her thick down jacket protected her like a cocoon. Wang Jiake rolled on the ground and only had a few superficial scrapes on her body. She finally couldn't be bothered with being fussy anymore. She stumbled to her feet and ran for her life.
The driver shouted, "Where are you trying to run to!"
Wang Jiake didn't even dare look back. Her bare feet trod on the ice-cold ground, and she couldn't even be bothered to care about what she was stepping on. The people in the small guest house very quickly came out running after her. In one breath, Wang Jiake ran a few hundred meters and finally saw the lights from a car at one end of the twisted and crooked little alley. An unlicensed cab driver who was on shift at night was leaning against the wall and smoking.
Almost giving up all hope, Wang Jiake dragged her bloody feet and ran to the car. Gasping for breath, she said, "Help… Help me… Someone wants to kidnap me, I beg you…"
The startled unlicensed cab driver studied her for a few seconds, then glanced behind her. "What's going on? Where did you run out from?"
Wang Jiake said, "That '8 Hours of Warmth' hotel is an illegal hotel. They're chasing me and even want to…"
Regrettably, she was unaware that "carriage, boat, shop, foot and broker" all belonged to the same family.
Before Wang Jiake could finish speaking, she saw a strange smile appear on the unlicensed cab driver's face. "Oh, so you ran out from Warmth."
In a flash, realisation dawned but it was too late to run now. The unlicensed cab driver grabbed a fistful of her meticulously maintained long hair. "Don't you want me to help you? Get in the car."
Wang Jiake felt like her scalp was being torn off and tears sprang up in her eyes immediately. Right at that moment, a rubber shoe flew over and crashed right into the unlicensed cab driver's elbow, exactly on his ulnar nerve. His arm lost strength and Wang Jiake was thrown to the ground. Tears and snot dripping, she crawled forward desperately on all four limbs.
"Who is it?!"
Big Horse Monkey from Beggars' Sect slowly walked out from under the street light. Right after that, a few beggars emerged from the little alley and surrounded them.
"I really can't stand seeing people bully young girls." Big Horse Monkey had a smug smile on his face. "Young lady, don't be afraid. Come with us."
Wang Jiake had once believed that Travellers' Sect could save her from the hands of the high-interest loan lenders. In the end, she was put under house arrest and her "saviour" had been even more of a hoodlum than the high-interest loan lenders!
Now that she had finally made her escape after much difficulty, she appealed to a passerby for help but the passerby turned out to be from the same gang!
After so many times, her trust in people had already turned into disillusionment. In the pitch darkness, Big Horse Monkey revealed two rows of gleaming white teeth. From every angle, he looked like a monster preparing to sharpen his teeth and devour humans.
Wang Jiake crawled even faster.
In just the space of a few words, the sound of jumbled footsteps had come nearer. The people from the guest house were catching up soon. Big Horse Monkey stopped talking nonsense and whistled a couple of times, his leg flying up towards the unlicensed cab driver. The unlicensed cab driver had his own base right behind his back so naturally, he was not willing to suffer a loss. His hand swiped out from his waist, pulling out a small knife, and he stabbed Big Horse Monkey's leg without hesitation.
Two beggars pulled Wang Jiake up, one on either side of her. The rancid and smelly "immortal aura" from the bodies of the vagrants enveloped Wang Jiake from all directions, nearly sending the scared-witless girl into shock. This time, she didn't even have the strength to shout and struggle, and was transferred from hand to hand like a non-living item.
Just as her consciousness was starting to turn blurry, a muffled thump suddenly sounded in her ear.
A black shadow emerged like a demon, quickly and efficiently knocking out the two vagrants holding Wang Jiake. Wang Jiake fell into a pair of ice-cold hands and was immediately pulled up before her legs could touch the ground. The person said softly into her ears. "Go."
It was a woman's voice!
In this chaos, the sense of security brought by a woman was like a lifeline. Without thinking, Wang Jiake instinctively got her legs moving and entrusted herself to this person.
Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect were entangled together, biting viciously at each other like fighting dogs. When they looked up, their mouths full of fur, they realised that the key person had been snatched away!
"Who is it!"
"Bastard, chase them!"
The Beggars' Sect disciple who reacted the fastest turned on his heels to give chase but he realised that his companion who had caught Wang Jiake just now was standing where he was, unmoving like a wax statue. The Beggars' Sect disciple sensed something amiss. "What happened to you?"
His companion slowly turned his head around, face pale like he had seen a ghost. On his neck was a wound measuring three cun and two fen in length, a very shallow cut. It was originally a white mark and only now did a very thin line of blood seep out like a bright red string.
In the dim glow of the light, a heavy murderous aura seemed to thicken suddenly.
From Wan Mu Chun who brought respect and honour to the name, to Wei Xiao who maimed several people in succession when his hand rose and his blade fell, the two generations of Wan Mu Chun had left a thick and heavy shadow lingering in the hearts of the people in the martial arts world who were in the know.
In that second, regardless of whether they were from Beggars' Sect or Travellers' Sect, no one dared to move.
Wang Jiake didn't know how long she had been running with the other person. Her adrenaline was fading and she was starting to feel a burning pain in her feet, like she was treading on Ne Zha's fire wheels. Her hair that she had washed in the unlicensed hotel but didn't have the time to dry was now frozen stiff. From head to toe, ice and fire overlapped.
It was only now that she saw clearly that the person pulling her to run together was a thin and tall young woman dressed in a black wool turtleneck and black long pants. The collar of the turtleneck was unfolded, hiding the lower half of her face. She was like the female heroines in movies dressed for covert activities at night. This person had an extremely good sense of direction, there was no hesitation at all in her steps. Pulling and dragging Wang Jiake along, before long, she had led her to the main road.
When she saw the sparse traffic flow and the pedestrians returning home late, Wang Jiake's heart that was scared witless finally dropped from her throat back down to her chest.
The pedestrians all cast strange looks at this barefoot and sorry-looking young woman. On a normal day, even something like people seeing her tripping and falling on the street was enough to make Wang Jiake embarrassed but now that people were looking at her when her appearance was so wretched, she wanted to cry from joy. She felt like she had finally returned to the human world.
The shocks and scares from the past few days exploded together. Wang Jiake's legs weakened and she fell to the ground.
Gan Qing was pulled to a stumble.
"My… My feet hurt." Before Wang Jiake had finished speaking, her tears were falling. She vaguely felt that it wasn't nice to complain to a stranger and reached up to roughly wipe the corners of her eyes, desperately trying to hold the tears in.
But tears were like floodwaters, easily breaking through her rational mind that had yet to mature fully. Wang Jiake's mouth curved down and then was forced into a straight line, curved down and forced back again. Finally, like a little child, she started sobbing, her words incoherent. "It hurts… I'm scared… It's so scary, Mum…"
Gan Qing was just bending down to talk to her and did not expect the other person to single-sidedly move her up one generation. The word "Mum" was thrown into her face but she didn't dare lay false claims to it so she could only swallow her words back in. A second of carelessness, and she inhaled the fuzz on her wool turtleneck along with the words.
At the start, she followed Big Horse Monkey and needed to stay quiet. After that, she had to maintain her image before the two major sects. She had been holding this sneeze in for half the night now and really could not hold it in anymore. She turned and sneezed hard enough to shake the heavens. Were it not for the turtleneck collar blocking the way, her nose would have flown off.
This loud sneeze frightened Wang Jiake into trembling and she cried even harder.
Her head dizzy and feeling swollen, Gan Qing sucked in a breath through her nose and glanced at her. She felt that there weren't any major problems. The girl's feet were not seriously injured; she had just stepped on some pebbles and the arches of her feet were too tender, resulting in numerous small cuts that looked terrible.
"Hey, listen…" Gan Qing said.
With much effort, Wang Jiake responded with a string of tearful hiccups, choking until her eyes were rolling up.
Gan Qing said hastily, "Forget it. Go on and cry, take your time. I won't disturb you."
In response, Wang Jiake set her voice free and wailed.
Gan Qing pulled her collar down and breathed out on her palms. She rubbed her ice-cold hands and stared at the traffic lights, her mind wandering from boredom.
"If you sneeze, it means that someone is thinking of you."
Back when she was young and living at Mudpool Backlane, Meng Tianyi had teased her with that.
At that time, Gan Qing was attending primary school. When she heard that, she thought it was very mysterious because the phrase "someone is thinking of you" made her feel that this world that she only understood bits and pieces of seemed to be linked to her in some indescribable way. In the crowd of living things in the world, she appeared on the stage of someone's mind. There were as many copies of her as there were people thinking of her, all of them overlapping, countless and innumerable.
By the time she had grown older, she finally understood that this saying was a rather sorrowful joke.
It was said that decades after a person's death, as the people who once remembered this person gradually passed away, this person would be completely forgotten by the human realm, thus coming to a second, more complete, death. At a glance, this idea seemed to be extremely sorrowful but in actual fact, if one thought about it carefully, there was a rather romantic aspect to it. After all, there were some people who were already forgotten by the human realm while they were still alive. If they lost their phone for a day, they wouldn't miss any important messages. Even if they leave a message for their internet friend online, it would very quickly sink under the ocean-like waves of information.
If just a sneeze could evoke a thought, then it was really a bargain.
Gan Qing let out a bitter laugh but without thinking about it, she fumbled out her switched-off phone.
In those seconds when she stared at the starting up screen on her phone, a fearful, apprehensive hope rose in her heart. She hoped that a question like "Why aren't you back yet?" would pop up on her screen… even if it wasn't very polite.
Right at that moment, a small gust of wind blew past. Gan Qing's nose itched and she sneezed again.
Shit, it won't work now. Sneezing twice meant that someone was scolding you.
As expected, her phone started shaking like it was spasming.
— Where are you? Reply!
— Did you fail to find a parking space and drive all the way to Siberia!
— You piece of trash, you switched off your phone again!!!
Gan Qing, "..."
There was indeed someone scolding her.
But when she called Yu Lanchuan back, the other person did not pick up.
"Ai," Gan Qing exhaled a puff of white breath. She heard Wang Jiake's sobbing coming to a pause so she patted the girl. "Don't cry anymore. I'll take you to buy a pair of shoes."
As she thought, the phrase "buy a pair of shoes" summoned Wang Jiake's rational mind back. Her scattered gaze focused a little and she said between her sobs, "But the shoe shops should be closed by now, where can we go to buy shoes?"
"Even if they weren't closed, I wouldn't even know which way their doors open. Forget about the shoe shops." Gan Qing extended a hand to Wang Jiake and let her stagger up holding on to her for support. "Don't worry, it's not far."
It was indeed not far. Five minutes later, she brought Wang Jiake to a nearby twenty-four hours convenience store.
Wang Jiake stood on tiptoes. At a loss, she avoided the cartons of beers and soft drinks piled outside the store and looked at the eight yuan cotton slipper in Gan Qing's hands, dumbfounded.
The cool and awesome "heroine dressed for covert night activities" said, "My purse is in my coat and I only have ten yuan left in my mobile wallet. Just make do with this first. Are you gonna wear them or not?"
"...I'll wear them."
Gan Qing continued to ask, "What do you plan to do? Go to the hospital first? Or the police station? Or go home?"
Wang Jiake's frozen hair was plastered to her face and she looked at Gan Qing, lost and confused. The two of them locked gazes for a while, then Gan Qing sighed again and took out her phone. "Regardless of anything, call your family and let them know that you're safe first."
"Their numbers are in my phone, I don't remember them." Wang Jiake didn't take her phone. She lowered her head and stammered out those words, then dropped her shoulders. "I… owe a lot of money… The people from the high-interest loan lenders are waiting for me at my family's place. I'm too ashamed to face my parents."
As she spoke, she seemed to want to cry again. Gan Qing was out of patience. Right then, her phone rang.
"Officer Xiao-Yu? What… Erm, okay." Gan Qing listened for a while, her expression becoming increasingly odd. She fell silent for a few seconds, then turned towards the lost and witless Wang Jiake and said, "I think I'll send you to the police station."
The police station was as bustling as market day. There wasn't even enough space to go around.
"Wait a minute, Sir, can you repeat your age… Who brought someone so old back here?!"
"Is there anyone injured? Should we call 120 first, just in case?"
"They said that they didn't fight, they were just chatting."
"Bullshit, do they need such a large crowd to chat? What were they chatting about? A conspiracy to take over the world?"
"Ai, have I seen you somewhere before? Did you come here once in the past, the one who wore the Spiderman costume…"
"This is a controlled weapon, isn't it? Whose is it? And this one too… made of peach wood, this nonsense that has 'As Swift as Luling' on it, whose is it? This item is considered an item of feudalistic superstitions, isn't it? We had just done a strict crackdown but you guys are still doing it! Still doing it!"
