Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Stuffing His Face to Maturity
Zhang Chunfeng, demeanour demure, slowly brewed tea in his tearoom. Tea ceremony was classified as an art, for it fulfilled the requirements of tranquillity and silence, yin and yang, fast and slow. Each facet was worth studying. He was more elite than those who had invested decades into the art.
Many people were fond of the Ministry of Personnel’s tearoom. Zhang Chunfeng’s subordinates and friends often met up there purely to taste a cup of tea he brewed. If Dongpo Restaurant’s refreshments were also available, more people might gather there than the imperial palace. The Emperor’s entourage’s secret agents out to investigate corruption in the imperial court were set to be too busy to return home again.
Despite his skill, few people knew Zhang Chunfeng wasn’t interested in tea ceremony in any capacity. The sole reason he was able to brew fabulous tea was attributed to his sagacity. He had a photographic memory from childhood; what took others a month took him a mere three days to learn. Owing to his intellect, he picked up many skills many ordinary folks never picked up. Tea ceremony was one of them.
When Zhang Chunfeng took the imperial exams, the head examiner remarked, “He will surely become a pillar of our nation.” He became an important figure rapidly, filling the shoes of one of the six ministries’ leaders. The only man above him was the prime minister.
As Zhang Chunfeng, who was past his fifties, enjoyed his tea, he thought back on what His Majesty did during the day and what was implied. Being meticulous, he paid attention to every little detail the Emperor displayed. Though he didn’t approve, he was able to connect the dots. It didn’t take long for him to reach Secretary Lu’s conclusion – referring to the Emperor’s desire to have Liu Shan Men rein in the Seven Champion White Princes. In addition, he noticed something else that was unusual: the Emperor’s three cases.
Zhang Chunfeng planted spies in the Ministry of Justice. He already found out Su Xiao was assigned to the underground fighting case. Ming Feizhen and General Manager Bai were ambushed in broad daylight and rushed out of the city. Given General Manager Bai, general manager of the innermost sections of the palace, was permitted to leave the palace, it indicated the case was connected to the inner departments – possibly the imperial household. Needless to say, he was also aware of the theft case. The cases seemed to be individual cases, and each case was difficult. Worth noting, though, was the three cases were given to three individuals connected with each other. What was implied was, therefore, obvious.
“Wuhua County’s underground fighting… Lu Xiazou’s corruption case… The imperial palace’s theft… Who is His Majesty looking into?”
Zhang Chunfeng remembered Lu Xiazou. Three years ago, Lu Xiazou introduced himself to Zhang Chunfeng at a banquet. Lu Xiazou purchased his official status; he stood out due to his incredibly rash approach. Refined Zhang Chunfeng remembered not being friendly with the briber. What was a meeting by chance raised a question at this point. There was no logical way of explaining how Lu Xiazou could’ve entered the imperial palace with his rank; somebody had to lead him in. Zhang Chunfeng wondered, “Could His Majesty be after the mastermind?”
Zhang Chunfeng snickered when he thought about people calling him a genius.
The Emperor went to great lengths to help Liu Shan Men establish themselves. The three cases were all interlinked. If there was a mastermind behind the scenes, he wasn’t just another face in the crowd. If Liu Shan Men’s trio could crack the case and have the honour of being the six ministries’ students, Liu Shan Men’s value would skyrocket in the blink of an eye. The question was, “Who is the mastermind?”
Zhang Chunfeng speculated he knew the mastermind behind the three cases. His intuition told him he knew someone bold enough to steal from the imperial palace and had connections with the martial world to host underground fighting contests. The issue was his lack of evidence and clues; it was merely his intuition.
Zhang Chunfeng had experienced plenty of storms throughout his lifetime. His intuition, therefore, was trustworthy. He wouldn’t have had the impression he was familiar with the mastermind’s style, otherwise. Someone opened the door to the tearoom, distracting him from his train of thought.
