Black Bear. Pre-emptive Strike
“… What… is that with you?” Bai Yeshuang asked.
“My pet. I have to have all the props to play the old busker convincingly, or I wouldn’t have been able to approach you.”
Bai Yeshuang wasn’t just a girl of few words but also suffered transient stuttering. If Liu Shan Men wasn’t low on funds, I’d call a doctor for her.
“Constable Bai, I came to discuss business with you. Find somewhere we can converse.”
Bai Yeshuang slowed her pace so that we could maintain a constant distance between us, a skill that was beginner level to her. The problem was the people crowding around behind me. I swear to god Miss Bai isn’t pretty enough to justify that many people stalking her. Hence, I tried an intimidation tactic: “What are you all looking out? She’s got two eyes and a mouth just like you do. You worried she’d grow wings or something?”
“I’m worried you’ll devour her,” they all responded.
We had no choice but to spend a while shaking the stalkers off to meet up at a small residence. Generally speaking, Liu Shan Men had two places to stay when on missions. The first type was the public type, which was a place the local government office provided. A private type was the type where the team would provide their own defence system. Since they had a small team for the operation, they only had one constable patrol the immediate streets around daily, while others were on standby or out on jobs.
“Long-time no see, Constable Bai.” After receiving the polite nod of acknowledgement, I continued, “I’m awfully busy at the moment, so I’ll keep it brief.”
Since Constable Bai jotted everything I mentioned in her handbook, I expressed, “You don’t need to record what I’m telling you now. I’ll provide the detailed version when I have time.”
“It’s fine. I have the crux of the situation and general points down, so I can report something back to Vice-Captain if you haven’t had time to fill me in.”
That’s Boss Shen’s personally trained elite for you.
“His Majesty personally ordered us not to contact the local government office. That’s another reason why I have to meet you in a disguise.”
The way Bai Yeshuang scanned me and my props suggested she was berating, “Only you would go around with that ridiculous look.” Well, whatever. Can’t expect everyone to appreciate the effort I put in. The black bear I had was the one I submitted in the woods. Yes, it was the one River Monster raised.
Speaking of which, the black bear was a pure-bred black bear from Beijiang, one that you wouldn’t even find on Mount Daluo. Still, to raise the bear into one twice the height of a human adult had to mean it grew up in a magical environment, or its owner had the magic hands.
The black bear was a special breed to me because it could handle me standing next to, albeit being scared for its life. Nonetheless, it wouldn’t rampage if it stood close to me for a prolonged period. After I tamed it, I hid it in a beast’s cavern and commanded it to stay put. Besides hunting for food, it didn’t dare to venture too far from the cavern. I’d say it was more obedient than Mountain Monster, thankfully.
“Constable Bai, please do not doubt my professionalism. Shall I show you how well we work together?” Ming Feizhen called, “Xiaogou, come over.”
The black bear, now given the name Xiaogou, stood up as erect as its hairs upon first hearing my voice and forced a smile as it ran over to me. The name? Well, I didn’t think it was the best idea to call a big bear “Little Doggy”, so I let it choose between “Xiaogou – Little Doggy” and “Zharouwan – fried meatball”. I still don’t know why it chose Xiaogou so energetically. If I had to guess, maybe it had to do with me drooling when I suggested Zharouwan?
“You’re a dog? You sure don’t look like one. I’ve never seen a dog so large, capable of swimming and barking.”
Xiaogou compressed himself as much as possible and then ran into the river. Bears in Beijiang were terrible swimmers, but Xiaogou learnt to swim that night without needing prior education – and learnt to imitate a dog bark… sort of. After I scolded him, he put on the pitiful act. Given how quick he was to adapt, I decided busking would be the easiest profession that permitted both of us to stick together.
“Stand at attention.”
Xiaogou immediately stood erect, eyes trained straight forward.
Xiaogou lied down and dozed off in broad daylight.
What? How much effort did I put in? You think it was easy to intimidate him? Isn’t the writing on the wall? I had to resist eating the bear! You know how much anguish I suffered? Can you understand the pain of having a delicacy in front of you, yet not being able to dig in? You know how much I had to suffer as I prepared ingredients while he was washing up?
Xiaogou’s sixth sense kicked in as if he could hear my thoughts and reactively rolled coquettishly as a dog, hoping I’d spare him.
“You’re going to draw attention here if you keep this up,” rebuked Bai Yeshuang.
I coughed and then continued, “We need to keep our identities and locations concealed due to the danger in Canhu Town. We’ve found a super-secretive place to hide…” Noticing Bai Yeshuang gyrating her lips, I flashed my hand to show, “Don’t ask. I won’t tell you,” and then continued, “Don’t ask. The less you know, the better for you. This is for your sake.”
“The old Bright Jade Restaurant, correct?”
“How do you know?!”
“It’s called Dragon Phoenix Inn now,” another constable chimed in.
“Why do even you know? Kid’s need to stay out of adults’ conversations. What’s your number? Which year did you join? Write a reflection apology.”
“There’s nobody who doesn’t know.” Bai Yeshuang rolled her eyes.
