The battle against Guo Pingrong had led to Meng Fuyao's breakthrough, cultivation-wise, but it had also infected her with a strange poison. Meng Fuyao believed it was fate that had strengthened her abilities and determination. The sword of destiny had slashed some threads that had been entangled within the deep corners of her consciousness.
She paced back and forth before the city entrance. Zong Yue cast a somewhat meaningful backward glance before whipping his horse. It was then that Meng Fuyao snapped out of it and caught up.
Her sesame-black hair swayed in the wind as a fresh red sun descended behind her delicate back. The sky was layered beautifully, and the silhouette of a girl ascending her horse and setting out gradually faded into the sunset glow.
But she wasn't aware of something.
In the direction where she had been gazing, an elegant man was standing on the Springfold Pavilion, also the highest point of the Canglan Palace, overlooking the scene before him. He stayed for a long time, allowing the wind to brush against his robe and hair. As the fluttering strands of hair covered his eyes, only a deep, meaningful smile could be seen on his lips.
He looked toward the city entrance, turning around to face a certain animal after a long time. "She's always leaving without saying goodbye. How cruel..."
The animal happily clapped his paws together, quickly taking the chance to confess, "I won't ever do that to you...'
However, before he could finish, his owner started mumbling, half-smilingly, "It's alright. I'll go to you if you don't come to me."
The winter wind blew in tandem with the battle drums, as the heroic men of the 18 ethnic groups in Nanrong prepared to fight.
The northern and southern Rong people, whose God, Garison, was human-headed and chicken-bodied, had served separately under Wuji Nation for the longest time. Somehow, after 20 years, they had decided to stroke the tiger's whiskers by joining forces and starting a revolt.
The courageous fellows surged from the mountains and valleys like a humongous tide, speedily subjugating their neighbors, Pingcheng and Huangxian. They were headed for Zhongzhou, with the intention of getting Zhangsun Wuji out of his palace.
King Rong sent Guo Pingrong's troop to be stationed at Jingchen, while his main camp was situated in Suishui, which was about 15 kilometers away. Both troops worked well together to surround Pingcheng and Huangxian.
Meng Fuyao and Zong Yue departed from the army and headed for Yaocheng, the closest city to Pingcheng. It was said that the dense forest seated between Yaocheng's countryside and Rong ethnic group contained only the rarest of herbs and beasts. For a physician like Zong Yue, it was an opportunity that could not be missed. As for Meng Fuyao, she simply hoped that he would make a breakthrough and create an antidote for her.
Yaocheng was the city closest to the Rong ethnic group. Rong and Han's people resided within the city, and the imperial court had always maintained a pacifying stance. For example, they had two people in charge, one main and one assistant, had been appointed.
The main officer's title was recorded in official documents as County Magistrate, but he was known as the city owner in the eyes of the locals. He was in charge of the population, taxation, feudal system, irrigation works, agriculture, civil administration, and finances.
The assistant officer, a Han man from Zhongzhou, was in charge of warehouses, prison affairs, and official documentation. It seemed that Rong's people held the highest position and power, but they dispatched the highest administrative general to lead a defense troop, 3,000 in strength, to Baiting Village, located 10 kilometers away from Yaocheng. Concerning the formidable and unpredictable Rong tribe, Wuji Nation's imperial court had handled them with both grace and threats, depending on the situation. A lot of thought had been put into every move.
Even before their arrival, and before the locals guided Holy Doctor Zong toward Yaocheng, Meng Fuyao had already drawn a beautiful imagery in her head - Lovely, peaceful, and ground full of multi-colored and patterned flowers.
However, upon stepping into Yaocheng, Meng Fuyao drew a deep breath of cold air.
The streets, on which charred houses sat upon, were dilapidated. There were trampled flowers scattered all over the mud, along with half-naked Rong people who walked about in their colorful pants. Their snow-bright machetes swung freely behind their waists as they pushed and shoved through the crowd. Their eyes were viciously darting about, as though they were going to crush even a rock that could potentially block their paths.
The fellow countrymen, on the other hand, had a look of fear on their faces as they tried as much as possible to avoid eye contact with the burly fellows.
The air was filled with a deadly aura, its tension akin to that of an almost erupting barrel of gunpowder. There was nothing but danger.
Upon entering the city, Meng Fuyao and gang instantly felt the cuttingly hostile look that was being hurled at them. The inns and restaurants weren't open to foreigners, and while Meng Fuyao and Zong Yue could enter with King De's keepsake, they disliked the lack of freedom. They had planned to seek accommodation in a household, but no one dared to rent a space to them. It was late at night that an old couple finally took them in.
That night, the duo had a simple yet decent meal in the house. The old couple's son was slow-witted and inarticulate, while their daughter-in-law was pregnant and almost due. Under an oil lamp, the couple continuously offered their guests food, smiling brightly. "It's nothing much, but please help yourselves."
