Chapter 68: An Angel Appears
Wenchang crouched by the water's edge, feeling more and more dizzy. His ultimate breathing couldn't relieve the pain from that palm blast in so short a time. Being in the water not only made his spearknife wound hurt like hell, it might get worse if he didn't treat it soon.
He couldn't hang around here waiting for death. It would be even more difficult to escape once it was light out. He had to use the little time he had left to save himself. He had to get out of here. The distant boom of the watchdrums made him fret. He didn't have much time.
He looked around to make sure no one was nearby, then crawled out of the pond and tried to hide himself in the stacks of lumber.
The path for transporting the lumber led through the orchard. There had to be a gate that way leading to the side street, but there were a lot of people making noise over there so that way was out. To the right was Northwest Escort Agency so he could go that way either, and to the left was the rear garden of the Shi residence. Everyone there had been alerted by the ruckus so it was ablaze with lights, and silhouettes of people flickered back and forth. So that way was out too. Actually, he lacked the strength to climb over those high walls anyway.
The only way he could go was through Bloodsucker Feng's place. The doors and windows there were shut tight and there were few lights on, so that was his best bet. He hid himself among the lumber and stones and bore his pain as he made his way toward Feng's rear courtyard.
Strange! The rear courtyard gates were open. When he was fifty feet away he noticed it. It was so odd it terrified him.
He crouched by a pile of grey bricks, stupefied. To go? Or not to go? He couldn't decide. Was this a good sign? Or an ill omen? He couldn't tell.
It took him a long time to make up his mind as the pain and dizziness intensified to the point he could hardly stand it. The third period of the fifth watch sounded; the bell from the tower was deafening. Luckily, it was early spring, otherwise it would already be starting to get light out.
Something incredible happened just as he was about to decide.
Someone suddenly appeared within the courtyard gates like a ghost, a woman in a white skirt. She hesitated at the gates, then exited slowly and approached the brick pile.
His vision was already getting blurry so he couldn't see what sort of person it was, just a white figure gradually approaching. He instinctively gripped his sword, prepared to go all out if need be.
Forget it, I never thought my blood would be spilled here tonight, he thought.
The white figure neared. He forced his eyes open to get a clearer look but he still couldn't make her out. Dizziness assaulted him; his vision was failing him.
Within ten feet now, the white figure lifted her skirt and knelt down.
It was Shi Yuying, that kindhearted girl. He had not heeded her advice. Her heart surged with indescribable grief. This promising young man before her had stubbornly charged into the tiger's mouth. It was almost more than she could bear.
She had been startled when Wenchang had broke into her room, but his handsome visage and promise not to harm her had calmed her. She didn't believe Wenchang was a vicious thug. She rather pitied his behavior, and pitied him. His sincere blessing before he left had pulled at her heartstrings.
She was ignorant of the evils of the world, a young lady ignorant of the unpredictable nature of man's heart. A kindhearted and innocent girl. The first time she'd seen a bandit had been at Chang'an Tavern, and that bandit was Wenchang. He wasn't as scary as she'd expected. Then again in her bedchamber she was calmed by the sight of him. She believed everyone was good and decent. Even bandits were not beyond redemption. He'd probably been forced into that behavior by his environment. If only someone came to his aid he could surely be persuaded to make a fresh start. She was too innocent, too naive, and so had generously handed over her jewelry box. She wanted to rescue Wenchang, this not-so-scary bandit, and help him turn over a new leaf.
But to her surprise he had rejected her deliverance and didn't even want the jewelry box. She began to have her doubts. This robber's peculiar actions exceeded what she considered reasonable. He was an enigma.
Amidst her confusion a strong wish emerged, a wish that Wenchang could avert disaster. This upright, courageous bandit really should not be killed.
As she hoped she recalled his voice and expression, meditating on his every word and action, and his image became cemented in her mind and she became worried for him.
Screams emanated from next door, alerting the whole house, everyone hiding and shuddering under their covers. Next door her personal maidservant Chrysanthemum was so frightened she kept calling for her mother.
She didn't know where she found the courage to rush out of the parlor and press against the wall and watch for not far off, trembling, sweating like rain but not wanting to leave as she prayed over and over for Heaven to protect Wenchang.
She couldn't make out the people fighting, only the flashes of light reflecting off their blades. Until all was quiet. Only then, shaky and weak, did she return to her room.
She couldn't sleep. When she closed her eyes the images appeared in her mind. Wenchang's handsome and haughty figure gradually descended from above to appear before her. Then his face suddenly changed and he was covered with blood and he faced her and blessed her and took his leave.
Wenchang was the first man to break into her bedchamber. But his appearance was so stirring, how could she forget it? She couldn't help but form a deep impression of him, sympathize with him, pity and be concerned for him. In short, Wenchang was someone you could see once but never forget.
She couldn't stay in her room. She was compelled to go downstairs and wait for a long time by the rear courtyard gates. She opened the gates and distractedly looked on toward the direction the men had given chase, gazing into the distance and praying to Heaven over and over for Wenchang.