"It's not feudalistic superstitions, it's a misunderstanding." Yu Yan's face was covered in sweat and he hurried over to bring away the peach wood sword with both hands. When he turned his head around, his veins were pounding at a corner of his forehead. "It wasn't easy for me to not have to be on shift today. I thought it was going to be a peaceful night! Yu Lanchuan, I really have to concede defeat. Ever since I knew you, the gap between reality and my dreams is getting wider and wider!"
Yu Lanchuan sat with his legs crossed, his face looking like he was going to sue someone. "How many times do I have to repeat myself, I was defending myself lawfully. When will you people be done? Your people are doing redundant tasks and your effectiveness is low. I still have work to do at night. Do I need to give my lawyer a call?"
Yu Yan almost wanted to kneel to him. "F— you! Now that it has come to this, can you please take a break and not create more trouble?"
Next to them, Elder Zhao was also someone whose every inch of his face screamed his refusal to comply or to accept things. His mouth with those thick catfish lips twisted and he refused to say a thing, letting his follower speak for him.
The frazzled police officers on duty were nearly going mad. "Are the people now all so fucking awesome? The one just now was a high-level executive and kept saying he wanted his lawyer! This retired worker is another one with a face full of disdain for mortal affairs! Venerable old man, I think you're not a retired worker, you're a retired emperor, aren't you? Should I kneel down and shout 'Long live the king!'"
"Excuse me…." Gan Qing poked her head into the police station. "Did I come at the wrong time?"
She couldn't simply cling onto a vehicle to hitch a ride when she had Wang Jiake with her and she didn't have enough money for the bus. She had no choice but to take a cab to the area near No. 110 and leave Wang Jiake in the car as collateral while she went on her own to Yu Lanchuan's car to get her coat and purse. Fresh from a traumatic experience, Wang Jiake was forced to be alone with a strange cab driver for five minutes and had trembled the whole way there. When they reached the entrance of the police station, she had yet to recover and the "heroine" was already selling her out.
Gan Qing pushed her towards the police officers. "I found this person and brought her back. May I know how many people I can exchange for her?"
The officer who had come out to receive them amidst the bustle was shocked speechless by this bandit-like way of exchanging hostages.
Yu Yan, "..."
His heart was so drained that only dregs were left.
After a round of pandemonium, other than the few people who carried controlled weapons with them, the other people were all released. In the cold wind, they stood in two rows as clearly defined as the waters of the Jing River and the Wei River, each waiting for someone to pick them up. Almost everyone was holding up their phones.
Yu Lanchuan called a cab and briefly explained the situation to the anxious senior high school student waiting at home. Han Dongsheng slowly and softly apologised to Zhou Beibei… because his father-in-law's treasure sword had been confiscated by the police. Yan Hao texted Boss Jiang to tell him that he would be back soon. Zhang Meizhen took her phone out and stared at the screen for a while, then turned her head and locked it.
Next to them, surrounded by his own disciples, Elder Zhao had probably received a call from his children. His unbridled aura when he was fighting for the Dog Beating Staff was swept away and he was saying to his family in a low and yielding voice, "It's too cold… My phone switched off by itself, I didn't see… Ai, I'm going back now. I can take baby girl to preschool tomorrow, this won't affect it, don't worry…"
Elder Tian stood next to him with his hands in his pockets, unmoving. Who knew what he was thinking.
"People of our age have all gone through difficult martial arts training when we were young," Zhang Meizhen suddenly said softly. "Back then, we really trained in all seasons—through the depths of winter and the peak of summer."
Gan Qing's percolating sneeze was cut off by her. Tears in her eyes, she turned around to look at Zhang Meizhen.
The cab they had called arrived and Zhang Meizhen pushed her into the car. Enveloped by the heated air, Gan Qing couldn't really keep her eyes open. She heard Zhang Meizhen say, as though speaking to herself, "We had once stood in glory, we had once had hundreds respond to our every call, our voices had once shook the heavens… In his whole life, Old Yang had craved too much for a good reputation, had chased too hard after a 'simple life'—I guess it could be called overcompensating. He didn't know what the people under him were thinking. That Tian fellow travelled all around when he was young and regarded the four corners of the land as his home. Now that he's old, he has no home and no job, no sons and no daughters. Other than his welfare allowance, he depends on the occasional presents from his disciples to survive. His clothes are probably also given to him by his disciples as a mark of filial piety, he can't even bear to sew the patches on directly. The Zhao fellow is better off. In the past, he worked at a public transport company. He has some pension money, not much. I heard that his children don't respect him and he still has to help them bring up his granddaughter. He's saving for his descendants while he himself lives frugally. Let me ask you, when they see Wang Jiusheng prospering, how could they not turn green with envy?"
"Our generation is old now and a lot of us don't like to pass our martial arts skills down to the next generation. Old Yu had always left it to fate, Old Yang may always say 'Each generation is worse than the last' but he has never forced his granddaughter to learn staff techniques. Even your shifu, with that unconventional temperament of his, understood and accepted it in his later years."
Gan Qing's expression flickered.
Zhang Meizhen let out a laugh. "Gan'er, it was not that he wasn't willing to teach you properly. It was because learning martial arts is too difficult and after going through all that pain, it's also useless. Instead, it would make a person brag about their capabilities and be unwilling to live a steady and honest life."
In Beggars' Sect, he was clearly a Nine Pouch Elder whose every call was answered by hundreds. But when he changed out of his patched clothes, he could only be a dull and cowering nobody.
Which identity would a person like that acknowledge?
Old Sect Leader Yang had always said that empty fame was a phantom made of smoke and dust. When in the center of it, a person must not allow these things to confuse their eyes.
If that venerable old man was really so clear-headed, then why would he, at the age of over ninety, still be unwilling to let go of that jade-green Dog Beating Staff?
Gan Qing sniffed. "How's Sect Leader Yang?"
Zhang Meizhen shot her a look. "So you know already."
"I bumped into a few Beggars' Sect people." Gan Qing thought for a while. Then, concealing the part about Yang Ping mentioning Wei Xiao, she briefly explained what she had been doing for most of the night. "That Yang…"
"Yang Ping." Zhang Meizhen sighed. "That brat had both his arms rendered useless by your shifu and one leg broken by his own father but he's still surprisingly so robust?"
"The first time I met him, he was not even ten years old." Zhang Meizhen seemed to be spacing out. It was only after a long while that she said, "His arms and legs were thin, only his head was large. At that time, you couldn't see anything wrong yet… He was a boy after all, who knew whether his growth spurt would come early or late. There are those who only start to grow when they're seventeen or eighteen. He's the sect leader's son and was very pampered within the sect. Those people fawned over and flattered him, calling him 'Little Sect Leader.' Others might not take them seriously but the child did. At that time, I was still a young lady, younger than you. I had nothing better to do with my time and liked older men. I took a fancy to Yang Qing…"
"The patient is out of danger for the moment. However, his age is too advanced and he needs to be observed in the ICU for a period of time. Where is the patient's family? Come over here and sign the papers!"
Old Sect Leader Yang heard his granddaughter respond and say something to the doctor. The noise seemed to be separated from him by a layer of film, blurred and indistinct, not going into his ears. After a while, the hospital bed under him jolted a little. Someone was pushing him away. He strained to open his eyes a crack.
"Grandpa! Grandpa? Can you hear me… Grandpa… Is he awake? Is he conscious…"
The woman's voice was clear and sweet, sometimes near and sometimes far. Gradually, it turned into someone else's voice.
"Yang Qing." He heard that person call him from the distant past. The voice was obviously very nervous, yet pretending to be totally unbothered. "Let me tell you something. I have a crush on you."
There was a kind of flower that was like an inferno. When it burst into bloom, it could burn through everything in a person's view, searing their nerves until there was pain.
The forty years old Yang Qing was dumbstruck. He seemed to have lost his ability to speak and was stupefied for quite a while before finally finding his tongue. Then, his words scrambled and his hands gesturing wildly, he said, "I… No… My child is already so tall… I'm already married! My wife… your sister-in-law is back in my old home, she's not with me… Her cooking is very good, when she comes here, I'll get her to treat you to flatbread…"
"Back then, he had his child with him and stayed in the dorms for single people. There wasn't even a female housefly by his side, so I had always thought that he didn't have a wife, that he was either divorced or widowed." Zhang Meizhen gazed out at the city nightscape. She brushed back the permed hair at her temples, a little worn out. "No. 110 was built later on. In the early days, the workplace would provide public housing for their workers. Other than the worker's capability and rank, sometimes it also depended on the size of their family. The married ones definitely took precedence over the single people. His peers, as long as they had a family, nearly all of them were given public housing. But he was not.
"That's why I didn't believe him at all at that time. People back then aren't like people now, they didn't care about school districts and all that. There wasn't much difference whether their children attended school in Yanning or back in their old homes in the rural villages. I thought, if the child really has a biological mother, why would the child live so miserably with the father in the dorms? Furthermore, Yang Qing was brought up by a beggar and didn't have parents or relatives. After liberation, he settled in Yanning and worked here. What hometown would he have? So I firmly believed that he was brushing me off and I clung on to him.
"I tried every trick I could think of and also joined his workplace. I hovered around him every day, pressuring him until he ran away the moment he saw me. When he brought up that wife of his that was like a baseless rumour, I would grin at him and say, 'You say you have a wife—fine, you should have a family photo, right? Show me a photo and I'll believe you.' But he couldn't produce a photo and was in a very sorry state every time." Zhang Meizhen paused, then smiled and let out a soft sigh. "I was so shameless… Thinking of it now, back then, I was young and not sensible, and had such thick skin for a young lady. That Old Yang had already said things so clearly but I still refused to give up and clung to him. If a man did that, he would be the perfect example of a dirty hoodlum and might have already been beaten up."
"If it's a man, it also depends on his face," Gan Qing assessed her statement seriously. "Someone like you refusing to give up and clinging to him is an idol drama, and can't be considered dirty hoodlum behaviour."
Zhang Meizhen snorted a laugh. "Such hypocritical words. You're a sweet-talking and cold-hearted little thing."
Gan Qing good-naturedly accepted her rebuke with a smile.
"Actually, it's no big deal if the man gets beaten up. Even with a bloody nose and a swollen face, if he gets to his feet he's still a man. If he regrets one day, it'll become the story of 'the return of the prodigal son,'" Zhang Meizhen suddenly said in a low voice. "But for women, it's not the same. On the surface, it's not an acceptable thing to hit women. Anyone who valued their reputation even a little wouldn't dare hit a woman in public. That's why the beatings women suffer are done in secret, where no one can see… Later on, someone wrote a letter to report my actions."
"Who wrote it?" Gan Qing asked.
Zhang Meizhen shrugged. "Who knows? I've offended too many people."
Gan Qing looked at her in the rearview mirror. She couldn't help but feel that this old madam had the temperament of someone who had trained herself to be extremely keen and quick-witted. She didn't seem like a sweet, naive girl who wouldn't know if she had offended someone.
"It's true. If everyone made do with what they had and got on with their lives in the pitch darkness, while you're the only one who acted independently and insisted on switching on the lights and blinding other people, aren't you offending them?" Zhang Meizhen said. "It's the same as those who keep the full beam headlights on their cars switched on the whole time when driving at night, isn't that right, Driver?"
"Sigh, big sis, you can't put it that way. They're not the same. Turning on the full beam headlights for no good reason can easily cause an accident. That's a lack of basic decency." The cab driver was a middle-aged man with white in his hair at his temples. His first reaction was to instinctively refute her words. Then, after falling silent for a while, he added a vague line in a low voice. "In any case… What other people are doing, we'll just follow suit and do the same. Can't go wrong that way, right?"
"Can't argue with that," Zhang Meizhen answered with a bright smile. She said, "The letter reported me for destroying someone else's marriage, seducing a key personnel of the workplace and acting like a loose woman, bringing down society… It was basically something like that anyway. During those years, it's always this trick. And then, it would be followed by a disciplinary action, a session, getting 'trampled until there was no getting up again,' all that stuff."
"I came from Travellers' Sect and was confident in my martial arts skills. I feared nothing in Heaven nor Earth. With the Five Bats Token in hand, was there anywhere I could not go? Those people could not catch me at all. As for that lousy workplace, so what if they fired me? At that time, even though the major sects were no longer active, the connections were still there, people were still in contact with one another. My sect uncles would not let me starve to death. I didn't suffer and was even quite smug… It was only later on that I found out that during that period of time, behind my back, Old Yang had kept reaching out to the people he knew for my sake and made the facts clear again and again. He even explained to the leader at the workplace. He kept thinking that it must have been himself who did not pay attention to the details and had accidentally teased a young woman. Hence, everyone believed him and thought that there was a problem with him too. Since they couldn't catch me and they needed someone for the people to vent their anger on, they picked him."
