Li Yun tripped on the doorstep of Cheng Qian’s room, the pile of worn books nearly flying out of his hands. But before he could exclaim in surprise, someone else in the room had done that for him—inside the room, Cheng Qian held a needle and was pricking the blisters on Yan Zhengming’s hands one after the other.
Cheng Qian’s moves were very neat. Insert the needle, slightly shake it, pinch the blister, and then it was done. Cheng Qian deftly and swiftly repeated the routine, tormenting his delicate Sect Leader Senior Brother and making him holler in pain, “Be gentle! Cheng Qian, what were you, a porter!? Ah—” 1
“No. I was probably a pig butcher,” said Cheng Qian apathetically.
“Show some fraternal respect… Ouch!” Yan Zhengming almost shot off the chair. “Who gives a damn about the sword, I am not practicing anymore!”
Li Yun hurriedly closed the door tight, in case the last bit of dignity of Fuyao Sect be lost.
For the very first time, Young Master Yan… I mean, Sect Leader Yan, got blisters from practicing swordplay. He suffered for it. Thus he spewed a string of swear words, not giving a damn that he lost his face in front of his young junior brothers.
In the corner, Han Yuan observed Yan Zhengming with trepidation, looking as though the Fuyao Wooden Swordplay had left some shadows in his heart.
“I just came across this,” explained Li Yun, spreading out the pile of books on the desk while trying to ignore the Sect Leader’s howl of pain. “They are the annals of Azure Dragon Island, in which are recorded several major events regarding every renowned sect through the years. Some of them mentioned us.”
“Mentioned us? What does it say?” asked Han Yuan, craning his neck.
“The earliest record is dated to the establishment of Azure Dragon Island. An elder of Fuyao Sect along with two disciples came to extend congratulations on behalf of the sect leader,” Li Yun said. “His name was mentioned as the very first among the list of guests, which seemed quite honored…”
Yan Zhengming hissed from a prick and dismissed Li Yun’s words with a wave of his hand. “Skip the prosperity in early days and jump to the part where we began to peter out.”
Li Yun returned to flipping the pages. “As I recall… Oh, here it is. For some reason, after returning from the Celestial Market, the sixth sect leader of Fuyao Sect suddenly announced that he was going to simplify the sect, and that only two disciples were allowed for each person. His successor, however, abolished this rule and accepted a total of eighteen disciples. These disciples fought and schemed against each other, and as a result, few people survived the competition for the position of the sect leader. That’s when the sect gradually anguished.”
“Really?” As he asked, Yan Zhengming took out the Sect Leader’s Seal. “Anyone of you wants this? Just take it away. I don’t want these hardships, I’m going to pack up and go home.”
Nobody paid any attention to him.
Li Yun buried himself in those musty old books, leafing through them as he said, “I assume that that’s the time when the sect rules changed to forbid internal strife. And after that… our sect produced quite a few demonic cultivators, including even two Lord Beimings…”
“Three,” Cheng Qian corrected him.
Li Yun sighed, “Alright, three then—but what’s even worse, the annals also recorded a senior of our sect who was a devout believer of astrology. He saw all cultivation methods and sword techniques as trifling skills and taught his disciples nothing but astrology. In his generation, even the Fuyao Wooden Swordplay was nearly lost. There was another senior who was keen on traveling. It’s said that during his time at the helm, his last disciple had only met him once in his entire life… But the one who had hid Fuyao Sect from people’s sight in the real sense was in fact our Martial Grandfather. But there aren’t many accounts about him. It only mentioned that he was always in secluded cultivation and kept to himself. Every time the Celestial Market opened, he’d send Master and… you-know-who here.”
Speaking of which, Li Yun lifted his head and said, “I say, Fuyao Sect had actually been at the head of the Top Ten Sects back then, despite all that.”
Yan Zhengming was defeated. “Now I see. Our sect had a distant origin, a long development, and abounded in demonic cultivators and all types of freaks. What kind of illustrious sect are we? —as far as I am concerned, the reason why our sect can struggle on till today was probably because some worried ancestor was blessing us in Heaven.”
“What shall we do then? Pack up and go home?” asked Han Yuan tactlessly.
Cheng Qian and Li Yun glared at him at the same time.
“I wasn’t the first one to say that. It was First Senior Brother!” screamed Han Yuan, feeling unjustly treated.
