Unease and apprehension gnawed at Ruan Hongling as she continued to stare at her surrogate sister. Poise and composure had once again returned to Zi Yuan jiějie's countenance. The orange glow of the apartment's lighting cast soft shadows over Zi Yuan jiějie's delicate features, heightening her beauty. It was hard to believe that this was the same woman who had all but broken down in tears in her arms half an hour ago.
Ruan Hongling tried not to think too much about the argument just now, about how her tirade must have hurt Zi Yuan jiějie's feelings. Guilt and shame weren't the only things Ruan Hongling had felt by the end of the argument; there were also feelings of shock and disbelief.
Over the years, Zi Yuan jiějie had always seemed so self-possessed, so collected. Never in her life had Ruan Hongling seen Zi Yuan jiějie break down in tears. Never. Zi Yuan jiějie didn't even shed a tear (at least not in front of Ruan Hongling) when they both found out about Master's passing ten years ago, and that was saying something.
Ruan Hongling lowered her head in shame.
How Ruan Hongling wished she could turn back time and take it all back: all the poisonous words she had spouted in anger; worst, her angry accusations of Zi Yuan jiějie's lack of loyalty to the sect and to Master.
Ruan Hongling loathed her own behavior now. She hated her violent temper, and her lack of maturity. She hated the fact that it had taken Zi Yuan jiějie falling to her knees in tears before she finally realized that she needed to grow up.
Ruan Hongling hated herself.
She had to change. She had to grow up before she became an even greater burden to Zi Yuan jiějie.
"So the members of the Great Six are launching a joint-assault on Mount Tianlong…"
Ruan Hongling lifted her gaze from her lap and found Zi Yuan jiějie's studying her pensively. Still reeling from everything that had happened and struggling with her guilt, Ruan Hongling could only nod.
"But you checked the other day." Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes narrowed. "You told me that the Fox Zen School was gone."
Ruan Hongling snapped out of her emotional daze.
Now wasn't the time to wallow in self-loathing and guilt. There would be time for that later. A lot of time.
"I did," Ruan Hongling said, nodding fervently. "There were no signs of the school, I swear."
"Well. The Great Six clearly believes that the Fox Zen School is still there." One of Zi Yuan jiějie's brows arched. "A tip? From someone within the Fox Zen School, perhaps?"
Ruan Hongling nodded. "When I left the meeting, everyone was still waiting for some kind of signal from one of their associates."
"A signal…" Zi Yuan jiějie gave her a brief glance. "To start the attack, you mean."
Ruan Hongling nodded. "The exact location of the school will come with the signal."
Zi Yuan jiějie leaned back against the couch with a sigh. Her eyes were closed, but Ruan Hongling knew that she still had shījiě's full attention. "And did they reveal the identity of this associate?"
"No..." Ruan Hongling hesitated. She glanced at Zi Yuan jiějie, whose eyes were still closed. "Could it... Do you think it's Mo Ahshi?"
Zi Yuan jiějie waved her hand casually. "Of course it is Mo Ahshi." Long lashes parted to reveal a pair of beautiful eyes. "The real question is why. What's her motive?"
"To... Take over the school?"
"Unlikely." Zi Yuan jiějie shook her head. "She didn't have to resort to such measures if her goal is to take over the school." Zi Yuan jiějie paused to look at Ruan Hongling. "Mo Ahshi has the most seniority among all the other disciples of the Fox Zen School. And her reputation is stellar. With Ao Wushuang expelled, she's bound to be the next head anyway. So why go through all this trouble?"
"Mmm." Ruan Hongling nodded.
"No, Hongling… Taking over the school isn't the goal here." There was a pause. "I think it's the opposite." Zi Yuan jiějie crossed one leg over the other. "She's obviously trying to destroy the Fox Zen School. But why? What's her real motive?"
Zi Yuan jiějie's analysis made sense. Why would Mo Ahshi collaborate with the Great Six to launch an assault on the same school that she was trying to take over?
Zi Yuan jiějie suddenly rose from the couch and began pacing back and forth. Wariness crept into Ruan Hongling as she followed her shijie's movements with her eyes.
"Z- Zi Yuan jiějie...?"
