Book 18 Chapter 08 – The Birthday Banquet
The newly built Premier Mentor Residence is the most imposing architecture besides Xianyang Palace. It is even more outstanding than Zhu Ji’s Oasis Palace.
The residence faces the Palace exactly and is surrounded by high walls. After pa.s.sing through the main gate, there is a large courtyard that can serve as a training ground for one thousand men. There are three main buildings and they are connected by extensive corridors. From south to north, everything is made of the best wood or clay. The four sides are surrounded by slopes and all the buildings have elaborate roofs and are supported by double pillars. It is as imposing as can be.
A room in the main hall is dedicated to be the ancestral hall. Besides the main halls, there are nearly thirty separate blocks of buildings which are used for housing, storage, cooking and other purposes. The buildings are divided neatly according to left and right side of the halls.
Lush greenery can be found around the main halls and it was an inviting environment. The residence must have been designed by a famous architect, highlighting Lu Buwei’s enormous wealth.
Anyone of importance in Xianyang City was all present. With the additional excitement of witnessing Xiang Shaolong and Guan Zhongxie’s duel, everyone was highly enthusiastic and the atmosphere has reached a feverish pitch.
Over ten thousand lanterns were lighted for the celebrations and congratulatory messages on auspicious red cloth can be found hanging on the main gate and all over the gardens, adding to the celebratory mood.
Scores of family warriors are dressed in neat warrior uniforms and were guarding the main gate, preventing people from coming in uninvited.
After entering the door, there are counters for guests to register themselves and present their gifts. It was a well prepared arrangement. Despite the numerous guests streaming in incessantly, everything was well laid out and there were no signs of chaos.
All the three main halls are open to accommodate the guests and the hall in the centre is naturally the largest, with the ability to seat a thousand guests. The other two halls can only seat about five hundred guests each.
Those who were a.s.signed to the sub halls can only accept their fate helplessly as they are not as influential as those in the main centre hall. They can only pray to squeeze into the main hall to watch the fight later on.
When Xiang Shaolong arrived, none of the guests have been seated yet and were dispersed around the hall exteriors and gardens, chatting among themselves. The air is filled by their voices.
It is a beautiful night with a new moon and the absence of snow. There is still five days before the beginning of spring so the weather is warming up, adding flavour to the birthday event.
For those who lack the awareness, this boisterous celebration is just a cover for the intense power struggle of the Qin empire. Xiang Shaolong is confident that tonight’s victory or loss will directly impact the future of the seven states during the Warring Period and decide the history of China.
He is the pivotal point in this struggle.
When his large entourage arrived at the main gate of the Premier Mentor Residence, there was a mad rush as everyone wanted to see their hero.
Riding besides Xiang Shaolong, Lord Changping joked: “Those people who bet on your loss must be very disappointed to see you so energetic and refreshed despite the brothel visit last night.”
Xiang Shaolong joked back: “If I really lose, I need not go back to the Wu Residence. My father in law has placed a huge bet on me. If I caused him to lose money, what do you think will happen?”
Lord Changping was stunned: “I did not know your father in law is a gambler.”
Xiang Shaolong whispered: “He is not a gambler but he will love to see Po Hu going bankrupt when honouring his loss. After that, let’s see what he can use to bribe the officials and royal family members.”
Lord Changping burst out laughing and leapt down his horse.
Tu Xian who is in charge of welcoming the guests advanced towards them. Ordering his men to rein in the horses, he whispered to Xiang Shaolong: “That man is secretly wearing a soft armour that is specially made by Yue Blacksmiths. You better attack his head. Otherwise, he can allow himself to be pierced by your spear without suffering any harm and take this chance to kill you.”
Xiang Shaolong whispered back: “Did you see me bring a spear tonight?”
Tu Xian was taken aback and seemed to understand but doesn’t seem to understand too. Someone came up to them and he can only swallow his question and spoke about some other unimportant stuff.
Sounds of music can be heard playing from the main hall, indicating that some important guest has just entered.
As Tao Fang is busy presenting their gifts, Xiang Shaolong glanced around and noticed most of the guests are unwilling to enter the halls to see Lu Buwei but are loitering around the courtyard engaging in idle chatter while enjoying the decorations and landscaping. Qin Qing just arrived too and joined Ji Yanran and the girls. With other female members of the royal family, they were joking and giggling, attracting plenty of attention from other guests. On one hand, they were attracted by their beauty and other the other hand, they were puzzled that they can still joke and laugh in a relaxed mood despite knowing that their hubby is going to fight a strong opponent later on.
