The music suddenly stopped playing, the clocks also stopped ticking. It was as if they had reached the end of time. The dim little room was completely silent.
The relaxed, happy smile on the woman's face gradually faded and an uneasy expression started to appear. She was like a dying animal getting a whiff of an ominous smell and then, step by step… she walked towards the closed door. She pushed open the door, then gently reached out and pulled away the white cloth covering the mannequin.
"D-D-D-Don't take it off!" Liu Zhongqi was going insane. He gripped his pen in desperation, all the muscles in his body so tense they were like iron and his heart was pounding hard enough to rupture. "Why is this woman's hand so mischievous! Will it kill her not to touch everything!"
The next moment, there was pandemonium on the screen. The woman was like a little bug trapped in a spiderweb, struggling in despair and terror. All the blood in Liu Zhongqi's body congealed. His neck was stretched out, yet his eyeballs had long since turned to the ceiling out of fear of watching the screen.
Right after that, an ear-piercing shriek rose. There was a snap; Liu Zhongqi had gripped the plastic pen cap so hard that it broke.
After some unknown amount of time, the long horror scene finally ended.
When the background music changed, Liu Zhongqi seemed to collapse. He took a long deep breath and shakily returned his eyeballs that had flown away back into their sockets and looked at the screen again. He saw a man push the door open and enter the room, then say something amidst the scary music.
Before Liu Zhongqi's terrified soul could return to its proper place, a pale hand stretched out from beside him, nearly scaring him into leaping up from the sofa.
"All right." That hand pressed on the pause button. "This line should be easy."
Liu Zhongqi turned his stupefied head around and stared at Gan Qing next to him. Gan Qing was lying across the sofa, her slippers kicked off and her feet resting on a small stool. She was holding a box of Pocky to her chest, a stick dangling out of her mouth the way a cigarette would out of a big boss's mouth. She scraped the cream off with her teeth and bit off the wafer stick. "Why are you looking at me? This line only has three words, it's primary-school level. And you didn't even hear it clearly?"
Liu Zhongqi, "..."
This weekend was a tormenting one, like being tortured with deep water and blazing fire. That imperial brother of his who did not have a good eye for making friends was working extra hours as usual and had entrusted him to the wily courtier Gan Qing. This wily courtier was putting him, this pure and innocent teenager, through such cruel and inhumane persecution, making him transcribe the lines from an English movie, and a horror one at that!
She had even made it sound so nice by saying that horror films had very little dialogue and that the difficulty level was low!
Gan Qing let out a snort of laughter and shook her head. "You're going to be in Year 3 of senior high soon, is it okay for your foundation to be so weak? Let's listen to it once more."
Before Liu Zhongqi could stop her, the "wily courtier" pressed the rewind button. She accidentally rewound too much and went back to the part that Liu Zhongqi hadn't dared watch. The woman's pale hand suddenly reached out from under the white sheet and she trembled as she fought her way out, puking a mouthful of blood. Then, she twisted her head around and let out a terrifying shriek. Something dragged her away swiftly, leaving nothing but a dark trail of blood.
A bloody tongue hung out of her gaping mouth. There was even a close-up.
Liu Zhongqi didn't want to live anymore.
When Yu Lanchuan came back in the evening and picked him up, he realised that after not seeing him for a day, his useless baggage of a little brother had turned as green as a cucumber plant clamped to a trellis. The moment he saw Yu Lanchuan, he was like someone in a disaster zone seeing the relief army. He dashed back home, his eyes full of tears, and seized his blanket and buried himself in it.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "What are you doing?"
Liu Zhongqi complained tearfully, "That woman made me transcribe 'Dead Silence'!"
Who knew if Yu Lanchuan hadn't seen this movie before or if he was really bewitched by the wily courtier. He curiously raised an eyebrow and said, "Do you have to go this far just because of transcribing a movie? When I was preparing for exams, I transcribed the BBC on 1.5 speed. You're going to take the gaokao next year. Time to shape up."
"You shape up!" A howl of despair came from the teenager's room.
"Darling, you forgot this." Gan Qing walked out of the apartment unhurriedly, a small paper bag in her hand. Yu Lanchuan took it from her and without any wariness at all, he opened it to look inside. His hand trembled and he nearly sent it flying—all he saw inside was a bloody brain, and through the paper bag, he could even feel that it was still warm!
Yu Lanchuan used all his prehistoric strength and just barely managed to maintain the cold expression of a domineering boss on his face. He forced himself to take another look and only then realised that it was a fondant cake made to resemble a brain. The colour had been tweaked so that it could pass for the real thing, and there were even gradients in the colouring!
"What you eat makes up for what you lack," Gan Qing said.
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Little Master Yu had a pair of emotionless eyes, their curvature beautiful yet cold. When he looked at someone, he wouldn't open his eyes completely and his eyelids would always be slightly down. But his pupils were very clear and bright, like they were preserving completely the traces of his innocence. Hence, when that gaze pierced through those thin lenses to look out steadily, there was a kind of indescribable conflict. It was a bit of a shock.
Gan Qing had always been someone who could find ways to make herself comfortable. But for some reason, she became nervous under the scrutiny of this gaze.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Why have I never gotten something like this?"
"At Lunar New Year, who cooked the food that you ate?" Gan Qing took a step back and leaned against the side of the door, crossing her arms over her chest. "Ask your conscience before you speak, Little Master Yu."
Yu Lanchuan raised his hand and pressed it against the left side of his chest. "I ask my conscience and say, you have never ever given me a gift of food. Don't you girls like to bake sweets and make chocolates to give to others? I received a lot in the past."
With a smile that was not quite a smile, Gan Qing asked, "You received a lot, but did you appreciate them?"
Yu Lanchuan had wanted to subtly show off the fact that he had many pursuers in the past but he was unexpectedly put in checkmate all of a sudden. He felt like it wouldn't be right for him to say that he had appreciated them, but to say that he had not would be even more wrong.
"You basically just threw them away without even eating any, didn't you? You can quit pretending." Gan Qing waved him off. "This is just to make children happy. Who likes handmade presents? Only poor and petty young girls poisoned by idol dramas would think that their thoughts and efforts are so precious-"
The poor and petty "young girl poisoned by idol dramas," Yu Lanchuan, was embarrassed to the point of anger and interrupted her. "Why do you talk so much nonsense? Are you going to do it or not?"
"Okay, okay, okay." Gan Qing tsk-ed. "Is this something that can be forced… What you eat makes up for what you lack, Alliance Leader. I'll offer up one made to look like a stack of renminbi to you, all right? The face value is one hundred million."
Yu Lanchuan felt that this offering was more like the kind meant for the dead. He was just about to bristle all over when his phone suddenly chimed. He picked it up and glanced at the message. "Zhu Qiao is getting released today."
Gan Qing, her sleeves rolled up in preparation to make fake renminbi, paused.
Yan Hao asked Boss Jiang to borrow the old-fashioned electric car that was parked at the bottom of No. 110 and drove it to bring Qiao-Qiao back. The old scooter had been through wind and sun, and the words "Traditional Acupuncture and Moxibustion Treatment" were half faded away, leaving only "Traditional… puncture… Treatment." Together with the burial clothes and flower garlands advertisement that came after it, it turned into an eerie and sinister horror story.
Qiao-Qiao said goodbye to the lawyer that had been helping her the whole time and nudged the flower garland that occupied half the back seat aside, making enough space for one person to sit. She climbed into the car and got on the road, accompanied by the bright and colourful decor. It gave her a feeling like she had died peacefully at a ripe old age.
Swamped by the curious gazes of the onlookers throughout the journey, the two of them returned to the pet store at the bottom of No. 110 Courtyard.
In the past, Qiao-Qiao lived in a small room on the second floor of the pet store. She didn't have to pay rent and it was also convenient for her to take care of the animals at night. At this moment, the large and burly boss of the pet store was giving a dog a shave. A toothpick dangled from his mouth and his brows were furrowed, his face full of murderous aura like he was ready to go hack someone down. The dog under his hands was shivering, not daring to move an inch.
"I-It's okay, don't be scared." Yan Hao stopped the car and turned around to look at her. He saw the girl sitting among the paper flowers looking helplessly weak. The one with rage-reddened eyes who had held a knife to stab someone the other day seemed to be a female ghost that had possessed her. "Go back and bathe with mugwort water to dispel the bad luck. I… I've already explained things to your boss. He only said that as long as you're still willing to, you can continue working at his shop."
Qiao-Qiao lowered her head and followed him down from the car. She picked at her own fingers, her heart extremely flustered. Were it not for her, Yan Hao wouldn't have dared talk to her boss whose arms were decorated with an azure dragon on the left and a white tiger on the right, not even if he went to the bank and took a loan of two hundred guts.
She had caused trouble and couldn't settle it herself. She dragged in a group of friends who got injured because of it. How was she to repay this debt?
And she hadn't even been able to kill the target of her revenge with her own hands.
"You're finally back, a-achoo!" The pet store boss turned and let out a huge sneeze. "This damned dog fur! I'm not doing this anymore, the rest of the work is yours."
Qiao-Qiao stood nervously in front of him.
The pet store boss lifted his eyes and looked at her. "What?"
Qiao-Qiao was at a loss. She signed: I'm sorry.
The pet store boss extended a hand as large as a palm-leaf fan and cupped it on the girl's head, turning her head up. "Who doesn't have a bit of a story behind them?"
Qiao-Qiao looked at him in a daze.
The boss continued to say, "But if you ask me, you shouldn't have one. You're just a tiny thing of a child, your heart and mind have not developed fully. Why is your heart so heavy? You guys talk, I'm leaving now."
The few dogs in the dog pen at the door that were being boarded at the store heard those words and their ears perked up. The boss's fierce eyes swept across them and they quickly flattened themselves to the ground, their ears drooping, playing the coward for one last time.
When Gan Qing and Yu Lanchuan came to the pet store, they found that the animals were all celebrating wildly. The pack of dogs were singing in chorus and the cats were parkouring heroically on the cat tree—two of them collided and tumbled down the wooden board, rolling together into a ball of fur.
Yu Lanchuan asked in shock, "What's this? A sign of an earthquake coming?"
Qiao-Qiao washed and tidied herself up and came down from upstairs. Her hair was not dry yet and she was like a drenched kitten. With a shamed expression and crestfallen eyes, she pointed the splint on Gan Qing's right arm and bowed at the two of them.
"It's fine." Gan Qing waved at her. "Even without your part in it, we would look for Yang Ping. It's only a matter of time."
"We would look for him using a reasonable method, find a way to get something to use against him and send him to the court of law." Yu Lanchuan shot Gan Qing a glare and turned to Qiao-Qiao. "And not charge up to him, hack him to death, then wait to be sentenced! Did you not finish your nine years of compulsory education? Don't you know that murder is against the law?"
Qiao-Qiao lowered her head even more. Her hands signed a few words.
Yan Hao translated for her, "She really didn't finish the nine years. She dropped out in Year 3 of junior high."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
The education level of the young heroes of the martial arts community nowadays was enough to make a person bald from worry.
"Was your grandfather a Beggars' Sect sect elder?" Gan Qing stretched out a hand and caught a kitten that had somehow slipped out. The kitten had its tail up high in celebration just now but once it was in her hand, it seemed rather scared and started trembling visibly. Gan Qing had no choice but to put it down. She rubbed her own nose. Since young, she had not been liked by small animals. These little things might look foolish but they were actually very sensitive and knew which people were bad news.
Qiao-Qiao took out her notebook and wrote: Zhu Jianjun.
"A former Beggars' Sect Nine Pouch Elder." Yu Lanchuan took a glance. "When he was Old Yang's right and left hand man, those Tian and Zhao fellows were still having pissing contests in some mountain full of monkeys. Because his family died in a tragedy, he looked for Travellers' Sect to get personal revenge. He was sentenced to prison and later died behind bars."
Qiao-Qiao's eyes darkened. She drew an arrow under the name and wrote: Zhu Cong.
Gan Qing asked, "Your father?"
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Where did he go after that?"
A relative's place, Qiao-Qiao wrote. Very far, not around here.
A thirteen-year old teenager stayed overnight at a school friend's home. Afraid of being scolded the next day, he prepared a bellyful of excuses such as "doing homework" and "revising school work" and nervously headed home… but who would have thought that he no longer had a home.
The moment his father, whose eyes were reddened, saw him, he locked the teenager at home, forbidding him from meeting anyone.
A Nine Pouch Elder of Beggars' Sect had friends all over Yanning. The spirit of the jianghu emphasised caring for the old and young like they were your own parents and children, and entrusting your child to another person was a common thing. He could entrust his son to anyone and his son could grow up well with his own people. However, Elder Zhu secretly sent him to his dead wife's distant relatives who lived far away in a farming village.
Gan Qing and Yu Lanchuan opened their mouths at the same time. They exchanged a look and Gan Qing gave way. "Looks like we have telepathy. Alliance Leader, please go ahead."
Yu Lanchuan took the right to speak without any modesty and asked a question he felt was very important. "Then, do you have a Yanning household registration now?"
Gan Qing, "..."
Qiao-Qiao shook her head and looked at him in bewilderment. At her age, she still did not understand what was the use of a household registration.
Yu Lanchuan frowned, his expression severe. "Then, it's troublesome. If you want to continue studying and working..."
Gan Qing smacked a hand on his upper back. Who knew what kind of technique she had used; Yu Lanchuan suddenly choked on his breath and the second half of his sentence was cut off in his throat.
Yu Lanchuan coughed, shooting her an angry glare at the same time. Unruffled, Gan Qing withdrew her claws and turned to ask Qiao-Qiao, "Which is to say, at that time, your grandfather was already guarded against his fellow Beggars' Sect members?"
A slight bloodthirsty light shone from Qiao-Qiao's large eyes. She pressed her lips together and nodded.
Gan Qing asked gently, "Was it your father who told you about the old matters from over thirty years ago?"
Qiao-Qiao shook her head. He died a long time ago.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "How did he die?"
Qiao-Qiao again shook her head and wrote: I don't know, I can only confirm that he's dead. My dad had always been investigating what happened that year. Whenever he got a whiff of any news, he would drop everything and leave to follow the clue, leaving for months at a time. Hence, he could not keep proper jobs for long and could only do odd jobs for other people. He seemed to have a friend outside helping him who frequently sent him news but he had never brought this friend home and I don't know who it was. Whenever he left on long journeys, he promised my mum that he would send a letter home every month. But ten months after I was born, our family never again received a letter from him.
Yu Lanchuan said, "Could it be…"
The speed of Qiao-Qiao's pen increased, her words flying across the page: My mum said that my dad is someone who cared for his family. After going through that tragedy as a child, he didn't dare not care for his family. Even if he was on his last breath, he would write a letter to his family and come up with a way for us to survive.
Gan Qing seemed to recall something. Her gaze fell on Qiao-Qiao's work badge where her name and zodiac sign was written. Perhaps Teacher Meng-Meng was possessed by the spirit of a charlatan; she looked at the zodiac sign deep in thought, her expression rather grave for some reason.
Qiao-Qiao continued to write: My mum passed away when I was in Year 3 of junior high. Someone from my relatives came and told me that my dad was adopted and since I was also a girl, I shouldn't occupy the family's house and land. I can't speak and couldn't out-argue them so I was thrown out and I came to Yanning to look for work. My mum said that the enemy of our family lives here. I found out that the Martial Arts General Assembly is held here and had snuck in once to observe. I saw that man, Yang Qing. They say that he places justice before family and that he even ousted his own son when his son did something wrong. I don't believe that.
Qiao-Qiao wrote faster and faster: When my dad was still alive, he had said repeatedly that my grandpa had been called away by Yang Qing's son so the Yang family must be related to the matter! Yang Qing is a hypocrite who pretends to be honourbel...
Qiao-Qiao's writing sped up and there were even mistakes. Yan Hao grabbed her wrist. "The Old Sect Leader isn't someone like that."
"Young lady," Gan Qing asked, "When your father stopped communicating, you were only one year old. Who told you all these things?"
Qiao-Qiao fought free of Yan Hao's grip.
She wrote: Since I was young, my mum told me that her life, my dad's life, our whole family… were all destroyed by these evil people. I must take revenge. Even if I do nothing else, I must take revenge.
 "Prehistoric strength" here is 洪荒之力. This phrase became a meme after the swimmer Fu Yuanhui used it in an interview after winning the bronze medal in the 100m backstroke competition in the Olympics in 2016.
The few people there surrounded the table, three pairs of eyes fixed on Qiao-Qiao's notebook. For half a minute, none of the three said a thing, their hearts all sharing the same thought as though by telepathy: What kind of tumour had been growing in your esteemed mother's brain?
After a while, Gan Qing finally asked gently, "It was… your mother who told you that you have to take revenge?"
Qiao-Qiao first nodded a little hesitantly, then shook her head.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "So did she or did she not?"
Gan Qing raised a hand and gave him a warning nudge, then asked Qiao-Qiao again. "Your qinggong is pretty good. Who taught you?"
Qiao-Qiao wrote: My mum.
She seemed unsure where to start explaining. After pausing for quite a while, she signed at Yan Hao. Yan Hao's sign language had yet to pass the TEM-8 level. The two of them gestured for a while, then stared into each other's eyes for yet another while, communicating soundlessly for a long time with both sign language and brain waves. Outsiders looking at them were completely lost.
