31 Trail of Clues
Nie Zun suddenly spoke up. "I don't care about all that other stuff. But that girl in your arms..." He paused and pointed at Mi Fu. "Her whip is coated with a powerful poison, and she never hesitates to attack with it. A vicious heart as hers... I won't let her off easily if I meet her again."
He spoke with resolve, drawing the girl's ire. She looked at him but kept her lips tightly sealed out of fear. She dared to be angry, but not to speak out.
Huan Qing's eyes were cold. "Nie Zun, don't speak too confidently. Lady Mi Fu is the goddess of our district. No one, including Lord Si Luo, would tolerate anyone harming her. I'm afraid that not even you would be able to escape unscathed if you were to attack."
Nie Zun smiled, almost as if he were possessed. He lazily turned towards his right shoulder and dropped his head, looking down at the crouched Huan Qing and Mi Fu. "Why don't we give it a try then? If she tries to harm Li Shen once more, then let's give it a try and see." His last words were especially graceful and caring, like a lover's, "Let's go watch the sunrise together." But it was that loving tone that made me subconsciously tremble.
A violent storm stirred in Huan Qing's eyes as he stared at Nie Zun. From behind the misty clouds, a murderous intent appeared. Subconsciously, I reached for the bow at my back.
The scene seemed to have paused at that moment. Huan Qing didn't move, his eyes locked on Nie Zun, foggy, white mist swirling inside them.
I'd already grabbed hold of my bow, sliding it onto my shoulder, and then I reached for an arrow as well. Nie Zun maintained his slightly towering position and narrowed his eyes.
No one dared exhale. Jiao S stood at the side, her eyes empty and expressionless, like a marrionette stuck in place. Jie Pa silently pushed his glasses up his nose. Guan Nie was also unusually quiet and still. Diagonally behind Nie Zun, his hair fell casually down. Paired with his phoenix eyes, he really looked like a beauty inside a painting.
My eyes wandered around us, and my hand remained behind my shoulder.
Mi Fu, for some reason, looked like she was suffering a great pain, though it had been obvious that Nie Zun hadn't left any type of wound. She kept gasping for breath, leaning and holding onto Huan Qing, her face twisted up unnaturally.
The storm continued to rage on inside of Huan Qing's eyes awhile before finally calming.
He raised a brow and said, "If you all insist on meeting with Lord Si Luo, go find the persuader, Gaoqin Jiuye. He's the only one who would know of Lord Si Luo's whereabouts. My responsibility is to watch over Lady Mi Fu. If you continue to encroach on us, I won't let you go. As for the rest of your business, I have no interest, nor will I be allowing Lady Mi Fu to participate."
Mi Fu glared at me. In a hoarse voice, she said, "I just like him. Why can't all of you just mind your own business?"
Huan Qing motioned for her to say no more. Then he spoke up, "Lady Mi Fu is young and inexperienced; she doesn't know how to express love. And truly, she simply fell in love with that young man. He's in the Split Zone all by himself, with a stubborn temper, moreover. We've never done anything untoward to him, but he continues to refuse Lady Mi Fu. I only put a spell on him so that he would spend some time with Lady Mi Fu. The illusions cannot control one's feelings, nor will it cause any great problems for anyone. You outsiders are just being too meddlesome."
I was about to dispute him, but then I caught Jiao S lightly shake her head in my direction. Then I glanced at Nie Zun, and he didn't say anything either.
So then, I simply nodded. "Alright, we'll leave Ku Fei alone. After all, he's a resident of your district, and his life has nothing to do with us. But, we'd best not see any of your poison or nonsense again." I stared at Mi Fu, clearly enunciating all my words as I spoke.
Mi Fu looked at me, her eyes looking more spiteful than ever before. But she didn't dare say a single word.
Huan Qing helped Mi Fu up, and then he gave a short nod in our direction.
Jiao S suddenly spoke up. "Wait. How did you create this pit?"
Huan Qing gave a smile, chilling but emotionless. "There's no pit. This is an illusion. In order to protect Lady Mi Fu, who often visits Ku Fei in the evenings, I prepared this in advance." Just as he spoke, his hand appeared from his white suit sleeve. With a wave, the dark pit returned to the image of Ku Fei's room.
The rest of us looked on, dumbfounded. I looked at Nie Zun, who was clearly a bit taken aback as well.
Huan Qing gave another smile, lacking warmth as always. "My illusion began the moment you stepped into the room. While it may have been an illusion, it was also able to inflict legitimate pain. In other words, when you fell down the pit in my illusion, you were injured as if it were a real fall."
When he was done speaking, he picked up Mi Fu in his arms. And like before, in the shop, the two of them faded into the air. As his image disappeared from the room, he left a few final words, "That's why I said it would be best if we didn't intervene in each other's business. Otherwise, when your face really gets torn, there's no escaping unscathed anymore."
I looked around me and saw that Ku Fei was lying in his bed, as if in a coma.
"I hadn't expected that he was so skilled. No wonder he's the top in the Southern District," Jie Pa said quietly.