“Just now I was summoned by the Lord of Azure Dragon Island; he invited us to stay here for some time,” announced Yan Zhengming slowly as he leaned against a table. “He said there will be lectures after the Celestial Market and that he had kept seats for us.”
“How long is ‘some time’? Are we not going back to Fuyao Mountain?” asked Li Yun, somewhat antsy.
“I’m not sure,” said Yan Zhengming with biting sarcasm. “That Tang Zhenren looks like she has been a beggar for two or three decades, yet they still say that she has only traveled outside for ‘some time’.”
Li Yun unconsciously nibbled his fingers and said, “But I heard that the lord of the island had retired from society for a long time. Why would he suddenly want us to stay?”
Yan Zhengming said, “I don’t know. It’s said that he and Master have got history.”
For years, Yan Zhengming had secluded himself on the mountain and was hence unworldly. In addition, Master’s exhortations before leaving the mountain just ran off him like water off a duck’s back. So at this moment, Yan Zhengming basically knew next to nothing and dared not to consult others. Meanwhile, there were so many things running over his head that after this period of time, he was utterly fatigued both mentally and physically.
“Copper Coin.” Yan Zhengming gave Cheng Qian a kick. “Put down your burin and raise your head and say something.”
That move interrupted Cheng Qian and dispersed the qi around his hand, causing the talisman to turn to scrap.
Cheng Qian frugally switched to an ordinary burin and shaved off the notches on the talisman, saying insipidly, “Say what?”
Since he broke out of the Worriless Valley with Puddle, Cheng Qian had done nothing but practice swordsmanship and cultivate. Whenever someone came to him, there was sure to be either a wooden sword or burin in his hand.
Because of that, Yan Zhengming had tried several times to stop him, nearly getting into a fight over it, but Cheng Qian simply didn’t take it seriously.
Only then did Yan Zhengming realize how helpless Master had felt for them when he was alive.
Cheng Qian cleaned up the wood shavings and unhurriedly said, “Do we have anything that others would covet? Sect leader senior brother’s beauty? Don’t flatter yourself.”
His stiff and cold words dejected his martial brothers and effectively terminated this brief meeting. Li Yun and Yan Zhengming exchanged a glance of resignation, not knowing what they should do with this third junior brother. After all, neither of them had witnessed Master’s death.
Yan Zhengming signalled Li Yun with a wink. Li Yun took the hint and left with Han Yuan.
Yan Zhengming, on the other hand, stayed in Cheng Qian’s room. He casually picked out a book of the latest record about Fuyao Sect and started reading it silently by Cheng Qian’s side. Both of them paid no attention to each other until dusk, when Xueqing came in with a lunch box. Xueqing took a surprised look at Yan Zhengming, who was still reluctant to leave. “Young… Sect Leader.”
“Bring my things over, I’ll live here for a few days,” ordered Yan Zhengming with perfect composure, disregarding Cheng Qian’s expression which seemed to be saying, ‘Why haven’t you gotten lost?’
Cheng Qian’s indifferent face began to crack.
Without consulting with Cheng Qian, Yan Zhengming said directly to Xueqing, “I’m afraid he’ll take Master’s death too hard, so I’ll stay here to watch him a few days.”
Cheng Qian had a constipated look on his face. After a moment, he squeezed a sentence out of his mouth with great effort, “Senior Brother, you worry too much. I’m quite good.”
“What I say goes.” Yan Zhengming turned him down tersely and stood up to move about under Cheng Qian’s scared gaze. He was prepared to give Cheng Qian a ‘great time’.
Plainly, Yan Zhengming had mastered the knack of being a sect leader—when it came to practicing swordsmanship, he would kick up a row, shouting that he’d quit and go home, but when he wanted to throw his weight around, he’d then think of the Sect Leader’s Seal.
“Call some men in, by the way,” said Yan Zhengming. “And get the floor cleaned. Can’t you see the hairs—also, move my censer over and tell Yue-er to prepare the incense.”
Before Cheng Qian could say anything, Yan Zhengming had finished the whole process of appropriating Cheng Qian’s room as his own. Then he threw Cheng Qian by the dinner table and demanded, “Get ready to eat.”
Cheng Qian silently reached out his hand to pick up the chopsticks. But before he could touch them, Yan Zhengming slapped his hand away.
