"What?!" Ruan Hongling gaped. "Y-You want us to go undercover?"
Zi Yuan jiějie gave her a strange look. "Why, yes, Hongling. That's the perfect solution to the conundrum we're facing."
Okay. That was true. But still. An undercover operation! Espionage! Against the members of the Great Six, no less!
"We need to be there for appearances' sake anyway," Zi Yuan jiějie continued. "So we might as well capitalize on the situation and do something useful while we're there." Zi Yuan jiějie's lips curved into a smirk. "All this while, we needed a way into the Fox Zen School, didn't we? And now we have it. Our opportunity has presented itself." Her smirk widened. "This will solve all of our problems, Hongling. Trust me."
Ruan Hongling took several calming breaths. This was new and, if she was being honest, kind of thrilling. She had never been on an undercover mission before. Her tasks usually involved surveillance, information gathering, message delivery, and package delivery. Basically, nothing covert. Ruan Hongling highly suspected that this had to a lot to do with her rather... um... loud, personality. Zi Yuan jiějie did raise her after all, so she probably knew that espionage wasn't Ruan Hongling's strong suit. It fact, it might very well be the bane of Ruan Hongling existence.
Which was why Zi Yuan jiejie's suggestion came as such a shock.
"Okay..." Ruan Hongling said as she slowly accustomed herself to the idea that she might have to step out of her comfort zone this time. "So..." She looked towards her mentor. "We go there, pretend that we're part of the assault... and then what?"
Zi Yuan jiějie kept staring out of the sliding door wordlessly. Ruan Hongling was starting to think that Zi Yuan jiějie hadn't heard her question at all.
"Come." Zi Yuan jiějie turned away from the sliding door and began walking back towards the couch. Ruan Hongling followed her mentor obediently.
"First," Zi Yuan jiějie began once they had both sat down, "let's make our mission objectives clear."
Ruan Hongling nodded.
"Good. We have two primary objectives here." Zi Yuan jiějie raised a finger. "The first is to find out about Su Chan and Wushuang-qiánbèi. And the second..." Zi Yuan jiějie quirked a brow. "I think you already know what the second objective is."
Ruan Hongling nodded firmly. The second objective was to prevent Mo Ahshi from getting her dirty hands on Bahuang. The mere thought of Mo Ahshi wielding the sword made Ruan Hongling's blood boil. How dare that woman!
Ruan Hongling's angry thoughts ended the moment she felt Zi Yuan jiějie's body heat against her side. Surprised, Ruan Hongling glanced sideways. Zi Yuan jiějie was now leaning against Ruan Hongling. Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes were closed, and she was massaging her temples.
"Are you alright, Zi Yuan jiějie?"
Her shījiě sighed tiredly. "I'm fine... Just... Just a little worn out, that's all."
Ruan Hongling's heart went out to her shījiě. As far as Ruan Hongling could tell, the Heir's training had lasted an entire week. Had Zi Yuan jiějie found time to rest or meditate at all during that period? Or had she been keeping vigil the whole time?
There was a soft sigh. The weight and heat of Zi Yuan jiějie's body vanished from Ruan Hongling's side shortly after that.
"We can also try to find out what happened to shībó nine years ago," Zi Yuan jiějie cleared her throat. "I mean while we're undercover."
Ruan Hongling studied her shījiě's profile. She would be lying if she said that she wasn't interested in knowing what happened to shībó.
"We shouldn't get our hopes up though," Zi Yuan jiějie said moments later. "I highly doubt we'd be able to find out much. We're undercover after all. We have to play our parts and act like we're trying to destroy the Fox Zen School, not snooping around."
It was then that something occurred to Ruan Hongling.
"But Zi Yuan jiějie... Isn't our cover already blown?"
Ruan Hongling shook her mentor's arm. "You were defending Li Yundong that night, right? Wouldn't Mo Ahshi have known by now that you and Li Yundong are allies?"
"Indeed, you have raised an important issue." Zi Yuan jiějie smiled. "However, that won't be a problem."
Ruan Hongling's puzzlement must have shown on her face because Zi Yuan jiějie suddenly chuckled.
"Mo Ahshi and I have never actually met each other before the night of the attack." Zi Yuan jiějie shrugged. "For all she knew, the woman she saw defending Li Yundong that night could be any Cultivator, not Zi Yuan Zhenren of the Linggong Sect."
"And also..." A purple ribbon slithered out from under Zi Yuan jiějie's sleeves. "I never had course to use this until that night. So we don't have to worry about her figuring out my identity through this weapon." Zi Yuan jiějie ran her hand through the ribbon and smiled at Ruan Hongling. "No one other than you and Master knows about this ribbon."
