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Fragrance in the Sea of Blood Chapter 9


Chapter 9 – Femme Fatale

Chu Liuxiang could not help but was overwhelmed with shock; he looked everywhere all the way through, but did not see any peculiar clue. Evidently not only that person’s martial art skill was extremely high, the cleanness of his movements was also rarely seen in the world.

Staring at the dead body of Tianying Zi, Chu Liuxiang sighed sadly and said, “Although I did not kill you, but you died because of me, because if that person did not know that I would come looking for you, he might not necessarily kill you. It’s a pity that although you held the key to the mystery, but you yourself did not know.”

So far, the only common thread of Zuo Youzheng, Ximen Qian, Lingjiu Zi, Zha Muge, four men, was that they all received a letter before going on in a journey, and those four letters obviously came from the same person’s hand. This was the only clue that Chu Liuxiang had up to this point.

To uncover the mystery, he must know: who was the person writing the letter?

What was written in the letter?

Noon. The sun made the green flagstones on the street flickered and shone.

Chu Liuxiang was walking on the road. Although his face was smiling, his heart was overcome with despair.

Currently, the letter that Zuo Youzheng, Ximen Qian, Lingjiu Zi, three men received have disappeared, and the men with whom they were closely related, the only ones who might know their whereabouts and their secret: Song Gang, Yang Song, and Tianying Zi, have been killed to silence them, remained only Zha Muge, from whom a clue might still be found.

But when Zha Muge left, did he leave the letter behind?

Even if he did, to whom did he give the letter to?

Even if Chu Liuxiang knew who that person was, would he be able to track him in the tens of thousands yellow sand, boundless Great Gobi Desert?

Chu Liuxiang sighed. He might as well go to the restaurant facing the street. After stuffing himself, after one’s stomach and intestine were filled with culinary delicacy, one’s mood would inevitably be a lot more cheerful.

After two dishes of exquisite appetizers and three cups of warm wine went down his belly, indeed the world has become a lot more beautiful; even the dried-up tree on the street seemed to regain its life force.

Leaning against the window, Chu Liuxiang looked down to enjoy the interesting scene below, at the crowd on the street buzzing with activity; suddenly he saw several men leading some horses, thronging around a young [married] woman wearing purple clothes, coming out of a side alley to the long street.

Naturally these several big men could not pique Chu Liuxiang’s interest, but it was the young woman who made Chu Liuxiang’s eyes lit up – because she was Shen Shangu.

He noticed her calm and collected oval face, yet frowned eyebrows, and an expression that looked like she was ready to find someone to stir up trouble. Those several big men, however, looked listless, hanging their head dispiritedly.

The insufferably arrogant Tian Xing Bang, whose awe-inspiring presence dominated the area of southern Anhui, was unexpectedly driven away out of Jinan city. It was indeed something that made them lose face in a big way.

When these several people reached the withered tree at the mouth of the street, they appeared to have some discussion among themselves. And then the several big men rode their horses to the east and out of the city, while Shen Shangu turned to the west, alone.

Chu Liuxiang’s heart was moved; he tossed an ingot of silver as a tip, then hurriedly ran after her. After turning a corner, he saw the alluring figure wrapped in light purple dress.

Although her body was well-developed, her waist was very slim; walking up the road, her waist swayed in a very particular way, with a natural charm that would be enough to make most men’s heart jump.

Chu Liuxiang followed far behind her, fully satisfied with enjoying the touching woman’s walking gait, which always warmed his heart and delighted his eyes, which made him feel extremely delighted.

Shen Shangu did not notice him at all – even if she saw him, she could not possibly recognize him, because Chu Liuxiang was no longer ‘Zhang Xiaolin’.

She did not stop inquiring the people in the shops along both sides of the street; apparently she was looking for a certain person.

The street she took was getting narrower and narrower, and getting more and more dirty. Unexpectedly she was walking toward the lowest corner of the city. Chu Liuxiang was not surprised, although he could not figure out who she was looking for.

