༺ Preparation (1) ༻
It was an inexplicably cold winter.
I could feel the chill of the winter seep through my knees as I kneeled on the ground.
I was unable to see the faces of the people standing around me due to the shadow acting as a veil, covering their faces, but I knew instinctively what kind of expressions they were making right now.
Did she feel pity? Sympathy?
They definitely felt no emotion— not even an iota of it.
In the middle of all these hateful eyes, was me— looking listlessly at the visage of a woman.
She was touching my cheek with her trembling hands as tears streamed down incessantly from her eyes.
And I… was unable to utter even a single word.
The only thing I was capable of— just staring at the pitiful woman with hollow eyes…
I was unable to understand the meaning behind the apology of the crying woman’s mouth.
What is she so sorry for?
｢Mom is sorry…｣
She kept repeating the same string of words— a sad tune accompanying her trembling voice.
I was still unable to utter a word. Not even a whisper.
I wondered in my mind… just what kind of expression was my father making while standing beside me.
Right now, I was unable to look up and find out…
Because, if I did… I would probably crumble into pieces inside…
No, perhaps, I had already reached that point…
｢…Let go now.｣
Father’s cold voice reverberated in my ears.
My mother’s hand, caressing my cheek, slowly but surely went down with the command.
Those same goddamned words… they feel like they were being hammered into my chest.
Just whose fault was this?
It was the time of snowfall.
I started shivering due to the icy cold.
The outer garment that mother covered my body with… had been blown away by the cruel wind,
Still, no one cared.
This was the first time I had experienced such a chill in my life.
Not due to the season, morphed in frigidity and cold, but rather the sensations I was feeling— which made me feel like I was freezing up from inside out.
I had come to learn that this was much scarier than any amount of coldness that the seasons can inflict me with.
｢It is all ready, sir.｣
Mother lowered her head after registering the few words that had been exchanged.
I, who had been watching the spectacle the whole time, finally asked my father.
I couldn’t dare to look up to his eyes.
However, I was still sure that father was looking at me when I spoke.
｢…Why are you showing me something like this?｣
I was just unable to understand.
Why did I have to watch this?
Why do I have to watch my mother crying?
I didn’t know.
Nor did I want to know or understand for that matter.
｢What is it that you want from me…?｣
｢What I want from you?｣
Father’s icy cold voice descended upon me.
Just what was the identity of the emotion that lay within his voice?
Was it anger?
His voice was too calm and monotone for it to be anger.
Was it sadness then?
His voice was too dry and steady for it to be called sadness.
I couldn’t help but stare at father’s eyes when I heard his emotionless response.
｢I have nothing I want from you. Stay alive, that’s all I need from you.｣
With those lines delivered in a cold and apathetic tone, and a frigid chill in his eyes, I was forced to endure the horrifying sensations of the suffocation I felt in my heart.
The eyes that had been trained on me shifted locations.
With that commanding word along with a small movement of his hands, a huge door appeared behind mother, ripping into the space beyond.
The door that appeared with the rushing wind was tinged in a red aura— a sickening stench of unknown origins mixed into the gale.
When I started to feel puzzled and afraid of its presence, mother carefully held my hand.
I looked at mother with a deep tremble in my eyes, but I was unable to see her face as her head had been lowered.
｢…Take care of Ryunghwa.｣
I did not want to let her go.
I wanted to ask where she was going— and why she had to leave us behind,
However, it was already too late for me to ask any questions. Immediately, I reached my hands out towards my beloved mother, however, just as the door’s aura grazed past mother’s body— her body began disappearing from existence.
｢N… No! Mom!｣
I tried to do something, anything to get ahold of my mother… however, I was instantly pushed back by father, unable to go forward.
I immediately tried to rush back, trying to do anything in my powers to stop mother, but the door had already closed in that short time,
And the place mother had been sitting on in her lonesone, was empty— without a single trace of anyone’s presence.
As if nothing was even there in the first place.
｢Why… Just why?｣
How could you do this to us?
I cried out emotionally, but father’s eyes never looked at me for even once.
I didn’t want him to love me.
I already knew that he wasn’t the type of person who could feel things like love and affection, so I was fine with it.
I didn’t want anything from him. Because my young self was already satisfied with the things I already had.
｢…Why…! Why, why! Why!!｣
I charged at father using all my strength and started hitting him with everything I got— as though I was hitting on a wall.
It didn’t hurt him one bit, I knew, but I felt like I was about to go insane if I at least didn’t retaliate this much.
When I ended up in a state where I couldn’t use my arms anymore, as all Qi had already left those small confines, father spoke in that same frigid tone.
｢Are you satisfied.｣
It really seemed that there was not a trace of emotions in his voice.
Once I heard his words, instantly, I collapsed to the ground.
Darkness filled up my vision.
It was at that moment that my young self learned.
That this feeling was known as despair.
