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Nightfall - Chapter 3

Published at 9th of April 2018 09:19:14 AM


Chapter 3

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It would be okay if she is your handmaiden, but didn't you find her among the dead bodies? Didn't you say you were kin to each other? And even if she was your handmaiden, don't you think she is way too young to bear such heavy chores? How can such a young man be so lazy? Why can't you just do things by yourself?




Perhaps this triggered bad childhood memories, or maybe her imagination of certain beautiful emotions was somehow sabotaged by this guy. The maidservant pushed open the gate and walked in and glanced at the bamboo recliner, more specifically at the old book that the lad was so absorbed in. She said acerbically, "Silly of me to think that you could be reading a masterpiece so majestic that it made you so immersed in it, but what do I see? 'Article on the Response of the Tao', a book that can be bought anywhere by anyone! Do you really think someone like you would have the privilege of entering the world of cultivation?"

Sitting upright, Ning Que looked curiously at this well-dressed young girl, who should never have shown up here in the City of Wei, and then turned his glance to the lieutenant, who was suffering in awkward silence. "It's the only book I could find, so I have to live with it. I am just curious, not that I am expecting any privilege of course," he explained.

The maidservant certainly wasn't expecting such a casual answer, and she suddenly didn't know what to say. As she turned to look at the little handmaiden pouring the coal ashes by the door, she said with an annoyed tone, "How do you even consider yourself a man of our Great Tang Empire?"

Looking perplexed, Ning Que frowned a little and followed her glance to see Sangsang standing by the window in a stupor, still holding the dishcloth. He suddenly understood the reason of her sharp reproach. Smiling with a cute dimple, he said, "You are probably older than me, so... why don't you just see me as a boy instead of a man?"

The maidservant had never in her life come across such a thick-skinned and shameless person. With an ice-cold expression on her face and slowly clenching her fists, she was hardly able to contain her anger. But then she saw the handwriting drawn by tree branches on the ground, which seemed to leave her speechless.

...

...

At the best barrack in the City of Wei, the elder, dressed in a ragged robe, sat there resting with his eyes closed, while Ma Shixiang, the border general, reported to the noble guest across the curtain with great respect and humility, even though he couldn't conceal his surprise.

Perplexed, he asked, "You are not happy with the guide? May I ask why?"

Sounding extremely disappointed, the noble behind the curtain chided. "I need a guide who is highly capable and intelligent, not a lazy, weak, and useless lad who is immersed in his cultivation dreams! Is he even capable of tying up a chicken?"





Awkwardly, Ma Shixiang tried to explain. "As far as I am concerned, while still young, Ning Que has actually chopped off the heads of many barbarians of the grassland in the past few years... I mean, tying up a few chickens... should certainly not be a problem."

The Great Tang was an Empire that holds military honor in high esteem. And when this honor was at risk, Ma Shixiang chose to retaliate without hesitation, despite the high rank and prestige of the person behind the curtain. The sarcasm in his response was proof of his attitude.

"Is a killer equivalent to a good guide then?" replied the cold voice from behind the curtain.

Even more subserviently, Ma Shixiang went on to explain. "Among the 300 soldiers in the City of Wei, Nin Que certainly isn't the one who killed the most enemies, but I can bet my life that this lad can ultimately survive any battle, regardless of how bad the circumstance might be."

Then he raised his chin and said with a smile, "Thanks to the accumulation of his medals, he has already been recommended by the Military Ministry. The boy did a good job and successfully passed the first examinations six months ago, and he will be checking into The Academy as soon as he gets back to the capital this time."

Upon hearing about The Academy, there was a sudden silence behind the curtain, and the noble said no more.

Once Ma Shixiang left, the elder opened his eyes slowly. Something seemed to have sparked interest in those aged and calm eyes. Looking at the curtain, he gently said, "Isn't it rather surprising that a soldier from such a remote border town would make it to The Academy? In any case, this lad must be topnotch in both character and competency, hence he should do well as our guide."

"I have only been abroad for one year. Never would I have thought The Academy, sacred as it is, was going to accept vulgar soldiers of this kind."

Even though sounding careless and unappreciative, her real attitude seemed to have changed somehow. This noble was no longer firmly against having Ning Que as their guide. The Academy, a name that made this bigwig change her mind so easily, must undoubtedly be somewhere quite extraordinary.

Then the elder changed the topic, looking slightly perplexed. "As I went to see the calligraphy he had written on the floor, which was the third chapter of the 'Article on the Response of the Tao', the linear structure was concise and extremely vivid at the same time. All that he had used was a tree branch on wet soil, and yet the strength of the calligraphy conveyed a sense of metallic sharpness on ceramic. This little soldier is definitely on the right path in the art of calligraphy, and I really wonder how he was trained, and who he learned it from."


"That soldier might have some minor and insignificant talent with the brush and seeing it the first time was rather shocking, but thinking about it now, they were probably just clever but worthless tricks. He could probably end up selling his calligraphy outside the Scent Workshop in the capital, if he was lucky,"

replied the noble with indifference.

The elder shook his head and said, "Novelty is probably the key to it. I'm not a master of calligraphy, but those strikes did convey a subtle sense of alchemy, which is a highly rare feature in calligraphy. It slightly resembles the unique methods of those Talisman Taoism Masters."

"You don't mean the Divine Talisman, do you?"

