Book 18 Chapter 09 – Appetizers
After a teasing performance by the song courtesans of Premier Mentor Residence, Meng Ao, w.a.n.g Wan and Cai Ze led the entire hall in toasting Lu Buwei for his birthday, adding to the lively atmosphere.
Following that, Guan Zhongxie, Lu Niang Rong and the other clansmen led Lu Buwei to the other two halls to toast the other guests.
As Xiao Pan and Zhu Ji are still around, the thousand strong banquet is still quite noisy and were chatting about the imminent duel between Xiang Shaolong and Guan Zhongxie, speculating who the winner will be.
Opposite him, Lao Ai faced Xiang Shaolong and raised his cup, wishing him success in his fight. Xiang Shaolong smiled back knowingly and put his own cup to his lips. He did not drink at all but is just putting on a show. Out of a sudden, Wu Tingfang gestured to him to come over. Puzzled, Xiang Shaolong shifted nearer to them and asked in a low voice: “What is it?”
Ji Yanran inched closer to him and replied in a deep voice: “Lu Buwei is really despicable. Earlier, Meng Tian walked past us and secretly whispered: Qi ambush in front of Wu Residence. Lu Buwei is going all out to kill you tonight. If Guan Zhongxie failed to kill you, others will. But even I cannot understand why the a.s.sa.s.sins from Qi?”
It is not unusual for people to ambush him but given Lu Buwei’s risk-taking style, even Xiang Shaolong is baffled over Lu Buwei’s choice to use Qi a.s.sa.s.sins.
He had wanted to tease Qin Qing who is sitting on the other side but noticed Zhu Ji staring at them. Frightened out of his senses, Xiang Shaolong swallowed all his words and returned to his seat, taking the chance to update Teng Yi and Jing Jun about the ambush.
Teng Yi coldly snorted and turned around to speak to Jing Shan sitting behind him. Within a few minutes, Wu Yan Zhu left to make the necessary arrangements.
The sound of music was being played once again. Before Lu Buwei can be seen, his delightful laughter can already be heard. With Guan Zhongxie and his family escorting him, he entered the main hall a second time in his best ever mood. Everyone stood up and gave him a standing ovation.
Extremely flattered, Lu Buwei strode right to the centre of the hall. When his cup is filled again, he raised his cup towards Zhu Ji and Xiao Pan, bellowing: “Let’s toast Empress and Crown Prince first.”
Besides Xiang Shaolong, Wu Yingyuan coldly cursed: “I want to see how long this heartless man can continue like this.”
Looking at Xiao Pan, Zhu Ji and Lu Buwei toasting each other, Xiang Shaolong cannot help but feel emotional.
This can be considered the peak of Lu Buwei’s glory. Later, he will fail to kill himself and shortly after, the Black Dragon will be sighted. Significant changes will be made to the Qin Court and his authority will be vastly limited. Another reason for his decline in influence is the rise of Lao Ai.
By now, Lu Buwei’s toasting party has arrived in front of their table. Holding a full cup of wine, Guan Zhongxie walked closer and facing Xiang Shaolong, he toasted: “No matter who wins tonight, I am full of admiration for Official Xiang.”
Glancing at his formidable opponent, Xiang Shaolong returned the courtesies with a smile.
Both men only made a show of drinking the wine.
When everyone has returned to their seats, Lu Buwei stood up again and announced: “The Chancellor of Qi, Tian Dan, has sent me a troupe of circus performers. Every person in the circus has an amazing talent to perform and I guarantee everyone will be blown away.”
The guests were expecting him to announce the duel between Xiang Shaolong and Guan Zhongxie instead. Slightly disappointed, their thoughts were interrupted by a circus of over a hundred performers. The performers are elaborately dressed and agile, earning loud praises and applause from the crowd.
Xiang Shaolong and his men were alarmed.
The Qi a.s.sa.s.sins must be referring to these circus performers.
Everyone is captivated by their first impression of the circus. On the outer circle, there were ten odd strongmen somersaulting on the spot. In the centre, there is a cheerleader stacking formation of thirty over people. Under the leadership of a midget dressed as a clown, it was a highly entertaining show. The most enthralling part is the formation. Except for the eight hunks forming the base, the next three layers are all 5exy women. The Qi lady at the top of the pyramid is as beautiful as a G.o.ddess from heaven. She may not be as pretty as Ji Yanran and the others but can be considered the top of her league.
