Chapter 8. Moonshade
The sound made by the zither was incredibly thin, like a binding spider web coming from every direction, carrying deadly treacherous intentions.
Gu Xiang also felt the insides of her body churning at the sound, but she was quick to assess the situation, immediately forcing herself to calm down.
Wen Kexing who was just sleeping on the bed moments before had already woken, standing by the window silently. Moonlight veiled over his face, softening his features. His eyes didn't blink, staring pointedly at somewhere in the dark.
His shadow stretched long behind him. He remained unmoved, expressions flitting between blankness and mirth, creating the image of a detached but mystifying stone statue. Under the cover of the night, his dangerous aura was set free without restraint.
He looked like a ghost empty of human emotions.
Gu Xiang was smart enough to cover her ears the moment she sensed something abnormal, trying her best to block the sound coming from outside. She sat up straight, finally getting rid of the nausea after minutes of meditation.
Wen Kexing's slender fingers brushed over the window bars, letting out a low laugh, "They even recruited "Enchanted Song" Qin Song… this would definitely cost a fortune. Makes one question who they want to deal with."
In a flash, he heard something dashing through the air — the sound was thick, barely recognizable, like it came from the strings of an old and unused instrument. There was also another person flinging tiny rocks into the endless night sky.
There was almost no sound to the flying objects, but those elusive rocks managed to cut off the never-ending zither's song in such a subtle way; not unlike how one threw a stone into the water, instantly creating ripples that spread to places no one could see or catch.
As expected, the song halted.
Wen Kexing leaned on the window to listen attentively, his eyes closed. The corner of his lips lifted into a smile.
The zither resounded again all of a sudden, the strength carried in the song rivaling floods and giant beasts. Its user seemed to have resorted to the killing move. Practically at the same time, an ear-piercing noise was unleashed from the room next door. It seemed to come from a flute, but normally flutes would never make sounds that sharp, so sharp to the point it felt like they could tear something apart.
A battle broke out between the intense flute and the demonic zither with implausible reflex from both sides.
The zither strings split in a blink of an eye.
The world was plunged into silence afterwards.
Wen Kexing still stood where he was, shaking his head and mumbling, "Our predecessors have never been wrong; it's inevitable for a swordsman to die by a sword."
Gu Xiang let out an exhale after everything had passed, wiping the cold sweat on her forehead. "Say, Master, is that Qin… Qin something dead?"
Wen Kexing's voice was gentle, "Even if he's still alive, all of his meridians have been broken; he's useless now. Death would be a happier fate for him."
He suddenly pushed open the window, speaking to Gu Xiang with an even lower voice than before, as if not wanting to disturb something, "Listen, Ah-Xiang, life will always be fascinating. If you want something, be prepared to pay for its price. Using a zither to kill people is surely fun, but you have to watch out for the ones that can bite back."
Gu Xiang tilted her head. "When will they bite back?"
Wen Kexing was patient. "When they're stronger than you."
The girl nodded, asking again after mulling the thought over, "Why do you have to compete with someone stronger when you can just pick on weaker ones instead?"
He turned his head to look at her. Being backlit by the moon, the man's whole body seemed to bathe in silver light, his expressions getting harder and harder to read. After a good while, he replied, "Or you can pick on no one and be a good person like me."
Wen "Good Person" Kexing then left through the window, leaving a speechless Gu Xiang behind staring after him.
Zhou Zishu's situation was not exactly ideal either. He made this flute during the journey out of boredom with very poor craftsmanship; the notes were not right, the tuning all over the place, so he got around to using it. He didn't expect it to be useful tonight. A big crack appeared after a single use; it was fortunate for him to have been able to manipulate the opponent into giving it their all, because only then did he succeed in delivering the killing blow. The results would have been very different otherwise.
Zhang Chengling looked like he had just been fished out of the water. Since the boy wasn't competent enough, even though Zhou Zishu had helped cover his ears, the zither's sounds still left him with internal injuries. His face was as blanched as paper after throwing up.
Zhou Zishu was worried that he was too young and weak to meditate on his own, so he put his palms on the younger's back, lowering his voice, "Concentrate."
Then he used his inner force to assist the boy, only retracted after his complexion looked a little better. His own body was drenched in sweat.
It was a blessing that they were very close to Tai Hu now, he mused, or else he would feel incredibly humiliated for almost not carrying out the mission that he had promised to do. Having never done any good deeds for a large portion of his life, he couldn't fail the very first one; that would probably cause bad luck.
In jianghu, there was next to no one who possessed as much information as him — Tian Chuang's former leader. He knew exactly who the person he fought was the moment they went head to head.
Legends had it that "Enchanted Song" Qin Song was a eunuch who loved to dress as a woman, the colorful clothes he wore forewarned people of his poisonous nature. Thanks to the fact that he could murder people without a trace, he was very valued. His principle was that the more he was paid, the more loyal he would be to that person.
Since silence had fallen, Zhou Zishu surmised that he was either dead or very close to it. Had he been as powerful as before, he would have finished the other off; but now only half his life was left so there was no certainty of success. Besides, that might be too cruel.
He then heard the sound of clapping outside and someone praising, "How emotionally provoking1 this nighttime melody has been, how would anyone not miss their hometown after listening to it — Brother Zhou has blended the sound of flute and zither beautifully under the moon and stars tonight; this talent, this elegance must belong to a beauty only."
