A Step into the Past Chapter 246

385

Book 22 Chapter 05 – Staying Against His Will

He had barely taken two steps when further up the corridor, a cabin door opened with a ‘Yeeank’ sound. In a graceful, dance-like disposition, Zhu Xiuzhen sashayed out and blocked his path. Her eyes glared at him with annoyance but yet she pleaded, “Is Manager Shen available?”

Xiang Shaolong is not that dumb to take her appearance at face value. The reason is that all these courtesans are well-trained actresses.

Although Dong Shuzen and Zhu Xiuzhen did schemed against him in the past, he did not bear the slightest hatred against them now that he is more informed about the present circ.u.mstances. On the contrary, his sympathies lie with them.

At the end of the day, they are simply fighting for survival in this male dominated society. Though their methods are overbearing, they are left with no other choice.

Most unfortunately, he himself is the number one wanted man by the Eastern States. His own survival is at stake and he could not a.s.sist them even if he wanted to.

His main priority right now is to slip away and not get further involved in this problematic turmoil.

Before he can offer an answer, Zhu Xiuzhen is already pulling his sleeve, dragging him into her bedroom.

Out of a sudden, Xiang Shaolong realized that he is the critical factor in this Song & Dance Troupe internal struggle, the showdown between Team Feng Fei and Team Dong Shuzen.

Regardless of whether it is Feng Fei’s retirement or Dong Shuzen usurping Feng Fei’s position, both ladies will have to collaborate with him and his ‘men’.

In addition, he is their bridge to the outside world.

His present role resembles a manager of an international Superstar in the 21st century or, more accurately, the manager of a girl band.

Without his cooperation, Feng Fei and Dong Shuzen are like toothless, clawless tigresses, unable to achieve anything on their own. This explains why in the past, Zhang Quan and Sa Li are able to sleep with Dong Shuzen and Zhu Xiuzhen.

Unexpectedly, Feng Fei has made used of Zhang Quan and Sa Li’s infighting to destroy Dong Shuzen and Zhu Xiuzhen’s backers, preventing them from gaining the upper hand. She then bestowed this key appointment onto him, Xiang Shaolong.

He finally understood why did Feng Fei allow Zhang Quan to continue serving in the Troup. In fact, it is a very strategic and advantageous decision.

Due to the intimate relationship between Zhang Quan and Dong Shuzen, it is very challenging for Dong Shuzen to openly seduce Xiang Shaolong. The only way out is for the two of them to work together to chase Xiang Shaolong away but that will only force Xiang Shaolong to look for Feng Fei herself for support.

If Dong Shuzen disregards Zhang Quan, the latter may submit to Feng Fei, betraying all her plans and secrets to Feng Fei.

Sa Li is Zhu Xiuzhen’s backer and with him gone, she is now alone and defenceless. She has now chosen to side with Dong Shuzen and has become her p.a.w.n. However, once she finds another backer, it is possible that she will fight with Dong Shuzen once again over the succession plans of the Song & Dance Troupe.

On the side, Feng Fei, Dong Shuzen and Zhu Xiuzhen may be oblivious to the knowledge that Zhang Quan has been bribed by an external party and is harbouring evil intentions.

Presently, Feng Fei has failed to bribe him with Little Ping’er, Dong Shuzen has failed in her beauty trap and Zhang Quan cannot win him over with money, forming a stalemate.

And to think that running away was all that he ever wanted.

As all these complicated thoughts are running through his brain at the speed of light, Zhu Xiuzhen had closed the door, embraced him tightly and buried her delicate face in his bosom. She emotionally questioned, “How can you be so cold towards Xiuzhen (me)?”

Xiang Shaolong can clearly feel her curvaceous body sending him waves of temptations. In his mind, he felt like treating her with tenderness. Despite knowing that she is faking everything, he feels sorry for her.

He did not hug her in return, nor did he push her away. Standing there without any reaction, he plainly advised, “Miss Xiuzhen, there is no need to do this. Just tell me what you need and I will do it for you.”

Zhu Xiuzhen raised her striking face and burst out in tears. She heart-wrenchingly cried: “I am so frightened!”

Xiang Shaolong did not expect her to use this tactic. His heart softened: “Miss Xiuzhen!”

Zhu Xiuzhen buried her face on his wider-than-average chest and cried even harder, wetting the front of his shirt.

Xiang Shaolong frantically comforted her, supporting her to her bed and seating her on the bed’s edge. He allowed her to continue hugging his neck and being in his bosom while helping to dry her tears. Eventually, she stopped crying and wailing but she still shudders occasionally (due to the heavy crying).

