Gentleman Free-Flowing Cloud Chapter 1-10 (End)

Chapter 1

The secret to longevity is to know one’s limits according to Wang Yun’s beliefs.

Her case is a classic case of name and personality mismatch.  The ‘Yun’ (澐) in her name refers to the big waves on the river, but she is only of average smarts, average charisma, average kongfu, and possess zero guts to boot.  It is ironical that she lives in Bai Ming Sect where people say things like “fight!” or “kill!” every other day.  Thankfully, there are only small waves and no big waves so far….

No, she should be honest and acknowledge that there were times when there were big waves.  Luckily, she managed to tide through each crisis time after time, almost as if the heavens have no eyes or that it is blind.  Since she will be turning twenty this year, it seems that her luck is not too bad and she should be able to live till a ripe old age… As long as she did not walk into a snakepit called the Central Plains. And right into the heart of the enemy camp no less….

Speaking of the Central Plains… wow, this place is so prosperous, so amazing.  She looked around her and finally turned to the young man behind her “He Zai, are they looking at you?”

The young man in question looks around twenty-five or twenty-six.  He is a big man and has a pair of clear brows, full lips, and long hair which he let fall freely on his shoulders, giving him a wild look.  He wears heavy, exotic make-up like her with a snake painted on one side.  Without batting a lid, he answered: “They should be looking at both of us.”

She did not sound pleased at his answer and continued strolling with her hands folded behind her back.  The Sky Slave bell on her wrist matched the Sky Slave bell at his ankle and gave off a pleasant tinkling sound.  However, the people of the Central Plains did not seem to recognize good stuff when they hear or see one for she noticed they were the recipients of many unfriendly stares.

“They are looking at us because... we are Sky Slaves?”

“Miss is clever”

She continued to probe: “So the people in Central Plains are all aware that the bells and snake emblem are the mark of Sky Slaves?”

“Miss is very clever”

She gave the matter more thought, paused, and suddenly skirted behind him: “I am a timid person and am not used to people staring at me. You shall walk in front.”

The young man’s brow puckered before he concurred: “Miss indeed has a timid disposition.”

With that, he continued to stride confidently ahead while she followed suit.  It is really fortunate that he is big and tall so that he can block out most of the unfriendly stares thrown their way.  “Ay, we are akin to “walking towards a mountain when knowing full well that a tiger lives in it”.  He Zai, you must protect me.  I still wish to live and be able see the green mountains and charming streams.”

“That is but of course, Miss” and he added: “Miss can just say she wishes to live till a hundred.”

“Yes, I do wish to live till a hundred, so you must remember to protect me especially if a sword suddenly come swinging towards me.”

He gave up and kept silent.

After a while, they reached a house with the words “Tian He Manor” hung prominently above the door.  Two white lanterns were hanging on either side of the door and there were numerous people in mourning clothes milling around.  At their appearance, everyone paused and looked at them warily.  Some even shifted their hands nearer to the hilt of their swords, disgust clearly showing on their faces.

One of the servants in mourning clothes scrambled through the door and shouted: “Young Master!  There are Sky Slaves!  The Sky Slaves from the Evil Sect are here!”

Does he really need to act so alarmed?  She fingered the snake emblem on her face and looked at her red robes.  Although she is dressed in male garb, she has styled her hair in the same way as a woman would from the Central Plains, so it should be obvious she is a woman.  To avoid unnecessary clashes, she has also plastered a friendly smile on her face so it is be unlikely that the people of Tian He Manor would start banishing their weapons.

While she is lost in her thoughts, a young man dashed out from the manor.  He recovered his composure when he saw them and graciously raised his fist in greeting. “I am the current Master of Tian He Manor, He Rong Hua.  May I enquire what you are doing at Tian He Manor?”

Seeing that He Zai is keeping mum, she has no choice by to reply “My name is Wang Yun, and he is He Zai.  We are passing by when we heard that the esteemed former Master of Tian He Manor has passed away.  We are here especially to pay our last respects.”

At her reply, He Rong Hua’s face softened: “I see…”

One pugilist stepped forward: “Young Master, they are Sky Slaves who have brought disgrace to our wulin[i].  If we let them pay their respects, it will be like a slap across the face for the Old Master.” 

He Rong Hua looked troubled and said regretfully: “Miss Wang, we appreciate your thoughts but it is not convenient now…”

The same pugilist mocked “Why be so polite to them Young Master?  They are Sky Slaves! Everyone knows that Sky Slaves are useless dogs who have deflected to the Evil Sect.  Since they were no match for their opponents, they should have chosen an honorable death instead of a cowardly existence.  If such people are allowed into the manor, it will only sully Old Master’s reputation!“

He Rong Hua has turned rigid but Wang Yun was not too concerned: “Since it is not convenient, we shall not impose and will bade our leave now.”

He Rong Hua lowerd his eyes and kept silent.

He Zai finally spoke: “Miss, please wait. It was said that the Old Master of Tian He Manor has agreed to record all the things he did in the last sixty years after he died, regardless of right or wrong, and for the records to be given to Cloud Manor.  In doing so, he has hope that future generation will have a chance to read about and avoid the same mistakes he did. I admire a man of such high spirit from the bottom of my heart. If the Old Master is looking down from the heavens above, an admirable man such as him would surely not mind to see Sky Slaves among the mourners.”

He Rong Hua raised his head and stared at him with his eyes bright.  “You are right, my late father would not have minded your status.  Had he been alive, he would have welcomed you into the manor himself.  Men! Make the necessary preparations for we do not wish to slight our two friends here.”

The righteous-sounding pugilist from just now was unhappy over the turn of events.  He Rong Hua said to him “Brother Shao De, Gentleman Xian Yun will be arriving soon.  If he thinks that Tian He Manor is acting petty over this and record it in the wulin annals, young brother me would have no face left to see my late father in the neither world.”

Gu Shao De shifted his feet. “Even if that is the case, they should not be allowed to enter through the main door.”

He Rong Hua looked troubled again and glanced at He Zai.

Wang Yun smiled.  “No problem. Main door, side door, both are doors.  We are fine with whatever is convenient.”

So Wang Yun and He Zai entered the manor through a small side door while He Rong Hua waited for them inside.  Wang Yun shot He Zai a look, and with a familiarity borne from years of companionship, both started towards the hall with He Zai in front and Wang Yun following closely behind, the sounds of their bells tinkling with every step they took.

She looked at the back view of He Rong Hua and thought to herself that here is someone from the orthodox sect.  He does not have a devilish glint in his eyes and he is not tall or big as He Zai. Even if he is a Manor Master, she does not find him pleasing to the eyes…

No, it is not merely unpleasing. It is actually bad. Very bad in fact.  Is this fellow suffering from an unknown illness?  Why are his hands trembling so badly?

After she paid her most respects in the inner hall, she walked out to the main hall and waited for He Zai to come out.  After a while, she started to play with the jade flute which she always carried around to while away the time.  She can hear someone calling her “Demoness!” but she ignored it.  Smile, she thought, may peace be with you…

“Shameless!” said another voice but she knows she is not, so she sees no reason why she should think the word is being used on her.  Seeing that she has turned her back to them, someone walked up to her.  She raised her eyes when she saw a pair of boots in front of her, and when she saw who it was, she smiled: “Hello Young Master Gu, I was just angsting over the fact that I have no chance to speak with you.”

Gu Shao De swallowed the insult at the edge of his lips “Are you looking for me?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yes” she said with her eyes bright. “I heard that all those who are here to pay their respects to the Old Master are prominent figures of the wulin.  But when compared with the people here, you look so young and dashing. Why, the wind seems to billow behind you when you walk! If I have to guess, you must have made a name for yourself a long time ago in order to have become a big shot now.”

Gu Shao De gave a slightly embarrassed cough.  “Miss is mistaken.  I am but someone who took up a few pages of the wulin annals.  It is really nothing.”  At her quizzical look, he continued “Or has Miss never heard of Cloud Manor?”

“Er, is Cloud Manor famous?”

Now it was Gu Shao De turn to look quizzical.  “Is Miss not from the Central Plains?”

She smiled and shook her head: “This is my first visit to the Central Plains.”

“I see. So I am mistaken.”  He softened his tone.  Although the majority of Sky Slaves were the disgrace of the Central Plains, there were also some who willing became slaves of the Evil Sec due to poverty.  “People from Cloud Manor are scholars who record all the matters that are happening in the wulin.  They are a neutral party and hold the respect of all major sects.  In particular, Gentleman Xian Yun is especially knowledgeable.  He has attained the title of ‘Gentleman’ at the young age of thirteen and has built up a strong rapport with the other sects in the past decade.  Do you think he is impressive?”

She agreed: “Impressive, impressive indeed….” Isn’t He Zai taking a bit too long?

“With his outstanding temperament, admirable morals, unparalleled talents, it is such a waste that he iives in the messy pugilist world and taint his halo...”

“Yes, such level of talent is rare in both heaven and earth, very rare indeed.”  It is not without regret when she says this.  People who are very pure are usually quick to move on to the Western Paradise.  Amitabha…

“He is also one of the most handsome man in the pugilist world. Refined and elegant, flawless like a beautiful piece of jade.  Be it young or old in the pugilist world, the feeling you get from him is as if he came from the nine heavens. With him around, it is as if a piece of free-floating cloud has floated from the sky to grace our mundane world.”

“… wow, great!” She nearly clapped to complement his admiration.  Where did this nincompoop come from to have such blind devotion? or could it be that Gentleman Xian Yun knew black magic that can beguile people?

Before Gu Shao De could carry on more about Gentleman Xian Yun this and Gentleman Xian Yun that, they heard a commotion at the entrance. “Gentleman Xian Yun is here!” as he rushed out “Open the main doors wide and welcome the gentleman into the Manor!”

The servants rushed obey.  From her corner at the hall, she noted that the side door was so small, it was almost like a pet entrance.  So she came in through the small door like a dog while another waltzed through the main door like a king…. these people in Tian He Manor were indeed a bias lot. 

She decided to stop looking and took a cup of tea from a nearby servant. A good listener who can say the right things at the right time must take good care of her voice …

The commotion got louder as everyone present seemed to swarm around the new arrivals. Are these people really here to mourn, or are they waiting for Gentleman Xian Yun?

“Gentleman Xian Yun, this way please.”

“We are like family Brother Shao De, please do not stand on ceremony.”

The voice sounded like warm jade with a hint of coolness in it.  The voice is much more pleasant-sounding then He Zai’s and if the owner has a beautiful face to match, how great would that be?  Although she was wary of beautiful things, she appreciated eye-candy and so it is with great anticipation when she tried to locate the owner of the voice.

When she saw a dashing figure in white, she froze.  This is the like-a-flawless-jade Gentleman Xian Yun?

Gentleman Xian Yun gave her a cursory glance before his eyes was drawn to the Sky Slave bangle on her wrist.  She noticed his split-second pause but she gave nothing away as she nodded at him.  He did not lift his eyes from her and returned with an equally polite nod.

“She is a Sky Slave.” said Gu Shao De in low tones.

“I see, she is a Sky Slave…” muttered Gentleman Xian Yun, and finally looked away to light a joss stick. 

Wang Yun looked at the crowd in the hall and asked Gu Shao De. “Young Master Gu, those dogs (狗) outlside … I mean who is the rather dashing  (够帅) young master outside?” [note: ‘rather dashing’ sounds similar to ‘dog’] No matter from which angle, the scene before her was exactly like a pack of dogs fighting over a bone.  If her guess was correct, the man arrived together with Gentleman Xian Yun.

“That is Fifth Gentlemen as he is ranked fifth among the numeric scholars.  He is Gentleman Xian Yun’s assistant”

“Oh I see.”  What a clever move!  The next time there is a crisis, she could take a leaf from Gentleman Xian Yun’s book, and throw He Zai to the wolves while she escape. Seamless collaboration – that has always been the best word to describe her relation with He Zai.

When Gentleman Xian Yun has finished paying his respects, Gu Shao De informed him that the young master of the manor has brought a Sky Slave to see the body, and that he should will be back soon. A fleeting look crossed Gentleman Xian Yun eyes but he was expressionless as he replied: “Old Master is indeed a man of high standing, that even Sky Slaves would come pay their respects to him.”

He turned to her: “I am Gong Sun Xian Yun (闲云) [meaning: free-floating cloud].”

“Young missy here is Wang Yun (王澐)” she replied.  So much etiquette! She suspects a normal person in the Central Plains would probably spend half of his life on such polite exchanges.

He repeated her name slowly “Wang Yun (王云)?”

 “Gentleman is a free-floating cloud high up in the skies, while I am but a puff of cloud above the water.”  For some reason, she felt her skin crawl when he repeated her name, although his voice sounded somewhat familiar….

He looked at her for a while before continuing: “So Miss is the waves above the river (澐). It is indeed a good name. Would Miss be so kind to enlighten me on who you work for?”

She smiled and replied without missing a beat “I work for the Huang Fu family, but it is all menial tasks I do.”

“Oh I see, the Huang Fu family of Bai Ming sect…” he circled her and his eyes landed on her hair “It is indeed true that a strong general has no weak troops.  Xian Yun deeply admires Miss Wang’s courage to tour the Central Plains with your fellow companion.”

He Rong Hua finally walked into the hall with He Zai behind him. “Huang Fu family?  Are you referring to the Left Protector of the Evil Sect?  Over the past few decades, the Huang Fu family has lost its standing within Bai Ming sect.  Xian Yun, do you have any records of them in your library”

"Ever since Huang Fu passed his title to his three-year old daughter seventeen years ago, there have been no more reports on them.” Gentleman Xian Yun paused and added meaningfully “Until today, Cloud Manor has no idea on how she looks like, her whereabouts, her interests, or how many men she has under her.”

He Rong Hua gave a cold snort: ”It does sound quite mysterious.  Historically, the Left and Right Protectors are potential successors to the Master of the Evil Sect.  The current Left Protector is Huang Fu Yun and Right Protector is Che Yan Yan.  The latter loves to acquire Sky Slaves and has provoked us on multiple occasions.  It is likely she would become the next Master…. Miss Wang, since you work in the Huang Fu family, do you know the Left Protector thoughts on this?”

Wang Yun waited until He Zai has reached her side and that she is within his protection zone before replying: “Ay, how am I supposed to answer when Young Master put it like that?  Afterall, I do work for them.”  She pretended to look torn, and sighed when Gong Sun Xian Yun did not lift his eyes off her still. “Actually there is nothing much to hide. The Huang Fu family is not mysterious, it is just that they have declined.  Miss Huang Fu is weak in intellect and is incapable of fulfilling the duties of a Protector, much less become the next Master.  I think in another two years, someone else will be taking over her position, and there will be no further need for Gentleman Xian Yun to record anything about the Huang Fu family.”

Gong Sun Yun did not speak, and continued to stare unwavering at her.  She ignored him and turned to He Zai: “Let us not stay here and trouble Young Master further.”

He Zai nodded “It is indeed time to leave.”

She noted once again that He Rong Hua’s hands were shaking.  Disease.  Confirm he must be suffering from a disease!
 
“Are you leaving so soon?” He Rong Hua summoned a maid to serve tea.  “Brother He, Miss Wang, if you leave so hastily without even drinking some tea, it will really be too remiss of me.”

“The fact that Young Master allowed us to pay our respects already spoke volumes on your magnanimity. Old Master must be smiling from the heavens to know that he has such a worthy successor.”  She saw a maid passing a tray of tea to Gu Shao De, which He Rong Hua then took a cup from the tray for He Zai.  He Zai passed the first cup to her before taking another cup for himself.

Gong Sun Yun said “It may not be safe for Sky Slaves to travel in the Central Plains so Miss Wang and company must remain vigilant.  If you encounter trouble, you must look for people to help you out.”

“Of course, of course.”  She sipped her tea and found it to her liking.  If she has the chance, she must find a way to bring some tea home.

He Zai, Gu Shao De finished their drink in one gulp.  Gong Sun Yun waited until all have finished before turning to He Rong Hua: “I have written an extra copy of the chronicles of Old Master last night which you can place in his coffin at a later time.”

He Rong Hua was full of gratitude: “Xian Yun, thank you so much!”

Seeing that they have changed the topic, Wang Yun was about to signal He Zai to leave when she suddenly felt dizzy and a sharp pain in her abdomen.   “Miss Wang!” Gong Sun Yun was the first to notice something was wrong and reached out to catch her as she fainted.  

He Zai was a step faster as he caught her and nestled her to his chest “Miss!"

That scumbag! She just knew the better tasting something is, the more likely it is to bring trouble. The stench of blood has already risen her throat and Wang Yun did not bother to hold back as she threw up all over He Zai’s as an outlet for her anger.

“What!”

 The exclamation of a male voice jolted her back to consciousness.

“Miss and I will stay in the same room.  Young Master need not send anyone to take care of us.” She recognized the second voice as He Zai’s.

She has to struggle before she managed to open her eyes a crack.  The surroundings were unfamiliar – unfamiliar bed, unfamiliar house.  Through the half-open door, she could see that it was now night time.  There were two men outside the room; one is He Zai, and the other…. is it the disease-stricken He Rong Hua?

“Are you husband and wife?” He Rong Hua sounded alarmed.

“No.”

“Since you are not, it is inappropriate for an unmarried man and woman to spend the night together in the same room…”

“If someone else were to look after Miss, it will be even more inappropriate.  Miss was poisoned while she was in the manor.  Unless Young Master can find the culprit, He Zai would not dare to let anyone else get close to Miss.”

“That is impossible!  No one in Tian He Manor would do such a despicable thing.”

“It is a fact that Miss was poisoned.  Your doctor has confirmed this; the poison has been found in the tea.  Or does Young Master believe that your people could not have done this so it must have been Miss who poisoned herself?”

“No, that is not what I mean…” The protest sound weak and even placatory.

“I hope Young Master finds the culprit soon.”  He Zai did not speak more and proceeded to close the door in He Rong Hua’s face.  He came to the bedside and frowned as he met her eyes. “Miss has been poisoned and has been sleeping for several hours.  It is night time now.”

She struggled to sit up despite feeling weak all over. “I know.”

He Zai steadied her gently. “It is lucky that Fifth Gentleman of Cloud Manor is here.  He is well-versed in the arts of healing and he is the one who found that Miss has been poisoned.  I have fed you the medicine but you will need to rest for a few days.”

She shot him a look.  Ignoring her aching body, she moved to the table and snuffed the candle.  As the room plunged into darkness, she ordered: “He Zai, come to bed.”

Outside, someone sighed.

“Yes… Miss.” He Zai did not move a muscle.

She closed her eyes and after a while, she heard a set of footsteps stomping away.

“Although your vital organs are not harmed, you will need to rest.  It is best not to exert your qi (energy) in the next few days.” 

She did not open her eyes and fingered her jade flute.  Her breathing was unsteady and her lips were white.

“Miss?”

“He Zai, how long have you been with me?”  

“It has been ten years exactly.”

“So it has been ten years… tell me, have I been poisoned in these ten years?”

“Missy is more intelligent than most, and has not fallen into anyone’s trap.”

She opened her eyes slowly: “Wrong. It is because I am lucky.”  Across the darkness, she locked eyes with him. “He Zai, I have something to ask you. Come here.”

He Zai has never disobeyed when she used this tone and he came to her.

She looked at his mane of long hair, the prominent muscles on his chest and back.  Just a blow and he could have killed her easily.  Thinking back, although He Zai used to have flower-boy looks, the same could no longer be said about him now.  This was one of her regrets and was something that would haunt her dreams from time to time. Speaking of good looks –

“What do you think of Gentleman Xian Yun?”

Surprise flickered across his eyes and she sighed:“Who is the one who started the rumor that his looks is out of this world?”  Although his looks were above average and he was indeed refined and elegant, he was too cool and aloof when talking with people.  

And his looks…. unless her eyes were blind, the outstanding air the descend-from-nine-heavens thingy was utter rubbish!  Although he was pleasing to the eyes, he was definitely not a diamond of the first water.  She was utterly disappointed and has proven to herself once again that rumors cannot be trusted.

“Is Miss asking me on the looks of Gong Sun Yun?”  Has she gone off tangent?

She asked with meaning: “What else should I be asking?”

He did not meet her eyes and replied in low tones. “When I left the Central Plains ten years ago, Gong Sun Yun has already achieved the title of “Gentleman”.  In the Cloud Family, the historians are called “Gentleman” while ones who excelled in martial arts are called “Master”.  Together, both title holders will run the family.  But ever since Master Fu passed away many years ago, the title of “Master” has been left vacant.  Because Gong Sun Yun is both skilled and knowledgeable, everyone views him as the only leader of the clan.  For this alone, he can be considered to be one of the most successful person in this generation.”

She said half in jest: “From what you said, you and him are poles apart.  Ten years ago, you were at least a promising young hero. Now, you are only a Sky Slave whom anyone can trample upon.”

He did not get angry. “What Miss said is true.”

“Famous people would often get elevated to god-like statuses. What we can tell from this is that there are very few new talents in the past twenty years, in order for the rumors to make Gong Sun Yun sound so outstanding.  If this carries on, I bet Gong Sun Yun would have become an actual Deity from the Nine Heavens in another forty years.”  She found it funny just thinking of the possibility.

Although he knew she has exaggerated, he went along with her. “It is quite possible. Of every ten young heroes back then, seven or eight would have either ended up like me or they would prove to be only mediocre when they grow up....  Miss, although you are feeling fine now, it is best not to over exert yourself.  Let me carry you to the bed.”

She was silent for a long time.  Finally when the watchman's clapper sounded, she gave a small nod and He Zai picked her up carefully and placed her on the bed.  She closed her eyes and let him pull the blankets over her.

“Miss.”  The word was whispered into her ears.

“Hmm?”

“The body in the coffin did not belong to the Old Master”

She did not open her eyes.

He continued: “Someone swapped the body and changed the face to make it appear like the Old Master.”

“Is that so?”

“Could Miss guess what happened?”

“If I am able to guess correctly with so little information, I would have beaten Gong Sun Yun to become a god from heaven.”

He Zai fell silent and asked no more.  He moved a stool to the bedside and closed his eyes to rest for the night.  Just when he thought she has fallen asleep, he heard her speak: ”He Zai, it is not that I do not wish to think from your point of view.  But look at me – I already have white hair despite my age. If a person does not have the intellect and yet persists in over-thinking, this is what happens. Do take pity on me and let me keep my black locks for a few more years.”

“…I should not have let Miss over-exert.”

“It is just as well that I am poisoned and need to recuperate for a few days.  You can take this opportunity to stay in Tian He Manor and find out what happened.”

For some reason, he got the feeling her ‘just as well’ contained a second meaning.  He replied softly: “We can talk more about this tomorrow.  Please rest early Miss.” They have been together for ten years, with one never far from the other. He has not noticed this earlier but over the last two years, he realized that woman are indeed weaker than man in some aspects.  Although she has been treated immediately when she was poisoned, her core was injured and she needed to rest.

She gave a snort. “He Zai, do you know why I always say that it is thanks to pure luck that I am still alive today?”

No, he knew she was not lucky, she was…
She did not need to look at him to be able to see through his thoughts.  She smiled. “It is true.  I am lucky.  But my luck is built on the pretext of my beliefs and habits.  The better-tasting something is, the more problem it contains and cannot be consumed.  The more attractive something is, the more likely it is to conceal poison and cannot be touched.  The more addictive a feeling is, the more it must be avoided to prevent falling into a trap.  The closer a person is to you, the more important it is to keep a distance so that one do not end up died.  These are my beliefs that have kept me alive till now. Who would have guessed that I would still have fallen into a trap despite all this?”
* * * * *

“They are sharing a room!” He Rong Hua clenched his hands tightly into fists.  The night was cool as water but the flames of his anger could have easily reached the sky.

Gong Sun Yun leaned against the wall.  He lowered his eyes and did not reply.

“I have not thought… I have assumed…. but they were not husband and wife… Xian Yun, do you think that person…”

“Which person? Him, or her?” In the night, Gong Sun Yun sounded even colder than normal. 

He Rong Hua swallowed his anger and bit out: “Of course I am referring to Wang Yun!  She is utterly shameless to be sharing room with a man!”

“Sons and daughters of the pugilist world are less particular over such matters.  There were similar cases of sharing arrangements before this, so Rong Hua should not take it to heart.”  Gong Sun Yun glance remained downcast, his heart clearly not on the subject matter at hand.

“So you are saying the two did not…. did not…”

“I would think not.” 

“But such situations are still best to be avoided.  I have only expected one to show up but now there were two… And who on earth is the culprit? Only Wang Yun was poisoned when there were five, six cups on the tray.  Who would know that she would definitely get the cup with the poison? And why would someone want to poison a Sky Slave who is a nobody? Xian Yun, have you guessed the answer?” 

Gong Sun Yun tore a small branch off a nearby tree and started toying with it.  “Fifth Brother, will the poison leave any residual effects?” 

Gong Sun Zhi (Fifth Gentleman) replied: “Although this is a fast-acting poison, it is also quick to remove.  The person who administered the poison must have known that I am well-verse in the healing arts and that I could save her in time.  Plus, Miss Wang has a good foundation, so if she rests well over the next few days, there should not be any residual effects.”

Gong Sun Yun snapped the branch into two. “Rong Hua, the answer is out.”

He Rong Hua was still confused. “I only know that it is not you, and definitely not me.”

“Young Master, Xian Yun is referring to He Zai.”  said Gong Sun Zhi.

He Rong Hua could not believe what he has just heard: “You are saying… Impossible!  Even if it is him, it must have been the two of them in it together….”

Gong Sun Yun’s voice was like jade hitting on rock and he did not mince his words. “You can choose what you want to believe.  The closer someone is to you, the easier it is for the person to strike.  She has raised a tiger and this tiger could turn on her anytime.”

“Xian Yun, should we drop a hint to Miss Wang?” asked Gong Sun Zhi.

“She will know who poisoned her when she wakes up.  We need not interfere.”  Gong Sun Yun threw the broken branch on the ground. When he raised his eyes, his expression was normal again. “Rong Hua, you have to be mentally prepared.  Fifth Brother has conducted some experiments and found that the snake tattoo on a Sky Slave’s face cannot be removed.  If you wish to retain this person, Tian He Manor would have to face unspeakable pressure in future.”

“I know.  Even if Tian He Manor was to revert to its humble beginnings or become ousted from the pugilist world, I will still insist on keeping He Zai.  But Wang Yun is a problem.  If she tried to stop him or sought help from Huang Fu… Xian Yun, do you think we should strike first?”  At Gong Sun Yun’s icy stare, he backpedaled. “If not, what do you think?”

“If you wish He Zai to stay, leave her alone.” Gong Sun Yun could only say so much.  His clear eyes took on an unreadable expression as he looked towards the room where Wang Yun and He Zai were spending the night.   

Chapter 2

She has miscalculated. She should not have hankered after the warm morning breeze and chosen this secluded spot in the courtyard to take a nap...

“Xian Yun, will you be coming to my dad’s birthday party next month?”

“Xian Yun will definitely be there to congratulate Elder Deng on his sixtieth birthday.  If Xian Yun cannot make it, Cloud Manor will arrange for another person to be there, so Miss Hai Tang (海棠) [meaning: Asiatic Apple blossom, a type of ornamental flower] need not worry.” 

The delivery was so polite, it only made his rejection all the more pronounced.  The old tree besides her has blocked her from the view of the new comers but it did not block their voices.

Hai Tang, Hai Tang... now she remembered where she heard this name.  When He Rong Hua came to look for He Zai this morning, he has intentionally mentioned the name in her presence. According to him, Deng Hai Tang was the No. 1 Beauty in the pugilist world and she was here at Tian He Manor.  Because she was so beautiful, her nickname was Hai Tang Fairy.

She perked up at the mention of such a pretty nickname but was quickly put back in place when He Rong Hua gave her a faint look of disdain. She touched her heavily painted face and thought that although the exotic make-up has obscured her original looks, it should have helped in making her look attractive.  If He Rong Hua looked down on her looks, did it mean that his Fairy would live up to her nickname?

Her curiosity got the better of her and she stuck her head around the tree to check out the man and woman in the courtyard.  The man was back-facing her but she recognized him as the deity-from-nine-heavens from his silver white robes.  Although Deity’s looks were only above-average, he carried himself very well and it was pleasant just staring at his back.

As for the woman… she blinked her eyes.  She was a rare beauty, but… shouldn’t a Fairy be prettier? 

Rumors were indeed exaggerations of the truth.  If she had been disappointed with the deity-from-nine-heavens; she had urge to cry when she saw this flower nymph.  If she were ten years younger, her utterly disappointment could have driven her to rebel and become a demoness for real. 

