The distance from North Pine City to Red Rock City was quite far. In truth, an ordinary man walking from one to the other would spend weeks on Red Pine Road, the main road between the two; if he encountered any accidents, it might be more than a month before he reached his destination.
For a wealthy family like the Sun clan, however, the journey was much more manageable. All the major roads were built on the twisting leylines, and elite dragon-horses had been bred for centuries to take advantage of the natural energy. The tireless and swift creatures were expensive, naturally, but well within the means of the Sun clan.
Therefore, the journey to Red Rock City should have taken Sun Tzi and his cousin less than a day. However, the detour to the Cerulean Abyss had added a significant distance to their journey. Additionally, the leyline under the road leading from the Cerulean Abyss to Red Rock City was significantly weaker, so the dragon-horses could not proceed as swiftly. It would likely have been faster to return to North Pine City, and take Red Pine Road. But Sun Lan had ordered So Tan to take the slower direct road, and Sun Tzi had not disagreed.
Ever since leaving the Cerulean Abyss, not a word had been spoken between Sun Tzi and Sun Lan. The young woman had spent the journey lost in thought, staring at something that only she could see. On the other side of the carriage, Sun Tzi watched his younger cousin with a complicated look on his face.
They were still an hour away from their destination when Sun Lan finally broke the silence. “That person… is probably already dead.”
Sun Tzi frowned in surprise. “Are you still concerned about that worthless peasant?” He shook his head and gave Sun Lan a patronizing look. “I will admit to a slight admiration for how efficiently he ended his own existence, but it certainly isn’t worth a second mention. It wasn’t even especially brave of him — he was already dead, so what did he have to fear? Put him out of your mind, dear cousin, and concentrate on important matters.”
Sun Lan raised an eyebrow. “Important matters, cousin Tzi? Like the story that ‘peasant’ told us of Fan Bin?”
Sun Tzi pressed his lips together momentarily, before forcing himself to smile. “Did you actually believe that nonsense? I’m certain that he was just randomly making accusations–”
“Spare me, cousin,” interrupted Sun Lan in a cold voice. “While your father may try to restrict my knowledge of the happenings outside of our clan, even I can’t help but know of Fan Bin’s reputation.”
“Rumors,” said Sun Tzi, equally coldly.
“Indeed. But pervasive rumors. Rumors of villages burned, girls raped and murdered, and every form of bullying imaginable… Even if only half the rumors are true, it would make him a pure villain, without hope of redemption.”
“Speak carefully, Sun Lan,” her cousin cautioned. “The man you are defaming is your fiance, after all.”
“Did you intend to tell him, cousin Tzi?” she challenged.
“Of course not,” he responded immediately. “But you should be more respectful of your future husband.”
“Hmph,” said the young woman angrily. “I will never accept him as my husband, even if he were as gentle as a saint.”
“It is not your decision,” spoke Sun Tzi coldly. “Or do you intend to rebel against my father?”
Sun Lan fell silent, but a stubborn look remained in her eyes. Observing her attitude, Sun Tzi continued, “It was father who arranged your marriage with the Fan clan, after all. It was… unfortunate… that your original partner died in training, but the Fan clan head was gracious enough to allow you to become his heir’s fiancee, which would give you a much greater status among the Fan.” His tone slipped slightly into sarcasm as he spoke, but he managed to deliver the sentence with a straight face nonetheless. “It’s for the good of the clan, cousin. We are not strong enough to challenge the Fan, not right now…”
“No, not right now. But your father, the clan head, made a promise with me. Should I reach the peak of the Qi Gathering stage, and have a chance to step into Core Reinforcement, he will cancel the engagement,” Sun Lan said. “I will make myself indispensable to the clan, and even Fan Bin will back off, rather than incite a war with us.”
Sun Tzi frowned, but only said, “Then continue to focus on your training, cousin. And perhaps your fate will turn out like you desire.”
“It will,” the young woman said with confidence. Silence descended in the carriage once more, as the distance to Red Rock City was continually eroded by the efforts of the tireless dragon-horses.
The sun was setting, and the travellers were not far from their destination, when Sun Lan suddenly spoke up again, her voice quiet and pensive. “Cousin.”
Sun Tzi looked up in surprise. Sun Lan was not looking at him, but gazing out the window at the approaching city. “…What is it?” he asked.