Yan Hao finally clutched at his hair and summoned the courage to open his mouth and said in a voice as soft as a cat's mewing, "Uhh… Maybe I'll speak for her… She said that thirty years ago when that thing happened, a few Beggars' Sect seniors were held up by Yang Ping and made to drink. Yang Ping sent people to each of their homes to notify the families. The Travellers' Sect people who were lying in wait took the chance then to kidnap them… Her eldest maternal uncle was one of those messengers."
Qiao-Qiao made two hand signs.
Yan Hao said, "Oh, she said that her mum came from a difficult background and had been raised by her eldest brother since young. The two of them had always depended on each other."
Gan Qing said, "Meizhen-jie told me before that Yang Ping colluded with Travellers' Sect and the messengers were actually leading the way for the kidnappers…"
Qiao-Qiao waved her hand repeatedly.
Gan Qing asked, "What is it?"
Yan Hao explained in a stammering voice, "I-It wasn't like that. Qiao-Qiao said that her eldest maternal uncle was on very good terms with the few sect elders and also had a shixiong-shidi relationship with her paternal grandfather. He only found out what had happened the night before on the next day. At that time, he had left right after delivering the message. Because it was too late, he didn't even go into their homes and had just talked to them at their doorstep."
Thirty years ago, the kidnappers from Travellers' Sect had used some kind of method to enter the homes of the core members of Beggars' Sect and kidnap their families.
Those core members did not operate businesses at their homes and their doors were not left open all the time. Late at night, they should have been reasonably wary. That was why, from Zhang Meizhen to Gan Qing and Yu Lanchuan, they all agreed that the reason why Travellers' Sect's kidnapping was successful was none other than Yang Ping colluding with them secretly. They used the victim's trust in the messengers to trick them into opening their doors and that was why they could launch a sneak attack.
"Based on your words, the messengers are innocent?" Yu Lanchuan said. "In that case, Yang Ping is also innocent. Why did you attack him?"
Qiao-Qiao's bright and clear little face again showed a trace of the furious resentment that was like a vengeful female ghost. This girl was born with a lovely and pitiable little girl's face so the degree and speed of the change in her expressions was an unusually shocking sight, like there was a scary doll hiding under her skin.
Yang Ping is not inno... She wrote in her book like she was using a knife to carve on stone. Even after a long while, she couldn't finish the word "innocent." Her writing was getting messier and messier and she seemed unable to control her own hand, scrawling a large black circle on the page. One look and anyone could tell that her heart was hoping that Yang Ping would ascend to paradise as soon as possible.
"Don't rush, take your time." Gan Qing thought for a while. "At that time, something so big happened to Beggars' Sect and it definitely would have been investigated thoroughly. Taking it from the top—your grandpa and the rest of them were called away by Yang Ping and the messengers were sent by Yang Ping. I don't know what the others thought but if I were there back then, I would feel that it was too much of a coincidence. Yang Ping is very suspicious but the Beggars' Sect people did not suspect him."
Yan Hao spoke for Qiao-Qiao, "That was because Yang Ping stood forward to howl and wail at the very first moment, blaming himself for insisting on gathering them that day and causing so many deaths. He thought of those messengers as his uncles and they were publicly acknowledged to have good characters. They were also close to the victims so there was no way they could all betray them at the same time."
When outsiders came up with conspiracy theories, they always sounded so convincing and logical. For example, Zhang Meizhen had a complete theory of her own but if there was one or two key points that fell through, this sinister plot would become a paper tiger and appear flimsy.
Just as Yu Lanchuan had said, if the messengers were not suspicious, then Yang Ping also indirectly put himself in the clear. He had only organised a gathering, a few of his loyal and faithful good friends had met up with him, what was wrong with that?
Everything that happened after that was definitely an unfortunate coincidence.
Qiao-Qiao calmed down for a while and wrote: My eldest maternal uncle said, "He used me." He said it a few times. He left a letter to my mum and told her to send it to my grandpa. After reading it, my grandpa hurried home with her and found out that my eldest maternal uncle had already killed himself. After that, my mum and my dad were sent to the countryside by my grandpa.
Two young people whose families were killed, staying in the same unfamiliar environment—naturally, they got together.
While the first blossoming of love in other young people resulted in the couple mutually sharing the sudden rush of their inexperienced desires, the two of them depended on each other for survival and shared the deep and bloody feud that neither could shake off.
Qiao-Qiao wrote: Later on, they had me. I was born unable to talk so my parents discussed how to live their lives peacefully. They could not go on the same way anymore. Between the two of them, one was left behind to take care of me while the other continued to investigate. I've seen the letters my dad wrote to my mum. He said that he had nothing left other than his family now. Me being the way I am must be retribution. They agreed on three years. Three years later, he would return and live peacefully. No matter what had happened to the older generation, they would let it go. However...
However, he did not return.
Gan Qing leaned back against the chair. "I have a guess, I don't know if it's correct."
Yu Lanchuan immediately turned his head to look at her. "Hmm?"
Gan Qing fell silent for a few seconds. She started to speak but stopped herself, and she waved her hand. "It's nothing."
She was thinking, those luckless fellows whose lives were exceptionally bumpy should spend more time reflecting on themselves instead of just blindly regretting the present and hoping for the future. Didn't these people realise? Every time people like them said something like "I have nothing left, I only have…" they would very quickly lose whatever it was they had left.
Below the deep abyss, there was only still the same deep abyss. What kind of bottom limit could there be to the fate of an ant?
Gan Qing's eyes curved and she smiled at Qiao-Qiao. "Go on."
Qiao-Qiao wrote: For every day that there was no news from my dad, my mum became worse and worse. Every time she talked to me, she would take a deep breath and force a smile, then purposely keep her voice very low. She depended on doing all that to remind herself to control her emotions. She had never raised her voice to me. But when I was young, I always had nightmares. In the nightmares, my gentle mum would always suddenly have a ferocious and monstrous face and chase after me, wanting to choke me to death.
A child's eyes were like a kitten or a puppy's sense of smell. They could discern the joy or sorrow that the adults thought were very well hidden under their skin.
When she lost everything yet was tied down by a disabled child and could not even die, no matter how much she acted as though there was major going on, the poison in her heart would flow out along with her every breath. Unless she stopped breathing, there was no way she could hide it.
Qiao-Qiao wrote: There was once when I had a nightmare and I was very scared. I went to my mum's room but I saw her with her hair messy and sitting there in a daze, then suddenly smashing her fist against the wall until the white wall was bloody. Before that, I had seen blood on the wall too but she had always said that they were marks left behind from hitting mosquitoes. I was so scared at that time. I sat at the door and cried. She heard the noise and carried me up, bouncing me and coaxing me to sleep and at the same time, saying that even revenge was a must even if it meant giving up on being human.
But she could not fall asleep. The woman's trembling hands were nearly choking her to death.
The girl's character seemed to have a very sharp split. One moment, she was like a clear, unblemished crystal; the next, she was like a ghost child grinding her teeth and sucking blood.
She was probably a natural mirror, faithfully reflecting the two faces of her mother in the daytime and at night.
Yu Lanchuan knocked the tabletop, putting a stop to everyone's myriad and complicated feelings like a wet blanket. "Wait, I still have a question. If the messengers were innocent, then how did Yang Ping collude with Travellers' Sect and kidnap the sect elders' families? Surely it was not pure luck?"
Qiao-Qiao looked at him and blinked guilelessly.
"You don't know either?" Yu Lanchuan asked, feeling his head swell. "You don't know but you just took a knife to attack him directly?"
Qiao-Qiao lowered her head. After a while, she wrote in her notebook: I heard the Travellers' Sect's Branch Master Zhang say so.
When Zhang Meizhen was reminiscing about her youth with Gan Qing, they unexpectedly didn't notice that there was a little demon cat near them. Qiao-Qiao was truly gifted.
Qiao-Qiao's face perked up and she continued to write: Otherwise, why would that old man Yang throw out his own biological son?
Yan Hao had deep respect for Old Sect Leader Yang. Hearing her speak rudely of him, he spoke up to stop her. "Qiao-Qiao…"
Qiao-Qiao's hands seemed quick enough to take flight as she made a series of hand signs at him.
Gan Qing asked, "What is she saying?"
It probably wasn't anything pleasant. Yan Hao's face reddened and he shook his head hard, refusing to translate.
Yu Lanchuan waved a hand. "You can think what you like but you were lucky this time. Yang Ping brought trouble on himself and didn't give you the chance to screw things up. If you do this again, no one can help you. You'll be eighteen in two months. When the time comes, you won't even have any excuse to get a lenient sentence. Can I trouble all of you to put a stop to these things for now and live peacefully?"
Qiao-Qiao didn't dare raise her head under the force of his scolding.
Yu Lanchuan said, "And also, it's good that you like small animals but there must be a limit to good things too. In the future, if you're worried about the moral quality of the people who adopt the animals, you can refuse them or just implement a system of getting recommendations from people you know. I don't want to hear anything about the 'breaking into high-rises without stealing' cases anymore. Entering private residences without permission is against the law. Just one home with CCTV is enough to send you to the police station."
Qiao-Qiao looked at him in shock. For a second, there was some panic in her eyes and she swallowed. The girl harboured no deep schemes in her chest and her face could be easily read in a glance, her thoughts obvious enough to be presented in a court of law: Even though it was indeed me who did that, how did you know? I'm shocked.
"Who else could it be other than you?" Yu Lanchuan's heart was weary. He extended a hand and snapped his fingers in front of Gan Qing's face. "I have nothing else to ask, let's go."
"I have one more question." Gan Qing grabbed his wrist and asked Qiao-Qiao. "Before your father lost contact, approximately where was his last letter from?"
Qiao-Qiao answered on paper: The neighbouring province. I don't know the exact address. I went to investigate before but I'm not familiar with the place and didn't find any clues.
Gan Qing's eyes narrowed slightly.
Qiao-Qiao wrote: Jiejie, what's wrong?
Gan Qing stood up and looked at her from above. She reached out and pinched the girl's sharp chin. "When I was seventeen, I was just like you, full of hatred and revenge."
Qiao-Qiao's eyes widened and glimmered as she looked at her.
"If I can go back to that year now, I would study hard and take the exam to enter university," Gan Qing said in a low voice. "But I don't have a second seventeen years old."
After saying that, she left the pet store with all the cats and dogs there seeing her off.
Yu Lanchuan caught up to her in just a few steps. All of a sudden, he felt an urge to do something and so, before Gan Qing crossed the road, he took hold of her left hand that was hanging by her side. There were blades hidden on Gan Qing's left wrist and this hand of hers was the same as a lethal weapon. Caught off guard, she instinctively wanted to fight free but Yu Lanchuan spread his fingers and enclosed her "lethal weapon" entirely in the palm of his hand, their hands fitting snugly against each other.
Gan Qing looked at him in shock.
"Don't cross the road when the light's red." Yu Lanchuan was instead looking in the direction of the zebra crossing at the crossroads, his gaze fixed steadily on the pedestrian light on the opposite side of the road, refusing to meet her gaze. "Can you break traffic laws as you wish just because you're a pedestrian?"
He had just uttered the last word when the pedestrian light at the empty crossroads turned green.
Afraid that Gan Qing would show some kind of reaction, the moment it turned green, Yu Lanchuan dragged her to charge across the road like he was rushing for time. He was tall and his legs long, and he walked fast enough that there was a breeze. Gan Qing didn't know whether to laugh or to cry, dragged behind him like a kite.
Yu Lanchuan had a good figure and carried his clothes well like a clothes rack. From the back, his profile was neither wide nor narrow, his shoulders were very level, and a faint warmth from his body passed through his immaculate and creaseless light jacket. A section of his shirt was revealed at the ends of the jacket sleeves, spotlessly white.
It was immediately obvious that he was born a meticulous person, and also grew up a meticulous person.
For some reason, Gan Qing recalled that summer's night that she had tossed to the back of her mind for many years.
Fifteen years ago was too far away. Furthermore, the incident that day couldn't be considered anything shocking to Gan Qing. Her memory of it had long since turned hazy. Now, she suddenly caught a thread of it and she quickly dragged it to the front for a close look. The memories that were so hazy that they only consisted of a teenager wearing doggy-patterned underwear gradually became clear, overlapping with the person before her.
At that time, his eyes had been larger than they were now. His eyelids weren't yet so thin that they were like a sheet of paper and the sharp edges of his bones were buried under baby fat. The black of his eyes had been a little larger than most people's so when he looked at others, his gaze was exceptionally grave. On that hot and humid night, he was kidnapped by the Travellers' Sect mob for a day and a night, yet seemed to have been as particular about cleanliness then as he was now.
Even the stink of the landfill whose lethalness could rival biological weapons did not engulf his body. He had clearly been the one in a panic and directionless and following her to run away, yet he still had the mood to give her a lesson on the olfactory senses of dogs.
It made one feel that he wasn't being fussy just for the sake of being fussy, but instead had his reason and logic.
That was right, back then, he had even kept calling her "Jiejie" but now that he was grown up, he learned how to put on an act!
The wind blew a lock of hair from the side of Gan Qing's head to her face and it happened to get caught on her nose. She shook her head a couple of times but that lock of hair just insisted on tangling with her nose and didn't want to shift away at all. The ends of her hair tickled her and made her want to laugh, and she let out a snort of laughter. "Little Master Yu, I want to make a report."
He had just uttered the word when he felt Gan Qing's hand move. Yu Lanchuan's fingers first tightened involuntarily, then, realising that it was inappropriate, he hurried to let go but he realised that Gan Qing's hand was moving upwards. Using the protrusion of the bones on the back of his hand, she brushed the lock of hair away. The stray lock flew loose, revealing her eyes that had a rather improper look. When the light shone on them, her irises seemed to multiply into a thousand layers, the end unable to be seen at a glance. That pair of eyes glanced up at him from below. "I want to make a report to inform you that I want to use my hand for a while."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
Improper and flirtatious!
His mind wandered and before he realised it, they had crossed the road and Gan Qing had taken her hand back. Yu Lanchuan curled his thumb into his palm, kneading it in turn with each of his fingers. He started searching madly in his mind for a topic of conversation to fill in this blank space between the two of them.
"Your last question just now." He kept his voice very low and very steady, asking seriously and gravely, "What did you mean by it?"
Gan Qing looked at him with a smile that was not quite a smile. Little Master Yu was a white collar worker who was rarely exposed to the harsh elements. His face was as fair as his collar was white and could not hide his flushed colour. From the curve of his ears to the tip of his chin, he was completely red. It was really quite adorable.
After smiling, the corners of her mouth paused slightly and there was a faint sense of helplessness. She was like a demon of ice and snow that had wandered from the coldest depths into the mortal realm by accident. She was used to emptiness and loneliness and cold, but by chance, she encountered kindness in the mortal realm and the warm wind blew on her until her head felt dizzy and swollen. The pressure was as great as mountains and she did not know what to do.
"Qiao-Qiao mentioned that when her father lost contact, it was when she was around ten months old. I saw that her work badge says she's a Gemini, so her birthday should be somewhere between the end of May and the beginning of June. She will be eighteen years old when it's her birthday. Calculating based on that, her dad should have lost contact during spring seventeen years ago," Gan Qing said. "I'm quite sensitive to that time period, so I asked a bit more."
Yu Lanchuan pressed further, "What happened in spring seventeen years ago?"
"Nothing much," Gan Qing said briefly. "A flour factory in the neighbouring province exploded and more than ten people died. Among them, the necks on two bodies had cuts measuring three cun and two fen long, so everyone said that Wan Mu Chun had drunk back the water they used to wash their hands clean of their old deeds and was appearing in jianghu again."
Yu Lanchuan came to an abrupt stop. "Just now, she said the address of the letter was…"
"Yeah, it's possible. Or it could also be a coincidence."
Yu Lanchuan's mind was busily spinning. "I heard Old Han say before that the flour factory explosion back then involved eighteen lives. Most of them were innocent ordinary people and there was also a child. There were Wan Mu Chun's marks on the bodies. Wei Xiao had always refused to give an explanation. So what on earth happened?"
"A cut measuring three cun and two fen can be considered to be a safeguard against fakes," Gan Qing said closely. "For example, if you hire me to kill someone…"
"Why the hell would I do that?"
"Hypothetically." Gan Qing waved her hands. "The commissioner would usually first pay a deposit. In the past, I would bring them the head in exchange for the rest of the payment. In modern times, no one wants heads anymore so another kind of token is necessary to collect the remaining payment to prove that the person did not die by accident and that I'm also not stealing someone else's kill. To hide their motives, some commissioners would hire more than one killer. An unusual wound is a mark to safeguard against fakes. It's a unique skill that is very hard for outsiders to imitate. All those with this mark are jobs done by me. But if there is no one paying, then the murderer has no need and will also not reveal their unique mark. You get it, right? After all, the jianghu is full of people and prying eyes. It's better to avoid unnecessary trouble. Things like murder and arson are best kept as hidden as possible."
"So, what you're saying is that the flour factory incident was a case of a hired killing?"
