Zi Yuan stared at the empty courtyard in front of the temple, her mind still reeling from Zhang Ling zhenren's warning.
No. Not warning.
It was a veiled threat.
"W- What does that mean, Zi Yuan jiějie?" Hongling's voice was trembling a little. "What she said just now… about Master. What does that mean?"
Exactly. What on earth did that mean?
It meant that they were now in a dilemma. It meant that even after ten years, the truth still eluded them. It meant that everything they thought they knew about Master had just been thrown into question. Zi Yuan wasn't even surprised anymore that something like this ended up right on their doorstep. After all, they once thought they knew Yan Fang, the great Eventide Reaper, and look how that turned out.
Hongling let out a breathless chuckle. "Ridiculous." Hongling shook her head. "That's just ridiculous. She… She's just accused Master of being a traitor. She's out of her mind, right? Zi Yuan jiějie?"
Zi Yuan didn't answer; she hadn't worked it out yet.
Maybe Hongling was right. That was their plan, wasn't it? To provoke Zi Yuan with these insinuations and then observe how she would react to them? Maybe she and Hongling were both overthinking this. Maybe they had interpreted Zhang Ling zhenren's words wrongly. Maybe it was just a mistake, a misunderstanding.
Zi Yuan scoffed inwardly at that.
It was no mistake. Zhang Ling had referred to Master and used the word "traitor" in the same sentence. The implication was pretty darned clear.
Hongling suddenly laughed. "What am I even asking? Of course it isn't true!" she said. "Master's name is highly respected across the entire Cultivation world. His contribution to the Cultivation world is endless!"
So is the Mystical Silver Fox's, a cynical voice inside Zi Yuan added.
"And… And what's all that nonsense about the consequences of being a traitor," Hongling continued. "The fate of a traitor?" Hongling laughed. "What the heck? She's speaking as though they killed Master or something. That's just ridiculous." Hongling snorted. "As if any of them could touch Master. He wasn't known as the World's Greatest Cultivator for nothing."
And he was. Master's powers were unparalleled back then. But that didn't mean he was invincible. What if they found out his weakness, a weakness that had nothing to do with power? What if they threatened Master with her and Hongling's life? What if, what if, what if. So many what-ifs, not a single one of them answerable.
"Besides, he's in the Heavenly Realm now, right?" Hongling's tug on Zi Yuan's arm felt insistent. Desperate, even. "Isn't that where he told you he was going, Zi Yuan jiějie? He told you himself, didn't he? He told you that he was planning to transcend the Mortal Realm and head to the Heavenly Realm. Isn't… Isn't that why he left the Jade Plate and the Great Mirror to you? A- And… And the prophecy! That's also why he showed you the prophecy, isn't it? H- He… He knew what he was doing… H- He planned everything. He knew he'd be gone, so he left you those things."
Zi Yuan draped her arm around Hongling's shoulders. "Of course, Hongling" she said, grateful that her voice wasn't trembling. "Don't take their words to heart."
"Right." Hongling sighed, her body sagging against Zi Yuan's. "Master was never a traitor. He was an honorable man."
Zi Yuan hummed quietly. She agreed with Hongling. For the most part, anyway. Master was an honorable man, of that she had no doubt. However, the sanctimonious and self-righteous advocates of the main sect might disagree if they knew about (or at least suspected) Master's relationship with Wushuang-qiánbèi. Granted, the exact nature of said relationship was still uncertain. But if Zi Yuan was being honest, it was starting to look more and more like Master and Wushuang-qiánbèi were lovers. Was that why Zhang Ling had called Master a traitor? Was it the same old "you are in love with a fox spirit, hence you must be evil and morally corrupt" argument again? Or was something else at play here?
