Part I

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~Part I~

刀光劍影

The Gleams of Sabres and Shadows of Swords

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Chapter 1

That night, it was hailing snow. Lingyun was woken by the loud, unrefined footsteps scattering throughout the cold hallways. Soon, he heard a rough knocking on the door across the room from him, soft lights glowing behind its window.

“Master Zhou, Master Zhou!” He heard panicked cries outside. He rubbed his eyes as he heard the master’s door slide open.

“What is it?” the master inquired.

“There’s a gravely wounded boy outside our doors…we took him in but we don’t think he’s going to survive….”

“Let me see.”

Quietly, after throwing on a fur cloak, Lingyun followed. Many pugilists were hovering about the entrance, some of the youngest on their toes. “What’s going on?” he asked lazily, lethargy still lingering in his voice.

A man ten years his senior roughly explained the situation, but Lingyun wasn’t really listening to the man’s explanations, he just made his way through the human wall that parted as soon as he came into sight. He stood, expressionless, at the door.

Inexplicable disgust churned in his stomach the moment he saw the bloody figure on the bed. It was a boy around his age. Yet, that ominous feeling Lingyun got…it spelled trouble. “Master, I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep this stranger,” he said coldly, tracing the boy’s firm muscles with his eyes. “It’s not something that Snow Prison Sect does anyway. What if he’s from a rival sect?” It was a vain suggestion, and he knew it.

Although he was the master’s favorite, Lingyun knew that Zhou Yanhao would not listen. The master was probably thinking about making the stranger a pupil—after all, the boy had survived such a ghastly wound; he was bound to have some innate talent for neili. Besides, the master was too kind. Maybe age was getting to Yanhao, because Lingyun was sure that, if the leader of Snow Prison Sect had been thirty years younger; he wouldn’t have given a crap about some random injured boy—he’d be more suspicious than compassionate. Unfortunately, Yanhao was an old man now.

“Lingyun,” the master said, “this is a good opportunity to practice your neili. Please help this boy recover.”

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Throwing his book onto the platform desk, Lingyun slumped to his side and let out a groan. He was getting sick of studying under a dim light. Being the fourth son of the emperor, he still had the obligation to study despite having left the palace at the age of eleven. He’d had little interest in politics and instead had wanted to see the world, or in particular, to experience the Jianghu*. All his brothers had happily agreed and encouraged him to leave, having long seen Lingyun as an obstacle despite his young age and birth order.

Lingyun had simply chosen the wrong sect to join if he was going to be forced to study—for, Snow Prison Sect was, as the name implied, located in a prison of snow. He had only chosen the Sect because their philosophy and style was attractive—refined, but deadly. Not to mention, the Snow Prison Sect was one of the top three Sects in the Jianghu.

“Bai-shixiong,” an irritating voice sounded outside his door, “can you teach me the twelfth verse of the Ice Song?”

Gritting his teeth, Lingyun glared at the shadow behind the window. “Why don’t you ask one of the other seniors? I’m busy, stop bothering me,” he growled, picking up his ivory brush and dipping the tip into the ink stone. He started to write again, jotting down his analysis of historical events and how the situation could have changed if different measures had been taken. He was supposed to send this paper to the palace by the next day, and he was really behind thanks to procrastination.

Unfortunately, that bastard still decided to barge into his room. Lingyun simply concentrated on his thoughts and ignored the smiling intruder. “But Bai-shixiong,” the bastard protested, “everyone here knows that you’re the smartest! Not even Liu Qian can see and understand what you can in those obtuse manuals.”

“Xuan Fengbo,” Lingyun snarled, “just because I saved your pathetic little life three years ago doesn’t mean that you can expect me to save your pathetic intelligence every time it fails you.”

Fengbo didn’t even flinch. “Shixiong….” He smiled, inching closer. “Please? Please? Pretty please?”

“Give up, you ingrate. Just how old do you think you are?” Lingyun dabbed his brush with ink again as he observed Fengbo from the corners of his eyes.

“Older than you.” The bastard grinned, revealing a row of perfect white teeth. “Of course, I respect you a lot regardless of age, Shixiong.” Fengbo leaned even closer. “Say, what are you writing?” His breath was tickling Lingyun’s neck.

“None of your business. And you’re blocking my light.” Lingyun used the other end of his brush to push the bothersome figure away, successfully hitting the acupressure point that would send numbness buzzing throughout Fengbo’s body and force the bastard back.

“Hey, that’s mean,” Fengbo complained, rubbing his chest.

“You deserved it.” Lingyun continued his essay, his lips softly murmuring every word he wrote.

Candlelight flickered amidst the silence, and wax trickled down the candle. The moonlight’s angle had slowly changed, and Lingyun had added water to his inkstone twice. Wrinkled papers scattered all over the icy floor, and the plate next to Lingyun was now empty save for a few crumbs. Growling with annoyance, Lingyun found that his idea was once again, flawed. He scrunched the delicate paper up and threw it to the floor again. His wrist was starting to get sore.

“That’s a very profound essay. I think it’s a good idea—why did you stop again?” Judging from sound alone, that annoying bastard was probably sitting on Lingyun’s bed. “And why are you studying politics and history?”

“Do I have to answer your every question?” Lingyun turned to throw daggers with his glare. “Why are you still here?”

Fengbo shrugged. “I’m waiting for you to finish so you can teach me that verse.”

Rolling his eyes, Lingyun scoffed and returned his attention to the papers in front of him. After having finally found the perfect solution with no flaws in it and putting it down in words, he let out a long sigh of relief, cleaning his brush in a cylinder of water. As he hung his brush back onto the brush holder, he took out an ivory stamp, mopping its end in red clay ink before firmly pressing it against the lower left edge of his paper. “Finally,” he muttered, folding the paper neatly before stuffing it into an envelope.

A soft thud sounded. “So, ready to teach me now?”

The moon shed milky light onto Fengbo’s taut skin, which was strangely tan for a pugilist of Snow Prison Sect. In the first place, why was that moron wearing short sleeves? To flaunt his muscles? To show off how good his inner energy was? What an immature oaf.

Lingyun would never understand why the girls were all over Fengbo. He wasn’t particularly talented, and wasn’t rich or of high status. There was no reason other than that face and body. Yet, stupidity should’ve discouraged their interest—sadly, no one but Lingyun knew how dull Fengbo was.

“I swear I’m going to get out this prison of snow once I finish learning everything the master plans to pass on to me,” Lingyun muttered as he cleaned up his desk. “It won’t be long now. Maybe in three months’ time I can finally start exploring the Jianghu.” And get away from you, he added in his mind.

“Then I’ll have to train harder so I can protect you,” Fengbo beamed happily.

Lingyun broke into laughter. “You? Protect me? Not in a million years, you won’t. Especially against our nemesis, Blood Flames Sect—those unrefined assassin bastards.” His eyes darkened, remembering how he needed to be extra wary of that sect. He never knew when one of his brothers might decide to assassinate him. “They’ll slaughter you before you can even raise a finger against them. I’ll end up being the one saving your pathetic life—again. No, thanks.”

“Ah, but you’re mistaken,” Fengbo corrected with a chirp. “Blood Flames Sect doesn’t attack people without a reason.”

“Your irritating demeanor should be reason enough,” Lingyun shot back. He narrowed his eyes when he saw a tattered manual that had appeared in Fengbo’s hands. “Why haven’t you memorized the verses yet?”

“Well…too much trouble,” Fengbo explained meekly. “If you teach me the meanings, it’ll be easier to memorize.”

Groaning in exasperation, Lingyun was seriously regretting having ever saved the bastard. He’d rather everyone had been disappointed in his abilities three years ago than have this idiot annoy him for what could possibly be the rest of his life.

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Chapter 2

Clear clashes of metal reverberated in the spacious chamber, leaving a metallic hum ringing in the air. Lingyun smirked. This was too easy. His opponent did not get the verses at all, and the dimwit was finally starting to show it. Too easy. Seeing through the painfully obvious and unrefined feints didn’t take any effort. Of course, Lingyun knew the techniques like the back of his hand, but still. Lee Hong was butchering the elegant, polished sequences to the point where Lingyun could barely recognize them.

“Is this pathetic prancing of yours even a part of the Fengshuang Swordplay?” Lingyun sneered, easily deflecting the attacks. “You’re soiling the name of Snow Prison.” Changing easily from defense to offense, Lingyun finished Hong off by forcing the jian out of Hong’s hands and pointing the tip of his blade against Hong’s throat. “The technique you were using—Xuxin Lengqi—isn’t supposed to be so easily defeated.”

Fiery eyes wanted to burn a hole through Lingyun. Hong’s broad chest heaved brutishly, and sweat ran down his muscled neck. Observers of their sparring remained speechless, eyes wide and mouths agape.

“Winner—Bai Lingyun!” announced the judge, almost shakily. Weak applause followed, mixed with murmurs and whispers.

“Hmph.” Lingyun drew back and sheathed his jian. Why couldn’t these oafs learn their verses properly? Couldn’t they understand the philosophy behind all the techniques of the Fengshiuang Swordplay? He took the bowl of water offered by a junior pugilist and emptied it fairly quickly.

“Lingyun,” called Yanhao, motioning with weathered hands for Lingyun to approach him.

Gracefully, Lingyun proceeded to stand in front of the leader of Snow Prison Sect and lowered his head respectfully. “What is it, master?”

Warm, soft eyes bored into him. “You’ve come a long way since the first day you’ve been taken in by Liu Qian as his apprentice,” Yanhao said with a smile.

“You hold me in too high a regard, master,” Lingyun replied politely. “I haven’t learned anything yet.”

Yanhao chuckled. “Always the perfectionist, aren’t you? But I must remind you, Lingyun….”

Lingyun swallowed his groan, feeling something turn bitter and twist inside his stomach. Not again….

“You should treat your fellow pugilists with more respect….”

Biting the inner walls of his mouth, Lingyun tried to ignore the snickers that were painfully clear inside the dreary, candlelit chamber.

Respect? Why should he? His father had taught him that he should never respect people who weren’t worthy of it, for those trash would only get the wrong idea and think it was acceptable to remain useless. So what if the situation was different and his identity was kept secret, Lingyun still believed that his father’s philosophy was sound—fourth son of the emperor or not.

“I’m worried about what could happen if you enter the Jianghu….”

Lingyun started to mentally recite a verse from the Ice Song that he had a little trouble with, trying to figure out the meaning behind its eccentric words. He was rather close to understanding it—and once he had, no doubt he’d learn why his sword technique, “Binhun Xuepo”, was lacking.

“It’s time for the next match—Xuan Fengbo against Huang Jincheng,” announced the judge, Master Wang.

Finally, Yanhao’s attention was diverted. “Fengbo, eh?” He stroked his long, ashen beard. “That boy is indeed quite talented.”

Pah! That was because that moron had learned everything from Lingyun. If that idiot didn’t win—Lingyun was sure he was going to give the dimwit a great scolding.

When Fengbo proceeded to the middle of the chamber, he flashed a toothy grin at Lingyun. Frowning, Lingyun returned the grin with a scowl implying: “you better win…or else.” With a wave of his hand, Fengbo gave his promise. Lingyun scoffed and found a seat at the isolated end of the round chamber, watching the match with analytical eyes.

Within a short period of time, Fengbo proceeded to lash out against his opponent with “Xuxin Lengqi”. If Fengbo thought that Lingyun was stupid enough to miss his glance in Lingyun’s direction, he was gravely mistaken. Sighing, Lingyun shook his head and slumped against the wall.

Although the neili behind Fengbo’s “Xuxin Lengqi” was off, overall it was acceptable. At least, not bad enough to count as a disgrace to the Snow Prison Sect. Compared to that of Hong’s, Fengbo’s “Xuxin Lengqi” was far better in terms of discretion, obviously because Lingyun had spent hours teaching that dimwit the meaning behind the verses describing “Xuxin Lengqi”. The maneuver was especially difficult for artless simpletons like Fengbo, because it was as the name implied—deceitful. Fengbo should thank his ancestors that Lingyun had been kind enough to save his miserable intelligence again and again.

Soon enough, Fengbo won and saved Lingyun the need to waste his breath. Cheers and applause erupted enthusiastically as spectators chanted Fengbo’s name like he was some kind of hero. Lingyun rolled his eyes.

“Say, how about having Lingyun and Fengbo go a round?” asked Liu Qian, who was sitting besides Yanhao. “I’m sure everyone here would love to see a match between the two most promising pugilists of Snow Prison Sect.”

Support sounded from all sides of the chamber, filling the air with a tingling buzz of excitement.

“Well, Lingyun?” Yanhao asked.

A cold smirk formed on Lingyun’s lips. “I’d love to.” Love to beat the idiot senseless. Getting up from the stone-cold floor, Lingyun took another sip of water and proceeded to the middle of the stony chamber, drawing out his jian with a clean move. “It would be fairer if Xuan-shidi* takes a rest first, however. I can wait.”

“Then the match will begin in a cup of tea’s worth of time.”

The thrilled chatters of females and heated speculations of males filled the chamber. All the guys rooted for Fengbo, although a lot of them bet on Lingyun’s win. Girls, on the other hand, broke into an intense debate about who was better—Lingyun or Fengbo.

“Ready to get your butt kicked?” Lingyun mouthed tauntingly as soon as he caught Fengbo’s eyes.

Fengbo just smiled.

Swearing to remind Fengbo exactly why the moron was able to fight him in the first place, Lingyun closed his eyes and started to concentrate on adjusting his qi, letting the air about him turn cold. He was rather sure that, in terms of neili alone, he would win. Fengbo’s qi was too warm to fully utilize the techniques of Snow Prison Sect.

“Begin!” proclaimed Master Wang.

Lingyun took a deep breath, focusing on finding Fengbo’s weaknesses. Both of them remained motionless, observing one another. Move, complained Lingyun mentally. Why was Fengbo acting all calculating now? It was most likely just a façade anyway.

A small smile formed on Fengbo’s lips, and it was as though he shrugged in defeat before proceeding forward with a light step. Irritated, Lingyun watched Fengbo closely before deflecting his attacks. The spectators’ cheers were starting to get on Lingyun’s nerves, so he quickened his moves and transformed defense into offense again. Unleashing his favorite attack, “Xuenue Fengtao”, Lingyun immediately gained the upper-hand, pushing Fengbo back with a fancy, refined, yet deadly array of stabbings.

To Lingyun’s surprise, Fengbo managed to survive the attack. There was something off. Did the masters notice what was off? Staggering back from Fengbo’s powerful slash, Lingyun gathered his breathing and observed his opponent. This was the first time his “Xuenue Fengtao” had failed to obtain him an instant win.

Interesting.

“Was that luck?” asked Lingyun, a thin smirk on his lips. Sweat trickled down his back as he regulated his qi to optimize his performance. Cheers for Fengbo were roaring so loudly that he thought he was going deaf.

“Who knows?” Fengbo moved forward with stable QingGong again, pointing his flexing blade at Lingyun.

They sparred for quite a while, much longer than Lingyun had expected the match would last. In the first place, he had never known that Fengbo was so good at defense. In the past when the two had sparred as practice, Lingyun would always win an overwhelming victory. However, now, he saw no weakness that he could exploit successfully.

Lingyun decided to try out his incomplete “Binhun Xuepo”. It would definitely catch Fengbo off guard. With a turn of his wrist, Lingyun changed the tempo of their sword fight and threw away the fancy distractions, concentrating on deflecting Fengbo’s blade and attacking at the same time.

Unfortunately, there was a fatal error.

Lingyun’s heart practically burst out of his ribcage as he realized the flaw in his attack, sure that, although Fengbo was an imbecile, the guy wouldn’t be stupid enough to let go a blatant chance at victory.

And yet, Fengbo did nothing.

The match ended. Fengbo’s sword was at the end of the chamber.

Still panting, Lingyun glared at Fengbo. What was this? Mercy? He gritted his teeth and stomped out of the chamber in an unrefined manner.

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“Master Zhou wants to see you.”

“Go away, you bastard.”

A long stretch of silence.“I’m sorry.”

“Why the hell are you sorry? Sorry for losing? You won. Everyone knows you did,” Lingyun snarled, trying to concentrate on improving his handwriting.

“Lingyun….”

“Get lost. I’ll go see Master Zhou when you leave.” Lingyun clicked his tongue when he realized how messed up his calligraphy was.

Silently, the shadow outside his door left.

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Lingyun blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“I’m impressed,” Yanhao repeated with a smile. “Without my guidance, you have actually comprehended over three quarters of ‘Binhun Xuepo’. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen an apprentice get this far without instructions.”

“Eh? But.…”

“Lingyun, I think you’re ready to learn all the secret techniques Snow Prison Sect has to offer. Since you’re smart, I’ll only teach you orally. You shall memorize every last word, understand?”

“Understood,” Lingyun beamed.

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Finally. After having been secluded in a prison of snow for over six years, Lingyun was finally allowed to leave. Although, if Lingyun had wanted to, he could have left the prison of snow. It was perfectly fine to travel around the Jianghu and learn under a more experienced master at the same time. But it was a slow and ineffective way to learn, as Lingyun had wanted to learn things that no normal Snow Prison practitioner would know—things that only the most respected Snow Prison masters had knowledge of. Not all practitioners of Snow Prison’s martial arts were skilled, after all.

Five months had passed since that disgraceful match with Fengbo, and Lingyun had not talked to the hypocrite more times than necessary ever since. He still couldn’t forgive the bastard for letting him win in such a humiliating manner—he would rather have lost. But no, Fengbo just had to give him some pathetic mercy, as if mercy could save Lingyun’s pride. It had done just the opposite.

Lingyun went over the list of what he had to pack, making sure that he wasn’t missing anything. Satisfied, Lingyun shed his outer robes and snuggled into bed. As he pondered upon what had been taught to him, he regulated his qi to improve his neili.

All of a sudden, his entire body went numb and his vision blacked out.

Gasping, Lingyun tried to figure out what was going on. He had just been immobilized and blinded. Someone had attacked the acupressure points that paralyzed his entire body and deprived him of vision. Was it an assassin? But how could an assassin have slipped past Yanhao, whose room was located just across the hallway?

“Who are you?” he demanded. “If this is a prank, you better pray that I don’t find out who you are—or you’ll be so dead.” He cringed at how empty the threat was. If the intruder had been able to slip into his room without him noticing, and worse, paralyze him with such ease—without a doubt, the uninvited guest would be stronger than Lingyun.

Calloused hands caressed Lingyun’s inner thighs, slowly inching toward the area between his legs. Warm air blew against his neck, tickling his skin. The fingers were slowly trailing up his thigh.

Lingyun held his breath, horrified.

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Chapter 3

His clothes were slowly undone, leaving his skin bare to the freezing air. Yet it was so hot. Sweat formed on Lingyun’s forehead, and he felt like his skin was burning from the intruder’s soft touches. Something warm and wet came into contact with his bare chest, trailing up and leaving a line of wetness, teasing his nipples. Again, he held his breath, feeling cold sweat run down his flaming back. His intruder was a male. The size of that hand that was caressing his inner thighs—it was too large, too rough to be that of a female’s.

He was the fourth son of the emperor of Yue, which was the most powerful sovereign in the Central Plain! The genius of Snow Prison Sect! He couldn’t allow for this to happen! Trying to regulate his qi to undo the blocked acupressure points, Lingyun was horrified to find that the neili behind the initial Dian Xue technique was far too strong for him to undo. Warmth blocked the acupressure points, nullifying his cold qi. Yet, this qi wasn’t poisonously hot like what a Blood Flames Sect’s qi should be like. To overcome a Blood Flames Sect’s neili, one simply needed to put out the fire. But this—this warmth was different.

Trying to figure out which Sect the intruder’s style came from, Lingyun found his breath sucked from his mouth…Literally, sucked from his mouth. He moaned softly as the intruding…what he now presumed to be a tongue now…brushed against that of his own, exploring every corner of his mouth. Soon, his lower lip was sucked so forcefully a buzzing numbness lingered as he panted for air. The hand at his thighs was now teasing him, tickling the area that connected his genitals to his body. The intruder’s tongue trailed down from his chin, his neck, and finally to his nipples again, toying with the hardened buds and sending a wonderful sensation through Lingyun’s nerves. He gasped when the intruder bit down, feeling his erection grow harder, its tip wet with pre-cum.

Blushing now, he felt ashamed to have another male see him like this, for another male to have control of him. Of course, he had known the existence of homosexuality, as his father had kept one or two gorgeous males before he had fallen ill, and his second eldest brother had seemed to keep even more male favorites…but there was nothing particularly honorable about becoming another man’s woman. If Lingyun were interested in males, he would have to be the one in control in order to maintain his dignity as the emperor’s son. Was this intruder planning to degrade him like a male whore? He shivered.

Something wet and warm wrapped around the tip of his erection and he gasped from the euphoric pleasure that immediately inundated his brain. Something flicked against the tip of his member, and Lingyun couldn’t help but moan at the blissful sensation. The intruder’s hand, now slick with some sort of substance, pumped the hilt of his shaft, massaging Lingyun so skillfully that he felt close to reaching a climax.

Never had he felt this way before. Lingyun had touched himself quite a couple times, but it was different to have someone do this to him. He found himself enjoying the intruder’s touches, despite feeling guilt over the undignified way he was acting. Male or not male—it felt good.

When Lingyun felt the head of his member was sucked, he let out a groan of pleasure, unable to believe that a male was doing this willingly. The warmth soon engulfed his entire length, and he gasped. The intruder’s tongue traced the skin of his hardness teasingly before fingers wrapped around the base of Lingyun’s shaft.

Now teetering on the edge of release, Lingyun moaned shamelessly, panting and gasping as if begging for the intruder to stop tormenting him with want. Almost as though reading his mind, the intruder’s strokes quickened and soon Lingyun was crying out loud as his already immobilized body felt like it stiffened even further. Hot seed burst out from his jerking member, and the sensation—the wonderfully warm feel of the intruder’s mouth was still enclosed around the head of his length, the blissful strokes from the intruder’s hands were still continuing, milking more of his seed.

Lingyun trembled as the intruder showered kisses on his chest, his neck, and his face, slick fingers tracing every muscle of his body. He was soon taken into a powerful embrace that had lasted so long that he drifted off into slumber.

Weary eyes widened with horror when the realization struck Lingyun that the previous night wasn’t a dream. The feel of dried cum still stuck to his body, the feel of the intruder’s tongue and saliva and everything—it was all real. Even though Lingyun was properly dressed in his night gown, he could still feel the touches from the previous night lingering on his skin. He noticed that he was hard again and groaned with exasperation.

“Lingyun,” called a voice outside his door.

Recognizing the voice as that of the Snow Prison Sect’s leader himself, Lingyun almost fell off his bed in an ungraceful manner before trying to adjust his appearance. He prayed to the skies that he didn’t smell before he opened the wooden door. “Yes, master?”

Unfortunately, Yanhao seemed to know what had occurred last night. Or at least Lingyun felt like he did. Lingyun tried not to cringe away with embarrassment.

“Your father…has sent for you.”

Already? Lingyun tried not to grimace at the thought of how fast his father’s information network was. Aside from wanting to learn the arts more efficiently, he had secluded himself instead of traveling and learning at the same time also because he hadn’t wanted to set foot in that accursed palace more times than necessary, and seclusion had been the best excuse. “Oh.”

Yanhao examined him for a while. “Lingyun, when you are on the Jianghu, your status has little meaning, understand? You need to be more humble and polite.” There it was again. Yanhao seemed to never let any chance to lecture Lingyun pass. “Also, even if politics are mostly ignored in the Jianghu, there are still many Sects with alliances with other countries. So…please take care and continue hiding your status. You are the brightest apprentice I’ve ever taught before…I don’t want to lose such a brilliant pupil, and I’m sure Snow Prison Sect would be weakened significantly without you. Remember, this mountain will always welcome you back,” he said with a warm smile.

Unable to admit that he had been completely overpowered like a weak amateur last night, Lingyun simply nodded stiffly. He had to erase the embarrassing memory from his mind.

Outside, it was snowing again. Before getting on the beautiful black steed his father had already sent over, Lingyun heard someone call him. Not someone, actually, but Fengbo.

“Um,” Fengbo started.

Lingyun narrowed his eyes and got on his horse after he had secured his belongings onto it.

“I hope we can meet in the future,” Fengbo said, almost like a pleading.

“Provided that you don’t get killed off from holding back,” Lingyun replied with a cold smirk.

“I….”

Lingyun sighed. “On the other hand…when you get out, I do hope that you’re not weak enough to be defeated by anyone else. The only one allowed to defeat you is me. Understand?”

A grin formed on Fengbo’s full lips. Somehow, Lingyun was reminded of the previous night and he tried not to blush, even though he was a little hard from the memories alone. “Understood,” Fengbo answered, resting the back of his head against his hands in a carefree manner.

With a soft snort, Lingyun nudged his horse and headed back to the palace. The loud shouts of farewell reverberated throughout the hollow mountain path.

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“Si-huangzi-dianxia has arrived!” shouted the watchmen as the hefty gates groaned open.

Heavy hearted, Lingyun dragged himself through the imposing entrance of the capital of Yue, ignoring the two guards that had been trotting beside him ever since he had left Mount Snow Prison. In the first place, Lingyun wasn’t even sure that the combined two could even win against him, let alone protect him. For the entire week they had traveled together, only silence had graced them (save for a few insults from Lingyun). Now, Lingyun was tired, bored, and wanted nothing but get the business over with.

People were still scattering to make way with lowered eyes. Just seconds ago, Lingyun had heard the streets bustling with life, but now it was so quiet that he swore he could have heard the sound of a pin drop. Guiding his horse through the streets gridded like a chessboard, Lingyun made his way past neatly aligned buildings. As he crossed a river lined with willows, the heavy gates to the palace creaked open.

Lingyun squinted and saw a slim figure standing far away at the door of the palace building. Wind curled up the figure’s silks, making them dance in the air. It was probably his mother—he could just imagine how she was going to fuss over his safety again.

“Lingyun!” his mother, Xuan Yulan, exclaimed as she hugged him. “You look so different now…all grown up…,” she sobbed. “Have you’ve been eating properly? I’m sure the food was horrible….”

Awkwardly, Lingyun returned the embrace. “I’m sorry to have worried you, mother. I’ve been more than healthy.”

“Your mother weeps every time she reads your letters,” sounded a deep voice.

Eyes widening, Lingyun froze in place. Thankfully, Yulan knew to let go. Immediately turning around and kneeling, Lingyun kept his head lowered. “Father,” he breathed.

“Up,” his father, Bai Lianzheng, commanded. Lingyun did just that. “I still don’t understand you,” the emperor continued with a sigh, shaking his head. “Why didn’t you simply learn martial arts from the general? You know that their Daofa and their Dian Xue arts can easily compete with the three top Sects of Jianghu.”

Not this lecture again. If Lingyun had done so, he would have been confined to this suffocating palace for the rest of his life. Gathering his courage, Lingyun protested, “But Father, I would have felt bad—since they only pass their arts down to descendants of the same surname.” What a lie.

“You are my son. They have no reason to refuse you—the general himself had offered to teach you himself!” Lianzheng growled. His pale face colored with a momentary glow of health. Lingyun tried not to cringe. “Did you know how difficult it was to explain to him that my son refused that honor?”

Feeling like his lips were sewn together, Lingyun stared the hems of his father’s opulent, golden attire.

“That’s enough, Your Majesty,” his mother interjected softly as she placed a hand on the emperor’s shoulder. “What has passed has passed. Lingyun is well and healthy, that’s all I need to be happy.” She reached out and squeezed Lingyun’s hands. “Your hands are so cold.…” She sounded worried.

“Everyone who learns the arts of Snow Prison Sect has cold body temperature,” Lingyun replied calmly. Yulan started to fuss with his attire again.

Lianzheng sighed. “Anyhow, the essays you sent in were very pleasing. Great praise been showered on them, even by Chancellor Jiang, the greatest essayist in Yue. I’ve read them myself, and I must say I’m very proud of you, Lingyun. You have an excellent mind, as expected from my son.”

Somehow, Lingyun felt no mirth from this sincere praise. “Your words are too kind, Father,” he replied dryly.

Before the emperor could say any more, they were interrupted. “Your Majesty,” reported a servant, “General Duan seeks audience with you.”

Before turning away, Lianzheng patted Lingyun’s shoulder. “Stay for a while, son. You don’t want to deny your mother a proper reunion, do you?”

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After a long visit to his mother’s quarters and talking for the past half a day about insignificant happenings, Lingyun wandered around the palace. How long would he be forced to stay? He was sick of the imperial life already. He never knew when poison would decide to grace him with its presence inside his teapots or on his plates again. Groaning from just the thought of poison, Lingyun started to devise a persuasion in his mind as he found a seat under a Cha Ting*.

“Lingyun, what a surprise,” said a very unsurprised voice.

Lingyun didn’t even try to stifle his exasperation. “I’m surprised too,” he pronounced slowly as he turned around. “I thought you’d be spending time in some Green Building*, as usual, instead of loitering around the palace.”

“Hn. I see that tongue of yours is still rude as ever,” observed a handsome man in his late-twenties. He was dressed lavishly, and even Lingyun thought it was too lavish for a male. “I’ve heard that my precious baby brother has returned—of course I had to hang around so I could meet you.”

Laughing wryly, Lingyun narrowed his eyes. “Why are you so afraid of me, Yiming? Shouldn’t you be more worried about Zhitian instead? He seems rather ambitious.” Although not very tactful.

Wandering around the palace for two days had been enough for Lingyun to gather information and get ideas on many situations. Tension between his three elder brothers seemed to have escalated over the past six years. It was no secret that his father had been afflicted with a terminal illness. These days his father seemed fairly healthy, but on other days he’d be coughing blood. Whenever Lianzheng coughs blood, tensions would increase sevenfold. It was annoying.