"At that time, Wei Xiao had already changed his name to Wei Changsheng and was living in hiding. Even if someone wanted to invite him out of seclusion, no one could locate him," Gan Qing said in a very calm and impartial tone. "This thing was indeed done by Wei Huan. Don't ask me why Wei Xiao shouldered this blame for him, I told you before that I don't know. Maybe that traitorous 'dashixiong' of mine was the true descendant of Wan Mu Chun. I don't know if he was Wei Xiao's biological son. In any case, that old man spent much more effort teaching him than he did me."
Yu Lanchuan's brows furrowed. "But why would you connect these two incidents together? Only because of the coincidental timing?"
"I'm not sure, just intuition." Gan Qing paused. She lifted her head. The trees on both sides of the road had put out leaves, leaving only a narrow strip of sky in between. A bit of mist floated in the distance. "Maybe because of Wang Jiusheng and Travellers' Sect. Meizhen-jie said that because my mouth and my hands misbehaved, because I called Wang Jiusheng a turtle and angered him, I created trouble. However… I'm not trying to get out of it, but I can't help but feel that he wouldn't go that far just over that."
It was true that Wang Jiusheng was nothing good. But if a person could wash himself clean of his past until he was spotless and unblemished, and could steadily maintain his position as the North Branch Master of Travellers' Sect for decades, powerful enough to call the wind and summon rain, he would not be so petty. There was an entry hurdle even to become a supervillain. Those—like Yang Ping—whose heart and thoughts were more fragile, who were more sensitive and self-abased, were usually more suited to being a small-time homeless baddie.
When she wrote those words back then, it was purely out of childishness, nothing more than a practical joke. Even if she had ruffled Wang Jiusheng's feathers, did he need to clash directly with Wan Mu Chun?
Even though Wei Xiao had become Wei Changsheng, he was still definitely not easy to handle. He had to be extremely careful and must kill him in one strike. Otherwise, Wang Jiusheng had a large family and a big business while there was no gap Wan Mu Chun could not slip into. One was in the light while the other was in the darkness. Wang Jiusheng was evidently in more danger. He set up his plot for so many years and waited until everything was in place before taking Wei Xiao's life. If it was purely because of a little girl's name-calling, then this man really had too much time on his hands.
"I can't help but feel that there must be something between Wang Jiusheng and Wan Mu Chun since early on. When I saved you that time, at most, I only exposed where Wei Xiao was hiding." As she walked slowly towards No. 110, Gan Qing spoke, lost in thought. "Qiao-Qiao's words may not be true. Could you tell?"
"Especially the part about her uncle being the messenger. Her words are very vague and after thinking carefully, they don't seem quite right." Yu Lanchuan pushed his glasses up. "But I don't know if this is because she's young and can't convey her elders' words clearly or if she's tricking us on purpose."
Qiao-Qiao could not speak. Gan Qing could still understand a little sign language but Yu Lanchuan was completely ignorant, so Qiao-Qiao had no choice but to write on paper to communicate with them. Writing took more time. Sometimes she forgot what she wanted to say when she took up the pen and sometimes she got stuck, and that already gave her more time to edit her words. It was easier to lie compared to when communicating directly with spoken words.
But why would she need to lie? Yu Lanchuan felt that right now, everything before them was like trying to make out the flowers through the mist.
The people in the Five Supremes' generation were born during the years of chaos. Surrounded by smoke and gunfire, they were just in time for the era when heroes were born. They were the jianghu's final burst of glory. Later on, it was the decades when the times changed radically. Everything underwent great transformations, changing beyond recognition. Their youth were tumultuous, clamorous and full of events beyond belief. Amidst the rise and fall of the times, countless sects disappeared without a trace. The dreams of heroes became a fleeting illusion. Some bore this blow to their heart in silence but there were also those who continued to hold the old dream, unwilling to wake up even now.
And when it came to the generation with Gan Qing and her peers, everything had changed. The rules of society did not wait for the elderly to acclimatise and instead, went on to complete its reconstruction on its own. The old people were left far behind. They could not be like Wang Jiusheng and adapt to the changing circumstances without any shame, and could only place their hopes on the younger generation. Awkward and clumsy, they tried to pass down the spirit of the martial arts way, things such as "chivalry," "duty," "tenacity" and "we are all brothers." Meanwhile, the disagreements and useless dregs from that era were discarded and they thought it best if they were never brought up again.But there were two sides to every coin. Was there anything that was wholly positive?
It was unavoidably nothing more than wishful thinking.
The older people's hiding and concealment resulted in them leaving a pile of legacy issues to their confused and lost descendants.
Yu Lanchuan suddenly said, "Let's talk about your shifu."
Gan Qing stared blankly.
And also, you. That was what Yu Lanchuan thought in his heart, but he turned his head to the side again and made an excuse. "Information about other people can still be found by asking around but you people from Wan Mu Chun are too antisocial and isolated. We can only rely on your memory."
"All right. Wei Xiao…" Gan Qing nodded but for a moment, she was stuck for words and didn't know where to start. "Wei Xiao… Wait, what do you want to know?"
"I don't know. Just talk about something you remember." Yu Lanchuan suddenly softened his tone. "There's no hurry, take your time."
And so, Gan Qing fell into silence for a long while, all the way until the two of them returned to the entrance of No. 110. Then, she suddenly broke the silence and said, "He had always wanted me to study medicine."
Yu Lanchuan quickly came to a stop and looked at her from three steps away.
Gan Qing herself didn't know why she was talking about this matter. But her mind was truly empty so she could only speak randomly, saying whatever came to mind. "...As long as there were kids taking the gaokao where we lived, he would always urge them to apply to study medicine. Every day, he would nag in my ear that I should study something useful to society. I don't know what he was thinking." Gan Qing smiled. "But in all those years, I've never seen him successfully convince a single person."
"Why was that?"
"Even if the kids of Mudpool Backlane attend senior high, at most it would be No. 13 High School," Gan Qing said lazily. "No. 3 and No. 13 are less than two stops apart and their names differ only by one character. But you guys nurture the pillars of society while we nurture the mud beneath the pillars. After the exam, all the notices of admission that we get come from the construction site at our doorstep. Study medicine?"
Yu Lanchuan suddenly paused. "You're from No. 13?"
Gan Qing shrugged at him. She was not ashamed of her alma mater—she and her alma mater were of the same stock anyway.
Yu Lanchuan's eyes suddenly brightened. "We once went to No. 13 for a basketball match, do you remember? It was the intercity basketball tournament for youths, it was held for only one year—the next year, a few major senior high key schools joined hands to write a petition saying that it disrupted the students' studies and could easily cause injuries. For the finals, we were the away team. It was held at No. 13. That day, your school bleachers were full of people. I was the point guard."
In fact, he was not only the point guard, he was also the captain. Leading a team of academic tyrants against No. 13's lousy and rule-breaking tactics, he had unrelentingly snatched the champion trophy from the hands of those little hoodlums.
That match had been an exhilarating and hotblooded one. Even when recalling it ten years later, Yu Lanchuan still had to force the corners of his mouth down to maintain his aloofness and pretend to be bringing it up casually. He furtively put out a "Wasn't I very cool?" bait and waited for Gan Qing to take it herself.
He even cleared his throat and purposely put on a nonchalant face and said, "We just played casually. I think we won… Ai, I don't remember it clearly anymore. I only remember that the small restaurant near your school was pretty good. Did you watch the match?"
"Probably not." Who would have thought that one line from Gan Qing would extinguish the spark in his eyes. "After all, at No. 13, I was considered to be a refined academic tyrant. I didn't like joining that kind of excitement."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
That subtle shift in his face when his features froze was exactly what Gan Qing liked to see. She couldn't resist teasing him. "However, you guys didn't leave quickly after the match. Instead, you guys bragged about it behind the school and were nearly cornered and beaten up. I still remember that. In the end, you guys escaped by climbing over the wall. I also heard that one of you heroes even tore your pants."
"What are you laughing at! What's so funny!" Yu Lanchuan realised that his pretense had been seen through and veins bulged at the corner of his forehead. "You don't like joining the excitement of a basketball match but you went to watch a fight? Were your interests so weird since you were young… Wait, we fought at a rather out-of-the-way small restaurant outside the school. How did you know about that?"
Gan Qing, "..."
The small restaurant was where Wei Xiao worked. At that time, she had been eating in the back kitchen of the small restaurant. A group of smelly and sweaty boys had suddenly barged in, bragging noisily on the other side of the wall. Their ruckus irritated her so she played a trick. She recorded their boasting on her MP3 player and called some people.
Yu Lanchuan raised an eyebrow.
Gan Qing coughed to clear her throat. "I… cough, I heard people talk about it afterwards."
Yu Lanchuan raised his brow even higher.
"How about this." Gan Qing tried to brush the matter off. From a few steps away, she turned her head and smiled at him. "Today's the weekend. If you're free in the evening, I'll take you to that little restaurant for a meal, for the same yang chun noodle soup. My treat, don't complain about it being cheap."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "You even know what I ordered?"
Gan Qing, "..."
"I would never have guessed that you had divination skills from a young age."
"So are you going or not?" Gan Qing asked.
Yu Lanchuan studied her for a while, the corners of his lips twitching upwards like he was trying not to smile. He smoothed out his sleeves, affecting nonchalance. "Sure, let's go."
No. 13 High School was located on a very quiet and secluded street. From the outside, it looked like a decent, proper school. The building was already showing its age and looked like something from the past. The outside of the administrative building facing the street was covered with large swathes of creeping vines that rippled everywhere in the breeze. Due to the fact that the school's reputation was in decline in recent years, there were fewer and fewer students. The entrance was also not packed with private vehicles the way other schools were. At a glance, its tranquility had quite a touch of a scholarly air.
Yu Lanchuan lifted his head to look at the large clock hanging on the building and his vision was filled with the verdant greenery. He said with a sigh, "The character of your school really…"
Before he could finish his compliment, he saw a shadow suddenly leap out from the quiet and secluded entrance gate. A young male of the human species burst out like a tornado, chased by a pack of his peers who were hurling obscenities. These people were holding wooden rods that had originally been mop handles or chair legs. They swept past Yu Lanchuan, running and chasing, full of energy and vigour. In less than the time it took for one breath, they had run to the intersection.
From the intersection came the sound of a bicycle bell. A few young ruffians straddling public bikes showed their faces, their heads all topped with garishly coloured fur, and whistled at the students. The one being chased planted himself among the "bike gang" and his back immediately straightened up by quite a significant degree. He turned and cursed, "Motherfuckers, come here if you fucking dare!"
After that, a round of complicated "meeting the in-laws" session took place at the intersection, both parties engaging in improper relationships with the uncles and aunties from the other side, their shouting loud enough to reverberate throughout the area.
Yu Lanchuan muttered, "...hasn't changed a bit in ten years!"
No. 13 High was basically opened for the sake of Mudpool Backlane and produced many types of wild creatures. When a person reached the age of attending senior high, they would have lost quite a bit of their innocence and purity, and those with evil tendencies would have started to grow. It was said that if a person wanted to study seriously in this place, they must have a bit of the capability of an "academic tyrant" so that they could suppress those naughty kids who tried to pull everyone down to sink into depravity with them.
Unlike Yu Lanchuan, Gan Qing was not at all surprised. But unfortunately, they had to pass through the intersection that was the scene of the fight to get to their destination. Those people were currently frantically busy so they couldn't go over and interfere. They could only stand under the streetlight and wait for this round of dispute to end.
"Hold on," Yu Lanchuan said. "Why must they open the restaurant in this kind of place? Every day, there would be people causing a ruckus at the front door and passerbys have to take a detour. Can they even do business?"
"It's still all right, I think," Gan Qing said. "They don't fight every day anyway. It's a small shop, just four tables inside. If there are too many customers, they can't serve everyone. Apparently, the shop is their own so they don't have to pay rent. They can make enough to survive."
After standing for a while, Gan Qing was tired. She squatted down, leaning against the lamp pole, her right arm that was in a splint resting on her knee.
Beside her, Yu Lanchuan found a tree to rest against. He suddenly thought of something. "I remember back then, something newsworthy happened at our school. It was when I was in Year 2. A girl from the next class was in a relationship with someone from No. 13. A teacher caught her when she skipped class and they even found a love letter in her bag."
The teachers and her parents were mad with anger. That day, Yu Lanchuan had come back to the classroom after taking part in the olympiad training. From far, he heard the next class's teacher's near-crumbling voice say, "Why do you like him! He's nothing but a little gangster! You are someone who will enter university in the future, who will further your studies and go abroad. Him? Who knows when he'll go behind bars! Are the two of you even of the same species, getting into a relationship just like that! What relationship! He's just a lump of useless mud, he has nothing to lose. But you? Aren't you destroying your future?"
The girl was crying her heart out, on the verge of being forced to her death by these teachers and parents who were deeply mired in the ugliness of the secular world. She felt that she was in a tragic love story—like Zhu Yingtai, like Liu Lanzhi—and had to prove her faith with her death.
Gan Qing asked, "And then?"
"Halfway through the teacher's scolding, she got tired of listening and turned and jumped out of the window. I was the one who called the ambulance."
Gan Qing was shocked by the way this academic tyrant of a key school described the events. "...She jumped off the building?"
Yu Lanchuan took a deep breath before adding, "Oh, she didn't die. It was just the second floor. She fell on her butt after landing, then stood up, patted off the dust and was fine."
"Then why did you call the ambulance?"
"To take her teacher away," Yu Lanchuan said. "Her jumping off frightened the class teacher into getting a heart attack. He was taken to the hospital and had two stents put in."
As the class monitor from the next class, the sixteen-year old Yu Lanchuan coolly and aloftly helped to take charge of things, and thought that there was something wrong with that girl's head. A young person in their teens tended to go between two extremes. They either pursued the unorthodox path and thought that adults were all fools brainwashed by society, lacking a soul and were short on intelligence; or, they thought themselves well-versed in the ways of human relations with a deep understanding of the rules, both spoken and unspoken, and felt that their peers were all fools. Regardless of which way they took, their hearts would always have a pack of fools taking up long-term residence.
And, after a certain amount of years, they would always walk in the direction of being a fool. For example, Yu Lanchuan. When he was young, he was mature for his age; now, he was falling in the hands of a female ruffian from No. 13.
"How unsensible of her. Little girls only think about love and romance, when they're grown up, it will be too late for regrets." The leader of the female hoodlums said, her voice full of the regrets of age and experience, sounding exactly like the class teacher back then. "Year 2 already and she still wasn't working hard for her academics but instead, got tangled up with a little hoodlum. Wasn't she just destroying her future prospects?"
Yu Lanchuan looked at her curiously. "I feel that hearing those words coming out of your mouth is something out of magical realism."
Gan Qing laughed. All of a sudden, she thought that it was not only the kids in senior high but also the adults who were like that. The young and talented Yu Lanchuan looked like somebody with full control of his future prospects and didn't need others to tell him what to do. But people would still talk behind his back, saying that young people only thought about love and romance. When you have to take care of old parents and young children in the future, you'll understand. Being together with someone who is not a good match for you, we'll see if you don't end up being hammered down by the vicissitudes of life until your head is spinning hopelessly and you have a midlife crisis.
Yu Lanchuan keenly sensed something. He reached out and grabbed the back of her neck. "What are you thinking?"
"Little Master Yu, the throat is a vital spot. If it was in the past, your hand would be cut off." Gan Qing let out a resigned sigh. After that, she looked to the right and to the left and pointed. "Hey, look, they're calling more people."
Yu Lanchuan looked in the direction she was pointing and saw that halfway through the fight, there were people on both sides withdrawing from the fighting ring and calling people on their phones. They were intending to scale up the fight into a large battle. Frustration welled up at once and he dug out a personal alarm from his pocket. He asked Gan Qing, "Will it help if I throw this thing over?"
Gan Qing, "..."
Little Master Yu was the mighty Alliance Leader of this generation, the descendant of the reputable Seven Secret Arts of Han Jiang; even though he had the face of a beauty, was there a need for him to carry around an anti-pervert device with him every day?
"There's no use. Little brats these days are all very smart-witted. There are protections for human scum that haven't reached the age of majority and they're also not causing serious harm. They aren't afraid of the police at all. Don't be in such a hurry." Full of experience, Gan Qing gestured and said, "The fact that they've started calling for more people means that the fight is ending soon. Typically, a fight won't happen when there are lots of people."
She had just finished speaking when she saw an old man whose hair had gone all white riding a three-wheeled cart passing before them and heading towards the intersection. As he rode, he rang the cart bell and let out a vigorous shout. "Hey!"
The little hoodlums naturally did not give a damn about this kind of senile old man. No one paid him any heed and no one gave way to him. The old man angrily rang the bell loudly. Perhaps his voice disturbed the mobile signal; one of the little hoodlums who was holding his phone called out Hello? a couple of times, then picked up a stone and threw it at the old man's three-wheeled cart. "Stop your damned bell, old fool!"
The stone bounced up, lifting the white cloth covering the back of the three-wheeled cart. It turned out that under the cloth was a cartful of fresh produce and the cloth cover was to prevent them from being dirtied by the dust. The stone smashed right into a pile of eggs and with a cracking sound, the egg whites and yolks oozed everywhere. The old man reached out to seize the little hoodlum in anger and exasperation. "What are you doing? Pay me back for those eggs! Your parents work hard to earn money to send all of you to school but do you behave yourself at all the whole day?"
Gan Qing frowned and stood up.
