C41 – Disgrace

As Lu Zheng entered the pavilion with a commanding presence, two woodcutters who were already seated hastily rose and made room. However, their weariness kept them from immediately departing, sensing that Lu Zheng had no intention of driving them away.

Zuo Shaoqing and his companions entered the cozy pavilion with heavy strides, swiftly filling the space. The two woodcutters received stern glares from Zuo Shaoling, prompting them to promptly gather their firewood and depart obediently.

The residents of Youuxi Town might not be familiar with Zuo Shaoyan, and even less so with Zuo Shaoqing, but Zuo Shaoling, notorious for his misdeeds, had a reputation that extended far and wide.

Zuo Shaoqing mused, “This infamous reputation has its advantages, as it can at least intimidate ordinary folks.”

Accepting a handkerchief offered by an attendant, Zuo Shaoqing wiped the perspiration from his brow and cast a few more glances at the young man.

Earlier in the day, Luo Xiaoliu had been temporarily borrowed by the butler, leaving Lu Zheng without any attendants. Fortunately, Zuo Yunwen had dispatched over a dozen servants to accompany him, a testament to how highly he regarded Lu Zheng. Some of them were even borrowed from the second branch, a clear demonstration of their status.

The young man who greeted him with a smile was likely from the second branch, for in the main branch, who wouldn’t know that being overly attentive to the Third Master would only lead to trouble?

The servants were kept busy providing water and fanning the breeze.

Someone even brought out fruits and pastries, but Lu Zheng promptly stowed them away with a stern expression.

Sensing the somber atmosphere, Zuo Shaoyan went on to enthrall Lu Zheng with the captivating history of Xizen Temple in Longhu Mountain. His knowledge was impressive, and the narrative held the crowd’s rapt attention.

Zuo Shaoqing carefully observed the reactions of those present. He noticed Zuo Shaoling commanding two Liu servants to massage his legs, a clear sign of his disinterest in the story. Meanwhile, Lu Zheng gazed into the distance with his back to the assembly, leaving it uncertain whether he was listening or not.

The only person with a genuine interest was Cao Zongguan. Whether it was to establish a strong rapport with his brother-in-law or if he truly shared a deep connection with Zuo Shaoyan, their mutual appreciation was evident.

After a brief rest, Lu Zheng took the lead in departing, and the others reluctantly followed suit.

Zuo Shaoqing mentally calculated the timing and route. He cast a knowing glance in Zuo Shaoling’s direction, a subtle smile forming on his lips. He anticipated the commencement of an intriguing spectacle.

Zuo Shaoqing had long suspected that the only place the Zuo Family could host Lu Zheng was this picturesque Dragon Tiger Mountain.

Before long, the sound of a woman weeping echoed ahead of them. All eyes turned toward the source, revealing a woman clad in mourning attire. She knelt and ascended the mountain with nine steps and nine prostrations.

Climbing this mountain path was no easy feat even for a grown man, let alone a frail woman who had to kneel and bow thrice. Her determination was truly remarkable.

Cao Zongguan sighed and remarked, “This woman is undoubtedly extraordinary!”

Zuo Shaoling couldn’t tear his gaze away from the slender figure before him. Despite his youth, he possessed ample experience, and from her back alone, he deduced that the girl must be incredibly beautiful. He observed her slender waist, her cascading black hair, and even the subtle sway of her hips during her kowtows… It was tantalizing.

The group soon caught up with the young woman, who seemed unprepared for such a large contingent of men. She hastily veiled half of her face with her sleeve, revealing only a pair of fearful eyes.

Even so, as everyone’s eyes fell upon her, they could already discern her exquisite visage. Her jet-black eyes held a trace of longing to convey something, yet remained muted.

Draped in mourning attire, she wore pure white, a stark contrast to her tear-streaked face.

Lu Zheng’s master and servant continued to walk without a pause, seemingly oblivious to the girl’s presence, much to Zuo Shaoqing’s hidden relief.

For some inexplicable reason, the thought of Lu Zheng developing feelings for anyone stirred up a sense of resentment in him.

Zuo Shaoyan cast a fleeting glance at the girl’s reddened and swollen forehead as he trailed behind. His demeanor was perpetually aloof, and today’s unexpected encounter with a stranger, let alone his sister, didn’t warrant his care.

Cao Zongguan brimmed with curiosity but refrained from approaching the unfamiliar woman in the presence of his brother-in-law.

Zuo Shaoqing caught his second brother’s gaze fixed on the girl. He inwardly scoffed and distanced himself nonchalantly.

