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    Chapter 143: Master is the White Moonlight, Vermilion Dot, Heart's Blood, and Fated Calamity

    Even if Mo Ran was slow to catch on, seeing her fiery gaze, he could no longer be in any doubt. He immediately said, "Miss Ling'er, you've had too much to drink. Let's talk about this tomorrow..."

    "I insist on talking about it today!"

    This young lass was fierce when she put her mind to it. Her hair was somewhat disheveled, and her eyes gleamed with determination.

    "..." Afraid of getting entangled, Mo Ran tried to use his light footwork to escape, but his sleeve was grabbed by her. He was both annoyed and amused as he said, "Let go of me."

    "I won't." With alcohol bolstering her courage, and Ling'er already being quite bold, her infatuation with the Immortal Lord at the Peak of Life and Death wasn't a recent development. So, she spoke up loudly, "I like you. Do you like me?"

    Mo Ran: "............"

    Seeing no reaction from the man, Ling'er grew anxious.

    Ever since Mo Ran first arrived in Jade Cool Village, she had found him handsome and valiant. Later, when she learned that he was the renowned "Grandmaster Mo," her heart had been captivated even more, beyond retrieval. The busy farming season would soon be over, and Mo Ran would be leaving soon. She was just a small village girl with nothing to boast about except for her pretty face and good figure. Although she didn't know how Mo Ran felt about her, if she didn't express herself now, she might never get another chance. Thus, with a bit of liquid courage, she summoned the bravery to follow Mo Ran and confess her feelings.

    Such a surge of courage was honestly breathtaking, even to Mo Ran.

    Ling'er's delicate face flushed bright red.

    She thought that if Mo Ran agreed to her request, everything would be perfect. Not only would she have such a handsome and dashing lover, but by associating with him, she would ascend to the pinnacle of life and death. Then, she wouldn't have to stay in this wretched village, enduring humiliation, but instead could live a comfortable life...

    "I'm sorry, Miss Ling'er, you should let go."

    But with just one sentence, he shattered the illusory castle that had been floating in her mind.

    The flush on Ling'er's face still lingered, but now it was tinged with paleness. For a moment, her expression was quite ghastly. After a pause, she hurriedly asked, "Is there something unappealing about me?"

    "You're attractive in every way," Mo Ran replied politely, gently breaking free from her grip. "But I'm not interested."

    If he had shown some tact before, his words "I'm not interested" were like a relentless storm, tearing away at any remaining facade.

    Tears welled up in Ling'er's eyes. Her sadness was secondary; though she admired Mo Ran, her feelings weren't deeply rooted. Rather, her ambition to advance outweighed her affection. Thus, her disappointment stemmed more from the shattering of her dreams.

    "So then..." She held back her tears and asked, "What kind of person do you prefer?"

    "I—"

    This question left Mo Ran at a loss for words.

    What kind did he like?

    Out of habit, he thought he liked someone like Shi Mo, but as the words reached his lips, it suddenly didn't seem to be the case. He was momentarily flustered and couldn't answer.

    "Ling'er, tell me, what type do you prefer?" She pressed on, her beautiful eyes fixated on Mo Ran's face, not missing any flicker of emotion.

    She was also a pitiful soul. She had an elder sister who married a common textile merchant from the Upper Realm and moved to Leizhou years ago to live a comfortable life.

    Ling'er had visited her sister with Mama, carrying a load of dried fish and Sichuan pepper from their countryside home. However, her brother-in-law found the fish too smelly and considered their humble background disgraceful. He soon sent them back, leaving a deep scar in Ling'er's heart. From that day on, she vowed to escape her impoverished existence and surpass her sister's lifestyle, determined to repay all the indignities she had suffered.

    Therefore, she spent years searching for a heroic figure to devote herself to, hoping to change her destiny.

    She was unwilling to let Mo Weiyu slip away.

    In her desperation and infatuation, she leaned into him, her soft and graceful body swaying under the influence of alcohol and desire. In the summer, men couldn't help but steal glances at her as she walked through fields and villages. She was making a gamble, attempting to use her gentle warmth to pierce through Grandmaster Mo's armor.

    "What is it about me that you find so unappealing? You didn't even give it a second thought before rejecting me?"