Nobody ever shoved doors open before at the refined office. Tang Ye carried two stacks of books and documents on both hands. That suggested he kicked the door open! Merely seeing him gave Secretary Zhang a headache.
Zhang Chunfeng was prejudice against martial artists; he held their brash, impolite and violent natures in contempt. Everyone in the imperial court was aware of that. He once went as far as asking His Majesty to prohibit commoners from practicing martial arts in case they became a hazard in the martial world. The martial world would be half of if its size within three decades if the bill passed. Martial artists had His Majesty’s love for martial arts to thank.
Zhang Chunfeng detested martial arts due to the contention for the throne back then, when Emperor Yuansheng’s elder brothers and the other princes hired martial artists for enormous sums. The violence that ensued was self-explanatory. Three hundred of the hired warriors could stop an army of a thousand. Fights broke out on streets and in alleys. They ignored the commoners, because they had support from the imperial family. They went as far as burning down residences in broad daylight. That wasn’t even the worst of it.
During martial arts’ peak in the present dynasty, there were countless people who were trained in martial arts. As soon as they heard a Prince sought talent, the orthodox and unorthodox sects offered their services. The Princes didn’t hesitate to hire unorthodox groups such as the Demon Sect or League of Assassins. The contractors were enthusiastic, as the imperial family’s backing empowered them to run amok without consequences. Unsurprisingly, assassinations were rife in the capital, leading to countless innocent people being wrongly convicted. Commoners were labelled subordinates, interrogated and executed. That was barely the beginning, for one Prince suddenly launched his insurrection, ushering the Demon Sect into the fray.
Zhang Chunfeng was only twenty or so when the revolt took place. As a consequence, his voice went unheard. Nevertheless, the nation rendering itself asunder was the root of his hatred for martial arts. He was convinced it could’ve been avoided if everyone embraced literature and culture in the first place. Ever since the contention, he dedicated his efforts to empowering civil officials, hoping to change the course of development through the imperial court. Sadly, his efforts had yet to bear fruit after three decades. He, nonetheless, continued for an opportunity to realise his goal.
Never in Zhang Chunfeng’s wildest dreams did he think his last closed-door student would not only be a martial artist but a martial arts’ addict, too. He rubbed his temples and recomposed himself. He shut his eyes and asked, “Did you go and ask every household as I told you to?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Did you expose your identity or alert the culprit?”
“No. I just said I was looking for someone; I did not mention the case at all.”
“Thank heavens,” remarked Teacher Zhang, grateful Tang Ye, at the very least, understood humanity’s language. “How did you go?”
“I have found some clues,” answered Tang Ye, in a stoic voice. “Someone saw Lu Xiazou entering and leaving a restaurant yesterday.”
“Not bad for your first time. You’re not fond of speaking; however, you have to bear in mind that we scholars cannot be the people’s model without speaking. You may not be good at speaking, but you are able to pry for information, meaning you put in the effort and didn’t waste my efforts. Good job. How many households did you question?”
“It is my duty,” replied Tang Ye, with a nod. “I found clues from the third household.”
Secretary Zhang stood up: “That was quick! You sure are lucky!”
“Not really,” responded Tang Ye. “It took a long time, though.”
“Yeah, three households, not lucky, you say? If you weren’t lucky, you’d still be knocking in your next life!” fumed Teacher Zhang. “What did you find out on his whereabouts? Did you check the restaurant?”
“Not yet. There are too many people there.”
“That is absurd! It doesn’t matter if there are few or a lot of people; check it! The more people there are, the higher your chances of finding something. Do I have to teach you common sense, as well? Yan Ling, you are now my student and a member of the Ministry of Personnel. Thus, you must follow our rules. We must be cautious and meticulous, leaving no stones unturned. You must adopt the mentality of pursuing things all the way; there is not abandoning anything half way. Learn to face the crowds. Now go!”