She stood there a long time before stepping out and walking toward the brick pile. She knelt in all righteousness and sincerity, murmuring in a soft voice, "Heaven, protect him! Protect him, who's been unfortunately possessed by demons…"
Suddenly, her blood froze. A black figure extended a gleaming sword, whole body soaking wet as it rose from the brick pile and staggered two steps forward.
She covered her cherry lips with the back of her hand and thought to scream, but nothing came out. The sword was at her chest and she no longer had the strength to even stand up.
The figure said, "Take me out… out to the street, other… otherwise I'll kill… kill you. Don't… Don't shout."
Her memory was good. She whispered, "Heavens! You're… You're Sir… Sir Cai."
Wenchang was jolted back to clarity. He shook his head and steadied himself, the tip of his sword swaying before the girl's chest. If he faltered she was done for. He sucked in a breath. "Who… Who are you? You know… know me… Cai…"
The girl backed up and stood slowly. She said in a low voice, "I'm Shi Yuying. You're… You're injured. You need help, hurry, come with me…"
Wenchang's mind's faltered at the sound of her name and a feeling of guilt and shame rose in his heart. Dizziness took him again and he was near falling.
The girl came around to the side to avoid the point of his sword and, not caring about the taboo between men and women, she held onto him and urged, "Sir Cai, let's get you inside first. I'll help you."
Fortunately, she wasn't a fragile waif but was quite strong enough to support him. She reached for his sword. "Give me the sword, I'll help you put it back in its scabbard."
He gripped it tight, resisting. Again she said, "Let go! You don't need it."
She got the sword, but he didn't have a scabbard on him so she had to hold it with one hand while supporting Wenchang with the other as she led him through the gates.
Lamps were lit in every room, light spilling through the windows, but everyone inside was still hiding, afraid to come out. Now there was light, Wenchang's mind was jolted and he recovered some of his energy and wits. With her help he somehow made it up the steps.
The girl didn't want to disturb anyone else so she boldly led him into her bedchamber, ignoring the fact that Wenchang was soaked through as she placed him on the bed.
An oil lamp was lit and Wenchang saw where he was. He struggled. "No! Take me out of here. Miss Shi, you're taking too much risk."
Yuying held him and said, "Heavens! How can you go? The main gate is next to Northwest Escort Agency, how can you leave? Please relax, no one will come in here."
Wenchang thought briefly and sighed. "Again I'm troubling you. This doesn't sit right with me. Please bring me some weak tea…" His mind was jolted and he thought of the nine-cycle elixir. "My hands are useless right now, may I trouble you to take the leather bag out of my robe for me?"
She took out the bag and heated a poured him a cup of warm tea from the brazier and set it next to him, then helped him swallow a nine-cycle pill. "Wait a moment and I'll get someone to get you a change of clothes."
"No! No need, you mustn't call anyone else, whatever you do…"
"Don't worry. I can't do it by myself, but my maid, Chrysanthemum isn't an outsider. She won't tell."
Wenchang had been injured by the energy from the Seal Palm strike but had not actually been touched. There was a blood clot and edema between his chest and belly, and it had spread to his internal organs. He took the nine-cycle pill and then forced himself to concentrate his true qi, using it to heal the injury, revealing his body to the two girls.
Chrysanthemum was fourteen. She'd heard Wenchang had escaped from Northwest Escort Agency, but this didn't frighten her. Two girls inexperienced in the ways of the world waiting on a strange man was unfair to them.
Wenchang didn't think anything of it. He calmed himself and healed his internal injuries. For three days Shi Ruokui ran in and out, busying packing for his trip back to his hometown. He was so busy he forgot about his daughter, and so did not discover there was a man hiding out in his beloved daughter's room. If he found out it would be bad because he was an obstinate person.
The prefectural city of Xi'an, however, was thrown into an uproar.
In the afternoon of Wenchang's third day of recovery in her bedchamber, on the second floor of Chang'an Tavern, near Changle Ward's Eight Immortals Temple, the guests were packed in. The place was nearly full.
It was a nice early spring day, the last part of winter already faded away, and the spring sun, long in cold storage, now appeared in the sky, lighting all in its splendor and bringing with it the breath of spring.
Misery Valley's group leader, Peerless Sword Peng Chunfeng, another outstanding master Red Sand Palm Fu Ji'an, and a dozen subordinated, occupied two tables. They rarely appeared among the jianghu so there were few who recognized them. Though they didn't look like ordinary people, they were dressed loudly, unlike men of the martial fraternity, and so did not attract any attention.
In the seat of honor to their left were three handsome, young scholars decked in sable robes, pretty as a picture, looking genteel and debonair. This was Fang Xiaojuan and her servants, the three of them talking and laughing as they poured weak wine. They wore male garb, yet they stood out among the hundred of so tavern guests like cranes among a crowd of chickens.
On the right were eight men with big panther heads and round eyes and thick, meaty fists who wore sheepskin overcoats over neat robes. Their food and drink arrived and they downed three cups before breaking out in raucous laughter, their coarse, loud voices shaking the rafters as they chatted.