Her shījiě did not stop pacing. "Before her sudden departure, Wushuang-qiánbèi asked me something strange. Back then, she asked if I'd been aware of any recent changes in the Zhengyi School..."
Confusion filled Ruan Hongling's mind. "What?"
"She said that I would find out about it eventually…" Shījiě kept pacing. "This must be it. She was referring to the attack." Shījiě suddenly turned around to face Ruan Hongling. "So she knew..."
Ruan Hongling stared at Zi Yuan jiějie, trying everything in her power not to let her bafflement show. Zi Yuan jiějie had never told her any of this before.
"Wushuang-qiánbèi knew about the attack," Zi Yuan jiějie said a few seconds later. "That would explain her sudden return to the Fox Zen School and why she told me not to contact her." Realization shone in Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes. "She must've gone back to defend the Fox Zen School after she learned of the attack."
Hey… Wait a minute…
Something niggled at the back of Ruan Hongling's mind. A discrepancy. A contrariety resulting from something she had overheard at the guesthouse.
Ruan Hongling rose from the couch and walked over towards her shījiě.
"Um... Zi Yuan jiějie… I forgot to mention something just now," Ruan Hongling said tentatively.
Zi Yuan jiějie turned around, her penetrating eyes scanning Ruan Hongling's face in a way that made Ruan Hongling's steps falter.
"It's… It's about Ao Wushuang," Ruan Hongling said, lowering her voice into a whisper. "They're saying that she ran off."
Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes widened just a tad. A moment later, Ruan Hongling found herself being pulled back towards the couch.
"Where did you hear that?" Zi Yuan jiějie whispered when they were once again seated side-by-side on the couch.
Ruan Hongling shifted slightly on the couch so that she was facing her shījiě. "Back at the guesthouse."
Zi Yuan jiějie stared at her, clearly expecting her to say more.
Ruan Hongling paused in thought, searching her memory for more information to reveal. "I was... I was snooping around a little, coz I wanted to find out more about the attack. At one point, I overhead a group of Cultivators talking about the threats they might encounter during the assault. One of them mentioned Ao Wushuang's name, but then the others were quick to dismiss the idea." Ruan Hongling paused to recall the exact words she had overheard. "They said that Ao Wushuang got scared and ran off."
Zi Yuan jiějie had grown extremely quiet, though Ruan Hongling knew from the sharpness in shijie's eyes and the knit in her brows that she was deep in thought.
Ruan Hongling decided to stop talking and leave Zi Yuan jiějie to her thoughts.
"That makes no sense, Hongling."
Ruan Hongling tensed up but said nothing.
"What do you make of it?" Zi Yuan jiějie asked after a while.
"That rumor about Wushuang-qiánbèi running off because she got scared," Zi Yuan jiějie clarified. "What do you make of it?"
Ruan Hongling did a double take. Had Zi Yuan jiějie just asked for her opinion?
Ruan Hongling cleared her throat. "Honestly? I don't buy it." Ruan Hongling shook her head. "Ao Wushuang doesn't seem like the type who would run away." Ruan Hongling looked towards her shījiě. "I think something else is going on here."
"That is very astute, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie nodded at her approvingly. "Well done."
Ruan Hongling fought hard not to blush.
"Indeed, Ao Wushuang is no coward," Zi Yuan jiějie continued. "Only a fool would believe that story."
Well. That was… interesting. So by Zi Yuan jiějie's standards, nearly all the Cultivators gathered at the guesthouse were fools.
"So… Um, Zi Yuan jiějie… What do you think happen—" Ruan Hongling stopped talking when Zi Yuan jiějie suddenly raised her palm.
"How certain is the Great Six regarding Wushuang-qiánbèi's absence?"
"Um..." Ruan Hongling thought hard about everything she'd observed back at the guesthouse, including her interactions with the Cultivators gathered there. "Wait. I just remembered something." Ruan Hongling clapped her hands together and shifted closer to Zi Yuan jiějie. "I got curious after I overheard the conversation about Ao Wushuang, so I asked Zhang Tianhé about it afterwards." Ruan Hongling stole a glance at Zi Yuan jiějie, who appeared to be listening to her with rapt attention. "I casually brought up Ao Wushuang in our conversation. And then I asked him if he thought Ao Wushuang was going to cause problems for the joint assault." Ruan Hongling held Zi Yuan jiějie's gaze. "He gave me this confident smile and told me that Ao Wushuang isn't going to be a problem because—I quote—she has already been taken care of."
