"My stupid eyes misjudged you! Zhao Feihong! You treacherous, lying bastard!"
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On the twelfth day of the first month, the capital was bustling with noise and excitement.
Ever since General Li Mou retook the capital as the new ruler and Li Qingcheng slaughtered 200,000 Xiongnu warriors outside the Great Wall, the Central Plains had enjoyed a golden era of peace for the past three hundred years. Blessed with a wise ruler, Shenzhou was the richest and most abundant it had ever been.
The Great Yu was also a prosperous dynasty with great military might, where the commoners lived and toiled contentedly, and over 800,000 households called the capital home. As soon as the Lantern Festival approached, all the commoners from every corner, inside and outside of the Imperial City, would enter the city to watch the lantern display, and people as far as the eye could see crowded outside the massive city gates.
This was the first time that You Mengzhe had seen such a spectacle in his entire life. It was early morning when they arrived at the capital, and the Thousand Lanterns Bridge had already been drawn down over the moat in preparation for the Lantern Festival three days from now.
As You Mengzhe followed Zhao Feihong into the city, he saw businesses and hawkers everywhere, teahouses and taverns packed with people, and splendor and magnificence galore. Compared to the capital, Jiangzhou was practically a hicktown. Every expense, from the food to the clothing, were the absolute best in all of the Great Yu, and there were so many fun things to do!
Merchants from the Western Regions, swordsmen from Yingzhou, martial artists from the East Sea, the convoy of carriages from Yunmeng, and people from all over the world made up the prosperous, diverse tapestry. Everywhere he went, he saw cockfighters, cricket fighters, qin players, singers, street performers, swordsmen, writers, sugar-blowers, bronze fish peddlers, and storytellers.
You Mengzhe almost lost his way several times, squeezing into crowds whenever he saw something exciting. Every time this happened, Zhao Feihong would have to turn back and drag him by his collar back onto the road.
“What’s that, Shifu?”
“What about that?”
“Candied haws! I know these!”
“What are those people made out of dough?”
“What about this? Why does it have water?”
“That contraption can move on its own?”
You Mengzhe was like a country bumpkin, and as a matter of fact, he and Zhao Feihong did look like they had just arrived from the countryside.
Both master and disciple carried a dusty staff on their backs, with their long robes covered in dirt, and compared with the glamorous clothing worn by all these pampered young masters, they really did look like street performers who had just entered the capital.
A procession of sixteen large palanquins travelled over majestically, drums beating and gongs sounding, and the masses hurriedly gave way—some wealthy person in the capital was getting married!
In the scuffle, someone stepped on You Mengzhe’s foot, which made him blow up and grab a family’s servant and scream, “Hey!”
"Don’t cause trouble!” Zhao Feihong commanded sternly.
You Mengzhe had no choice but to let it go, and when he passed by another shop, he started to curiously look around again.
“What’s this? Shifu?” You Mengzhe picked up some contraption made out of pure gold.
“Ai! Be careful what you touch!”
The shop worker shot him a look. You Mengzhe didn’t look like he was going to buy something. “This is a water pipe for the ladies."
"How much is this brush?" You Mengzhe asked again, and shot a look at Zhao Feihong that suggested they should bring a gift when visiting Zhang Yuanshan.
Without scoffing at him, the shop assistant simply replied, "Three thousand taels."
You Mengzhe: "..."
Zhao Feihong smiled and said, "Let’s go."
"This brush costs three thousand silver taels? I can buy a chestful for just five taels..." You Mengzhe exclaimed.
The shop assistant corrected, "Not three thousand taels of silver! Three thousand taels of gold! The handle is made from deep-sea wood, the hair from the Northern Wolf God, and the brush handcrafted by the artisans on Kunlun Mountain! Our shop clearly marked the prices, which are all in gold."
You Mengzhe went to check out the four treasures of the study, a Nine Dragon White Jade brush washing bowl, a black cyan brush holder shaped like mountains, a smoky-black inkstone, a table carved from tree roots, and a colored glass folding screen. Any random item here would cost the exorbitant price of a dozen taels of gold.
The shop assistant fetched some water and just like that, poured it into a brush washing bowl. Under the hazy-white daylight, which reflected from the exquisitely glazed glass bowl, the countless swimming fish carved on the wall moved with the water.
You Mengzhe clicked his tongue in admiration, to which the shop assistant remarked, "All the calligraphy essentials in the Imperial Study were gifted from our store.”
