The Curtain Rises
After a cosy n-, a chat through the night with Young Shiyi, I headed to the village Long Cheng and the members of Dark Wind Branch were taking refuge at.
In the past, people said the following of Dark Wind Branch: “Nothing can keep Dark Wind in the dark.” In other words, regardless of what secret the imperial palace hid, precious artefact there was in the martial world or secret there was between commoners, Dark Wind Branch would find out what it was if they desired so.
The claim gained popularity thanks to their proficiency and secretive nature. They were also reputed as the strongest among the hundred branches of Divine Moon Cult, as they were seemingly experts at survival. No matter how risky a mission was, their team always returned with the most surviving members. Nothing proved that better than the fact there were over a dozen of their adepts still alive despite the years the imperial court invested into hunting them. Few knew they were the furthest thing from “sagacious,” though. Their best skill was actually having absurd patience and the ability to bear with hardship under their outrageous leader.
“I heard the Seven Champion White Princes’… is… illegitimate son. Go and find out what it’s about.”
“The League of Assassins isn’t showing any sense of brotherhood. Find out where their boss is for me.”
“Shaolin Temple’s Yijin Jing is famous now. The monk won’t come out, apparently. Go steal the manual for me.”
“The old Emperor’s rule is too stable. I’m going to give it a shake. Steal the capital’s military layout designs. I’m going to be a strategist and teach them how to fight this fight. Huh? Not enough men? Twenty men aren’t enough? I’ll let you take Guardian Long Cheng. That’s twenty-one now. Good?”
After returning alive from similar suicide missions, they seemingly developed a knack for surviving. Taking on such missions developed their unwavering determination, patience and survival skills for when the odds were stacked against them.
After leaving Feiyun Hall, Dark Wind Branch dressed in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. They also sported cloth wraps around their head. They resembled farmers getting ready to go out to the fields. As I spoke, they earnestly listened to soak up wisdom.
“This is called a fork. This is called a dung fork and is used to dig around dung, understood? Yes, cow dung, you’re right… Who just said cow dung is for flowers?! Slap yourself!”
I had old men surrounding me, asking me agriculture questions. A group of recluse living as farmers not knowing how to farm and requiring my advice…
Mount Daluo had farmland isolated away from the rest of the world. The inhabitants never left the mountain; however, their harvests were the same as everywhere else. When I was a kid, I would play in the village if I wasn’t training, so I had seen it all. That was how I became a certified agriculture enlightener.
“The fork is an incredible tool. Once you’ve used, you’ll know what it’s all about.”
Dark Wind Branch’s members came around. They passed the fork around for a touch and sniffed the soil. The environment was new and attractive to them. They fiddled with the fork around for a while before they would pass it on, treating it as if it was a treasure of some sort. One even asked me, “Lord San Shen, is this really a dung fork?”
“What makes you say so?”
I waved: “I borrowed it from Uncle Niu next door. I borrowed it right after he finished with it for that matter; he hadn’t even had a chance to clean it. It’s the real deal.”
“Fuck, no wonder why it was warm to the touch! Who claimed this was the smell of soil?!”
The “preachers” suddenly lost it and threw away the treasure. The smell dispersed, plunging the room into chaos. Watching them made me muse, “You morons… You can’t even farm in peace?”
I picked up the lethal weapon and, in an authorative tone, explained, “Long-story short, you need to learn how to farm, or people will be suspicious. Moreover, you’ll starve to death here if you don’t lift a finger. It’s not easy to survive here.”
“What are we doing?” asked Long Cheng, coming out from his room he was recuperating in. He was hurt bad after the events at Feiyun Hall. Still, seeing his subordinates dressed as farmers didn’t sit well with him. He followed up with, “Lord San Shen, what are we doing here?”
“What are you doing? Lots of things,” I answered. I counted my fingers as I listed, “First, buy cattle and then come up with a plan to cultivate the field. Then, you’ll be able to buy new crops in January and February. For the meantime, buy some chickens, ducks and whatnot to raise. I like braised pork shoulders, so remember to buy a pig, a big one…”
“That is not what I meant!” thundered Long Cheng. “Lord San Shen, why must we be farmers?”