Zi Yuan jiějie's frown deepened.
Ruan Hongling cleared her throat. "When I asked him what made him so sure, he told me that the intel came from an inside source."
"These are deep waters, Hongling... Deep waters..."
A tight knot formed inside Ruan Hongling's stomach right then. The grim look on Zi Yuan jiějie's face unnerved her to no end. What exactly had Zi Yuan jiějie glimpsed from these events that she herself had missed?
Before Ruan Hongling could voice out her questions, Zi Yuan jiějie seized her shoulders.
"I need you to think, Hongling," said Zi Yuan jiějie. "When you were there at the guesthouse, did you hear any mentions of Bahuang?"
Ruan Hongling froze.
Huh... Come to think of it…
There were no mentions of Bahuang, which was very odd indeed. It was true that, before this, nobody from the Great Six (other than Ruan Hongling and Zi Yuan jiějie, of course) knew that Ao Wushuang was in possession of Bahuang. But things were different now; now the Great Six had someone inside the Fox Zen School. If Mo Ahshi was spying for the Great Six, wouldn't she have mentioned something about Bahuang? It was, after all, a vital piece of information that could affect the outcome of the attack. So why had Mo Ahshi neglected to mention it to her associates?
"Hongling?" Zi Yuan jiějie's voice jolted Ruan Hongling out of her thoughts, reminding her that she had yet to answer Zi Yuan jiějie's question.
"Um... No." Ruan Hongling shook her head. "There were no mentions of Bahuang."
Zi Yuan jiějie grabbed Ruan Hongling's shoulders again.
"Are you certain?" The urgency in Zi Yuan jiějie's tone rivalled the intensity in her eyes. "Are you absolutely certain that nobody mentioned Bahuang? Not even subtly?"
Ruan Hongling nodded firmly. "I'm positive, Zi Yuan jiějie. When you didn't pick up your phone, I stayed at the guesthouse and mingled."
"For how long?"
Ruan Hongling glanced up at the ceiling for a moment. "An hour, I think?"
"And you managed to interact with everyone there?"
"Well... I didn't do much talking, if that's what you're saying." Ruan Hongling stole a glance at her mentor. "Most of the time I was just listening..." Ruan Hongling winced. "Did… Did I not do enough?"
Zi Yuan jiějie released Ruan Hongling's shoulders and exhaled lengthily. "You did really well, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie leaned back against the couch. "You acted as my eyes and ears. That's more than I could ask for given the circumstances." Zi Yuan jiějie shook her head. "You were completely in the dark when you went in, yet you still managed to gather a significant amount of useful intel."
"What do you think is going here, Zi Yuan jiějie?" Ruan Hongling sighed. "I must confess that I'm stumped. I honestly have no idea what to make of any of this."
Zi Yuan jiějie was silent for a moment.
"The Great Six's ignorance regarding Bahuang no doubt strikes you as peculiar?"
Ruan Hongling nodded slowly. "Mo Ahshi is their spy. Why didn't she say anything?"
Zi Yuan jiějie chuckled humorlessly. "That would cease to be a mystery if you consider the possibility that Mo Ahshi wants the sword for herself."
Anger rose inside Ruan Hongling. "But that's..."
That sword wasn't hers to claim!
Ruan Hongling took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. They didn't need another tirade from Ruan Hongling right now.
Zi Yuan jiějie rose from the couch. "This is bad, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie started pacing again. "Wushuang-qiánbèi's missing status is very concerning."
Ruan Hongling stared at Zi Yuan jiějie for a moment. "Maybe... Maybe Ao Wushuang really did leave, but not because she was a coward. Maybe she left the Fox Zen School for some other reason?"
Zi Yuan jiějie shook her head. "Unlikely."
Ruan Hongling frowned. "How so?"
"She would've contacted me if she really left the Fox Zen School." Zi Yuan jiějie raised a brow. "Don't you think she would be interested in knowing the Heir's progress?"
