It was dark inside.
After Gu Yu pushed the door open and entered the room, the light was switched on suddenly, illuminating the light white, rush matted floor. The interior was drab and the only piece of furniture was a wooden table, on which a censer was burning.
The cottage was used for meditation as well as a living quarter, so it had been built as a suite of two rooms. Xiaozhai, having changed into another night-gown, appeared from the inner room with an easy grace. "Getting horny again?"
"Easy on the sarcasm, will you?"
With a grimace, Gu Yu faltered. "I've come to... to apologize."
"Have you? How so?"
Xiaozhai sat opposite him cross-legged, leaning her face on her hand, her thighs as dazzlingly fair as always.
"I did not expect the peach flower miasma to be so potent that it penetrated the defense of my spiritual essence."
His previous agitation all gone, he was speaking in a serious tone, "Nor did I realize that it could bring the desire out of someone. All in all, it was my lack of self-cultivation that caused what has happened. What I did was very inconsiderate and I wasn't thinking about your feelings. I'm sorry."
He was objective and sincere in stating the fact as it was without trying to absolve himself from blame.
Xiaozhai appeared indifferent as she nodded. "Ok, I'll accept that. Anything else?"
"Well, you're not angry, are you?" he asked tentatively.
"Of course not. Why would I be angry when you've already apologized. If there's nothing else, I'm going to bed now."
Gu Yu was alarmed. That was probably the trump card of girls: I'm being ironic when I say I'm not angry! The calmer she was, the more urgently the guy's consolation was required. If the guy walked out this second, then congratulations, he had just won himself a chance to spend the rest of his life with a silicone female companion.
Gu Yu's brain span into life that instant as he struggled to strike up a conversation again. It dawned on him. "Oh, I've got to tell you something! I've figured out what to do with that peach flower miasma. I can make it into an incense."
"Incense? Can you do it?" She was interested.
"I think so. The three characteristics of the peach flower miasma are its high corrosivity, its interference with the mind, and its ability to provoke sexual arousal. I can adjust the properties of the medicines based on that, reinforcing or counteracting those qualities. I can make special incense pellets, which, once inhaled, could cause hallucination, chronic poisoned, or sexual arousal… hey, there's another thing!"
He paused abruptly, as if something had struck him. He was excited. "The Dan recipe! I can use that as well! Yes! Why didn't I think of that before? We might not have the furnace or the hundred-year-old spiritual medicine, but we can reduce the potency of the medicine accordingly!
The herbs listed in the recipe are already available to us, only that they are four to five years old. But we are not going to use the furnace anyway. We'll just experiment with them, see if they can be blended into the incense."
He raised the subject to break the ice, but ended up getting genuinely excited over the idea. He went on enthusiastically, "The Essence-gathering Dan requires one to at least achieve the innate state to consume it, because of its high potency. We'll down-size it. Even with a fifth, no, a tenth of the effectiveness of the original formula, it'll still do us good!"
Resting her chin on her hand, Xiaozhai listened to his babbling in silence, the interest shown earlier long gone by now. When Gu Yu finally stopped talking, she remarked casually, "Good idea. We'll talk about it another time, though. I'm going to bed."
She put on a fatigued face, stood up, and was ready to leave.
Only then did Gu Yu realized what he had done and he called after her in a hurry, "Xiaozhai…"
"Now what?" Leaning against the door to the inner room, she turned around and asked.
Meeting her eyes, Gu Yu went silent.
All relationships required a ritualistic moment.
We are not talking about elaborate and expensive ceremonies, but something that has a mutual recognition, such as the following sentences:
'Will you be my girlfriend?'
'Do you want to be with me?'
'I love you!''I love you, too!'
No matter how deep the mutual affinity was, it needed to be "certified" via such ritual. Without it, you're never be a real couple, but friends (with or without benefits) only.
"I really don't know how to put it, but I just feel I have to let it out…"
After quite some time, he started talking slowly. "Both of my parents died when I was little and my grandpa brought me up himself. I thought I'd live my life as any other ordinary person, but ended up becoming a cultivator. I can't explain my feelings right now. All I know is that I'm drifting further and further away from my old life and people—be it my friends or enemies—are getting less and less important.
Especially after we came back this time, this feeling was growing all the more stronger. I don't like it.
They say that the saints are heartless and nature shows no mercy. The process of cultivation is the pursuit of immortality. Maybe by the time we become immortals, or earthly immortals, we will be no longer capable of experiencing those human feelings. We would regard all other lives as nonentities; a hundred years will be but a fleeting moment to us, and all we'll care about is to obtain the eternal Great Dao.
But I'm still a mortal man at this moment and there are some, some things that I cannot hold back. They are as important as cultivation and worth being cherished forever. I was under the influence of the miasma earlier, but deep down, I, I…"
His voice trailed off into a pause.
