“May I ask if Young Master Zhong is in the carriage?”
“I’m the coach right here,” I wanted to answer but hesitated due to the look on his face.
Tang Ye galloped over to me: “Big Bro, what happened?”
I smacked my thigh: “You’re him!”
Tang Ye: “?”
“This is Young Master Zhong,” I declared, pointing to Tang Ye: “Be it poison water or poison gas, give us what you got.”
Tang Ye: “…”
The rider smiled: “We actually already knew you what you look like. Please do not hide from us, Young Master Zhong.”
Eh? The imperial court’s offices need to take tips from you! You already put out a wanted poster for me when I haven’t even done anything, yet? Wait, why are you asking me a question you already know the answer to? That was embarrassing! It’s all your fault for giving me the callous look, Tang Ye!
“What happened, Young Master?” queried Emperor Yuansheng, alarmed. He switched his tone when conversing with me to get into role in the presence of outsiders: “Did you not want to play coach for some fun? Why are we stopping? Who are they?”
“I do not know myself,” I answered. “I am Young Master Zhong, Zhong Ming. What do you want?”
The rider respectfully put his palm and fist together before him: “We heard he was heading to Huzhou, and you were his vanguard. Would that be correct?”
“He? Vanguard? Is that what the leader told them? It’s not a shabby idea, I suppose,” I thought. I went with the tide and replied, “Correct. What do you want? Who are you, by the way?”
He smiled cordially: “This humble one is a mere henchman here to deliver a gift from his master.”
“Your master? A gift?”
“Hand them over!” commanded the rider.
The thirty equestrians behind the team leader dismounted and pulled their horses over to us. Next, they jogged back behind their leader and stood primly. The black horses brimmed with vigour. They were as good as the horses we selected for the escort. Their fur was sparkling clean, cleaner than our steeds.
Our escort couldn’t make sense of the situation. I ran my gaze over the steeds and the group. Voice soft, I expounded, “Jiangnan’s best equestrian group, Horse Divine Association. They were the last group we saw ride into the town the previous night. They are the only group capable of raising horses superior to the imperial court’s horses.”
Glancing back and forth between the equestrians and horses, I disinterestedly inquired, “What is the meaning behind this?”
The leader performed a hold-fist salute and proudly appealed, “Our master heard you were after horses. He humbly believed we have an acceptable degree of knowledge and experience with horses, so he boldly asked this humble one to recommend you our horses. Please kindly accept our gift, Young Master Zhong.”
“I do need horses, indeed,” I commented with a nod. “Pass on my thank you to your master, Ma Zhangbian.”
The leader reacted jubilantly, while I remained indifferent and added, “I only need half of these horses, though. There’s no point in me taking extra horses.”
I switched to using Voice Transmission: “Tell Ma Lianlong I accept the gift, but if he thinks nobody remembers what he’s done in the past and can sweep it under the rug, then that’s wishful thinking.”
Horse Divine Association once colluded with Beijiang’s horse business and smuggled Beijiang’s horses in to sell so that they could grow their business. Little did they know they weren’t trading with a horse business but horse thieves disguising themselves as legitimate businessmen. After the smuggling and the true identities of the thieves was exposed, I put Horse Divine Association out of commission and spared Ma Zhangbian. Ever since then, he started doing business ethically and legally. However, during the two years I spent as a recluse, I heard he wanted to pursue crooked designs again. If I didn’t put him in his place when he sent me gifts, how would I press charges against him down the road?
“Understood. This humble one promises to deliver the message,” solemnly promised the leader, before leaving with fifteen horses and his group.
“Can you explain? Did they really gift us with horses?” inquired Emperor Yuansheng, skeptical.
I touched my chin and broke it down for Emperor Yuansheng: “They are likely Zhong Hualiu’s brothels’ patrons and want to get into Zhong Hualiu’s good graces.”
I saw the leader of the group nearly fall off his horse when he overheard my outlandish claim.
Though Emperor Yuansheng found my justification unconvincing, he brushed it off and prioritised Boss Shen’s rescue: “Since we have our steeds’ issue sorted out, let’s grab a meal in the town and be on our way.”
“I think this restaurant is dec(ent)-.”
“Is that Zhong Clan’s Young Master Zhong up ahead?” hollered a girl.
“What now?” subtly grumbled Emperor Yuansheng.
The group up ahead was a big one; they weren’t together. The big group comprised of over ten other teams numbering between twenty to thirty people. It was so packed owing to whatever their luggage was. We could smell food aromas from their carriages before they even reached us.
The lissom girl who called out came over and told me, “Jiaxing Eight Drunk Deities would like to humbly offer you one red, one white, two steamed and boiled, four preserved and fresh fruits, and eight meats and vegetables. In addition, we would like to offer sixteen jugs of premium wine. We also have food and wine for your coaches. Please accept the humble gift, Young Master.”