A sinking sensation formed at the pit of Ruan Hongling's stomach. "So you're saying..."
"Yes. I fear that something untoward has happened to Wushuang-qiánbèi."
Ruan Hongling remembered Zhang Tianhé's exact words back at the guesthouse: she has already been taken care of.
"And Su Chan's life is in grave danger." Zi Yuan jiějie suddenly stopped pacing. "Assuming the poor girl isn't dead already."
Ruan Hongling's stomach twisted into knots.
Zi Yuan jiějie was right. Su Chan's life was in danger. The other night, Mo Ahshi managed to track down Li Yundong before attacking him. And Zi Yuan jiějie's had hypothesized that Mo Ahshi had intercepted the paper crane Su Chan had sent out to Li Yundong. In other words, Su Chan was already on Mo Ahshi's hit list because of the paper crane.
"So I was right," Ruan Hongling said, stealing a glance at her shījiě.
Zi Yuan jiějie was now standing in front of the sliding door, staring out into the darkness.
Ruan Hongling rose from the couch slowly. "Mo Ahshi attacked Li Yundong because she wants to take out Ao Wushuang's ally."
"No?" Ruan Hongling blinked a few times. "You think there's some other reason behind Mo Ahshi's attack on the Heir?" Ruan Hongling slowly approached the sliding door.
Zi Yuan jiějie didn't turn around to face her. "What else was involved during the attack?"
What else was involved—
Ruan Hongling's blood ran cold.
"L- Liuhe..." Ruan Hongling found herself whispering.
Zi Yuan jiějie turned away from the sliding door and gave her a grim nod. "I suspect that Mo Ahshi only attacked the Heir because she saw him wielding Liuhe."
"Wait, wait, wait... Shījiě... wait..." Ruan Hongling shook her head a few times. "I... I'm a little confused here."
"Think, Hongling. Put yourself in Mo Ahshi's shoes." There was a pause. "Why would she attack Li Yundong just because she thought Li Yundong was Ao Wushuang's ally? She could've just intercepted the crane and then leave it at that. That way, Li Yundong would be left with no means of communicating with Ao Wushuang." There was another pause. "Attacking Li Yundong is actually counterproductive to Mo Ahshi's goals if you think about it."
Something clicked inside Ruan Hongling's mind. "Because it might tip Li Yundong off…"
"Exactly." Zi Yuan jiějie nodded. "What if, Li Yundong managed to figure out after the attack that his communication channel with Ao Wushuang was compromised? What if Li Yundong decided to speed up his plans because of that?" Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes darted to Ruan Hongling's face. "And let's not forget that Mo Ahshi was using her signature weapon that night." Zi Yuan jiějie paused as though to let her words sink in. "If I were Mo Ahshi, I would certainly think twice about using the hairpin to attack Li Yundong. I would've been wary, and cautious. It would've crossed my mind that perhaps Su Chan and Ao Wushuang had passed on enough intel to Li Yundong during their communications prior to my intercepting their crane. What if Li Yundong is able to identify the hairpin based on that intel? These factors alone would suffice to dissuade me from attacking Li Yundong."
Ruan Hongling shook her head in confusion. "Then how do you explain the attack, Zi Yuan jiějie? Just because she saw Liuhe?"
Zi Yuan jiějie hummed. "Here's what I think happened." There was a pause. "Mo Ahshi must've intercepted the paper crane a day or two prior to the attack. The paper crane knew Li Yundong's address, so it was easy to figure out which city Li Yundong was in and where he was staying. Initially, she must've sent the hairpin to Tiannan City to spy on Li Yundong. But..." Zi Yuan jiějie paused to look at Ruan Hongling. "I'm confident that she didn't come to the apartment."
Ruan Hongling frowned. "What makes you so sure?"
"I spent a lot of time at the apartment, remember? I would've noticed something amiss if she were there poking around."
"But... if her intent was to spy on Li Yundong, isn't it better to observe him when he's at home?"
"You forgot something else, Hongling. An experienced Cultivator will always be wary of another Cultivator's home. There could be traps lying around. Protective spells. Talismans. Things like that." Zi Yuan jiějie shook her head. "No. Mo Ahshi is too smart and too experienced to make that mistake."