The little hoodlum raised his arm and shook the old man off, causing him to stumble. Without waiting for the old man to find his balance, the hoodlum caught the old man by his collar. "Is this your family's land? Your family's road? Is this any of your fucking business?"
As he spoke, he pushed with force. The old man lost his balance and fell backwards with his head facing up, the back of his head heading right for the three-wheeled cart's metal handlebar.
Right at that moment, a hand reached over and supported the old man's back. The hand gave a light upwards push and the old man followed the hand to spring back upright. Someone held his shoulders to help him stand steadily.
Barely recovered from his shock, the old man stood there, then turned to see clearly the young man holding him up.
Yu Lanchuan pushed his glasses up. "It's bad enough that you people are blocking the road and now you've even destroyed someone else's things. Are you going to compensate him?"
The raging brawl was interrupted by this little interlude but when the little hoodlums saw that the newcomers were a "bespectacled nerd" and a woman—and she even had an arm in a splint—they did not take them seriously at all.
The little hoodlums from the other side even happily joined in the jeering. "Exactly! Compensate! Compensate! If they have no money, make them take off their pants in return."
Both sides fanned the flames. The little hoodlum who pushed the old man was flustered and picked up a brick and smashed it at Yu Lanchuan's head. The brick flew forward with a whoosh but before they could see clearly, Yu Lanchuan had already seized the hoodlum's wrist and knocked his head hard against the three-wheeled cart. The hoodlum let out a wail, the brick slipping out of his hand. Yu Lanchuan twisted him into a pretzel and pushed him against the cart, making him kneel.
His companions saw that things were not looking good and came forward to join the fight together. His feet barely moving from the spot, Yu Lanchuan deftly used his fists in place of a sword and took care of the pack of little brats.
From behind him came a playful whistle. Gan Qing cheered, "Oppa is so cool!"
The little hoodlums on the other side were overjoyed at the sight of their opponents being beaten up. There was even an exceptionally scheming one who picked up a club and planned to take the opportunity to get a few strikes in.
Hence, the scene turned even more chaotic. The bad youths on both sides joined in the fight. The little hoodlum who had smashed the eggs at the start gritted his teeth and climbed to his feet while holding his wrist, the pain bringing out tears in his eyes. He had probably never been so aggrieved before. He pulled his jacket open and took out a small machete that hung inside. Under the cover of the chaos, he swung it at Yu Lanchuan's shoulder.
His companions were old hands at fighting and usually wouldn't fight to the point where there was serious trouble. The knives they brought along were just to pretend to be fierce to scare others. When they spied that he was being serious, they were all stunned. Someone blurted out, "Don't…"
Right then a shadow suddenly slipped in between and seized the misbehaving youth's knife-wielding hand and somehow turned the hand so that the blade was aiming at the owner. Right after that, there was the teeth-aching sound of fabric ripping. The machete turned into a flash of light, stabbing a few times at the misbehaving youth's body.
For a moment, not a single sound could be heard. Even Yu Lanchuan was shocked until he forgot to breathe.
The one who struck with the knife just now felt his legs weaken and fell directly to kneel on the ground. The crotch of his pants was damp. Someone pressed a knee on his neck, pushing him to the wall. His shirt was pierced through with three holes, like the "Three Stabs Six Holes" punishment in underground societies. The machete was in Gan Qing's hand and there were faint blood marks on the blade. The little hoodlum stared at the blood on the blade in terror. He had an illusionary feeling that his chest and belly had been sliced open.
Gan Qing patted his face with the back of the blade. "Has your head cooled down?"
That person was not only cooled down—he was already frozen.
Gan Qing turned back and shot a look at the smashed eggs on the three-wheeled cart. She said very reasonably, "I think you should pay him twenty yuan."
No one moved.
Gan Qing let out a snort of laughter. The tip of the blade scraped across the surface of the wall. "Looks like you guys don't agree?"
A teenager dressed in No. 13's uniform took out his wallet with trembling hands. Without even looking, he grabbed a handful of cash and threw them onto the three-wheeled cart. Gan Qing shot him a look; the teenager seemed to realise something and took a couple of steps forward, smoothened out the crumpled notes and placed them on the edge of the cart like he was respectfully paying protection fees.
Gan Qing finally moved her leg away from where it was wedged against the person's neck. A few teenagers gathered their courage and ran over to help their companion up. They hastily tore open his shirt to check. There were three light scratches on his stomach.
Gan Qing held the machete with the blade facing upwards and tapped the back against her other hand a few times. "This is a controlled weapon. Your senior sister is confiscating it. I'm sure you don't mind."
The little hoodlums didn't dare mind and also didn't dare ask which batch this senior sister was from. They scattered in all directions, scared out of their wits.
Gan Qing turned towards Yu Lanchuan. "Let's go. We're going to eat, right?"
After going through the obstacles of demons and monsters, the two of them finally saw the small restaurant Yu Lanchuan and his basketball team had eaten at back then.
The little restaurant was in a blind alley and was extremely inconspicuous. A small mottled blackboard hung on the door, the menu on it exactly the same as ten years ago—but the prices had gone up. From an average of ten yuan per person, it had inflated to twenty yuan.
The old man riding the three-wheeled cart looked up, his hands on the handlebar to stabilise the cart. "The two of you want to eat at my shop?"
 三刀六洞 "Three Stabs Six Holes" - this is a literal translation. It refers to an underground society rule where any member who does something unforgivably wrong and wants to plead for forgiveness must stab themselves three times, each stab piercing through their body; hence, three stabs and six holes. This phrase will pop up again later.
Yu Lanchuan took a look at the fresh produce on the old man's three-wheeled cart, then at the direction he was heading. "If I may ask, are you the boss?"
The group who were fighting had blocked the intersection which meant that they had blocked the entrance of the shop. The knife-wielding hoodlum was right—this was indeed the old man's road and his front entrance.
"I'm also the main cook and sometimes double as the waiter." The boss slowly pushed his cart forward. Yu Lanchuan was just reaching out to give him a hand and hadn't even rolled his sleeves up yet when a young man around seventeen or eighteen years of age ran out from the small restaurant, flashing an incandescent smile at the whole world, and industriously helped the boss move the items.
Yu Lanchuan's gaze lingered on the teenager for a while. He realised that the teenager's features were not very symmetrical, both his eyes were set very far apart and when he started smiling, he couldn't stop. His long and slender limbs seemed rather uncoordinated, his movements exaggerated and clumsy.
"I picked up this child. He was unwanted." The boss straightened his back and caught his breath. He pointed at his own head. "He's not very quick-witted and he can't do very meticulous tasks… Do the two of you have reservations?"
"No." Yu Lanchuan was shocked. "This place of yours require reservations?"
"Oh, it doesn't. I was just asking. Sounds more trendy that way." The boss ushered the two of them inside. He faced the empty restaurant and sighed. "Students nowadays aren't like students back in those years. No one comes to unfashionable places… We haven't opened for business yet today. I'll let you two eat for free."
Yu Lanchuan looked at the sad little restaurant and felt rather unable to accept the offer. He was just about to turn it down when he remembered that this meal was Gan Qing's treat and it wasn't appropriate for him to make the decision for her. He turned to look for Gan Qing and only then realised that she hadn't followed them but was instead looking at the little shop front and spacing out.
Gan Qing hadn't been there in ten years. She thought that she had a bad memory and that she would need to spend some time wandering around before even finding the right place. But now that she was really there, she suddenly regretted her careless suggestion.
How could she forget this place?
At that time, Wei Xiao worked at a hotel. He was one of the head chefs and divided shifts with a colleague. When he was not on shift, he wasn't idle either. At the start, he tried opening a small stall of his own, planning to sell some snacks. But he really wasn't made of the right stuff for business and the small stall shut down not long after. Later on, he came to this restaurant opened by a friend to help out in the kitchen. He mainly dealt in flour-based foods.
He kept himself busy all day long and also had his reasons for that. According to Wei Xiao, the food preparation in the hotel was all standardised, that it was an assembly line with a process that never changed and he was always hurried and rushed. It was not as meaningful as working in this hole-in-the-wall restaurant where even something as simple as making a bowl of yang chun noodles and serving it to the customer was something he did with his heart.
His words really sounded like those of a chef obsessed with making food. Ten years ago, Gan Qing had just listened without taking it to heart.
Recalling it now, she could discern a different taste to those words—if the old man really felt that working at a small restaurant was good, why didn't he resign from his job at the hotel and focus his heart and mind into "making food from the heart"?
"Hey," Yu Lanchuan's voice summoned her mind back. "Why are you spacing out?"
Gan Qing suddenly looked up, coincidentally meeting the old shop owner's eyes. However, the boss's gaze did not linger on her; instead, he only glanced briefly at her before walking into the shop, age and experience in every movement.
That was to be expected. In a flash, ten years had passed. The teenage girl had grown into a miserable adult, the quick and dexterous boss had turned into a doddering old man under the pressure of the hardships of life; which of them would remember the other?
When she meddled in the affair just now, hadn't she also not recognised the old shop owner?
"Sit anywhere you like," the boss said. "I'm a bit slow, you two are not in a hurry, are you?"
Yu Lanchuan shook his head. "Why don't you hire a few people?"
"Can't afford it," the boss said. "The food here is old-fashioned, people don't like it anymore. If this shop wasn't my own and I didn't have to pay rent, I wouldn't be able to continue the business long ago. It's just to pass the time now."
Yu Lanchuan didn't understand. Such a small rundown restaurant that took so much painstaking effort to operate, what was the point of persevering? Couldn't he do something else to pass time? Rent out the shop or put it on the market, at least that would be enough to support his retirement. This area was so disorderly and he would even get caught in the crossfire when the little hoodlums got into a brawl. Why did he need to do this?
At that moment, Gan Qing gave him a light kick. Yu Lanchuan shot her a look and swallowed down his misgivings for the time being.
When there were sizzling sounds coming from the kitchen, Gan Qing finally said softly, "The boss's son used to attend No. 13. He didn't really study properly and spent his time getting into fights. One day, people cornered him and when he was running away in a panic, a car crashed into him and he died… It was many years ago."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Is that why he opened this restaurant here?"
"Yeah." Gan Qing nodded. "At the start, he wanted an explanation from the school. After all, the incident happened during school hours. Buying houses was not a popular thing yet back then and coincidentally, the former owner of this place was in urgent need of money so they sold it to him cheaply, letting him settle here. Later on, all the wrangling and arguing came to nothing. The school only compensated him a token amount of money and the matter ended just like that. On the other hand, it was this small restaurant of his that became successful. It may look cold and desolate now but there was a period of time in the past when it was popular. It had many types of noodle broths and baked pastries that were famous."
In the past, the boss sold baked pastries from a cart. After getting a small shop, he fitted a large oven in the back kitchen specially for making baked pastries and made three types—sugar, salt and pepper, and meat. When customers came to order the pastries, he took them directly out of the oven and served them. Wrapped in grease paper, the sesame seeds falling at a touch, the delicious scent emitted even from the paper. But one had to be careful when eating. One small bite and the flakey outer shell would crack open and piping hot steam emitted from the inside. If the person eating didn't dodge in time, they would be scalded until they had to open their mouths wide and breathe in to cool down.
After Wei Xiao came and tasted his baked pastries, he said that he didn't want to make overly complicated dishes. It was fine to maintain their speciality. Baked pastries went best with soup noodles, so he helped to come up with a few signature noodle dishes. The cheapest, the one that tested the fundamentals of the chef's skills the most, was none other than the yang chun noodles.
Gan Qing said, "That's why, when he sees the kids fighting, he would always want to go over and do something."
Yu Lanchuan's brows furrowed. "He's already at that age. These little hoodlums don't know how to control themselves, what if they hit him?"
"When I was here, they didn't dare to," Gan Qing explained briefly. "Furthermore, back then, lots of people came here to eat and they were also aware of what happened to the boss's family. They didn't quibble with him and when they occasionally had fights to settle problems, when they saw him coming, they would disperse on their own. But it seems like no one cares about that anymore."
In the outside world, it was a large jianghu. Meanwhile, No. 13 High School was a small jianghu. A small jianghu was like a piece of farmland, the seedlings inside sprouting batch by batch, and then also cut off batch by batch. The speed at which the generations changed was like the wheat that matured twice a year.
The teenager from the shop finished moving the items and diligently came over to pour water for both of them. But his hands were unsteady and half the water landed outside the cup. If Yu Lanchuan hadn't dodged in time, his pants would be wet.
For the sake of maintaining his refined demeanour, Yu Lanchuan quickly took the water container from him. "Thank you, we'll help ourselves."
Like a large dog who loved an audience, the teenager eagerly and happily moved all the condiments and utensils on the table to their front, his eyes sparkling in silent request for praise.
Yu Lanchuan forced out a kindly smile. "...The service at your shop is really attentive."
It was only when the boss called for him in the back kitchen that the teenger reluctantly left them. The two customers he left behind exchanged looks, then moved the condiments and utensils back to their original positions.
"But I guess that even if he gets hit a couple of times, he won't take it to heart," Gan Qing said. "He probably just treats it as getting hit by his son."
Yu Lanchuan was doing the work of the server and when he heard this line that came right out of The True Story of Ah Q, he couldn't help laughing. But after laughing, he felt a little unsettled so he changed the topic and asked, "Hey, why is it that something as terrifying as escaping from under the noses of the Travellers' Sect people couldn't make you remember me but you could remember clearly a minor matter like fighting outside a small restaurant? Do you have selective memory?"
Gan Qing went along and spouted nonsense. "It was terrifying for you but not for me. Even when stripped bare, you barely had an ounce of meat on your bones, what was there to be shocked over? Compared to when you're an adult…"
Yu Lanchuan gave her a kick under the table. Gan Qing was already prepared for it and evaded him. "I'm complimenting you on how well you grew up!"
Yu Lanchuan gave her a fake smile. "Thank you but I do not accept your comment."
Gan Qing's fingers took hold of the tip of a chopstick and spun it around. She recalled for a while, then said, "Maybe it was because I happened to be unhappy that day… My academic results at No. 13 were still decent. After every exam, I could still enter the list of the top fifty achievers. But I didn't get into the list after midterms that one time because I skipped the exams for two subjects. After Wei Xiao—oh, he worked here at that time—found out, he lost his temper with me right in the back kitchen, in front of the boss."
On the other side of the wall, those annoying boys were so noisy that the shop seemed like a zoo. As they happily rehashed their strategies and tactics, they naturally also spoke contemptuously of their opponent's basketball skills and moral character.
On this side of the wall, Wei Xiao was scolding his little disciple in the kitchen. "This is not about whether or not the midterms are important, this is about whether or not your attitude is right. Do you understand what it means to have a sense of priority? You just muddle along every day, how many years can you muddle along at school? What about your future?"
The arrogant brats on the other side of the wall seemed to hear him and seamlessly continued this topic. The teenagers' smug voices slipped through the cracks of the wall. "All right, all right, let's not say so much. There's no need to lower ourselves to their level. It's just a basketball match. We won't bump into them in the future anyway."
"Who said that? If the pipes in your house happen to be clogged in the future, don't you have to get someone to fix it?"
"Then you should worry about the future prospects of the pipes in your house. I don't need to. I'll be taking the IELTS again at the end of the month and see how it goes. We've already contacted the overseas school."
There was silence in the kitchen. The corner of one of Wei Xiao's eyes was twitching visibly.
The children were still carried away by the excitement of the match but the adults were already seeing the gulf between them in the future.
When Gan Qing sat for the senior high entrance exams, she had been over-confident and only applied to one school: No. 3. In the end, given the way she slacked off every day, she slipped up in the exams and was three marks short of the requirement.
At that time, Yanning had yet to go through an education reform. Some key senior high schools publicly accepted "paying students" and enrolled those whose marks were within ten marks of the minimum acceptance score. For every mark they missed, the students had to pay 15,000 yuan in "school selection fees."
Three marks short in addition to school fees came up to a total of 50,000 yuan. If Wei Xiao had that much money saved up back then, would he need to stay in Mudpool Backlane?
There was no other way. For the sake of this matter, Wei Xiao borrowed money from everywhere but sadly, the friends of a penniless person were also equally penniless. He scrimped and saved but did not manage to gather much money. It was only on the evening of the third day that Wei Xiao received a packet from an anonymous sender. When he opened it, he saw that there were five neat stacks of cash inside.
Then, before he could go to the school and hand over this money, Gan Qing nonchalantly told him that she had already forged his signature and signed the declaration of giving up the school selection. Ordinary senior high schools that were not as good could not fill up their enrollments and would accept students in the nearby districts who failed to get into other schools. Just like that, she went to the rubbish dump that was No. 13 High School.
This became a thorn in Wei Xiao's heart.
The voices coming from the other side of the wall jabbed ruthlessly at Wei Xiao.
"If I catch you playing with blades again when you're doing your homework, I'll maim your arm make you return your Paoding Jieniu." Wei Xiao gritted his teeth and forced out his words one by one. But after saying something so harsh, his heart ached. In the end, a child's starting line depended on their parents or guardian. If he could produce 50,000 yuan as easily as buying a candied nut, would this child have to be so stubborn? Hence, he sighed. "If you have gotten into No. 3 back then…"
These words instantly set Gan Qing off. She cut him off coldly, "It's a good thing I didn't!"
Wei Xiao looked at her in shock.