When I was wallowing in this sickening emotion— as tears flowed down my face in tandem with my heavy breaths,
Father passed by my collapsed self, as though it meant nothing to him, and spoke up.
｢Follow me, I have something to show you.｣
Those were the words leaking out of his lips— but it was more akin to orders than anything else.
As my body was already being forcefully dragged away.
I was unable to think about anything any longer, nor did I wish to think about anything.
I wanted to live forever inside this darkness that now permeated my existence.
However, as if to show me that what I had seen had not been enough already, when I was forcefully brought into the Gu Clan’s basement,
I finally saw what kind of clan the Gu Clan was.
Why the clan was made and the reason of our existence.
Father then informed me that this was our fate— fate of the members of our clan.
I had to realize in that dark and colorless night of winter.
That the rest of my life would be nothing but a surefire ride of hell on earth.
* * * *
I stayed quiet for a while after registering the Sword Master’s question.
I didn’t expect this coming from her.
I never expected that the Sword Master would question me as such.
‘…About my mother?’
It was understandable since she was indeed my mother’s friend, however, that knowledge didn’t pique my curiosity.
Did she not hear from Gu Ryunghwa?
Or did she know something?
I knew that Gu Ryunghwa had seen everything that transpired on that fateful day.
However, she had lost conscience after some time, so she hadn’t been able to see it all.
“How come you are curious about that?”
I spoke, unaware of the sharpness that naturally exuded from my tone. I definitely had to calm myself down.
The Sword Master maintained her calm expression even after hearing the tone of my voice.
Where my mother went— it was something I’ve been curious about all my life.
What was ironic about it was that— I was only able to realize the truth after meeting the Heavenly Demon.
“Mother passed away.”
Was that really what happened?
I asked myself that question— a question whose answer I didn’t wish to know.
It was only right that Gu Ryunghwa keeps the resentment and hatred she felt for the clan and me.
Truth is a sin.
I had to keep that goddamned truth inside of my mind.
“I don’t think I can tell you any more about it as this is our clan’s matter.”
I signaled that I was not willing to answer her question.
This was honestly better than straight-up telling her lies.
The Sword Master, after hearing my words, stared into my eyes for a long, long time.
I too didn’t avoid her gaze and stared back.
As our staring contest continued, suddenly, the Sword Master closed her eyes in resignation.
“Right… I’m sorry for asking something that’s painful for you.”
“It’s fine. It’s already in the past.”
“Thank you for understanding. Oh… I’m curious about when you’ll return to your clan.”
“I believe we will start on our way after one or two days.”
“Even with the tournament starting soon…?”
Judging by the Sword Master’s reaction, it seemed to me that she was unaware of Gu Ryunghwa’s refusal to return home.
“I was originally planning on leaving after the event, but I am thinking of going early as my little sister said that she won’t return to the clan with us.”
Gu Ryunghwa had been ordered to return to the clan at a certain time every year.
That was the deal that my father had made with the Sword Master.
So I had to bring her back with me no matter what,
However, considering the fact that father had sent me here while offering a heavenly pill,
‘I’m tasked to bring her back and I’m in a position where I won’t get in trouble even if I throw a tantrum.’
The higher-ups of the clan would probably have their eyes trained on me,
And I would likely get in some trouble if I were to stubbornly force her to return with me— however, it wouldn’t lead to any big problems.
‘He’ll just take care of it by himself if he feels the need for it.’
If that wasn’t his intention, he would’ve taken care of this matter himself.
He shouldn’t have sent me to this place if that were to be the case.
I didn’t want to force a girl to come with me when she clearly had no desire to do that.
‘I should be the only one to be forced to do something that I don’t want to do.’
Getting ahold of the things I was forced to let go of in my past life, one thing at a time, was something that should be done by myself, after all.
The Sword Master donned a befuddled expression on her face after hearing my words.
I had spoken it with the express intention of not leaving any leeway for any problems, but did it still cause some troubles after all?
Contrary to my growing worries, the Sword Master merely nodded her head in acknowledgement soon enough.
“Okay. I see.”
Then she stood up promptly.
“I apologize for taking up your time.”
“…You are leaving?”
“Since I said everything I came here for, I should leave already. The eyes outside are also quite scary.”
The eyes outside…?
When the Sword Master went out of my room, I also followed her outside, intending to send her off.
“I’ll be waiting excitedly for the request you’ll make.”
“You don’t have to be excited about it.”
It is an important matter… but I still had to think about it.
“I believe that next time, I’ll come with the Immortal Healer.”
“…You don’t need to come to me. I’ll visit you one last time before I leave.”
The Sword Master smiled kindly, a smile that had reached even her eyes, after hearing my words but didn’t say anything in response.
Huh? Was she signaling that she wasn’t going to listen to me…? I was starting to feel a bit scared now.