“Wash hands.” Yan Zhengming frowned.
Since Taoist children were still in the room, Cheng Qian didn’t want to defy his first senior brother, who recently became the sect leader, in front of them. So after staring at Yan Zhengming for a few seconds, Cheng Qian dipped his hands in the basin and reached out again to take the teacup.
And was slapped by Yan Zhengming a second time.
Yan Zhengming: “Drinking tea before the meal? What’s wrong with you?”
Cheng Qian: “…”
He had a feeling that this day wouldn’t end well.
“Begin with cold dishes. How can you alternate cold dishes with hot ones?”
“Who asked you to serve desserts when the meal is not finished?”
“What? You use the same bowl to have rice and soup?”
“Are you kidding me? This eggplant isn’t peeled!? Are unpeeled eggplants really fit for human consumption?”
Cheng Qian came to the end of his endurance. He plopped the chopsticks on the table and stood up to leave.
“What are you going to do?” asked Yan Zhengming, unable to make heads or tail of his move.
“I don’t feel good, and I can’t even swallow food,” Cheng Qian said. “I’m going to practice swordplay in the backyard.”
Every morning and evening, Cheng Qian would practice swordplay for two hours without fail. But today he felt that two hours were not enough. He wanted to practice for the whole night.
Once he was tired out and felt compelled to go back, he found that his room had been changed to the Gossamer Cave2 by first senior brother.
And the evil sitting inside the Gossamer Cave wouldn’t let him in. “Go take a bath. Do you want to sleep with this sweat?”
Cheng Qian’s expression told Yan Zhengming that yes, that was what he had been thinking of doing and what he had always done before. Therefore, Young Master Yan turned around and called in Xueqing right away, “Get me a new sheet!”
After Xueqing left, Cheng Qian shouted to him, “Can’t you just go back to your own place?”
Yan Zhengming: “No. Just look at you. I have to watch over you these days—do you practice swordplay this late every day?”
A blue vein stood out on Cheng Qian’s forehead. Neglecting Yan Zhengming’s question, he said, “I won’t sleep with you!”
“You think I want to sleep with you?” Yan Zhengming fumed. “Even a chopping board is softer than your bed!”
Cheng Qian turned to leave. “Fine. I’ll go sleep on the chopping board in the kitchen. Sect Leader Senior Brother, please do as you like.”
Yan Zhengming shouted to the baffled Taoist boys standing outside the door, “Take him down!”
Cheng Qian always treated others—even the Taoist children from Fuyao Mountain—in a slightly distant and urbane manner, so he surely wouldn’t get into a fight with these innocent bystanders. Hence, Yan Zhengming got his way.
The brocade quilt brought from the Land of the Tender caused Cheng Qian to sneeze so hard that his eyes streamed tears. Yan Zhengming threw a handkerchief at him with a disgusted look and said with a frown, “Is there anything wrong with your nose?”
Cheng Qian picked that handkerchief up with two fingers, stretched out his arm, and tossed it away. Then he produced a book about the taboos on charms, saying, “I think it’s your brain that is wrong.”
Yan Zhengming spread the quilt over Cheng Qian’s face and grabbed the book. “Sleep.”
Cheng Qian: “Give it back!”
As such, they started tussling over the book and banished all thoughts of sleep.
An intact Taboos on Charms came within an inch of being torn apart. In the end, Cheng Qian loosened his grip out of care for the book while Yan Zhengming took advantage of that, threw aside the book, and put out the light.
Cheng Qian resentfully ground his teeth in the darkness and tucked himself in under the quilt—out of sight, out of mind.
The winner, Yan Zhengming, crossed his hands behind his head. His sense of triumph was soon in and soon out. Cheng Qian gave him the cold shoulder and Yan Zhengming just lay flat in the bed, staring vacantly at the bed curtain.
It was a long time before Yan Zhengming’s voice suddenly ruffled the silence, “Now I know what it feels like to tread on thin ice and to stand on the edge of an abyss.”
Cheng Qian tucked himself in the quilt, saying nothing. Perhaps for him, Yan Zhengming was exactly the vexing “abyss” for the moment.
Yan Zhengming became reticent before he went on speaking to himself, “After the Celestial Market, there’ll be lectures. Many rogue cultivators3 would seize the opportunity and come for advanced study. Second and fourth junior brothers haven’t crossed the threshold of absorbing qi, so I am considering staying. To lay foundations at least… we can’t just go back to Fuyao Mountain without any skills.”