Zi Yuan wanted to laugh at how hypocritical she sounded right now. Who was she and Hongling to judge when they themselves were the champions of the same ideology. Just months ago, they themselves had criticized the Heir for having a fox spirit as his lover! The shift in their mindset had only occurred after they had witnessed how kind-hearted Su Chan truly was. Su Chan's pureness of heart as well as her capacity for kindness had astounded them, and, eventually, changed how they viewed fox spirits in general. But still, the fact remained that they had once embraced the same views Zhang Ling did, had given the same self-righteous speech. Zi Yuan couldn't even begin to imagine how disappointed Master must've felt if he was watching them from the Heavenly Realm all this time.
Was Master in the Heavenly Realm? Had Master really transcended like he said he would? Or... Or had the Zhengyi School done something to him?
Zi Yuan shuddered at the thought.
"Zi Yuan jiějie…"
"Why do you think she asked those questions?"
Zi Yuan gave her protégé a questioning look.
"I mean all those questions about Li Yundong," Hongling clarified, then shook her head. "Surely they knew the answers to them already! Zou Ping was there! She saw the whole thing!"
"It's an interrogation tactic, Hongling." Zi Yuan sighed. "They wanted to see how I would react to those questions. It was never about finding out the answers."
"You were so calm, Zi Yuan jiějie." Hongling stared up at her. "You barely reacted at all."
Zi Yuan chuckled humorlessly. "It would be all over the moment I gave them any reaction." She glanced at Hongling. "There isn't a single doubt in my mind that Zhang Ling had been trying to detect any fluctuations in my Zhenqi throughout the interrogation."
Hongling looked up at her with wary eyes. "D- Do you think she got what she came here for?"
Zi Yuan sighed. "Hopefully not."
Hongling turned away and gazed out into the mountains.
"It wasn't just a warning, Hongling." Zi Yuan paused. "It was also a threat."
Hongling shifted beside her.
Zi Yuan gave her protégé a wry smile. "Isn't the inauguration ceremony for the Head of the Linggong Sect coming soon?"
Hongling sighed. "In six months."
Zi Yuan nodded. "Since the Linggong Sect is a subsidiary sect of the Zhengyi School, Zhang Ling has a say in the appointment of the Linggong Sect's new leader."
Hongling frowned. "But you—"
"I'm just the acting Head, Hongling." Zi Yuan shook her head. "My position isn't official." She held Hongling's gaze. "Nor is it secure."
Zi Yuan gazed at the summit of Mount Longhu, where the Obelisk of Fengchen sat.
"Maybe they're just jealous of Master's talents and are now trying to destroy his legacy." Hongling snorted. "They've been bullying us ever since Master left."
Zi Yuan chuckled sadly. Who knows, Hongling. Who knows.
"Say, Zi Yuan jiějie. Something's been bugging me."
"Really? I couldn't tell at all," Zi Yuan said dryly.
Silence was all she got. No pouts. No witty retorts. No rants. No grumblings about how Zi Yuan had treated her like a child.
Zi Yuan bladed her body sideways and studied Hongling carefully. The serious expression on her protégé's face made her heart clench.
Zi Yuan frowned. "What is it?"
Hongling suddenly turned her head and stared at the summit.
"Hongling." Zi Yuan shook Hongling's shoulders. "For Heavens' sake, quit messing around and just tell me already."
When Hongling looked away from the summit, her eyes were filled with confusion. "Just now… When Zhang Ling zhenren mentioned Master, she pointed at the summit."
The ensuing silence was fraught with tension.
"Why'd she do that, Zi Yuan jiějie? That's just so weird."
Zi Yuan's body grew taut.
Indeed. Why did she do that? Did something happen at the summit ten years ago? Was that Master's last known location before he left the Mortal Realm and headed to the Heavenly Realm? Or… Or was that where they had murdered Master?
Zi Yuan's head spun, and her knees grew weak. She clutched Hongling's shoulder and leaned her weight against her protégé.
"Zi Yuan jiějie… Are you okay?"
"What? Zi Yuan jiějie. What? Heavens! What's wrong? Y- You're scaring me!"
"I… I'll be right back," Zi Yuan whispered. "I need to check something."