"Sister, tell me, do you like one of the fuma candidates" asked Jingan.
After the banquet in Wuying hall ended, Jingan didn't return to her palace. Instead, she grabbed her sister to have a heart-to-heart talk with her. Being a martial arts and sabres fanatic since she was a child, Princess Hongzhuang never shared her deep feelings with her sister as a woman. As a result, Jingan's question turned her heroic aura into shyness in the form of red cheeks.
"Sister, you should not laugh at me. I am used to being abrasive. I have never understood romance. I think it is best to trust Father to make the decision."
Never one who was good at telling lies, Princess Hongzhuang blushed, stuttered, minced words, looked upward and whistled. Jingan wouldn't have been Jingan if she couldn't tell Princess Hongzhuang was lying when there were so many dead giveaways. Jingan further confirmed her suspicion, which was that Li Hongzhuang had developed feelings for one of the two. Obviously, it wasn't Jin Wangsun.
Jingan rested her chin on one hand. Tenderly and politely, she asked, "Mm… If you have fallen for one of them, you would not lie to your sister's face, would you"
"Sister!" Hongzhuang blushed: "I-I did not lie!"
Jingan wore on her trademark entrancing smile when she saw her sister's flustered reaction. She thought, "How adorable. If I was a man, I'd definitely like the type of woman similar to my sister. No wonder Fuma wants to marry her. Did he go through all the trouble of enlisting in Liu Shan Men to marry her Ming Feizhen… I still can't read you no matter what."
Thought Jingan thought positively of her sister, those very thoughts struck a chord with Princess Hongzhuang. The latter was never one to be hung up on minor details. She dressed as she pleased, opting to prioritise comfort. From her perspective, she was unfeminine, and therefore reasoned that nobody had any reason to like her.
"If… Ming Feizhen is Lord San Shen, whom I've yearned to see day and night… Oh my god! I've lived together with him for so long! He's seen everything there is to see! I'm aggressive when I eat, sleep, speak and carry myself with total disregard for manners. He's seen all of my bad traits. What do I do If…" thought Princess Hongzhuang.
Princess Hongzhuang glanced over to her charming and graceful sister. She thought, "That's what you call a real woman. Sister is always so beautiful, eloquent and feminine. No wonder why a hero the likes of brother-in-law is wholeheartedly devoted to her."
The step-sisters grew up in totally different environments. The elder sister was an exalted Princess, yet lacked anyone who she could count on. The younger sister's maternal family didn't hail from an imperial family, yet wielded immense authority. Consequently and ironically, the two grew up with as completely contrasting characters.
After the long silence between them, Princess Hongzhuang asked, "Sister, will… you be returning to Hangzhou tomorrow How about you stay with me in the capital for a few days"
Jingan smiled: "I came back precisely to see you. Even your fuma has been chosen, so do I have any other choice but to leave I am a married woman; I cannot leave the family for too long."
"That is true. I apologise for not being thoughtful enough," responded Princess Hongzhuang, tone very regretful.
Jingan, to the contrary, smiled: "There's no need to be blue. You will choose a day to get married after your fuma is selected. There is lots of time to prepare. My dear sister can't be married off in a senseless fashion. I will come and visit you again on your wedding day."
"Great! I just wonder… how the fuma selection is going."
Jingan scanned Hongzhuang's flush and worried expression. It was obvious that she was worried about Ming Feizhen: "Yeah, I wonder how he's doing."
Jingan was on a different wavelength to her sister. She looked to the North's Zhaixing Hall and subtly smiled: "If… 'he' could pass, then that would be great."
The Emperor and I quietly waited outside Zhaixing Hall. With neither of us having anything to say, the atmosphere between us turned awkward as could be.
His Machesty was good with conversations, yet was rendered speechless due to tension. To dispel the awkwardness, I leapt into the breach: "Your Majesty, it would not be a big deal if it cannot be solved. We can go in and copy it onto a sheet of paper. Worst comes to worst, we can imprint it onto paper, and then take it with us. Then, we would have plenty of time to mull over it."
It was just a joke. I didn't expect His Majesty to say, "No, we can't do that. I've tried it. The Sword Spirit on the white wall refuses to leave. It's as if it's a living spirit. Anybody who approaches the wall to rub copy it or print it onto a cloth will be inexorably drawn in to the late carving. Once they do, they'll end up in a coma."
"What about reciting it Your Majesty, you have seen it many times. You can write it down and have someone else look at it, can you not"
"That won't work, either," replied the Emperor, shaking his head. "Because… I can't remember it."
"You cannot remember it"
"The poem is incredibly peculiar. I attempted to memorise it many times, but whenever I looked at the text on the wall, the text would lead my mind off track. It's impossible to hone in on it. When I came to, I totally forgot what it said."
