Zhou Qin kept staring at the closed door even though it had been minutes since Li Yundong left, minutes since she hurled out those hateful words at him.
At first, she couldn't believe her eyes that he came to see her. When everyone else had shunned and abandoned her, he actually came to see her. And he even promised to help her! When she first saw him there, her first reaction, as foolish and pathetic as it sounded, was to reach out to touch him. But then reality came crashing down on her before their hands even touched.
Why was he even here? Why did he even care?
That was all it was. Guilt. And pity.
The door opened and Zhou Keqiang walked in with a new glass of water.
That stupid glass of water.
Why did Li Yundong have to walk in when she was crawling on all fours like some invalid?
Like some invalid? Zhou Qin wanted to laugh at herself. She didn't resemble an invalid; she was an invalid.
The tap of the glass against the surface of the overbed table drew Zhou Qin's attention towards Zhou Keqiang. How long had he been standing there, watching her pitiful state?
"Is he worth it, Qinqin?" Zhou Keqiang said tiredly.
This question again. Was he worth it?
She honestly didn't know anymore.
It might have been worth it if her plan had worked. But her plan had backfired. She was supposed to die from that fall, not walk away from it a cripple.
Zhou Keqiang sighed and walked out of the room.
If that fall had paralyzed the lower half of her body, then those two words had paralyzed her heart.
Zi Yuan heard the Heir's muffled shouts before she even reached the door of 20A.
"Zi Yuan! Zi Yuan!"
She frowned and hurried towards the door, wondering what the fuss was about. She unlocked the door with her key then strode in with the grocery bags.
When she entered the living room, the Heir was bent over the balcony's railing, yelling in the direction of Hongling's apartment.
"Zi Yuan! Zi Yuan!!"
"Stop yelling already. I'm here," Zi Yuan said.
The Heir turned around in surprise and then hurried back inside.
"Sorry," he said, closing the sliding door. "Didn't have your phone number."
Zi Yuan smiled in amusement. "And you think yelling from across the building is going to work?" She arched a brow. "What if I wasn't at the apartment?"
The Heir ignored her attempt at banter and walked towards her.
"We need to talk," he said without preamble.
There was an uncharacteristic sobriety in his tone, and his behavior didn't reflect his usual boisterous self.
Zi Yuan studied the grim look on his face.
Was it because of last night's incident? Was he traumatized by his near-death experience after all?
Zi Yuan nodded. "Just let me put these grocery bags away, then we'll talk."
Li Yundong quickly stepped forward and relieved her of one of the bags.
Five minutes later, they both sat facing each other across the coffee table in the living room.
"I found Zhou Qin," the Heir hurried out before Zi Yuan could ask him what was bothering him.
Zi Yuan frowned and sat up straighter. "And?"
Guilt flashed across his face. He tried to hide it, but it still wasn't quick enough to evade Zi Yuan's gaze.
"She's… She's paralyzed from the waist down."
"What?!" Zi Yuan half-shouted.
The Heir sighed. "She tried to kill herself by jumping off a building, but then she survived. And now..." The Heir rubbed his forehead. "Now she can't even stand up."
Zi Yuan spent a full minute processing the information. She wouldn't lie. This was about as shocking as her finding out about the coming of the Jindan's Heir.
What on earth could drive a tough and headstrong woman like Zhou Qin to take her own life—
It hit her right then.
The realization, however, led to fear.
What if that is my fate too?
Zi Yuan pushed the thought to the back of her mind.
"What can I do to help her?" Zi Yuan asked.
She could make some arrangements and have the best surgeons in the country—or even from overseas—take a look at Zhou Qin.
People still owed Zi Yuan favors.
"You don't have to do anything," said the Heir, surprising Zi Yuan. "I will help her." He looked straight into Zi Yuan's eyes. "I'm gonna help her stand up again."
Zi Yuan stared at him in disbelief.
Shouldn't he be focusing on his divine punishment right now? Zi Yuan had almost finished preparing the training simulation that Wushuang-qianbei had suggested. Once the Jade Plate was ready, which wouldn't be that much longer, they could begin the training simulation right away.
