Chapter 16: Hearing the News

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He Xi’s caravan had already passed the Yumen Pass and returned to Xiyu [1]. 

The vast, bleak landscape of the Gobi Desert was starkly different from the lush scenery of the central plains.
A place such as this seemed like people would never appear here. 

The camel caravan had long been used to this kind of harsh environment and continued forward through the desert. 

After an unknown amount of time, an oasis appeared along the fringe of the desert.
While its grasses and trees could not compare to the vitality of the central plains, it added some life to the withered, yellow desertscape. 

The buildings here, too, were made of stone instead of the predominantly wooden buildings in the central plains.
A small city stood on the site of the oasis, the corners of its array of roofs and city walls rounded, with an overall foreign design. 

As the residents saw the special caravan enter the city, they each saluted in succession. 

The caravan did not linger on the streets of the city and passed through.
Behind the city was a high mountain, and on its peak rested the most glorious palace in the desert. 

“The saintess has returned.
Quickly, go inform his lordship.” The follower guarding the gate saw He Xi arrive and used the Xiyu language to tell the fellow follower beside them to report. 

He Xi returned to her residence and told the servants to sort out the various items she had brought back from the central plains.
She picked up the Moon Blade and went to Jingshi Palace of acting leader Ge Lan. 

In the past, the Manichaen leader, Azar, had practiced and become utterly absorbed in the demonic art of “Returning to the Beginning”[2].
As his evil tendencies deepened, he only thought of seizing the central plains in one fell swoop.
After he was injured by Lu Yi, some of his reason returned and he withdrew the Manichaens into seclusion.
He left everything to Ge Lan and appointed him acting leader, so all of the followers referred to Ge Lan as ‘his lordship’.

“Shifu.” He Xi crossed her right arm over her chest, saluting Ge Lan. 

“How was it? Were the central plains very beautiful?” Ge Lan, when young, had been a handsome man of Xiyu, with a penetrating gaze, tall figure, and powerful build.
His hair was braided tightly to his scalp, and at thirty years of age, one could still see the beauty of his youth. 

“The people of the central plains are beautiful.” He Xi reminisced. 

They used the central plains language to converse.
In his youth, Ge Lan had followed Azar to the central plains many times.
He embraced the culture of the central plains and had a yearning for the central plains, and even learned the language.
However, he had not made more than a few trips before the Manichaens and the central plains fell out with each other.
He took up the mantle of acting leader and no longer had the opportunity to set foot in the central plains.
To allay his yearning, each time he conversed with He Xi, they would use the central plains language.
The crowd of believers could also understand some of the central plains language.
Now that He Xi had returned this time from the central plains, he definitely wanted to inquire over what had happened there.
He longed for the central plains, and thus, gave strict orders to the followers and revised their teachings, all to restore good relations with the central plains.
These past few years had proven fruitful: Xiyu and the areas around Longxi had opened more channels for trade, and followers could go to those areas, as well.
As long as they did not stir up trouble, they would not meet with the detestation of the locals. 

He Xi handed over the Moon Blade as she elaborated on the ‘mishap’ that had occurred while stealing it. 

“Shifu.” He Xi felt her conscience twinge.
She knew that to maintain the relationship between the Manichaens and the central plains, Ge Lan had exhausted his efforts, but she had practically ruined it. 

“It’s no matter.
You retrieved the Moon Blade, the leader’s cherished wish of many years.
The leader will be sure to commend you, so it can be counted as offsetting the bad with the good.
It’s just a matter of secluding another few years.” Ge Lan patted He Xi’s shoulder, not letting He Xi place too much of the blame on herself, “You’ve been away for a while, you must be tired.
Go get some rest, we can discuss what remains later.”

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He Xi saluted again then withdrew. 

“The saintess has returned?”

As soon as He Xi left, she ran into the Left Envoy, Zhu Li, who had come previously to discuss important matters with Ge Lan.
Zhu Li was of similar age to Ge Lan and was a genuine man of Xiyu, with deep-set eyes and a frightening scar from a bladed weapon on his forehead. 

“My Lord Left Envoy.” He Xi greeted with faultless courtesy. 

“Mm, you went to the central plains.
Did those people make things difficult for you?”

He Xi shook her head.
Before the mishap occurred, each person from the central plains they had encountered had been perfectly amicable, even warm-hearted. 