Meng Fuyao sat before the table, full of cracks and black mud, and held onto her bowl, falling into a daze. 17 years. It had been 17 years since she had sat down and enjoyed a family dinner. She hadn't experienced such an ambiance before, hadn't had anyone put food on her plate, and hadn't had a simple meal with people by her side.
The Old Taoist Priest had only forced her to practice. During the 10 years of being his disciple, Meng Fuyao had never had a proper meal. The warm memories of her past life had dispersed far beyond the horizon and behind the clouds, ultimately blown cleanly away by the breeze that followed after.
There was an instant where she seemed to notice the lady's hands turning into a pair of slender, veiny hands. It was her mother. The illusion was quick to vanish, and Meng Fuyao was still sitting before a small table in a stranger's house, looking at someone else's family reunion.
She stared at her food-filled bowl, feeling a sudden urge to cry.
Despite lowering her head and focusing on her food, a drop of tear fell into her dish. With her chopsticks, she grabbed the affected piece of vegetable and prepared to taste her own tears.
Yet, another pair of chopsticks flew forward and picked it away.
Sir Zong had been standing by the window and eating his own dish, when he approached the table, not seeming to mind the fact that the piece of vegetable had been in contact with her chopsticks. He unhurriedly took it away, saying, "There's a worm."
Meng Fuyao remained quiet, looking on as he awkwardly picked another piece of vegetable and placed it into her bowl.
"You're too fat. This is good for slimming down."
An odd expression formed on her face. "Pfft---"
"Can't you use kinder words? Making yourself look bad for no reason."
Tears moistened her eyes, her pearl-black pupils appearing especially lustrous under the dim light and the thick frosty sky outside.
Zong Yue's hand stopped in mid-air as he turned his gaze toward the moon outside the window.
His eyes wavered, his side profile looking rather lonesome. He was like a firm and upright bamboo, rustling in the air upon being beaten by the autumn wind.
Looking at this young, mysterious holy doctor, Meng Fuyao fell into a daze once more. In spite of his glorious accomplishments and status, Zong Yue was probably feeling lonely inside.
Because of that, he understood her loneliness.
Meng Fuyao pursed her lips, picking some garlic chives and placing them into his bowl. She continued doing so as a prank and smirked. "This is good for boosting sex drive."
In face with a shameless woman, the sharp-tongued man could only step down gracefully and pretend not to have heard anything. He lowered his head and continued his meal, no longer caring about the hygiene of it.
Meng Fuyao only focused on her own food and hadn't taken notice of the subtle smile that started to form on Zong Yue's lips.
The duo stayed on for a few days, and Meng Fuyao had already gotten familiar with the family. She had also started appreciating the times she had brought Xiao Dao along to pick herbs with Zong Yue, before returning home to enjoy a simple meal and family time. These little activities were making her life amid the southern border revolt rather interesting.
However, Meng Fuyao's fate wasn't ideal, and she never had the fortune of enjoying prolonged peace. One day, on the streets, she heard a commotion and decided to take a look. A few households had started hanging colored ribbons on their doors. The occupants seemed to be packing up and locking the doors, as if ready to flee.
Shocked, Meng Fuyao questioned, "What happened? All these colors are making this city look like a colony." She pointed at the colored ribbons, adding, "What are these? Flags of all nations?"
"Stop joking, Little Brother," someone muttered softly. "It's the symbol of revenge by the Rong people. The doors of those who have offended them will be hung with these ribbons. It serves as a warning for non-involved parties to refrain from visiting them, in order to avoid accidental injuries."
"Seriously?" Meng Fuyao narrowed her eyes. "Aren't the Rong and Han people getting along amiably? Why all this now?"
"The so-called 'amiably' depends on circumstances," Yao Xun took over. "The Rong ethnic group is a belligerent and haughty one, born to pursue freedom and power. They will acknowledge a tribe more powerful than them but will not stay loyal for long. When a chance arises, they will rebel and protest. Throughout Wuji Nation's history, this tribe has revolted a total of 13 times and had almost been destroyed 7 times. In spite of that, they never changed their ways. Their hostility is innate, and they are known as a roving war chariot, together with the Nanqiang tribe, which is already under Shangyuan Nation's control."
He pointed at the ribbons, stating, "The Rong and Han people have been co-living in this city for many years. While things appear positive on the surface, the Han group, a big tribe, possesses an inherent sense of superiority, which will inevitably offend the proud and almost psychopathic Rong people, who are more than willing to fight over trivial matters. Things appear fine on the outside, but the Rong people bear grudges and are aware that the imperial court has control. Now that the 18 ethnic groups have joined forces to start a revolt, it is their chance to take revenge."