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Chapter 7. Setting Off
When Zhou Zishu made Zhang Chengling pa.s.s out, he did it out of fear that the boy would harbor too many bad thoughts; calming him down was a necessity. There was barely any force to it, so the boy woke up not long after the strange Wen Kexing arrived.
He opened his eyes, dazedly staring at the ceiling as if his soul had left the body. Until yesterday he was still the Zhang's young master, pampered by many — even when his tutor told him that he was utterly stupid and useless, even when his martial art teacher was secretly disappointed that he was just bad mud, unable to plaster walls1 — his life was happy and content.
He got people dressing and feeding him, everywhere he went servants would follow, serving him diligently even with his mediocre studying until late night2. They would flatter him all day long, and even when Zhang Chengling knew his worth, it didn't stop him from basking in the false praises sometimes. His life went by with such privilege for fourteen years.
Then he lost everything in a single night.
His home was gone, his parents killed along with all relatives and friends, his world turning upside down. He was terrified, but he didn't know what to do.
Zhou Zishu was the type who knew how to fart better than to console people, so he stayed at his place silently. There was only a blank stare on Zhang Chengling's face, tears streaming down from his eyes.
He heard Wen Kexing asking Gu Xiang, "Who's this little thing?"
"He's said to be Zhang Yusen's son."
Wen Kexing nodded with a dull face, like Zhang Yusen's name to him was no more than a fleck of dust. He spoke again a while after, "I heard that the Zhang family was so poor that they had nothing but money, how did a son of Zhang Yusen end up like this? Did he run off without bringing enough silvers or was he lost?"
Gu Xiang lowered her voice, "From what he told us, someone murdered all the Zhangs. The news must have shaken up the whole city by now, but I guess you didn't hear about it while fooling around somewhere."
Wen Kexing thought for a bit, nodding, "No wonder there were so many corpses."
He turned to a.s.sess Zhou Zishu. "Then what's he doing here?" He asked Gu Xiang.
The girl scoffed. "That beggar called himself Zhou Xu. He sold himself to a dead man for two silvers, so now he had to escort the boy to Tai Hu."
Wen Kexing's eyes widened, internally evaluating something with a completely serious face. He told Gu Xiang afterwards, "Now I'm even more certain that he's a beauty, only beautiful people can be that dumb."
Gu Xiang resorted to ignorance, too used to her master's antics; Zhou Zishu followed suit since he had yet to fully gauge this man's ability.
He turned to look at a teary Zhang Chengling, feeling somewhat annoyed and wis.h.i.+ng that the younger would stop already. He poked him with the tip of his toes, coughing, "Young Master Zhang, get yourself together if you've done resting. We shouldn't stay at this place for long, there must be more people after you to finish off their job. This Uncle Zhou is entrusted, so the least he will do is taking you to Tai Hu safe and sound."
Zhang Chengling's eyes s.h.i.+fted to look around. The moment they stopped, he covered his face with his hands and curled up into a ball, wailing. Zhou Zishu felt a headache coming with the boy's cries; he told himself that a scolding was necessary but didn't have the heart to do it. Comforting children was not his forte either, so silence was the best option. Then suddenly he sat up, walking toward the door.
He was just intending to check out the state of the Buddha statue and maybe restore it to the original place, reasoning that his previous action seemed quite offensive and wouldn't help if he wanted to gather more merits. Zhou Zishu didn't expect Zhang Chengling — who at that moment a.s.sumed the elder wanted to abandon him — to scramble forward, rus.h.i.+ng to grip at his ankles, shouting, "Uncle Zhou, Uncle Zhou, please don't… please don't leave me, I… I…"
He looked extremely pitiful sobbing like that. Even though they ran into each other by pure chance, the younger had no one else to rely on but Zhou Zishu; the latter was his savior, a living Buddha.
Zhou Zishu looked down at him impa.s.sively, voice insipid, "Has your father never told you that a true man has gold under his knees3?"
After moments of being starstruck, thanks to those words Zhang Chengling finally reached some kind of comprehension4. He used the sleeves to wipe away the tears and snots with all his might. "Paying respect to the sky, the earth, the king, family and teacher5 is a matter of course6. You have saved me Uncle Zhou, will you let me be your disciple?"
Wen Kexing and Gu Xiang observed the scene in amus.e.m.e.nt, the latter whispering, "Last night he was still a foolish child; he got smart real fast, huh?"
Zhou Zishu could only reply, "Stand up first."
Zhang Chengling stubbornly refused. "I won't stand until you accept! If I can't avenge my family, am I even worth existing? s.h.i.+fu7…"
Zhou Zishu cared none about his arguments, dragging the younger up by the shoulder. "I'm an invalid who's gonna die soon. It's enough of a blessing for me to be able to get by another day, and you think I can teach you anything? I heard that Sir Zhao Jing of Tai Hu is your father's old friend, go see him and there will be better people to help you with your vengeance."
He concentrated his internal force into the palms, picking up the statue and putting it back on the altar, muttering "sinful, sinful". He saluted not quite seriously before turning to speak to a still dumbfounded Zhang Chengling, "We should leave now that you're fully awake. If you want to avenge your family, we need to get you to Sir Zhao as fast as possible; but now we should get some food first."