The people of Qin are open-minded and loved this kind of environment. Those who have the most fun are the young beauties from prestigious families like Ying Ying and Lu Dan’er. It is also a good time for the young men to showcase their literacy talents. The scenic settings make it even better for them.
While Xiang Shaolong and the others are talking about Po Hu’s gambling racket; Lu Dan’er appeared out of nowhere and wriggled her finger, signalling Jing Jun to go over to her.
It so happens that a group of young children walked between Jing Jun and Lu Dan’er so Jing Jun did not see her signal. Xiang Shaolong saw her first and feeling cheeky, he walked over and pretended to lecture in a strict tone: “You are going to get married soon and do not even know how to greet your elders. What is the world coming too?”
With her hands on her waist, Lu Dan’er wailed: “Hng! Whose elder are you? Do you even care if I am getting married? Yi!” She recalled that Xiang Shaolong is Jing Jun’s Third Brother and her face turned red instantly. Stomping her foot, she cried: “You are so irritating, you big bully.”
Xiang Shaolong burst out laughing and pushed Jing Jun who has just came up to them towards her. He proudly smiled: “Dear Dan’er, I will wait for the day you kneel down and offer me your wedding toast!”
At a disadvantage, Lu Dan’er dared not berate him. Holding Jing Jun’s hand, she slipped away into the crowd with him.
Shaking his head and sighing, Ying Ying’s voice suddenly rang out beside him: “Official Xiang!”
Turning around, Xiang Shaolong got a big fright: “What is your expression so pale?”
Ying Ying bitterly smiled: “I did not sleep well for many nights. Ai! Since things have come to such a stage, what more can I say?”
Xiang Shaolong plainly state: “No matter what happens tonight, it can be considered a closure for you. In the future, dedicate all your love to Brother Duanhe and be a good wife and mother!”
Ying Ying moved closer and softly asked: “Tell me, if Guan Zhongxie never appeared, would you have married me?”
Xiang Shaolong bitterly smiled: “By now, I think there is no need for such kinds of questions or answers!”
Ying Ying insisted: “No! If I do not find out the truth, I will never be satisfied.”
Xiang Shaolong helplessly confessed: “Once, I did have feelings for you.”
Ying Ying lowered her head and whispered: “If anything happens to you tonight, I will not marry… Ai! I will not say anymore. Ah!”
Looking at her crestfallen face, Xiang Shaolong can only shake his head with a bitter smile. Ying Ying seems to think that he will certainly lose.
Xiang Shaolong naturally wasn’t bothered by her thoughts and went back to Lord Changping and Teng Yi’s side. Lord Changping inquired: “What did my sister say?”
Xiang Shaolong replied: “Nothing interesting.”
Lord Changping coldly snorted: “How can there be nothing interesting? She may have decided to marry Duanhe but is still pining for Guan Zhongxie. She kept saying you are not his match. How infuriating.”
The other guests are beginning to enter the banquet halls. Wu Yingyuan felt embarra.s.sed to stay outside for too long and waved to everyone to enter together.
Since he is their senior, everyone obeyed without question.
Lu Buwei, Lu Niang Rong and his sons are at the main door welcoming the guests. The air is filled with congratulatory messages.
Lord Changping is probably the most una.s.suming and easy going Left Premier of Qin. Despite his exalted status, he entered the hall alongside Xiang Shaolong and Wu Yingyuan, offering his congratulations to Lu Buwei.
Wu Yingyuan is an experienced man when it comes to socializing. He comfortably wished Lu Buwei a long list of auspicious congratulatory phrases.
Xiang Shaolong could not help but think about the close relationship between Lu Buwei and the Wu Family in the past compared to all the present hostility. His heart is troubled with mixed emotions.
In his mind, Lu Buwei must have condemned Xiang Shaolong to lose the fight and his life. With a delighted and welcoming expression, his face is glowing with pleasure and was chatting and joking without a care in the world. When he spotted Xiang Shaolong, his eyes lit up. Abandoning his other guests, he personally welcomed: “Tonight is my lucky night. I celebrate my birthday and will gain a fine son in law. With my success, life has no more regrets.”
Xiang Shaolong was thinking that his biggest regret is his inability to be the King of Qin. On the surface, he acted normal and offered his congratulations like everybody else.
Before Lu Buwei can say anything else, Xiang Shaolong gestured to the people behind him. Everyone breezed through the door and do not have to offer any hypocritical wishes.
