Encounter in the Mountains
Su Xiao followed the rulebook to the "T". Imagine how much further that was reinforced after working at the ministry of justice. He loved to correct me and gave me earfuls when we shared a room. I wouldn't have been surprised if he lectured me for arguing with my superior. Emperor Yuansheng would turn a three year sentence into a thirty year sentence if Su Xiao convinced him. I was determined to stop Su Xiao, but he pivoted to face Emperor Yuansheng.
"What are you doing, forcibly kidnapping a girl?!"
Boy, did I never see that one coming. Su Xiao went crazy-beautiful-maiden mode, going off at Emperor Yuansheng and Long Zaitian.
"She said no, yet you want to impose your will upon her? Miss Lyu is only a guest, someone hitching a ride with us. What makes you think you can do as you please to her?"
Confounded, Emperor Yuansheng fiddled with his beard: "What do you mean? Impose my will?"
"It is plain to see that you want Miss Lyu to drink with you in your carriage, but she said no, so you are forcing her. Big Brother Ming kindly defended her, yet you sent Long Zaitian over to force her to join you! You have become a tyrannical man."
"Watch what you say! Wh-whenever did I ask Miss Lyu to drink with me? … Long Zaitian! What did you tell them?!"
"N-nothing. Did you not tell me to invite Miss Lyu to your carriage? That was all I did."
I chimed in: "Tell it like it is. You just told Miss Lyu to go with Master. What do we mean? Forcing yourself on innocent girls."
"Forcing? It's called inviting. Plenty of mistresses of old distinguished men in the capital were invited girls from other distinguished families. Invite them once or twice, and they become part of the family. It's called invite, right, Master?"
"Shut up! Come back here, Long Zaitian!"
Long Zaitian jogged back to Emperor Yuansheng with his head down.
Emperor Yuansheng mused, "Ming Feizhen only wanted to protect Miss Lyu? That means he didn't overhear us and doesn't know we suspect him. He knows my temperament after our numerous interactions. I don't think he's that troublesome as a fighter. He does have a sense of justice rivalling heroes in the martial world for that matter. As long as he's willing to devote his loyalty to the imperial court, we could use him."
Emperor Yuansheng stopped wearing his frown and clarified, "Su Xiao, don't speak without the full context. Long Zaitian misunderstood what I meant. I wanted to let her ride my carriage because she's a girl, while they're all men squashed in a squishy carriage. Miss Lyu, I did not mean to offend you. Please forgive my subordinate for offending you."
Fangzhang's bow and apology won a nod from Lyu Yaoqin: "I know you are a gentleman, Mr. Fangzhang. Young Master Zh-, Ming was merely sticking up for me. Please do not blame him."
"Of course, of course. I didn't call a halt and get off for that. I got off for… for…" Emperor Yuansheng sent Dugu a signal as he stammered.
Dugu immediately caught on: "Look over there. That is why Master had the escort stop."
We looked in the direction Dugu pointed. At the border of Taihu's lush wild was a rather big manor. I noticed Emperor Yuansheng's dumbstruck look. He got off his carriage to punch me. How else would anyone explain his bloodlust before?
There were signs of life in the manor, but there was nobody in there. Outside, however, the scene reminded me… of the day Boss Shen went missing.
Dugu elaborated, "We received a letter from Canhu Town. Our people were ambushed at a peculiar manor on their way to Canhu Town. We took a different route, but I think our paths converge here. We're not far from Canhu Town now. We're the same distance away and at the same manor. It is hard not to be vigilant."
If we continued on our way, we'd reach Canhu Town at night in the very best scenario since it was already evening. If we searched the manor, we might pick up something. In saying that, we'd be forced to spend the night in the wild. Simply put, our predicament was similar to Boss Shen's.
Emperor Yuansheng's Entourage wanted to head to Canhu Town and investigate the manor on the way back. Su Xiao, Tang Ye and I, to the contrary, insisted on searching the manor immediately. Long Zaitian chose to not take any side.
"Why not?! We'll find some clues!" Su Xiao argued.
Tie Hanyi disputed, "It is getting dark. Staying in the wild is bad enough as it is. That manor is located in the woods. Our risk is magnified many folds if we stay there. Vice-Captain Shen had ten times our numbers, and what happened to her? Master cannot afford to take the risk. Moreover, though the manor is similar, there's no guarantee there will be any clues. What's the point of taking a risk with no promised return?"
I contested, "If there are no clues, why would there be a risk? Are you listening to yourself? If there are no clues, there are no risks. If there are risks, then the manor is evidently suspicious. If you want to find clues, you have to take risks. If your feet are wet, we'll go by ourselves."
