On the balcony adjoining her bedroom, Zhou Qin sat cross-legged in front of her easel, her brows knitted together in concentration as her hand moved deftly across the canvas, tracing out beautiful colors under her paintbrush.
Her birthday party had ended hours ago. The minute she got home, she'd changed out of her party dress into something more comfortable — a long T-shirt that reached her mid-thigh. She hadn't put on anything underneath since she didn't expect any company tonight.
Out of her many talents, Zhou Qin enjoyed painting the most. She loved it, being able to create a new world from a blank canvas while the rest of the world fell away. Every time she picked up her paintbrush, it felt cathartic, like she could safely bare her heart and soul and express her emotions while still looking poised.
Zhou Qin's paintbrush went still, hovering an inch away from the canvas. Just one final stroke and the painting would be completed. But that was exactly the problem. She didn't want it to end; she wanted to keep drawing so that she could forget what had happened during her party.
The party. Right.
Admittedly, she'd had high hopes for the party. She'd held expectations, none of which were met. All she got was disappointment and a world of hurt. She wanted to keep drawing. She wanted to forget.
Zhou Qin made that final stroke anyway, then dropped the paintbrush onto the color palette on her thigh. She sighed and stared at the oil painting she'd just created, willing the emptiness in her heart to go away. At one point, it did go away. The void in her heart was filled, but with disappointment and dejection.
The butterfly on the center of the canvas stared right back at her. Behind it, two teenagers (a boy and a girl) were chasing after it. But they would never catch the elusive butterfly, just like she would never capture his heart.
Zhou Qin removed the palette from her lap and dumped it onto the floor beside her thigh. The paintbrush rolled off the wooden slab onto the floor. She bit down hard on her bottom lip and frowned. Why? Why did she have to say all those things to him in the heat of the moment? She'd never acted so out of character before. Why now? Why him?
Was it because of his outstanding talents? Or was it because he was special?
None of it made sense.
She'd known a lot of men who were far more talented than Li Yundong, all of whom she'd never spared a single glance at.
What was so special about Li Yundong that drove her to behave like some infatuated teenage girl with a crush?
She shouldn't have said anything to him.
She should've kept her emotions in check. If she had, she wouldn't have to deal with the pain and humiliation of rejection.
Zhou Qin's back stiffened.
Is that it? Is this payback? Because I rejected him the first time?
The more she thought about it, the more she found it likely. After all, men are prideful creatures.
But then why am I so attracted to him?
Was it hormones? Or was there a deeper reason?
Zhou Qin released a frustrated sigh and rose to her feet. Whatever the reason was, she'd never be able to figure it out tonight. She turned and walked away from the easel, back into her room.
Zhou Qin jumped slightly when she realized that she wasn't alone.
"You're back already?" she squeaked, surprised to see her father back so early. However, a moment later, she was donning her mask of aloofness again.
"Or should I say, you've finally wrapped things up at work, father?" she said coldly.
Her father gave her a brief nod before turning away from her towards the balcony. Not even a greeting on your daughter's birthday. Why am I not surprised, she thought bitterly.
"That’s a beautiful painting."
Zhou Qin followed her father's gaze and found herself staring right at the easel she'd left on the balcony earlier. All of a sudden, she felt a surge of anger. She was angry at her father for valuing the painting over his own daughter, angry at the damned painting for being higher on her father's list of priorities than its creator. Not even a birthday wish! Zhou Qin grabbed a box cutter from her desk, then pushed past her father towards the balcony.
She brought the box cutter across the top edge of the canvas in a quick horizontal slice. The canvas paper fell off the easel. She tossed the box cutter onto the floor, right beside her palette and paintbrush, then bent down to pick up the paper.
She ripped the paper into shreds.
"Why on earth did you do that? The painting's nice! That butterfly looks so vivid and lifelike. Tsk, what a waste."
"Vivid?" Zhou Qin said, her tone infused with coldness. "It won't be able to fly off the surface of the canvas no matter how vivid it is."