“You little pest,” hissed Yiming. “You pretend to be all morally wholesome and aloof from this all but I know you are plotting against me. Leaving is an excuse—you’re probably planning to build up a resistance because you can’t take the throne.”

“You’re delusional, Yiming. No one…at least not me, is trying to rob you of your succession,” Lingyun yawned. “Destroy our empire or whatever…you think I care? All this war, tension and nonsense is getting repetitive…I could care less if Yue crumbles under your lead.” After all, in the Jianghu, politics was irrelevant.

Yiming’s face was blowing up like a red lantern.

“Just don’t suddenly come begging for my help if Yue reaches the verge of falling apart and getting invaded from all four borders. Just say ‘sorry’ to the citizens, Mother, Father, and all of our ancestors. I, on the other hand, will be happily wandering the Jianghu like a floating cloud, and joyfully avoiding all the mess.”

“Who says that Yue will collapse under my lead?” his eldest brother growled angrily. “And what makes you think I’ll ever ask for your help? You’ll only make the situation worse if there is any war, with your irresponsibility and all.”

“Which is why I’m telling you that I have no interest in participating in this throne tug-of-war,” Lingyun pointed out. “Oh yes, and do something about Zhu Zi’an, that man is going to kill Qingyan if he continues pushing your second youngest brother like that. Qingyan’s body is too weak.”

“Why are you speaking of Qingyan like he’s not your brother?” Yiming was desperately finding a way to scold Lingyun.

It’s not like you think of him as a brother any more than I do
, Lingyun thought. “Well…Qingyan doesn’t like me.”

“No one likes you.”

“Touché. All the more reason I’m unfit to be an emperor and therefore I have no interest in this throne war. Now would you leave? I’m trying to think of a way to persuade Father to let me go.”

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Chapter 4

I’ve made up my mind.”

“You have?” Yulan stood, large black eyes waiting for an answer hopefully.

“You were right. Yue needs him. With his brothers like that, Yue will fall. Rival empires are watching our emperor’s every move, keen about his health. Any moment now…and they might decide to seize whatever opportunity they see. Worse, they might attack all at once. This is dangerous. Even though I’m confident in my own abilities, I won’t be able to win against the generals of four countries.”

“So…you’ll help?” Yulan’s voice was eager.

“First I must gain the support of at least half the gentry. It may be wise to let him go wherever he wishes right now, because with the way he is, he’ll only make enemies if he stays. This will be a great disadvantage. His brothers will definitely use it against him.”

“But what if we can’t locate him anymore?” asked Yulan worriedly. “How would we know if he’s still alive or not? The outside world is dangerous! He’ll face assassins from Blood Flames Sect this time for sure, since, unlike the last six years, Master Yanhao is no longer watching over him. Don’t forget that even our rival countries are wary of him!”

“Don’t worry. I’ve sent my eldest son to observe him before, and the results were very satisfying. I think he is capable enough to find him, follow him, and protect him. I will call him back to give him instructions.”

Yulan suddenly slumped, a shadow shrouding her beautiful visage. “Do you think I’m a bad mother? Favoring one son over the others and forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to do…?”

“You are a strong woman of great honor,” the man replied very firmly. “As your brother and as a fellow countryman, I am proud of you. It seems that the Xuan blood runs thick in your veins, for you care about your country just as much as—no, maybe more than—a man should care for his. Truly exemplary. I’m sure that, although His Highness does not say anything explicitly, he agrees with your views as well. He’s an intelligent and wise man. Let’s just hope we can persuade him to think your son can really do this without meeting opposition and getting assassinated.”

Yulan smiled bitterly.

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“Give up, you dullard,” yawned Lingyun, leaning to a side lazily as his wrists flicked to wave his fan. The willow painting and the poem on the paper blurred as he fanned himself. “You may be smarter than Yiming but you’re still no match for me.” His eyes drooped with lethargy, on the verge of completely closing.

Opposite to Lingyun was a man in his mid-twenties. His thin, shapely brows were knitted together, forming a crease on his smooth forehead. He twirled his silky black hair, staring intently at the board between the two. He then bit his nails, and full, red lips stood sharply against marble-white skin. Clear eyes narrowed, and the man leaned forward and fished his other hand around in a bowl of round, black stones. If anything, the extravagance of his attire was hurting Lingyun’s eyes. Especially his accessories. Those glistening golden hairpins kept reflecting the sunlight with every dangle against the wind, and it was annoying as hell. In the first place, men were not supposed to wear hairpins, especially hairpins with intricate decorations hanging from their ends. Adults were supposed wear hair crests.

Speaking of which…

Lingyun groaned. “Hurry up, will you? I don’t have all day to wait for you to set down a miserable black stone.”

“How rude,” protested the man in a voice coated with a disgustingly thick layer of honey. “Is this how a younger brother is supposed to speak to his older brother?”

Lingyun snorted. “Well, it’s not my fault that you’re so dumb. You couldn’t even beat me when I was eleven. What makes you think you can beat me now? I feel old just playing against you. It’s like ages will pass before this board will fill up. I’ve even given you nine stones of handicap, you know.” He shifted to let off the pressure on his shoulder, half-lidded eyes staring at the board covered with black and white stones. Well, mostly white stones. “Admit it. You suck at weiqi*.” He looked up and added with a cold smirk, “Well, at least against me, you do.”

Bai Zhitian sighed. “Really, that face is wasted on a brat with such a bad attitude.” He was still fishing his hand in the bowl of stones, making loud noises in the process. “Boys with a face like yours should be more polite, more graceful. They should speak in a gentle, respectful manner.” He finally picked up a black stone with his index and middle finger, carefully placing it on the board. He leaned back to take a better look at the board and smiled, satisfied with his choice.

“You mean like the graceful, gentle way you have just fallen into my trap yet again?” sneered Lingyun as he slapped a white stone onto the board with a clear, swift movement.

Zhitian shrieked, almost spilling the bowl to his side. “I take that move back, I take that move back~~” he whined.

“No use regretting,” Lingyun said, his lips still curved with amusement. “That’s what you get for taking so long and wasting my time. Oh, and suggesting that I should be like a Luan Tong*. You’re sick, you know. I can’t believe we’re blood related.”

“What is this world coming to, when the young are so rude to their elders?” complained Zhitian.

A better world than a world ruled by some sick bastard who hangs around some Hive* every day and gets a kick out of sleeping with beautiful young males, Lingyun considered saying. However, he knew it would be crossing the line so instead he said, “Hurry up and make your next move. I’m getting really tired of this boring game.”

Hell only knew what would happen if he got on Zhitian’s nerves for real. After all, Zhitian was twice as dangerous as his eldest brother. Lingyun sure did not feel like getting himself poisoned for the fifth time.

“Lingyun, your Guan Li* is next month. You’re going to be an official adult afterwards—you should pull your act together and start learning your manners,” Zhitian was rambling.

“That ceremony is just a way to force me to stay—that’s why it is two years too early,” Lingyun quipped flatly. “And don’t try to avoid the subject of your impending defeat by giving me a lecture.” He pointed his fan at the board. “Make your next move already, I’m tired of waiting. Maybe you should forfeit, though—saves a lot of time.”

Mumbling something with exasperation, Zhitian took his time.

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Something bumped into Lingyun. “Hey, watch it, twerp,” he snarled, rubbing his stomach. It was a young child that had bumped into him, around the age of six, and dressed in lavish clothes. Lingyun had no recollections of that delicate face.

The boy’s pale little face instantly became an apple. “I’m not a twerp,” he protested in a shrill voice. “I’m the sixth son of the emperor! My mother is Zhao Shufei*, the princess of Yan!”

“Oh, so you’re just a consort’s brat; a twerp nonetheless,” Lingyun sneered. “You know I hate consorts? They make my mother very uncomfortable. They’re shady bitches who constantly claw for her title.” Not to mention those damn poisons. They just kept coming—Lingyun was the fourth son, for crying out loud. If they wanted to poison someone they should poison Yiming, if anything.

“H…How dare you…!” stuttered the child, his cheeks puffing up even more. “My mother is—”

“Twerp, are you deaf or just plain stupid?” Lingyun interrupted, poking the boy’s forehead with his folded fan. “When I was your age, I would have caught the meaning behind ‘claw for her title’ easily. Besides, princess or no princess, if Yan wanted to, they would still invade our borders—which I suspect they are seriously considering now. Your mom is just here as a symbol of peace in name and a miserable sacrifice in truth. Does she not teach you anything, or is her intelligence as pathetic as that of your own?”

A sickly cough prevented the child from answering. Lingyun looked up to find a thin, ghostly man with heavy eyelids and dry lips. “Lingyun, is this the way you talk to family members?” reprimanded the man. “You shouldn’t bully the young, and you certainly shouldn’t insult other people’s mothers.”

“Qingyan-da’ge!” the twerp exclaimed, running towards the tall figure with tear-filled eyes.

Lingyun rolled his eyes and shrugged.

Qingyan pursed his lips. “It seems that spending over six years in the wilderness has only served to make you an even more obnoxious individual.”

Now to this, Lingyun laughed. “Wilderness? Wilderness? Oh, my great, respected brother—you have an excellent sense of humor, as usual,” he mocked. “I bet every place beyond the walls of this palace is ‘wilderness’ enough for you.”

A tinge of pink colored his youngest older brother’s pale face. “You…just because you were born healthy…,” he stammered, his fists trembling.

“Hey, you meanie, don’t talk to Qingyan-da’ge with such a disrespectful tone!” The boy, now hiding behind Qingyan, stuck out his tongue and made a face. “Don’t you know he’s the third son of the emperor and the empress?”

Lingyun narrowed his eyes. “Are you really the son of our emperor?” he inquired, bending forward to scrutinize the boy’s face. “Your intelligence really makes me wonder.”

“Lingyun,” warned Qingyan before he became consumed by a fit of coughing again.

“What? Am I wrong to defend our emperor?” asked Lingyun innocently.

Qingyan gave him a cold glare after having recovered from his wheezing.

“Shuwang-dianxia, Zhu-daren wants to discuss something with you,” reported a servant.

Throwing Lingyun a dirty look, the puppet of Zhu Zi’an turned to follow the servant.

Lingyun really wanted to get the hell out of this suffocating cage.

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“Since the conventions are prepared, and since this is a propitious month and a propitious day, your zi shall be announced. The zi is pleasant, suitable for an outstanding gentleman. This zi is chosen based on propriety, and you shall keep it for an eternity: it is called Zixiao.”

Trying not to yawn, Lingyun gracefully accepted the name, “Even though this one is not intelligent enough, this one will remember it by heart.”

His new hair crest was uncomfortable.

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“Must you leave?” Yulan asked solemnly.

“I want to see the world, Mother,” Lingyun replied. “I’ve been training really hard just so I can protect myself.”

“Will you write to me every week like you have in the past?”

Lingyun squeezed his mother’s hands. “Of course I will.” Tears fell down Yulan’s smooth cheeks and he brushed them away. He got on his black horse and smiled farewell. “I’ll tell you all about what I see,” he promised.

Off to the Jianghu now, at long last!

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Chapter 5

Lingyun was starting to believe that he was a magnet for morons. Especially morons with names associated with waves.

Why? Well…

“Master!” called an obnoxious voice as it came into proximity. “Master, wait up!”

“Stop following me around, brat,” Lingyun snapped impatiently at the following pest. The brat didn’t even flinch. “I told you before, go to Mount Snow Prison. I don’t feel like wasting time on some brat who butchers ‘Xuenue Fengtao’ so disgracefully. Whoever taught you that skill should die.”

“My name is not ‘brat’,” protested the brat. “My name is Chi Juntao—please remember it, Master!”

The only reason Lingyun had saved this bothersome brat was that he had recognized the style the brat was using to fight three brutes as that of Snow Prison Sect’s. And it had been horribly butchered, thoroughly soiling the name of Snow Prison Sect. Thus, Lingyun had stepped in to show the three brutes the real ‘Xuenue Fengtao’, scolded the brat, and gotten himself stalked instead.

Some luck he had.

“First of all, I haven’t agreed to become your ‘master’. Secondly, your name isn’t worth remembering. Thirdly and most importantly—go bother some other miserable person,” Lingyun snarled.

“But Master,” the brat insisted, “I think you are probably stronger than most experienced pugilists of Snow Prison Sect.”

Lingyun smirked. “Brat, even though you’re right, it doesn’t mean that I’ll teach you.” He turned around and continued walking back to his horse. “I want to travel alone. Alone, get it? I sure as hell don’t want to drag some stupid, untalented brat along with me and burden myself with teaching a dimwit who can’t even properly execute ‘Hanfeng Cigu’, the most basic of basic techniques.”

He got on his horse and nudged it to rid himself of the nuisance.

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Lingyun groaned and stared solemnly at the fire.

In the end, that brat had followed him and invaded his room at the inn. That brat’s horse had kept up with Lingyun’s treasured Ferghana horse.

He narrowed his eyes. Not many horses should be able to catch up with his Ferghana horse.

“So, Master,” the brat started with a smile, scooting closer. Lingyun moved away, but the brat only followed again so Lingyun gave up. “What does the real ‘Hanfeng Cigu’ look like?”

“Brat,” Lingyun pronounced through gritted teeth, ignoring his déjà vu, “I am not going to teach you. You can annoy me all you want, but I won’t pass on anything to someone as stupid as you are. Go to Mount Snow Prison and learn from a second-rate teacher because you are a second—no, third-rate learner.”

“I’m not a brat,” the brat objected with a pout. “I’m sixteen years old!”

“Brat nonetheless,” Lingyun sneered. “To me, anyone without a hat is a brat.” At times like these, Lingyun was thankful that he had suffered the Guan Li early.

“But…you’re only two years older than me!”

Lingyun smirked. It seemed like he didn’t need to trick the brat into giving himself away, after all. “Now how would you know that? I don’t recall ever telling you my name, much less my age.”

The brat froze. “I…I heard that there was a very brilliant apprentice by the name of ‘Bai Lingyun’…and you fit pretty well to the descriptions.…”

“Snow Prison Sect does not leak information so easily. Also, not even the pupils there know my exact age,” Lingyun continued with curved lips.

“Well…I have some knowledge on political affairs, so I know Bai Lingyun is the fourth son of Yue’s emperor, and he had just received his Guan Li early.…”

Lingyun yawned. “Brat, who are you? I noticed that your neili was completely off when you fought the three brutes from Black Deer Sect. Even if you’re a moron, that level of distortion was just too odd—which is why you couldn’t even successfully pull off ‘Hanfeng Cigu’.”

The brat bit his lip, his round eyes now focused on the cackling fire. “I’m the grandson of the leader of Blood Flames Sect,” he admitted after a long pause.

“Oh?” Lingyun cocked his head.

“I…I’m tired of my grandfather bossing me around and expecting me to become the next leader of Blood Flames Sect. I wanted to spite him by leaving and joining another Sect of an entirely different nature, like Snow Prison. I’ve only learned a little through observation.”

“Figures,” Lingyun remarked monotonously.

“Bai Lingyun is a name famous in the caves of Blood Flames. Information has it that you’re the most promising pupil….” the brat’s voice faded.

“And?”

“And…there are some orders to assassinate you. You’re the only person who has avoided assassination for six years. It was a smart move, to seek protection under the wing of Snow Prison Sect’s leader, Zhou Yanhao, instead of staying in the palace where the Xuan family only protects the emperor of Yue,” the brat continued.

Lingyun leaned against the wall, watching the brat fidget with his hands. “…I see. Since you’ve admitted that much, I suppose I can help your little rebellion.”

Juntao’s face lit up. “I knew you’d understand!” he exclaimed with excitement, grabbing both of Lingyun’s hands.

“Hmph. You better make this worth my time,” Lingyun muttered as he shook off the brat’s hold on him. “If you’re just too dumb, I’m not going to bother anymore.”

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A soft moan escaped the figure’s lips as manicured nails scraped its member teasingly. Incense hazed the atmosphere, spreading intoxicating clouds to numb logic. “M-Master Zhitian …,” the figure gasped rapturously, writhing.

The teasing man smirked, lowering his head to capture hardened buds with his lips as his fingers slid down to probe his subject’s entrance.

However, an urgent rapping on the door brought everything screeching to a mood-killing halt. “Xiangwang-dianxia!” shouted a voice he knew well.

Even though he was now in a foul mood thanks to having been interrupted, Zhitian knew that if he heard that voice, it meant something urgent was up. He let go of his subject’s erection and answered, “Come in.”

Entering the room was a fair young man by the name of Sun Haoping, his hair meticulously combed into a neat bun secured by a hat indicating that he was highly-ranked gentry. Truth be told, Zhitian was fond of Haoping, in a way that transcended their relationship as superior and subordinate. However, the official was an indispensable ally who was needed for Zhitian’s takeover of the Royal Court, and he knew when to separate personal feelings and ambition when ambition had a much heavier weight. With his favorite yet annoying brother Lingyun out of the way, Zhitian could easily envision the future. Although he might not earn the title of “emperor”, he would hold more power than the emperor in the future—especially if the emperor was Yiming.

Besides, there was always the possibility of gaining enough of his father’s approval to actually earn the title of “emperor”. Though it was blasphemous to break the rule of birth-order, Yue had survived for so long precisely because this rule had been broken twice in its history.

Yet, Haoping’s grave expression caused Zhitian to second-guess his vision. The official’s sharp, clear eyes glanced over at the male prostitute, a disapproving frown hanging on his otherwise stolid face.

Zhitian ordered the Luan Tong to leave in a voice that lacked its usual sweetness, which sent the beautiful male running for the door with fearful eyes.

When the door closed hastily, Haoping cut straight to the point: “Someone is advocating for Lingyun’s right to the throne.”

All the blood in Zhitian’s veins began to freeze-over.

“And that someone has obtained the support of Zhang Boshan and Lü Zhongfu,” Haoping continued with calmness that Zhitian sorely wished he could share.

“What?” He tried to keep his voice down. Boshan and Zhongfu? That was already two out of the five most influential and respected royal officials in court! He should have expected this. He should have expected someone would be foolish enough to support that selfish, impolite brother of his.

Gritting his teeth, Zhitian mourned over not getting rid of Lingyun when he’d still had the chance. He should have known to cast aside his fondness and hardened his heart. Doubtlessly, Lingyun had not been convinced to join the actual mess yet, which was the only comfort Zhitian had now. However, it was only a matter of time. “Find out who is behind this and, if possible, get rid of him,” he ordered coldly, his back straight. “Try to win Boshan and Zhongfu over or at least convince them that Lingyun is not worth their support. And, though I’m quite sure Yiming or Zi’an have already given their orders, check with Blood Flames Sect again.”

“Understood, my lord.”

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“So, Master, why are we here on Mount Sky Shadows again?”

Lingyun fought back his urge to punch the idiotic brat kneeling beside him. “To steal the legendary manual, ‘Dragon God’, you moron. We haven’t been running around observing fights for nothing. I thought I’d already briefed you about my plans,” he hissed. At first, he had not expected that the brat would tag along. However, Juntao had been very insistent, so in the end Lingyun had decided that the brat could be a last resort decoy if possible.

“But Sky Shadows Sect is one of the top three sects in Jianghu! Besides, their leader is said to be a genius! At the mere age of twenty-eight, he had been appointed as their leader! No matter how skilled you are, Master, infiltrating Mount Sky Shadow is—”

“Where’s fun without challenge?” interrupted Lingyun with a wave of his hand. “You should know that the other fortes of Snow Prison Sect are qingggong and neili, besides our exemplary sword techniques. I’ve always been adept at Qinggon and qi control.”

“But Master, maybe you should think about this some more.”

“If you’re too scared, then don’t follow,” Lingyun growled. “Good riddance of an unwanted pest.”

“No, I’ll follow!” Juntao proclaimed, unfazed. “Master, not to say you’re wrong or anything, but if any Sect’s extremely good at qingggong and qi control, it’s Blood Flames Sect. I won’t be dragging you down—you may find me handy, even!”

Lingyun narrowed his eyes. “Fine. Do whatever you want. Just don’t mess things up.”

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Juntao was nowhere to be found. Or more precisely, the brat had stayed true to his claims, as Lingyun could not pinpoint his location. To counter this uncalculated disadvantage, he heightened his senses, making sure that he was in prime condition to react faster than an ambushing enemy could attack him.

Sweat ran down his temples. The dim moonlight was his only guide as he sneaked down the cool hallways. He had already immobilized ten people by attacking their acupressure points, but it had been a bad move to do so. If the paralyzed people were found, Lingyun would be in deep trouble. Yenhao would probably never forgive him if word got out.

…However. A smirk formed on his lips. This was fun.

A flash of cold caused him to leap back and avoid getting a nasty gash by a hair’s breadth. His chest burned from the thin cut.

“You really have some nerve to infiltrate Sky Shadows,” rang a toneless voice.

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Chapter 6

Violent coughs filled the spacious chamber. Qingyan heaved as he tried to gain control of his breathing, his wife carefully patting his back as she whispered soothing words to his ears, trying to help him drink warm tea.

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all.

The Xuan family had done nothing to help him, despite being masters of medication. They were supposed to share bonds of blood! And yet, they cared only about the emperor, their own power, and descendants of the same surname. The only exception had been Lingyun, who had been saved more than once from poison—by the general himself, of all people! Doubtless it was because of the pleadings of their unfair mother, Xuan Yulan.

…Lingyun…

Qingyan ground his teeth. That barbaric brother of his had somehow gained the support of powerful officials, according to Zi’an. This had called for a desperate change of plans. Now instead of focusing solely on dealing with that venomous snake, Zhitian, Qingyan now had to worry about Lingyun, who, if anything, posed a much greater threat. Chingyun would rather live under the rule of a flamboyant, greedy serpent than bear the idea of bowing down to that rude, arrogant brother!

His trusted accomplice, Zi’an, observed him as he tried to gulp down the lukewarm tea his wife had provided him. “I say we leave the matter of Lingyun to Zhitian,” Zi’an suggested. “It’s a good idea to let Lingyun change that serpent’s plans. Also, you know how the taizi hates your younger brother—he’s sure to do something very ungraceful and lose whatever remaining support he has in the process. Zhitian is still the major problem, you mustn’t forget that.” The middle-aged man stepped closer, continuing with a lowered voice, “Don’t worry. I will do all I can to help you become the emperor—and then, the Xuan family is bound to help you find a cure for your illness. It will also be easier to kill Bai Lingyun. He will never have a moment’s peace once you obtain the power.”

Hearing this had always made Qingyan’s coughing fits miraculously melt away.

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Lingyun tried to make out the figure in the shadows. He felt like he was facing a statue, but that only made the all the hair on his skin stand on end. He knew this was someone on an entirely different level. Chances of winning instantly narrowed down to less than two percent. “Well…you can’t always hog ‘Dragon God’ all to yourself, can you? Xiao Wuying.”

No response. Had Lingyun guessed wrong?

“That manual is evil. It should not be touched,” the man replied after a long pause.

“Oho, preaching already? Really, it surprises me how Sky Shadows hasn’t turned into a monastery yet. I’ve already had three monks from your sect preach to me before. It makes me seriously consider funding plans for building a temple, if you guys are up to it.”

“Your attempts to provoke me won’t work.” The moonlight finally returned and revealed a handsome man in his late twenties. He looked like he was wearing a mask, for the features on his face were unmoving. “Go back to Mount Snow Prison.”

“I’m just saying the truth,” Lingyun explained as he observed the statue-like man before him. This man had a far greater neili than he had, judging by the prior slash alone. And without a doubt, this man had gone easy on Lingyun. Just as he contemplated what to do, the man before him shifted. A light sound of something bouncing off the walls ensued.

“Come out. I know where you are, user of Blood Flames’ poison,” the man ordered.

On the other hand, Lingyun had fully taken advantage of that miniscule distraction, pulling out his jian and attacking with his new and improved ‘Xuenue Fengtao’. It was low, but the only chance he had. However, the man parried his jian with relative ease, and when cold iron clashed, Lingyun almost dropped his own blade from the painful shock that numbed his fingers. Gritting his teeth, he stepped up his pace and warped his ‘Xuenue Fengtao’ into ‘Pushuang Yongxue’, mixing it with ‘Xuxin Lenqi’.

He wanted that manual, but he wanted to fight this man even more.

Analyzing the man’s techniques as they exchanged attacks, Lingyun barely held his ground. He was just about to grasp the patterns of that man’s techniques when a figure somehow appeared to his side, fending off the attacks that Lingyun had failed to parry with a fiery technique.

It was Juntao. That technique must be from the ‘Xingyan Jianshu’ of the Blood Flames Sect. “I told you I’d help, Master.” Juntao grinned.

Lingyun almost slapped the brat’s head for interrupting his only chance to break through the man’s attacks, for the man was now lashing out with fearsome difficulty. “Why’s ‘Dragon God’ evil, sir?” he asked through jagged breaths. It wasn’t like he expected an answer, but he needed to take his mind off his anger before he made another mistake.

The man parried both the attacks of Lingyun and the surprisingly passable attacks of Juntao, and was still able to strike back. “No one can understand that manual. Those who have tried to learn its arts have all ended up dead.”

Intrigued, Lingyun almost stopped, but he quickly regained balance. The man was still going easy on them, he realized. That fact alone irked him so much that he almost made another mistake. Growling, Lingyun hissed, “Brat, get out of my way. I want a one-on-one with this man.”

“But—”

“Thanks for helping, but our techniques just don’t work together.” With a spare hand, he pushed Juntao to the side roughly. Finally having the space to utilize his heavily personalized techniques better, Lingyun decided that he was already getting used to the techniques of Sky Shadows. After all, he had spent a lot of time observing fights, and he was beginning to see which techniques the man was using. “If you keep holding back, I’m going to win, you know?” he said with a sweet smile that had always worked wonders on females and on some men. Not that he expected it to work on this brick-head, though.

Doubtless, said brick-head was beginning to realize this as well. Sighing, the man tossed his weapon to his left hand. “You have much to learn, young one.”

What? This was too cliché! Lingyun felt humiliation burn off his cheek as he fended the ensuing attacks with great effort, almost losing his jian at every parry. Yet an excitement hammered in his heart, and the blood pulsing through his veins craved more. “This is more like it,” he said in jagged breaths—even though he was losing. Staggering back from a brutal impact that still rang clearly throughout the cold hallways, Lingyun noted how the man was still going easy on him. “Sir, what’s your name?”

He almost thought the man wouldn’t answer until he heard: “I thought you knew already.”

So this man was the leader of Sky Shadows Sect! Lingyun had a newfound respect. “I take back my remarks about Sky Shadows earlier, Xiao-daxia*.” He leaped back and sheathed his jian. “But you really shouldn’t be such a monk.” He glanced at Juntao and nodded, and the two left swiftly before Xiao Wuying had a change of mind.

Next time, he’d figure out how to beat that man. He had already memorized half of that man’s techniques, and he was going to figure out how to defeat the sequences. After all, he still wanted to see that manual—and winning even just by a chance of luck sounded like a nice extra.

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The large hall was lit with flickering flames, and yet this humongous enclosing that could easily hold five hundred adults contained only five figures. There were two thrones, and a male and female occupied those. Before the two stood a wizened man, his head lowered and his hands hiding inside large sleeves. Two young, beautiful girls held costly jade vessels and stood to the sides of the lavish thrones.

Speaking first was the official: “Yue is politically torn and weak right now—divided into four factions, Your Majesty. I humbly think that this is the prime time for us Jin to take full advantage before any rival beats us to it. Yue holds the most fertile land and profitable trade location in the Central Plains; we must acquire that land before any other.”

Shifting, the emperor of Jin propped his head up with his other hand. “No, not yet. That accursed Bai Lianzheng is still alive. Do you remember our last war with him, twenty years ago? We had an alliance with Xia and Yan, but we still lost! Somehow, Lianzheng had formed an alliance with Ning, and convinced Yan to stand back! As long as that man is still alive, he and the Xuan family will bring too much damage to our empire. There is no point in winning a war when you suffer losses that the prizes cannot cover.”

“But Your Majesty, Bai Lianzheng is gravely ill. He hardly has any time left now, and it’s better to strike when they are still politically torn before someone unites the officials—for Yue’s Royal Court is formidable.” The old man’s voice was solid. “Look at Ning, they’ve mimicked Yue’s political system by accepting gifted commoners as officials using similar examinations, and now they’re a force we can no longer easily compete with.”

“Our nobility oppose that policy too much, Chancellor Wang Guorong. If only the Xuan family had served us instead….” A crease formed on Shi Jinghui’s forehead. “Anyhow, even if Yue’s Royal Court unites, if their new emperor is no good, they’ll stand even less chance than they have now. You see, no matter how great a governmental system a empire has, there are always filthy rats that come into power in times of political unrest and throw the empire into chaos…especially if the ruler is dumb, corrupted, or weak.

“In which Lianzheng’s eldest son, Bai Yiming, is dumb, careless, and imprudent. He will quickly bring Yue down, especially since he never listens to advice. The second eldest son, Bai Zhitian, is cunning but too corrupted. He places too little importance on governing policies and too much importance on power. His love of extravagance and ambition to conquer the entire Central Plains will doubtlessly drain Yue’s treasury and weaken the empire. Not to mention, he trusts negative rumors too easily and is prone to using the wrong people and killing the wrong men. The third son, Bai Qingyan, lacks political talent and is clueless about his nation’s situation. Better yet, he is an ill-stricken puppet of Zhu Zi’an, a commoner new to nobility who is not fond of established, old nobility like the Xuan family. Zi’an will try to strip the Xuan family of their power, which will significantly weaken Yue if he actually succeeds.”

Now coming to a halt, the emperor of Jin tapped his boney finger on the arm of the golden throne. He finished his wine and the maiden standing beside him poured more into the intricate jade drinking vessel. He lifted the refilled vessel to his lips.

