Childhood Friend of the Zenith Chapter 31

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༺ Only Three Times (1) ༻
Two hours before the incident.
  I had just arrived at the dining hall alongside the crazy Namgung duo, and a cursory glance of the dining hall told me that only the young prodigies were here—the only person in the room who seemed to be well over the age of 20 was Tang Jooyeok.
  Sichuan was known to have food with a particularly strong taste, and their spicy food was known to be the most famous of them all.
  There was a ton of food on the table, but the smell of spice that poked my nose was almost too strong.
  ‘It feels like I’ll have a stomach ache just by smelling them.’
  Thankfully, there also seemed to be mild food that had been prepared for people who were weak to spice.
  Eating dumplings again, even in Sichuan.
…Maybe it’s not a bad thing?
  Tang Jooyeok looked at the people that had gathered with a smile, and shortly after, called his family members to taste the food, one after the other.
  It was done to prove that the food that had been prepared was safe to eat, as they were a clan known to be proficient with poison.
  Of course, I didn’t know how much that would actually do to help in gaining their guests’ trust.
  “It’s not the best, but I hope you enjoy the meal.”
  Shortly after Tang Jooyeok spoke, everyone slowly started to eat.
  Now that I’d thought about it, I came here without letting Wi Seol-ah know. I hoped that she wouldn’t get mad at me…
  I couldn’t be sure, but I believed that she was taking good care of herself.
  I kept trying to move my chopsticks towards the food, but I was forced to stop.
  It was because of Tang Soyeol, who was sitting next to her brother but instead of eating, she kept her eyes glued on me…
  ‘…I’m gonna get sick at this rate.’
  What was up with her now?
  I kept repeating the process of grabbing dumplings and letting them go because Tang Soyeol’s fiery eyes wouldn’t stop staring at me.
  What made this particularly irritating was that this same scene was something that had always occurred whenever we met in my previous life.
  All she would do is stare at me without saying anything.
  I had once grown so irked by it that I’d verbally lashed out at her.
  What was even more absurd was the fact that she cried right in front of me, straight after I did that.
  All I did was scold her a bit for staring at me, and suddenly she started crying…
  ‘Sigh… I guess I have to deal with her staring at me even in this life…’
  Did she have some grudge against me or something? I didn’t think I’d done anything to the Tang clan, though.
  Maybe she wasn’t fond of me eating dumplings?
  ..Or maybe it’s just the way I look?
  I was used to people saying that I had bad facial expressions, so comments like that didn’t really faze me.
  I finally decided to simply ignore her, and then I grabbed and ate a dumpling.
  I almost spat out the dumpling as soon as I bit into it.
Why the hell is it so spicy!?
  I’d let my guard down, and if I spat out the food here, everyone would definitely stare at me.
While I was busy dealing with my conflicted thoughts, someone next to me pushed a glass of water towards me.
  It was Namgung Bi-ah.
  I was startled at first, but I quickly took the glass and gulped down the water.
  What in hell did they put in their dumplings to make them so spicy?
  After downing the water, I heaved a sigh of relief and turned to Namgung Bi-ah.
  “Thank you.”
  Namgung Bi-ah nodded at my words and carefully put something on my dish.
  I wondered what it was, so I looked at it, and it was a piece of grilled fish that had been ripped apart from its bones.
  I looked at it with confusion.
  “This one isn’t spicy…”
  “It looked like you couldn’t handle the spice…”
  They were all looking at me?
  “I’m thankful, but why are you speaking to me informally all of a sudden…?”
  “…Young Master.”
  Is she looking for a fight?
  I was wondering if she was looking to get into an argument, so I looked at her face, but her expression told me that she bore no ill intent.
  But then why is she acting like this?
  I didn’t like how I was being treated like a kid, but, seeing as she didn’t seem to have any ill intent behind her actions, I couldn’t really say anything about it.
– Crack.
  I looked toward the origin of the sound of something breaking and found that it was the chopsticks that were in the hands of Namgung Cheonjun.
  Tang Jooyeok spoke after being surprised.
  “Ah, it seems like you were given a poor pair of chopsticks.”
