Chapter 3. Abandoned Shrine
At this point in life Zhou Zishu was not in the least concerned about anything — he was familiar with courting death, after all; so the fisherman's vulgarity all fell on deaf ears.
The boat calmly sailed across the water. On the other side of the river, a young woman called out melodiously, "Selling water chestnuts! Do you want some?" It was as if time had slowed down with the river flow to a sluggish speed. Even if I die right here, it'll be worth it, Zhou Zishu mused.
The idea had crossed him before — back when he was in the middle of climbing the Mountain of Immortals in Penglai. But then he remembered that he hadn't visited Jiangnan and all of its natural beauty; so down south he had gone and again had the thought resurfaced at this place. An unknown emotion surged up inside him. He bit into the dry and hard pie, trying his hardest to chew and swallow. Then he tilted his head side to side in contemplation; he was done travelling through Jiangnan, but there were still the three famous and five sacred mountains1 to see, stopping here would be a great pity.
Because of that, all thoughts about dying here were dropped.
All of a sudden, as if choked on his own saliva, the fisherman stopped swearing. He bent down, head inclined to a vague direction, unblinking.
Zhou Zishu was intrigued, so he stuck his head out from inside the boat's deck to follow the old man's gaze.
He saw him scrutinizing two people walking by the river bank — they were the good-looking man in gray and the pretty young lady in purple he met back at the tavern. The fisherman might be old but he was exceptionally perceptive, and when taking a closer look at him, one could see protruding temples2 under unruly hair; thick, strong hands and corded muscles. It was very clear there was more to him than met the eye.
The pair whom old man was watching was definitely not ordinary either, seeing that they made him this on guard.
The pretty girl was vivacious, but she would walk a few meters3 behind the man without fail, never once overstepping her boundary.
A glance was enough for Zhou Zishu to know that this girl was either a maid or a concubine; she might have a bit of a wicked streak with a beauty he greatly appreciated, but at the end she already belonged to someone else, so he stopped thinking too much about it and withdrew his gaze, turning his attention back to tackling the dry hard pie.
It was jianghu after all; ambiguity was one of its staples. If the royal court was a battleground for fame and power, jianghu was a battleground between white and black. Though some were unable to understand this, and took the title of a wandering hero too seriously even until they died.
But how would all this concern an incessantly ravenous homeless man like him anyway?
Zhou Zishu felt somewhat bored after the fisherman had stopped cursing, so he goaded, "Hey old man, this pie lacks a bit of flavor. I don't mind whether it's bad or fine salt, so you should've at least put some in."
The other got furious again, "How are you still talking shit with that much food stuffed in your mouth? You greedy little shit, gonna starve you for three days, see how you will complain then…"
The moment he opened his mouth, his words were a never-ending stream. Zhou Zishu smiled, eating his pie with more vigor, feeling a little shameless.
Crossing the river only cost a few coins, but Zhou Zishu threw a silver crumble at the fisherman anyway. The latter didn't feel grateful or undeserved at all, he took it and walked away, face like that of an unsatisfied debt collector. He couldn't wait to kick the younger out of the boat the moment they reached the other side, "Get lost, get lost! Don't waste my time, I have important business to do."
Zhou Zishu leisurely finished the pie, stretching and leaving the deck. He replied while still chewing, "Do you have to go reincarnate or something, why the rush?"
The fisherman's eyes were as big as saucers, looking like he want to curse the brat's entire family and ancestors; but he swallowed his fury once he reminded himself of something, grumblingly sailing away instead.
It was a good thing that this fisherman act was just a disguise for his whatever business, if he was truly one then he would be piss poor.
Staring at the boat sailing further away from sight, Zhou Zishu deliberately muttered a regard of absolute literary excellence, "Fuck you."
For most of his life he had mingled with the cultured but degenerate side of society; all they did was spouting Confucious this and Confucious that, never did a rude word escape their mouth. He felt incredibly delighted after blurting out that curse, as if years of pent-up frustrations have vanished completely with it.
And to his surprised revelation, cursing turned out to be such an enjoyable thing to do. He was all smiles, whispering once more, "Eat shit bastard, got my money and couldn't even do his job right."
After mulling over the words, he felt like they tasted even sweeter, and that lifted his mood greatly. With content, he walked along the river bank.
Zhou Zishu travelled here and there for the entire day and reached the city's outskirt at nightfall. He found a pond and had a thorough washing, because even he himself couldn't stand the smell anymore, at least he should look like a proper human. He thought about finding a place to stay overnight; and after another few hundred meters on the road, found a dilapidated and abandoned shrine. He made a bed out of hay and fell asleep at the Buddha statue's feet.
In the dead of night, he was devoid of worry and could have slept dreamless till morning, had it not been for the footsteps and human noises nearby.
Three silhouettes appeared at the shrine's door with the apparent smell of blood, prompting Zhou Zishu to open his eyes and frown.