“Don’t be deceived by those central plains people.
They are rotten down to their bones.
They must be absolved by our sacred teachings, and only then will they understand gratitude.”

“…” He Xi disapproved. 

Seeing He Xi’s uncommunicative appearance, Zhu Li did not continue to speak with her and returned after he dismissed her. 

He Xi was indeed desiring rest; the journey had been too exhausting. 

“Excuse me, boatman.
Is this the sea?” Yun He and Jiang Ling had asked for directions and come to Mingzhou’s seaside, but the sea’s water was truly too muddy, wildly different from the clear blue written of in books. 

The boatman straightened the straw hat on his head and said: “Yeah, this is the sea.”

“But the books say that the sea is blue, how could it be muddier than the Yellow River.” Jiang Ling was doubtful. 

“The little lady has come from out of town, then.
The sea is blue, you both ah, keep walking ahead, there’s a large vessel over there.
Find it and sail eastward, pass that Putuo Mountain, then keep going east and you might be able to see the blue sea.
An old man like me has not gone that far before, it’s all what I’ve heard from others.” The boatman explained, then waved a hand, “You won’t see it here ah.”

Hearing the boatman’s words, both of their interests waned. 

Jiang Ling sat on the shore in the sea breeze, gazing at the flocks of seabirds and feeling crestfallen, “Even the sea plays tricks on us.”

Yun He stood to one side, wordless and silent. 

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The two of them strolled around nearby, then set off for Minghe Mountain. 

During this trip down the mountain, Jiang Ling had come to deeply understand the expression ‘in life, nine things out of ten do not go as intended.’[3].
She could use the terrible things that had occurred within the past few months to describe it; even in that muddy sea floated the notion ‘not as intended.’ The sole exception was the internal force, which had surfaced at some unknown time, that gave Jiang Ling some solace. 

When Jiang Ling and Yun He returned to Minghe Mountain, Yun Yang had not yet come back.
Because things were weighing on Yun He’s mind, she sent a messenger pigeon to Yun Yang. 

Yun Yang soon returned after receiving the message.
The three of them, master and disciples, erected a cenotaph for Gu Yun. 

One night. 

“You are saying that A Ling recovered her internal force.” Yun Yang’s brows knitted together.
This was no small matter, “What is different about her?”

“Nothing.” Yun He carefully recalled recent events.
Was not her internal force returning a good thing? Wherefore was shifu so anxious?

Yun He suddenly thought of something, “The day before A Yun was entombed, she seemed to have lost her reason and wanted to cut off her right hand.” 

“…”

Yun He pondered again, then said: “She said before that she had made a friend.
That person gave her a bracelet.
It appears that the person who gave her the bracelet had something to do with A Yun’s death, so that is why she acted thus.”

“This master understands.
You should go get some rest.”

“Yes, shifu.” Yun He stood and returned to her room. 

The next day, Yun Yang called over Jiang Ling to discuss some matters with her. 

“Your shijie said that your internal force was recovered.
Why did you not tell this master?”

“This matter is not something that deserves to be rejoiced.
It came too late.
If it had come earlier, shixiong would not have died.”

“How is it when you practice martial arts?”

“It’s a little uncomfortable in my chest and makes me a little agitated.” Jiang Ling spoke truthfully. 

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“It seems like your first time using internal force.
Your body cannot accept it.” Yun Yang concluded, “After today, accompany this master through a heart calming exercise each day.
This master will teach you how to control your breath.”[4]

From then on, under Yun Yang’s instruction, Jiang Ling slowly practiced the internal martial arts.
Yun Yang specifically articulated to Jiang Ling that this chance, while fortuitously appearing later along her journey, would make her chest hurt, and no matter if she conducted heart calming exercises each day, there would be some harm to her body.
She should use as little internal force as possible, or none at all. 

Three years passed like this on the mountain. 

Within these three years, Jiang Ling would practice her martial arts and breath control every day.
The pain within her chest eased and would only bother her occasionally.
She was used to her life from before, so she did not often use her internal force and did not take it to heart.
Aside from going with her shifu to the Qingshan Sect once upon the ascension[5] of Lu Yi-zhenren, Jiang Ling did not descend the mountain for these three years.
Jiang Ling’s internal force made small, gradual improvements, and eventually she received Yun Yang’s permission to travel down the mountain. 

On this day, she had at last begged shifu to go down the mountain and immediately descended to the little town to stroll around. 