Her father chuckled bitterly. She hated that voice. It made her feel as though he didn't care about her at all. These days, she was starting to think that maybe he really didn't.
"Ah, you're still mad at me, I see?" her father said. "Listen, you know how important this marriage is to our family. Having the He family on our side is highly beneficial. You know that." Her father sighed. "You've always been smart since you were young. You should already know that for people of our background, things like arranged marriages are inevitable. Yet what did you do? You kicked He Shao out of your party. What were you thinking? I thought you were better than that. I never expected to see such childish behavior from you."
Zhou Qin glanced at her father, who might as well be a stranger. She had no words for him. She was tired, tired of being a pawn in his political games. She turned and walked towards the railing of the balcony. She hurled the torn pieces of paper off the balcony, then watched them fall amidst the dark ambience of the night.
For all she knew, her future was just the same as the canvas paper — torn into shreds, enshrouded in total darkness, and falling away until its pieces hit rock bottom.
Su Chan winced when Li Yundong slammed the front door shut.
Stupid, stupid, stupid! Why did I have to screw up again...
Su Chan forced herself to stand quietly in the living room when what she really wanted was to shut herself inside her room and wallow in her own shame. Please don't abandon me... Pretty please, please...
She puffed out her cheeks and lowered her gaze to the floor. An awkward silence stretched between them, and she hated it. She hated the uncertainty between them. He hadn't said a word to her throughout the entire cab ride, and she honestly thought he'd stop being mad once they got home.
It seemed like she was wrong.
She risked a glance at him through her lashes.
He was standing at the doorway with his back facing the door, staring at her with an unreadable expression.
Su Chan summoned her courage and shuffled tentatively towards him.
"Okay... I'm sorry... I promise I won't do it again..." Su Chan said, grabbing his arm.
When he didn't reply, Su Chan rubbed her face against his chest.
"Served you right for starving me..." she said fawningly.
Li Yundong pulled away from her and gave her a crestfallen look.
"I seriously don't get it," he said, shaking his head. "Why'd you have to put so much food onto your plate? You could always go back for seconds! Nobody was gonna steal the food! The food would still be there on the table after you had finished what was on your place, geez!"
Su Chan shot him an indignant look. "But you stole my food!"
"Stop talking back to me!"
Su Chan dropped her gaze in shame when she saw Li Yundong's glare.
"I was just telling it as it is..." she mumbled.
Silence filled the space between them. Su Chan fiddled with the cuff of Li Yundong's jacket. Say something, Chan'er! Say something!
Suddenly, she heard a laugh. Eh? Did he just— Su Chan raised her head and saw that Li Yundong was smiling at her. He laughed! He laughed! Yayyy!
"Geez. What am I gonna do with you," Li Yundong said. "You're probably gonna be famous among the upper class. I bet the media is having a field day. The Princess of Gluttony making her debut. Ugh."
"Hmph!" Su Chan raised her chin haughtily. "I don't want to be some lame princess. I wanna be my beloved's woman! Hehehe!"
Su Chan felt a sharp flick on her nose. "Oww..."
"Honestly, what am I gonna do with you," Li Yundong said with a heavy sigh. "Just... Don't pull this kind of shit again next time, okay? God, it's so humiliating!"
Su Chan pushed her nose up with her finger and made a face at him.
Li Yundong growled. "Why you little… Come here you..."
Su Chan turned around and ran before she got tickled to death.
Li Yundong took a shower after their tickle war, then changed into his pajamas. For some reason, the shower didn't cool down his body as much as he'd hoped. He sweltered in his pajamas, feeling sweaty and sticky. He didn't see much point in taking another shower, so he went into the living room and opened the sliding doors leading to the two adjoining balconies. The cool night breeze drifted in, tickling his face. Much better, he thought, padding towards the center of the living room.