'Oh, I see now. Now it makes sense.'
Judging from the Emperor's tone, he must've reached out to many people, yet never had to worry about spilling the secret. If nobody could remember what they read and he didn't tell them what was carved on the wall, then, indeed, nobody would know what they did. Having said that, his explanation gave rise to more questions.
His Majesty didn't sound as though he thought we'd be able to decipher the secret. He asked many scholars, martial artists and famous priests and what have you, yet none of them were able to decipher it. He'd have to be mad to actually believe we could dispel the mystery. In addition, the way he looked at Zhaixing Hall gave me the impression that he wasn't fretting over whether or not we could solve it but confirming what Jin Wangsun was up to.
'A carving that can induce injury…'
I was bewildered despite having seen the tragic courtyard and personally heardthe Sword Howl. Great Grandmaster truly was a man who was beyond man's realms of comprehension. I never heard of a Sword Spirit that could remain for over two decades.
As I was about to comment again, His Majesty said, "Based on his level, he should be done."
Indeed, we heard a tragic scream from within Zhaixing Hall the moment the Emperor ended his sentence. Who screamed Jin Wangsun screamed.
The Emperor stroked his beard: "His servant should be bringing him out about now."
The Emperor's prediction was wrong. We waited for a while, but neither of them came out. Instead, we then heard a loud sound that reminded me of a sharp weapon clashing with a boulder. They still didn't come out once the strange sound ended.
The Emperor mulled it over to himself: "That sound before must've been someone trying to damage the white wall with a sharp weapon. Could…"
After some time passed, I heard heavy footsteps approach.
A Hu was covered in wounds inflicted by Sword Qi. He looked awfully pale and was bleeding profusely. It was clear that he was suffering from excessive blood loss. On his shoulder was Jin Wangsun, who was in a coma. On his back was Golden Crow Moon Eater. His steps were heavy and slow. He seemed drained. He used everything he had left to set his master down on the ground. He, himself, was ready to collapse.
"Your Majesty, this humble one's master, h-"
"Say no more. Send him to the imperial medical department. Wang Tushui, help them out. Make sure the two of them are well."
Eunuch Wang quickly went and called for men. His Majesty seemed bored and casual when he asked, "Did you make the loud sound I heard"
A Hu courteously answered, "Please forgive this humble one, Your Majesty. The master… was bewitched. I had to look at the white wall in order to rescue him. Unfortunately… this humble one was also bewitched and scratched the wall."
"Uhm," responded the Emperor, tone neutral. "That is one way to overcome it. There were adepts who wanted to try the same method, but alas, the majority of them couldn't do it. You are a quick thinker and an impressive martial artist. It is a pity that you are a family slave. By the way, how many flying swords did you see in there"
I was baffled by the question: "Flying swords"
"Correct. Hero Shenzhou's late carving is capable of producing flying sword phantoms that will thrust toward you using a profound swordplay. Both previous adepts and myself were defeated by the flying swords. I assume the same fate befell Wangsun. It would be a very tall order to have the average martial artist last until three swords appeared. Those who are skilled would be able to see ten to twenty swords. The cream of the crop would be able to see over thirty swords."
Head down, A Hu replied, "This humble one… saw over one hundred swords."
"One hundred swords" The Emperor scanned A Hu's face. He granted A Hu a nod of approval: "Not bad. Once this is over, I shall send a letter to Zhenjiang, and ask for you. It is absurd to let such a talented individual be stuck as a slave. Jin Clan lacks a discerning eye for talent."
A Hu jolted, but didn't dare to speak. The Emperor naturally knew what the former was thinking. He couldn't bear to leave his former master. The Emperor stroked his beard and chuckled: "You certainly are loyal. Okay, okay, okay, let us pretend I have not mentioned it for now. While your wounds were inflicted by phantoms, they are real wounds. If you do not treat them in time, your life will be in peril. Men, help them."
Eunuch Wang returned with help. They immediately took the two to the imperial doctor's department.
As soon as they left, the Emperor turned to leave, as well.
I asked, "Your Majesty"
With his back facing me, His Majesty indifferently replied, "I have business to attend to. You complete the test while I am gone. If you pass, you pass. If you don't, have a respite. It's no big issue."
The Emperor then suavely departed. Tang Ye and I were the only ones left behind.
'What the hell… The Emperor doesn't seem to give a single ** about me. Why does this Dazzling Talent event seem so fishy I smell schemes every step of the way.'
I meticulously scrutinised the beginning to end of the event, but I couldn't put my finger on any specific clues until Jingan popped into mind.