"Due to that, he was removed from his post, his title of 'model worker' was withdrawn and he also faced disciplinary action. In just a short while, from a key personnel, he became someone of the lowest rank. Anyone could trample on him. He couldn't even stay in the dorms for singles anymore, they turned him out and sent him to a storeroom that was modified from a bicycle shed. Every three to five days, they held a struggle session and dragged him out to be scolded. At that time, other than Elder Yu, not many people dared to talk to him. He was also afraid of dragging others down with him. In those few years, even the veteran members of Beggars' Sect took the initiative to draw the dividing line… I hid in another part of the country for a few years and only found out about these matters later on. I went to his bicycle shed and cried outside for a whole night. I felt that I was really a terrible person.
"Those people even found his wife. It was only then that I knew that he really wasn't just brushing me off. He did indeed have a wife. It was an engagement his shifu had made when he was young—a few brothers-at-arms got together and after drinking too much, started matching up their sons and daughters like they were cats and dogs. They hadn't even met more than a few times before getting married… I guess it's a poisonous remnant of feudalistic times. That wife of his was the daughter of a long-time family friend. When she was twelve or thirteen, she encountered the Japanese's bombing attacks. For the sake of rescuing someone, she suffered some injuries. Half her face was disfigured and ever since then, it was like she changed into a different person. Her behaviour was strange and she never left her own room, refusing to meet with anyone."
"Old Yang is a very upstanding person. Sometimes, he's even… too upstanding." Zhang Meizhen sighed. "Even though the older generation were no longer around, he still complied with the agreement made by them and married her."
"At the start, I was so envious of her that I could go mad. I thought, how nice would it be if I was that woman? Even if my face was disfigured, I would be willing. Many years later, I finally understood that what I envied was not necessarily something good for her. At the start, perhaps she was touched and overjoyed for a while. But as time went by, what everyone remembered was that Yang Qing was a man of his word, that he didn't disdain such an ugly woman, and that a good man had to suffer this grievance. How unfortunate for him. As for her, she was a 'duty' and a 'baggage' that had good luck and was climbing up the social ladder. If she was sensible, she would die early so that there would be a few years less of her dragging him down… She had always refused to leave her home and meet other people because of the injuries on her face. I think that she must not have been a heartless woman. Who knows how she endured for so many years. Later on, her mental state was a little unstable.
"I secretly went to see her once. The people there told me that she can't see the light. Once she saw the light, she would become hysterical and act wildly, so she rested in the day and came out at night. Even when she left the house at night, she would cover herself up securely. If anyone saw her on the streets, they had to pretend that they didn't see her. If anyone dared take a second glance at her, there would surely be some trouble. She didn't even let anyone mention her name, so it was even more impossible for her to follow Old Yang to Yanning. She didn't even want to take care of the son she gave birth to.
"Every time Old Yang went back, on the first day, she would happily cook for him and welcome him. On the second day, her feelings would change from strong to mild. After three or four days, if he still didn't want to leave, she would be restless and pick a quarrel and make a fuss. Due to that, Old Yang only rushed home and stayed for a day during festive occasions. He would leave money and ration coupons with her and then leave.
"As for me, when I was young, I only had eyes for a man's good looks and confidence, his courage and loyalty. I had no eyes for a woman's pain. When I knew the whole story, I thought that I would never forget him for the rest of my life. But how could I put him through such difficulty? So I went back and said that he was just a fool who was deceived by me. Nothing had happened and he was bearing the blame for me for no reason. I even destroyed my own reputation… I was a lowlife from Travellers' Sect anyway, so I… was not bothered by all that.
"Old Yang has many brothers in Beggars' Sect. There were people who had long been unable to stand how things were going and before long, they made things right for him. As for me, I knew that I would not be fated to be with him anymore in this life. During that time, I even got married once—it was almost like a joke. At that time, I lived like a street rat. There was a man who had been fond of me for many years who braved the danger to shelter me in secret. Later on, this man had a serious illness. Since I was free and had nothing to do, I said, 'How about I become your wife before you die, so that there will at least be someone to send you off on your final journey?'
"For many years, life was peaceful. Those days of turmoil were finally over. Those who were locked in detention centers were freed, those who were sent to reformation camps had their grievances addressed. Other people were wrongly accused and had their names cleared. I was not wrongly accused but my luck was not bad and I also had veteran members of Travellers' Sect taking care of me. I followed suit and took advantage during the chaos to regain my job and salary, and didn't have to live in hiding anymore."
At this point, Zhang Meizhen fell into a long silence, all the way until the cab brought the two of them to the entrance of No. 110 Courtyard.
It was already past midnight now. The onlookers had long since dispersed and the little courtyard was quiet and tranquil. Old Sect Leader Yang had been taken away by ambulance to receive emergency treatment. The walking stick he had been holding at that time was at the moment leaning against the door of the reception office, adorned with an air of aged elegance yet painting a lonesome sight. Zhang Meizhen walked over and picked it up. She brushed off the dust, and then said, seemingly to herself, "Why did they leave it here? Aren't they afraid someone would just take it?"
The small lamp in front of the reception office door illuminated the wrinkles on Zhang Meizhen's face. The sight of her holding the walking stick and muttering non-stop made Gan Qing pause her steps. For the first time, she felt that she was really an old lady.
Zhang Meizhen didn't turn around. She lifted her head, her gaze piercing through the crown of foliage in the garden towards a certain unit on the sixth floor. The lights in Old Sect Leader Yang's home were on. The grandfather and granddaughter duo had come down in a rush and then went to the hospital directly, and hadn't switched off their lights. At this moment, the brightness of his home stood out prominently amidst the calm, like a pair of murky yet gentle eyes.
"I acted according to our agreement and sent my husband off on his final journey. His wife also finished her prison sentence in the mortal realm and departed. In those few years, he and I did not remarry. Even though we have grown old, as the saying goes, things remain the same while the people have changed…" Zhang Meizhen seemed to be speaking to herself. She raised her hand like she was trying to catch the light falling from the sixth floor, but the dim yellow light slipped through her fingers mercilessly, a phantom that could not be caught. She exhaled another puff of white breath. "But those were the good days."
"We got to know each other again. We became familiar with each other again."
She was no longer a thorny flower that pricked fingers; he had also been through enough ups and downs.
"At the start, society wasn't so open-minded yet. We still lived our lives rather secretively. Sometimes, we would exchange a look, sometimes a few words. We wrote notes, gave each other things... It was all like conducting spywork.
And, emotions were like moss—the darker, the damper, and the more it had its back to the light, the more it would grow without the slightest restraint.
"I thought that I had gone through the hard times and that the good days were here, that I had finally made it through in this life." Zhang Meizhen lowered her head and let out an indistinct laugh.
She never thought that the bright light she caught was just a fleeting spark from a flintstone.
Gan Qing asked, "Was it because… Travellers' Sect and Beggars' Sect have a longstanding enmity?"
Travellers' Sect and Beggars' Sect longstanding enmity had existed since ancient times. This was because both sects cast their nets throughout the land and were made up of the crowds of the common people. There was no place where their reach did not extend to and there was some overlap in their trades. Even though both sects had their moments of glory and their victories and failures, when compared against each other, Beggars' Sect was a little more reputable and righteous while Travellers' Sect had less of a bottom line when it came to swindling and tricking.
Travellers' Sect could not stand Beggars' Sect's sanctimonious attitude, while Beggars' Sect could not stand Travellers' Sect demonic ways. The positions of "righteous" and "demonic" added to their competition and conflict was inevitable.
"Officially, yes," Zhang Meizhen said. "My shifu had a high rank within Travellers' Sect. If Wang Jiusheng and his people saw me, they had to hold their noses and call me 'martial grandaunt'. I also had the Red Bat Token in my hands. Even though I didn't like interfering in those matters myself, when the various major sects gradually started to resume their activities, my friends hoisted me up and nominally gave me the rank of North Branch Master."
Gan Qing was a little startled.
"But I really wasn't made of the right stuff for that." Zhang Meizhen spread her hands. "In this area, I was more or less like Old Yang. If you want me to be like Wang Jiusheng and do something like making use of the sect to curry favour and find ways to survive, I can't do it even if you beat me to death. I don't have that foresight and I also find it troublesome… What's more, I'm the type who typically doesn't think with my head and I don't have the prestige Old Yang has in Beggars' Sect. That's why today's event is something I have already experienced once thirty years ago.
"I wanted to ease the tension between Travellers' Sect and Beggars' Sect. In the first place, we didn't speak of ranks and social status anymore after liberation—the beggars of Beggars' Sect all found jobs while Travellers' Sect no longer dared to use the underhanded jianghu tricks from the past, so why was there a need to differentiate us so clearly? In the future, everyone would travel the four seas and we would all be brothers from the same family, wouldn't that be good?
"My heart was determined to work together with Old Yang to do this but I never thought that I had a Wang Jiusheng in my own backyard who had always been eyeing the position of North Branch Master like a tiger. He was even afraid that once I had Beggars' Sect as backup, he would not be able to overthrow me."
"Coincidentally, on Old Yang's side, he had Yang Ping. After he turned ten, Yang Ping didn't grow physically, even his voice was rather like a young boy's… I caused the father and son duo to live in a bicycle shed so for all those years, he had always felt that his 'illness' was my fault… And also that his mother had died early because she was angered by me."
"I indeed… couldn't be considered completely innocent." Zhang Meizhen paused. "Hence, those two people got on like a house on fire."
Before Yang Qing could be admitted to the ICU, they had to get a copy of his medical report. Yang Yifan's assistant helped to run errands for her.
"I'm sorry." Yang Yifan felt rather apologetic towards the young woman. "I have to trouble you so late at night."
"It's okay, it's what I should do, President Yang." The assistant panted for breath. "We are all people planning to join the Lonely Old People Helping to Collect Each Others' Bodies Group. There'll be many more such matters in the future, so I can warm up first… Ai, Grandpa's mouth is moving."
Yang Yifan rushed forward and pressed her ear close. "What do you want to say?"
Up ahead, the doctor had already made the arrangements for the ward and was calling out for the patient Yang Qing.
Old Yang was in a daze, an expression of terror and panic on his face. Perhaps it was due to the anaesthetic, he was muttering unclearly, "Yang… Ping… You… didn't register… didn't...."
"President Yang, the doctor is calling."
"Ah, okay." Yang Yifan straightened up, puzzled. Didn't register? Didn't register for what?
"Yang Ping, why didn't you register!"
It was a hot and humid summer's day. After coming home from work, the men would either bare their upper bodies or change into a tank top and roll it up above their chest, baring their bellies. The whole courtyard was full of shiny white bellies and belly buttons of various shapes as far as the eye could see.
Only Yang Qing was wearing a short-sleeved shirt neatly, buttoned up to the collar without a thread out of place. Like he was embodying the saying, "If your heart is calm, your body will naturally be cool," he was perfectly clean and fresh despite being dressed so properly.
The "calm" Sect Leader Yang was, for once, in a furious rage. "I'm asking you a question!"
If judged solely by his face, Yang Ping was a handsome man whose gentleness shone through his upright conduct. He was fair with pretty and delicate looks, his features sharp and clearcut. Take down this face and stick it onto any head on the streets and there would be no shame in that person becoming a movie star. Unfortunately, when stuck on his body, it looked very strange. A lad in his twenties but his head was not even up to his father's shoulders. His frame was as slender as an underage girl. When a head of normal dimensions was fixed on that body, it looked ill out of place. It wasn't to the extent that he had dwarfism but to say that he was a normal person seemed a little forced.
Yang Ping dropped his gaze and didn't say anything.
"The last time, there was no news at all after the exams and I thought you had failed. I was afraid you would take it to heart so I even kept comforting you, saying that it's okay, we can try again this year. Were it not because other people told me, I wouldn't know that you didn't even take the exams last year! Tell me the truth, did you also not register this year?"
"Who was it? Such a big mouth." Yang Ping spat out a breath like a bum and spread his hands. "I was just going along with it to humour you in the first place. You can just pretend you don't know."
Yang Qing said furiously, "What do you take the gaokao for!"
"Then what do you take me for?" Yang Ping scoffed. "Why, your son is useless so you can't lift your head up? You want me to take an alternative route and enter a university to bring honour to your ancestors? Let me tell you, even if I get into eighty universities, I'll just change from a 'cripple' to a 'crippled bookworm.' It won't bring you much respect! My advice to you, if you can't accept it, then take the chance while you can still do it and quickly get another kid with that Travellers' Sect bitch-"
Old Yang cut off his impertinent words with a slap across his face.
