Last chapter of Book 17.
Book 17 Chapter 12 - The Whip Way to Contend for Supremacy
In his current role, Xu Ziling had no choice but to sit on one of the three tables on the east; fortunately he did not share the table with Li Jing, otherwise it would be very easy to reveal the cloven foot [i.e. to unmask one's true nature].
He and Chen Changlin sat to the left and right of Linglong Jiao, opposite Xing Mofei and the two Tuyuhun beauties, whose eyes seemed to be able to talk. After self-introduction to each other, they found out that the rest of the people sitting around them were either sons and daughters or trusted aides of the people sitting on the main tables.
Those able to share table with Rong Fengxiang were, naturally, people with enough weight, such as Li Shimin, Tuli, Wang Shichong, Song Lu, Liu Jing, Fu Qian, Ouyang Xiyi, Priest Ke Feng, and three others, Luoyang's celebrities with enough face, but Madam Rong Fengxiang was nowhere to be seen.
Kou Zhong was seated with Yun Yuzhen and Hou Xibai. Fortunately he and Yun Yuzhen was separated by Zheng Shiru, so it was inconvenient to talk to her; otherwise he might not be able to hide his anger and might bicker with her at the banquet table.
Bai Qing'er and Zheng Shuming sat across the table from him. It was a case of enemies meeting face to face; they should have been infuriated with each other. But surprisingly Zheng Shuming acted as if he did not exist; she merely chatting and joking with Bai Qing'er in low voices.
By the time all guests have been seated, Kou Zhong found out that the seat on his right was empty. He asked the maid serving him, and the maid simply said that she was just following the Housekeeper's order, while other people did not have any idea either, so that he was unable to make any sense of it.
After Zheng Shiru greeted him perfunctorily, he then talked to Hou Xibai and Yun Yuzhen, no longer paying attention to Kou Zhong, and Kou Zhong was only too happy to have his ears pure and peaceful, and took this opportunity to look around.
This moment Rong Fengxiang stood up straight and toasted everybody with delight, saying, "Today Ol' Rong has passed fifty lowly years, it is rare that all distinguished guests honored me with your presence, including good friends who have come from thousands of li, making Ol' Rong fully experiencing being honored and pampered. I sincerely offer this cup of wine water as a small token of respect and gratitude for everybody's kind intention."
Everybody rose up to return the propriety, the atmosphere warmed up immediately, the sound of praise and wine cup clinking against each other lingered on.
It was quite a while later that everybody returned to their seats.
Smiling mysteriously, Rong Fengxiang said, "Before the vegetable and meat dishes are served on the table, Ol' Rong wants to give honored guests a little nice surprise. Please welcome Miss Shang Xiufang."
Amidst the roar of the guests cheering and clapping, the ensemble played an upbeat music, bringing a joyful atmosphere to the Hall.
Hou Xibai's eyes gleamed with a strange light, as he attentively waiting for this famous courtesan to appear on stage and offer up her art.
Shang Xiufang had just appeared on the stage, immediately Dong Shuni, Rong Jiaojiao, Yun Yuzhen, and the other beauties lose some color.
In term of the brightness of the countenance and the glamor of appearance, each one of these beauties had her unique distinguishing feature; it was difficult to differentiate their relative superiority. But Shang Xiufang's charm and bearing had some kind of distinctive style, which made the other ladies appeared inferior in comparison.
Apparently she was quite good at sorrowful, touching Xiaodiao [Chinese folk song genre]; therefore, this time she sang a joyful, congratulatory song to wish the host a happy birthday, although it was still exceptionally good, Kou Zhong had a feeling that her performance this time was slightly inferior to the previous day's performance at the Shangshu Mansion.
However, as soon as she began singing, nearly everybody in the hall listened as if they were intoxicated. Xu Ziling and Kou Zhong were the only two exceptions.
Currently, the two boys' mood was opposite to the joyful tune.
Xu Ziling took this opportunity to calmly observing the reaction of everybody on the four main tables. The one with most engrossed expression was Hou Xibai; he looked as if as soon as he heard the music, he wanted to dance. Although Li Shimin and Fu Qian were listening attentively, their manner appeared calm and collected. Others' reaction varied, but in general they all looked captivated by Shang Xiufang's musical skill, which sounded like celestial sound of the immortals, and the elegance and beauty of her dance's posture and movements. Tuli's eyes looked even stranger; he looked as if he wanted to swallow this glamorous and delicious popular artist alive in one gulp.
Shang Xiufang's pair of hooking-the-spirit, absorbing-the-soul limpid-water eyes, combined with her posture and her expression, while she was spinning around and around on the stage, continuously sweeping the banquet tables, so that the younger generations with comparatively weak self-control had their spirit and soul turned upside down.
As soon as the song ended, the applause was thunderous and ear splitting.
Even before the applause ended, Rong Fengxiang already left his seat to personally meet her and brought Shang Xiufang to the empty seat right next to Kou Zhong. While all the men stood up to welcome her, Rong Fengxiang vaguely winked at Kou Zhong; he said with a laugh, "Kou Xiongdi, please take a good care of Miss Fang for Laofu."
And so everybody knew that Shang Xiufang sitting by Kou Zhong's side was not his own arrangement.
