The Witch Nichang– Chapter 47
After traveling for two days, we passed by another town again, and further down the road was Yangpingguan.
I had almost figured out where these guys came from in these two days. It wasn’t as complicated as I thought. It turned out the old man was a retired government official, and it seemed like he was also a reputable high official. His name was Zhuo Zhonglian. If one could remain in office until old age, regardless of their reputation, they would have saved up some money. He was afraid that it wasn’t safe on the road, so he hired quite a few escorts and traveled in procession together with his own bodyguards to feel safe.
The slingshot-wielding young man wasn’t an escort. His name was Geng Shaonan, a close friend of the old man’s only grandson. He hardly knew the old man. It just happened that he had something to do, so he tagged along at his friend’s request, and they could look out for each other. It wasn’t until they ran into bandits at Qipanguan that they knew he was a Wudang disciple, a real jianghu person.
The reason I stayed was because of these two characters, Wudang, so I was hoping I could talk to him. Although I didn’t know exactly what to talk about, it was always better to get some information than to know nothing.
There was a lot that I didn’t remember, but I wouldn’t forget what was destined to happen between Wudang and Lian’er.
But things didn’t go as planned when we actually spent time together. For one thing, I wasn’t good at getting close to strangers in a short time, not to mention I couldn’t replicate my past life experience on how men and women got along in this world. Another thing was Geng Shaonan was quite haughty. Although he was polite, there was an air of arrogance in the way he spoke and behaved, probably because he prided himself on coming from a prestigious sect and was admired by a group of escorts. It made me want to avoid him when I saw him.
As a result, I had only exchanged three brief sentences with him in the last few days.
In contrast, the scholar riding the white horse was modest and mild-mannered. I later learned that he had only joined the group that day. He called himself Wang Zhaoxi. He was rushing back to his hometown alone to sit for an exam and sought protection from them along the way. The old man was kind, after all, so he graciously agreed. The scholar and I came almost at the same time.
I didn’t know if this was why he felt close to me. He liked to talk to me. Although he treated me with respect and never crossed the boundary, he was still annoying.
My initial plan didn’t work out. Instead, I got myself into another trouble for no good reason. It was discouraging. As we continued on our journey and passed Yangpingguan, we were getting closer to our destination, and my body was feeling better, so I put aside the thought of getting any information. My urge to leave was getting stronger again. Although it was easier to travel with the group, it wasn’t as fast as traveling with qi day and night by myself.
We arrived at Daan in the evening and lodged in the town’s largest inn.
It would be a smooth ride after passing the hill further down the road. I rested on the bed for a while, half asleep, before waking up in the middle of the night. After tossing and turning for a while, I got up resolutely and packed up. I decided to leave.
It was in the dead of night when everything was asleep. I got out of the guest room and went around the corridor, moving toward the front. When I came down the stairs and was hesitating if I should say goodbye to the old man, I noticed the only parlor in the front hall was still lit, and vaguely, there were voices coming out of it.
It was already late at night, so it was strange to hear voices. But to leave, I must pass through this place. Besides, there was only one group of people staying in this inn tonight.
Pushing open the side door of the parlor, the voices got much clearer. As expected, almost everyone was here.
A group of people was blocking in front of me. The escorts ringed around the retired old man, seemingly in a protective stance but they weren’t hostile. Everyone was looking in a direction, as if looking on, waiting.
There was a senior escort who was quite vigilant. He immediately turned around at the sound of the door. When he saw it was me, he breathed a sigh of relief and said, cupping his fist, “Miss Zhu, you’re here too. That’s great.”
I didn’t like people calling me hero, so I told them my name out of courtesy, but someone among these people misheard it as the common surname, Zhu.* Others followed and started to call me that. It didn’t matter to me, and I didn’t want to explain anything either. We were chance acquaintances, anyway. We wouldn’t see each other again once we parted. It was a name given by Master. Personally, I didn’t want just anyone to call my name.
That was why I just nodded and asked softly, “What’s going on?”
Our conversation was soft. Despite that, it still alarmed the old man who was being protected in the center. Before the senior escort answered me, the old man turned around and strode over. His gray mustache was quivering, but as expected of a veteran official, he had his emotions well under control. Only his voice sounded hasty.
“Oh my, you came just in time, Miss Zhu. I was thinking about asking someone to get you from the rear room!”
“Calm down, sir. Why are all of you gathered here in the middle of the night? What happened?”
With all this happening, now was obviously not the time to bring up my intention to leave. I edged my pack behind me. Good thing I had a robe to cover it. It was inconspicuous in the main hall with flickering light.
“Hmph! What could have happened? That brat, Wang Zhaoxi, is no good. Our sir is kind enough to care for him, but he uses him as a buffer!”
The one who took up the conversation wasn’t the escort or the old man but a bodyguard near me. Although he was dressed in a commoner’s clothes, he was outspoken, spilling his guts when he talked.
