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The conversation by the lakeside at the time, went like this:
Tang Thirty-Six, while looking at Xuan Yuan Po’s right arm and its faintly visible, metallic black hairs, asked: “Dog Bear?”
Xuan Yuan Po gave him a single glance, knowing that he meant no harm and replied: “Bear.”
Tang Thirty-Six gave an exclamation of acknowledgement, saying: “So it really is Dog Bear.”
Xuan Yuan Po considered for a moment the difference between a Dog Bear and Bear, upon confirming that he was being made fun of, he replied: “Tang Thirty-Two, you’re a bad person.”
Tang Thirty-Six’s face became a little grotesque and said: “I’ve already said this before, don’t call me Tang Thirty-Two.”
Xuan Yuan Po was insistent: “Tang Thirty-Two, didn’t you say that you will name yourself after whatever ranking you have on the Proclamation of Azure Clouds?”
“That is to encourage myself.”
Tang Thirty-Six explained, as he decided that he definitely had to try his hardest to obtain a ranking within the top ten on the next proclamation.
“You also dislike the name of Tang Tang,” said Xuan Yuan Po.
“That name is too girlish,” replied Tang Thirty-Six.
Xuan Yuan Po’s gaze fell upon his chest, “For someone as petty and mean as you, if it wasn’t because you’re flat, you would definitely be mistaken for a girl.”
Upon finishing those words, he carried a tree that had been smashed in half on his shoulders and headed for the kitchen, no longer caring for Tang Thirty-Six.
This absurd bout of words, ended with the yao youth as its victor.
At the time of their bout, Chen Chang Sheng was situated not far away, dashing across the snow.
He was running at a very fast speed, with the snow and rain accompanying his steps, this wasn’t a digestive aid, but training – though it was rather incomprehensible, he had seemingly completed his Purification and within his body True Essence had started to flow, though the problem with his meridian channels was still unresolved – luckily, he had already prepared for this training; Luo Luo and Xuan Yuan Po’s improvement were evidence as to the validity of his approach.
The problem was, his quantity of True Essence was far too limited, and he didn’t dare to risk igniting another fragment of snow plain before the Grand Examination; if he wanted to achieve success, he had to think of some other methods, such as fully utilising the transformation of his body – he now possessed a strength that surpassed a regular yao; having incredible speed and toughness.
He decided to place his hopes upon martial arts, so he chose to concentrate on analysing Ye Shi (Discerning) Steps.
Discerning Steps was a closely guarded secret art of the demon race, having read the Scripture of The Way in its entirety, he had a rough understanding of it, and could remember the few thousand positions it utilised, to the point of being able to teach Luo Luo some simplified versions that had shocked the Ivy League gathering; yet, Guan Fei Bai’s sword at the time, did not wield any True Essence; if he wanted to triumph against the other participants of the Grand Examination, relying upon simplified versions of Discerning Steps was not enough.
The snow covered ground was littered with his footsteps, before they had been covered over by the snow, they formed various patterns; some simple, some complicated; if the cloud covered skies above were to suddenly clear, and a person was to raise their head towards the starry sky, they would find that the patterns had some correspondence to the cover of stars above.
It was upon this moment, that a horse-drawn carriage from the Education Board came to Orthodox Academy, Minister Xin had come to visit.
Chen Chang Sheng and Tang Thirty-Six were a little surprised. Their applications to enter the Grand Examination had been completed, personally dealt with by Minister Xin, the Education Board had even secretly sent a copy of information on the other participants to Orthodox Academy, therefore, everything that could have been done had already been completed, with the Grand Examination being close, what need did he have to visit the academy? Did he not fear starting any rumours?
Jin Yu Lu held his teapot and looked at the two youths while shaking his head, thinking to himself that these were indeed good children, to have trouble understanding such matters.
Minister Xin explicated his reason for visiting; the application process had encountered a mistake and he needed Chen Chang Sheng to produce the school roster and seal for confirmation once again.
Having completed this task, Minister Xin did not immediately leave.
Chen Chang Sheng had Xuan Yuan Po bring a cup of tea as a gesture of gratitude.
Minister Xin held his teacup, but didn’t drink; he left the library and stood by the lakeside, on the snowy ground; gazing upon the opposite shore, he suddenly said: “Wanting to reach the other shore, really does require boundless wisdom.”
His melancholy over, he returned the teacup to Xuan Yuan Po’s hands, gave everyone a smile and then left in his horse-drawn carriage.
Chen Chang Sheng and the others were befuddled, not understanding what meaning was there to Minister Xin’s action.
The other shore was a saying within Buddhism; Buddhism had declined ten thousand years ago and was rarely mentioned by people, were the words from Minister Xin due to true anguish, or did it have some other implication?
“This fellow, when did he suddenly start to enjoy blurting out his worries?” said Tang Thirty-Six.
Jin Yu Lu couldn’t control himself any longer, reprimanding him: “You idiot, this is blatantly the leaking of a topic.”
“Eh?” Xuan Yuan Po’s mouth was agape, wondering where the exam question was.
Chen Chang Sheng and Tang Thirty-Six exchanged a glance, thinking to themselves that adults really liked handling matters in unusual ways, for such an important matter, couldn’t it have been stated in a clearer manner?
The Grand Examination was separated into three stages of: Academic Exam, Martial Trial and Duelling. The special attention directed towards Orthodox Academy from the Education Board was primarily centred around Chen Chang Sheng, he had no problems with the Academic Exam, while Duelling was dependent upon personal ability and didn’t have any exam topics; therefore, Minister Xin’s leaked topic had to be something related to the Martial Trial.
“Crossing a lake?”