Just how ridiculous it was, to think that they had to audit others’ lectures to learn some trifling skills in the same way that rootless rogue cultivators did, despite Fuyao Sect being a decent sect.
“I have promised the lord of the island to stay, but I didn’t mean to depend on Azure Dragon Island,” Yan Zhengming paused and then added, as though to convince somebody, “Really.”
Cheng Qian had poked his head out of the quilt without Yan Zhengming noticing when, his face sideways and looking at his senior brother in silence.
Cheng Qian still had an immature visage, but the eyes on his pinched face radiated a staunch gaze embellished with childish brightness and innocence.
‘What was I doing when I was at his age?’ Yan Zhengming thought to himself.
Looking at Cheng Qian, he felt torn and sorry, and words just popped out of his mouth in an uncontrolled manner, “Ten years, in at most ten years, we’ll go back.”
But he regretted it as soon as he finished that. Yan Zhengming turned his head back with a painful mood, not looking at Cheng Qian anymore, and swiftly went back on his words. “I was just saying. It wouldn’t be better if we can, but never mind if we failed. Don’t get your hopes up.”
‘… Fine. He’s only reliable when pigs fly,’ Cheng Qian thought.
Sometimes, one person or some people might be undergoing upheavals, but time stops for no one, and the world continues moving on and on.
While these young boys were anxiously seeking their way out, the Celestial Market opened as scheduled.
The so-called “Celestial Market” on Azure Dragon Island was actually a very grand decennial exposition, and a ten-li-long street had been devoted to trade in pills, talismans, magic tools, manuals, and so on. Each sect would send their younger generations to come to make friends with like-minded people, and those disciples who were old enough to travel by themselves could even choose to go in a group after the Celestial Market rounded off.
On top of that, the key focus was nothing other than the “Azure Dragon Competition” which was long waited by every rogue cultivator across the country.
The lecture hall of Azure Dragon Island was the most admired place by innumerable rogue cultivators. Cultivators, even mortals, who failed to make their way into a prominent organization would come here to take a chance, hoping to receive guidance from a great teacher so that they could embark on the true path of cultivation.
Those lucky enough to rise above the common herd might even be accepted into Azure Dragon Island, even though they wouldn’t be counted as a full disciple. But to say the least, with years spent in the lecture hall, one would definitely acquire some basic skills which would confer him the ability to seek his fortune on his own travel.
Unfortunately, due to the limited capacity of the lecture hall, after going through rounds of elimination, only one to two percent of all enrollees would be able to stay.
But in Fuyao Sect’s case, the Lord of Azure Dragon Island obviously opened the back door for them; otherwise, these kids might not necessarily survive the elimination of the Azure Dragon Competition.
At Han Yuan’s instigation, the disciples of Fuyao Sect decided to go to the Celestial Market and have some fun.
The market was interesting. Many mortals mixed with the crowd and couldn’t be told apart from cultivators at first glance. But Yan Zhengming soon found that the way they communicated or traded was entirely different—only mortals would use currency while cultivators did barters.
Even if Yan Zhengming were carrying hundreds of thousands of paper money with him, he could buy nothing but mortal things at the Celestial Market. Don’t even think about those magic tools.
The Azure Dragon Competition was held on the Azure Dragon Platform at the end of the street.
The Azure Dragon Platform only covered an area of three or four Zhang square, but there seemed to be a certain charm cast on it—once you stepped onto it, the platform would look so boundless that it was even able to contain illusions of high mountains, great rivers and vast oceans. Tang Wanqiu and some other cultivators stood in a circle around the platform, perhaps to preserve order.
Any cultivator confident in himself could jump onto the platform to have an open fight with someone else, while those who hadn’t crossed the threshold of cultivation might pick an illusion to test his own conduct, willpower, aptitude, and so on.
For the sake of fairness, everybody was allowed to spectate.
When Yan Zhengming and his junior brothers managed to find themselves seats in a nearby teahouse, two cultivators were in combat, each using a saber and a sword respectively. Unlike the battle against Jiang Peng on the sea, in a competition of this level, every single move on both sides could be clearly seen.