Tang Ye didn’t give as much as a facial reaction. He blandly replied, “It costs money. I came to request the funds.”
Speechless, Teacher Zhang touched his head and grabbed a silver tael: “You have the meticulous part down.”
Secretary Zhang then sat back down feeling embarrassed. The room fell silent until Tang Ye inquired, “Do you have any other instructions, Teacher?”
“Yes,” answered Teacher Zhang. “Bring me a beef oven roll on your way back… Don’t forget the change.”
Tang Ye: “Oh. I shall be on my way now.”
The restaurant in question was called Huangshang Restaurant. It was located to the busiest area in the southern section of the capital. They had a guest visit to congratulate them on their opening less than five days after opening.
The streets were bustling and crowded with the end of the year coming, since everyone was out to buy celebration commodities. Literally everything needed could be found on the street. Jinling City was a city with many streets. Therefore, being able to operate a restaurant on the most crowded street was a testament to their immense wealth.
There were three large tables at the door with stacks of steamers on them. The meat buns in the steamers were piping hot and fragrant. The softness indicated they used high-quality flour. Though the meat wasn’t visible, its fragrance proved it was prepared with heart. The two were a match made in heaven.
Huangshang Restaurant’s three fresh meat buns fetched five coins per bun. That was expensive, but they never had any issues selling a high volume of them. The sign, with the meat bun names written on them, next to the three tables was credited with their popularity. They had a deal where one could have ten free steamers if they could eat ten consecutively.
If anyone could eat twenty steamers, the restaurant would give them a bonus twenty as takeaway. One might never want to see meat buns again in their life once they finished the twenty steamers, but, hey, why not gift it to family members?
Twenty steamers wasn’t the only level. If anyone could wolf down fifty steamers, the owner of the restaurant would personally prepare a private course entailing anything the customer requested. There were claims the owner was a former member of the imperial kitchen who prepared dishes for the reigning Emperor, hinting at his exemplary skill. In essence, they’d be enjoying a meal exclusive to the Emperor.
The monster and last level was eating one hundred steamers. If anyone could eat that many, the restaurant was theirs. Of course, the one hundred steamers challenge was merely for amusement purposes. The ten and twenty steamers challenge was attractive, on the other hand. For the first four days since the restaurant’s inception, people lined up in the long line to challenge themselves. There was, at least, one winner every day. The restaurant made good on their word in public, as well. Hence, the line only ever grew longer.
Without a doubt, spectators would feel hungry watching the challengers, leading to them buying meat buns at full price to satisfy their cravings. By the way, the business inside had yet to be taken into account. One booth at the door was half of their income.
People were unaware the challengers were actually people the owner invited. The meat buns they ate were thinned out and contained little meat; one standard meat bun was worth five of theirs. Twenty steamers wasn’t such a challenge any more. If anything, some were still a little hungry after the challenge. Cunning would be an understatement if one was to describe Huangshang Restaurant’s owner, Huang Shulang.
Huang Shulang welcomed every customer at the door. He gave those dressed in premium clothing a bright smile. Meanwhile, he avoided those who dressed in old and tattered clothing. His “meat bun arena” strategy raked in enormous profits; however, it wasn’t a long-term strategy. The capital he used to open the restaurant originated from shady conduct. He already spent the majority of it on renovations and inviting renowned taste testers from across the lands. For that reason, he began a search for someone suicidal to take on his other two challengers to drum up news in the neighbourhood.
Huang Shulang didn’t think it through properly and was afraid someone would be able to complete the challenge. As a result, he set the ridiculous fifty and one hundred challenge. Fifty steamers equated to three hundred meat buns. It was a tall task to find someone who could manage that. In addition, he was afraid the candidate he found couldn’t be trusted. Ponder and ponder, a customer rocked up. His customer gifted him a red packet.
“My, come in. Why are you giving me money?” insincerely asked Huang Shulang, welcoming his guest in with his eyebrows together.
