The convoy of buses stopped right in front of Hotel Yunda, the only four-star hotel in the entire prefecture. A manager of the company explained that due to the efforts to preserve Ning Village’s environment, there were no hotels on-site, and, as such, it was impossible to accommodate all of them. Therefore, they had to stay here for the night, and there was still another thirty minutes of bus ride until their final destination. Bai Ze pulled Li Yiming to the side during the break time. “So you’ve guessed it?” she asked with a grim expression.
“Is it really a domain?” Li Yiming was still quite unsure of his conjecture.
“Yes.” Bai Ze nodded, somewhat seemed distraught.
“Why are they inside here too?” Li Yiming looked at Liu Meng and the rest of the filming crew, who were receiving access cards to their rooms in the hotel.
“That’s the least of my concerns. It’s you that I’m wondering about.” Bai Ze looked like she was completely lost in her thoughts.
“Me? What is it about me?”
“These people here are all fake. Nothing more than copies that have been produced by the domain. But you’re real. Domains cannot produce a copy of guardians. Although you’re not a guardian, strictly speaking, the fact that you have life marks shows that Heaven’s Laws have recognized your status. But you had no key for entry into the domain. So how did you get in here?”
“You need a key for entry?” asked Li Yiming.
“Yes, something like the invitation you had before. That was the key to the domain, and the only way to enter it,” explained Bai Ze.
“How do you obtain a key?”
“Right before the opening of the domain, guardians will be shown a sign from Heaven’s Laws. Guardians can assess their own abilities and choose which domain to enter. Once participation is confirmed, a key will be given to each participant and it will both serve as the proof of joining in and as the embodiment of the contract.”
‘So guardians are contract workers?’ An odd thought occured to Li Yiming.
“What do we do now then?” Li Yiming was at a loss. ‘Why me again?’
“I don’t know, I’m not one of you.” Bai Ze rolled her eyes.
“I’m not one neither,” Li Yiming retorted.
“But it thinks that you are one,” Bai Ze extended one of her plump fingers and pointed at the sky.
Li Yiming lifted his head in frustration and wanted to extend a finger of his own: his middle one.
“You should be careful about Fang Shui’er and her assistant,” Little Bai Ze suddenly added.
“Yes. I thought that it was odd, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. Since the domain is here and now open, then they are the prime suspects.”
“You’re saying that they are guardians?” Li Yiming was baffled.
“I’m fairly certain.”
“You can tell?” Li Yiming found the fact very difficult to accept. An international star, the idol of the entire country, the goddess in the dreams of single men, a guardian?
“Even I can’t confirm it unless they use their talents. But I have strong reasons to believe so.”
“What kind of reasons?” asked Li Yiming.
“They were too calm when they saw us for the first time.”
“What?” Li Yiming thought the explanation to be not nearly sufficient.
“Think about it. The very first reaction of people who had the chance to meet me…” Little Bai Ze stated the fact without any narcissism.
Li Yiming recalled the details of their first meeting. Bai Ze was an instant magnet for the affection of any woman, and none were immune to her cute appearance. Were it not for that, she would not have been able to attract the attention of director Zheng, Xiao Hei, who had met his share of people, and compelled him to add a role just for her. However, Fang Shui’er seemed to have only shown a slight approval, and her assistant, Zeng Qian, seemed to even oppose the idea of Bai Ze participating in the filming. But from these two clues alone, to suspect that they are guardians… ‘Isn’t this a little far-fetched?’
“There’s no fault in prudence. I doubt that you understand the world of guardians. For them, someone that joins the domain without a key is extremely dangerous.”
“Because of the rules. Everything that happens within the domain has to obey the rules, but you are different. These rules don’t apply to you. You are the unforeseen change, the bug that can cause unexpected things to happen. And any such risks…” Bai Ze did not continue her explanation.
Li Yiming remembered the unanticipated dangers in the Hangzhou domain. “What happens if other guardians find out about me?”
“They will seek to eliminate the unwanted risk…”
“So you’re saying…”
“Better my compatriots die than myself… Survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle. These are also Heaven’s Laws…” said Bai Ze in a glacial tone.
The filming staff quickly concluded their brief stop at the hotel and returned to their seats on the buses. Li Yiming was to share his room with another male dancer for the night, but he was too absorbed by the domain to be giving any attention to these trivial details. The site of the shooting, Ning Village, was a community with a simple beauty to it, blended into the landscape. It was as if they had just discovered a utopia isolated from the world, and the production crew was evidently mesmerized. Liu Meng took a deep breath, and extended her arms in a gesture that made her chest bounce in a very exaggerated manner.
“Hey, did I actually hurt you with that pinch?” Liu Meng noticed Li Yiming’s odd behavior.
“What?” Li Yiming finally reacted.
“Pfft, pretense!” Liu Meng rolled her eyes.
Xiao Hei had arrived prior to everyone, and was busy giving instructions to the floor manager. A middle-aged man, adorned in a traditional attire, followed them around: he had to be the local official responsible for accommodations and coordination. Fang Shui’er was absent, since she would not deign participating in these pre-filming routines. The cameras and background set-up were being installed, and a costumer soon arrived with a bag of clothes to be distributed to the actors and actresses. Li Yiming received his outfit and changed his clothes in the tent reserved for that purpose. ‘If I don’t know what’s coming, I might as well wait and react to whatever change that’ll happen.’