Long Cheng looked stern, but he showed great respect for me. That said, I could sense his urge to punch my face in. Dark Wind Branch was his life. If it was anyone else who told them to farm, he’d likely fight them to the death.
“We survived bloody skirmishes and worse already, so we can survive even if we do not do this lame work.”
Long Cheng was wrapped in bandages all over, so he didn’t even need to wear clothes, yet tried to sound tough.
‘Okay, Hard Ass, you trying to defy the heavens or something?’
“In other words, you’re aware your brothers have had to risk their lives all this time? You want them to continue risking their lives? What rule states martial artists have to lead violent and stormy lives?” I reproached Long Cheng with my gaze: “Guardian Long, you don’t mean to say you plan to continue fighting in underground circuits, kidnapping people, robbing, plundering and hiding on mountains do you? Are you keen on being a bandit chief?”
Long Cheng was stunned for a moment. He calmly down and bitterly said, “That is not what your subordinate wishes for, but…”
“Farming is an honest man’s job. Every drop of water you drink and every grain of rice you eat came from your own time and energy investment. What’s so embarrassing about that?”
I stabbed the dung fork into the ground, dispersing the scent and startling the group. Long Cheng lifted his hand to cover his nose but stopped himself.
I continued, “Divine Moon Cult had its days of glory, but it failed. We lost. Admit defeat when you lose. Right now, there’s nothing more important than protecting yourselves, not dragging your battered bodies around to challenge the imperial court’s forces. Your urgent task at hand is surviving. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have plenty of choices. The Qilin Guards are still investigating us. Had it not been for Kong Duan abusing his authority to cover your tracks, your whereabouts would’ve been revealed in less than three days after you revealed your skills.”
I completely shut Long Cheng down. All he could do was nod grudgingly. I understood he had yet to come to terms to it, but it was an ongoing process.
I threw the dung fork to a member: “Uncle Niu from next door will come over and teach you how to cultivate the ground soon. Show him some respect. Guardian Long, come with me.”
Long Cheng nodded. We left the farmhouse together.
It was noon. Dapples of winter sunlight illuminated the Earth. The colder air soothed the sunlight’s heat. The breeze was quiet. The world seemed to move slower.
The village wasn’t too far from the capital. I could go to and fro within an hour easily on foot. The people there lived simple lives. One could behold and hear the beauty of nature at the village. There were lots of farmhouses; however, there were also small businesses. As soon as you entered the village, you could smell cow dung mixed with grass. You could catch a whiff of green onions and cakes being fried.
I felt fine walking around, but Long Cheng seemed unable to adapt. Perhaps he spent too much time in dark places. Perhaps he could no longer acclimate back into society. He found the peace awfully uncomfortable. Since he held on with all he had, I deliberately took him in a circle. Needless to say, his discomfort intensified. The atmosphere between us was awkward.
A middle-aged man opened his doors and stepped outside. Eyes bleary, he poured a basin of water out without checking. I was quick enough to evade it, but Long Cheng was absentminded. As a result, he was dripping from head to toe… The man scoffed: “You not bring your eyes with you?!”
The man went inside and shut his door without bothering to spare Long Cheng a glance. Long Cheng and I exchanged eye contact. We shared a laugh. I laughed for so long that I forgot what I was laughing for. Long Cheng was in tears. Panting for air, Long Cheng remarked, “Lord San Shen, your subject cannot believe you would laugh at his misfortune.”
“Guardian Long, they say your qinggong is unparalleled, yet you were unable to evade a basin of water. Didn’t you find it funny, too?”
“Your subject did not expect… he would laugh, either.”
I gave the oaf a big pat on the shoulder. Hurt, he hissed. I advised, “Don’t put too much on your shoulders. Divine Moon Cult’s fall wasn’t your fault. Don’t feel guilty for being happy.”
Still dripping with water, Long Cheng began to think. Once done, he smiled helplessly: “Your subordinate… will try.”
“We left in a rush yesterday, so there was a lot I didn’t have time to say.”