All the teeth in Yang Ping's mouth shook from the force of this slap. He finally shut his mouth and looked at his father with a strange expression, teeth clenched and lips in a smile that was not quite a smile, then looked at the Dog Beating Staff in the glass cabinet.
Yang Qing said, "Go out and kneel!"
"They have called me 'Little Sect Leader' since I was young, saying that Beggars' Sect has an heir," Yang Ping suddenly said in a low voice. "I could do any little thing and there would be bootlickers behind me saying that I resemble you, hoisting me up to the sky. Then, I don't know when it started but those people who had once hoisted me up, when they see me now, all of them smile awkwardly. Those people who praised me when I was young and said that I have a natural talent for martial arts have all changed to asking me if my academic results are good. All of you aren't putting any hopes on me anymore now that I've grown to be like this, is that it? Fine."
"Yang Ping! Stand there!"
Yang Ping turned a deaf ear to him, turning to leave immediately. Yang Qing rushed out after him and bumped into a neighbour who had just returned home after work. The neighbour pushed his bicycle into the courtyard, blocking the narrow entrance, and even made small talk with him laughingly. By the time he had gotten around his neighbour and went out to look, that unfilial son of his had disappeared from sight.
Sect Leader Yang held onto the old and rundown gate, and let out a sigh.
He never thought that his son would actually treat the university entrance exams as a humiliation. Yang Ping's physical body was indeed not suitable for practising martial arts but even if he was, what could he do? Defeat everyone and become unsurpassable in the land, take control of Beggars' Sect, and then? What would he depend on to survive? Surely he could not settle down and build a life by being a beggar and collecting protection fees, could he?
What year was it now, things were not like that anymore!
If Yang Ping was physically healthy and robust, he might be able to understand these arguments.
But he just had to be like that.
He was in his twenties already, no longer a child. Even his biological father could not drag him over as he wished to give him a beating and a scolding.
Yang Qing was naturally an introvert. It was very hard for him to play the role of a father who was attentive and considerate, who was able to talk about anything with his children. Meanwhile, after his teenage years, Yang Ping's behaviour became increasingly odd. Yang Qing could never tell what his son was thinking. Sometimes, the father and son would be sharing a meal at the same table but no one would be speaking and it was like they were acting in a silent film. Without someone at home playing the role of the mother to make things smoother, they only grew further and further apart.
When Yang Ping left the house this time, there was still no sign of him coming back even after a few days later. At that time, there were no mobile phones to make it possible to find a person easily. Yang Qing asked the few young people that his son usually had dealings with but no one knew where he had gone… or perhaps they did, and were just not telling him.
In his heart, Yang Qing didn't think much of these young people. These few people who mixed around with Yang Ping, each and every one of them had fickle and impatient temperaments, their eyes set on sights higher than their hands had the ability to reach.
If he went out to clear his mind, that's fine. At that time, that was what Sect Leader Yang had thought. He still has to attend the Martial Arts General Assembly anyway. When the time comes, I'll bring him back and have a proper talk with him. If he's really not willing to take the gaokao, it's okay for him to learn a trade too… but how nice would it be if he went to university.
Old Yu was handling the Martial Arts General Assembly. It was going to be held in half a month's time. He had discussed with Meizhen—at that time, Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect would come together, sit together, and then the two of them would make their relationship public. The people from both sides would surely have some dissatisfaction and criticisms at the start. In that case, they could do it slowly. Ultimately, Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect did not have any deep grudges or blood feud between them. If the relationship between the two sides could be repaired from now on, wouldn't that be a priceless achievement?
The moment he thought of Zhang Meizhen, an anticipation that came from nowhere rose in his heart. It was as though everything was filled with hope, all problems easily solved.
Yang Qing's thinking was actually a little old-fashioned. He kept feeling that to have a romance at this age had a shade of the offence of "not behaving properly despite one's age."
However, he had no choice. All these years, he had always worked hard to emulate everything his shifu had taught him through his words and his conduct—upstanding, loyal, maintaining proper behaviour even in his private life, keeping his word… If any of these clashed with his innate nature, then naturally, he would have to repress his nature and choose to be righteous. Shifu called this "cultivating one's character."
He had cultivated for over half his life and also repressed himself for the same amount of time. In his entire life, this was the first time he was indulging himself and he was completely defeated by this indulgence. He could only feel ashamed and, at the same time, sink into depravity helplessly.
If only he knew what Yang Ping was doing at that time.
"On the day of the Martial Arts General Assembly, I sat right next to Old Yang. There are no walls that the wind can't pass through—even though we kept our relationship a secret, there had been rumours since some time ago. At that time, that was the same as it being true," Zhang Meizhen said. "Within Beggars' Sect, there were people who didn't approve of it. There was a sect elder with the surname Zhu who refused to be involved anymore and left in a huff. Right on his heels, a few other people stood up and followed him out… It's understandable. I guess it's about the same as the current day young people finding out that their idols are taking drugs. I was used to being a demoness anyway so I wasn't really bothered but Old Yang was very apologetic. After all, the Travellers' Sect people were all rather calm. They didn't disgrace me, their North Branch Master, in front of outsiders."
"People from reputable and righteous sects have a lot more opinions. It's normal for them to be rather stubborn and proud," Gan Qing said.
Meanwhile, Travellers' Sect was better at producing bootlickers.
"At that time, that was what I thought too. I was even a little smug." Zhang Meizhen let out a laugh. "It was only later on that I found out that the reason why they were suddenly so quiet was because they were preparing for a big scene. Wang Jiusheng had long since gathered those barbs that most strongly opposed Beggars' Sect. Working behind my back, he had fanned the flames a few rounds. On one hand, he complained about me being too close to Beggars' Sect; on the other, he claimed 'injustice' for me, saying that Old Yang was a scumbag who was using me, tricking me for wealth and lust. In the daytime, this group of people got pissed off during the Martial Arts General Assembly. At night, they gathered together to drink. Then, high on alcohol, they kidnapped the families of Elder Zhu and his followers."
"Your esteemed sect… erm… really isn't particular with their methods." Gan Qing paused, then continued to say, "But for them to be able to do this so easily, it must have had something to do with Yang Ping, right?"
"When it came to their dislike for me, Yang Ping and Elder Zhu's side were united in having the same adversary. After Elder's Zhu side left the general assembly, he was called away by Yang Ping to hold a small meeting. This group of people cursed and vented their emotions, and also drank until they were dead drunk," Zhang Meizhen said. "Yang Ping sent a few people to inform the families of those drunkards. Since they were all familiar faces, no one had their guards up and the families even invited the messengers into the house for some water. The Travellers' Sect people following behind took the chance to launch a sneak attack. Exploiting weaknesses, kidnapping, confidence tricks—these are all tricks Travellers' Sect is an expert in. They also had a mole helping them so they could do it very cleanly and efficiently, without making any noise."
Gan Qing asked curiously, "Since it was Yang Ping who took them away and it was also Yang Ping who sent the messengers, didn't anyone suspect Yang Ping of betraying his sect and helping outsiders when there was a confrontation later?"
Zhang Meizhen slowly stroked the Dog Beating Staff. "No, because there was no confrontation."
"They threw the people they kidnapped—the elderly and the young, the women and the children—into a factory that had machinery oil in storage and sent someone to keep watch. After that, they went back to their own homes to sleep. In the end, early in the morning, the guard fell asleep. A few drunk hoodlums were fooling around and threw cigarette butts, and set the factory on fire. Coincidentally, an oil barrel was leaking. The fire could not be put out in time and the people inside were also tied up. Not a single one escaped… Anyway, it was all 'a coincidence.'"
Gan Qing, "..."
"Didn't I say just now? Between Travellers' Sect and Beggars' Sect, the only thing missing was a deep grudge and blood feud," Zhang Meizhen said placidly. "By the time I found out about this, it was too late. Causing such a huge mess in Yanning, even without Old Yang, there was no way I could appease anyone. At that moment, a few people who were involved voluntarily stepped forward to confess their crime. They were all bachelors without families or jobs. The police took them away. Beggars' Sect did not accept this conclusion and insisted that these people were obviously doing so out of 'loyalty' and were bearing the blame for their comrades."
"Elder Zhu's group were not content and put this debt on the entire Travellers' Sect. They wanted to have Travellers' Sect repay the blood debt with blood. Old Yang and I went around putting out fires… but can the fire in which your family died a horrible death be put out by logic and sentiment? At that time, the government launched a strict crackdown on organisations that had a criminal nature. This thing, once started, could not be stopped. Elder Zhu's group made more and more noise, everyone was pulled into it, and Old Yang was put on the stake."
She remembered that it was the start of the eighth month. There was heavy rain and the entire Yanning seemed on the verge of being lifted by the violent winds and broken apart. The earth that had been baked warm by the peak of summer was cooled completely. In just one night, the plants were thinned out by half, the flowers and leaves scattering into the water and leaving a sorry sight behind.
Yu Huaide signed an urgent Alliance Leader's Command. He gathered everyone and stepped forth to mediate the situation. Under the weight of both duty and sentiment, Yang Qing could not lift his head and did not even dare to look at her. Amidst the mournful howls of the wind, he announced that Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect were irreconcilable and in the future, could not co-exist in the martial arts world.
That was the most difficult period of Zhang Meizhen's life. When she had caused trouble in her youth and had to go into hiding, there were at least still Travellers' Sect people protecting her. That time, because of her determination to uncover every single person involved in this matter, the Travellers' Sect people who had always defended their comrades regardless of whether they were right or wrong started to be dissatisfied with her. On top of that, Wang Jiusheng's side employed some small tricks in secret and the voices calling accusing her of "being overly generous to outsiders" and "paying up when we're the losing side" grew louder.
In less than half a year, Zhang Meizhen was forced to leave Travellers' Sect. From then on, she retired from the jianghu.
She applied to her workplace and was transferred to a post in another part of the country. For over ten years, she did not return.
Later on, the old public housing was demolished. No. 110 was built. Free of all those jianghu matters, she had nothing to occupy her other than her job and managed to fumble her way into becoming a veteran worker and key personnel. Perhaps it was because of this, or perhaps someone had used their connections internally… in any case, somehow or other, they left her an apartment.
"Maybe it was Xiao-Chuan's granduncle who asked someone to leave it for me." Zhang Meizhen smiled with feigned ease. "But I was not thankful to that old man. A few years after distributing the units, they wanted us to pay money to buy them. It nearly used up my tiny bit of coffin money."
She came back after she retired and became neighbours with Yang Qing again.
But the beauty in the past was now aged and worn, and the love and hatred had also turned into ash.
"It's not possible for the two of us anymore in this life," Zhang Meizhen said.
As for the next life… it was better to forget it.
The over fifty years they had known each other had been entirely a torment, wringing them dry. In the end, there were only those few memories that seemed almost like a figment of her imagination.
If there was really a next life, it would be better for them not to meet.
In the ICU ward, the old Yang Qing's condition suddenly worsened late at night. The doctors and nurses on duty brought him into the emergency treatment room again like they were fighting a battle. Yang Yifan was leaning against the corridor wall and taking a nap; she woke up with a start and was dragged up to sign the notice of critical illness.
"Doctor, can you give me an estimate, how likely is it that my grandpa will…"
"It's hard to say. Most people would be fine by now but his age is so advanced, anything can happen. His family members should be prepared." The doctor paused. "I guess it depends on the patient's vitality and his desire to live… It seems quite strong."
It was as though he understood in his heart that if he closed his eyes in this realm, there was someone who was going to sever ties with him and refuse to even be passing acquaintances with him anymore.
Zhang Meizhen held the walking stick and walked to the stairs. She muttered, almost inaudibly, "In old age…"
In old age one grows forgetful, only my thoughts of you remain.
A few steps behind her, Gan Qing stood still, her thoughts somewhere else. Right then, car lights swept across the entrance of the little courtyard. The cab Yu Lanchuan and the others were taking had reached. Gan Qing turned her head towards the sound, just in time to see Yu Lanchuan get down from the car, his body mired in an air of gloom.
Without warning, their eyes met. The irritability on Yu Lanchuan's face instantly dissipated. For a moment, he seemed to suddenly shrink back, hesitating unexpectedly and not walking forward.
 "In old age one grows forgetful, only my thoughts of you remain" 老来多健忘，唯不忘相思 — This is the last line of the poem "偶作寄朗之" by Bai Juyi. I am not able to find an English translation of this poem and it's also rather beyond my level of Chinese comprehension but this final line is an oft quoted line and my interpretation here is both a rather literal translation and also based on comments about it that I found online.
Han Dongsheng also got out of the cab. When he saw the "blue-screened" Yu Lanchuan, he called out to him curiously, "Little Master Yu?"
Yu Lanchuan himself wasn't sure what happened. He only felt that Gan Qing's gaze just now had been very special, like there was a myriad of feelings intertwined within, looking over to him from across a very distant time and space, and even carrying with it the dust from the weary journey, making him feel—for a moment—a fear of the emotions it drew from him.