As he spoke, he stirred the brush in the bowl once, and black ink dispersed like smoke, but didn’t dilute, like a wisp of black mist frozen in white jade.
You Mengzhe smiled and said, "I definitely can't afford it."
It was true that even he couldn’t afford this. You Mengzhe’s household was worth several thousand taels of silver at best. He finally understood the saying “In the whole wide world, there will always be someone better than you.”
"What are you selling here?" You Mengzhe grabbed an old man and asked.
"Bronze fish sculptures!" The old man carried a load slung over his shoulder with a pole. "Made from the capital's 300-year-old craftsmanship!" The bronze fish filled his baskets, swaying and swishing.
You Mengzhe had to stop and take a look at everything he saw until finally, Zhao Feihong said, "Let's go, at this rate it’ll get dark soon. A whole month wouldn’t be long enough for you to look at everything. After we finish what we need to do, I can bring you back here again.” He dragged You Mengzhe away, then went to hire another carriage outside of the East Market.
As soon as the driver opened his mouth, he asked for one tael of silver, and Zhao Feihong didn’t try to haggle. They spent a good one-and-a-half shichens in the carriage in stop-and-go traffic, occasionally having to make way and wait for the endless streams of horses and carriages along the road.
It was dark when they finally arrived outside the Zhang Manor, which had lanterns hung all over shining on the long road like daylight, two crimson lanterns with the character ‘Zhang’, and guardian lions as tall as a people protecting the residence from harm. The Zhang Manor had four main gates and four side gates, but the main gate was closed and not open to guests.
Zhao Feihong went to knock on the door, and a servant boy responded from the side door, “Our Master is out visiting acquaintances, please come back another day.”
"Where did he go? I’m Zhao Feihong."
The servant boy wrinkled his brow, and when he recognized Zhao Feihong, he hurriedly exclaimed, "Uncle Zhang! Master’s sworn brother is here!"
"Hero Zhao!" There was a commotion inside, and a moment later an extravagantly dressed man with the air of a noble came out to greet them.
Zhao Feihong cupped his hands. "Uncle Zhang."
Unwittingly, You Mengzhe assumed that he was Zhang Yuanshan’s father, and was just puzzling over why Zhao Feihong hadn’t made him kowtow when that Uncle Zhang said, “Three days ago, Master set off for Ting County. Let’s talk inside, let’s talk inside.”
Zhao Feihong asked, "What for? We must have just missed each other on the road.”
It was then that You Mengzhe realized that the person in front of him was the steward. The steward Uncle Zhang led them into the residence into the front courtyard, then past the courtyard through the second gate into the training grounds. Up ahead was the master residence, where two young servants came out carrying lanterns.
“Hero Zhao, this way please,” said the steward.
As they walked through the front corridor, lights and lanterns glittered like jewels all over the residence, and You Mengzhe followed along until he lost all sense of direction. Good God! The Zhang residence was even more extravagant and lavish than the Demon Cult’s main hall on Yuheng Mountain! With six halls and three courtyards, it very likely housed over a hundred rooms, and You Mengzhe took in all of this in a disoriented daze.
Finally they arrived at a spacious room in the West Wing. The housekeeper instructed people to serve them tea, and without declining, Zhao Feihong sat down. The housekeeper stayed standing and explained the situation to Zhao Feihong. After receiving a letter a few days ago, Zhang Yuanshan had ordered people to prepare the horses, and had personally set off towards Ting County. You Mengzhe secretly thought that it was great that he wasn’t here, so he wouldn’t have to go through the trouble of getting his cultivation dispersed.
Just when they heard the gist of things, a maidservant came with several dishes: hand-torn sesame fox meat, marinated deer lips, small steamed rolls made of bamboo fungus and ham, a dish of deep-fried fish mouths, and two cups of ginger water sweetened with dark brown sugar.
You Mengzhe hadn’t eaten all afternoon. He was ready to dig in, and truly, ever since he’d been on the road with Zhao Feihong, he hadn’t eaten even one satisfying meal. As soon as he saw the table piled high with food, his eyes went green.
The housekeeper said, “It’s cold outside, so warm up your stomach with some snacks first. Young Master You, what do you like to eat? Do you have any food restrictions? I can order the kitchen to make something right now.”
You Mengzhe: “!!!”
So these were only the appetizers!
You Mengzhe truly felt that he had underestimated the sheer luxury of Zhang Yuanshan's household.
Zhao Feihong interjected, "He’s a young man already, there’s no need to indulge him. What did the letter say? May I read it?"