Xiaozhai's eyes, however, were alarmingly bright now. She smiled, "What are you trying to say?"
"What I have been trying to say is…"
He looked into her eyes and she could see her reflection in his deep, dark pupils. He said, "I want immortality, and I want you."
The room grew utterly quiet; even time seemed to slow down. It seemed forever when a giggle broke the silence.
"Gu Yu, of all this time I've known you, that was the best speech you've ever given."
Xiaozhai finally broke into a grin.
The man in front her had shared multiple life-and-death moments with her and the care and feelings they held towards each other were needless to say. As non-straightforward as he was on a daily basis, the declaration just then had indeed touched her on the soft spot and tugged at her heartstrings.
"Sigh, too bad that the sun's rising…"
Looking out of her window, she saw the first rays of the morning sun sprouting from behind the eastern mountain tops, which was to her great regret. She spun her head around, reached out her hand unexpectedly and grabbed Gu Yu by his collar. Then with a tug, she bit him on the lips.
Gu Yu was yet to process the turn of events. All he knew was that he was tasting the freshly baked fruit stuffing again, which was as warm and tender as he remembered. Right after that, a streak of smooth hair brushed across his cheek and something wet and hot reached his ear. It was slightly ticklish.
"Wait for me in your bed tonight."
What happened then was like a gust of wind sweeping away the fallen leaves and a heavy rain destroying the banana trees.
After a delightful night of bed-sharing, the two were officially couple now- scratch that, Dao companions. That being said, little had changed in the way they hung around each other—at least nothing apparent enough for Long Qiu, our innocent maiden, to notice.
There was no time to lose and they returned to tend the real business after their personal issue was sorted out.
There were still more than ten days before he had to leave for Tianzhu Mountain. Gu Yu prepared some incense materials in advance and was going to start making the incense after he got back. Meanwhile, he also contacted the Yuan Family, asking them to build an incense cellar beneath their cottage.
It was during this period that he went to Grass River Mouth again, just to check on the miasma. It had expended and now taken up one tenth of the island. At such rate, the island would be taken over completely by the miasma within a month.
Zhang Hongru was working his a*s off. Together with the police force and the departments of civil administration and housing construction, he had taken the overall responsibility for the evacuation.
Small as Grass River Mouth was, there were tens of thousands of residents in town. They were not cold numbers on a screen, but real people. To leave their hometown where they had been living for years meant they were losing their means of making a living. The prospect looked bleak… who in the right mind would want to leave?
"I'm not leaving! Who are they to tell us to move? I am not going anywhere!"
Somewhere outside a house on the island, a fat aunt in her forties was yelling at the staff who were trying to persuade her. "The government said so and so what? Even the government can't just tell us to move with some random excuse!"
"I've lived here for seventy years and I'm one foot in the grave now. You're telling me I can't even be buried in my hometown... that's ridiculous!"
A grandfather in his seventies was scarlet with rage. He simply sat down on the ground and shouted with his hoarse voice, "I'm not going anywhere today. You'd have to kill me first!"
"Waah waah, grandpa…"
His little granddaughter was frightened by all the confusion and started howling while tugging at her grandfather's clothes.
"I'll have no place to live and no job. How am I going to make a living in the city, huh?"
"The compensation is tiny. Do you really have no idea of the housing price in the cities? We won't be able to afford a toilet with the money we have. What are we gonna do? Form a band of beggars?"
"I still have a mu of field back there. How is that compensated? That's going to be cleared away as well, isn't it? I should at least get some money for that!"
Men and women of all ages shouted and bellowed on the tiny island, each with their own attitude. The more agitated ones had even turned physical, ready to start a fight with whatever tools they could grab.
The government personnel was bogged down by the angry crowd, but could not return the hostility with equal violence. All they could was to reiterate their reasoning.
The crowd was on the verge of losing control when one of the government people jumped onto a higher platform and rang a jarring noise with a loudspeaker. It was ear-splitting. The crowd hurried to cover their ears and quieted down.
"Everybody, please be quiet and listen to me…"
The man could be considered among those in charge. He strained his neck and shouted, "I understand your unwillingness in being forced to leave your hometown and live elsewhere. But there's no other way. The government is doing this for your safety.
The fog in the woods is a toxic miasma and extremely corrosive. You've all seen what it did to Old Jin's dog. I promise you that the evacuation is only temporary and we've come up with several plans…"
"Solve it, if it's toxic!"
"Exactly. Why aren't you dealing with the toxin? Isn't that what you are supposed to be doing?"
"Yeah, why should we be affected?"
