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    Chapter 166: The Esteemed Madam Rong Respected by the Master

    It was Jin Chengchi. The calligraphy on the stone tablet beside the pond, emulating "A Difficult Road to Tread," was robust and powerful, with the characters inked in vivid red.

    In the scene, only Nan Gongliu and Xu Shuanglin were alive, and the reason for specifying two living beings was due to the countless corpses lying in disarray on the ground.

    Or rather, they were deceased Jiao people.

    "Hurry up and seal the path to prevent other cultivators from ascending the mountain; it might arouse suspicion."

    "It will be done shortly." Xu Shuanglin placed a black piece into the mouth of a scaled creature, then murmured an incantation. The creature, unsteady on its feet, rose and bowed to the two before plunging back into Jin Chengchi's ice-chunk-laden pond with a loud splash. Xu Shuanglin remarked, "I'm still not proficient in this forbidden art. With more practice, I won't need to feed them pieces one by one. A mere gesture in the air will suffice for them to comprehend my commands and come to my beck and call."

    "Such power?"

    "How else would it be called a forbidden technique? Even if one were to cultivate to that level, it's merely scratching the surface. I've seen someone..." Xu Shuanglin suddenly stopped and chuckled. "What I mean is, I've read about people who can preserve a living being's entire consciousness while making them willingly obey their every command. Now, that's impressive. My current level only allows me to manipulate the body, not the spirit. There's still a long way to go."

    Nan Gongliu nodded, "There's no need for you to excel too much in your cultivation. Drawing unnecessary attention isn't always a good thing."

    "Master is quite right,"

    "Still, I must say you came up with an ingenious plan – to lift my curse, one needs to unlock the Gate of Endless Torment, and opening that gate requires the complete essence of the five elements: gold, wood, water, fire, and earth. It's not easy to find such refined spiritual bodies in this world. We can't possibly test every sect, but you managed to transform Jin Chengchi, making those cultivators seeking swords reveal their spirit cores obediently. What an effortless reward, indeed."

    As he spoke, he took an orange from a saddlebag, peeled it, and ate it while praising, "Shuanglin, even the creatures of Jin Chengchi couldn't match your abilities. You truly have remarkable skills."

    Xu Shuanglin smiled, "Though Jin Chengchi is an ancient ruin, its divine power from the Palace of Chongchen has dwindled over billions of years. Otherwise, with my capabilities, I wouldn't have been able to exploit its vulnerability. Your Highness is too kind with your praise."

    Nan Gongliu laughed heartily, "So, tell me, how should I reward you?"

    "I don't have any particular request."

    "Nonsense, you must name something."

    "In that case, let Your Highness share half of this orange with me."

    Nan Gongliu was taken aback for a moment before he chuckled, "What sort of reward is that?" Nonetheless, he peeled the orange and offered it to Xu Shuanglin, "Here, have the whole thing."

    "Just half will do," Xu Shuanglin replied with a faint smile, "I don't ask for much."

    "You are truly an enigma. Very well, half it is."

    Nan Gongliu spoke, offering the orange flesh. Xu Shuanglin's fingertips were stained with blood, so he couldn't take it easily. Instead, he plucked the piece of fruit from Nan Gongliu's finger and ate it, beaming as he said, "Juicy and sweet, quite delicious."

    In that moment, under the sunlight, Xu Shuanglin's smile seemed eerie. A bit of orange juice lingered at the corner of his mouth, which he licked away with his tongue, a gesture akin to a snake flicking its tongue.

    Suddenly, Nan Gongliu felt a pang of fear and quickly withdrew his hand. But then, a look of frustration and confusion appeared on his face, as if he didn't understand what he was afraid of.

    Xu Shuanglin suddenly said, "Look there."

    "What?" Nan Gongliu followed his gaze and, after a moment, his eyes widened in shock. His slightly plump face displayed an array of complicated emotions. "It's... that..."

    "Redbellied Piranha," Xu Shuanglin identified the dead fish, dragging it over to the rocky shore for closer inspection. The monster with a lion-like face and fish body bared its blood-stained fangs, while its bulging gray-black eyes were lifeless.

    Xu Shuanglin dabbed some of the fish's blood onto his finger, sniffed it, and instinctively rubbed his bare feet. He frowned and said, "Ugh, it stinks."