“Four factions, you said?” he asked long after he had taken a sip of wine. “You don’t possibly mean that the Xuan family has decided to try their hands at seizing power. Have they finally decided to usurp the throne because the candidates are all unsatisfactory?”

“No, but I suspect they are behind this fourth candidate. This is merely my humble guess, however, as there is no evidence. Those in Yue have not suspected the Xuan family as of yet, because the Xuan family is very discreet. It seems that they have publicly taken a neutral stance, simply giving word that they support Bai Lianzheng’s ultimate decision,” Guorong mused. “I am only able to suspect them because I have not seen their acting with my own eyes.”

Jinghui twirled his jade vessel. The wine tasted more bitter than usual. “The fourth candidate, eh? You can’t possibly mean a descendant of consorts? The Xuan family will not disgrace their own kin, Yulan, and Lianzheng loves his fair empress too much and respects the Xuan family too heavily.”

Guorong’s lowered his head even further. “Your Majesty, I am sorry to say, but you have forgotten: there is still the fourth son, Bai Lingyun.”

To this, Jinhui roared with laughter, almost spilling his wine. “Bai Lingyun? You mean the one who has Blood Flames Sect chasing after him like bloody hounds? He can’t outrun Blood Flames Sect, even if he has tried to train under Snow Prison Sect for self-protection, even if his name is starting to gain fame in the Jianghu. He’s as good as dead in my encyclopedia—I have not forgotten him, my dear Chancellor. If the Xuan family actually supports a dead brat who’s notorious for his irresponsible, insolent, and uncharismatic disposition, they must be really desperate. No matter how intelligent Bai Lingyun is, he lacks the most vital element of all: patriotism. There’s no way that brat can rule a empire if he isn’t even patriotic.”

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Five large, muscled figures lied sprawled on the muddy ground. Silence shrouded the crowd, and everyone was gawking at the person who was casually washing off the dirt from his hands like nothing had happed. A gust of wind curled up dry sand and the boy accompanying the young man squinted to protect his large, round eyes.

“Why’d you save that girl?” the boy asked after the shock wore off the crowd and noise started to refill the markets.

“Because I can’t stand unrefined things, and forced marriage is very unrefined, especially since not even the parents had agreed to the deal. And I’m getting sick of answering your questions, brat,” Lingyun answered with a growl.

Juntao furrowed his brows. “But…that’s just life. This happens all the time. The weak perish and the strong survive. That’s the rule of the world, the reality. You can’t save every girl who’s forced to marry a perverted merchant, Master.”

“To hell with rules—I live by my own rules. When I don’t like what I see, I do something about it, privileged or not,” Lingyun snapped. “Come on, we’re heading back to Mount Sky Shadows. This time I swear I’ll get my hands on that manual.”

“But you already failed three times,” Juntao was about to say. He caught his tongue just in time. He just hoped they wouldn’t run into any more assassins. He was getting sick of fighting them. They were lucky to not have run into anyone from Blood Flames yet.

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“Xuan-gongzi! Has your training ended?”

Some servants and maids stopped to stare. Especially the maids.

Smiling, the young Xuan nodded. “I have. Don’t know if I improved any, though.”

“Of course you have. You’re the most talented Xuan in history! We’re all so proud of you.”

The servant’s praises left a bitter taste in Xuan-gongzi’s mouth. If only they knew what Arts he had been training for…

“Xuan-gongzi. What a pleasant surprise,” remarked a voice that was sweeter than nectar. “I haven’t seen you in four years! My, you’ve grown into quite the handsome young man.”

“Xiangwang-dianxia,” the young Xuan greeted with a smile just as fake as the man’s voice. “How are you doing lately? I hope everything has been going well.”

A sweet, false giggle. “Oh, thank you for your concern. Asides from our emperor’s unfortunate situation, everything else has been coming along smoothly.”

It was a lie. The young Xuan didn’t miss that subtle grimace that had flickered for a fleeting moment on Zhitian’s powdered visage. He knew better than to delve further into the subject of politics, however. “His Imperial Majesty—how is he doing?”

“Well, ever since our favorite brat left, he hasn’t left his bed once. Probably worried about how Lingyun might provoke some very powerful people or worse, do something very stupid. Speaking of which, it’s a shame you missed him—he was just here a month ago. You two have never met, have you?” Zhitian’s rose-colored lips curved even more. “I wonder how he’d fare in a weiqi match against you? He needs to humble himself a little more.”

Xuan-gongzi laughed. “You think too highly of me, and I’m flattered. Besides, from what the rumors say about your brother’s personality…I doubt I’d have fun in a match with him.”

Thin, yet strong fingers curled around the Xuan’s shoulder. “Hm…I like you,” Zhitian whispered. “I look forward to the day we will cooperate in the future. You’d make an excellent General—you might even surpass your father.” He pulled away, still wearing that hungry smirk. A dark gleam reflected off his eyes.

The young Xuan simply retained his smile. He watched Zhitian leave and sighed, scratching his head. He had a vague idea why the emperor’s second son had paid a visit to the House of Xuan—Yue Xuan Fu. According to the letter he had received, however, Zhitian’s visit was in vain. For the moment.

“Fengbo. About time you’ve come back,” said a deep voice.

“Father,” Fengbo greeted, lowering his eyes.

“Come.” Xuan Jia’de motioned for his son to follow.

Following in silence, Fengbo went over the contents of the top-secret letter he had received just a month ago. In the end, his father had agreed with his aunt about her youngest son.

When the two entered the building where it was the safest from eavesdroppers, Xuan Jia’de started to talk: “I want you to find Lingyun and persuade him to consider taking the throne.”

Fengbo furrowed his brows. “Father, are you sure?”

Jia’de gave him a sharp look. “You probably don’t feel the desperation as much as we do, Fengbo, but in the four years you have been observing Lingyun, much has changed within the borders of this empire. Our emperor has been too sick, too often. Politics has become quite hectic, and it is hectic for a reason. Some people support tradition, some people support ambition, and some people support change.” He pulled two weapons down from the wall and threw one over to his son. “Under normal circumstances, Bai Zhitian is not a bad leader at all. However, Yue borders four countries. Zhitian is too aggressive. There’s too much risk in aggression. We can’t afford risk.”

Silently, Fengbo followed his General father to the inner courtyard. “I don’t think Lingyun will refuse the throne if you somehow succeed in getting our emperor to name him as the successor, but…Lingyun, the way he is…cares too little about Yue. Ruling a empire, in the end, isn’t just an assignment like writing essays.”

What was Fengbo saying? He wanted, more than anything, more than anyone, for Lingyun to become their emperor—his emperor. And yet…desires and reality, sadly, seldom converged. He had to think for Yue. His father did not know Lingyun as he did.

“Son, do you think I don’t know? I’ve told you before: The reason you can carelessly say that Lingyun might not be suitable is because you’ve been shut out of politics for too long. Our internal unrest is nothing compared to our external threats. Yan is plotting to break our alliance, and Jin is already ready to pounce the moment His Imperial Majesty’s health fails him. Even Ning plans to make a move, so think about what Xia is thinking about. Xia, like Jin, is still sore about the war twenty years ago.”

Fengbo nearly dropped his weapon. Even Ning? That was definitely going to be a problem.

“We need someone who doesn’t place more importance on his own power and position than everything else, even his own empire—Zhitian’s most fatal flaw. Zhitian is smart, but Lingyun is smarter. No doubt, if he puts his mind to it, he will be formidable. Yue needs the smartest emperor she can get. Besides, Lingyun is brimming with potential—it is still possible for him to change, from what you’ve reported so far. His foul attitude is just a result of his paranoia. You say he still has some compassion. Not too much, but some—perfect for an emperor.”

“The chances that he will change are still really slim. He’s been too deeply scarred by the filthiness of politics,” Fengbo insisted.

“Then make him realize the reality. He is, in the end, the son of Yue’s emperor. He can’t keep escaping his responsibility, his duty to serve his empire. Life isn’t fair. It never is.” Jia’de drew his weapon and Fengbo did the same. “Obviously, there will be many attempts on his life,” the general said. After twirling the practice blade in his hand a couple times, he spoke again: “So, son. Let’s see if you haven’t forgotten anything you’ve learned under this roof.”

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Chapter 7

Worry nagged at Juntao as he nervously watched his master. It was noisy inside the inn, with the sound of dice rolling, cards shuffling, and stones hitting. The loudest noises, however, were doubtlessly the cries of euphoria and bellows of rage as well as the exclamations of awe and excitement.

It was crowded. Suffocating. Horrifyingly stuffy.

Juntao really didn’t like being in the spotlight, but unfortunately his master was a flashy narcissist, which in turn forced him to withstand the discomfort of exposure.

When a howl of despair sounded directly across from his master’s seat, Juntao cringed.

“Ha! Game over, buddy!” declared his master, Lingyun, with a devilish smirk as he leaned back and crossed his slender, long legs. An air of regal elegance never left the young noble, which was actually bad because it screamed for attention. Discretion—didn’t Lingyun know anything about that word?

Of course his master knew. After all, his master was cautious enough to have still refused to trust him. It was correct to still have doubts, given where Juntao had come from. Yet that confidence, that irritating overconfidence—it was giving Juntao a devastating ulcer. Why his master acted in such a stupid, auspicious way when he was, in fact, extremely smart—Juntao could never comprehend.

Was Lingyun just an idiotic genius? Or was Lingyun actually a cunning deceiver?

Anxiously, he watched as events unfolded in a painfully predictable manner.

“You arrogant brat!” roared the loser of the match, attempting to mess up the stones on the table but Lingyun easily stopped the man’s burly fist with a pale, thin finger. A shiver ran down Juntao’s spine when he was once again reminded of how fast his master improved. The neili behind that—it was fearsome for an eighteen-year-old to possess neili that mature.

“Just admit that you can’t beat me, not even in a million years. Weiqi is my forte, you see,” Lingyun explained with a smile. “After all, look at the empty intersections on the board and the prisoners I’ve captured from you. I gave you nine stones of handicap, and I was going easy on you, dimwit.”

The loser’s face was growing purpler with every word. He let out a beastly roar but was fortunately subdued by the crowd who had been impressed by Lingyun’s play. Enthusiasts pleaded for a match against Lingyun, but were refused flatly with the lack of time as excuse.

Feeling he had just survived a heart attack, Juntao followed his master back to the room they had rented. “Master,” he started, “isn’t gambling a…bit too risky?”

“Gambling?” Lingyun laughed. “You think there was any essence of ‘gambling’ in that match?” He tossed the bag of money up in the air and caught it again, the metallic jingle loud in the silent night. “Besides, do you have any better suggestions on how to earn money?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Juntao grumbled. “Maybe you shouldn’t play too well, Master. It makes you stand out. We’re not on Sky Shadows’ territory anymore.”

“Well, we’re not staying here for long,” Lingyun said. The curve of his lips stole Juntao’s breath away. The apprentice lowered his head with embarrassment, thankful that it was a moonless night. “Speaking of Sky Shadows, that Xiao Wuying is really some man,” Lingyun continued. “I’d love to fight him again.”

Swallowing a groan, Juntao managed to ask, “I thought he already let you read ‘Dragon God’?”

“But I didn’t beat him—the bastard just let me win. One day I will defeat him, though. After we visit the countries that border Yue. You can leave anytime you want, since I’ve taught you all I know,” Lingyun added with an apathetic wave.

Ignoring the pain that pricked his heart, Juntao bit his lips and stared at his master’s straight back. Even though he knew Lingyun would never fully trust him, he wanted to be recognized. He wanted the same recognition that Lingyun gave the Leader of Sky Shadows.

He wanted to become stronger.

He wanted to be trusted.

He wanted…

Shaking his head, Juntao quickened his steps to catch up with Lingyun.

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“Zhitian-dianxia, he is here,” reported Sun Haoping, though he refused to enter through the doors. A loud gasp and ruffling clothes. The sound of feet crossing through cold flooring. Haoping spent his time observing the figure clad in black, noting the delicately designed mask that disguised the visitor’s real features and made him look like a middle-aged man.

Glassy brown eyes stared out of the mask, unfeeling and unreadable. Haoping narrowed his eyes. He did not like this ‘visitor’, even though the implication of the visit was good.

Finally, the door opened and a hasty, flushed boy scurried away. Motioning for the visitor to enter first, Haoping followed and closed the door. He really didn’t like how this abominable place was the only place with privacy. Zhitian spent far too many hours in the ‘Hive’ and was consequently prone to much procrastination on important matters.

The scent of burning incense was thick, and the smoke made the chamber very hazy. Zhitian was, as usual, half-naked on the large bed, running slender fingers through his silky black hair as he observed the ‘visitor’ through half-lidded eyes. There was no doubt he was still aroused, as interruption never served to lessen his libido.

“I’m so glad you have found time to visit,” Zhitian purred, pulling on his silk robes and getting off the bed. “It’s a good thing that you’re different from your stubborn father, Xuan-gongzi.”

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The skies were gray that day. A gloomy chime rang, and the doors slid open, letting out hundreds of officials.

Even the most stolid official’s face betrayed his emotions when the Imperial Court Meeting was adjourned. However, none were stupid enough to talk about their concerns. Occasionally, they glanced in the direction of the supreme general, Xuan Jia’de, hoping to read his expression. However, they could not determine what was behind his frown. Was he not going to do anything about the situation?

The only thing they hoped the frown had meant was that the general would not allow such madness to disorder the Imperial Court Meeting any longer. The emperor was extremely ill again, which meant that the taizi, Bai Yiming, was left with the job of directing the Imperial Court Meeting in his place. And, to everyone’s horror, Yiming had done a marvelously horrible job with directing the meeting. Someone had to give a report on his thoughts about the meeting, and unfortunately, that job was the job of the Head of Secretariat, Jiang Wei.

Sighing, the chancellor made way to the emperor’s chambers, thinking about what he should say. He gave a nod to the guards and waited for a servant to report his presence to the emperor before obtaining permission to enter.

“Your Majesty,” Wei said as he bowed.

“You may rise,” Liangzheng said, his voice strong despite his weakened body. Wei did as he was ordered and straightened up with lowered eyes. “How was the meeting? How did talks go with Yan’s messenger?”

Wei felt his throat tighten unpleasantly.

“Speak,” the emperor ordered.

“Talks…did not go well…,” Wei stammered. “This lowly official has to apologize!” he exclaimed as he fell down to all fours. “This lowly official was unable to prevent the talk from going awry!”

“Up.” Then, a long pause of silence. “I know this is not your fault; it was my untalented son Yiming who could not control his temper.” The emperor sighed. “So, how bad is the situation?”

“Yan has broken off relations,” answered the chancellor, his voice weak. “They demanded that we lower the price of our mercantile goods and our tariffs, but the talk did not go well.…” He gulped. “They are taking advantage of our current weakness, Your Majesty! We mustn’t let them take the lead in the inevitable chaos!”

For a long time, the emperor did not respond. The empress gave a sympathizing look to Wei. “What do you think is the best solution, then?” she asked softly, yet there was a strong conviction in her voice. “There is no one else in this chamber but us three. His Imperial Majesty will not punish you,” she added. Liangzheng nodded in agreement.

“Yiming should not succeed. Another successor must be chosen,” Wei stated.

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Rain tried to feed the grass. The meeting should have ended, and from what Fengbo had heard, the situation was grave. When he saw the look on his returning father’s face, he knew it was time to take his leave. It had only been five months since he had returned, and he had spent most of his time training and solidifying past strings as well as getting hold of new puppets.

“The empress’s birth day is arriving soon,” Xuan Jia’de said. “Since the fourth prince is free now, her maids want to surprise her Majesty with his presence.”

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Chapter 8

The sun hadn’t even risen when the innkeeper knocked on their door. “Zhou-gongzi, there is someone who wants to meet you.”

Lingyun smiled, which Juntao found confusing.

Until he realized who the ‘visitor’ was.

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The clear sound of porcelain rang loudly when the dishes crashed to the floor. “What do they mean, they can’t find that egotistical pest?” screamed Yiming, tugging the messenger’s collar and ignoring the tears of fear that watered the teen’s eyes. “I thought they were supposed to be the best, the most professional!”

“I…I’m sorry, Your Highness, but they didn’t explain…,” squeaked the messenger, voice trembling and knees like jelly.

“Then why didn’t you ask them?” Yiming roared, spraying his spit all over the unfortunate messenger’s paling face. With an animalistic snarl, the emperor’s eldest son threw the thin body across the room (which resulted in another loud crash), the knuckles on his shaking fist whiter than bones. “Curse that narcissistic brat,” he mumbled as he sat down with force.

He had heard the rumors of his father’s displeasure. His mother’s birthday was coming up and his cousin, Xuan Fengbo, had gone to retrieve the venomous cloud. He had to get rid of Lingyun, as soon as possible—and yet…

“Curse him!” He slammed his fist on the table, rattling any remaining dishes.

It had never occurred to Fengbo that he wouldn’t be able to locate Lingyun.

He had always been confident of being able to find Lingyun with ease, since he understood the young noble better than anyone.

However, he had been mistaken. Gravely mistaken.

No attractive yet arrogant Snow Prison Sect pugilist was to be found when he had asked. Worse, although Lingyun had been sending letters as he had promised, he had always been vague about where he was, making it impossible to determine his location.

It was very troublesome. Even though Lingyun was far away from the Palace, he was still the greatest ‘threat’. Fengbo had advised Zhitian to focus on impressing the emperor instead of getting rid of Lingyun, and although the serpent had taken the advice, and although that annoying new noble Zi’an had decided to let Zhitian handle Lingyun—Yiming was more determined than ever to get rid of Lingyun.

Fengbo had to find Lingyun before the Blood Flames assassins found him, and no doubt the assassins were under great pressure with the rumor of changing successors going around.

As skilled as Lingyun was, he wouldn’t be able to fend off more than five Blood Flames assassins at the same time.

Fengbo had to hurry, but he had to be calm about it.

Currently, the only thing he could ask around for was an arrogant noble with good looks. But there were many nobles who were conceited and good-looking. He had to think beyond just that.

As he rode through the plains, he thought of what he’d do if he were in Lingyun’s shoes. Sky Shadows. Traveling around. He had to connect the seemingly random dots and find out what Lingyun had really intended to do.

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Everything, or at least nearly everything, became frighteningly lucid. A morbid chill ran down his spine as a result. Juntao finally realized just what the hell he had been doing—no, what Lingyun, his master, had been doing since before they had even crossed paths.

They hadn’t been running around the borders for roughly five months just based on the young noble’s ‘impulsive’ curiosity, after all. Under the name of ‘Zhou Shiren’, Lingyun had gained fame as a skilled weiqi master with ‘mysterious’ neili, which was simply neili as taught from the manual ‘Dragon God’.

He had not once used any technique that indicated that he was a Snow Prison Sect pugilist. If anything, he had confused people into thinking that he was from Sky Shadows Sect, since he could produce near-perfect imitations. And Juntao had thought his master was just teasing people.

In conclusion, ‘Bai Lingyun’ didn’t exist in the Jianghu.

If Juntao hadn’t followed his master and known what Lingyun had been doing in Sky Shadows Sect, he would have never made the connection between ‘Bai Lingyun’ and ‘Zhou Shiren’. After all, there was arguably a hefty sum of nobles who were arrogant, able to protect themselves decently, good looking, and skilled with weiqi. What was more, Lingyun had always decided when, where, and how to leave—usually at dangerous times and through dangerous routes, something about challenging the limits of travelling and to ‘spice things up’.

Now, Juntao finally understood.

No wonder the Blood Flames assassins had never caught up with them.

Naturally, if even Blood Flames assassins hadn’t thought of the connection, neither would Ning’s taizi. They were living in an inn that bordered Ning, and the empire’s emperor’s eldest son, Ye Qiuyang, was famous for his fascination with weiqi.

Everything had been planned, and Juntao had been deceived to think it had all been impulse. He couldn’t believe how persuasive attitude could be. He should have suspected something, but instead he had never thought much of anything simply because Lingyun’s carefree attitude was so believable. What had been real, and what had been an act?

The realization that he never ‘knew’ Bai Lingyun was terrifying.

Lingyun had intended to gain allies and protection all along. Just what else had the capricious noble been planning that Juntao didn’t know?

He observed the match carefully, noting how Lingyun was more polite than usual. Unlike his previous matches, Lingyun took the game very seriously, and even chatted with Qiuyang—the conversation free of the usual thorns of haughty sarcasm. In the end, Lingyun won, but barely. It was a close match, and if Lingyun was holding back, Juntao could not tell.

But that was no longer the point. Juntao knew that Lingyun had gained a powerful friend.

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Chapter 9

“I’m so glad you have found time to visit,” Zhitian purred, pulling on his silk robes and getting off the bed. “It’s a good thing that you’re different from your stubborn father, Xuan-gongzi.”

Pulling off the mask, Xuan Fengbo flashed a charming smile in return. “But of course I will, since I think Lingyun does not have what it takes for politics. I think what is more important is not the title of ‘emperor’ but rather, holding actual power.”

Sun Haoping merely observed in silence.

“As much as I agree with you on that matter, dear Fengbo, I must say you are underestimating that brat of a brother I have.” As usual, Zhitian’s voice was coated with a thick layer of oversweet honey. His eyes weren’t smiling, however. “You don’t know Lingyun. He might just have what it takes to be a poisonous thorn.”

“Lingyun does not know his supporters. Even if His Imperial Majesty passes the throne to him, what can he be, but a pretty doll with no power?” Fengbo inquired. “He is uncharismatic and unpatriotic, he lacks interest in politics and authority. He won’t be a threat, but rather an interesting puppet.”

Zhitian raised a thin brow and gazed straight into Fengbo’s eyes. “I must interrupt, however. My mischievous brother is a deceiving fox—one never knows what he is really thinking, not even the general or my parents. How can you be so sure that he’s not interested?” The slightly higher tone of his voice, however, betrayed his apparent doubt.

“Ah, as expected from The Bai Zhitian,” Fengbo chuckled. Zhitian’s smile stretched wider. “Sharp observation indeed. I have heard of such speculation, and indeed it should not be ignored. However, do not forget that Lingyun currently has no power yet. He has no actual supporters, only officials who thirst for power themselves—but will they listen to him, much less obey him? After all, Lingyun is but eighteen years old, who will take him seriously? They support him only because they do not know him and they want to have greater influence”

Zhitian’s long, slender fingers dug into his palms and he stepped forward, leaning slightly. He was biting his full, red lower lip.

“What better way to strip Lingyun of authority than to have him humiliated in public, to constantly remind him that he has no actual power despite his title? What you should be focusing on is not the survival or death of Lingyun’s elusive life, but rather the Imperial Court. What you should be doing is garnering a strong pillar of support to ensure your voice is eternally louder than Lingyun.”

“What an ingenious idea!” Zhitian exclaimed with a hiss. “Why have I not thought of this before?”

A small smirk curved Fengbo’s lips. “Oh, in a sense, you have, as it was your attitude towards the current but doomed taizi, Yiming, that gave me such an idea in the first place.”

“I like you, Xuan Fengbo.” Zhitian’s eyes were like crescent moons. “I like you a lot. When I gain the power, I will see to it that you are rewarded appropriately.”

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For an assassin, the most important thing to have was ‘patience’. Juntao considered himself patient for his age—after all, he had been raised with expectations to succeed Blood Flames Sect, the den of elite assassins. However, Juntao found that he lacked patience for Ye Qiuyang, Ning’s taizi. That bastard and his master spent so much time together now it was like they were attached at the hip. The only relief he had was that Lingyun still let him tag along and tag along he did. Better yet, Qiuyang had ten elite bodyguards, eight of which were hiding in the shadows—and that meant Qiuyang would never truly spend time alone with his master.

However, Juntao also found himself frustrated with said unpredictable master. After he had discovered the ‘true’ nature of Lingyun, he started to question whether his master knew of his feelings. And if Lingyun knew, was he exploiting Juntao? Would he betray Juntao if the Blood Flames assassins caught up?

…What a scary thought. Juntao hoped with all his heart that he was just being paranoid, and that Lingyun wasn’t that cruel.

“I just got the information that Yan’s emperor died of poisoning,” Qiuyang was saying as he stared at the weiqi board, brows knotted and lips pursed.

“Obviously done in by his relatives,” Lingyun replied, taking a sip from his tea. “Politics are such a bore. Yan’s politics are especially boring.”

A crisp slap of stone on wood. “Why do you say that?”

Lingyun made the next move within seconds. “They have a bad political system—still too lax about the abuse of power by provincial governors, still ignoring the civilians and still answering all their problems with military. All a bunch of useless dimwits who kill officials with some sense, their short-lived leaders are. Everything is predictable and boring for that kind of dynasty.” He took a bite from his Shaobing*, chewed for a while and then swallowed before he continued, “Like Jin, they’re just a bunch of barbarians parading around in civilized clothes and using civilized language, after all. They should learn a thing or two from your country.”

Juntao didn’t miss the little twitch that threatened to curl Qiuyang’s lips. Was flattery intended or not? Juntao had no idea.

“But they both have strong militaries despite what you said, my friend.” The successor to Ning countered with another loud slap on wooden board.

“I’ll admit: They are slightly better than Xia. That corrupted, listless country is hopeless—even though its warlords are still obsessed with war, they’re weak. Xia hasn’t stopped giving useless nobles titles they don’t deserve, and those nobles are wasting tax money while they do nothing but pretty themselves up with powder and debate the nature of nothingness.” Lingyun placed his next move and picked up the black stones that died as a result. Qiuyang let out a strange sound as he watched helplessly. “Despite Xia’s civilized history, the people in power aren’t worthy of it and their ruler is too stupid to find a way to control his vassals. He has no real power, especially after he lost the war against Yue some years ago.”

“But I heard Yan had broken off relations with your country, while Jin and Xia are both planning something,” Qiuyang mused.

You are also in support of invading Yue sooner or later, thought Juntao with narrowed eyes.

Naturally, Qiuyang would not know what Juntao was thinking so he continued, “No matter what, it doesn’t sound like good news. Didn’t you say that your father is a rather high-ranked official in Yue’s Imperial Court?” Another black stone was placed onto the checkered board.

“Yes. I’m escaping responsibility. I hope I’ll never have to take up the family business—I hate politics. But more than that, I hate war,” Lingyun replied, and Qiuyang shifted. “I feel bad for you for having to be the successor of Ning,” Juntao’s master continued after a while.

Qiuyang smiled as he fished for another stone. “Don’t be. I love my position. I love my citizens. I want to make my country…,” he stopped himself just in time before he said something too politically insensitive, “Stronger.”

Juntao figured that Qiuyang had intended to say ‘I want to make my country the strongest, the sole sovereign of these lands’ or something along the same line. On the other hand, his master didn’t react to that suspicious pause, maintaining his usual cool. Or maybe he really didn’t care.

The visitor from Ning stared at the board for a minute before making the next move, and Lingyun’s brows twitched slightly. “Speaking of successors, I heard a strange rumor that Bai Yiming is about to lose his position.”

“Oh. That must be bad for him.” A clear, loud clap of stone and wood.

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Colorful silk fluttered as the thin figures twirled, movements exactly in time with the clear music. Drinking wine, Bai Yiming watched the beautiful dancers perform with sublime grace.

Under normal circumstances, he would have already been aroused by then and would have taken the most stunning dancer out of the eight, but right now he had too many things on his mind. The failure to locate that bratty brother being one, and his own position being the other. Downing the last of his second jug, Yiming motioned for the serving girl to get more wine. He was light headed and he wanted to stay that way.

Well, if he was going to lose his position, he might as well do whatever he wanted to do from now on.

Might at as well enjoy his last moments in power.

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It was a clear night, with few clouds and a full moon. Crickets were loud amidst the silence, singing praises to the starry sky.

“Who are you?” The voice was stiff, toneless.

Fengbo stepped out into the moonlight. “I am Xuan Fengbo, son of Xuan Jia’de and successor of the Xuan Family’s Arts.”

Unreadable, clear eyes studied Fengbo. “I’ve heard of your name elsewhere before as well. Are you by chance, the Xuan Fengbo from Snow Prison Sect?”

“Yes,” Fengbo admitted without flinching. “Around three years ago, my father sent me to observe the fourth son of our emperor, Bai Lingyun. Master Zhou knows of my mission and agreed to take me in, but he is not my official master and I am not officially of Snow Prison Sect.”

“You could have observed him from the shadows,” observed the leader of Sky Shadows, Xiao Wuying, sheathing his sword now. “But instead you chose to risk your name and your position by exposing yourself to Bai Lingyun. What is more, you shut yourself out from the political affairs of your country for four years, which is a little long. Why?” Strange that a politically neutral person would be interested in such a matter.

“Before I reached Snow Prison Sect’s headquarters, I ran into three Blood Flames assassins on Mount Snow Prison and got into a fight with them. Even though I killed them all, I was severely wounded by the fight and had to seek help, and Lingyun was the one who saved me. I owe him my life, so I decided to repay him by staying with him for a couple of years to know him more personally,” Fengbo answered without falter. “If I were to observe him from the shadows, I would not have been able to stay for long and I not have an accurate assessment of him.”

A rare smile brought life onto Xiao Wuying’s face. “Indeed. He is rather strange, is he not?”

Fengbo chuckled in agreement. “Anyhow, I am searching for Lingyun, but I can’t even find a trace of his shadow. The last place someone caught sight of him was here—may I ask the reason he kept infiltrating this place?”

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Chapter 10

Like always, Lingyun was writing his letter around the time of xu*, the shadow of his brush dancing with every flicker of his candle. His back was straight and his hand was unwavering.

“Master, is it just me or do you seem rather calmer than you should be?” Juntao couldn’t help but blurt out. He hated how he was beginning to doubt Lingyun more and more, but he could no longer think of anything his master had done as ‘random’. “After all—you lost today. Twice. That is very unlike you.”

