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    Chapter 85: Blurring the Lines of Grudges

    Upon hearing this, Shi Huai chuckled lightly, finding amusement in the pair's reaction.

    Ju Lang explained, "He is not Jiaomiao."

    "But his face…" An Zhi examined Shi Huai up and down before dismissing the thought with a calm expression. "Yes, Jiaomiao is a goddess, but it's clear that this person is a man."

    Ju Lang said, "Shi Huai, don't tease them anymore."

    Upon hearing this, An Zhi and Qin Huai both focused their eyes on Shi Huai's face.

    In the blink of an eye, his appearance changed.

    Shi Huai's original face was beautiful, a beauty that was gender-indeterminate at first glance. However, upon closer inspection, he was undeniably handsome, with no trace of effeminacy.

    He had the air of a naive and innocent nobleman, gentle and composed at heart, yet flamboyant on the surface.

    If one were to ask why he initially appeared feminine, it might be due to his large, expressive eyes.

    Shi Huai apologized, "Sorry, I just wanted to see your reaction. Do you really know Ah Yin?"

    "Ah Yin?" An Zhi repeated.

    Shi Huai explained, "She sails on an ethereal boat, dwelling in seclusion. Jiaomiao, the one who pities the hidden boat, that's her name."

    An Zhi understood.

    Shi Huai continued, "But she didn't have a name originally."

    An Zhi asked again, "Then who gave her the name Pitying the Hidden Boat?"

    Shi Huai shook his head. "When I met her, she already called herself Pitying the Hidden Boat."

    "I've been so rude not to offer you seats and tea. Please forgive me." As he spoke, he shook hands with An Zhi and Qin Huai one by one, inviting them to sit down. He then brewed a pot of green tea and served it to each of them. "Try my treasured Mountain Snow Green, aged for millions of years."

    As An Zhi was about to sip the tea, he paused and asked in surprise, "Millions of years?"

    Shi Huai explained, "I met Ah Yin in ancient times. Counting from then, it must be millions of years by now."

    With a smile on his lips, as if recalling something pleasant, he immersed himself in the memory, "She loved nothing more than sipping tea and fishing. Her favorite was the Cangshan Snow Green. Later I found out that she couldn't handle alcohol, but she could get drunk on tea."

    After listening for a while, An Zhi realized that Shi Huai and Ju Lang were alike, both waiting for someone. No wonder they had known each other for so long.

    A sour feeling welled up in his heart, and he drained the cup of Cangshan Snow Green in one go.

    Beside him, Qin Huai took a small sip and then sighed, "What fine tea!"

    An Zhi said to Qin Huai, "Drinking tea, fishing, and listening to operas— you and A Yin would have plenty to talk about with Lian Zhou Yin."

    "Impossible," Qin Huai promptly denied, speaking gravely, "Jiaomiao harmed Father Emperor, Mother Empress, and you. I can never forgive her."

    Shi Huai rose, brushed off his sleeves, and knelt before them, "I apologize on behalf of A Yin. She has her reasons, but if you're not willing to listen, then let it be."

    For some reason, perhaps because he had always kept An Zhi and Shen Yuan separate in his mind, he didn't actually blame Lian Zhou Yin. He picked up the teapot and filled another cup, saying, "I offer this cup of tea in place of wine, to put an end to all grudges with a smile." Drinking it down in one swift motion, he declared, "All is well that ends well."

    "You're insane?!" Qin Huai exclaimed, unable to comprehend, "Lian Zhou Yin is Jiaomiao! She caused you immense suffering!"

    An Zhi chuckled softly, "I've never seen myself as Shen Yuan, so there's no hatred towards Lian Zhou Yin to begin with. Lian Zhou Yin must have had her own troubles. All living beings have their sufferings. Besides, after letting go, I feel a great sense of relief."

    Qin Huai couldn't fathom An Zhi's actions. "You're insane! Truly mad!"

    Ju Lang spoke calmly, "One must never forget a kindness shown, but one should also let go of grudges. After a thousand years, what hatred could still linger?"

    Frustrated, Qin Huai slammed his teacup onto the table, splashing tea everywhere. "So it was me who couldn't let go all along?"

    An Zhi gently placed a hand on his shoulder. "I meant no offense and didn't intend to decide for you whether to forgive or not."

    Qin Huai snorted coldly, stood up, and said icily, "I'll go row a boat by the lake. You two continue your discussion." With that, he left Shi Huai's villa.

    The living room faced a massive floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the lake. An Zhi watched as Qin Huai paddled his boat into a group of swans.

    After a while, he turned back and said, "Since you know Lian Zhou Yin, there's no doubt that you're the author of the novel 'Kill to End Killing.'"

    Shi Huai nodded. "Yes."

    An Zhi asked, "Why did you write that book?"

    Shi Huai replied, "To help Ah Yin atone for her sins."

    An Zhi continued his inquiry, "Then why didn't you think of atoning for your sins in the past?"

    Shi Huai let out a long sigh. "I've just awakened not too long ago. If it had been sooner, Ah Yin wouldn't have suffered so much."

    An Zhi understood. "I know. Ju Lang told me that every time I fell into the demonic state and killed someone, it was him."

    An Zhi pursued his question. "I can tell you feel guilty towards me, but what about Zhou Yin? I want to clarify – you can apologize on her behalf, but you're still not her."

