I didn’t know how detailed he was in his thinking, but I never would’ve believed that he was someone who did a lot of deep thinking. After all, he thoughtlessly called me “Dad”. However, he immediately held his breath after hearing what I said and looked around as though he could sense the danger. Most importantly, he got his priorities straight – checking for danger first and foremost.
“You were not their target… I was their target, right from the very beginning.”
Just because it was a mumble, it didn’t mean Zizi carelessly spoke his mind. The way I heard it, it was a query, except that it was asked indirectly. Hence, I didn’t reply.
“But… they wanted to harm me? Why?”
I laughed. “You’re smarter than I gave you credit for. I don’t care what you experienced anymore, but this is fine. Had it not been for your realisation, I wouldn’t be able to teach you even if you won.”
Based on Zizi’s reaction, he seemed to expect that from me. Though he was still naïve, he was certainly smart. His gaze told me he could look beyond today.
“Whatever you want to ask, think it through before you ask.”
“Shifu, why did they try to kill me?”
“I don’t know myself.”
“I do not know them, so it is unlikely they have a grudge against me.”
“You may not recognise them; however, is it so hard to fathom that there are people who want to harm you?” I proceeded to point out what Zizi had noticed but refused to face. “Your mother is His Majesty’s favourite. Your mother’s side of the family is the wealthiest family in the Central Plain. You are the youngest and weakest among the Princes. What makes you think you can’t be a victim?”
Every word I said took some colour out of Zizi’s face. Being born into the imperial family didn’t guarantee anyone’s safety. In fact, he was constantly in danger every second of his life just as he was in the fight, except he had an equal opportunity to protect himself from the threats, but it was eternal.
His Majesty’s training stripped Zizi of most of his protection, leaving him to walk the border alone. He had always lived under his parents’ shelter, didn’t understand how the world worked and even less about its inhabitants. Although he had plenty of opportunities to get a glimpse of the outside world through the cracks that popped up. The air from outside might’ve been fresh, but it didn’t mean he could accept it, particularly the painful parts.
“I noticed them early on, and I knew they were targeting you. I could’ve stopped them and even taken them out without you being aware, but I deliberately left you behind alone.”
Zizi, upset, blurted, “Why?”
I scared the boy on the cusp of tears with my stare, not giving him a chance to become dependent on me. “Think for yourself. Don’t disappoint me.”
Subsequent to some brooding, Zizi replied, “You wanted me to face them alone… No, you wanted me to realise my predicament… And you want to see if I am able to handle the challenge, as well as test if I am qualified.”
Since I didn’t respond, Zizi lowered his head to muse, but no more ideas came to mind, so he questioned, “Am I right?”
I smiled. “If you were an ordinary boy, this would’ve only been a detrimental lesson for you. Fighting can’t make up for training. Although they’re closely tied, seeing too much blood will make more judgement murky. If the enemy isn’t ruthless enough, fighting them won’t develop your martial spirit. If you learn to be too ruthless, your mother will probably be first to put you in your place. Unfortunately, you’re a Prince.” With one hand on my chin, I took out a wine calabash from my sash and had a drink. “You’re a Prince and a future lord of a city, and you have ambitious brothers. I must warn you that, if you can’t even handle four thugs, you should stop dreaming of living peacefully as a Prince while you’re ahead. You can either go to Luoyang and plead your maternal grandparents, or go back and beg your father to let you live your life out as a rich relative of the imperial family. There’s nothing to be ashamed about.”
It didn’t look as though being a rich relative of the imperial family was a thought that never crossed Zizi’s mind.
“My brothers want to harm me?”
“I don’t know. How am I meant to know that much when I’m an outsider?”
Zizi lowered his head again, then tried to find a new train of thought.
“Could my maternal grandpa have offended one, and they are trying to harm me in retaliation?”
“Have you offended your brothers? Why do you think they want to harm you?”
Anger flitted across Zizi’s face. “They want to kidnap me because I am young and weak. They want to threaten Father and Mother or Grandpa with my life.”
“You’re mad about being underestimated?”