When I went outside with the Sword Master, I saw Gu Ryunghwa and Namgung Bi-ah standing outside.
I thought that she had gone out to train already, but what was she doing here?
Namgung Bi-ah repeatedly looked at me and the Sword Master with her characteristic emotionless expression on her face.
I was about to go towards her, wondering why she had been acting like that, but the Sword Master went up to her first.
“So you are that child.”
Namgung Bi-ah was slightly taken aback when she saw the Sword Master going up to her.
She was about to lower her head as a show of respect— it was understandable since the Sword Master was a respected martial artist of the Martial World,
But the Sword Master grabbed Namgung Bi-ah’s hand with a soft touch.
“Thank you for saving my disciple… Thank you so much.”
It was refreshing and unique, seeing Namgung Bi-ah so flustered and lost.
“I heard a lot about you from my disciple. That there was a pretty girl that took care of her and helped her a ton with her training and swordsmanship.”
Namgung Bi-ah looked away, feeling embarrassed due to her words.
“You are beautiful just like my student stated. I never saw such a pretty child in my whole life.”
Namgung Bi-ah’s head kept lowering further and further the more compliments she received from the Sword Master.
The Sword Master then spoke while looking at the shy Namgung Bi-ah.
“I heard that you are Yangcheon’s fiancée.”
I had to stop on my tracks for a split moment when I heard her speak that word so naturally.
I didn’t expect her to think that we were that close already.
Namgung Bi-ah nodded her head ever so slightly in response.
It seemed like she had no intention of denying that fact.
Though I also half-gave up on that thought too…
“Both yours and Yangcheon’s hearts are so kind, so you’ll be a good match for each other.”
‘I really don’t think that’s true.’
I held myself in from speaking out as I didn’t want to ruin the good atmosphere that was going on between them. However, I denied that notion immediately.
The Sword Master left after telling Namgung Bi-ah that she wanted to see her one more time before she left with us so that she could repay her for teaching and then saving her disciple.
I asked Namgung Bi-ah after I checked that the Sword Master had left the premise.
“You didn’t go to train?”
She had taken off the bandages from her arms already— thankfully, it seemed that her broken hand had healed already, that too in a few days.
“…Hm, thankfully— Huh? What’s wrong with you?”
“Nah, you just look like you are in a good mood.”
Was that my mistake?
It felt like Namgung Bi-ah was smiling ever so slightly.
She still had that usual emotionless look going on… but for some reason I myself was unaware of, she looked like she was in a good mood right now.
Was the reply Namgung Bi-ah gave to my question.
However, in my view, she definitely seemed to be in a good mood.
‘Is it because of the compliments she got from the Sword Master?’
I had the belief that she didn’t really care if someone called her pretty.
But I guess she was still weak to compliments.
* * * *
The Sword Master mused while going to the hut.
‘…What happened back then?’
It was about the children’s mother.
Gu Yangcheon seemed like he definitely knew something about the matter.
But he was intentionally hiding it from the world.
So much so that it seemed like he would turn hostile if she were to press him further for answers.
The Sword Master didn’t want that to happen.
Not only was she indebted to him, but she also felt guilty that she couldn’t do anything for him in return.
She wanted her disciple to be happy.
That’s what she prioritized as her master.
When she neared the end of her life due to her disease, the only desire she had was for her disciple to find happiness in life.
Gu Ryunghwa stopped in her tracks after hearing her master’s call.
She had a bright smile on her face because even the small act of holding her master’s hand gave her endless happiness.
“I heard that you said you wouldn’t return to the clan, is that right?”
A dark shadow covered her face as soon as she heard her master’s words.
“Um… when I told him I didn’t want to go, he said I didn’t have to…”
“But you should. A promise is a promise.”
Gu Ryunghwa couldn’t respond further.
Her master had become healthy. It was a miracle like no other.
They were able to walk together hand in hand, something that was impossible not long ago, and they were even able to train when they had some free time.
It felt like a dream to Gu Ryunghwa.
That’s why she was more hesitant to answer further.
It was true that she didn’t want to go back to the clan for even a second, however, there were also other reasons behind her decision.
The main reason back then was… that her beloved master did not have much time left to live,
However, there was another reason now for her reluctance.
‘…What if something happens to master again when I’m gone?’
She just felt uneasy leaving her master behind.
When the Sword Master noticed her thoughts, she patted Gu Ryunghwa’s head softly and spoke.
“Do not worry.”
“Since you feel so uneasy, let us go together this time.”
Gu Ryunghwa became puzzled after hearing something that she was unable to make sense of.
The Sword Master then looked at the puzzled disciple of hers and laughed out loud. She wasn’t just lying to calm her down right now.
She was being serious. Dead serious.
“It seems like I have something to do in the Gu Clan too, so let’s go together this time.”
Master… going together?
A question mark immediately formed on top of Gu Ryunghwa’s head at that thought.
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