He plopped down on the floor, then shifted into a meditative posture. It was starting to become a habit, thanks to Su Chan's constant reminders. Not that it was a bad habit. The posture actually felt natural now that he had gotten the hang of it. Another breeze wafted in from the balconies. In hindsight, Li Yundong was thankful for Su Chan's pedantic nitpicking during their apartment hunting. It was because of Su Chan's fussiness that they stumbled across this place; this huge, spacious, and God-awesome place that they could now call home.
Li Yundong glanced around, taking in their new living quarters. The entire apartment was basically a square. The living and dining rooms were adjoined, and they occupied one side of the square. The other side of the square was occupied by two bedrooms. Each room had its own balcony, which made four balconies in total. On that note, Su Chan's insistence on picking an apartment with sufficient altitude was pure genius. The apartment was cool and airy as long as they kept the sliding doors leading to the balconies open. This was especially true at night, where cool draughts blew in from both sides of the apartment. They didn't need to turn on the air-conditioner even during summer. Thank f*ck, considering how stinking broke they were.
Speaking of being broke...
Guess I'm a debtor now, huh?
Li Yundong chuckled wryly at the thought of his bank overdraft. Meh. He'd find a way to pay back those debts. He always found a way to handle whatever problem life threw at him. That was how he'd managed to survive all these years after his good-for-nothing parents abandoned him. He'd find a summer job and then work his ass off. But for now...
Time to perform Xiao Zhoutian. (T/N: Xiao Zhoutian is a Cultivation technique during which the Cultivator circulates their Qi in a closed circuit through the Ren and Du meridians)
Xiao Zhoutian was another one of those daily habits that Su Chan had drilled into him. At first, she had to keep nagging him to do it. But nowadays, he'd perform it every day without being reminded.
Li Yundong closed his eyes and allowed his Qi to move in Xiao Zhoutian's circuit.
Su Chan walked into the living room to find Li Yundong fast asleep in a meditative posture. It seemed like he'd picked up the habit of performing Xiao Zhoutian every day. Hehe... Good boy, Su Chan thought as she moved noiselessly towards him. Stopping when she was about a foot away from him, she slowly lowered herself to the floor and studied his peaceful expression. The other day, when she'd activated all his meridians, she had helped Li Yundong master Ziru of the Lianqi phase, which placed his current CQ at 26. He was now ready to begin advanced training in the Lianqi phase, which consisted of the final three dans of the Lianqi phase: Neiguan; Guanxiang; and Liantai. (T/N: CQ stands for Cultivation Quotient, like IQ; a Cultivator with a CQ 26 means that he/she has passed the 2nd phase and 6th dan)
Guess it's time to teach him Neiguan then, Su Chan thought, crawling forward until she was kneeling beside him. Li Yundong began to stir, so she leaned forward until her lips were right beside his ear.
"Keep your eyes closed," she whispered. "Keep moving your Qi, but try to feel your Qi flowing through your internal organs. If you do it correctly, the Qi inside your meridians should be able to interact with the Qi inside your internal organs. Kinda like observing the state of your organs with your Qi, if you will."
Su Chan pulled back slightly and looked at Li Yundong's face to make sure that his eyes were closed. Satisfied that he was doing as she said, Su Chan sat down in front of him to observe him.
If he did everything correctly, he should be experiencing some pretty strange sensations right now. Su Chan still recalled the first time she did it. The most striking part of the experience was perhaps the void and emptiness she had felt inside, as though her physical body had suddenly ceased to exist.
When Li Yundong's eyes shot open, Su Chan was thrown into a panic.
"Whoa! What's up with these strange blobs. And they all have different color—"
"Are you out of your mind!" Su Chan yelled. "You shouldn't talk in the middle of practice!"
Li Yundong flinched. "W- what? You mean I shouldn't speak?"
A wave of guilt crashed into Su Chan. It was her fault. She should've told him to keep his mouth shut before they began. Any forms of interruption during Qi control would greatly endanger the Cultivator. The only reason Li Yundong didn't go into the Zouhuo Rumo state just now was because all his meridians had been activated. (T/N: Zouhuo Rumo is a physical state where a Cultivator's Qi destroys their body from the inside, usually when the Qi runs rampant inside the body due to a mistake in Qi control practice)
"Sorry," Su Chan said. "That was uncalled for. Just... Just don't do something like this again."
