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The village was beautiful. There were several houses scattered on the slope covered in gra.s.s. There were several rows of grapevines on the gra.s.sy slope. There was a river not far away that had a house built from stone beside it.
The farmer's home was at the entrance of the village. The roof was covered with light gray gra.s.s. It looked heavy, perhaps due to the denseness of it. The walls of the house were a light earthy color while the door was painted red with juice and tree sap. The home looked especially welcoming with verdant gra.s.s before it and a blue fence surrounding it.
The furnishings in the house were ordinary. Ning Que's eyes, that had feasted on the idyllic scenery could finally rest for a while. The farmer called enthusiastically for them to sit and explained that his wife and child had gone to the forest behind the mountain to pick wild fruit. Then, he took out some simple dishes made by his wife. He washed some fruit and fresh vegetables by the well and brought them to the table along with saucers and a wine jug.
Ning Que made himself at home and began to drink with some garlic-sauced dishes and pig's trotters. He had always been fond of wine, but his alcohol tolerance was terrible. He drank two bowls of wine before giving the bowl to Sangsang since they still had to travel afterwards.
Sangsang's eyes brightened as she drank. The farmer's homemade brew was not as strong or tasty as the Nine-river double-distilled wine. However, she was fond of all kinds of wine. The farmer watched as the girl in handmaiden costume drank and was transported back to his youth in the military camp. He began to compete in drinking with her.
There wasn't anyone who could be a match against Sangsang in the art of drinking. There never was and there never would be. Ning Que wasn't, Prince Long Qing wasn't, and the farmer naturally wasn't a match for her. Shortly after, the farmer's tanned face glowed red as his breath grew heavy with alcohol and he began to slur.
Then, the sound of footsteps rang from the courtyard accompanied by the sounds of frantic knocking and someone calling out for the farmer to hurry.
Ning Que had heard them long before they arrived. He thought to himself, that only in stories, would officials meet simple-minded bandits during a simple meal. Could this happen to him today?
He did not know that Chao Xiaoshu had experienced having his home being intruded in the village of Great River Kingdom. He had not completely wrapped his mind around the fact that his position as a visiting professor at the Imperial Center Administration, his status as honorary chief of the secret guards as well as his ident.i.ty as a core disciple of the Headmaster would outrank the official in the story. He just felt that what was happening was rather unreasonable, so he did not move.
He didn't need to move though. When the farmer heard the voice coming from the outside, he staggered as he stood up, indicating for Ning Que to sit. He pushed the door open and began yelling at the people who knocked on his door.
"What do you mean I haven't worked? Everyone knows that I, Yang Erxi, contributed the most last year in repairing the watershed last winter. I also helped in building the village public school. You can't make me pay for the paint out of my own pocket."
"Yang Erxi, who's asking you to pay? Who did?! You're just finding excuses to earn more money. I'm telling you, this is the price fixed by the county government!"
"Bulls.h.i.t! Our village's public school is twice the size of schools in other villages. How much do you think paint would cost? The price fixed by the county government is wrong. Do you want me to do it at a loss?"
"You're being ludicrous! Don't think that I won't dare to hit you because you retired from the military! I'll sue you and have the county governer punish you!"
"I went to the law teacher at the public school and asked about this. There is no such article in the law of the Tang Empire. As a retired military man, I only have to contribute half. You guys don't pay enough, so don't expect me to lift a finger!"
"Screw your grandmother!"
"Screw your great-grandmother!"
"Screw your great-great-grandmother!" (h.o.m.onym for Taizu, Founder of the Tang Dynasty)
"How dare you disrespect Taizu! I will go to Chang'an and complain to the imperial court about you!"
The squabble interspersed with cussing ended uneventfully. Li Zheng, the man outside the fence, was incensed and cursed at Yang Erxi's ancestors, but did not enter his property.
Yang Erxi entered the house bl.u.s.tering. He waved his hands as he spoke to Ning Que and Sangsang, "Don't concern yourselves with such petty things. Let us continue drinking. No, young lady, you and I shall continue drinking."
Ning Que could vaguely guess the cause of the loud argument, so he asked about it casually. Yang Erxi explained, "Since they are enlisting our help, they should at least pay us enough for it. Otherwise, I can't be bothered. I haven't even finished painting my own pig pen... But you don't have to worry for me. The law teacher at the public school found me that article in the law of the Tang Empire. I am in the right. The county magistrate can't do anything to me, not to mention Li Zheng."
Ning Que said, "Aren't you afraid Li Zheng would try to hurt you on the sly? If you offend the county government, they can just charge you with a false crime and hurt you."
Yang Erxi was a little tipsy, and he laughed when he heard that. He turned around and brought out a boxwood bow from the cabinet. He pounded on his hard chest and said proudly, "What's there to be afraid of? Who hasn't been to the military? If they force me, would I not retaliate?"
Ning Que shook his head with a smile.
There was no real injustice in what had happened, so Ning Que did not have to punish any corrupt officials. He did not have to bring in his supporters, start a storm and begin a political battle in the capital.
After eating and drinking, Ning Que bade Yang Erxi farewell. Yang Erxi was a straightforward man. He did not ask the pair to stay after being satiated by the wine. He filled their water pouches and gave them some fruit before sending them off.
The black horse carriage continued down to the south. It traveled through the quiet paths accompanied by the setting sun in the picturesque countryside. They saw many wildflowers and green fields on their journey.
