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    Chapter 121: Master is the True Grandmaster

    On the eighth day after Mo Ran left, Xue Zhengyong received his first letter.

    Written on Huanhua paper, the handwriting was crooked but attempted to be neat, though it was in vain.

    "Uncle, do not worry about me. I am currently at Fenhua Ferry, and everything is well. Recently, there was an evil spirit causing trouble here, but fortunately, there were no casualties. Nephew has taken care of the troublesome water ghost, and now the ferry crossing is peaceful. I received a banknote worth five hundred silver from the boatman, which I enclose with this letter. Please convey my regards to Aunt and Master."

    The one hundred and twentieth day, the twenty-second letter.

    "Uncle, do not worry about me. Nephew recently came across a supreme-grade spirit stone by chance. If it were to be embedded in Xue Meng's Dragon City curved saber, it would become an unparalleled weapon, though not comparable to divine weapons, it is still quite rare. Please convey my regards to Aunt and Master."

    The one hundred and thirtieth day, the twenty-fourth letter.

    "Uncle, do not worry about me. Nephew has been cultivating in Snow Valley lately. The valley is perpetually cold, which fosters unusual flowers and plants. Among them, Frostglow Snow Lotus is the most precious, but unfortunately, it is guarded by a thousand-year-old ape demon. When I first arrived, my spiritual power was weak, and my skills were not refined enough to pluck them. In these recent days, I have made great progress and can now break through its defenses, harvesting over a dozen blooms. I send them back with this letter. Please convey my regards to Aunt and Master."

    ...

    Along with the letters often came various trinkets, spirit medicines, and wooden or stone artifacts.

    In addition to writing to Xue Zhengyong, Mo Ran would also pen private letters to Shi Mo, usually detailing his experiences from around the world and asking about daily concerns like warmth and clothing.

    As time passed, the ink of Mo Ran's pen spread across the paper, initially with occasional errors but later, though not particularly elegant, the strokes became straighter and more structured, showing a gradual maturity in his calligraphy. Mistakes were fewer and farther between.

    A year flew by.

    One day, as Xue Zhengyong sipped on some fresh spring tea, he received another letter from Mo Ran. Smiling, he finished reading it and then passed it to Madame Wang for her perusal. As she read, she chuckled. "This child's handwriting has become quite lovely."

    "Similar to someone else's?"

    "To whom?"

    Xue Zhengyong blew on the tea leaves and picked up a volume of "Ancient Boundaries: A Collection of Annotations" from his desk. "Look at Yu Heng's and see if there's a resemblance."

    Madame Wang held the book and flipped through it, surprised. "It really does look alike."

    "When he first arrived at the Summit of Life and Death, he took Yu Heng as his master. Yu Heng asked him to read books first, but the boy couldn't even recognize many characters. So Yu Heng taught him for quite some time, starting with his own name, then simple words, and finally more complex ones." Xue Zhengyong shook his head. "Back then, he didn't study carefully and just scribbled runes to get by. Now, his writing is quite decent."

    Madame Wang chuckled. "He should go out more often. I see that he's become much more composed since being away."

    Xue Zhengyong also smiled. "I wonder what he'll be like after five years of traveling. He'll be twenty-two, right?"

    "Twenty-two."

    "Sigh." Xue Zhengyong let out a breath, seemingly lost in thought. "I originally thought Yu Heng would guide them until they turned twenty. But, as they say, man proposes, God disposes."

    Indeed, Mo Ran shared the same sentiment.

    He had traveled far and wide, from the misty landscapes of southern China to the Great Northern Pass. In summer, he sipped on Yue wine by the Tiaoliao River; in winter, he huddled around a fire pit listening to the Qiang flute.

    In his previous life, after ascending the throne as emperor, the world was at his feet, but he had never ventured through every mountain and stream to witness the fishing boats lit up at dawn in the east or the flowing karez wells in the west. He had never taken the time to observe the darkened, calloused feet of porters trudging on stone paths, their skin cracked and tough as iron. Nor had he heard the tender voices of young opera performers rehearsing in reed fields, their high-pitched notes piercing the clouds like a tear in silk:

    "So many colors were in full bloom, only to be left to crumble in ruins..."