    Her warm and tender body pressed against him, but Mo Ran felt utterly uncomfortable. He pulled away from her, his face already darkening with displeasure.

    "Ling'er, how long have we known each other? How could I possibly like you or consider you?"

    "How would you know unless you try!"

    Upon seeing her approach again, Mo Ran immediately said, "Stay away from me!"

    "You really dislike me that much?" Ling'er's eyes widened in disbelief. "Not even the slightest bit... Not even the tiniest bit..."

    "I don't like you at all," Mo Ran felt that he hadn't been clear enough. It was better to be decisive in such matters, even if it was cruel. He added, "Not the slightest bit of interest."

    Ling'er was left speechless.

    Disliking her, she could understand.

    But not feeling any attraction...

    How many unmarried men could remain steadfast before a woman with an exquisite face and figure, who had willingly thrown herself into his arms, and declare with a clear conscience, "I am not moved"? How could one have no desire for such a warm and tender beauty?

    She stood there in a daze for a moment before she stammered, "You... How can you... How could you..."

    She found it hard to express herself.

    What she really wanted to ask was, how could he not feel any desire? That wasn't normal.

    Mo Ran sensed her hesitation, but he truly didn't want to explain himself further. They were strangers who had crossed paths by chance; she was seeking a fleeting romance, while he had never entertained such thoughts.

    He softly apologized to her, "I'm sorry," then slipped into the darkness of the night.

    The night breeze brushed against his cheeks, and he couldn't help but squint.

    His conversation with Ling'er made him suddenly realize that he might have misunderstood something crucial about love all along.

    Ling'er had asked him, "What kind of person do you like?"

    This was a question he had never dared to ask himself.

    Those who received little warmth seldom had the luxury of choice. Whoever treated him kindly would receive his unwavering loyalty.

    "What kind do you like?"

    This was a sentence that had never dared to cross his subconscious.

    In truth, everyone in this world had their unique preferences and quirks. When Mo Ran was young, he often heard other children tug at their parents' sleeves on the roadside, saying, "I like this one. It has green onion on it." Or, "Mother, I think the red lantern is prettier than the yellow one. I like the red one."

    But he couldn't say such things. Even if he did, it wouldn't matter. All he could afford were the cheapest white flour buns, which he had to split with his mother.

    Later, when he worked at the teahouse, he would secretly watch the wealthy patrons who came to listen to operas. They would leisurely wave their silk fans and say, "I liked Cui'er from last time. Let's have her sing again. She's delicate, and her voice is sweet."

    In Mo Ran's eyes, Sister Cui'er was nowhere near as beautiful as Sister Bai Rong. But who cared about his opinions?

    No one would ever ask him, "What do you like?" Preferences and choices were privileges reserved for the rich and noble. For Mo Ran, whatever was served to him was what he got. He should be grateful for any food, and weep tears of joy for a single garment to cover his body. The notion of "liking" something seemed like a pipe dream to him. What right did he have to like anything? How dare he like anything? What qualifications did he possess? He only had a wretched life that required constant struggle just to survive.

    Over time, the habit of clinging to whatever he obtained became ingrained in his very being. Later, despite being surrounded by mountains of gold and silver, with the scent of dragon's saliva and precious incense causing him to sneeze, it couldn't erase the poverty-stricken aura that lingered within him.

    Throughout Mo Ran's life, during his impoverished childhood, his joys, sorrows, anger, and happiness were as insignificant as the dirt beneath his shoes – worthless. Thus, no one would ever ask him, "What do you like?"

    As he rose to prominence and gained the emperor's favor, treading on thin ice by the king's side, others could only speculate about his thoughts. Hence, no one dared to inquire, "What do you like?"

    Just now, Ling'er unexpectedly asked him this question with those simple words, leaving him speechless.

    He had once believed that loving someone meant holding them in the highest regard, cherishing them with utmost care, and refraining from any impure thoughts.

    Just as he did with Shi Mo.

    He thought this was love, and there seemed to be nothing wrong with it.

    But at this very moment, he vaguely realized that things might not be as he had imagined.

    Did he truly prefer gentleness over stubbornness?

    Did he genuinely favor compliance over strength?

    Did he truly prefer the captivating, peach blossom eyes over those sharp, phoenix-like glares, and the frost on dual blades?