Dazzling Talent was the name decided on half a month ago. That meant the Emperor already had plans to have us attempt the challenge. I suspected the Emperor had designs for the fuma selection. I was also certain that Jingan knew what Dazzling Talent was all about. It wouldn't be surprising if she managed to pry something out from the Emperor given how much he loved her. She wouldn't have had the confidence to let Jin Wangsun pit himself against me, otherwise. I weighed the situation while fiddling with my chin. I concluded that I, at least, needed to take a look inside to be able to tick the box and say I finished.
Tang Ye and I entered Zhaixing Hall with a lantern each.
For whatever reason, the Sword Howl had vanished without a trace. We took the risk but managed to arrive at the centre of the hall with the white wall. It was a big white wall and had text carved onto it just as His Majesty stated. I confirmed it was Great Grandmaster's handwriting. In saying that, his handwriting was different to usual. I was under the impression he added a unique touch to it.
As I looked at the wall, I suddenly realised Dazzling Talent was Jingan's last assassination attempt.
'Geez, now this is troublesome.'
Great Grandmaster's carving was likely to be more effective as one's internal strength improved. Jingan was aware that I was highly skilled, which was why she deliberately had me sent to the hall. In other words, she set it up so that Great Grandmaster would kill me. It was safe to assume that His Majesty's departure was also calculated in her plans.
I'd be willing to bet that her people were already hiding in ambush outside in the courtyard. Once I cried out tragically as Jin Wangsun did, they'd come in and end me.
'Is our three year battle going to end here today'
"Tang Ye, keep your eyes peeled. You might find some sort of door."
When Tang Ye had a glimpse of the wall, his body jolted. He performed a head slip as though he evaded something. I placed a hand on his shoulder and transferred some of my own Qi in order to help him recollect himself. That allowed the phantoms to back off a little, giving him some space.
"What do you see'
"I… flying swords… I see about thirty or forty of them."
"Thirty or forty You need to work on your internal strength some more. Remember how many A Hu saw'
"Big Brother… how many do you see"
I didn't answer. I just blankly gazed into the emptiness.
'No wonder why Jingan set this up as a phase in her assassination plan. Damn smart lass.'
After lingering around, I quietly lamented, "Great Grandmaster… you truly are a living deity."
Zhaixing Hall essentially transformed into a sword mountain where the swords came to life. The swords resembling ice-cold spears vibrating in the air looked to devour me.
In front of me were, at least, over ten thousand flying swords hovering in the air. Like camouflaged snakes, they were aimed at my throat.
Jin Wangsun had a dream, one he hadn't had in a long time. He dreamt of what once happened when he was a kid.
One time, he attended an evening banquet. That night, villains raided the banquet. Nobody noticed the assailants, thereby putting him in jeopardy. When he was lost and helpless, somebody saved him.
His saviour wielded a sabre of matchless quality, rendering allies in awe and enemies panic-stricken. Nobody was a match for her. Jin Wangsun had a sabre at home called Golden Crow Moon Eater. It was classified as the divine blade among the Seven Dynasty-Founding Blades. People in the martial world envied his clan for possessing it; however, his savour's sabre was more beautiful and attractive than Golden Crow Moon Eater. Her sabre contained a potent charm. None other could rival the sabre. That was the only sabre that could finish adepts in one swoop.
Jing Wangsun grew up before he knew it.
He recalled the female sabre wielder who rescued him. She was his influence to take up the sabre, which he diligently trained. Her courage, beauty and hearty nature had a heavy influence on him. Regardless of how many years passed by, she was always on his mind. He faintly remembered that she was very beautiful. She particularly loved to laugh and drink. She was dazzling when she raised her cup for a hearty drink.
Later down the road, his father apparently invited her to their place. Jin Wangsun couldn't recall what followed. All he remembered was… a dark red scene that was borderline black. The female hero was covered in blood; her hair was a mess, and she lied in a puddle of blood. Her long hair was dyed dark red. She murmured similarly to a ghost. The word she murmured was "traitor".
Jin Wangsun suddenly woke up in a sweat, and his lips were pale. It hadn't seen the nightmare since around the time he was ten. For some reason unbeknownst to him, he had it again. He slowly opened his eyes to find his head aching as if it was burnt.
The voice was very familiar. Jin Wangsun searched his mental records and quickly found the answer.
Jin Wangsun immediately attempted to sit up when he saw the Emperor sitting on a chair not too far away and drinking tea. As soon as he tried to sit up, he felt his dantian aching. He couldn't utilise any true qi. Before he could express his surprise, the Emperor said, "That's perfectly normal. Anyone who falls unconscious after seeing Hero Shenzhou's late carving will be unable to utilise their true qi for twelve hours. I have some private matters to speak to you about, and I don't want others to hear it."
The Emperor smiled: "This is perfect. We can have a chat now."
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