Fortunately, Gan Qing regained her usual composure quicker than he did. With a smile that was not quite a smile, she extended a finger, Yu Lanchuan's car key hanging from it, and said teasingly, "I heard that Little Master Yu was so amazing today… achoo!"
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Before Gan Qing could finish a single teasing line, she had already sneezed three times in quick succession. When that was over, a breath of air was stuck at the back of her nasal cavity, refusing to go down no matter what. As the ringing in her ears gradually drowned out the sound of the wind, she had a bad feeling—she was catching a cold!
Both Han Dongsheng and Yan Hao gave her looks of astonishment.
Between these two, one already had the "three highs" while the other only knew how to leap up walls, but people who practised martial arts since young were still physically more robust than ordinary people. Han Dongsheng felt that the last time he had a cold or a fever, he was probably around the age of his son now.
To think that even Wan Mu Chun could have a blocked nose, and could cough and sneeze!
Yu Lanchuan regained his senses and asked in disbelief, "You've already wrapped yourself until you're like a ball and you're still shameless enough to catch a cold?"
Gan Qing said in a very nasal voice, "Heaven sends me to my doom, what fault of mine-"
"Still saying nonsense!" Yu Lanchuan pulled the hood of her down jacket up and down over her head, pushing her whole head inside until only her lower jaw could be seen. "If you have a cold, why aren't you home and resting? Who asked you to interfere in something that's none of your business? Don't I know better than you how to act within limits?"
"I can't see anything." Gan Qing pushed the hood up and said slowly. "You sure do, don't you? Challenging the four sect elders of Beggars' Sect on your own, armed with a peach wood sword for Daoist rituals, you sure do know your limits."
Yu Lanchuan took the car key from her. He accidentally touched her ice-cold fingertips and immediately asked suspiciously, "Weren't you still perfectly fine during dinner? What were you doing just now? Your phone was switched off and Wang Jiake even ended up in your hands?"
"It's a…" Gan Qing sniffled hard. "...ai, long story."
Even though she was afraid of the cold, in the past she had stayed in basements and group rentals where the heating was almost nonexistent. Despite that, she had never been chilled until she fell sick. On the other hand, now that she was enjoying warm air every day in winter, curled up next to the heater, her immune system had weakened quite a bit. She had been spoiled by comfort.
"Forget it." Yu Lanchuan pushed her towards the corridor, out of the wind. He did some quick mental calculations; Zhang Meizhen was an old lady who lived for the moment and would definitely not keep any medicine on hand at home. He himself had moved in not long ago and had also forgotten to keep any at his place. At this hour, the pharmacies were all closed. Where could he go to get some cold medicine for her?
While fretting, his mouth did not remain idle. "Other people can strengthen their bodies by practising martial arts. You? Today your stomach hurts, tomorrow your head hurts. Other than causing trouble, your skills aren't good for anything. What kind of demonic skills are you practising?"
Yu Lanchuan's mind was entirely occupied with the question of where to get medicine while Gan Qing's hearing was severely impacted by the ringing in her ears. As for Han Dongsheng and Yan Hao, one of them wasn't good at qinggong and did not have good hearing while the other was not perceptive and frequently dwelled in a world of his own without paying much attention to his surroundings.
Hence, today, no one noticed that there was someone at the courtyard entrance.
That someone waited until they had all returned to their own homes before walking out of the shadow of the wall. It was none other than the little mute girl from the pet store, Qiao-Qiao.
When Yan Hao returned to the laundry shop, he accidentally tripped over a cardboard box at the entrance. Only then did he remember that this morning, before the pet store opened for the day, he had taken in a delivery on behalf of Qiao-Qiao. In the turmoil and pandemonium of the day, he had forgotten about this matter.
Qiao-Qiao would sometimes dig into her own pocket to order some imported canned pet food and give the little animals in the pet store better meals. Yan Hao took a look. On the entire street, the lights in the buildings were all dark.
It's too late now. I'll let her know tomorrow, he thought, not very bothered about it. He locked the laundry shop door behind him.
When buying something from across the national border, the package would have to go through customs when it entered the country. The buyer's real identification information would have to be uploaded and the recipient's name would typically have to be written in full. A name like "Qiao-Qiao" that was either a childhood name or a nickname would definitely not do.
On the box of canned food, Qiao-Qiao's real name was written in the section for the recipient's name: Zhu Qiao.
On this night, after sorting out the dispute among these Beggars' Sect members that they had to bend over backwards to please, the thoroughly wiped-out neighbourhood police officers at least reaped a small reward—after going missing for a few days, Wang Jiake dropped into their laps out of nowhere!
The entire online world was suspecting that she had been killed to prevent her from exposing secrets and all sorts of conspiracy theories were bubbling up. Even though the girl seemed to be in a rather miserable state, in any case, it was a good thing that she had returned unscathed and in one piece. The officers quickly reported it to their higher-ups and, at the same time, asked her where she had been during the time she was missing.
Who would have thought, if they hadn't asked, they would remain ignorant but once they asked, they were shocked out of their skins. The twists and turns she had experienced for several days running was no less fantastical than what people were cooking up online. There was a loan scam, a suspected kidnapping and illegal house arrest, and even an unsuccessful sexual assault attempt!
While this was happening, the news about Wang Jiake being taken away by "Wan Mu Chun" was delivered to Wang Jiusheng. After Wang Jiusheng heard the whole story, he stood on the luxurious open deck at the top of the building and smoked half a pack's worth of cigarettes in quick succession. Slowly, he took up his phone and sighed. "I'm not afraid of you guys messing things up. You're young after all. After a few more rounds of training, you'll naturally be more thorough when taking care of matters. I'm just afraid of this kind of person who acts without reason and gets carried away the moment he sees a girl who looks halfway decent. Such a disgrace!"
His subordinate hurried to admit their mistake. "It is my fault for not choosing the right person, North Branch Master-"
"That goes without saying. You have compiled the list of people involved in this matter, haven't you?" Wang Jiusheng cut him off. Then, in a meaningful tone, he added, "Have you taken care of their families?"
From the other side of the call, his subordinate said, "Please do not worry about this."
"Then that's good." Wang Jiusheng nodded. "In the first place, this matter was because I couldn't say no so I helped our friends from Beggars' Sect stand up in a crisis. Regardless of whether the result is good or bad, it should not be borne by our Travellers' Sect, am I right?"
"Go get it done," Wang Jiusheng said lightly. "When you're the one doing the work, I have never had to worry."
The moment he hung up, the smile of confidence and ease on Wang Jiusheng's face disappeared,
He rubbed his fingers together and carefully surveyed the open deck in his own home like he was checking for landmines. Wang Jiusheng lived in one of the rare low-density neighbourhoods in the city district. The entire neighbourhood only had four buildings. The security was tight and each building had a security room. There were people on patrol twenty-four hours a day in the neighbourhood.
He had bought the penthouse, the most luxurious unit in the entire building. It was on the thirty-second floor and was known as "The Courtyard in the Air." There was a large open deck from which a panoramic view of more than half of Yanning could be seen. The price was sky-high.
But right now, even the thirty-second floor could not give him a sense of security. Wang Jiusheng switched on the infrared intruder detector installed on the open deck but still did not feel reassured so he went back in and locked the door to the deck. Other than a decorative glass door, his open deck also had a very extravagant anti-intruder door. Once it was lowered, it was like locking himself into a safe made of steel.
Inside the "safe," Wang Jiusheng opened his laptop and obsessively and carefully checked all the nearby CCTVs three times. Done, he finally grabbed a few sleeping pills and lay down to rest.
However, even the "safe" and the sleeping pills could not make him sleep peacefully. Not long after he closed his eyes, he startled awake from a nightmare of bloodied, disfigured corpses. He shouted out, cold sweat dripping as he sat up. Scared out of his wits, he switched on all the lights in the room. Right at that moment, from the corner of his eye, he saw a shadow on the wall!
His hair stood on end all over his body. He reached back and took out a combat knife from under his pillow. In a hysterical voice, he shouted, "Who is it!"
There was no reply. It turned out to be only his own clothes rack.
Wang Jiusheng let out a shaky breath and his shoulders collapsed. He poured out half a bottle of mineral water from the minibar.
Wang Jiusheng was born in a period of turmoil. At thirteen years old, the first person he had killed with his own hands was someone from the same sect, a boy about his age who was more good-looking and more well-connected than he was but had actually been a hypocrite since young. The nickname of "coward" started from this boy's mouth. After he secretly killed this person, he stuffed him down a well, making it seem as though the boy had disappeared into thin air. For a period of time, people searched for the boy and they thought he had run off on his own. No one ever suspected the honest and obedient Wang Jiusheng back then.
Other than that, the old dog that had bitten him before, the cook who had beaten him with the stick for lighting fires, the girl who had embarrassed him to his face by calling him "a frog dreaming of eating goose meat"—they all quietly disappeared into thin air.
Heaven knew, Earth knew. He knew, the dead knew.
Later on, the times changed and his methods also followed suit and evolved continuously. From the simple "murder and dispose the body," it evolved into creating accidents. The flames from the "accidental" large fire at the warehouse thirty years ago cleared the way to the throne of the North Branch Master and also gave him the glory and wealth he was enjoying in the second half of his life.
Even later on, his method of "creating accidents" evolved and became the higher level "kill with a borrowed knife." Even a big demon like Wei Xiao could not escape from his hands.
Every single one of these incidents had been memorable works with a lingering taste that made him proud. But from some unknown point onwards, they started to quietly seep into his dreams. Every night when midnight struck, they transformed into monsters that clung incessantly to him.
This could not be because he had grown old, and had grown afraid.
Wang Jiusheng thought that it was all because he had overlooked some things when he took care of matters of those years ago. He did not clear the roots when cutting the grass, and had left Wan Mu Chun with a remnant.
He tightened his grip on the combat knife and opened the drawer on the bedside table. A small safe was hidden there. Upon entering the twenty six-digit passcode, the safe softly sprung open. Inside was a bloody item of clothing and a few old photographs.
If Gan Qing or Meng Tianyi were to see them, they would be able to tell that the photographs were taken at Mudpool Backlane before it was rebuilt, at the place where Wei Xiao had lived in hiding.
Every photo was taken from a different angle. Among them, a photo of Yang Ping was very eye-catching. In it, Yang Ping already looked middle-aged. He was standing at the foot of the wall at the backyard of a small courtyard, looking like he had just climbed over the wall from the inside, and was wiping his hands. The palms of his twisted hands had an odd purple hue to them and were stained with blood. There was a smile on his face.
That night, the cold wind howled. Wang Jiusheng was entangled by monsters, Yang Yifan was nervously waiting on the edge of her seat for updates on the emergency treatment, and Zhang Meizhen sat in a stupor in front of her dead-silent phone the whole night.
Those whose hearts contained guilt or worry or regret, those whose past laid behind them, they all tossed and turned through the night, unable to sleep.
The only exception was Gan Qing. Yu Lanchuan got some cold medicine from Han Dongsheng's home, mixed it with water, and forced a large bowl down her throat, after which she seemed to be knocked unconscious and slept until the afternoon of the following day.
When a person who was not frequently ill fell sick, their sickness would be exceptionally severe and their reaction to medicine equally strong. When Gan Qing was woken up by the doorbell ringing, she felt as though her head had been stuffed full of sticky paste. Zhang Meizhen had gone off to who knew where so she had no choice but to crawl out of bed on all four limbs and then drag her two noodly legs over to open the door.
Yu Lanchuan came in carrying a bag containing lunch and a bag containing medicine. "Why didn't you ask who it was before opening the door? Don't you know that this courtyard is a little unsafe recently? Hello?"
Gan Qing was holding onto the door frame for support, her head leaning against the frame to draw some of its coolness into herself. Her eyes were still unfocused.
Yu Lanchuan felt that her expression did not look right. He reached out a hand to touch and was scalded by her forehead. "You're burning up! Yesterday, I told you to take the medicine in the morning, did you do it?"
Gan Qing, "..."
"How did you survive until now?" Exasperated, Yu Lanchuan put down the things he brought and removed the down jacket from the coat rack, and grabbed a hold of Gan Qing with one hand. "To the hospital!"
Gan Qing wasn't very clear-headed. She subconsciously drew back her shoulder and swung her elbow across, hitting accurately on Yu Lanchuan's meridian point. Her limbs were feeble and the force was not very strong. Yu Lanchuan hissed in pain and grabbed her elbow but Gan Qing seemed unable to stand steady. She fell forward along with the momentum, her entire body, heated to an abnormal temperature, landing on his.
Yu Lanchuan's heart stuttered, his heart stopping for half a beat.