Startled, the noble replied mockingly. "Out of the billions of people in the world, merely a dozen Talisman Taoism Masters exist, some of which reside in the imperial court, others in their abbeys, meditating and cultivating for a lifetime to achieve the ability to condense the breath of nature in alchemy strikes. That lad emitted no such air, being a mere mortal. Even if he studied the 'Article on the Response of the Tao' for 50 more years, he would probably remain ordinary without a chance to have a glimpse into the initial stage, so there is no way he can ever compare to those Masters."

The elder smiled and said nothing. Despite being a cultivator and highly respected by the noble for his skills and seniority, there remained a pretty huge gap between their statuses. Therefore, he should say no more unless he wanted to risk offending her.

Nevertheless, he disagreed with her about the young soldier. From the perspective of the elder, the chance of a mere mortal in this world of sensing the breath of nature and subsequently entering the initial stage was one in a million. The first step of being able to sense was extremely difficult if not impossible. Saying that, if Ning Que managed to study in The Academy, and by a stroke of luck gained access to the legendary second floor to enter the world of cultivation eventually, his enigmatic and powerful style of calligraphy would surely be a precious gift.

In the worst case scenario, his calligraphy skills alone would inevitably earn him the appreciation of the sublime beings from the Academy and the Taoist altar, or at least leave the scholars and calligraphers pretty shocked.

...

...


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Ning Que put down the book, shook his head, and made his way outside, while still looking slightly disappointed and reluctant.

This tome of 'Article on the Response of the Tao' was indeed as ordinary as the maidservant had pointed out, and he bought it at a bazaar in Kaiping as a child. He knew this very well, but never gave up reading and memorizing it incessantly, treasuring it as if it was the 'Seven Tomes of Arcane', enshrined at the Unknowable Place of Haotian Taoism.

The corners of the book looked dilapidated and worn out from extensive reading, so much that it would've fallen apart completely had Sangsang not carefully sewn it back together. Unfortunately, despite having read through every page, and memorized every phrase over and over again, it all felt in vain to him. He couldn't even perform the simplest act of sensing as the book depicted, let alone achieve what they called the Initial Stage of cultivation.

There had been disappointment and even desperation, but he felt much more relieved upon finding out that the vast majority of ordinary people in this world are incapable of sensing the Qi of Nature. Indeed, the legendary Unworldly Supreme Beings were anything but normal and only the very rare and abnormal ones were gifted enough to sense the Qi of Nature. No wonder the night sky in Chang'an wasn't brimming with flying swords and supreme beings floating all over the place, despite the ubiquity of the 'Article on the Response of Tao'.

Ning Que considered himself to be pretty normal, or simply quite ordinary. Yet imagine having come across a massive mountain of treasure right in front of you, but having to leave empty-handed; or suddenly discovering that nature was replete with a wonderful invisible cloud-like substance called the Primordial Qi, and not being able even to touch any of it... That would certainly leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

...

...

"The City of Wei is so impoverished and the Grassland barbarians have already been defeated by His Majesty the Emperor. They shall not dare cross the line for several years, meaning that I won't be able to get many medals anyway. So of course, it's great for me to go back to the capital. I'm certainly not bitter about it."

In the dimly-lit military camp, Ning Que bowed down to the general respectfully and sincerely as he went on to explain. "I'm just thinking that there is still time till the date of registration at The Academy, and I don't see the need to leave in such a rush. Over the past few years, as I have served under your command—I dare not say I made a drastic improvement—but your teaching has made me into someone worthy of respect, and I have even been lucky enough to be accepted by The Academy. Truth be told, I would much rather spend more time in the City of Wei and stay by your side longer so that I can learn more from you, or simply sit and chat with you like this."

Staring at the lad in front of him, the beard of the general started to drift slightly as a result of the night wind, or perhaps from pure frustration. Obviously annoyed, he sneered. "Ning Que you little brat, since when have you become so shameless?"


Pulling a serious face, Ning Que replied, "I can rid myself of this face anytime, as long as it can be of use to you, my general."

"Now tell me the truth," with a cold and serious expression, Ma Shixiang asked, "why are you unwilling to work for them as a guide?"

After a long silence, Nin Que finally muttered, "General, the noble doesn't seem to like me at all."

"The noble doesn't like you?" Ma Shixiang chided gravely. "Have you forgotten who you are? Do you understand that you are not a student of The Academy yet, and as a soldier, you simply have to obey the order of your superior, which means to obey me! You are not entitled to worry about whether the noble likes you or not! And whether you like her or not, no one, absolutely no one, would care! You just need to obey and carry out your duty!"

Stubborn as he was, Ning Que stared down at the tiny grass, sprouting out from the soil in between his boots with similar determination, expressing his unwillingness through this silence.

Ma Shixiang didn't know what to do with this lad anymore. He sighed. "Come on, tell me what is wrong with you? Why won't you just go back to the capital with them?"

With a very serious face, Ning Que said, "I checked their people and carriages outside to find that they have obviously been under attack at the grassland; the grassland is undergoing spring drought right now and the Golden Horde Chanyu just died last year; and the maidservant of the noble had pretty tanned skin. Considering all the above, I dare not go with them."

The attack, the drought, the death of the Chanyu, the tanned skin of the maidservant—something about the sum of these apparently irrelevant facts was the precise reason why Ning Que adamantly refused to leave the City of Wei.

"You figured it out then?" asked Ma Shixiang.

"Everyone in the City of Wei should have figured out who they are by now."

Looking at the other side of the military camp with a shrug, Ning Que said, "Perhaps our silly little princess who grew up in the courts of Chang'an, married off on the grassland, and didn't even realize when her husband died is the only one stupid enough to think that her big secret remains safe."

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