Yet here he was, worrying about someone else even though he himself was facing imminent death.
God, they are both so alike…
The Heir's lips were moving again.
Zi Yuan pulled herself out of her daze. "Pardon?"
"I said I can't do it alone," said the Heir before pausing to look at her. "Listen… I've got an idea. But I'm not sure if it will work. I figured I'd run it by you first."
"Okay...?" Zi Yuan eyed him carefully. What was he planning?
The Heir cleared his throat. "Well, according to the Canon—"
"Hold on a second." Zi Yuan raised her palm. "Tell me about her condition first."
"Oh. Right. Uh... There's a blood clot between two of her vertebrae. That's the cause of her paralysis."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Surgery?"
"Her dad said it's too risky." The Heir shook his head. "It might cause her whole body to be paralyzed."
Zi Yuan frowned. Full-body paralysis. That didn't sound good at all.
Zi Yuan glanced at the Heir. "What's your idea then?"
The Heir leaned forward slightly. "What if we try removing the blood clot without surgery?"
Zi Yuan narrowed her eyes at him.
"Qi control, Zi Yuan. Qi control." There was an excited gleam in the Heir's eyes. "Qi drives blood flow, right? So. What if I use my Zhenqi to drive the flow of her Qi? That's gonna help promote blood circulation. And once there's improved blood flow in the injured area, won't the clot disappear with time?"
Zi Yuan considered his idea carefully. Even though something like this had never been done before, she had to admit that it could actually work.
"Well? What do you think?" The Heir stared at her expectantly. "It's worth a try, right?"
"But what about spinal damage? And nerve damage?" Zi Yuan countered. "Even if the clot disperses, there's no guarantee that..." Zi Yuan paused when she saw the pained look on the Heir's face. "That she can stand up."
Even if she could, her legs might not be able to function like they used to.
The Heir had a determined look on his face. "The Jindan."
Zi Yuan gasped. "Are—"
"The Jindan has curative powers," the Heir cut in. "I just have to expose her to the Jindan's Aura, then it'll help repair the tissue damage or whatever."
"Now hold on a second there. You can't just channel the Jindan's Aura into another person's body," Zi Yuan argued. "Once the Jindan is assimilated into its user's body, its power will have grown too powerful for another body to handle. Worst, she is untrained! Her meridians aren't even activated! What if the Aura damages her meridians?"
The Heir leaned forward and raised his thumb and index finger. "Yeah, but what if I only give her a small dose every day? Just a tiny dose."
Zi Yuan leaned back in thought. Could that actually work? From what she had seen so far, the Jindan's curative power had fully manifested itself inside the Heir's body. The Heir had assimilated the Jindan perfectly, so there could be no doubt as to the potency of the Aura's curative power, even in small doses.
But still. Could the Heir really manage small?
Zi Yuan glanced at the Heir. "Okay, fine. It works in theory."
"Yes!" The Heir sprang to his feet and pumped his fist.
"But..." Zi Yuan waited for him to sit back down. "Your definition of small isn't exactly reliable, is it?" Zi Yuan arched a brow. "Need I remind you what happened last night?"
The Heir ran his hands through his hair and sighed. "I know. But I have to try, okay? I just…" He pleaded with his eyes. "I have to try. She's..." The Heir let his hands dropped limply to his lap. "She's like this because of me."
"Okay. Let's say you manage to cure her," Zi Yuan said. "Then what?"
The Heir's gaze snapped up, and he frowned.
"What do you mean, then what?"
Zi Yuan arched her brow. "Can you give her back her old life?"
"No, I can't give her old life back," the Heir said. "But I can give her a chance. A chance to rebuild her life."
Zi Yuan gave the Heir a meaningful stare. "But can you give her what she truly wants?"
The Heir's eyes grew wide, and Zi Yuan could see his resolve wavering.
"You're not a fool, Li Yundong. You know what it is that she wants from you."
