The brightness of Meng Fuyao's eyes amid the darkness, was comparable to that of the stars above as they sparkled tirelessly and boldly, and even somewhat excitedly.
From under the roof floated indistinct sounds, low but penetrating, especially in that cold, still night. It was the melancholic weeping of a girl, blended with a man's aroused panting. Through the faint-red, muslin window screen the intertwined silhouette of two human bodies could be seen, blurry and ambiguous. Nevertheless, one could easily imagine the scene unfolding within the room.
The meticulously-embroidered canopy was swaying along with the wave-like motions of the bodies. The burning stove, warm as spring, was contributing to the beads of sweat that dripped down their skins and mixed in together. And the gushing odor of rouge and bodily fluids added the final touches to their restless yet catchy rhythm, successfully disrupting the gentle pulse of the night.
Two bodies moved the whole night, and Meng Fuyao sat through the motions jocularly. She had on thick clothes - a body-fitting fur coat to be exact - that were given to her a few days back by Zong Yue. While the coat seemed thin, it was actually very warm, and the only issue was the faint herb scent that lingered on its collar. Then again, as a holy doctor, everything he possessed contained similar scents and Meng Fuyao wasn't going to complain.
Deep into the night, the snowfall intensified. Plum flower-like snowflakes fell continuously from the endless black dome, coating a particular human with a layer of snow in no time. From afar she highly resembled a snow sculpture.
It was between one to three in the morning when the door beneath opened, and Guo Pingrong exited. Dressed in a brocaded fur coat, he was immediately attended to by a guard, who brought up an umbrella and escorted him away.
Looking on as a meandering pair of footsteps emerged on the snow-filled ground, extending further and further away, and hearing as her surroundings returned to its original silence, Meng Fuyao picked up a few roof tiles before floating down from where she was.
The moment she landed she shook off the snow and greeted the girl, who was crying on the couch, under a blanket, "Here I am, again."
Qiao Ling raised her head and glared at Meng Fuyao with tears in her eyes. The latter shrugged. "It was my bad luck that night, bumping into your man. Now, that he's gone I don't think we'll meet again, will we?"
Qiao Ling straightened her body, stonily looking at her. After some time the waterworks exploded.
Meng Fuyao sighed, not wanting to speak anymore. She gazed, sharp-eyed, at the appalling bruises and scars on her hands. One could only imagine what she would see under the blanket.
Instead of approaching the girl, Meng Fuyao walked to the makeup counter and picked up a brass mirror. Upon looking into it, she placed it back down and smiled. "My face is all wet from the snow." At that, she conveniently retrieved a handkerchief from the table to wipe her face and neck.
When she was done, she turned and walked over to Qiao Ling and lifted the blanket, immediately drawing a deep breath. Then, she took a cloak and draped it over the girl's body before squatting down, back toward her.
Qiao Ling held onto the cloak, confused, and Meng Fuyao asked impatiently, "Still don't want to leave?"
Through the brass mirror, whose angle had been adjusted earlier, Meng Fuyao could see the genuine shock on Qiao Ling's face.
Meng Fuyao was not a fool. As she had roamed about and seen most things, she knew that turning her back to anyone definitely wasn't a faith to live and die by, even if the person behind might be powerless.
Her mission that night was no different from entering a tiger's cave, well-aware that the tiger was still inside. She had advanced slowly since there was no sense in sabotaging herself while trying to save someone else. Yuan Zhaoxu would look down on her if he were to know of it.
Finally, Qiao Ling timidly crawled onto her back, sniffing. "Brother Meng...I was wrong..."
"Who hasn't been wrong in this world? There's a chance to make it right, so don't be too hard on yourself." Meng Fuyao steadied herself and used a silk ribbon to tie Qiao Ling tightly to her body.
As Qiao Ling's tears started to stain Meng Fuyao's clothes, she choked, in a low voice, "He's not human...he's not human..."
Meng Fuyao was speechless, while her heart was wrenching in pain. Any guard she had had against Qiao Ling was wiped clean in that moment. The wounds on her body were clear indications of the suffering she had gone through. There was no way anyone could go that far simply to gain the trust of an enemy. She sighed, reaching a hand out to pat Qiao Ling's shoulder. "You've been here a few days. Familiar with the paths?"
"I've been locked in here all this while," she informed, shaking her head between sobs.
"Oh," Meng Fuyao uttered, and as she was about to exit from the path she had entered, Qiao Ling continued, "...but I heard the old woman's attendants mentioning that there aren't many guards within the residence since the general himself is a strong man. I think the southern hall is more heavily guarded than the eastern garden, where most people are residing. There's a backdoor that we can take, its path leading right out of the residence."
"Why did they tell you all these?" Meng Fuyao turned to ask.
"I don't know..." she whimpered. "But they were looking at me with sympathetic eyes...Brother Meng, I've been waiting every day...for you to come..."