Then, the next second, there was a chill on his neck. Something cold and metallic was touching his skin.
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
It was only then that Gan Qing finally slowly realised what was happening. She asked fuzzily, "...Little Master Yu? Why haven't you gone to work yet?"
"I took time from my lunch break to rush back from the office and bring you food," Yu Lanchuan said slowly through gritted teeth. "May I trouble you to remove your claws from my neck?"
Gan Qing was strangely silent for a few seconds. Then, she finally realised what she had done and stiffly took a step back.
"I… erm, I wasn't very awake…"
"You're even using my keys!"
The two of them had spoken almost in unison and also shut their mouths in unison. Two voices overlapped.
Gan Qing's gaze drifted down. Yu Lanchuan had taken something out just now and his wallet was opened, revealing his keys. His key chain was hung with a small decorative Swiss army knife… which she had availed herself of by taking it and holding it against his neck.
Without a word, Gan Qing pulled a tissue from the side and gave Yu Lanchuan's keys a thorough wipedown. Then, looking like she was making a tribute, she offered it up on both hands, respectfully escorting it back to Yu Lanchuan's bag, and pretended that nothing had happened.
She usually couldn't be bothered to open her eyes wide and her eyelids were always hiding half her pupils, making other people unable to tell what she was focusing on and putting a distance between her and them. Now, because of her cold, her double eyelids were burned by her fever until the folds had multiplied and were weighing down heavily, and there was a hint of tears. For no reason at all, she now seemed innocent and docile.
Unlike her usual self.
Yu Lanchuan's mind stirred. It was as though he was looking at an ice-covered rock on a mountain and spotted a bunch of flowers growing in the cracks. He was a little shaken by this unexpected turn and his voice involuntarily softened a few notches, "Go eat something and check your temperature. I'll take you to the hospital."
Without realising it, Gan Qing followed after him for a few steps. There seemed to be something separating the sound in her ears from her; the sound seemed to come from far and then from near in tandem with the intermittent ringing in her ears. Her reaction was also slower.
Yu Lanchuan had already spread the medicine and food he had brought all over the table by the time she spoke in a rather unclear voice. "I don't need to go to the hospital. It's like this every time I get a cold. I'll have a fever for a day and it'll go down after sleeping for two days. It's fine whether or not I take medicine… Mm…"
Her brain seemed a little incapable of reacting. She kept feeling that she had forgotten to say something and it was a long while before she remembered and quickly made up for it awkwardly, "Why did you purposely come back from the office? I feel bad for inconveniencing you."
It never hurts to be extra well-mannered; Gan Qing's original intention was to say something polite but because these polite words came out a little too slow, like she was forcibly making up for her slip-up, they didn't sound well-mannered and considerate. Instead, it sounded like she was purposely being more distant and was a little unfriendly.
That was just how mysterious the human language was. Sometimes, a subtle difference in tone or timing would result in a completely different meaning.
Gan Qing sensed it. To prevent misunderstandings, she quickly turned her head full of sticky paste and added a line that sounded completely like she was kissing up to him. "But I happen to have no energy to get up and cook. This lunch came at the perfectly right time. Little Master Yu has saved my humble little life, my eternal gratitude for his great kindness, in the future…"
Yu Lanchuan gave her a chilly look.
Gan Qing could only laugh foolishly.
But Yu Lanchuan didn't seem angry at all. He ignored her, looking down as he sent messages to his colleague to say that he had something to do in the afternoon and was taking a half day off.
After sending the message, he put his phone away and took his time to ask, "In the future, what? What can you do to repay me?"
Gan Qing, "..."
She counted on her fingers; she had neither money nor power, neither a house nor a career. She had nothing but the barest of necessities. Only her culinary skills were still decent but her palate seemed different from others and could not be accepted by the secular world. Little Master Yu respected order and obeyed laws, and was a model citizen. He probably did not have the need to hire an assassin.
No wonder in the legends passed on among the people, the little demons were always repaying debts of kindness with their bodies—they really had no other skills.
But Gan Qing had always thought that the "demons repaying debts of kindness with their bodies" type of stores were all fantasies cooked up by young men from the lowest rungs of the old society in the past. The male protagonists all had empty pockets and empty heads, and only hearts full of integrity.
If Master Xu was a child of the nobility, then The Legend of the White Snake would not be a story of repaying kindness and instead be a "porcelain scam." That was because Madam White Snake was an aimless migrant who even faked her household registration, whose special abilities were in using her demonic skills to swindle and trick. Even her beautiful looks were created with her skills and she exposed herself the moment she had too much to drink.
Why would a gentleman of the nobility class want her? He would be scared until he pissed his pants.
The rest of the story would probably describe Master Xu spending a large amount of money to hire Daoist masters to perform a ritual, followed by a few hundred rounds of great battles between the Daoist masters and the demons. In the end, evil would not be able suppress good and the demons would be exterminated.
Yu Lanchuan saw her at a loss for words and rolled his eyes. From the bag of medicine, he took out a digital thermometer and tossed it to her. "Read the manual yourself if you don't know how to use it."
As he spoke, he took the soupy and liquidy foods that had gone a little cold to the kitchen and heated them up one by one.
Gan Qing's head felt heavy. She tilted her head, resting it on the back of the chair, relieving the burden on her neck. Through her angled viewpoint, she looked at Yu Lanchuan in the kitchen. Yu Lanchuan's back was to her and he was familiarising himself with the microwave in her place. His eternally well-ironed shirt was overlaid with a simple wool vest, bringing out the lines of his broad shoulders and narrow waist.
Little Master Yu was not a "child of the nobility" but if put in the past, he definitely had the right to be a "gentleman." He was overflowing with talent, could handle matters by considering all aspects, and it was only a matter of time before he reached the top of the ranks. He was also good-looking and one day, a princess might take a fancy to him and bring him home to be her prince consort. Then, he would no longer have to pay his house loan.
Gan Qing thought for a while and said, "I know a few people who have sword-making skills passed down for generations… Even though they're all making crafts now, they must still have some private treasures hidden in their homes. The Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang keeps being forcibly transformed into truncheon techniques and broom skills, it's such a shame. Why don't I… get a sword for you?"
Yu Lanchuan said coldly, "A protection item to ward my house from evil? To hell with that. My house is not decorated in the Chinese style anyway. Why would I hang a sword there? That's insanity."
Gan Qing said, "...Sect Leader Yu, even if your esteemed sect only has a sect leader left, it is still a sword sect after all."
The microwave sounded with a ding. The savoury smell of the food wafted out, drifting into the living room, warm and rich.
"We are a sect that uses the sword, not a sect that worships the sword," Yu Lanchuan said indifferently. "Swords or spears, clubs or staffs, what's the difference? Of course, the best would be if we can settle things with words rather than with hands."
Here he goes again. The thermometer wedged in one armpit, Gan Qing hid her face in the crook of her other arm and smiled.
But Yu Lanchuan did not smile. He carried the warmed-up food to the table. "Fist and leg techniques are easy to pass down. Swordplay is bound to expand in the direction of stage performances and might become totally extinct one day. So what? Furthermore, I don't like to use real swords."
Gan Qing asked curiously, "Why not? Have you reached the stage where you're even able to use flower petals and leaves as swords?"
"Lethal weapons such as knives and swords belong to the category of high-risk methods. I should be considered a 'risk-averse person,' I don't like to deal with these things." Yu Lanchuan paused. "Oh, a 'risk-averse person' means-"
Gan Qing continued the sentence for him. "A person that, even in times of calm winds and calm waters, acts as though he is walking on thin ice."
"Something like that." Yu Lanchuan shrugged. Seeing that it wasn't convenient for her to move about with the thermometer wedged under her arm, he ladled out a bowl of soup for her and pushed a soup spoon into her left hand. "It doesn't sound as cool as being a gambler, does it? Safe and boring, like wolfberry and red date tea."
However, if he was someone who "acted as though he was walking on thin ice," why was he willing to stand up and block the menacing wave of Beggars' Sect rebels all on his own?
Gan Qing thought that if she asked this, Yu Lanchuan would definitely reply impatiently with a "I was forced to, there was no other choice, what else could I do?"
There were people who viewed money like it was dirt and were willing to exchange precious horses and sable fur coats for good wine, all for the sake of one round of utmost bliss. All things in the world were transient, only emotions ran deep and loyalty weighed heavy.
But Yu Lanchuan did not have that kind of ease in his conduct. He was like that type of old and rich man who was usually stingy and petty, and would split one coin into eight pieces to be used, miserly enough to make others torn between laughing and crying. But you just knew that, at the moment of crisis, he would be willing to discard everything that he had placed importance on and give up all his fortune for your sake.
"What are you looking at?" Her staring made Yu Lanchuan uncomfortable. He put on a poker face. "Why do I feel that you're a bit foolish today? The digital thermometer only needs one minute. Hurry up and check how well-cooked you are."
The thermometer was showing 38.5 degrees. High fever.
Yu Lanchuan frowned and put down his chopsticks. "I'll go down and buy some fever medicine."
Gan Qing's eyes fell on the indicator on the thermometer. Perhaps her temperature was really so high that her brain had short-circuited, she blurted out, "You don't want a knife and you don't want a sword. But if I treat someone to a meal, the most luxurious meal I can afford is McDonald's. If you continue to treat me so well, I'm not going to be able to repay this debt."
She dragged out her words and her voice was a little hoarse and nasal, sounding a little sticky. She was like the spider demon from the legends, lying in the middle of her web, dangerous and enthralling, keeping the moth Yu Lanchuan stuck where he was.
The two of them were separated by a tiny table, so close they could count the eyelashes on each other's eyes.
Yu Lanchuan's throat rolled slightly. Then, he slowly stood up, rested both palms on the small table, and leaned his body towards Gan Qing, his height lending him an oppressive feel.
When he was not pulling a face, the corners of his eyes and his lips were drawn in a straight line, neither curling up nor drooping down. The look on his face without any artifice was filled with a sense of rationality and indifference, making one think of the tranquil scene of a floating iceberg where hidden undercurrents and whirlpools flowed unseen beneath it.
Yu Lanchuan said next to her ear, "You can apply to extend the term of the loan and just repay the interest for now."
Gan Qing seemed to be frozen in that small piece of shadow, not moving an inch.
Yu Lanchuan lowered his eyes slightly, counting down from five in his heart. This was supposedly the time required for an adult to calm down from an impulsive urge. He was politely and courteously giving the other person this amount of time.
However, Gan Qing's reaction today was exceptionally slow. She seemed to have not caught this chance.
Yu Lanchuan sighed and gave her earlobe a light pinch. His breath brushed barely discernibly across her cheek, like the wind leaving light touches and blowing away, making it hard for a person to tell in that moment whether there was any physical contact. Then, he stood up, put on his coat and went down to buy medicine.
It was only when she heard the door close that Gan Qing blinked, seeming to wake up from a dream.
She was feverish to the point that she was completely confused. She could not at all consider complicated questions like "the future," "equivalent social status," "a good match or a bad match" and "which path to take from now on." Only a mere pinch of her brain cells were not on strike, sticking loyally to their posts as they connected her brain to her nose that was suddenly unblocked and noting down the smell of the cologne lingering beside her.
It smelled like mint.
"Mr. Tian Zhanpeng, you have a delivery. Please sign for it."
In the cold of the twelfth month of the traditional calendar, the Nine Pouch Elder of Beggars' Sect had all the doors of his house wide open. He was packing his things.
The old building where his rented home was located was suddenly about to be demolished. The owners were on the verge of experiencing a quantum leap in social class to become the "nobility of demolished residences" and were all celebrating. However, while there were families rejoicing, there were also families worrying. The residents who rented homes were as though struck by lightning during a clear, cloudless day, and were all shrouded in a cloud of despair.
"Leave it at the door." Elder Tian was on the phone. He answered without thinking and then turned back to the phone to say to the landlord, "...There's also the gas that I just refuelled last week. I haven't used it much. How are you going to account for that?"
The landlord had already become a winner in life and his generosity was sky-high. "Take it with you! I'll give you the gas tank, take it as a farewell gift! May both our futures be bright and beautiful!"
Elder Tian, "..."
The galvanised steel body of the gas tank was indeed printed with the words "Bright and Beautiful Future" in red, barely visible beneath the grease smears. It sat conspicuously in a corner with this "adorable" appearance, its future as murky as its owner.
Elder Tian had stayed there for six years. A house, no matter how rundown, was worth a fortune to someone destitute. He spent an entire afternoon before he was done packing up everything he wanted to bring away with him. Large bags and small bags were strewn all over the floor, a completely chaotic and miserable sight. He looked around for a few seconds and realised that there was really no place for him to rest. Thus, this old man whose age was nearly seventy raised his arms and wiped the sweat on his forehead with his sleeves, then slowly walked to the door and sat down on the doorstep with a sigh. He rolled a cigarette for himself.
