It took Su Chan fifteen minutes to come up with a reply. When she did, she rolled out of bed and padded towards the square table. Her blood ran cold: instead of waddling around on the table, Birdie lay completely still, just like a lifeless piece of origami.
Su Chan scrambled towards the table. "Oh, no! Birdie!" she hissed. "What happened?"
Su Chan poked the crane's body with her finger. All that did was make the crane's body slide lifelessly along the table's wooden surface.
"Hey…" Su Chan's eyes narrowed. "Are you playing dead?"
Su Chan poked the thing again.
"Tsk! Stop playing dead already," she hissed. "Get up!"
Panic rose to her chest. She picked up the crane and examined it from various angles. The crane's body looked fine other than the fact that it was completely motionless.
"Oh, no, no... I'm so sorry for scolding you just now... Please wake up... Please..."
Su Chan began pacing back and forth. She paused in front of the bed to examine the crane again.
Is it dead? Oh, please don't tell me it's dead...
"Wake up birdie, wake up…"
Su Chan shook the crane a few times.
Should I bring it back to Grandmaster Liu and then ask him to take a look at it?
Su Chan looked towards the door.
Gah! But it's already so late! Master probably won't let me sneak out again!
Su Chan raised the crane and studied it under the light.
After a while, Su Chan whimpered.
"Why won't you move, birdie? Why—"
"It has run out of spiritual energy, you dummy."
Su Chan gasped and glanced towards the door.
The door was still closed, but she couldn't sworn she heard Master's voice just now!
Su Chan stared at the door for about a minute or so. Master hadn't barge into her room yet.
She must have imagined Master's voice, right?
Pfft. I must have. How could Master possibly know what I was up to?
But still. Master was so clever.
Su Chan lowered the crane onto the mattress and tiptoed towards the door.
Yup. I better check just to be sure...
Just when she was about to reach the door, Su Chan smacked her forehead and ran back towards the bed. When she reached the bed, she quickly lifted the covers and then shoved the crane under the covers.
After making some adjustments to the blanket and smoothing out the wrinkles on the sheets, Su Chan tiptoed towards the door once again.
Nah... Master probably doesn't know. She would've said something during dinner if she knew.
Su Chan reached for the door knob and twisted it gently. The door opened a crack and—
"Eeep!!!!" Su Chan jumped backwards the moment she saw Master's beautiful face in front of the crack. A second later, the door swung open and Master strode in with a smirk.
"What's the matter, my dear Chan'er?"
Master smiled sweetly at her.
Su Chan glanced surreptitiously towards the blanket, but then realized her mistake as soon as she did it. She looked away quickly, hoping that Master wouldn't notice her subtle eye movement.
Master was staring at the blanket with a raised brow.
Right. Not so subtle after all.
Master looked away from the bed. "Yes, Chan'er?"
"S- So... Um... Y- You knew all along?" Su Chan winced at how lame she sounded.
Master kept staring at her.
After what felt like forever, Master chuckled and stepped further into her room. Master closed the door and then walked towards the bed, where she sat down. Master lifted the blanket and picked up the stupid birdie.
Su Chan wished the floor would just swallow her up already.
"S- So you knew..."
Master chuckled again. "Of course I knew." She waved Birdie at Su Chan. "I knew the moment you smuggled this thing into our quarters."
Su Chan grimaced. Oopsie.
"But um... How did you know, Master?"
"Forget how I knew," Master said. "Where did you even get this thing? Did you steal it from Grandmaster Liu's quarters?"
The sternness in Master's voice near the end of her statement made Su Chan flinch.
Su Chan lowered her gaze and fiddled with her sleeve. "He... He gave it to me..."
For some reason, Master laughed out loud at that.
"That old man... You'd think he would at least teach you how this thing works if he was going to give it to you."
Su Chan shot a tentative glance at Master. "A- Are you mad at me, Master?"
Master just smiled. "Do you think I'm mad?"
Su Chan studied Master's expression for a moment. "Hehehe..." Su Chan broke into a grin, then jumped onto the bed. “You're not mad at me!"
Master rolled her eyes. "Here. Keep it."
Su Chan took the paper crane from Master's outstretched hand. "But..." Su Chan gave Master a puzzled look. "Why aren't you mad though? And why didn't you say anything if you knew?"
