"Just relax," Zi Yuan said while she placed the tablecloth on Li Yundong's shoulders once again. "I told you before that I practically raised Hongling. Who do you think is the one who cut her hair all these years?"
"You should be honored," Hongling chimed in from the couch. "Elder Sister Zi Yuan is very skilled."
Li Yundong visibly relaxed. "Oh. Great. I thought you were just trying to experiment with my hair."
Zi Yuan chuckled. "With your hair looking like a chicken's nest, I bet nothing I do could make it any worse."
Li Yundong laughed out loud. "Fine. Fine. Do your thing, then. Just don't ruin my hair." Suddenly, he paused. "Or give me a bald patch." He shuddered. "God. Please don't give me a bald patch."
Zi Yuan stifled a smile. "I won't," she said reassuringly, then got to work.
The first ten minutes went by with Li Yundong constantly asking her whether his hair was still fine. But then he eventually grew so quiet that Zi Yuan was starting to wonder if he had fallen asleep.
Zi Yuan leaned forward slightly to check his face.
He was still awake, but staring off into space.
"What's on your mind?" Zi Yuan asked, combing her fingers through his sideburns.
Right. That totally sounded like nothing right there.
"You're thinking about her," Zi Yuan said. She hadn't phrased that as a question. She had stated that as a fact.
For the next few seconds, the only audible sound were the snipping of scissors.
Then, Li Yundong sighed. "Yeah. I am. I miss her."
Zi Yuan didn't miss the slight tremble in his voice.
"Do you know why your hair had grown so long in just two months?" Zi Yuan asked, steering the conversation away from any emotionally-loaded topic. She might not be able to do anything to alleviate the lovesickness he was feeling, but she could at least attempt to distract him.
"Hey… now that you mention it, you're right," Li Yundong said. "I've gone for longer without a haircut, but my hair never got this long. Geez. Look at all this hair. It even got past my shoulders!"
Zi Yuan shifted her position so that she was standing behind him.
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
"And do you know why?"
There was a moment of silence.
"No," he said. "Why?"
"Oh, come on." Zi Yuan sighed. "You've already read the Canon of the Yellow Thearch, haven't you? The answer is all there."
Li Yundong went silent in thought again. A moment later, he slapped his thigh. "It's got something to do with my Qi and blood, right? They've become more vigorous over the course of my training."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Which helps boost cellular processes."
"Right. That's why my beard and hair grew faster."
"I've said this before. The art of Cultivation involves more than just Qi-control training or learning how to cast spells. It also involves comprehension and research. It's an ongoing process of acquiring knowledge, you see? You have to keep asking why. Only then can all the knowledge you've acquired be applied."
"Gee. You make Cultivation sound so… I don't know, scientific?" Li Yundong chuckled. "Months ago, I would've scoffed at the idea that magic and Cultivation are in any way related to science. But now I think I know what you mean."
"Here. Let me ask you a question. How do you think computers work?" Zi Yuan paused for a second. "A silicon chip placed on a motherboard along with other components, all functioning together to perform complex computations." Zi Yuan paused again to let her words sink in. "How do you think that's possible?"
Li Yundong grew silent.
"These things work because they obey certain laws and principles," Zi Yuan explained. "Cultivation, too, has its own principles. These principles have to be fully understood before the art of Cultivation itself can be mastered." Another pause. "Computers work because the people who designed them understood their working principles."
"Right. I understand now."
Zi Yuan sighed. "You've already read the Canon of the Yellow Thearch, yet you're still clueless when I asked you basic questions about Cultivation."
"I'm sorry," Li Yundong said. "I know I should've done better."
"You need to get into the habit of constantly asking questions. Learn more. Research more. Otherwise, the truth will elude you forever."
"Okay." Li Yundong nodded, then paused for a few seconds like he was thinking about something. "I'll head down to Xin Hua bookstore tomorrow."
Zi Yuan's hands stilled. She lowered the scissors and stared at Li Yundong. "Why?"
Li Yundong gave her a puzzled look. "Um… To buy more books? You said to do more research, right?"
Zi Yuan chuckled. "Or you can just try the library in your university."
"The Tiannan University library?" Li Yundong said in a skeptical tone. "Is that a joke?"
Zi Yuan smiled and raised the scissors again. "Tiannan University might be a"—Zi Yuan's eyes darted to Li Yundong's face—"third-rate university, as you so often put it, but its library is rather complete. You can find a lot of books there."
Li Yundong stared at her blankly, then nodded. "That's actually not a bad idea. It could even save me some money." Suddenly, Li Yundong sat up straighter, like he'd just thought of something. "The new semester will begin in two days… Have you… Have you heard from Zhou Qin yet?"
Zi Yuan's hands stilled again. "No. I haven't."
Truth be told, Zi Yuan was starting to feel a bit concerned about this as well. Zhou Qin had gone completely radio silent ever since they parted ways the night He Shao died. She was aware that Zhou Qin had been called into interrogation some time ago, but she hadn't made any further inquiries into the matter; Zi Yuan had spent most of her waking hours watching over Li Yundong, as per Senior Wushuang's instructions.
"Nobody tried to detain me when we entered the country," Li Yundong said. "That made no sense to me. I was there at the scene of He Shao's death. The police would've at least tried to bring me in for an interrogation." Li Yundong sighed. "That night, you asked Zhou Qin to handle the police. I think she did it. But now, I'm worried that she herself has gotten into trouble because of that incident."
Zi Yuan lowered the scissors in her hand and studied Li Yundong's face. This man was about to face his own demise in the form of the divine punishment, yet here he was, worrying about someone else.