    Did he... really like Shi Mingjing? Rather than... rather than...

    He dared not utter that name, but his heartbeat defied his will, his blood boiling with intensity.

    Mo Ran was startled by his own lustful desire.

    Lust, desire—love and longing were inherently intertwined, inseparable. Drawn to someone's appearance, seduced by their voice, their scent, even a single glance from them; craving possession, yearning to leave one's mark on an unrelated body, to pierce one's eagerness into the other.

    He had always held love as sacred, believing the object of one's affection must not be defiled.

    But how could it not be defiled?

    When a beloved, yearned-for, and admired form stood before him, how could he resist the heat surging through his veins, the restlessness of his heart and mind?

    Among all forms of love in this world, only romantic love was untouched by purity.

    It was destined to be stained with sticky sweat, colored by flesh, entangled in hair, carrying the scent of heather. It was linked to moans and passion, thriving only in the moist, muddy warmth of a shared bed, blossoming into delicate, dewy petals.

    Mo Ran dashed through the night, suddenly halting with eyes glowing eerily, his expression struck with horror.

    It was as if something within his skull had snapped. The torrential flood that had long been suppressed by his stubbornness and foolish rigidity burst forth in a tidal wave, engulfing and devouring him.

    He stood there, rooted to the spot, chilled to the bone.

    Desire, longing.

    Passionate love.

    Chu Wanning...

    He had finally unearthed this name.

    Through the sand and mud, a treasure emerged.

    It had always been Chu Wanning... These intimate feelings, this burning passion, they had always belonged solely to Chu Wanning!

    His vision swam with darkness. His obsession of two lifetimes was shattered, and the debris was swept away by a fierce tide, pounding against his heart, leaving him gasping for air.

    He was startled.

    Could it be... that... it had actually been like this all along?

    Had he been wrong about the person he liked, his so-called love?

    When Mo Ran returned to the bonfire with the white pear blossom, Ling'er was already gone.

    Of course, no one noticed a young girl's departure, and naturally, no one knew of the conversation that had just taken place between Mo Ran and her. The merrymaking continued, with everyone enjoying their drinks and laughter.

    After a few rounds of drinking, the villagers began a game. They weaved a grass ring from rice stalks and asked someone to play as the drummer. When the drumming stopped, whoever was holding the ring would have to answer a question without refusal.

    It was a simple pastime thought up by farmers in the Lower Cultivation Realm during their leisure time. The rules were easy to grasp, even for someone like Chu Wanning, who had never been one for amusement, could easily join in.

    "Alright, it's Old White's turn! Come on, Old White, draw a slip!"

    Old White reluctantly picked a folded piece of paper from a large bowl, unfolded it, and read aloud, "Is a woman with a large chest more attractive, or one with a plump behind?"

    The crowd around them burst into laughter.

    Old White's weathered face turned bright red with anger as he waved the slip of paper and cursed, "Which idiot wrote this question and threw it in? Damn your immortal ancestor!"

    "Aiyo, don't be like that," a villager chuckled, tugging on his sleeve. "Hold your horses before cursing at their immortal ancestor. Answer the question first."

    Old White's spouse was sitting below, staring at him with bulging, frog-like eyes. This made Old White's hair stand on end. After stammering for a while, he whispered, "I think they're all about the same."

    Someone immediately laughed and shouted, "What nonsense are you spouting? Lying is no fun! You clearly told me just a few days ago that you find women with bigger bottoms attractive, saying they're good for bearing children. Why aren't you telling the truth? Drink up! Punishment drink!"

    With no choice, Old White reluctantly downed the liquor with a grimace, only to receive a scolding from his wife later for it.

    Concealed within the crowd, Chu Wanning observed the scene with a mix of embarrassment and curiosity. However, such inquiries were too crude, and if they were directed at him, he would undoubtedly be at a loss for an answer.

    At this moment, the village chief appeared with a yard of black cloth, beaming as he said, "Let's have someone else take turns drumming. We'll switch Old Zhang out so he can have some fun too. Who's willing to swap places with him?"

    Chu Wanning promptly responded, "I'll come."

    He made his way to the hide-bound drum with its thick ox leather straps, accepted a pair of drumsticks, and seated himself gracefully upon the ground.