    Shi Huai's expression turned melancholic. "Before she obtained your divine blood and divine bones, she didn't feel any guilt. But afterward... Changes are inevitable, and history keeps moving forward. Even gods are not immune. She... She's already part of the past. Before her fall, she suddenly realized that all struggles eventually fade into silence. She regrets deeply for what she did to you."

    An Zhi couldn't help but curve his lips. He picked up his teacup, took a sip, and suppressed his smile. With a lighthearted expression, he said, "Hatred doesn't need to be avenged personally. Time can do the job, it might just take longer. This feeling of revenge being exacted isn't as grand as imagined."

    "Ha!" Shi Huai turned his head to look at Qin Huai on the boat, then glanced at Ju Lang lightly. "It's easier for those in the game to let go, but for outsiders, it's difficult. To Ah Yin, I'm an outsider who can't let go. And to you, there are still many who cling onto their obsessions."

    An Zhi's smile froze on his face. After a moment, he lifted his teacup again for a small sip and said, "I'm selfish. As long as I'm happy, I don't care about them."

    A sharp glint flashed in Shi Huai's eyes, but he looked at An Zhi indifferently and said, "Let's hope so."

    Following this, An Zhi asked again, "How did Wen Yan end up like that?"

    Shi Huai said, "For that, you'd have to ask Wen Yan's mother, your Aunt."

    Upon hearing this, memories of Yudou Town flooded An Zhi's mind:

    That eccentric Aunt had once told An Zhi a story.

    At first, An Zhi felt that the woman and child in the tale were his mirror images, stirring intense resentment within him.

    But after the story ended, Aunt mysteriously said to him, "If you truly understand this story, you'll come looking for me again soon enough."

    Back then, An Zhi didn't grasp the meaning behind her words. Now, with Shi Huai's clarification, he finally saw the light.

    An Zhi replied, "The protagonist of that story wasn't me, but Aunt, General Xiang, and Xiang Yan!"

    "Exactly," Shi Huai confirmed. "Back then, General Xiang used Aunt as a stepping stone to ascend to the position of Jiuli General. After achieving great success, he remarried and had another son. From then on, he no longer wished to be associated with Aunt, the fox spirit. So, he devised a plan to expose her identity, resulting in her being injured by the one she loved most without any warning. She has been alternating between periods of madness and lucidity ever since. Yes, Xiang Yan is bright and cheerful, but do you truly know what secrets lie hidden in his heart?"

    An Zhi shook his head. "Xiang Yan does indeed have a brother. When we went to Xunwu, his elder brother was just starting his new post. Thus, he didn't join us and returned to Jiuli for a celebration banquet instead."

    "An elder brother?" Shi Huai scoffed. "Aunt's story was quite comprehensive. Xiang Yan is actually General Xiang's firstborn, the true older brother."

    "Why is it like this?" An Zhi inquired.

    Shi Huai replied, "Xiang Yan is the offspring of a god and a fox spirit. After Shi Liuli's incident, the fox spirit clan lost their prestige, and thus, he was not acknowledged. However, if he were willing to take a humble position, bring honor to the Xiang family, ensure its continued prosperity without contending for power or wealth, they would be willing to take him in."

    An Zhi commented, "But Xiang Yan has reincarnated as a human, becoming Wen Yan. This means the Xiang family has declined. Is he the one behind it?"

    Shi Huai explained, "Time doesn't preserve anything indefinitely. He merely added fuel to the fire."

    Suddenly, An Zhi thought of something and asked, "Why isn't Xiang Yan afraid of resentment?"

    Ju Lang couldn't help but answer, "Because Wen Yan is a vengeful ghost overflowing with resentment."

    An Zhi corrected, "I'm asking about the game version of Xiang Yan, not Wen Yan."

    Ju Lang elucidated, "Do you think it's impossible for him to exist simultaneously as both Xiang Yan and Wen Yan?"

    An Zhi was taken aback. After a moment, he said, "You mean, the Xiang Yan in the game... he... he's not just a game character, he is Wen Yan."

    Ju Lang confirmed, "That's right."

    "This morning, the middle-aged woman who knocked on the door must be Aunt Shi, right…" An Zhi was pained by Wen Yan's insincere affection over the years. "He… He never really treated me as a friend… He's always been scheming against me."

    "Your mistake," Shi Huai corrected. "It's precisely because he considers you a true friend that he's so obsessed with turning you into a demon."

    An Zhi asked, "Why is that?"

    Shi Huai replied, "A deity is accountable to everyone except themselves; a demon sacrifices all for their own pleasure. The world judges him and his mother unfairly due to prejudice; similarly, you're held to strict standards because of your status. Perhaps he sees himself in you – a version of himself capable of becoming a demon, unfettered and free, without concern for others. Unfortunately, no matter how much he trains, he can't become a demon, only a god or a monster."

    Ju Lang commented, "Happiness lies within, not without. If Wen Yan doesn't desire it, he should simply let it go, not torment himself."

    Shi Huai responded, "But he can't comprehend that, not everyone has the luxury of easily letting go."

    Outside, a light rain fell, and the sky darkened.

    Shi Huai invited, "Stay for the night, then leave tomorrow."

    "Alright," An Zhi agreed. "I'll fetch Qin Huai."

    All three rose to their feet. Suddenly, they saw a swan spread its wings outside the window, obscuring their view.

    When all had settled, An Zhi cried out in surprise, "Qin Huai is gone! He was just on the boat!"

    --------------------

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