“Little Sister, what do you want to do here?”
Shen Ming Yue casually tossed the question towards the young girl besides her as they walked along the streets of Dong Lin City.
The two maidens glanced around the various stores containing a wide array of commodities, their curiosity stoked and banked from time to time.
“What do I want to do…?”
An Fei traced the base of her chin with her index finger, her mind lashing through several replies.
Settling on ambiguity with a hint of truth, the young girl lowered her gaze to inspect the paved streets of limestone as she parted her lips.
“I want to go to Jiang’an.”
“The capital?” the youthful girl besides her echoed in surprise.
“Why the capital – I mean, what would you even do there, Little Sister?”
Shen Ming Yue exhaled as she brushed away a nagging shopkeeper to closely inspect a hairpin cast from bronze and lined with suet jade, only to return in disappointment.
Her cheeks puffed as a charming and pitiful smile graced her countenance, prompting a not too few number of heads turned towards her direction.
“There’s someone who I want to meet at Jiang’an,” An Fei shrugged as she spoke with a nonchalant tone.
“They’re a close relative, and there’s nothing better than seeking a safe refuge at these times.”
The youthful girl could merely give an appraising nod, only to pull her younger partner in the direction of a small-scaled restaurant.
Shen Ming Yue directly ignored An Fei’s shout of protest as they breached through the just opening door and the shopkeeper’s startled expression, sitting down at the nearest table without a care in the world.
“Ming–Elder Sister, why this restaurant? It’s so early, perhaps we could wait a little more?”
The young girl balked at the abrupt glare directed towards her from Shen Ming Yue, and quickly waved the white flag to utter a soft ‘Elder Sister’ under her breath.
The youthful girl quickly beamed at her obedient partner, waving towards the shopkeeper who had returned from restoring the store to open business.
“Hehe, Little Sister will soon find out, ah! Shopkeeper, the usual!”
The shopkeeper blinked in surprise and squinted in the direction of the speaker, his brows furrowed in confusion. The next moment, as if he had received a brief of divine gospel, the wizened countenance lightened with a dense smile.
“The usual… Young Miss, this one understands!”
Hunching his back, the owner of the small restaurant departed into a secluded corridor hidden behind a sliding wooden panel stationed at the farthest corner.
Her eyebrow raised in puzzlement, An Fei tapped the table with her finger as she raised her gaze to survey the room.
“Is there anything special about this place…” the young girl murmured.
“…it doesn’t seem to even have a menu?”
The restaurant could hardly be called a diner, for the interior of the building was merely a spiel of chairs and tables arranged in a careless and random pattern. The walls were barren for decoration save for a few scrolls of lakeside paintings unfurled to impose themselves upon the diners.
There wasn’t a menu depicting what assortment of foods was available for purchase, nor was there a counter for any employee to receive orders.
“Little Sister, just wait five minutes and there will be a surprise!”
Shen Ming Yue teased with a lilting voice, her lips curled into a pleased smile as she earnestly gazed into the scarlet irises of the young girl seated across from her.
The young girl hurled her gaze to the adjacent wall as if testifying to her innocence, though her index finger maintained its constant barrage against the surface of the wooden table.
Five minutes… and what was this ‘usual’ that Shen Ming Yue mentioned earli-
The entrance to the store was brusquely shoved open as a burly youth strode in, his figure casting a shadow of gloom onto the dim and quiet atmosphere of the silent restaurant.
The youth yawned as he walked forwards to seat himself in a random chair, surveying his surroundings after having made himself comfortable.
“Oh? There’s someone else here before me?” the youth’s brows soared towards the sky, his eyes fixating themselves onto the graceful and voluptuous figure of Shen Ming Yue.
“… Cheng Yu Xuan, do you need for me to teach you another lesson?”
The youthful girl’s countenance maintained an easygoing smile, though her words were laced with a subtle but deathly layer of frost.
Seated across from her, An Fei obtained a brief impression that Shen Ming Yue’s happy mood had submerged itself by a significant margin, and baited herself into witnessing another passionate gaze once she bolstered her courage to take a peek.
“…Beauty Shen is ever-graceful in bearing and wisdom.”