The Heir's shoulders sagged, and he leaned back against the couch.
The two of them sat in silence for a long while. The Heir seemed engrossed in his thoughts, so Zi Yuan began a wistful reflection on something that Master had said to her a long time ago. Master was absolutely right when he'd warned her about the worst kind of pain anyone could ever experience in life—the pain caused by love.
A soft sigh escaped Zi Yuan's lips.
"You can heal her body, but you can't heal what's inside. And she's hurting inside, Li Yundong." Zi Yuan stared pointedly at the Heir. "She's hurting because of what you can't give her." Zi Yuan raised a brow. "Unless you've changed your mind and decided to give yourself to her as well—"
"No." The Heir said, his eyes blazing with resolve. "The woman I love is Su Chan. And that will never change."
Zi Yuan searched the Heir's eyes for any signs of doubt, but there were none. The man's dedication and loyalty to his beloved was admirable indeed. He was surrounded by beautiful women who would readily throw themselves at him, yet not once did he waver.
Which was why the true meaning of Master's prophecy eluded Zi Yuan even now. This man didn't look like he would open his heart to any woman other than Su Chan.
Zi Yuan let out a sigh. "When I was young, my master told me something. He said that no type pain can be greater than the pain caused by love. And..."
Zi Yuan could feel the Heir's intense gaze on her. She raised her head and looked into his eyes. "He said that Cultivators should never allow themselves to be caught up in romantic love. Otherwise... otherwise they'll never achieve greatness."
The Heir grunted and broke their eye contact.
"I disagree," the Heir said bluntly.
Zi Yuan could feel her brows rising to her hairline.
The Heir raised both hands in a placating gesture. "But hey, I'm just a newbie Cultivator. My opinions probably don't mean much."
"That's nonsense," Zi Yuan said quickly. She stared at him for a few seconds, then gave him a nod. "Go ahead. I want to hear your thoughts."
It wouldn't be the first time that the Heir had challenged Master's ideologies.
The Heir didn't speak right away, and his thoughtful expression told Zi Yuan that he was weighing his words carefully.
"I think..." He trailed off and gave her a hesitant look.
Zi Yuan sighed. "It's okay. Just speak your mind."
The Heir took a deep breath and exhaled. "I think that most Cultivators don't have a deep sense of purpose for what they do."
Despite having given him permission to speak his mind, Zi Yuan could help but feel a little offended by his remark. Was he implying that most Cultivators were shallow? And worst, he said that right after she told him about Master's views on the subject. Was he implying that Master was shallow?
"What do you mean?" Zi Yuan said, trying her best to keep her tone even.
"Well…" The Heir suddenly stopped himself and shot her a wary look. "I'm not trying to be presumptuous or anything, okay? Coz I know I might be way off the mark about this…"
Zi Yuan acknowledged his gesture with a brief nod.
"Okay. Um… As far as I know, most Cultivators they…" said the Heir. There was a brief pause after that. "Well, if you ask them why they chose their path, why they became a Cultivator, I bet they'd all tell you the same stuff." The Heir glanced at her briefly. "They want to become a Shenxian. They want to gain power, to gain knowledge. Or they just want to live longer, or be able to use spells. Etcetera, etcetera." The Heir shook his head. "But these reasons... They all revolve around the self. They're all about the individual, you see?" The Heir sighed. "There's nothing wrong with being motivated by self-interest, of course. But my point is that Cultivators should look deeper into the true reason they chose the path of Cultivation. Once they dig deep enough, they'll realize that what motivates them is actually external, not internal. Like, do they want power to protect the people they love? Personal revenge? Things like that."
There was a long, drawn out silence, during which Zi Yuan tried valiantly to dispel the overwhelming sense of bewilderment resulting from the Heir's words. It felt as though she had time-travelled back to that fateful night, where the actions of one man had offset the status quo and reformed not only the Cultivation world but also Zi Yuan's entire worldview. She would never forget how she had stood in the middle of that field, surrounded by the Jindan's blazing glory while her long-held beliefs crumbled to pieces.