After the introduction, Shang Xiufang sat down, and only then did Rong Fengxiang leave the table. Before he even sat down, Zheng Shiru already showered Shang Xiufang with endless praise, as if Kou Zhong was not there at all.
Although Hou Xibai was looking at Shang Xiufang with a hint of smile on his face, he did not look anxious to strike a conversation at all; he was extremely poised.
It was unclear whether it was deliberate arrangement, but on this banquet table, more than half were women; only Kou Zhong, Zheng Shiru, Hou Xibai and two pampered young masters of Luoyang influential families had the honor to accompany the ladies.
Meanwhile the vegetable and meat dishes were being served. There was also an unending stream of guests from the front and middle, two halls, coming in to toast the host, pushing the banquet atmosphere to its peak.
Rong Fengxiang's alcohol capacity was quite excellent; he never refuse anybody. Once in a while he would ask various guests around his table to drink on his behalf. The one took the most toasts was, quite naturally, Wang Shichong, who sat by his side.
All these things did not escape Xu Ziling's eyes; he wondered whether Rong Fengxiang was intentional or not, but it appeared that he wanted to make Wang Shichong drunk. However, Wang Shichong's inner power was quite profound, plus he was a Jianghu veteran, so he knew how much he was able to take.
While he was thinking deeply, Linglong Jiao leaned over and asked, "Why did you look indifferent toward Shang Xiufang's singing just now? Is it because she did not sing well, or because you don't like the music?"
Xu Ziling was taken aback; only then did he realize that she had been paying him attention. A bit embarrassed, he said, "I just love to hear comparably sad songs."
In his heart he could not help remembering Shi Qingxuan's flute, which touched him deeply.
Looking pensive, Linglong Jiao said, "As the moon is about to sink south of the Kunlun Mountain range, shepherds play sad song on their Hujia. Hujia is Qiang flute; they produce the most mournful sound. When Gongzi has the opportunity, you should listen to them."
Over there, Shang Xiufang finally found the opportunity to talk to Kou Zhong; she spoke in low voice, "Qie [I, your servant] stays at Man Qing Yuan, if you have time tomorrow, could you find an opportunity to see qie? The day after tomorrow Xiufang is leaving for Guanzhong!"
Kou Zhong has never thought that she would have such a high opinion on him; he nodded slightly to say that he promised.
And then he found that Zheng Shuming, Bai Qing'er and Yun Yuzhen were staring at the two of them. He could only hope that because of the clamor, the three women did not hear Shang Xiufang's invitation to him. Even he himself did not understand this kind of fear; a fear of people knowing what's in his heart.
Right this moment, the herald at the door announced loudly, "Imperial Bodyguard Commander, Right Wuhou [martial/military marquis] Great General Dugu Feng has arrived!"
Everybody was taken by surprise.
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Dugu Feng, wearing full government official attire, under escort of four internal ministers, pompously entered the hall, and loudly said, "Dugu Feng, under Huang Taizu's imperial order, came with specific purpose of congratulating Rong Laoban on his birthday, and to act on Huang Taizu's behalf to bestow this jade tree."
He acted as if he did not see Wang Shichong; his eyes seemed to focus on Rong Fengxiang, one person.
In such an award-given time, following the custom, Li Shimin and the other outsiders stepped aside, while all Yang Dong's subjects, including Rong Fengxiang, had to kneel to receive the gift that Yang Dong bestowed. There remained only Wang Shichong and his men, who weren't sure of what to do.
It should be noted that technically, Wang Shichong was still accepting orders from Yang Dong as his master; even when mobilizing his troops to pressurized the Imperial Palace, their claim was to capture two 'treacherous court officials' Yuan Wendu and Lu Da, rather than blatant rebellion.
This was the critical, life and death, time where they had to confront Li Mi, if he made his real position public, in which his power was illegitimately conferred, he might lose, albeit partially, Luoyang's civil and military support, and that would bring more harm without any benefit.
If he wanted to depose Yang Dong, he must make prior arrangement to deploy his troops, which would be implemented only when the time is ripe; but as it stands right now, no matter which scheme he used, he would be subject to humiliation.
Thinking of this, Wang Shichong rose to his full height, and then knelt beside Rong Fengxiang.
Wang Xuanying and Wang Xuanshu had no choice but to follow suit.
Kou Zhong and the others were technically Wang Shichong's guests, so if they merely stepped away from the banquet table, nobody would raise their eyebrows.
Dugu Feng was very proud of himself; he said loudly, "You may rise!"
Wang Shichong stood up full of anger in his belly.
Inwardly Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling cried, 'Formidable!'. They knew that it was because Shen Luoyan could see through their 'showing weakness in front of the enemy' stratagem that she used this strategy to frustrate their morale and acute spirit.
Dugu Feng took a small brocade box from the hand of one of his chamberlains, and put it in the kneeling Rong Fengxiang's open palms, and thus the ceremony is over.
Rong Fengxiang, with the brocade case in his hands, laughed and said, "Dugu Daren must stay and drink a cup of wine."
With an air of complacency, Dugu Feng laughed aloud and said, "Xiaodi is under His Majesty's order, it's not suitable for me to stay for a long time. Everybody, please!"
Without giving Wang Shichong time to react, he haughtily turned around and walked away. Rong Fengxiang hastily sent him off.