The swordsman’s moves were very fancy with agileness which embodied his hard work. But once the fanciness went past a certain point, it appeared redundant. After two or three hundred clashes, the unimpressive saber wielder suddenly spotted his opponent’s weak point. He pressed his saber ahead with a jolt, jerking it upward and hitting the swordsman’s sword into the air with a clang.
The spectators around gave cheers.
“First Senior Brother, when can we use real swords?” asked Han Yuan with admiration.
“When you won’t drop your wooden sword on your feet,” said Yan Zhengming as he stared fixedly at the platform.
Cheng Qian chuckled by his side and then said to Han Yuan, “Master said that the swordplay of our sect is different from the rest; we’ll have to wait some years.”
With that, he remembered the wooden sword which had been held steadily in Master’s hand on that stormy day and couldn’t help but append, “Besides, as long as your moves embody the sword will, wooden swords are not necessarily inferior to iron swords…”
Before Cheng Qian could finish his words, Li Yun suddenly pulled him and warned him in a low voice, “Xiao-Qian, stop talking nonsense!”
Cheng Qian was confused. He raised his head and saw a swarthy man in the next seat looking at him coldly.
Cheng Qian had no clue what was wrong. Upon their gazes meeting, that man stood up and overlooked Cheng Qian as he said, “Wooden swords are not necessarily inferior to iron swords—you must have profound understandings on the Tao of the sword, little brother?”
Just then, the rogue cultivator who had lost just now came down from the Azure Dragon Platform and walked to the side of the black man, calling, “Brother.”
Cheng Qian latched on to what was going on right away. He thought this was really strange. This guy was directing his anger at him for his own brother’s defeat?
Evidently, Han Yuan felt the same as he did on this point. The little beggar hated his little senior brother being offended and advanced right away, a mouthful of swear words on the tip of his tongue.
But before he could spout them out, Li Yun had swiftly grabbed him. “Don’t stir up trouble!”
Yan Zhengming stuck his arm out in front of the grudging Cheng Qian and made a lazy obeisance to the other side, saying, “This kid is talking irresponsibly, he would even say a coal ball is white. You may just laugh that off, brother.”
Li Yun felt a spurt of fatigue after he heard first senior brother talk about a coal ball before an actual piece of black charcoal. He knew that first senior brother had intended to be a peacemaker, but the words somehow sounded like a provocation after they went through Yan Zhengming’s mouth.
A born nuisance—what a special talent!
That swarthy man’s face went darker as expected. His defeated brother whispered to him, and a few seconds later, his eyes settled on the wooden sword in Cheng Qian’s hand.
Then he snorted, “What? ‘Fuyāo’ (place the hand on the waist) Sect? I’ve never heard of such. I don’t think there’s a need to enter the lecture hall now, since any nobody is able to get in using their connections. Perhaps the Azure Dragon Competition’s fame is overblown, just to cheat fools like you who don’t know the truth!”
Tang Wanqiu, who was standing by the Azure Dragon Platform keeping the law, had obviously heard that, and her visage immediately changed as though storms were coming. But since she dared not abandon her duty without permission, all she could do was shoot stabbing glances at that black charcoal and the disciples of Fuyao Sect. She probably wanted to kick all of them out of here.
Yan Zhengming wasn’t bothered by his words at all. He thought, ‘He’s speaking ill of the Azure Dragon Island anyway, what does it matter to me?’
Thus he sneered and lifted his foot to leave.
Cheng Qian wasn’t so unthinking as him. He had noticed Tang Wanqiu’s face change.
Although the black charcoal had spoken rudely of Azure Dragon Island, the trouble was ultimately caused by them. Many people had initially borne strong resentment against them, as the lord of the island had summoned them several times. If they left as though nothing had happened at this point, those people would most likely give them a hard time in the future.
Yan Zhengming: “Xiao-Qian, time to go.”
Cheng Qian turned a deaf ear to him and remained in place. Flicking his fingers across the edge of his wooden sword, he slowly said, “Oh? So you mean, this brother who was disarmed… must have some genuine abilities?”
- A porter is someone who carries things to places. They’re muscle-bound and treat things roughly. A modern equivalent would be something like, ‘You’re throwing all of my stuff around! What are you, a rush-service deliveryman!?’
- a cave possessed by several female spider evils in Journey to the West.
- Independent cultivators unaffiliated with any sect, clan, or other martial organizations.