The other performers are gathered around the formation and are performing different kinds of difficult stunts.
With the accompanying music and cheering of the crowd, the formation spread open like a flower blossoming. Four of the hunks rolled out in four different directions while the ladies slide down like cascading water. Some of them are seated on the floor and some are lying down, performing ‘soft bone’ twisting of their bodies. Most of their poses are highly seductive and teasing.
The prettiest Qi lady somersaulted down and continued to somersault till the front of Lu Buwei, presenting him with a longevity peach made of solid gold.
In charge of Xiao Pan and Zhu Ji’s safety, Lord Changwen and his Palace Guards are very anxious, eyeing the performers with utmost suspicion. They cannot allow anyone with ulterior motives to come too close to the rulers.
Xiang Shaolong, Teng Yi and his men watched the performance with rapt attention. Witnessing the abilities of these men and women, they know they mustn’t take them lightly during the ambush later.
If not for Meng Tian’s warning, they may be caught with their pants down and suffer a severe setback.
The beauties continued to perform their ‘soft bone’ techniques and dance, attracting thunderous applause.
After the circus group has left, the various guests are still talking among themselves and could not seem to forget the lasting impression of the ‘soft bone’ beauties.
Lu Buwei stood up again and everyone quietened down in antic.i.p.ation of a good show.
Nearly a thousand pairs of eyes are staring at this huge risk-taker.
Lu Buwei dryly cough and was about to speak when Lao Ai stood up with a grin. Paying his respects to Lu Buwei, Lao Ai smiled at the bewildered guests: “If I did not guess incorrectly, Premier Mentor is going to announce the duel between Official Xiang and Official Guan.”
Lu Buwei chuckled: “Official Lao truly know me well. You are absolutely correct. May I know if you have anything important to say?”
Lu Buwei’s tone is very sarcastic, secretly warning Lao Ai that he is what he is because of Zhu Ji’s support. If not, he’ll be a dead man by now.
Even if Lao Ai is unhappy, it did not show on his face. He plainly suggested: “Good things come in pairs. We should have some appetizers before the main dish. Why don’t we have a duel between your family warriors and mine? It can add to the excitement of the main duel. What does Premier Mentor think?”
None of the guests expected Lao Ai to abruptly stand out and challenge Lu Buwei. The people of Qin love fights and duelling is common during banquets. Most of them began to cheer loudly in support.
Xiao Pan saw that Lao Ai spoke up without consulting his opinion first. He knows that with Zhu Ji’s support, Lao Ai does not hold himself in high regard and is even more arrogant than Lu Buwei. His mind began to detest this man even more.
Wu Yingyuan whispered to Xiang Shaolong: “Lao Ai wants a piece of the action.”
Xiang Shaolong smiled knowingly.
He naturally understood what Wu Yingyuan meant.
Since the rise of the warlords in the Zhou Dynasty, it became popular to recruit and house family warriors as a show of might. Besides having talented men to a.s.sist oneself, it is also a status symbol.
It is also common for the family warriors of different warlords to engage each other in friendly compet.i.tions.
With Zhu Ji’s support, Lao Ai’s influence has been growing exponentially. He wanted to use this platform as an opportunity for himself to showcase his might and gain recognition and fame. If his own warrior can defeat Lu Buwei’s warrior, the value of the warrior will go up and it will also look good on him, killing two birds with one stone.
To a certain extent, Lao Ai believes that Guan Zhongxie has a higher chance of winning the duel. If he can clock his own victory, even if Guan Zhongxie really defeated Xiang Shaolong, Guan Zhongxie is not the sole winner tonight. Lao Ai himself will have a winner too and ruin the perfect winning dream of Lu Buwei.
Xiang Shaolong scanned the expressions of Lao Ai’s followers and noticed that Ling Qi’s expression is slightly abnormal. He immediately knew that this scheme is hatched from his brain and reminded himself to be extra cautious of this man.
Lu Buwei chuckled again and seems to have seen through Lao Ai’s intention. He turned around and bowed to Xiao Pan: “Friendly compet.i.tions can add to the excitement and liveliness of the banquet. It can also showcase our talents of Qin. Will the Crown Prince please approve.”