Tang Thirty-Six walked to the lake’s edge and stood upon the half-remaining boulder that had been shattered by Xuan Yuan Po, turning his gaze towards the opposing shore that was around 100 metres (~109 yards) away; he was slightly confused, stating: “This isn’t difficult.”
“It’s hard for me to cross alone.” Xuan Yuan Po turned to look at Chen Chang Sheng, stating: “But I can easily throw a stone across to the opposite shore.”
Chen Chang Sheng understood his meaning, but didn’t reply, after a brief silence, he said: “I need to consider.”
The tree that had been destroyed by Xuan Yuan Po was too thick, making it difficult to chop into firewood. Jin Yu Lu was in a rare spate of enthusiasm, and instead, set the remaining half of the tree alight in its entirety, before suspending a black deer that been sent by Luo Luo from Li Palace over the flame; spit-roasting an entire deer was all about its opulence; its grease surrounded the place and the academy was soon veiled in its aroma.
Xuan Yuan Po stood beside the roasting deer, waiting for it to cook with an unblinking gaze; Tang Thirty-Six had a knife in one hand and a plate in the other, his throat constantly going through the motions of gulping; only Chen Chang Sheng wasn’t by the pyre, even though the Grand Examination was imminent, he hadn’t let up in the slightest, strictly adhering to his principles; something as unhealthy as a deer roast, how could he possibly eat it?
He continued to race across the ground near the lake, relying upon muscle memory to convert positions of Discerning Steps into instinct; the topic leaked by Minister Xin did not pose a problem for himself, he currently had at least three different methods to cross a lake, but it would involve revealing his current abilities which would put him at a disadvantage for the Duelling stage, therefore he had to think of some other method.
After a long while, the deer had finished roasting, Xuan Yuan Po cried out to him from the opposite shore and he waved his hand a few times in reply, expressing that he really wasn’t going to have any. After this, Xuan Yuan Po started tearing at the meat with his hands, while Tang Thirty-Six began using his knife to carve out some meat, Jin Yu Lu took out a bottle of fine alcohol that he refused to share with the two youths.
Chen Chang Sheng shook his head, thinking to himself about what was so good about alcohol and meat, but… ox tongue was indeed rather tasty, while pondering on everything, he climbed up the great banyan tree and stood upon its foremost branch, gazing out towards the white houses and dark eaves of the Capital in the snow’s aftermath, hands on his waist as he stood there silently for a long while.
The area surrounding the Capital, should currently be a snow plain that covered tens of thousands of miles.
Within his body, was also a snow plain that stretched for tens of thousands of miles.
It was possibly just under the palm of his hands.
The snow plain was comprised of Star Brilliance that could be converted into boundless amounts of True Essence.
Though he didn’t dare to touch that Star Brilliance, just knowing of its existence was reassuring.
He was currently akin to some wealthy young master, in possession of a vast wealth, but had only a few taels upon his person; he didn’t dare to open his baggage, which had banknotes worth hundreds of thousands stashed within, because the baggage also contained a devil, upon opening the baggage, this devil would also come rushing out.
A regular person, under these circumstances, would have probably gone into a frenzy long ago, yet he remained calm.
Having, was better than not having.
Having a weight upon the waist, even if it cannot be spent, was still something to be happy about.
He stood upon the branch, happily looking at the snow covered Capital.
Yet, the sealed well at New North Bridge continued to worry him.
At this moment, upon the faraway snow clouds, a streak of white mist suddenly appeared.
At the fore of this white mist was a glistening white crane.
Several clear cries came from the crane; the White Crane fanned its snow-like wings a few times, before resting upon the tree branch, causing it to dip slightly from the added pressure.
It had returned from the Southern Region’s Longevity Sect, bringing with it a reply from Xu You Rong.
Chen Chang Sheng remembered that the letter he had written to Xu You Rong was sent a long time ago, and couldn’t understand why did it take this long for a reply, yet he was curious as to its contents; was it just a simple: “don’t misunderstand”, or perhaps: “take care of your own affairs”, or maybe even some money?
Admittedly, that last thought was overly spiteful, she was probably not the sort to do so.
Taking the letter from the White Crane, he opened it and began reading, then remained silent for a long while.
Within the letter, Xu You Rong mentioned the Ivy League gathering and expressed congratulations towards him; she mentioned the Grand Examination and expressed good wishes towards him; she mentioned that the Nan Xi Institute had matters that needed handling, therefore she wouldn’t be travelling to the Capital for the Grand Examination, thus, Chen Chang Sheng’s request for a discussion in person was something she could not acquiesce to.
Finally, she mentioned the White Crane, asking what had he done, to cause the White Crane to treat him so familiarly; she also said not to misunderstand, that she was only curious and did not have anything else in mind; she also mentioned that she had heard he wanted to place first upon the First Banner and that it wasn’t her place to give an opinion, but that he should take care of his own affairs.
Don’t misunderstand, take care of your own affairs.
Both of these phrases were included.
Chen Chang Sheng shook his head and crumpled the letter into a ball, preparing to throw it below, into the gaps between the ice that had been created by Xuan Yuan Po’s destruction, the White Crane glared at him however, prompting him to stow the crumpled letter away into his clothing.
Thinking upon the topics touched upon in Xu You Rong’s letter, he felt gratitude towards the White Crane and affectionately petted its neck.
He suddenly had a thought and said to the White Crane: “Can you stay in the Capital for a few more days?”
Winter had only just passed and Spring had yet to properly resurge upon the land, peeping out from the walls of the Capital’s streets and alleys were plum blossoms, rather than peach; between the branches were only buds of green and leaves were yet to fully form, akin to the morning dew, the world was still enshrouded within a hazy green.
The Grand Examination commences.