"Well, the Heir knows too," Ruan Hongling mumbled.
Zi Yuan jiějie smiled. "And the Heir."
"But what if you show up at the Fox Zen School and Mo Ahshi recognizes you then?"
"A reasonable concern." Zi Yuan jiějie nodded. "I'm still working on that part, actually. Although..." The tiniest of smirks formed on Zi Yuan jiějie's lips. "We do have an advantage."
The confidence in Zi Yuan jiějie's tone stirred up a new wave of confusion inside Ruan Hongling. The way Ruan Hongling saw it, nothing in this situation was in their favor. If anything, it was the opposite. The Linggong Sect was facing a crisis, a conundrum.
Intrigued, Ruan Hongling stared at her shījiě, hoping that her shījiě would shed some light upon the matter and free her from her apparent ignorance.
Zi Yuan jiějie smiled. "I think we can pull it off as long as we play our cards right."
The penny dropped.
"The play!" Ruan Hongling was pretty sure she was grinning like an idiot right now, but she didn't care. "You were wearing a costume, a wig, and—"
"And heavy makeup, yes," Zi Yuan jiějie said, her smirk growing even wider. "All I have to do is dress up or wear my makeup differently when we show up." One of Zi Yuan jiějie's brows rose. "I might not even have to do anything at all." The corners of Zi Yuan jiějie's lips quirked. "Zhao Ling'er has a completely different hairstyle."
Ruan Hongling burst into giggles. "See? I told you it was a good idea to participate in the play!"
A second later, Ruan Hongling felt a dig on her right side. Ruan Hongling turned and noticed Zi Yuan jiějie's playful glare.
Ruan Hongling stuck out her tongue and crossed her eyes. Somehow, that childish gesture drew a hearty laugh out of Zi Yuan jiějie, and Ruan Hongling found herself cheering inwardly.
She had just made Zi Yuan jiějie laugh. She would count that as a win.
"Shījiě... Do you think..." Ruan Hongling stole a glance at her mentor. "Do you think that Su Chan is still alive?"
Zi Yuan jiějie didn't reply.
"What about... What about Ao Wushuang?"
Zi Yuan jiějie sighed. "I don't know, Hongling." She shook her head. "I don't know." A grim line formed on her lips. "That is why it is crucial for us to be on the inside." Zi Yuan jiějie sent her a pointed look. "So that we can find out more."
"Shījiě…" Ruan Hongling's stomach tightened. "If... If Ao Wushuang's gone, then..."
"Then Mo Ahshi likely has Bahuang already," Zi Yuan jiějie said.
This sucked. This totally sucked.
Ruan Hongling felt like throwing up.
"How... How do you supposed it happened, Zi Yuan jiějie?" Ruan Hongling shook her head. "I mean... It's Ao Wushuang."
"Underhanded trickery, no doubt," Zi Yuan jiějie said in a tone of disdain. "An ambush, perhaps. Drugs? A sneak attack when the other is in deep meditative state?" Zi Yuan jiějie shook her head grimly. "There are so many ways a person can die by the hands of someone they trust."
Ruan Hongling lowered her gaze and studied her lap, suddenly overwhelmed by the weight of Zi Yuan jiějie's words. Guilt rose to her chest, suffocating her, burying her under an endless pile of shame.
Trust. All these years, Zi Yuan jiějie had shown nothing but complete trust in her. And yet Ruan Hongling had repaid that trust by hurling hurtful words at Zi Yuan jiějie.
"I've told you many times, Hongling."
Ruan Hongling looked up from her lap.
"There are other factors aside from power and spell mastery that will affect the final outcome of a battle." Zi Yuan jiějie shook her head. "No matter how powerful we are, things could go horribly wrong if we aren't cautious. And there are many, many ways for that to happen."
Ruan Hongling kept quiet. The truth was that she'd already learned that lesson the hard way when the Heir stole her damask from her.
"Regardless, we won't know more unless we're there at the Fox Zen School." Zi Yuan jiějie smiled. "So until then, let's stay positive, okay?"
Ruan Hongling nodded. Zi Yuan jiějie was right. Ao Wushuang was formidable after all; Master wouldn't have given Bahuang to her otherwise. Right. As if Master would give Bahuang to some weakling who couldn't protect the sword. He might as well give away the sword for free if he did that.
Indeed, there was a chance that Ao Wushuang was still alive. Maybe she managed to hide Bahuang? Maybe she gave Bahuang to Su Chan and then Su Chan went into hiding with the sword? That was plausible, wasn't it? After all, Su Chan was an expert in stealth. The girl had managed to elude even Zi Yuan jiějie that night when they were chasing her, which was impressive to say the least.