What was he to do?
His only choice was to go to one of his disciples' homes and make do for the time being while he slowly looked for another place.
Thinking of it, his days were like that of a dog's and yet, he was still shameless enough to fight for the Dog Beating Staff. Was he going to grab it and demonstrate cutting himself with a bamboo staff? Elder Tian grimaced and blew out a puff of smoke. While ridiculing himself this way, he carelessly tore open the delivery package at the door.
Who sent something to him? This nonsense could only be an invoice or an ad…
Elder Tian's careless movements suddenly paused. An old photograph fell out of the express delivery envelope. He was first stunned, then he abruptly realised something. In that instant, all the sweat on Elder Tian's body chilled and he shivered involuntarily. The old photograph at his feet showed the back window of a very hidden small courtyard in Mudpool Backlane. A younger him was climbing out of the window together with a group of people. Some were already on the ground while some were still climbing out in a fluster.
The photo captured his face from the front. He was glaring viciously in a direction. Tian Zhanpeng remembered that at that time, his state of mind was too disordered and he had been looking in Yang Ping's direction. But Yang Ping was not in this photo!
About ten years had passed but that incident was still vivid in his memories.
For some years, Elder Tian had been in other parts of the country taking care of matters in the branches. He had just returned to Yanning and found a place to settle down when an unexpected visitor came. It was Yang Ping.
At that time, Yang Ping had already been ousted from Beggars' Sect and had even disappeared for nearly ten years. When he suddenly reappeared, Tian Zhanpeng nearly couldn't recognise him at first glance.
When Old Sect Leader Yang severed ties with Yang Ping, he had listed out Yang Ping's sins. There were stuff like "Had once used the sect's internal network to disseminate malicious rumours and slanders about so-and-so," "Relied on strength to bully the weak, and gathered hired thugs to attack so-and-so" and "Raised his hand against his own wife and child, uncompassionate and unfilial." After reading it, a person would think that this dude was immoral and had done all sorts of bad things but they would not be able to find the main point.
Hence, everyone in Beggars' Sect knew very well in their hearts and guts that the real reason why Yang Ping was ousted from Beggars' Sect was because he tried to murder the former North Branch Master of Travellers' Sect, Zhang Meizhen.
Tian Zhanpeng heard people say that when the apartments in No. 110 were distributed, Yang Ping didn't know yet that Zhang Meizhen also had one. It was only when she retired and came back to Yanning, and bumped into Yang Ping who was operating the elevator when she moved in that he knew. One was a female cadre official who retired in honour, the other had both arms disabled and was a pitiful worm depending on operating the elevator to make a living. Yang Ping went mad on the spot.
Zhang Meizhen also wasn't a warm-hearted person. She had a sarcastic mouth and there were old grudges between her and Yang Ping, so she took the chance to ridicule him. After he went back, Yang Ping might have become more revolted the more he thought about it. Some said that he set fire on Zhang Meizhen's home and there were also some who said that he gathered a group of people to corner her at the little guest house where she was staying.
The sect leader punished his own son for the sake of his old flame. It was not something they could all talk about much but behind his back, they discussed the matter and many of them actually sided with Yang Ping. After all, Yang Ping was one of Beggars' Sect own while Zhang Meizhen was a former member of Travellers' Sect with which they had grievances and grudges that could not be settled. Even though those involved in the tragedy back in that year were already punished by law and the matter was considered over, the two large sects were enemies from then on. The words "Travellers' Sect" was the synonym for "dog shit" in Beggars' Sect's vocabulary.
Time had worn away not an insignificant amount from Yang Ping who had disappeared for nearly ten years. His eyes were dark and sinister, like they were suppressing a volcano that was about to erupt. After he came in, he went right to the main point and told him that he had found Wei Xiao's hiding place.
Wei Xiao was a shadow hanging above the heads of the people of their generation. He stood out among the crowd and had made his name in just one fight back in that year. The most important thing was, there were many rumours swirling around him, making this person seem to be not really someone from the righteous path.
This life of Yang Ping's was half ruined by his own hands and half by Wei Xiao. Due to the limitations of his body, he practised martial arts more ruthlessly than anyone else, and wanted to stand out among his peers more than anyone else. Having suppressed his zeal for long enough, he wanted to astound everyone in a single roar but who would have thought that the moment he opened his mouth, he was turned into a squib by Wei Xiao and the tendons of his arms broken.
Back then, Tian Zhanpeng had actually been among the group of people who gave Wei Xiao a letter of challenge. However, his shifu was still alive then and before he could keep his appointment, he was found out by his shifu. The old man struck him across the palms on his hands and locked him up. After the incident, Tian Zhanpeng found out the result of that fight and was both indignant and regretful… and also a little bit grateful. He had always deceived himself into thinking that if he had gone along back then, things wouldn't have turned out that way.
Yang Ping came to find him and said, "Tian-laoge, Wei Xiao is evil to the core. Right now, those few people from the righteous paths in the martial arts world whose words carry any weight are ignoring this matter. They are unable to shame their old friend and are letting this rogue go free. Last time, our skills were inadequate and we were also careless. That's why we lost to his despicable tricks. This time, we must not let him escape! For so many years, even in my dreams, I wanted to wash away my past disgrace but I had not been able to find him. Now, I have finally caught him! Tian-laoge, I know that you were unable to make it the last time and it must have troubled you all this while. If you were also there, would we brothers fall to our current state?"
With this instigation, Tian Zhanpeng became eager to give it a try. At the same time, he was also feeling guilty and impatient. In this state of confusion, he followed Yang Ping.
He went to take a look when the day arrived. With Yang Ping in the lead, the few people whom Wei Xiao had injured were all gathered there. These people all lived half in seclusion after being injured by Wei Xiao and no one knew whether their injuries were healed or how much their skills had deteriorated. When Tian Zhanpeng saw the state of their troops, he thought pessimistically that he would be the main attacker in this fight against Wei Xiao.
When they found Wei Xiao's home, the door was opened. A thin old man was waiting for them, his appearance neat and clean. He had steeped tea and there was a letter laying beside his hands.
It was only then that Tian Zhanpeng knew that Yang Ping had already given Wei Xiao a letter of challenge.
Tian Zhanpeng felt that it was a little unexpected. In his mind, he had cast Wei Xiao in the role of a villain who hid behind half-truths. He never thought that Yang Ping would have given him a letter of challenge ahead of time.
Didn't he say he was afraid that person would run away? And he still dared to alert the enemy?
And, strangely, Wei Xiao had not run away.
Not only had he not run, that man was sitting upright in the front hall, looking as though he was calmly waiting for his visitors. He even had quite the air of a respected senior who embodied the saying "When your moral character is as deep as an abyss and aloof as the highest mountain ridge, you need not fear the oncoming wind."
Or perhaps he is too conceited and looks down on all of us, Tian Zhanpeng thought in his heart.
Since the letter of challenge came from Yang Ping, naturally he was the first one to go up. Tian Zhanpeng looked at the people around him and felt very regretful. He had heard that the last time they challenged Wei Xiao, they had all fought together by the end of the fight. He never thought that the shadow Wei Xiao left in their hearts would still remain after so many years. This time, they didn't even dare attack together. They were actually all there just to be cheerleaders!
Tian Zhanpeng sighed and prepared himself for the eventual one-on-one fight with Wei Xiao.
Who would have thought that he would not have the chance to do anything.
Yang Ping—this man whose arms and legs had been broken, whose four limbs wouldn't be on the same level plane if he sprawled on the ground—had taken who-knew-what super advanced energy pills beforehand. The moment he made his move, everyone was dumbstruck.
What he used was definitely not the martial arts passed down by Old Sect Leader Yang. When his chicken claw of a hand smashed down, the granite table top cracked!
Putting aside the fact that the tendons in his arms had been broken later on, even when Yang Ping was young and strong and at the peak of his power, he definitely did not have that kind of skill.
On the other hand, it was the legendary "nightmare of the martial arts world" Wei Xiao who seemed disabled. He was dragging one useless leg around and his breathing was weak and unsteady. After just two or three rounds, he was covered in cold sweat and his face was pale.
Before Tian Zhanpeng and the rest could understand what was going on, Yang Ping clapped a palm on Wei Xiao's chest, sending the other person flying. Wei Xiao slid down the wall and after a long while, still failed to climb to his feet. A mouthful of blood speckled the front of his shirt, a sight that shocked them.
Tian Zhanpeng finally regained his senses and hurried forward to hold Yang Ping back. He shouted, "Enough! He's going to die!"
Even though Yang Ping had sent a "letter of challenge to a deathmatch" and it had not mattered if someone was beaten to death in the past, things were not the same after liberation. How could they really kill someone?
His heart in his throat, Tian Zhanpeng came forward a couple of steps and peered at Wei Xiao's face. "Hey, you… are you okay? Shall we call 120 and get you to the hospital?"
Wei Xiao gave him a barely perceptible nod and only said that there was no need. He tried to push himself up a few times but failed to, then clutched his chest and curled up at the foot of the wall. He said a few words to Yang Ping that, up to this day, Tian Zhanpeng still did not understand.
"You've won," he said almost inaudibly. "Everyone has seen it. They're all witnesses. Will this do?"
Yang Ping's mouth was curved in a pleased yet sinister smile.
Wei Xiao drew another shaky breath and said softly, "Then, the grudge between us two, ends here, right? Don't involve others."
Yang Ping replied with a sneer. "I have no interest in that, neither do I have the time to bother with it."
Upon hearing that, Wei Xiao laughed. He let out a long exhale. His lungs seemed to have been injured, his breaths were unsteady as he said, "Yang-xiong is someone with pride and obstinacy. I believe you… Then, forgive me for not being able to send you off… At this hour… there should be a night market up ahead. There are many people, many eyes. You all should leave by the backyard."
Utterly confused, Tian Zhanpeng followed Yang Ping and the rest to leave via the back window. After jumping out the window, he still did not understand what was so bad about there being "many people, many eyes." They made an appointment with someone for a martial arts match. It was an open and honest matter, why would they be afraid of anyone knowing?
Could it be that Wei Xiao thought it was embarrassing that he had lost?
But wasn't it Yang Ping's long-cherished wish to embarrass Wan Mu Chun? Why was he suddenly so "kind-hearted" and considerate of the dignity of the person he had defeated, and followed his instructions to leave by the back window?
When they came out of the back window, Tian Zhanpeng gave Yang Ping a look full of suspicion. Coincidentally, he saw Yang Ping wiping the blood stains on his hands and he realised with shock that Yang Ping's palms were suffused with a terrifying purple colour!
What kind of… demonic skill was he practising?
Yang Ping parted ways with everyone, the very picture of calm. Before leaving, he even told them, "The grudge is over, don't look for Wei Xiao in private and give him any more trouble." Listening to that made Tian Zhanpeng think that he had been possessed. Hence, ultimately, he could not resist and secretly returned to Wei Xiao's home late at night. He was a little curious and also a little afraid that something had really happened to Wei Xiao.
In the end, he saw that someone had tidied up the scene of the fight that had been in shambles. The blood stains had been wiped clean and even the table top that Yang Ping had cracked with his palm had glue applied on it. Wei Xiao himself had changed out of his bloodstained clothes and was lying quietly on the bed… and not breathing.
He looked as though he had passed away in his sleep from old age.
Tian Zhanpeng was terrified. His thoughts were in a mess like a pot of congee. He turned and fled.
Wei Xiao told Yang Ping to leave through the backyard and Yang Ping indeed left through the backyard… Could it be, the two of them had known then that the match would result in death and were purposely hiding the matter from prying ears and eyes?
Then… didn't that mean that Yang Ping had killed someone with a strike of his palm? He was aware of what he was doing, this was intentional murder!
And, the more bizarre question was, why was Wei Xiao protecting him? Wei Xiao let Yang Ping go and even cleaned up the scene? Could it be that his taste was not like ordinary people and he was secretly in love with this chihuahua?!
The old man who lived alone passed away while lying peacefully on his bed. There were also no family members pursuing the matter so it typically would be handled as a case of sudden death due to heart failure. There was no one to make a police report and, naturally, no one to collect the body.
The nightmare haunting a generation of the martial arts world disappeared into thin air just like that. This murder shrouded in thick and heavy fog had always been like a stone in Tian Zhanpeng's heart. He did not understand and dared not bring it up.
And today, he finally knew the answer…
Because other than that photograph, a printed letter also fell out of the envelope.
The photograph that I am sending to you is something Mr. Yang Ping entrusted to me for safekeeping eight years ago. I was the photographer.