Without a word, Lingyun dipped the tip of his brush in the ink stone and continued to write with a steady wrist. “Brat, if you understood weiqi, you’d realize how good a player Qiuyang is,” Lingyun replied after he wrote around three sentences. “You forget that I enjoy a good match and a good challenge—I’m not calmer than I should be, I’m as calm as I normally am.” He placed his brush on the brush holder and removed the inked paper for a new sheet. “Besides,” he continued, picking up his brush and dipping it for more ink, “I did tie once.” He continued to write as though everything were normal.

“But the point is that you didn’t even win a match!” Juntao insisted. “I thought you two were pretty well on a par in terms of weiqi!”

Lingyun’s shoulders became stiff. “Fine, I had a lot of things in my mind, surely you know why,” he growled. “Can’t you even make intelligent assumptions? Must I spell everything out for you? If so, you truly are hopeless—I recall telling you that I don’t need a dimwitted disciple.”

Biting his lips, Juntao began to question whether he was being too paranoid again. Qiuyang was a candid person who talked too much, consequently informing them of many political events that Lingyun normally didn’t care to listen for.

However, Lingyun was, after all, still the fourth son of the emperor of Yue—and news that his father’s health was failing, and that his eldest brother Bai Yiming was going to lose the position of taizi would have naturally shaken him up a bit. Especially since Qiuyang had mentioned that Lingyun was said to be the most likely candidate to succeed due to having the backing of two of the five most powerful officials in the government. Not to mention, his mother favored him, and she was bound to have some influence over the emperor’s decision.

Even Lingyun couldn’t hide his shock when he had heard that particular piece of information.

“I thought I made it clear to my family to leave me out of politics,” Lingyun explained at last, his voice betraying his frustration. “Well, all I have to do is hide out until they give up on finding me, right?”

“Provided you don’t get killed off first by my acquaintances,” Juntao wanted to say, but he swallowed his comment. He wasn’t stupid enough to say something that would expose Lingyun’s true identity—especially since two of Qiuyang’s elite bodyguards were listening to everything from the shadows.

“I’m back,” Qiuyang announced as he entered through the doors with two of his bodyguards. Juntao narrowed his eyes. Oblivious to Juntao’s irritation, Qiuyang sat on the bed, his eyes glued to Lingyun’s back. “Writing to your mother?”

“Yes.” Lingyun rinsed the ivory brush with water, indicating that he had finished.

“Sometimes, I think I should write my mother some letters too, especially since I’ve been away from the City for a month now,” Qiuyang mused. “But I just don’t know what to write. Do you think I’m a bad son?”

How is Lingyun supposed to answer that? Juntao mentally groused.

“How long do you plan to wander around?” Lingyun asked, folding the paper so the words were on the outside and carefully stuffing the paper into an envelope.

“I don’t know. Maybe for another month or so. I can’t part from the palace for too long, unfortunately.”

Good, thought Juntao, though he still thought that one month was too long. When his master motioned for him to take the envelope and pay to the inn’s postal service, he happily got up and obeyed.

“Then you don’t need to write any letters,” Lingyun replied when Juntao exited the room.

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“You half-witted imbecile!”

Early in the morning, the East Palace was already bristling with unrest and tension. The concubines were all trembling in the corners of the large chambers, their beautiful faces devoid of color.

“Take that insolent woman down to the dungeons! She’s a spy, an assassin!” Yiming bellowed, pointing with a shaky finger. “I want her interrogated—find out who sent this little bitch!”

“Please, Your Highness,” wailed the woman, trying to struggle free of the guards, “I didn’t mean to spill the tea!”

“Liar! You must’ve wanted to use the confusion to kill me!”

“Yiming, why don’t you calm down?” soothed Xuan Jiahua, his wife. “I’m sure she accidentally spilled the tea because you slammed your fist on the table….”

“Shut up, you nagging bitch!” screamed Yiming, no longer caring who he was talking to now. “If not for your background, I’d have you taken to the dungeons as well!”

His instructors and advisors remained silent, their heads lowered and their eyes focused on the floor. Except for a servant, who stared indignantly at the taizi, his fearless glare so intense it could burn a hole through cloth.

“What are you staring at, you insolent fool?” Yiming stood now, redness spreading to his thick neck. “Guards!” he yelled. No response. “Guards!” he repeated on the top of his lungs, and two men hurried over to seize the servant, who did not struggle nor say a word. “Take him down to the dungeons and have his waist chopped off tomorrow morning!”

“Your Highness,” an advisor finally dared, though his voice was as silent as a mouse’s, “please reconsider this punishment—your current behavior would only cause His Majesty to lose more confidence in you….”

Silence!” A crisp slap rang loud in the chamber and the advisor fell to the floor loudly, his shivering hand rubbing the bright red handprint on his pale cheek.

This had to be a conspiracy. That brat, Lingyun, must’ve planned this. Just what sort of poison had he written into those letters to their parents? To think, that Yiming was going to lose this authority, this respect, this privilege—all because of that deceitful cheat!

In the end, Yiming could not accept it. He was not going to accept this.

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It was dark by the time imperial attendant Liu Kuanshang returned to his office, only to find Regent Song Hongzun waiting for him. He suppressed the urge to glare at the guards for not informing him beforehand and greeted the de facto emperor of Xia.

Song Hongzun was a tall man in his late thirties, his muscles so toned they were harder than steel. There was an air about him that screamed for respect and fear. He was definitely emperor material. Although he trusted Kuanshang, the imperial attendant never knew when he’d changed his mind. “Kuanshang, what do you think of Yue’s current situation?” asked the regent, his voice rich and commanding.

If the supreme commander of the military was asking this, it meant that he was ready to invade. Especially since Hongzun was hailed as the only man able to rival Xuan Jia’de in terms of military strategy. “I humbly think that this is the prime time to invade now. The lack of sufficient rain in Yue has finally begun to affect them, so they are short on food, relying mostly on their trade with us. If we cut off our trade with them, they will be forced to rely on what little food supply they get from the trade by sea. Also, the inner unrest that is weakening Yue’s administration is currently escalating over rumors of a change in successor; we mustn’t miss this chance.”

Hongzun smiled, stroking his beard. “Indeed. I am leaving the government in your hands for a while.”

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“Please! I’ll tell you who sent us, just stop!” Cai Yuanxin yelled from his prison cell, and yet the guards ignored him.

The screams were unbearable. Yuanxin had cried and yelled for them to stop torturing his lover for information that didn’t exist for so long that his throat had gone sore. Yet, hatred burnt so hotly inside his body that it charred his organs.

Spy? Assassin? How could his Xuzen possibly be one, clumsy as she was?

Just make something up, he pleaded desperately. Make something up! It’s obvious the stupid taizi wants you to say that Bai Lingyun sent you!

But Xuzen was too innocent to understand why she was going through all the torture. And the bastards torturing her were enjoying it, enjoying the power they had, the power that they were doubtlessly going to lose once Yiming lost his position. They were just as intoxicated as that stupid taizi was.

He hated them all. He wanted to kill them all. Ever since the emperor had fallen ill, poison had started to spread throughout the divided Imperial Administration. He should have taken Xuzen and fled to Ning or Xia when he had still had the chance.

“Please stop!” he shouted again, his voice cracking.

His heart thumped loudly when the guard opened the door to his cell, but instead of listening to him, the guard merely beat him, breaking a few of his bones. “That should shut this moron up,” the guard sneered as he left Ni whimpering on the floor.

When he woke, he found himself in a bed and his wounds treated. The scent of soothing incense permeated the room, and when he realized who was sitting beside his bed, he felt all the blood in his veins freeze.

“I am so sorry about what happened to innocent Guo Xuzen,” purred the emperor’s second son, Zhitian. “It was too late when I got there. She hung herself.”

Although it was forbidden for a servant to have an affair with a maid who was supposed to be the taizi’s possession, Yuanxin couldn’t control his wail of despair and the tears that burst from his bruised eyes. He didn’t care anymore.

“Now, now,” Zhitian said softly, patting Yuanxin’s shoulder without hurting his broken ribs. “I’m sure Yiming will get retribution. I’ll have the empress hear you out, what do you say?” He leaned closer whispering, “I need your help to get rid of Yiming and his faction. Will you lend me a hand?”

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“You sly actor,” a voice remarked as soon as Zhitian walked out the room.

“Oh?” Zhitian smiled, pretending that he didn’t know what Zi’an was talking about.

“You waited until that woman had been tortured and interrogated until she gave up on living instead of interfering beforehand.” There was no trace of scorn in Zi’an’s voice, no disgust. Just calmness.

His smile widening, Zhitian purred, “Don’t be angry just because I was one step ahead of you, Zi’an. You were planning to do the same thing, weren’t you?” He flung open his fan and flicked his wrist, even though the night was cool.

Zi’an smirked. “I’m not angry. After all, I’m not hanging in the air* and risking a heavy fall.”

“We’ll see about that,” Zhitian replied. “When you don’t take risks, you’ll never win.”

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Chapter 11

Sadness was the only emotion that Yulan felt when she listened to the confessions of Cai Yuanxin. It was as though the knot in her chest tightened, and she lowered her head as she continued to listen to the voice outside the doors.

“Mother,” Zhitian said after the servant finished recounting his misfortune. “This is undeniable proof that Yiming has gone mad. I’ve looked into their backgrounds, but they are citizens listed under the census. After interviewing their acquaintances, they are confirmed to be quite responsible and loyal.”

Although the abuse of power was not uncommon and this case was actually insignificant—Yulan knew her second son was planning to blow the small incident up into something huge, to ultimately bring Yiming down once and for all. He probably even planned to use the servant to kill Yiming, just to get rid of the root of his obstacle. The mere thought of her sons trying to kill their own flesh and blood was painful enough.

Yet, she was in no position to interfere. With everything so hectic inside the walls of their palace, they had to work fast now. The emperor had to make a decision, and soon. The fewer factions there were, the better.

“I will talk to your father about this,” she said, her voice like a feather. “But do not blame your brother, Zhitian.” It was the only warning she could give, though she doubted it would stop Zhitian from killing his older brother.

“Of course, Mother. Why would I blame a man who has gone insane for his actions?” And, with that said, Zhitian left.

After Yulan finished reading Lingyun’s last letter, she turned and told her closest personal maid to get her cloak. She stepped out her warm chambers but did not feel the chill of the autumn night, as maids with handheld furnaces surrounded her. The slight smell of incensed wood went perfectly with the aroma of sweet olives. Yulan, however, could not enjoy the beauty of the night. She gazed at the faraway clouds that partially blocked the large, milky moon.

Lingyun…

She hoped with all her heart that Fengbo would make it in time. What could she do, but hope? The letters were her only solace that her fourth son was still alive and well. According to the latest letter, he had made a new friend while traveling, someone he found quite entertaining to be around. Clearly, judging by the poetic and regulated verses of the letters, her youngest son was enjoying the freedom, savoring everything like it was the best thing in the world.

The idea of forcing that carefree boy into a position that would bring him nothing but pain only made Yulan’s chest tighten. She lowered her gaze from the night skies, mentally listing all the reasons she had to stop thinking of Lingyun as a mere child.

After all, Lingyun wasn’t just any child. He was the son of Bai Lianzheng, the emperor of Yue. If he continued wandering without a shred of care for earthly matters, he would go down in history as irresponsible and selfish, even though he could be so much more.

Finally, Yulan arrived at the emperor’s quarters. The servants pulled open the door without making a noise, and all her maids stopped outside, letting Yulan enter alone.

She saw her brother and nodded to acknowledge him as he continued to regulate the emperor’s qi. Jian’de’s expression was grave, the weight of his expression so heavy it all but soaked the atmosphere with solemnity. “One of my scouts reported that the army in Xia’s northernmost stronghold has gone on the move. Other troops in Xia are secretly heading north into our empire as well, and the price of rice has soared so high that we can no longer afford it. It is war. It has started.”

Those words were spoken with a lowered voice, but they rang like cackling thunder, so dizzying that they almost threw Yulan off balance.

So it had started…Who was next? She considered the other countries. Yan would be next, especially since they had cut off all trade and their new emperor was eager to garner support. Jin would probably strike soon as well…would they have enough soldiers?

This was a mess. “It is just as we have predicted: Song Hongzu wants to conquer our empire to raise his status and justify his inevitable usurping of the ruler’s position, taking advantage of the drought we are suffering. Your brother, the Han-Wang*, already has sixty thousand soldiers concentrated at his governing region, but Xia’s leading general is Song Hongzu, I think I should go down to support Jinghua with another twenty thousand, and I ask for permission to set out three days from this day.”

Even though the emperor was deathly ill, his breathing was soundless. “Permission granted. I will give you the official papers tomorrow,” he finally replied, though his sentence ended with a long hum. “No doubt Yan will follow…Who do you think I should send to support my younger brother who’s living in the north?” The question was aimed to make sure that both he and Xuan Jia’de were on the same page regarding the matter.

Knowing this, the general replied, “Duan Xianzhong has experience with fighting the Yan, not to mention his second son Duan Mingwu has much potential. Sending their men to support Zhao-Wang is for the best.”

Yulan stood still, listening to the conversation as her husband and her brother checked their plans and personnel shift. “What of Ning?” she asked at last, unable to erase the slight waver in her voice. Both men fell silent, and it was as though the atmosphere became stiffer, like a giant rock was hovering in the air while supported by a thin thread.

“Liang-Wang is not an ideal commander,” Yulan continued carefully. “Indeed, he has won many wars in the past, but he is old now, too full of pride. If Ning decides this is the time to invade….” Her voice trailed away. “I know we’ve sent Zhou Dan to negotiate our future with them, and I have confidence that he can delay their invasion for some time, but with three of our rivals weakening us, do you think they will just sit back and watch?”

“Yulan,” Lianzheng sighed, coughing a little, “to have a wife as bright as you are is my fortune. True, they will not sit back and watch idly as this much desired land gets invaded from three borders. We can only accept their help, which they will offer.”

“Yet, accepting their aid will only be planting the seed to greater woes,” Yulan pointed out.

“I trust you have a plan?” her brother asked, though he already knew the answer.

“Give the succession to someone more capable,” Yulan began. She then briefly gave the account of Yiming’s recent behaviors to support her opinions.

“Allow me to speak my mind on this as well,” Jian’de continued, and the emperor nodded. “Although Zhitian is a smart leader, he will ignore civilians while he plots to unify these lands, and he will rule too much by fear. Citizens will complain sooner or later, so chances of rebellion will be high. As for Qingyan, he will be a puppet, and puppets invite temptations to usurp the throne. His health and lack of political talent will only dent the Bai Family’s prestige and power.”

While Yulan listened to her brother, she felt a chill run down her spine. It was a warning to Lianzheng that if Zhitian gave the citizens a hard time, the Xuan family would likely rebel and usurp the throne. The other warning was that the man controlling Qinyan would likely provoke the Xuan into rebelling. Although Xuan Jian’de was a loyal man, his loyalty was to Yue, even though the emperor was basically the empire. To Jia’de, if the emperor could no longer represent the empire, he would not hesitate to turn against the emperor. A patriotic man like Xuan Jia’de, who was not bound by rigid tradition despite his position and power, was hard to come by. The only person who was like Jia’de was his eldest living son, Fengbo. Sometimes, Yulan could not decide whether her brother’s unorthodox beliefs were good or bad.

Understanding the unspoken warning, Lianzheng fell silent for a long time. “Indeed. This cannot continue any longer. I agree with both of you.” His brows remained furrowed even as he took a deep breath. “Next week, I will attend the scheduled Royal Conference. By that time, I trust Zhitian will have come up with enough evidence to support his theory that Yiming has gone mad. I will demote Yiming to being a Junwang* and send him to aid the borders of Jin. Although not a good politician, Yiming is rather adept at war.”

For a long time, no one said a word, though the same thing weighed in their minds.

“So…Has Fengbo found him yet?” asked the emperor at last.

But the actual question that burdened them was: Would he do it?

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Mounted on his warhorse, Fengbo gazed out Mount Sky Shadows, observing the flow of rivers and the faraway cities as the rising sun’s rays spread through the lands of Yue. The legendary manual, Dragon God, eh? No wonder he couldn’t find Lingyun.

But what he was really concerned about was not where Lingyun was anymore, but rather why Lingyun was traveling around with someone from Blood Flames Sect. Not to mention, according to Xiao Wuying, Lingyun had taken the boy in as his disciple!

Definitely suspicious. If that Blood Flames Sect brat hadn’t killed Lingyun yet, there would only be one reason.

Fengbo gave his horse a nudge and headed down the mountains. Out of all the rumors that he had gathered so far, one particular person stood out: Zhou Shiren, an arrogant and extremely good-looking noble who was skilled with weiqi. He definitely had training with martial arts, yet no one knew which sect he was from.

Word was that this Zhou Shiren disappeared and appeared at random places, traveling with a young servant of some sort and gambling to pay for his living expenses. The region where he had been last sighted was near Mount Blood Flames and the region bordering the Ning Empire.

Not only was that place near Ning, but it was near Lingyun’s greatest threat—which ironically made it one of the safest place to be, since no sane target of Blood Flames assassins would dare travel too near those mountains.

And that definitely sounded like what Lingyun would do.

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Wine and women, music and luxury. Lingyun had to admit: He enjoyed indulging in hedonism.

…However.

Everything was so fake.

Boring, predictable, uninteresting people. Phoniness was bound to follow closely behind opulence.

He could not understand what Qiuyang found so fascinating about Green Buildings. He appreciated the artistic performance, but it was the thick, nauseating fakeness in the air that ruined his mood. Lingyun tried not to yawn when eager women poured more alcohol into his small cup while they showered him with flattery he didn’t need.

He narrowed his eyes and observed the other two companions, ignoring the honey-comb words brushing his ears like silk. Juntao, who was young and inexperienced, seemed baffled by the attention the ladies were giving him. Qiuyang, on the other hand, was obviously a frequent visitor of Green Buildings and was enjoying the attention. Most of the women were gathered around him, though some managed to sneak a few glances at Lingyun. This was, after all, a rather old and flourishing city of Ning. A city that had once belonged to Yue, but the previous emperor had lost the city after a war. Therefore, of course they’d pay more attention to Qiuyang. Lingyun didn’t care, though.

After he finished another cup of yellow wine*, he decided it would be his last. Getting drunk was the last thing he wanted.

“Zhou-gongzi, why don’t you sing with us?” pestered one of the ladies. She was beautiful, but it was a plain beauty, like the rest of the women in the room. Compared to the women in the harem back in the palace, these entertainers were nothing, regardless of their talents.

“I’m not good at singing,” Lingyun replied, though it was just to discourage the women. Like he, the Bai Lingyun, would be not good at anything! “Ask Qiuyang, I’m sure he’ll be happy to sing and dance with you.” He glanced at the Taizi of Ning. “Oh. I guess he’s already doing that.”

“Shiren,” Qiuyang called, his words slightly slurred, “how are you doing over there?”

“Fine,” Lingyun replied, though he considered saying ‘bored’ instead. After all, he and Qiuyang were quite close now and Lingyun didn’t need to act all respectful and polite and most of all, fake.

“You look a bit bored.” At least Qiuyang could tell Lingyun was bored. “I know, I’ll show you something even more entertaining!” He turned to the best-looking lady to his side and murmured something. It was too noisy for Lingyun to hear what they were talking about, but he doubted he would be surprised or amused by anything Qiuyang had up his sleeve.

After a while, the door opened, and a rather tall figure walked in, her face covered by an elegant fan. She then closed her fan, revealing a face so beautiful and exquisite Lingyun found it hard to believe that she had not been taken into Ning’s imperial harem. She was in an entirely different league from the rest of the women in the room, or the building, for the matter. Yet, something was strange about the lady. Her beauty was undeniable, but slightly different than a normal woman’s beauty.

Only after noticing how flat the lady’s chest was and how unnaturally broad her shoulders were did Lingyun realize the newcomer was not a she, but a he.

He gaped at the beautiful and yet seductive man, speechless. After all, it was his first time actually seeing a man who sold his body. What baffled him the most was how a man could dress in such a way, in feminine clothing, donning intricate hairpins like a woman would. Not to mention, he found it hard to imagine what those male prostitutes would be thinking when they had sex.

Soon, it was clear that the man wasn’t just looks. He had a great talent for music, better at playing the guqin than even Lingyun’s brother, Qingyan, was. After observing the xianggong for a while, however, Lingyun decided that the entertainer was no man. Instead, the prostitute was just a woman trapped in a beautiful man’s body. But for some reason, the gorgeous cortesan had his undivided attention.

“He’s the top xianggong of this building,” explained some lady who was the closest to Lingyun. “He came only because taizidianxia is here. It is hard to get an appointment with him!”

Before Lingyun could voice his thoughts, one of Qiuyang’s guards barged into the room, unable to disguise his worries. Beads of sweat ran down his temples, and his cheeks were slightly red. The entertainers backed away from Qiuyang and the guard whispered something in the taizii’s ears. Although Qiuyang’s expression did not change, Lingyun had a general idea of what it was about.

So, either Xia or Yan invaded Yue, eh? Most likely Xia, because Yan had just changed emperors. Lingyun stood up, watching Qiuyang talk to his guard.

“I’m sorry, but I have some business to take care of,” Qiuyang apologized, standing up as well. “It cannot be delayed. I have to leave for the palace at once.” He strode over to Lingyun and placed a hand on Lingyun’s shoulder. “Would you like to come with me? I need someone like you beside me, to help me govern my country in the future. I know you are the son of a rather powerful noble in Yue, but.…” His grip tightened.

Like hell Lingyun was going to waltz into Ning’s Imperial Palace and become a hostage.

Not to mention, Qiuyang’s blatant disregard for Lingyun’s dislike of politics was annoying.

“My deepest apologies,” Lingyun replied with furrowed brows. “But that is the only thing that I am unable to do, my friend.”

Lingyun noticed how relieved Juntao looked as they accompanied Qiuyang and his guards out the Green Building. The chilly wind rustled the willow leaves, and the moon was hazy in the cloudy night. “I hope your trip back to your capital city will be a safe one. I’d love to play weiqi with you again,” he said as slipped an envelope into Qiuyang’s clothes.

The taizi did not notice. “Me too.” And they left on their horses, galloping away at full speed.

After the figures disappeared into darkness, Juntao predictably asked, “Master, what did you slip into his clothes?”

“Insurance,” Lingyun replied flatly, too tired to get irritated by how nosy and dull Juntao was. “Come on,” he said as he headed to the stables. “We’re leaving Ning. This is not a good time for me to be in enemy’s territory.”

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Chapter 12

All the color had drained from Yiming’s face, and he sat shivering and sweating, his eyes so wide his eyeballs could pop out from their sockets any time.

“Your Majesty, please reconsider your choice!” pleaded Yuan Mengxiu, an old, veteran official who was also the Head Minister of the Rites. “This sort of untraditional decision will only worsen fights between siblings….”

“How dare you say such insolent things in front of his Majesty?” interrupted He Shaojing in a loud voice that made it clear that he was one of the emperor’s most trusted confidants. “His Imperial Majesty’s revered father is an example of the break in tradition!”

The noise from discussions and arguments began to rise like a nearing tsunami, eventually dominating the large chambers like a hive of angry wasps. Bai Lianzheng, the emperor, frowned, his face growing paler by the minute.

“Silence!” roared Jiang Weizi, his voice overpowering the Imperial Court and immediately subduing all arguments. “Your animalistic noises are giving His Imperial Majesty a headache! Know your manners and behave like civilized officials.”

“Regarding the taizi,” offered a small, yet firm voice that belonged to none other than Zhitian’s most trusted underling, Sun Haoping, “there were some strange incidents in the Eastern Palace and I sent people to investigate. We’ve found a twenty-percent rise in innocents who were killed due to false judgment….”

After leaving Ning, Lingyun had dropped his name, and he had even bought a mask, much to Juntao’s horror. His master was really intent on avoiding recognition at all costs…even sacrificing his absolute advantage in socializing—his looks. It was those looks that had made Qiuyang stay longer than he should have, after all…that sneaky, perverted bastard. Every time Juntao remembered the way Qiuyang had looked at Lingyun, he felt nothing but irritation. And that bastard had even dared to bring out a male prostitute! Juntao had immediately understood the implication of that action, though he had no clue if his master had understood.

But now that Lingyun had disguised the face that could easily cause war between countries, Juntao had been stuck with a master who looked like a walking corpse for more than a month. Not to mention, Lingyun was still putting them in the spotlight, only in a worse one—people backed away with disgust and refused to do much business with them. Though, Lingyun seemed happy to get into arguments precisely because of their disgust, always ending up getting huge discounts.

Of course, Juntao knew why his master had decided to wear a mask—so that he could freely use Snow Prison techniques, skills he had immediately started using when he started to disguise himself. As they traveled north, Lingyun had been asking for any rumors of bandit problems and the like, consequently practicing on the hapless, or not so hapless, criminals.

This night, they were spending the night out in the wilderness, near the borders of Yan, roasting chicken by the fire. “Yue has really become weak with corruption since my father became sick,” Lingyun remarked, waiting for the chicken to roast. Behind the mask were beautiful, fierce jewels that even the mask’s ugliness could not hide. “It was a good choice to leave.” He threw some more wood into the cackling flame. “Even being chased down by assassins is better than dealing with humans.”

Shocked by the sudden sigh, Juntao didn’t know what to reply with. Just hours earlier, Lingyun had been laughing and taunting bandits and criminals as though he had been having the best time of his life. It made no sense.

Ashamed that he still didn’t understand his master at all, Juntao lowered his head and stared into the dancing blaze. “If…Yue becomes in danger of falling apart, are you really going to be all right with it?” Pathetic. After all this time, was this the only question he could ask? A destructive question that asked for nothing but pain? And yet, Juntao really wanted to know. Lingyun was finally letting his guard down, after all this time…

Juntao should feel happy that Lingyun was finally beginning to trust him a little more, but the one behind that mask was nothing like what he had once imagined. All this time, and he didn’t notice a thing, he didn’t understand a thing.

The chicken’s skin was the right color, golden and crisp. Lingyun removed the chicken from the fire. “Everywhere is the same, Yue or not Yue. The problem is always humans, and human problems are always the same.”

And so, Lingyun never truly answered Juntao’s question, merely eating in silence. For the first time since Juntao had known Lingyun, he saw something other than arrogance and indifference reflected from those clear, black eyes.

Suddenly, nausea rose up Juntao’s chest—he found it hard to breathe, let alone swallow the piece of meat in his mouth. Involuntarily, his hands clutched his chest, and his brows furrowed.

“Brat?” Lingyun asked, lowering his food.

Juntao felt so light-headed and giddy he wanted to throw up. He felt all the energy inside his body spiral out of control, as though something was coming, something chaotic. “I…I feel sick,” he wheezed, barely a whisper. Cold sweat covered every inch of his skin, instantly soaking his clothes.

“Need me to help you out?” This was the first time Lingyun had offered something that seemed almost caring…

And yet, the joy Juntao felt only made him feel wrong. This joy…this wasn’t the right sort of happiness…this crazy insanity…

“Hey, Juntao!”

That was probably the first time Lingyun actually called Juntao by the name…

“Please…stop making me feel like this…I don’t deserve this,” Juntao wanted to say, but before he could so much as move his lips, darkness overcame him.

Before Lingyun could touch Juntao’s body, a cold flash made him leap back. Sweat covered his back immediately and his hair stood on end. He had barely avoided what could have been a fatal blow. If he had been a little less alert…

“Tsk, as expected from the genius of Snow Prison Sect,” drawled a voice that was familiar and yet foreign.

Lingyun blinked. Then, he narrowed his eyes and drew out his sword, ignoring the pang that stabbed at his chest. “I see,” he said in a controlled, smooth voice, observing the body of Juntao’s. So…in the end, his little wishful gambling ended up losing big. Forget about avoiding all the Blood Flames hounds—he had let a Blood Flames assassin follow him around, observe his fights, understand his habits, and even learn some of his techniques. Even though Lingyun had not taught Juntao the techniques that really mattered, his choice in the fight would be limited.

The taste of a lost gamble was bitter. And he sort of liked Junato’s fiery, wanna-be rebellious attitude, too.

“Not going to ask who I am? That’s a first.” A wicked grin spread across Juntao’s pretty face, but it did not suit the youthful face that still had some baby fat.

“Am I supposed to ask?” Lingyun said through gritted teeth, still annoyed that the moment he decided to trust the brat a little more was the moment he had been betrayed.

The brat chuckled, twirling the small knife in his left hand and letting it disappear right back into his sleeve. “Well, just to shut Juntao up later on, I’ll have to be a little talkative for a while. Will you mind?” As he talked, he drew his sword.

“Multiple personality? I’ve heard of using neili to manipulate the mind, but I never thought it was possible. Interesting…are you joking me?” The fire dimmed, responding to the sudden surge of Lingyun’s neili. “Yes. I mind,” he hissed as he ripped off the mask that would hamper his performance. “I’d prefer you to shut up and fight. Don’t think I won’t kill you just because I sort of liked having a disciple I could verbally abuse and order around. I don’t fall for stupid ideas like multiple personalities—like I’m going to hope that the Juntao inside you would hear me and stop this pathetic act?” Lingyun laughed, though there was no mirth in his monotonic voice. “I don’t care if you’re Juntao or if you’re someone else.” He positioned himself and glared straight into the amused eyes of Juntao, or of whoever was inside that body.

Then, his lips curled into a taunting smirk.

“All I care about is kicking your ass.”

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Chapter 13

Swoosh, swoosh, ching!

Gasping for air, Lingyun barely held onto his wobbling sword, his fingers numb from the impact. What was this? Juntao’s moves were completely different, as though he really were someone different. Every attack was deadly, so lethal that Lingyun felt like his life was hanging on the edge of a steep cliff just by fighting his ex-pupil. The battle was no longer fun, but a torture.