The injured one was wearing a hat, supported by a boy in his teens who had some basic kungfu in him, but the energy of which was still unstable. Like a sick bull, he was in a shortage of breath, helping the injured with strenuous effort. The last person was an old woman dressed like a servant, staggering behind them with a bag in her hold.
The young man walked through the door, scanning the shrine cautiously like a wounded animal. He didn't notice Zhou Zishu as the latter was hidden in the statue's casting shadow, his breath feather light. Turning to the man with the hat, he said quietly, "Uncle Li, let's hide in here for a bit, your wound…"
He didn't get to finish his sentence as the one he was talking to struggled out of his assistance, trying his best to stand and made a salutation at the direction of Zhou Zishu, "Ah… This friend…"
He trailed off after raising his head. Zhou Zishu could see clearly too: this person was the fisherman he met before. On his back was a sword wound, soaking his entire body in crimson. The younger sat up straight, "It's you!"
The fisherman laughed bitterly, "Damn it, of course it's the beggar brat…"
He stumbled forward before he could finish, and the young boy hurriedly went to support him with his arms; but since the latter himself was out of strength, both tumbled to the ground with the boy sobbing, "Uncle Li…"
The fisherman spasmed suddenly. Zhou Zishu couldn't help but walk over to examine the injury, noticing a strange purple color mixed in with the normal redness of blood, the effect of which being his deathly pale lips. He frowned.
The old man tried his hardest to smile and spoke in a low voice, "It's not like you were shitting on your ancestors, boy, would you stop with the tears already? I'm not even dead yet…"
The woman was also wiping her tears, "Old Li, what would our young master do if something happened to you?"
He stared at her, inhaling with great difficulty and told the boy, shaking, "I… am just someone with no future… But I owed your father a long time ago, apart from my own life I have nothing else to pay this debt with…" He coughed and spasmed again right after, "Young man, remember this carefully…"
He didn't get to tell the boy what to remember as more urgent footsteps could be heard outside the shrine. A man clad in black walked in; he didn't even bother to cover his face, on which was a scar from a knife cut. Seeing the three cornered like rats, his mouth twisted. "You did well, being able to escape this far."
The boy bit his lips. He pulled out the sword tied around his hip, throwing himself at the man in black, "I'm gonna kill you!"
It was terribly unfortunate that his astonishing momentum was not backed up with enough skills; no matter how promising he looked, his execution was clumsy and showed his inexperience. He was disarmed with a flick of the hand before he could land a hit, and was knocked back a few meters after a blow to the stomach.
The boy stood up after that, faced covered in grime. Without fear, he shouted and charged again empty-handed.
The fisherman also wanted to stand, but he was so heavily injured that he fell back right away.
The enemy smiled coldly, "Look at this rabbit trying to bite." He dodged the attack, fingers crooked with the intention of clawing at the middle of the boy's back. Under the moonlight those fingers didn't seem to be made out of human flesh and blood, they glowed a faint blue, ready to deliver the killing blow.
Initially Zhou Zishu refrained from sticking his nose into this, but he had somewhat of a fate with this fisherman, having been 'on the same boat' with him; and the boy was too young to be met with death at his age. He took a small rock in his palm, but before he could shoot it, there was suddenly a whistle. The man in black flinched and threw himself to the flat ground, making the boy trip in midair since he caught nothing.
At the place where the man in black had stood moments before was a hidden weapon4 in the shape of a lotus.
They heard a delicate female voice, "What kind of person bullies elders and children this late at night in the middle of nowhere? How audacious."
Zhou Zishu startled as this voice was quite familiar. He withdrew the small rock, returning to his makeshift bed to watch things unfold silently.
The man in black's expression twitched, gaze throbbing — Zhou Zishu thought it was because of the scar acting up. His face froze, looking a little funny despite the viciousness. He spoke angrily, "Show yourself, you whore!"
The young lady appeared at the door, smiling. Zhou Zishu recognized her as the one in purple who had threatened to poison him earlier. What a roll he was on today, seeing that half of the people gathered here was someone he had run into beforehand.
The girl's master was nowhere to be found; she tilted her head, leaning on the door with an innocent expression, a finger lightly scraping her face. "Old shameless bastard, how dare you come here to attack elders and children, not sparing even one who's at death's door?"
At being called 'one who's at death's door', the fisherman, having been swearing up and down vigorously just hours before, collapsed in silence.
1 Refers to the Three Famous Mountains: Huangshan, Lushan and Yandangshan; and the Five Sacred Mountains: East Great Mountain Taishan, West Great Mountain Huashan, South Great Mountain Hengshan (in Hunan), North Great Hengshan (in Shanxi), and Center Great Mountain Songshan.
2 It was once believed that men with protruding temples were more careful, perceptive and capable in finance.
3 Original text was one zhang, a measurement of length. A zhang is about 3.3m.
4 暗器 (ànqì), weapons that are concealed in some way (often hidden in the owner's clothing). Their effectiveness relies heavily on the element of surprise.