You're just like him…
"I'm sorry, who?"
Zi Yuan froze. Had she said that out loud?
She meant Master. Li Yundong was just like Master in this regard: always so selfless and putting other people's needs before his own.
Zi Yuan ignored Li Yundong's question and raised the scissors again.
Li Yundong seemed to have sensed her discomfort and didn’t press her for an answer.
"You know, I don't understand why you asked me to return to the university," he said. "Now that I've reached the Shentong phase, I thought you're gonna confine me at home and teach me a bunch of spells."
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
"There are two types of Cultivators," Zi Yuan said. "There are the reclusive type, those who sequester themselves in the mountains and focus solely on their Cultivation training. And then there are also those who live and train among mortals."
"Oh. Well, the recluses are preferable, I suppose?"
SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!
Zi Yuan shook her head. "Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The recluses are powerful because they are so focused on their training. They aren't distracted by worldly affairs. However, all that time spent in isolation will also make them ignorant of the ways of the outside world. It makes them inexperienced." Zi Yuan gave him a pointed look. "I'm sure I don't have to explain to you why ignorance is a disadvantage."
"There is one other thing that the recluses tend to miss out on." SNIP! SNIP! SNIP! "The opportunity to forge and strengthen their will."
"The mortal world is filled with challenges and tribulations. A Cultivator who is forced to face and deal with these challenges will eventually develop the grit and inner strength that are crucial to their success. It helps build character." Zi Yuan paused. "I told you this before. There are times when the outcome of a battle depends not on the combatants' skill level, but on their inner toughness."
"Inner strength, huh?"
"Yes. The ability to stay calm and composed under duress. The ability to handle criticisms. Persistence. Discipline. None of these traits are innate. They are forged from the challenges and tribulations one faces in life."
"Mm. That's why you asked me to go back to school. You want me to still be a part of the real world even though I have chosen the path of Cultivation."
Zi Yuan nodded. "The best outcome can be attained by striking a balance between being a recluse and a Cultivator who is world savvy. That way, you get to experience the advantages of both but avoid being bogged down by their disadvantages."
"That's very wise," Li Yundong remarked.
"Balance is the key," Zi Yuan said. "Although the point of Cultivation is to achieve transcendence, its process doesn't have to involve complete isolation from the real world or worldly affairs. Think of it this way. When you become a Cultivator, you aren't supposed to fly off the face of the Earth and move to another planet. You're just hovering in the sky, looking down at the world from a higher place. You're not completely detached from the world."
Li Yundong nodded. "Balance."
"That's right. And an educational institution is the perfect place to find that balance."
"Imagine if you're out in society… Well, say the corporate world, for instance. You'll be so swarmed with work that it becomes a distraction. You'll also have to deal with people with schemes and agendas." Zi Yuan chuckled. "You'll never be able to fully focus on your training. There are just too many distractions."
"Ah. Now I see..." Li Yundong chuckled. "But a university is relatively quiet, and there won't be as many distractions. And I'll have freedom of movement, plus a lot of resources that I can utilize, like the library..."
Zi Yuan smiled. "Exactly."
Nothing else was said for the rest of the haircut.
"There. All done," Zi Yuan said as she removed the makeshift barber cape from Li Yundong's shoulders.
Li Yundong turned around on the stool to face Hongling and Zi Yuan. "Well? How do I look?"
Zi Yuan studied her handiwork. Gone were the messy locks, and in their place was a full head of neatly-trimmed hair. She hadn't shortened his hair too much, merely trimmed off the messy bits.
She did a fantastic job, if she dared say so herself.
Right now, he looked handsome.
However, Li Yundong clearly had very little faith in her hairstyling skills—even though he hadn't even looked at her work—judging from the wary expression on his face.
"Why don't you go look at yourself in the mirror then?" Zi Yuan said.
Li Yundong rose from the stool and walked into his bedroom, presumably to do what she had suggested.
Minutes later, Zi Yuan heard a loud cheer, which was immediately followed by the sound of footsteps.
The bedroom door swung open, and Li Yundong came barging out.
"She was here!" Li Yundong stopped in front of Zi Yuan. Spread across his face was a megawatt smile. "She's been here recently! She came back!" He waved a small piece of paper in front of Zi Yuan's face.
Zi Yuan shared a glance with Hongling, who had a puzzled look on her face.
Zi Yuan took the paper from his hand, and then glanced down at it. Only three words were written: I miss you.
"Who was here?" Hongling stood up from the couch.
"My little princess Su Chan, of course!" Li Yundong said, taking the note from Zi Yuan's hands.
"You came to that conclusion just because of a note?" Hongling said snidely, then snorted. "Anyone could've left that note."
Li Yundong smiled warmly. "I know it was her. I just know it."
"I don't get it," Zi Yuan said. "It's just three words. You're over the moon because of three simple words?"
Zi Yuan doubted that Li Yundong had even heard her. For a while, he paced around the living room with a silly grin on his face. Then, he opened the sliding door and stepped out into the balcony.
The Jindan's coming ordains thine fate. The sound of the first thunder shalt complete thine soul.
Zi Yuan looked towards the balcony. Li Yundong was still staring at that piece of paper.
That man was without a doubt the most talented Cultivator she had ever seen, a talent that would only appear once every few centuries.
But what did Master's prophecy mean?
In what way would the Jindan's appearance decide her fate? Through its rightful heir? Or was it through some other way?
How could a man so hopelessly and deeply in love with another woman complete her soul?