Gu Yu's act of inviting Xiaozhai back home might seem bold, but they both knew that it was because they needed somewhere private to talk.
The two hailed a taxi and reached their destination almost in no time. The digit on the fare meter remained unchanged at the flag-down price, which was five yuan. When they showed up at the intersection of Phoenix Fair, the neighbors were running around spreading the news: Xiao Yu had brought home a young woman!
Good gracious! Almost instantaneously, mischievous kids were sticking their heads out from behind yard gates and street corners; some even peeked over the courtyard walls.
The enthusiasm the neighbors exhibited was almost intimidating. The undisguised staring was probably an experience they would never encounter again in their lifetime, adding to which was the utterly groundless gossip.
"Dear me, the girl is so pretty. A bit too tall, though."
"She'd be perfect if she were shorter, with legs not as thin and a wider pelvis."
"Didn't Xiao Yu bring back a girlfriend a while back? I heard that was a rich one, she even drove a sports car.
"Bullshit! Even I would not take a girlfriend like that. That colorful hair definitely did not belong to a decent girl."
"Exactly! This one is so much better, and pleasing to the eye as well."
Gu Yu felt the corner of his mouth twitching throughout the whole time, as if he was having a stroke. Xiaozhai, on the other hand, kept her composure and wore that impeccable ladylike smile all the way to his house.
His small courtyard with red walls and the three tile-roofed houses stood quietly as it always was. Someone not used to rural life would find some novelty in courtyards like this, but there was only familiarity in her eyes, as well as affection.
The two entered the yard and Xiaozhai took a casual tour to the kitchen. She commented with a chuckle, "You've kept it quite tidy."
"I won't let things go messy just because I live by myself."
"What's that room for?" She pointed at the west wing.
"I make incense there."
She did not ask to look and he did not offer to let her in there either. They only walked into the main room together.
Xiaozhai unzipped her backpack and took out her newly obtained pet. The green snake had recovered much of its strength after the long rest and started hissing with its tongue the moment it was brought back under the light. It admired its master in awe and gave the other human being an undisguised hostile look.
Gu Yu could not care less about its attitude. It should consider itself lucky enough to be still alive. He asked, "Are you taking it back to Shengtian?"
"You're going to keep it in your home?"
"Where else?" Xiaozhai lowered the snake down to the ground and patted its head, which looked as exquisite as a jade sculpture, "Go ahead and have some fun. Don't scare anyone."
The hissing sound seemed to be the green snake's reply to her. It then twisted around and slithered out of sight.
Gu Yu still could not quite get over with this turn of events. Xiaozhai, on the other hand, had seated herself onto the brick bed with two long legs dangling over the edge and touching the floor. She laughed, "Don't worry, it's a good boy now."
The girl was very relaxed while Gu Yu had been thrown into a flutter. He was overwhelmed by so many doubts that he did not know where to begin.
This fellow struggled for ages before squeezing out a question. "You know how to catch, scratch that… you know how to control snakes?"
"Then why did you keep it from me?"
He was referring to the fact that she had concealed her ability when they were back in the mountain, which worried and distracted him.
"Didn't you keep things from me as well?"
The girl retorted unintentionally, which was interpreted by Gu Yu as something completely different. He almost jumped up. "You knew it all this time!"
Xiaozhai watched him in amazement, saying "what's so strange about me knowing it" with one eye and "I indeed knew it all along but teasing you was such fun, what was wrong with that" with the other.
Gu Yu crumbled and flinched under her eyes, feeling like a blockhead. She had a point. With all those secrets of his, who was he to ask her for candor?
At that moment, he was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of frustration--it was like posing and acting mysteriously to impress a girl only to find out later that she had seen through him from the beginning and was only playing along.
"This is what we'll do now…" Xiaozhai probably could not bear to see him so miserable and suggested, "It seems we both have a lot of questions, then let's take turn asking each other and we have to give answers, unless it involves secrets. How does that sound?"
"I can do that."
He thought it over and agreed with a nod.
"You go first."
"Ok." He put formalities aside and asked straight away. "Is snake-controlling a form of Taoist technique?"
"No, it's just a skill in general sense," Xiaozhai replied honestly, then asked, "How did you learn to practice Taoism?"
"I saved Brother Fatty by accident. It then brought me a red fruit and I started to sense Qi after consuming it. On the day we met for the first time, I spent the night in Wudao River and obtained an ancient artifact. A Taoist technique was recorded in it." Gu Yu finished answering and went on, "Since you're not a cultivator yourself, how did you see through me?"
"I've read relevant content from an ancient book. Your characteristics fit to a tee, and there was the incense you brought me the second time. It was so flashy that you might as well tell me in person,"
Xiaozhai answered him in a matter-of-fact tone. "The technique you performed on the mountain, what was it?"
"Can I not answer that?" He hesitated.
They went on like this for quite a long time.
However, Gu Yu came to realize that Xiaozhai had managed to answer his questions with one or two sentences, but had thrown questions at him to which he either had to give lengthy explanations or not answer at all.
'You're still playing bloody tricks on me at this stage…' well, he would never admit that he had been outwitted.
As a result, when it was his turn to ask again, the fellow paused for a few seconds before he said, "Uh, I want to hear about your background."
Xiaozhai blinked, which meant 'You're finally starting to learn!'
She wasn't going to conceal it anyway and replied in a crisp manner, "My parents are from downtown Shengtian while my paternal grandfather lived in the countryside. I was brought up by my grandfather alone. Because of my poor health since I was little, I was apprenticed to a master in the village who was an expert himself. Not only did he nurse me back to health, I had also learned a lot from him.
Ninety years ago, when the government and Baiyun Temple held the ceremony to register 62 Taoist Sects, they were recognized as qualified establishments. But there were other reclusive branches and sects that did not want to accept the amnesty, among which was the one I followed. I'm afraid I cannot tell you its name and historical origins, though."
Probably getting tired from remaining in one position for so long, she simply took off her shoes and sat cross-legged on the bed and grinned at Gu Yu, who was sitting on the chair.
"The inheritance of my sect is copious yet jumbled; the part recording the Taoist techniques has been lost, leaving behind only the petty tricks such as appraising wood and controlling snakes. My master's dying wish was to retrieve the missing parts and get a glimpse of the utmost Great Tao. I've been trying to collect fragmented scrolls and ancient books for the past two years but had come up empty-handed. Then, you showed up."
Gu Yu was silent. With the precedent in the form of the old Priest Mo, he was not all that surprised, but was only having a hard time accepting the fact that such a thing could happen to her.
Just then, a faint sound rang out in the room. The green snake had enjoyed itself wandering around and come back.
Xiaozhai held out her hand. The snake leaped up deftly and wrapped itself around her right arm, resembling a delicate emerald ribbon. With the speed and venomousness of the green snake, if she ever fell into a dangerous situation, it would become a very effective weapon.
Seeing this, Gu Yu couldn't help asking, "You've concealed yourself perfectly so far, why did you expose yourself all of a sudden?"
"For one, I like this snake and want it as a pet." Playing with the snake, Xiaozhai gave him the matter-of-fact-tone reply again. "For another, you're such a slowpoke. I had no other choice but to make my move first."
Gu Yu found it impossible to refute. He then seemed to think of something and was about to ask. The girl interrupted with impatience. "You've asked two questions already. It's my turn now."
"Oh, I forgot about that… what is it you wanna ask?" He was embarrassed.
Xiaozhai held her cross-legged position and gave him a sulky look. "When are we going to eat? I'm hungry."