"Do you… fancy me?"
The words were spoken calm and collectedly, but a closer examination revealed panic, hesitation, and vulnerability. This scene adds endless romance to the poetic backdrop.
The gentle wind tugged at branches, leaves, and the calm surface of the lake. A beautiful woman stood restlessly.
A battle raged inside her stomach. Ling Tian Xian had finally asked the question that had tortured her all this time. Before he departed, perhaps forever, she needed to know.
Fancy me, or not.
If he did fancy her, then regardless of how long or how far this journey took him, she would wait. If he did not, then regardless of how long or how far this journey took him, she would still wait.
Ling Xian sighed deeply. He could sense her vulnerability and knew he shouldn't hurt her. However, he couldn't betray himself and absolutely could not betray the woman in front of him.
He fancied her, but he didn't love her.
After a moment of pause, Ling Xian gave her the truth. "I'm sorry."
Instantly, the sky darkened, the air became dense, and a heart broke.
Ling Tian Xiang's face turned ghostly white. As her heart sank deeper, her body gave in.
Ling Xian leaped forward and caught her as she fell. Cradling her waist, he asked, "Are you alright?"
"No, yes, I'm alright." Ling Tian Xiang appeared dazed, her eyes lifeless. But as she realized she was being held, she began shouting furiously at him, "Don't touch me, let me go, let go!"
Ling Tian Xiang was no longer rational. She hammered her fists down indiscriminately on Ling Xian's chest but soon ran out of willpower. As she slumped deeper into Ling Xian's arms, she began crying. "Ling Xian, I have always fancied you. Why, why don't you reciprocate my feelings?"
"I…" Ling Xian was lost for words, his hands still cradling her tiny waist.
One does not have the obligation to return another's love.
Love cannot be forced or solicited.
His silence was like a dagger that sank ever deeper into her heart. She broke free from Ling Xian's grasp, stared at him with an icy gaze and demanded, "Go, now, the farther, the better. I don't ever want to see you again."
Ling Xian sighed again but in this instant recalled something he had forgotten to do earlier. He held his focus, and the Pin of the Jade Phoenix appeared in front of them.
It was a treasure of the eighth realm that could resist the attack from a foundational-level cultivator.
The moment Ling Xian saw it unveiled, he had made up his mind to gift it to Ling Tian Xiang. Even though now was not a good time for a gift exchange, perhaps this was his only chance.
"This is an incredibly powerful weapon known as the Pin of the Jade Phoenix. By injecting your powers into it, it will form a protect shield that can resist an attack from a cultivator of the foundational level. This can save your life. You must always carry it with you." With a swing of his sleeve, Ling Xian placed the pin on top of Ling Tian Xiang's hair.
Ling Tian Xiang appeared moved for a brief moment, gently touching the pin with her finger as her expression softened. However, in a blink of an eye, she resumed her cold façade and tossed the pin onto the ground. "I don't want your gift. Go and don't let me see you again."
"You… take care." Ling Xian gazed at her hopelessly, then bent forward to pick up the pieces of the jade figurine and walked away without a backward glance.
Ling Tian Xiang felt as though all blood had been drained from her body. Ling Xian left without an ounce of hesitation. Gazing at the shadow of his disappearing figure, Ling Tian Xiang nearly fainted.
In fact, she knew more or less that Ling Xian did not reciprocate her feelings. However, love was a complicated matter without right or wrong. She knew what his answer would be, but she insisted on asking. Even if the answer destroyed her, she still needed one.
But as she heard the answer, as predictable as it may be, she realized this was a pain she could not handle. As her heart shattered, so did her entire world and the purpose for living.
A long period of time had passed before Ling Tian Xiang woke from her earthly senses. Life returned to her eyes as she saw the colorful pin lying in the spot where she left it. Finally, a faint smile flashed across her face.
She picked up the pin with care, wiped the dust off the surface and replaced it into her hair. Looking in the direction of Ling Xian's long-disappeared shadow, Ling Tian Xiang tightened her fists and muttered through her gritted teeth, "Ling Xian, I will not leave my fate to the next life. Next time we meet, you will fall completely and hopelessly in love with me."
On his way to see Ling Hu, Ling Xian continued to feel a collage of feelings toward what he had just done.
He felt protective towards Ling Tian Xiang. He was worried about her. He hated himself for what he had done to her. The only feeling he did not have was regret.
He knew he only fancied her. He admired her kindness, her softness, but this was not love. He had experienced love once before, inside his Fantasy where he fell for the cunning and cruel Yu Wu Xiu. He knew the difference.
However, he couldn't explain the difference. Perhaps he was making the classic mistake of not cherishing the people in front of them while heartbroken over those who were undeserving.
"Those I love and those who love me…" Ling Xian shook his head haplessly. Then he forced himself to drop the subject. Feelings were not something that can be reasoned with or understood. Having made peace with himself, Ling Xian continued on to see Ling Hu.
While Ling Xian approached, Ling Hu was sitting inside his quarters, irritated and depressed. His mother sat behind him, equally depressed. "Ling Hu, you truly like that girl?" She finally asked.
Ling Hu lifted his dangling head just a touch and responded, "Mother, I don't like her, stop trying to meddle."
"Don't like her."
His mother knew he did not want her worrying over his affairs. But following this response, she could neither contain nor express her anger and thus burst out into a fit of giggles and started nagging, "How can you be like this if you don't like her. Look at yourself, head over heels for a woman. You call yourself a man? What a joke."