  “No, it’s just that I tend to use chopsticks rather harshly.”
  “I apologize for that, Cheonjun. I’ll bring you a new pair right away.”
  “There’s no need for that, Brother Tang. I also apologize for breaking other people’s things. I’ll be careful next time.”
  After showing his respects, he glanced at me.
  I purposely ate the food that Namgung Bi-ah had given me at that moment so that he could see it.
  Then his eyes trembled like crazy.
  What part of any of this was so important to him that it made him this mad? I honestly couldn’t understand.
  I ignored him and only picked mild dishes to eat, and the meal ended soon after.
  I wanted to leave right away after eating, but Tang Jooyeok probably hadn’t invited everyone here just so that we could all enjoy a meal together.
  It was a dining room that had individuals from the Namgung Clan, the Gu Clan, as well as other guests within Sichuan who had been invited over.
  It probably wasn’t something grand in scale, but my guess was that the goal behind his actions was to have a small alliance formed between those of us present.
  After the meal, most of the conversation and questions were directed at Namgung Cheonjun.
  He was from one of the Four Noble Clans, after all, so it wasn’t surprising that he would get most of the attention.
  At the start, conversation had been directed at Namgung Bi-ah as well, but it quickly stopped after those who had approached her experienced her short, impassive answers.
  Those were the responses she gave, so any interest the guests had in conversing with her died off quite quickly.
  The Gu Clan was also known to be on par with the Noble Clan, so there were some people that came towards me with the intent of conversing. I only spoke to them briefly whilst maintaining a subtle smile.
  When I looked at the number of people Namgung Cheonjun was speaking with, I felt a vague sense of admiration.
  I would get tired instantly if I had been tasked with speaking with that many people, but that Namgung guy instead seemed to enjoy it.
  ‘It really is his specialty.’
  While I was sitting down mindlessly, waiting for it all to end, I felt someone sit next to me.
  I wondered who it was, and when I turned to look at them, I found that it was Tang Soyeol.
  Tang Soyeol let out a fake cough and took a sip of tea while acting like nothing was wrong, but I saw that her ears were slightly red.
  She was acting weird, the same as she’d done during the meal.
  “Lady Tang.”
  “Eh? Yes?”
  “Do you have something to say to me?”
  “No…!? I-I don’t.”
  Hm, it really seems like you do, though…
  While I was staring at her with my brows furrowed, somehow her ears turned even redder.
  Then she suddenly lowered her gaze, as if she couldn’t take it anymore.
  Do I really look that scary? She really doesn’t have to sit next to me if I am that bad.
  Why is she acting like this?
  “Cough… Cough…”
  Tang Soyeol suddenly started coughing, as if she was choking.
  She hesitated for a while after recovering herself, and then quietly whispered to me.
  “Young Master Gu, do you… perhaps have anyone you like-“
  “Brother Tang, is that the training area down there?”
  She had been trying to ask me something while fidgeting, but her whisper was quickly buried by Namgung Cheonjun’s voice.
  When I looked out the window, I saw that he was asking about a big building outside.
  Tang Soyeol had been trying to ask me something, so I turned to her,
  “Lady Tang, what were you saying?”
  You say that, but you’re giving a death stare to Namgung Cheonjun…
  ‘Well, she’ll ask me again if it’s really important.’
  Tang Jooyeok responded to Namgung Cheonjun’s question.
  “Ah, that’s the training area restricted to those from our Tang Clan. Did I not show you the last time you came here?”
  “It is quite big to only be used by those from the Tang Clan.”
  “Well, we make sure that we clean the place properly… but no one really uses it, as we each use our own training areas.”
  Namgung Cheonjun looked at the training area with a strange look and spoke to Tang Jooyeok.
  “May I take a look at the place? I would like to see it once.”
  “Hmm… Well, it seems like everyone here is done talking, so would everyone like to take a look at it?”
  Finally, the final course.
  If I had known that I would have to deal with all of this hassle, it would have probably been better if I’d just snuck away from home and come here in secrecy.
  It would probably have been the cleverest way.
  ‘I never thought that I would connect the word “clever” with the second elder in my life.’