You do not need to know who I am. After all, I am only an insignificant nobody. Among my ancestors, there has never been a celebrated hero like the Five Supremes and they have only passed down a tiny bit of skills suited only for skulking around. Right now, I make a living by taking photographs in secret to expose extramarital affairs.
That year, Mr. Yang Ping told me that all of you would jump out of the back window. Hence, I picked a spot early on and set up my camera. That way, I could take photos of the few of you in time. After that, my job was to keep track of where all of you were at all times. This was not difficult, the few of you were not planning to conceal your identities or live in secret. I only needed to take note whenever any of you moved houses and update your addresses. To be honest with you, most of your friends did not move house even once in eight years. You were the one who moved the most. In eight years, you had moved houses a total of three times. I know you will be soon moving for the fourth time. I hope the delivery can reach you before you finish packing.
When Tian Zhanpeng read this section, cold sweat poured out. There seemed to be a pair of eyes that was everywhere, an eerie and cold gaze piercing out from them, staring right at his back.
His nerves on edge, he got up and inspected all the doors and windows.
Downstairs in the noisy little neighbourhood building, there seemed to be only the house owners having a lively chat, their emotions running high. They were concerned about the timing of the signing of the agreement and the compensation. Nothing was different from usual.
Tian Zhanpeng swallowed. He continued reading.
The person who wrote the letter seemed to know his reaction.
You don't have to panic. People like us are like rats in the gutter who dare not show our faces before you. The person who hired me also only asked me to record your trail and did not ask me to do anything else.
But today, which should be one day before the day you receive this letter, Mr. Yang Ping told me to distribute and send the photographs I have been keeping to all of your newest addresses, and also to attach this letter.
Right at that moment, Tian Zhanpeng's phone sounded loudly. Elder Tian's taut nerves nearly snapped.
"Hello, Shifu, have you heard?"
Tian Zhanpeng asked in a tense voice, "...What?"
"Xiao-Zhai and the others, the entire group, were taken away by the police today! Big Horse Monkey escaped, the police are looking for him. They are saying that they have something to do with that girl who went missing, that… Wang something!"
Xiao-Zhai and Big Horse Monkey were none other than the two people Yang Ping had met in secret in the little rental house that night when there was internal conflict in Beggars' Sect. On the surface, they were working for Elder Zhao and were urging Elder Zhao to take the initiative but in private, they were secretly colluding with Travellers' Sect to make trouble.
But Elder Tian was not aware of this. Hence, he did not realise immediately what was going on.
"Aiyo, Shifu, how can you still not get it! All the leaks online about that Feast of Yanning came from that girl's phone. They kidnapped her and made use of her disappearance to sensationalise the matter. They also dragged the Old Sect Leader's granddaughter into it. They planned it all and we didn't even know! The moment we heard, we went to demand an explanation from the Old Sect Leader and angered him until he was hospitalised. If anything happens to him… what would become of this matter then? Wouldn't we have angered the Old Sect Leader to death? The culprit behind the scene could then come out and be the good person, and follow the course of events to take custody of the Dog Beating Staff. This old man Zhao, I never thought he was so crafty…"
"It's not Zhao Laoqi." Elder Tian's eyes were staring straight through the window. Having heard so much, in an instant, many things were connected in a line in his head.
That day, just like him, Elder Zhao wanted to take the Dog Beating Staff away by force. In the end, they were stopped by their junior Yu Lanchuan and were thoroughly humiliated. If all these were the results of Elder Zhao's meticulous planning, there was really no need for him to go on stage himself and play the role of a clown.
"Huh? What?" On the other side of the call, his disciple didn't hear clearly those words that had been kept low in his throat. "By the way, Shifu, do you know who was the one who sent that missing girl to the police station?"
Tian Zhanpeng's gaze wavered slightly.
"I heard that it was Wan Mu Chun. They snatched the girl right before their eyes, isn't that arrogant of them?" The person on the other side of the call purposely lowered his voice. "Does Wan Mu Chun really have a descendant? I have always thought that those people were just speaking blindly. Shifu, the thing about each cut measuring three cun and two fen, is it really true…"
Tian Zhanpeng didn't hear clearly the rest of his disciple's words. He felt that he understood now.
Wei Xiao had lived in hiding for many years in Yanning. Yang Ping was just one person, how could he have found Wei Xiao so easily? He must have had a patron supporting him from the back.
This would also explain where Yang Ping's mysterious and surprising demonic skills came from when Yang Ping was a disabled man. When they had fought, Wei Xiao's legs were extremely stiff. He was obviously injured. There was a possibility that it was caused by this behind-the-scenes patron.
Wan Mu Chun's Wei Xiao had a descendant, a child he had picked up somewhere. There was also a possibility that the child was his own. Eight years ago, the child should still be young and wasn't at his side. After being injured, Wei Xiao still did not run away after receiving the challenge letter. It wasn't because this killer who lived in hiding was calm and had nothing to fear, neither was it because he was arrogant. It was because he knew that he had nowhere to run.
He was defeated by Yang Ping and that line he said in appeal to Yang Ping—this ends here—was to ask Yang Ping not to trouble the next generation. Yang Ping's reply—no interest, no time—was hinting that "If she doesn't come to look for me, I won't go to look for her either, so tidy up this matter yourself."
Wei Xiao understood his hint. That was why, before his death, he hung on to his last breath and cleaned up the scene and made it look as though he had died peacefully of old age. It was all for the sake of letting the person watching him in secret understand his attitude. He would bear all debts and enmity, and they should all end there. His descendant did not know anything and would not seek revenge for him. After his death, no one would look for trouble.
Wei Xiao's scheming paid off. For eight years, Wan Mu Chun's demonic knife stayed sheathed in the darkness, biding its time. Now, it was finally emerging and had even secretly made direct contact with Sect Leader Yang via the old demoness from Travellers' Sect. They were going to settle the old scores!
That shitbag Yang Ping even left himself a way out that year. Tian Zhanpeng had always wondered why Yang Ping had called the whole bunch of them along when it took him barely any effort to kill the half-disabled Wei Xiao. To bolster his courage? Or because he wouldn't be satisfied if he couldn't announce it to the world when he washed off his disgrace?
Now, the truth had finally come to light. Not only had Yang Ping hoodwinked them and dragged them all into this matter, he also kept evidence. All of them had suffered injuries in Wei Xiao's hands before, either physically or to their reputation. They all had a motive and no one could defend themselves in the matter of Wei Xiao's death. When Wan Mu Chun reemerged in the martial arts world, they, the idiots who had walked into the trap eight years ago, would become targets, baits and shields!
Yang Ping could now use these things to threaten them into stepping forward and helping him seize power in Beggars' Sect. After a few days, he could reveal their trails to Wan Mu Chun any time he liked and use them to deflect Wan Mu Chun's knives. When the time was right, he could step out from behind them and attack, like the oriole behind the mantis stalking the cicada.
He was playing with them as though they were foolish monkeys.
At the same time, inside and outside of Yanning, those who had participated in both attacks on Wei Xiao all received similar letters. These people might not be considered heroes, but their views were nearly the same.
Yang Ping was threatening them. Wan Mu Chun was polishing their knives. No matter which of those two were ahead in the game, they were all innocent sacrifices.
Wanderers like Tian Zhanpeng who regarded all four seas as their home were the minority after all. Most people his age would already have a family, would have a wife and children, and would be living peacefully. This was obviously an unforeseen calamity.
After his momentary panic was over, Tian Zhanpeng's eyes turned grave. He opened his contacts list and started contacting them one by one.
Was there anyone who wasn't struggling and suffering? Was there anyone who didn't want to live a good life?
If that was the case… they could only pray that these two people would meet an early, sudden death.
Gan Qing received this "good thought" from afar and let out a shivering sneeze. The fever medicine that was pretty much like the knockout pills in fiction was starting to take effect and this sneeze didn't wake her up completely. She was only fuzzily and hazily aware of a movement beside her. Someone was gently taking up her right hand.
Her palm was damp, covered in cold sweat. Yu Lanchuan pulled a tissue and wiped her hand. After looking over them carefully for a while, he suddenly noticed that her fingers were very slender.
He was very surprised. It was the first time he was looking at a girl's hand so closely. Yu Lanchuan had always thought that his own hands were already considered very long and slender but compared to hers, his were thicker. The bones of her fingers seemed to have not grown out properly and if he just tightened his grip a little, they would break. Her fingertips could actually really curl up into acute angles.
So, it turns out that "ten fingers as fair and slender as sliced whites of scallions" was not an exaggeration. Where does she usually hide her blades?
While his thoughts wandered far away, he snapped a photo with his phone.
The shutter sound startled Gan Qing. Her fingers twitched, the slender and soft hand suddenly turning tense, revealing the hard calluses between her fingers. Those calluses were unexpectedly even harder than her bones, exuding an indescribable sharpness.
Gan Qing opened her eyes slightly.
Yu Lanchuan thought she was awake and immediately put her hand down, pretending that nothing had happened. In a very "open" manner, he coughed and said, "... I took a picture to show to that doctor friend of mine to see if your chicken claws have any hope of getting straightened out."
Gan Qing didn't say anything. Half her face was buried in her pillow and her unfocused eyes were looking in his direction.
Yu Lanchuan was like a high school student who knew that the class monitor was watching him from the back. With his back to her gaze, he sat up perfectly straight and opened his laptop, putting it on his lap and starting to act the role of a "completely focused on work" member of society for Gan Qing to see. He opened his inbox and clicked around, opening not a single email and instead, just went back and forth between the pages. Then, he pretended to grumble, "So slow, you should throw away your house internet."
Then, he opened a random text document. He deleted the final full stop and then put it back in, selected everything and then changed the font a few times. He tapped rapidly and noisily on his keyboard, as lively as it could be.
After being so "busy and bustling" for a while, Yu Lanchuan finally couldn't resist slanting his gaze and furtively looking at Gan Qing who had not said a single word.
It was only then that he realised that at some point, she had closed her eyes again and fallen asleep.
Gan Qing was dreaming. In her dream, she had returned to the time when she was young and was walking into the gaokao examination hall. This dream wasn't very realistic. She had never entered the real examination hall.
The test paper that the invigilator gave other people were all a single piece of paper. But when it came to her, it was a stack as thick as the Xinhua Dictionary.
Gan Qing couldn't help asking, "Teacher, why is mine different from others?"
"Paper A and Paper B," the invigilator answered coldly. "Other people get Paper A, you get Paper B. The time allotted is the same. Stop talking nonsense, start writing."
How could she finish writing? She wouldn't even be able to finish turning the pages!
The test paper was covered in tiny letters the size of sesame seeds. She filled in the answers desperately but her right hand refused to obey her commands and would not write fast no matter how she tried. The invigilator was like a slave owner from the old society, patrolling around with a whip in hand and shouting out loud, "Write faster!"
Around her, people were standing up and handing in their papers. Everyone had left but she hadn't even completed half of hers.
In the dream, Gan Qing panicked until her head was covered in sweat. Her heart was thinking anxiously, I won't pass the exam, I can't make it in time.
"Why haven't you handed in your paper!" the invigilator opened their ferocious mouth and the whip lashed towards her. Gan Qing planted a hand on the desk and leaped up. She used the desks and chairs around her to turn and dodge, and at the same time, took whatever chances she had to write on her paper.
"Why are you still bothering to take the exam!" The invigilator's appearance had changed. He was a little like Wei Huan, and a little like Wei Xiao… he was wearing a wrist watch that looked like Yu Lanchuan's. His whip transformed into a bloody guillotine knife that fell instantly right before her. Gan Qing dodged narrowly and right before her eyes, the knife cut into the test paper that had taken her so much effort to complete.
The blood on the blade of the knife stained the test paper. All the words were blotted out.
Gan Qing drew in a cold breath and startled awake. The sun was already setting in the west.
"Awake?" The one who spoke was Zhang Meizhen who had returned at some point.
Gan Qing's vision was still spotted with blood. Her face blank, she turned her head towards Zhang Meizhen.
"That Little Master Yu of yours left when he saw me come back. Here, your medicine. Check for yourself how many you should take. The instructions are too small, I can't read them." Zhang Meizhen put down a glass of warm water at her bedside table. Her face weary, she walked a few steps out the room then suddenly recalled something. "That's right, there's a delivery for you. I put it there."
Gan Qing made a vague noise in response. Her head heavy and her feet unstable, she clambered up and stared at the delivery package in a daze for two minutes before finally tearing it open slowly.
What could it be? She thought. Boss Meng can't have stolen my I.D. and registered for the gaokao for self-taught students, right?
Gan Qing paused. For just a second, an idea flashed past her mind like a meteor.
Changing the way she lived wasn't something impossible.
Should she give it a try?
With a tearing sound, she ripped open the seal.