Before the man could finish, the crowd erupted again. Wiping away his sweat, the fellow tried his best to explain. "Of course we're going to solve it, but it needs some time. We're only evacuating the island for your safety. Please work with us…"
"How long do you need? I've seen enough empty promises before!"
"I don't care about other things, but I'm living in three big tile-roofed houses here, how large a place can you give me in the city?"
The shouting and wrangling went on simultaneously on and off stage; the chaos resumed. Right at that moment, a shrilling child's voice ripped through the cacophony.
"Xiao Mi, don't run away from me!"
The crowd turned their heads in unison. It was the granddaughter of that old man. She suddenly left her grandpa and ran after her tabby cat, which was running towards the direction of the peach flower miasma.
"Xiao He, come back! Come back!"
The old man crumpled to the ground, his face almost convulsing. The crowd was terrified as well. Everyone was calling at the same time.
Seeing this, two police officers reacted before they could think and chased after the girl. But they started too late. The little girl was way ahead and the cloying pink fog was almost right in front of her.
The one in charge felt his blood curdling. If anything happened to the kid, he could not say what the angry crowd would do. All hell might break loose. Immediately, he gestured at the police force inconspicuously, telling them to be ready to take action.
"Xiao Mi, stop! Stop!"
The little girl was running as fast as she could. With an amazing speed, the tabby cat was quickly approaching the miasma. Four meters, three meters, two meters… the edge of the miasma was closing in.
A green flash barely visible to the naked eyes appeared out of the blue, which flitted across the air and disappeared instantaneously.
A stone in the middle of the road seemed to have been jabbed by something, for it exploded for no reason. The shards then fell to the ground in a clattering shower.
Frightened, the cat jumped backwards high into the air, then landed with its hair all bristled.
"Xiao Mi! You can't just run off like that! Are you Ok?"
The little girl caught up with the cat and grabbed it from the ground, crying and scolding.
"It's not safe here! Come with us, quickly!"
Immediately after that, the two officers got to their side and took the pair away, half-holding and half-lifting.
Everyone let out a breath of relief as their hearts returned to their chests again.
Then, as if none of this had ever happened, the grandfather took his little girl aside to comfort her, while the rest of the crowd resumed their complaining.
On the hill not far from the scene, the peach flowers were at their full bloom.
Gu Yu retrieved his magical instrument as he watched the crowd below with a frown. "Exactly what is your relocation plan?"
"Thank you for acting in time, or we would be in great trouble with an agitated crowd."
Zhang Hongru stood behind Gu Yu and was still recovering from the shock. He thanked him wholeheartedly before explaining, "The plan is roughly like this: the neighboring villages will each take some people in, adding up to about four thousands; being a city and very close, Bai Town will provide places for about thirty thousand people; the rest tens of thousands of people will be sent to Shengtian."
"Thirty thousand? There are no more than a couple of hundred thousand residents in Bai Town at most, can you find that much room for them there?" He was surprised.
"Of course not. All we can do is to remodel some old warehouses and schools into temporary dormitories, and build some additional makeshift houses."
Zhang Hongru sighed and went on in a worried tone, "Finding them a place to live is the least on our minds. With such an inflow of people, if they cannot find a job soon, public security will eventually become an issue, which would lead to a chain of unimaginable reactions. There's not much we can do. Everything's happening so fast and we can only hope that we'll get through it this time somehow, then try to improve things gradually."
Gu Yu sighed silently. This miasma was almost a natural disaster and all people could do was to endure the suffering.
"Speaking of which, the excuse you gave them... do you think they'll buy it?" he asked.
"They really don't have any other choice, do they? The toxin was there for everyone to see. We'd rather lay everything on the table than try to cover it up. It's just that they'll never guess the real reason," said Zhang Hongru.
Gu Yu fell into a brief silence at his words. He then said, "I hope you don't mind me asking, but are you ever going to reveal the truth? I mean about the recovery of the spiritual essence."
Zhang Hongru winced, hesitating to give an answer.
"Let me rephrase that. In your own opinion, do you want the government to go public?" Gu Yu did not press on.
"Well, only to some extent. We can't have everyone know about it." Zhang Hongru gave it some thought.
Gu Yu nodded, noncommittal. He went on, "I need information on formations. That will be on the top of our exchange list."
"All right, I'll let my superior know."
Zhang Hongru nodded immediately. He realized that it would be a collaboration initiated by both sides. The miasma was a threat as much as it was an asset that they all wanted a share of. As a result, one side would provide the theory, while the other would do the work.
Of course, the specific exchange terms would need further discussion.
Silence fell between them again. Watching the shuffling crowd below, they were both overwhelmed by an inexplicable mood. As if a new chapter was opening and a curtain rising, a rush of uneasiness and expectation filled their hearts.