The Witch Nichang– Chapter 51
“Chief, the old man’s here.”
A voice came from the outside of the bamboo forest and interrupted our conversation, so it had to be put on hold for now.
Lian’er looked at me first before she looked up and took two steps forward with her head held aloft. “Mm, bring him over,” she said in a lowered voice. Looking at her commanding manner when giving orders, where could you find the childishness when she was grumbling a moment ago?
In a way, she was used to giving orders since she was young, only it was wolves she commanded back then, and now it was people.
The meaning of that glance just now was obvious. Of course, I took the hint. When the shadows of the figures outside the bamboo forest were approaching, I eased back to an inconspicuous corner behind Lian’er and decided not to call her unless I had to to save myself from being blamed for undermining her image later.
But when I saw who was coming, I knew it would be difficult to stay quiet. That scared old man who was following the ladies towards here, who else could it be if not the retired old man, Zhou Zhonglian? There were too many things going on in my mind before, and I felt that this person was harmless, so I totally forgot about him. I didn’t expect he hadn’t gone out of here yet. I didn’t know what Lian’er was going to do to him. Maybe I might have to ask Lian’er to spare him.
But for now, I will wait and see what happens first.
When the old man came close, one of the ladies came to stand beside Lian’er, and the rest stood a little behind on both sides. The situation looked like a trial in front of the court. The good thing was the old man had been in office for a long time. He still had his integrity, and was rather composed, even if frightened. He glanced around and said with his fist cupped, “Miss, may I ask why do you bring me here? How may I help you?”
The miss he called, the actual king of the mountain, stood there proudly and said, “Sir Zhuo, it’s nothing. I invited you here just to settle your accounts with you.”
I was listening at a corner, thinking to myself, so she was after his possessions. It was true that you would amass a fortune even if you were an upstanding official. No matter how righteous they were, officials who made it to old age and left their office in one piece would still possess a handsome amount of money. Otherwise, why would they hire those escorts to keep them safe on their journey?
Clearly, the old man thought so too. Upon hearing that, he said in panic, “You can have all this money. I have some money at home, so I don’t have to rely on the government purse.”
Her face turned cold, and she boomed, “Although I, Lian Nichang, am a bandit, I have my principles. You can ask other bandits, have I taken anyone’s money without reason? If you’re really clean, I won’t take a single penny from you. If you’re corrupt, hmph, then I’m sorry, I’ll take your money and your head too. You hear me?”
Sweat was dripping down from the old man’s head. His body was shaking. It shows that once you have been in office for long enough, you’re bound to have something to hide. I was a little astonished when I heard her righteous-sounding speech.
After she was done telling him off, she paused for a moment before slowing down and continued, “Zhuo Zhonglian, listen up. You’ve been in office for more than ten years. The money you received from your subordinates and the local governors was seventy-six thousand seven hundred taels, which was ill-gotten gains, so I’ll take them all. The grain you took as tax is worth thirty two thousand five hundred taels. Although you had gotten that from the government, it came from the people, so I’ll take it and give it back to the people for you. Aside from that, your salary was sixteen thousand eight hundred taels. That’s what you deserve. I’ll give it back to you. You have gained around one hundred thousand taels during your ten years in office. You’re not an upright official but not a corrupted official either, just an average imperial official. Now the accounts are settled. Got any problem with it?”
The more the old man listened to what Lian’er said, the more appalled he looked, but towards the end when he heard where it was heading, he brightened up a little. He quickly cupped his fist and said, “No, no, you’ve listed out everything about my income over the years, clear and precise. I’m satisfied!”
“As long as you’re satisfied.” She nodded contentedly when she got such an answer. She gave the person beside her a look, and the lady beside her stepped forward, raised her hand, and threw over a flag.
“I’ve sent away your bodyguards but I will give something back to you.” When Lian’er saw he was confused, she explained loftily, “Your retinue, money, and carriages are now at the entrance of the stronghold. Put this flag on the carriage when you go. No one will mess with you within the province, it’s much better than your Wudang bodyguards!”