A cruel laughter. “You look confused, master,” Juntao sneered. “Are you so surprised that I’m giving you such a hard time?”

Not even bothering to answer, Lingyun lashed out with ‘Mandi Fengxue’, his flexing blade whipping from one attack into six different attacks, all aiming for the vital areas of Juntao’s upper body, so quick and furious that the blade’s ringing remained clear and constant. Another metallic clash, the sharp sound of scraping blades loud in the silent night. Juntao twisted his wrist, parrying Lingyun and slashing to the side. Lingyun back-flipped in the nick of time so the tip only grazed the surface of his arm, but the wound still burned like a thousand needles were poking into the cut.

Poison?

There was no time to decide. Parrying Juntao’s attack and finally seeing a real opening, Lingyun whirled around and aimed for Juntao’s hip, neck, shoulders, thighs and torso—the move was so sudden and quick that Juntao could not avoid the entire attack. Now deeply wounded in the hip and thigh, Juntao leaped back a few yards.

The name of that attack was ‘Liufeng Huixue’, and only few people with exceptional qingggong could pull that lightning-fast move off. So far, the only person in his generation who was able to perform that attack flawlessly was none other than Lingyun himself. As the name implied, it was like snowflakes in the whirling wind, light and graceful. Fengbo liked watching Lingyun practice that move.

For some reason, Lingyun started to wonder how that lying bastard was doing.

And that slight distraction almost cost him another cut. Juntao’s eyes burned with dark insanity, his lips curled into a sneer despite the deep gashes—it was as though he were completely unaffected by his wounds.

Countering with his favorite technique, ‘Xuenue Fengtao’, Lingyun’s blade cut right into Juntao’s shoulder but then missed Juntao’s torso by a hair. Suddenly, Lingyun’s thigh burned as though a flame had been lit up right under his skin. He glanced down quickly and noticed something small and shining sticking into his thigh.

Sweat immediately covered every inch of his body. Poison. Poison. Poison! When did…?

“Just when your sword cut into my shoulder,” Juntao replied as though reading Lingyun’s mind. “You have poison phobia, don’t you? Well, it’s right to fear this poison. In ten seconds, you will lose all control over your body.”

“You cheating bastard,” Lingyun hissed, no longer able to use his arms to press the acupressure points that could have slowed the poison. “I would have won if you hadn’t—”

“What do you expect from an assassin?” Juntao sneered, licking his lips as his fiery eyes grazed Lingyun’s body, almost as though Lingyun were prey. “After all, I admit: You’re frighteningly strong for a spoiled noble.”

Lingyun fell to the grass, his entire body numb. The fire originating from that venomous needle had reached every fiber of his body, the pain so excruciating that a moan escaped his lips. He felt humiliation flare to life in his cheeks.

Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw Juntao’s feet stop before him. “Nice voice.” The cheating bastard chuckled. “Don’t worry, though,” he continued smugly as he presumably squatted. “This poison isn’t life threatening. It would be boring if it were. You can still retain clear consciousness and you can still feel.” His rough fingers traced Lingyun’s jaw line, lifting Lingyun’s chin.

“Now, since you can’t move and I have plenty of time, I’ll tell you about myself. My name is Chi Guijue, grandson of the current leader of Blood Flames Sect and the most likely one to inherit his position,” drawled the venomous traitor, the corners of his lips still curved. “Unlike you, who started learning martial arts at the late age of eleven, I have been learning how to fight ever since I could lift a sword. So, rest assured, arrogant master, it is only natural that you had such a hard time fighting me, since I have technically three more years of experience than you have….” His smile widened, and his eyes became little crescents.

“As for Juntao, he’s the original owner of this body. But as the grandson of the great leader, a personality such as his own is undesired, so the elders soon brought me into existence when he was six. Normally, it’s the other way around, an ‘innocent’ personality is supposed to be created, but no matter. He doesn’t know I exist, but I can affect his reasoning and I can take over whenever I want. Since his personality was determined to be the most compatible with yours, I made him run away from Mount Blood Flames and look for you to be his teacher. Quite convenient, isn’t he?”

Lingyun merely glared, his eyes without a trace of the agony he felt.

Juntao, or Guijue, laughed at the sight. “Oh yes, that look of yours does really excite me, too.” He leaned closer, his lips touching Lingyun’s ears. “I wonder if you have noticed Juntao’s feelings about you?” His thumb ran over Lingyun’s lower lip and eventually invaded Lingyun’s mouth, brushing his tongue. “You’re not dumb…you know how good you look and how your looks affect others.”

What the hell was this nutcase blabbering about? If Lingyun could still have controlled his body, he would have bitten off that thumb.

Guijue pulled out his now moist thumb and a thread of saliva followed, glistening from the fire’s light. He then stared at Lingyun for a while before he broke into fits of laughter. “You didn’t know? I can’t believe you! I thought you were supposed to be extremely intelligent…I guess just not in the emotional department. This is so amusing….” He reached into Lingyun’s robes and caressed Lingyun’s chest, reminding Lingyun of that night back in Mount Snow Prison. Involuntarily, Lingyun felt himself hardening.

“Such delicate and smooth skin…as expected from a spoiled aristocrat.” Guijue was now pinning Lingyun to the grass, his warm breath tickling the back of Lingyun’s neck. “How exciting…,” he breathed hoarsely, “A younger pupil fucking his older master…I love blasphemy. Don’t you?”

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Chapter 14

Staring out the window, Fengbo couldn’t help but sigh, though it did nothing to loosen the tightening knot in his chest. By the time he had reached the borders of Ning and headed north towards Yan, the noble he had been tailing, Zhou Shiren, had evaporated into thin air.

Was it impossible to catch a cloud, after all?

“But speaking of sharp tongues…,” the waiter babbled on, “there was an arrogant martial artist that stayed for a night not long ago. He also had a boy with him. But, if he’s the one you’re asking for, brother, you definitely have to get your eyesight tested.”

Now this caught Fengbo’s attention. He turned around lazily to face the waiter, only to find the young twenty-something grinning like a fox, his eyes gleaming with ridicule.

“What do you mean?” Fengbo asked, making a point not to sound too interested. If he did, he would only lose more money, and he had already spent too much gathering information on ‘Zhou Shiren’, who was so famous in the area that every female and every perverted man wanted a glimpse of the ‘legendary beauty’.

“Well….”

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What sort of messed up joke was this?

What sort of messed up lunatic would want to…want to….

How could anyone even think of disgracing him? He was no Luan Tong, he was no woman, and definitely no weakling—he was Bai Lingyun, the fourth son of Bai Lianzheng, the genius of Snow Prison! He could read at the age of three! He could defeat fellow pugilists with eight or more years of experience than he had!

Move, he ordered himself; yet he couldn’t. All he could do now was regulate his neili to suppress the poison from his body as Guijue’s hands explored everywhere. And the fact that Guijue was actually Juntao in the physical sense was more disturbing than the fact that he was a male.

As if being disgraced wasn’t bad enough, being disgraced by a disciple was beyond unfathomable. Although Lingyun had never been one for the many annoying and meticulous rules of the society, this was too much, too much…!

Yet, if things kept going like this, the unfathomable would become reality.

The air was cold against his burning skin. Guijue pressed against Lingyun, biting and sucking Lingyun’s skin, digging his nails into Lingyun’s exposed shoulder. As Guijue ground against Lingyun, he felt how hard Guijue was and his heart rattled his ribcage.

This could not be happening. This simply could not be happening.

Someone, please wake him up and tell him that this was all a ridiculous nightmare…!

But the excruciating pain that burned throughout his body already indicated otherwise.

Guijue’s hand slithered between Lingyun’s inner thighs, like he was caressing a woman. “You really have fine skin…despite the firm muscles….” He bit into Lingyun’s back as his fingers trailed up, slowly, teasingly.

Lingyun felt like his heart could jump out of his throat any minute. He would rather die than go through this humiliation.

“You’re hard.”

No, he was not!

He was…he was….

A soft chuckle, rich with amusement. “I never knew you liked this sort of thing, master.”

Lingyun held his breath, horror poisoning his already poisoned body. This was all the fault of that intruder back in Mount Snow Prison. If he hadn’t…If he hadn’t committed that outrageous act to Lingyun’s body, Lingyun would have never reacted this way! Yet, everything reminded him of that night, of that pleasure, of that inexplicable emotion he had felt…

Just as Lingyun prayed that he could miraculously die before being mocked any further, the sound of hooves, marching feet, and clattering armor became audible, heading their way.

Immediately, Guijue paused, presumably staring at the direction where the noise was coming from.

On the other hand, Lingyun began to think. This fast? He had not expected the horde for another day. Not that it made a difference anymore.

“You bastard,” his ex-disciple mused, though without anger. “Just what were you planning when you decided to set the camp here?”

It wasn’t like Lingyun could answer. And even if he could have, he wouldn’t have.

However, instead of speculating out loud like Lingyun had expected him to, Guijue made a gurgled noise, his body stiffening.

Stillness. The faraway sound of the nearing army was eerily loud.

Then, Lingyun’s acupressure points for temporary paralysis were jabbed. “I’m sorry…master….” choked the familiar voice behind him. Drops of water landed on his exposed back. “I didn’t know…I’m sorry….” Lingyun was turned over and some bitter liquid was poured into his mouth, choking him. He barely swallowed the…medicine?

Seconds later, the pain antagonizing his body receded. He heard some shuffling noise, hasty steps on grass, the neigh of a horse, and then nothing but the cackling fire.

That was when Lingyun regained control of his body.

…Juntao? Lingyun wondered as he straightened his clothes, glancing back at the fireplace. As he thought, Juntao’s belongings and horse were gone. Lingyun didn’t know how long he stared blankly into space. When he came back to his senses, the fire had almost gone out and the army of Yan had covered quite an amount of distance. He put out the flame and sighed.

Well, this was what he had wanted, was it not? To be alone.

But somehow, the night seemed colder than usual.

…Another reason to hate company.

He picked up his sword.

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As expected, the emperor had not immediately announced who the new taizi would be, even though he had already written his decision into a sealed message that would be revealed once all his sons gathered—meaning once Lingyun returned.

No matter. Yiming had been stripped of his title and sent away to stay under the care of their grand-uncle, the Liang-wang. Along with him went his men, saving a lot of energy.

Striding down the hallways like he had already been crowned as the successor, Zhitian headed out to celebrate with his pets.

“Your Highness!” someone called after him, almost breathless.

Turning around like with a graceful whirl, Zhitian saw one of his puppets, Ren Fangting. The official’s face was red and sweaty, and his eyes were wide with panic. “Something urgent has happened,” Fangting continued, breathless. “Yan has invaded.”

“All thanks to that moronic elder brother….” Zhitian couldn’t help but curse. It wasn’t like he opposed war, but they were severely short on provisions thanks to the drought in their vital rice-producing regions. To make matters worse, winter was arriving, the worst time for war against two countries and the worst time to be short on food. “Any news from the south?” he asked.

In Zhitian’s opinion, the only answer to their food shortages was to conquer Xia.

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Someone was in his room.

Duan Mingwu could sense a presence, and yet he could see nothing in the darkness. An assassin? Yet what business would an assassin have with him, the son of the Commanding General?

He drew his weapon, refraining from alerting the guards out of sheer pride and curiosity. Although the Duan family’s Martial Arts was not as prestigious as the Xuan family, Mingwu had always believed that it was only a matter of time before they surpassed the esteemed Xuan. Regulating his inner energy, Mingwu could react to movement within a fraction of a second.

It was like all the air in his room was frozen, and Mingwu’s fingers were ice. The intruder was taking time observing him, he realized.

Man, he really hated the north. He couldn’t wait for the upcoming war to end and to return south, though it wouldn’t be much warmer than the borders of Yan. “Who are you? Name yourself,” he demanded, his voice abnormally flat in the chilly night.

A glimmer of iron and he quickly brought his weapon up, the sound of clashing metal clear and violent. Duan Mingwu staggered back a few steps, his fingers burning from the parry. He could judge from the implied neili alone that the intruder was strong, horribly strong. Mingwu had no chance if he was using a dao; his main expertise was the spear, after all. Sweat ran down his temples and his mouth opened, but then shut.

“Not going to call your guards?” asked the intruder all of a sudden, his voice unexpectedly clear and pleasant. Mingwu could tell from the accent that the intruder was from the Capital City, and his eyes widened. Had such a talented martial artist existed before?

“What business do you have with me?” Mingwu managed to retain a steady tone.

The clouds hiding the moon finally floated away, and milky moonlight shed through the windows, only to reveal a freakishly disfigured man. For a split second, the Commanding General’s son wondered if he had just crossed blades with a zombie.

“Relax, I’m a living, breathing human, just like you,” drawled the intruder, expressionless despite the blatant mockery dripping from his voice.

Then, Mingwu remembered a rumor: There was an extremely ugly, arrogant, but somewhat heroic traveler in the north, defending villages from blood-thirsty criminals and savage bandits. Though, it was said that the mysterious person had no original intention to ‘save’ others; that his endeavors to fight strong men and test his own abilities just happened to coincide with heroic deeds.

“You’re that strange, ugly guy roaming around the north fighting off criminals and picking on abusive landlords,” Mingwu breathed.

“Nice description,” mused the ugly man, his unnaturally clear eyes burning mockery into Mingwu’s. “Yes, I’m that guy, and I am here because you morons are just hopeless. The Yan aren’t going to sack this strategically vital city you’re guarding, the army you guys are fighting right now is a decoy. They’re headed straight to the Capital—I guess they just figured that was the quickest way to beat Xia to the goal. They don’t want to merely expand their land. They want to conquer this empire.”

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This was disastrous.

Two months had passed since he had left the capital. They had been fighting for three weeks, trying to break the stalemate.

It was not that Xuan Jia’de was losing in terms of tactics, but no matter how great a General he was, this was no longer something that his charisma and experience alone could control. The military morale had hit an all-time low, the lack of sufficient provisions and the glaring difference in numbers eroding the spirits of the combined men he led and the men the emperor’s brother, Bai Dingsheng, led.

To add oil to the fire, he had just received the notice that Yan had invaded a little more than a week ago. Where should the rations go? His men would wonder, and while they wondered, their morale would drop further. Both Jia’de and the Han-wang, Dingsheng, opposed robbing enemy villages. Not only because they were civilized men, but because they had to think of Yue’s name. Yue would not engage in barbaric activities—it was what set them apart from other empires and gained the support of the citizens of rival empires.

Yet things were becoming more and more urgent. Jia’de knew that he had to conclude the war soon, before they really ran out of provisions and weakened.

The next battle, he would be on the front lines.

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Chapter 15

The more Mingwu studied the intruder, the more grisly and dead he seemed. As he examined the deformed man, Duan Mingwu considered many things. Despite his questionable personality, the rumors made clear that the ugly man before him kept his word. Plus, he had the accent of a high-class noble—someone this ugly might have really been hidden from the public due to his unbelievably hideous appearance, which would explain why Mingwu had never known of the man’s existence.

Yet, if the ugly man was lying and just toying with him and Mingwu foolishly believed the man, the respect he had carefully cultivated would be instantly shattered. What if the disfigured man had been sent to drag the Duan Family down?

Penetrating eyes observed Mingwu, almost as though they could read his mind. “If you don’t trust me, just send one of your scouts to the canyons of the Snow Prison Mountain Ranges.” Though the man’s ghastly features remained unmoving, Mingwu could hear the sneer in the corpse-like man’s voice. “But whether you’re interested in what I have to say or not, I don’t really care as much as you’d wish I’d care.”

It wasn’t like the Commanding General’s son had a choice. The infiltrator could kill him before he called for help or retrieve his spear. With a sigh, Mingwu sheathed his dao. “Is it something my father would like to hear?” What the hell was he talking about? If the man before him was actually an assassin from Yan…

“Depends on whether you want to hear his advice or whether you want to keep the credit all to yourself,” replied the man. “Don’t worry. I don’t want to take credit. Rise up in the ranks all you like. In fact, I’d prefer if you don’t mention me.”

Mingwu couldn’t determine whether the man was telling the truth or not. “At least, can you tell me your name?” he offered politely, finding himself respecting the intruder despite the man’s appalling appearance, chafing conceit and rude remarks. It was the air about the intruder, the air of a natural leader.

“My name is of no importance.” This time, the man sounded annoyed. “Stop wasting my time. Make your decision in three seconds, or I’ll leave.”

That statement forced Mingwu to swallow the burning need to ask why the man wanted to help. “All right, I’ll hear what you have to say. After I confirm if your information is right, I’ll talk to my father.”

A cold laugh; venomous mockery. “Smart choice.” The man sheathed his own sword as well, though his sharp eyes remained focused on Mingwu’s weapon. “Take out a map and spread it on that table,” he ordered, pointing lazily at the round tea table. “I want ink and a brush. And light.”

Upon hearing the arrogant orders, Mingwu felt anger boil up in his chest—did the man not know what position the Duan Family held in Yue? Gritting his teeth and convincing himself that the man was just testing him, he did as he had been told while the man sat at the chair next to the table.

When Mingwu finished the preparations, the man picked up the brush with his right hand, pulled back his long and loose sleeve with the other, and revealed a pale forearm while he dabbed the tip of the brush in ink. For a horrendously ugly guy, the man had good skin.

Mingwu decided it was because the man was, in the end, a noble. For all he knew, the man was probably a noble who had been locked up for most of his life.

“I sighted their troops heading towards the valley of Mount Snow Prison,” the man began, drawing on the map. “After they succeed here, they’ll probably head this direction.…” He demonstrated with the brush. “And start robbing every town they cross because they sacrificed at least half of their food provisions to come through the valley. By the time they get here, Guang-wang will probably have heard of them and headed their way.” The brush stopped. “Their forces will meet here. However, Guang-wang’s men are going to be quite outnumbered; they won’t last long enough for support.” The brush started moving again. “The Yan will then probably cross this river and lay siege to Lang-wang’s castle, crippling the already meager military power that is left around the capital city, and some of the troops posted at the capital will have to help, so if they succeed, the capital is doomed.”

Then, the man lifted his brush and set it aside in a fluid movement unfit for his ugly appearance. “The commander of the men you guys are fighting right now is the best man they have, since they want to drag out this war as long as they can. Even if you guys defeat the decoy and immediately start to chase after the real army, it’ll be too late. They set their bets on the fact that more than half of Yue’s military is concentrated in the south or east, and Yue will be outnumbered no matter what.”

“Why did you know they were going to try this?” Mingwu couldn’t help but interject. “After all, coming through that valley is suicide!”

The man didn’t even bother to turn his head, simply watched Mingwu from the corners of his eyes, irritation seeping through the jet-black irises. “I thought their behavior was strange when I heard some idle discussions here and there. Knowing that the top military advisor of their new emperor is Liao Xiucheng, I had a vague idea of what they were up to so I went to check the area around the valley. Who knew they really decided to take a huge risk.” He chuckled dryly as he stood up and turned to the window. “I guess the new emperor’s just eager to make a splash and impress the nobilities.”

Only then did the fact that the man was about to leave register in Mingwu’s mind. “Wait!” he almost shouted, the desperation in his voice rather pathetic. The man paused, though he didn’t turn around. “What do you…what do you think we should do?” Strangely, Mingwu was already pretty much convinced that the man was telling the truth. He couldn’t help but want to hear some advice from the arrogant and rude man.

“Are you blind?” asked the man, stunning Mingwu and almost angering him again. “Look at your table. I just don’t feel like staying any longer, I hate troublesome things.”

Mingwu glanced at the table and found a white envelope resting on the map. When he returned his attention to the man, the rude intruder was nowhere to be found.

rai-l32

Whether that idiot Duan Mingwu believed him or not, Lingyun didn’t really care. He had done everything he could do in his current situation and he didn’t plan to involve himself any further. After all, Mingwu and his father had both seen Lingyun when he had briefly returned to the palace, if Lingyun stayed too long they’d only be suspicious.

Not to mention, since Juntao had failed to kill him, other Blood Flames assassins would probably catch up to finish the job. Lingyun had thought it odd that he had not once run into Blood Flames bastards. Well, now that he knew the secret to their success, he doubted that they would let him live.

What a pain.

And what Juntao’s other personality had said…Lingyun had been more disturbed by it than he had originally thought he would be. Of course he knew he could have some men obsess over him if he tried—but that was if he tried. After all, he didn’t look like a woman, he was too tall to be one, and his physical structure was nowhere near flimsy and thin. Not to mention, he didn’t act like one anyway. Only idiots who had no pride would act like a submissive female—and even some women he knew were manlier than Luan Tong.

In conclusion, it made no sense to Lingyun why any moron would be sexually interested in him. He had passed off the night on Mount Snow Prison as a nasty prank, but now he found himself reconsidering the real meaning behind that…experience.

Chewing his noodles, Lingyun only found himself more and more irritated. The food already tasted horrible, and through his mask it tasted like rubber. And because of the drought, the simple meal was extremely expensive. Well, at least Lingyun had enough to spend, now that the brat wasn’t following him around anymore.

The food in his mouth tasted worse when he remembered the brat.

Annoyed, Lingyun finished the bowl and headed out the doors. Well, now all that was left in his to-do list was to visit the eastern ports. Then, he’d be free to roam around aimlessly like he had wanted to all along.

He knew that he was just an escaping hypocrite, but he didn’t care. What was wrong with being an escaping hypocrite anyway?

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“Duan-daren!” the soldier rasped as he stumbled into the tent, his cheeks puffed and red. “You were right. There is an army around fifty thousand strong heading to the valley—they’ve reached it by now!”

Mingwu wasn’t surprised. If anything, he was prepared.

That night, he had read the contents of the envelope that mysterious visitor had left behind and decided that the man was telling the truth. After all, what kind of prankster would spend that much time writing up detailed plans so ingenious that there was hardly any flaw in them? Every plan had three backup plans, and every backup plan had two backup plans. The man had considered every situation possible.

“Father,” he said, turning to face the Commanding General. “Please give me permission to take the men under my command.” That was approximately a third of the army they had brought with them.

His father, Duan Xianzhong, frowned. “That little force, against fifty thousand men? I’ll have your cousin to go with you.”

“Thank you, Father.”

Xianzhong nodded. “I would go with you, but the man we are fighting right now is someone only Zhao-wang and I can defeat. Although a decoy, it is only a decoy if we defeat them.”

And so Mingwu left.

rai-l32

Just when Lingyun finally sighted the next town on his journey with a grumbling stomach, he saw four figures heading towards him with extremely skilled qingggong.

Couldn’t they have waited until I checked the last thing off my to-do list? Lingyun thought as he hopped off his horse and tied its lead to a nearby tree. He then drew his sword and proceeded forward, not bothering to erase the look of extreme irritation from his face. He stopped walking when there was enough distance between him and his horse.

It was exactly then that the four assassins caught up with him. They were all disguised with colorful wooden masks, though body-wise, one was skinny, one was short, one was tall and one was buff.

“About time you idiots showed up,” Lingyun drawled. “By the way, nice assembly. Makes it easy for me to identify which one’s which.”

They didn’t answer him—they just leaped to attack in formation.

Although Lingyun had expected them to execute the notorious formations of Blood Flames Sect, he had never expected it to be this frightening. Cold sweat immediately broke down his back and he barely avoided a fatal attack from the short man. He didn’t even have the chance to attack; his hands were already full trying to defend himself.

Not to mention, he had to be extra wary of any poison this time.

Leaping back and parrying three swords at once, Lingyun’s hand was already buzzing with pain. The men were most likely in their thirties, far more experienced than he was. Their inner energies were all more mature than Lingyun’s.

Gritting his teeth and ignoring the pain from his wounds, Lingyun found an opening, grabbed the thin man’s shoulder and threw the man towards the tall man while jumping up to deliver a kick to the short man’s arm. The buff man’s blade immediately pointed towards Lingyun’s stomach, but Lingyun avoided it by a hair’s breadth.

Flipping around, Lingyun parried the tall man’s sword while his left hand struck the forearm of the buff man—and the impact went all the way to his bones. From the corners of his eyes, he saw the thin man aim for his legs and he almost lost his balance evading him.

Now out of breath, Lingyun’s heart thundered loudly as he tried desperately to avoid damage. He could hear his blood pulsing.

He would die.

It was only a matter of time. The formation was flawless.

“Master!” shouted someone familiar, and then a blur of movement, the clash of a sword.

All of a sudden, Lingyun found Juntao standing beside him. He wanted to say something, but the thin man beat him to it: “Juntao! What are you doing? Step aside.” His voice was thin, windy.

“I will not!” Juntao replied. “You know that the client is no longer able to pay, and that our other two clients have canceled the assassination!”

“This man has soiled the prestige of Blood Flames, he needs to die no matter what for the sake of Blood Flames’ name,” said the short man, his voice steady and his breathing regulated. “People are wondering how reliable we are if we aren’t even able to assassinate a mere child for so many years.”

“But that’s because he knows how to protect himself!” Juntao protested.

“The Leader will be extremely disappointed in you, Juntao. Guijue, come out.”

“He’s not going to,” Juntao replied. “I have him under control.”

“Impossible.”

“I’m the owner of the body. Why not?”

“He knows our secret.”

“He won’t tell anyone. He hasn’t told anyone yet, right?”

“Juntao,” warned the buff man.

“I’m not going to inherit the title anyway!” Juntao shot back.

“How can you…? Do you know how much potential you have? It is something I can never hope to have!” the tall man almost yelled. “The talent is engraved into your blood, you know that?”

“Look, the brat already said he doesn’t want to inherit, so he doesn’t want to inherit,” Lingyun interrupted at last. After all, this was one touchy subject for him as well. “Get that through your thick skulls. Not everyone is obsessed with inheriting powerful positions.”

“Stay out of this,” growled the buff man.

The short man, presumably the leader, sighed. “Taizhang, take care of Juntao. The rest of you, Formation: Huomou Sanzhang.”

Lingyun had already prepared himself for the immediate attack. It was much easier fighting three-to-one, but Lingyun still had no chance to so much as attack. However, the tall man stumbled and he didn’t let go of the chance, immediately aiming for the man’s vital point and crippling him. The man shrieked as he fell, blood gushing from his wounds. One down, two to go.

The short man’s blade aimed at his face and he ducked while parrying the thin man’s attack. However, it was a fatal mistake. Unable to avoid the short man’s punch, Lingyun received a grave internal wound.

Immediately, Lingyun threw up blood. His defense weakened immediately and thin man’s sword grazed his hip. Lingyun felt death’s breath on the back of his neck.

Still going to die, after all. So much for enjoying a carefree life.

“Lingyun!”

What was this? Hallucination? Save the loser day?

Maybe Lingyun just wanted to kick that lying bastard’s ass again before he died.

But that guy before him looked so much like that annoying, smiling, lying moron…

Great. Now he was seeing things. He must be pretty close to dying.

“Hang on, Lingyun!” the man said. His voice, for some reason, was oddly soothing.

“Fengbo….” Lingyun found himself mutter, but his internal injuries were too great for him to retain consciousness anymore.

cline3

Chapter 16

As usual, Lingyun’s whereabouts were as elusive as ever. Come to think of it, Fengbo had probably spent five months chasing down any hints of Lingyun—all to no avail. He had heard of the war, two invading countries, and troubles with provisions. Hearing the conversations, Fengbo had only become more restless; he worried about what was going on in the palace and felt that he was wasting his time trying to catch the uncatchable. Sometimes, he thought of abandoning Lingyun and just heading back, since the elusive noble clearly didn’t want to be found.

Just when Fengbo was about to turn around and head back to the capital, he spotted people fighting from afar. He recognized Lingyun’s horse immediately. There was a one-on-one fight and a three-to-one fight, which was odd but he didn’t have the time to think about it.

There was no time to waste.

Lingyun was having a hard time, and with every exchange with his enemies, he seemed to fall back even more. There was a lucky strike and one of the men went down loudly, but Fengbo could tell that the Lingyun was no match for the short man.

Before he could interfere, however, Lingyun suffered a punch, most likely poisonous, from the short man and immediately spat blood. Red strongly contrasted his sheet-white face.

“Lingyun!” Fengbo yelled as he unsheathed his weapon, successfully distracting the two assassins for a split second, which was more than enough for him to leap in between them. “Hang on, Lingyun!” he urged, almost desperate.

“Fengbo….” And then a thud.

His heart pounding furiously, Fengbo took a deep breath and quelled the boiling anger threatening to impair his judgment. “Three against one…and you call yourselves men?” he spat through his teeth, narrowing his eyes.

“Morality does not apply to assassins,” the thin man explained. “Who are you anyway? That’s an awfully expensive weapon you’re holding.”

“Does it matter? You’re going to die anyway.” With that said, Fengbo slashed with both of his hands, twirling the long blade and exercising superior footwork.

Ching!

He broke the thin man’s jian and parried the short man’s attack at the same time. He briefly removed his left hand from the hilt of his saber and struck the thin man’s vital chest acupressure points with full force and neili. Instantly, the man vomited blood and died.

“You…I knew it. You’re from the Xuan family!” exclaimed the short man. “I thought you guys were neutral.”

Coldly, Fengbo replied, “We are. The emperor has asked for his son back alive.”

Sidestep, whirl, slash; the blades clashed loudly, but Fengbo was the one who took three steps backward, his hands faintly hurting. The short man was probably a Blood Flames master—even Fengbo would have a hard time dealing with the short man if the fight dragged on.

Yet, despite knowing that it would be a better idea to negotiate, Fengbo wanted nothing but the short man’s death. How dare the bastard…!

He gripped his dao with both hands, waiting for the opportune moment to attack. The short man did the same. Fengbo could hear his own pulse and his breathing.

Sweat ran down his temple. He had one advantage—his weapon. That was the only thing that allowed him to fight on equal terms with the short man, since his neili was inferior.

