C40 – The Horse’s Fart Hit the Horse’s Leg
Following breakfast at Lu Zheng’s residence, Zuo Yunwen led his family to pay their respects. Notably absent was Zuo Shuhui, who remained inside the pavilion.
Zuo Shuhui desired to join but restrained herself due to the unfamiliarity of the visitor. Even a lady from a noble family wouldn’t casually meet with an outsider.
Arriving at Fu Yue Restaurant, Cao Zongguan was already waiting at the entrance. Upon seeing his prospective father-in-law and mother-in-law, he greeted them gracefully and with deep respect.
Little did he know that he was about to become the focus of attention for the Zuo Family.
Zuo Yunwen’s demeanor shifted from warm to a subtle nod, saying, “Nephew Cao, no need for formalities. Our families share a long history, and you and Shao have been close friends for years. Consider this place your own home.”
Previously, Mrs. Xue had been elated when Cao Zongguan visited with the Zuo family. She hadn’t anticipated that Master Lu, who had only just arrived, would also come calling.
Master Lu’s presence had already stirred up commotion; what could this newcomer possibly want?
If Master Lu indeed intended to marry into the Zuo family, Cao Zongguan would no longer be an unwelcome guest in her eyes. Instead, he would be an impediment to her efforts to gain favor with the Duke’s Mansion.
“Don’t linger outside; go and pay your respects to Master Duke,” urged Mrs. Xue.
Zuo Shaoqing observed the absurd situation with a group of people and thought to himself: Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let these two families become rivals.
Inside the house, servants tidied up the table. Zuo Shaoqing discreetly examined it and noted that most of the food had indeed been consumed. Mrs. Xue’s foresight seemed spot-on.
“Did Master Lu sleep well last night?” Zuo Yunwen stood respectfully, slightly bowing.
Lu Zheng rinsed his mouth with a cup before speaking with an impassive expression, “It would have been even better if there were no disturbances in the middle of the night.”
Zuo Yunwen blushed, fully aware of the implied message: a discreet request to avoid nocturnal intrusions. The prospect of becoming more intimately acquainted with the Cao family had seemingly retreated.
Zuo Shaoqing’s thoughts went beyond that; he furrowed his brow and pondered, “I hope I’m not among those who might be disturbed at night.” After all, he had been formally invited.
Zuo Yunwen cast a discreet glance at Mrs. Xue, holding her responsible for causing this commotion. She had suggested that all martial artists had a fondness for beauty, and since Master Lu was both young and seemingly lonely without even a maid to attend to him, he might yearn for companionship during the night.
The outcome, however, was unexpected. Zuo Yunwen had no knowledge of Master Lu’s nighttime solitude; all he saw was the master’s irritation.
Zuo Yunwen gave an awkward smile and sidestepped the subject. “It’s an honor for my humble household that Master Lu has graced us with his presence. I, being of little use and advanced age, intend to arrange a gathering of local dignitaries to extend a warm welcome to the young master.”
“I came to Jiang-Nan to enjoy its scenery, so there’s no need for such efforts.” After uttering this, he shot a pointed look at Zuo Yunwen.
Although Zuo Yunwen felt a tinge of disappointment, the knowledge that Master Duke had clandestinely visited the Zuo Family rekindled his optimism. “Then how about allowing our child to accompany you for a stroll today? Master Cheng Guang from the Zen Temple is well-versed in Buddhist arts and has a knack for resolving troubles.”
“I don’t have faith in Buddha.”
Zuo Yunwen was perplexed. After pondering for a while, he couldn’t come up with any appealing destinations within the small Youuxi Town.
Seeing that everyone in the room wore expressions of puzzlement and their heads hung low, Lu Zheng, noticing that Zuo Shaoqing was idly playing with his fingers, generously suggested, “Why don’t we visit Xizen Temple?”
A glimmer of hope flashed in Zuo Shaoqing’s eyes as he heaved a sigh of relief, a sentiment shared by the others.
The Western Zen Temple stood twenty kilometers from Youuxi Town, nestled in the Dragon Tiger Mountain. It was believed that the temple’s founding abbot was a renowned monk who came there on every Buddhist holy day to pay homage to Buddha.
The matriarch of the Zuo Mansion was a devout Buddhist who collected considerable donations each year, a fact that often stirred jealousy in Zuo Shaoqing’s heart. He couldn’t help but wonder indignantly why his grandmother didn’t extend her compassion to her own grandson first.
“Shao Qing…” “Shao Qing…”
“Huh?” Zuo Shaoqing snapped out of his reverie, blinking in confusion as he looked at Cao Zongguan.
His soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law gazed at him with warmth, offering a plate of walnut cakes. “Would you like some?”
Zuo Shaoqing discerned a hint of sympathy in his eyes and instantly grasped the situation. It seemed that Cao Zongguan had learned about his predicament from the Zuo Mansion and felt sorry for him.
