Cheng Qian quickly ran off before Yan Zhengming could attempt to bribe the boy into taking the punishment for him as well.
Back at Qing’an Dwelling, Cheng Qian copied the scriptures till midnight. He only went out once for dinner after Xueqing called him, and stayed in his study for the rest time. Only Xueqing could make him go out in situations like these. One time, when Cheng Qian had brushed off Xueqing’s request, the Taoist boy had decided to wait for him and had ended up starving until past midnight. From that point on, no matter how much he didn’t want to be disturbed, Cheng Qian never ignored him a second time.
After finishing a long stretch of writing, Cheng Qian went to the Library under the light of the moon and stars.
This was his first time opening the gate of the Library by himself, as well as his first time walking in there with permission. Cheng Qian only lingered for a short while around the section of sword, cultivation method and charm books where he’d always stayed during his previous visits, before heading downstairs to the second-to-the-last floor as he’d been told to do by his master.
He was in fact good at agreeing on the surface but rebelling in the shadows. However, he hated doing that to his master.
This floor was still a secluded place, though slightly better than the one below it. Books were set out in a neat order, plainly rarely touched. Cheng Qian randomly picked out several volumes. The front side of each page was a portrait and the back side recorded this disciple’s life story—his name, how he got accepted into the sect, his conduct, how he got into Tao, what his Tao was, his rises and falls, when he joined the majority, and finally, the assessment given by others after his death.
Some disciples went missing and some were expelled from the sect, thus no follow-up stories were recorded for those.
Cheng Qian just read those stories leisurely in the beginning. But after a while, he began to feel drowsy and soon drifted off to sleep, leaning against the corner of the shelf. It was the sound of the book in his hands hitting the ground that startled him awake, and the next thing he knew he was already lying on the ground in a daze.
Though the Library was protected by damp-proof and moth-proof charms, the lack of sunlight for years had given it a very bleak aura. The cold ground made Cheng Qian shudder and at that moment, he caught sight of something under the shelf.
The slit between the bottom shelf and the ground was very narrow; only those with very slender arms could slip their hands inside and reach the object. Cheng Qian had fallen to the temptation of rolling up his sleeve and reaching his arm into the crevice, and after groping around he dragged something out.
It was also a portrait, but it strangely seemed to have been cut into two pieces with its lower half missing. Only the upper part of the man in the portrait could be seen. He was wearing an old robe, but he didn’t look shabby or miserable. Though the painter was unknown, the man’s graceful bearing had been vividly brought into life with only a few strokes of ink.
Who… was this senior?
Cheng Qian turned the portrait over, but there was not a single character on the back.
He didn’t know drawing very much, but from a layman’s perspective, he thought the art was quite good. It didn’t seem to be a failed work… So why wasn’t there even a single character on it?1
Cheng Qian was puzzled. But since it was hard for him to be interested in the story of someone he didn’t know, he quickly lost interest, put away the portrait, went upstairs where he picked out several books to read back in his residence.
Time flew by. On the 6th day of 6th month of the lunar calendar, the master and his apprentices concluded their mind-numbing routine classes and marched down the mountain in a great procession.
Sure enough, the “great procession” was created single-handedly by the first senior brother, Yan Zhengming.
This guy had prepared several large carriages: one for carrying him, and the rest for carrying his luggage—which was essential for living in his eyes, yet purely a pile of trash in others’.
Except for him, everyone else—including the sole girl, Puddle—only carried a wooden sword and a traveling bag, though Cheng Qian also took two bundles of books with him which he hung on his saddle.
Yet despite all that, young master Yan still complained incessantly. He hadn’t left Fuyao Mountain for a whole seven years; the arduousness of the journey was killing him.
Young master Yan didn’t think there was any problem with a man sitting in a carriage alone in the daytime, but he felt sorry to see his master and junior brothers and sister being exposed to the sun and wind. That was why he popped his head out and said to his skinny master on the back of a skinny horse, “Master, please get on the carriage with junior brothers; it’s too hot outside.”
“My apprentice, you’re truly filial,” Muchun Zhenren sighed.
Ultimately this young man’s character had grown as he aged. Despite his worsening narcissism, Yan Zhengming did become more sensible than before—for instance, the young master Yan who never knew how to read other people’s faces before had actually caught a hint of sarcasm in his master’s words.
But in the end, Master refused his proposal. He just threw Puddle who had been in the basket on his back into Yan Zhengming’s carriage, and let her drool all over her first senior brother. Muchun Zhenren turned his head and saw Cheng Qian. This third disciple of his still did not look like he had recovered since the charms’ backfire on him with his pallid face.
Therefore Muchun insisted to him, “Get in your senior brother’s carriage for a rest. Don’t pretend to be strong. You can read books inside.”
“Right. Little Copper Coin, come to play with junior sister. There’s enough room for you two to roll about,” said Yan Zhengming.
Cheng Qian refused him without the least hesitation and didn’t forget to have a dig at him. “Senior Brother, you’re being too modest. Look at this fleet of carriages—it could even match the wedding procession of an imperial concubine.”2
This boy always took his good will ungratefully! Yan Zhengming furiously pulled down the curtain, not wanting to see that little bastard again.
Cheng Qian remembered that master had said first senior brother got into Tao through swordsmanship, and such cultivators mostly had a strong will—except a few eccentrics like Yan Zhengming.