The short man moved and so did Fengbo. Their blades clashed five times; Fengbo almost lost his hold on his dao. He aimed for the man’s right ankle and slashed up, twirling his blade and rearing it sideways. Blocked again. Gritting his teeth, he circled his blade around the parry and used all his strength and neili.

Chiing!

Finally, the short man’s sword broke.

However, that was far from the end. Fengbo stepped aside, avoiding a dagger in the nick of time and attacked the short man’s shoulder. The short man was a step quicker, he raised his arm and blocked the attack before the blade could land, almost throwing Fengbo off balance. Fengbo almost ate a poisonous palm, but he knew how fatal that would be and blocked the attack just in time, the impact almost enough to break his bones. He dodged the man’s kick and whirled around to slash across the man’s back, missed, flipped his weapon and slashed again.

It was a lucky strike, since the short man didn’t expect Fengbo to be able to flip his dao into a backhanded hold in such a fast and stable manner. Seizing his chance, Fengbo flipped the grip again and pierced forward, his weapon running straight through the man’s chest.

“Master Hu!” someone yelled. Fengbo noticed that the one-on-one fight had ended probably a while ago, and some boy was running towards him. He attacked without thinking, but the boy was able to avoid it with a pretty sturdy qingggong. “Wait! I’m not the enemy! Not really…,” the boy said quickly, raising his hands to declare peace.

Fengbo narrowed his eyes, observing the boy with detached curiosity. The boy was around sixteen at most, and yet he was able to avoid Fengbo’s one-slash-kill. A straight nose, clean features. Overall, the boy had a handsome face. Maybe in two or three years when he was fully developed, he’d have many women swooning. According to the rumors accompanying Lingyun, this boy was the ‘companion’. Immediately, a surge of irrational irritation came to life in Fengbo. “Who are you?” he asked, despite already having an idea.

The boy wasn’t listening. He had already bent down and removed the short man’s mask. Beneath the colorful wooden disguise was a bearded man in his forties, his lips and chin painted with blood. He was deathly pale, but not dead yet. “Master Hu!” the boy called again. He then looked up, glaring at Fengbo. “You didn’t have to kill these people!” he hissed. “You could have negotiated! Even Blood Flames wouldn’t want to get on the bad side of the entire country of Yue!”

Now thoroughly annoyed, Fengbo moved his weapon and touched the boy’s neck with its edge. “You said you’re not the enemy, but you don’t seem to be an ally, either. Whose side are you on, brat?”

“I’m…I’m on his side, of course!” The boy pointed at the unconscious Lingyun, who was already looking a bit better. “But I’m also from Blood Flames….”

An idea struck Fengbo. “I can save this guy,” he calmly offered. “But under two conditions.”

The boy was still glaring at Fengbo.

“One: Blood Flames will no longer aim for Bai Lingyun’s life. Two: You stay away from Lingyun.”

Upon hearing the second condition, the boy’s glare grew even more intense. “If you save Master Hu, he will repay the favor. However, if you let him die, Blood Flames will keep coming after Lingyun and they will come after you for revenge.”

A cold smirk. “Are you trying to barter here? It seems to me that you are in no position to negotiate right now.” Fengbo sank the edge of his dao deep enough to draw blood.

“If you don’t, Lingyun will die of poison, since I haven’t finished treating him. Master Hu never brings antidotes with him.”

“Maybe I’ll just kill you and take your antidote, then?” Fengbo replied without flinching. For all he knew, everyone from Blood Flames was treacherous—there was no reason this boy wouldn’t be.

“You…!” The boy’s cheeks became red. “Who are you anyway?”

“I asked you the same question a while ago, brat,” Fengbo reminded flatly.

The brat bit his lips, unable to quell the dangerous flame burning in his eyes. “I am Chi Juntao, the grandson of Chi Dukui and disciple of Bai Lingyun!”

So Fengbo’s suspicion was right. He didn’t have time to decide whether to trust the boy anymore. He sighed and sheathed his weapon. “I’m not going to waste my time arguing with you right now.” He strode to Lingyun’s side and knelt. When he saw how deathly pale Lingyun was, he felt as though a hammer struck his chest.

Without further delay, he jabbed the acupressure points that would improve Lingyun’s condition. Lingyun moaned slightly, coughing out black blood. The poison had seeped too deep—it seemed that he really did need the antidote. “Chi Juntao, was it?” Fengbo called. “Fine. I’ll save that Master Hu. Bring me the antidote.” He wrapped an arm around Lingyun’s shoulder and helped Lingyun up, his other hand extended to receive the antidote.

Juntao ignored Fengbo’s hand and knelt before Lingyun, feeding a pill into Lingyun’s mouth and pouring liquid so Lingyun could swallow.

Annoyed but too worried about Lingyun to show it, Fengbo immediately turned Lingyun around and placed a hand on his back to regulate his inner energy. With his other hand, he reached into his robes and pulled out a round, flat container. “Rub this on the wounds of that short man,” he told Juntao. “It’ll stop the bleeding. After you apply the ointment, give it back to me. I’ll get to him after I help Lingyun.”

After two ke, Fengbo stabilized Lingyun’s condition and moved on to help the short man, even though he really didn’t want to help the bastard who had almost killed Lingyun. His forehead was beaded with sweat by the time he finished. The short man, Hu something, recovered before Lingyun and seemed slightly perplexed but agreed to repay the favor by convincing Blood Flames higher-ups to give up on taking Lingyun’s life. Another assassin, the one Juntao had defeated, woke up around that time and accompanied the short man back to Mount Blood Flames. The tall man Lingyun had wounded followed.

Truthfully, Fenbo doubted any bastard from Blood Flames would keep promises, but he decided to let it go. He sat back beside Lingyun and leaned against a tree, exhaling loudly before opening his water pouch and gulping down its contents.

Now, it was time to figure out what the hell this Juntao (who was sitting a few paces away and still glaring at him) wanted. Before he could ask, however, Lingyun stirred.

“Lingyun?” Fengbo asked softly, brushing Lingyun’s hair out of his face.

Slowly, Lingyun opened his eyes. He stared into Fengbo’s eyes for a long, suffocating time. “Am I dead?” he asked weakly, though it did not reduce the arrogant tone his voice held. He didn’t wait for Fengbo to answer. “I’m dead but I still feel horrible. Not to mention this must be hell if I’m dead.”

Fengbo chuckled. Lingyun would never change, would he? “No, you’re not dead, Shixiong*.”

Lingyun blinked, the confusion on his flawless face so vulnerable that Fengbo almost kissed Lingyun—but, he’d probably be hated by Lingyun forever if he did so. Lingyun groaned. “Then why the hell am I still hallucinating? What the heck happened? Why am I still alive? Why are you here? What happened to those bastards? Where is—” He was cut off by a fit of coughs, and Fengbo patted Lingyun.

“Master!” Juntao finally couldn’t hold back anymore, though he was still glaring daggers at Fengbo. “Are you all right?”

“Yes…I guess…,” Lingyun said, though for some reason he seemed a bit uncomfortable. “How about you?”

Juntao seemed rather uncomfortable as well, and Fengbo couldn’t help but suspect something that he would most definitely not like. “I’m all right. The guys left and they won’t be coming back anymore.”

Lingyun thought for a while. He then turned, almost reluctantly, to look at Fengbo. “You…,” he began, his voice betraying utter disbelief. “Don’t tell me…you defeated that short man?”

“It was a lucky strike,” Fengbo replied. Not exactly a lie.

Lingyun scoffed. “I thought so. Let me go, I can sit up myself. Why the hell are you holding me like I’m a woman anyway?”

Still smiling, Fengbo let go. “Lingyun, you got tan, didn’t you?”

Lingyun flashed an impatient glance at Fengbo. “What sort of stupid question is that?” He brushed his clothes and proceeded to retrieve his fallen jian, wobbling a little. It was actually quite impressive that Lingyun could still walk this steadily after receiving that damage. “Of course I have. Anyway, why the hell are you here, you bastard?” He sheathed his sword with a clean move.

Fengbo couldn’t help but admire everything Lingyun did—no one could replicate that elegant grace. He was glad he hadn’t given up too soon. “I’m here to deliver a letter I received from someone who was looking for you.”

cline3

Chapter 17

Juntao felt like killing the fake, two-faced bastard. His personality had changed completely when Lingyun woke up! Did his master not know what sort of cold-blooded, evil bastard that man was?

Unfortunately, his master was clearly oblivious. Lingyun merely narrowed his eyes and stared at the envelope, as though staring alone could set it aflame. Then, he sighed softly and reached to take the letter that the two-faced bastard held out. He glanced at the man with suspicion before proceeding to read the contents.

Who was he anyway? He called Lingyun his ‘shixiong’, but Juntao had seen the man fight. First of all, that was nothing close to Snow Prison techniques. Second, Snow Prison did not use that sort of weapon. And that dao looked extremely expensive—only a high noble could possess that sort of weaponry.

“I’m not going back,” Lingyun said when he finished reading the letter. Or maybe he didn’t read it at all—he had probably just pretended to read the contents. He folded the paper and stuffed it into his robes.

“What do you mean?” asked the man, his expression unreadable.

“What’s the point anyway? I’m going to go back to…what, get killed? Poisoned? Become a puppet? No point. I have no real supporters and I don’t feel like dealing with a bunch of annoying, stuck-up morons.”

“But I heard your father is very ill,” the man continued as he closed the distance to Lingyun. “And you even missed your mother’s birth day.”

Lingyun bit his lips and looked away. “I already did everything I can. There’s nothing else I can do.” He started to walk back to his horse and noticed the man’s steed. “Fengbo, how the hell did you get such a good horse?” he asked before the man could continue the previous subject.

So that man’s name was Fengbo.

That Fengbo?

“Uh…I live in a military region. My family has a long history of serving in the military,” Fengbo explained.

Wait a second. What sort of answer was that? More importantly, why had Lingyun asked that sort of question in the first place? Did Lingyun not know who Xuan Fengbo was? Of course his family would have a long militaristic history!

Lingyun snorted softly as he patted his horse’s nose. “Hmph. No wonder. You’re all muscle and no brain.”

Just when Lingyun was about to mount his horse, Fengbo interrupted, “Shixiong, in your condition, you can’t possibly ride the horse by yourself.” The smile he wore made Juntao want to puke. After all, he knew what Fengbo was implying. That perverted bastard!

“I can too.” Lingyun flipped onto his horse with a light move, but the flinch in his face was enough to tell anyone his condition.

“Lingyun.”

“Shut up.” Lingyun pulled the reins of his horse. “I’ve got unfinished business in the east. You can either stay here or follow me.” He glanced at Juntao, instantly setting something on fire inside. “You too, brat. But if I meet that bastard again, I won’t hesitate to kill him.”

Juntao smiled and nodded, knowing that Lingyun didn’t mean what he said. His master would never kill him, after all.

“What are you talking about?” Fengbo asked, trying to sound casual but in Juntao’s ears, failing miserably.

Lingyun nudged his horse. “None of your business.”

Fengbo’s expression was priceless. Man, that felt good. Juntao was unable to hide his smirk and Fengbo noticed, narrowing his eyes.

“Oh yes.” Lingyun stopped his horse, his back facing them both. “I’ll only say this once to either of you…but….” He paused. “Thanks, I guess.” His voice was barely audible, but at least Juntao heard it clearly. It brought a warm smile to his face and he turned to retrieve his horse.

I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth, Master.

However, not long after they set out for the town a few hours away, it became apparent that Lingyun was too injured to handle his horse properly. His face was devoid of color and he looked as though he was about to pass out. Before Juntao could say anything, that bastard called Fengbo had already reached out and grabbed Lingyun by the waist and pulled him over to sit together. “I told you that you’re in no condition to ride the horse alone,” Fengbo chuckled.

Lingyun narrowed his eyes, but, to Juntao’s horror, didn’t protest.

“I suppose you still have a few debts to repay,” Lingyun began after a while. “Fine. If you want to pay your debts off in this cheap manner, so be it.”

What the hell?

This made no sense, no sense at all.

First of all, Fengbo was far from paying off any debt—rather, he was getting an unbelievable bargain.

The bastard’s smile when he tied the lead of Lingyun’s horse to his was so disgusting that Juntao felt like punching it out. But of course, he couldn’t, not when his master obviously trusted that man over him, and not when the man was far stronger. After all, despite the fact that Juntao had helped Lingyun, in the end, he had still betrayed his master once. Moreover, Guijue wasn’t exactly under control—Juntao had only been bluffing. He didn’t know where or when that personality would take over again, much less what the personality wanted.

Well, actually, he did know what the personality wanted. He also knew it was what he himself wanted. But of course, he wouldn’t dare. He respected Lingyun too much.

“Why are you going to the east, master?” he piped up, distracting his own libido.

“Food is cheaper there. I’m sick of eating rubber.”

True. But was that all? Since Juntao had been fooled so many times, he wasn’t sure if there was an ulterior motive.

Fengbo chuckled. “If you want food, you can go back to the capital.”

Man, that annoying bastard just wouldn’t give up, would he? “Did you not hear? Master says he doesn’t want to go back, so he isn’t going to go back.”

The glare that Fengbo shot at him was so cold and icy that Juntao felt all the blood in his veins freeze up. That damned two-face!

“How much did the messenger pay you anyway?” Lingyun drawled, thick mockery coating his voice. “I bet the pay was so good that you were able to buy this horse and that dao and still have at least over a third left.”

Fengbo merely smiled.

Juntao, on the other hand, despaired. Wasn’t his master extremely smart? Why did he not know Fengbo was the eldest living son of Xuan Jia’de, the General of Yue? Fengbo himself was quite famous as well, at least seven years ago he had been. On that man’s first trip to quell the invading warlords from Jin, he had led a great victory with his squadron at the mere age of thirteen. The following year he had also accomplished great feats against an invading warlord from Liao. At the age of fifteen, he had already obtained the rank of the General of Chariots. He was highly respected among the Imperial Army and said to be the next in line to be the supreme general, despite having disappeared when he was sixteen.

Of course, during that time Lingyun had already been in Snow Prison. So Fengbo never told Lingyun? But of course! If Lingyun had known who Fengbo was, he would have never had made friends with the bastard.

Then, an idea struck. The only thing he needed to do was to expose Fengbo’s real identity! Starting from that weapon. “By the way,” he began as casually as he could, “nice weapon there…uh….”

“Xuan Idiot,” Lingyun answered for Fengbo.

“Xuan-daxia,” Juntao forced himself to say.

Fengbo smirked, but Lingyun wasn’t looking at the bastard so he didn’t see. Trying to maintain his temper, Juntao continued, “I thought pugilists from Snow Prison Sect use jian as their weapon of choice, not dao, especially not two-handed dao.”

“Oh…I thought it looked pretty, so I bought it,” Fengbo replied with a fake smile, playing along with what Lingyun had assumed.

“Aha! I knew it!” Lingyun exclaimed, falling for the lie immediately. “You better treat me to some good food tonight.”

“Speaking of which, Shixiong, I never imagined you’d be the fourth son of the emperor himself. You could have told me,” Fengbo complained, the light smile still curving his lips.

Lingyun rolled his eyes. “Idiot! What use would explaining to a blockhead like you be?”

“You’re mean, Shixiong.” Fengbo was leaning too close to Lingyun.

Bastard! Juntao gritted his teeth. “But how could you fight so well with that weapon? The weight and length’s all wrong,” he continued.

“Ah, I can explain that,” Lingyun said with a triumph smirk.

No, you can’t, Juntao wailed in his mind.

Lingyun grabbed Fengbo’s sleeve and rolled it up. The sight was unbearable, especially with Fengbo staring at Lingyun so intensely with his perverted eyes; not even bothering to move his face out of the way. He was practically breathing Lingyun in. “You see here,” Lingyun explained, slapping Fengbo’s firm, developed arm muscles. “Variations in weight and length of weapons won’t make a difference for this moronic muscle-head. Didn’t he say he won with a lucky strike? By the way, the person who taught this moron everything he knows is none other than me!” Lingyun laughed.

Was it just Juntao, or was his master happier than usual? The thought sank Juntao’s already depressed mood.

Suddenly, Lingyun’s face darkened. “He even…nah, never mind.” He fell silent; eyes narrowed and lips drawn thin. He turned and gave Fengbo a steady glare. “Hmph. When I get better, let’s have a match. I want to see how you fare against me.”

Fengbo chuckled, almost with defeat. Juntao suddenly felt even more annoyed. “Shixiong is the best teacher in the world, don’t you agree, Juntao? Or can I call you Shidi?” There were thorns in his words! There were definitely thorns!

“Yes, Master is a great teacher,” Juntao replied, trying to sound enthusiastic about it in case Lingyun suspected anything. “But I think it will be rather strange for me to call you shixiong.”

Lingyun didn’t talk for the rest of the road.

After what seemed like ages, they finally arrived at the town. It was already dark so they rented a room and ordered food at the dining room.

“You’re treating, right?” Lingyun said as he looked at the menu on the wall. Whatever had been bothering him apparently bothered him no more and he was back to normal.

“All right. Anything you want,” Fengbo agreed, his ever-fake smile plastered to his face.

“I want crab.”

“What?”

Lingyun pointed at the most expensive dish. “I said I want mitten crab. You’ve got a problem with that?”

Shixiong….”

Lingyun gave Fengbo a long, hard stare. Then, suddenly, he sighed. “Fine. I get it. You spent most of your money. After all, an idiot like you wouldn’t know a thing about math and finance. Order whatever you want.”

Juntao felt the urge to curse out loud. Why was his master constantly forgiving that bastard and constantly making excuses for him?

Fengbo smiled pleasantly. “Sorry, Shixiong.” He then called the waiter over, but his glare probably prevented the waiter from taking a second glance at Lingyun. “I’d like Beggar’s Chicken, Steamed Fish, and Tofu Noodles….”

“It won’t taste good if the chef isn’t skilled,” Lingyun interrupted.

“But you love Tofu Noodles,” Fengbo insisted.

Lingyun did? Juntao had never known.

“I do, but that’s exactly why I don’t eat it just anywhere.”

Fengbo smiled. “Don’t be so picky, Lingyun. I really wonder how you survived this long travelling about when you’re this picky.”

Lingyun scoffed. “I eat anything except for favorites that require too much skill. Back in Snow Prison, there was one girl who had the skill of an Imperial Chef, which was why I ate her cooking—but I doubt this town would have any chef that skilled.”

Shaking his head with defeat, Fengbo shrugged. “All right. You win.” He looked up and gazed at the wall menu. “I don’t want to be cheap…but I guess I’ll treat you to fried rice. You know, since rice is so expensive nowadays it’s actually not that cheap.”

“Fried rice it is,” Lingyun agreed, smirking. He paused and then glanced at Juntao. “Oh yes, you’re treating the brat too, right?” Juntao made the mistake of looking and his breath was stolen away as a result; he lowered his head in shame. Lingyun was practically glowing right now, for some bizarre reason that Juntao found slightly jarring.

“Sure,” Fengbo said without pause, his fake, friendly mask secure as ever. “What would you like to eat, boy?”

“Uh…it’s fine,” Juntao said. He didn’t want to be treated by the bastard—he probably wouldn’t be able to swallow the food. “I have money.” From his past jobs. He turned to the waiter and ordered a bowl of soup noodles.

In the end, he had to watch Fengbo and Lingyun share food, but he just didn’t feel like eating the same thing that bastard Fengbo ate. That bastard kept making a point out of how well he knew Lingyun and it was getting on Juntao’s nerves.

Show-off!

And worse, the more the two talked, the more they waltzed into their own little world. Obviously, Lingyun had no idea what that perverted bastard wanted from him, leaving himself completely defenseless to the pervert’s perverted advances…Of course, Juntao knew his master didn’t care because he thought they were both men and there was no big deal, but apparently he had forgotten what Guijue had done.

Juntao almost bit his own tongue when he saw that Fengbo bastard flash him a cold smirk.

That was it. Juntao was not going to let that bastard do whatever he wanted to anymore. “Master,” he began, interrupting whatever Fengbo was saying, “Xuan-daxia’s surname reminds me of the Xuan family’s martial arts. What do you think about the Xuan family’s martial arts?”

Almost immediately, Fengbo stiffened. Juntao smirked. Served the lying pervert right.

Lingyun remained fairly expressionless. “Well…of course I’d like to have a match with a Xuan disciple, but due to political reasons I probably won’t get a fair match. Which is a shame.” He paused, his expression darkening. “I hate it when people let me win just to ‘save’ my pride. It does the exact opposite.” He threw an icy glare at Fengbo as the words left his mouth.

Fengbo looked extremely uncomfortable, which only made Juntao happier.

The pervert smiled nervously. “Lingyun….”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” Lingyun snapped. He set his bowl and chopsticks down as he stood up. “I suddenly lost my appetite. I’m going to take a bath.” And so he left.

As soon as Juntao’s master left, Fengbo erased the smile on his face. As expected.

“What do you want, assassin brat?”

Juntao refused to be intimidated by the bastard’s change in attitude. “I can ask the same of you, you two-faced bastard. Stop leaning so close to Master, you’re polluting the air he breathes.”

Fengbo didn’t even flinch. “Lingyun is only letting you follow him because he pities you. I, however, have firsthand experience with your kind, and I know that all Blood Flames assassins are treacherous and untrustworthy.” His eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what you’re planning, but if you try anything, I’ll kill you.”

“If you try anything on Master, I’ll kill you, too,” Juntao retorted.

Fengbo’s smile was chilling. “Want to give that a shot?”

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Chapter 18

Juntao knew he was no match for Fengbo, but he refused to back down, not to that two-faced bastard. Standing up, he spat out the words, “More than pleased to.”

“Well, let’s fight barehanded then, shall we?”

As he stalked out the doors, he considered killing Fengbo for real. After all, Lingyun trusted the man so much it was ridiculous. No doubt, Fengbo’s real identity and true nature would sooner or later be exposed, and there was no telling how it would affect Lingyun once that happened.

Outside, it was freezing. The wind howled and dried leaves scraped the ground. Juntao did a few warm-ups and glared at the two-faced bastard. “Why are you tricking Master anyway? You bastard, you know how much Master trusts you—I find your exploitation of Master’s trust extremely disgusting. You don’t deserve Master’s trust. Shouldn’t you be leading an army somewhere instead of being here?”

Fengbo remained expressionless as he rolled his sleeves back three times. “My orders were to find Lingyun. I’m sure you heard the rumors about the change in successors.”

“Master isn’t going to go back to the Palace with you.”

Fengbo smiled, though it did not reach his eyes. “He will. Apparently, you don’t know him well enough. And you have even followed him around for almost a year.”

Why was it that everything that bastard said could irk Juntao so much? “Oh really?” He wasn’t about to let up. “And how well do you know him, I wonder? Do you have any idea what he has been doing during this past year?” His fingers were numb from the cold but he tightened his grip and did a few warm up punches.

Fengbo didn’t answer.

“You don’t. What makes you so sure he’ll go back to the Palace? You know that he hates politics.”

Fengbo was still smiling. “Yes, he hates it. But he’s a very honorable son as well. He’s not going to leave his mother alone with his brothers, and he’s not going to let his father pass away without seeing him one last time. Let me tell you something that has not been let out of the Palace walls: The emperor is not just ill—he’s dying. He’s holding onto his last breath for Lingyun. Since I have finally found Lingyun, a formal order will reach his hands sooner or later. He’ll go back, once he finishes whatever business he has in the east. And he won’t be able get out anymore.”

“You bastard…!” Juntao felt his heart race. “Do you even care about how Master feels?”

“No.” And with that said, Fengbo took the initiative to attack, so fast that Juntao barely avoided losing his own neck.

The two-faced bastard! He was trying to kill Juntao for real!

Angrily, Juntao didn’t bother to hold back either. He executed his favorite Blood Flames hand-to-hand attack, ‘Dushou Zunquan’, aiming to poison all of Fengbo’s vital acupressure points. Fengbo easily blocked all the moves and kicked Juntao’s thigh; Juntao barely avoided paralysis by moving slightly. The kick itself connected to his body and almost broke his bones. It probably would have, if Fengbo had wanted it to.

“Don’t look down on me!” Juntao snarled, attacking with full speed now. He consecutively aimed for Fengbo’s chest, neck, lower-left abdomen, and upper-stomach; but Fengbo didn’t fret. He blocked everything with ease and grabbed Juntao’s right arm as his other hand flew out, hitting Juntao square in the chest. He let go, and Juntao immediately stumbled back five steps, coughing and struggling to breathe.

Fengbo didn’t let him rest; he was already in front of Juntao and his fists aimed for Juntao’s upper left chest and then under his ribcage, but they were feints; the real attack was the kick that connected with Juntao’s leg. Juntao quickly lifted his leg to block the attack, but the impact was still damaging and rattled his bones.

He was no match, after all.

Let me fight him, a voice rang in his head. At least then you won’t lose this pathetically.

No! If that happened, Fengbo would kill him for sure. And Master would…

Coward. You really want to lose like this? I can’t watch anymore. Move aside.

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Suddenly, that brat’s moves changed. He became faster, deadlier. His attacks all aimed to kill, and there was a strange light in his eyes.

Most notably of all, the brat was calmer. He reeked of the darkness all Blood Flames assassins had.

A cold smirk formed on Fengbo’s lips. So this brat wasn’t just all bluff—no wonder. He was very skilled for his age, as expected of the Chi family. Fengbo had been holding back more than half his abilities, since it was rather ungentlemanly to be serious with someone who was around four years younger than he was, but now it seemed that he had to crank his performance up a notch.

He blocked Juntao’s first three strikes and kicked the boy’s hip. To his surprise, Juntao was able to block cleanly this time and even counterattacked, his fist aiming for Fengbo’s right shoulder. Brushing the attack away, Fengbo elbowed Juntao’s chest, immediately following up with seven consecutive strikes at the acupressure points that would numb Juntao’s body. He landed four out of seven hits; none of the paralyzing attacks connected.

A cold flash and he blocked Juntao’s forearm just in time.

“Oi, oi—I thought we agreed not to use weapons?” He pretended to be hurt by the betrayal even though he had expected it. “Finally showing your true colors, I see,” he added coldly as he blocked a slash and avoided two. He jumped, his left foot tapping the flat of the blade as he flipped over; he drew his dao at the same time.

Juntao merely smirked, his eyes consumed with dark insanity.

Fengbo became even surer that the brat was dangerous. Why Lingyun let the brat follow him despite his blatantly treacherous nature was beyond Fengbo’s understanding. He could tell that Lingyun did not trust the brat either, but he was awfully tolerant nevertheless.

The brat launched to attack, the tip of his flexing blade aiming first for Fengbo’s lower left abdomen and then across at his upper right abdomen, twirling around to pierce his chest. Fengbo parried all the moves and twisted his blade, slashing sideways; his spare hand attacked the boy’s vital areas with two fingers.

Juntao managed to parry the attack and protect his acupressure points; he even managed to throw three poisonous needles, but he was now off balance. Fengbo sighed when he used his weapon to brush away the poisonous weapons. Blood Flames assassins really had no honor, this brat included. When Juntao attacked again, Fengbo aimed to break the boy’s weapon.

Chiing!

And the jian broke, just like that. Fengbo immediately brought his blade up to Juntao’s neck, sinking it deep enough so that the brat wouldn’t use any poisonous projectiles again.

“I should kill you, right now,” Fengbo said, staring steadily into fiery eyes. “But since Lingyun seems to like your attitude and since you’re Lingyun’s disciple, I’m not going to. Yet.”

Juntao was breathing heavily, the dark murder in his eyes burning violently.

“This is the level of difference between us,” Fengbo continued calmly, his breathing regulated. He barely had a drop of sweat. “Remember I’ll be watching everything you do. Even though you’re weaker than Lingyun, you don’t fight with honor and you’ll win if you cheat.”

“I already have,” Juntao said, smiling darkly, fearless.

“What did you say?”

“I already betrayed him once, and he still let me stay by his side,” Juntao clarified. “I even felt him up, nearly fucked him. But he let me stay, nevertheless. That’s how much he likes me, you two-faced fuck.”

“You…!”

Juntao seized his chance; he threw four poisonous needles and escaped the second Fengbo was distracted.

He would have chased after Juntao, but he was too shocked to move.

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That bastard. That bastard!

Juntao wanted to kill Fengbo. He really wanted to kill Fengbo. That bastard would end up hurting Lingyun, sooner or later!

That’s not the reason you want to kill him, right? A voice sounded in his head. After all, you want to kill him because you’re jealous.

“No. I want to kill him before he betrays Master,” Juntao replied. “Didn’t you hear him? He said he doesn’t care about how Master feels!”

Sure…. You just hate him because your Master trusts him a lot more than he trusts you. You’re just jealous because he is bolder than you are and he still gets away with those subtle touches.

“Go away,” Juntao hissed.

You sure you want me to go away? After all, I am you…your deepest desires…I am the ghost that haunts your blood…

“No you’re not. You’re just going to hurt Master again.”

Laughter. You sure it was just me? Then what of those dreams you see? The dreams of violating your master, the dreams of taking him again and again and again and again and again and again and again…

“SHUT UP,” Juntao all but yelled.

I am you, the you without guilt—the real you.

“Lies. You’re just a personality, a shell of a being. You can’t survive without me.”

Wasn’t he so cute that night, mm? It’s more exciting than taking a woman.

“Stop talking.”

But you’re hard. See? You liked it just as much as I did.

“Even if that’s true, I won’t hurt Master.”

Yet.

“Shut up. I’m not Fengbo, I’ve already done enough damage—thanks to you.”

But you can’t deny that all he sees right now is that charming two-face, Xuan Fengbo.

“He’s just nostalgic, that’s all. They haven’t met for a year so he probably just wants to catch up.”

You know that’s not true. Haven’t you noticed? You and Fengbo are too similar. That’s why Lingyun let you follow him all along—you remind him of Fengbo, in a way. Now that the real deal’s here, your master doesn’t need you anymore.