Lao Ai and Zhu Ji’s face lost some colour, knowing that Lu Buwei intentionally asked Xiao Pan for permission because of ill intentions. He wanted to increase the discontentment between Zhu Ji, Lao Ai and Xiao Pan. He behaves as if he is the only one who respects Xiao Pan.
The whole hall quietened down and the thousand pairs of eyes are now staring at this future Qin Shi Huang.
Xiao Pan was smart enough to ignore Lu Buwei’s intrinsic meaning. Grinning, he faced Lao Ai and asked: “Who is Subject Lao sending out to show his expert sword skills?”
Han Jie stood up and strode towards the centre of the hall. Kneeling down, he reported: “I am Han Jie from Inner Custodian Residence. Will Empress and Crown Prince grant me the permission to fight.”
His words hint of arrogance and he emphasized Zhu Ji’s t.i.tle, openly opposing Lu Buwei lack of consideration for Zhu Ji earlier.
For the past month, Han Jie is gaining some reputation in Xianyang City and he is almost as famous as Xiang Shaolong and Guan Zhongxie. Every guest is thrilled to see him stepping out to fight and cheered even louder.
Lu Buwei smiled slightly and sat down.
Xiao Pan faced Zhu Ji and proposed: “Will Empress please decide.”
With his words, everyone became even more excited. This ‘appetizer’ fight is definitely taking place. After all, Zhu Ji will not go against the wishes of her favourite subject Lao Ai.
As antic.i.p.ated, Zhu Ji softly consented: “Han Jie is one of the best students of Ji Xia Sword Saint Mister w.a.n.g You, Cao Quidao. Your swordsmanship must be unparallel. However, Premier Mentor Residence has no lack of talent. Please send your best man and make Mister Han exhibit his top skills, giving us the chance to marvel at his proficiency.”
Teng Yi saw that Zhu Ji is obviously supporting Lao Ai and putting Lu Buwei down. Even though he has no good feelings for Lu Buwei, he could not help but whispered to Xiang Shaolong: “How I wish I can go up there myself and kick Han Jie that [email protected]/* */ turtle’s sorry @ss.”
Amused, Xiang Shaolong replied: “Second Brother will have your chance. Why not use this chance to see what wondrous skill this [email protected]/* */ turtle has?”
Jing Jun affirmed: “I am confident Traitor Lu will send Xu Shang out. Except for him and Guan Zhongxie, there is no one who can match the [email protected]/* */ turtle’s skills.”
Besides the three of them, all the other guests are also speculating who will be the representative from Lu Buwei’s side.
The outcome of this fight will affect Lu Buwei’s standing and prestige. Lu Buwei will have to make a careful choice.
True enough, Lu Buwei’s eyes rested on Xu Shang. Without prior notice, Xu Shang’s martial brother Lian Jiao coldly snorted and stood up, bowing: “Will Premier Mentor please allow me to fight on your behalf.”
Lian Jiao is also considered a hot favourite among the expert swordsmen in Qin. He displayed his skills on many occasions and has helped Lu Buwei won many battles. Seeing him volunteering to fight, everyone cheered loudly for him.
Apparently, Lu Buwei has confidence in him too. He approved with a nod: “All right. Remember, this is a friendly match.”
Guan Zhongxie and Xu Shang frowned at the same time, showing their lack of confidence in Lian Jiao.
Drumbeats are being sounded.
Everyone knows that a good fight is about to happen.
Both men stood several feet away from each other and are lined up so that Zhu Ji, Xiao Pan and Lu Buwei can see both of the equally well from the hosting tables. Both men paid their respects to the hosts before quickly turning around and facing each other. The four eyes met one another.
Normally, Han Jie maintains a proud look but presently, he is like a completely different person. He looks extremely serious and focused all his energy in a.s.sessing his opponent. He did not show the least sign of underestimating his opponent.
His right hand is holding onto his sword hilt in a firm but relaxed manner. His legs are apart and he looked as steady as a mountain. He did not strike any fighting pose but his simple standing there has already given everyone the impression of a terrifying expert swordsman.
Even Xiang Shaolong and Teng Yi are secretly rooting for him.