“I don’t think you understand… just what kind of pain that man was experiencing. If it were me…” She hesitated. Sun Tzi could see a deep sadness in her eyes, which surprised him greatly.
“…I would have given up,” Sun Lan finished, quietly. Sun Tzi said nothing in return, and watched her with an unreadable expression.
Four days later.
Sun Tzi and his cousin had not stayed long in Red Rock City, and had quickly returned home to their clan along Red Pine Road. Sun Lan had immediately gone into isolated cultivation, in order to quickly process the precious resources she had gained in the large trade markets of Red Rock City. Barring some unforeseen difficulty, she had full confidence in breaking through to the seventh level of Qi Gathering immediately, and if things went especially well, she thought that she might travel quite a distance towards the eighth level as well. But whether things went well or not, she was fully determined to press through any obstacles, and gain the freedom promised to her!
Meanwhile, Sun Tzi had requested a meeting with his father, the head of the Sun clan: Sun Ba. Clan head Sun Ba had been quite busy of late, so Sun Tzi was not surprised to learn that he would have to wait until the next day to meet his father. He agreed to the arrangements with a smile, and soon quietly disappeared from the Sun clan manor. He did not appear again, until right before his scheduled meeting with his father.
Sun Ba’s sons were all good-looking men, but they had all taken after their mothers; Sun Ba himself was completely average, perhaps even a little ugly. But no one would ever say so to his face; setting aside the strength of the Sun clan as a whole, his personal strength stood at the peak of the Qi Gathering stage! At his age, he was unlikely to ever step into the realm of Core Reinforcement, but he was still one of the strongest residents of North Pine City.
Sun Tzi entered his father’s study. The clan head today wore a fine robe, and sat behind a desk covered in paperwork. He looked up at his son’s entrance and gave him a quick glance, but immediately his eyes returned to his paperwork. Sun Tzi was not offended by his father’s apparent lack of attention. He knew that his father had a rare talent for concentrating on two things at once, a talent he used quite extensively to efficiently handle the wide-reaching affairs of the Sun clan.
“Welcome back, Little Tzi. I understand your trip was a success.” Sun Ba’s voice was surprisingly deep, and it seemed to contain an echo of unrestrained power. Even Sun Tzi was slightly intimidated by his father’s martial cultivation.
“It was indeed successful, and in greater measure than we anticipated. Cousin Lan has plenty of material aid for her attempt to break through to seventh level.” Sun Tzi’s voice was humble and respectful in front of his father.
“Good, good,” rumbled Sun Ba. “The higher my dear niece’s cultivation, the more compensation I can soak from that damn Fan clan. Continue supporting her. I will see that you are rewarded.”
“Thank you, father,” Sun Tzi said.
“Now, I am quite busy, so please excuse me. Go see your mother, she’s been asking about you.”
“Forgive me, father, but I have something else to report.”
Sun Ba paused, glancing up at his son with irritation. “To report? I have hundreds of reports already, from men much more competent than you. Don’t waste my time, get out of here.”
Sun Ba’s martial aura burst out, pressuring down on his son. Sun Tzi immediately bowed his head in submission, as sweat burst out on his forehead. Still, he forced himself to continue on. “It’s about Fan Bin.”
“Fan Bin?” repeated Sun Ba with a frown. “What contact have you had with Fan Bin?” His martial aura retreated a bit, allowing Sun Tzi to recover his composure. Quickly, he began to tell Sun Ba of his encounter with Gan Zhu. Sun Ba frowned impatiently as he stared down at his paperwork, but his eyes widened when Sun Tzi told him about the poison that had destroyed Gan Zhu’s meridians and dantian. After his fourth son had finished his story, he sat for a few minutes, considering.
“Gan, Gan…” he muttered to himself. He shuffled through the papers on his desk for a bit, and pulled out a slightly crumpled sheet. “North-east of the city, Fan property… Yes, here it is. A month or so ago, a number of plantations in the area were ravaged by ‘bandits’ who killed all the residents, burnt the fields, and stole any valuables. Interestingly, after these atrocities, the alleged ‘bandits’ vanished without a trace. Further, the Fan put in no more than a token investigation. And indeed, one of the plantations was run by a family named ‘Gan.’
“My report indicates, however, that the entire family was killed, with every family member confirmed,” Sun Ba finished with a frown. “Could the man you met have been an imposter?”