After a few steps, a silhouette flashed by. Lu Niang Rong appeared in front of Xiang Shaolong and with a cold expression, she state: “Official Xiang, I need to speak to you privately.”
Huan Yi, Teng Yi and the rest moved on and followed the ushers to their seats.
Lu Niang Rong plainly remarked: “Official Xiang, please come with me!”
Xiang Shaolong is certain that she has nothing good to say and can feel a grudge for her. Following her through the banquet tables, they came to an external door leading towards the central garden. Xiang Shaolong stopped and insisted: “Can we just say it here? Otherwise, others may start to gossip about us.”
The Guardians are initially behind him. Hearing his words, they fanned out in all four directions and prevent people from getting close to them.
Lu Niang Rong turned around and icily commented: “Since when did you become so timid and afraid of gossip? Moreover, if you win, I will be your woman. What is there to be frightened of?”
Xiang Shaolong can detect the sarcasm in her voice. Though angered, he would not hold it against her. He simply smiled: “I am sure Third Mistress asked me here for a better reason than just ridiculing me.”
Lu Niang Rong’s eyes shone sharply and she replied in a deep voice: “Of course! I am not in the mood to chat with you and only want to ask you a question: Since you do not love me, why did you accept Zhongxie’s challenge?”
Unable to hold it any longer, Xiang Shaolong coldly smiled: “All Third Mistress needs to do later is to publicly announce that you are only willing to marry Official Guan. Then, even if I want to fight him, there is no reason to.”
Her pretty face turning grave cold, Lu Niang Rong stared fiercely at him for some time before slowly nodding: “Fine! I shall see how you end up tonight.”
With a vicious stomp, she returned to the main hall.
After her fragrance has dissipated from the air, Xiang Shaolong sighed to himself.
Lu Niang Rong may be an evil woman but she has his interests at heart. She wanted to dissuade him from fighting because like Ying Ying, she thinks he will surely lose the fight.
But in order to kill Guan Zhongxie, he had to ignore her good intentions.
Back at the main hall, most of the guests have already been seated. Everyone is turning their heads, looking and pointing at him. It seems like the duel between him and Guan Zhongxie is a recurring topic in their conversations.
Due to the large number of guests, besides the three hosting tables at the south, the rest of the tables are divided into two sides, the left and right side. Each side has four layers of tables and each table can seat four persons. They are all facing the s.p.a.cious stage in the middle of the hall which will soon be the centre of attraction for song and dance performances and the duel as well.
As it is time to be seated, an usher came up to them and led them towards their seats.
Xiang Shaolong is seated in the first row of the right side, eight tables away from the hosting tables.
The other people in the first rows are naturally Lord Changping, w.a.n.g He, w.a.n.g Ci and other prominent generals. Opposite them in the first rows are w.a.n.g Wan, Cai Ze, Lao Ai and the influential people in the Premier Mentor Residence. Guan Zhongxie, however, cannot be found.
Sitting down besides Teng Yi, Jing Jun and Wu Yingyuan, Xiang Shaolong discovered his three wives and Qin Qing seated on the same row ahead of them and are sending him sweet looks and smiles, adding to his joy. Looking behind them, he saw the same sweet looks and smiles from the pretty and attractive Tian sisters. Incidentally, Tao Fang is sharing their table.
The Guardians are sitting behind Xiang Shaolong’s table.
After some idle chat with Wu Yingyuan, Xiang Shaolong looked towards the main door. The group of thirty odd musicians on both sides of the door have stopped playing while Lu Buwei, Lu Niang Rong and the others have disappeared. Only Tu Xian is left welcoming the guests.
Out of the blue, Wu Yingyuan poked Xiang Shaolong under the table. Xiang Shaolong broke out of his trance and scanned around. He finally noticed Du Bi and Po Hu seated opposite them and were leaving their seats and walking towards them. Xiang Shaolong, Teng Yi and Jing Jun can only follow Wu Yingyuan’ example by standing up to greet them.
Po Hu is looking straight ahead while Du Bi stared viciously at Ji Yanran and Qin Qing with jealousy. Although he pretended to be looking around aimlessly, his behaviour did not escape the sharp observation skills of Xiang Shaolong.
In between the adjoining tables, everyone introduced themselves and mentioned the usual courtesies. Po Hu’s sharp eyes a.s.sessed Xiang Shaolong for a while and he chuckled: “Official Xiang is truly an outstanding talent which is rare among men. No wonder Master Wu placed a huge bet on you. As a friend, I wish you victory but as a businessman, I wish for the opposite. My heart is in a dilemma!”
