C31 – Follow Him Up

Zuo Shaoqing couldn’t recollect if he ever had a close friend in his past. Even if he did, those memories had faded away during the years of his imprisonment. Thus, when he encountered this scholar addressing him as “little brother,” Zuo Shao felt bewildered.

“Brother, is the injury severe?” The person’s visibly anxious demeanor seemed genuine as he attempted to examine Zuo Shaoqing’s wounds.

Zuo Shaoqing sidestepped his probing hand, clearing his throat before speaking, “Brother Qu, it has been quite some time since we last met!” In truth, he only knew the man’s name was Qu Changqing.

Qu Changqing presumed that Zuo Shaoqing felt embarrassed and disregarded his resistance. “Brother, upon my return, I heard about your situation. This Zuo Shaoling has crossed the line, inflicting such a heavy blow on his own younger brother. He has truly besmirched the reputation of our Zuo Family and our school!”

Hearing his outrage, Zuo Shaoqing couldn’t help but hold Qu Changqing in high regard. “Don’t concern yourself too much, Brother Qu, it’s just a minor grievance.”

“A minor grievance that led to a knife being used? If this is considered a minor grudge, then how severe could a deep-seated one be?”

Zuo Shaoqing ruminated silently; indeed, if it were a profound vendetta, they would ensure the perpetrator endured a fate worse than death!

Bit by bit, memories resurfaced. Zuo Shaoqing recollected several details concerning Qu Changqing. They had been classmates for three years, but after Qu Changqing began studying under Scholar Yin’s tutelage, their encounters grew infrequent.

The Qu Changqing in his recollection was a true scholar, upstanding and virtuous, compassionate yet resolute. He bore similarities to Zuo Shaoqing in his past life but possessed greater courage and optimism.

Such scholars were not uncommon in the Great Yang, dedicated to the study of Confucianism and Mengdao. They were exemplars of propriety, integrity, and rectitude, leaving no room for compromise in matters of ethics.

Some of these scholars served in Enke High School, others in the censorate, and some remained indifferent to fame and wealth, all united by their scholarly pursuits. However, they all appeared to uphold their moral principles unwaveringly.

Zuo Shaoqing harbored a hint of trepidation toward such friends because in their presence, he felt as though he were covered in filth.

It was as though they hailed from different worlds.

“I see Brother Qu’s visage is besmirched with dust. Let us return and recuperate for a few days,” Zuo Shaoqing suggested, wearing a distant expression and a faint smile.

Qu Changqing was mildly surprised, “Younger brother… But for what reason?”

Zuo Shaoqing chuckled softly, saying, “No, the hometown examination is just a few days away. I assume Brother Qu is preparing for it as well.”

Qu Changqing was taken aback by Zuo Shaoqing’s smile and immediately set aside his previous doubts. He grasped Zuo Shaoqing’s hand and suggested, “Brother, since you’ve returned for this, how about we embark on the journey to Changping County together the following day?”

Zuo Shaoqing declined, nodding in agreement, “Alright.”

On the eve of their departure, Zuo Shaoqing took the initiative to purchase an abundance of dry provisions for their mountain expedition. Fortunately, the chilly weather would help preserve the cooked meat and pastries for several days.

He shared the situation with Lu Zheng, emphasizing that this trip would span at least ten days, potentially up to two weeks, without any food deliveries. He couldn’t help but wonder if Young Master Lu would go hungry!

Lu Zheng paid no heed to Zuo Shaoqing’s concerns, enjoying the chicken soup and Ciba brought by Zuo Shaoqing. After pacing around the room for a while, he eventually settled at the lone table.

A collection of popular textbooks lay on the table, a precaution Zuo Shaoqing had taken to stave off boredom. Lu Zheng perfunctorily flipped through them once before never touching them again.

“We only have enough provisions for five days. What’s our plan after that?”

Zuo Shaoqing surveyed their surroundings and noticed the limited supply of charcoal. He remarked, “We’re running low on charcoal. Thankfully, you don’t seem to mind the cold.”

As he observed Lu Zheng’s contemplative expression, Zuo Shaoqing suggested, “The canteen is a bit cramped; perhaps I should fetch a pail of water.”

After a brief pause, he made a decision, saying, “How about leaving Little Six behind…”

Lu Zheng retrieved a black wooden plate from his pocket, dipped it in ink, and stamped a mark onto a piece of paper. He then used a pen to write a few words on the paper.

Zuo Shaoqing was taken aback by this unexpected action. He picked up the paper and widened his eyes in astonishment, exclaiming, “This… This…”

“Don’t you want it?”

“Of course…” Zuo Shaoqing couldn’t contain his excitement. How could he not want it? This was precisely what he had worked so diligently to obtain!