Ning Que sat by the window and looked out at the fertile countryside in the southern Tang. He thought about what he had seen and heard at the farmer's house, and about how he probably would never see the farmer again and lamented. Then, he understood why the Academy and his Eldest Brother had always respected the laws of the Tang Empire so much.
"Everyone says that the West-Hill is a land bestowed upon us by heaven. But the Tang Empire is truly a gift from heaven. The lands in the south are fertile, the weather is mild and natural disasters are rare. Further down south are mountain ranges that are natural shields in battle... Of course, these are not important. What's important here is the Academy and the laws of the Tang Empire, as well as His Majesty and the officials who respect the laws. And that farmer, and even Li Zheng, who lead their lives seriously."
He said, "There are definitely corrupt officials and immoral people like me in the Tang Empire. But as long as most of the people here lead their lives seriously, this fertile land would always be watered by efforts and would continue to be fertile. This is something incredible."
Sangsang asked, "What are you talking about?"
Ning Que replied after a moment of contemplation. "What I want to say is... I have suddenly developed an urge to do my all for this country. You know, I have always feared this kind of pa.s.sionate feelings that seem to come out of nowhere. This kind of pa.s.sion leads people to their deaths quickly. That is why I really admire those people who have built this country."
There was also a large meadow in the depths of the West-Hill and by the Zhishou Abbey. However, this meadow was different from the ones in the southern parts of the Tang Empire. There were no grape vines or colorful houses. There was just gra.s.s that was of a uniform height and a majestic Taoism Temple.
It was a pill refinery at the back of the Taoist temple that emitted the light scent of medicine in the past few days. The old medicine tripod had been left on the fire for days. Long Qing served the curious old Taoist priests in the caves every day and spent the rest of his time refining pills.
Long Qing's method of drug making came from the "Sha" Handscroll of the Tomes of the Arcane and would naturally be problem-free. Even though he had been trying for days, Long Qing still had not succeeded in making any drugs even as the scent of medicine grew stronger as it emerged from the tripod.
The "Sha" Handscroll recorded how one should cultivate and make pills. It was filled with everything one could imagine, but was only restricted to Haotian Taoism. The Earth Pill was not a sacred medicine of Haotian Taoism, but one from the Buddhism Sect.
Long Qing knew why the Earth Pill was rare and precious. It wasn't because the masters from the Buddhism Sect were devoid of worldly desires and did not wish to cultivate. It was because the ingredients necessary to make the Earth Pill were practically extinct. Furthermore, this pill that required plenty of effort to make required the blood from one's heart.
He had not taken the Earth Pill he had managed to refine out from the tripod because it was still waiting for heart's blood.
This miracle pill of the Buddhism sect required the use of heart's blood. It did not refer to the heart of pigs, dogs or wolves. It referred to the blood that came from a sadhu's heart. The sadhu had to be calm, his aura pure, and he had to be willing to make the sacrifice.
It was difficult to find the blood of such a heart. Furthermore, the Buddhism sect believed in benevolence and abstention from killing. Would they use the lives of their disciples to cultivate such a pill? Furthermore, a sadhu who was willing to be martyred would definitely be devoid of any worldly desires. He would not b.l.o.o.d.y his hands for a pill like this.
And that was why this pill was very amazing even though it could not be compared to the Heavenly Power Pill. It had never appeared in the Buddhism sect, not even the legendary Xuankong Temple. However, in the heydays of the Devil's Doctrine, two monks from the Yuelun Kingdom were captured to make two pots of the pill.
As time pa.s.sed, the Devil's Doctrine withered. The two pots of Earth Pills had long been depleted. If Long Qing managed to make it, it would shake up the cultivation world.
However... where would he find a sadhu with a calm state of mind and a pure aura? Long Qing's current cultivation state was poor. How would he kill the monk and get the heart's blood even if he managed to find one?
In the dark room, the medicine tripod began to emit medicinal scent and steam, and a few wisps floated into Long Qing's face. His face was shrouded in the steam and one could see a trace of a smile coupled with other emotions in his dark pupils. He seemed to be mocking himself, but also seemed to be mocking the unfortunate souls of the world.
He reached out and plucked off the black peach blossom on his chest. Then, he removed his old Taoist robe and folded it neatly before placing it on the ground beside the futon.
His naked body was especially pale. It looked like a piece of dried jade. There was a fist-sized hole on his chest. The hole went through his entire body, and one could vaguely make out his crushed and petrified organ walls. It was mottled, disgusting and looked terrifying.
This was a hole made by Ning Que with his Primordial Thirteen Arrows on the snow cliff of the Wilderness.
No one knew how Long Qing had managed to survive such a grave injury.
One could vaguely make out white bones and writhing organs through the hole. One could see a red heart beating on the left.
Long Qing stopped in front of the medicine tripod and stabilized his hand with a strong will. Then, he held a small blade in his hand and plunged it into the hole in his chest. He nicked the surface of his heart with the blade.
A drop of blood flowed out slowly.
An unbearable pain grew in his heart and wormed into the depths of it.
Long Qing's face paled beyond compare as if he had lost all his blood.
He used all his strength to stop himself from howling in despair. However, his face twisted in pain, and he looked as terrifying as a ghost in the night.
After a moment, the drop of blood left the blade and fell into the steaming medicine tripod.
Within moments, the contents of the medicine tripod sloshed and rolled around angrily. The scent of medicine dissipated, leaving behind the thick scent of blood.