Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Who You Calling His Darling?!
Rubbing my face, I whinged, "That was mean… How can you just slap me in public…?"
"What sort of question is that?! It's your fault for letting your mouth run loose! I thought you fixed your bad habits, but you're still a damn jerk!"
Bai Lian's arms shook as she scolded me all the way from Dongpo Restaurant to Feiyun Hall. As so many people looked at us when we bickered, Bai Lian had to follow me. She lambasted me, only taking breaks to take in oxygen.
"You already have Su Xiao, yet you're still going after other men. As if picking on distasteful men wasn't enough, y-you even tease me! Do you have a death wish?!"
"Whoa, whoa! There's a big misunderstanding in there! I admit to being wrong when I threatened to force a kiss on you; however, that's due to our history! It's not my fault our first meeting wasn't a pure scene! Who you saying likes men and eunuchs! I married a Princess (lie), practiced dual cultivation with my shiyi (another lie) and picked up countless girls after descending Mount Daluo (complete bullshit). I'm a real man through and through!"
"Oh? List the seven names you met before you met me."
"List the names? You asked for it: Prime Minister Li, Yan Bei, Su Xiao, Tang Ye, His Majesty, Secretary Zhang, Secretary Leng…"
I realised, "Shit me, they really were all men and Su Xiao… Why do I feel defeated? How far have I deviated onto the path of decadence from my original journey to marry a gorgeous wife and lead a nice life?"
"By the way, where is Feiyun Hall? Why are we still not there?"
"Obviously," replied Bai Lian, keeping her distance from me. "Feiyun Hall is at Wuhua County. It's under Najing's jurisdiction, but it takes, at least, one day on foot to reach it once we're out of the capital. I did say I didn't want to go with you…"
'Wow, that's far. Wait a second. So… your original plan was to make me run all the way there, while you kick back and wait for me to come back with a report?! Oh, man, did I underestimate you! You learnt all the cunning tricks while in the imperial palace, huh?!'
"Long-story short, we can't just walk there; it'll be night time by the time we arrive. We should prepare for the long journey."
Due to the long distance, the two of us prepared gear for two days and one night. We went to buy a set of clothes at the variety store and bought some dried food. The store was quite big. They really did have a variety of things for decent prices.
Truth be told, I didn't need to waste money buying clothes. Firstly, I could just jump into any lake to wash my clothes then use my internal energy to dry it (necessary skill for broke wanderers). Secondly, I was broke (absolutely broke)… I would've put up with it if someone resembling Eunuch Wang or Eunuch Sui, but General Manager Bai's body and fragrance, I couldn't bear to let her eat shoddy food, not have clothes or places to take baths. In the end, I bought her a set of clothes.
General Manager Bai reacted jolly as soon as she entered the store, giving the impression she never went out. She asked, "Ming Feizhen, Ming Feizhen, what's this?"
With an absentminded attitude, I replied, "It's a lantern. We're in the New Year period; I bet they sell that stuff everywhere nowadays."
"They haven't painted dragons and phoenixes on it. Plus, it's made using paper. You call this a lantern?"
"Why does your comment sound the same as those nobles proving they're high class, saying, 'Oh, I didn't know pork was also meat'? Look, I know you use silk in the imperial palace, but the citizens use paper, okay?! It's quick, budget friendly and doesn't look any worse than the ones in the imperial palace!"
General Manager Bai ignored me and surveyed the store, looking around as though she was enthusiastically searching for a treasure. She asked, "What's this?"
"A bamboo hose. You can fill it up with water and fire it using pressure. Kids use it to play water fights."
"How about this?"
"Firecrackers. Light it up and throw it out. Kids throw it at adults."
"That's eel. Adults use it for m-"
*Cough, cough, cough, cough, cough!*
'Hey, owner, get your ass out here! What are you selling eel for in a variety store?!! You can't convince me you're selling them as food!'
General Manager Bai's eyes glittered as a child's in a toy store. She asked me this and that; she was completely different to herself a while ago. I found the contrast really adorable.
"I know what this is!" exclaimed General Manager Bai, picking up an exquisite puppet and smiling confidently. "It's a voodoo doll, correct?! There's plenty of them in the palace."
"You're totally wrong!" I wanted to retort. I said, "How did you associate such a nice and cute doll with a diabolic practice?! Does the education in the imperial palace change one's values, view of life and philosophies?!"
General Manager Bai widened her eyes: "What's the point of looking nice and cute? When were the users in the palace not beautiful and cute? Do you need to look a certain way to harm someone?"
I guess she had a point. I, for one, couldn't offer a counterargument. I guess only pretty boys (I think), like her, would come to that conclusion. She crouched down and fumbled through the toys. She found a clean drum with duo balls. The handle was made from wood. Shaking it would beat the drum - which she instinctively did.