Turning back, she decided to continue napping.  When she was looking at the couple, she had felt the emotional distance between the two despite their physical closeness.  And the distance was intentionally put there by deity-from-nine-heavens.

“Xian Yun… you are twenty-six this year… do you not wish to…”

“Miss Deng,” His voice was polite as ever. “it is not that I do not wish to marry.  I have met many ladies in the Central Plains but none of them is the one I want.”  In other words, he is not the least bit interested even if you are the No. 1 Beauty.  Wang Yun could almost hear his impatience, which was getting more and more palpable.

“Not even I… even I…”

This time, his words were even more direct: “Hero is a definite match for Beauty, but Xian Yun can never be your  hero.”

Hai Tang was not giving up. “Xian Yun, you said that you have not met the girl you like in the Central Plains. Are the rumors true then that the one you like is Che Yan Yan from Bai Ming Sect?  You hoard your smiles from everyone but you smiled at Che Yan Yan…”

Wang Yun nearly fell off from her railing. Deity-from-nine-heavens with man-lover Che Yan Yan? What a good match!

Still, she did not wish to eavesdrop further and risk endangering her life.  If she did not know what they were talking about, all this would naturally become none of her business.  But how should she escape?  Climb a tree, or try to sneak out?

In the end, she chose to stay put and tune out all conversation happening around her.  With her eyes closed, she discovered that she was actually quite tired and she slowly slipped into slumber.  

When she was young, she had feared that Sect Leader would poison her, so she tried consuming small amounts of poison every day to increase her tolerance level for toxin. Unfortunately, she could not bear the pain and gave up the training eventually.  She was at fault for being lazy and thinking that she could depend on He Zai to keep poison at bay. In the end, the person closest to her was the one who poisoned her…

She was unaware of dozing off but when she woke up, the surroundings were quiet.  She should be relieved that she managed to remain undetected but something made her uneasy and she opened her eyes abruptly.  And saw someone beside her.

A polite voice floated down. “Miss Wang is awake.”

Thank goodness she has mastered her poker face!  She sighed inwardly and greeted Gong Sun Yun, who was leaning against another railing. 

His refine air was really much more attractive than his looks.  Looking at him, she thought that his eyes were probably his best feature - had they not look like stagnant pools from the utter lack of any emotion in them.  Where was the x-factor that that has charmed everyone?  What did Hai Tang Fairy and Che Yan Yan see in him? Is it for his talent or status?  She decided to feign innocence and asked drowsily: “Have I fallen asleep?”

“You have been sleeping for a while. Probably soon after I have rejected Miss Deng.” 

This man was indeed highly skilled in kungfu to be able to discern the changes in her breathing pattern.  She stared at him for a while before saying slowly: “Gentleman Xian Yun, it was not my intention to eavesdrop.”  It was best to make this absolutely clear in case he bear a grudge.

“I know Miss Wang did not mean to eavesdrop, or you would not have fallen asleep.  Can you give me your hand and let me take your pulse?”  Seeing her surprise, his lips curved up involuntarily before he resisted the urge to smile. “Although my Fifth Brother is better then me in the arts of healing, I also have a little medical knowledge as a practitioner of martial arts.”

Since it was unlikely that he would kill her by holding her hand, she graciously extended her right hand for him.

“Is it not convenient to give me your left hand?”

“My Sky Slave bangle is worn on my left hand and I worry that Gentleman Xian Yun will take offence.”

He placed his fingers gently above her pulse and asked: “Sky Slave bangles are usually worn on both hands for woman.  Why did Miss Wang only have one?”

“Sigh. Protector Huang Fu was the one who put it on for me.  In any case, I could only obey if she wishes to put ten bangles on me. How would I dare to have asked why?”

“Who is the person who gave you your medicine today?”

“He Zai prepared the medicine personally so Gentleman Xian Yun need not worry that someone would poison me again.”

She knew she was a patient person, but wasn’t Deity taking too long with her pulse? 

Finally he removed his hand.  “There is nothing wrong with Miss Wang now.  I remembered that the medication prescribed by Fifth Brother consist three-fifths of herbs that are able to remove poison, and two-fifths of herbs that aims to strengthen the body. Gauging by the time now, Miss Wang should be down to your last two packets of medicine.”

She was a little taken back.  He had paid a lot of attention, down to the contents of her medication.  Wasn’t she merely a Sky Slave?  What had drawn him to her?  Thinking back on yesterday, he was also the first person to realize that she has been poisoned. If he was not focusing on her, he could not have reacted the moment she fainted.

She was still trying to think of a reason for his attention when she noticed that he has taken out a handkerchief.  The hanky was pristine white and has neither words nor pattern - ah, so Deity has a cleanliness streak!  But even if her skin is the color of honey, surely she is not filthy?  Did he need to wipe his hands quite so slowly and thoroughly?

“Miss Wang is looking at my handkerchief… do you need it?”

 “Thank you, there is no need. I have my own.”  And she took out her own colorful hanky.   Every year, she would change the design of her hankies. Last year’s design was mandarin ducks, the year before was chrysanthemum.  She noticed he was staring at her hanky.  Was something wrong?

It hit on her suddenly that when Gong Sun Yun was talking to Deng Hai Tang, he was polite but aloof and would refer to himself as “Xian Yun”.  However when talking to her, he would use “I” to refer to himself. 

She has learnt to be wary when a person deviates from his normal behavior.  Especially when the abnormality involved her, her inner alarm would go into double duty.  She jumped down from her resting spot and smiled at him. “Gentleman Xian Yun has been very kind and I shall not thank you verbally.  Instead, I will remember the care and concern that you and Fifth Gentleman has showered on me in my heart, and will not forget it even when I am back in Bai Ming Sect.”

“A Sky Slave could not have left Bai Ming Sect without his Master’s consent.  Is Miss Wang sure you could return?”

She blinked. “Who said I did not have my Master’s permission?  I have Left Protector’s blessing to be here!”  There was a saying in the Central Plains that it never hurt to have more manners, so she bade her leave politely.  Just when she turned around she heard him called her name.

She plastered on a smile before she turned around to face him and saw him walking towards her.  For a moment, she was struck by his way he moved with his robes billowing behind him.  The phrase "graceful as wild geese; fluid like dragon; in splendor brighter than the autumn chrysanthemum; in bloom more flourishing than evergreen pines" suddenly popped into her mind.  This phrase was from a poetic essay she read in her younger days describing the beautiful Water Fairy, Luo Shen.  At that time, she has thought if there ever was a beauty like the one described in the poem, she would likely come from the Central Plains, which was why she was so interested to check out Deng Hai Tang earlier.

It was a pity that Deng Hai Tang fell short of her expectations for the Water Fairy but here was a man that she thought would fit the bill.  If He Zai knew about this, would he laugh at her for misuse of language?  How could the description for the Water Fairy be used on a man?

He called her name again and jolted her out of her daze.  She looked at the bright sun hanging overhead, and blinked several times to clear her vision so that the person she saw in front of her was simply Gong Sun Yun.  The illusion was probably caused by a combination of the sun and the fact that she had not fully recovered.  Otherwise, if a man was the Water Fairy, what could she a woman, be?

She smiled and finally replied him: “Gentleman Xian Yun, is anything else the matter?”

He took out a small box from his vest. “Has Miss Wang guessed who poisoned you?”

“I was foolish to believe that there were only righteous heroes in this place, and did not expect someone to poison me.  As for the culprit… sigh, since I am in the Central Plains, I think it is best for me to let the matter rest.”  She decided to deflect all suspicions to the righteous pugilists.

He did not argue. “If that is the case, you have be more careful.  This is the Thousand Cleansing Pill that could neutralize a thousand type of poison.  Please keep it in case you have a need for it one day.”

She was amazed and did not take the offered box immediately.  Not only are they big on etiquette in the Central Plains, it also extend to offering gifts?  After a while, she smiled and said: “Thank you for your concern.  However, I could not accept such expensive medicine...”

“If you are unfortunate enough to be poisoned again, your body will get hurt even if the person has held back.  If you think you could have been poisoned, take one pill immediately.  Even if it could not neutralize the poison, it will help protect your vital organs.”

She understood his hidden meaning – the person who poisoned her was someone close to her.  Finally she could understand why a flock of beauties have fallen for him.  This man was obviously a very caring person.  She believed some famous people viewed the wulin as their home and felt a sense of duty to undertake a parental role... and he was probably one such parent-cum-cleanliness-freak!

She looked at the box and smiled.  “Thank you very much for kindness then.  Should there be a day that Gentleman needs my help, please do not hesitate to tell me.”  She did not believe a father figure would ask a little Sky Slave for help.  Besides, it may not be easy to find her once she disappeared from here. 

She tried to take the box with both hands but found that he was exerting his hold on the box.  She knew something was up but she did not meet his eyes and waited for him to speak. “Actually, we are only helping each other.  A long time ago, a young lady has helped me too.”

Surely she did not need to know about his past?

“Perhaps to her, it was just a small matter. But to me, I have always remembered her in my heart.  For the past few years, I have been waiting for her to come to me with my jade pendant but she never showed up.  Considering the environment she grew up in, she has managed to survive without receiving help from anybody.  Should I say that she is really intelligent? Or that she is the fittest survivor?”

She met his eyes and smiled: “I did not know Gentleman have such a past. No wonder you paid so much attention to a nobody like me! Gentleman, please rest assured that should I meet someone who needed help in the future, I will do my best to help him and pass on the spirit of your good deed.”

He looked at her thoughtfully and finally released his hold on the box.  Someone called her name and it was Fifth Gentleman.  He greeted her warmly before turning to Gong Sun Yun. “Che Yan Yan from Bai Ming Sect is at the main hall and she says she is here to pay her last respects. However, I think it is more likely that she is here to make trouble.”

Gong Sun Yun frowned and turned to Wang Yun. “Miss Wang, since the Left and Right Protectors of Bai Ming Sect seldom see eye to eye, I think you should remain here and stay away from the hall.”

“That is of course, that is of course.” and she very respectfully watched them leave. 

And sighed.

This was a no-brainer. Che Yan Yan would definitely spot He Zai, who at this very moment was beside Manor Master He Rong Hua. What should she do?  Dump He Zai while she escape?  Had she known it would turn out like this, she would not have permitted He Zai to come to Tian He Manor and simply hightail out of the pugilist world.

“I just knew He Zai would become my death spot one day.”  She felt like a bird in cage - no matter how she tried, she could not seem to escape from the control of Sect Leader.  If there is no He Zai, will her future be any easier?  If there is no He Zai…

She looked at the embroidered box in her hand and smiled.  It was best not to have too many ties.  She was only an ordinary girl and would not dream to catch any deity-from-nine-heavens, much less mention any jade pendants.

In any case, she did not recall ever owning a jade pendant.

With that, she threw away the embroidered box and strode towards the hall.

"Gentleman Xian Yun.” said an attractive woman dressed in flaming red.  When she saw the person she was pining for, she quickly reined in the tantrum she was throwing and turn all solicitous.  She remembered that this man is very big on civilized conversations.
“Protector Che, it has been a long time.” His glance landed on He Rong Hua. He could only do so much in certain matters and now was the time for the Master of the Manor to take the lead.

He Rong Hua rein in his temper with difficulty and forced out: “I thank Protector Che for crossing thousands of miles in order to pay respects to my late father.”

Che Yan Yan ignored him and smiled prettily at Gong Sun Yun. “Xian Yun, how I wish I could say I am here for you.  Unfortunately, I am here under the orders of my Master to deliver a present.”

He Rong Hua replied: “There is no relation between your sect and Tian He Manor, but we appreciate your Sect Leader’s kind intention in our hearts.”

Che Yan Yan gave a cold laugh. “How can you say that there is no relation?  Is the Eldest Master of Tian He Manor not a Sky Slave of Bai Ming Sect?”

He Rong Hua glanced towards He Zai and bit out: “Protector Che must be joking.  My eldest brother has died of an illness ten years ago.  Are you trying to make trouble by spreading such lies of my brother at my father’s funeral?”

Che Yan Yan continued to smile. “My, just how many young masters from prominent pugilist families have died of illnesses over the past ten over years?”  She pointed a slender finger to the Sky Slaves behind her - all were masked, barefooted, and marked with a Sky Slave bangle on their ankles. “Do you want to make a bet with me that if I get them to remove their masks, how many dead people would suddenly come back to life?”

Among those present, many who were above thirty years of age, paled at her words.

Outside the hall, Wang Yun sighed.  Besides her someone else sighed as well.

“Fifth Gentleman, are you not going to lend a hand?”  She has walked to the hall at a snail’s speed.  The moment he saw her, Gong Sun Zhi has joined her to enjoy, no, angst over what was happening in the hall.

“There is not much I can do.  Xian Yu’s kungfu is better than mine.  I will only be more hindrance then help if I go in.”

“Oh I see.  Can I ask Fifth Gentleman how do you people handle such situations usually?  What would you do to people who are here to create trouble?”

“Xian Yun does not recommend that we use force.”

This was such a pity, she felt like recommending him to kill whoever that blocked his way, which would be so cool.  Sigh. It was best if she could kill a person using someone else’s sword - too bad someone was not obliging.  She looked towards He Zai, who whether intentionally or no, has chosen to stand at the entrance of the inner hall as if guarding it.

She stroked her jade flute and glanced at the ten over Sky Slaves in the hall.  Che Yan Yan likes to take in Sky Slaves, especially those who are skilled in kungfu.  This woman also likes to make her presence felt and will bring along her Sky Slaves wherever she goes.  The Sky Slaves were controlled by drugs so it was extremely difficult for them to escape and even more difficult for them to seek death.  She chewed her lips and continued her contemplation.

Che Yan Yan looked at everyone in the hall.  She was surprised when she spotted He Zai behind He Rong Hua and spoke before she could hold back the words. “Sect Leader is really clever and knew exactly of her whereabouts. I like to see where she can escape to in her lifetime?” The words fell into the ears of Gong Sun Yun who was the nearest to her.

Che Yan Yan asked with glee: “He Zai, where is your Master?”

She did not press further when he remained silent. “Our Sect Leader is wise and knew that Huang Fu Yun is hiding here.  Both of you have always been like each other’s shadow and where one is, the other will be nearby.  By orders of our Sect Leader, Huang Fu Yun is to present his gift personally to Tian He Manor. Huang Fu Yun, are you not going to show yourself?”

After a long while, no one appeared. “Huang Fu Yun, dare you disobey!?”

“Aren’t I here now?” rang a clear voice from outside the hall.  For a moment, all anyone could see was a swathe of red as young woman in flowing red robes strolled into the hall with her hands folded behind her. The woman was none other than Wang Yun, the one with a Sky Slave tattoo on her face.

He Rong Hua and Go Shao De were shocked. “You…”

Wang Yun walked towards Gong Sun Yun – no, on second thoughts, this spot was not so safe – and strolled with pretended nonchalance to stand beside He Zai.  “Protector Che, I have rushed across thousands of miles to Tian He Manor and has beat you to reach here by a day.  Did you perchance stop somewhere to play during your journey?”

Che Yan Yan was not bothered by her accusation. “What rubbish are you sprouting?”

“I am not sprouting rubbish.  Whatever orders Master gave you, he gave the same to me.  He always like to pit us against the other and this time, you have lost.  However, since our emperor is far away, I can let you claim the credit.”   She took the long box from a Sky Slave behind Che Yan Yan and continued. “I have the exact same gift but I have given mine to Tian He Manor yesterday so you can return yours to Master….”  She opened the box and froze.

Che Yan Yan’s lips curved.  “To think I was nearly taken in by you. Huang Fu Yun, the thing in the box is unique and there is only one of its kind in the world.  Sect Leader knows your every move so he also knows about the things you let He Zai bury all those years ago.”

The box contained a set of young man’s clothing, boots, sword, and some equipment used for tattooing.  Although the clothes were old, the mark of Tian He Manor could clearly be seen on the hems.  Although the sword has rusted, it was still recognizable as the custom-made weapon for the former Young Master of Tian He Manor.  The tattoo equipment bore the mark of Sky Slaves from Bai Ming Sect.

A victor will go with the flow and Wang Yun sighed. “Alright.  It seems I could not outsmart Sect Leader afterall.  I will follow you back.”

Che Yan Yan made a gesture and her Sky Slave presented a white handkerchief to her straightaway.  After she has cleaned her hands carefully, she put on a pair of specially made gloves.

While Wang Yun’s eyes followed her every move, Che Yan Yan did not bother with her and turned towards Gong Sun Yun. Giving him a brilliant smile, she said: “Xian Yun.  Cloud Manor has always maintained a neutral position on wulin matters.  Besides recording what happened, Cloud Manor will not interfere in whatever happens.  Did I remember this rule correctly?"

 “Our rules are indeed so.”

Che Yan Yan smiled. “Once I have settled this matter, I would love to catch up with you.”

“Xian Yun does not have anything to catch up with Protector Che.”

A flash of temper flashed across her eyes.  She curled her lips and decided to vent her anger on Wang Yun.  “Upon orders from Master, your Sky Slave has left Bai Ming sect without permission.  As the eldest son of the He family, He Zai shall whip the coffin thrice in punishment.  Huang Fu Yun, accept the order!”

Wang Yun lowered her eyes and stroked her jade flute.

“Huang Fu Yun!”

He Rong Hua could remain silent no longer. “This is Tian He Manor and is not the place for a demoness from the Evil Sect to throw your weight around!”

“He Yue Hua is now a member of the Evil Sect too.  Master He, do you not fear that your position will be replaced if your brother returns to the manor?  Are you not worried of bringing shame to the manor?”

“You…”  He Rong Hua wanted to rebut further, but he held back when he saw the number of avid listeners around him.  It was very shameful when a member of one’s family became a Sky Slave.  If anyone tried to help, he or she would also have to bear the brunt of the wagging tongues when the news got out.  Even if his father was highly regarded when he was alive, he was dead now and what was left for him was only goodwill .  And whoever who lends a hand would also measure his goodwill against the benefit it would bring…

Wang Yun gave a long-suffering sigh and said listlessly: “Protector Che, you are making things difficult for me.  He Zai is my only Sky Slave.  If I ordered him to whip his father’s coffin, it is akin to making him hate me for the rest of his life.”

“That is the order from Master.  Do you dare to reject?”

“Protector Che.  You are also making an enemy of the Central Plains wulin by doing so.”  Wang Yun analyzed the situation for her patiently. “Both sides have been co-existing peacefully for many years and there is no need to rock the boat.  Historically, the Master of our sect is always chosen among the Left or Right Protectors.  Based on our capabilities, my guess is that that next sect leader will be you.  But if you acted out today, you will also be the one who would have to pick up after the mess.  Why would you want to bring suffering upon yourself?”

“Huang Fu Yun, you really are a disgrace to Bai Ming Sect!  Men, drag the coffin out!”

Seeing that she refused to listen to reason, Wang Yun flipped her sleeves in anger: “You know full well the extent of Huang Fu family martial arts.  Both He Zai and myself are gifted learners who has benefitted from the guidance of Huang Fu skills.  Che Yan Yan, are you sure you wanted to go against me?”

“It is not me who is going against you.  Rather, you are the one who is going against Bai Ming Sect.  Huang Fu Yun, you are the one who is seeking trouble for yourself!”

Wang Yun shouted ”He Zai!” and quickly stepped back.

In the next instant, He Zai has flashed past her with a short sword in hand.  Before anyone could even figure where his weapon came from, He Zai was already weaving among the Sky Slaves, his movements quick as lightning.

Wang Yun has turned around and did not at the fight.  She fingered her jade flute as if victory is already within grasp.

He Rong Hua stared but could not find the words.  Finally, he could only manage: “That set of skills is not from the He family.”  He remembered that his brother has mastered the family martial arts when he was sixteen and his father had been greatly pleased at that time.

Wang Yun did not look at him. “I made him got rid of his He family martial arts.”

At his glare, she smiled: “The He family martial arts could not even match ten blows against Huang Fu family’s.  Why should he retain such kungfu?”

“He is but a lowly Sky Slave in Bai Ming Sect, why did you let him learn the kungfu of the Huang Fu family?”

When she did not reply, He Rong Hua continued: “And why are you not helping my brother?  Since both of you trained in the Huang Fu martial arts, will you not have a higher chance to defeat Che Yan Yan if you join forces?”

Wang Yun shot him a look before she lowered her eyes.  “Protector Che is one of our top fighters. Why should I remove her to make you happy? Besides, given He Zai’s opposition against Protector of Bai Ming Sect today, he would have gained credit for defending his father.  Even if his life is going to be difficult if he chose to stay in the Central Plains in future, at least it would not be a situation where everyone would want to kill him and mutilate his corpse.”

He Rong Hua was silent – how did this woman know he wanted to keep his brother at Tian He Manor?

Wang Yun twirled her hair and said suddenly: “Mind if I see the coffin?”  and she walked into the inner hall without waiting for his reply.  Her suspicions were confirmed when she heard some footsteps behind her.  Sigh, it is really unlucky to see a coffin.  If she had a choice, she would not have chosen to come in. 

She noticed that the lid of the coffin has been nailed shut.  In other words, it now contained the true body of Old Master He.  She knew this was all for He Zai, or else the person would not have followed her.

As she stood in front of the coffin, she could feel a long whip lashing down in her direction.  She forced herself to remain still and clasp her hand as if in prayer.

The whip did not make contact.

She was saved!  She discreetly wiped her sweaty palms.  After years of practice, she has mastered the ability to keep her face expressionless even when her heart is gripped with fear.  Now, it is not even obvious when she breaks out in cold sweat.  Endurance – she could probably be hailed a master in endurance.

The male voice was cold. “Protector Che! Are you sure you wanted to whip the deceased?”

Che Yan Yan was furious.  “Xian Yun!  Are you protecting the coffin or the person!” 

Of course he is protecting the coffin!  Wang Yun silently thanked Old Master He for protecting her even in death. It was indeed worth the times that she has helped He Zai. 

She has counted on the fact that today’s coffin would contain the real body, which was why she came in to seek refuge from a coffin.  Given the circumstances today, even the legendary Gentleman Xian Yun would be forced to interfere in order to stop Che Yan Yan from humiliating the body of a respected pugilist. 

And it worked!

She sighed inwardly and turned around to face Che Yan Yan.  “Protector Che, you have seen with your own eyes.  With so many skilled pugilists around, I need not even draw my sword; just one Gentleman Xian Yun is able to stop you.  It is obvious that he would not allow you to humiliate the deceased and you…. if he is in your heart, you should let him have his way!”  Her eyes drifted to the black whip coiled in Gong Sun Yun’s hands and could not prevent from breaking out into cold sweat.

Judging from the angle of the attack, Che Yan Yan was obviously aiming for her!  Her real intention is probably to get rid of her among all the confusion.

Wang Yun continued.  “You have already obeyed Master’s orders.  But do you really think he wanted you to whip the coffin?  That is but his way of testing our loyalty and having some fun with the people in Tian He Manor.”

Che Yan Yan gave her a considering look. “Why would Master think that?”

“Because that is just the way he is!”

Chee Yan Yan was silent and a strange expression crossed her face.   “Huang Fu Yun, why are you always able to second guess the Sect Leader?  Master did say that if you can guess his real intentions, I would have to stop making a scene.”

Wang Yun took a deep breath - life is wonderful; she took another deep breath – even though there is Sect Leader, life is still wonderful.   Her blood was boiling but she managed a wan smile.  “Protector Che, that is because you were too busy seeking fun amongst the flowers while I ponder on his divine orders every day until my hair is turning white.  Unlike me, you only grow more and more alluring.  In fact, if there is a man who is not charmed by you, he is probably not a man to begin with.”

She stared pointedly at Gong Sun Yun, fervently hoping he would smile or say something to placate Che Yan Yan.

He returned her look with an icy glare. 

Ok, she asked for this one.  But what is the use of looks if one does not use it to his advantage?

Che Yan Yan called her Sky Slaves to cease fighting.  She did not attempt to count the number of survivors when He Zai returned to stand beside Wang Yun.  “You are so nice to your Sky Slave to impart your family skills to him.”

“A person cannot be selfish. Besides He Zai is very loyal to me and I can’t really ill-treat him, is it not?” She flicked her wrist and He Zai sheathed his sword back in her flute.

“Both of us would need to return to the sect.”  Che Yan Yan turned towards Gong Sun Yun and sweetened her tone. “If Xian Yun is escorting me, I will be willing to set off immediately.”

Wang Yun was floored from the whiplash.  She knew this woman likes to hunt for quality man, but surely this turnabout is too fast?  They were still fighting a moment ago…. she sighed and turned to contemplate the wall.

She will not interfere in affairs of the heart. Deity-of-nine-heavens will never set his heart on someone from the Evil Sect. Besides, she did not believe Che Yan Yan really loves Deity either…. she continued to admire the plain white wall in front of her.

He Zai called to her. “Miss.”

She decided to be gracious. “I am not an unreasonable person.  I will let you go if you wanted to continue staying here.”

She sighed when he did not reply. “Yesterday, you asked me why Old Master has been disguised. The answer is actually very simple - if the body is a guise and yet He Rong Hua and Gong Sun Yun acted unaware, the answer could only be that they were in it together. Can you guess why?”

He Zai looked at the coffin and lowered his eyes.

“I think the Old Master has regretted what he did.”  She focused on a particular spot on the wall.  “The Old Master must have felt extremely sore when you became a Sky Slave, but instead of trying to rescue you from Bai Ming Sect, he let out news of your death. If I am not wrong, he probably regretted his actions when he was near death.”

He Rong Hua entered the inner hall.  “Exactly. Although Miss Huang Fu was not around when my father passed away, you have read his mind correctly….  Big Brother!  Father has regretted his decision several years ago.  He could not find you and sought the help of Gentleman Xian Yun to hide his body and delay his burial.  If you still remember your father, you would definitely try to return for his funeral.  If you can recognize that the body is fake, it would prove that you have not forsaken the skills you have learnt to be able to see though the guise. If you tried to pursue the matter further, it would show that the father-son relationship has not been severed and that you are still the same you.  Tian He Manor will be yours and the title of Manor Master will be yours.  Regardless if you are a Sky Slave or not, you will always be a son of the He family!”

So touching.  She touched her nose to check that she has controlled her tears.  This was why He Zai had chosen to poison her – so that he could stay in Tian He Manor to discover the truth... but can he not be so coldhearted and poison himself instead of her? Thinking that she should give the brothers room to talk, she started to leave the room.

Actually, she is a rather pitiful herself.  Everyone seems to be part of a pair while she is the only being chased around.  Looking around, she was surprised to see Gong Sun Yun still around while there was no trace of Che Yan Yan.  Yet he did not seem to be in a hurry to leave.  On second thoughts, that was reasonable too since he was a historian who was supposed to record what happened today.

She walked to him and said: ”Gentleman Xian Yun, thank you for your help earlier on.”

“I was only protecting the coffin and not protecting the person.  I hope Miss Yun got that clear.”  He emphasized “protecting the person” and she smiled as she pretended not to have heard.  “Of course, of course.  So… will Gentleman Xian Yun be escorting us from the Central Plains?”

Or to put it another way, to keep tabs on them until they were out of the Central Plains.

“To prevent further misunderstandings with Protector Che, I will not be the one doing the sendoff and will instead ask an elder to help.

Wang Yun digested this news with a frown - this sounded like they were being chased out.  Although their movements were going to be monitored no matter what, how this was to be done have different impact. If he was the one sending them off, at least Che Yan Yan would be leaving willingly.

She disliked being in the same room with Che Yan Yan.  That woman had a bad habit of killing people when she was in a bad mood, and she did not bother to remove the bodies after the deed.  If it was her, she would have at least dug a grave,or get ready some acid to dissolve the body before she strike… of course, this was all theoretical because she would not kill.  Nope, not kill, not kill.

He appeared unconcerned and was contented to continue exchanging stares with her.  But from the set of his brows, he seemed to be waiting for something.

She took another deep breath.  Since coming to the Central Plains, she found that there were more instances when she needed to take in more air.  This could be because the word ‘endurance’ (忍) has a knife (刃) on top of the heart (心).  When a knife is hanging in the air above the heart…. one will need more air.

She asked very humbly: “Are you really not going to send us off?  Is there no chance of it happening?”

“Well, there may be a way….”

“I remembered…. Gentleman Xian Yun mentioned before that you have received help from someone before?”  She said this rather unwillingly.

“Yes.”  His top-grade skin was like the ancient mountains - no change whatsoever.