Zuo Shaoqing cast a fleeting glance at Zuo Shaoling, seated to his right, and offered a gracious smile, revealing an enchanting dimple. He delicately picked a walnut cake from the platter and placed it into his mouth, saying, “Thank you, Big Brother Cao. You should indulge as well. My elder sister’s walnut cakes are simply divine!”
A hint of color graced Cao Zongguan’s cheeks briefly, but it soon vanished. He replied with a touch of pride, “Certainly, Miss’s culinary talents are exceptional.”
Zuo Shaoqing deduced from Cao Zongguan’s reaction that the man held a genuine fondness for Zuo Shuhui. He couldn’t help but wonder if Cao Zongguan had been deeply disappointed in his past life for not marrying Zuo Shuhui.
He contemplated awakening him to the fact that Zuo Shuhui wasn’t worthy of his affection. Soon enough, he would reveal the true nature of that woman to this infatuated soul.
Just as Zuo Shaoqing was about to speak, Zuo Shaoyan cleared his throat and calmly stated, “Prepare yourselves and don’t dawdle.”
Zuo Shaoqing drew the carriage curtain aside and gazed outside. True to his expectations, they had reached the base of Dragon Tiger Mountain. Lu Zheng galloped past them on his steed.
He couldn’t help but sneer at Lu Zheng, who rode confidently outside the carriage, thinking to himself, “What’s so impressive about horseback riding?”
Lu Zheng sensed something and turned to fix his cold gaze upon the carriage. His chilling stare unsettled Zuo Shaoqing, prompting him to quickly lower the curtain.
Mrs. Xue had arranged two carriages for the journey, but Lu Zheng displayed clear disdain upon seeing them. The green-clad attendants candidly remarked, “His master has never ridden in a carriage before. His disdain is as evident as it gets.”
This departure from tradition had the entire Zuo Family in a state of perplexity. Normally, they used luxurious carriages or horse-drawn carriages when venturing out. When had they ever chosen to ride horses?
However, it was inconceivable to subject a group of delicate scholars to a twenty-mile trek on foot.
And so, the peculiar scene unfolded. Two tall and handsome young men mounted horses and trailed behind the carriage. Were it not for their remarkable bearing, passersby might have mistaken them for Zuo’s Mansion guards and servants.
The horse-drawn carriage came to a halt, and as Zuo Shaoqing passed by, Zuo Shaoyan tersely conveyed three words: “Exercise restraint, please!”
A sly grin played on the corner of Zuo Shaoqing’s lips. He obediently alighted from the carriage and fell in line behind the group, choosing to disregard Zuo Shaoyan’s caution.
The ascent up the mountain proved a tad arduous, with a total of 888 steps. While not particularly towering, it was enough to instill trepidation in the hearts of both the Zuo Family and the other scholars.
Zuo Shaoqing couldn’t hide his satisfaction as he observed the strained expressions of the scholars behind him. Simultaneously, he feigned discomfort while gazing up at the grand staircase.
Leading the group, Lu Zheng remained at the forefront, hands casually tucked behind his back, having effortlessly distanced himself from the others in mere seconds.
Zuo Shaoqing couldn’t help but find this situation amusing. Did Lu Zheng not realize the physical condition of the people trailing behind him? Did he think they were his military commanders on a battlefield?
Zuo Shaoqing harbored a deep curiosity about the attendants accompanying Lu Zheng. He wondered how he interacted with his subordinates on a daily basis. Given his cold demeanor, one might assume he’d freeze his subordinates with silence.
As they approached halfway, exhaustion had taken hold of everyone except the master and servant duo leading the way. Even the attendants provided by Zuo’s Mansion were struggling.
The attendants accompanying them today were chosen for their eloquence and ability to cater to their masters’ needs. While they excelled in servitude, their physical stamina was lacking.
Zuo Shaoqing, too, was panting heavily, his sweat-soaked forehead dripping onto his temples. His face had lost its color, and he appeared on the verge of collapse.
“Master Lu, your younger brother is not very robust. Could we pause for a brief rest before continuing?” Zuo Shaoyan clutched Zuo Shaoqing’s arm and called out to Lu Zheng, who had already distanced himself.
Zuo Shaoqing covertly rolled his eyes. This guy certainly had a way with words. Clearly, he couldn’t go on and wanted to use Zuo Shaoqing as an excuse. In his previous life, Zuo Shaoqing might have been touched by such affection, but not in his current state.
If Zuo Shaoqing hadn’t desired to blend in with the ordinary scholars, he wouldn’t have followed Lu Zheng’s lead and scaled the mountain so effortlessly. What a group of people!
Upon hearing Zuo Shaoqing’s plea, Lu Zheng halted and turned to survey the scholars below. His eyes held a hint of amusement as he noticed Zuo Shaoqing’s sorry state. He then proceeded to enter a nearby pavilion.
With just one look, he had compelled the weary students below to blush and cast their eyes down in embarrassment.