The housekeeper quickly acquiesced and went to get the letter. You Mengzhe devoured all four plates until they gleamed, then shot a glance at Zhao Feihong. A moment later, the servants arrived with supper, piling the table with exotic delicacies from all over, and You Mengzhe ate until his belly bulged as round as a ball, belching as he lay splayed on the chair.
Zhao Feihong only helped himself to a little portion, his head buried in the letter, and after reading it carefully, he asked, “Would you please lend me a brush and paper?”
"This way, please," invited the steward, as he led Zhao Feihong into the study, with You Mengzhe lagging behind them.
The housekeeper spread out a new piece of paper, and Zhao Feihong pondered to himself for a moment before he picked up the brush and began writing.
As You Mengzhe watched Zhao Feihong write, he could pretty much guess what had transpired—On the eighth day of the first month, Zhang Yuanshan had received a letter notifying him that there would be a gathering of martial artists in Xichuan. The thirty-six sects of Xichuan had always clashed with the Central Plains’ Alliance leadership, and after the sub-leader who had been elected at the alliance meeting at Mirror Lake had gone back home, he hadn’t convinced the masses, and now the rest of the smaller sects were either plotting against or clearly provoking him, and he had fallen into their trap.
Thus, Zhang Yuanshan personally set off for Ting County to find Zhao Feihong, planning to go with him to Xichuan to settle the dispute. However, at that time, Zhao Feihong had just happened to be on his way to the capital, so they had narrowly missed each other. Now Zhao Feihong was writing another letter to have someone deliver to Ting County to call Zhang Yuanshan back to the capital, basically telling him that he would go there in person to deal with the Xichuan matter and that Zhang Yuanshan should return to the capital. He also informed him about the matters regarding You Mengzhe.
Before long, Zhao Feihong put down his brush, sealed the letter, and the steward went to dispatch someone to deliver it. Then Zhao Feihong stood up and said, “I must borrow a horse.”
You Mengzhe remained silent as the steward complied, "I will prepare a horse for Hero Zhao at once.”
Zhao Feihong added, "When I’m not here, I will have to trouble Uncle Zhang to look after my little disciple.”
"You’re going to Xichuan?" asked You Mengzhe.
The housekeeper asked, "Does Hero Zhao want to wait for Master to come back so you can all go together?”
"No need, I can resolve it. Mengzhe, you stay here in the manor. Yuanshan is my sworn brother, so you mustn’t cause him any trouble, understand?"
You Mengzhe looked down with his eyebrows twisted, wearing an ugly expression on his face.
Perceptively, the steward smiled and said, "I can tell at first glance that Young Master You is from a scholarly family. Please bear with me if there is anything less than satisfactory."
Zhao Feihong admonished You Mengzhe again, "Did you hear me? Why aren’t you speaking?”
As he asked this, several people had already arrived in the rear court, the young servants leading along a fine, white horse.
You Mengzhe suddenly blurted out, "Didn't you say you wouldn’t fight my father? Don't go."
Zhao Feihong’s brows wrinkled, but he just couldn’t find the words to say.
You Mengzhe continued, "It’s not like you and my father have any deep hatreds. Who cares about Xichuan or the righteous alliance, just let them be."
"Impudent! I must have spoiled you too much, when did I promise you that? I have always said we’ll talk about it later. What’s more, this is no small matter, so how can you just assume whatever you want?”
You Mengzhe was starting to feel a bit heated, while Zhao Feihong's expression had relaxed a little.
"Be good and stay here. You can go visit your friend. I believe Yuanshan will be back after a few more days. After he returns, you must listen to everything he says. I must go now."
Zhao Feihong swung himself onto the horse, and the steward brought him some money for the road. Zhao Feihong accepted without ado; it was clear that he really did share a sworn brotherhood with Zhang Yuanshan.
From atop his horse, Zhao Feihong looked at You Mengzhe, and You Mengzhe looked at him. Zhao Feihong looked like he was waiting for him to say something, but You Mengzhe didn’t say a word.
Zhao Feihong waited for another moment, the atmosphere exceedingly awkward. But from start to finish, You Mengzhe refused to say a word, so Zhao Feihong cupped his fists in farewell to the steward and with a lift of his reins, left the back alley.
"My stupid eyes misjudged you! Zhao Feihong! You treacherous, lying bastard!" Only until Zhao Feihong was a dozen paces away did You Mengzhe explode into a fiery hot rage in his direction.
Zhao Feihong abruptly pulled on the reins, and the fine, snowy-white steed let out a long neigh as it halted.