Xiang Shaolong is beginning to understand Huan Yi’s dislike for this man. Based on his demeanour and att.i.tude, he seems to regard everyone and everything as a business transaction. It is even more obvious just by looking at his eyes.
Wu Yingyuan is an experienced socialite. He laughed: “Master Po is too serious. My little bet in nothing in your eyes and of course, will hardly affect your wealth and harming our friendship.”
Xiang Shaolong and his wives overheard his words and were full of admiration.
Du Bi smiled: “Master Wu’s answer is really great. If Official Xiang’s sword skill is as great, he will definitely win tonight. When that happens, I am afraid Master Po will have to sell his properties in order to honour his loss.”
Xiang Shaolong joked: “Today, I finally learnt that Great General knows how to tell jokes too. Master Po’s wealth is immeasurable; just by taking any banknote from his wallet is more than enough for all of us to be VIP clients in Drunken Wind Brothel night after night.”
Hearing his exaggerated words, everyone is highly amused and even Ji Yanran and the girls are smiling like flowers in full blossom, attracting the attention of those who are interested in them.
The door attendant announced: “The Empress and Crown Prince arrives!”
The music began to start playing.
All the elegantly dressed maids who are serving wine and food are the first to kneel down.
Po Hu and Du Bi bade their farewells and returned to their table.
The rest of the guests kneeled down and prepare to welcome the Empress and Crown Prince.
Jing Jun reminded: “The man seated between Lao Ai and Han Jie is Headmaster Qiu Risheng of the Weinan Martial Arts School.”
Xiang Shaolong slanted his face to one side, facing Lao Ai’s table and promptly identified Qiu Risheng.
It so happens that Qiu Risheng and Han Jie are looking over at him too. When their eyes met, all three men felt slightly awkward.
This is the second time Xiang Shaolong has seen Qiu Risheng. He first saw him during his duel with w.a.n.g Jian. Due to the distance between them during that time, he did not have a clear impression of this man. This expert swordsman has fine features and his limbs are longer than the ordinary man, giving the impression that they are very sensitive and agile. Around the age of thirty five, his eyes are br.i.m.m.i.n.g with energy and he has the air of an extraordinary man. Looking at his appearance alone, one can already feel that he is an extremely fearsome opponent. No wonder Lao Ai is so keen to recruit him.
He also noticed Xiao Pan’s spy, Mao Jiao seated behind their table with Ling Qi and Guoxin. His status is below that of Qiu Risheng, Han Jie and Lao Si who are sharing Lao Ai’s table.
The door attendant made another announcement and the music played even louder. Sixteen palace guards first paved the way before Zhu Ji, Xiao Pan and Lu Buwei strode into the hall.
Behind them are Lord Changwen and another sixteen palace guards. They are followed by the key people of Lu Buwei’s household including Lu Niang Rong and the newly arrived Guan Zhongxie.
Despite the short interval, Guan Zhongxie is certainly more powerful than before. He walked with strong, confident steps and his eyes are shining as if they are electrified. In an intimidating manner, he walked ahead of a group of family warriors. Except for his near equal swordsman Xu Shang, everyone else seems to be despised by him.
When Xiang Shaolong caught sight of him, Guan Zhongxie happened to see him too. Exchanging a long stare, it was like two lightning bolts striking from each other’s eyes.
As tonight is Lu Buwei’s grand birthday celebration and given his special status as the Premier Mentor, Zhu Ji and Xiao Pan displayed their respect and insisted that he take the main seat.
After some tussling, Lu Buwei finally sat down.
Guan Zhongxie and his men took their seats.
After everyone got seated too, their attention subconsciously turned towards Guan Zhongxie.
The most annoying thing is Lu Niang Rong sitting right besides Guan Zhongxie, highlighting Lu Buwei’s dissatisfaction with Xiang Shaolong and hinting that Guan Zhongxie will win the duel without question.
In the front row too, Guan Zhongxie is seated one table lower than Lao Ai. Sharing his table are Lian Jiao and Zhao Pu the two expert swordsmen. The old birds Lu Chan and Zhou Zihen are seated behind them. They must have lost favour with Lu Buwei after failing to live up to expectations during the hunting fair. They have been replaced by the new swordsmen.
This is typical of Lu Buwei’s ingrat.i.tude character.
After Xiao Pan mentioned some hypocritical words commending Lu Buwei’s achievements, the long awaited birthday banquet finally began.