The startled constable softly replied, “Dragon Phoenix Inn has been the town’s highlight in recent days. They have been involved with every major event in the town, including fighting with Kunlun Sect, the rapid makeover, taking employees from other businesses and poisoning dozens of sects overnight. There is also the richest Conceirge Long, the most handsome waiter, Dugu, the melancholic musician, Tang San, the young and beautiful chef, Susu, who has conquered all of the unorthodox groups. Tang San and Susu would be Seniors Tang Ye Su Xiao, right…?”
Were we that obvious?! Why did Liu Shan Men’s case-cracking abilities suck up until now, then?
“Since you know, Constable Bai, please pass on the information. We still need to pretend we don’t know each other, lest we draw trouble to ourselves.”
“I know what to do. Constable Ming, it’s my turn to report now. In regards to Vice-Captain Shen’s whereabouts, at present, w-”
I wagged my hand: “I know how tough it has been on you. I have already made big strides in regards to Vice-Captain’s retrieval. After thorough investigation and interviews, I have a general idea as to where she was last seen. You would have as much information as I do, so let’s not waste time on that top-”
“We’ve already found her.”
Give me a blanket and a corner!
“Zha Pi happened to see Young Master Luo rescue a young woman from the lake who resembled Vice-Captain Shen. Accordingly, he slipped into their estate on New Year’s Eve to confirm and has not returned since. I surmise he has found her but lacks a means of retrieving her. As Luo Clan is a White Prince, we cannot raid their place or impose on them. As such, we have been waiting for your group’s arrival… Constable Ming. Constable Ming? What’s the matter?”
Bai Yeshuang tried waving her hands before my face to get my attention, but Xiaogou and I just let the wind blow against our faces.
Boss is with Zha Pi? I thought he was there to scam them! Do you realise I was in their estate?! I could’ve saved myself the trouble of investigating and starting an inn! Oh my money! I could’ve just raided the estate. Man, if I knew she was there, I wouldn’t have had to run from Lass Yu for dear life! Why didn’t you tell me earlier?! Bloody Zha Pi!
“Strike while the iron is hot, just like the tacticians of old. Xiaogou, we’re going to retrieve Boss Shen this instant!”
“Young Master, the boat is ready to set sail back to the island,” Ao Xue relayed, cooling off Luo Siming’s head with her robotic tone.
Luo Siming wagged his hand: “Understood. Leave for now. I’ll be there soon.”
Luo Siming couldn’t celebrate or sleep last night after he came to the conclusion that Luo Yan was a potential suspect for the weapon hunter during his conversation with Yi Wangyou last night.
“No, no, it can’t be Second Uncle. Refining Divine Convention can’t continue if he’s stealing weapons. There’s no way it’s him,” Luo Siming mumbled. “He was the one who first brought up the weapon hunter; it can’t be him. But the pot can call the kettle black. There’s not enough evidence to clear his innocence. Think. Think… I need to return to Repertoire Island to ask Second Uncle myself.”
“What changes once you see him?”
“Patriarch Yi? Y-you realised?”
From the door, Yi Wangyou, who caught on to Luo Siming’s plan once he heard Luo Siming’s people preparing a horse carriage, answered, “That is why this one is here to stop you. If Luo Yan truly is the culprit, then Repertoire Island is the most hazardous place you could be at. If his men brought weapons to the New Year’s Eve banquet and challenged you with Flame Emperor, then there is no doubt he intends to oppress you through might.
“You know both of you are descendants of Luo Clan, which means that nobody on the island will dare to oppose Luo Yan even though you two head different departments. They will stand by as you two fight. More importantly, how do you know he hasn’t conquered your men on the island during your extended absence?”
“No, if he drew his arms on New Year’s Eve due to a misunderstanding, then I do not think he would dare to harm me. Luo Clan is not a lawless clan yet.” Despite his denial, his head didn’t lie when it averted Yi Wangyou’s eyes.
“Brother, you need to stop lying to yourself,” Green Prince opined from behind Yi Wangyou, shaking his head over his disillusioned brother. “You’re too nice for your own good.”
“I’ve heard it all from Patriarch Yi. I’m sure your second uncle is the most likely culprit. You’re not going home; you’re going to your own death.” In response to the hesitance written all over Luo Siming’s face, Green Prince rhetorically asked, “You think I’m a wuss? You think I don’t know your clan well enough?”
“No, not at all, Brother.”
“Don’t give me those pleasantries. We’re brothers. I know what sort of person I am. I know why Father sent me to Nanjiang. You know what? I enjoy not having to fight with people and do mental gymnastics every waking moment. Be it in literacy or martial arts, I bet any of your workers has a fat chance of flogging me. When it comes to scheming against your own kin, though, you’re nowhere near my level.
“When it comes to competition between bothers, I can defend and counter every tactic. I was an expert on all the tricks in The Lore of the War Between Brothers when I was thirteen years old. Besides my seventh brother, you think any of my brothers respect each other?
“Ol’ Red is Her Majesty’s son, the eldest and is accomplished as a martial artist and scholar. He hasn’t done squat, yet he’s already the interim overseer of the capital. I heard Orange even added League of Assassins’ second in command to his forces. With Mount Hua’s patriarch also aiding him, you think he can’t give Patriarch Yi a run for his money? What happened to him? He tried to usurp the throne.”