"Oh," Meng Fuyao uttered again, before adding, "I heard from the streets that General Guo had once mentioned that anyone who is able to beat him can raise any request."
Before Qiao Ling could respond, Meng Fuyao jabbed her acupuncture point, turning her body limp. She kicked the door open, dragged a chair over and jumped onto it. "Come to fight me, Guo Pingrong!"
"Clap, clap, clap!" Applause sounded from amid the darkness as Quo Pingrong emerged from a corridor corner. "What good ears you have, and how bold of you to challenge me."
Meng Fuyao laughed. "You've been waiting long enough for me so why would you have gone far? You were going to sneak-attack me, weren't you? After all, how many people have had the honor of pulling your pants down? You're going to come at me no matter what."
Guo Pingrong's face changed. He had always been a haughty and petty man. Having his pants pulled down before his soldiers was undoubtedly the most humiliating experience of his entire life. Now that Meng Fuyao was publicizing it, he could feel his anger boiling.
"I knew it was you!" he inhaled deeply, his face hard as steel. He flicked the edge of his robe to the side and sprinted forward like a shooting star.
Meng Fuyao lifted her leg, kicking the chair up and toward him in a swift, tornado-like motion. As expected, Guo Pingrong easily chopped it into countless pieces with a simple punch, but it had already provided sufficient time for her to leap out of the window.
Upon jumping out, she was greeted by a surge of guards, kneeling in position as they pointed their longbows at her.
"Ah," she yelped, stumbling a little. "So many?" she cried out, panic-stricken.
During the stumble a bundle had dropped out from her robe and opened up, causing a handful of golden pearls to roll toward the guards' feet. Meng Fuyao then shrieked, even more miserably, as she ran over with her hands out. "My life support! Don't touch!"
The pearls sparkled generously, and their moistened appearance was enhanced amid the snow-covered floor. As if contagious, the bowmen's eyes, too, started glowing.
They were given only five silvers per month, and this fellow's pearls were worth a fortune. They knew not what he was here for, but he did appear to be rescuing a new bride, in an attempt to elope. Also, they knew not where these precious pearls had been obtained or even stolen from. If not now, then when?
By then, Guo Pingrong had arrived at the scene, his attention solely fixed onto Meng Fuyao. Not noticing the bribes rolling on the ground, he bellowed, "What are you guys waiting for? Shoot! Shoot her down!"
The guards' eyes alternated between the ground and one another. After some hesitation, a lean guard, no longer able to resist the temptation, started the ball rolling by curling a hand around a handful of pearls.
Within a flash, he had triggered the others to do the same.
It was then that Guo Pingrong finally realized the situation. His face blackened as he ordered, "Down!"
A mini explosion blasted through the white-specked sky, not much louder than the sound of snowfall, causing everyone's face to change in an instant.
The explosion started from the first bunch of pearls that had been picked up. Because the guard had been too agitated when grabbing them, he had actually smashed the "golden pearls."
From the broken pearls, a black liquid was hot out high up into the hazy, snow-filled sky, drawing an alarming and deadly arc across it.
The guards around quickly got splashed by the black water, which abruptly erupted into flames. The burn penetrated their clothes and skin, causing some to let out their last cry before collapsing. Their charred skin came into contact with the ground, instantly exploding and painting the snow a blood red.
More and more guards started screeching and piling together, turning Guo Pingrong's face ashen-colored. He caught the smirk on Meng Fuyao's face as she leaped away.
"Money is the most invaluable poison. Give one, take one, no loss! Can you stop a human from being greedy? Don't be naive, Guo Pingrong! You must've been underpaying them, or my poisonous golden pearls wouldn't have worked so effectively. Ha, ha."
Her silhouette could be seen swaying about on a spot before a tree. Instead of fleeing, Meng Fuyao shook her legs vigorously, crossing her arms and looking provokingly at him.
Guo Pingrong let out a low groan, his metal-colored robe rolling in midair, amid the fluttering snow, like a solid piece of iron. Within a second, he was pressing forward, and only then did Meng Fuyao scram.
Guo Pingrong reached the spot before the tree and looked up, only to see a painting hanging in the tree. It was of a vulgar-looking man, dressed in a brocaded robe, bow in hands while standing atop a high wall. His top was eye-catchingly lavish, but his pants were nowhere to be found, or rather, they were resting around his skinny ankles, below two hairy bowlegs.
Guo Pingrong couldn't breathe. Blood rushed to his head and chest all at once, turning his vision black. He let out an explosive roar, like never before.
His growl sent shudders across the night, but it hadn't managed to throw the smile off Meng Fuyao's calm face. Aim for a person's face if you have to hit someone, leave a scar if you have to insult someone - that was her life motto.
Guo Pingrong glared at the absolutely insulting painting, no longer able to contain his anger. He extended a balled fist and sent a punch, tiger-like and ruthless, right through it.