Dugu chastised, "Brother Ming, think before you speak. Ol' Tie is being considerate."
"Being considerate? More like spouting horsefeathers. Easy for you to say when your superior is relaxing at home. Our superior's whereabouts are unknown. You, of course, wouldn't want to risk your lives for our superior. If you two are so afraid, let's split up, shall we?"
Tie Hanyi: "I am afraid. Afraid Master will be in danger. We've been afraid for his safety ever since we set out. We're always looking to reduce his risks. No matter how anxious you are, you can't disregard Master's safety, can you?!"
"Let's go check out the manor," Emperor Yuansheng declared.
Ol' Tie: "Master!"
The sunlight shone a light on Emperor Yuansheng's brave visage as he asserted, "We came to search for her, so we must pursue any potential clues. Yiren may not be in Evil Spirits' grasp, but I'm still vexed we haven't found her. I can't ignore clues if they're right in front of me. Stay vigilant and march to the manor!"
Watching Emperor Yuansheng made me realise it wasn't so bad working for such a tolerant and loyal superior.
Though the manor appeared close, it took us an hour to reach it, partially because the paths were narrower and narrower the further in we went. We were lucky we were a small group. Strangely, we didn't see any traces of horse carriages crossing through.
The manor resembled a war zone unlike the resplendent manor mentioned in the letter. We didn't find any signs of physical confrontations despite searching high and low. There was no way they didn't fight if Mountain Monster didn't lie. By the time we searched though several times, the horizon was bright red. We had to decide if we were going to continue searching or continue on to Canhu Town.
My listless gaze gradually turned violent. Some of Emperor Yuansheng's men claimed we might've been at the wrong place and wanted to send another team back to it after we reached Canhu Town.
"We're probably going to have to stay here tonight," I interrupted.
Emperor Yuansheng: "What makes you say so? Did you find something?"
"I would not say it is a key clue. That being said, they are clear," I replied, casting my gaze over to the carriage Mountain Monster was locked in. I could hear her heart thumping louder and louder, a sign of concern. I added, "I am willing to bet my head Vice-Captain Shen was ambushed here."
I didn't go into depth, but Emperor Yuansheng believed my assertion.
Due to signs of mould everywhere inside for some reason, we decided to set up camp in the woods. It didn't take us long to set up seven large tent frames for we had a competent team. Sustenance, however, was an issue. We, consequetly, had to split up in small teams for various jobs.
Hunting team: Su Xiao, Ye Luo, Tie Hanyi, Long Zaitian and I.
Guard team: Tang Ye and Dugu.
Patrol: Bai Laimu.
We needed more hunters than other roles as there weren't many animals on the mountain - not to mention it was winter.
Emperor Yuansheng watched his people busy at work with a smile: "Not bad. This is quite the experience. Men, add firewood."
Emperor Yuansheng sniffed the air and thought, "A female's scent. Why does she have this scent?"
"What a coincidence to meet in the mountains. Would it be all right for this one to ask for shelter for the night?"
The tall maiden around eighteen years old, adorning a purple robe, stepped out from the woods. Over ten of the imperial court's warriors dropped what they were doing and assumed Eighteen Luohan poses. Du Gu took two steps over to cover Emperor Yuansheng from the front, finishing the defence formation. Tang Ye grabbed his great spear and prepared to murder the maiden at the drop of a hat.
The maiden was in complete control of her emotions and sported subtle dimples: "Are you mistaking me for a monster?"
Evil Spirits' were named after transformed mountain monsters, which was why Dugu and company were worried she was with the bandits. After hearing her remark, he commanded, "Prepare to attack!"
Emperor Yuansheng, in his deep voice, stopped his men and inquired, "What are you doing here at this hour, Miss?"
The maiden answered in a serious tone owing to Dugu's reaction: "I knocked several times but did not receive a response. When I heard sounds from this direction, I came to see what the ruckus was about. I did not intend to alarm you."
Emperor Yuansheng: "I see."
The maiden glanced at the maiden and smiled again: "That is quite the manor. I lost track of time as I was in a rush. It is late, so I wish to seek shelter. Is there any chance I could?"
Emperor Yuansheng realised the maiden mistook him for being the owner of the manor.
Since she didn't receive an answer, the dignified maiden asked, "Have I mistaken you for the owner? Would you be able to introduce me to the owner?"
Despite the maiden wearing a face veil, Emperor Yuansheng's brain stuttered. He blurted, "I am the owner. You may stay as long as you like. Men, we're returning to the manor!"