“No. I am still young. As long as I train hard, I will beat them into submission in a matter of time. If they kidnap me, though… Mother would be worried sick.”
“Would I harm you?”
Zizi raised his head in surprise, blinked, then queried, “You… want to harm me, Shifu?”
“You don’t think I would?”
“I just abandoned you once. Do you have a bad memory?”
“You did not abandon me. You were testing me before teaching me martial arts.”
“Yeah?” I paused to think, then rhetorically asked, “You know it’s not easy to reach the level you’re thinking of, right?”
General Manager Bai and Brilliant Consort probably would’ve chased me down if I answered the question, and I had nothing to gain. Howbeit, if I didn’t tell him… He never had any intention of fooling me. Despite the potential problems it brought me, I had to respect the young warrior.
“General Manager Bai says you’re only thirteen, so you shouldn’t listen to this and that. I say you’re already thirteen; it’s too late for you. Zizi, you’ve been too sheltered. You don’t know how corrupt people truly are and don’t realise your own value.
“Your brothers don’t need to get their own hands dirty to harm you. They just need to publicise the fact that you’re living as a commoner for a year. Do you know how many eyes watched you as soon as you were no the streets? Usually, you have General Manager Bai accompanying you, and the capital is not a place low-level villains can survive. As soon as you’re alone, however, a few street thugs would be enough to kidnap you, and you wouldn’t even know who the mastermind is or how they did it after the fact.”
Zizi bit down on his lip. He had seen the fact, but he averted his gaze, refusing to face it. When he was finally forced to confront it, he subconsciously chose to pretend it wasn’t happening. Perhaps the pain of being sliced and stabbed still wasn’t enough to convince him. Reality was a bitter pill to swallow; it wasn’t easy to recover from once you saw it.
“Don’t get depressed yet. What I’m about to tell you next will probably hurt even more. Do you know that you won’t achieve anything in martial arts at your current rate?”
As Zizi, in shock, tried to ask for a reason, I smiled and stopped him.
“A physically tough body is the most important criterion for learning martial arts. As a Prince, your mother wanted to aid you in building a foundation, but she resorted to drugs. She’s fed you valuable food, supplements and the sort from when you were a child regardless of cost. Unfortunately, besides making you healthy, have you ever excelled?
“Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying her approach is bad. If you were from a martial arts family with a strong and long lineage that specialised in body strengthening, or you were inherently strong mentally, were taught earnestly, and you trained earnestly, you’d be elite in a dozen years. Most families can’t tick all those boxes. To put it into perspective, not even Luo Sword Manor could. From what I know, Tang Clan, Shaolin, my fourth brother, and Valley of Villains are the only ones to have succeeded to any meaningful extent using that approach. You hail from a family of merchants. Your family doesn’t have some supreme discipline. Why are you taking supplements to forge your body? You’ve wasted thirteen years of life. What have the drugs and supplements done? What have you achieved?”
Zizi was stupefied. He never thought there was anything wrong with what he was doing, and he never realised when he started would determine how far he could go.
“You’re thirteen now. Even though you started developing your physique from childhood, without a discipline to support it, it was a complete waste of time. Unless a miracle happens, your limit isn’t too far from you. If you continue without any change and you don’t start training for another year or two, I’d be praising if you didn’t lose to second-rate fighters. The rest is self-explanatory.”
Zizi was as white as a sheet.
“Good thing you’ve got a good personality.”
“… Wha! Cough, cough, cough, what are you doing, Shifu?!”
I forced Zizi to have a drink of alcohol while he was down, nobly saving him from depression.
“Potential isn’t just brains, photographic memories, learning faster, and ingenious ideas aren’t the best talents. People who pursue speed of progress lack patience. They want to jump a thousand miles in the blink of an eye. Thing is, that’s not how learning martial arts works. When you need to wait, you must wait. You can’t go faster even if you desire it. Brains can’t make up for character. There’s a reason plenty of exemplary military officers throughout history fail to become the elite among the elite fighters.”
Watching Zizi ruminate over the perspective, I asked, “Let me ask again: do you think I would harm you?”