"But why not? I just spoke a few words. It's not like I was jumping all over the place or anything..."
Su Chan pointed at Li Yundong's lower belly. "Whenever you mobilize your Qi, most of your Qi will start flowing from your lower Dantian before traveling to the rest of your body through your meridians," she said. "But it is also important to return your Qi back to your lower Dantian before you do anything else!"
"Oh," Li Yundong said contritely. "Right. I got it. I won't do it again."
Su Chan smiled. "Good."
"But it felt so weird just now," Li Yundong said with a frown. "I mean... it's like..." Li Yundong gestured wildly with his hand. "It's like I'm floating in empty space? Then suddenly, it felt like my body was just... gone. It was like I turned into a ghost or something. After that, I saw these weird... blobs of something. I was surrounded by them, and they all have different colors."
Suddenly, he paused and stared at her.
"Shit... I haven't gone cuckoo, have I?" he asked.
The horrified expression on his face made Su Chan laugh.
"Pfft... Haha. No! No, you haven't gone mad," Su Chan said.
"So what was that about?"
"It means you've just mastered Neiguan."
I've just mastered Nei—what?
Li Yundong chuckled and shook his head. "Sorry, but I don't follow."
"Neiguan is the Cultivation skill that you must master in order to reach the 7th dan of the Lianqi phase. After this, there are two more skills you must master before you can move past the Lianqi phase."
"Awesome," Li Yundong said, pausing in thought.
But still, those sensations just now... They felt so f*cking weird. It was like he had an out-of-body experience or something.
"Um... Su Chan? What's with that feeling of emptiness I had just now? It was like my body stopped existing. Why is that?"
"Do you remember what Zhang Sanfeng said?"
"Er..." Li Yundong chuckled, then grimaced. "I don't even know who that is."
So this is what it feels like to be clueless...
Su Chan rolled her eyes. "Come on, Zhang Sanfeng is a famous Taoist! He's the one who invented Tai Chi! Oh, and he's a Shenxian now, by the way." (T/N: A Shenxian is a Cultivator who has united with the Tao; Shenxians have magical powers and are immortal)
Li Yundong chuckled. "Okay. So what did this famous inventor of Tai Chi say?"
"He said that the practice of martial arts and the mastering of Qi control involve the same underlying process. In fact, it is a three-step process. The first step involves the conversion of Essence into Qi. After that, Qi is converted into Spirit. And then, we have the final step. Converting one's Spirit into nothingness, or void."
"Void? Oh! You mean... That empty feeling just now... that was when my Spirit got converted into nothingness?"
"Yep," Su Chan said with a nod. "All the Qi-control practice you've been doing so far only involved the first two steps. Tonight you managed to complete the final step."
"Right. So my Spirit got converted into nothingness..." Li Yundong paused for a moment to absorb what he'd just learned.
"But what is the point of these conversions?"
Su Chan grinned at him.
"You see, the end goal of these exercises is to turn your Spirit, that is your consciousness, into nothingness," Su Chan said. "If you think about it, you can see a pattern here. The first two steps must be completed before the third step is even possible. But before I explain further, I need you to understand the nature of these steps first, okay?"
Su Chan's expression suddenly became so intense that it threw Li Yundong a little off balance.
"Um... okay," he said.
"I want you to recall everything you've learned so far," Su Chan said. "What's the first thing I taught you?"
The first thing...
"Err... Oh! Qi maneuvering, right? When I offered to give you a massage the other day, you taught me how to move my Qi to my fingertips and stuff."
"That's correct," Su Chan said. "The first thing I taught you is a process known as Xiao Zhoutian, which is the most basic form of Qi control. Also, remember the first massage I gave you? It was during your class."
Right. As if he could forget that embarrassing day.
"Yeah, I remember."