He is confident that it is a fake show with true feelings.

The feelings are obviously not feelings of love, but feelings of fear about her unknown future.

Zhu Xiuzhen woefully commented, “You should know about Mistress (Feng Fei) intention to disband the Song & Dance Troupe and her plans to use us (courtesans) as gifts to secure her friendship with the rich and famous, allowing herself to leave unscathed.”

Xiang Shaolong was thunderstruck, “Are you sure?”

Zhu Xiuzhen a.s.sured, “It is definitely the truth. In the past, there were some sisters in the Troupe who left and got married into a rich family. Their lives took a turn for the worse. There were some who are beaten to death by the first wife and some who became prost.i.tutes of the official brothels after their Lords lost power. Those who are neglected considered themselves lucky to have not suffered a worse fate. Xiuzhen (I) will rather choose to be dead than to live such a meaningless life.”

Xiang Shaolong frowned, “Were all of you (courtesans) bought (as a slave or servant) by Mistress (Feng Fei)?”

Zhu Xiuzhen sorrowfully nodded, “She may appear to be treating us with kindness but it is because we are of some usefulness to her, such as supporting her in winning the t.i.tle of the World’s Best Courtesan. In actual fact, she only makes plans for herself and we are just her tools.”

Xiang Shaolong can tell that she is getting desperate, causing her to confide her insecurities in him. He laments the detestable status of womenfolk in these ancient times and that he is unable to contribute to her situation. He wondered, “You are telling me all your secrets. Aren’t you concerned that I may betray you to Mistress (Feng Fei)?”

Zhu Xiuzhen bitterly smiled, “I have seen all kinds of men and you are the kind who is full of justice. I have judged you erroneously in the beginning but I will not repeat this mistake. Now, I can only cast aside my pride and beg for your a.s.sistance.”

She added, “We are sheltered women who knew nothing except our (Song & Dance) routines. When we leave the Troupe, we will be at a disadvantage and would likely be bullied wherever we go.”

Xiang Shaolong proclaimed, “But you have to get married eventually!”

Zhu Xiuzhen raised her head, facing Xiang Shaolong with a tear-stained face. She gently mentioned, “It would be good if we need not get married. All of us (courtesans) have saved our money well and can live the rest of our lives without worrying about food or clothing. Nonetheless, we do require someone to make proper arrangements for us. Now that Sa Li has been dismissed by Mistress (Feng Fei), I can only come to you.”

In an instant, she lowered her head and insisted, “Even if I must get married, I hope my partner will not know about my past as a courtesan. Xiuzhen (I) would rather be a dedicated wife of a poor man than to become a concubine or mistress of a rich man”

Xiang Shaolong had a sudden brainwave. This is the crux of the matter that he has been trying to comprehend.

Within the Song & Dance Troupe, there is the ambitious Dong Shuzen whose aim is to take over Feng Fei’s position and the unambitious ones like Zhu Xiuzhen, who only wish to lead an ordinary life from the money that she has made by performing and sleeping with the rich.

Regardless of their goals, everyone wants to be free, to be the master of their own destiny, to forge a life of happiness and independence.

For the first time ever, he is weighing his options about leaving. Even if he can flee successfully, will he bear to leave them in the lurch? The best option is to arrange for them to settle down in Qin. On one hand, they will be spared the atrocities of war and on the other hand, they will be safe under his protection.

As long as they are willing, Xiang Shaolong would have no trouble finding them a good home, given their exceptional appearances.

However, he is now fighting for his own survival, not to mention the Troupe internal bickering and Zhang Quan the traitor. With all these weighing down on him, will he still be able to make a difference in their lives? He decided to test Zhu Xiuzhen’s sincerity and warmly enquired, “Sa Li was dismissed because of me. Did you ever think taking revenge for him?”

Zhu Xiuzhen’s body shivered, “No wonder you did not come to my room! You have uncovered my scheme! Xiuzhen (I) earnestly offer you my apologies. I will accept any punishment from you.”

Of course Xiang Shaolong did not ‘punish’ her. He even made up his mind to not get involved with any girl from the Song & Dance Troupe, preventing himself from being entangled in a relationship burden.

In this moment, he pledges to do his best for these vulnerable girls of the Song & Dance Troupe, allowing each of them to live a life of liberty. In a way, he hopes this gesture will help to redeem some of sins his fellow men have acc.u.mulated.

He tactfully rejected Zhu Xiuzhen’s advances and returned to his room, sharing his encounters with Xiao Yuetan.