    He was no longer the Heaven-Stepping Lord, nor would he ever be again. He was now...

    "Big brother," a child's innocent voice called. "Big brother, can you help save this little bird? Its wing is broken, and I... I don't know what to do."

    "Little Immortal Lord," the gravelly voice of the elder from Stone Mortar Village called out. "Thank you, thank you. Without your help, our village would be filled with widows, orphans, and the elderly, defenseless against the demonic disturbances. Your great kindness, Immortal Lord... this old man will never forget it."

    "Kind soul," a trembling beggar they met on the road pleaded. "Kind soul, my mother and I haven't had a full meal in so many days. Please, have mercy..."

    Mo Ran closed his eyes.

    Then he opened them again.

    Someone was calling him.

    "Grandmaster Mo."

    The title stung him a little, and he looked up at the dark-skinned man who used it, feeling rather helpless. "I'm not a grandmaster; my master is. Please don't call me that anymore."

    The man scratched his head, looking sincere. "My apologies. Everyone in the village calls you that, and I know you don't like it, but I just can't seem to stop."

    Mo Ran had been staying in a small village near the Lower cultivation Realm's border for some time. A towering snow-capped mountain stood a few miles outside the village, and snow ghosts often descended to cause trouble. They were minor demons with low spiritual energy, easily dealt with by the Night Wanderer mechas left behind by his master. Unfortunately, the remote village was not within the Night Wanderers' reach. With no other choice, Mo Ran had tried to recreate the machines based on the diagrams his master had left behind.

    After many failures, he finally managed to make one. The Night Wanderer he crafted was far less elegant and agile than his master's, but the wooden figure creaked and groaned into functionality.

    This novelty thrilled the villagers in this remote area, addressing him as "Grandmaster Mo" with every breath, much to Mo Ran's embarrassment.

    But there was more awkwardness to come.

    It was an evening when the setting sun painted half the sky crimson. Returning from studying at Mount Tai Academy, Mo Ran walked down the bustling willow-lined path. Suddenly, someone called out.

    "Master Chu!"

    Upon hearing this title, Mo Ran didn't even have time to ponder before turning around. He then found himself amused, realizing how foolish he was for jumping to conclusions that his master had awoken prematurely just because he heard the name 'Chu.'

    How could that be possible?

    He chuckled and shook his head, about to turn away when he heard another cry, "Master Chu!"

    "..."

    Carrying a stack of books, Mo Ran narrowed his eyes to scan the crowd. He spotted someone waving at him, but they were too far away for him to discern their face clearly. He could only discern that it was a young man dressed in a cerulean Taoist robe, carrying a bow on his back, accompanied by a wolfhound.

    The stranger approached quickly, and as Mo Ran and he could finally see each other's features, they both froze in surprise.

    "You are...?"

    "Mo Ran," he responded before the other person could finish, holding his scroll in one arm. With his hands occupied, he simply nodded, his curious gaze lingering on the young man's face for a moment. "I didn't expect to run into Lord Nan Gong here. What a coincidence."

    It turned out that the one who had addressed him as "Master Chu" was none other than Nan Gongsi, the legitimate son of the Confucian Wind Sect.

    Since this fellow had died early in Mo Ran's previous life, they had never crossed paths. But Chu Wanning was different; he had been a guest consultant for the Confucian Wind Sect, so Nan Gongsi must have known him well. Mo Ran scrutinized the man from head to toe, his gaze pausing momentarily on the quiver slung over Nan Gongsi's shoulder.

    It was an old cloth quiver, embroidered with camellia patterns. The design had faded with time, the once-vibrant petals now tinged with a subtle yellow, like the fragrance sewn onto the fabric could not withstand eternity and would eventually wilt away.

    Nan Gongsi was dressed in finery from head to toe, but his quiver was tattered, with visible mending marks. Mo Ran knew that it must hold great value to him, yet who in this world didn't have one or two cherished possessions? Even the most illustrious person would have a memory they held close to their heart for a long time.

    None of them are as simple and carefree as they appear on the surface.