"Back then, I was afraid of making things difficult for you and it took a lot for me to make the resolve to sign it. When I came back and found out that we already had the money, I even secretly regretted it for a long time… Hah!" She let out a caustic laugh. "Later on, I found out where the money came from. If I had really used that money to go to school, I would feel so sick now that I would jump off from a tall building!"
"What are you…"
"The man who killed my father sent you the dirty money he earned from being a murderer for hire, wanting to score some points with me. Isn't that funny, Shifu?" Gan Qing said. "Is that why you're protecting him? You even bear the accusations of murder and arson for him. Were it not for… I wouldn't even know that you were named in the Alliance Leader's Command because of this person! Were you also so half-hearted when you taught him, afraid that your disciple would make a name for himself?"
Wei Xiao's entire body was frozen. "Who… Who told you this?"
Gan Qing's hand that was holding the wooden chopsticks suddenly paused. "That's right. I remember now. That day was the day I laid my cards out to Wei Xiao."
Yu Lanchuan asked, "About your biological parents?"
Gan Qing knew that she was adopted by her shifu but Wei Xiao had never revealed her past to her. He had only said that she was his neighbour's child when he stayed in another part of the country in the past. He said that her parents and relatives were no longer around and she seemed pitiful and since he didn't have children himself, he adopted her. She was also vaguely aware that she had a shixiong. When they prayed to the ancestors during festive occasions, she had seen the name "Wei Huan" in the list of disciples. He was in the same generation as her and his name had been scratched out. When asked, her shifu had only told her briefly, "Your shixiong does not walk the same path as us."
Yu Lanchuan said, "I've always felt that it was very strange. Logically, your elders would definitely want to bring the secret of your dramatic past to their graves. How on earth did you find out?"
"I was a busybody." Gan Qing waved her hands. "There was once when I came home after school and saw someone chasing a pickpocket on the streets. I stretched out my leg and tripped the pickpocket up. The victim whose wallet was stolen might have been a minor millionaire. In a moment of joy, he took out 1,000 in cash and gave it to the few people helping him chase the thief. Those people didn't manage to turn him down and also felt that the success was because I tripped the thief up so they insisted on sharing the money with me. I saw that they had quite a heavy jianghu air to them and that they also knew martial arts. Otherwise, they wouldn't dare apprehend a thief in the streets. I listened to them chat—they were people who roamed all over the land—and felt that we hit it off pretty well. And so, I had a meal with them… While eating, I happened to hear them talk about Wei Xiao."
"That was when I found out that Wei Xiao, who rode a women's bike every day to work as a cook, was actually named in the Alliance Leader's Command. Before I realised what was going on, they had already started to list out the people who had died under Wan Mu Chun's blade—there was the huge, sensational case of the flour factory in the neighbouring province, some unexplained minor cases… and also my dad's name. For every nine lies that he told, Wei Xiao said something true. He had never hidden my parents' names, birthplaces and where they had lived from me."
"Such a coincidence?" Yu Lanchuan gave her a doubtful look and asked, "Don't tell me you believed them."
If her intelligence was really at that level, it was no surprise that she didn't get into No. 3.
"Of course not, what are you thinking?" Gan Qing waved her hands. "It's human nature not to believe it, isn't it… A pack of strange people suddenly coming over and telling you that the shifu who raised you had killed your parents… What kind of nonsense is that? Even T.V. series in the nineties don't use this plotline anymore. A normal person's immediate reaction would probably be to find out where these people came from."
Yu Lanchuan immediately asked, "Where did they come from, did you find out?"
Gan Qing spread her hands. "Nope. They were not locals and disappeared right away."
To investigate a matter until the truth came to light, the most fundamental requirements were time and money. Neither can be lacking, and it would be best if the investigator had some ways to get information. If someone was intentionally hiding something, how could a half-grown high school girl investigate?
Yu Lanchuan's gaze turned grave. He said, "But Yanning has people from all walks of life. It wouldn't be hard to find out what was written in the Alliance Leader's Command."
The Alliance Leader's Command was decreed by Old Alliance Leader Yu and it was the indisputable truth. Since the court case of the eighteen lives lost in the flour factory had no conclusion and Wei Xiao had clearly been right here in Yanning, insisting on bearing the blame by keeping his silence, people inevitably talked about him, saying things like "Wan Mu Chun went back on his words and is again conducting his shady business in jianghu."
Gan Qing let out a bitter laugh. "It wasn't only 'easy' to find out."
In actual fact, Wei Xiao wasn't the type who liked offending other people. When he interacted with others in private, he was very easy to talk to and was gentle and quiet, a rare breed. If one were to really calculate it, other than when Yang Ping and the others forced him too far, Wei Xiao had never had a grudge with anyone else.
However, rumours and slanders had never shown a preference for the real troublemakers. They had always gone for the quiet and gentle ones.
Gan Qing said, "In his later years, Old Alliance Leader Yu increasingly disliked stepping forward to interfere in other people's matters. He announced very few Alliance Leader's Commands and the one with Wei Xiao was exceptionally eye-catching. I heard all sorts of rumours that I didn't know were true or false. But I could not suspect my shifu. From an emotional standpoint, I just didn't want to believe it. So of course I had to find a loophole in those rumours to convince myself to remain firm in my belief."
Yu Lanchuan said, "That's human nature."
"I gathered some old newspapers and pinned down the exact date of the flour factory explosion. This wasn't hard, it was a major incident after all. The local news covered it. After that, I only needed to confirm that the old man wasn't at the scene at all when it happened and that would be the end of it." Having said so far, Gan Qing suddenly smiled. "At that time, I thought that if I could find proof, I would send it to the Old Alliance Leader in a way that didn't reveal our location so that he could 'erase' the Alliance Leader's Command."
She planned it out clearly and methodically in her mind and felt that she was so very clever and wise in the ways of the world, that she could protect this useless adult who only knew how to cook. In her imagination, she nonchalantly pushed open the door and entered the house, then casually said to Wei Xiao, "By the way, I've already taken care of the Alliance Leader's Command for you. Don't worry. Why didn't you tell me earlier that other people were bullying you?"
Then, under Wei Xiao's astonished gaze, she would return to her room to do her homework, as though the difficult matter had been a piece of cake for her.
Meanwhile, based on historical data, it was best if people who still fantasised in such ways focused their attention on their fantasies because once they took actual action, there was a large probability of them stirring up trouble.
"The old man didn't like job-hopping and moving house. He worked for many years in that lousy hotel. They have attendance records for their workers. I just needed to get my hands on it. So, I took the chance when the old man was at his second job to sneak into the hotel's management office and take their attendance records."
"That day, Senior Wei Xiao…"
Gan Qing's eyes raised gently, "He swapped shifts and took the day off."
This was quite a shock. Yanning's transportation system was well-developed. To go to the neighbouring province, one day was enough for a round trip. If he quietly made this trip, his family would think he had gone to work and might not realise at all.
"But I still calmed down very quickly. The stuff about being a murderer for hire wasn't something completely out of the blue. Even though I've not done it before, I've heard Wei Xiao talk about the ancestors. Wan Mu Chun had always been a lone wolf without disciples, so they had to be extra cautious before making a move. A moment's carelessness could result in their reputation being destroyed. Understanding the target's identity, personality and habits took at least a month," Gan Qing said. "I checked his attendance records before and after that day and they were all very normal. There was no way he would stop halfway through his job as a chef and drop out of the sky into an unfamiliar place and kill someone, and even leave Wan Mu Chun's mark. Here's the question—since it wasn't him who did it, then why did he bear the blame? What was he doing the day he was on leave? Other than him, who else was capable of leaving such a meticulous knife wound?"
Yu Lanchuan asked, "You thought of Wei Huan?"
"Other than him, there's no other explanation," Gan Qing said. "Uncle Meng liked having a few small bottles of beer when he was young. His alcohol tolerance was so-so and when he was drunk, there was no filter on his mouth. I accompanied him for skewers a few times and got a few words out of him after getting him drunk, and roughly pieced together the story behind Wei Huan being thrown out of the sect. Wei Huan didn't want to waste all his training and decided to 'restore the old' and expand the sect's tradition. Uncle Meng said that he took the wrong path.
"While Wei Xiao was at work, I skipped school and went home. I went through his things and found a scrapbook. When I opened it, I saw that it was pasted full of colourful recipes and pictures. I skimmed through it and initially wanted to put it aside, then I suddenly felt that something wasn't right. The old man was an extreme miser and cherished all his things. When he occasionally bought a book to read, he would wrap it with a book cover and had never done something like cutting pictures from a book to stick in a scrapbook. So, I took it again and studied it carefully. I noticed that there were words beneath the pictures that had nothing at all to do with the recipes."
"What did he write?"
"A journal. It was all related to Wei Huan. The old man had been tracing him the whole time—when and where Wei Huan had killed a certain person, deductions on how he had done it, why he couldn't be caught… Oh, right, he also wrote about that anonymous 50,000 yuan remittance." At this point, Gan Qing seemed to feign nonchalance. She took a deep breath and changed topics with a rather forced smile, turning to look at the back kitchen and calling out, "Boss, are you making the noodles from scratch? We aren't so bougie, the ready-made ones are fine! Please make it quick."
Yu Lanchuan said, "Which is to say, Wei Huan killing your father and remitting your school fees…"
Were both written in that book.
"Yeap, can you imagine it?" Gan Qing's raised brows drew together in slight exaggeration and she spread her hands at him. "This old man Wei Xiao is really frugal. He used rubber bands to get the very last bit of toothpaste out of the tube and mixed water into empty shampoo bottles to continue using them for half a month. One scrapbook lasted him more than twenty years. Before he reached the last page, it was not considered used up."
Yu Lanchuan had always felt that Gan Qing carried with her a very heavy sense of drifting through life. She had drifted her way to her current age and had been grinded into her current gremlin state but surprisingly, he could still faintly see a tendency to stir up trouble. It was evident what kind of unstable timebomb she had been during her rebellious years. Destroying her own meridians, breaking ties with her sect, pursuing and killing a vicious disciple, turning herself in to the police… none of these were something a cool-headed ordinary person could do. He liked her but it didn't mean that he agreed with this worldview of going to the extreme in everything.
But now, Yu Lanchuan realised that there was nothing he could say.
Was she unable to tell that those few people at the start had acted on purpose? Was she unable to tell that there was someone instigating trouble in the shadows?
She was able to tell.
But even if she could, when she reached that stage, what could she do?
"I usually don't have much to do at work, as you know." Gan Qing smiled at him. "When there are no customers, I would take a book from the pile of self-help books from Uncle Meng and flip through them. A couple of days ago, I read a passage that talked about Festinger's Theory. It said that 10% of life is made up of what happens to you and the other 90% of life is decided by how you react. It's pretty reasonable. I belong to the type who did not handle that 90% of my life well. Nearly half my life is gone and everything I've done has brought hurt to the ones close to me and joy to the targets of my revenge."
Yu Lanchuan said, "Nonsense. From where did they get those tacky lines that they're quoting? And even 90%... Did some social scientist calculate that with their toes when they were drunk?"
Gan Qing sprawled on the table and laughed. "Little Master Yu, you're really good at making conversation. Arcane arts and tacky pseudoscientific self-help are the two cornerstones of the mental state of us ordinary people. Please stop coming over with your immortal aura and attacking our foundation, restrain yourself!"
Right then, noise came from the back kitchen. The boss chided the teenager who was more of a hindrance than a help in an agitated voice. "You don't need to do this, it's hot, don't drop the bowl! Quick, quick, move aside."
A savoury scent wafted out of the back kitchen. Their noodles and baked pastries were finally ready.
"Have a taste. The baked pastries are our specialty and so are the noodles. We are very particular about the broth." The boss enthusiastically urged them to start eating. The teenager in the shop also followed suit and poked his head out of the back kitchen, giggling and brimming with anticipation for the customers' praise at the same time.
The two freeloading customers had no choice but to pause their conversation and pick up the utensils to first complete the shop owner's "good review mission." At the first mouthful, they froze in unison.
The noodles were very springy, there was nothing wrong with the soup and the vegetables that accompanied it were very fresh. If it wasn't so incredibly salty, it would indeed be a good bowl of noodles.
Gan Qing strained to move her tongue. She felt that the cells on her tongue were becoming dehydrated from the salt and the tongue hanging in her mouth was like a dried out persimmon.
No wonder no one came here anymore.
The two of them exchanged a look over the steam, then looked at the old shop owner earnestly wiping his hands on his apron.
Gan Qing said, "It's… uhh… very good!"
The boss looked at Yu Lanchuan.
Gan Qing kicked him under the table. Yu Lanchuan had no choice but to put down his chopsticks, reached out to take the glass of water and downed half of it in one go to dilute that mouthful of salt before finally savouring the taste. "It tastes just like it did in the past."
The boss was overjoyed and sat down beside them, his spirits high. "Our shop hired a great chef in the past. This is the recipe he left behind. The chef usually had to work at a hotel and didn't come here every day, he only came once every three to five days. When he was not here, he would leave us with the soup base so that we could cook for the customers ourselves. I bought the rights to the recipe. You can't get this anywhere else."
Gan Qing listened to this old acquaintance that she had met by chance yet did not remember tell his story and got something different from it. She couldn't help smiling. "So you already knew about buying rights back then, that's quite forward-thinking of you. How much did you pay?"
"20,000." The boss extended two fingers at her. "It was nearly ten years ago. Not cheap, is it?"
Gan Qing agreed with him and at the same time, thought in her heart, I never would have guessed that the old man had this bit of extra income.
The boss continued to prattle on, "He said he had a young daughter in senior high. Earlier on, he didn't prepare the school selection fees and had only scrambled for it at the last minute so the girl ended up attending a lousy high school. He couldn't let that happen for university so he had to save up for the fees and living expenses in advance. It never hurts to be prepared. What if her results are bad? She would still have to attend a third tier private academy. But the fees would be higher. 20,000 was not enough."
Gan Qing suddenly tightened her grip on the chopsticks.
"Later on, one day, he suddenly resigned and stopped coming," the boss said. "I guess it was because his child was going to sit for the gaokao and he had saved up enough. I wonder how he is now… Just look at that old man, his child hadn't yet sat for the exam and he was already dooming her to third tier private academies."
That disobedient little girl of his had never been willing to sit down and study steadily. His worries ate away at him but he also didn't know what he could do to help. He could only work two jobs, work hard to save up for her school fees and prepare for the worst case scenario.
But he was not prepared for what was even worse than the worst case scenario.
She smeared the glorious days of her youth with blood until it was a complete mess, living in a hopelessly muddled state. And it was only when her mad and deranged prison cellmate used her soul to offer up a few textbooks to her that she woke up from this nightmare.
They said that she still had many years of life ahead of her and that there was still time to turn back. She had also believed them, and had wanted to try turning her life back to the right track, bumpy as the road might be.
She knew regret.
That was when she seriously buckled down to study. She dreamed of walking out of that place one day and entering the exam hall again, of bringing the notice of admission from the university home with her to see the old man and telling him, "Shifu, I detoured for a few years but I'm back now. Do you still want me? All that stuff about breaking ties and revolting from the sect, we'll consider them invalid, okay?"
"Gan Qing!" Yu Lanchuan watched in alarm as she stuffed the noodles into her mouth like she could neither taste nor feel it. In just a few mouthfuls, she drained the bowl of salt-steeped soup.
But were there so many roads that could bring her back home?
This dewdrop world —
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet…[note]
— — —
The author has something to say:
[note] This dewdrop world —
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet…
— Kobayashi Issa
 The 90/10 principle was coined by Stephen Covey (author of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and other similar books). There are some similarities to Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory, however there is no such "Festinger Theory" that uses this 90/10 split. From a quick search online, using the phrase "Festinger Theory" to refer to the 90/10 principle seems popular in Chinese media, however it is unknown who started it and why.
 The translation of the haiku that appears at the end of the chapter is by Lewis Mackenzie. I took it from the Wikipedia page on Kobayashi Issa.
Yu Lanchuan seized Gan Qing's hand, pushing down her chopsticks. "What are you doing… Drink some water first!"
He picked up a baked pastry with a flaky shell, broke it into two and passed one half to Gan Qing. "Here, it has sugar filling."
After that, he fell silent for a while. Then, he said vaguely, "Do you know how shows and movies kill off characters?"
Yu Lanchuan liked to be frank with his speech and rarely beat around the bush. For a moment, Gan Qing didn't understand what he was getting at. She held the pastry and looked at him in confusion.
"Before the character gets killed off, they would have a plan that they can never complete," Yu Lanchuan said. "Before we reach the age of dementia, all those clothes that we couldn't buy, the things we didn't complete, the chances we missed, they would all stay persistently in our minds like a holdout, like those homes the owners refuse to allow to be demolished. Back then, you were a holdout in my mind."
Gan Qing laughed. "Little Master Yu, you…"
"That's why, if there's someone you didn't manage to say farewell to whom you can't let go of, there's nothing shameful about admitting it." Yu Lanchuan enunciated each word clearly. "It's human nature."
Gan Qing froze all of a sudden. Yu Lanchuan seemed to have suddenly gone blind and did not notice at all that her expression of forced calm was breaking apart. He focused all his attention on analysing the baked pastry. "It's been many years since I last had a baked sugar pastry. The ones sold in shops outside aren't good. When you break them open, the sugar inside is always in dregs."