All of a sudden, Su Chan smiled as though she was recalling a pleasant memory.
"You didn't know how to mobilize your Qi back then," Su Chan said, her smile fading. "So I had to guide your Qi to flow in a circuit using the Three-Prong Flower Gathering technique. In other words, you were actually undergoing Xiao Zhoutian indirectly."
"I see. Well, it felt good though."
Hah. Understatement of the century. It felt downright orgasmic.
"Okay. I want you to tell me the first thing you felt during the massage."
Li Yundong didn't even need to think too hard. The sensation was so unique that he didn't think he would ever forget it. "Like there was this ball of heat somewhere below my stomach... No, no. It's actually near my—"
Well. He didn't want to say manhood.
"I mean, it was slightly lower than that."
Su Chan didn't seem to notice his embarrassment. "Below your navel, to be exact," Su Chan said. "That's where your lower Dantian is. Remember I told you last time about the Dantians?”
“Yep! There are three of them, right? The lower, middle, and upper. The middle is in the chest, and the upper is in the head.”
Su Chan grinned brightly.
“Mm-hmm! The three Dantians are like containers. The lower Dantian stores one’s Essence, the middle Dantian stores one’s Qi, and the upper Dantian stores one’s Spirit.”
“Wow… Okay. Three Dantians. Containers. Got it.” Li Yundong said with a nod.
Wait a minute. If the lower Dantian stores my Essence, then…
“And the heat you felt is due to—"
"My Qi!" Li Yundong piped up.
Su Chan smiled. "Yes, beloved. Do you see it now?"
"Yeah... I think I do... Every time we perform Xiao Zhoutian, we first have to generate our Qi at the lower Dantian before moving it around in a circuit… But you told me just now that the lower Dantian is also container for our Essence. Which means that we are basically generating Qi from our Essence during the start of every Xiao Zhoutian session! That's just the first step in the three-step process! Converting Essence into Qi! Isn’t it?"
"Very good," Su Chan said with a nod. "Now. Do you remember the massage I gave you when we first moved in here?"
"You mean when I shouted like some crazy lunatic?" Li Yundong grumbled. "Yeah, I remember..."
Su Chan chuckled.
"Well, I activated all the meridians inside your body that night," she explained. "It had to be done so that you can perform Da Zhoutian. And you did, by the way. You went through Da Zhoutian for the first time that night."
"Activating my meridians, huh? Sounds impressive," Li Yundong said, eyeing Su Chan skeptically. "And you accomplished all that through a simple massage?"
It couldn't be that simple, could it? Either he was missing something crucial, or Su Chan's massage skills really were that legendary.
Su Chan waved her hand nonchalantly.
"That's not important," Su Chan said. "The important thing is what happens every time you go through Da Zhoutian. You see, Xiao Zhoutian and Da Zhoutian are fundamentally similar. They both involve moving Qi through the body in a circuit. The only differences between them are the pathways in which Qi moves. In Xiao Zhoutian, only the Ren and Du meridians are involved, whereas in Da Zhoutian, all the meridians are involved."
"Ah, that's why you said they must be activated before I can go through Da Zhoutian."
"Mm-hmm…" Su Chan nodded. "When going through Da Zhoutian, you're circulating your Qi through all parts of your body, through all your meridians. Okay. Now, here is the key. If you keep practicing Da Zhoutian and circulating your Qi through your whole body, you'll eventually reach a point where you can channel your Qi to any part on your body. In other words, you can move your Qi to anywhere on your body through your will and consciousness alone. And what is the thing that governs the human consciousness?"
Li Yundong slapped his thigh. "The Spirit!"
The proud smile on Su Chan's face made him warm all over.
"Correct!" Su Chan said. "See now? Da Zhoutian is exactly the second step! Converting your Qi into Spirit! Why? Because it helps a Cultivator obtain the consciousness, or Spirit, to master one's Qi! In other words, converting Qi into Spirit!"
"Holy shit... It's all starting to make sense now," Li Yundong whispered.