“Of course, it’s possible,” agreed Sun Tzi. “Even at the time, I found his story very suspicious. However, the damage to his body was certainly real. It seems great-uncle Din taught Sun Lan the Form-Sensing Art, and she confirmed his state as beyond critical.”
Sun Ba grimaced. “What the hell is that maniac teaching the girl… Obviously I have to have another discussion with Sun Din. I must make sure that she does not know any of the family’s restricted arts. They cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of the Fan clan.”
“Father,” said Sun Tzi reluctantly, “Sun Lan still believes that you will honor your promise to her, to reject the engagement if she reaches the peak of Qi Gathering.”
“Hmph,” humphed Sun Ba, “the girl is too naive. No matter how strong she becomes, it will be her fate to become our sacrifice to the Fan clan. The difference between our strength, and the Fan, is like heaven and earth. The only reason she hasn’t gone to be a wife already, is that Fan Bin himself keeps putting off the date. Should he ask for her today, he would have her by tomorrow.”
“I understand,” agreed Sun Tzi. “The Fan are far too strong to directly oppose. That is the reason father has to put in all this effort, just to keep our clan safe.” He gestured at the papers on the desk as he spoke.
“Good. Your understanding is much greater than your elder brothers’. It is simply a pity that your martial cultivation stagnated at the fourth level; otherwise, I might consider grooming you as heir. But have far too little potential, to properly guide the Sun clan.”
“I know, father. I am reconciled to my fate. I just want to use what little skill I have to support the clan,” Sun Tzi said while bowing his head submissively.
“Well spoken, well spoken indeed. Continue giving all your efforts, and I will make sure the clan does not abandon you,” boomed Sun Ba with satisfaction. However, his face quickly darkened again. “Thank you for telling me this matter. I suspected Fan Bin to be behind the depredations to the north-east, as well as several similar incidents elsewhere, but there was no proof, only rumors.”
“I wouldn’t call the unsubstantiated word of a half-dead peasant proof, father.”
“But it is a corraboration that we did not have before. I will instruct my men to watch for those with broken meridians; perhaps we will finally be able to catch Fan Bin’s tail.” Sun Ba sneered as he began penning directives for his spies. “If it goes well, perhaps my dear niece won’t have to marry that wretched monster after all.”
“I’m sure that would be for the best,” Sun Tzi agreed quietly. “Thank you for your time, father. I will go see mother now.”
“Good. Go,” muttered Sun Ba, who had already shifted all of his attention away from his fourth son. Sun Tzi bowed, and left quietly.
A handsome man sat alone in a light, airy pavilion. He wore an elegant robe, and sipped black tea from an expensive teacup. His short blond hair was tousled by an errant breeze, and his peaceful amber eyes stared into his tea as though it contained all the secrets of the universe. A faint smile played across his lips. An observer might be struck dumb by the beautiful picture he created in that place.
But if that observer were close enough to smell the scent of blood in the air, they might shudder in fear instead! For this was mad genius of the Fan clan, Fan Bin!
Fan Bin set his teacup down on the table in front of him. Without raising his eyes, he spoke one word: “Come!”
Immediately, two figures swept into the pavilion, with movements too quick to see. Both knelt in front of Fan Bin with cupped hands. One figure wore a white robe with a black mask covering his face; the other, a black robe with a white mask. The two figures were identical in every other respect.
Fan Bin raised his eyes, and smiled slightly at the two figures. “Have you come to explain to this prince what went wrong with our little ambush?”
Black Robe spoke immediately. “My master, we have discovered the explanation.”
“Good. Speak quickly,” instructed Fan Bin without a change in his calm smile.
“Master, we hired the bandits through the intermediary you suggested,” began Black Robe. His voice was low and cold. “They were waiting in an appropriate place on Red Pine Road between North Pine City and Red Rock City. However, they could not intercept the carriage carrying Sun Lan and Sun Tzi, because they had taken a different road to Red Rock City. Furthermore, while waiting for Sun Lan to arrive, the bandits managed to offend an unknown expert, and were exterminated to the last man.”
“So you reported last time,” Fan Bin said idly, while minutely adjusting the position of his teacup. “I asked you to find out why Sun Lan was not on Red Pine Road that day. Have you made no progress?”