I asked the man for a piece of cloth to wipe Long Cheng’s face. He heartily brought us two cups of tea as a bonus. That said, he still chided Long Cheng for being slow and wouldn’t escape in time when wolves raided the village. I found the man hilarious. After he left, I asked Long Cheng, “Do you have news of any other brothers?”
Long Cheng stifled his voice: “Your subject has not. Bright God Faction has returned to the Western Region. You might run into them if you head there. Dark Moon Faction split up ever since our leader passed away. Your subject has been unable to contact any other guardians.”
I had been searching for Divine Moon Cult ever since I decided to retire from the pugilistic world. I searched for some for the past and some for the future. Alas, I didn’t find anything after years of searching. Orchid Monarch Hollow Bamboo and Dark Wind Branch were the only two branches I found thus far, which was weird. Dark Moon Faction aside, somebody from Bright God Faction should’ve stayed behind even if they retreated to the Western Regions, yet I couldn’t find a single one of them.
I shook my head to clear my mind and commanded, “I will continue the search for our brothers. I have a mission for your branch.”
Long Cheng came to life. Apparently, being useful to me was worth celebrating. He declared, “Your subject shall accept any mission you have for him.”
“You’ll divine into the ocean if I ask you to?”
“Your subject will even jump into an inferno if you ask!”
“Remember what you just said,” I said with a smile. “I want you all to live here for half a year.”
I saw a multitude of facial expressions flit past Long Cheng’s face before he settled on the definition of despair. Watching him made me want to exclaim, “Is the universe moving?!” Once he calmed down, he suddenly looked delighted: “Are you rebuilding? Are you telling us to bide our time to revive?”
I waved: “No, not at all. I just want you all to find something you can do here. Find an ordinary job you like and spend the rest of your life in peace.”
Disappointed, Long Cheng respectfully contended, “Lord San Shen, would that not mean we have wasted Leader’s efforts to nurture us all those years?”
‘Ol’ Ximen nurtured your skills to groom you into information collectors, didn’t he?! Self-awareness not exist in your world?! Look at how risky and difficult your missions were! Notice how much your superior deserves to be punched?!’
I shook my head: “You boast you are Leader’s eyes and ears, but you have no idea you were only his hands and feet.”
“Ximen virtually personally fought every battle regardless of the scale of the fights. He wouldn’t leave behind a fallen brother to flee, ever. You think he’d want to see you all dying for nothing?”
Swayed, Long Cheng expressed it with his trembling body: “In that case… your subject shall obey your command.”
“That’s more like it. Your leader will be happy to hear that.”
Long Cheng suddenly inquired, “Lord San Shen… did you not say you were against Leader rebelling?”
“I don’t want to define whether his actions were correct or not; that’s out of my jurisdiction.”
“Lord San Shen… you are not with Leader, are you?”
“That depends on what you want to believe.” I smiled nonchalantly: “There were a lot of people in the sect who wanted to pummel the old bugger, weren’t there?”
Long Cheng hesitantly and doubtfully said, “Lord San Shen, your subject has a question.”
“Leader went missing ever since the battle at Lawless Cliff back then. Your subordinate was unable to arrive on time that day. However, you were supposedly present. Your subject wants to ask… what happened at Lawless Cliff that day?”
The air figuratively froze. When I glanced up at him, Long Cheng shivered. My piercing gaze was colder than the cold breeze. I didn’t say a word, but I looked away before he died from fright. I understood what he was implying. Because he assumed Ximen and I didn’t get along, he suspected I didn’t put in the effort to save Ximen that day. I could comprehend why he’d think so. Still, I wanted to rip heads off when that day was mentioned.
“I was there, indeed,” I eventually answered. My voice was deeper and raspier than I expected. I elaborated, “I didn’t make it in time, though. Bai Ma, from The Ultimate Three, stood in my way. By the time I arrived, it was too late… The three great sects, four big sects, the Seven Champion White Princes, all three of The Ultimate Three and several of the Seventeen Hidden Dragons were there. The three Guardian Kings were incapacitated if not dead. Ximen had been knocked off Lawless Cliff. All I could do was ensure Divine Moon Cult could safely retreat…”
I couldn’t forget that day no matter how much time past. That was the day I made up my mind to retire from the pugilistic world and not involve myself with its affairs again. I lost two important people to me in that battle. One of them was my sworn brother. He was a hearty man who lived a life as bright and energetic as his smile. The other was the adorable one I wanted to make it up to but lost the chance to forever.