“I think this guy must be a government wanted criminal!”
As soon as he said that, the old man’s face blanched, and the old man glared at him until he lowered his head and shut up before turning back and smiled. He was about to say something when there was shouting coming from the side.
“Hey, hey. You can’t say that.” Although he was shouting, he didn’t sound exasperated. Instead, there was a hint of calmness in it.
“I’d said before ‘thank you for your protection.’ I’m not going to lie. There have been some powerful enemies following us all the way, so something is bound to happen tonight. But the four imperial guards who came to investigate have nothing to do with me. It’s just a coincidence.”
The voice sounded close. When I turned around, I got to see what was happening in the hall through the crowd.
When I glanced around the room, I found that the doors to the outside were all wide open in this considerably spacious parlor. A rosewood table was placed in the middle of the hall. On top of it were two large jars of wine and two large burning tallow candles with their lights wavering in the wind.
There stood two people. I knew them both. The one with a sullen face was Geng Shaonan from Wudang, and the one shouting earlier was none other than the studious-looking Wang Zhaoxi.
He still dressed like a scholar, only that there was less diffidence and more craftiness and shrewdness on his face and the way he behaved. When he spoke, it seemed like he wanted to come toward me, but he stopped when he saw everyone was guarding against him. He just smiled and cupped his fist at me.
“I had no choice. I hope that Your Excellency and you don’t get me wrong.” He said.
I wasn’t sure if I was imagining things. I felt there was some meaning in it when he said the word, Miss. I didn’t know the ins and outs, so I pretended that I didn’t realize it and kept silent. The word, imperial guard, sparked some curiosity in me. I even felt unfortunate that I didn’t see them myself.
But my mind told me it was new only to me. I knew what it meant for those who lived in the present, especially for government officials.
It was no wonder everybody looked as if they were facing a formidable enemy.
Among all the people, the Wudang disciple had the biggest reaction. He had stood up for everyone, but he felt he was being played, and it hurt his sect’s reputation, so he wasn’t looking too happy. No matter what Wang Zhaoxi said, he didn’t believe him. In the end, he couldn’t come to terms with him. After letting out a shout, he started to pick a fight with him.
When I saw him throw a palm strike, but Wang Zhaoxi was still smiling, I knew things weren’t that simple. Sure enough, not only was the seemingly frail-looking guy not losing, but he actually had the upper hand after a few exchanges of moves.
This was the so-called jianghu, plotting and scheming against each other, back-stabbing. Human hearts were unpredictable no matter when.
Looking at what happened, a sense of weariness and desertion suddenly arose in me. I silently backed away a little. This wasn’t a place I should be in, and it wasn’t a place I wanted to be in either.
Right at this moment, a whistling sound sounded in the distance!
I heard it. A moment later, the two who were fighting heard it too. Wang Zhaoxi pushed with his right elbow and shouted in a subdued voice, “Brother Geng, wait! The enemy is here! We’ll both be safe if we work together, or else we’ll both die!” And Geng Shaonan’s face took on a sudden change.
“What the hell are you doing? One group goes, and another one comes?”
Wang Zhaoxi smiled frankly and said, “It’s the real bandits this time. To be honest, the five most formidable gangs of bandits around the border of Sichuan and Shanxi will be here tonight!”
Once he said that, everyone went into an uproar. The Imperial guards were scary, but there was the old man’s status as a government official. It was easier to send them off compared to the lawless, savage bandits.
Someone couldn’t hold their anger and said, “His Excellency doesn’t have much money. Why do you have to make such a big fuss? Even teaming up with outside forces!” Wang Zhaoxi kept smiling.
“Do you think I’m an inside man? The one they want to rob is me, not your Excellency, but you never know if they’ll want to rob you after robbing me.”
What he said sounded too questionable. This guy didn’t carry anything while we were traveling. How many valuables could he carry? But the situation now was pressing. It didn’t allow me to think much about it. Then his voice suddenly got serious.
“Quick, get back to the room and take down the lanterns with the official title. Maybe you won’t get swept up in this!”
The Wudang disciple was hesitating, but the whistling sound was getting closer, and a voice came, “Haha, too late!” Over ten men surged in through the burst open door. Tall and short, they filled the room in a second.
The air suddenly became tense. It was dead silent in the hall. The face of the senior escort nearest to me blanched, and he whispered, “This is bad. The three most formidable gangs are here. Apart from Dragon Gate Gang, there are the Fang brothers from the Daba mountains and the three heroes of the Mai family from Mount Dingjun, not to mention there are two more gangs yet to come. We’re screwed.”
After he whispered we’re screwed, everyone was even terrified. Fortunately, those guys’ target wasn’t them for now.