    He stood up and kicked the fish. "This must be one of the few malevolent beasts within the Golden City Pool. Although the divine beasts that Chongchen left behind to guard the divine weapons were auspicious, time is long enough to change many things. malevolent spirits can transcend, gods can fall, let alone a mere divine beast."

    Nan Gongliu muttered, "That was it... it asked me to offer Rong Yan's heart..."

    Those outside the illusion shuddered upon hearing this. Everyone except Chu Wanning, who already knew the truth, was even more astonished. "What?!"

    "Rong Yan... That's... That's..."

    Someone murmured, and others turned to look at Nan Gongsi with shock and pity. "That's his..."

    Nan Gongsi was first stunned, then began to tremble uncontrollably. He stumbled backward until he fell to his knees, his face paler than a corpse's, more terrifying than any ghost.

    "Mother? No... It can't be...!"

    Through her tears, Ye Wangxi said, "Si..."

    "It can't be!!" Nan Gongsi teetered on the brink of madness. His handsome face contorted from fear, anger, sorrow, and horror, his features almost out of place. He couldn't hear anyone, couldn't register any sound. "It can't be! My mother died when she slayed a demonic beast! Father told me she was pierced through the heart while fighting it!"

    Suddenly, he jolted and muttered to himself, "No heart... Pierced through the heart..."

    He didn't cry. His eyes were wide open, their corners splitting as he repeatedly croaked, his voice growing louder with each iteration, from a whisper to a growl, from a growl to a frenzied howl. "Pierced through the heart!!! Pierced through the heart!!!"

    Memories flooded back.

    He had been very young then, when his parents and a group set off for Jin Chengchi to seek a sword. He remembered vividly that the night before, he had played with Nao Baijin in the backyard garden until late, sneaking back into the house under the cover of darkness, pretending to have been studying. Unbeknownst to him, his mother had come looking for him after dinner, wanting to give him a newly embroidered quiver for his arrows. After searching for him around the mansion and not finding him, she knew he had snuck out to play again.

    Rong Yan was an exceptionally aloof woman and never displayed the affectionate attachment that typical mothers had for their children towards Nan Gongsi. When she entered his bedroom again, Nan Gongsi was pretending to read "Voyage of Freedom," swaying his head rhythmically while reciting its verses. Rong Yan stopped him and asked, "What did you do after dinner?"

    Unaware that Rong Yan already knew he had been slacking off, Nan Gongsi put down the book, scratched his head, and smiled brightly. "Mother, I... I was reciting my texts."

    "Non-stop?"

    Afraid of being scolded, the child hesitated before nodding. "Uh... yes, yes!"

    Rong Yan slightly lifted her elegant neck, raised her chin, and glanced down with a sharp, cold gaze. "Lying."

    Nan Gongsi jumped, his face turning red. "I wasn't."

    Rong Yan didn't say much more. She took his bamboo scroll, rolled it up, and asked, "If the world criticizes me, it doesn't discourage me. What's the line before that?"

    "And... and the world... uh..."

    "And if the world praises me, it doesn't encourage me!" Rong Yan frowned, slapped the bamboo scroll onto the table with a loud noise, and sternly said, "Nan Gongsi, how have I taught you normally? It's one thing to play wildly outside until late, but now you've even learned to lie?!"

    "Mother..."

    "Don't you dare shout at me!"

    Nan Gongsi, seeing her anger, couldn't help but panic. He actually revered his mother more than his amiable father, who always appeared in military attire, exuding an imposing aura.

    "You're utterly out of line."

    The little child's eyes reddened, fearing further scolding. With a hint of hope, he defended himself, "I, I didn't come back too late. I just played outside for a while after dinner."

    Rong Yan glared at him. The mother, initially only moderately upset, became increasingly disappointed and furious as her son strained to justify himself.

    "I was going to return as soon as it got dark—"

    "Slap!"

    A sharp slap interrupted Nan Gongsi's words.

    Rong Yan's chest heaved, still holding her raised hand, as she yelled in extreme anger, "Nan Gongsi! Greed, resentment, deception, murder, lust, theft, and plunder – these are the seven things a Confucian gentleman must never do. Where did you learn this lesson? Are you still trying to deceive your mother?!"

    Stunned by the slap, Nan Gongsi took a while to regain his senses. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he felt wronged. He cried out loudly, "If you weren't so fierce, why, why would I lie? You hit and scold me all the time... You, you don't treat me well at all! I don't like you! I like Father!" With that, he started to run out to find Nan Gongliu.