Startled, You Mengzhe hurriedly ducked into the rear courtyard as Zhao Feihong looked back in his direction. He looked like he wanted to turn back and say something, but after a moment of stillness, he turned around and stole into the night, leaving the Zhang Manor behind.
That's when You Mengzhe poked his head out and, all alone, watched Zhao Feihong leave, which almost made him explode with both rage and hatred. Then he went back inside with an ugly expression on his face. The steward had a keen eye for reading people, and knew when to speak and when not to speak.
All You Mengzhe wanted was to find something, anything, to smash to let out his anger, but this was someone else’s home… Oh right, money! Zhao Feihong didn’t even leave him any money, so what should he do?
That same night the steward sent servants to heat water and help You Mengzhe bathe, but right away he told them he didn’t need to be served. When You Mengzhe returned to his room, he even saw a plate of sixty small gold ingots, which appeased him at once.
The bedding smelled fragrant, and someone had taken his clothes out to wash. While You Mengzhe was still bathing, the steward had sent people to buy him a new set of unlined garments and tailored robes, with reddish-black chosen in mind. Even more so, they were all made from exquisite, precious material, and as soon as You Mengzhe put them on, he immediately looked sharper and more sophisticated. Compared with those dusty gray martial robes, it was simply the difference between heaven and earth.
The bed had a covering canopy made of pure silk and five or six layers of warm brocade quilts. Even a camel wool rug from the Western Regions covered the floor. And every single one of the paintings hung on the wall that You Mengzhe checked, had all come from renowned artists. There was also Zhang Yuanshan’s calligraphy: “Like soulmates bonding over the zither and untying jade pendants, we had a love like the legends, but even holding onto her sleeve, I couldn’t keep her.”
A shelf held an array of ancient antiques—not a lot, but they were all one-of-a-kind. You Gutian also collected quite a few antiques and calligraphy works, but even a random guest room in Zhang Yuanshan’s manor had antiques of the same grade as the Demon Cult’s centuries-old heirlooms.
He’s so rich, maybe even richer than You Gutian. Where did all this money come from?
It was still early, and You Mengzhe’s anger dissipated soon after. He thought and thought; after all was said and done, he was living under someone else’s roof, and if it wasn’t for giving Zhao Feihong face, they wouldn’t have provided him food, clothing, and shelter or attended to his needs. But he also hated Zhao Feihong a little, so he felt very conflicted.
You Mengzhe went out for a stroll, and a young servant immediately followed after him.
You Mengzhe waved him off. "No need to follow."
The young servant immediately halted and re-stationed himself in front of the bedroom. You Mengzhe was used to being the Demon Cult’s Young Master, and even though he didn’t spend time with You Gutian every day, within that serious raise of his hand and stride was the dignified air of a young master.
The Zhang Manor was enormous, with courtyards upon courtyards and rooms upon rooms. You Mengzhe strolled through the garden, and when the steward learned of this, he personally went out to accompany him.
“Your house is so impressive,” You Mengzhe blurted out.
The steward chuckled. “Not at all, Young Master’s home must be just as impressive. We’ve made you laugh.”
You Mengzhe raised his eyebrows and asked, "You know who I am?"
The steward answered deferentially, "Only a distinguished guest with the status of a young master would praise us so. If it was someone else, when they entered the manor, they would only look and not speak, because they would be afraid to say something wrong and make a fool of themselves.”
You Mengzhe burst into laughter. This steward really knew how to sweet-talk. Then he asked, "This is...Zhang...Uncle Zhang's room?"
The steward replied, "Master is not particular about this, Young Master can call him whatever you like.”
No matter how excessive You Mengzhe could be, he wouldn’t dare say the two words “Dumb mute” to his face, so he just nodded. He also didn’t go into his room, and instead peered inside at a distance from the courtyard outside the chamber. The room was about the same size as his own side chamber in Qinghua Hall, and had many decorations. However, You Mengzhe seemed to notice something.
Zhang Yuanshan's bedroom decor was almost exactly the same as his own, and the layout was also similar. The bed was also spacious, the shelves were crammed full of books, and the priceless celadon vases on the floor were stuffed with scrolls of calligraphy paintings. It felt as if he had wanted to fill this entire room.
It must feel very cold living in such a place all alone.
When You Mengzhe was a child, he also liked to bring all sorts of things from everywhere into his room, and You Gutian let him. Practically everyday, You Mengzhe would hoard some new thing in his room. Whenever the Demon Cult cleaned, they would throw out quite an amount, but a few days later You Mengzhe would bring some new things back inside again.