“To repay the person, you have given her a pendant?”  At his nod, she sighed. “Now that you mentioned this, it sounds similar to an incident of my youth. I remembered lending a hand to someone under very casual circumstance… and he also gave me a jade pendant.”

He continued to look unimpressed. “I hope Miss Yun is not simply building on my story and trying to pull a fast one on me.” 

“Why would I do so?  I remember the pendant looks…”

He interrupted very politely. “Everyone in the pugilist world knew there were three jade pendants in Cloud Manor.  My pendant is shaped like a gourd with a piece of cloud swirling at the top.  Since becoming a “Gentleman” at the age of thirteen, the words “Xian Yun” has been engraved on the jade.  Even a person who has never seen the jade would be able to describe it quite well.” 

She stared at him for a good long while before she slowly took out something from her left sleeve, then the right sleeve.  When she passed the items to him, he did not blink but his normally dull eyes have taken on a sparkle.

“If you put these pieces together, would it look like Gentleman Xian Yun’s jade pendant?”

“Yes, this is mine.”

She sighed. “Who would have guessed that I am the benefactor of Gentleman Xian Yun?”

“I have been wanting to repay the great favor bestowed by Miss Yun.”  His appeared rather smug and eyes were shinning.

“Gentleman Xian Yun can take this chance to repay me , and once you have done so, you can put all thoughts of repayment behind you.  Can I trouble you to escort Che Yan Yan and myself out of the Central Plains.  I will be so grateful if you can do that.”

- - - - - - - - -

Chapter 3

There is only one word to describe the feeling when someone is trying to repay you – Great! with exclamation mark!

Had she known this earlier, she would have tried to save more people and asked each of them for a repayment token before letting them go.

Luckily she was someone who likes to overthink and has retrieved the jade pendant after she has buried it. To prevent trouble if it was ever found on her, say by his enemies if he has any, she has asked He Zai to shatter the pendant with his internal strength as a precaution.

Ah, life is really Great! This journey is comfortable if not outright luxurious, even if she was technically in the midst of being chased out of the Central Plains.  Cloud Manor had many disciples and was held in high esteem by many pugilists in the Central Plains. Gentleman Xian Yun especially, was very well regarded and his name is literally like a shiny piece of gold.  Thanks to him, she had no worries on lodging, food or clothing.  She congratulated herself again for being the one who saved this gold nugget.  The more she thought about it, the more she felt that saving him was probably the best thing she has ever done.

To prevent clashes, Gong Sun Yun has gotten them to travel on less frequently used routes. Before they arrived at a resting spots, other Cloud Manor disciples would have made prior arrangements to ensure a comfortable stay.  If not for her strong willpower, she would have happily sponged off Gentleman Xian Yun for the rest of her life.

“Do you like Xian Yun?”

The question came out of the blue and she nearly tripped.  She looked in front where Gong Sun Yun was standing. He was dressed in his customary white but he no longer gave off vibes that got her confused with the beautiful Water Fairy, Luo Shen.

Thinking that she did not hear the question, Che Yan Yan repeated. ““Do you like Xian Yun?”

“Definitely not.”  That was the standard, life-preserving answer.

Che Yan Yan was suspicious.  “You would deny it when everyone – man, woman, old, and young - in the Central Plains like him?  How could you not like him?”

Every man, woman, old and young?  Maybe that was in response to his parental love! Still, she could only answer: “It must be because my eyesight is poor.”

“It is such a pity you do not like him.” snarked Che Yan Yan.  “If I snatch your man, I think the feeling would be very gratifying."

“Protector Che may not take a fancy to the things I like.  But if you are able to snatch the man belonging to the No. 1 Beauty of the pugilist world, I bet the feeling would be truly gratifying.”

“Who is Deng Hai Tang to warrant a nickname like Hai Tang Fairy!?”

Wang Yun was quick to nod her agreement. “No matter if it is carriage or looks, Protector Che is the only one who truly deserves the title of ‘Fairy’!”

Che Yan Yan was looking longingly at Gong Sun Yun, but her suspicions were roused by her honeyed words.  She returned her focus to Wang Yun.  “Huang Fu Yun, you really confuse me sometimes.  We are both from the same sect but our characters are miles apart.”

“That is so.  As the saying goes, different feathers do not flock together.  Our characters are different so we are not suitable to be friends, although I have always kept abreast of the things you do.  You are bold… no, I mean your gutsy approach to things, tells me that you are an intelligent heroine.  You should have seen through it long ago that I am not suited for life in the Sect.  If given a chance, I would rather live peacefully in some remote village and I hope Protector Che would consider this and leave me a lifeline in future.”

Che Yan Yan looked at her with disgust. “Our characters are indeed different.  You seem so mousy and careful, but your mouth will never let up in saying nice things to please Master.  The worse part is, you can always guess what Master is thinking.  Huang Fu Yun, your contradiction is the one thing I despise most about you!  If you are interested to become the next Sect Leader, you should be upfront about it. I would accept it if I ever lost.  But you keep doing things in the sly while denying that you want to snatch the master’s seat - for that I look down on you!”

Wang Yun lowered her gaze and fingered her jade flute.  She did not want to snatch anything, really…

Che Yan Yan gave a cold snort and decided to chase after Gong Sun Yun.  She just passed Wang Yun when she turned to her again.  “I have something to do tonight. You and that Sky Slave of yours better stay far away from me.  If you try to foil my plans, I will not let you off!”

Che Yan Yan left, leaving a confused Wang Yun behind.  She must be joking – just who was the one doing things in the sly now?  It was obvious Che Yan Yan was trying to seduce… umm, on second thoughts, should she send Che Yan Yan some aphrodisiac to maintain friendly relations?  But maybe Che Yan Yan would prefer to use beauty instead of drugs to overcome Gong Sun Yun…

She looked at deity-from-nine-heavens.  For someone who grew up in civilized society, he probably has never come across a woman who wanted to seduce him.  Would he be able to survive the attack?   She coughed to cover up her wicked smile.  In truth, she would love to be a fly in the room when it happens.  Unfortunately she has to abide by her principle to see no evil, hear no evil….

Someone came to her side and she smiled in greeting “Is Fifth Gentleman looking for me?”  Thanks to him, this journey has not been boring.  He Zai was a man of few words but deity-from-nine-heavens and Fifth Gentleman were always gracious and friendly despite their “escort”.

“It is nothing, just time to take your pulse.”

Again?  She raised her brows but she rolled up her sleeves nonetheless.

She thought his kungfu must be quite impressive to be able to walk and take her pulse at the same time.  Over the last few days, she has managed to learn more about Cloud Manor and found that they have many outstanding disciples. As for Fifth Gentleman and Gentleman Xian Yun, their relationship was like real brothers but she was skeptical and felt that no matter how close, someone would betray the other one day.

To pass the time, she asked casually: “Fifth Gentleman, may I ask you a question?”

Gong Sun Zhi has taken a liking her and he replied her warmly: “Miss Huang Fu may speak her mind.”

“Well… I heard some rumors that Gentleman Xian Yun once smiled at Protector Che?”

He froze and she continued with a smile.  “I am not blind.  Over the past few days, I have noticed that while Fifth Gentleman smiles a lot, Gentleman Xian Yun never smiles.  If his smile is so precious and yet he chose to smile at her, it could only mean…”

Gong Sun Zhi released her hand and strolled leisurely with her along the mountain path.  “Actually, the rumors are only half correct.  Xian Yun happened to be around when Protector Che came to the Central Plains that day.  When he heard the new arrival announced herself as ‘Che Yan Yan’, he smiled.”

“That is it?”   She had thought the story would at least be something along the lines like I-pledge-my-love-to-thee-with-three-smiles. And wasn’t Che Yan Yan a tad too useless to fall for just a smile?

He continued. “That happened two years ago.  They were standing quite far apart but who would guess Che Yan Yan would see his smile … Actually, Xian Yun already has someone in his heart…” he broke off and waited for her to ask further.

Endure, she will endure.  Usually, she would not delve too deeply into casual talk for fear that curiosity will kill the cat.  Although she would love to hear more, she has decided not to probe further.

Seeing no response from her, Gong Sun Zhi continued speaking after a while.  “Miss is already recovered but should still rest more.  Ay, traveling under the hot sun is actually pretty damaging to your body.  Although its effect is not apparent in the short run, you would feel the difference when you are older.  According to ….” 
To Wang Yun’s amazement, he continued his lecture from not paying attention in the twenties, to organ failure at the seventies.  Is the weather too hot that this Gentleman is using her to while away the time?

For the sake of harmony, she continued to smile and listen.  Endure, yes, endure.  A true master in endurance is someone who could smile even when she is covered with shit.  She would simply let the words enter from the left ear and exit from right ear. There is nothing to it…

Half an hour passed…. another half an hour passed…. her face started to twitch.

“… Let us do this,  I will write a prescription for you tonight.  If Miss Huang Fu is able to take what I prescribed on a long term basis, I guarantee that you will look thirty even when you are fifty or sixty.”

The only reason she managed to hold on to her composure was because of her long practice in the Art of Endurance.  He merely neutralized her poison once, surely there was no need for him to take care of her for the rest of her life?

“Fifth Gentleman is indeed… well-versed in medicine!”

He accepted the praise at face value.  “Everyone in Cloud Manor wants to live to a hundred, so it is only right that I spend more effort to understand the properties of different medicines.”

She smiled. “Sometimes, it may not be a good thing to live so long.”

“How could you say so?  A person can only hope to fulfill his dreams if he lives long enough.  Even if one has no aspirations, he can go look for one - the sky is vast and one will surely find something.  For me, my goal in life is to let my brothers stay healthy even when they are seventy or eighty.  Just think, if you are able to live a ripe old age with someone that you like, how wonderful would that be…” 

She was wrong.  She was really wrong.

Another half an hour passed …. endure… she must endure even if her soul is starting to leave her body…

“… of course, nutrition is also effective.  If medication is coupled with good nutrition, I can guarantee you that no illness will trouble you.  Why not Miss come stay at Cloud Manor?  I can let Miss….”

Another half an hour passed as he tried to persuade her to stay.  Finally, the thread of her endurance snapped.  She took a deep breath and exclaimed loudly: “Gentleman Xian Yun! I am sorry I did not catch you… please excuse me Fifth Gentleman, I think your Gentleman is looking for me.”  She marched unsteadily to Gong Sun Yun and ignored the hateful looks thrown her way by Che Yan Yan.
“Miss Yun?”

She gave him a big smile as she reached his side: “Gentleman Xian Yun, may I trouble you with something?”

“Miss Yun could speak her mind.”

“As I was walking, I thought I felt the presence of people shadowing us….”  She knew that Che Yan Yan’s Sky Slaves were following behind their group and would not appear unless summoned. “What I mean is, there could be tigers or wolves on our trail.  Could I trouble to you take a look?”
His lips started to curve upwards but he managed to resist the urge to smile.  “I think Miss worries too much.”

“Really?.... is Fifth Gentleman behind us?”

“He is talking with Master He.”

She breathed a sigh of relief.  One can never judge a book by its cover.  Gong Sun Zhi is in his twenties and looks gentle, refined.  But the moment he starts to talk, she does not think she has enough endurance in the world for him.”

She pretended to take a great interest in deity-from-nine-heavens and he helpfully kept the conversation going. Both of them talked about anything and nothing until she noticed Che Yan Yan has lagged behind.  However at this stage, she was beyond caring and would rather offend Protector Che than face a long-winded, old coot masquerading as an upright, young man.

“We will be parting in another two days.  Is Miss Yun really going back to Bai Ming Sect?”

“That is a given since I am a Protector… although the last ten years have been relatively peaceful and mine is almost an empty title since Sect Leader is holding on the actual power.  Nonetheless I should return.”

“I remembered Miss sounded envious when you said I am like a free-floating cloud high up in the skies.  If there is another place for you, would Miss be interested to leave Bai Ming Sect?”

This was easier said than done, besides who on earth would have this ability?  Even if there was a safe haven, there was no such thing as a free lunch.  Is Gong Sun Yun trying to lure her away from Bai Ming Sect, or did he have another motive?  What was his intention?  Cloud Manor was a neutral entity, was he pointing an out for her simply because she has saved his life before?

She fingered the two broken jade pieces in her sleeve.  When she has presented him with four broken pieces that day, he has taken back two pieces while insisting that she keep the remaining two.  Nature is indeed cyclical. Before, she has lead him out of the Sky Forrest; now it was his turn to lead her out of the Central Plains.

But what will be, will be.

“Since you are a historian yourself, Gentleman Xian Yun should somewhat understand how Bai Ming Sect operates.  Traditionally, both Left and Right Protectors seldom see eye to eye and when one becomes the Sect Leader, the other one will usually end up dead.  What do think will be the ending for me and Protector Che?”

At her words, he stopped and looked at her.  She returned his look “Gentleman Xian Yun?”

He leaned forward and whispered in her ear. “The Master’s successor has been decided a long time ago, isn’t it so?”

The Master’s successor has indeed been decided a long time ago. 

It was her.

Since she was fifteen, she has understood this.  No matter where she flees, how she tries to act dumb, that seat has always been waiting for her.

She lowered her eyes and let the night wind play with her robes while the night consumed bright red of her robes.

“Miss?”

“Hmm?” She did not turn back.  

“The people of Cloud Manor has prepared a change of clothing.  Do you wish to change?”
“No.”  She is used to her own clothing.  It feels more natural and safer.

“Do you wish me to comb your hair?”

“That will be good.” And she sat on a big rock.  She stroked the jade flute that she always had with her.  Her eyes landed on a small creek and she started to contemplate at the reflection of the crescent moon on the waters.

He Zai deftly removed her hair ring and gently combed her long hair.

“What is Miss thinking of?”

She said rather listlessly: “I am thinking if someone would fall for a beauty’s temptation and done the deed in a moment of folly.”

“Is Miss referring to Protector Che and Gong Sun Yun?”
Who else could there be?  Once night has fallen, she has hastily grabbed some food and led He Zai away from base camp.  She would not peep, would not eavesdrop.  Even if the images were guaranteed to be stimulating, she would remain calm as water and would not let her imagination run wild.

Although she was still curious what expression would cross the face of Gentleman Xian Yun?  Would his iceberg façade finally slip?  If it did, what could one find underneath?

She mumbled more to herself.  “I did not notice in the past but have she ever missed when she goes hunting?”

“Miss was young and would not have noticed.  What Protector Che wants, she would definitely find a way to get it.”  He has completed tying her hair.  “Would Miss like to touch up your make-up?”

She thought about it and nodded. “What will be good.”  Seemed like Gong Sun Yun would not be able to escape tonight.

He Zai turned to face her and applied her make-up with expert strokes under the dim light.  She looked at him and asked suddenly: “He Zai, you are from the Central Plains too so you should understand Gong Sun Yun better in some aspects.  People from the Central Plains are usually more restrained so most would not be able to withstand the onslaught of a hot-blooded young woman, is that right?”

“For someone who came to a high post when young, the person must have a strong will. Oherwise there is no way he could have held on to the position for long.”  He could only reply as such.

She did not quite buy his words. “It would depend on what is at stake.  No one is perfect, and Gong Sun Yun is bound to have some weakness.  Furthermore, the beauty trap is one trap which most heroes would find difficult to resist… "

“He Zai, there is still time if you turn back now.  Even if you have the Sky Slave mark, He Rong Hua would not abandon you.” 

He Zai was silent.  After a while he answered: “I will follow Miss.”

She did not ask for his reason. In any case, she believed he would regret it in the end.  Whatever moving or touching words that she is hearing now cannot be trusted.

“Do you think Sect Leader would let me off if I return with a head of white hair?”

“Unless Miss is dead, Sect Leader would never let you off.”

“There is no need for you to sound so sure.”  She is already disheartened as it is; he do not need to punch her to the ground.

“Miss would have guessed that Sect Leader would bring us back if you let me return for my father’s funeral, but you still permitted my trip.  Why?”

Her face remained expressionless as she stroked her precious jade flute.  She closed her eyes to enjoy the night breeze.  “Because… I respect the elderly.”

He Zai gazed at her face. “That is not how this phrase is used.”

She laughed.  “That is the only way I know how to talk.  If He Zai wants to follow me, you must learn to be accustomed to the way I speak.”

He Zai nodded.  “Miss is correct.  Since I have decided to be with Miss, it is only right I get used to the way you speak.” 

Her face was still expressionless but the hand that was touching the flute trembled.

“Go take a look at Che Yan Yan and see if she has succeeded. If both of them are still lovey-dovey, go figure where Gong Sun Zhi and the rest of the Sky Slaves are, and we will stick with them tonight to prevent any mishaps.”

He Zai left silently.

The breezy summer night contained a hint of humidity.  Looks like there will be a thunderstorm tomorrow.  She started to pace to and fro but when she realized that her fingers were still trembling, she gave a wan laugh.  So He Rong Hua was not diseased-stricken, he was merely overwhelmed by his brother’s return. 

There was little semblance between today’s He Zai and his younger self.  The fact that He Rong Hua could recognize him instantly, especially in his heavy make-up, indicated that he has been planning this reunion for quite some time.  She looked at her own shaking fingers and realized that she has quite a number of weaknesses to overcome since she was behaving like He Zai’s brother when excited.

Follow her?

Although He Zai did not say so explicitly, she knew that the word “follow” encompasses one lifetime.

She also knew this was easier said than done.  Although He Rong Hua has hoped that his brother could stay in Tian He Manor, she knew He Zai has chosen to follow her because it was not just his looks that has changed.  Whoever he is inside has also changed.  He is no longer suited to live in the Central Plains so his only choice was to be with her.

And she is very happy to have him.

The warm breeze blew her thoughts back to the present.  They will be out of the Central Plains in another two days.  Sect Leader will definitely do something.  She will stake her life that Che Yan Yan’s appearance cannot be simply to bring her back.  What will happen?  He will pass his master’s seat to his successor within the year, what will he do to force her hand?

She was pondering on this when she felt a chill at her back.  There was little light in the woods, but she could see the slender outline of a man about ten paces away.  If not for the gentle movement of his clothing in the wind, she could almost believe there was no one.

“Miss Yun.”

The voice was clear as a stream flowing down the mountains. 

“Gentleman Xian Yun.  It is late….” So one of the lovebirds have flown.  She wondered how he managed to escape.

“Precisely because it is late, Miss should return to the camp and rest.”  His voice contained his customary aloofness but when he stepped out from the shadows into the moonlight, she saw that he was smiling.

She eyes rounded in surprise while he brushed past her to sit on a rock.  “If you are wondering how I managed to find you, it is because of the bell you are wearing.”  When she did not reply, he continued smiling: “Or are you mesmerized by my smile?”

“…surely you jest, Gentleman Xian Yun.”  She has to shake herself out of her reverie with god-almighty effort but her voice still sounded a trifle hoarse.  She took a step a forward and studied him. What did she just see? When he smiled…. she dazed off again.

“… slim throat and curving neck, the pale flesh lies open to view …red lips that shed their light abroad, pearl-like teeth gleaming within…. Bright eyes skilled at glances, ….” [Sidenote: this is a verse from the poetic essay on Luo Shen, the Water Fairy.  The next verse is “a dimple to round off the base of the cheek”]

“Miss Yun?”

“Please ignore me.  Recently I seem to have an affinity with Luo Shen… Do you have dimples, Gentleman Xian Yun?”

He gave a start and appeared to be smiling again. “Miss Yun must be paying close attention to have found out.” 

She recovered from her daze and coughed.  So Gentleman Xian Yun has dimples.  Would it benefit her in any way if she spread the news? 

He turned serious. “There are some things that is inconvenient for me to say during the day.  Now that there are only two of us, I shall be frank. If you wish to leave Bai Ming Sect, Cloud Manor could offer you assistance.”

They stared at each other for a long time before she broke the silence.  “Cloud Manor is a neutral entity and I have heard pugilists recounting the adventures of its Gentlemen over their cup of afternoon tea.  However, I do not recall hearing any stories that the Manor or its disciples are life-saving bodhisattvas.

“That is because I am not on close terms with them.”

“If you are making an exception for me because I saved you before, your sums do not seem to add up.  To be frank, you are not the only prominent pugilist I rescued in the last few years…”

His gaze sharpened and he sounded strange. “Did all of them came from Tian Bi cliff?” 

“Of course not. You are the only one who came from Tian Bi Cliff.  What I am trying to say that is that my help is simple and is no different from lifting a hand. But what you are offering is as good as pitting yourself against Bai Ming Sect.  If I accepted your offer, would I not end up owing you big time?”

“Is it important who owes who?  Why don’t you give it some thought?  If you say the word, I would be very glad to help.”

No, it is not really important who owes who.  Besides, defaulting on payment is not unusual.  The question is - what is Gong Sun Yun really after?

Ding dang, ding dang… someone was approaching.  He got up from the rock and folded his sleeves.  “Different sects from Central Plains have been sending people to follow us ever since we left Tian He Manor.  I have already told them to back off, as well as gotten other Gentleman to persuade them to drop the trail.  Although Miss is innocent, your identity makes you an easy target.” He looked at a point behind her shoulder.  “I will do my utmost to protect Miss and not let anyone have a chance to strike.”

“Thank you Gentleman. With your promise, I feel more at ease now.”

“Then let us return to camp.”

She smiled and followed his footsteps.  If Che Yan Yan was unsuccessful tonight, she should not blame it on her.  If anything, she could only blame deity-from-nine-heavens for his will power. Or maybe he was simply not the kind who would fall for beauty traps?

He Zai has followed behind her and she asked him in low tones. “Are there people trailing us?”    

“Yes. They are some young men who started trailing us since Tian He Manor.”

She sighed and replied in the same low tone. “Our Sky Slaves have always been a sore point with pugilists from Central Plains.  I think they will wait until Gong Sun Yun leaves before they strike.  But if Gong Sun Yun is persuading them to leave, I think they would respect his request.  My only worry now is Sect Leader…”  It was such a headache. It was not difficult to second-guess a normal person. But to predict the actions of a mad man was sheer torture.  How could she guess what he thinks when she is not a whacko?  The only thing she could be sure is that something will definitely happen because Sect Leader would never have passed up such an opportunity!

When they returned, she saw Gong Sun Yun resting together with Gong Sun Zhi, while Che Yan Yan was resting in another corner with her Sky Slaves.  She was sitting very straight and her eyes were blazing with anger while her face was flushed. 

“What happened to her?”

He Zai: “Someone has immobilized her.”

She couldn’t help looking at Gong Sun Yun.  Is this man straight?  Che Yan Yan is like a fresh bloom and instead of plucking it, he actually planted her back to the soil?  He felt her gaze on him and returned her look, his eyes calm as water.

Her heart skipped a beat and she looked away.  She sat down and He Zai put a blanket over her knees.  “You can sleep behind me.”

“Yes.”

He Zai proceeded to sit crossed legged behind her, his back to her back.  From afar, they looked like they were garnering warmth from each other, but it was also a position for watching each other’s back.  She was very accustomed to this arrangement but someone was apparently not used to their habit.

Gong Sun Yun looked at her, his normally expressionless eyes rippling like water.  She closed her eyes to shut him out.  Recently, verses from the Luo Shen poem has wandered unbidden into her mind when she least expects them to, and she has no intention to continue her recollection of the poetic essay on the Water Fairy. 

She felt very happy tonight. For one, she received a promise from He Zai - an easier-said-then-done promise is still a promise.  At the same time, another man has smiled at her. 

A parent to everyone… the people of Cloud Manor must have seen him like this frequently.  If his martial arts were as good as reported, she was likely his only savior which was why he would treat her like family and care for her like one. 

His smile was not mesmerizing because it lit up his features, but because of its warmth.  She took it as much as the woods would welcome a spring breeze and the feeling was like having received a precious gift.  No wonder he was always expressionless; he probably reserved his expressions only for his family.   It was a pity she did not have a family, so she will not dwell on it or harbor any regrets.

She closed her eyes.  She felt very safe leaning on He Zai, and she quickly fell asleep thinking of smiles like warm spring breezes. She knew such smiles are like drugs and cannot be indulged.  Even in sleep, she resisted their pull while her sub-consciousness continued to ponder on her future path with He Zai.

Chapter 4

The next morning, the sky was tainted a faint orange and the smell of wet earth lingered in the air.

A storm was brewing and the strong wind was causing everyone’s robes to dance wildly.  He Zai was beside her and blocked some of the wind.  Normally, she would find such weather refreshing but for some reason, she could not help but feel restless and uneasy.

Although she has said before that luck was the primary reason she was still alive, she has never doubted the strength of her sixth senses. She could feel the danger in the air but could not guess what was going to happen next.

Suddenly, colorful fireworks exploded in the distant sky.  Gong Sun Yun narrowed his eyes and ordered Gong Sun Zhi to stick close to the two Protectors while he displayed some rather impressive qinggong* and flew quickly out of the woods. 

Originally, Cloud Manor has arranged for a shelter point in front, in anticipation of the rain.  With the turn of events, everyone could only hurry after Gong Sun Yun in case an unseen enemy was planning to divide and conquer.  The woods passed in a green blur as she steadily followed three paces behind Che Yan Yan and her Sky Slaves. He Zai was besides her and Gong Sun Zhi was at her back.

Gong Sun Zhi tried to comfort her. “You do not need to worry.  There are very few in the pugilist world who would pit themselves against Cloud Manor and the people who dare to do so are either some nobody or mountain bandits.  The fireworks are a sign that our men had encountered some difficulty.  Based on the location where the shot is being fired, it was where we discovered two young pugilists previously, so perhaps our men are having difficulty persuading them to leave.”

Wang Yun was surprised.  “You could tell what I am thinking?”

He returned her question with a gentle smile. “Whenever you are thinking on something, you would touch your flute.  The flute contains a sword and is probably something very important to you. However, try not to expect the worse in every situation to prevent stress from accumulating and affecting your health.”

She gave an involuntary shiver, afraid that he would lapse into his lecturing mode.  She stopped touching her flute but could not stem her thoughts.  How could she not expect the worse in everything?  Had she not done so, she would have died a long time ago.

They spotted some people in front and slowed their pace.  When Fifth Gentleman saw the young man in Gong Sun Yun arms, he shouted “Seven Brother!” and dashed to kneel beside the two.

There were several other bodies on the ground and they were all dressed in Cloud Manor robes.  She observed the scene before her and fingered her flute from habit.  After a brief examination of the bodies He Zai reported to her in low tones: “Miss, these people has just expired.”

She did not reply and turned her attention to their surroundings.  They are at the top of a cliff and a recent shower has given visibility to the normally misty surroundings.  She walked to the edge and peered down the cliff.  From what she could see, this cliff was not as tall or steep as Tian Bi cliff but anyone who fell off the cliff would still die or become severly injured at the very least.

She went to Gong Sun Yun and found that he has sealed the major meridian points of Seventh Gentleman.  Gong Sun Zhi was trying to help but his fingers were shaking.

Seventh Gentleman was very weak but he managed to breathe “The seven disciples I brought, are they… gone?”

Gong Sun Yun was in the midst of transferring his inner energy to him, but he managed to reply:  “They have all gone without any pain.”

“Is that so? Xian Yun, I do not know who he is except that his skills are extraordinary.  Perhaps, it could also be two or three people…”  Seventh Gentleman’s voice grew hoarser and blood dripped from the corner of his mouth.

Gong Sun Zhi tried to stop him from talking but he stubbornly continued: “I may not have the chance so hear me out.  I did not see him or them.  Had Xian Yun not taught me qinggong personally, I would not have been able to dodge the last strike, and now…”

“Little Seven, I do not care about that! You are not going to be telling us your last will!”  With that, Gong Sun Zhi sealed his meridian point for speech and glared at him. “If you want to talk, you will need to recover first!”

“Gentleman Xian Yun, we witnessed everything!” said a young pugilist from another sect. “Although we are a step late in getting here, but the bodies tell their own story.  There are no sword or knife wounds so the murderer must have used his internal strength to shatter the internal organs of these Cloud Manor disciples.  The Right Protector of Bai Ming Sect uses a whip and the Left Protector uses a sword, but their Sect Leader is known to be able kill with his bare hands.  Such evil martial arts have the fingerprints of Bai Ming Sect all over it!”

Wang Yun gave a faint smile and said: “If it is Master, there should not be any survivors.  It is possible that someone could be trying to frame us.”

“Demoness, pay with your life!  Bai Ming Sect has turned my brother into a Sky Slave and let him die in shame while leaving my father too ashamed to face the others.  Let me turn you into a slave today and parade you like a dog to give you a taste of your own medicine!”