"Now comes the third and final step of the process," Su Chan said. "Just now you asked me about the purpose of those steps, correct?"
"Ah!" Li Yundong lifted his index finger in the air. "The purpose of the first two steps is to make the final step possible."
Su Chan beamed and clapped her hands a few times. "Aww! My beloved is so clever!"
His heart leaped as though it was bouncing on a trampoline. F*ck his bachelor's degree. He'd rather gain the acknowledgment of Su Chan than some lame-ass, third-rate university.
"But I still don't know the point of the third step," he said. "Why convert the Spirit into nothingness?"
The pregnant pause that followed felt as though she was about to uncover the ultimate secret of the universe. Then again, maybe she was.
"Potential," Su Chan said.
"I don't follow."
"Imagine a glass filled with alcohol," Su Chan said. "Now, suppose you feel like drinking something else, say, milk. But you only have that glass. What would you do?"
"I'd pour out the—"
Li Yundong's eyes widened. Oh...
"Exactly," Su Chan said. "You empty the glass first, because a glass that is full, or partially full, is limited in the number of things that you can do with it. With an empty glass, you are free to pour any liquid into it. The same goes for your mind. When you convert your Spirit into the void, your existence goes into a state of ultimate emptiness. And you will gain unlimited potential."
Li Yundong nodded, then spent a few moments processing everything he'd just been told.
It kind of reminded him of something that the legendary Bruce Lee had once said. Empty your mind. Be formless. Shapeless...
Li Yundong cleared his throat.
"Wow. Okay... So that explains the feeling of emptiness," Li Yundong said. "But what about those strange blobs?"
Su Chan beamed at him. "Ah, that's the result of Neiguan! It's a Cultivation skill that allows you to examine the state of your internal organs using your Qi. Those... blobs, as you called them, were the visual representations of the state of your internal organs."
"Wait... what? B- but they all had different colors! How can any organ be yellow... o- or green!"
Su Chan giggled.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Su Chan said. "In his book 'The Essential Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet,' the great Zhang Zhongjing proposed his Five-Organ Pathological Model. According to that model, each of the Five Zangs has their own Qi. And the Qi's color is different for each Zang. For example, black for the Kidney, red for the Heart, green for the Liver, white for the Lung, and yellow for the Spleen!" (T/N: "Organs" in the TCM has totally different definitions than the organs in Western Medicine; in TCM, "organs" are divided into two types, Zang and Fu; Zang organs are yin in nature while Fu organs are yang in nature; TCM "organs" will be capitalized for the first letter)
Seriously, was this the same girl who did all that silly stuff back at the party? She must have one hell of a master if she could spout all that gobbledygook off the top of her head...
Then again, her master clearly thought that knowing the different color codings for internal organs was more important than having some goddamned table manners.
"Hey... Su Chan..."
"You know you still haven't told me anything about your past..."
The conversation halted. The only audible sound was the fluttering of the curtains due to the night breeze.
She stopped fiddling with the lint on her sleeve.
"I'll tell you one day, I promise," Su Chan said. "Just not now, okay?"
Li Yundong sighed. Why not?
All he knew was that she came from the mountains. But this mystery surrounding her origins was starting to worry him. He wanted to know more about her. He loved her, for God's sake. Didn't he have the right to know everything about the woman he loved? Then again, what could he even do if she refused to tell him? It wasn't like he could force her to tell him or anything. He didn't have the heart to do something like that.
Maybe there were rules in place that prohibited her from telling others about her origins? What, like some kind of secret society? Shit, it wouldn't be some kind of occult group, would it? Nah. Occult groups usually had this scary and creepy vibe. Su Chan didn't give out that kind of vibe at all. Religious schools? Maybe a Buddhist temple? A Taoist school?
Wait a minute...
What if she was a Buddhist monk, or a Taoist priestess in training?
Wouldn't she have to take a sworn oath of lifelong celibacy? Which meant that he would be having blue balls for the rest of his life!