Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Stop Acting Up
Ten days ago, before the fuma selection commenced, specifically the night before New Year’s Eve, eunuchs personally went out to buy ingredients and whatnot; everybody was busy at the time. Items for the New Year in the imperial household were prepared long ago. Hence, those in charge of the imperial household were responsible for menial tasks. For instance, they had to decorate the harem, prepare new clothes, flower pots and what have you. It cost a lot of lanterns to light the palace up as bright as day time. Old items were exchanged for new ones to, in a sense, practice the saying, “Out with the old, in with the new.” Unsurprisingly, there were countless goods carts coming and going from the palace that day. General Manager Bai called out a cart heading out of the imperial palace.
General Manager Bai only passed by, but she saw how much the coach struggled. Carts carried goods into the imperial palace and left as empty carts. How, then, could someone transport so many items out of the palace? The illogical situation raised suspicion. General Manager Bai, therefore, queried the coach. The eunuch with her did everything in his power to stop the coach. Angry, General Manager Bai had the golden-armoured guards apprehend him and inspect his chest. What did they find? They found the imperial household’s precious antiques!
General Manager Bai then forbade any goods carts from exiting the imperial palace, asking the imperial guards to stop and inspect each chest. They found another three chests of precious items from the palace, including the Empress’ favourite silver silk embroidery. Upon further inspection, they discovered more theft. It came as no surprise the Emperor was furious when they reported it to him.
General Manager Bai meticulously investigated the case and caught all of the thieves. That was the reason General Manager Bai was missing in action for ages. She also captured the forty moles inside the palace. Unfortunately, she didn’t find the mastermind. She fruitlessly interrogated the forty low-ranking eunuchs. It boiled down to them being greedy. To make matters more complicated, each of them had a different contact person. They were merely mindless pawns in the scheme.
I grabbed my head to think: “If they were able to avoid detection, the theft would still go undetected had it not been for General Manager Bai.”
“Here. This is your debt sheet,” said General Manager Bai, handing me a debt sheet with more than twenty taels written on it.
I tore the sheet up on the spot, earning a frown from General Manager Bai. She asked, “What was that about?”
“You wrote the wrong name. It’s Prime Minister Li who owes you. You need to write his name.”
“Good grief, you’re a handful…”
General Manager Bai wrote up another debt sheet then sat square. Because she wore male clothing instead of her oversized eunuch uniform, all of her slender limbs were pronounced. Those legs were, ahem.
‘Wait, why the hell am I enamoured by a eunuch?! Calm down. Calm own. I need me a Buddhist scripture.’
Bai Lian: “The details are as I just told you. My job is to retrieve the stolen goods and arrest the mastermind. I had one clue that led to a wealthy businessman in Jiangnan. Recently, he opened a fabric store, and he’s currently in the capital. You better not disrupt my work. Otherwise, I’ll have someone cane you.”
“Yes, yes, yes, Cao Shangfei, yeah?”
“He’s Lu Shangfei!” exclaimed General Manager Bai, glaring at me uncomfortably. “This is why I don’t want to work with useless men. Prime Minister Li had to say this was His Majesty’s order… Ming Feizhen, if you have something to say, voice it.”
“Mm, hmm… it’s quite a strange case. Why are you suspecting Cao Shangf-, Lu Shangfei?”
Bai Lian folded her arms and shifted her hips. She answered, “There are quite a few layers to it. I followed the clue and discovered a piece of jewellery was once found at a martial arts school by the name of Feiyun Hall.”
“A martial arts school? That isn’t remotely related to a fabric business.”
“It’s not your everyday martial arts school; it’s an underground fighting syndicate.”
“Underground fighting?” I repeated to myself.
It sounded complex since underground fighting was involved. Underground fighting was, in essence, ring fighting without rules unlike friendly sparring; it was competition only in name. In reality, they were fights to the death. The school earned money from bets and entry tickets. The school would train a group of formidable fighters; bigger schools would even have legitimate adepts among them. They took on challengers from all over the place daily. In a way, it was a quick cash grab for some in the pugilistic world.
The imperial court never meddled in underground fighting, for it was permitted in fixed locations and it happened to be permitted in the capital. Betting on fights wasn’t illegal. It was called underground fighting for the reason deaths were possible. The unwritten rule was that one couldn’t hold grudges for deaths; they enforced it via signing a waiver beforehand. Although the pugilistic world tacitly agreed to it, the imperial court wouldn’t publicly approve. The fanatics, consequently, couldn’t be publicly vocal about it. According to my knowledge, they reined themselves in quite significantly at the capital. I hadn’t heard of many deaths in underground fights. As such, the government offices kept an eye on them but couldn’t intervene without rhyme or reason.
“So, how does Lu Shangfei come into the equation?”
Bai Lian: “He’s the one with the biggest share.”
It certainly raised flags for one of the wealthiest businessmen in Jiangnan to be associated with those in the martial world. I mulled on the information for a tick then got up: “Let us be on our way then.”
Surprised, Bai Lian asked, “Where to?”
“Since we don’t know what happened, we have to go and investigate. Are you going to sit here and wait for the results to land on your table or something?”
General Manager Bai ran her eyes over my face as though we met for the first time: “I didn’t know your brain was used for work. I thought you were here to idle away.”
General Manager Bai then pointed forward: “Okay, go.”
“… Let’s go together.”
“Why?” asked General Manager Bai, eyebrows furrowed and arms folded. Tone frigid, she said, “Why should I work alongside a damn man?”
‘Hey, Prime Minister, the teammate you asked for is mega uncooperative! Why does she hate men so much, yet isn’t intimate with women? Are eunuchs some sort of profound species…?’
What could I do but play the bad guy? I said, “Oi, stop acting up, or I w-“
“Will what?” asked Bai Lian.
“Or I’ll force a kiss on you.”
Next second, I had five red fingers printed on my face…