Master rolled her eyes again. "Sure, I could get mad all I want. But what would be the point? Your heart is with him, so you're going to be constantly thinking about him no matter where you are." Master glared at her. "In fact, I don't even understand why you're here with me instead of going back to him. Do you know how dangerous this is, Chan'er?"
Su Chan beamed at Master and raised her fist. "I have nothing to fear as long as you're with me, Master!"
Su Chan could feel her own smile slipping away when Master gave her a hard stare.
"This is the Great Six, Chan'er. If it comes down to an open warfare..." Master sighed. "I just don't think..." Master trailed off.
The Great Six.
Six of the world's leading Cultivation organizations wanted to storm the Fox Zen School because they thought the Fox Zen School was hiding the Renyuan Jin—
Su Chan froze. Wait a minute...
"Master...?" Su Chan felt as though her world was tilting sideways.
"Won't the members of the Zhengyi School be part of the attack as well?"
"B- But Elder Sister Zi Yuan is from the Zhengyi School! And she—" Su Chan grabbed Master's arms and lowered her voice into a whisper. "She knows where the Jindan is! Yundong is in danger if—"
"Shh... Settle down, Chan'er..." Master said calmly. "We can trust Zi Yuan."
Su Chan relaxed her grip on Master's arm.
"As you have already realized," Master continued, "Zi Yuan could've shared what she knew about the Jindan's whereabouts with the other sects of the Zhengyi School, but she didn't." Master gave her a reassuring look. "She genuinely wants to help your beloved. So don't worry."
Su Chan sighed in relief. If Master says we can trust Zi Yuan, then it should be alright...
"But Master..." Su Chan looked up at Master. "Why is Zi Yuan helping Yundong?"
"Well, she's helping him because—" Something flickered inside Master's eyes.
Su Chan frowned. "Master?"
Master shook her head and cleared her throat. "She has a good reason."
"Oh." Suddenly, Su Chan grabbed Master's arm again. "When do you think Yundong's divine punishment will come, Master?"
"Soon." Master sighed. There was a brief pause as Master collected her thoughts. "It could come any time after he learns how to fly."
Su Chan's stomach clenched in fear.
"M- Master... Y- You'll help him, right?"
Master didn't answer; rather, she appeared to be engrossed in her own thoughts.
In hindsight, Master had seemed a bit distracted ever since Su Chan brought up Zi Yuan's name. Su Chan wondered why.
The tightness in Su Chan's stomach intensified. "H- Have… Have you changed your mind about helping him, Master?"
"Mmm?" Master said.
Panic took over.
"Maaaasssteeerrrr," Su Chan whined. "Please help him!" She tugged Master's arm repeatedly. "Please? Pleeeeeeaaaase?"
Master's narrow-eyed glare stifled Su Chan's next words. Suddenly, Master chuckled. "Tsk, tsk, tsk! I've never seen you act this crazy over me even though I've raised you for ten years." Master smirked. "Spend a few weeks with that man, and you're ready to die for him."
That's where you are wrong, Master... I'm willing to die for you too.
There were two people in this world that Su Chan cared more than anyone else, even more than her own life. The first was Yundong, and the second was Master.
Su Chan pulled Master's arm. "Y- You haven't changed your mind about helping him, have you?"
"Hey! What about my well-being?" Master flicked Su Chan's forehead. "Do you know how dangerous it is to help someone survive the Heavenly Thunder?" Master shot her a glare. "What if I die while helping him, hmm? Do you want that to happen?"
Fear speared through Su Chan's heart, and she clenched Master's arm.
Oh, no... What if… What if one of them dies...?
Tears stung Su Chan's eyes.
"W- Will you die if you help him, Master?"
Master chuckled and ruffled Su Chan's hair. "Oh? You're starting to worry about me now, huh?"
A familiar sensation of warmth enveloped Su Chan when she threw herself into Master's arms. "But I don't want either of you to die!" Su Chan rubbed her face against Master's chest. Suddenly, she drew back and stared up at Master. "Oh! I know!"
Master's eyes narrowed. "Uh-huh. What do you know?"
"You should just tell me what to do to help Yundong and then I'll do it! I'll die so that neither of you has to die! Isn't that perfec— Oww!"