Agreed. A Cultivator could easily lose his or her magical weapons to one of those traps.
"Besides, the hairpin can't be used in the same way you use long-range surveillance spells, like the Observer Cloud," Zi Yuan jiějie continued. "It can only spy from up-close."
"But Tiannan University?" Ruan Hongling frowned. "How on earth did Mo Ahshi think to look there?"
"Good question," Zi Yuan jiějie said. "But I'm afraid we can only rely on conjecture to answer that." There was a brief pause. "It isn't unreasonable to assume that something inside Su Chan's note has led Mo Ahshi to believe that the Heir is a student of Tiannan University." There was a dark chuckle. "And I bet Mo Ahshi found out about the freshmen's welcoming party while she was poking around the university. The event was the perfect opportunity for Mo Ahshi to observe Li Yundong from the shadows…" Zi Yuan jiějie sighed. "Though I must confess that I remain uncertain as to what Mo Ahshi was hoping to learn from her attempt to spy on Li Yundong. Maybe she wanted to learn more about his abilities? Perhaps she planned to find out if Ao Wushuang had other allies aside from Li Yundong? The possibilities are endless…" Zi Yuan jiějie shook her head. "Regardless, Mo Ahshi knew that Li Yundong would be there at the event. And Li Yundong's popularity amongst the students definitely didn't help matters. Any one of those students could've mentioned something about his involvement in the stage play."
Ruan Hongling nodded a few times. "And she wouldn't have to worry about traps since the university is a public place."
Zi Yuan jiějie hummed in agreement.
"So was watching him at first," Ruan Hongling said. "But then Li Yundong showed up onstage wielding Liuhe." Ruan Hongling looked towards Zi Yuan jiějie. "That was when she decided to attack."
"Makes sense, doesn't it?" Zi Yuan jiějie arched a brow. "We already suspect that Mo Ahshi is trying to get her hands on Bahuang. So it isn't unreasonable to think that she would jump at the chance to grab Liuhe as well. Surely you know what will happen when Liuhe and Bahuang come together."
Ruan Hongling nodded. Liuhe and Bahuang came in pairs. When brought together, they could be combined to form an even more powerful sword.
"You acted wisely by keeping the Fan of Seven Treasures hidden that night," Zi Yuan jiějie said. "Who knows what she else would've done if she found out about the Fan of Seven Treasures too."
"Mm," Ruan Hongling mumbled.
"Greed," Zi Yuan jiějie said. "Greed drove her to attack Li Yundong that night." Zi Yuan jiějie shifted until she was facing Ruan Hongling directly. "Did you notice the way Liuhe react to Li Yundong's touch?"
Zi Yuan jiějie nodded and turned away. "I'm willing to bet that Mo Ahshi was planning to take Liuhe away before Li Yundong could claim it as his."
Silence spread between them.
"What should we do now, Zi Yuan jiějie?" Ruan Hongling sighed. "The Great Six is expecting you to make an appearance soon."
Zi Yuan jiějie turned and raised a brow. "Is that so?"
A bitter taste formed inside Ruan Hongling's mouth. "Zhang Tianhé Zhenren from the main sect has personally requested your participation in the battle."
Zi Yuan jiějie remained silent.
"Ugh…" Ruan Hongling ran both hands through her hair. "This is such a mess. The only reason we still have a sect is because of you, Zi Yuan jiějie. But if we try to help Su Chan now, they'll think we're in cahoots with the Fox Zen School. That'll just give them the perfect excuse to shut us down." Ruan Hongling sighed. "What in Tao's name are we supposed to do here? We have to help Su Chan, but we also have to fulfill our obligations to the main sect…"
Ruan Hongling released the ends of her hair and stared at her mentor.
"We'll just do both at the same time," said Zi Yuan jiějie.
"Both at the sa—" Ruan Hongling's jaw went slack. "But we can't do that!"
"Can't we?" Zi Yuan jiějie arched a brow.
Ruan Hongling blinked a few times. "Y- You have a plan?"
Zi Yuan jiějie nodded. "Yes, I do."