Xiao Yuetan nodded, “Although some risks are involved, a man should overcome difficulties with courage and strength in whatever he does. Frankly speaking, I feel sorry for them as well but my resources are limited. If we can arrange for them to migrate to Xianyang (Capital City of Qin), you can use this opportunity to travel home, reuniting with your family and they can find a safe abode. It will be two perfect endings.”

Xiang Shaolong thought hard and frowned, “But Feng Fei has her own plans and she will not be sharing them with us.”

Xiao Yuetan a.s.sured, “She is quite dependent on you and therefore, you must be playing a crucial role in her grand plan. You can simply follow her plan and gather clues in the meantime. Our main priority now is for you to start familiarizing yourself with different members of the Troupe. When you are able to command them like commanding an army for war, you can accomplish your duties more easily.”

Xiang Shaolong groaned, “Sa Li’s supporters have now pledged their allegiance to Zhang Quan. Most of the troupe members appear to be respectful but in reality, they are hostile and cannot wait to witness my downfall. This is my biggest challenge now. It is impossible to win their trust in such a short s.p.a.ce of time.”

Xiao Yuetan dismissed, “Zhang Quan is just a clown and hardly a threat to us. All I need is to give the command and he will disappear from our lives forever. Nevertheless, we should find out who is the main perpetrator. Only when we understand our enemy fully can we have a chance at victory.”

Xiang Shaolong suggested, “Unless we resort to torturing him, he may not divulge his employer’s ident.i.ty.”

Xiao Yuetan dismissed, “In terms of scheming, your elder brother (me) is way better than you. Using torture is an inferior strategy, potentially causing him to give us false names, which we have no way of verifying. Ha! I have a more sensational plan where we can get rid of Zhang Quan and win the hearts of the people at the same time.” He leaned towards Xiang Shaolong’s ear and began whispering.

After listening to his suggestion, Xiang Shaolong praised, “Luckily we were best friends from the very beginning. Otherwise, I would have lost to Lu Buwei a long time ago.”

A heavy snow descended from the skies after lunch.

The fleet of ships is about twenty sailing hours away from Lin Zi. They will arrive in this Qi melting pot of different arts and culture tomorrow morning.

With his new mindset, Xiang Shaolong tried his best to understand the affairs of the Song & Dance Troupe. Flipping through the past accounts, he came to realize that besides receiving substantial remunerations for their performances, the valuables presented by the rich and powerful are enough to fill more than forty chests.

Whoever marrying Feng Fei is equivalent to inheriting this astronomical amount of wealth and treasure. It is gaining both money and beauty in one swoop.

He has his doubts about Zhang Quan’s theory of Feng Fei and her secret admirer. Perhaps Zhang Quan hopes to be lucky man himself! When Feng Fei went to rehea.r.s.e her (Song & Dance) routine after dinner, Xiang Shaolong used this opportunity to initiate a visit to Zhang Quan.

Zhang Quan was elated to see him coming and exclaimed, “I was about to pay you a visit.”

After sitting down and receiving a cup of tea from Zhang Quan, Xiang Shaolong muttered, “Mistress (Feng Fei) summoned me this morning, promising to reward me with 100 ingots of gold and an official appointment in Qi. Honestly speaking, everyone is after fame and fortune. Now that Mistress is going to promote me in Qi, if Brother Zhang is in my shoes, would you reject such an offer?”

His face turning slightly pale, Zhang Quan guaranteed after some consideration, “The mastermind employing me is known for his wealth and his net worth is much more than Feng Fei’s. Nonetheless, I must seek his permission before I can formally endorse a matching offer for you. I am confident I can secure at least 150 ingots of gold.”

From his words, Xiang Shaolong deduced that unless the person is from Qi, he would be one of the dignitaries visiting Lin Zi for the birthday celebrations (of King of Qi). Otherwise, Zhang Quan will not be able to report to him with such convenience.

Unsatisfied with just this intelligence, he shook his head, “Brother Zhang need not go to the extent! Money may be important but holding an official position has always been my dream. Mistress (Feng Fei) is on good terms with many influential individuals. Everyone will have to grant her some allowances.”

Zhang Quan interrupted, “Brother Shen is a wise man. When we are discussing prominent characters, the topic will ultimately conclude that Qin has the most of such talents. My employer is a powerhouse in Qin. If Brother Shen wants to gain official appointment, you can join me in submitting to him. Otherwise, you may not enjoy your official appointment for long before you become the citizen of a conquered state.”

Xiang Shaolong can feel his heart thumping wildly, for this Mastermind could well be Lu Buwei.