I smiled: "That's a pellet drum. Kids play with that. It's also commonly used to get on infant's good sides."
"I know… There's no way I'd be so ignorant I couldn't see that," said General Manager Bai, continuing to fiddle with the drum. Curious, she blinked my way: "You're telling me you played with these things when you're from an orthodox sect in the martial world."
"I don't like to; however, I have a young shiyi, and she loves them… I played with her every day."
Out of the blue, Bai Lian commented, "You must like your young shiyi a lot, huh?"
"Mm," I responded with a nod. "I like her a lot."
"How nice," quietly replied Bai Lian, gently shaking the drum. "It's so nice to be able to be honest about liking someone."
I played test the waters with Bai Lian: "You… can, too, can't you?"
"Me?" Bai Lian's response sounded thoughtless: "I can't. Who likes eunuchs?"
The side of Bai Lian's face was beautiful in an ethereal way, giving the rest of a surreal impression. Yet, that response sounded unusually lonely and unforgettable.
"I remember you said you entered the palace as a child. Didn't you play with toys when you were young?"
"Mm… never," answered Bai Lian, voice quiet and with the hint of an envious undertone. "My family didn't like me as a kid; they didn't let me play with toys… After I entered the palace, thinking about how to repay Her Highness w-, well, I was just really busy and didn't have time to play with toys."
"Did you never play with the Princes and Princesses?"
Bai Lian's melancholic countenance teemed with feminine charm, especially her sparkly eyes. She replied, "As if I would have that right. I was merely a low-ranking eunuch back then. I did not even have the right to serve a cup of tea. Moreover, nobody was allowed to approach them unless they were specifically assigned as their servant."
As the atmosphere grew more and more melancholic, I shoved a shortbread I just bought into Bai Lian's mouth. .
"Mm, what's this?"
"Have a bite, and you'll find out."
General Manager Bai took a few steps back as soon as the shortbread touched her lips: "Cough, cough, cough, it's dry, bitter and coarse. What is that?"
Well, I guess shortbread wouldn't be on the menu in the imperial palace.
"Two and half compulsory kilograms of shortbread when travelling."
"Two and half kilograms?!"exclaimed General Manager Bai, instinctively raising her voice in her sweet voice. She didn't realise she just switched to her cute voice. She continued, "Y-You bought two and half kilograms of that for the journey? Is that your way of starving me? I'll pay. We'll eat at small eateries on the w-"
I shoved a piece I tore off into Bai Lian's mouth before she could finish. She widened her eyes, but her instincts after being in the palace for so long kicked in, stopping her from spitting it out, as it would be rude. As a consequence, she had to swallow it. She coughed and said, "What are you doing?"
I smiled: "Listen, young one, I shall share some basic common sense necessary in the pugilistic world. You can't eat food others offer you while you're out there. That's why you have to prepare yourself to eat some of the bland, dry rations."
"But that's j-"
I bit the spot she bit off before, leading to her blushing and rendering her speechless. As I chewed, I added, "It doesn't taste good, true; however, it's the rule in the pugilistic world. If you don't want to be in trouble, watch your back."
I then turned around to the owner: "Owner, how much in total? She's paying."
Being the perceptive man he was, the owner gave me a wink: "Roger that. It's always better to let the wife handle the finances when you're out."
'Hey, hey, hey, watch what you're saying! She's the imperial household's general manager, you bugger! By the way, I like women!'
"Ming Feizhen! What did you say to him?! Why did he say you're suffering as a husband, and I have to learn to be a proper wife?!"
"I'm innocent; I didn't say a thing. It's your fault for looking so stunning that he mistook you for a female. Look, I'm not trying to be a jerk, but you are fortunate I know your true identity. Who would not mistake you for a girl with your appearance?"
"You're the only one running his mouth!"
We quarrelled as we exited the store then stopped in unison. Bai Lian sighed: "The people involved in this case make it a complex case."
I nodded: "I certainly didn't expect it. But we do know who is investigating him. They're sending someone after us in spite of knowing who we are. Not to mention in broad daylight and in the capital of all places."
We met with about thirty mounted cavalry in black. All of them had their faces concealed behind black cloth. They had broadswords by their waists, and their desire to spill blood was apparent. The leader drew his broadsword and slashed the air in front of us. He brayed, "Surrender, and I shall spare you."
"General Manager Bai, he is offering to spare us."
"Head Constable Ming, it would be rude to not accept the kind offer."
The cavalry thundered, "Rude what? What are you trying to say?"
Bai Lian and I gave each other a smile before replying, "It would be rude to not accept free horses delivered to the door, is what we mean."
*Dragons and Phoenixes - They're popular drawn onto lanterns, especially back in the palace they associated with the mythical creatures.
** Eel - It's the same NSFW reference as the time Su Xiao made porridge for Ming Feizhen.
***Shortbread (Chinese) –