Su Chan rubbed her forehead.
"Stop saying nonsense like that," Master chastised.
Su Chan pouted and dropped her hands to her lap. "I just don't want either of you to die..."
Master smiled in amusement. "I appreciate the concern, but there's really no need for your noble sacrifice."
Su Chan's heart sank. "Then… Does it mean that no one can help Yundong after all?"
Master sighed. "I already did, you silly girl."
Su Chan froze for a moment.
"Really?!" Su Chan bounced on the bed a little.
"Mm-hmm. He'll be fine as long as he trains hard and does exactly as I say." Master smiled. "Besides, Zi Yuan will be there to guide him."
"Yeeessss!!" Su Chan threw her arms around Master's neck, and then peppered Master's cheek with kisses. "I knew it! I knew Master is the best! Kyaa! I'm so happy— Oww!"
Su Chan rubbed her head again after Master poked her skull.
Su Chan shot Master a pouty look. "What was that for, Master?"
Master smiled down at her. "I really wonder how Li Yundong got so lucky to have found a lover like you."
Su Chan shook her head. "No, no, no..." She stared deeply into Master's eyes. "I'm the one who's lucky, Master."
Master's eyes narrowed when Su Chan suddenly jumped off the bed and kneeled on the floor. "Buddha once said that a person would meet their true love if they destroyed a wooden fish during their past life," Su Chan said, pressing her palms together. (T/N: A wooden fish is a percussion instrument; usually, monks would knock them with a stick when they recite prayers or sutra verses; destroying a wooden fish implies spending a lot of time on prayers)
Master chuckled. "So?"
Su Chan beamed at Master. "So I must have destroyed at least a hundred of them if I got to meet a man like Yundong!"
Master laughed, then rolled her eyes. "That man better stay loyal to you, or else!"
"Of course he will!" Su Chan sprang to her feet and climbed onto the bed once more. "Yundong is the most loyal man in the world! I trust him!"
They stared at each other silently.
Master's eyes were filled with so much sadness right then that it nearly broke Su Chan's heart. But before Su Chan could ask, the look was gone.
"Oh, my dear Su Chan..." Master whispered. "The truth is… I used to think so too..."
Su Chan leaned back in surprise. Wait… Does that mean Master had a lover in the past?
Su Chan wanted to smack herself as soon as the question came to mind.
Of course Master would have a lover! Master was so beautiful! She was the most beautiful woman Su Chan knew!
Su Chan stole a glance at Master, who was now staring off into space.
How come I've never met Master's lover before…
Before she could ask, Master rose from the bed and strode towards the door.
"Don't worry about the Heir," Master said, pausing at the door. "He'll be fine."
Master left her room quickly after that, leaving Su Chan alone with her confused thoughts.
Seven words was all Zhou Qin had written down on that piece of paper they had given her.
So far, they had agreed to her all requests and gave her what she wanted: an elevated room with a good view; full privacy (the room shouldn't have camera surveillance); some food and water, though those were just red herrings since she didn't actually need them; a pen; and a piece of paper.
They gave her everything.
Such compliance could only mean one thing—they believed they had broken her.
In a way, they kind of had.
She was already broken. In fact, she couldn't remember a time she wasn't broken. It was like she was born in this world just to be broken.
Zhou Qin folded the paper and placed it on the center of the table. On second thought, no. She shouldn't leave it there. Zhou Qin picked up the paper again. Then, she walked towards the bed at the corner of the room and placed the paper right on top of the pillow.
She turned away from the bed and walked towards the window.
Darkness greeted her the moment she pushed open the window.
She stood there quietly, taking a moment to just stare out into the darkness.
Once again, her mind returned to the night of her birthday party, that cathartic night where she had torn the butterfly painting into pieces and watch the pieces scatter into the abysmal darkness.
Zhou Qin chuckled sadly.
Perhaps she wasn't that different from the butterfly after all.
She'd spent pretty much her entire life trying not to be that butterfly. But in the end, she realized that she had to be the butterfly first in order to step out of the shadows of its existence.
Zhou Qin took a deep breath and grabbed the windowsill with both hands.
Soon she would be free.
Free from the cage that was her life.
Free from the fetters of unrequited love.
Free from the shackles of life.