Maybe Su Chan managed to get away?
There was a chuckle. Piqued, Ruan Hongling looked towards her shījiě, who now had a smile on her face. "All is not lost, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie's eyes shone with confidence and optimism. "Because we have something else in our favor."
Ruan Hongling found herself holding her breath, eagerly awaiting her shījiě's next words.
"The Jindan's whereabouts, Hongling." Zi Yuan jiějie raised a brow. "Surely they needed Wushuang-qiánbèi alive if they want to find out where the Jindan is." A sly grin spread across Zi Yuan jiějie's face. "Isn't that why the Great Six is attacking the Fox Zen School in the first place?"
Ruan Hongling burst into giggles at that. The so-called Great Six had no idea that they had all been hoodwinked.
"Oh it is a little funny, isn't it? Seeing how ignorant the members of the Great Six truly are." Zi Yuan jiějie laughed. "None of them had a clue that the Jindan has already been consumed. They must think that Wushuang-qiánbèi had hidden the Jindan away. There's still hope. We still have a chance to help them."
"But Zi Yuan jiějie..." Ruan Hongling shook her mentor's arm. "Even if we found out where Su Chan is later, how are we supposed to save her? We have to maintain our cover, right?"
Zi Yuan jiějie chuckled. "Of course we won't be the ones who doing the saving, silly." Zi Yuan jiějie smirked. "That's the Heir's job."
"What—" Ruan Hongling gaped at her mentor. Moments later, she snapped out of her stupor and began shaking her shījiě's arm. "But is that wise?" Leaning closer, Ruan Hongling lowered her voice into a whisper. "What if the Great Six finds out that he has the Jindan?"
"I've already taught him how to hide the aura, so it's fine."
"But is he ready?" Ruan Hongling tightened her grip on Zi Yuan jiějie's arm. "Last time I checked, there was a mini army of powerful Cultivators at the guesthouse! What if the Heir shows up and those guys think he's with the Fox Zen School? They'll all attack him!"
"Powerful Cultivators, you say?" Zi Yuan jiějie quirked a brow. "Were any of the senior members there?"
Ruan Hongling pulled back slightly. "No, but still—"
"Then it isn't going to be a problem." Zi Yuan jiějie patted Ruan Hongling's hand a few times.
"Y- You think so?"
Zi Yuan jiějie chuckled. "I don't just think so, Hongling. I know so." Zi Yuan jiějie smirked. "The Heir could probably wipe the floor with them using hand-to-hand combat alone."
Ruan Hongling's hands fell limply from Zi Yuan jiějie's arm. "W- Wipe the floor with…"
Maybe Zi Yuan jiějie had hit her head or something. Sure, the Heir was a genius and all that. But to defeat an entire army of powerful Cultivators? That was too much!
Silence spread between them.
"Since when are you so concerned about the Heir's well-being, hmm? Hongling?"
Ruan Hongling's jaw clicked shut.
"I- I was just…"
Zi Yuan jiějie laughed heartily.
"S- Stop laughing already," Ruan Hongling mumbled with a pout.
"Well… You need not worry about the Heir, Hongling," Zi Yuan jiějie said once she had stopped laughing. "We're talking about a man who has recently been exposed to countless bolts of Heavenly Thunder, both in real life and the simulation." There was a pregnant pause. "Even I felt a significant increase in my spiritual energy, and I was only exposed to a few bolts."
Ruan Hongling stared at her mentor, too stunned to speak.
Zi Yuan jiějie smiled. "The Heir can handle himself."
Ruan Hongling nodded weakly and began to mull over their upcoming undertaking.
After a while, Ruan Hongling let out a long sigh. "So let me get this straight." Ruan Hongling turned slightly and gave Zi Yuan jiějie an incredulous look. "Our job is to plant ourselves within the Great Six and then essentially act as double agents, restore the goodwill between the Linggong Sect and the main sect, find out what Mo Ahshi is up to, gather intel about Su Chan and Ao Wushuang, feed said intel to the Heir, save Bahuang, engage in battle with a bunch of angry fox spirits, keep an eye on the Heir to ensure that the Jindan remains hidden, and then gather news about Yan-shībó?"
The subtlest of smirks graced Zi Yuan jiějie's lips. "Pretty much."
Ruan Hongling gaped. "This is crazy, Zi Yuan jiějie... Like... Insane."
Zi Yuan jiějie chuckled. "Fun fact, Hongling. Things have been crazy ever since the Heir came into our lives."
Ruan Hongling shook her head in disbelief.
Insane. Completely, and irrevocably nuts.