Zi Yuan didn't realize that the Heir had started talking again until she noticed his lips moving.
"What's that?" Zi Yuan asked with a frown.
The Heir stopped talking and stared at her intently. "So love hinders greatness, huh?"
"Love hinders greatness. That's essentially what your master was implying. He thought that love will get in the way of greatness." The Heir suddenly rose from the couch. "Well, sorry, but I completely disagree."
Zi Yuan's gaze snapped up. This guy... How could he say such things so casually? He had no idea who Master was or what Master was truly capable of, and yet—
The Heir quirked his brow challengingly. "You see, Zi Yuan… I believe the exact opposite. I think that greatness is born out of love. Love can give rise to greatness, that's what I think." The Heir smiled. "How can a musician be great without genuine love or passion for music? A newborn child is pretty great, don't you think? The birth of a new life is a miraculous thing in and of itself..." There was a pregnant pause. "But then what gives rise to a child? The union of two people who love each other. The act of love." The Heir sighed longingly. "Love can inspire people to do great things, Zi Yuan. It can even… It can even drive people to push past their limits…" The Heir released a self-deprecating chuckle. "I know I would've died several times over during my journey to Tibet if it weren't for my feelings for Su Chan. That says a lot about love's ability to inspire greatness, don't you think?"
Again, Zi Yuan was stunned into speechlessness.
The Heir didn't look like he was done talking yet, though.
"Your master claimed that love can cause great pain and suffering," said the Heir. "Well, sure I agree that it does. But is that always the case? Is there really no room for feelings of happiness or bliss in the course of love?" Suddenly, the Heir's eyes were on her. "Have you ever been in love, Zi Yuan?"
Zi Yuan quickly averted her gaze. "No..."
"No?" The Heir chuckled. "And yet you believe everything your master told you about love?"
Zi Yuan bit the inside of her cheek. She already knew what his next question was going to be.
"How can you possibly come to the conclusion that love always leads to pain and suffering if you haven't even experienced it yourself?"
Something inside Zi Yuan snapped.
"I don't have to experience it to know that it leads to pain, Li Yundong," Zi Yuan said sharply. "I've seen it with my own eyes. That night, when you and Su Chan were forced into separation. Even I, a complete outsider, could see and feel how painful it was for the both of you. Isn't that enough proof?"
"Ah... But here's the thing," said the Heir. "Nothing in this world is perfect."
Zi Yuan opened her mouth, but no words came out.
The Heir raised a finger.
"Suppose… Suppose you're in possession of a beautiful diamond necklace." The Heir lowered his finger. "Now. If you wear it while you're out on the streets, it might increase the chances of you getting hurt, say if you get mugged. But here's the thing. Once in a while, people do get robbed." The Heir held her gaze pointedly. "And in such cases, the diamond necklace is the indirect cause of pain and suffering. Even so, that doesn't change the fact that the diamond necklace is beautiful, does it? This is basically the Yin-Yang Principle." The Heir shrugged. "There are two sides to everything. In the wrong circumstances, anything can cause pain and suffering. A diamond necklace can make the wearer feel beautiful and confident; but at the same time, it gives a murderer the perfect tool to strangle her to death. Like I said, nothing in this world is perfect anyway, so why limit ourselves from experiencing something that is truly beautiful just because it could potentially hurt us? Cars can hurt, or even kill, people in an accident, but that doesn't stop people from using them. The same goes for planes, or ships, or whatever." The Heir cleared his throat. "You mentioned the time when Su Chan and I were forced apart due to our circumstances. Was it painful? Well, yes. Absolutely. But that's only one side of it." The Heir gave her a warm smile. "There is potential for happiness too. Those little moments shared between two lovers can become the most precious and meaningful thing in the world, you see? Even the pain of separation can be worth it if it gives the lovers an opportunity to experience the sheer pleasure and joy of reunion..."
The Heir fell silent after he let his words trailed off.