Two people came forth from the gang. It looked like they were the leaders. They both started to argue with Wang Zhaoxi. From what they say, they indeed came for the money, precisely this guy’s money. Wang Zhaoxi was obviously a seasoned jianghu person. He remained calm while he talked. The other party forced him to hand over his valuables, but he threatened them that they didn’t deserve the fortune if they couldn’t tell how he hid it.
It worked, and it irritated one of the leaders. He said, “Bro, tell me about it. We’ll be friends if you can show us and let us have a look!”
Wang Zhaoxi actually stood up. He picked up the saddle that he put aside at a corner earlier and placed it on the rosewood table. I heard the table creak. Then he drew his sword and skimmed across it. The saddle was dark and unimpressive. Anyone who looked at it would think it was made of lacquered wood. No one expected the cut would reveal the golden sheen inside. Inside it was a piece of fine gold, studded with ten green cat’s-eyes, lustrous and splendid.
The way he hid it was clever. For a moment, everyone in the hall was dumbfounded and speechless, including that gang of bandits.
After he did that, he broke into laughter and picked up a stirrup.
“We’re all comrades. I don’t have much to offer. I’ll give this stirrup to our fellow people at the Sichuan-Shanxi border. Consider it a little gift!” He said aloud.
The gang of outlaws looked at each other. Since they said it before, the leader said solemnly, “Well, you got us!” They turned around and left without taking the stirrup.
As soon as he said that, I could hear the group of escorts beside me heaved a long sigh.
Who knew before they finished letting out their breath, a weird cackle came from the outside. A shadow flashed across, and a pudgy old man came in, smoking a big pipe and breathing out wisps of smoke.
“Great. You guys have split the loot without me?” He said in a weird voice.
“He got us, Big Brother Shao.” The leader said.
“Got us? I knew from the start there’s something wrong with his saddle. I heard all your conversations. I’m not a beggar. A stirrup? That won’t do!” The pudgy old man said as he pointed with his pipe.
What he said was absurd. Not only did Wang Zhaoxi’s face fall, but even Geng Shaonan couldn’t help standing out. Aside from standing up for them in outrage, he didn’t forget to state his master’s name and where he was from, looking like he intended to use the Wudang’s prestige to daunt them.
I had to admit it worked, although he seemed like he was abusing his status, especially after he mentioned there were other Wudang disciples around as if to wipe out any thought they had left. I stood by and watched. Things seemed to be looking up, but something happened.
“There are four people from Wudang, but someone has caught them. Other people aren’t afraid to lay a finger on them. Why should we? It’s just one dude. Let’s just kill him and throw him in the woods for the wolves! They can’t pin it on us even if the five Elders of Wudang find out about it. Someone will take the blame for us!”
A roar came along with a strong gust of wind. The candlelight in the hall was wavering in the wind. A big, tall, red-faced old man flew in from outside and landed.
His words shocked everyone, even the pudgy old man. He called, “Hold on, Big Brother Gui. You mean the witch had made a move? But this place is not in her territory.” The red-faced old man who was being called Big Brother said, “How can you be such a coward. We’re the outlaws of the Sichuan-Shanxi border. We can’t be beaten by a girl.”
Although that guy was speaking, he didn’t slow down with what he was doing. With a shake of his shoulders, he charged toward the Wudang disciple.
The hall was in chaos. Those outlaws might have their concerns, or maybe they were confident in the red-faced old man. They stayed in line and just watched, but it stirred up the escorts since Geng Shaonan was on their side. They got a little restless seeing that he was backing up as if he couldn’t hold out against him.
I stood at a corner behind these agitated people, watching Geng Shaonan being backed into a corner, and the real culprit, Wang Zhaoxi, didn’t go to his aid. I felt even more disheartened.
I didn’t like this place, not a bit. The light in the parlor was wavering. People were everywhere, voices buzzing around me. It should be noisy and tense, but they seemed so distant to me, as if there was an invisible screen between us. They were actors on the stage, and I was the audience. Everything I saw was gray.
Good and evil, black and white, they were just a gray mess.
Maybe the blood of someone from a prestigious sect will be spilled the next second. Maybe there would be innocent people getting caught in the crossfire tonight. Even so, I just wanted to leave at this moment.
And I did. I turned around and backed to the window, making no noise. A push was all it took next.
Suddenly, I heard a voice saying coldly, “It’s easy to take my saddle, but have you asked Jade Rakshasa?”
My fingers stiffened. I wheeled my head around and saw Wang Zhaoxi standing and shouting, “Outlaws would rather rob a thousand families than snatch a gift. This is a gift for Jade Rakshasa from someone. Do you guys want to take it for yourselves!”
The expression on all the outlaws’ faces changed with his words.
I didn’t know if my face was the same as theirs at this moment or maybe even worse.
* This Zhu 朱 is different from the MC’s surname, Zhu 竹. They are pronounced almost the same but in a different tone.