Bai Ze was treated much better than Li Yiming, who played only a background role. She had her own preparation room, which was rented out from a local residence. After Li Yiming finished preparing himself, he was allowed to visit Bai Ze, since he was her legal guardian. Little Bai Ze seemed to have completely forgotten about the domain, and she was plunged into an excited eagerness as the make-up artist helped her dress up for the performance. She wore a costume blue as the ocean with flamboyant trims and a golden phoenix ready to take flight embroidered on its center. With the silvery accessories and the prominent crown she wore, Bai Ze herself seemed to be transformed into a different kind of mythical beast. The make-up artist was happy with the results of her work and took a picture. Xiao Hei entered the room at that moment and also looked at Bai Ze with full approval.
“Wait a second for the make-up. We want this natural feeling of hers. If it turns out that we need make-up, we’ll simply add it later,” Xiao Hei said to the make-up artist, who herself was dithering about the matter: she did not know where to start for Bai Ze, who seemed perfect even without any embellishment
“Please get ready for the shooting soon. Fang Shui’er is doing her make-up, and she’ll be ready soon. Please go to your assigned spot.” Due to Bai Ze’s presence, Xiao Hei was on very friendly terms with Li Yiming.
“Alright, Bai Ze, be nice and don’t wander off, okay?” Li Yiming left in a hurry after a final word of advice.
The decorations at the shooting scene were very colorful, with red flowers complementing green willow leaves. Aside from the background dancers, there was also a crowd of extras recruited locally. Each were adorned in a traditional outfit and seemed eager to start the performance. The floor manager gave out instructions using a megaphone, with the general guidelines revolving around obeying the instructions and remaining composed in the presence of a celebrity. According to what was decided during the rehearsals, Li Yiming and Liu Meng were to play a loving couple during the first scene, so they were guided to their respective positions by the floor manager, with some final adjustments to be made depending on Xiao Hei’s judgement after the filming started.
Liu Meng also changed into her costume. She wore an intricate crown which matched the vivid colors of her garments. The make-up artist, in a stroke of spontaneity, decided to draw the caricature of a flaming phoenix on her neck, right below her left ear. The tattoo added a tint of wildness to Liu Meng’s beauty. “Wow, you look like an educated youth sent into the countryside back in Red China!” Liu Meng bantered with Li Yiming while covering her smile with one hand. 1
“You don’t look like a native either. Have you seen anyone with a chest like yours?” Li Yiming retorted.
“Oh, you’re wrong about that. Look at her over there, and her.” Liu Meng pointed at two middle-aged women who were participating as background actresses. What she observed was true, although their waists were nowhere near as thin as hers. “It seems like the water and the land here really nourishes people. I wonder if the place will be flooded with flat-chests once the video is released.”
“You’re thinking about making the camera point at you? Then you’re wearing too many layers. Also I don’t think that the Ministry of Culture would allow a video like that to be released,” commented Li Yiming.
“What do you know about the Ministry? The videos that are censored are the ones that will become popular,” Liu Meng stated an odd truth.
“Has Fang Shui’er arrived?” Li Yiming minded her particularly, especially after his conversation with Bai Ze earlier.
“Oh, it’ll take a while before she gets here. With her status, I’d think that we need to do at least twenty cuts.” Liu Meng sat down on the stairs, revealing her slender legs from beneath the folds of her skirt. Li Yiming swept around with his eyes, and sat down facing her inconspicuously, so that he would block the gaze of anyone who peeked that way. Liu Meng seemed to have noticed his intention and quirked her lips while pulling her skirt down slightly.
“Alright everyone, first scene, first cut…” The studio floor manager concluded his set of instructions. The camera cranes started their rotation around the stage while the light projectors switched on and off continuously for the final adjustment.
Suddenly, the roar of a car engine was heard in the distance. The heads in the crowd turned in the direction soon saw two Cherokees headed their way, whose modern design stood out particularly in a landscape of preserved traditional buildings. A clamor was heard from the crowd, mingled with chit chat spoken with a local dialect Li Yiming could not understand, but he did notice the hostile tone of those who were talking.
The two cars and the trail of dust they left behind stopped only right outside of the video shooting perimeters. Seven or eight people stepped down from the cars, all dressed in black close fitting T-shirts, black pants and sunglasses—typical mobsters. Only one of the men wore a red v-neck shirt with a white jacket on the outside. With his foppish rainbow sunglasses, he stood out from his companions.
“Guo Xiang?” Li Yiming recognized him, and stood up instinctively. ‘Him again?’ He looked around carefully, and let out a sigh of relief when he saw that Ji Xiaoqin was not here with him.
Liu Meng also recognized Guo Xiang, since she knew him as well. Guo Xiang once even pursued her, but, of course, he was not successful with Lady Liu. She was a little concerned about Li Yiming’s emotional state, and, instead of saying anything, she stood behind him in silence, wrapped her fingers around his hand and kneaded it with firmness. Li Yiming turned his head back towards her upon noticing her act, smiled and also added some strength to his grip.
Although Li Yiming maintained a facade of calmness, he was quite alarmed by Guo Xiang’s showing up. The latter had to have arrived for a reason, and the reason must be linked with the opening of the secret domain. Although Li Yiming had confirmed with Bai Ze that he would not suffer life marks losses from using his talent outside of domains, and that he was even immune to natural decay, they had yet to confirm whether he would suffer Heaven’s punishment for a failed mission. Li Yiming did not want to take the risk at all, so he maintained his prudence.
“Wow, how lively!” Guo Xiang, surrounded from all sides by his followers dressed in black, sauntered towards the crowd in his typical exaggerated style.
Surprise surprise (Or maybe not so, given the name of the chapter.)
1. Reference to the Maoist era, when young people were sent to the countryside for the purpose of their “re-education” and also to help increase productivity.
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