His eyes became as sharp as a sword and he showed no signs of emotion, making him appear to be a deeply mysterious and unfathomable character.
The hall is so quiet one can hear a pin drop. Everyone held their breaths in silence and did not show any signs of impatience. It is not that everyone is patient tonight but somehow, the immobile Han Jie’s fighting aura has already filled the hall and stifled everyone.
The stifling aura conveys one clear message: He will not attack unnecessarily but if he attacks, it will be an earth shattering attack with ultimate strength and precision.
Across Wu Yingyuan’s back, Teng Yi wondered: “This kid is Shan Rou’s martial disciple. Why are their sword styles so different?”
Xiang Shaolong had just exchanged a knowing look with Ji Yanran. Hearing his words, he explained: “Since Cao Quidao can train two completely different students according to their abilities, we have to accept that he is already at Grandmaster level.”
Teng Yi nodded in agreement.
An ordinary Sword Master will only know how to impart his own skills to his disciples and create copies of himself.
Only someone who has transcended all sword skills can teach according to the apt.i.tudes, strengths and shortcomings of his students.
Shan Rou’s strength lies in speed and her sword styles focused on agility.
Han Jie’s forte is his steadiness so his sword attacks are ruthless.
From these two person’s accomplishments, one can know the unparallel level of swordsmanship Cao Quidao has attained.
Opposite him, the usually insolent Lian Jiao is equally serious in this life-and-death situation. He waits patiently for Han Jie’s first move.
On the surface, there is no sign of him losing out in terms of fighting spirit. His long sword has been drawn and held horizontally in front of his chest. However, everyone can feel that he is inferior compared to Han Jie who hasn’t even drawn his sword.
After some time, both men are still waiting for each other to move first. Out of a sudden, Han Jie moved slightly forward, like a hunter who is looking for the weakness of his prey. His eyes grew even sharper and he stared unblinkingly at Lian Jiao.
Although the distance between the two men is still about the same as before, it felt like Han Jie had already made the first move. It is a feeling that cannot be put into words.
Finally, Lian Jiao can no longer withstand Han Jie’s pressure and reacted. With a loud roar, the sword in his hand began to move. Matching it with precise footwork, he closed the distance between him and Han Jie.
After a few fake moves, the sword eventually c.u.mulated in a strike at Han Jie’s right hand that is holding onto the sword hilt.
In the eyes of the experienced swordsmen, Lian Jiao’s every move can be used to deceive the enemy and increase his own ferocity. His sword moves have reached the peak in terms of attacking strength management.
He is also wise in attacking his opponent’s hand directly. This way, it is more difficult for Han Jie to pull out his sword to counter attack.
Even if Han Jie does not suffer any heavy injury, a small mistake during a duel of expert swordsmen can be the cause for failure. In conclusion, Lian Jiao is worthy of being cla.s.sified as a top expert swordsman based on his sword skill and attacking strategy.
Even Xiang Shaolong felt that Han Jie has underestimated his opponent and is feeling sorry for him.
Using his right foot, Han Jie stepped forward by one step and his body is in an odd position. His sword slid out in a bright shimmering flash. In the split second that was too close for comfort, he managed to use his half-drawn sword to block Lian Jiao devastating blow.
Never in his wildest dreams did Lian Jiao expect such a bizarre move from Han Jie. He could not change his attack as he had put in all his effort.
Han Jie actually took another step forward and hit out with his right shoulder, knocking squarely into Lian Jiao’s chest. Using his right hand, he forcefully pushed his sword back into the sheath. The tip of Lian Jiao’s sword is locked in a grip between the sheath and Han Jie’s sword.
Everyone present is thoroughly shaken. This kind of swordplay is indeed rare and unique.
Of course Lian Jiao’s sword can still be retrieved but his attacking aura has completely dissipated. After receiving the blow on his chest, it is even more embarra.s.sing for Lian Jiao. Pulling back his sword, Lian Jiao hurriedly retreated.
An overwhelming attack has been totally negated and Lian Jiao has lost his first-mover advantage.
Han Jie’s smooth and sharp blade finally left its sheath.
As long as one is not blind, anyone can tell that this is a priceless and exquisite weapon.