A person like Shen Shangu walking in such a place, naturally it was more conspicuous; some rogue figures even openly pointing at her, assessing her head and discussing her feet.

But she acted as though there were nobody else present, and not in the least bit concerned; others cast her a glance, she used her pair of big eyes to stare back at them, while from time to time she stopped to ask for directions.

A lot of the people she inquired from seemed to have lived here for a long time. Everybody seemed to be pointing her to the direction she ought to go, which was a tiny hillside.

The hillside was covered with two rows of terraced houses, but the houses were constructed of wooden board assembled together, leaning unsteadily from side to side. Apparently it was the slum area of the Jinan City.

Unconsciously Chu Liuxiang felt even more puzzled, “How could the person she is looking for live in this kind of place?”

This time Chu Liuxiang faintly heard her question, “Does Sun Xuepu live upstairs? It’s Sun Xiucai [scholar, someone who has passed the county level imperial exam] the painter.”

The older woman simply shook her head, indicating that she had no idea. But a mid-sized kid by her side spoke up, “Ma, she is looking for Sun Xiucai, it’s the old man Sun!”

The woman laughed and said, “Oh! You are looking for Sun Laotou [old man, often used derogatorily]. He lives in the seventh room upstairs, he has Ba Gua [eight divinatory trigrams of the Book of Changes] curtain on his door; very easy to find.”

What kind of character was this Sun Xiucai? Why would Shen Shangu insist on looking for him? Could it be that there was a hidden dragon, crouching tiger living in the slum area of Jinan City?

Chu Liuxiang went around toward the room next to the seventh room and peeked inside from a hole in the small window on the side. He saw a dimly lit room, where a hunched back old man, whose hair had turned completely white, was sitting by a rackety table, with some kind of unspeakably dreary and lonely expression on his face, as if he had completely lost interest in life. This moment he was sitting here, it was nothing more than sitting quietly, waiting for death.

This kind of disabled candle in the wind, could this old man have something that attracted Shen Shangu’s interest? Chu Liuxiang really could not imagine.

While he was wondering in his heart, Shen Shangu already lifted the curtain and entered in. After looking around to gauge her surrounding, she said with a frown, “Are you Sun Xuepu, Sun Xiucai?”

The white-haired old man, without any expression at all, spoke woodenly, “Yes, I am Sun Xuepu. Consulting about the divinatory diagram two fen of silver, fortune telling one qian [1/10 of a tael].”

Shen Shangu’s frown was getting deeper, “I am looking for Sun Xiucai, the painter, not the fortune-teller.”

Sun Xuepu spoke indifferently, “I was Sun Xiucai, the painter, but twenty years ago I changed profession. If Miss wanted a portrait, I am afraid you are coming twenty years too late.”

It was only then did Shen Shangu’s frown lessen somewhat; she said, “You changed profession or not, it doesn’t really matter. As long as you are the Sun Xuepu who was specializing in portraits twenty years ago, then the one I am looking for is you.”

While speaking, she took out a roll of painting from her long sleeve, and spread it out on the table in front of Sun Xuepu. While fixing her eyes on Sun Xuepu, she spoke in heavy voice, “I am asking you, was it you who painted this portrait? Who was the person in the painting?”

Chu Liuxiang also wanted to see the painting, too bad the room was indeed too dim, plus Shen Shangu’s body was covering the painting, so he was unable to see it clearly, no matter what.

All he could see was Sun Xuepu’s face, which was still a piece of emptiness, without any expression, and did not carry any emotion, just like a portrait of an idiot, painted by the worst painter; only an empty shell of a body, without any soul left.

His eyes practically did not look at the painting at all, it was just an empty stare to the front. With his empty and monotonous voice, he spoke word-by-word, “I don’t know who painted this portrait, and I don’t know who the person in the painting is.”

Grabbing his collar, Shen Shangu angrily said, “How could you not know? Clearly there is your signature on the picture.”

Sun Xuepu coldly said, “Let go of your hands. Could it be that you are just like me? Can’t you see that I am blind?”