Someone drew his sword and He Zai was in front of Wang Yun in the next instant.  Che Yan Yan flicked her whip and said coldly. “Sure!  Let us see who is the one who is going to die!”

Seeing that the situation was getting out of control, Gong Sun Yun moved quickly to deflect the falling swords and whip.  His face was pale but stern.  “You are not giving me face if you choose to fight.”

“Gentleman Xian Yun, he killed your people – “

At that moment, Wang Yun could imagine herself kneeling from admiration in front of an altar with a Gentleman Xian Yun statue on it.  From what she could see, he was someone who favored his own.  Yet when faced with the death of his sect members, he could still refrain from turning against Che Yan Yan and her on the spot.  Deities were indeed made differently from common folks. 

She looked around thoughtfully.  Things could not be so simple - there must be another shoe waiting to drop.  She knew Sect Leader was not after discordance between Bai Ming Sect and other clans. She ought to be his main target, but what did he hope to accomplish with the death of some Cloud Manor disciples?

While she was still pondering, some hot-blooded young pugilist could hold back no longer and started fighting.  These young men were probably too young to hold much respect for Cloud Manor.  As for Gong Sun Yun, she knew he has transferred all the energy he could to Seventh Gentleman earlier and his face was very pale.  From one young man swinging his sword, to a second, a third…  the situation was fast getting chaotic.
  
She continued to observe the situation coldly and thought to herself that Gong Sun Yun would not fight to kill.  True enough, his moves were aimed at disarming the young men and many were soon empty-handed.  When someone turned to attack her, she did not even move except say to He Zai, “Maim but do not kill.”

Ignoring the fight around her, she went Fifth Gentleman. “Can you save Seventh Gentleman?” 

His reply was confidant. “Yes!”

She smiled as she recalled his earlier words that his goal was to let his family live a long life. “It is chaotic here and Seventh Gentleman cannot not sustain further injuries.  Let us move him away.”  This was a good opportunity for her to score some friendship points, and it was also good to showcase her difference with Che Yan Yan, since the latter would not hesitate to kill when given the opportunity.

They managed to move Seventh Gentleman to the edge of the cliff.  Wang Yun was startled when she saw that Seventh Gentleman has opened his eyes and seemed to be focusing on her.  His eyes were bloodshot and he could not be far away from death’s door. She prayed he did not mistake her as the enemy and that his purpose for remembering her was so he could seek revenge in his next life!

Gong Sun Zhi caressed his eyes gently with his fingers. “This is Huang Fu Yun.  Xian Yun has guessed correctly, it is her.” 

Seventh Gentleman tried to reply but Gong Sun Zhi continued with forced positivity. “It is exactly like what Xian Yun thought.  Did you volunteer to take care of our lodgings in order to seek a peek at her?  Do focus on getting well, after which you can look at her to your heart’s content.”

With that, tears started to fall from Gong Sun Zhi.  When she turned to look at Seventh Gentleman, there was a ghost of a smile at his lips but he still looked frightening with blood at his lips.  His hands trembled and she hesitated before holding his cold palm in hers.

The winds were very strong at the edge of the cliff. But there was another sound…

The ground was shaking! 

Gong Sun Zhi quickly shouted: “Xian Yun!  The earth dragon has awakened!”

No.  It was not that.  There were just too many coincidences.  It crossed her mind that the earthquake could have been caused by dynamite, having witnessed a similar scene in her youth. Quickly, she helped Seventh Gentleman onto Fifth Gentleman’s back.  He Zai was back at her side and she issued the order without her usual cower: “Let us leave this place!”

Gong Sun Yun has also noticed the abnormality and shouted: “Everyone, leave the mountain. Quickly!”

Wang Yun was at the back of the group.  Once she stumbled and He Zai held her up and dodged some falling rocks.  As she was fleeing, the sense of unease continued to tug at her.  Ever since leaving Tian He Manor, it was as if she has been reeled by an invisible thread to this place.  Looking at the falling rocks, whom did Sect Leader wanted dead?

Gong Sun Yun went to Gong Sun Zhi and took over the task of piggy-back Seventh Gentleman.  When he passed her, he asked: “Can you keep up?”

“Of course.”  Besides, she still has He Zai.  But his action has impressed her nonetheless.  Seventh Gentleman’s life was hanging by a thread but these two showed no signs of giving up.  A pity, such a pity!  She can only be an observer in such situations and will never belong to the other side of the fence as a person who has someone who would never give up on her.

She stumbled and He Zai caught her again.  The ground was crumbling at an astonishing speed.  She has barely taken two steps when the ground disappeared under her feet and she fumbled again.  Just when He Zai steadied her, they heard a shout. “Big Brother!”

From out of nowhere, the young master of Tian He Manor was thrown out from the woods.  She could not move as she was caught in an icy grip,  He Zai also knew something was very wrong.  “Miss, stick close to me!”

He flew forward and caught an immobilized He Rong Hua in midair.  In the next instant, three darts shot out from the woods, all aiming at Wang Yun.  He Zai was holding on to He Rong Hua with his right hand but he managed to block a dart with his left hand.  Next to her, Gong Sun Yun flipped his sleeve and managed to deflect the second dart as he shouted:  “Huang Fu Yun, duck!”

Wang Yun quickly took a step back and managed to block the third dart with her flute.  As she stumbled back another step, she wanted to breathe a sigh of relief when she realized there was nothing beneath her feet.  He Zai leaped forward to grab her but another chain of darts shot out from the woods, this time all aiming at He Rong Hua.

If he persisted in going after her, He Rong Hua will die without a doubt.

In that instant, she suddenly understood what Sect Leader has planned.  So this was it, this was it!

Some things are easier said then done…. easier said than done…  she saw a flash of hatred in He Zai’s eyes before he made a half turn and deflected He Rong Hua from the secret weapons.

“Miss Huang Fu!”  Gong Sun Zhi has also turned and tried to grab at her.  Gong Sun Yun uncoiled the band at his waist and hastily festooned a hold on Gong Sun Zhi while the latter leaped after Wang Yun.  As some loose rocks hit him along his descent, Gong Sun Zhi knew it will not be enough. Although Xian Yun’s qinggong was very good, the ground was unstable and he has Seventh Brother on his back, how long could he last?

Just as the thought crossed his mind, he felt the band tightened around his waist and he was jerked upwards.  In that split second, he understood that Xian Yun has made a snap decision and he averted his eyes from the falling Wang Yun.

Gong Sun Zhi has not dared to meet her eyes, but what was there not to dare?  The wind was howling around her as she fell.   As the white mist swallowed the figures on the cliff, she burst out laughing. “Ha, ha..ha.ha…!”

To think she has been mulling for ten years over this question! Is it not a good thing that the answer is now out?  She closed her eyes and let the wind accompanied her fall.  Isn’t a dying person supposed to see her life flashing before her?  Why is it that the only thing she sees is the scene from yesterday when He Zai promised her that he will follow her this lifetime?

She has thought she felt a bit more secure now that she has a family.

She recalled how Gong Sun Yun would smile warmly at his family members.  Hasn’t the world always been like this?  Everyone has someone important in their hearts whom they will not give up on.  She is just a little unlucky to belong to the second category, to be classified as someone who could be saved if one is able, but could be discarded if it is beyond one’s means.  There is really nothing much to it.

He Zai has asked her for the reason she allowed him to return for his father’s funeral when knowing full well they would be caught home.  The answer was because she has been waiting for him to turn his back to her.  Even if it did not happen today, that day will still come in future.  She has expected this.

As for Gong Sun Yun, he too has offered protection if she ever leaves the sect. Too bad he has chosen his family when the crunch came.  It is only natural. She will not bear any grudges.  At most she should only be relieved that ah, it finally happened.

So there is no need for her to ponder when the people closest to her will leave her.  Perhaps this is another form of good luck?  But Sect Leader has chosen a really harsh way to drive home the fact of her loneliness.   Can he not just tell her nicely? She is sure she can understand.  If she falls to her death today, where is the crazy man going to find another successor?  Che Yan Yan is never an option and from the look of things, Che Yan Yan is unlikely to live long if there is a new leader.

Her thoughts were adrift and the roar of the wind seemed to make her even more confused.  Why did she get the feeling that the wind is blowing her up to heaven?  She inhaled the cold air and understood that although it has only been mere seconds, she has already lived an eternity.

She opened her eyes as her survival instincts kicked in.  She tried kicking out with her legs, and after several tries, she thought she has hit the side of the cliff.  Quickly, she tried to dig her flute into the rocks around her to try to slow her fall.

A pity she did not have enough strength and her flute without its sword was not hard enough to create much hold as she continued to plunge.  She bit down hard on her lips and uncoiled the belt around her waist.  She tried to swing it and see if she could hook one of the huge rocks near to her, but the wind blew her attempts away.  She laughed again, perhaps it was all meant to be.  Her belt continued to dance in the wind, like a red river of blood flowing around but dazedly, she saw the belt has actually caught on some branches growing by the cliffs.  She quickly coiled more belt around her hands as happiness coursed through her, and she prayed fervently that the belt would not break so soon.  Thankfully, the belt broke her fall and when it finally snapped, although she still fell with a hard ‘thumph!’ to the ground, it was no longer a deadly fall.

When she landed, her whole body flooded with pain.  She opened her mouth to gasp but it was blood that spurted out, tainting her face and vision a fiery red.  It took a while for the pain to subside and for her to be finally able to recognize a cloud in the sky… she was alive!

She tried to stop coughing up more blood.  Her left shoulder was burning and her face could not stop twitching.  Her back was starting to feel numb but she knew she needed to stand up.  She has to stand up or she would never stand again…

Her face continued to twitch uncontrollably and when she looked at her left shoulder, she saw that it was an open facture and part of the bone has broken through the skin.  No wonder she was in so much pain!  Although she was no stranger to scrapes and bruises while growing up, she has never encountered such a close brush with death.  She was vaguely impressed that she could still endure the pain without moaning.  Wiping the blood from her face and she found that her hand was still holding tightly to her jade flute.

She stared at it – what is the use of keeping this now? – and let the flute fell to the ground.

She wiped her face and found blood and tears on her face.  Why was she crying?  What was there to cry? Although she managed to break her fall, she has sustained a hard fall and besides her bleeding head, her broken shoulder, there was also a dull ache in her abdomen when she tried to breathe.

Is heaven playing a trick on her or giving her luck, to have her seriously injured instead of dead?  She tried to walk but she has barely taken a step before her knees folded beneath her.  Although she has tried to suppress it, her mouth opened and out came more blood. 

When her eyes fell to the Sky Slave bangle on her hand, her eyes turned cold and she removed the bangle.  The bangle has no key and was supposedly irremovable.  But since she was fourteen, she has figured out how to remove the bangle although she had kept it from He Zai.

Why did she need to wear the bangle now?

The pain in her heart warred with the pain in her head.  She took a deep breathe and forced herself to stand again.  She heard a clap of thunder and figured it was going to pour.  And the rain would erase all her traces….

She bit her lips again and walked away from the foot of the cliff.  With every step, the broken bone at her left shoulder seemed to pierce at her heart, bringing her unspeakable pain.  Great, now she was not only bleeding, she was also perspiring.  The slight weight in her sleeves reminded her that there were two pieces of broken jade inside.  She wanted to throw them away too, but it was too bad she did not even have the strength for this.

She turned to survey the place where she fell.  There were many fallen rocks but there was clearly no body buried beneath them.  The blood on the ground would likely be washed away but if someone came down to look for her body, he or she would conclud that she has left.

Which was exactly what she was going to do.

From henceforth, there will only be her. There will no longer be a companion by her side.  This is good since no one will know her whereabouts, and she need not worry if she will be betrayed one day.

She turned to leave again but the pain stopped her after a few steps.  If only the pain could go away, how great would that be?  But she knew she has to endure the pain because if she could not feel the pain, it would mean she was losing consciousness, so she got up again and slowly staggered away.

The rain started and she thought that the rivets would wash away her footprints.  How great!  Wipe away all her traces, wipe away He Zai, wipe away Gong Sun Yun. Who cares about them? Scumbags.

The pain… she could definitely endure the pain.  In ancient times, Gou Jian could eat bitter gall every day so what was this in comparison?  Just endure, if her hand breaks, just endure a bit more and it will be over.  She bit down hard on her lips…endure… so long as she could walk out of here, so long as she could keep breathing, there will be a wide ocean and vast sky waiting for her…

A wide ocean and vast sky…

And the figure in red slowly disappeared into the pouring rain.

Chapter 5

She asked the waiter for a table on the second floor.  There were plenty of empty seats and she chose a seat next to the window.  After studying the menu, she said: “Please bring me some deep fried dishes.  The oilier the better.”

“Would miss like to try our herbal menu?  We have the honor to get Fifth Gentleman of Cloud Manor to share some of his recipes, and we are probably the only restaurant to offer such herbal cuisine in the whole of Central Plains.”

She blinked and gave the waiter a pleasant smile “Perhaps next time.  Please give me what I have ordered for now.”

As the waiter poured tea for her, he noticed that the lady has very nice features although her eyebrows were rather manly.  If she has worn a man’s robes, he would probably not be able to tell that she was a woman.

She returned his look. “Is anything amiss?”

“None at all.  I am just thinking that this is the first time I have seen a person with such unisex features. Miss is really…” after running through his mental vocabulary list he finally hit on “…really handsome.”

“Ay, if I must be quite a failure if you think that I look like a man when I am dressed like this.”  She sighed. “It is indeed not easy for a man to cross-dress as a woman…”

The waiter was flustered by her reply. “What I mean is, Miss has features that will look good on either man or woman. If you choose to wear man’s clothing, you would have look like a handsome gentleman.  But if you wear a dress, you will naturally look like a pretty lady… besides you are obviously a woman with your current dressing.”

She gave him a wan smile and asked him to serve her lunch quickly as she was getting hungry.

She played with her chopsticks out of habit while observing the street below.  Because it was noontime, the restaurant got progressively crowded. By the time her dishes arrived, another three to four tables on the second floor were already occupied.

The waiter noticed that her chopsticks dropped several times from her left hand.  Perhaps her left hand has a problem?  As he laid the dishes on the table, he caught a sniff of herbs from her.  He discreetly looked down and saw a waist satchel that he did not spot earlier.

“Is anything the matter?” she asked again.

The waiter took a while to sort through his thoughts. “Oh I see.  Miss’s belt is overly long and has concealed your fragrant satchel when you walk.  But once you sit down, the satchel would be revealed.”  The lady has a tiny waist and surely need not wear such a long belt?

 “A belt can do many things, like saving a life for example.”

“Oh I see.”  Although he was still curious, the waiter knew that he must do his utmost to serve his customers and if this customer only wished to comment so much, he would not ask further and so he left her.

A while later, all the tables on second floor were taken up.   Two young men walked up to her and requested politely: “Miss, can we share the table?”

The new comers were in their twenties, with refined manners and fairly good looks.  When she agreed graciously, they thanked her and proceeded to place their food orders with the waiter.

One of the young pugilists asked her: “Is Miss from the jianghu [pugilist world]?”

“I should be considered one.”  She concentrated on eating, being careful not to stuff herself, as a way to stay healthy.

“Do you have a title?”

“No, I think.”

The young men thought that she could be someone new to jianghu and let down their guards.  Still, they could not help but sneak a second look at her.  She looks young but lacks the flighty or delicate airs of an inexperienced heroine.

Usually, young female pugilists tend to be rash and will follow their fellow brothers from the same sect when they travelling around the jianghu.  But this young lady is very steady and does not seem to be the rash sort. Besides, her eyebrows are extraordinary handsome, with healthy, delicate skin…. as their thoughts took on another direction, both men turned a dull red and coughed in an attempt to cover up their nervousness.

She noted their cough, and the distance from their mouth to her food. She can tolerate this.  It was nothing really, to eat another person’s saliva, she can definitely endure.

One of the young men tried to change the topic and asked his companion. “Brother Gu, are you going to Cloud Manor?”

Young Master Gu replied: “Yes.  The Imperial Court holds a martial arts examination once every six years, and this year’s winner is Silver-Hand Third Master Tu San Long.  He does not have a fixed residence but he is a good friend of Gentleman Xian Yun and I heard he is currently putting up at Cloud Manor. My master has sent me to congratulate Master Tu on his behalf, and to bring back some scrolls from Cloud Manor pertaining to Silver-Hand Third Master, so that our other disciples learn from him.  Is Brother Huang going to Cloud Manor for the same reason?”

Young Master Huang smiled. “That is right.  I have another agenda as I would like to find out from the other Gentlemen if Silver-Hand Third Master would be receptive to our Master Deng’s idea for him to marry his daughter.  I would also like to…”

Young Master Gu continued for him “…sneak a peek at Fairy No Waves (无波仙子)?”

She nearly choked on her rice upon hearing “Fairy No Waves”. Tolerate.  Tolerate!  She took a deep breath and tried to pour some tea for herself with her left hand.  Unfortunately, the teapot was too heavy and the action caused a shot of pain up her left arm.

Both men offered to pour for her. Embarrassed when they spoke out at the same time, they diverted their eyes.  In the end. Young Master Gu poured the tea for her and enquired: “Did Miss injured your left hand?”

“It is just a small injury.  Thank you young master”

“My name is Gu Shao De.”  He was quick to introduce himself

“My name is Huang Zai Ran.” His companion did not want to lose out either.

“I see.” She looked out of the window. “Pray, do continue with your chat.”

“Is Miss waiting for someone?”

She did not wish to talk while eating so she looked out of the window again. “Yes I am.”

Seeing her disinterest, the two young men continued to eat.  The people at the next table were talking rather loudly and Gu Shao De commented in low tones when he heard what they were talking about. “Ay, they were still talking about that incident which happened half a year ago.”

Huang Zai Ran appeared a little embarrassed and mumbled: ”For a small matter that happened so long ago, I don’t see what else is there to talk about.”

“How could Brother Huang say so? Several Cloud Manor disciples were either dead or injured, while Protector Huang Fu of the Evil Sect has fallen to her death.  Rumor has it that it was a setup because they found dynamite buried under at the cliff.  Who could have done it?  When Che Yan Yan and Gentleman Xian Yun attempted to look for Huang Fu Yun at the base of the cliff, all they could find was her body. It was such a mystery”

Mystery?  Of course it was a mystery.  Besides the Cloud Manor disciples who perished in the incident, the Evil Sect has also lost Huang Fu Yun and Sky Slaves belonging to Che Yan Yan. Even more surprising was the fact that the Leader of Bai Ming Sect has decided not to pursue the matter of Huang Fu Yun’s death and only summoned her Sky Slave, He Zai, back to the Sect.

According to rumors, He Zai has chosen to return to Tian He Manor but no one has seen him ever since.  Whenever Cloud Manor dispatched someone to Tian He Manor, He Zai would refuse to meet the messenger.  He Rong Hua was still the master of the manor and things were sort of left that way.  Whatever the historians of Cloud Manor have chosen to write about the incident were kept behind the three locked gates of their library without anyone being wiser.  No one wanted to probe further which also made sense, for who would dare shoulder the upheaval if they stirred a hornet’s nest?

Gu Shao De sighed and continued. “Rumor has it that there were ten young men who have trailed the group ever since they left Tian He Manor.  Their aim was to kill the Protectors of the Evil Sect and make a name for themselves.  But when the landslide happened, it was Gentleman Xian Yun who saved their lives.  Out of shame, all of them have refused to speak of the incident ever since.  I wonder who these dumb asses are?  For all we know, they could be the ones who planted the dynamite.”

Huang Zai Ran did not meet his eyes and concentrated on eating.  She too kept silent and concentrated on savoring her oily fried chicken wing.  When she heard a disturbance at the streets below, she looked out of the window and saw that someone has entered the city and were leading their horses down the street.

According to the rules of Cloud Manor, riders have to dismount once they have entered the city unless in situations of emergency. She saw two white figures leading their horses. The one walking behind was Gong Sun Zhi and the one in front was naturally the legendary deity-from-nine heavens, Gong Sun Yun.

Gu Shao De was overjoyed. “They are back! How wonderful.  Now we can follow Gentleman Xian Yun to the manor.”

He was about to go down when he saw that Gong Sun Yun has lifted his head to their second-storey window. Gu Shao De was about to smile and wave his greetings when he saw Gong Sun Yun curved his lips into a generous smile.

For a moment, Gu Shao De was mesmerized.

Gong Sun Yun’s voice was cheerful. “Wu Bo, let us return together.”

She sighed: ”Endure, endure... I have already memorized the entire poetic essay of Luo Shen to heart, so this is but a small matter.”  She went down the steps with her hands folded customary behind her, her long belt nearly dragging the floor. 

When she reached their side, Gong Sun Zhi was the first to ask: “Have you taken your medicine today?”

“Yes, I have.” Hi Mom, you are back.

Gong Sun Yun gave her a slight smile: “Fifth Brother is just worried about you.  Although you have made a speedy recovery, your tolerance too good and you could have pushed yourself harder than you realized.”

“I understand and will be careful.”  Hello Dad, you are home too.

Since losing her parents since young, she has never thought that there could come a day when she would inherit another set of parents.  Shouldn’t they have made their appearance earlier?  Twenty seems a bit late to get another Mom and Dad right?

“Let us return.”

She nodded and pointed behind. “There are others who wanted to return with us.”

Gong Sun Zhi saw the men behind her and whispered: “Did that Huang fellow recognize you?”

She shrugged.“I think not.”  and taking the reins of Gong Sun Yun’s horse, she proceeded to lead the way at a very leisurely pace.

* * * * *

Jiang Wu Bo was from the Capital, and the granddaughter of Reverend Zhou Shang before the latter became a monk.  She arrived at Cloud Manor with her brother two months ago.  Although Cloud Manor do not accept outsiders usually, Reverend Zhou Shang was a close friend of the Manor so they have made an exception for her while keeping her brother as a disciple.  Although her father is a scholar, Reverend Zhou Shang was a well-known pugilist in his younger days, so she could be considered a descendant of reputable family.

Someone said that when the Gentleman of Cloud Manor first saw her, they were so enamored by her that they has penned her as “Fairy No Waves” on the spot. Gentleman Xian Yun has even wanted to acknowledge her as his sworn sister but she has turn down his offer gently. 

This has caused many to wonder if this beauty is more outstanding if one were to compare her say, with Hai Tang Fairy?  As a result, there were a lot more visitors at Cloud Manor recently on the pretext of borrowing scrolls. Many young men have spotted Fairy No Waves when they visited the manor.  When looking at her for the first time, “handsome” is the first word that usually comes to mind and to call her a ‘Fairy’ seems to be stretching the term quite a bit.  But on the second look, one would discover her sanguinity and refined airs.  Although she is not a conventional beauty, she has her own qualities that could be deserving of the title ‘Fairy’.

Besides, a title will grow on a person as time goes by, regardless if the title is suitable or not.  Especially when it is a title endorsed by the Gentlemen of Cloud Manor, who would go against popular consensus and get peg for poor judgment? 

She happened to overhear the last bit when one Gentleman boasted about this to another. This was an obvious abuse of position! and she silently vowed to herself never to believe in anything that she sees or hears in the jianghu ever again.

Every evening, Jiang Wu Bo will visit a particular courtyard where a Gentleman will be standing guard.  When he saw her, he greeted: “Miss Wu Bo, I am wondering where you are when I was told you have gone to the restaurant.  I remember you could barely walk two months ago and although it is good you have regained your mobility, do remember not to overexert yourself and break Fifth Brother’s reputation (as a healer).”

“Thank you, Fourth Gentleman for your advice.”

She waited in a corner and after a while, Gong Sun Yun appeared from the inner room.  His forehead was beaded in perspiration despite the cool spring weather.  Fourth Gentleman took in his appearance and sighed. “Is everything still the same?”

“It is good that it is still the same.  Perhaps he would wake up tomorrow.”  When Gong Sun Yun spotted her, he gave her a smile and bade her to enter the room where Gong Sun Zhi was  waiting for her.

When she entered the room, she noticed that the medicine bowl was empty. Gong Sun Yun must have fed the patient his medicine after transferring his energy to him.  She moved a stool to the bedside and looked at the person lying on the bed.  “Let us begin.”

Gong Sun Zhi started speaking to the person on the bed: “Ah Yao, I am Fifth Brother and I am here to see you.”

“Ah Yao, I am Wu Bo and I am here to see you.”

“You have lain here for half a year and it is time for you to wake up.  If you do not wake soon, the other brothers are going to laugh at my poor doctoring skills.”

She repeated after him “You have lain here for half a year and is time for you to wake up.  If you do not wake soon, the other brothers are going to laugh at his poor doctoring skills.”

Gong Sun Zhi went on to talk about his day. “Ah Yao, Xian Yun and I have skipped breakfast in order to rush home.  Lunch was only some buns.” 

“Ah Yao, I…. ate at the restaurant today.”

Gong Sun Zhi look thoughtfully at her while he continued. “For lunch, Xian Yun and I had wheat buns.  When in the jianghu, sometimes there is really no choice, and one cannot take nutritious meals all the time.”

“Ah Yao… I let the waiter ordered for me today.  He served me the oiliest fried soy sauce chicken and the crispiest baked biscuits.  I was powerless to resist, so I ate them all.  When you wake up, you would be able to try it.”  End of report.

“Miss Jiang had a sumptuous lunch?”

She was very polite. “You are too humble.  After getting used to the food at your manor, the food outside is simply too oily for words.”

“Since it is oily, you should take something bland for dinner.  Please join us for dinner at Double Cloud Pavilion tonight.”

She thanked him and stayed another hour talking to the unconscious man on the bed.  By the time she left, the skies had turned a dusky grey and night was falling.  Because of the recent increase in visitors, there were more lamps being lit at night which will be extinguished the next morn.  She gave some thought to the cost of candles, which should have cost the manor a pretty penny, but the people here seemed contented to see money burn.  Where did Cloud Manor get its money?

Originally, she has thought that the people of Cloud Manor would be a thrifty lot behind their glamorous front.  However, she found it is not the case.  She guessed Gong Sun Yun could have discovered a gold mine.

Someone tugged at her sleeve.  When she looked down, she saw a little boy who was her supposed younger brother looking at her.  “Big..big..big sister..” He was barely eight and still has some baby fat. “Fourth Gentleman invites you to dine at Double Cloud Pavilion.  Before you go there, he would appreciate it if you can make an appearance at the ladies quarters.”

Although not exactly willing, she nodded. “Sure.”

When living under another’s roof, it is best to do as one is told.  Just take her ‘brother’ for instance; he was a newly-accepted disciple in the manor but he has to take on a new identity to lend credence to her cover story. Never mind, she could tolerate such a small matter. If Cloud Manor wanted to fake something to such an extent, she could comply, no problem.

Although her ‘brother’ gave her all the due respect of a real sister, she did not think she has gain any advantage because she has to give equal respect to the unconscious Seventh Gentleman, Gong Sun Yao.  He was the youngest among the Cloud Manor Gentleman and supposedly one of the most ardent admirer of Gong Sun Yun.

Although Gong Sun Yun has managed to bring him home, he has been in coma ever since the inccident.  From a moral standpoint, it was partly because of her that he ended up in this state, so it was only right she bear some responsibility towards him.  For that reason, she has been quick to agree when she was requested to speak to him every day to aid his recovery.

Small matter. Small matter.  She will not lose any meat or bone by talking to an unconscious man; this is definitely within her tolerance level.

Little Brother shook her from her reverie. “Big…big..big sister, please follow me and do not get lost again. The last time you took a wrong turn to the man’s quarters, Sixth Gentleman has scolded you.  It is better to be more careful this time round.”

She made a non-committal sound and followed the little boy.  She is living under another’s roof and has to follow another’s instructions.  Such is the sad truth of her pitiful fate.

She, Wang Yun, former Left Protector of Bai Ming Sect, has changed her name to Jiang Wu Bo and is living incognito in Cloud Manor. Luckily, it does not take much effort to keep her head lowered, so she has tolerated everything till now. Although she was not keen to revisit her memories of that day, she felt she has attained superhuman levels for pain endurance after the incident. 

She remembered vaguely of walking in the rain.  She stumbled several times, not knowing how long she could last, but she has continued walking. As time goes by, she found she could no longer hear the rain and it was getting harder and harder to decipher her surroundings.

When a shadowy figure appeared about ten steps in front of her, she stopped.  The figure appeared to be saying something but she could not comprehend so she did not respond.  The figure came closer and reached out a hand towards her.  She did not move initially but when she registered the hand was reaching for her forehead, she flinched. 

The hand stopped and he noticed her shoulder.

What was he saying?  She could not understand.

He reached out and sealed several of her acupuncture points.