Laughter and horror in the same body.

How pitiful! In the end, you were but a substitute!

“I….”

Oh, this is too rich, too rich!

“There’s no way Master would think like that!” Juntao protested.

Both of your names even have to do with waves! Increased, maniacal laughter.

“That’s just a coincidence.”

Admit it. You’re just a substitute. The only difference is that you have me. I disturb him.

“You’re the reason he’s ignoring me.”

Oh really? I think not. You see, you’re weak, weaker than Lingyun. He’ll never acknowledge you, unless you become stronger than him, become stronger than Fengbo.

“What are you getting at?”

You’re a substitute—but that also means you can replace that Fengbo guy. All you need to do is go back to Mount Blood Flames and aim to inherit the Sect. If you work hard enough every day, you’ll be all Lingyun sees soon enough.

Maybe because Juntao was just too angry and frustrated with that bastard named Fengbo, he chose to believe in Guijue. He didn’t even think about how long his training would be, what the bastard Fengbo might do during his leave, or whether or not Lingyun would forgive him for leaving without notice.

He just sneaked back to his horse and left in silence.

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Chapter 19

Thanks to that moron, Fengbo, Lingyun had been able to survive the day without passing out. When that smiling idiot had dragged Lingyun onto his horse, the hand he had placed around Lingyun’s hips had been transferring a constant flow of qi to help him heal.

So, despite still feeling weak and light-headed, Lingyun had been able to bathe without throwing up. He decided to ignore why Fengbo’s qi was still messed up, and why it was surprisingly mature for a messed up qi. After all, it must’ve been because Fengbo was an idiot who still couldn’t understand how the Snow Prison neili worked.

As he dried his damp hair with a towel, Lingyun stared at the envelope on the table. To read or not to read…? He had only skimmed over the contents of the three-page letter, after all. He had only read about his mother’s birthday, which had been three months ago. He had skipped the part regarding his father.

After his hair was dry enough, Lingyun threw the towel to the corner of the room and picked up his brush, wincing when he accidentally touched the bruise on his stomach.

Damn that short man…

He was definitely a Blood Flames third generation master. In fact, he was probably ranked in the top five pugilists of that generation. Lingyun still couldn’t believe that Fengbo had been able to defeat that man. Just how lucky could that moron get, anyway?

It must’ve been the idiot’s weapon and his knack for letting enemies underestimate him, Lingyun convinced himself. After all, the dao was sturdier than jian, especially the type of dao Fengbo had bought himself. That really looked like a weapon a rather high-ranked soldier would own, since Duan Mingwu had the same type of dao.

Happy with his own explanation, Lingyun proceeded to brush his hair. After all, there was no way Fengbo could be from the Xuan family, right?

Lingyun almost dropped his brush.

Where the hell had that thought popped out from?

It must have been Juntao. The brat seemed to assume that Fengbo was a spy from the Xuan family. Well, if Lingyun hadn’t known Fengbo for over four years, he would have probably made the same assumption. Maybe Fengbo had really been a disciple of the Xuan family at one point in his life, which would explain why his qi was always so messed up. But with Fengbo’s meager intelligence, he had probably been kicked out of the Xuan Manor after a year or so.

Yes, that had to be it. Satisfied once again with his ingenious explanation, Lingyun sat down on his bed and was just about to start regulating his qi when Fengbo came back. Lingyun noticed the brat’s absence.

“Where’s the brat?” he asked as he closed his eyes.

“He left.”

“He…what?” Now Lingyun opened his eyes again.

“I just saw him head west on his horse,” Fengbo replied as he sat down beside Lingyun, sounding genuinely confused. “I think he said something about making sure the Blood Flames assassins don’t come after you anymore so he went back to check.”

“That worrisome brat.” Lingyun closed his eyes once more and started to regulate his qi to speed up the healing of his internal wounds. He felt somewhat relieved, since he no longer had to watch out for the brat’s other personality. But at the same time, he felt slightly annoyed, slightly.

“By the way, Shixiong,” Fengbo continued, his magnetic voice buzzing in Lingyun’s ears, “did you really read the letter or did you just pretend to read it?”

Why was it that this moron could be sharp at times? “I’m regulating my neili. Stop distracting me.”

Shixiong,” nagged the idiot, scooting closer.

Lingyun could feel Fengbo’s breath. As usual, that moron had no sense of personal space. “Fine, I didn’t read the whole thing. I’ll read it after I take a tour around the Eastern Port—I heard that city is pretty exotic and has a lot of amusing products. I always wanted to take a look at the sea anyway.”

“I heard there are some troubles with trade there though. A merchant is monopolizing the business with Marquis Fang and the government’s too busy to get to him,” Fengbo mused.

Which was exactly why Lingyun was going to go pay the Eastern Port a visit as well. Politics was always inefficient, after all. However, he merely snorted and concentrated on his qi regulation.

Shixiong, what made you decide to teach Juntao?” Fengbo suddenly asked.

Annoyed but too preoccupied to show it, Lingyun replied, “Because he said he didn’t want to inherit Blood Flames Sect against his will.”

“What do you think about him as a person?” Fengbo continued. When was he going to shut up? Lingyun wanted to concentrate.

“He’s….” Lingyun paused. He had never really thought about the question, after all. “He asks too many questions, just like some moron I know. And he’s stupid and annoying, also like said moron I mentioned. But overall I guess…he’s not entirely useless and intolerable.” Lingyun immediately regretted saying those words and he felt his cheeks warm slightly. After all, it was just like admitting he could tolerate the moron as well!

Fortunately, the moron didn’t leap onto that last remark, so Lingyun thought that he could finally concentrate on his qi-regulation. However, Fengbo just had to interrupt again. “Is he learning well? How much have you taught him?”

Truth be told, Fengbo was a better learner, despite his stupidity. Once Lingyun explained things to the dimwit in detail, the moron was able to execute the moves well. However, Lingyun knew that was exactly why Fengbo had asked the question. Like Lingyun would give that idiot what he wanted!

“I didn’t teach him everything, partially because he has trouble with the basics.” And also because Lingyun had never really trusted the brat. Until that night, which Lingyun regretted. At least his judgment wasn’t entirely mistaken—the brat really was loyal. But the other personality inside him? That was another question.

As a result, Lingyun would never be able to trust Juntao again. It would be better for the brat to never come back, since the brat really wanted to be trusted. Which reminded him, Lingyun still found it annoying that the brat hadn’t even bothered to tell him that he was leaving.

“Lingyun?” Fengbo asked. “You have a strange look on your face. Is something wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Lingyun growled. Then, he thought for a bit. “Actually, yes, something is wrong: You’re distracting me. Now shut up and go to sleep or go take a bath.”

For a moment, Lingyun thought Fengbo would do as he had been told.

Until he heard the moron’s voice sound again. “I can help you,” Fengbo breathed. Lingyun suddenly realized that he could practically feel Fengbo’s body heat. In the past, he wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but ever since that brat’s other personality…

Lingyun felt unnaturally uncomfortable. But what the hell, this was Fengbo the idiot! Nothing new here. Nothing new, Lingyun told himself as he tried desperately not to show how nervous he really was. “I don’t need your help. Go away!” He took the opportunity to push Fengbo away with a lightning fast slap to the moron’s chest, but Fengbo somehow caught his wrist.

“Come on, Shixiong, don’t be stubborn,” Fengbo insisted, smiling like the idiot he was. “If you want to reach the Eastern Port in two days, it’ll be better if you let me help.”

“Fengbo, what do you want?” Lingyun asked through his teeth. “I think both you and I know that you owe me nothing by now, thanks to…thanks to…you know,” he said, referring to the horse ride. “Anyhow,” he coughed, “I sure as hell don’t want to be in your debt. Therefore, I don’t need your help, you deaf idiot.” He forcibly withdrew his hand, wincing when he used his bruised stomach muscles.

Shrugging, Fengbo got up. “If you say so, Shixiong. I’m going to take a bath right now, be careful not to overdo your qi regulation*.”

“Who do you think I am?” Lingyun shot back as he watched Fengbo exit the room from the corners of his eyes.

And so they left it at that.

…Yet, for some reason, Lingyun didn’t feel particularly satisfied.

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“Fengbo has?” There was a vibrancy in Lianzheng’s voice, something that he had lacked for a long time now.

“Yes.” Yulan couldn’t even begin to describe how relieved and overjoyed she had been when she had read Fengbo’s letter. So he had finally found Lingyun and they would reach the Eastern Port soon. Lianzheng seemed to regain some health on his pale face upon hearing the news and quickly ordered a messenger to catch up with them.

“I still worry,” Lianzheng sighed, though he could not hide his happiness. “I don’t know what Fengbo is thinking—I trust Jia’de’s confidence in his son, but I have heard some news that worries me. Lingyun is currently powerless; he has no friends, no supporters, no puppets and no respect. He won’t know who to trust either; he is a complete outsider.” He coughed a little, and Yulan quickly poured another cup of warm tea for her husband. “Not to mention, it took five months for Fengbo to locate that boy, and you know how well Fengbo collects information. Lingyun really does not want this title. I have my doubts about the future of Yue if I leave it in his hands….”

“Yet,” Yulan insisted, as she had also considered the same questions, “we need someone who can keep Zhitian in check. It will be dangerous for him to inherit the throne and remain unrivalled. Lingyun might have what it takes to pull the empire back together.”

“It won’t be easy. Zhitian won’t let Lingyun have any sort of political power.”

“At least it’s better than leaving all power in Zhitian’s hands. You know how he wastes away the treasury for his own pleasure. Think about what will happen if he becomes the supreme ruler! He’ll be a tyrant that no one, not even I, can control.”

“Yes, I agree, you know I do,” Lianzheng replied. “But I still worry for him. Sometimes he can be so eccentric….” He took another sip from his teacup and Yulan poured more. “By the way, have you found a suitable wife for him yet?”

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“They tricked us!” roared the commander of Yan’s secret attack army, Ding Shao. He watched helplessly as his men fell back, some particularly cowardly soldiers screaming. Furious, he took his bow and struck down the screaming and fleeing soldiers himself. He would not allow this, would not allow his Lord to suffer humiliation like this!

“Who is their commander?” asked his right hand, Calvary General Lü Han. “I can’t believe this. Such a deceitful tactic—how did they know we were coming anyway?”

“That is not important!” Shao yelled as he shot down another fleeing coward. “What’s important is our empire’s current state; General Xie is still stuck in the North and he’s up against that accursed Duan Xianzhong and Bai Jinghua. If we lose here, the empire will crumble! His Imperial Majesty will lose all support and respect. We will lose everything along with him; there are still those who favored the previous emperor, you know that!”

“But General Ding, continuing is suicide!” protested Han. “They have us completely at their mercy, the only way to survive is to escape and help General Xie—think about it, they sent two thirds of their support army here, the fight up north must be in advantage….”

“And these men will pursue us, becoming Bai Jinghua’s backup just as we become General Xie’s backup,” snarled the general. Not to mention, the rival’s commander who had defeated Shao so completely was not someone they could afford to lead back to the north so quickly. They had to drag out the battle as long as they could, Han just didn’t get it. “Speak of escaping once more, and I’ll kill you!”

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“Your Majesty!” The messenger sprawled onto the floor as soon as he had reached the room outside, his hands supporting a platter with a scroll on top. The scroll was shaking. “News from the South.”

Yulan ordered one of her maids to retrieve the scroll, retaining a placid expression despite her thundering heart. It was strictly confidential news, so she ordered all the servants, save for the guards, to exit the room. She then proceeded to roll open the scroll with trembling hands and read out loud for her husband:

“The war in the South has achieved temporary victory; Song Hongzun has retreated back to his castle. Unable to pursue; Supreme General Xuan Jia’de….” Tears started to well in her eyes and her voice faltered. However, she knew she had to finish the remaining message. “Supreme General Xuan Jia’de has received a fatal wound. Will not survive,” she choked.

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Chapter 20 part 1

The Eastern Port was definitely beyond Lingyun’s expectations—it was almost another country. Some dark-skinned merchants wearing silk robes made from Yue textiles strolled down the streets, and some Yue merchants wore foreign clothes. The buildings even seemed a bit different than traditional, the colors too bright and the design too flamboyant. In Lingyun’s opinion, the buildings were unrefined hybrids that hurt his eyes, but he was nevertheless amused.

Even the air smelled different. The humid and salty smell of the sea, the strange aromas of unfamiliar cuisine permeated the air—it was all very new to Lingyun. He saw a whole different world, a world he would not have understood if he hadn’t visited in person.

He decided to take a tour around before he dealt with the merchant and marquis troubling the business.

“Hurry up, Fengbo,” Lingyun called from outside the inn. “I’m hungry.”

Fengbo exited the inn, stuffing his purse back into his robes. “All right. Let’s go,” he said, smiling like usual.

“Since I’m in a good mood,” Lingyun said, beginning to head to the street full of restaurants, “I’ll treat you to something good. Anything you want, in fact.” He smirked coldly as he eyed Fengbo. “And when I say anything, I mean anything,” he emphasized. He still had a lot of money left, after all. “Even mitten crab.”

Shrugging, Fengbo caught up with Lingyun and their shoulders brushed. His smile was as goofy as ever. “I’ll eat anything you want to eat, Shixiong.”

“Hmph.”

In the end, they ended up trying some foreign food from an island far off the coast: Raw seafood and noodle soup with a strange spin to it.

They spent the rest of the day walking around looking at various foreign mercantile goods, during which Lingyun also gathered information and gossip at the same time. Apparently, the merchant and the marquis were monopolizing the imports and trading silk for luxurious goods instead of food when Yue most needed it. Corrupted bastards. Nothing surprising, though.

At sunset, they watched the day end by the ocean; the sea’s vast horizon gave Lingyun such a sense of freedom and satisfaction that nothing that moron Fengbo did during that time annoyed him. In fact, he was even going to treat Fengbo to dinner, though the idiot insisted on splitting the bill.

“Lingyun,” Fengbo said when they were back in their rented room, “do you think the marquis’s daughter is as beautiful as she’s rumored to be?”

Unfortunately for the moron, Lingyun’s good mood was starting to wear off. “Why are you asking this stupid question? Why would I care?”

“You’re not even the least bit interested?” Lingyun could hear the smile in Fengbo’s question and tried to figure out what was so amusing.

“No. And go to sleep, I want to wake up early tomorrow.” Lingyun blew out the lights and returned to his mattress. There was barely any moonlight but as a Snow Prison pugilist Lingyun was used to darkness

“Lingyun.…”

“I think you need to go get your ears tested tomorrow—you’re obviously deaf,” Lingyun interrupted with a growl. “It’s a good thing we’re in a big city and there will be a good number of decent doctors. I just hope there will be good ear doctors.”

“Have you ever wondered why you’re not interested in women?” asked the deaf man, blatantly ignoring Lingyun’s remark.

“Do I need to wonder?” Lingyun snapped, his good mood completely gone now.

“Actually…yes, you do.”

For some reason, Fengbo was right next to Lingyun. “Don’t sleep so close to me,” he couldn’t help but protest.

However, the deaf idiot remained deaf as ever. “I thought it was strange back in Mount Snow Prison, when you didn’t even show a shred of interest for Minzi-shimei*, the most beautiful and admired female pugilist in the Sect.”

“I see you call her by her first name,” Lingyun remarked with a cold smirk. “What? You’re going to brag about how you wooed the girl? You should have cut to the point instead of circling the long way around this subject.”

“That’s not my point here,” insisted the idiot with looks but no brains.

“Then what is?” Lingyun ground through his teeth.

“Minzi-shimei really liked you, you know?”

“Oh, I see,” Lingyun sneered. “You’re playing the matchmaker here…Not interested, so give up, you goody-two-shoes. Someday, you’ll get killed because you’re too kind.”

Shixiong.…”

“Shut up and sleep.”

“Do you masturbate regularly?”

Now this made Lingyun bolt up. He glared at Fengbo. “You want to die?” he hissed, drawing his weapon and pointing the tip at Fengbo’s throat. “How dare you ask such a…such a…stupid, ignorant, vulgar and rude question?” he stammered, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks.

Fengbo raised his hands to declare peace, still wearing that infuriating smile. “Why are you so defensive, Shixiong? We’re both men…isn’t it normal to talk of such things?”

“You keep saying normal, normal, normal…well, to hell with your ‘normal’! Define normal!” Lingyun all but yelled.

“Lingyun, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you’d react so violently.” Fengbo wasn’t even looking at the weapon. “I’m not trying to insult you, but you really don’t know what ‘normal’ is. I guess it’s because you didn’t have any other friends back in Snow Prison, you didn’t socialize with anyone, you didn’t talk with the guys—I mean, you didn’t even appear when there was a crowd, you were always immersed in training.”

“Get to the point.” Lingyun poked his weapon further, but it wasn’t deep enough to draw blood.

“All I’m saying is that, when the boys get together, we do discuss the subject of sex quite a lot. I didn’t know you’d be so uncomfortable….”

“I.…” Lingyun found himself at loss of words. He wouldn’t have been this uncomfortable if that accursed night back in Snow Prison hadn’t happened and if Juntao’s other personality hadn’t….

However, of course Lingyun wouldn’t explain himself out loud. “I’m not uncomfortable,” he forced himself to say as he sheathed his sword. “I just misunderstood your stupid, idiotic question.”

“So?” Fengbo was persistent as ever.

“I don’t have the time or privacy to,” Lingyun snapped, dropping back onto the sleeping mat with his back turned to the moron.

“That’s not healthy, Shixiong….”

“Why do you care?” Lingyun really, really wanted to end the conversation. But silencing Fengbo was next to impossible. “Do I look unhealthy to you? Are you automatically healthier than me because you masturbate regularly, you perverted idiot?” He didn’t even wait for Fengbo to reply. “No, you’re not. So shut up and go to sleep.”

“But…you can get it up, can’t you?”

Lingyun felt like screaming with frustration and tearing his hair out. Yet, at the same time, he was incredibly…

“Who do you think I am—how dare you question my masculinity?”

“I’m not questioning your masculinity, Lingyun. I’m just concerned about your—”

“And why would you be concerned?”

“Because…you obviously never talked about it?”

“Why would I need to talk about it?” Lingyun considered simply punching the daylights out of that meddlesome moron so he could sleep in peace.

Shixiong, you’re avoiding the question here,” Fengbo reminded.

“I’m not avoiding any questions. You’re the one avoiding my question.”

“Well, to be honest, I’m just curious. By the way.…” Fengbo was so close to Lingyun, it was alarming. How and when had the moron moved? “Are you hard from talking about this? Your face is a little red, Shixiong.”

“I….” Before Lingyun could answer, Fengbo’s hand was already touching his lower half.

“I see. You are hard.”

“You moronic bastard!” Somehow, Fengbo was able to catch Lingyun’s punch.

“It’s not something you should be embarrassed about,” breathed Fengbo, his hold on Lingyun’s member tightened a little, almost making Lingyun gasp as more blood rushed down to his….

Unacceptable. This was unacceptable. Yet, for some reason, Lingyun couldn’t move. “You…what do you want?” He sounded pathetic. He felt pathetic. It didn’t help that his most important body part was in the hands of another man. The only thing he could do was to avoid eye contact with the idiot.

And said idiot didn’t even bother to wipe that annoying smile off his stupid face. His eyes were burning. “I want to help you, of course.”

cline3

Chapter 20 part 2

In the past, he had snuck into Lingyun’s room, thinking it was the last time he’d see the arrogant noble, and molested him.

Now, he was using manipulation to get what he wanted.

Yes, he was the worst sort of man, he was a vile pervert. Maybe he was even worse than a perverted bastard. He was the lowest, most despicable human being in the world. It was pathetic, pathetic how he couldn’t control himself.

But, even so, he would gladly become an atrocious pervert, just to touch Lingyun once more.

After all, Fengbo had never imagined he’d get another chance like this again. Or more like, he couldn’t resist creating another chance to do this. He wanted to savor every last moment of this relationship before it shattered.

If everything was doomed to shatter anyway, he might as well take everything he could before it all disappeared.

…Before a steel wall would reject his hopeless feelings forever.

“I don’t need any help!” Lingyun protested, struggling without much conviction.

Fengbo really wanted to kiss Lingyun, but he forced himself not to. “Shixiong, just relax.”

“How can I relax? Get your hands off—” Lingyun didn’t finish his sentence, as Fengbo evilly stroked the hardening erection he held in his hands.

He felt his stomach tighten when the body under him trembled. “Lingyun….” he murmured hotly, resisting the urge to bite the flesh so close to his lips. If only he could devour every inch of that delicious body again… “Just this one time, let me teach you something….” His hand continued to work deftly. “It feels better when someone else does it for you….”

Nails dug deeper into his shoulder and a whimper escaped Lingyun’s lips. Yet, he stopped protesting, seemingly too occupied in keeping his dignity and remaining soundless. His face, on the other hand, told a different story.

More, he wanted to see more….

He wanted to see more of Lingyun’s expressions….

The room was filled with the sounds of heavy breathing, of occasional moans that made Fengbo so hard it was difficult for him to remain levelheaded. He purposely tormented Lingyun, teasing him but not giving him enough stimulation for him to come. Biting his lips, Lingyun bucked his hips unconsciously, trying to get more friction. Fengbo resisted the urge to steal those delicious-looking lips again as his hands stoked harder, faster—forcing Lingyun to moan louder.

Brows furrowed as Lingyun tried desperately to keep his composure; it only made Fengbo want to torment him a little more.

“F…Fengbo.…”

Just hearing Lingyun call his name, in that sort of voice, was enough to make Fengbo come. He was so hard, so fucking hard that it was unbearable. He wanted Lingyun…he wanted that body so much…wanted to do so many, so many things to Lingyun….

“Lingyun,” he murmured, unable to stop himself from kissing Lingyun’s throat.

Finally, a quiver and a sharp gasp; warm, silvery liquid spurted out of the hardness in Fengbo’s hand.

Truth be told, he wanted more than just the cock in his hand—he wanted the ass that he had coveted for over three years—but this would do. This had to do. Lingyun, was, after all, going to be the emperor soon. An emperor could never be on the receiving end, not even as an experience.

Lingyun remained silent for a long time, refusing to talk to Fengbo even though he knew Lingyun was wide awake from the sound of his breathing alone.

“You…you’re the one who….” Lingyun paused. Fengbo was still deciding what to do with his own throbbing erection so he waited for Lingyun to finish. “You’re the….” However, Lingyun never completed his sentence.

Smiling guiltily, Fengbo decided to spare Lingyun of any more frustration. “Yes. I’m the one who snuck into your room that night.”

“Why…you…how dare.…” Lingyun was still unable to construct a coherent sentence. Even with his back turned to Fengbo, he could easily imagine the cute, frustrated look on Lingyun’s face. “Does it amuse you to have me at your mercy, you bastard?”

Yes, Fengbo thought ironically. Lingyun would never be able to imagine how much it excited him. But that wasn’t the reason Fengbo had taken advantage of him, twice. “It’s not like that, Lingyun. I simply—”

“I hate you!” Lingyun interrupted. “Thanks to you, I…I….” He let out a frustrated noise. “Anyway, I hate you. Stupid Fengbo! Idiot Fengbo!”

Sighing, Fengbo decided it was better to have Lingyun hate him now. After all, it was just a matter of sooner or later. Better if Lingyun hated him now, since he’d be less angry after they returned to the Capital. “I’m sorry, Lingyun. I just….” He didn’t even think when he talked; maybe he was too depressed so he got careless. “I really like you…that’s why. I’ve always…always had feelings for you, so…I couldn’t resist….”

As soon as the words left his mouth, he regretted it. He shouldn’t have let his emotions get the better of him. Well, what difference would it make anyway? It wasn’t like Lingyun would believe him—and hell, Fengbo hoped Lingyun wouldn’t believe him. Sighing again, Fengbo stood up and headed for the door.

“Did I say you could leave, you moronic pervert?” Lingyun asked, already sitting up.

Confused, Fengbo turned around to hear Lingyun out. Lingyun still refused to look him in the eye, however.

“You humiliated me twice, and you think you can get away from that?” Lingyun was still slightly flushed from the previous ‘activity’. “I want revenge. Get back here.”

…Humiliate? Was that how Lingyun saw it?

Forcing himself to smile despite the unbearable tightness in his chest, Fengbo did as he had been ordered to and dragged himself back to where Lingyun was now standing. He expected to receive a heavy beating or to get killed. If Lingyun wanted to give him a heavy beating, Fengbo would take it. If Lingyun was going to kill him, he’d have to resist. Hell knew what he’d do in the midst of resisting—he just hoped Lingyun wasn’t cruel enough to kill him.

A kick flew out like a flash of lightning and Fengbo received it willingly, falling on his back to the hard floor. Lingyun stood above, looking down at him with his coal-black eyes, expressionless.

Fengbo held his breath, expecting Lingyun to draw his sword or kick him again. But he never imagined Lingyun would kneel down and reach for his lower half.

Fear and excitement instantly flooded Fengbo’s mind and body. Fear, as in what if Lingyun was going to castrate him? Excitement, because Lingyun was touching him, and there, of all places.

In the end, he was really a perverted bastard who was ruled by his cock. Even under the possible threat of castration, he was still hard, painfully hard.

Lingyun noticed and narrowed his eyes; it hurt more than being pierced by a blade.

However, he never thought Lingyun’s fingers would wrap around his member.

The realization alone was enough to make Fengbo come. “Ling…Lingyun?”

“Shut up. It’s always me being the vulnerable person. It just doesn’t sit well with me.”

Fengbo peeked at Lingyun’s face to find out what was going on and if he was dreaming or not.

“So…Don’t think I’m doing this because I like you or anything.” Despite his steady tone, the usual arrogance was absent and his eyes betrayed his nervousness.

Fengbo resisted his violent urge to pin Lingyun down and ravage that tempting body till the morning. Instead, he tried to think.

Countless possibilities raced through his mind. Was Lingyun really having his ‘revenge’? Or did it mean that Lingyun had feelings for him as well?

His erection throbbed painfully at the latter thought. It probably wouldn’t have taken fifteen seconds for him to come, but he held on—he had to savor this as long as he could. “Lingyun…,” he moaned when Lingyun’s fingers continued to stroke his length.

“Don’t call my name, you idiot! And stop looking at me!” But then, after a while. “Does it really feel better?” However, Lingyun quickly added, “No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

As Lingyun observed Fengbo’s reactions, he became more skilled, adding the right pressure and touching the right places. Every time he adjusted his methods, Fengbo was attacked by a wave of inexplicable pleasure—it didn’t help his self-control that Lingyun was actually doing this.

Finally unable to control himself any longer, Fengbo came into Lingyun’s hands, groaning from the bliss that reached every fiber of his tense body.

After gazing at Fengbo for a few seconds, Lingyun got up and wiped the cum off his hands.

“…It does feel a lot better, Lingyun…,” Fengbo managed to say. “Especially if it’s you—”

“I told you not to answer!” Lingyun then returned to his mattress and lay down. “Don’t say such disgusting things,” he muttered. “Aren’t you embarrassed?”

Recovering his strength, Fengbo gathered himself and started to head back to his sleeping mat. “Why is it embarrassing? I don’t feel embarrassed about my feelings for you.” In fact, he wanted to tell Lingyun as many things as he could while he still had the chance.

Lingyun turned around, growling. “Wait.” He raised his hand and pointed. “Sleep at the other side of the room. Nothing will change the fact that you are the cause of all my miseries.”

Fengbo couldn’t help but smile. Lingyun was still Lingyun, after all. “Lingyun…,” he said as he picked up his mattress.

Don’t ever change, he wanted to say.

But of course, that was impossible. If Lingyun were to return to the Palace and inherit the throne, he would have no choice but to change.

In fact, if Lingyun didn’t change, Fengbo would force him to.

“What?” Surprisingly, Lingyun was willing to hear Fengbo out.

Under the smiling face he wore, many questions tormented Fengbo.

Did he really want this?

Was he really fine with forcing Lingyun to go back, to become his emperor?

Was Lingyun really suitable? Lingyun, who despised politics and conventions? Lingyun, who loved freedom more than anyone else?

If Lingyun was ever going to escape his impending fate, it had to be now or never. After all, Fengbo was sure that the formal order would arrive the following morning, since the call back was urgent after having been delayed for three months. Not to mention, the Capital City wasn’t too far away from the Eastern Port.

“Are you going to talk or what?” Lingyun growled.

“No, never mind.” Fengbo found his questions ridiculous. Was he joking himself? How could he, even for a moment’s emotional turbulence, ever consider forsaking his country for one person?

Lingyun had to inherit the throne. If he didn’t, Fengbo would likely usurp the throne in the future, despite his father’s loyalty to the Bai Family. Yet, the only way for them to stay loyal was to have Lingyun become the emperor.

He couldn’t betray his father’s wishes.

Early morning the next day, Fengbo checked the postal site in the city and discovered he had a letter.

After he read it, he was glad he hadn’t told Lingyun to leave the city last night.

cline3

Chapter 21

Chirping birds woke Lingyun. Looking out the window, he could tell it was around the Time of Mao*. His body felt like lead.

Had it all been a dream? He groaned when he noticed his morning wood. Déjà vu. It must’ve been a dream.

Why would he have had that sort of messed up dream, anyway? Why was it always that sort of dream?

But, if it had been a dream, why could he still feel Fengbo’s breath, why could he still feel those fingers?

Then reality hit him with full force.

It hadn’t been a dream, after all. Lingyun squeezed his eyes shut, resting his forearm on his head to block the dim light peeking through the windows.

Just what the hell had Fengbo been thinking last night?

What the hell had Lingyun himself been thinking?

No, he didn’t want to ponder any further. Nothing made sense any more. When nothing made sense, it was best not to think about it. That had always worked in the past, and it would work now.

…Last night….