    "Stop right there!"

    Rong Yan grabbed him firmly, her expression extremely grim. With a finger painted with bright red nail polish, she pointed at her son's nose while anger flickered in her eyes.

    "What do you want from your father? Your father is nothing but a yes-man, flattering and fawning over others. He's utterly useless. Do you really want to learn from him?! Sit down!"

    "I don't want to! I don't want to!"

    Biting her silver teeth, Rong Yan dragged Nan Gongsi back to his seat despite his continuous struggles. But the moment she let go, he tried to run again. In the end, Rong Yan had no choice but to raise her hand, casting a binding spell that held him down. Nan Gongsi fell to his knees, filled with humiliation and frustration, panting like a caged beast.

    "Let me go! I don't want a mother like you! You... You've never spoken kindly to me, you've never cared about me, all you do is scold me... All you do is scold me!"

    Rong Yan's face flushed then paled, her lips trembling slightly. After a long pause, she said, "Stay in this room and memorize the entire 'Journey to Freedom.' I'll check on you tomorrow. If you continue to be disobedient, I'll..."

    Her voice trailed off as she felt a bit lost. What could she do? She was usually strict and unyielding, with a fiery temperament. Even when dealing with her cowardly husband, she would publicly reprimand him without hesitation.

    But with Nan Gongsi... what could she do?

    She stood there for a moment, overwhelmed by a mix of bitterness, resentment, sorrow, and helplessness. The intensity of her emotions triggered a fit of coughing. She was an ailing person, and soon, blood welled up in her throat. Ignoring it, she quickly wiped away the blood with a handkerchief before Nan Gongsi could see. Then, with a hoarse and somber voice, she spoke.

    "Son, you're still young, and the world's right and wrong is often not as clear as what your eyes can see. Sometimes, those who are lenient with you might not truly wish you well, and those strict with you might not genuinely desire your downfall. Your father is weak and incompetent, and besides..." She paused, not continuing immediately. After some deliberation, she decided against that sentence and changed her words. "Your mother doesn't want you to become a cultivator like him, or a sect leader like him in the future."

    Nan Gongsi bit his lip, remaining silent.

    "You're mischievous, and you don't apply yourself to your studies, but these aren't major issues. However, how could you learn to lie? Our Confucian Wind Sect has stood proudly for a hundred years, all because we uphold the integrity of a gentleman. These principles your father never taught you seriously, but I am your mother. If he doesn't tell you, then it falls upon me to instruct you, repeating them again and again. Even if you don't listen, even if you think me strict, even if you hate me."

    "...Father doesn't tell me because he sees me as Son, and his happiness lies in my joy. What about you?!" Nan Gongsi said angrily. "What kind of mother are you? You only see me as the young master of the Confucian Wind Sect, as the future sect leader! There hasn't been a single good day with you! I won't listen to you!"

    Rong Yan was furious, a flush of abnormal redness appearing on her pale cheeks. She covered her face with a handkerchief, followed by a bout of coughing, and then struggled to catch her breath before sternly saying:

    "Fine. If you won't listen, I'll keep telling you until the day comes when you finally understand."

    "..." The child was stubborn, so he simply plugged his ears with his hands.

    Sitting in her chair, Rong Yan gradually calmed down, but her chest still throbbed with pain. Memories of the injuries she sustained while hunting demons in her youth resurfaced. Despite daily medication, her condition had worsened into a chronic illness, and looking at her rebellious child under the lamp, she couldn't help but close her eyes.

    After a moment, her tone softened as she spoke, "Son, Mother can't be by your side forever. There will come a day when I can no longer watch over you, no longer warn you. I just hope that someday, you'll understand..."

    Suddenly, she fell silent.

    For she saw Nan Gongsi curled up on the ground, his small form trembling as he wept within the confines of her enchantment. Her child, that perpetually joyful and vivacious Sonshi, was now sobbing through his sobs under her scolding and abuse.

    Rong Yan stood frozen for a long while before slowly rising to her feet. She approached the forbidden enchantment barrier and raised her hand, intending to dispel it. She yearned to bend down, scoop him up, caress his swollen cheeks, and kiss his forehead.

    Yet, she endured. In the end, she stood there resolutely, with an unfaltering resolve.

    She finished the sentence gently, "You must understand... Greed, resentment, deception, murder, lust, theft, and plunder - these are seven things that a gentleman of Confucian virtue must never do."