The little town had always been nondescript; the population was neither small nor large, and it did not have the prosperous atmosphere of Yuzhou or Jiangdu Town nor their precious crafts and treasures, but the little town had just about everything it needed. 

Jiang Ling wandered the streets, bored out of her mind. 

“Isn’t that Sister Jiang Ling? Sister Jiang Ling!” A youth standing watch over a vegetable stand waved Jiang Ling over enthusiastically; it was the little tiger cub of the village.
In these past few years, he had grown quite a bit and now had the appearance of an adolescent. 

Jiang Ling walked over and greeted him, “Are you helping Aunt Zhang sell some vegetables?”

“Yeah.
The recent harvest was good, so mother told me to come into town to sell some.
Look, these are all freshly picked.” The youth dedicated himself to peddling his family’s crops.
Jiang Ling picked some up and looked them up and down carefully.
Sure enough, they were fresh.
She had the youth bundle some vegetables. 

“What has Sister Jiang Ling been busy with? We haven’t seen you for the past few years?” The youth spoke as he wrapped the vegetables. 

“Busy practicing martial arts.”

The youth finished bundling up the vegetables and found that Jiang Ling had come by herself.
Before, she would always come down the mountain with Gu Yun, “And Brother Gu Yun? Why did he not come with you?” The youth knew nothing of what had happened and he was asking without other intentions, but his question prodded Jiang Ling’s sore spot. 

Jiang Ling made an effort to adjust her emotions so the youth would not see that her state of mind had changed, “He ah, he went back home.
Do you know who he is?”

“Who?” 

“He’s the young master of a wealthy family in Jiangnan.
He came here to gain some experience, and he went home to get married.”

The youth’s eyes widened into saucers, “Really? He told me he would be my shifu.”

“Really, you shouldn’t miss him.
He’s living in ease and comfort and doesn’t remember us.” Jiang Ling reached out to grab the vegetables from the youth then bid him goodbye. 

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After so many years, to hear someone mention Gu Yun reopened the freshly healed wound once more, the feeling acutely painful.
Jiang Ling found a tea stall and sat down to calm her mind. 

This tea stall was not quiet, either. 

“I heard that last month, A Dong from the neighboring town went to Xiyu for business, and when he came back, he died from some foul disease?” A big-bellied, middle-aged man sat to one side and told his friends of the happenings in other parts of the country. 

Jiang Ling’s ears perked up when she heard the name ‘Xiyu.’

“That’s right, recently, the ones who return from Xiyu, if they don’t get sick over there, they get sick when they come back.
But, they just have a fever for a few days and are fine after a bit of medicine.
Something like A Dong’s case is the first.” An aunt who was about fifty years of age said. 

A neighboring table also grew interested.
The lean young man with a thin beard in the middle said: “You all may be unaware.
These were the ones who came back, but I heard that there are some people who go and never return.”

The big-bellied man seemed doubtful: “Does this brother know who did not return?”

“Does this have any relation to the Manichaens?” Jiang Ling also added in. 

“This…This is only something I’ve heard.” The lean young man had only heard rumors.
He would not know of matters relating to the Manichaens personally. 

The crowd cut the conversation off and started to discuss other things. 

“Manichaeism.” Jiang Ling murmured, twisting the cup in her hand. 

On the way back, the little tiger cub was waiting for her, holding his basket of vegetables. 

“Why have you not gone home?”

“Sister Jiang Ling, I have something to request of you.” The young man showed signs of reluctance, afraid to make difficulties for Jiang LIng. 

“What is it?”

“I have a cousin.
Last year, he went with some others to Xiyu to do some business, and he still has not come back.
Before, he would send letters to us, but half a year ago, we stopped receiving them.
Uncle has asked many people to look for him, but no one has.” The youth started to cry as he continued to speak, “I thought of you all who travel Jianghu.
You have more ways than us, so maybe you could help me.”

“This…” People may have really been disappearing in Xiyu, but while Jiang Ling was willing to help, she was unable to do so.
She could only count as half a wanderer of Jianghu. 

“I’m begging you.” The youth’s eyes shone with tears.
“Auntie has ruined her eyes from crying.”

“Alright.” Looking at the youth’s appearance, Jiang Ling could not bring herself to refuse.
Her aged shifu was experienced and knowledgeable, so who could say if he could find out from someone.
Moreover, she had heard the news from the people at the tea stall, so she already had the idea to go to Xiyu in her mind.

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