“Miss Yun, did I come too late?”

The voice was slightly hoarse but finally, she started to catch what he was saying.  She even managed a polite reply: “Not too late, at least I am still alive.”

She did not know if she has spoken out loud as he only continued staring at her.  She tried again. “Gentleman Xian Yun, where is He Zai?”

“I did not pay him much notice.  Perhaps, he is trying to find a way down here.”

She thought she must have walked for a long time until Gong Sun Yun and He Zai have found a way down.  Apparently it did not seem to be the case.

“Miss Yun, shall I bring you back to Cloud Manor?”

The hoarse voice with its careful tone bothered her for some reason.  Her thinking was not as clear as before and she has to think for a long time before she understood his meaning.  Her pale lips curved up in a smile but there was no warmth in her eyes. “Gentleman Xian Yun need not fear my hatred for I bear you no grudge.  It is only natural for one to save the one who is closest to them during crisis.” 

The problem lies with her.  She, who is a nobody to him or He Zai.  The truth is simple; some things are easier said than done.  Although she was happy when He Zai said he would follow her for this lifetime, she has not truly believed him in the deepest recess of her heart.  What happened today was only a manifestation of her expectations.

Her heart was now as calm as water. “If I encounter a similar event, I would naturally save my own people too.”

“I could not save you the first time, or even the second time; surely I could save you the third time?”

She has grown accustomed to such polite words. “Thank you.  The remaining two pieces of jade are in my sleeves.”  Take them back yourself if you want to.

“Let them remain where they were.”  He paused and said gently. “Would you let me rescue you?”

It took a while, but she finally understood why he was standing motionless in front of her.  She lowered her eyes and laughed without mirth.  “I have to trouble Gentleman then.”  She finally allowed the pain to overtake her as she fell into a dead faint into his arms.

When she woke up, she was already in Cloud Manor.  She could hear Gong Sun Zhi in the background. “I am really amaze she can walk so far given her injuries.”

In that instant, she wanted to groan.  Did it have to be like this?  Yes, she was seriously injured but her hearing was fine.  Why did she have to meet this long-winded person now?

“Don’t you worry, besides the few of us, no one knows that Huang Fu Yun is still alive. It rained for six hours that day.  When the rain finally stopped, Xian Yun suggested to Che Yan Yan to search for you at the foot of the cliffs.  Before that, we have dressed one of our disciples in your clothes and pretended he was you. The body was badly scarred and Che Yan Yan did not suspect anything.  We have buried him in situ and in another two years, Xian Yun will arrange for the disciple to be buried back at Cloud Manor under his own name.”

 “Xian Yun was carrying Ah Yao and holding on to me, he was really unable to save you.  The rain was very heavy and Che Yan Yan and the rest has retreated further down the mountain. We were right at the back and Xian Yun leaped down the cliff after he passed Ah Yao to me.”

“He was not trying to commit suicide.  His qinggong is very good and he would not have a problem scaling that cliff normally.  But given the conditions that day, it hasn’t been easy for him to go down either.  When Miss Yun is able to talk, you really must thank Xian Yun.”

She tried to talk but there was no sound. So what if Gong Sun Yun went down the cliff?  Had she not been lucky, all he found would have been a corpse.  But Gong Sun Yun did seem to take his parental role seriously and would try to save whoever he could.  Besides, it was also her wish that Huang Fu Yun disappeared since there will then be no more mental games, no more dealings with a Sect Leader who has gone crazy from practicing his martial arts. She should be grateful to him.

She estimated that Sect Leader could only last another year at most.  Once he has passed his position to his successor, she would not care if she was exposed for she would then truly be a free-floating cloud amongst the wild geese in the skies. 
“Do you know how long you have been unconscious?  Only two days.  However, I know this is not because of your good martial arts foundation.  You sustained a head injury, a broken shoulder, a twisted left leg, and your organs were shaken out of place.  How did you managed to walk so far?  Even if I have increased the dosage for painkillers, you should still be in a lot of pain.  Why did you not show any expression of pain?

Since she couldn’t talk, she decided that she need not answer him.

Gong Sun Zhi gave a small smile and hit one of her accupuncture points.  “Now you can talk.  Previously, I have sealed your speech point for fear you would be groaning and howling.  But you can speak now.”

She stared at him for the longest time.  Gong Sun Zhi waited patiently. She is now lying under another’s roof, ANOTHER’S roof.  Finally, she blurted “… hurt….”

He looked innocent. “I beg your pardon?  I did not hear you clearly.”

She tried again hoarsely. “…It hurts. I’m in great pain!” 

Tolerate. He wanted to hear; she can humor him, no problem.

“Did it really hurt?  Why are you not crying?”

Toleerrrateeee….

A hoarse voice spoke up “Fifth Brother should stop bullying Miss Yun.”

It was only then that she noticed Gong Sun Yun standing in a corner.  He came to the bedside but she could not make out his expression with the light behind him.   “You have awaken too soon which is not a good thing.  Although I know it is your habit, you need to try to rest more.”  Pressing his palm over her eyes, he continued. “Will this make you sleep better?”

“Xian Yun, you stay and accompany her. I like to take a look at Ah Yao now.”

He nodded and moved to sit besides the bed. But his voice still sounded hoarse; had he hurt his throat?

The warmth from his palm seeped through her eyelids.  She remembered the same hands had covered her eyes when she has woken up in pain on the way back to Cloud Manor.  She was battling the pain and trying desperately to stay awake but he kept repeating beside her ear: “Try to sleep a while more.  The pain will be easier to bear once you are asleep.”

Now, it was indeed alright if she slept a little longer.  Cloud Manor should be a safe haven for the time being and both Gentleman Xian Yun and Fifth Gentleman seemed to be true gentlemen.  Recuperating here would be her best choice.  She decided to indulge a little and let the warm hands lulled her to sleep.  It wasn’t until much later that she found …

She has been conned!

Chapter 6

She has been conned!  From what she can see in the last six months, Cloud Manor is definitely not what it appears to be.

As she strolled across the bridge, Little Brother Jiang will blow out the lights behind them until the entire bridge is engulfed in darkness.

A normal person would not take an unlit path and the people of Cloud Manor have used this psychology to find their quiet moments among the bevy of visitors.  Just last month, she was forced to witness this first-hand when Gong Sun Zhi got the kitchen to prepare a herbal feast and invited all the Gentlemen (including her) to dine at Double Cloud Pavilion by employing this tactic to keep out uninvited guests. 

“Big… Big Sister.  I will make a move first.”  Little Brother Jiang was red-faced and grabbing a lantern from a concealed cupboard at the end of the bridge, he headed back the now-darken path.  As she strolled to Double Cloud Pavilion, she found her host, who has fallen asleep while waiting for her.

He looked very good in white with his hand supporting his forehead as if taking a short nap.  His long hair has unbound behind his back and when the wind gently blew on it, the image is rather surreal.  When still, he did resemble a deity. What a pity...

He opened his eyes and smiled when he saw her. “You are finally here.”

“You could eat first if you are hungry.”

His smile widened and he looked rather adorable.  So adorable in fact, she could see his tiger tooth. Did she see wrongly?  Deities are not supposed to have dimples or cute canines right?

“Why is Wu Bo so formal with me when we are family?  Quick, bring out the stuff.”

She reminded herself that she is now staying under his roof.  Taking a deep breath, she took out a small bamboo basket.  “Here is the soy-sauce fried chicken.  Remember to get rid of the evidence after you eat.”  She did not want to ask how he could guess her every move.

He cut up the chicken with a small knife and gave her half: “Did you hear anything interesting at the restaurant today?”

“Nothing much of interest.”

“The restaurant is a place rife with idle talk.  But with Gu Shao De and the disciple from Huang family, they would have likely talk about more serious matters?”

She gave the matter some thought. “Well, they mentioned the possibility of Hai Tang Fairy marrying Tu San Long.”

“I was about to bring this up to you as well.  The Dengs are keen to form an alliance with Tu San Long and the wedding will definitely take place.  Cloud Manor will be there at their wedding and if you are feeling better by then, do attend the wedding as well.”

“Gentleman, although the flowers have fallen for the river, the river does not  feel the same and flows mercilessly on…”

He gave her a meaningful look and did not reply.  She took another deep breath. 

“Xian Yun, although the flowers have fallen for the river, the river does not  feel the same and flows mercilessly on.  For all that is said and done, Hai Tang Fairy is the No. 1 beauty of the pugilist world, do you really have no feelings for her?”

At her change of address, he smiled and answered. “According to your logic, does it mean I would have lost my head every time I see a beautiful woman?”

“True, what you say is correct as well.  Virtue is more important than looks when deciding which woman to marry.  Whoever Xian Yun marries in future must be a woman peerless in virtue, even if she is ugly.”

He only looked on with his warm smile. His smile made his features came alive and it was as if his eyes and brows has been tainted with the colours of spring.  But like him, she can also be unaffected by beauty, even when he is pretending to be Luo Shen.

Besides, his spring-like warmth brought back memories of the time she was injured and bedridden.  She has willed herself to walk within two months and although Gong Sun Zhi was against her trying to walk originally, he relented when Gong Sun Yun offered to help.

At the beginning, she would break out in cold sweat even with the simple act of getting out from bed and walking a few steps with Gong Sun Yun supporting her.  He did not stop her and let her walk to her heart’s content.  It was only when she could not move a muscle the next day that she found that her mental readiness was way ahead of her body.  Try as she might, her body refused to cooperate and she could only lay prone and stare at the ceiling of her bed.

Looking at her, he morphed into Luo Shen again as gave her a charming smile. “Wu Bo, if you cannot walk, I can piggy back you.  That way, you could tell yourself that you have walked for today.”

That hypocrite!

Since that incident, she became more conscious and would not force herself to continue when she became tired.  After some time, she could even walk unassisted while he merely sat in the courtyard, wearing a smile like spring when it was already autumn.

He even has the gall to suggest. “Why not we do this. Woman likes pretty things so I will sit here and provide you with some eye-candy as incentive.  Once you have reached my side, you could take a rest.”

The first time she heard this, she thought some alien has swapped his body.  But as she heard more and more of such banter, she soon got used to it. Everyone would have a side unknown to others.  A person who looks righteous and just, can also be a psycho rapist.  Gong Sun Yun may be like a basin of cold water in public, but in private, he smiles a lot.  Furthermore, his smiles are always hearty and sincere, which is something she admires.

He seemed to have seen through her thoughts and smiled. “Has Wu Bo ever considered that if one has to wear a mask even in front of his family, what kind of sad existance would that be?”

“What Xian Yun said is correct.” It is a pity she has no family and could not verify his statement.

They ate their meal in silence.  Unlike last time, she did not think of anything else and simply focused on eating.  Recently, she found that such simple moments seemed to be occurring more and more often.  Although she did not know if it was good or bad, she has allowed herself to relax her guard.

Other than the fried chicken, the rest of the food was rather bland and the wine flask contained nutritional tea instead of wine.  In truth, she would rather someone kill her with a knife then live such a painfully, healthy, lifestyle.  Why would one want to live so long? To witness history?

She sighed when she was forced to take a cup of tea.  Unobtrusively, she moved the healthier dishes to the person seating opposite her, while she devoured her soy sauce fried chicken.  The mouth-watering scent, the crispy skin - they made her feel much better!

He noted her choice of food and poured her another cup of nutritional tea. “Regardless of what it is, things are only good when it is taken in moderation.”

Her reply was smooth. “My body is weak so I need to fatten myself.”

Resigned, he helped her polish off the herbal dishes, and at the end of the meal, she presented her plate of chicken bones respectfully to him.  He walked to the railing and using his internal energy, he shattered the bones into dust before he tipped the plate over and emptied its contents into the lake.

Cool!  She found herself becoming more and more in awe of him.  With him around, she could happy sneak around, without fear of being caught.

He took out a white handkerchief and cleaned his hands thoroughly.  When he saw her took out the same type of handkerchief, he smiled “I thought you only use colored handkerchiefs?”  

She answered frankly: “Since I am no longer a Wave on the River, it is only appropriate that I follow the rest of the people in Cloud Manor in using white handkerchiefs.”

“Based on your habits, there is nothing that can be retained for long.  Is that your way of survival?” His lips were smiling but his eyes were full of compassion

She turned to admire the lake in the darkness and pretended that she saw nothing.

“Wu Bo, don’t you find it unusual that a lot of people uses white handkerchiefs, be it me, Cloud Manor disciples, or even other pugilists?”

He likes to engage in idle chat with her and in truth she has grown to like their casual talk.  She thought about what he said: “I thought that that is the preference of the people in Central Plains.”

He was all smiles. “Truth be told, I met my savior when I was twenty.  She gave me a plain white handkerchief as a token although I could tell she did so unwillingly.  When I returned home, I made everyone changed to using white handkerchiefs. Over time, other pugilist took the cue from us and also started using white handkerchiefs”

He waved his snowy white handkerchief to emphasize his story.  The gesture was so elegant, it was little wonder everyone switched to white handkerchiefs in order to emulate him.

She took a deep breath: “So you have already seen through your savior’s intentions.  When even Che Yan Yan starts using white handkerchiefs, a person who uses a brightly-colored handkerchief would become highly suspect, will it not?

She has obviously fallen into her own trap!  Seeing that he only smiled, she rubbed her nose and decided not to press further.  Turning around, she admired the moon with him. 

Today was not yet the fifteenth and the moonlight fell evenly on the ground.  In the distant, the manor was ablaze with lights.  She could almost envision the other Cloud Manor disciples busy entertaining at the front halls, while she soak in the peace at this darken corner.

He said tenderly. “Night has fallen and you could catch a cold.  Let me accompany you back to your room.”

Actually, she was contented to admire the moon till morning but she only replied: “I can go back by myself.”

“That will not do. You have not fully recovered.  If you meet a young pugilist who wants to profess his love for you, you will not be able to turn him down even if you want to.  It is better that I send you back.”

She nearly fell over the railing and into the lake.  Excuse me, she has never encountered a young pugilist who wanted to profess his love to her, ok?

He continued. “He Zai’s skills are good; top notch even.  Although his martial arts are taught by you and although achievements vary from person to person, your kungfu should still have been better then when you were fourteen.  How come your kungfu... is really too weak for words?”

In her heart, she was laughing.  You thought I am a kungfu master, don’t you Gong Sun Yun? But who knows I would end up in such sorry state when I fell off a cliff?  But since he has seen through her, she decided to be frank.  “During the winter of my fourteenth birthday, I fell into Sect Leader’s trap which limited my progress in martial arts.   As a result, I did not spend too much effort developing my skills after that but luckily there was He Zai by then.  My surname is originally Wang but I followed my father when he changed his surname to Huang Fu.  Although He Zai’s surname is not Wang, he is the better student compared to me, and he mastered all the Wang family skills I imparted him.” 

Her tone was very calm when she mentioned He Zai.  From the corner of her eye, she saw his sleeve moved, but she cannot be sure it the wind caused it to move, or if he was intending to give her a hug.

After a while, she heard him sigh. “Since you have nothing to do at Cloud Manor, you could use this time to brush up your skills.”  His gazed across the dark waters. “In fact, we can start now.”

She got an ominous feeling. “May I ask, how do you intend to start?”

His smile was charming beneath the moonlight.  “I am not a strict teacher so there is no need for you to be wary.  Double Cloud Pavilion is not far from the shore, but there are no stepping points in between.  Is your qinggong good enough to leap to the shore?”

She hesitated before giving a slow nod. “Should be possible.”

He smiled.  “If you need help, I will be right at your side.”

Did he expect her to object when she was living under his roof?  She took a moment to gathere her qi (internal energy) and leaped from the pavilion after him.

His white robes were flying and he looked like a beautiful illusion under the silver moonlight.  She concluded that his fashion sense must be very good for this clothes to accentuate his calm air and seductive, no, warm smile.  If his clothes made him look like a deity, would he still look like one if he was not wearing anything?

Distracted, she nearly fell into the lake if not for a helping hand that suddenly appeared from her left and propelled her safely to shore.  Wasn’t he in front of her? How did he manage to appear beside her so fast?  No wonder he has dared to venture down the cliff amidst all the falling rocks that day...

“Wu Bo?”

“It is nothing. I suddenly have a weak spell.” She lowered her head and noticed that his hand was still around her waist.

He withdrew his hand.  “I beg your pardon.  I had wanted to hold on to your shoulder, but your left hand is injured so I could only hold on to your...”

She lifted her face and found that he has averted his eyes.  He looked really apologetic - if she could disregard his happy smile.  Did he really take her for a fool, or as his family member, that he would make no attempt to hide his feelings in front of her?

Inwardly, she sigh and reminds herself that she is living under another’s roof.  Besides, the sons and daughters of the pugilist world are not be encumbered by such small matters.  Why, he has even carried her in his arms when she fainted at the foot of the cliff. This is but a small matter, small matter.

Halfway to her quarters, they were stopped by a disciple. “Gentleman, the Jade-face Scholar would like to see you.”

She was amused by the name “Jade-face Scholar? What an interesting title.”

 “His is called Jade-face because he looks handsome.” was the off-handed reply. “Wu Bo, I will leave you to sleep early.”

She nodded and walked into her courtyard.  When she turned, she saw that he has remained at the same spot, deep in thought.  She shrugged and went to her room.  Soon after, she could hear his footsteps leaving.

She opened her windows and let the night air blew over her face.  She looked at the night and played with her belt that was so long, it nearly reached the floor.  The tip of it was wet from her near brush in with the lake.  She stared at it for a while before she noticed some new clothes folded on top of the dresser. 

She walked over to examine the new clothes.  The style was similar to the clothes she was wearing now with long belts, except that they were all white.  Clever.  He knew she was still scared and would insist on wearing long belts. 

Her hands started to sweat just by the thoughts of that day.  Had her belt not managed to catch onto some branches and broke her fall, she would have crashed to death.  No matter how many things she can tolerate, she must wear a long belt with her dress.  Isn’t there a saying that goes like, once bitten by a snake, one would be frightened by the sight of a rope for the next ten years.  Did she use the phrase correctly?

This year’s winter is rather warm so her recuperation is little hardship, as she climbs happily to her bed.  She likes this bed which makes her feel safe, unlike the past when she can only sleep soundly if He Zai is around. Her days now are so idyllic, she sometimes feel like that she is in a dream.

And when she wakes up, she will find that that she is actually lying at the foot of the cliff with her brain splattered all around her.

“Miss.”

She opened her eyes, instinctively on guard.  He Zai’s voice seemed to have come from right beside her ear.  After carefully scrutinizing the dark room, she let out a sigh when she was sure that there was really no one.

Her forehead was beaded in perspiration and she got off the bed for some water.  The oily chicken has lived up to its name and made her thirsty.  She opened her window and saw that the distant lights have been extinguished. 

Although she no longer touches her jade flute or hears the sound of bells behind her, she found herself thinking of He Zai sometimes.

She did not want to stay in her room and decided to take a walk because each blade of glass, each tree in Cloud Manor can help her feel more settled.  Although indulgence is not wise, surely an occasional lapse will not hurt?

She came to the house where Gong Sun Yao was recuperating.  When she saw a light inside, she paused before going in. Although the room was lit, here was no one around. She sat beside the bed and looked down at the sleeping man.  She knew that they were not trying to make her feel guilty by asking her to visit Gong Sun Yao every day. Rather, they were hoping that she would slowly start to view him as family; how could she not see through their intentions? She sighed: “I brought some fried chicken home but was forced to share with Xian Yun.  You guys are weird.  Why are you so fixated on nutrition and living to your seventies or eighties?”

Her lips curved as she continued. “However, I respect your little quirks.  I heard that both of us were sent back to Cloud Manor at the same time.  By right, you are the one who should have woken up, but reality is the other way round.  And to wake up is the same as receiving a new lease of life, is it not?”

He Zai. He Zai.  There were times when she dreamt that they could shake off Sect Leader one day and live peacefully in some remote place like siblings, just the two of them. Of course, she has tried to be realistic most of those times and guessed that there would only be her in the end, and ultimately, reality has proven her right.

“Xian Yun has asked me several times to become his sworn sister, do you think I should accept?”  At this, she cannot help but smile.  Since the age of ten, she has been forced to accept He Zai as her Sky Slave.  In order to survive, the young her has tried all ways endear herself to a much bigger sixteen year-old.  On the surface, both appeared to depend on each other although the truth of it was that their relationship could never measure up to that with his blood brother.  Because she has been so busy being wary, it has never crossed her mind about entering into any relationships.

“Xian Yun seems to have developed a liking for me, but where did it stem from?”  What has he seen when she was fourteen?

Even if he has seen her naked, she does not believe that he is the kind of man who will take responsibility for a woman if he is not really willing.  Although he appears very solicitous on the surface, she has come to realize that he has very distinct likes and dislikes. She even thought he could be mildly mysophobic. For instance, she noticed that he would not touch a dish during mealtimes if someone else other than his family has eaten from it.  But since he eats with her and other Gentlemen, does it imply he sees her as part of his family?

She likes the idea but knows she cannot dwell too much on it. Her conclusion after half a year is that Gong Sun Yun is like an addictive drug and it will be hard to disengage herself if she really fell for him. 

Although she likes his looks and the peaceful days.

There was a soft sound behind her but before she could turn behind, she noticed that the person on the bed has opened his eyes and was looking at her strangely. He is awake. Awake!

She can only stare “You…”

A calm voice came from behind her “You are awake! That is really great!”

She turned around and saw Gong Sun Yun standing beside her.  He seemed surprised to see her and reached out to touch her eyelid which she backed away instinctively.

“I have no other meaning, but your eye… is tearing.”

She rubbed her eyes and stared at him again.  Gong Sun Yao looked at her, than at Xian Yun and asked: “Who are you?”

She smiled. “Me?  I am Jiang Wu Bo and am currently staying at Cloud Manor.”  She held his frail hands in hers. “You hold on a second, let me fetch Fifth Gentleman.”

She wanted to get up but he held on to her.  He looked at Gong Sun Yun, then back at her, and said softly: “Your voice…I have heard it in my dreams… Your fried chicken… cannot let Fifth Brother know…”

She laughed at that. “Sure!”  She tried to get up again but he would not let go.  Unconsciously, she fingered her long belt. “I will leave with Xian Yun and return shortly.”

He tried to speak further but she batted her lashes at him.  Finally, he loosen his hold and closed his eyes. “Miss Jiang, I have a small box in my drawers which contains licorice.  Please bring it along with you to see Fifth Brother and ask him to bring a few more boxes over because I love their smell.”

“Sure.”  She turned back. “Xian Yun, do you want to take the box or shall I?”

“You take it please.” Xian Yun sat by the bedside with Gong Sun Yao.

She opened the drawers and found several small boxes.  She opened each of them until she found the box containing licorice.  When she left the room with Xian Yun, she opened the box and sniffed at it again. “This smells nice.”

“Is it so?” He was expressionless.

She asked casually “Why are you looking for Seventh Gentleman in the middle of the night?”

The night breeze was the same, but there was another scent in the air.

“No, I am actually looking for you.  I followed you when I saw you leaving your room.”

“You have something that need you to look for me in the middle of the night?”

He stopped and looked at her. “Wu Bo, do you not know my heart?”
She gave a tiny smile. “I know.”

“Then…”

She replied candidly: “Xian Yun, I think I have developed a bit of the same feelings towards you.” 

His eyes lit up at her words. “If that is the case…”

She fingered her belt and continued gently. “This is strange. I can keep mum about this previously until this moment under the pretty moon.  I suddenly like to know how you would look like without your clothes?”

She saw his surprise and smiled as she closed her eyes.  His breathing was irregular and she could feel him coming closer.  When he was about to kiss her, she raised her right hand and cut through his robes to draw blood.

She smiled while he was still stunned, and slashed at him again this time aiming for his hand tendon.  He finally came out of his daze and grabbed her hands.  She deftly leaped back, neither shouting nor showing any signs of running away. Her legs were not entirely steady and she realized that although the box that Gong Sun Yao gave her could counter some effects of his drug, it could not stop her from feeling weak all over.

“Jiang Wu Bo, where else can you escape tonight?“  He sounded sure of his victory.

They started exchanging blows.  When he stepped on her long belt, he made use of her momentarily imbalance to unravel her belt.  Although she knew how to counter him in her mind, her reaction was slowed because of the drug.  Just when she felt her belt loosened, she felt a tug from behind and in the next instant, the belt was securely fastened again.  As a pair of strong hands supported her from behind, her dagger sliced her belt into half.  When something has outlived its usefulness, there is no use keeping it.

Her attacker cried “Gentleman Xian Yun!” but before he could flee, several Could Manor disciples have surrounded him.

The real Gong Sun Yun said from behind her. “Fifth Brother, please take a look at Wu Bo.  She has been drugged.”

Gong Sun Zhi took her pulse and looked at Gong Sun Yun. “The aphrodisiac is a very easy drug to cure.”

She blinked and tried to straighten. But he kept his hand at her waist, keeping her in his arms.  

Gong Sun Zhi nodded. “It is best you keep still because the aphrodisiac scent is on your body. It would have been fine if you have stayed in your room, why did you suddenly go to Ah Yao’s room?  Wait a minute, you have smelt licorice?”

“Yes.” She took her time to reply. “Ah Yao gave it to me.”

A moment of silence later, Gong Sun Zhi jumped up and ran away without a backward glance. “Go back to sleep!  You will be fine after some erotic dreams.”

Erotic dreams?  She sighed.  She just knew that the licorice could not be a full cure.  She never had an erotic dream in her life.  Who would she dream of?

Gong Sun Yun suddenly said: “Let me accompany you back to your room.”

“Aren’t you going to take a look at Ah Yao?”

“It is enough that Fifth Brother is there now.”  He let her walk in front while keeping no more than one pace behind.  When other disciples tried to approach her, he would signal for them to keep their distance.

“There were several strange happenings in the jianghu recently which I did not have a chance to tell you during your recuperation.  A pair of lovers would… anyway, the man would deny he did anything.  I did not pay much heed to this until Third Brother mentioned tonight that from his checking of the wulin annals, the Jade-face Scholar was putting up at these places when the disputes happened, and it so happens that he is here tonight on pretext of accessing our library.”

“So I see. His disguise is pretty good.”  They have reached her room.  “There is only one Fairy in Cloud Manor (so his target is obvious).  To think I actually have the ability to attract flies.  Xian Yun, I finally understand why you only smile in private and hoard your smiles like a miser when outside.  It is so easy for your family to spot the real you if anyone ever try to disguise himself as you.  When he is not smiling, the Jade-face Scholar does resemble you to the dot.”

“So you have seen through his disguise right from the onset.”

She raised her brow.  He was very restrained, as if worried that she would jump him if he turned on some of his usual charm.  In truth, the drugged scent only made her a bit weak, a bit hot, but nothing much beyond that.  Perhaps her endurance was indeed top-notch like he said.  She was about to enter her room when he said from behind her.

“You will not shout even though it has been half a year.  You were really hurt badly that day aren’t you?”

She turned around.  Was he referring the fact that she did not shout for help just now?

His warm hands covered her eyes once more and this time, she did not turn away. “It doesn’t matter.  Be it one year or two years, I will be here when you want to shout.  Although I failed to save you the first time, or when the second and third times are unnecessary, I will still try to save you.  Wu Bo, you can let anyone into your heart, but please do not live there alone.”

She remained silent when he removed his hands.  He smiled and said gently “Sleep early.”

She went into her room and shut the door.  As she leaned against the door, she covered her eyes with her left hand.  Her left hand, the limb which she has tried so hard to retain.  Her body and vital organs, which she has spent ages nursing back to health.  She will never forget, or dare forget, the pain she has gone through.

She knew he was trying to wear down her will, but on impulse, she opened her door and met his curious eyes.  “Xian Yun is still here?  The last bird will get the worm, is that how the saying goes?”

“Do you still wish for me to become your sworn sister?”

His eyes gleamed and his lips curved upwards.  “If you are willing, be it Wu Bo, Huang Fu Yun, or Wang Yun, you will always be my sworn sister this lifetime.”

She threw up her hands in greeting as she returned his smile. “Brother Xian Yun, I will need to trouble you to look after me in future.”

This time, his smile reached his eyes and he said gently: “We still need to hold a ceremony, but we can do a simple one tomorrow.”

She sighed. “That’s true.  Tonight is such a hassle, is it not?”

He did not meet his eyes. “Tonight has been hard on you.”