“What even are those dishes?” questioned Su Xiao, poking his head out from the carriage before I could speak.
The girl clarified, “One red and one white means ginseng with red apricot and date tea as well as ginkgo and white dew nectar. They are best drank before a meal.
Two steamed and boiled refers to Taihu’s three white types of seafood: silver fish, white fish and white prawn. They accompany a flower pigeon.
The four preserved and fresh fruits are prepared using the capital’s four traditional ingredients: winter snow, green plums, golden nectar, yanjin peach and snow melons. The four fruits are, as the name suggests, stringently selected pears from Beiping (Hebei Province), peaches from Shandong, pomegranate from Suzhou and Zengcheng’s lychees.
Eight meats and vegetables comprise of delicacies on land and in the sea. Bear hands, deer ears, rhinoceros’ horns, camel humps, fish fins, shark fins, fish lips and sea cucumber will accompany eight different types of vegetables.
Four jugs of wine come from Luzhou Laojiao. Four come from Shandong Daqu. Eight jugs of Young Master Ming’s favourite, Shaoxing nu er hong wine, are also included. Would that be all right with you, Ma’am?”
“I-I-I-I-I, Big Brother Ming…” The long explanation zapped Su Xiao’s brain silly. It was a miracle he could still enunciate complete words.
I crossed my arms: “Are you sure that’s breakfast and not a banquet?”
The girl chortled behind that: “Master said that, while the others would need to split the food, you would be able to finish it all.”
Hold up! I thought I said I’m Young Master Zhong, the vanguard! You think I’m going to share with Night Fortress’ Master Ming, don’t you?! You think I’m a glutton, do you?! Are you challenging me?!
“Damn it, serve it all up!” I demanded.
Before they were done, somebody else interjected: “Drunk Eight Deities know nothing but food. My master knows better than to provide just food.”
The chubby man adorned with gold and silver led a group of men and a carriage over. I passed a bowl and chopsticks set to Emperor Yuansheng before taking one for myself. I raised my chin. I warned the chubby midget: “Get to the point. Don’t interrupt my meal.”
“This humble one comes from a wealthy family in Suzhou. We heard you were his relative, so we wanted to offer you a present.”
The carriage his group pushed over glowed. There was ten trays’ worth of gold. There were three trays of gold jewels, three trays of gold leaves and four trays of gold ingots. There were also three containers of agate, jade, gold and silver jewellery.
Grinning, the midget carried on: “Our master said you are a cultured man, so you would not like boring gold and silver. We heard you had your beautiful concubine with you. Therefore, we wanted to gift you what you need to compliment her and have the full package.”
Su Xiao’s embarrassment burnt his face. I shoved a lychee in his mouth before he could blurt something uncalled for.
“We heard you were wealthy and admired you, but you certainly lack class,” mocked a girl.
“Who just insulted my Qian Clan?” fumed the chubby midget.
The girls in their mid-teens dazzled everyone with her appearances and scents. They were attired in robes of various colours. Their youthful and energetic vibes had all the scumbags gawking at them. The thirty-six girls cleared a path. Their scents and luscious legs formed the mighty Soul-Stealing Formation. Perhaps they were chosen to test my resilience. I was fine, but our men’s defences sure crumbled fast. Thank heavens they weren’t guarding a city…
I was good. I was too busy eating to check them out. Believe me. The food we ate the last two days was dreadful. You think I’d bother with them when I was finally bestowed a proper meal? Even Su Xiao was happy with my attitude. He gave me a heart with his hands and fed me a lychee. Tell you what: Su Xiao could be sensible at times.
The leader of the girls reported, “The master of Hangzhou’s Tea Lake Teahouse sent us to keep you company in case you were lonely on your journey and to look after you. All of us are virgin girls who admire your outstanding character, so we volunteered to join you. We do not mean to pressure you or impose our will upon you.”
Emperor Yuansheng stopped himself before he could place the food in his mouth. He ignored the melon that slipped out of his chopsticks and complained, “Young Ming, I think your background is becoming a bit of an issue.”
Ye Luo: “Do all of them owe Zhong Clan money?”
Du Gu mumbled, “Is he… a supreme martial artist in the martial world?”
I was the only speechless person.
I only asked you to not give me grief. I never asked you to show me filial piety! Why are you giving me money and women without a heads up?!
Long Zaitian ran his hand over his stubble: “Your Zhong Clan really does do big business. By the looks of it, half of Jiangnan must be your clan’s brothels.”
‘Kill yourself, Long Zaitian!’
*The “he/him” they mention in their speech (those giving ‘gifts’) is left ambiguous, but they are referring to his identity as the master of Night Fortress.