Damn. He needed to stop thinking. Maybe he should wake the moron up and eat breakfast, get his mind off this nonsense and pretend like nothing ever happened. Yes, that sounded like a good idea.

“Feng….” He paused; the mattress on the other side of the room was empty. Where the hell had the idiot disappeared to?

A loud knock on the door. “Imperial orders!” Shouted.

All the blood in Lingyun’s veins froze.

No, no, no!

He quickly jumped up, grabbed his belongings, unsheathed his jian and cut through the window just before the door to his room opened.

Fengbo, you traitor! He gritted his teeth as he ran down the streets, ignoring the sour, bitter feeling that was making it hard for him to breathe. He was furious, furious at himself for trusting that moron.

Why?

Why was this happening now?

He still had many things he wanted to do, many places he wanted to see. Hell, he hadn’t even dealt with the corrupted bastards in the Eastern Port yet!

“Your Highness,” said someone above—no, before—him. “Why are you in such a hurry?”

…A vaguely familiar face, a face that made Lingyun’s stomach turn. After all, the failure before him had done a poor job of protecting him in the past. “Sima Lü,” he said tonelessly, ignoring the curious looks cast in his direction. “I see your qingggong has improved somewhat.”

Sima Lü eyed his exposed leg. “Shouldn’t you dress properly before going out in the public like this, your Highness?”

Lingyun narrowed his eyes. “What I do is my own business.”

“Unfortunately, your Highness, it is not. You are the son of—”

Lingyun didn’t even wait for the loser to finish; he simply bolted to the left, flying down a narrow alley.

“Your Highness!”

Messed up. This was all messed up. He didn’t want to think. It was a good thing that he had memorized the basic layout of the city. He quickly threw off the loser bodyguard by taking a turn and jumping into a Green Building through open windows; the half-naked lady in the room was about to screech but he quickly covered her mouth with his hand. “I’m being chased by a bullying scumbag,” he whispered, leaning close on purpose. “Can you let me hide here for a while?” As expected, the woman blushed and nodded—after all, at times like this, he had to use his advantage. He flashed a smile that was, in his opinion, sufficient to be his payment. “Thank you.”

He waited for a while before confirming that his loser bodyguard was gone. What a failure.

“Sorry about the sudden intrusion,” he said as he got up, straightening his attire. The lady merely gaped as he pulled on his outer robes and tied his hair. “Well, I’m in a hurry, sorry for disturbing you. Here, compensation.” He threw a few coins and the lady managed to catch them well. He then picked up his jian, slung it behind his back, gathered his belongings, made sure no one was waiting outside, and left.

As he took a turn and walked down an empty alley, he pulled on his mask. He didn’t have time to think. He needed to escape. He could still come back and take care of the marquis once the commotion ended.

He strolled down the streets like a normal merchant, taking calm, natural steps as he reached a completely deserted corner. With a tap, he flew up onto a roof with his qinggong and was about to jump onto the city walls when he noticed something wrong. He had been followed. But how? Why?

No time to think. He leapt towards the city wall and ran up as fast as he could, flipping over the roof and jumping down onto a tree below. He’d have to leave his horse for now. Surely some annoying oaf would recognize it as his and pick it up.

Just as he jumped down the tree branch, he found himself surrounded.

“Xuan-gongzi was right. You were going to escape this way,” said a man, pulling open the scroll in his hands.

Lingyun froze upon hearing the name. His mind became blank, so blank. His body wouldn’t listen to his orders—it was as though his limbs were weighed down with heavy stones.

“By the orders of the emperor: You-wang, Bai Lingyun, is to return to the Palace immediately.” The messenger then re-scrolled the message and gave it to another man. “Your Highness, you have heard the orders and are now bound by the law. Please get into the carriage.”

“Wait.” Lingyun’s voice was flat. For some reason, he felt nothing. It was empty, cold. Hollow. Like everything inside him had turned into ice; there was nothing on the tundra inside him. He didn’t even feel like resisting anymore. He pulled off his mask. “Before that, I have something I want to do.”

“You can’t escape,” the messenger reminded.

Lingyun narrowed his eyes. “Insolent fool,” he spat; the guards surrounding him immediately straightened their backs. “Who are you talking to again? How dare you, a mere messenger, assume you know my intentions? I am Bai Lingyun, the emperor’s fourth son—do you think I will disobey the law like disgraceful trash?”

His face paling, the messenger knelt down immediately. “My deepest apologies, Your Highness,” he stammered. “Please forgive me….”

Snorting softly, Lingyun felt nothing but disgust for the coward. “I want to meet the marquis responsible for this land, Fang Zikang, and his buddy, Huang Licai.”

rai-l32

“You have some nerve.”

Juntao lowered his head, staring at his grandfather’s feet. His body was screaming in pain and he could hardly think. He had suffered six hours in the torture dungeon before he had been brought before his grandfather, after all. His ribs were broken and poison tormented every fiber of his body. “I know I was wrong,” he began, his voice thin and barely audible, “I wish to repent.”

“Master Hu has told me all about what happened. You betrayed us. Although Guijue was the one who contacted Master Hu and told them of your betrayal, you betrayed us yet again by saving Bai Lingyun. As a result, he survived and Xuan Fengbo killed Guan Liu.”

“But I persuaded him to—”

“Silence,” boomed Dukui. Juntao cringed involuntarily and quickly lowered his head again. “Saving a Master is never an option. You even soiled Master Gao’s name by asking Bai Lingyun to be your master without Master Gao’s consent.”

Sweat was soaking Juntao’s clothes. Why had he decided to return to this hellhole? “Forgive me, please,” he whispered, his forehead touching the cold, stony ground.

Chi Dukui sighed. “Juntao, you know how much talent you have—even more than your deceased, useless father. You know how proud I was of you when you beat all the pugilists in your generation two years ago? I thought, finally, someone can take my place.” He reached for the cup to his side and took a sip. He then slammed it back to the table, and Juntao winced.

“Yet, for some reason, you are too kind on your missions—you always spare the witnesses. If not for Guijue, we would have had a very big problem. Guijue is talented, but he is not real—he is just a part of you. When will you understand your fate? You are a Blood Flames assassin, you are my grandson. I will not allow you to act so pathetically and hold such pathetic beliefs. Look at me.”

Juntao did as he had been told, trying hard not to tremble. Of all the cruel and heartless people in the Jianghu, his grandfather was the only one who could strike fear into him.

“In the end, you are still my grandson. You have already received appropriate punishment for your mistakes. If you swear that you will throw away your heart and throw away your morals, I will forgive your transgression.” The words were icy poison, chilling every bone in Juntao’s body. “Become Guijue, Juntao. Kill your heart, your compassion, and become an outstanding assassin who can inherit all of my techniques.”

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Lingyun sat in the carriage, staring blankly into space. He had just made himself the enemy of the Fang family by forcing the Marquis to be judged in court and stripping the corrupted moron of power, which had thoroughly damaged the Fang family’s reputation. Well, they were corrupted nobles anyway, and they were in a league with Zhitian. As for the merchant, Lingyun had spared him under the pretense that he’d get as many food imports as possible. The merchant was skilled at obtaining bargains, after all. Not to mention his vast trading network—it would be a waste to have the merchant executed. Lingyun knew that business was something that needed time and long-term partnership.

Yet, nothing would change the fact that he had made an enemy out of the Fang family.

Sighing, Lingyun didn’t want to think what Zhitian would do once he heard the news. Lingyun had made sure the Marquis had no way out, but the Fang family was definitely going to thirst for revenge.

“That’s why I hate politics,” he muttered.

Not to mention….

No, he didn’t want to think about that bastard. Once he thought of that bastard, he just felt a cold flame burning him from inside, icy and dangerous. What the hell, he was still thinking about that traitor.

He ground his teeth, fists tightening.

That traitor.

That treacherous bastard.

“Liar,” he found himself hissing; his nails dug into his palms.

“I really like you… I’ve always…always had feelings for you….”

“You fucking liar…!” A drop of warm water fell onto his trembling fist.

Was he…?

Lingyun touched his cheeks and realized it was wet.

What the hell? Quickly, he wiped the salty water off with his sleeves, biting his lips and trying hard not to disgrace himself anymore. Angry at himself, Lingyun reached into his robes and pulled out a crumpled letter.

Well, it was time to face reality. He had to take his mind off that bastard.

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“Fengbo…” Yulan’s face was covered with tears and her hair was messy. She was leaning on the bed. “Your father…your father….”

“I know.” Fengbo walked over stiffly. He examined his father, who still wore a worried expression, even in his death. “Don’t worry, Father. I will make sure that this country will survive.”

rai-l32

Back at the suffocating palace. Again. Surprisingly, Lingyun still felt nothing but empty numbness. Even upon the news of his uncle’s death, even upon the news of his father’s failing health. Death was just a part of life, after all—it was just a matter of sooner or later.

Just like betrayal.

He entered the Royal Court and knelt down immediately. “Father,” he breathed. “Sorry I am late.”

He noticed Zhitian and Qingyan glaring at him and smirked at how stupid they looked. Where was that insolent brother, Yiming? Oh, there he was. His face was turning purple and his eyes spewed fire. What a joke. A bunch of power-hungry idiots they were.

“Announce,” Lianzheng ordered.

“Due to His Majesty’s illness….”

As Lingyun listened absently, he noticed a figure standing beside his mother. His eyes widened and his heart thundered.

This couldn’t be true. This wasn’t true. That person wasn’t who Lingyun thought he was.

He shut his eyes and focused on the increasingly horrifying announcement instead. What the hell was his father thinking? He had purposely made himself hard to track down, had purposely kept himself out of politics, and had purposely cultivated no supporters!

With all those problems he had created, who in their right mind would want him to be the next emperor?

And so soon? Didn’t he even get to spend time as a taizi?

But of course, he knew it was due to his father’s inability to attend the Imperial Meetings any longer, especially after the general’s death. Better to give him some sort of actual power and practice before his father left.

“As such, the emperor’s position will be passed to You-wang, Bai Lingyun. Starting tomorrow, no one is to use the words ‘Ling’ and ‘yun’,” finished the official.

“You may rise.”

Everyone in the court got onto their feet, watching Lingyun. Expressionless, he thanked his father. He ignored the disgustingly familiar face and followed an official out of the Royal Court for a briefing on what to do during the succession ceremony.

Not long after the official started to explain the succession procedures, an imperial servant outside announced, “The empress has arrived!”

Lingyun noticed the beautiful girl who was trailing behind his mother but said nothing.

“Lingyun.” She grabbed his hands and squeezed them. “I’m so happy that you’re well and unharmed.” There were tears in her eyes.

“Mother,” Lingyun replied softly, squeezing back a little. Then he let go of her hands. “I’m sorry for letting you worry.”

Yulan smiled. “You’re back. That’s all I need to be happy. By the way….” She turned and signaled for the girl to follow. “This is my niece and your cousin, Xuan Chunmei,” she said.

Chunmei tried to smile but she was clearly too nervous. She blushed when they made eye contact and her smile became more natural. She looked a little like someone. No, he wasn’t going to continue that train of thought; he was probably just paranoid. Paranoid of…nothing.

“She’s the daughter of the general and, out of all the Xuan girls, she is the brightest and most talented,” his mother continued.

“I see,” Lingyun said. However, he found it extremely difficult to return the girl’s smile. He was just too messed up right now to deal with these things. “When are we going to marry?”

Blushing furiously now, Chunmei lowered her head.

“Preferably, next month,” his mother replied. Lingyun knew that it was actually delayed due to the general’s death. After all, his funeral was in two days.

Yulan turned and gave Chunmei a cold stare. “Chunmei, look at yourself. Is this the way a future empress should act? I thought you really admired Lingyun.”

Immediately, Chunmei straightened her back, though she was still avoiding Lingyun’s eyes. “I…I do!”

“Then why don’t you speak to him?”

Lingyun tried not to yawn. It was far too tempting, but he resisted. Despite the breathtaking beauty of his cousin, she just didn’t interest him.

“I heard a lot about you, your Highness,” she stammered. “I always thought you were the most suited to be the next emperor….” Her voice became almost inaudible by the end of her sentence, and her face was so red, it was almost funny. Almost, if not for how messed up everything was.

“I’m flattered,” Lingyun forced himself to say for his mother. “Thank you for coming all this way to visit me.” He turned to his mother. “Thank you for finding such a wonderful wife, Mother. If you don’t mind, I have business to attend to.” He referred to the official.

Yulan smiled. “Do your best, Lingyun. After the ceremony tomorrow, you’ll be directing your first Imperial Conference.”

Yes. And Lingyun was so looking forward to that.

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Politics was annoying. After Lingyun had learned of the succession procedures, he had been asked to visit his mother. That night, Yulan had personally explained the general situation of the Imperial Government, just to give him an idea of which officials he should thank for his succession—although he really wanted to beat them up instead.

Meddlesome bastards. They would only make the Imperial Court even more split and chaotic. Judging from their age and experience, Lingyun didn’t expect them to support him any longer. They would treat him like a child and threaten him with what they had done for him. Well, frankly, Lingyun didn’t care. He was too tired to care.

The succession ceremony was boring. Lingyun had to ‘thank’ all of his ancestors for his succession, after all. He respected his ancestors, but he just didn’t feel like thanking them for this. Thus, the whole ceremony was torturously slow, but Lingyun managed to get by without any mistake.

Everything was going fairly smoothly, until the Imperial Conference.

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Chapter 22

“Your Majesty, please return to your throne!”

Ignoring the pleading, Lingyun continued to storm down the hallways. It was bad enough that he had been unexpectedly called back to take the emperor’s throne, but to find that the bastard was actually from the Xuan family and worst of all, going to be the general? Things couldn’t have gotten any worse.

That smile was what he hated the most. That smile, that infuriatingly fake smile was definitely hiding cunning deceit.

He would never forget what that bastard had done to him!

If only he could get rid of that insufferable bastard…yet he couldn’t. The Xuan family had too much power in the royal court, not to mention, he wasn’t about to declare his lifetime scar to the entire world.

Everything that bastard had done, everything…it had all been planned. Including that…those humiliating, messed up nights!

Lingyun felt like jumping off a cliff when he remembered how disgracefully he had acted that night, and that other night.

That bastard! He had used Lingyun all along! He must have been laughing inside, laughing at how stupid Lingyun had been, laughing at how disgracefully he had acted. His claims, his words…everything had been lies. They were all lies. He had planned to gain Lingyun’s trust and to use Lingyun to get more power!

Worse, the lying bastard was in the same corrupted league as his serpentine brother. Zhitian’s words still reverberated clearly in his head:

Since Xuan-gongzi is the one who protected Your Majesty, he is the one Your Majesty can trust the most. Furthermore, considering his background and his abilities, I recommend him to be the next supreme general.”

No one objected, even though it was still clearly too early for someone as young and relatively inexperienced as Fengbo was to become a supreme general. Yet, because Zhitian had obviously gained control of over a third of the Royal Court and because that bastard was from the Xuan family, no one said a thing. Of course Lingyun had no say!

Not to mention, he had expected to be reminded of how powerless he was, but he hadn’t expected the one who’d do that was not Zhitian, but that bastard!

Your Majesty, I think it is best for you to just stay quiet for now. After all, you just came back.” Cue infuriating fake smile.

“Unforgivable,” he hissed under his breath. It was difficult to see—who was responsible for the cleaning these hallways? Some slacker—there was dust in his eyes.

“Your Majesty!” pleaded the official who was now too far away to catch up.

“My head hurts, I need to rest!” Lingyun yelled back; a blatant lie, and a rather great way to start his reign. Whatever.

If that power hungry political-whore wanted to rule the empire, let him rule! Lingyun had no intention of playing along with that bastard’s sick games any more.

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Lianzheng stared at the ceiling, his chest heaving. “Have I made a mistake?”

“I don’t know,” Yulan sighed, slumping a little. “It’s been a week since Lingyun shut himself away. Fengbo told me he can handle the situation…but I don’t know what he means. My brother told me that Fengbo was against Lingyun succeeding, after all….”

“You think Fengbo has ulterior motives?”

Yulan bit her lips. “I’m not so sure. If Fengbo really is on Zhitian’s side, why would he bring back Lingyun?” She considered in silence. Because he didn’t want to disobey his father and because he didn’t want to bruise his own reputation, she concluded.

Just what was Fengbo thinking? What had his relationship with Lingyun been like? She could only guess.

The last time Lingyun had returned to the Palace, all he had talked about was Fengbo. He had looked so happy back then, despite emphasizing how annoying he had found Fengbo to be. Yulan should have caught onto the implications back then.

Lingyun, who trusted no one but himself, had trusted Fengbo. Trusted him enough to ignore his doubts and to overlook everything he had found odd. After all, it was impossible for him to not have suspected Fengbo, considering his intelligence. It was so obvious, but Yulan never really thought about it.

It had been a mistake to send Fengbo. However, only Fengbo had the ability to find Lingyun.

The bell outside chimed, indicating a message. Yulan got up and walked to the bell in the room. She picked up a small hammer and struck it twice, indicating permission to enter.

Hastily, a servant ran in, a great smile on his face. “Your Majesties!” He dropped to the floor.

“What is it?” Lianzheng managed to ask.

“Rain—it has rained in the south! The drought is over! This is a sign from the skies of the new emperor’s benevolence and the prosperous future he will bring!” the servant exclaimed, all in one breath.

“Is it so….” Lianzheng smiled. “That is great news…great news indeed….”

“Thank you for bringing such wonderful news,” Yulan said, a smile finding its way to her lips. It was as though all the worries weighing her down had become lighter by a half. She reached for the basket on the table and gave it to the servant. “Take this as a gift, and share it with your family and friends. You may leave now.”

Getting up while keeping his head bowed, the servant received the basket with both hands while thanking Lianzheng and Yulan countless times.

“I think…” Lianzheng began after the servant left. “I think I can finally rest in peace.…”

“Your Majesty?”

“The skies approve of my choice…,” Lianzheng continued, his voice weak. “I feel at peace now.”

“At least…,” Yulan insisted, trying not to cry as she squeezed her husband’s cold hand, “at least wait until the wedding…? How are they supposed to marry with both of their fathers’ absence?”

“I’m tired…Yulan. I’m so tired. Thank you for all you have done for this empire; it placates my heart to know that you will stay and support Lingyun. And now, it seems that…twenty years on the throne is finally taking its toll….” And, with that said, Lianzheng closed his eyes.

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What?” Zhitian dropped his wine cup; it shattered with a crisp chime.

“As I said,” Haoping repeated, “apparently, on the day the emperor ascended the throne, it rained.”

“Why must the skies play this sick joke on me?” Zhitian moaned, throwing the paper before his platform desk up in the air and leaning back. “Where’s my personal toy?” he suddenly asked, turning to look up at Haoping. “I need to vent some frustration.”

The official remained expressionless. “He’s in your bedroom, your highness.”

Before Zhitian got up, however, a servant scurried into the room. “Supreme General Xuan has arrived,” he reported.

Fengbo strode in, as regal as usual. Zhitian licked his lips. “Your Highness,” the young general greeted, bowing. He then straightened his posture. “I know the news of rain is disadvantageous—but do not fret. This is a good sign from the skies—but who will be supporting His Imperial Majesty upon hearing this news? Those from Rites Department and the officials responsible for observing the skies. They have little influential power, and most are going to be old men,” he said. “Instead, there are ways in which we can use this rain to your advantage.”

Haoping narrowed his eyes. Again, that man claimed to be on Zhitian’s side. Well, it was a good thing that his boss didn’t trust Fengbo completely. Haoping himself couldn’t deny that the plan that Fengbo had provided was ingenious. Dictating the imperial conference to show how able Zhitian was in contrast to Lingyun, who would most likely remain silent—how many more followers would Zhitian gain and how many would lose faith in the inexperienced emperor?

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It was raining. Another funeral. Another death. His father was lucky to have died with honor. With things going this way, Lingyun was rather sure he’d die a horrible death.

Not like he really cared any more. The only person he could trust was his mother, and with his mother he was supposed to have the support of the Xuan. But instead, that bastard didn’t even allow him to have people he could use. Worse, most of the good officials had left the Imperial Government when they’d had the chance—they had predicted the destruction. What was left was corruption and war.

Lingyun wanted to laugh. He tried to think of what labels he’d get if he died, or got killed. Stupid emperor? Weak emperor? Corrupted emperor? Or better yet, he’d die as a peasant, stripped of his title. The worst job in the world was the emperor’s job, but for some moronic reason, so many people wanted his position. Lingyun would have given his throne to his brother, if not for his mother.

His mother’s health was considerably frailer than the last time Lingyun had seen her. With her closest sibling and her husband’s death, it must’ve been hard on her. She desperately wanted Lingyun to do something, but couldn’t she understand? Lingyun had no way of getting power. Zhitian had made sure of it—with the help of that bastard.

He didn’t care anyway. He had other things he could care about, and most of those wouldn’t involve much politicking. Lingyun spent most of his time inside his quarters training, cursing that bastard and swearing he’d defeat the traitor one day. When he felt like doing something else, he went to the Imperial Library and picked out books he hadn’t already read before. Reading the records of what had happened during his leave was rather helpful, but at the same time useless.

A month later was the ‘Big Wedding’. It was so mundane that Lingyun felt like leaving early. That stupid brother, Zhitian. He just had to make this unnecessarily opulent on purpose, as though Lingyun was the one who wanted to waste the treasury, as though Lingyun was a bad son who didn’t care about his father’s death.

He tried to entertain himself by chatting with his bride, but she was too nervous to even look at him. Was she really that bastard’s sister? Sure, he trusted his mother’s judgment, but he had the obligation to doubt Chunmei. Who was the sixteen-year-old closer to—her brother, or his mother?

If it were the former, Lingyun would be living in hell for the rest of his life.

Hours had passed and there seemed to be no end to the meaningless celebration. Chunmei’s shyness was beginning to annoy Lingyun, so he leaned closer to Chunmei and murmured in her ears, “You know, you can stop being so shy. It’s all right. I don’t have a ‘purity’ fetish.” In fact, he wasn’t interested in anything. For some reason. He could still get it up, so what was his problem? Why was it that he could only get it up when—

No. Not going to think about it.

He noticed Fengbo staring at him and ignored the bastard. Lingyun could care less if the bastard somehow had the ability to hear what he had said in all the noise and the music. Chunmei, on the other hand, blushed furiously, much to Lingyun’s chagrin. He thought that all Xuan women were as outspoken as his mother. In fact, most of the women in Yue were rather outspoken.

“I…I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” Chunmei began, clearly forced out of her closed throat. “I’m just…not used to this. You’re the first male outside of the Xuan Mansion that I’ve met…I don’t know what to say.”

“Did they teach you any martial arts?” Lingyun asked absently as he took a sip of wine. His mother had known some basics before she had married his father, after all.

“Yes, if you don’t mind.”

Now this was finally getting interesting, though Lingyun didn’t show it on his face. “Of course I don’t. Good that you know how to defend yourself—I was thinking of sending you back to learn something if you didn’t have any basics.” He replaced his cup and leaned closer to whisper, “because you never know when I’m going to get killed.”

Fengbo staring again. How annoying.

Chunmei’s pretty little face paled upon hearing that. “Your Majesty!” she gasped, disbelief printed all over her features. Lingyun merely smirked and drank more wine. He needed it, if he was ever going to survive this night. Chunmei straightened her posture and wore a serious expression. She raised her wrist but then lowered it. After a while, she raised her hand again and signaled Lingyun to lean closer, her cheeks a little flushed. “Don’t worry,” she whispered into Lingyun’s ears. She smelled good, and for the first time, Lingyun realized how delicate females were. But it wasn’t enough to make him want to bed her. “Despite what it seems like, my brother, Fengbo, will protect you no matter what.”

Her words immediately made Lingyun lose any mild interest he had previously had for her. She was on her brother’s side. Figured. That bastard looked extremely protective. He kept looking this way and Lingyun was tempted, more than once, to throw his cup at the bastard.

He didn’t feel like talking to Chunmei anymore, but for the sake of his mother, who was now noticing his silence and Chunmei’s confused panic, he had to find something else to talk about. He learned of Chunmei’s hobbies, of her skills, and, to his despair, her overwhelming admiration of her stupid brother.

Great. Just great.

The party finally ended and Lingyun had to follow a servant to take a bath in the hot springs. He was tempted to escape, but he forced himself to stay and dragged himself to the bridal chambers, which was decorated with a lot of red. The carpets looked extremely expensive, and the folding screens surrounding the large platform bed were so intricate Lingyun thought they were distracting. After all, they were supposed to have sex, not admire art.

Chunmei came in through the doors, her cheeks pink as usual. They prayed to the heavens, the earth, and their ancestors, eating a little by the opulent table under the west window for every prayer. Afterwards, they exchanged wines of loyalty. Chunmei was too nervous to talk, but Lingyun didn’t feel like talking either. He knew the silence was making the girl even more nervous, and it somewhat amused him in a twisted sort of way.

A eunuch came in and led Lingyun away to a room so he could change into sleeping wear. “I can change myself,” Lingyun interrupted before the eunuch could touch him.

The servant hurried to the side and carried over a red tray. On the wooden tray, there was an intricate little plate containing a red pill and a bowl of water. “Your Majesty,” the eunuch squeaked, his head lowered so he wouldn’t meet Lingyun’s eyes. “Aphrodisiac from General Xuan Fengbo.”

Hearing the name itself made Lingyun feel like taking out his anger on the innocent eunuch. What the hell? What the hell did that bastard mean from this? Mocking his masculinity again… He felt as though the cold flame had burnt all of his insides into charcoal. “I don’t need it,” he said icily, thoroughly scaring the wits out of the trembling eunuch. “Tell him to eat it himself. Or you can have it if you want, provided it isn’t poison.” He tried not to stomp out the room when a maid came to receive him back to the bridal chambers.

Chunmei was almost naked, trembling beneath the silken bed sheet woven with a dragon and a phoenix. Her pale, smooth skin was delicate and beautiful, shimmering under the flickering candle lights. She was definitely stunning and could easily claim the title of ‘most beautiful’ in the Capital.

It wasn’t like he couldn’t get it up—he just didn’t feel like having sex with Chunmei. Her frightened expression wasn’t helping much, either.

“You look very uncomfortable,” Lingyun began softly, still standing. “You’re nervous.” He was an expert actor, if he wanted to be. Manipulation—he was good at that too. Poor Chunmei, a victim of manipulative men. Tough luck.

Blushing even more, Chunmei replied, almost in a whisper, “I’m all right with it, if it’s you.”

How flattering. “No,” Lingyun said, smiling pleasantly as he crawled into the bed and rested his head on the pillow. “I won’t feel good if you’re so nervous. I think we need to know each other a little more, don’t you think?” Using his most persuasive voice. “Besides, today is just so hectic and tiring. I doubt you have the energy. Let’s talk about art instead; I remember you said you like art. What do you think of these folding screens?”

And so, getting away with not having sex was the only satisfying event that occurred that day.

Some days later, Jin invaded, and Xia was on the move again. To support the south, the bastard was going to leave the capital the next day. He had the nerve, the nerve to visit Lingyun before he left.

He had the nerve to make a point out of how powerless Lingyun was by ignoring Lingyun’s refusal to allow his visit. “I hope you are prepared for what this means if I come back,” Fengbo said with a smirk, leaning close as usual.

Biting his lips, Lingyun narrowed his eyes. “I seriously hope you get killed in action,” he replied coldly through his teeth. Why was it hard to see again? Stupid dust. He did his best to retain his dignity. “But since I want to kill you myself, you better survive. And then I’ll kill you.”

Fengbo smiled; arrogant, mocking. “You, who can’t even bed my sister? I know you didn’t fuck her that night, Lingyun.”

“How dare you use such vulgar words in my presence and how dare you say my name!” Lingyun’s hand flew out like lightning, intending to attack Fengbo’s acupressure point and force the bastard back.

Unfortunately, Fengbo caught it and pulled Lingyun so close that he could feel the bastard’s breath. “And just how will you kill me when you’re this weak, Lingyun? Hmm?”

“Get away from me, you treacherous bastard!” Lingyun flipped his wrist and wormed out of the uncomfortable closeness. “I hate you…! I hate you so much…!” he hissed, ignoring the tears that he couldn’t seem to stop. Disgracing himself again. It had to be the dust. He was going to change cleaning servants after this. “I swear I will make you regret the day you forced yourself into my life with those disgusting lies!”

Fengbo was expressionless.

“Go ahead and play your stupid games. I’m not going to take part in it. Rule this empire all you want, and better yet, kick me out of my position. Maybe you can try to poison me, too, like every treacherous scum before you. Then I can fake my death and escape this wretched cage.” Manipulative words, Lingyun was capable of using them too. He had always used them to ensure his life. Yet, it was so hard to speak normally, his voice sounded so foreign and forced. “After I escape, you won’t find me anymore. I was careless back then but I won’t be careless this time. But I’ll come back the day I am able to kill you.”

Snorting, the bastard looked amused, if anything. “Don’t worry, Lingyun. I won’t let you die. I won’t let you escape, either. After all….” He moved too fast for Lingyun to avoid him. “I know that being alive and in this ‘cage’ is what will make you suffer the most,” he breathed.

Lingyun lashed out but made sure the bastard wouldn’t catch him this time. Fengbo knew it would be dangerous to make a grab at Lingyun’s wrist this time as well, so he simply leapt back.

“See you, Lingyun.” He didn’t wait for Lingyun to reply and left.

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The war with Jin and Xia did not go well. Since the war with Yan had dragged on because of the lack of soldiers, so did the war in the south. It lasted for two years, and they even had to get help from Ning.

When Fengbo came back victorious, he was arguably as influential as Zhitian.

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Part I
~
刀光劍影~
The Gleams of Sabers and Shadows of Swords
End

Next Part: 恩斷義絕 (Broken Relations and Severed Ties)

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