"If you asked me why I became a Cultivator…" said the Heir, ending the brief lull. There was now a faraway look in his eyes, and Zi Yuan found herself unable to look away; she was utterly transfixed.
"I can honestly tell you that the thought of becoming a Shenxian never even crossed my mind. I just want to protect the people I love, that's all. That's why I chose this path. I wasn't exactly kidding when I said that I would've died several times in Tibet if it wasn't for the feelings I have for Su Chan. The love I feel for her gave me a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. It's like I'm fighting for the sake of others, not just for myself." The faraway look in his eyes was instantly gone and was replaced with its usual sharpness. "Your master is wrong in my opinion. Or, at the very least, his claim is only partially true."
Zi Yuan couldn't help the little gasp that somehow made it past her lips.
"Love isn't a liability, Zi Yuan," said the Heir. "It is a source of strength. And it can be the thing that sparks greatness."
Zi Yuan curled her fingers into a fist. How could Master be wrong? Master was never wrong. Ever.
"And what about Zhou Qin," Zi Yuan snapped. "What did her love give her in return?"
The Heir flinched.
Zi Yuan forced herself to continue despite the pained look on his face.
"A lifetime of pain and suffering. A broken heart. Those are the fruits of love." Zi Yuan paused for a beat. "She lost everything, Li Yundong. Even her will to live. Her life is over for all we know."
"Then I will give her a new life!" the Heir yelled. "I will give her a life that is far better than the one she has lost." The Heir's eyes were burning with so much intensity that it staggered Zi Yuan. "She'll not only stand up again, but she'll also gain new abilities, abilities that she's never even dreamed of having."
The full implication of his words hit Zi Yuan right then. She exhaled slowly.
"You... You're planning to teach her Cultivation..."
Silence followed the Heir's outburst. Zi Yuan was still struggling to reel in her muddled thoughts. Time and again, the Heir had come along and challenged the foundation of Zi Yuan's beliefs, making her doubt everything she thought she knew.
Maybe you never knew those things at all... Maybe...
She banished those thoughts.
"Ask," Zi Yuan said once she'd calmed down a little.
"I'm sure you have more questions about Zhou Qin's treatment." Zi Yuan held his gaze. "So ask."
"Oh. Well... I was thinking that maybe we could discuss it later tonight. Maybe after dinner?" The Heir rubbed the back of his neck. "There's this rehearsal thingy that I have to attend in..." He glanced at the clock. "An hour."
Rehearsal? Zi Yuan frowned in confusion. Wait... Is that the same event as the calligraphy thing Hongling said she was participating in?
Zi Yuan sighed. "Sure, we can talk about it tonight."
She needed some time to sort through her thoughts anyway.
"Thanks." The Heir thought for a moment. "To be honest I haven't worked out all the details of the treatment plan yet. And..."
The hesitance in his tone piqued Zi Yuan's curiosity. Seconds ago, he sounded so assertive, and now he was hesitant? What on earth was his problem?
"I know you might be opposed to this, but you gotta teach me how to activate and control the Jindan's Aura." He sighed. "That's the only way I can heal her."
Oh. Right. Now his hesitance made sense.
Zi Yuan kept staring at him. A minute later, she relented.
The Heir sighed in relief. "Thank you."
He picked up his backpack and headed towards the door.
"Li Yundong! Wait!"
The Heir paused at the doorway and turned back around. "Yeah?"
"What does it really feel like?" Zi Yuan got the question out quickly before she changed her mind. "Being in love. What does it feel like?"
Li Yundong grinned at her. "Just try it for yourself, and you'll know exactly what it feels like." He shrugged. "I mean, I can explain it to you a thousand times until you get it. Or you could try it one time and know everything you need to know."
Zi Yuan sighed. "Try it for myself, huh?"
"Of course," said the Heir, his smile broadening. "You're a beautiful and talented woman, Zi Yuan. You just have to find someone who's worthy of your love, that's all."
The sound of the front door closing jolted Zi Yuan out of her musings. She sighed and shook her head. Love. The Heir made it sound so easy, but was it really that easy?