Beside them, the boss slowly wiped the tables as he said, "That's because they've gone cold. It has to be freshly taken out of the oven so it's piping hot. Only then will the sugar be melted and runny. Both of you, be careful not to burn your mouth."
Gan Qing used that as an excuse to cover her mouth and let out a hiss of pain, pretending that the sugar filling had scalded her, and took the chance to wipe away the wetness in her eyes.
"Are you a reincarnation of a hungry ghost?" Yu Lanchuan put away that once-in-a-blue moon gentleness of his and rolled his eyes at her. "Do you scarf your food down this way too when eating with other people?"
Gan Qing reached up and wiped away the bit of sugar residue on the corner of her mouth. "Isn't this all because I'm afraid that Little Master Yu looks so delectable that if I take one more look, I will eat him up."
Yu Lanchuan nearly forgot the proper way to bring the baked pastry to his mouth and in his distraction, he scalded his mouth with the melted sugar. Other people used the sugar to hide their eyes and pretend to be scalded but he was the opposite and had nearly burned off a layer of skin. Even his glasses had slid down.
Gan Qing started laughing. But after laughing, she felt a little discomfited. She was someone who had once let down the infinite kindness and warmth she had received and was too ashamed to expect fondness from others now. She had never thought that the people around her—Little Master Yu, Uncle Meng, Meizhen-jie… even Old Sect Leader Yang and the other people of No. 110 Courtyard—would still dare to put their kindness in her hands and was not afraid that her hands would slip up once more and shatter them.
She was struck by fear and trepidation. She didn't know what to do, and because of that, her words sounded even more like they were not from her heart, insincere and glib.
The boss quickly poured a glass of cool water for Yu Lanchuan. Gan Qing said, "You don't skimp at all when making your baked pastries, it's really very good of you. If the soup noodles could be a little more like the original taste, that would be great. The seasonings were a little heavy. People nowadays are tired of eating heavy and greasy food outside. Everyone thinks that the simpler the taste, the more high class it is."
After hearing that, the boss eyed her with his two murky old eyes and asked quietly, "Miss, is it too salty?"
"Ai, I'm old now, my tongue doesn't work well anymore. Only my ears can still detect the flavours hidden in words. I can still understand human speech." The boss heaved a gloomy sigh. "I'm afraid it's time to close shop."
Gan Qing knew that ever since he lost his son in his middle age, the only thing left that his heart could not put down was this little shop. She hastily said, "Please don't. The students who have graduated all miss your baked pastries and noodles. We purposely came here today to eat them. If you close your shop, what if your regulars come here in the future?"
"What regulars? They've all left, they don't come anymore." The boss waved his hand. Like an old monkey who could not move easily, he slowly walked behind the counter and took out a large plastic file from the drawer. He took out a few pieces of paper. "Coincidentally, you young people have good eyesight and can help me read this."
Yu Lanchuan wiped his hands and took the papers. It was a contract related to the demolition compensation.
"In the past two years, there have been fewer kids here. No. 13 High is getting worse and worse, so naturally, they can't attract students. It seems like they're going to merge with another school soon. After the merger, they will expand their grounds and all of us have to move away." The boss sat down. Through the windows, he looked in the direction of the school, then continued to say, "I guess it's a good thing. After the merger, it won't be called No. 13 High anymore. They just need to change the atmosphere at the school and it would be good."
Yu Lanchuan was used to reading contracts. With just a quick skim, he could pick out many points and he explained each one to the boss. Gan Qing listened for a bit but only half understood what he was saying, so she informed the boss and flipped through the thick file.
There were all sorts of things inside. Postcards from old customers, photos from No. 13 High's yearly Sports Day and School Founding Day…
Yu Lanchuan took a pen to mark the important points for the boss. While waiting for him, the boss explained to Gan Qing, "Those are from a photographer. He wanders around the streets and alleys and takes photos. He took a photo of the shopfront and that photo even won some kind of award. It's quite an honour. I purposely kept a copy of the magazine."
Gan Qing took a closer look and saw that there was indeed a small photo of the restaurant in the magazine. It had obtained the glory of the "consolation prize." There was a tiny caption under the photo: Even though this work has some weaknesses, the photographer has focused their lens on the lowest rung of society, reproducing faithfully the dirty and narrow alley, and capturing a corner of the life of the people who live on the fringes of life in the city. The scene within the lens is full of emotion, the photographer bemoans the world and pities the people.
"That was from one year when No. 13 High was like a salted fish turning over a new leaf during the gaokao. Fifteen students met the first tier acceptance score, that's more than if you add up the few years before and after that. It was such glory! The school put up the honours list at the entrance. It made me happy just looking at it, so I took a picture. My son won't get into the list so I can only freeload off other people's joy and feel proud along with them."
There were fifteen names on that honours list. Among them, thirteen people were noted to be from a certain class in Year 4. Gan Qing remembered this matter. The year she first entered the school, No. 13 started a remedial class and waived the school fees to entice students. They tricked a group of poor students with good results into enrolling. These remedial students helped No. 13 High set a new record and, at the same time, were held back one year by this rubbish school. On average, their scores fell by twenty marks compared to their first gaokao attempt. Hence, this glorious remedial class was closed the very next year. Even if they paid students to come, no one would.
Gan Qing continued flipping through the file. Then, her hand paused.
It was a newspaper cutting. The report was on a murder case. The victim's name was naturally concealed and the photo was also censored with pixelation. But Gan Qing could immediately tell—it was Wei Huan.
"Oh, this." The boss peered at it and carefully recalled for a moment. "This is not a happy thing. Just one day before, this man came here to eat. The very next day, he was killed. Apparently, when he died, he had a pile of fake I.D.s on him, who knows what it was that he did. Ai, he was still a customer after all."
Gan Qing stared blankly. "He came here before?"
"He sure did!" The boss pointed at the crooked and childish writing beside the cutting. "See, I even made a note here. When this person came, he ordered three large bowls of noodles. I said, 'Eating so much soupy food will definitely make your stomach feel uncomfortable later. If you're afraid that eating something light won't keep you full for long, how about I bring you two baked pastries?' He said there was no need to. He just wanted to enjoy the soup noodles."
Gan Qing's brows twitched slightly.
"Isn't it strange? This man didn't eat the noodles and just drank the soup. After he finished the soup, he finally took a few forced bites. I said, 'You really have good taste and know that the main chef is not in today. The noodles were made by the assistant and only the soup base was made by the main chef.' He didn't seem to have heard me and also didn't say anything. I saw that his face was gloomy and there was a rather evil air between his brows. I knew immediately that he wasn't someone I should offend and I didn't dare chat much with him… See, something really did happen to him."
Wei Huan coming on his own to the little restaurant where his… former shifu worked and took the chance when his shifu was not there to order the soup noodles that his shifu made?
Yu Lanchuan looked up from the contract, astonished at what he was hearing. He had always thought that a murderer-for-hire like Wei Huan would be of the same type as Yang Ping—something wrong with his brain, and his heart and mind entirely set on being inhumane. Curious, he took the plastic file away from Gan Qing's hand. "Let me see…"
When he moved the file, a small envelope slid out from behind the newspaper cutting that was not stuck firmly, nearly falling into the soup. Gan Qing's hand was quick as lightning, reaching under the file to catch the envelope in time. "Boss, why do you even have a secret weapon hidden here?"
"Ah." The boss made a noise of utter confusion. He was also rather dumbstruck for the moment.
The envelope was sealed. There was no header and no inscription, and only had a "10" written on it. The white paper was turning yellow and because so many years had passed, the glue at the seal had dried out until a corner was lifted up, revealing the edge of the type of old-fashioned writing paper that had a red frame. The boss turned it over a few times, looking at it, before finally recalling his memories with much effort. "That's right, I remember now. It was that customer who left this letter here."
Yu Lanchuan and Gan Qing both sat up straight simultaneously. The two of them exchanged a quick look. A cold light flickered in Gan Qing's eyes.
She lowered her voice a little. "Did he leave it for you?"
"No, I don't know him anyway." The boss waved his hands a few times. "But yeah, who was it that he left this for… Why is it here with me?"
He was muddled and confused, and might have the beginnings of old age dementia. Before he could become old and senile, he had already lived his life until it was like a tangle of threads with loose ends in all directions. It would be a while before he could straighten things out in his head.
Right at that moment, the teenager in the back kitchen shouted and dashed out like a gust of wind. He pushed his scalded-red hand into the boss's face, opened his mouth and immediately started to wail.
The boss tsk-ed. "I told you not to go to the back kitchen and make a mess. There's boiling water there. This burn should teach you a lesson!"
The two old man and child who depended on each other for survival were both not very quick-witted. One was wailing loud enough to bring the roof down while the other chased after him to coax him. Yu Lanchuan and Gan Qing were left at the table, four eyes staring at the unopened envelope, looking as though they were watching a detonator about to go off.
Just as Yu Lanchuan was hesitating over whether opening someone else's letter would be impolite, Gan Qing had already ripped it open without a word.
Shifu—the opening of the letter stated the addressee clearly. Was this a letter for Wei Xiao?
Wei Huan's handwriting was very tidy, the martial arts skills he had in his hand seemed to have been used in his writing too. His strokes were firm and steady like they were printed. Gan Qing skimmed through it.
I've left my instructions with the boss. This letter will be kept here for ten days. I told him to pay attention to the local news. If he hears news that I have died within these ten days, then there is no need for him to give this letter to you and it will save you the trouble of being broken-hearted. If he does not hear any news, ten days is enough for me to go somewhere far. When he gives this letter to you, it will save you the trouble of looking for me.
Shifu, when I was young, I always felt that our family has too many rules—this is not allowed, that is also not allowed. Each generation can only take in one disciple. If other people don't attack, we are not allowed to make a move. When we are outside, we are not allowed to bring up the lineage of our skills to others. Especially that last one; our Wan Mu Chun is also a proper and mighty sect, so why can't we bring it up? I always thought that even though Grand-Master had washed his hands clean of the past, he was also one of the outstanding Five Supremes. You are his disciple that he had brought up all on his own and your abilities are comparable with Grand-Master. Everyone says that you are a disciple who has exceeded his master but before you made a name for yourself, you were already living in hiding. In this drifting state, with neither family nor career, you lived your whole life. Are you really happy with this? I remember, when I was young, I was practising my knife skills when Grand-Master saw me. At the end of it, he shook his head at once. He found me stupid and said that when comparing me to you, our innate talents were as different as the sky and the earth. Perhaps that is indeed the case. When talentless people like us who can only learn via the slow and foolish way finally achieve a little bit of skill after much effort, we will think of it as something great. And hence, we will be exceptionally unwilling to be content with this.
I thought, our sect existed since the Song Dynasty and has been passed on until now, hasn't it? Why is it that the later it is, the more we're hiding and cowering?
Now, I finally understand a little. This is a dangerous road, the razor's edge. Once you walk this road, you can never look back again and can only go forward, forced all the way until you reach the point of no escape, the cliff's edge. And you jump to end things. During the era of chaos in ancient times, human lives were worth nothing and all roads ended in a cliff, so there was no difference. But it is not the same now. On the level ground, the many ways to live can be clearly seen going in all directions. Insisting on walking the tightrope high above the ground is something only an idiot would do.
I am that idiot.
Shifu, every time I startle awake in the middle of the night, I always remember the coin Zhu Cong gave me. That was the first transaction I did as a murderer-for-hire. I only collected one yuan from him. The two of us met at the train station in Yanning. I had not seen him for a few years ever since tragedy struck his family and I nearly could not recognise him. Zhu Cong is my brother, we grew up with each other. When I was young, I obeyed your instructions. I didn't dare bring up the lineage of my skills to others and had also never dared to fight with others. When I was bullied outside, I could only endure and he was always the one looking out for me. You have also personally said that he was a warm-hearted child.
A warm-hearted person ended up like this. Shifu, if it was you, what would you do? Could you keep your Wan Mu Chun blade hidden until the end and watch everything like a detached bystander, pretending that you don't know anything?
Based on a few clues, the two of us followed the trail for over a month and found the person who set fire to the factory that year. He hid himself in another part of the country and even started a family, living like a model citizen. All those who died such unjust deaths—the young and old, the womenfolk and the children—didn't they tear his conscience apart in the middle of the night?
If they didn't, then it clearly shows that there are no such things as ghosts and gods in this world. In that case, what is there to fear for people like us who hold the butcher's knife? After that, I took that one yuan and bought two popsicles to share with Zhu Cong. When we finished the popsicles, I understood that I can really no longer go back home. Do you blame me?
But with regards to this matter, I have no regrets.
Gan Qing felt that there must be a piece of her brain that was malfunctioning. She had read half the letter and she understood every word, yet when they were joined together, she didn't understand their meaning.
Her gaze was frozen at a few certain lines in the middle. She read and reread it countless times until her mind was blank and all that was left was the pounding of the veins on her temples, on the verge of breaking through her skull at any moment.
Yu Lanchuan saw that her expression did not look right. "What is it?"
Half a beat slow, Gan Qing lifted her head and stared fixedly at him.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Was the letter really written by that murderer Wei Huan? Who is it for? What does it say?"
Gan Qing's brows drew slightly closer. Then, she narrowed her eyes. She was looking at Yu Lanchuan but her gaze seemed to pierce through him to land somewhere even further.
"Little Master Yu," she suddenly said out of nowhere, "let me ask you a question."
"What do you like about me?"
"..." Her sudden change of frequency caught Yu Lanchuan off guard and like a typical straight male, he couldn't follow the rhythm. He leaned back. "What the hell, did your brain short-circuit?"
Gan Qing smiled at him. It was just like her usual manner of staying serious for barely three lines before teasing him. After teasing, she returned her gaze to the letter but Yu Lanchuan suddenly had a very bad premonition and blurted out, "At the very start, I wanted to get to know you because you saved me when we were young. You left me at the landfill, then turned around and led those people away. I… cough, for many years, I remember the way you looked from the back as you left."
Gan Qing's eyes curved into a smile, not the least bit bothered. "This story sounds familiar. I think 'The Legend of White Snake' I watched when I was young had a part like this."
Yu Lanchuan gave her a kick out of habit. But unexpectedly, his kick that always missed its target landed squarely on her tibia this time. Her leg snapped back and she nearly fell from her chair.
Yu Lanchuan sensed something and reached out to snatch the letter from her hand. "What on earth was written in the letter?"
Gan Qing gathered the letter into her hand and retreated thirty centimeters, taking her chair with her. "Nothing important. Go on, I haven't listened enough. The last time a handsome guy confessed to me, I was still attending the school next door. But he started crying before he finished speaking, tsk, and made it look like the scene of an evil tyrant forcing an honest girl into selling her body."
Yu Lanchuan's fingers on the table curled in. He didn't know what Gan Qing had read but he could faintly sense that the question he had to answer now was possibly a question of life and death.
The air thickened.
What did he like about a person?
If he wanted to score marks for this question, there were actually just three paths for his line of thought to take: appearance, innate qualities and prominence. "Appearance" was about youth and beauty; "innate qualities" referred to being sincere and interesting, with sound integrity. "Prominence" was a little more complicated. Of course, it was not about materialistic requirements or background or academic qualifications; he could only describe it as "the manner and behaviour as a result of having money, rights and status" or "the brilliant, all-encompassing light set off by self-cultivation and deep erudition."
"Your appearance fits my sense of aesthetics." Yu Lanchuan picked each word carefully. "This is the prerequisite. Otherwise, the two of us would be sworn siblings now. Your personality is also very easy to get along with… To me, it's rare to find girls whose personalities fit mine."
Gan Qing said sincerely, "I think that the problem lies with you."
"The problem indeed lies with me." Yu Lanchuan nodded frankly. "But at this age, rather than to change myself to suit other people, I would rather wait for a suitable person to come, even if she is hard to find. Also, due to inherited traits, I am more easily captivated by things that are formidable and mysterious, even if it means trouble. Your Wan Mu Chun happens to meet this criteria."
Gan Qing said, "You've persuaded me. We're so compatible, I guess this is fate!"
But Yu Lanchuan didn't laugh along with her. He said seriously, "But looks will fade. Looking at how you're a glutton who doesn't control her diet, I think that not only will you grow old in the future, you might even put on weight."
Gan Qing, "..."
"Personality can also change. A person's nature is actually not even as stable as the waters of the river in spring. If we could time-travel as we wish, a lot of people would get into fights with themselves from ten years ago. As for the other things, there's even less need to fantasise. They're not all that different from the shells of hermit crabs," Yu Lanchuan said unhurriedly. "As for me, I am merely entranced by these things. By chance of fate, I spent this period of my life chasing after you and happened to end up having some feelings for you. Right now, I still don't know what I like about you. Maybe it's just like no matter how great someone else's prize winning cat is, you still like the common stray at your front door."
"You…" Gan Qing was stunned for a long while. She covered her face and laughed helplessly. "I think there's something wrong with you."
Yu Lanchuan didn't say anything. He sat quietly opposite her in the rundown little restaurant, his eyes almost blazing in his sincerity. He stretched his arm and pressed his hand down on top of Gan Qing's head. "Hey, little stray, your laughing face looks even uglier than your crying face. Who bullied you?"
Gan Qing said softly, "I don't know."
She thought her life was a drama plot where tragedy and turmoil existed side-by-side and that she was a lone rebel going against the flow. But now, she realised that her life was just one of those black comedies churned out by the dozen and she was a panicking little clown who didn't know where to direct all her efforts.