The old man was overjoyed and quickly took the flag. As he was about to kowtow and thank her, someone came over and took him back the way he came, heading out of the bamboo forest.
So the old man only had time to thank her with a cupped fist before he turned to leave. He first cupped his fist at Lian’er, then he turned slightly to where I stood and cupped his fist.
So he saw me earlier. Maybe he thought that things turned out for the better because of me.
The truth was I didn’t expect things to turn out this way any more than he did.
I had expected that Lian’er had grown up. Now, she is Lian Nichang, a chief who ruled over a region, Rakshasa, whose name shook Wulin. She must have come a long way to be here, so I wasn’t surprised when she made friends and formed alliances. I wasn’t surprised either when she decapitated someone. That was the result of her growth, her new branches and leaves. If I ever felt anything about that, it was deep regret. I regretted that I missed out on her growth in that period, this amazing period of her life.
But what happened just now felt so foreign and distant, far beyond the scope of just growth.
As the saying goes, a leopard never changes its spots. People grow within a framework. How could someone as wild and willful as Lian’er take the trouble to plan and investigate? She wouldn’t bother to come up with such a thorough plan no matter how smart she was. If she did, she was no longer the Lian’er I knew.
And if she didn’t, then there should be someone who taught her to do so by her side, or even do it on her behalf.
I looked up at the thought. The old man Zhuo was gone by now. The young lady in the shade of the bamboo trees didn’t look back. She stayed there talking to the person beside her. Their voices were too soft. I couldn’t hear anything and could only see the dappled sunlight on them wavering in the breeze.
If I wasn’t mistaken, the lady beside her right now was the one she asked to bring me to her room.
Right-hand man. A word suddenly came to mind, and my heart skipped a beat. I should have thought so. With such a huge stronghold like Mount Dingjun and with so many people, there were many things that needed to be taken care of. It wouldn’t be easy to manage it well, yet the stronghold was thriving and well-organized. How could it be just about blood and guts?
And the righteous-sounding speech that she gave earlier wasn’t something she learned in Mount Hua. Although Master and I had taught her about the country and the world, her mind was never there.
If that was the truth, I should be glad that there were people like that by Lian’er’s side who could take care of her, plan for her, and alleviate her worries when I wasn’t there for her. Apart from her own ability, the fact that Lian’er’s journey after coming down the mountain went so well must have been thanks to them, so not only I should have been glad, I should have been thankful too.
“What are you thinking? Standing here looking silly.” They had come back at some point while I was pondering. You could tell Lian’er was in a great mood by the big smile on her face. She spoke cheerfully before she even came close. “How did I do just now?”
“Well-founded and fair. You have the bearing of a great hero,” I answered with a smile, putting a stop to my thoughts. Although it was unexpected, she did well just now. Of course, I wouldn’t hold back on my praises. When I looked away, I saw the person behind her, so I asked, “May I know who…”
“Oh yeah, come, let me introduce her to you.” She turned to where I was pointing. When she saw who I was pointing at, she didn’t look surprised, as if she was used to people following her. Instead, she pulled me over and said, “This is the chief steward of the stronghold. Her name is Dong Sun. Dong Sun, go tell the other sisters, this is my…close relative. Please treat her well, but she’s pretty easy-going. Just get along with her.”
I couldn’t help smiling to myself at that. She still didn’t acknowledge that I was her martial sister like before. She must have come up with “close relative” on the spot to skim it over, but it worked. Now wasn’t the time to make fun of her. Since it was an introduction, I cupped my fist formally and said, “I’m sure you’ll treat me well. I haven’t thanked you for showing me the way yesterday. If I have anything that I don’t understand in the future, I hope Dong……Sun jiejie will help me out.”
I hadn’t talked to people so formally before in this life. I felt a little out of practice, so I hesitated on how to call her. First was because I didn’t know what was appropriate to call her. Second was that the name was a little bit of a…mouthful.