Seeing You Mengzhe outside the entrance for a long while with an expression of both wanting and not wanting to go in, the steward mentioned, “If Young Master is willing, you may go in and take a look.”
You Mengzhe nodded and walked inside. He didn’t mess around or touch any of Zhang Yuanshan’s things, and saw quite a few vases and jars. "Is Martial Uncle sick all year round?"
The steward smiled and opened a white jade plum blossom urn. It was a bit dusty inside, and empty, except for a lump of something ruined or rotten at the bottom.
You Mengzhe was extremely curious, but he didn’t reach inside. “What’s this?”
The steward replied, "Potato, a cricket. Master kept them as a child. They’re all dead now, but he keeps them still and won’t let us bury them.”
You Mengzhe nodded. So it seemed that even Zhang Yuanshan liked to cricket-fight. Then he saw some calligraphy hung on the wall: "Governing a Great Nation is like Cooking a Small Fish."
You Mengzhe smiled and asked, "Why were these words hung here? Shouldn’t it be hung in the kitchen?"
The steward cupped his hands and bowed towards the North. “Master wrote this for the reigning emperor. His Majesty didn’t like it and exchanged it for the ‘Prosperous Age of Peace, Resplendent Rivers and Mountains’, so he hung it in his own room instead.”
Visibly moved, You Mengzhe exclaimed, “He even knows the Emperor?!
The steward chuckled. "Master has only known three people in his entire life. First the Emperor, second Hero Zhao, and third, Young Hero You.”
You Mengzhe: "......"
Wasn’t this kind of boot-licking a little too much? The corners of his mouth twitched as he asked, “So he has no other friends?"
"He doesn’t. When others come to visit, he turns all of them away at the door without exception."
"And does he not have relatives?”
The steward waved his hand with a smile, and You Mengzhe asked again, “So all these people here just wait upon him alone? What do you usually talk about with him? Oh right, he’s…”
"Usually Master just lets us do whatever we need to do, as long as we’re in the manor.”
This person was really weird.
But then he suddenly realized that they were both pretty similar. Back on the mountain, wasn’t You Mengzhe the same? Everyday he would just wander around with an emptiness somewhere in his heart that he could never fill. It seemed like the Demon Cult members didn’t really care about him…
You Mengzhe thought of Yuwen Hong again. No words could describe how much he missed him. Especially after Zhao Feihong had bullied him, he had just wanted to find someone to talk to. Not necessarily to ask him to make a scene, but just to grumble and vent to, to have someone who would listen.
After thinking about it though, didn’t Zhang Yuanshan have it even worse? He couldn’t even speak, nor could he talk to himself; he had to hold all of it inside. If You Mengzhe went mute, he would probably go insane.
Feeling rather sad, he didn’t expect the steward to add, “Before the new year, Master received a letter from Jiangnan and learned that Young Master You was studying under Hero Zhao. He was ecstatic all night long.”
No wonder; when all was said and done, this steward must have known his identity, and Zhang Yuanshan also must have known his mother. Zhao Feihong had said last time that the three of them had drunk wine together in the Jiangshan Pavillion... he just didn’t know if this mute was the type to clench his fists and cry ‘Ah Ah Ah!’ when he was happy.
How did he express his happiness…
"How did he express his happiness?" You Mengzhe asked casually.
The steward smiled and said, "On the day he received the letter, he personally wrote something for the Young Master. This way, please.”
The steward invited You Mengzhe into the study and took a scroll from the bookshelf. When You Mengzhe unrolled it, he saw seven words: Noblemen Submerge their Might in Deep Waters. You Mengzhe stared and stared, but he just couldn’t figure out why he would write this for him.
“Heh heh heh, please thank him for me."
The steward replied, "When Master comes home, Young Master can thank him in person."
You Mengzhe smacked his lips, having no choice but to acknowledge that his calligraphy was better than his own. He brought the scroll back to his room, then asked about the way around the capital, planning to pay Yu Changqing a visit tomorrow.
YU CHANGQING WHO?
update on why this is a week late: 1. summer cram college courses railed me HARD 2. my vision has been declining rapidly lately so I was told to limit my screentime thus I haven’t been tling as much, but basically you can still expect one chapter per week!! the day just might not be perfectly Tuesdays anymore!!
I will upload half of the next chapter tomorrow because I’m so tired right now so can’t spend another hour adding the TN and pictures lol
Love you all and be well <3
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Ruini.