It was as if Shen Shangu had just received a slap on her face. Her hands immediately came loose, she blurted out, “You … you cannot see anything?”

Sun Xuepu said, “If I still have a gleam of light in my eyes, how could I put down my paintbrush? Painting was my life. I have already lost my life long ago. Now the one sitting in this place is no more than a living corpse.”

Staring blankly, Shen Shangu just stood woodenly for half a day. She slowly rolled up the painting, but halfway through she suddenly let it go again, while a glimmer of hope flashed in her eyes. She spoke in loud voice, “Although you cannot see the person in the painting, you ought to remember her. She is a beauty. Can you remember that you have painted a beauty?”

Sun Xuepu said, “Now, although I am a poor and old blind man, but twenty years ago … twenty years ago I, Sun Xuepu, was a famous figure.”

Suddenly a burst of radiance miraculously flashed across his empty and dim face; this proud radiance seemed to resurrect his entire being. He excitedly continued, “Twenty years ago, people compared me to Cao Buxing [active c. 210-250, famous semi-legendary painter, one of the Four Great Painters of the Six dynasties], to Wu Daozi. On all the earth, which well-bred young lady from famous family did not want me to do a portrait of her? I don’t know how many beauties I have painted.”

Shen Shangu hissed, “But this one is different … You must believe me; no matter how many beauties you have painted, you will never forget her. No matter who, as long as he looked at her face, he will never forget.”

Sun Xuepu went blank for a moment; suddenly he said, “The painting you are talking about, is it two chi wide, three chi long, the person in the painting was wearing blue-green dress, inlaid with blue linings, on her feet lay a black leopard cat …”

For some reason, his voice suddenly trembled.

But Shen Shangu was greatly delighted, “That’s right,” she said, “Precisely that painting, I know you’d surely remember. I am sure you will also remember who the beauty in the painting is.”

Unexpectedly Sun Xuepu’s entire body started to shake; his empty face, this moment it unexpectedly showed surprise and heartbreak. He hissed, “Unexpectedly you are asking about her … Unexpectedly you are asking about her … I … I don’t remember who she is, I practically don’t know her … I practically have not seen her.”

His trembling hands pressing on the table, the table created creaking noise, unexpectedly he staggered to stand up, and staggered to try to rush out the door.

With one pull Shen Shangu forced him to back into the chair, and spoke sternly, “You have seen her, right? You also remember her, right?”

“Miss,” Sun Xuepu spoke in trembling voice, “I beg you, please let me go. I … I am just a poor and blind, useless old man, quietly waiting for my death in here; why did you come to force me like this?”

‘Qiang!’ Shen Shangu pulled her dagger and pressed it against his throat, “You don’t talk, I will kill you!” she spoke sternly.

Sun Xuepu did not stop trembling; finally he cried out, “All right, I’ll talk. She … she is not a human, she is a demoness.”

Watching to this point, Chu Liuxiang’s heart could not help brimming with curiosity.

Who was the woman in the painting? What was her relationship with Shen Shangu? She came here originally to investigate her oldest martial brother Zuo Youzheng’s whereabouts, but why did she, sparring no effort, look for this old painter, and examine minutely about the woman in the picture’s origin? Could it be that this woman had some mysterious connection with the disappearance of Zuo Youzheng?

And after this old painter did the woman’s portrait, twenty years later unexpectedly he did not dare to speak out her origin; why was he so afraid of her? Was she really a demoness?

He heard Shen Shangu spoke with a cold laugh, “Demoness? Such a beautiful woman, how could she be a demoness?”

Sun Xuepu said, “That’s right, she was indeed beautiful. All my life I have seen a lot of beautiful women, yet not a single one can match her. Others’ beauty can at most make your eyes blurred, but her beauty can make you go crazy, make you rather sacrifice everything, even not hesitating to sacrifice your life, just to get one smile from her.”

Although he was describing her beauty, his voice was full of fear, as if he has really seen many men died just to win a smile from her.

Chu Liuxiang sighed inwardly, “If a woman is too beautiful, sometimes she could really become frightening, but how come I had never met a woman who could frighten me?”