But he himself was different. Master said he got into Tao through heart.
What was “got into Tao through heart”?
This question had been plaguing Cheng Qian’s head. He’d spent a few days in the Library, yet still was not very clear about what the “heart” referred to. With various opinions being widely divided, he didn’t know which to trust. But all those divergent views had mentioned the same point: “those who got into Tao through swordsmanship exercise their physique; those who got into Tao through heart exercise their mentality.”
To exercise mentality was to temper one’s willpower. Concentration, fortitude, pain, stamina and so on, were all included. If his willpower was strong enough, a cultivator could follow his heart’s desire without deviating. Since Cheng Qian had just crossed the threshold, the most basic way he could find to exercise his mentality was to mortify himself.
Therefore, he had already decided to consider this sweltering journey as a way to practice asceticism.
After three days’ travel, the master and his apprentices arrived at the shore of the East Sea.
Nearby was a small town named Dragon-Taming Town where there were many shops selling all kinds of magic tools, may they be real or fake. In fine weather, one could see celestial mountains peeking in the distance when standing at the seaport. This town was thronged with tourists from all over the country whatever the season.
But never had it been as bustling as it was this year.
By the time they arrived in town, all inns and hotels had been filled to capacity. Yan Zhengming suggested sending a Taoist child to ask around about the most expensive hotel in the area, planning to book several deluxe rooms whatever the price.
Master turned a deaf ear to his lousy idea.
The old weasel knew the way well. He led them nonstop to the southeast outskirt of Dragon-Taming Town, toward a row of thatched cottages.
Aesthetically, the architectural style of those shacks was similar to that of a stable. Several chickens idled around the door, and next to the cottages was a pigsty built with stones where a fat pig was staring curiously at young master Yan’s ostentatious fleet of carriages.
Yan Zhengming pushed open the carriage door, scanned the environment with an unpleasant frown and reached his arm to poke Cheng Qian. “What the heck is this place? An outhouse?”
By now, he had forgotten that he’d just been irritated by Cheng Qian. Obviously, Yan Zhengming wasn’t the sort of narrow-minded person who bore a grudge. Perhaps his main occupation was to wallow in his own beauty in every possible way.
Cheng Qian gave him a sympathetic look, saying, “I just saw Master go knock on the door—I’m afraid this is where we’re going to put up tonight.”
Yan Zhengming: “…”
He’d rather sleep in the carriage.
Nothing was more depressing than traveling for him. After a long time, the indignant Yan Zhengming thought of his responsibility as first senior brother. He gazed around and grumbled at Li Yun, “Where’s Underbite?”
Since the day Li Yun was motivated by Cheng Qian, he’d shied away from hankering for fun and games. He had followed Cheng Qian’s example of holding a book all the time while on horseback during the whole trip and even upon hearing that question, pointed somewhere without looking up. In the direction he pointed to stood a big wolfberry tree at the door of a cottage, and from the gap of the leafy branches popped a funny head.
Han Yuan shouted to his senior brothers who were wearing different expressions, “Looking for me? I’m picking wolfberries for you. There’re so many and they’re so sweet!”
Yan Zhengming flung the carriage door shut with the determination that he’d rather die than get off the carriage. Nevertheless, he got off in the end—because his junior sister, who wasn’t yet able to communicate with others, had peed in his carriage due to the long journey.
Because of that, Yan Zhengming’s face remained dark until midnight.
The group of thatched cottages had a name which described themselves very accurately: “Shabby Inn”.
There was a line of characters on each side of the door. On the left it said, “Three coins per night,” and on the right, “Stay or piss off.” A fierce-looking monster was drawn on the door. There wasn’t even a servant to welcome the guests. That was how they ran an inn?
The shopkeeper didn’t show up until master had knocked at the door for a short while. It was a burly man who was more than eight Chi high, who looked exactly like a small mountain—his height and his waist had practically the same measurements!
With his hair and beard sticking up, his face looking like a bronze basin, and his thick lips curled downwards, he was the spitting image of a debt-collecting scoundrel.
Li Yun’s horse was frightened by his appearance. It neighed and trotted backwards a distance of one Zhang, nearly hitting Yan Zhengming’s carriage with panic written all over its face.
The master, however, amiably cupped a fist in his hand in front of his chest and smiled. “Brother Wen Ya, long time no see.”
The apprentices’ and Taoist children’s mouths all fell open, feeling that they couldn’t face the two characters “Wen(tender)” and “Ya(elegant)” anymore.
The “iron tower” had looked irritated when opening the door, but when he realized that the visitor was Muchun Zhenren, his countenance eased up a little. He mumbled, “Xiao-Chun? Why are you here?”
This form of address gave Cheng Qian a big shock, and he nearly fell off his horse, his skin crawling.
“Come in.” Wen Ya glanced at young master Yan’s impressive procession and scowled slightly. “Are you escorting a bride to the groom’s home?”
Li Yun, Cheng Qian and Han Yuan simultaneously looked at Yan Zhengming, sniggering. But the latter only took out his new sword and with an evil grin, whipped Li Yun’s timid horse across its bottom. The poor creature lifted its front legs and leapt forward hysterically, making the pig snort and startling the chickens in front of the door until they flew about, before setting off on a gallop.
Yan Zhengming then swaggered into the shabbiest cottage he had ever stepped foot in with a hopeless sadness in his heart.