“Sir Jiang, a man of your talents should fall in with the larger factions. How come you’re alone?” Xing Hui was perplexed.
Jiang Chen smiled faintly. “I haven’t been on the island for long and I’m still getting to know the place. Are you old hats here, you and your daughter?”
“Not quite,” Xing Hui coughed out a laugh. “But we’ve been trying to eke out a life here for sixteen, seventeen years now. When I was first here, my daughter was still in the cradle. Now, Tong’er is already this tall.”
Jiang Chen glanced at the girl in question. Xing Tong’s features were elegant, her eyes filled with kindness and innocence. Clearly, she had grown up under her father’s protection. This had allowed her to remain untainted by the evils of the island.
Unfortunately, a father would find it increasingly difficult to survive on Winterdraw as his daughter grew older.
Xing Tong was developing more and more. She had already become a rather pretty girl – or perhaps young woman. If she were still a child, it wouldn’t be nearly so dangerous for her. The advancement in her age meant that she became more and more eye-catching, which was in itself a source of trouble.
Beauty was innocent, but it tended to draw crime from others. This had held true since the ancient times.
“You conduct yourself in an extraordinary manner, Sir Jiang. Clearly, you’re a genius scion with a wealth of resources. How did you fall so low to be on Winterdraw?” Xing Hui asked curiously.
Those who ended up here were usually unlucky, destitute souls. Hence he couldn’t quite understand why this young man had been exiled here. It didn’t make much sense at all.
“It’s a long story,” Jiang Chen cracked a wry smile. “Too long to tell right now. Is there a way to leave this place sooner rather than later? Do you have any ideas?”
Xing Hui was shocked. “Leave? It’s almost impossible to leave Winterdraw after arriving!”
“Dad…” Xing Tong pulled on her father’s arm. “We don’t have a way, but maybe Sir Jiang does?”
Xing Hui recovered himself, nodding. “Right, right. The chance is remote, but not all hope is lost. A man of your talents might receive one such.”
“Are you talking about the selection of deathsworn?”
“Yes, Sir Jiang. Do you know of it?” Xing Hui was taken aback.
“Chances like that are difficult to come by. Aside from that, are there any chances to escape?”
“Escape?” Both father and daughter exclaimed with mouths agape. Sir Jiang was defying all of their expectations. Even the strongest of experts had to toe the line after coming to Winterdraw!
There were attempted escapes every year, but essentially no successful outcomes. From the inception of the island, successful escapees might number in the single digits.
“Sir Jiang, it’s fine to speak like that between ourselves. But don’t do so outside or you’ll attract trouble.” Xing Hui advised solemnly.
Jiang Chen shrugged. He knew how outlandish his intentions would seem to Xing Hui and his daughter. But he himself saw no reason to give up. He had to leave, regardless of how hard it was. He wouldn’t relent as long as there was a singular ray of hope.
Xing Hui could tell from the young man’s expression that he hadn’t agreed with a word of the advice. He sighed. “Maybe you have a reason for needing to leave, Sir Jiang. I’m not important or capable enough to give you dependable advice. Still, why not ruminate on it in private? Please, don’t go trying to gather information everywhere. If someone reports you, you’ll be in for a world of trouble. Even drawing too much unwanted attention is bad for your plans.”
Blushing, Xing Tong added a few words. “Big brother Jiang, I know you’re a good person. My dad says there are a lot of bad people in Sin City. Be careful out there.”
Jiang Chen laughed. “Don’t worry. I know who I can talk to about this kind of thing. A girl with kind eyes like you would never sell me out, right?”
Xing Tong’s cheeks reddened even more. She nodded vigorously.
“It’s hard to survive here on Winterdraw, Sir Jiang,” Xing Hui remarked. “Perhaps my care of Tong’er hasn’t been the most beneficial in the long run. I don’t want her to live in a world of scheming evil, nor do I want her to become some kind of ruthlessly plotting child… but is that right, given the time and place we’re in?”
Jiang Chen could see that Xing Hui had likely been overprotective of his daughter. As a result, she hadn’t been tainted by the island’s qualities. But had his intentions really been wrong?
It was hard to say. Every man had his own ideas of what was right in the world. Perhaps it was better for a young girl like Xing Tong to live purely and graciously rather than steep herself in malice and immorality.
Her personality might mean that she wouldn’t be able to survive past a certain point, but at least she would be a lot happier when alive.
Knock, knock, knock!
A series of knocks came from the hallway side of the door, interrupting their conversation.
“Good sirs, I’m an associate of the inn. There’s an illustrious guest outside in the hall inviting you to come out. He says he would like to treat you to a drink.”
Jiang Chen frowned. “What illustrious guest is this?”