Yu Lanchuan's hand slid down along the line of her head, brushing across the dried-out corners of her eyes and her dry skin. Finally, he gripped her hand and slowly, bit by bit, tugged Wei Huan's letter out.
After only a couple of glances, he looked up in shock. "Wait! Qiao-Qiao said before that when her dad was investigating the massacre, he had a mysterious friend helping him outside. Could it have been Wei Huan?"
"Meizhen-jie said that on that night, the Travellers' Sect people kidnapped the families of a few Beggars' Sect sect elders. The guard fell asleep. A few drunk little hoodlums were playfully throwing cigarette butts and 'accidentally' set the factory on fire. Both the kidnappers and those who started the fire were later sentenced to jail for their negligence. The longest prison term was seven years, that was for those from Travellers' Sect who had a hand in the kidnapping. As for those few who threw the cigarette butts that started the fire, in the first place, they were only drunkards who happened to pass by. It basically had nothing to do with them. They only went in for a short while before coming back out again. Many years later, those who were sentenced to jail were freed one after another. Zhu Cong also grew up. He could not make peace with what happened and returned to Yanning to investigate what happened that year and found out that those hoodlums that seemed to have been there 'by accident' had all hidden themselves and ran away. He had no one else he could trust in Yanning, so he found Wei Huan to help him." Gan Qing stared at the letter's yellowing edge. "As for the motivation of those few who started the fire, the letter does not mention it… It should be none other than the usual types. Either they did it for some kind of reward from someone or they themselves had some sort of dirt that had fallen in someone's hands. When the victims' families hunt them down, they would definitely try to justify themselves…"
Yu Lanchuan continued her sentence, "They only asked me to throw a cigarette butt. I didn't know that the factory would catch fire and I didn't know that there were people inside."
The two of them said those words almost in unison.
Gan Qing's voice was suppressed in her throat. "With one yuan as a start, Wei Huan broke the prohibition on killing and from then started to unearth the culprits one by one. The two of them kept searching and taking revenge. Among them… was someone with the surname Gan. When they killed him, they alarmed his wife and she suffered a great shock. From then on, her mental state was unstable. They had a little girl who was taken away and brought up by Wei Xiao who had come in pursuit of his unfilial disciple… because he felt that the crimes Wei Huan committed were all his own debts to pay."
"Do you know what Wei Huan's last words to me were? He said, 'I lost. I'll turn myself in. Little shimei, don't kill me.'"
Wei Huan did not have remarkable looks. His appearance was not as handsome as his shifu, his skin was very dark and he was very thin. When he walked, he kept his head down. He could easily pick any random construction site and blend in as one of the labourers. Back then, he was not yet forty years old but he already seemed to be very old. When he spoke, he appeared rather pitiable.
"I thought he was begging for mercy because he was afraid of death. I thought, how can this person be so disgusting?" Gan Qing's shoulders suddenly fell. "I…"
She went through unimaginable efforts to lure Wei Huan out. For the sake of doing this, she skipped school and infiltrated all sorts of illicit places until she ended up with an evil aura on her. She had determined that he was a coward afraid of death and wanted to take the chance to escape. How could she let him go?"
Wei Huan realised this. In the end, he fought an all-or-nothing battle until she was covered in wounds and nearly had to crawl her way home.
But those scary wounds did not leave any lasting effects. Instead, it was the cut she made herself that resulted in her only having one arm that could lift heavy things now.
At that time, had Wei Huan really been weaker than he wanted to be and could not injure her vital spots?
Or had he only exhausted his last bit of strength to make it look like an unfair fight or even like an underage girl's legitimate self-defence… desperately pushing her away from being a mad and demented murderer?
What are the requirements for a life of peace and happiness?
Firstly, one must have the capability to settle down and build their life. They need to have a lot of money, otherwise one major illness is enough to force them into desperate straits. Secondly, they need to be mindful to maintain their connections to society. At the key moments, they can speak out and there will be people who listen to what they have to say. Otherwise, they will have nowhere to go to demand justice when bullied.
They must also manage their hopes and desires well, and even go so far as to manage the expectations others have for them. Otherwise, if they are just careless for a moment, resentment and anger will breed everywhere.
And also… a strong heart is required. Regardless of the many worries in the world outside, I remain steadfast and unmoving. I choose my own path and will never turn back even in a mountain of knives or a sea of flames.
A person who could do all that has already done everything within the realm of possibility for a human. The rest depends on Heaven.
If Heaven says, All right, pass.
Then amidst the many dangers and perils, they can keep their humble and insignificant life.
If Heaven says, Wait a minute.
Then, this nearly half a lifetime, the hardships endured, the injustice suffered, the blood lost, the soul thought to have been tempered in blazing fire… all of them become nothing but a fleeting illusion.
Gan Qing thought that next time, if there was again a girl who didn't know the ways of the world staring at her with eyes as wide as an owl's and asking in bewilderment, "On what do you build your life?" —
— she would definitely not dare to brush it off with a laugh.
In a corner of the little restaurant, the foolish child who had scalded himself was sobbing in a small voice. The boss dug out some coins to coax him. "All right, just blow on it and it'll be fine. Don't cry anymore, we still have customers here. Grandpa will give you money. Go out on your own and buy ice-cream for yourself."
The teenager pouted and shouted unclearly, "I don't want!"
"Why not? Don't you like ice-cream?" the boss asked. "That chocolate one…"
"I don't… don't want!" The teenager raised his voice and pushed the boss's hands away.
How would he know to control his strength? The elderly boss lost his footing and was pushed until he stumbled. The coins scattered all over the floor.
"Aiyo." The boss's arms spun in the air like a windmill for a while before he narrowly caught the edge of a table and landed his butt on a small stool. "You're going to push me to my death!"
The teenager was frightened out of his wits.
The boss pressed on his chest where his heart was thudding wildly and scared him. "If you push me to death, no one will keep you anymore! You'll have to sleep on the streets and beg for food!"
Upon hearing that, the teenager was truly scared. His mouth opened and he let his voice loose, his cries so heartrending it seemed that at this point in time, he was representing all the sorrows in the entire world.
But Yu Lanchuan was looking at Gan Qing with apprehension, because Gan Qing had been startled by the crying noise and turned her head to listen for a while and then, unexpectedly, smiled.
Then, she stood up and walked over to the teenager. She helped the boss pick up the coins scattered all over the floor. "Don't scold him anymore. I'm sure he must have been bullied by the little hoodlums from No. 13 High… Hey, darling, look here."
Gan Qing rubbed her fingers and snapped her fingers a couple of times in front of the teenager. A coin rolled from the slit of her little finger all the way to the tip of her thumb, then spun a couple of rounds there like it was dancing, before falling into her palm.
The teenager was distracted by this little trick. He hiccuped as he stretched out his neck, curiously pushing Gan Qing's hand open.
Gan Qing went along with his movement and dropped the coin into his hand. "Why don't I bring you to buy ice-cream? No one will dare bully you."
The teenager looked up at her. With just a little bit of sunlight, he burst into full bloom—his face changed from stormy to clear in an instant, his smiling face covered with snot, a hiccup making him jolt on the spot.
Gan Qing lifted him by his shoulder. "Let's go!"
Yu Lanchuan couldn't be sure what state Gan Qing was in right now. Afraid that something would happen to her, he hurried after her. "Boss, keep the table for us!"
With two bodyguards, the teenager was so happy that his two legs seemed to be galloping. He bounced and hopped in joy in front of them.
The sun that hadn't had the time to illuminate the mortal world thoroughly was setting in the west, about to step down from the stage. On the wall of the cold drinks shop in the corner, there was already the character for demolition painted on it in a very large size.
When they were still far away, the teenager already started to shout. "I want… want cho-choco!"
He had barely finished speaking when hoots of laughter came from the side. As the days grew longer, the roadside skewer stalls were popping up. The young people who did not study hard now had one more place to waste their time. This pack of brats were hopelessly idle and bored, and their bar for jokes was so low it was at their feet. They probably wouldn't have any sort of classy interest in their lives. When they heard the intellectually-disabled teenager's voice, they were like flies smelling an odour, the entire swarm getting excited over it.
"Ai, the large donkey is here again!"
"Do donkeys also eat 'chochoco'?"
One of them imitated the teenager. "I want… want cho-choco!"
The carefree smile on the teenager's face faded away. The cold drinks shop only had one young woman working there and she didn't dare speak out. She only dared to complain softly, "The fuck is wrong with them."
As they jeered, the little hoodlums stood up and surrounded the cold drinks shop's entrance. "Little donkey, go ahead and buy. After you buy it, we'll feed you."
Right then, a voice came from around the corner. "Did you hear that?"
The little hoodlums turned towards the direction of the sound. They saw Gan Qing and Yu Lanchuan walk over unhurriedly.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "Hear what?"
"Dogs learning how to bray like a donkey." Gan Qing tugged at her own ears. "How strange."
The one learning how to bray felt like he was being attacked personally for no reason and came out in anger, ready to spew obscenities. "You-"
But one of his companions behind him pulled him back. Coincidentally, this person's hair was dyed the colour of copper green. He was none other than one of the "cavalry" riding the public bikes and fighting in the brawl that afternoon.
When the green-haired cavalry saw Gan Qing, he looked like he had seen a ghost. He cried out in fear, "Three Stabs Six Holes!"
"Hmm?" Gan Qing tilted her head. She reached into her coat. "Since when did I have such a long nickname?"
The green-haired cavalry thought she was taking out a knife and quickly leaped back. "Jiejie, we were wrong!"
His fear was contagious. The few hoodlums around him all tucked their tails in, putting a show of being unwilling to surrender even as they stuck close to the wall and slipped away.
"Tsk, they sure ran away fast." Gan Qing finally took the item out of her coat—a coin pouch—and tossed it to Yu Lanchuan. "The boss treated us to dinner so I guess I'll treat you to ice-cream."
The intellectually-disabled teenager did not keep worries in his heart. He happily let the chocolate ice-cream smear all over his face and drip down as he went home.
When Yu Lanchuan came out of the cold drinks shop holding two ice-creams, he saw Gan Qing leaning against an electrical pole on the opposite side of the road, staring at No. 13 High in a daze. Her shirt was too thick and she hadn't tucked it into her pants. The back hung free like it was draped on an empty clothes rack, a stray and lonely spirit contained within.
Yu Lanchuan looked at her shadow stretching out long and suddenly couldn't breathe. He walked over to her with large strides.
Startled by the sound of his footsteps, Gan Qing turned her head and again gave him an unruffled smile. "After getting a treat from this jiejie, shouldn't you say 'Thank you, Jiejie'? Little Master Yu, your manners can't even be compared to that daydreaming young man."
"...Whose jiejie are you?"
Gan Qing reached out and took one of the ice-creams. "When you were young, you ran after me and called me 'jiejie' for a whole night. Why, now that you've grown up, you're deny-"
Yu Lanchuan's freed hand pushed her shoulder suddenly. Gan Qing, who could only move her left shoulder freely, was pressed back against the electrical pole. Afraid that the ice-cream would drip on Little Master Yu's very obviously expensive coat and with barely any time to react, her only option was to hold the ice-cream away from her body and she looked just like she was opening her arms for a hug.
The faint lingering smell of mint swiftly slipped into her neckline. Then, a cold yet burning kiss fell on her textbook perfect smile.
 我自岿然不动 "I remain steadfast and unmoving" is from the poem 《西江月· 井冈山》 (Moon over the West River - Jinggang Mountains) by Mao Zedong. The preceding line before it describes being surrounded by tens of thousands of enemy troops.
It was a very clean smell, clear and cold. For a man to still have an aura that resembled the morning breeze so many years after becoming an adult, he must be someone who neither smoked nor drank, whose life was extremely disciplined, who had even been fortunate enough to maintain his integrity and principles on his own even in the roiling landslide that was the mortal world.
For a moment, it made one feel shame in their heart.
Gan Qing's mind blanked out. When the melted ice-cream dripped on her fingers, she finally twitched like she was waking up from a dream.
In the quiet little alley, the teenager holding the chocolate ice-cream had already run off far into the distance, the off-beat and off-key song coming from his mouth faintly audible. The little hoodlums at the skewer stall had been scared off by the "Three Stabs Six Holes" jiejie. There was only twilight, only the overlapping shadows.
Even the wind had stopped.
Yu Lanchuan was like a traveller finally reaching the destination he dreamed of, a climber planting a flag on the mountaintop. Full of the satisfaction and exhaustion of accomplishment, he took half a step back and watched Gan Qing's eyes.
Gan Qing's central nervous system had shut down temporarily. Her limbs had no instructions to follow and could only rely on "inertia" to finish doing what she hadn't had the time to just now—which was to stuff the dripping ice-cream into her mouth.
The heavy taste of cream immediately flooded the tip of her tongue, blending in with the dual extreme fire-and-ice taste of mint just now. One side richly sweet, the other clear and austere.
The night wind suddenly rose. The smoke from the skewer stall in the dirty alley blew past. Somewhere nearby, a gremlin kid was playing on a bike, the discordant jingling of the bell sounding non-stop. The bottom of Yu Lanchuan's shoe rubbed a couple of times against the road curb. A lock of hair fell against the center of his handsome forehead, blown by the wind. The overwhelming amount of information flooded Gan Qing's senses. By the time she had put her senses in order and deciphered the information, she had already finished half the ice-cream.
Yu Lanchuan grinded his back molars slightly. "If I may trouble you to give me some guidance, how am I supposed to understand your reaction?"
Gan Qing bit down on the cone as though nothing was happening. It was quite crispy.
One of Yu Lanchuan's eyes started to twitch. "Aren't you being a little bit too-"
"I'm comparing," Gan Qing pressed together her lips that were stained with ice-cream at the corners, "between the two of you to see which one's sweeter."
The soul of her five senses was in her eyes while the lower half of her face had a very low-key appearance. The line of her lips were thin and sharp, and frequently appeared bloodless. It was only when her lips touched something very cold or very hot or very spicy that there would be a bit of a red flush spreading from the middle. It was this little bit of red flush that made Yu Lanchuan's eyes have nowhere to land. His throat twitched and he asked in a rather hoarse voice, "And is there a result to your comparison?"
Gan Qing seemed to want to say something but halfway through her thought, she swallowed it back down. She kept it all in and remained quiet, nibbling on the rest of the ice-cream and smiling the whole while. Just like that, she turned and walked back towards the little restaurant. But her eyes turned after her body; they hooked ruthlessly around Yu Lanchuan's neck, pulling him along.
I was just speaking randomly, how could you really believe me? A little silly, aren't you? Gan Qing thought. How can I compare you to it? This thing is only five yuan.
She went back and asked the boss to wrap up the remaining baked pastries. The boss not only did that but also insisted on giving her another dozen.
Gan Qing said, "Don't add more. How can we not finish eating and then even leave with more?"
"Take it. You two coming here is fate," the boss said. "Eat your fill and save yourself the trouble of missing the taste and not having anywhere to go to get it."
Gan Qing didn't manage to refuse. She could only hook the takeaway bag on Yu Lanchuan's hand and stealthily hid the money to pay for the meal under a glass of water. When the two of them exited the shop, they bumped into two workers working overtime. They were carrying a bucket of oil paint and painting the character for "demolition" on the next street. They would reach this street very soon.
Gan Qing stopped walking and watched them for a while. From the takeaway bag, she took out a baked pastry and stretched out a hand to Yu Lanchuan. "Give me that letter."
Yu Lanchuan hesitated a while. "You still want to read it?"
"I haven't finished reading." Gan Qing held the baked pastry in one hand, her palm catching the falling sesame seeds. She walked backwards. "If I don't understand this matter clearly, how can I put a total end to it?"
She wanted to uncover all the debts and enmity in the past, even if she had already tied them into a dead knot and tossed them into a pot of hot oil herself.
The oil was already bubbling but she still had to reach in herself and dredge them up because those people in her past—the one who treated her well and the one who had done wrong by her—were all no longer here. She was the only one from Wan Mu Chun left, so how could she dare to live such a miserable and scattered life?
And there was also Yu Lanchuan, this fool who turned down all the perfect women of the world and insisted on wasting the best years of his life with her. He had done so many years of risk management but he must have just been doing his work blindly without learning anything. How could she let him lose everything he had worked so hard for?
In an instant, Yu Lanchuan suddenly saw the Gan Qing walking backwards against the light now overlapping with the Gan Qing from many years ago.
Treading on wind, like the intense, fiery clouds at the break or close of day.
Yan Hao swept the floor clean of fur, then lifted his head to look at Qiao-Qiao. She was wearing a face mask and her face seemed to only have a pair of eyes. The little dog that had just been groomed lay obediently in front of her, whining for attention. It was the perfect picture of time passing by peacefully.
Yan Hao thought, All the bad guys are dead. Yang Ping is also in prison. The future will be better.
Qiao-Qiao sensed his gaze and lifted her head to look at him. Yan Hao gave her a foolish laugh. He ran over eagerly to a corner, brought a bag of newly-bought canned pet food over and put it down. He wrote in Qiao-Qiao's book: Why don't you continue your studies? Wouldn't it be good to become a vet?
Qiao-Qiao tilted her head and looked at him.