Sun Xuepu already continued, “When I saw her, I could not help being frightened by her beauty as well. At that time, I was not as old and ugly as I am now, on the contrary, it could be said that I was an elegant and handsome man, and I have had not a few women yearning for me, although I did not give them any consideration. But she … in front of her, unexpectedly I had suddenly become her slave; I was willingly, and even longed for, to take everything that I have and offer them all at her feet.”

Raising her eyebrows, Shen Shangu said, “There is really such a beautiful woman in the world?”

Sun Xuepu sighed and said, “It is hard for those who had not seen her to believe. This painting, I am confident that I have done my best. But how could I paint her intoxicating expression, her style of conversation … I simply could not paint even a fraction [orig. 1/10,000th] of her beauty.”

Shen Shangu said, “She called on you, just because she wanted to get a portrait made?”

“That’s right,” Sun Xuepu replied, “When she met me, she told me to make four portraits of her. I spent three months, exhausting all my knowledge, my heart’s blood, until I finally finished it.”

Unexpectedly a sliver of smile suddenly appeared from the corner of his mouth, as he slowly continued, “Those three months, I faced her every day … Those three months were really the happiest moment in my life. But after three months, she … she …”

Speaking to this point, the smile on the corner of his mouth vanished, and on his face appeared that kind of terror, and his body did not stop trembling.

Shen Shangu could not help asking, “What happened after three months?”

Sun Xuepu said, “Three … three months later, the day I finished four portraits, that evening she prepared a table of exquisite banquet for me, she personally poured wine for me, and accompanied me to drink. My spirit and soul turned upside down, unconsciously I was drunk. By the time I woke up, I found out that she … she …”

His Adam’s apple was moving up and down, his voice was strained, as if he was forcing every word to spit out of his throat, “Unexpectedly she had dug both my eyes out.”

Listening to this point, both Shen Shangu, who was inside the room, and Chu Liuxiang, who was outside the window, could not help jumping in fright. After a long time, finally Shen Shangu exhaled slowly and asked, “Why did she do that?”

With a bitter smile Sun Xuepu replied, “Just because after I made the portrait for her, she would never want me to do any portrait for another woman.”

Although ordinarily Shen Shangu was also a woman who would murder without blinking an eye, hearing about this woman’s cruelty and viciousness, she could not stop cold sweats from coming out of the palm of her hands. “Demoness … she is indeed a demoness,” she murmured.

“I told you so,” Sun Xuepu said, “She is a demoness. Whoever stood up against her would only have misfortune. Miss, you … why do you want to know about her? How did this painting fall into your hands?”

“This painting belonged to my Da Shixiong [first martial (older) brother] Zuo Youzheng,” Shen Shangu replied.

Chu Liuxiang’s eyes lit up. “Indeed I have not guessed incorrectly,” he mused, “This woman indeed has some connection with Zuo Youzheng.”

“Since that is the case,” Sun Xuepu said, “Why don’t you ask your Shixiong about her origin?”

“My Da Shixiong has disappeared,” Shen Shangu replied.

Sun Xuepu was emotionally moved, “Disappeared … how about before he disappeared?”

Shen Shangu replied faintly, “Naturally I asked him before, but he refused to tell me.”

“Since he refused to tell you, why do you insist on knowing?” Sun Xuepu asked.

Shen Shangu hatefully replied, “My Da Shixiong has never married, precisely because of this woman. It could be said that my Da Shixiong’s happiness in life was buried in this woman’s hands. He yearned for her day and night, his spirit and soul turned upside down, and he never changed for several dozens of years, yet she was obviously completely indifferent to my Da Shixiong, all she gave my Da Shixiong was only pain.”

“So you want to look for her, is it to avenge your Da Shixiong?” Sun Xuepu asked.

Clenching her teeth, Shen Shangu replied, “That’s right. I hate her … I hate her.”

Sun Xuepu said, “You hate her, is it because you like your Da Shixiong? Were it not for her, perhaps you have become your Da Shixiong’s wife early on, am I right?”