  I would have never guessed…
* * * *
  The inside of the training area was cleaner than I’d expected.
  They said they didn’t use it often, but it seemed to be cleaned rather frequently.
  Compared to the training area I had used when I beat up Gu Jeolyub, this training area looked to be at least four times bigger.
  Was it really necessary for them to make it this big?
  ‘…Oh, maybe that’s why they don’t use it.’
  Making it too large would make the training less effective after all.
  This training place really had nothing else going for it besides it being big, but everyone seemed to be really interested as they were all martial artists.
  The floor was made of hard materials.
  It wasn’t made out of some common stones, and it seemed like it would be immune to marks left in the wake of sword slashes.
  Was it so big because they would use ranged poison weapons? But then shouldn’t they have made it so the walls were easily penetrable?
  “It’s very grand.”
  Namgung Cheonjun spoke while taking a look around.
  “It was made this big by our ancestors, thinking that bigger is better… but I personally can’t see it.”
  “Such a fine training area… It’s a shame that it’s not being used.”
  “It’s usually more effective for each to train in their own training area, so this place is mostly used for competitions rather than actual training.”
  “Competition huh.”
  “Back then, Soyeol and I would use this area a lot as she would always want to beat me… But now that she is all grown up, she doesn’t want to anymore.”
  Tang Soyeol yelled at her brother as she stood next to me.
  Then she gave me a sidelong glance.
  Namgung Cheonjun grabbed a wooden sword that was hung on the wall and swung it a few times.
  His attitude aside, it looked like he wasn’t called the Lightning Sword for nothing, as his movements seemed flawless even though he wasn’t putting in much effort into his swings.
  “Since we’ve finished our meal, how about some brief spar so that we can digest our food?”
  Everyone’s eyes lit up upon hearing the Lightning Swords’ words.
  They seemed excited at the idea of being able to duel with the Lightning Sword, as it was a rare chance.
  But then, out of nowhere…
  “How about it? Young Master Gu.”
  Did I mishear?
  Namgung Cheonjun confirms that I didn’t, as he was staring at me with a wooden sword in his hand.
  “Young Master Gu, would you like to spar with me?”
  I thought I’d misheard, but it seemed that I hadn’t. Not to mention, he specifically chose me as his sparring partner.
  I could see right through his intentions.
  ‘This motherf*cker.’
  He was looking for a way to let out his pent up anger.
  Of course, I wasn’t going to accept such a useless challenge.
  “I’m not goin-“
  Right as I was about to decline his challenge,
  Everyone turned towards the voice that cut me off.
  It was Tang Soyeol.
  Tang Soyeol’s face rapidly reddened, as she herself didn’t know why she had spoken up.
  But she continued to speak.
  “Young Master Cheonjun and Young Master Gu have an age gap, which means that there will be an experience gap as well, so how would it be fair for them to duel? What if his f-face gets hurt…”
  “It’s alright. We won’t use our Qi, and it’ll be a learning experience for each other.”
  Namgung Cheonjun spoke with a smile on his face, acting like he was a good person.
  Which made me smirk at his words.
  Learning experience?
  Not using Qi?
  He just wanted to use this as an excuse to beat me up.
  I don’t know why he’s so obsessed with me.
  I asked Namgung Cheonjun.
  “Is it possible?”
  I spoke with a little bit of emotion in my words.
  “What is?”
  “You say learning experience, which means that you are trying to teach me something, but is it possible for you to do that without using your Qi?”
  Everyone gasped at my words.
  I, who had barely spread my name around was questioning the capability of Namgung Cheonjun who belonged in the category of Five Dragons and Three Phoenixes, while also asking the son of the Lord of Namgung Clan, Blue Heavenly Sword, Namgung Jin if he could provide me with enlightenment.
  At this moment, Tang Jooyeok quickly interrupted as he noticed that the conversation was going in the wrong direction.
  “Young Master Gu, Cheonjun is your senior, aren’t you too harsh with your words-“
  “Of course, I’m capable. If you like, I can duel you with just one foot.”
  Namgung Cheonjun was smiling, but I could see the veins in his neck due to him holding his anger.
  “Then let’s do it.”