“His Highness was not forced to revolt?”
“Yes, but people can provoke him into rebelling while they sit back and reap the gains.” Eyes narrowed into horizontal slits, Green Prince carried on, “Be it blinded by greed or acting on an opportunity, he was arrested in the end. Say what you want. He was unprepared. Plain and simple. I know how ambitious he is. There’s no way you can convince me he had any desire to rule, though.
“You can believe the hearsay, or you can believe us, all of whom have been competing with each other for over two decades. He didn’t need to worry about war or money. Why would he suddenly have mental epilepsy and rebel if none of my other brothers didn’t egg him on?
“My father might sometimes look like a fool or a benevolent man. In reality, he knows what’s happening on the board. Some people might think he spared Second out of kindness. Someone more prudent will realise he was also trying to remind his retainers that he doesn’t give in to pressure. The last part, well, it won’t dawn on you. The third reason is that he also knows blaming Second for the entire mutiny would be unfair because he knows my other brothers also had a hand in it.”
Enlightened upon seeing his brother in a new light, Luo Siming consulted, “What do you think Second Uncle’s purpose is, Brother?”
“Pick up the slack, Brother. He already has accomplishments thanks to the length of time he has invested in the smithing department. He is damn famous if you ask me. Luo Clan might not be the wealthiest clan in Jiangnan, but your clan isn’t short on money. The only thing left that could motivate him is your clan’s patriarch seat.”
“B-but he is Father’s supporter. Father instated me as interim matriarch. Although Second Uncle has never taken a liking to me, he always adheres to Father’s orders. I can tell that he is absolutely loyal to Father.”
Yi Wangyou expounded, “That is precisely why he cannot rely on outside help to succeed the seat. Young Master Luo, it is foolish to think that loyalty to one’s predecessor can be transferred to those who come after.”
After contemplation, Luo Siming murmured to himself, “How can he take the seat, though? How does stealing weapons from various groups help him reach his goal?”
Green Prince flashed his white pearls once he finished analysing: “Who’s going to be in trouble if the weapon hunter is never caught?”
Luo Siming replied, “Even if we never find the culprit, then people will blame Luo Sword M-…”
Are you telling me Second Uncle’s rage at the dinner was merely a rehearsal?
“Bingo. If the groups who lost their weapons couldn’t hold a candle to Luo Sword Manor, what can they do? If they blow the incident up, on the other hand, you won’t be dealing with just a scuffle on the scale of what you deal with on New Year’s Eve but a massive riot.”
Luo Siming quavered, “S-Second Uncle is harassing my swordplay department to hand ball all of the blame to me?”
“Second Master Luo has a stellar reputation as a hero. He has already played the hero standing up for the people. What’s stopping him from playing the righteous hero who puts morality above family? You’ve been led by the nose the entire time.”
Yi Wangyou conveyed, “Master, Fourth Young Master just happens to be blinded by his love for his family.”
“Thank you, Captain Obvious. I’m lecturing him because he’s not asinine. If he was an idiot, I wouldn’t care what misfortune beset him. You think it doesn’t cost energy and time to criticise people?” Almost as if to drive home his point, Green Prince flopped down onto a chair, slyness flitting across his face. “There’s nothing surprising about brothers being nemeses. Between me and my five brothers, all of us are enemies. Although I feel somewhat sorry for Second losing even his rank, I know he wouldn’t show any mercy if I was in his shoes. Your second uncle has his reasons for opposing you, so don’t sulk. If you don’t want to die, learn to be vicious.”
Luo Siming emphasised his exhale once he thought it through: “Thank you for enlightening me. I know what to do now.”
“Yeah? Let’s hear it.”
“Return to the island.”
Green Prince jumped out of his chair and threw his foot in Luo Siming’s face with a flying sidekick: “The hell did I waste all that saliva for? Was that entertaining?!”
“No, let me finish, Brother. I am not returning to Repository Island as Second Uncle likely has it wrapped around his finger by now. I am returning to Flying Swallow Island, where many people from the martial world have assembled. I can ask my friends there in addition to those attending the convention to lend me a hand. I will lead the swordplay department onto the island from the front, while they sneak up from the rear to catch Second Uncle in a pincer attack.”
Yi Wangyou laughed: “Very quick thinking, Fourth Young Master. Forsooth, we need men. This one is willing to lend you a hand.”
“Thank you, Patriarch Yi.”
“Young Master, I have just come from the lakefront!” Zhi Heng cried from outside right as Luo Siming finally smiled helplessly.
“Get on board, then. We’re not returning to Repertoire Island yet, however.”
“We have an emergency! Our boat has been sunk!”
“Could Second Uncle be a step ahead of us?”
“Calm down. We shall go to the lakeside now and capture the culprit first,” advised Yi Wangyou.
Ao Xue stormed into the room to notify, “Young Master, assassin.”
“Who?” Luo Siming questioned.
With her hand pressed on her wounded shoulder, Ao Xue informed, “Dozens of men in black robes and wearing face masks.”
“Young Master, someone has barged into the front hall of our estate!”