As they hadn’t ventured far, they overheard his second brother addressing the girl in a gently repulsed tone, “Why is the girl alone on this mountain? Is there anything I can assist you with?”

“I… I wish to reach the Zen Temple to honor my late father.”

“A truly devoted daughter. Your father must find solace in the afterlife…”

The voices grew fainter in Zuo Shaoqing’s ears, and his smile grew wider. He thought to himself, “Dear Second Brother, I hope you appreciate the gift I’ve bestowed upon you. Enjoy.”

Upon their arrival at the Western Zen Temple, it was already noon, and the temple’s lunchtime bell had chimed. Matters concerning the Zuo family had been resolved, and the midday meal was being served.

“Amitabha, dear benefactors, please follow me,” greeted a young monk in a saffron robe at the temple’s entrance. Even though Master Fumu recognized Master Lu, there was no formal ceremony.

Zuo Shaoqing pondered quietly, realizing that if the Changping County officials discovered Lu Zheng’s presence at Zuo’s Mansion, the mansion’s entrance would likely be overrun.

Everyone’s stomachs growled with hunger as they followed the young monk to the rear of the temple.

In the winter, the temple felt even colder. A lone family knelt before the Great Treasure Hall, reciting ancient scriptures. It was likely a gesture of remembrance for a departed loved one.

Xicheng Temple’s renown was a result of its revered monks and the sea of crabapple blossoms behind it. Each spring and summer, people gathered to enjoy the vibrant blooms and socialize.

Up front, Zuo Shaoyan continued to act as the commentator, while in the rear, a concerned Zuo Shaoqing asked Cao Zongguan, “Why hasn’t Second Brother joined us yet?”

Zuo Shaoqing was aware of the recent conflict between the two brothers. Despite this, he showed genuine concern for him. Cao Zongguan, touched by his sincerity, smiled and replied, “I believe he’s been delayed by something.”

Everyone present understood the real reason behind this delay.

Zuo Shaoqing responded with a puzzled expression, “Let’s send someone to check on him. I noticed Second Brother standing alone earlier. It wouldn’t be good if he missed his meal.”

Suddenly, Lu Zheng halted abruptly, startling Zuo Shaoyan. He turned to Zuo Shaoqing and Cao Zongguan, inquiring, “What are the two of you discussing?”

Seeing that Zuo Shaoqing appeared “startled” and lowered his head, Cao Zongguan stepped forward and casually said, “We were discussing the possibility of sending assistance to Brother Shao Ling.”

“Zuo Shaoqing? Quite the intimate name!” Lu Zheng’s eyes briefly settled on Zuo Shaoqing before drifting away from the ebony strands atop his head. He spoke in a hushed tone, “I suppose the security in Youuxi Town isn’t lax enough for a man to meet his end in broad daylight.”

These words carried a sharp edge. Zuo Shaoqing, with lowered eyes, revealed a hint of a smile, and a faint curve touched the corner of his mouth. Then, Zuo Shaoyan’s impatience broke in, “No need to continue, he’ll be here soon.”

Zuo Shaoqing could envision Zuo Shaoyan’s demeanor without needing to look at him. Before departing, Zuo Yunwen had reminded Second Master Zuo to keep himself in check and avoid making a spectacle of himself.

Ultimately, Second Master Zuo couldn’t resist the allure of beautiful women. He’d lost his composure halfway and was likely indulging in flirtations with them at this very moment.

By the time Zuo Shaoling and the alluring woman arrived at the temple, everyone had already finished their lunch. Yet, thanks to Zuo Shaoqing’s “generosity,” he instructed the servants to set aside a meal for his second brother. Upon spotting his sibling, he feigned innocence and asked, “Hey, why is this young lady accompanying my second brother?”

“This young lady had fainted on the ground, and fearing for her safety, I provided her assistance from the mountain. As the Buddha teaches, ‘Saving a life is more virtuous than building a seven-tiered pagoda.’ How could I simply stand by and allow harm to befall a frail girl?”

Zuo Shaoqing was on the verge of applauding this elaborate excuse. Compared to him, these individuals appeared to lack compassion.

Touched, the young woman gazed at Zuo Shaoling with tearful eyes and offered a deep bow. “I must express my gratitude to the young master for saving my life.”

“Ahem, no need, it was a minor gesture on my part.”

Zuo Shaoqing nearly choked on the food he had just consumed. At that moment, a young servant approached, stating that Master Cheng Guang had invited Master Lu for a conversation, diverting attention away from this awkward topic.

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