Ruan Hongling released a shuddering breath, grateful for Zi Yuan jiějie's timely arrival. There really was no telling what would happen to her otherwise. Ruan Hongling stole a glance at Zhang Ling, who wasn't even looking at her now. Zou Ping, as usual, had a mocking expression plastered on her annoying face. She looked like she was having fun, like this was all just a game to her.
Maybe it was.
Calmness washed over Ruan Hongling when Zi Yuan jiějie's dress brushed against her side. Zi Yuan jiějie moved past her to stand in front of their visitors.
Ruan Hongling forced her feet to move. She would not allow Zi Yuan jiějie to face them alone. She would not. Zhang Ling seemed to be subjecting Zi Yuan jiějie to some kind of careful scrutiny. Her posture was lazy, and her expression aloof. The red glow inside her eyes earlier was gone too.
"And who might you be?" Zhang Ling asked in a tone that almost sounded flippant.
Just like that, the calmness Ruan Hongling had felt earlier dissipated. That lying bitch! There was no way these people didn't recognize Zi Yuan jiějie's appearance. Zou Ping was there during the battle, for Heavens' sake!
Zi Yuan jiějie cupped her hands together in front of her chest, then bent slightly at her knees. "I am Zi Yuan of the Linggong Sect. It is an honor to meet you, venerable Lady of the Earthly Fire."
Ruan Hongling could feel Zou Ping's smug eyes on her then. Ruan Hongling stared at the ground, her balled fists trembling against her legs. She couldn't watch this. Her heart couldn't bear it.
"Ah. So it's Zi Yuan zhenren then," said Zhang Ling. "You look so much better in person I must say."
The sudden change in Zhang Ling's attitude surprised Ruan Hongling. She looked up from the ground and quickly noticed the smile on Zhang Ling's face.
Zi Yuan jiějie returned the smile. "Likewise, Zhang Ling zhenren."
Suddenly, Ruan Hongling felt Zi Yuan jiějie's reassuring touch on the small of her back. Ruan Hongling took a deep breath and then counted to ten in her head.
"Would you like to come in and have some tea, Zhang zhenren?" Zi Yuan jiějie said. "Hongling knows how to make a good brew."
The mere thought of serving tea to those two brutes brought a bad taste to Ruan Hongling's mouth, but she bit her lip and forced herself to keep quiet. Let Zi Yuan jiějie handle this. Let Zi Yuan jiějie handle this.
Ruan Hongling restarted her count to ten.
"Tea sounds pleasant," Zhang Ling said.
No, no, no…
"…but I'll have to decline."
Ruan Hongling sighed inwardly. Oh, thank Heavens.
"Too bad, then," Zi Yuan jiějie said. "Some other time, perhaps?"
How about never?
"Perhaps." Zhang Ling was back to being flippant again. "I'm here because I have a few questions for you, Zi Yuan zhenren."
Ruan Hongling's back tensed up. I knew it! This was an interrogation. This was a—
"Then I shall answer them to the best of my ability, Zhang zhenren," Zi Yuan jiějie said.
"Very well." Zhang Ling flicked the sleeves of her robe. "Here's the first one. Is it true that a man named Li Yundong has single-handedly thwarted the Great Six's assault on the Fox Zen School?"
"Is it true that Li Yundong zhenren managed to defeat my nephew, Zhang Tianhé zhenren, with a single blow?"
Ruan Hongling stared at the scene in stupor. What was the point of this? Was this woman stupid or what? Why on God's green earth was she asking these questions? Surely, she must've known the answers to them already! Zou Ping was there, for Buddha's sake! Zou Ping was watching the entire battle!
The questioning had paused, and an angry flush had spread across Zhang Ling's cheeks. Zou Ping, on the other hand, looked as smug as ever.
There was a slight tremor in Zhang Ling's voice when she spoke next. "And is it true that this Li Yundong person has defeated my nephew with the Dance of Storms, a spell taught only to a selected few members of the Zhengyi School?"
The slight parting of Zhang Ling's lips brought a small amount of satisfaction to Ruan Hongling, only to be shattered by Zhang Ling's next question.