He had never seen anyone talking this much rubbish.
Zhou Zishu thought about how he didn't notice the other standing outside the window at all; someone this unpredictable would be hard to deal with even when he was at his best. He could only think of three people and a half who possessed such power; it would be foolish to ever offend any of them.
He inhaled, opening the window, pointing at his sickly face with the deadly pale skin and dull eyes. "This beauty?" He asked.
Wen Kexing choked, glancing at the visage which was not too unpleasant but not something people would want to look at twice, either. He turned to watch the moon after that.
Zhou Zishu lifted his legs to sit on the window sill, following the other's gaze. The full moon was especially bright tonight; the moonlight was cold like water and the ground looked like it's covered in mist.
Zhou Zishu wondered who Wen Kexing was among those dangerous three people and a half; on the other hand, he was also unsure about the man's motives for following him. The confusion only grew the more he thought about it.
He felt a particular aura from this man that suggested they might be birds of a feather, the other would definitely not do something if it didn't benefit him. He was following another man… or, he actually was following Zhang Chengling to Tai Hu; there must be some kind of plan behind this. After lots of thoughts without any solid conclusions, he scoffed at himself — old habits died hard.
He looked down to Wen Kexing studying him enthusiastically, smiling, "If Brother Wen is really curious, how about making me shed my skin to see the flesh inside?"
Wen Kexing raised his brows. "Fine by me."
His hands were at Zhou Zishu's face barely after the word "fine" was uttered. But the latter was prepared, leaning backwards, one leg raised to kick at Wen Kexing's wrists.
In just seconds, there were so many moves traded back and forth they would make any onlookers dizzy.
Zhou Zishu felt like he was at a disadvantage since his position on the window sill limited lots of movements; he ducked down to dodge another move, jumping down. However, the night was not a good time for him, and in addition to the previous torment, a nail caused intense pain at that moment, making him slow down.
Wen Kexing's palm was close to his torso out of nowhere, but the man suddenly stopped before he was hit with his strength.
Zhou Zishu looked down to glimpse at the palm that was almost touching his chest, his expression calm as ever. He smiled, "Thank you Brother Wen for having mercy on me."
He was interrupted by that very palm reaching up to touch his face. Wen Kexing didn't stop there as he slowly caressed with his fingers, seemingly wanting to determine if it was really human skin.
Zhou Zishu didn't get to step back before Gu Xiang — having heard the noises — looked down from the window and pulled her head back inside almost immediately, exclaiming, "Oh my, how rude of me!"
—Correct, exactly what he was also thinking.
Wen Kexing stood very close to him with a serious face — the seriousness turned ambiguous under the moonlight, giving one the impression that he was actually being rude.
Gu Xiang didn't bother to be quiet, "Oh man I'm going blind I'm going blind…"
Zhou Zishu quickly coughed, stepped a long step away, calming himself down. He found this situation both hilarious and embarrassing. "Did Brother Wen see what my face is made of yet?"
"Human skin." Wen Kexing replied after mements of pensiveness.
Zhou Zishu seemed to agree without thinking.
Wen Kexing stared at his hands. "Strange… How strange, it feels like it's become one with your body."
Zhou Zishu replied unperturbedly, "It's a shame to admit this, but I'm actually born with it."
Were there another person observing — excluding Gu Xiang, of course — they would definitely came to the conclusion that one of these two men was a lunatic.
Wen Kexing felt a bit out of his depth, looking at Zhou Zishu one last time before leaving, not to his room but somewhere outside. Gu Xiang stuck her head out again, rolling her eyes while beaming, "Huh, Master must be unable to accept reality right now, bet he's gonna visit his pretty friend at Gou Lan Bordello. It's good that he's gone, everyone can prepare for sleep now."
There was a considerable distance between them and Wen Kexing, but without looking back, his voice was still delivered to Gu Xiang directly and clearly through the air.
He said, "What did you just say, Ah-Xiang?"
Gu Xiang gave in, "Just breaking wind!"
Then she quickly went back inside — as if wanting to keep the reply to herself.
Only then did Zhou Zishu exhale, releasing the tension from his body. Gritting his teeth, he leaned onto the wall without making any sounds.
It was fortunate that his pain came in phases and bursts. He waited until feeling a little better to pull himself together before getting back inside.
Tonight seemed to be longer than usual.
Three days later, Zhou Zishu — and a Zhang Chengling who became surprisingly thinner after just a few days — reached Tai Hu.
He knocked on the door, but before he got to explain anything, the butler stared at Zhang Chengling, crying out, "Are you… are you Chengling? Are you really Chengling?"
Then he turned his head to yell at the servants, "Go inform Sir, quickly, Young Master Chengling is here! Young Master Chengling is still alive!"
A short time passed by until Sir Zhao Jing of Tai Hu was at the door to greet them himself. Zhang Chengling fell onto his knees; it seemed like the news had spread everywhere. They stood there crying together before making a fanfare out of escorting them inside.
Finally his ancestors would no longer be haunted, Zhou Zishu mused — being a good person was really exhausting.
1 Wen Kexing's words were taken from a line of the poem 塞下曲其一/First Song by the Border, by Li Bai. The line has an imagery of breaking a willow branch, which is often used to describe emotional events such as separation.