He had anticipated a long wait for a significant gain, but Lu Zheng’s generosity took him by surprise. First, he bestowed upon him a valuable bead, and now, he had handed him a letter.

Zuo Shaoqing hastily folded the weighty paper and slipped it into his pocket. After a moment’s thought, he decided it wasn’t secure enough and stowed it inside his bag, hidden in the innermost layer of his shirt.

Though his cheeks reddened slightly, he maintained his composure and bowed graciously to Lu Zheng, saying, “Master Lu, I’m truly grateful for your generous gift!” It was indeed a generous gift—one that would enable him to fulfill his promises to his second uncle and reap all the benefits of the 30% profit from this stroke of luck.

He couldn’t fathom the cost had he not been part of a family. In recent times, he had been struggling to make ends meet, with most of his savings depleted.

Zuo Shaoqing tried to conceal the persistent curve of his lips, failing to notice the change in Lu Zheng’s title. “Isn’t Master Lu concerned that I might misuse your letter?”

Lounging on the bed, Lu Zheng casually nibbled on a Plum Blossom Cake as he taunted, “What kind of mischief could you possibly get into?”

To Young Master Lu, even if Zuo Shaoqing were to commit serious crimes, it would be of little consequence. Moreover, this scholar lacked the audacity to do so.

Zuo Shaoqing comprehended this and accepted the favor gracefully. He even suggested, “How about I return home late and acquire a personal attendant?”

With only Luo Xiaoliu by his side, not accompanying him to Changping would arouse suspicion. It was better to hire a complete stranger as an attendant. Luo Xiaoliu could then serve his master without concern for divulging his whereabouts.

“No need,” Lu Zheng promptly declined. Apart from the first two days, he could manage perfectly well on his own.

If Zuo Shaoqing hadn’t been an interesting companion, he wouldn’t have permitted his extended stay.

Zuo Shaoqing hesitated. “Then, regarding these past few days…”

“I have someone to look after me!”

Zuo Shaoqing paused for a moment before realization dawned on him. Of course, what was Lu Zheng’s status? How could no one have noticed his absence for so long? He suspected that they must have logged in during his absence.

Zuo Shaoqing’s emotions were mixed, but he felt a sense of relief. At least, he wouldn’t bear the responsibility for Young Master Lu’s safety any longer.

Zuo Shaoqing returned home with a light heart, took up his pen, and composed a letter. He placed it in an envelope along with Lu Zheng’s sealed letter and entrusted it to Luo Xiaoliu with specific instructions to deliver it personally to Second Master Zuo.

When Luo Xiaoliu returned, he felt as if he were walking on air because Second Master had just rewarded him with five taels of silver, equivalent to his entire year’s salary – it was truly an unexpected windfall.

“Master, Second Master asked me to bring this to you.” Luo Xiaoliu respectfully bowed and handed a pouch to Zuo Shaoqing.

At this point, Luo Xiaoliu not only feared Zuo Shaoqing but also held a deep admiration for him. Realizing that it was unwise to cross paths with San Ye, he had reached a conclusion: as long as there was an opportunity to benefit San Ye, he would gladly seize it.

Zuo Shaoqing opened the pouch and discovered the remaining 50 taels of silver as he had hoped. Furthermore, there was a valuable piece of jade and a land deed. It was evidently an extra gift from his Second Uncle.

As Zuo Shaoqing examined the location specified on the land deed, he wiped his eyes and read it three times to ensure there was no mistake. He couldn’t help but burst into laughter and exclaimed, “Haha… Second Uncle’s generosity knows no bounds!” If only he knew how much wealth this store would generate in the future, he might regret it deeply.

Presently, the store was just a modest grocery shop, earning a meager income. However, Zuo Shaoqing was well aware that with the new emperor’s ascension and the expansion of maritime trade, this grocery store would be among the first to venture out to sea in search of valuable merchandise. Upon their return, they would amass a substantial fortune, eventually evolving into the most renowned marketplace in Great Yang.

Zuo Shaoqing pondered the name of the shop manager, realizing that he needed to secure this individual’s loyalty. Even if the manager couldn’t be directly advantageous to him, it was imperative to prevent them from becoming a potential rival.

Thoughts of his future wealth flooded Zuo Shaoqing’s mind, leaving him grinning from ear to ear.

Nevertheless, patience was key in this matter. With plans to leave the following day, he needed to await the results of his hometown examination. Additionally, he had to devise a strategy to evade the scrutiny of the Zuo Family, as any misstep could jeopardize his chances of amassing wealth.

It seemed that Second Uncle had set this shop as a test for him. If Zuo Shaoqing couldn’t even resolve this minor challenge, Second Uncle might reconsider collaborating with him.

Luo Xiaoliu, oblivious to San Ye’s excitement, patted his bulging pockets and sported a foolish grin.

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