Yao Guang snorted softly. “I thought you didn’t want to bet?”
Jiang Chen burst into laughter. Women can be awfully petty sometimes. His life experience across two lifetimes helped him keep his cool.
Holy Girl Yao Guang was sulking rather than being malicious. Both holy girls were much more forthright than the poison consort had ever been, and understandably so. Their temperaments had kept them on the straight and narrow for the most part.
Si Tong smiled a little. “Sister Yao Guang, what subject would you like to bet on?”
Yao Guang raised the instrument in her hand. “The zither.”
“I know a bit about music,” Jiang Chen laughed, “but I might as well surrender now if that’s the case. I can hardly claim expertise here.”
He’d been a master of music theory in his previous life, but the hecticness of this one had prevented him from playing much. Music required extensive practice.
Having shirked for countless years, there was no way he could play better than Yao Guang. Jiang Chen had already observed earlier that she was quite skilled with her zither.
If Huang’er were here, perhaps she could rival the holy girl.
Si Tong suddenly smiled. “I’ve heard a rumor, Daoist Jiang Chen, that you won Miss Huang’er’s heart with two musical pieces when you first met her. That’s a beautiful story, isn’t it? And a true one, I’m sure. Why be so humble about it?”
Jiang Chen blinked. Not many knew of that segment in his life. He grinned coolly in lieu of a direct response.
“Rumors are often larger than life. You think too highly of me, ladies,” he declared modestly.
Yao Guang raised an eyebrow. “A man shouldn’t be so indecisive. I don’t intend to press the fact that you’re not good at playing. I simply heard that the two pieces you played were rather excellent. I can lend you my zither, as long as you can show me that your fingers don’t sully my instrument when performing them. If that’s the case, you win. If not, you lose. How about it?”
Jiang Chen found everything utterly ludicrous. Was this kind of bet really alright?
Winning or losing hinged on the holy girl’s subjective opinion. What if she refused to acknowledge him regardless of how well he played?
Si Tong giggled. “Daoist Jiang, my sister knows good music from bad. Why not play your pieces? We won’t lie about the quality of your pieces just because we have a disagreement with your peer.”
She was eliminating every possible excuse from him, and Jiang Chen knew it. If he didn’t show off what meager skills he had, the holy girls wouldn’t let things slide.
He didn’t much care about all this, but the Eternal Sacred Land did. Being on good relations with the holy girls would be beneficial to the alliance later on. He was obligated to give it his all.
Wu You and Gan Ning were his witnesses, after all. If he didn’t try his hardest, the first prime would surely criticize him for it later on. Not that Jiang Chen would be dismayed by outside criticism, per se. He felt it was his personal responsibility to make the best he could of this situation.
“If that is what you think, Holy Girls,” he cupped a fist, “please excuse my incompetence. A moment, while I prepare a little.”
To him, high art had a number of requisite rituals.
He found a water source in which to bathe and change, that he might wash away the vicious aura accumulated from his earlier fighting. He returned to the girls in fresh robes.
The two holy girls were mildly astonished how serious he was. Yao Guang curled her lips, as if to say something, but a somber Si Tong motioned to interrupt her.
“Take the zither.” These were the only words that came out of Yao Guang’s mouth. The instrument flew toward Jiang Chen in a flash of white light, who caught it with a wave of his hand and a cushion of air.
“A beautiful instrument,” Jiang Chen remarked instinctively. The ancient aura of history upon it was simply exquisite.
“At least you know that much,” muttered Yao Guang.
As soon as his fingers touched the zither, Jiang Chen’s aura radically changed.
He tested and tuned the strings, familiarizing himself with the instrument’s properties in the process. Expanding his consciousness, he melded his own presence with the instrument’s in order to communicate with it.
All things had a unique spirit, and this zither was no different. If Jiang Chen treated it as a common musician might, the instrument wouldn’t possibly respond well to him.
This particular zither was much harder to play than any of its more mundane fellows.
Jiang Chen’s seriousness garnered the two holy girls’ respect. He clearly understood music and the zither.
A less adept player might have tried to show off immediately after getting the instrument.
Jiang Chen, on the other hand, was in no rush. He chose to seek the zither’s recognition in order to better play it. Only a real connoisseur would do that. Regardless of his actual musical skills, he was no incompetent lout.
Si Tong smiled expectantly.
After Jiang Chen finished tuning and trying out the zither, he made sure his clothes were neat before beginning to play.
The first note rang out in a harmonious fusion of man and instrument. Though Jiang Chen was a little unfamiliar at the start, he really got into the swing of things shortly after.
First, he played the Sacred Deliverance Mantra. It was a calming tune without many bells and whistles.
Nevertheless, its notes touched upon its listeners’ souls, granting them rest and freedom from worries. As he played it, the entire valley seemed to quiet around them. Everything became still, the spirit creatures and insects and the wind…
Yao Guang’s critical manner began to relax slowly as well. Her forehead was no longer wrinkled in annoyance. Her frustration was gradually washed away.
Though Wu You and Gan Ning were far from versed in music, they felt an inner peace after listening to the piece as well.
After the final note rang out, Jiang Chen delicately removed his fingers from the strings.
The two holy girls blinked, only realizing just then that the piece was over. The young man opposite them, perfectly composed, was already readying the next.
The Ethereal Soothing Melody was more spiritual and fancy than its predecessor. An enhanced version, perhaps, one that carried an intoxicating aura. Even the picky Yao Guang was drawn in by its notes.