    The village chief carefully tied the black blindfold around his eyes, adjusting it left and right before asking, "Is it too tight?"

    "Not at all."

    "Will it expose anything?"

    "No, it won't."

    The village chief smiled and said, "Then, please, Lord Immortal, strike the drum. You can stop whenever you wish."

    Chu Wanning replied, "Alright." He picked up the wooden mallet and tapped on the leather surface before skillfully producing a rapid and rhythmic beat.

    Blindfolded, he didn't notice Mo Ran's gaze across the bonfire. It was filled with complexity, confusion, and fascination.

    Mo Ran watched him. Sparks from the flames danced like orange fireflies into the night. He gazed at the man in white, his eyes tracing every detail of Chu Wanning's forehead, nose, lips, and chin.

    To Mo Ran, Chu Wanning, wrapped in black cloth, held an inexplicable allure. But this time, he didn't let the temptation slip away so easily. He savored it, relishing each moment.

    He tasted the flavors of love and desire within.

    Again, he felt a tremor within him, reaffirming his realization... No, he couldn't be wrong.

    He had feelings for Chu Wanning – feelings that had nothing to do with the bond of master and disciple, nor were they tied to any sense of gratitude.

    It was a pure admiration, a longing, a desire for him.

    He...

    Finally realized, belatedly, that he loved Chu Wanning.

    It was love.

    How foolish, how obstinate, how blind he had been.

    It took until this very day for the scales to fall from his eyes.

    He loved Chu Wanning.

    With this realization, the layers of buried emotions in his mind crumbled, and many things that once puzzled him, many questions that lingered without answers, suddenly flooded into his consciousness within this tardy realization of love.

    Yet, he hadn't the chance to savor it, to ponder deeply.

    A resounding "thud" echoed as the drumming ceased, leaving behind a lingering echo like ripples on water.

    The grass ring landed precisely at that moment, resting on his knee. He picked it up in a daze, lifting his gaze to see Chu Wanning relieved, removing the black binding with one hand while revealing his luminous phoenix eyes, gazing innocently and untainted.

    Curiosity piqued, he wondered whose lap the flower had fallen onto when he paused the drumming.

    Their eyes met.

    Chu Wanning: "…"

    Mo Ran: "…"

    Nothing was more awkward than realizing that both of them had been secretly observing each other. Their gazes intertwined, both attempting to avert their eyes.

    But Chu Wanning soon stopped dodging, for he suddenly noticed the perplexed yet affectionate expression on Mo Ran's handsome, upright face. Through the sparkling campfire flames and the bustling crowd, it was presented directly, fervently, and unmasked – impossible to conceal.

    Chu Wanning's phoenix eyes widened slightly.

    "Good luck, Lord Mo," the village chief smiled, reaching to pull Mo Ran up.

    Mo Ran hesitated for a moment, then, following the custom, placed the woven grass ring on his head. His dark eyes shimmered, but he seemed rather at a loss. After putting on the crown, he glanced at Chu Wanning cautiously. That tanned, handsome face gradually flushed in the firelight.

    Startled by Mo Ran's unusual behavior, Chu Wanning's eyes widened even more, staring at him roundly.

    Under Chu Wanning's unguarded gaze, Mo Ran lowered his eyelashes and pressed his lips together, looking both obedient and bashful.

    He resembled an earnest young lad reaching the age of romantic awakening, clumsily experiencing the first stirrings of love. It was awkward to the point of being pitiful, yet endearing at the same time.

    Chu Wanning: "…"

    If he had been startled before, now he could only be horrified.

    ...He must be going blind!

    Otherwise, how could he find this big, burly brute suddenly so sentimental, as if he had taken the wrong medicine?

    Author's Note:

    Short Play: "Why Didn't You React?"

    Ling'er: Lord Mo, why didn't you react when I hugged you? Are you secretly suffering from some ailment? (scrutinizing him with disdain) Should I invite an old Chinese physician to examine you? They have ancestral remedies, specializing in treating... well, you know.

    Mo Ran: ...Miss, let me enlighten you about the term 'swishy sleeves.'

    Ling'er: Eek, your sleeves are torn? Let me sew them up for you then!

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