He stretched without a care, smiling at Gu Xiang and ignoring Wen Kexing. He then left the shrine in a blink of an eye, not bothering to check if Zhang Chengling could catch up.
The boy stood in dejection, but hurriedly followed after realizing the man had already gone.
Wen Kexing rubbed his chin, watching the two silhouettes with obvious interest. "Let's follow them, we're going to Tai Hu." He stood up and told Gu Xiang.
The mischievous look on her face vanished. She replied in a low voice after some thoughts, "Master, Zhang Chengling said the Zhang family ma.s.sacre was done by the Ghosts of Qingzhu, Xue Fang the Hanged Ghost was there."
Wen Kexing glanced at her with no expressions. "Hm, so?"
Gu Xiang startled a little, chasing after the already-leaving Wen Kexing, asking him with a serious voice, "The Hanged Ghost was clearly fake since I beat them yesterday. Master… did you know something already?"
"Ah-Xiang." Wen Kexing stared at her again, his eyes seemingly black holes that could suck people in.
Gu Xiang quieted down immediately, mumbling, "I know, I talked too much."
At that moment, her face looked pale, as if this ever fearless girl was dreading something. Wen Kexing's fixed gaze only turned away in approval after the reply as he continued forward. Gu Xiang followed him, keeping a small distance.
She heard Wen Kexing, "We're gonna follow that Zhou person. My instincts were never wrong, he can't be anything else but beautiful. We will catch him red-handed eventually; Ah-Xiang, let's make a bet since you don't believe me."
Because of this, Zhou Zishu definitely didn't have a peaceful journey.
Escorting Zhang Chengling was no different than carrying the biggest fart as there were endless "flies" along the way. He just knocked out another one tonight, regretting his decisions while looking at the two silvers.
He still had half of his strength and his skills didn't go anywhere, so those people should know better than to touch him. But the Nails made things unpredictable, resulting in his annoyance at the endless torture from both the pain and the flock of sc.u.ms attacking at every minute — not to mention the pair of master and maid who kept trailing behind them for no reasons.
He could threw them off the track with ease had he not been accompanied a small burden. In addition, the mysterious Wen Kexing had some talent to him; there were many times Zhou Zishu managed to leave him behind only to end up seeing the terribly punch-inviting face just half a day later.
Zhou Zishu quietly dragged another a.s.sa.s.sin's body outside before returning to their room to meditate. Zhang Chengling noticed nothing, still deeply asleep with his nonsensical dreams. During the past days they were travelling together, he found out that this boy didn't display any stuck-up behaviors; the wailing child of before seemed to have disappeared completely, like he was forced into maturity.
He didn't complain even when they going at a very slow pace, obeying Zhou Zishu's every word, being generally very honest and sincere; his only shortcoming was the inability to stop calling the elder s.h.i.+fu, no matter how much he had been corrected.
Zhou Zishu eventually gave up, believing that after dropping the boy off in Tai Hu for the Zhaos, he would leave immediately to travel to anywhere he wanted. He had it all planned out already: after seeing the famous mountains and lakes, he would go south rather than north as there was a friend in Nan Jiang to whom he hadn't paid a visit. He had to at least see them and have a drink together before descending to the underworld…
Suddenly, the young man on the bed tossed and turned violently, drenched in sweat. He was like that almost every night; during the day he was calm on the outside with thoughts of vengeance and regaining mental stability, but memories of that fated night had become nightmares, not letting him go. Zhou Zishu sighed, shaking him awake.
Zhang Chengling let out a cry and sat up, eyes blank. He only reacted after a good time had pa.s.sed, murmuring at Zhou Zishu, "Uncle Zhou… I didn't mean to do that."
He was so young and inexperienced that even his bloodshot eyes retained an innocence that was way too familiar. Zhou Zishu was instantly reminded of someone he knew in the past.
The one who… whose only wish was to wander everywhere in jianghu with him.
He couldn't help but sit there in a daze.
Zhang Chengling spoke cautiously. "Uncle Zhou, I didn't mean to wake you up, I just dreamt of my father…" His lips quivered, pale. "I can… I can stop sleeping if it's a problem?"
Zhou Zishu patted his shoulder, voice unintentionally tender, "It's alright, sleep all you want. I'll wake you if there's a nightmare."
Zhang Chengling made a noise in reply, crawling back under his blanket, fingers still unconsciously holding onto Zhou Zishu's sleeve.
The man stared down at it meaningfully. There was awkwardness in Zhang Chengling's smile when he retracted his hand.
At that moment, from a place seemingly not far away there was someone making a "tw.a.n.g" sound with the strings of their zither. Zhang Chengling felt that sound as if feeling a lightning snapped right next to his ears; even his organs seemed to tremble. Pain started afterwards, and he cried out loud, clutching at his chest desperately—
1 Bad mud that is unable to plaster walls is used to refer to useless people or pointless actions.
2 Literally translated as red-sleeved maiden replenis.h.i.+ng incense, referring to the act of scholars being a.s.sisted by maids with the incense when they are studying at late night.
3 A man has gold under his knees means that men must retain their dignity in any situations.
4 The original phrase used is Good fortune makes one wiser.
5 One of the most important principles for a Confucianist.
6 Originally 天经地义, literally translated as heaven's law and earth's principle.
7 An honorific used by disciples for their masters.