The youth named Cheng Yu Xuan sighed as he clasped his fist before his chest in the jianghu’s salute. Heeding the urges of her curiosity, An Fei’s eyes roamed onto the newcomer’s presence, her countenance flickering with a slight interest.
Tall, with a tensely built and evened muscular frame – a clear indicator of extensive practice regarding the physique.
Cheng Yu Xuan was dressed in a simple scholar’s robe adorned with grey silk, a thin jian sheathed at his waist.
The youth’s countenance was simple and plain, just like that of his demeanor – subtle, quiet, and unyielding.
As her eyes glanced over his countenance, the pair of green irises landed onto hers.
“Beauty Shen, this is? I do not believe that I have seen her before?”
Cheng Yu Xuan questioned in a respectful gaze, his eyes not daring to grace themselves on any other part of An Fei’s body except for her eyes. The youth clasped his hands on the wooden table, his eyes inviting for the young girl to speak.
“No need to bother, she’s my Little Sister,”
Shen Ming Yue lazily waved her hand, before reaching out to fondle the long sleeves of An Fei’s dress with a wistful expression on her countenance.
Taken aback, Cheng Yu Xuan blinked for several breaths, recovering as he delivered another salute.
“Towards Beauty Shen’s Little Sister, Cheng Yu Xuan extends his greetings.”
What was going on?
An Fei’s lips twitched as she awkwardly followed suit, her left palm cupped around her right fist as she gently dipped her head towards the youth.
Having received his greeting, Cheng Yu Xuan appeared to be satisfied as his eyes drooped onto the plain surface of the wooden table, no longer raising small talk with either of the other two occupants of the restaurant.
Feeling the gentle pulsations of the suppressive silence rub at the base of her ears, the young girl’s mind flickered towards the room reserved for her and Shen Ming Yue at the inn owned by the Yang Clan.
Surely… the little raven and the small fox were alright.
The five minutes placed forward by Shen Ming Yue passed without her awareness, and An Fei noticed the sliding panel open as the storekeeper walked out from the hidden aisle.
The old man cupped his fist towards Shen Ming Yue and Cheng Yu Xuan, clearing his throat as he stretched his back.
The audible creak of bones caused everyone’s eyes to twitch with sympathy.
“It’s only you… two today?” the shopkeeper sighed in a hoarse voice.
“Esteemed Senior, that should not be the case,” Cheng Yu Xuan stood to deliver a deep bow, his expression slightly strange.
“The rest… were mired in a small conflict at the northern sector of the city. I believe that they should arrive within the next few minutes at the latest.”
“Hoh? A small conflict, you say?”
The old man coughed, an aged hand drawing up a wooden chair to lay his body upon with great relish.
The mysterious shopkeeper’s eyes flitted over An Fei’s figure for a brief moment, but skittered away to carefully inspect Shen Ming Yue and Cheng Yu Xuan with great detail.
“The two of you… have indeed improved. It has been quite the while since our last meeting, hasn’t it?”
“Many thanks to Esteemed Senior’s teaching and guidance!”
The two lowered their heads into a respectful bow, their voices even and devoid of any frivolity.
The young girl blinked as she observed in silence, her chin resting on her palm as she gazed at the youthful girl’s bowing figure.
This… wasn’t a restaurant, but a martial arts school?
Then, the ‘usual’ must be…
“How great the two of you have become…”
Waving his hands at the bow from Shen Ming Yue and Cheng Yu Xuan, the old shopkeeper relaxed as his eyes drifted to fixate themselves onto the ceiling.
The old man’s countenance sported an occasional smile as his mind hurled itself into a blissful daydream of the past, and time continued to pass in a solemn silence.
The entrance of the restaurant was slammed open after the time of a full incense stick had passed, and a flood of people swarmed the interior. From the first person to the last newcomer who seemed to be out of breath, An Fei noticed one interesting, common detail.
They all possessed an odd demeanor similar to that of Shen Ming Yue – her heart gently pulsated with an unknown vigilance.
Furthermore, once everyone had entered and the last person had closed the door with a bashful smile, the thirty intruders formed five rows of six and bowed towards the old shopkeeper, their voices roaring in unison.
“Esteemed Senior, our apologies for being late!”