"What do we do now?" I looked at the unconscious Ku Fei and then back at our group.
Jiao S remained silent. Guan Nie stood at the side, looking completely uninterested.
Nie Zun contemplated a moment. "Let's not worry about Ku Fei. Li Shen, stop sympathizing with everyone as well. No one in the Split Zone is entirely innocent and pure. Not even a nice guy like Ku Fei. So, I think we're done here." Nie Zun turned to look at me.
I looked at him in the eyes, and then I finally dropped my gaze. I looked back over at the unconscious Ku Fei and said, "You're right. We can't even save ourselves, so how can we get involved in other people's business?"
Jiao S spoke up in her rough voice, "In any case, we must find Si Luo."
Nie Zun looked at Jiao S, his expression filled with interest. Finally, he said lightly, "Though I don't know why you cling to him, it does appear that, right now, finding him is our only course of action. Especially since two of our team are now missing."
Guan Nie grabbed his hair and sniffed it. Speaking relaxed and unhurried, "To find Si Luo, we must first find Gaoqin Jiuye, though his actions don't follow any kind of pattern. But once we find Gaoqin Jiuye, we should be able to find Si Luo. After half a day, we're back where we stared."
Then he dropped the hair in his hands. He turned around and looked to Jiao S. "If following you all is going to be this boring, I'm not sticking around."
Jiao S sneered. "Since when have you had to report to me about your actions, Guan Nie? You can leave whenever you please. Or is it that, now that we're finally meeting him, you want to cower back?"
Guan Nie's eyes darted around. The way his lips twitched looked like fresh flower petals closing together. "Jiao S, since we are of the same kind, must we ridicule each other? When the three of them aren't around, you know that we needn't feign closeness. Remember what you promised me."
Then he turned to shoot a coquettish glance at Nie Zun. "You can continue discussing. I'm heading back to my room. When you've set your plans, pet, come knock on my door." After that, with a turn of his white robe, he left.
Jiao S rolled her eyes. "I'm heading back as well. Gaoqin Jiuye won't easily appear, and he might not appear at all. I trust that you and Nie Zun will come up with a plan." And then, she also hurriedly left Ku Fei's room.
I frowned. "They're really companions who only travel half-way with you. Entirely unreliable. The secrets those two keep probably are probably on par to the secrets of the Southern District. It's just the three of us now. We still know nothing about the Northern District. The only ones with the slightest bit of information, Yu Liang and Song Lu, have now disappeared. What are we supposed to do?"
My heart suddenly ached as I thought about Yu Liang and Song Lu; I didn't know if they were hurt or not. I was truly a mess of a district commander.
Jie Pa muttered irresolutely, "This trip was indeed too sudden. We didn't plan enough. That's why the situation turned out like this."
Nie Zun said quietly, "Let's head back first. Ku Fei will wake up soon. We can discuss things slowly, back in our room."
The three of us left the Southern Residence to find that it was already day out. We headed into the forest around the building, and though there was no sun, the sounds of birds, the scent of flowers, and being able to see into the distance allowed me to sigh in relief.
I stopped in my steps and looked up at the ever-grey Split Zone sky. Then I glanced back at the residence. After a few minutes, I turned and ran to catch up with Nie Zun and Jie Pa, who'd continued walking ahead.
"Why don't the three of us head to the South-North border forest to scout it out first? It's day now, and Jiao S and Guan Nie just happen to not be present," Jie Pa suggested.
I exchanged a glance with Nie Zun. "Good idea. Let's go take a look."
The three of us started running, but the Southern District seemed to be very expansive and filled with forests. By the time we made it to the border forest, more than ten hours had already passed.
There were numerous types of trees in the South-North border forest.
Trees in the Split Zone were a bit unusual. Plants here were like dead things, growing quietly, without need for water or soil; they grew simply with mental force. Most of those plants were sold in the medicine shops. But the trees, they forever grew silently yet oddly lush in the forests.
Planting trees simply required picking out a hole in the stone ground and dropping in a seed. And it would grow. There were many different types of trees in the Southern District. The border forest was densely packed with them, and there didn't seem to be a clearing in sight.
We stood outside of the forest. Once we passed through the crowded forest, we would be at the border to the Northern District. The legendary blood-red border line that was impossible to traverse across.
Jie Pa suddenly frowned and turned to me.
"What is it?" I'd never seen Jie Pa quite so serious and concerned before.
He muttered, "Ms Ah Shen, do you remember that I've told you about sending a thousand-mile scent chaser to the South-North border in search of Ms Laurel?"
"I do." I nodded.
He was suddenly quiet.
Then, as if having confirmed something, he said, "Though my sense of smell isn't nearly as strong as a scent chaser's, from my experience brewing alcohol and medicine, my sense of smell has grown rather sensitive. When we approached the border forest, I caught the scent of Ms Laurel."
My heart skipped a beat. "What you're saying is that Laurel hasn't been taken to the Northern District, but rather she is within this forest?"
"Yes." Jie Pa nodded gravely.
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