I have money. Yan Hao wrote every word carefully. I can give it to you for school fees.
There was a flicker in Qiao-Qiao's eyes. She seemed to be smiling. She took the pen and wrote: Little gege, don't be such a nice person. Nice guys finish last and are easily bullied.
Yan Hao didn't take it to heart. He patted the little dog's glossy back and laughed gently as he said goodbye to Qiao-Qiao and left.
Qiao-Qiao watched him leave. The smile in her eyes, like sunlight reflected in clear waves, gradually faded. Through the windows of the shop, she cast a dark look at No. 110 Courtyard, both her hands curling into fists.
The little dog that had been wagging its tail just now let out a howl and leaped down from the counter to hide in a corner.
Zhang Meizhen was accompanying Old Sect Leader Yang at the hospital. In Gan Qing's home, there was no one else.
Yu Lanchuan found a piece of blank paper. "The ones who kidnapped the families of the Beggars' Sect sect elders were from Travellers' Sect. However, Wei Huan and Zhu Cong didn't go after them first because Elder Zhu had taken his revenge back then. Those who were arrested and sentenced were all disciples who had only followed instructions and were not the main culprits. Furthermore, they have served their time in prison, so the debts were cleared. At the very start, the people the two of them traced were the ones who set fire on the building and the ones deemed innocent and released. However, during this process, they realised that something was wrong."
Gan Qing spread Wei Huan's letter out page by page. "Mm. At the start, they naturally assumed that the kidnappers and the one who instructed my… the people who started the fire were from the same group. But when one of them was pleading desperately, he said something suspicious. He said, 'Your side wanted to harm your own people, why must you drag me into it? I only owed a bit of money.'"
When Yu Lanchuan heard this, he put down the pen. "Actually, I have always found two things very strange."
Gan Qing glanced at him.
"Firstly, even if those sect elders weren't at home themselves at that time and there were only the elderly, the womenfolk and the children at home; even if, coincidentally, none of these people could fight, they should still have the time to shout for help, shouldn't they? Some of the victims' families have four or five people. What did they do to control so many people in an instant without making any noise?"
Such things did indeed happen in foreign movies but firstly, the villains there at the very least had guns in their hands and secondly, the place where the victims lived had to be remote enough with a great distance separating them from their neighbours. The victims wouldn't have the time to shout for help.
But Yanning in the eighties was not like that. At that time, many people stayed in small single-story houses and numerous households crammed into each small alley. There was no privacy to speak of between the residents. If a quarrelling couple raised their voices just a little, they might just have busybody neighbours advising them from the other side of the wall. If there were villains barging in, as long as a frightened child shouted, the neighbours in all directions would definitely turn on the lights.
"Secondly, Qiao-Qiao said that her uncle who committed suicide was innocent. Yang Ping had tricked him into being the messenger and used him to clear himself of suspicion when the plot was exposed. Don't you think that this reasoning is very strange? Does the fact that the messenger was on good terms with the victims and that he was a good person proved that he was innocent? Furthermore, even if the messengers were innocent, it doesn't mean that Yang Ping is innocent, does it? Beggars' Sect can't refuse logic just because their ancestors had made begging their main business."
Gan Qing said, "But her uncle, the messenger, is already dead. Since her mum was also sent to his hometown in the village, it shows that Elder Zhu had never suspected the messengers."
"I think that the relationship between those two families didn't only extend as far as 'did not suspect,'" Yu Lanchuan said. "Think about it, if you have a friend who was manipulated by someone and caused the deaths of your entire family, even if this person didn't know at all what would happen and had also committed suicide to redeem himself, would you really not hold a grudge in your heart? Even if Elder Zhu was an exceptionally kind and generous person, and couldn't bear to see a pitiful girl all on her own without anyone to look after her, he could have just found someone in Yanning to take her in. Why must he place her together with his only child who was all he had left? Isn't this too strange?"
Gan Qing was first briefly stunned. Then, she looked up abruptly.
"To support each other in this way," Yu Lanchuan said each word clearly, "they must either have gone through a life-or-death situation together or they must be in cahoots."
Both Old Sect Leader Yang and Zhang Meizhen had been overwhelmed by feelings of love and felt that all the weapons of war could be turned into beautiful jade and silk. But what happened was that not only was Travellers' Sect and Yang Ping dissatisfied, Elder Zhu and his peers were also strongly against Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect having a marriage union.
But Yang Qing, the old sect leader, was one of the Five Supremes since before the country's liberation. Having been the sect leader for so many years, he was the one whose word was the absolute truth within the sect. If he had made the resolve to be an "incapable ruler," no matter how much the sect elders opposed him, there was no room for them to say anything… In that case, how could they put a stop to this matter?
Gan Qing's fingers tapped on the edge of the table. "Old Sect Leader Yang is still wielding the Dog Beating Staff at the age of over ninety. If he doesn't fall, the people below him dare not take action. More than thirty years ago, he was in his fifties. He was at the peak of his life, like the sun at midday. Elder Zhu publicly causing a ruckus at an occasion like the Martial Arts General Assembly and embarrassing the sect leader doesn't seem like something a sect elder could do in the first place."
"They first started a conflict on purpose. In the evening, they found an excuse to gather everyone to drink and drown their sorrows together. They discussed with a few friends and took their families to stay the night in another place. They directed and acted out the 'kidnapping' themselves to force Elder Yang to abdicate," Yu Lanchuan said. "Elder Zhu and the others, the messengers, the kidnappers, the victims, Yang Ping—they were all accomplices who knew what was going on from the start. This is the only explanation I can think of."
Right at that moment, the landline in the house rang, interrupting their hair-rising deductions.
Gan Qing picked up the receiver without much thought. "Hello?"
"It's me. You aren't sleeping yet, are you?" Zhang Meizhen asked. "I don't know what happened but there was suddenly a large batch of critically ill patients brought to the hospital. There aren't enough beds to go around and even the corridors are full of patients lying down. It's a mess. Old Yang has recovered quite a bit. We discussed with the doctor, he'll first return home today and we'll complete the discharge paperwork tomorrow. We'll be back soon. I didn't bring my keys. Keep the door unlocked for me."
"Oh…" Gan Qing's attention had yet to switch over and she was half a beat late in realising what Zhang Meizhen was talking about. "It… It's late at night. Is it okay for Sect Leader Yang to go through all this trouble?"
In actual fact, her implicit question was: right now, there's no distinction between good and bad for Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect, they've both become rats hunted down in the streets; the beggars that roamed around No. 110 in the past have practically all vanished; Yang Ping, who was missing for many years, is being isolated and interrogated, and it's still unknown what will happen to him; the old master has yet to fully recover from his illness—if he comes back to No. 110 now and faces this situation, can he recuperate well?
"He was the one who wanted to go back." Zhang Meizhen was a sharp person and could decipher her hidden meaning even through the phone signals. She said, "Let him do as he likes. At that age, how many more days can he have where things are the way he wants? What else can he not accept?"
"Then I'll keep the door unlocked." Gan Qing paused. Right then, the bedroom window that was not shut properly was blown open by the wind. A glass wind chime hanging on the clothes drying rack jangled noisily. Gan Qing seemed to be suddenly possessed by the spirit of the witch "Teacher Meng-Meng"; an indescribable feeling bloomed in her chest. "Meizhen-jie, wait!"
"Be careful on your way back."
Zheng Meizhen let out a disdainful sigh, finding Gan Qing's worries baseless, and hung up.
Before Gan Qing could tidy up the loose threads in her mind, her intuition had already leaped far ahead and was desperately signalling something to her. She frowned and looked at Yu Lanchuan. "You're saying that Elder Zhu and the others colluded with their own families to put on an act together with Yang Ping?"
"The reason why the kidnapping could happen silently and succeed was because the victims walked out themselves and the messengers were there to lead the way. The families of those who organised the thing would go to the outskirts to have fun while those remaining here would force the old sect leader to give them an explanation and provoke a conflict between both sides," Yu Lanchuan said. "But there's a problem here."
"Firstly, there were too many people participating in this plot. Hence, when the plot was underway, there was a high chance that there would have been people having second thoughts. In the hearts of the Beggars' Sect disciples, there is affection and respect for the old sect leader. Using an underhanded method to threaten the old sect leader's authority—even if they meant well for Beggars' Sect, it would have been hard for them to overcome this internal hurdle. The moment someone hesitates and leaks the secret, the entire matter would become a complete joke," Yu Lanchuan said. "Secondly, since they were pretending to go missing, they would definitely have to come back after the fuss was over. At that time, these people would be completely unharmed with not a single one missing. With Zhang Meizhen's methods, it would be very easy for the entire matter to be revealed. Even the deep feud between the two sects that had gone on for generations was on the verge of being transformed from weapons of war to beautiful jade and silk in her hands, wasn't it? This is just a small ripple in the water in comparison. In that case, all their efforts would have been for nothing."
What was lacking between Beggars' Sect and Travellers' Sect was not small conflicts. It was a final, no-way-out, deep animosity borne from a sea of blood.
While some people were foolishly following the crowd and causing trouble, there were other people sharpening their knives and laying out the plot.
"If Yang Ping had colluded with Wang Jiusheng, with Wang Jiusheng's craftiness, they didn't even have to do anything themselves. The two of them only needed to find the right time to leak the news about this matter, fan the flames a little, and the extremists in Travellers' Sect would explode in rage," Gan Qing said lightly. "We held our nose and coexisted peacefully with you guys but you guys not only humiliated our North Branch Master in public, you're even playing this kind of unorthodox trick behind our backs and making us shoulder the blame."
In that case, they might as well make the accusation a reality.
"Those prepared to 'leave their homes to go on a trip' didn't expect that they were walking from the flock of sheep into the wolves' mouths themselves. Travellers' Sect made a sudden move that caught them unawares by helping them turn the pretense into reality," Yu Lanchuan said. "This is why Qiao-Qiao's uncle contained his hatred and committed suicide and why, after Elder Zhu destroyed himself in pursuit of revenge, he sent the children far away to the rural village."
This desperate all-or-nothing struggle was actually the result of hatred mixed with the inescapable guilt and shame for his part in the deaths.
Gan Qing tapped on the letter in her hands. "Many years later, Elder Zhu's orphan son, Zhu Cong, came back to Yanning for revenge. Did Zhu Cong know all this inside information?"
Yu Lanchuan calmly replied with another question, "If you were Elder Zhu, would you tell your thirteen-year old son the truth? If you were Zhu Cong, even if you were as brilliantly clever as your name implied, would your thoughts go in this direction? Putting aside whether or not you would think this way, even if someone directly told you this, would you believe them?"
Gan Qing had nothing to say to that.
If good and evil were as clearly separated as oil and water, if they were completely incompatible, how wonderful would that be. This way, all the victims in the world would be perfect and faultless and everything bad would have a villain they could pin all the blame on. Life would be as simple as the subjective questions in Year 3 of primary school. The people involved in the matter and the bystanders could all breathe a sigh of relief.
Yu Lanchuan asked, "And then? Where did those two revenge-seekers who were as directionless as headless houseflies went off to?"
"According to this letter, the ones who intercepted the kidnapping were extremists from Travellers' Sect but the ones who instigated the fire should be Beggars' Sect own people," Gan Qing said. "The two of them wasted a few years and after much difficulty, uncovered the ones who started the fire and carried out justice. Initially, they thought that this great revenge had been taken, they didn't think that there would be such twists and turns behind it. But the two of them had neither power nor might. Even finding a few old-timers who were living in hiding already took all the strength they had. How could it be easy to find the traitors after so many years had passed? At this point, someone found Wei Huan. In his letter, he said-"
Shifu, before this, I still dared to say that I picked up the blade for the sake of friendship and was righting wrongs on behalf of Heaven. But after this, I am too ashamed to face you again.
The entire time the two of us looked for those people, we also hid and dodged. We didn't have any other source of income and were also afraid of people investigating us. We had no choice but to use low-quality fake I.D.s and do illegal jobs. The little bit of money we earned was only enough to cover our travel expenses. The longest time we went without eating meat was half a year… But this is nothing. The two of us are not growing anymore anyway, we don't have to worry about our bodies not developing well. What makes us despair the most is that the path ahead of us is so vast. We have no direction. Just relying on ourselves to investigate, on our own without any help, what century would it be before we are done? Will we still have the chance to see the light of day in our lifetime? That's why, when the Xu clan came to me, I really had no way to refuse.
Back then, for the sake of gathering demonic skills, Xu Zhao set up an evil cult and harboured criminals. He is a wanted criminal. I still have a vague recollection of the time you and a group of the seniors from the older generation helped the police lay siege on Xu Zhao. That old demon Xu Zhao escaped and only a pack of evil cult followers were caught. I never thought that the centipede would survive even when cut apart and I also never thought that "Paoding Jieniu" would also one day become one of their targets. Shifu, I sold out Wan Mu Chun to this kind of person. I'm not fit to be human.
But after one wrong step, every step after that will also be wrong. There is blood on my hands and a mark on my fate that can never be washed away.
I started to "take jobs" from the Xu clan. They introduced me to people who wanted to hire assassins and I took the jobs. If any accidents happened, they would send people to help me clean up. The fee was split equally between us. They were equivalent to an underground intermediary. I thought of myself not as a murderer who could not differentiate between right or wrong—I sold my body but I still wanted to be memorialised—and only accepted revenge jobs. I only killed those who were extremely evil, who had done major crimes, as though I could assuage my conscience this way. The Xu clan agreed to help us investigate what happened back then.
I had Zhu Cong return home and wait for news. I told him that when this matter is over, he should go home and live peacefully with his wife and child. He could stay in the village and farm or he could come out to work. Either way, he should have some days of peace.
I didn't completely depend on the Xu clan either. After all, this was a business transaction. They wouldn't exhaust all means for me. Hence, I also kept an ear out for the slightest hint of trouble in Beggars' Sect. You should remember, eight years ago, something major happened in Beggars' Sect. The sect leader of Beggars' Sect's only child, Yang Ping, was ousted out of the sect. Yang Qing announced that he had severed his father-and-son tie with Yang Ping, and Yang Ping disappeared from then on. This matter was discussed heavily for a period of time but I could see that the list of his crimes had no strong standing at all. Yang Ping's martial arts had long since been destroyed by you. It's been so many years and he has basically vanished without a trace. What kind of wrong had he done to push the kind and generous Yang Qing into making such an extreme decision? There were also people spreading rumours of a love scandal, saying that Zhang Meizhen had returned to Yanning and that he didn't want his biological father to marry a second wife so he did something to Zhang Meizhen. I think that's even more nonsensical and laughable. What age are they now to still be able to do something like this?
A possibility suddenly appeared in my mind. Could the traitor in Beggars' Sect back then be him? This way, when things came to light many years later, Yang Qing finally severed father-and-son ties with him. Zhu Cong had the same thought and came to find me from thousands of miles away. The two of us returned to Yanning together but we didn't find Yang Ping. Hence, we used a blunt-force method and started by investigating the people around Yang Ping at that time. With this, we indeed found some questions.
Two Beggars' Sect disciples who had once had proper jobs in Yanning disappeared without reason back then. They had gone to work at an unremarkable and low-key flour factory in the neighbouring province. This matter was not at all logical. Why would someone living a good life in the city suddenly go to a remote village to work? Didn't they have anything better to do? But because the two of them had nothing at all to do with what happened to Elder Zhu's family and also because there are many in Beggars' Sect for whom the entire land is their home, no one had noticed this before.
And right at that moment, someone from the Xu clan brought me a job. The targets were none other than the two suspicious former Beggars' Sect disciples at the flour factory.
Shifu, can you imagine it? Our immediate reaction was that they were being silenced—by whom? If it was Yang Ping himself, he could have killed them much earlier if he wanted to. Then, the only possibility was… someone who had only recently discovered the truth behind what happened back then. The modest and gentlemanly Yang Qing.
This hypocrite, Yang Qing, is not at all incorruptible and impartial. If he truly is incorruptible, he should announce what his son has done to the whole world and not come up with a whole bunch of shoddy excuses to cover up.
Zhu Cong and I accepted this job and went to the flour factory at Xiaogang Village together. We found those two people, and interrogated and threatened them. As we expected, those two were the lackeys Yang Ping had sent to find someone to start the fire. This flour factory was Travellers' Sect's property.
Everything was clear.
Shifu, if it was a normal person, their immediate reaction at this point would surely be to capture the two of them, make a police report and get them to identify the culprit. What a perfect conclusion that would be. But ever since I collected the first coin from Zhu Cong, we have gone further and further away from this ending. I am an "underground" person and it is impossible for me to have any business with the authorities for the rest of my life. Zhu Cong was also enraged and insisted that blood debt must be repaid with blood. Hence, I took action to end the lives of these two people.
When it was over, Zhu Cong knelt on the ground and howled in anguish. I couldn't bear to watch him so I gave him some time to himself and went back on my own to the guest house we were stopping at. I was also very tired but I felt that I had at last not let down my brother. Only Yang Ping was left before we could bring all our efforts to a satisfactory conclusion. Hence, I slept. In the middle of the night, I was startled awake by a nightmare and only then did I realise that Zhu Cong was not back yet. I suddenly broke out in a cold sweat. I went back to look for him and only then did I find out that soon after I had left, the flour factory exploded. Eighteen people inside were all killed indiscriminately.
This can not be a coincidence!