"Do you know Li zhenren?"
Seconds passed in silence.
Li zhenren? Who's that? Never heard of—
Ruan Hongling whirled around and gaped at Zi Yuan jiějie.
Good God! What are doing, Zi Yuan jiějie?
"See? I knew it." Zou Ping snorted loudly. "They were in cahoots."
The corner of Zi Yuan jiějie's lips quirked. "How can I not know the man who has defeated me in battle just a day ago?" Zi Yuan jiějie's smirk was brief and subtle. "Such a lapse in memory would be absurd, don't you think, Zhang zhenren?"
Relief coursed through Ruan Hongling.
Gee… You really had me worried there, Zi Yuan jiějie.
Ruan Hongling stole a glance at Zhang Ling and regretted it almost immediately. The woman's icy expression could probably freeze the sun.
"A no-name Cultivator defeating you." One of Zhang Ling's brows quirked. "The most powerful Cultivator of the younger generation? I find that very hard to believe, Zi Yuan zhenren."
"A no-name Cultivator"—Zi Yuan jiějie raised a brow—"who could perform the Dance of Storms."
"Did you teach him the spell?" Zhang Ling asked coldly.
Ruan Hongling gaped. What the heck? That was a blatant accusation of—
"Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure." Zi Yuan jiějie feigned a look of surprise. "Why would you think that, Zhang zhenren?"
A tight line formed on Zhang Ling's lips. "Because you have the opportunity to do so."
Ruan Hongling's blood ran cold. Opportunity? What the hell was that supposed to mean? She stole a glance at Zi Yuan jiějie.
Much to Ruan Hongling's relief, Zi Yuan jiějie seemed as calm and composed as ever. "Whatever do you mean, Zhang zhenren?"
"Oh, come now…" Zhang Ling's lips curved into a sardonic smile. "Are you saying it is a mere coincidence that you and Li Yundong both own apartments in New Hongsheng District?"
Ruan Hongling body grew taut. Oh, no… Oh, no, no, no…
"And what about the fact that your shīmèi"—Zhang Ling flicked a glance at Ruan Hongling—"is currently attending the same university as that young man?" Zhang Ling smoothed a hand over her robe. "Is that a coincidence too?"
From the corner of her eyes, Ruan Hongling caught a glimpse of the smug look on Zou Ping's face. It made her want to throw up. For a brief moment, Ruan Hongling envisioned regurgitating her breakfast all over Zou Ping's face.
"Consider this my warning, Zi Yuan zhenren," Zhang Ling said in a dangerous tone. "Stay away from Li Yundong and the Fox Zen School. Or else..."
Zi Yuan jiějie raised a brow. "Or else?"
"I don't have to spell out everything for you now, do I?" Zhang Ling chuckled snidely. "You know what kind of fate awaits traitors." Zhang Ling pointed towards Mount Longhu's summit.
Ruan Hongling gasped. Wait a minute… What is she saying? Is she… Is she accusing Master of being a traitor? Th- This… This bitch!
"My master was nothing but loyal to the Zhengyi School," Zi Yuan jiějie said calmly.
Zhang Ling chuckled darkly. "That's what he wants you to think."
Ruan Hongling couldn't take it anymore. "What is that supposed to mean?" she growled. "What are you implying?"
That look of condescension on the bitch's face. All those veiled insults. She hated them. She hated them all.
Zhang Ling ignored her outburst and kept her gaze focused on Zi Yuan jiějie. "There is so much about your master that you don't know, Zi Yuan." Another snide chuckle. "I'm warning you now because I have great respect for your talents. You are a valuable asset to the Zhengyi School." A cold look spread across Zhang Ling's face. "But you shouldn't take things too far, you know? Rein in while you still can." Zhang Ling let out a dark chuckle. "I guess it's true what they say. That the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Let's just hope that the apple doesn't suffer that same fate as the tree." Zhang Ling turned around with a flick of her sleeve. "Let's go, Zou Ping."
"Yes, my lady."
Two bursts of green light deprived the Linggong Sect of its visitors.