    Nan Gongsi frowned. "Mo Ran... I remember. The disciple of Master Chu?"

    "Mm."

    In that case, Nan Gongsi's demeanor softened slightly as he said, "My apologies, I was too far away just now. With your figure and attire, I mistook you for Grandmaster who had emerged from seclusion earlier than expected, and I wasn't aware of it."

    Mo Ran tore his gaze away from the quiver, not inquiring further out of tact, and instead replied calmly, "Just now, when I heard you call out like that, I also thought it might be our Master who had emerged from seclusion earlier than expected. I was unaware."

    Nan Gongsi laughed, and perhaps because he was born into nobility, even in his laughter, there was still a hint of arrogance in his handsome features. But his arrogance was different from Xue Meng's; Xue Meng's was the pride of a genius with a wild heart, whereas Nan Gongsi seemed to have an extra edge of hostility, a touch of indulgence and volatility.

    Yet he was strikingly good-looking, and this hostility didn't make him terrifying. Instead, it added a touch of untamed nature to his demeanor.

    Mo Ran couldn't help but think to himself, Nan Gongsi, Nan Gongsi… he truly is a free-spirited, fierce steed.

    Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly heard Nan Gongsi say, "When the Realm of Ghosts split open, Master Chu met with misfortune, and I grieved for a long time. Fortunately, a grandmaster guided us to revive him. Once he wakes up, I'll definitely pay a visit to the Peak of Life and Death."

    "In that case, we'll look forward to your esteemed presence, Sir."

    Nan Gongsi waved his hand, then suddenly noticed the book in Mo Ran's hands. He was curious and asked, "Brother Mo, what are you doing?"

    "Reading."

    Nan Gongsi had initially assumed Mo Ran was reading some obscure, profound texts, but upon closer inspection, he found they were classics like "Voyage of Free Will" and "Records of Rites." He was taken aback at first, then said, "These… are basic scriptures. I memorized them when I was young. What use is there in reading these?"

    Mo Ran didn't feel ashamed. His gaze was open and sincere as he replied, "When I was young, I couldn't even write my own name."

    "Cough…" Nan Gongsi sounded slightly awkward. "You enrolled in a scholarly academy to study?"

    "Mm-hmm. I happened to be gathering some spiritual stones for cultivation on Mount Tai these days, and I saw that the Apricot Grove Academy had opened a new lecture series. Since I had nothing else to do, I came to listen."

    Nan Gongsi nodded, then, seeing that it was getting late, he said, "It seems Brother Mo hasn't had dinner yet. Since you're here in the Confucian Wind Sect's territory and are Master Chu's disciple, it's only right for me to play the role of a good host. Conveniently, my companion is waiting for me at a nearby tavern. How about we have a drink together?"

    Mo Ran considered it and, as he had nothing else planned, agreed. "I would be honored."

    "The Wu Yu Pavilion. One of the most famous taverns in Lin Yi, known for its delectable Nine-Turn Stewed Intestines. Have you heard of it?" Nan Gongsi asked as they walked.

    "How could I not have?" Mo Ran smiled. "It's one of the top eateries in the Upper Realm. Young Master Nan, you really know how to choose places."

    "I didn't choose it."

    "Oh, who did then?"

    "It was chosen by my companion."

    As someone who had lived through a lifetime, Mo Ran was somewhat familiar with the complicated relationships within the Confucian Wind Sect. Though he didn't say anything, he was secretly surprised and wondered to himself, Ye Wangxi is here too?

    Yet, as he followed Nan Gongsi up to the pavilion and entered the private room by drawing aside the beaded curtains, the person inside nearly made him choke.

    There was Song Qiutong, clad in a delicate gauze attire, standing gracefully by the window. Outside, the peach blossoms were in full bloom, and at the sound of their arrival, she turned her head. The golden hairpin at her temple shimmered softly, accentuating her skin like porcelain and lips as red as cinnabar. She was exquisitely beautiful.

    Mo Ran's foot, halfway through the entrance, involuntarily retreated.

    He wondered if it was still too late to tell Nan Gongsi that he didn't fancy Lu cuisine, especially not the Nine-Turn Braised Intestines.

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