This time, White Robe spoke up. His voice was higher than Black Robe’s, but equally cold. “My master, when Sun Tzi was escorting Sun Lan out of the city, he became offended by a beggar who momentarily blocked his way. This beggar apparently tried to trick Sun Tzi into letting him go, but managed to enrage Sun Tzi to the point where he decided to personally throw the beggar into the Cerulean Abyss.”
Fan Bin’s smile widened. “Is that so? What a truly extraordinary story. And so? Did he throw the beggar into the Abyss?”
“According to witnesses amongst those who loiter outside the Cerulean Abyss, the person dropped off by the carriage bearing the mark of the Sun clan, entered the Abyss on his own two feet, with no apparent coercion,” replied White Robe.
“Suspicious indeed,” said Fan Bin happily. “And again, they did not return to Red Pine Road after dropping him off. It seems obvious that Sun Tzi deliberately arranged to take a longer route. I wonder if it was to avoid our little ambush, or for some other reason…”
Fan Bin tapped his finger elegantly against his lips, apparently deep in thought, and his two subordinates did not dare to interrupt him. Finally, he lowered his hand and focused on White Robe once more. “And so. Did you learn anything about this beggar?”
“My lord, the name he gave when confronting Sun Tzi was ‘Gan Zhu’. He was apparently quite weak, as even the slightest attack caused him to fall to the ground. And he entered the Cerulean Abyss, and never came back out.”
Fan Bin’s eyes narrowed, although his smile remained in place. “Is that all?”
“My apologies, master. I could not learn anything else about the man.”
White Robe shivered as he felt his master’s bloodlust bear down on him for a moment, but Fan Bin quickly restrained himself. “Very well. I suppose it is futile for this prince to enquire about the unknown expert on Red Pine Road that day?”
“My apologies, master. Whoever killed those bandits was very thorough; there was not one living eyewitness to be found, and not one of the bandits was bodily intact. As you know, their bodies were well off the road, and were only discovered by our man, who had been expecting contact after the job was done. Upon finding the bandits slaughtered, he quickly contacted us, and we were able to dispose of the bodies before they could be noted by anyone official.”
“And thus, we were at least able to recover the Heaven Demolishing Pill,” nodded Fan Bin. “That, at least, was well done.”
“You overpraise us. We have estimated that the hidden expert was at least at the fifth stage of Core Reinforcement, based on the wounds left on the bandits, but it could easily be someone of much greater strength, or even someone slightly lower who cultivates some unusual art,” finished White Robe.
“Hmmm,” murmured Fan Bin, nodding to himself. “A truly mysterious incident. I may have to adjust my plans. Someone powerful seems to be protecting Sun Lan, and I’m not sure who it could be.”
He sipped his tea in thought. The subordinates remained silent, as their master contemplated the changing shape of his grand design. Suddenly, unexpectedly, White Robe spoke out. “My master… might I make an inquiry to you?”
For the first time, Fan Bin’s smile slipped a bit. “Is there something troubling you, that this prince can help resolve, Brother White?”
“I admit I am foolish, and cannot understand master’s plan. Of what use is inflicting the Heaven Demolishing Pill upon Sun Lan at this time? Is she a threat to master’s plan?”
Fan Bin’s smile returned, and he sighed slightly. “Is that all? It really isn’t a major thing. This prince has three simple reasons: one practical, one emotional, and one intellectual.”
Fan Bin raised one finger. “The first reason. While we have tested the Heaven Demolishing Pill before, it was on a simple peasant cultivator, who did not even exceed the second level. I wished to compare the results on a slightly higher cultivator, to see if the results would be any different.”
He raised a second finger. “The second reason. This prince is well aware of the Sun clan head’s promise to Sun Lan, which would break our engagement if she reaches the peak of Qi Gathering. Whether or not he actually intended to keep that promise, Sun Lan has been assiduously cultivating in order to achieve that goal. How wonderful would it be, then, if all her efforts were shattered in a single moment? Into what kind of despair would she fall? I simply wanted to see that moment.”
Finally, Fan Bin raised a third finger. “And my final reason. Because it would be interesting to see what Sun Din would do, if his dearest pupil were destroyed by me. Would he finally lose all control, and start a war he cannot win? How could this prince be anything but interested.”
The mad genius of Fan sipped his tea once more, while his subordinates watched in silence.
None this time! 😀