    "I don't understand, I don't want to know, I... I..." Nan Gongsi lifted his tear-blurred eyes and cried out to his mother beyond the taboo, "I hate you! I don't have a mother like you!"

    "............"

    In that fleeting moment, beyond the forbidden spell barrier, Rong Yan's face appeared strikingly pale. Her usually resolute expression seemed to be overwhelmed with unbearable sorrow.

    That face had haunted Nan Gongsi's dreams for over two decades. Upon waking, his pillow would always be damp with tears. Back then, he was like a venomous scorpion, brandishing its pincers, injecting poisonous venom deep into his mother's heart.

    The pain was real, a torment that would never alleviate throughout his lifetime, a wound he could never reconcile with himself.

    On the third day, Rong Yan didn't come to the mansion to see him; instead, she sent a maid with a quiver embroidered with camellias and a letter.

    The handwriting in the letter was neat and solemn, devoid of too many affectionate words. It merely stated that, knowing he had recently taken up martial arts and enjoyed archery, she had sewn this quiver for him to use. She also mentioned her intention to travel to Jin Chengchi with his father, promising to review "Voyage of Freedom" thoroughly upon their return, and hoped he wouldn't continue to be wayward and playful.

    What about him?

    How did he react?

    His anger still simmered, resentment festering within him. He took the knife and sliced the quiver his mother had painstakingly made into several pieces. He threw her letter into the hearth, watching it turn to ashes. He shredded the "Voyage of Freedom" on the desk, finding a twisted satisfaction in the fragments.

    He was retaliating against her.

    He despised her.

    He wanted her to know that he would never heed the teachings of such a terrible mother, that he wouldn't yield, that he...

    With a snarl, he reveled in his viciousness, building walls of cunning around his heart.

    He waited for his mother to apologize, to bow down to him... Perhaps back then, his malicious intentions were a ploy to solicit a gentle word, a warm embrace from his mother.

    Yet, he waited in vain.

    Apologies, embraces, remorse, tenderness – he was ready for it all, eagerly awaiting the chance to declare war on that woman once more. And then...

    He received her remains.

    "The head of the Confucian Wind Sect, Night Lin, was ambushed. His wife shielded him and was pierced through the heart."

    Upon returning with the funeral bier, Nan Gongsi stood dazedly by the towering city gate of the Confucian Wind Sect. White mourning cloth and paper money littered the ground. As the sole legitimate son, he stood at the forefront, waiting according to custom. The elders would break the mourning bowl, and the widow's coffin would then be carried over the fire pit and back into the sect. At this moment, the legitimate son was supposed to kneel and wail bitterly, banging his head against the ground as he greeted his mother's spirit.

    But Nan Gongsi couldn't bring himself to cry.

    It all seemed so absurd, so fake, as if it wasn't real. The sun's glare bouncing off the ground made him dizzy and nauseous.

    This...wasn't real.

    ...It couldn't be real!!!

    If it were true, what could he do? How could he accept... that in this lifetime, separated by the realms of life and death, the last piece of advice she gave him was, "Beware of greed, resentment, deceit, killing, lust, theft, and plunder — these seven vices are forbidden for a Confucian gentleman."

    And what did he reply to her?

    He didn't want to recall it, but the hatred he felt that day was so profound, his cries so piercing. His mother's face outside the barrier was a painful sight of sorrow.

    Pain...

    It truly hurt so much.

    He said, the last words he spoke to his mother in this life... He said...

    I hate you.

    I don't have a mother like you.

    The funeral bier arrived, and an elder shattered a porcelain basin beside it as thousands knelt and wept. His father was already weeping uncontrollably beside the coffin, while Nan Gongsi stood there, clenching tightly the shredded camellia quiver in his hand.

    Bright red petals, creamy yellow stamens, covered in snow — the flower seemed to have defied the cold, as if her warm fingertips had just brushed against the silk surface, bringing to life this vivid array of colors. Perhaps she had a premonition before her death, or perhaps it was mere coincidence, but she had embroidered with great care. The flowers appeared lifelike, as if they held all the love she hadn't spoken and every last piece of advice and entrustment she had for him, woven into those threads and locked within that small cloth quiver.

    Nan Gongsi held it tightly in his grasp.

    It was from his mother, his Ama, the last thing she left him in this life.

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