“You flatter me. It’s my honor. Since you’re Chief’s family, you’re also our family. From now on, we’re sisters.” Her reply was much more proper. Probably sensing my hesitation, she then explained, “All our names were decided by ourselves. It’s because most of us have a past we’d like to forget. That’s why we gave ourselves a new name as the start of our new life. My name, Dongsun, was given by the chief. If you think it’s mouthful, you can call me Dong’er or Sun’er.”
She looked not older than twenty years old, yet she was perceptive. Having been seen through by her, I was surprised. I simpered and was about to reply, but Lian’er carried on.
“What do you think? It’s a good name, right?” She said.
I turned to look at her and saw that she was also looking at me. She was smiling, looking complacent. I couldn’t stifle a smile and answered, “Compared to Master, it isn’t that good. Don’t forget that our names have meaning.”
“Who says it doesn’t have meaning? It was in the middle of winter when I came to this place. At that time, the officials colluded with the bandits, and the people were suffering, especially a group of women. I couldn’t stand it and stepped in. That was how this stronghold came about. That’s why a lot of the ladies here have Dong as their surname.” She had always been very competitive. When I doubted her, she wasn’t too pleased. She straightened her neck and argued, “As for the word, Sun, it has something to do with you. At that time, I saw she looked a bit like you, so it hit me to give her that name. If you say that, you’re dragging yourself in!”
I was startled, not because of what Lian’er had said but the strange look that flashed across that lady’s face, and I happened to see it. When I wanted to look closer, her face went back to normal. She took a step forward and cupped her fist respectfully.
“Chief, it’s late. Breakfast is ready. When are you going to have breakfast?” She asked.
“Hm, okay. I’m coming.” Lian’er nodded and put the topic behind. She held my hand and smiled.
“Let’s go? I’ll treat you to a nice meal,” she said. With that, she began to go and pull me along but didn’t succeed.
“Can we wait a little longer?” I stood in place. When I saw that she was looking at me, confused, I smiled at her and held her hand back.
“I have something to say to you. Why don’t we have breakfast after that?” I asked softly.
She thought for a while when she heard that. Without hesitating for too long, she then turned around and told them, “You guys go ahead first. I’ll come later. Just get the kitchen ready.”
That lady acknowledged what she said and left. It was just that after turning around, she seemed to take one more look at us.
Am I…overthinking this? I couldn’t help feeling a little bemused.
Some feelings were stirring in me. I’m just afraid that I cannot stand the fact that there is someone by Lian’er’s side and become jealous of that person. I don’t have any expectations, but at least, I know that I have been the one by Lian’er’s side. However, if she is surrounded by capable people one day, where would I be? It is a question I have never thought about.
If I’m no longer needed, then there is no point staying by her side anymore, right?
I was merely upsetting myself thinking about it. Fortunately, I realized it soon and stopped myself from spiraling down. I shook my head slightly, shaking off all the nonsense. I looked up and saw Lian’er was looking at me intently, looking inquisitive.
“What’re you thinking?” When she saw me realizing that she was looking at me, she didn’t try to hide it. Instead, she spoke, asking curiously, “In a moment you’re frowning, and the next you’re shaking your head. There’s a lot going on on your face.”
I rubbed my eyebrows and said, smiling wryly, “I’m just thinking nonsense. Master used to say that I like overthinking, not that you didn’t know that.” At this point, I remembered our previous conversation, so I carried on, “Oh right, Lian’er, I got interrupted earlier. I asked you how you ended up here alone, and you haven’t answered me. Did Master allow you to come down the mountain?”
When I asked that, my fingers were still rubbing my eyebrows, which blocked my sight, so I didn’t pay attention to the surroundings. When I didn’t get any answer after a while, I put my hand down wonderingly and saw Lian’er was standing quietly in the shade of the bamboo trees, barely showing any emotion in her eyes.
“She has no control over what I do anymore.” She looked at me and answered frankly.