After my long pause, I carried on, “I couldn’t answer your question before, but I can now. I don’t think Ximen Chuideng’s approach was correct. I, in fact, would argue he was a failure as a leader. He didn’t care for riches or status. He wasn’t afraid of authority. He valued promises, was a man who valued friendships, boasted as if he was a hero, liked to start trouble, loved to drink, was a battle monger and was a lecher. He fought with Yan Shisan for how many years for a woman? He infiltrated the Forbidden City on his own just to uphold his word. He probably should’ve stayed away from being a leader. If he was a village head, you could say goodbye to that village.”
I smiled helplessly. Honestly, not even I really understood what I was trying to imply; I couldn’t tell if I was angry, hopeless, poignant or empty. I finished with, “If he’s dead, however, I… swear to avenge him. That is my oath.”
After Uncle Niu came over to teach Dark Wind Branch how to cultivate the fields, I returned to Liu Shan Men. I wasn’t actually officially assigned back to the office, but I didn’t have anything to do, so I was going to see Young Shyi and get c(osy)-, ahem, greet her. As soon as I entered, nevertheless, someone suddenly called, “Young Ming, how do you do?”
Prime Minister Li Si was in a casual green robe with a small hat. He resembled an old man out for a drink. He chuckled: “Young Ming, why didn’t you notify me you were coming back to Liu Shan Men when you’re still my student?”
‘Oh, now I’m your student? You remember the part where you legged it after saying you’d treat me to a meal?! Do you remember the part where you ordered the expensive dishes, too?! Had it not been thanks to General Bai Lian’s intervention, I’d be washing dishes there now!’
Well, I couldn’t actually lash out at the Prime Minister. I courteously responded, “I am here to report in. I was going to pay you a visit after. I did not think I would meet you here.”
“Haha, let’s go. Don’t stand on ceremony. Let’s talk inside.”
‘I stood on ceremony? Since when?! You think this is your house now?!’
Afterward, I found out Prime Minister Li came to tell me how Liu Shan Men helped crack Kong Duan’s case and His Majesty final decision. His Majesty was already back in the capital and awarded us for solving the case. Su Xiao was rewarded most handsomely since he captured Kong Duan when the latter tried to sneak away. Su Xiao’s rank was plenty high already, so a promotion was unlikely. A reward was definitely coming his way, that being said.
Su Xiao started behaving strangely ever since Kong Duan’s capture. He was always out of sorts and would occasionally bitterly mutter, “What if Teacher Leng demands I apprehend him?” and “Sob, sob, I can’t decide.” There was more, but that was the gist of it. How was I supposed to decipher that garble?
“I don’t bring only good news, unfortunately,” added Prime Minister Li, serious all of a sudden. “I am here on His Majesty’s orders. He has summoned you three to the palace.”
“Yet you want to have tea with me?”
“I want you to be mentally prepared. Two big things transpired in a single day, so His Majesty is not in a very good mood.” Prime Minister Li extended a finger: “First, it is somewhat related to you three. You captured Kong Duan yesterday, but some adept rescued him from Celestial Prison yesterday. We still have no clue who was behind it. His Majesty is infuriated.”
‘He broke Kong Duan out of the Celestial Prison? Say what? That’s going to take more than martial skills. It’s practically impossible to break Kong Duan out and not be discovered until today. Could… someone in the imperial court have kept it under wraps for them?’
No wonder why His Majesty was incandescent. All that effort to catch a criminal high-ranking official, only for him to escape was a good reason to be vexed; it’d be odd to not be angry.
“What is the second issue?” I enquired.
“The second problem bothers His Majesty even more. According to sources from Jiangnan…” Prime Minister Li wore a grave expression: “Vice-Captain Shen is in peril.”