  A long time ago, someone told me I should always hold my anger three times.
  I was told that I had too much of a fiery attitude in a world where one could only live long if they understood their place.
  My response was always the same.
  ‘That guy is being such a dick.’
  ‘But you being a dick in return would just make both of you dicks.’
  ‘Then I’ll be a dick! How can a person always hold in their anger?’
  ‘What kind of dickish words—why is the conversation like this!?’
  Isn’t it technically a compliment for them to say that I’m fiery since I use flame martial arts?
  ‘If it’s nothing severe, just hold your anger three times. Then you will be able to survive.’
  I never really listened to this advice…
  But not long after, when those words became that person’s last wish, I tried my best to follow the advice.
  It was indeed important to know my place in a world like this anyway.
  “I think I held it in three times already.”
  In the middle of the training area, I stood in front of Namgung Cheonjun.
  I think it’s been three times since Namgung Cheonjun crossed the line.
  Maybe not? I feel like it’s been more than three times.
  It’s even better if it’s more than three.
  The f*cker was still smiling.
  He was filled with confidence that he wouldn’t lose.
  Or perhaps he is just happy that he could finally beat me up.
  “I’ll let you have the first attack.”
  “Yes, Young Master.”
  I wasn’t going to decline that offer.
  It had been a while since I didn’t fight while using my Qi.
  He slowly picked up the sword that was on the ground.
  He was moving slowly on purpose to make me put my guard down.
  I went closer and let my fist loose. It was a basic straight punch.
– An expected outcome.
  Namgung Cheonjun’s expression was saying that as he dodged by slightly tilting his head.
  I mindlessly swung my fists. I didn’t put any skillful movements into my attacks.
  ‘Not that I’m able to right now anyways.’
  Only the sound of me swinging my fists in the air could be heard.
  Namgung Cheonjun spoke after effortlessly dodging my fist along with a sneaky kick.
  “It’s my turn as it seems that I’ve seen everything from you, Young Master Gu.”
  I didn’t respond.
  Namgung Cheonjun swung his sword shortly after.
  As expected, his movements were fast and sharp.
  “Being this fast despite not using his Qi…”
  Praises from the crowd could be heard from the spectating area.
  Namgung Cheonjun’s swordplay definitely deserved the praise.
  He had no flaws in his movements while also being able to swing with speed and sharpness.
  One swing after another, I was able to barely dodge his attacks. But he didn’t seem to be confused.
  He was expecting this outcome with the attacks he’d been putting out.
  Suddenly, Namgung Cheonjun put strength into his legs.
  I could see the slight movement in his shoulder.
  Namgung Cheonjun then put out his third attack, seemingly not giving me any time to think.
  Of course, the first few attacks had been faints, and this one was his real attack.
  The sword was aimed at my shoulder rather than my head.
  Then I extended my hands out.
– Pow!
– Thump-tok!
  The word came from Namgung Cheonjun’s mouth.
  He looked at his hands, and then at the wooden sword that was now rolling on the floor.
  “…What the?”
  I looked at Namgung Cheonjun with a bored expression on my face.
  There was nothing impressive about his movements anymore.
  “What are you doing?”
  Namgung Cheonjun’s eyes trembled upon hearing my question.
  I dared say that I knew more about Namgung’s swordplay than he himself did at this moment in time.
  The countless number of times where I had to personally stop the Demonic Sword after she went insane.
  And the countless times I saw Namgung Bi-ah swinging her sword in the middle of the night.
Her swordplay at that time was already far ahead of Namgung’s, which had visible weaknesses.
  Of course, the Namgung Bi-ah of this time period was just spectating with a dumb look on her face.
  But, the ultimate master of the Namgung Clan who had far surpassed the current Lord of the clan and destroyed their entire clan, was none other than her.
  And comparing the swordplay of the Demonic Sword to him…
  Namgung Cheonjun was only capable of showing me the weaknesses the Namgung Clan had in their swordplay with his slipshod display.
  There was no possibility of me losing when we didn’t use Qi.
  I spoke to him while he stood in shock.
  “Are you not going to pick that up?”
  If not, then I guess I’ll go next.
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