Ling Hu didn't even have the heart to rebuttal. The girl's image filled his head.
Half a year ago, he had met a bright, lovely girl named Ling Rou, another student of the Ling Clan. After connecting for some time, Ling Hu found himself falling hopelessly in love with her. Fortunately for him, the girl felt the same, and the two made the promise to marry.
However, the girl was of noble birth. His father, named Ling Tian Nan, was a Butler at the Clan. Having shown incredible bravery during battle, he was made a noble by Ling Tian Jiao. Since then, he rose through the ranks at lightning speed, currently the Manager of all Clan affairs, a position directly below that of the Elder.
And what does Ling Hu have?
Passable appearance, sub par skills and nonexistent rank, he was ranked amongst the bottom feeders of the Clan. Ling Tian Nan would never allow his daughter to marry him.
It is not the case that Ling Tian Nan wanted his daughter to marry into ranks or riches. But at least he wanted a secure future for her.
So he decided to isolate his daughter, grounding her in her room and not allowing them to meet. However, since the last battle, where Ling Hu narrowed escaped with his life, he had been missing her terribly and decided to sneak a visit. Unfortunately for him, her father discovered their scheme.
He had wanted to beat the boy up but softened after his daughter's begging. He agreed to let Ling Hu go and told him either to return with 10,000 spiritual stones as marriage dowry or do not return at all.
Hence this scene of Ling Hu and his mother.
Ling Hu was depressed, his mother was worried sick.
10,000 spiritual stones was a large sum of money. It would take him 30 years of honest work to earn such an amount.
By the time he has gathered this dowry, the girl would have been long married with kids.
How could he not be depressed over this impossible demand?
The pressure was suffocating his mother more than anyone. As his mother, she should but was powerless to help him.
"Ling Hu, tell me the truth, are you saying you will marry her or not marry at all?" She demanded.
His head bowed low, his expression devastated. He had not wanted to answer, but a word rushed out before he could swallow it back.
Ling Hu's mother sighed, "If it must be so, then I'll do everything to make it come true."
"Mother, you have an idea?" Ling Hu suddenly looked brighter.
"Ah, no, but your brother must. I will put my pride aside and go ask him for you." She let out another heavy sigh. She is a proud woman with a strong will. However, she would also do anything for her son. Even if it pained her, she would breach her bottom line this one time and do what must be done for him.
But just as she stood up to leave, a soft voice flew across the air.
"Aunty, whatever you need, just say the word. You don't need to put aside anything."
Following his voice, Ling Xian stepped into the room. Seeing the state of mother and son, he frowned with worry. "Ling Hu, what's the matter? Why do you both look so depressed?"
Ling Hu stood up with a bang. He had been excited to see Ling Xian at first, but as Ling Xian brought up the question first, he sank back into his previous state and was unable to speak.
Seeing that he wouldn't speak, Ling Xian persisted, "Tell me at once, what's the problem?"
"Let aunty tell you." Ling Hu's mother hesitated no more. Pride, principles, everything was out the window. She explained the story and their predicament from beginning to end.
As she went on, Ling Xian's expression softened. As she finished, he burst out laughing and mocked, "I thought it was something serious. It's just that you want to marry someone's daughter and got rejected."
Seeing that Ling Xian was mocking him, Ling Hu continued timidly, "He didn't reject me. He only asked that I go see him and propose with 10,000 spiritual stones."
"That's because he knows you could never come up with such a sum. Looks like a glimmer of hope, but he's rejecting you either way." Ling Xian narrowed his gaze and continued, "He's neither hurting his daughter nor giving anyone an excuse to call him materialistic, a good plan indeed."
The century inside his Fantasy had shown him every side of human intention and every shade of its darkness. He has long been used to such calculated, manipulative maneuvers.
This had indeed been Ling Tian Nan's intention. He knew Ling Hu was a good kid, but he did not wish to marry his daughter to an average cultivator with no stature, wealth, or skill.
Ling Xian turned up the seriousness in his gaze and asked, "Do you truly love the girl?"
"Yes, brother, I love her," Ling Hu answered responsibly.
"What do you know about love? You're 14!" Ling Xian laughed. Ling Hu answered the question without a moment of hesitation. That, to Ling Xian, meant he truly believed that he loved her. Even if he didn't love her, his belief was enough to move Ling Xian.
People of the Taoism Community matured earlier than the average mortal in both body and soul. Therefore, marrying at the age of 14 was not uncommon.
"Brother, you're only a year older than me," Ling Hu reminded him.
"Yes I am only older by a year, but unlike you, I'm not consumed by thoughts of women." Ling Xian was near tears. Without pausing from his laughter, he continued, "I'll help you with them, lead the way."
It was now Ling Hu's turn to hesitate. He looked at his mother, then back at Ling Xian, "Brother, you have done too much for me, I…"
"Stop with this useless stuff. Why are you being modest with me?" Ling Xian glared at him. Shifting his gaze towards Ling Hu's mother, he said, "Aunty, don't think about it. You know me, I'll never forget where I come from. When you need me, just ask, do not hold back."
Ling Hu's mother gave him a warm smile and said, "Ah, aunty knows. Ling Hu, lead the way, let's go get you a wife."
Ling Hu's face instantly lit up. Like a blossoming flower, he let out the brightest smile.
"You silly child…"
Ling Xian shook his head haplessly. Then his gaze turned a touch cold as he muttered, "Let's go propose. I want to see how noble this family thinks they are as to turn my brother away."