She was surprised. “Is it hard to have erotic dreams?  I never have one in my life before, I wonder…”

He raised his eyes to her and said slowly. “Wu Bo, you have always been clever. There are no other branches to the Gong Sun family tree and we have no other kin other than the ones you already know.  There will never be any female cousins who will suddenly appear out of the blue, especially since I have never acknowledge any outside family. You should be mentally prepared once we become sworn siblings.”

“Dreams are always a reflection of one’s deepest hopes and desires.  How do I know who I will dream of?  How about this, I will tell you tomorrow when I wake up.  Good night, Sworn Brother.” 

She closed the door in his face and bit down on her urge to laugh.  In the darkness, she disrobe until she was dressed in her innerwear. She made her way to the dresser and contemplated on her new clothes.  Fingering the long belts, she took a deep breath before cutting them short decisively. Discarding the portion that was in her hands, she went to bed. 

Good, she never has any erotic dreams before.  What will she see?  Her eyes drifted to the door where she can see the shadow of a man standing outside her room.  Unbidden, a sense of security filled her heart, together with the effects of the aphrodisiac.  She starts to feel a little dizzy, a little high, as warmth course through her body.

Bring it on!  She is curious to know who is the man who will appear in her dreams.

Chapter 7

He seemed to be lost.

Looking at the same scenery for the third time, Gong Sun Yun who has just turned twenty, wrinkled his brow.

There were several black jade stone pillars erected around the natural hot spring. Colourful chiffon cloths hung between the pillars forming the walls of a bath.  There was no roof and whoever in the bath would be able to see the stars, indicating that whoever who built this structure knew how to enjoy life.

He gave up trying to find a way out by the front and walked to the back.  Behind a chiffon curtain was a changing room and behind it was a little lounge.  The hot spring was located at the top of Tian Bi Cliff and unless one possesses excellent qinggong, ordinary folks would not be able to climb to the top.  The other path up the mountain was blocked by a maze filled with poison mist, so he has thought that such a secluded spot would be an ideal place to imprison unruly Sky Slaves. Who would have guessed that it was actually a bath?

He sighed.  He has been asked by the Old Master of Tian He Manor to sneak into Bai Ming Sect to look for He Yue Hua.  It was a thankless task but he has no choice since Cloud Manor was a neutral entity, since his kungfu was good, since he was only twenty and needed to respect the elders…

So what if he was highly skilled?   No one would guess he that he would often get lost, which was why he always need to travel with another Gentleman.  Since no one is perfect, he is not usually bothered by his lack of direction sense until times like now.
It was a secret that Old Master of Tian He Manor has contacted an incurable illness and was unlikely to have long to live.  For this reason, he has agreed to try to look for He Yue Hua and if he failed, he would have tried his best.  But at two hours past midnight, he would be lucky if he could even figure a way out of Bai Ming Sect.

He tucked his long sword into its sheath and cut through the changing room.  Lifting one semi-transparent curtain, he did not expect to find another person inside.  At the sight of a young maiden’s bare back soaking in the hot spring, he quickly turned around in dismay. She was leaning face down on a black jade stone and he did not see what she was doing.

Had he known this, he would never have come!  It was a small matter getting injured or captured, but he definitely did not want get hitched with some stranger. Troubled, he decided not to alert the young maiden to his presence and sat down near a pillar behind the curtain and waited patiently for her to leave.

“Ay…”

He kept still.
“Ay…”

He remained motionless.  The sighs and tinkling of bells continued and he thought she could be a Sky Slave. But how could an ordinary Sky Slave have the ability to reach Tian Bi Cliff, or bath in such exclusive surroundings?

“Every fifteenth of the month is the day for me to pamper myself. Otherwise, how I can carry on?”  Her self-mutterings were very soft, but he has very good hearing and caught every word. 

Besides, it wasn’t as if he has a choice. 

He heard the familiar sound of a page turning.  Was this her way of pampering herself?  By reading in a hot spring?

“Ay, Guo Jian of the ancient times could taste his enemy’s excrement, laugh happily and even wish his enemy well after that. What excellent ‘taste’! What a good model for endurance!” [Side Note from Mb:-  Guo Jian tasted bitter bile, not excrement.  Oh Wang Yun, where did you get your books?]

His eyes widen.

“I doubt I could ever reach his level of endurance.  Perhaps I could, under extreme duress, taste my enemy’s perspiration.  But excrement? Ay, I think I need to practice some more, pamper myself some more, before I can ever taste someone’s excrement without batting an eyelid.”

To his amazement, she continued to read out other acts of endurance from her book. That was her definition of pampering?  Which young girl in Bai Ming Sect was able enjoy this hot spring and yet needed to attain such levels of endurance?

After a while, her voice trailed off, leaving only the soft sounds of her breathing.  After some hesitation, he decided to stick his head inside and confirmed that she had indeed fallen asleep.  From her words, she seemed apt at endurance and coming here was her way to de-stress and prep herself to endure some more.  This secluded spot must be within her comfort zone that she could even fall asleep here.

The mist from the hot spring has obscured her features, but he caught a glimpse of honey-coloured skin.  Just when he wanted to avert his eyes, he heard a sound and he saw a poisonous snake slithering towards her. 
Thinking, he picked up a fallen leaf on the floor and aimed it at her bare shoulder.  She was on guard even in sleep and woke up the instant the leaf brushed past her shoulders.  She surveyed her surroundings with a cold eye.  It was a pity her kungfu was not very good and she did not see the person behind the chiffon curtain.

He has been unwilling to look at her but when the snake got closer, he has no choice.  Behind the mist, he vaguely saw that she was around thirteen or fourteen.  Her eyes and brows were quite pretty but the expression in her eyes was at odds with her childlike looks

When she has convinced herself that there was no one and the leaf was just something the wind blew over, she lifted her head to the skies.  She heard a slithering sound, turned and saw the snake. She did not move her body but her small face backed away instinctively.  Then as if dissatisfied with her show of fear, she leaned her face forward again.

He narrowed her eyes?  Wasn’t she asking for trouble?

At her confrontational stance, the snake suddenly shot forward while she remained motionless. When the snake was only a finger length away. Gong Sun Zhi was about to strike when the snake suddenly fell limply on the ground.

She shook her head and mumbled. “Ay, which is why I said it is best to depend on oneself.”  Her slight quiver gave away the fear she was suppressing.  Slowly, she got up from the pool, put on her clothes, and slowly left the pool.

He waited until he was sure she would not return before stepping out from his hiding place to examine the hot spring.  He found poison sprinkled around the pool which was likely put there to handle such situations in mind.  At the sound of her distant bell, he left the hot spring and silently followed her.

Her loose robes were dancing wildly in the wind, but she paid them no heed as she walked with her hands folded behind her.  From time to time, she would stop to enjoy the moon and her long hair would fall to her waist. As the wind played with some tendrils of her hair, he thought to himself that she looked very adorable.  Adorable?

Surprised at his turn of thoughts, he looked again at her… white hair?  This young lady was apt at keeping her emotions hidden and revered endurance.  However, she knew how to let off steam so he did not think her white hair was a result of overthinking, so maybe it was genetics?  Looking at her swaying back and forth, he felt his lips curl up into an involuntary smile.

He touched his lips to confirm that he was indeed smiling and started frowning instead.  Since he turned sixteen, he would receive marriage offers from time to time which he would politely turn down every time.  Whenever there were female pugilists visiting the manor, he was also careful to maintain a polite distance.

Most of the men in Gong Sun family were rather cool towards the opposite sex, and he in particular, was cooler than most.  Others can say that he has very high expectations, but he just didn’t like the idea of getting close to some strange woman, or marrying a woman who did not understand him even if she possesses unparalleled beauty.  What he wanted was someone he would voluntarily put inside his heart.

“Ay.” She paused and dipped her head in thought.  “How did it go, the poem that He Zai taught me last time?  It would have been so suited to the beautiful scenery tonight.”

He did not know where she was headed for, but if he continued to follow her blindly, he would likely end up at her home.  And the most regrettable part of this option was that she would not notice him.  Thinking, he drew his sword.

She froze immediately per expected.  He has known she would choose to stay still because she would have deduced she was no match for him from the speed of his draw.  He was pained at her need for tolerance, and was amused at the same time that he could be feeling this way.

“Miss, pardon my offence.”

Worried that his sword may hurt her accidentally, he lowered his hand.  Unfortunately, the move cut off a lock of her hair.  Quick as lightening, he caught the fallen strands in his hand.  The hair was slightly wet, black and smooth like silk.

He heard her sigh. “Gentleman had followed me since Tian Bi Cliff?"

The hair in his hands was obviously wet, but they seemed to contain fire which brought heat to his face.  Was it because he saw her shadowy outline or was it because he was holding her hair in his hands?  When he lifted a finger to his face and confirmed that his cheeks were flaming, he was amazed a young lady could have made him feel this way.  Dazed, he could only say "...Pardon the offence, Miss."

Who would know their next meeting would be six years later?

As two carriages sped towards home, he went to the back carriage which was heavily draped to prevent people from looking inside. “How is the situation?”

Gong Sun Zhi gave a sad smile.  “Still alive.  She will open her eyes occasionally so I know she is awake although she seems a bit confused at her surroundings.  She must be in a lot of pain but she has not uttered a single word.  If I am her, I doubt I could have kept it in.”

Gong Sun Yun went to her side. “Why not you take care of Seventh Brother?”  Gong Sun Zhi obliged and went to the first carriage.   

Three nights ago, he has used the excuse that he needed to send Gong Sun Yao back to Cloud Manor in order to hasten home.  The woman hidden in the second carriage has woke up a few times during the journey but has silently endured her pain in order to maintain her grasp on her surroundings.   When he saw her move, he quickly brought a bowl of medicine to her mouth and said gently.  “Drink this medicine, it will help ease the pain.”

She only stared at the liquid and compressed her lips.  Her face was too pale and frail-looking.  He knew she has not eaten since her fall so she was probably not coherent.  Thinking, he whispered in her ear. “He Zai.”

When her mouth opened in surprise, he quickly fed her some medicine.

He Zai, He Zai.  How much of him did she put in her heart? Should he feel fortunate that there were was not one bit of affection in her eyes when she looked at He Zai?
He finally got her to finish the medicine but she could not sleep due to the pain.  He placed his hand gently over her eyes to make it darker and easier to fall asleep.  If she could sleep, she would not feel so much pain.

He helped her lay down and held her firmly against him, using his body to block out more light.

“..Who…are you..”
“I am Xian Yun.”
“...Don’t know you…”

“It does not matter that you do not know me now.  You will slowly get to know me when you are at Cloud Manor.”

He kept looking at her and did not move away.  Six years, he has waited six years for a lady to come to him with his jade pendant.  When he met Che Yan Yan for the first time, he knew then that his young miss was Protector Huang Fu.  But she was too well hidden within Bai Ming Sect that not even Cloud Manor could get a hold on her. So he could only wait.

“…Who are you?”  She repeated again, as if in a dream.

“I am…” he bent his head and whispered in her ear. “I am waiting for a young lady whom I know not how she looks like.  But when I finally meet her, I have to abandon her so she must have been deeply hurt.  Right now, I am only a man who hopes she can forget her pain and let me remember that for her.”

The faint scent of her hair floated up his nose.  When he opened his eyes, he was surprised to find her asleep on his shoulder. 

Despite being highly skilled, it was beyond him to save three people at the same time.  He has to save his brothers whom he has been with for ten over years, and was forced to forsake a woman whom he has been thinking of for six years.

Now, he has been given a second chance.

“Gentleman, can we get down from the horse carriage yet?”  Little Brother Jiang was very excited to attend his first ever wedding party at Deng manor.

“Are we here already?  You can get off first and look for Fifth Gentleman.”

Little Brother Jiang nodded and hopped off the carriage while Xian Yun waited patiently for Wu Bo to wake up.  After a while, she stretched lazily and remarked: “This is my first time attending a jianghu wedding.” She has been awake for some, just that she was too lazy to sit up.

“It is the same as any other wedding, except that the guests are more casual.” Smiling, he held her at the waist and helped her down.  The scene was reminiscent of the past when she was also in a carriage, as he eyed her healthy movements covertly.  The main difference between then and now was that she has to be carried out in the past, compared to being able to get down off the carriage now under her own steam.

She crocked her head to one side and took in the crowded scene before her.  She wore a white dress tied at the waist with a short belt which fell to her knees. “Xian Yun, the one whom Deng Hai Tang likes is you.  What a pity that such a pretty Fairy has been snatched away!”

He gave her a bland look lined with mirth. “Du San Long is quite a good catch.”

“Hmmm…” Her lips curved up in a smile. Her face should look handsome, why did it look so adorable? She was still curious so she asked again. “Do you have any regrets?”

“Not the least.  It is enough to have one true love.”  He emphasized the last sentence and look on as her cheeks reddened expectantly.  He knew she was uncomfortable with such intimate banter but she needed to get used to it if she was to heal her emotional wounds. 

He smiled and changed the subject. “Those three days must have been hard on you.”

Her head throbbed just thinking of ‘those three days’.  Gong Sun Zhi has omitted telling her that the effects of the aphrodisiac would last for three days, causing her to think that her baser instincts have gone wild, and that her wild thoughts in the day had manifested into dreams at night.  Luckily, her endurance and control were very good, and she silently congratulated herself for refraining from doing anything crazy during that period.

His good-looking face lean in before she could close her eyes, so she saw how he placed a gentle kiss on her lips.  Her lips were tingling but she kept her hands folded behind her.  His eyes were also open and the black orbs reminded her of lakes in spring.  In the past, she has thought that his eyes were like stagnant pools; now, she that his eyes, his lips, in fact the whole of him, would only glow for his family, leaving a cold exterior for others to see.  If he was indeed the lofty Luo Shen per his image, she believed he could never have kissed anyone like that.

She lowered her eyelids and clenched her fist as he placed one more kiss, and another one, until there was a trail of gentle kisses all the way to her ears where he stopped. “This time, there is no medicine smell.”  He fervently hoped that he would never smell medicine on her again.  At her confused look, he smiled. “Wu Bo, your endurance skills are indeed second to none.”

She croaked: “You are too generous with your praise.”

He straightened and brushed his fingertips gently over her cheek as she gave a small cough. He smiled. “Come, let us go in and not keep our hosts waiting.”

She nodded. “Ok.  Xian Yun shall walk in front.”  She was still accustomed to walking behind, and not be first line of attention.  As he turned and strode towards the hall, she touched her lips.  Actually, she did not intentionally refrain from kissing him back; she was just too used to restraint.  Gosh, it was so confusing to switch between things that needed control and things that didn’t!

And speaking of control, she seriously doubted that her level of control was anywhere near that of Deity-from-Nine-Heavens.  During the three days when she was under the influence of the drug, he was the only person whom she came in contact with, and yet he did not appear to have any reaction at all.  Was there some problem with the aphrodisiac or was there a problem with him?  In comparison, she nearly wanted to wrestle him to the floor when he kissed her just now. 

This man, was a wolf. He has became much bolder since she became his sworn sister and she knew he was trying to wear her down her beliefs with his incessant hanky panky.

He turned back and she saw the look that he reserved for his family.  So why had he not ask whom she had dreamt of?  Was he really that self-confidant, or was he held back by some manly restraint?

But she was dying to ask! Some of the drug must have rubbed off on him when he accompanied her during those three days.  Did he not even have the slightest, slightest erotic dream?

She grumbled under her breath and heard him call her name.  Sighing, she walked up to him while muttering under her breath. “I am enduring here and enduring there, but what am I enduring for?”  She was not trying to be like Gou Jian and taste excrement, surely there was no need to carry her endurance training to such extremes?

Stepping into the wedding hall, she noticed something weird straight away. Although there was no dress code and people could dress whatever they like, many female pugilists were dressed in the same style as her except for the colour.  They wore a short-sleeve top with matching long skirt, tied at the waist with a long belt that nearly touched the floor.  Even the fabric seemed to have come from the same source. 

It was as if there were many Jiang Wu Bos all of a sudden.

Gong Sun Zhi saw her expression and coughed discretely.  “It is not easy being a Fairy.”

Her question was calm. “How much did Cloud Manor make this time?” 

She has finally discovered the gold mine in Cloud Manor.  No wonder they were so enthusiastic about her Fairy title!  No wonder she was often asked to make an appearance at the female quarters whether she was busy or idle! 

At this moment, the dignified halo of Cloud Manor in her mind’s eye has taken on a very materialistic, golden hue. It was not easy feeding an entire family, besides the same gold has also provided for her soy sauce fried chicken...

What can she say besides foretelling that Cloud Manor will be around for a long, long time?

To preserve a bit of her uniqueness and prevent an overdose of Jiang Wo Bos, she decided to break off from the main wedding party and wandered around.  When she reached a certain spot, she paused and listened to the faint sounds of bells.  She has heard this sound when she left Bai Ming Sect with He Zai and they wrapped their bells with cloth to muffled their sound.  As she looked discretely around, she recognized many Bai Ming Sect members in the hall.

Suddenly, a whip suddenly lashed out and sent a man crashing to her feet.  She did not move and looked quietly at Che Yan Yan who appeared from the darkness.  With five Sky Slaves flanking her, she made a pretty grand entrance.  One of the taller Sky Slave was carry a big gunny sack where a bit of wedding dress can bee seen peeking out from the opening of the sack.

Che Yan Yan narrowed her eyes and looked up and down at her. “Are you Fairy No Waves?”

“Yes.”

“How coincidental for you to run into me when I was about to look for Xian Yun’s one and only sworn sister?”

The man at her feet turned out to be He Rong Hua. “Miss Jiang, leave quickly! Go inform Xian Yun that Deng Hai Tang has been kidnapped and that your brother has been injured.”

It took her two seconds to understand that he was referring to the little plump ball who was supposedly her little brother and she wrinkled her brow in displeasure. 

That is strange, why would she feel unhappy? 

Che Yan Yan stepped forward to get a better view of her and was shocked. “You…!”

She sighed and was about to say “Bingo! I am indeed Huang Fu Yun.” when she heard Che Yan Yan continue: “Your features are good-looking, but they are better suited on a man.”

Jiang Wu Bo was speechless.  Isn’t Che Yan Yan taking her love for man a step too far?  Did she even find her attractive now? Oblivious to her thoughts, Che Yan Yan continued. “It is pity that none of you could escape from this place.”

“Isn’t Protector’s Che kidnapping the bride to force someone to reveal herself?”

“How did you know?  Wait, where have I heard your voice before?”

She sighed. “It is not important where you have heard my voice before.  What is important is that you have seen the body of Huang Fu Yun with your own eyes, yet Sect Leader has refused to believe you and ordered you to kidnap the wife of Silver-Hand Du San Lang and injure He Rong Hua to force Huang Fu Yun to reveal herself.”

Che Yan Yan eyed her suspiciously. “Did Xian Yun guessed this?”

She made a non-committal sound and gestured with her free hand behind her back for He Rong Hua to leave.  But He Rong Hua thought it was embarrassing to abandon a lady in distress so he hesitated.

She could only sigh and continue. “Why not we make a bet.   Since you are after Huang Fu Yun, why not you take me hostage instead?  That will be so much better than nabbing the wife of the martial arts scholar.  At least Bai Ming Sect would not anger both the Court and the Central Plains pugilists. With me in your hands, Xian Yun would naturally intervene and find Huang Fu Yun for you.”

Che Yan Yan gave it some thought and returned with beautiful smile. “That will be too troublesome!  I am not going to let either of you off.  Men! Bring both of them back!”

As a Sky Slave got near to her, she him a flying kick and yelled for He Rong Hua to leave.  Although she has only mastered a third of her family skills and was not on par with He Zai in terms of skill, she thought she could still hold off their attackers until He Rong Hua escaped, afterwhich she would be able to surrender.

Chapter 8

“Ding ding dang dang. Ding ding dang dang…” The familiar tinkle of Sky Slave bells rang incessantly in the dungeon.  She has not heard this sound for half a year at least, and the constant ringing sounded quite piercing to her ears.

She consoled herself with the fact that Bai Ming Sect’s dungeon has always been clean and devoid of torture instruments. She and Deng Hai Tang were led through rows of cages where Sky Slaves were being imprisoned.  When she passed one of the cages, she passive gaze lingered on a hunky Sky Slave locked inside.  His eyes were closed as if he was resting, and he did not look at the newcomers.

Their jailor opened the door of the cage next to his and shoved them inside.  Deng Hai Tang nearly tripped but she held her up just in time.  As the iron doors closed with a loud “clang!”, Deng Hai Tang said heatedly: “This is as good as declaring war against the Central Plains pugilist world.  Is the Bai Ming Sect Leader crazy?”

Jiang Wu Bo nodded her head feelingly and sat down cross-legged against the side of their cage which bordered the next cage.

Deng Hai Tang continued. “Miss Jiang, I have brought trouble upon you.” 

“I am still ok.”

At her words, the Sky Slave in the next cage opened his eyes abruptly and stared at the back leaning against his cage.

Jiang Wu Bo eyed Deng Hai Tang with interest.  So this was how a female heroine behaved. In contrast to the gentle and soft-spoken woman who spoke to Xian Yun the other time, she was all self-reliant at times like this. So strong! But...

“Miss Deng will not succeed in finding a way out.  Why not wait for rescue?” Unlike her, she was a parasite and would wait for a convenient rescuer. 

An unreadable expression crossed the face of the Sky Slave in the next cage.

“Wait for rescuers?  When will that be?  What do you think is their aim for capturing us?”

Jiang Wu Bo sighed. “Ay, Sect Leader wants the resurrected Huang Fu Yun.”

“Huang Fu Yun?  The Bai Ming Sect Protecter who died in an explosion half a year ago?”

“Yes, you see…” Jiang Wo Bo lowered her eyes and played with her belt. “many people did not believe that she has died.  Bai Ming Sect Leader is one, the brother of He Rong Hua is another.  Sect Leader is waiting for an opportunity but he has fatally injured himself with his malpractice of the martial arts, so he does not have much time left.  As for He Yue Hua, he too believes that she is alive, so he willingly returns to Bai Ming Sect and stays in the dungeon, believing that she would return for him one day.  Even though Tian He Manor claims that he is at the manor, he has faith that Huang Fu Yun would be able to see through the lie and know where he really is.”

Deng Hai Tang was shocked and shifted her eyes from Jiang Wu Bo to the big man behind her.

“Miss.”  That man finally spoke, his voice hoarse and full of emotion.

Jiang Wu Bo continued to look at the floor. “He Zai, do you think you can beat me when it comes to playing games?”

“No.”  His face shone with happiness. “Miss has a soft heart and would return sooner or later.”

 “And how could you tell that I am soft hearted?”

He fell silent before replying with a voice choked with emotion: “Miss.  I have never wanted to abandon you.  He is my father’s youngest son and would also be his only son.  His character is not as strong as Miss and I thought: Miss is not someone who would give up easily.  Even if you have fallen off a cliff, even if there are swords swinging wildly at you, you will not give up until the last breath. So I…. Once I have rescued him, I went down the cliff to look for you but I could only find a body, a Sky Slave bangle and the jade flute.”  His last sentence was ripe with pain.

Deng Hai Tang eyes widen.  “You are Huang Fu Yun?  But Huang Fu Yun does not look like you!  She has a tattoo on her face.”

“I am afraid of pain so that is not a tattoo, just make up.”

“But… but the Sky Slave bangle is impossible to remove…”

“I have figured out how to remove it since I was fourteen.  I only continued to wear it for fear that others would know that I know.”

Speechless, Deng Hai Tang could only stammered. “You… really fell off the cliff?”

She smiled. “Of course I fell off the cliff.  I broke my bones, my head and my intestines were shaken out of place.”

She finally stood and faced He Zai.  She lifted her fringe to reveal a scar on her forehead.  “You are right.  I have thought that there was no hope that day.  I was waiting to move on to Western Paradise (heaven) but my survival instincts kicked in at the last moment.  The result is four months of bed rest, no thanks to my excellent endurance skills, without which I would have needed even longer to recover.”

His eyes contracted at her news. “Miss…”

She smiled and gave a casual wave with her hand. ”He Zai need not feel guilty. Isn’t this the way of the world?  If you can save me, I will be deeply thankful.  If you cannot save me, we can still pursue our separate paths.  Years ago, you have no choice but to become my Sky Slave.  I was only ten that year and I worried day and night that you would kill me, so I keep emphasizing equality as the basis of our relationship.  If you have to wear the Sky Slave bangle, so would I.  If you are forced to tattoo your face, I will wear the same mark on my face.  I taught you martial arts but I did it not for you to bring it to greater heights but to protect me in event of danger.  That is the truth of our relationship for the past ten years - taking what we need from each other.  And my aim of coming today is to tell you thus.  We no longer owe each other anything.  I will help you remove your Sky Slave bangle and we will walk our separate paths from henceforth.”

He watched her expression and said slowly: “I have already guessed your intentions when I saw the Sky Slave bangle and jade flute at the foot of the cliff that day.”

She did not reply.

“Has Miss been happy in the past half a year?”

“Not too bad.  My name now is Jiang Wu Bo.  I have things to eat, a place to sleep. Life is quite carefree.”

“Jiang Wu Bo?” He pondered on the name and laughed. “No waves on the River?  I should have guessed it earlier.  So it was  indeed Gong Sun Yun who saved you.  I was hoping he could lend a hand that day, but the unexpected darts that shot out from the woods stopped him.  So he saved you afterall. Does Miss like him?”

She arched her brow and smiled. “Am I that transparent?”

He Zai stroked the jade flute by his side gently.  “Has it been Miss of the old, she would have left the moment she recovered and will never be seen again.”

“And yet you would stay at a place like this to wait for me?”  She got a bit angry just thinking about it.  Since the first time she heard that He Zai was at Tian He Manor but that no one has seen him, she had known that this guy was not at Tian He Manor at all.  How could she not know his character after ten years?

In order to force her to reveal herself, to confirm that she is indeed alive, he would definitely return and wait by Sect Leader’s side be it for one year or two years.  Ten years was sufficient time for a person to change and the He Yue Hua of today was no longer the Eldest Young Master of Tian He Manor of yester eve.  If there comes a day in future where he needs to kill someone from the orthodox sect, he will not hesitate.  That is He Zai.

He Rong Hua could not see it but she has understood.  Such a person was no longer suited to stay at Tian He Manor.  Should she be grateful for his firm belief that she has sufficient self-protective skills and will not die?

“Would Miss be willing to give me another chance?  I have already returned the gratitude of birth and have no other ties.”

She looked at him. “Am I really that important to you?”
He returned her look but did not reply, silently stroking the jade flute that symbolizes them.  She pretended she did not see and looked outside the cage.  After a while, she said: “He Zai, you are no longer a Sky Slave material and I am no longer Huang Fu Yun of the past.

 “I know.”

She smiled and to his delight, she took the jade flute from him. “We spent ten years together.  Although you are no longer a Sky Slave and I am no longer Huang Fu Yun, but it did not change what we have shared.  This flute is you - no matter where you are, so long as there is a sword in the flute, it would mean that I have not forgotten you.  Do you think this is a good arrangement?”

His eyes were brimming with emotion as he replied: “Miss is generous beyond my expectations.” 

“If I am still wearing long belts that reach the floor, I would never have come today.”

At his confused look, she smiled again. “I am only trying to make amends.” 

“Amends?”

“In the past, you were a flower-youth, very easy on the eyes.  Every heart that sees you will be set aflutter.  But ever since you started learning martial arts of the Huang Fu family, you have developed these big muscles.”  She shook his head and sighed. “Thankfully I only trained till I am fourteen.”

He Zai stared at her and insisted.  “Big muscles are the hallmarks of a real man.”

She nodded obligingly. Men are like that; only their attributes are manly. Put the same thing on someone else and the spin may be totally different.  Her expression softened and she stroked the slightly-damaged flute.  “There are some things I have to clarify.”

“When I was bedridden, Gong Sun Zhi would nag, nag, nag and nag about the most mundane things every day.  Sometimes, I wished I have died at the foot of the cliffs instead.”
“Does Miss want me to kill him?”

She glared at him. “The first strategy is always to endure, and things have not reach desperate status yet.  What I mean is, thanks to him, I heard many jianghu gossip including those of the Gong Sun family.  Their family has this bad tradition of marrying their relatives such as marriage between sworn siblings, cousins, et cetera.  They may not do it intentionally but somehow, destiny has it that they always inter-marry.”  Which was why many people had wanted to become sworn siblings with Gong Sun Yun.  Unfortunately, she was the destined one.

He Zai narrowed his eyes. “And Miss is trying to say…?”

“Are there any bad traditions that run in your family? If there are, tell me now in case I fall into some trap in future.”

“None.” Absolutely nothing at all.