“Sir Xiao of the Southsky Alliance, one of the seven factions of Sin City.”
“Sir Xiao?” Jiang Chen was mildly perplexed. He glanced at Xing Hui in inquiry.
Xing Hui nodded. “Yes, there’s someone like that: the son of the leader of the Southsky Alliance, a young talent in his own right. He’s reasonably prominent. If you’re interested, Sir Jiang, you can make his acquaintance. There’s nothing bad with being on good terms with someone like him!”
Jiang Chen nodded. “Ask Sir Xiao to give me a moment or so. I’ll be right there.”
Xing Hui and Xing Tong astutely said their farewells.
“Sir Jiang, we won’t disturb you for much longer. I will certainly remember your gracious and life-saving aid. Until we meet again.” Offering a cupped fist salute, Xing Hui uttered another word of advice. “Sin City’s seven factions are entangled in their own web of power. Please remain clear headed as you get to know them. Don’t get too swept up in their petty disputes.”
These words radiated with sincerity. Jiang Chen nodded, “Thank you for the reminder.”
He pushed the door open, entering the hall. The associate quickly rushed up to him. “Sir, please come with me. Sir Xiao is already waiting in a private room.”
Jiang Chen inclined his head wordlessly, following the associate inside.
Within the room, a sumptuous banquet had already been prepared. A youth in high spirits stood before the window, both hands behind his back. He seemed to be thinking about something.
Upon hearing the footsteps, he turned with a slight smile. “You’re here, friend. Please take a seat.”
Standing firmly at the doorstep, Jiang Chen saluted with cupped fist. “I don’t know you, Sir Xiao, so I’m not quite at peace with being treated to a banquet.”
Sir Xiao’s smile widened. “Isn’t there a saying that as long as our minds and hearts are of the same accord, what does it matter when we actually meet? Come, we can talk inside.”
Undaunted, Jiang Chen nodded a little before doing just that. He pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Pour the wine.” Sir Xiao instructed an associate.
Jiang Chen sniffed at the air, then grinned. “Take this away. Drink mine.” He took out two vessels. One contained Drunken Immortal, the other, Shennong Liquor.
“Try these wines.” Jiang Chen placed the two in the center of the table.
“Oh? This establishment’s drinks are superb. Do you have a wine finer than the ones they sell? I’ll definitely try it.” Sir Xiao waved. “You’re all dismissed.”
The staff members backed out of the room at the command.
Jiang Chen arrayed four cups upon the table, pouring two cups each out of the two vessels. “This drink is called Drunken Immortal, and this, Shennong Liquor. Why not try them, Sir Xiao?”
The other young man flashed a reticent smile, his eyes thoughtfully gazing upon Jiang Chen. He suddenly broke into a wider grin. “Both fine names. I’ll try the Drunken Immortal first.”
He was straightforward and direct, quaffing the entire cup in one swig.
It took only a moment for a look of surprise to appear on Sir Xiao’s face. He clucked his tongue, slapping a hand upon his thigh. “An excellent drink, an excellent drink indeed!”
His enthusiasm was instantly kindled. He raised the other cup and drank it with the same vigor.
The cup clattered upon the table as he set it down. “Amazing, just amazing,” Sir Xiao declared animatedly. “Your wines match your person. Both are extraordinary. It seems that my judgment was correct.”
“Why do you say that, Sir Xiao?” Jiang Chen smiled coolly.
“You saved a nearly dead man with miraculous pill dao skills, then intimidated a group of city guards with your eyes alone. I saw both things happen in front of me. Haha, Sin City hasn’t seen a character like you in a long time!”
Jiang Chen remained impassive. “A character like me? What do you see in me in particular, Sir Xiao?”
Sir Xiao smiled. “In Sin City, every man fends for himself. That you saved someone without having lusted after his daughter was quite remarkable. Your resolution of the city guards’ bone-picking without bloodshed was even more so. And the fact that you’re alone, despite being able to accomplish both of the above… three instances already of your exceptionalism.
“Isn’t that enough for me to pay attention?” There was a laugh as the question was delivered.
“I think all those things quite ordinary, Sir Xiao. You praise me overmuch.” Jiang Chen was unconvinced by the insincere flattery.
“Enough with the mutual testing.” Stretching out both hands, Sir Xiao laughed again. “Simply put, I find you rather interesting. The Southsky Alliance has a bit of influence here in Sin City, and it needs young geniuses like you. I am inviting you to – or asking, I should say, if you have any interest in joining us.”
Join the Southsky Alliance?
Jiang Chen blinked. The invitation was far too sudden. He sank into silent thought. He had no interest in being here for the long term. There were a few benefits to joining the Southsky Alliance, but assuredly detriments as well. It was difficult to say whether the pros outweighed the cons.