The man who had no eyes unexpectedly could see through other people’s mind.

As if she was pricked with a needle, Shen Shangu fell down on her butts. But she stood up again and spoke softly, “I hate her, but there is another reason.”

“What reason?” Sun Xuepu asked.

Shen Shangu replied, “The night before my Da Shixiong left, he received a letter. Afterwards he simply sat in front of this portrait, he sat foolishly all night long.”

“And after he went out he did not come back?” Sun Xuepu asked.

“That’s right,” Shen Shangu replied, “Therefore, I am thinking that in my Da Shixiong’s disappearance, she must have some connection. Perhaps that letter was crafted by her devilish hand. If I can find her, I might be able to find my Da Shixiong.”

Sun Xuepu was silent for a long time. Finally he spoke slowly, “I only know that her name is Qiu Lingsu.”

As soon as these three characters ‘Qiu Lingsu’ were spoken out, to Shen Shangu, who was inside the room, the effect was not too much, but to Chu Liuxiang outside the window, his shock was not a small matter.

He suddenly remembered seeing the short letter from inside Tianying Zi’s bundle that said, ‘Returned to the Lord is his pearl, thanking the Lord for his ever measure.’

The signature below the short letter, wasn’t it ‘Lingsu’?

Could it be that this heartless short letter was not addressed to Tianying Zi, but to Lingjiu Zi? After Lingjiu Zi’s ‘disappearance’, Tianying Zi and Shen Shangu developed the same suspicion, so they both wanted to find this woman.

Thinking to this point, Chu Liuxiang no longer hesitated; he flew inside thru the window.

Shen Shangu only saw a flash, and suddenly one more person appeared in front of her eyes.

She suddenly drew back until her back was against the wall, “Who are you?” she said sternly.

Looking at her, Chu Liuxiang smiled and said, “Miss must not be startled. Zaixia came here, my objective is the same as Miss’, I am also looking for this Madam Qiu, Qiu Lingsu.”

His smile indeed carried a calming force, the kind of force that could calm anybody, especially women. Sure enough, Shen Shangu calmed down and asked, “Why are you looking for her?”

After casting a couple of glances toward Chu Liuxiang, even the last fraction of vigilance remaining in her body started to dissipate, but she was still staring at him with her pair of big eyes.

Chu Liuxiang was aware that the reason she was staring at him with her big eyes was just to show off the beauty of her eyes in front of him; there was no malicious intention at all.

Therefore, his mouth also responded evasively, “Because Zaixia and Qiu Lingsu are also …”

Speaking to this point, he took a clear look at the picture on the table.

His voice stopped suddenly, his entire body was stunned as well.

The woman in the picture, her general facial appearance, very vivid and lifelike, indeed belonged to a remarkably beautiful woman in the human world; the woman in the picture was unexpectedly the same person in the picture he saw in Ximen Qian’s room.

The four walls of Ximen Qian’s room were bare, except for this painting. It is thus clear that he kept this woman constantly in his mind. He was also single to this day, presumably it was also because of her.

And then Lingjiu Zi left home [to become priest] because of her.

So far, Chu Liuxiang knew there were at least three men who were head over heels in love with her, which were Ximen Qian, Zuo Youzheng, and Lingjiu Zi.

If she wrote a letter to these three men, asking them to die for her, presumably these three men would not hesitate to go.

And this moment, all three of them were indeed dead.

Fixing her gaze at Chu Liuxiang, Shen Shangu asked, “Do you know her?”

Chu Liuxiang sighed. Smiling ruefully, he said, “I don’t know her. Fortunately, I do not know her.”

Sun Xuepu said, “I don’t care who you are, you came here to make some inquiries about her whereabouts. Now, I have told you everything, you may go.”

“Where is she now?” Shen Shangu asked.

Sun Xuepu sadly replied, “Since that night, I have never seen her again … perhaps I should also say that since that night, I have never heard her voice either.”

Stomping her feet, Shen Shangu said, “You only told me her name, what good would that for?”

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