She said seriously.  “That is good.  Since I take the flute, I want to have whatever you have. And whatever I have, you will have the same.  In the past, I see you as my family but yet I would suspect you will betray me one day at the back of my mind.  Now that we swear to become brother and sister, we will become family for real and will depend on each other. We will call each other by name without regard for seniority, but if you marry, I will address your wife as my elder sister-in-law.” Finished, she stuck out her hand.

He looked at her and repeated her “depend on each other” with rare gentleness. “After my abandonment, Miss has actually learn to put your faith in others.  It seems that Gong Sun Yun’s credit cannot be ignored.”

His sounded a little bitter but he strike her offered hand decisively nonetheless.  “From henceforth, if I ever forsake Miss again, let me be strike by lightening.”

She blinked and touched her jade flute. Finally, she said. “I like to say I believe you but I still need time.  Right now, I can only tell you that I am not afraid.  Even if you leave me behind again, I will still think of you as family, and family will never abandon each other.  You, He Zai, will always be my first family in my heart.”

Half a month later.

He was extension of the shadows and moved swiftly like a bird of the night.  If someone caught sight of him, he would have thought it was just a shadow and not a cause for alarm.

He leaped up a building where the dark roof tiles would provide further camouflage.  After he left Bai Ming Sect six years ago, he has retained a vague map of the place in his mind.  Thankfully, his lack of direction sense was not acting up today and he was able to locate the dungeon after only half an hour.

Crouching, he removed a roof tile carefully.

Yup, it was indeed the dungeon below.
 
Listening to a faint voice which floated up from below, he moved twenty steps forward to where he thought was directly above the voice, and removed another roof tile.

“Master He, are you awake?”

He Zai leaned against his cage and muttered a sound in response but did not open his eyes.  Deng Hai Tang was worried.  “Miss Huang Fu, no, Miss Jiang has been brought away.  Do you think she will be fine?”

On top of them, the man’s eyes gleamed.

“Since it is not ordered by Sect Leader, she should be fine.”

“Do you think it is because Che Yan Yan has discovered Miss Jiang’s true identity?  What good thing can happen when she gets her Sky Slaves to bring her away in the middle of the night?”

“Miss is very good at enduring. She will be fine.”

“But…”

The man on top of the roof straighten soundlessly.  After thinking about it, he took out a small woven pouch, placed a piece of broken jade inside and flicked it to the cage below.

He Zai was awake in an instant and caught the pouch.  Deng Hai Tang nearly gasp but controlled herself in time and moved forward to peer at the pouch.

Inside were two pills and a broken piece of jade.

She was confused, especially when He Zai passed her one of the pills.  At the same time, He Zai said rather loudly: “Protector Che asked many questions about Gentleman Xian Yun before taking Miss away.  Given the character of Protector Che, Miss must have been taken away because of this man.”  He smiled as he looked at the jade piece. “I have seen this before.  The original jade was a good piece but Miss has broken it into four.  Who would have thought the jade would find its way back to its original owner?”

When the person on the roof remained silent, He Zai continued.  “Since Protector Che wants a private inquisition, it would naturally be held at her private quarters.  To go there, just turn east from the dungeon until you see a red house.”

Back on the roof, the man headed east without pausing to check if the people below have swallowed the pills.
 
After more roof hopping, he finally found the red house.  The house and its courtyard were dimly lit, but he could see about ten Sky Slaves standing neatly in a row inside the house.  Since he had no clue what Che Yan Yan was thinking, he removed yet another roof tile to better observe what was going on.

Under the flickering light, Che Yan Yan pursed her lips.  “You don’t like him either?  Hey, I am giving you a chance, Jiang Wo Bo.  Although these Sky Slaves are a choice of the moment and they have tattoo on their faces, but they are definitely on par with Xian Yun.”

“Since Protector Che thinks that they are on par with Xian Yun, why not let them accompany you instead?”

Both women were seated.  Jiang Wo Bo stifled a yawn, but was unable to control her smile when she saw Che Yan Yan’s serious face, so she asked: “What is so good about Xian Yun that you are fixated on him?”

“Humph.  The man I want must also fall for my charms.”

“That is simple.”  Jiang Wo Bo stifled another yawn. “Do you best to chase after him.  I promise I will not stop you.”

“It s not my style to rob another woman of her man.  When I wanted any man in the past, he would be mine once I captured him and if he does not yet have anyone in his heart.  But if he already has someone, to make him fall for me would be a test of my powers.  However, I will not shortchange their sweetheart and will always compensate them.  Since I am intent on compensating you, you take a good look at these men, choose someone you like, and finish the deed tonight.”

Jiang Wo Bo nearly fell off her chair.  “You call this compensation?  Are you sure you are not engineering a betrayal before you come between a couple?”

Che Yan Yan was so angry that she stood up.  “You sounded annoying familiar and the more I hear you speak, the more detesting you get.  If you do not choose a Sky Slave tonight, I will personally pick one for you!”

Jiang Wo Bo can only sighed to herself.  A few years back, she has heard about Che Yan Yan’s method of seduction.  She must get the man she wanted and yet do so in a way that maintained her image as a female fetale.  On the surface, she would not resort to robbery or murder in order to get her man if the man already has a sweetheart.  Who would have guessed a mere listener like her to become a victim tonight?  Luckily, she was very good at endurance.  She could stand this, no problem.

Taking a closer look at Che Yan Yan’s Sky Slaves, they were actually quite good looking without their masks.  No wonder this Right Protector wanted to keep them around.

Rubbing her nose, she stifled another yawn.  She blamed her sleepiness on the bad habit she formed at Cloud Manor.  To remain healthy, all must sleep early.  If her head touched a pillow now, she would be dead meat.  If there ever was an occasion to showcase her endurance, it would be tonight.

Che Yan Yan gave her a cold smile: “Actually, how can you and Xian Yun be suitable for each other?  Before I caught you the other day, he was happily chatting with the young Miss from Tang Manor.”

Jiang Wo Bo replied politely: “Protector Che, did you use the wrong phrase to describe what happened?”

“Huh? Wrong phrase?  I shall not keep it from Miss Jiang.  Your rescuers are already gathered at the foot of the mountain and I am sure Xian Yun is among them.  However, he has been inseparable with Miss Tang for the past two weeks.  Do you get my drift?”

It was impossible to discern the expression of Jiang Wo Bo under the dim candlelight, but she said suddenly: “I do recall a Miss Tang at the wedding.  She is about eighteen years old and very pretty.  I have wondered why she is dressed differently from the current trend, so it is because she is trying to outshine me.  If it is her and Xian Yun, they are indeed well-suited.”

As the man on top of the roof glared at her, she stood and continued.  “Since he is heartless, I shall not remain true either.  Come, come everyone! Line up so that I can take a look who is better!” 

A true heroine can bend with the tide.  Rather than blatantly opposing Che Yan Yan and risk a forced encounter, it would be better to choose someone easy on her eyes.  She circled the men and reached out from habit for her jade flute.  A pity she has passed it back to He Zai before she was escorted from the dungeon so it was not with her now.  Sigh!

Each man had his own merit, but there was none who could set her heart aflutter.  In any case, she just had to find a way to delay this till dawn.  Once the rescuers reach the mountain, she would have passed this hurdle.

Che Yan Yan tried to hurry her to pick one when she came to a stop in front of a youth who bore multiple whip wounds on his body.  Just when she was about to say that she will choose him, all the lights suddenly went out and the house and its courtyard was engulfed in total darkness.

“What happened?”  Che Yan Yan hollered. “Men! Light the candles immediately!”  Some Sky Slaves rushed to the candle stand but found that the tip of the candle had been cut off.  When they tried to turn, someone sealed their meridian points and they were immobilized.

Before Jiang Wo Bo could react, she felt someone grabbing her waist and into his arms.  The sound of wind whistled in her ears as she was carried past several motionless Sky Slaves and landed a secluded spot far away.  Next she knew, her chin was lifted and a pair of lips forcibly parted her own as she was devoured in a kiss.

She froze at the familiar scent.

The kiss was intense and seemed to go on forever.  Was he making use of the fact that she could not see his expression, to be kissing her with such abandon?

She eyelids fluttered close, and open. Close and open.  Her heart was racing a little fast but she thought her control was still intact.  She has seen such passion…. alright, she has to admit that although she has seen bit in her twenty years, she has only encountered such things once, which was in her erotic dreams.

But she could hold back.

No, wait.  What was she holding back for?  Some matters need not hold back.  Just when she has decided to go ahead and make lemonade to repay his gift of papayas*, she found that he has pushed a pill to her with his tongue and stepped back.

She touched her moist lips and swallowed the pill.

“Are you alright?” he whispered hoarsely.

“I am still ok, except that my heartbeat is a bit faster than normal.  Did you just feed me poison?”

In the darkness, she could hear his suppressed laughter.  In the next instant, she was in his arms again as he held her very, very tightly.  Has she been too focused on being alone that she overlooked his fear of not being able to save her time and time again?  Although he was holding her very tightly, it did not feel like a passionate hug.  Rather, it was as if he was afraid he would fall off a cliff again.

This man was so upright, anyone could put themself safely in his hands. But why did she get the feeling that she was comforting him at this instant?

“You need not feel apologetic since I would have come back for He Zai sooner or later.  This time was merely going along with the flow.”

He only made a non-committal sound.

She lifted her head and the movement brushed her cheeks against his smooth forehead.  She could imagine his forthright smile and she suddenly felt a lot happier.  It was weird, but she found herself remembering how he would smile at home frequently in the last two weeks.  Her next thought that follow, was that it was not good to indulge since it could easily lead to disappointment.

She did not know how he did it, but there was a faint light suddenly.  Taking a quick look around, she found that they were behind a boulder and on his palm was a short candle stub.  She lifted her eyes to his and felt her heart quake.  He was dressed in black and his hair was not tied up in his customary bun atop his head. Instead, he has pulled his hair to a knot behind and some tendrils had fallen over his forehead, giving him a rather rakish beauty.

So it was not that he actually favoured whites; He probably wore white to accentuate his aloof exterior instead of wearing other colours that would bring out his warmth and steal people’s souls away. This devil.  Her heart thought that her endurance training was really all for tonight.

He did not look anywhere else except at her, as if he could never looked enough. She licked her lips and asked softly: “I figured you are not here to rescue us tonight?”

His lips curved.  “No.”

“So what was the pill you fed me?”

“Miss-you-like-crazy pill.”

She blinked at his answer and took in his enticing look again.  The seductive scent of spring…. she swallowed her saliva.

“That…”

“If you have a question, you need to ask quickly.”

She gave it two seconds before she started laughing.  What questions could she ask? What was there to ask? Perhaps she should ask him how he felt about Miss Tang?  That would be a truly useless question.

“Nothing much.  I just want to tell you that I am well and you need not worry about me.”

At her words, he smiled and snuffed the candle.  As darkness engulf them once more, he said “When you return to your cell, try to exercise your qi.  The pill will help to protect your major arteries.”

She wanted to protest that she was not that weak but he continued.  “I cannot bring you away now.  Since Bai Ming Sect dares to abduct the bride of the martial arts scholar, its aim is to rouse the court officers present at the wedding to stage a rescue.  They are at the foot of the mountain as we speak, and will arrive up the mountain in the morning. Per our ancestors’ teachings, Cloud Manor disciples are not allowed to interfere with the happenings of the wulin. Although I have never met Bai Ming Sect Leader, you have mentioned before that he gone off the deep end and should anything happen tomorrow, you would be the first to get hit.  I may not be able to protect your well-being but with this pill, it will at least help protect your heart.” 

“So you are here to send me medicine?”

“Correct.”

She smiled.  “I understand.”

He hugged her again before releasing her.  “You take care.  Let me send you back.”

She suddenly reached out to pull him down by the neck and touched the corner of his lips.

As she guessed, his lips were not curved and it was his aloof look.

She figured his warm look a few moments ago was put on for her benefit.  Beneath his calm surface, he was actually agitated and could not help but to rush up at the earliest opportunity to check out if she was alive, if she was safe?

When she was fighting Che Yan Yan and her Sky Slaves at the wedding, it was inevitable for some to get hurt, for blood to be spilled.  As he stared at the blood stains after the fight, did he also wondering whose blood was it on the floor?

She felt something very foreign, but the strange feeling also brought a wave of happiness to her heart.  Surely, even a poppy flower is allowed to lose a little, little bit of control especially when the other poppy flower around her is radiating its poison like crazy? So she stood on her toes and gave him a small peck on his lips.

“This will really be the last time.” He whispered.  “There will never be such happenings ever again.”

She was a bit skeptical but she decided now was not the time to delve further so she smiled.  “Xian Yun, at this very moment, I am thinking it is not too bad to eat the nutritious meals at Cloud Manor.”

“You will come to know the pain in future.”  This time, she could finally hear the smile in his voice.

She was held in a tight embrace and the next she know, she was back at the hall.  He brushed his finger gently over her forehead and in the next instant, he hit her meridian points and rendered her immobile.  As his familiar scent floated away, she found a faint smile lingering on her face.

From outside the hall, a Sky Slave stumbled in and started lighting the candles.  She heard him shout for Protector Che and from the corner of her eye, she saw that Che Yan Yan and all her Sky Slaves where immobilized too.

The Sky Slave quickly freed Che Yan Yan, only to earn a slap from her.  “Useless fools! How could you allow someone to waltz in and grab my… wait, you are still around?”

Jiang Wo Bo gave Che Yan Yan her most innocent look.

While Che Yan Yan was suspicious as she went around releasing everyone’s meridian points, she finally came to Jiang Wu Bo and freed her.

Jiang Wo Bo took a deep breath.  “That was so scary!  I thought it was you who struck me.”

“Why would I do that for?”

“I only know you were lamenting that I was not a man the other day.  How would I know what you wanted to do with me?”

Che Yan Yan gave her a furious stare, before turning around and barked.  “Why are you all still standing here?  Go seal the roads immediately! I want to see who dares to challenge Bai Ming Sect.  Men, bring her back to the dungeon!”

Chapter 9

Early next morning.

Deng Hai Tang watched with surprise as He Zai removed his face paint. 

Feeling her curiosity, he explained: “Since Miss has returned and Tian He Manor now knows about He Yue Hua being a Sky Slave, there is no need for me to hide anymore.  All things will come to an end today and the least I can do is to face up to things with the looks I am born with.”

Jiang Wo Bo smiled as she played with her flute.  “Why do you seem to be preparing for martyrdom when we are not dying yet?”

He Zai chuckled. “Miss has mixed up your idioms again”

Che Yan Yan arrived at the dungeon to personally escort the prisoners and got a shock.  “He Zai?”

Jiang Wo Bo tried to suppress her mirth as He Zai paid no heed to Che Yan Yan.  Now that she knew that a good-looking, gladiator-type of guy has been living right under her nose for the past ten years, did she feel any regret?  He Zai caught sight of her amusement and shot her a look to quell her mirth.

The three of them were given pills to suppress their strength before they were lead out. Their destination was the front hall where she saw ten over pugilists from the Central Plains had gathered.

He Zai was walking in front of her and blocked her from most people’s view.  Without turning back, he said in a low voice which only she could hear. “These in hall are renown wulin elders.  Those outside the hall are their disciples.  Seems like they are going to try the peaceful approach before fighting it out.”

She muttered a sound in response but continued thinking.  Besides the elders, she has spotted Tu Shan Long as well.  He was dressed in commoner’s garbs but there was an old man dressed in official robes standing beside him.  Once the imperial court got involved in jianghu matters, she knew that things would become sticky.  She was willing to bet that there were soldiers stationed outside the hall who would be ready to step in to suppress both sides if a big fight was to break up.

She guessed that many Bai Ming Sect disciples had been summoned back for the occasion as well, and all the chess pieces were now in place per Sect Leader’s wishes.

In the beginning, Bai Ming Sect also had several highly-skilled pugilists.  Because their moral yardsticks were different (or more accurately, they did not care two cents about how others think of them), Bai Ming Sect had been dubbed an unorthodox sect in the Central Plains.

It was only later when many skilled members had gone missing that she realized Sect Leader had gone crazy.  At that time, she could only endure and watch as Bai Ming Sect became increasingly convoluted.  Historically, the new Leader for Bai Ming Sect was always chosen among the Left or Right Protectors, but with its degeneration, many members had lost faith in the two female candidates for the leader’s chair, and were secretly coveting to be the next leader, which was also what Sect Leader had wanted to see.

As she listened half-heartedly to Sect Leader’s conversation with the other wulin elders, she caught sight of the Gentleman from Cloud Manor in the side hall directly facing her.  When she failed to spot Xian Yun among them, she took a step forward to sweep the hall, and finally found him at the main door.

He was wearing his customary white robe but he had no journals on him today.  He stood against the wind, hands folded behind, and he looked like his normal self, except for his icy demeanor which had replaced his usual polite aloofness.  She could imagine the tense situation outside, but with him on guard, no one had dared cross the door yet.

He seemed to have felt her gaze and turned around to meet her eyes directly.  There was no emotion in his dark eyes and for a moment, they just stared at each of other.  Without his customary sparkle in his eyes, she could not hold his look for long and finally turned away on the pretext of hiding a cough.  When she turned around to face him again, she noticed some fresh blood stains on the corner of his sleeve.

Che Yan Yan announced, “Master, I have brought the people here.”

An elder from Tang Manor spoke up: “Bai Ming Sect and the Central Plains have lived peacefully alongside each other for twenty over years.  What was Leader Jiang thinking when you capture the bride of the Martial Arts Scholar and the sworn sister of Gentleman Xian Yun?”

Ignoring him, Sect Leader said lazily: “He Zai, come cover.”

He Zai moved to stand beside him without a word.

“What do you think?  Is the Left Protector still alive?”

He Zai replied deadpan.  “She is still alive.” 

“Since she is alive, why do you think she has not shown herself?”

“Your subordinate does not know why.”

“Do I have to start killing people one by one before she shows up?  What do you think?”

At this exchange, Tu San Long furrowed his brow and stepped forward. “Sect Leader Jiang, Huang Fu Yun’s death has nothing to do with us.  If you are after revenge, you are barking up the wrong tree.  We can overlook your capturing my wife and Xian Yun’s sworn sister. If you can hand them over to us now, we can pretend that today has never happened.”

Jiang Wo Bo caught Deng Hai Tang’s helpless expression and thought to herself that it was not easy being the wife of the Martial Arts Scholar.  Here she was being carted left and right, but her husband had to put the big picture before her and could not even stand up properly for her.

Normally, it was not easy to gather so many fractions in one place.  Was crazy Sect Leader trying to destroy Bai Ming Sect, or was he waiting to see how she would clear up the mess?  If she were to guess correctly, did it mean she is crazy too? At this, she decided she should stop trying to think further.

Sect Leader was all smiles. “If you want them back, that would not be possible. Protector Che, since the family of the two women are here, why not you let them collect their bodies today?”

Che Yan Yan hesitated but nodded. “Yes.”

Deng Hai Tang was very decisive and vaulted towards Tu San Long at his words.  Her move surprised many but many pugilists quickly close in to help.  Jiang Wo Bo choose remain where she was, without knowing that this would be her downfall.

“Be careful Miss!”

In a flash, a black shadow has materialized beside her and it was only then that she realized her mistake.  He Zai only managed to move two steps before she heard a rough voice breathing into her ear.  “Yun Er, I have found you.”

Before she could react, she felt someone pulling her back with one hand, while his other hand started exchanging blows with Sect Leader. The blows looked straightforward but were infused with a lot of internal strength.  Given the close distance between the duelists, there was little reaction time and Gong Sun Yun could only react instinctively. When his palms clasp with Sect Leader for the last time, the energy seemed to radiate through the duelists and shattered something behind them, while sending the two men staggering back several paces.

Quickly, He Zai and Tu San Long moved behind Gong Sun Yun to steady him.  He Zai was quick to ask: “Is Miss alright?”

Feeling the disruptive qi coursing through Gong Sun Yun, the question clued Tu San Long on why Gong Sun Yun has taken on the blow instead of deflecting it.  Given the internal strength of these powerful men, Jiang Wo Bo would be severely injured if not dead by now, since she was caught between them, had Gong Sun Yun not taken the blow head on. 

Worried, He Zai asked again. “Miss?”

Xian Yun replied for her: “She is merely out of breath.  Otherwise, she is fine.”

“Good skills!” praised Bai Ming Sect Leader before he turned and walked slowly back to his seat, his eyes unusually bright.

While the two were fighting, other fights had broken out both within and outside the hall.  Someone tried to block Sect Leader on his way to his seat but he sent the fellow flying out of the hall with a wave of his hand.

Tu San Long and Gong Sun Yun exchanged a glance. What a mess! Inwardly, Tu San Long started to blame Jiang Wo Bo.  Earlier on, the situation was still under control, thanks to Xian Yun who had volunteered to guard the door in disregard of his Gentleman status.  Had it not been for her, Xian Yun would never have left his post and the fight would not have escalated to this extent.

Looking at the pleased-looking Court Official who had followed him here, he knew that it would not be long before the old coot would order his solders to intervene.

“Yun Er, can you guess how did I manage to spot you?”

Jiang Wo Bo finally opened her eyes and stared at the middle-aged man atop the Sect Leader’s seat.  Although he was not really that old, his hair was white.  She disengaged herself from Gong Sun Yun and started walking towards Sect Leader with her hands folded customary behind her.

As she walked, someone took a swing at her but He Zai, who was right behind her, blocked the attack.  He was about to return a death blow to her assailant when someone held him back.  Turning around, he saw Gong Sun Yun who said calmly:  “Try to forgive if you can.  If you can endure, just endure.”  His colour has returned to normal and it was hard to tell that this man had just used his entire strength to exchange blows with Sect Leader.

When He Zai gave a cold snort, Sect Leader Jiang spoke: “When everyone else has succumbed to chaos, Yun Er will be the only person who would remain calm.  I know you would never join the chaos until you have determine your strategy and decided on your next course of action.”

She smiled.  “Master indeed knows Yun Er well.”  She walked to the steps where He Zai had been forced to wear his slave bangle long ago.  As she stroked her flute, she asked thoughtfully.  “Master has been trying his best to test Yun Er all these years. Can I ask if today is the day you receive your answer?”

“What have you learnt when you fell off the cliff?”

She crocked her head. “Besides being lucky to escape with my life, I found that I have somehow ended up with some new-found family members who would require me to greet them in the morning and wish them goodnight everyday.”

At her reply, Gong Sun Yun broke into a grin.

The answer was obviously not what Sect Leader has expected to hear, so she continued. “Master’s explosion has opened my eyes, and I was suppose to learn that I can only rely on myself as even He Zai can forsake me for his blood brother.”

While He Zai gritted his teeth, Sect Leader nodded his head, satisfied.

Jiang Wo Bo continued her slow ascend up the steps.  When she reached Sect Leader, she leaned forward and spoke in low tones: “Seeing that Master has tried to force me out of hiding in such haste, can I assume you have reached the end of your rope?”

The eyes of the white-haired man were burning too brightly, like the last blaze of a candle that was about to be extinguished.  “Yun Er is so smart, you are worth the love I have showered upon you all these years.”

“Ay, I am not smart at all. Master has aged overnight ever since you have fatally injured yourself all those years back.  I have hoped to lie low until Master has passed on, yet you have hang on for much longer than expected, and here I am.”

She straightened. “The blow from Xian Yun was the last straw wasn’t it?”

Instead of feeling aggrieved, Sect Leader bursted out laughing.  “Precisely.”  His laughter was loud and carried his qi across the hall, stopping many pugilists in their tracks as they felt their intestines contract.

Jiang Wo Bo was the closest to him and she too felt the pain.  Fortunately, there were two pairs of hands who appeared behind her and lent her strength.  

Endure!  No matter what comes today, she will endure it all!

Gong Sun Yun let out a long, flat whistle which curbed some of the effects of the jarring laughter.

Sect Leader coughed and looked at the expressionless Gong Sun Yun.  “Your internal qi is good.”

“Sect Leader Jiang is too generous with your praise.”

A corner of Sect Leader’s mouth twitched.  “If you are born twenty years earlier, I would have dueled with you.”

In the next breath, he continued. “Bai Ming Sect Left Protector Huang Fu Yun, accept my order.  From today onwards, you will become the thirty-first Sect Leader of Bai Ming Sect!”

His power carried his words clearly into everyone’s ears.

She stared at him for a long time, then turning around, she walked down the steps.  She walked past Che Yan Yan who didn’t look too well, past a shell-shocked Tu San Lang, but she ignored them all.

“Yun Er, there is no one you can trust in this world.  I have trained you personally and I know how you think, especially He Zai, who must now be the chief thorn in your heart.  If you leave today, Bai Ming Sect would be exterminated by the Orthodox Sect or become prisoners of the court, without a leader at its helm.  That would make you the biggest sinner in Bai Ming Sect history and there will forever be Bai Ming Sect disciples hunting you for revenge.  No matter where you go, you will never find refuge even in the Central Plains!”

All Bai Ming Sect disciples have turned their attention to her.  As she stepped out of the hall, she stopped and swept her glance at all who has gathered below the steps.

The main hall of Bai Ming Sect was situated at mid mountain.  From the entrance, she could see Tian Bi Cliff in the distance that reached high into the sky.  A wide gorge separated the path up the cliff and to people unfamiliar with the area, it would be impossible to ascend the cliff.

This was the first time in her life that she was in the limelight.  Perched on the steps, with everyone looking on, could this be considered her moment of fame?  What a pity that after today, she could no longer wander around the Central Plains without make-up.

Turning, she faced Sect Leader in the hall.  She knew he was about to die and that he wanted to pass her this mess before his last breath.  Had she not known that he was crazy, she would have thought that his ambition in life was to nurture people.  If she had fallen prey to hatred or disappointment when she fell off the cliff, she would have become the type of person whom Sect Leader truly wanted her to be.

She smiled and lifted both hands towards the Master’s seat.  “Huang Fu Yun accepts your order.”

“Miss!” He Zai could not help his protest as she made her announcement in front of everyone,

She did not pay him any heed and folded her hands behind her.  “From today onwards, Huang Fu Yun will become the thirty-first Sect Leader of Bai Ming Sect.  All disciples listen up.  Kneel and send off our Old Leader as he embarks on his last journey!”

Within and outside the hall, many disciples hesitated before putting down their weapons and knelt.

“From today onwards, Huang Fu Yun will become the thirty-first Sect Leader of Bai Ming Sect.  All disciples, kneel and send off our Old Leader as he embarks on his last journey!”

As the disciples of Bai Ming Sect slowly knelt down one by one, Huang Fu Yun arched her brow and looked at Xian Yun. “Will Gentleman Xian Yun record all that has happened today in the Wulin annals?”

Xian Yun met her gaze and replied steadily . “Everything that happens today will be recorded in detail in the Jianghu Major Happenings Scroll.”

She laughed and looked towards Sect Leader, who has died with a smile on his face.  She called loudly. “Where is He Zai?”

He Zai stepped forward. “Your subordinate is here.”

“Since the age of sixteen, you have started learning the martial arts of the Huang Fu family.  Since you have mastered the skill, you will become the new Left Protector from henceforth.”

Although it was sudden, He Zai did not hesitate.  “I will obey Master’s orders.”

She looked again at the stiff outline of Sect Leader and feeling a sense of loss at his departure, she looked away as she issued her next order.  “Left Protector He Zai, listen up!”

Perplexed, He Zai waited for her to continue.

“Bai Ming Sect needs someone capable at the helm to steer it towards a thousand more springs and ten thousand more autumns.  It is a pity I do not have the talent and will let down our former leader.  From henceforth, He Zai will take over and become the thirty-second Sect Leader.  He Zai, accept your order with haste.”

From the back of the hall, somewhere near the Sect Leader's seat, something fell with a loud ‘thud’ on the floor.  No one paid it any heed as everyone stared at the woman at the door.

She was dressed in white and with her long hair falling softly behind her back, she looked both elegant and beautiful.  Unfortunately, what she was about to do next was going to ruin this image forever.

She lowered her face, lips compressed.  She could definitely see this through, now that the moment she has been enduring for was finally here. She silently thought to herself - Sect Leader, may you rest in peace!

“Miss…”

“He Zai, are you not going to accept?”  She shot him a look.  A breeze swept up her fringe and revealed the faint scar beneath.

As his heart clenched, he gritted his teeth.  “Miss.  Can this be considered passing a cart of rotten apples to me?”

Ay, if he put it so bluntly, it would hurt her feelings.  Her expression cold, she stroked her jade flute.  “Are you thinking to disobey my orders?”