“I insist. I insist. It’s for good luck, Brother Huang,” replied the customer, with a smile.
Huang Shulang smiled: “You shouldn’t tease your brother. Come in. Come in.”
A striking young man in ordinary cloth clothing approached the restaurant. He evidently wasn’t just another face in the ground. Huang Shulang headed over to welcome him: “Welcome. Welcome. Please come inside.”
The young man didn’t enter; instead, he pulled out a sheet…
“You’re too kind, Young Master. There’s no need to give me a red packet on your first visit,” said Huang Shulang, reaching out for it straight after his hypocritical remark.
The “young master” clutched the sheet firmly. He compared the painting on it with Huang Shulang. Once verified, he said, “You.”
Tang Ye nodded: “You’re the person I’m looking for. I have questions for you.”
God forbid Huang Shulang had the foggiest idea as to what Tang Ye was on about. However, it was painfully obvious Tang Ye wasn’t giving him money or patronising him. Hence, he switched to a cold demeanour: “Questions for me? I am extremely busy running my business. Apologies, but I cannot answer them. If you are not here as a patron, please leave.”
Huang Shulang glanced at the sheet in Tnag Ye’s hand: “That’s Huang Shulang! You have our ‘Shu’ and ‘lang’ characters mixed up! Who drew that?”
“I did,” admitted Tang Ye. “I asked who owned this restaurant, and they told me it was Huang Shulang.”
“I’m Huang Shulang, ‘shu’ as in number, and ‘lang’ as in youth. That Huang Shulang’s ‘shu’ is ‘shu’ as in rodent, and ‘lang’ is wolf! I don’t have time to waste with you. Outta the way!”
Tang Ye shook his head: “I require your assistance.”
Tang Ye intercepted Huang Shulang, preventing him from fleeing.
“Okay, fine. Wait… Are you an official?”
Tang Ye almost gave the honest response until he recalled Teacher Zhang’s reminder. So accordingly, he answered: “No. I am the blind cleaner next door. Please answer my questions.”
“How about ‘no’?!” exclaimed Huang Shulang, fearless once he learnt Tang Ye wasn’t an official. “Look, I’m running a business. What makes you think I have time to chat with you? Run along.”
“…” Tang Ye was stuck, for he never dealt with anyone so uncooperative. Eventually, he said, “If you refuse to answer, I shall refuse to leave.”
“What is your issue?! Men, kick him out!”
Several tough gentlemen emerged from the restaurant. Before they could lay their hands on Tang Ye, he incapacitated all three with a spin kick.
“Heh, you know a move or two, huh?” fumed Huang Shulang. “Where did you come from, you barbarian? You know how many people are watching? You think you can bully model citizens?”
The challengers and spectators at the meat bun challenge booth glanced over, leaving Tang Ye speechless. Though Huang Shulang was a sordid businessman, he didn’t violate the law. As such, Tang Ye couldn’t physically apprehend him.
Tang Ye found the most challenging aspect of the case to be the fact he lacked someone he could knock the snot out of. Lu Xiazou was hard to find, but he was a civil official. He couldn’t pulverise him even if he did locate him. Cases of this nature required attention to detail and patience. Communication fluency and proficiency was even more vital. Tang Ye had no choice but to adapt to the job requirements. He lowered his head and said, “Please help me. I will return the favour if you answer some of my questions.”
“Heh, finally learnt manners, have you? There’s nothing I can answer, though, so get out of here.”
“As long as you answer my questions, I’ll do anything I can.”
“Where did you learn to be so annoying from? Didn’t I say I have n-,” Huang Shulang cut himself off when he caught a whiff of his meat buns. A sly smile flitted across his frustrated countenance: “You… eat meat buns?”
“Fifty steamers worth.”
Tang Ye sat at a table alone and force fed himself until the sun went down. There was no way he didn’t have an urge to puke on several occasions. That day, Liu Shan Men saw a new member mature.