Based on Lu Buwei’s l.u.s.tful and possessive personality, coupled with Feng Fei’s previous visit to Xianyang, it is not unlikely that she has drawn his attention.

With his wealth and authority, bribing someone like Zhang Quan is as easy as ABC.

As Lu Buwei is on his way to Lin Zi and matching with Zhang Quan’s description, Xiang Shaolong construed that his invisible opponent is none other than Lu Buwei.

Treacherous and merciless are the two best words to describe him.

But with Tian Dan’s support, it will not be easy to trounce him.

Faking disbelief, he pondered, “Who can it be?”

Zhang Quan sighed, “I would tell you if I can. But if I, Zhang Quan, told you any lies, may I die a horrible death. Brother Shen can put your mind at ease!”

Xiang Shaolong probed, “A cunning rabbit is killed; a traitor is beheaded. If he went back on his words after obtaining Mistress (Feng Fei), Brother Zhang and I would not only failed to receive any benefits but may even have to forfeit our lives.”

Zhang Quan disagreed, “Your description is very heartrending but you can rest a.s.sured that we will not be played out. This man is famous for the countless family warriors he hosts at his residence. He appreciates talent much more than your old employer Prince Wuji. There are numerous scholars and heroes he recruited all over the land. I am sure there is a place for you in his residence. Brother Shen can trust my judgment.”

Xiang Shaolong insisted, “This is only based on Brother Zhang’s opinion. How about this! Get him to pay me half of my reward as a deposit. I will only cooperate with Brother Zhang when I see my money.”

Zhang Quan was relieved, “This should not be a problem. However, let me warn you in advance. In the event that Brother Shen took his money and yet failed to fulfill your obligations, you can forget about leaving Lin Zi alive.”

Xiang Shaolong laughed, “A gentleman’s word is his bond. Fortunately, I did not agree to Mistress (Feng Fei) terms immediately and used a delaying tactic.”

Zhang Quan was delighted, “This is wonderful. Brother Shen should try to get closer to Mistress and find out who her allies are or who her mystery man is. When I report to my employer, at least I have some results to show him and it will be easier to ask for your deposit money.”

Xiang Shaolong firmly state, “I will naturally tell you everything I know once I see my money. Brother Zhang should know me by now. This deal is cash on delivery.”

Zhang Quan could not negotiate further and nodded in agreement.

Xiang Shaolong was humoured. Having come all the way to Qi, he is still locking horns with Lu Buwei.

Xiao Yuetan will be overjoyed if he knows about this.

Both of them are well versed with Lu Buwei character and schemes. They are in a superior position because they understand their enemy well, as mentioned in Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Lu Buwei, on the other hand, knows nothing about them. Even with Tian Dan’s partnership, he may not gain the upper hand.

Moreover, Tian Dan himself is intertwined in a power tussle within his own state (the crown prince selection). With the prized Feng Fei at the centre of another skirmish, Xiao Yuetan and he can make excellent use of the circ.u.mstances to create plenty of chaos, eventually beating Lu Buwei soundly for good measure.

Relishing these thoughts, he cannot be bothered with Zhang Quan anymore and took his leave.

Outside his room, he had barely taken a few steps when someone called out his name from behind. It turned out to be Little Ping’er glaring coldly at him.

Xiang Shaolong stopped walking. Little Ping’er came to his front and interrogated in a harsh manner, “Did you just come out of Zhang Quan’s room?”

Xiang Shaolong can only nod his head.

Little Ping’er blew her top, “What tricks are you up to? Are you thinking of betraying Mistress (Feng Fei)?”

From her expression, Xiang Shaolong predicted that Feng Fei has told Little Ping’er about his stand (on not wanting to marry Little Ping’er), causing her extensive suffering. It is better not to give her false hopes anyway so Xiang Shaolong allowed her to vent her frustrations. He whispered, “Do I look like such a person? This is not a good place to talk. Is Sister Ping looking for me?”

Her two eyes reddening on the spot, Little Ping’er stomped her feet, “Who wants to look for a heartless beast like you? It is Mistress (Feng Fei) looking for you.”

His heart softening, Xiang Shaolong explained in gentle tone, “Can you please listen to me? I… …”

Covering her ears with both hands, Little Ping’er cried, “I don’t want to hear anything from you.” Before her sentence is completed, tears of emotion are flowing out of her eyes. She left crying.

Xiang Shaolong can only shake his head and give a bitter smile.

Since he must be heartless to her, he might as well make it the first and only time.

He really cannot afford the implications of love.

Isn’t Feng Fei busy rehearsing? Why is she looking for him?