He Zai turned his head and tried to look for Gong Sun Yun.  When he spotted him, he saw that the latter has buried his nose in a journal as if he was busy taking notes.  These two… they were obviously in cahoots to make him to take the fall!

“He Zai!” She lowered her voice until only he could hear her. “I know your character only too well.  Bai Ming Sect will be an opportunity for you to showcase your talents. Tian He Manor is too strict-laced and no longer suits you. The place that is suitable for you is actually Bai Ming Sect.”

“Miss is just trying to push the buck.  What do you intend to do now?”

“I will roam the skies and seven seas.”  No, she should not agitate him too much.  “My home will be your home, and your home will be mine.  Once you become Sect Leader, Bai Ming Sect will truly become my home and not some place where I have to be wary all the time.”  Besides, she rather missed the hot spring at Tian Bi Cliff.

“If today has not happened, will there be a place for me when you roam the world?”

She replied without hesitation.  “Of course there will be.  But you are born in Tian He Manor and if everything has never happened, you would have been the leader of Tian He Manor.  You could roam the world with me, but you would also be wasting your talents.  Within Bai Ming Sect, there are problems aplenty.  Do you not wish to test your capabilities and see what Bai Ming Sect can become under your hands?”

He fell silent.  Finally, he asked. “Will Miss return every three or five years?”

“Naturally.  No matter what, Bai Ming Sect is still my home.  Besides, with you as the Leader, we would be as cozy as bugs in a rug.  What you have, I will have the same.  I will be treated like a precious daughter here.  And if anyone tries to bully me, I will surely return to look for you.”

He Zai started laughing at her reply. “Miss is as cunning as a fox, how can there be people capable of bullying you?  But if Miss ever say the word, He Zai will put Bai Ming Sect behind me and leave with Miss without a second thought.  This is my promise to you this lifetime and will never change.”

He looked down the steps towards He Rong Hua who seemed to have something to say.  Sighing deeply, he said loudly.  “The thirty-second Bai Ming Sect Leader He Zai, accepts your order!”

The rapid turn of events had every head spinning from whiplash. 

With He Zai holding the fort, she decided it was not her problem how things got resolved now.  As a has-been Sect Leader, all eyes were no longer on her and she decided to return to the hall where she noticed a woman standing close to Xian Yun. She narrowed her eyes as the woman took out a clean white handkerchief and tried to dab at the blood stains on Xian Yun’s clothing.

She did not know when Gong Sun Zhi appeared, but he was suddenly there beside her and sighing into her ear.  “Miss Tang is being very proactive, is she not?”

“One must be proactive to have a future.” She replied casually.  Like her, she has proactively looked forward until the very end. Even when she was down to her last breath at the bottom of the cliff, even when she was captured and brought back to Bai Ming Sect, she has persevered in order to have earned her break now.

Gong Sun Zhi looked at her strangely.  “Do you know what you are saying?”

“Yes.”

“Wu Bo, have you endured too much and lost your mind?  Or does this happen to anyone who has been appointed as Sect Leader?  Quick, give me your pulse and let me check if they have fed you something in the last two weeks to muddle your thoughts, or interfere with your endurance.”

She wanted to roll her eyes.  Will this long-winded Gentleman never stop? Just because she had not seen him for half a month doesn't mean that she missed him!
He continued to tell her about the background of the Tang family; about a Miss Tang who married into the Gong Sun family a long, long time ago, which makes the two families somewhat related; about the balance of power behind various Jianghu families; about the problems faced by good-looking man; about the likelihood of her being with Xian Yun, etc, etc.
Her faced twitched, but she reminded herself she could tolerate this.  It did not matter even if there was a pool of blood in her abdomen, she must endure!

“I think it is a ten percent chance” Gong Sun Zhi sighed.  “Now that your real identity is exposed and with Xian Yun being a member of a reputable family…”

Her face continued to twitch.  Had she been too arrogant just now and heaven has decided to punish her?  Never mind.  Endure!  There was a knife in the Chinese word for ‘endurance’.  Maybe today’s knife was little sharp so it left a small cut at her heart. But. She. Can. Endure.

“I will not hide from you.  Everyone young and old in Cloud Manor supports you.  But it is also a fact that there was no precedence of one of us tying the knot with someone from Bai Ming Sect, and a former Sect Leader of Bai Ming Sect at that. Even if you are the leader with the shortest ever term…”

She will take it that Gong Sun Zhi was speaking Greek.  She did not hear him.

At his incessant chatter, she finally reached Xian Yun.  As she stood behind him, she could hear Miss Tang cooing apologetically. “Xian Yun.  To stop both sides from coming to blows earlier on, you have taken a hit from my father without any attempt to block it. I truly felt very sorry for that in my heart.”

Looking at the blood stains on his robes, she finally found out where they came from.  Never mind, she shall endure some more.
Instead of sticking close to He Zai, Tu San Lang strode up next to join Xian Yun.  When he caught sight of Jiang Wo Bo standing behind, he decided to change what he wanted to say and say instead: “You are the star among our generation. What a shame that you have to mingle with a Demoness!”

Pak!  She thought she heard the sound of nerves snapping.  It did not matter, she has plenty of nerves left to hold on to her control.  One more or less would not matter.  But she was a bit alarmed when she heard more snapping sound.  Pak! Pak! Pak! One by one, the threads holding her control snapped until none were left.
Was it because she has just passed the greatest endurance test in her life so her tolerance level was at its all-time low, or was she simply jealous? 

She played with the small box of pills in her hands.  As she took a pill from the box, the faint fragrance of it reached the nostrils of the sensitive healer beside her and his eyes widen. This pill…

 “Xian Yun?”

Gong Sun Yun knew she was behind him but when he turned and saw her, he knew that something was off straight away.  His expression as was cool as ever but there was warmth in his eyes when he looked at her.  He saw Gong Sun Zhi’s shell-shocked expression and following his glance, he spotted the small box in her hands.

“It is not every day that I indulge myself.  I have decided that I shall not endure anymore and take it as a reward to myself for holding back the last twenty years.  Do you think it is a good idea?”

Gong Sun Yun arched one elegant brow.  “It is difficult to keep enduring every day.  I would encourage you to loosen up a little.”

“Xian Yun has always been very good at control too, aren’t you?”
“Merely passable.” He appeared to be smiling and yet not smiling at the same time.

“In your heart, there is only your savior is it not?”

“Yes.”  He could not contain his smile this time.

As everyone quieted down and tune in to the conversation being held with the dignified Gentleman Xian Yun, everyone heard her order “Open your mouth.”

“Be careful Xian Yun!” Before Tu San Long could finish his sentence, he saw that the Demoness has popped a pill into Xian Yun’s mouth and tapped on Xian Yun’s acupuncture points to render him speechless.  “What did you just feed him?”

It was Che Yan Yan who replied “The Uncontrollable Blissful Pill! You..?”

At one side of the hall, the Gentlemen of Cloud Manor were busy recording the changes happening in Bai Ming Sect.  At the mention of this unusual-sounding name, all moved closer in anticipation of some breaking news.   They could afford to leave out some minor details from the wulin annals, but how could they fail to record what goes on in their own family?  What was more, they are getting the scoop of a hundred percent, pure, unvarnished truth!  All crocked their ears expectantly.

“Uncontrollable bliss… blissful pill?”  Tu San Long was an upright man and had never heard of such a thing.  But he could tell that it was not something good just from the sound of it.  Beside him, he could see Gong Sun Zhi shaking his head.

“How vicious!  This drug is very potent and is capable of making the holiest of sages lose control like they never have it at all.  The aphrodisiac drug is but a house cat compared to a lion, a baby compared to an old man!”

Tu San Long was shocked.  “What about its antidote?”

She has decided she shall not endure a second longer.  “Antidote?  What antidote?  Xian Yun, follow me!”  Grabbing him by the shoulder, she lead him out of the hall.  The crowd parted a way for her while a stream of Gentlemen followed closely on their heels.  The whole, unvarnished truth. They must get every detail!

Tu San Lang finally collected his scattered wits and tried to make a grab for Xian Yun.  But for some reason, Gong Sun Yun’s sleeve seem to fall out of his grasp as Xian Yun unobtrusively avoided his hold as he allowed himself to be steered away.

Tu San Long stopped in his tracks and stared at his back.  He Zai was equally shocked.  “Miss?”

Her reply was clear and convincing. “Xian Yun has been poisoned and I’m bringing him for treatment.  I will bring him back safely once his poison has been purged.”

Behind her, the Gentlemen of Cloud manor nearly tripped over each other. 

This sense of liberation is great!  She has been wanting to do this for the longest time.  Although everyone seems very polite in the Central Plains, there are all sorts of rumours running beneath the surface.  If she is a Demoness, let her do what a Demoness do!

“Where does Miss intend to ‘treat’ him?” He Zai asked discreetly.

Sweeping her surroundings, her eyes landed on the high peak in the near distance and she pointed a firm finger at its direction.  “The sky may be vast and the land may be big, but only at Tian Bi Cliff can we remained undisturbed.” 
The heady sense of liberation has apparently gone into her head.  She is not going to be bothered about what others do, or how they think.  She is going to follow her heart and if she wants Xian Yun, she will want him.  If she likes him, she will like him.  Why should she waste time listening to nonsense or allow others to snatch him away?

She has never experienced such freedom.  No wonder there was only one Gou Jian in history!  Gathering her qi, she leaped towards Tian Bi Cliff with Xian Yun in tow. Her white robes fluttered gracefully behind her as she jumped across the wide chasm. 

Behind her, the crowd finally broke out of their daze.  The Demoness has captured one of their own!

He Zai immediately announced. “So long as Huang Fu Yun and Gong Sun Yun are not divorced, Bai Ming Sect will never step foot in Central Plains!”  His voice rang across the hall.

Divorced?  The two are not even married!  But from the look of things, they are as good as married.  How can a Gentleman shirk his responsibility with so many eye witnesses?

As they hesitated, the opportunity to stop the two was lost.  Deity has already flown out of the human realm, and mere mortals can only watch on as his shadow disappeared into the clouds with another.  From where he was standing, He Zai could see that the smaller shadow nearly stumbled but fortunately, Deity-from-Nine-Heavens reached out a hand to steady her and together, they ascend up Tian Bi Cliff

Chapter 10

Tian Bi Cliff.

The moment her legs touched firm ground, she reached up to wipe the perspiration beads off her brow.  What a scare!  She nearly slipped and fell down the thousand-foot cliff!  Shuddering, she recalled her last fall.  If she fell down this time, there will not even be bones left to be found.

Frightened, she lost all her any crazy appetite to stake a claim on Luo Shen.

She raised her hand to release his meridian points so that he could speak. But when she saw a tinge of pink on his fine features, she coughed and turned away. Who was the one who gave him what-uncontrollable what-blissful pill?  Who was it?  Fantastic, this was called bringing suffering onto oneself.  She dared not meet his eyes and the two of them remained standing like that for a while.

This was the first time she has seen Xian Yun like this this but she was sure she had no intention of letting other women see him when he was this alluring. Swallowing, she tried to prep herself.  She will do it!  No more enduring!

“Since the Uncontrollable Blissful Pill works on you, it should work on me as well!”  It did not matter she just had a bad scare or that her endurance skill was good.  If she took a pill, it would surely level the playing field somewhat?

Pulling him pass the hot spring, she lifted a chiffon curtain and went into the little lounge at the back.  She peeked at Xian Yun and saw that his brow was furrowed as if he was angry at something.

She silently acknowledged that he had the right.  Afterall, which man would like to be forced like a duck to the slaughterhouse?  She speed up her movements and pushed him to lie on the bed.  Straddling him, she started tugging at his robe.  Halfway through, she recalled that he still could not speak so she released his speech points.  “Xian Yun, if you have anything to say, say it quick!”

Even if she has regretted her actions, she was not going to let him go.  He needed a cure for his poison and it had to be her.

She blinked and looked at the bare chest beneath her.  This was her first time looking at a half-naked Luo Shen and she felt her heart began to race.  The drug was more fast-acting then she thought.

He asked drily.  “Where did you get the pills?”

“Che Yan Yan gave it to me last night before you came.  She said this was the best way to control a man.”  She has accepted the pills without protest, never expecting that she would put it to use so soon. Um, the pills did appear effective…

“How many pills are there?”

“There is only one left.”

“How long is its effect?”

“I have no idea.” 

He looked at her steadily and gently tucked a damp tendril behind her ear.  He put his hand behind her neck and pulled her down as he whispered in her ear. “So this is how you look like when you are reckless.”

Reckless?  She thought she was just letting go a bit of her control? She can feel the heat coursing through her veins and knew her face must be red.  He, on the other hand, seemed to be in full control of himself other than a brush of pink on his cheeks.  His endurance skill was indeed way above hers!

Should she test how far their endurance go? Just as she was toying with the idea, he reached out to kiss her fully on the lips.  Before she gave it another thought, she found herself kissing him back.  So this was how it felt to be kissing someone without needing to hold back. As she continued to tug at his robe, she recalled that this was the first time she returned his kiss, so she took a deep breath and said through gritted teeth.  “Xian Yun, I want to make this clear; in my heart, there is only one Luo Shen!”

“Luo Shen?”

Her thoughts were getting a little muddled.  She did not seem to hear his question and started mumbling happily.  “Let me show you what I dreamt of the other night.”

He sighed. “Wu Bo, why did you have to take the pill?”

His words seemed to have gone over her head as she finally got rid of his shirt.  Giving it a careless toss, the white robe flew out from the colourful curtain.  As it fluttered down, a round pill fell out from the sleeve and started rolling towards the hot spring where it dropped in and dissolved among the warm waters.

* * * * * * * * * *
Three days later.

A young man was hurrying along the path leading down the mountain.  Along the way, he saw many pugilists going in the opposite direction.  If it was a man he passed, the man would likely be sighing; if it was a female he passed, the female pugilist would likely be near tears.

Was there a need for such mass sorrow?  Did they know that the man at Tian Bi Cliff was not Deity-from-Nine-Heavens but was more like the Devil from hell?  Ay, he appeared to be the only clear-headed one among a group of drunkards.  These people were really poor judge of characters!

Several men and women looked at him and asked: “You came from the top?”

He coughed and replied: “I only managed to reach slightly further up before I had to turn back!”

One youth gritted his teeth.  “Oh I see.  This Tian Bi Cliff is really a tough one!  Gentleman Xian Yun has been trapped on top for three days. How much has he suffered?”

He bit back his retort - who was the one who really suffered?

Since birth, he had never experience regret like now.  From today onwards, he will engrave the word “Endurance” in his heart, and will never, never forget.  Recalling all that has transpired at the cliff top, he really wished to bury his head somewhere.

Someone huffed.  “That Demoness dared to… dared to commit such an immoral act against Gentleman Xian Yun.  And for three days. Three days!  How could Gentleman Xian Yun endure it? Her actions are simply too despicable for words.” At this, the speaker’s face flushed a deep red.

In contrast, the young man’s face was black.  He thought his heart should be black too, but he refused to blush.  He had this suspicion that Gong Sun Yun did not swallow the pill at all and he was deeply regretful that he did not render Gong Sun Yun immobile three days ago by sealing his acupuncture points.

And as for why it has been three days, he suspected Gong Sun Yun only allowed him to leave the mountain after he was convinced that all the drug has been purged from his bloodstream.

Maybe this was Gong Sun Yun’s way of revenge?  For three days of erotic dreams in the past, Gong Sun Yun would return with three days of unadulterated, no-holds-barred lovemaking.   She would never forget either, his utter lack of mercy …

Did he have to be so calculative who owed who?

He could only lament that the human heart was deep and hard to fathom.   From henceforth, he would revert back to his Wang Yun self.

‘He’ was Jiang Wu Bo in disguise.  She has blackened her face in order to sneak out from the Sect.  She was too ashamed to face her father, too ashamed to face Master Gou Jian, which was why she had to hide her face!

Face it - she was a miserable failure at Endurance.

Someone said. “Gentleman Xian Yun was such a pure soul.  How could that shameless Demoness humiliate him thus!”

Pure soul?  That should apply to Jiang Wo Bo!  Gritting her teeth, she turned and continued her way down.
 
* * * * * * * * * *

November fifth, Jianghu rapist Guan Qi Lang, was found bound at Cold Rain Manor. All his aphrodisiac drugs were destroyed.

November thirtieth, Jianghu rapist Lin Da Dao, was found bound at Lao Li Hill. All the aphrodisiac drugs on him were destroyed.  On the same day, a fire broke out in the basement of Spring Flowing Manor.  It was subsequently discovered that Spring Flowing Manor was selling Uncontrollable Blissful Pills.

December tenth, a fire broke out at Bai Li Enterprise. It was subsequently discovered that Bai Li was a major producer of drugs commonly used by rapists.  As a result of the fire, there was a shortage of aphrodisiacs for the next three years.

The modus operandi was similar in all the cases and the prime suspect was a woman.  The execution was efficient to the point of ruthless, but since it resulted in many harmful drugs being taken off the streets, thus saving many innocent from harm, this woman was deemed to have committed a good deed overall.
- Wulin Annals
Recorded by Third Gentleman -

* * * * *

The Ninth Generation Gentleman of Cloud Manor, Gong Sun Yun, will be retiring from jianghu and getting married early next year.
- Cloud Manor Historical Records
Recorded by Second Gentleman –

* * * * *

A lady with a flute slowly walked down a street with her hands folded behind her.  From her waist came the sound “ding ding dang dang” which sounded like a Sky Slave bell, until closer inspection which will reveal the bell to be a normal bell that can be purchased at any market.

The lady was very tanned with fine features.  At her side was a fair, plump little boy, who also has a bell tied at his waist.

When the duo reached a branch of Cloud Manor, they saw a notice and they went in to browse through the latest news.  When Little Brother Jiang read the papers, he said happily.  “Big Sister, they are talking about you in the news.”

A Cloud Manor disciple shot her a discreet look then at the roundish little boy (who has obviously ate very well in the last few months) before disappearing into the manor.

“Indeed, one should never do something bad.”  She sighed.  “It is time Little Brother. When you are older and roaming the jianghu, you must remember to destroy any immoral drugs that you come across.  The more you destroy, the merrier.  That way, you will not risk harming yourself.”

Little Brother Jiang looked at her in only half comprehension.

“And remember - you can read any book except for the “Poetic Essay on Luo Shen” as it is bad for your health.”  Finished, she sighed again.

A senior-looking Cloud Manor disciple rushed up to her.  Looking at her green garb, he tested the waters.  “Soy sauce fried chicken?”

Her jaw dropped open.  What kind of secret code was this?

“Nutritious Cloud Manor food.” replied Little Brother Jiang with a straight face.

The senior-looking Cloud Manor disciple was relieved.  “Finally, Miss Soy Sauce Fried Chicken has arrived.  Please find this letter for you from Gentleman Xian Yun.”

She opened the letter slowly and read its contents.  “I got the message, thank you.  Little Brother, let us make a move.”

“Big Sister, where are we going?”

“Let us go buy some fried chicken before we board a boat.  Remember, once you are on the boat, you must say that you bought the chicken no matter who asked you.”  Since she has fed him so well to reach his rounded state, no one would suspect anything if he brought several fried spring chicken up the boat.

“Big Sister, are we returning to Cloud Manor?"

“No, we are going to board a boat.”

The duo spent a day wandering before they reached the pier, having stopped along the way to buy many oily snacks.  She let Little Brother Jiang carried all the food but given his recent gluttony, she had to remind him to save some snacks for her.

Someone was already waiting for them at the pier.  Little Brother Jiang was very excited as they approached.  “Big Sister, it is a boat!  Are we boarding this boat?”

She knew that once she boarded the boat, she would not be able to leave it for the rest of her life.  Yet in some deep recess of her heart, there was a corner that wanted to be on board this boat.  Smiling, she said.  “Let us go up the boat.”

She let Little Brother Jiang board the boat first before strolling up after him.  Once on deck, she was greeted by many familiar faces from Cloud Manor, including one whom has the closest relation with her.  When he saw her, there was no change to his expression, but his eyes lit up like the stars in the sky.  Turning to Gong Sun Zhi, he smiled. “She is here.  Let us begin the journey.”

She walked to the deck but she avoided looking at him. After al long time, she finally glanced his way.  “Gentleman Xian Yun is renowned in the whole of Central Plains.  For you to retire at twenty-seven, is it a good move?”

Gong Sun Yun did not seem to mind the question and replied.  “If it is not what I want, no one could have forced me.”

She grimaced. There she had her answer! He has said it, he has said it!  So he really did not swallow the pill that day at Tian Bi Cliff. To think she had agonized over it when the fact was that she was the only one enduring! Humph!

“It has been fourteen years since I came to the title of ‘Gentleman’ at the age of thirteen.  During this time, I have seen many unsavory things, much greed, much conflict.  Among things I have seen were also tragedies that resulted from lust so I have been careful not to give anyone any false hope.  Wu Bo, why does one train so hard to be good in martial arts?  Once I relinquish my ‘Gentleman’ title, I would be free to protect the one person whom I hold dearest in my heart, and not get sidetrack with other concerns.”

Beneath her tan, she blushed.

Smiling, he took out a clean handkerchief and started rubbing away her tan to reveal her honey-tone skin and pink cheeks.  Looking away, she sighed.  “I should never have loose control the other day.”  Now, she could only reap what she sowed.

His grin has blossomed into a full-fledged smile “Had you not felt anything towards me, I believe you would not have reacted even if you have swallowed ten Uncontrollable Blissful Pills.”

She did not retort his confidant reply nor make unnecessary conjunctures since the deed was done.  Ay, at worse she would take it that she had a Very Real Erotic Dream.  Thinking back on their last night at Tian Bi Cliff, she suddenly remembered something. When she caught a sniff of sulphuric smell on him that day, she recalled that he had the same smell on him many years ago. Since their story began at Tian Bi Cliff, it was fitting that it should end at Tian Bi Cliff. Is this what they called divine retribution?

That day, he had personally darkened her face before letting her down the mountain.  Everyone has thought her to be a Demoness but did they know that the real Devil was the one who was strutting around with a golden halo?  Retribution! That was her retribution for doing bad things.

To think he had appeared so magnanimous.  They had agreed that she would roam around for a few months, with her reporting once a month at any Cloud Manor Branch to indicate her safety.  He would use the time to handover Cloud Manor matters to his successor and find a way to let her know his next course of action.  And his last letter was for her to board a boat and leave Central Plains together.

When she saw the letter, she has struggled.  Her beliefs were deeply-rooted and it was not easy to convince herself to only believe in what she had experienced for a short time in Cloud Manor.  It was likely he arranged for Little Brother Jiang to roam with her so that she will not forget the things about Cloud Manor or forget about her promise.

Gong Sun Yun saw her face softened and reached out a hand for her. “Wu Bo.  Seventh Brother has not recovered so the boat will be traveling slowly.  It is likely we have to spend the new year on this boat.”

Looking at his hand, she replied. “It is fine with me.”

“And when we are settled on the island, let us get married.  On our wedding day, I will let you read the scroll on the Romance History of Gong Sun Yun. Every day, I will put on make up for you and paint your brow as your husband for the rest of our life.”

She slowly reached for his hand and smiled. “That sounds pretty nice.  I will look forward to it.”

“Just do not take those pills ever again.  There is no need for you to challenge your sense of control through them.” After a short pause, he continued calmly.  “And to me, it is an insult as well.”

Flushing, she changed the topic.  “Let us visit Ah Yao.”

He did not reply but when she was about to disappear below the deck, he said suddenly.  “Can you give me the last remaining pill?”

No.  Never.  She was not one to forget any wrong done to her.  As the saying went, three* years was not considered long for a gentleman to get his revenge.  She was very good at enduring and will wait for the right time to repay his gift of papayas with lemonade...

“Wo Bo?”

She pretended that she did not hear him and disappeared down the deck.  That last pill will definitely be used on him!

That year, the Ninth Generation Gentleman of Cloud Manor left the Central Plains with several Gentlemen of Cloud Manor without informing anyone. They settled down on an unknown island and he never returned to jianghu in his capacity as the Master of Cloud Manor. 

The boat they were on sailed gently away from shore, away from all the strife.  The sea and horizon merged into the same line and there was no waves, no turbulence.  Everything seemed peaceful, warm, cozy, and was exactly the kind life she has hoped for.  And if there were waves and turbulence, she believed her kin on this boat would be behind her.

She was flipping through the pages of the Cloud Manor history when Gong Sun Yao gave a small cough.  He was bed-ridden but he needed to make something clear. “I am definitely not the one who gave you the scroll.  You must tell everyone that you snatched it if you are ever found out. Do not frame me with something I did not do!”

“Gong Sun Yun, twenty-seven, was imprisoned by Bai Ming Sect Demoness at Tian Bi Cliff.  After three days and nights of utterly immoral behavior; after many failed attempts by others to rescue him, the embodiment of honor - Gentleman Xian Yun – choose not to shirk his responsibility and retired from wulin to the ever-lasting regret of the rest of the jianghu. 
- Recorded by Fifth Gentleman.”

As she read, she only have one thought:- one should only believe in oneself and not the half-truths by others.

Family?  What rubbish!

End Note

 Gong Sun Yun longed not for any Fairy, except the one in his heart.

At twenty, he met Huang Fu Yun of Bai Ming Sect by coincidence at Tian Bi Cliff when the latter was fourteen.  She was nimble of heart and mind, and totally different from other ladies of the Central Plains.  Although he did not see how she looked like, Gong Sun Yun had developed a liking for her.

At twenty-six, he chanced upon her again to his utter delight. Unable to help it, his love for her grew.  However, she was like the wind who can disappear in a wink.  If he did not hold on tightly to her, he knew he would regret for the rest of his life.

For three days and nights at Tian Bi Cliff, Jiang Wo Bo lost control.  She has fallen into her own trap while Gong Sun Yun could only look on quietly with happiness. There was no one in Jiang Wo Bo’s heart and her heart was as calm as still water.  When she has decided to relinquish control, she would only follow her heart desires.  How could he not be happy to see her true heart?

May her Wind forever accompany his Cloud, as the love between man and woman, as the ties between husband and wife, join them together, one love, one lifetime.

- Romantic History of Gong Sun Yun
Recorded by Gong Sun Yun –

She coughed slightly as she closed the scroll. While her eyes shifted left and right, her Luo Shen bridegroom took the scroll away and waited patiently for her reaction.

“This words… seemed to be written for family.” Her lips curved slightly upwards.

“It was written for the eyes of Mrs Gong Sun Yun only.”

“It was… a trifle short.”  So skimpy, no details at all!

“Naturally, I will add one page to it every year on this day.”

She thought to herself that this was as good as saying that they have to remain married for the rest of their life.  If she wanted to read more, she would have to remain forever besides this Cloud.  Feeling the heat on her face, she felt a little frustrated and something else that she could not pinpoint.  Giving a flick of her finger, she extinguished the candle in the room.

Face it; she has lost again. Her endurance was still not as good as his.

He was fair of skin and aloofness came naturally to him.  If he was not smiling, he would appear polite but distant and it was impossible to guess his thoughts from his expression.  Unlike him, she would blush at the slightest reveal of his interest in her.  Could this be due to her lack of experience, to be adapting so slowly? 

She sighed.  “Let us retire for the night.”

Her bridegroom followed her to bed and lowered the bed curtains.

“Xian Yun, have you ever fell in love with someone before?”  In the darkness, she could only think of this question.

“No. Never.”

She blinked.  “In the past, was your heart calm as still waters?”

“You can say so.”

So in other words, they shared the same thoughts and going by the same logic, shared the same feelings?

Sighing to herself, she felt someone pulling her into his arms.  “About that…”

“Hmm?”  He was nibbling her ear and did not seem to know what she was talking about

Coughing to clear her throat, she could only bit out hoarsely.  “Xian Yun. I… I…”

The man holding her did not pause in his actions, but she could feel his body tightening in anticipation of her reply.  She tried several times but could not get beyond “I… I…”.  In the end, she decided to give up. “Forget it.  I will try to say it next year.”

She pretended that she did not hear his sigh. In the next instant, he was on top of her.

“Xian Yun?”

“Hmm?” The single sound was full of hope again.

“…I…” She covered his ears, and finally muttered some words which were totally foreign to her.  Before he could recover, she has switched their position around so that she was on top.  “Next year, I will say it again and I need not cover your ears by then. But if I still could not say it then without covering your ears, I would try it again the year after next, and the year after that.  I am sure I would be able to say it out one day.”

Tonight is her wedding night.  Surely no one would say that she was engaging in utterly immoral acts with him again?

- The End -

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