Xiang Shaolong had to admit that Han Jie’s sword is even better than Bloodwave which is given to him by Li Mu.
Teng Yi sighed: “Lian Jiao is finished!”
Everyone was stunned.
Originally, Han Jie’s sword is about to press on with an attack but after hearing this command, he sheathe his sword.
Lian Jiao is still heavily pressured by Han Jie’s aura and took seven consecutive steps back. Although he has yet to lose officially, anyone can tell that he is at a serious disadvantage.
After everyone collected themselves and look for the speaker, they discovered that it is Guan Zhongxie.
Guan Zhongxie heartily laughed: “Brother Han, may I know who is the blacksmith who forged your sword is and what is its name?”
If it was anyone else, the crowd would have jeered and protested, saying that Guan Zhongxie is trying to help Lian Jiao as they belong to the same gang. But Guan Zhongxie has an una.s.suming air around him so no one will hold it against him for having ulterior motives.
So happens that Han Jie is facing Guan Zhongxie anyway. He smiled once and drew his sword again. He unexpectedly threw his sword towards Guan Zhongxie. Due to his special throwing method, by the time the sword is about three feet away from Guan Zhongxie, the sword hilt is facing towards Guan Zhongxie.
Under the dazed expression of the crowd, Guan Zhongxie comfortably stretched out his hand and formed a tiger claw with his thumb facing down. He caught the sword precisely without any hesitation.
Time seems to have stop in its tracks.
The conceited aura of the sword has been dissolved as it lay obediently in Guan Zhongxie’s hands.
Holding the sword horizontally in front of his eyes, Guan Zhongxie could not help but praise.
Witnessing Guan Zhongxie’s skill in catching his flying sword, Han Jie is slightly agitated like everyone else. He smiled: “The sword is named Breaking Armies and is one of the ten swords in my Master’s collection. It is forged by Ouyezi.”
The crowd began to mumble among themselves.
Ouyezi is a master forger and he is only second to Gan Jiang Mo Xie couple in terms of sword forgery. The sword is worth a king’s ransom.
Lian Jiao is in an awkward position. Standing there, he can neither retreat nor attack.
After admiring the sword for some time, Guan Zhongxie threw the sword back at Han Jie, smiling: “The sword is good but the swordsman is great. My martial brother has lost this round. In the future, I will definitely seek your advice.”
Everyone began to clap loudly. The applause are not for Han Jie’s una.s.sailable sword skills but for Guan Zhongxie’s magnanimous handling of the situation
Lao Ai and his men naturally felt uncomfortable.
Xiang Shaolong and his men are full of admiration. In one move, Guan Zhongxie pacified the crowd, saved Lian Jiao’s life and put down Han Jie’s arrogance, killing three birds in one stone. Only he has this kind of ability.
All the guests unconsciously looked at Guan Zhongxie, followed by Xiang Shaolong. In a way, Guan Zhongxie has gain an edge over Xiang Shaolong and Xiang Shaolong is temporarily a forgotten hero.
Lu Buwei is extremely pleased with the turn of events; from a potential loss of life and face to a neutral conclusion. Raising his cup, he toasted: “Come! Let’s drink to this extraordinary fight!”
Amidst the loud cheering, everyone toasted in return.
Without saying another word, Lian Jiao returned to his seat.
Han Jie received a cup of wine from an attendant and drank it like the victor before returning to his seat. He continued to put on the airs of someone who has won the fight.
Lu Buwei is about to say something else when Guoxin abruptly stood up from his seat behind Lao Ai. After paying his respects to the hosts, he loudly declared: “The earlier battle was thrilling but not thrilling enough. I am interested to fight as well and would like to challenge someone to add to the liveliness. Will Empress, Crown Prince and Premier Mentor please give me your consent.”
Hearing his words, the crowd turned silent and everyone has the same question on his mind: Who does he want to challenge?
Even Lao Ai frowned, indicating that the matter has not been approved by him.
Only Qiu Risheng and the other members of Weinan Martial Arts School have a look of preparedness on their faces. Needless to say, they have planned for this a long time ago and wanted to use this golden opportunity to bring fame and glory to the school.
Xiang Shaolong has a sudden realization and knows the ident.i.ty of the person Guoxin wanted to challenge.