"So, Huaibei, where do you live? Do you have any siblings? What about your parents? You must be terribly busy with work, aren't you?" Liu Meng's mother pushed the plate of fruits toward Li Huaibei and delivered a flurry of questions.
"Mom…" Liu Meng spat out between her clenched teeth. 'Is she… my actual mother?'
"Oh, I see! I see! You talk. I just remembered that I have to go play mahjong with the neighbor. Have a great time." Liu Meng's mother smiled at the two, picked up her handbag and made for the door, but not before stopping at the front and signalling Liu Meng.
"Uh… sorry about that…" Liu Meng said with an embarrassed smile.
Li Huaibei, who was struggling to find an answer, picked up the cup of hot water and took a long sip without minding its burning temperature.
"So, what are you here for?" Liu Meng took a deep breath and asked.
"I need to speak with Li Yiming." Li Huaibei quickly regained his composure.
"Yiming? He's back in Lishui…" Liu Meng was quite confused as to why Li Huaibei was able to track her down but not Li Yiming.
"He's not home, I went there. I've tried calling him too, but he didn't answer."
"Really? I just got a call from him this morning…"
"What did he say?"
"Uh… He said that he had something to do and had to leave for a few days?"
"Leave? For what? Do you know where he went? And now of all time?" Li Huaibei was not ready for that answer.
"He didn't… tell me about it. Maybe I can try calling him now?" Liu Meng was dumbfounded by the avalanche of questions. Although Li Huaibei had shown hostility before, Liu Meng was well aware that it did not arise from malice on his part, but rather from fry at the catastrophe Li Yiming had caused unwittingly. If Li Huaibei was so concerned now for Li Yiming's whereabouts, then there had to be a good reason for it.
"Hello, the number you have dialed cannot be reached at the moment, please…"
"Do you have something important to tell him?" Liu Meng put down her phone. 'I guess I can't reach him because he probably put it away in his storage bracelet…'
"What is he up to?' Li Huaibei mumbled to himself, paying no mind to Liu Meng's question.
"What is it exactly?"
"He's planning on letting you face it alone?" Li Huaibei asked.
"Face what?" Liu Meng had no idea what Li Huaibei was talking about.
"You mean, you don't know?" Li Huaibei threw the question back at Liu Meng. 'It really looks like she doesn't know… Or maybe she doesn't care? But how can she be so confident… or so ignorant?'
"What? What is it?" Liu Meng was a little irritated; she was displeased whenever people avoided her questions.
"So you don't know…" Li Huaibei squinted.
* * *
After a night spent on a high-speed train, Li Yiming arrived at Donghai with Chen Quan. At a private port, the two boarded a luxurious cruise ship. Although there were only a few people who had the privilege of stepping foot onto the ship, the security procedures were beyond elaborate.
Chen Quan's warning about the secrecy of the event turned out to be true. After having his cell phone confiscated and his luggage scanned for the fourth time, Li Yiming finally boarded the Pandaria.
"My room is right next to yours. I received the invitation only because I'm a potential seller at events like this, so…" Chen Quan had the cards to two second-class rooms, which he thought of as an obvious embarrassment.
Li Yiming nodded; he was far too concerned with the importance of the wok cap to mind such small details. He extended his senses and was about to sweep through the entire vessel, only to retract it immediately. He hid his surprise and took the room card Chen Quan handed to him, but took special care to turn away from a rather overweight man who was leaning against the fence on the upper deck.
The man had a cigar between his teeth, and his arm wrapped around an attractive woman wearing a bikini. He wore large, flamboyant shorts and a beige shirt which let through thick chest hair near the collar. Although the man was not very tall, he had an enormous beer belly which most definitely prevented him from seeing his own toes. From appearances alone, it seemed like he was nothing more than a perverted middle-aged man, but if one stared into his eyes, they would find out that he was a man capable of doing monstrous things beyond their imagination.
As Li Yiming walked across the deck with Chen Quan and entered their cabins, he spotted the surveillance camera at the end of the alleyway and frowned. 'This camera…'
He quickly caught onto the fact that the camera was scanning him with a spell rather than just capturing video footage.
'Hmmm… to be expected.' Li Yiming's lips curled up as he feigned at rubbing his nose.
"About the auction…: Chen Quan started to speak as soon as they had a little privacy, noticeably excited about the upcoming event, but Li Yiming signaled him to stop.
Li Yiming closed his eyes and extended his senses once again to scan his room and swept across every nook and corner of it. 'Alright, no hidden cameras or transmitters.'
"You were saying?" Li Yiming asked with a smile.
"The auction is going to be held on international waters. We have three days…"
"Thank you. We should probably relax a bit until then and rest. It's been a long day." Li Yiming said. "Oh yeah, do you know anything about that fat guy on the upper deck?"
"Yu Runkai? He's the chairman of Changfeng Group. You know, the people that sell bottled water. I think he's also one of the organizers of the event. What about him?" Chen Quan said with a frown as he tried to remember the details about the man.
"It's nothing. You should go rest. Also, don't forget that I'm your nephew, and I've come here as your apprentice." Li Yiming let Chen Quan know that he could leave, took off his socks, and sat down on his bed.
'You're right. That Yu Runkai is definitely involved with guardians. Rather, he's a representative. He's wearing some kind of equipment that's creating a focus barrier around him.' Bai Ze's voice rang out in Li Yiming's mind.
'There's something wrong with that camera outside too.'
'You should be careful. There's bound to be guardians at this auction.' Bai Ze advised caution, but her tone was rather nonchalant. After all, only a sage could be a threat to Li Yiming now, and there were only so many of them. Bai Ze herself had attained level six with Li Yiming, which was the major advantage of sharing her soul with Li Yiming.
'I will.' Li Yiming agreed, but his suspicions were growing. 'If there are guardians here, how can they possibly allow that wok cap to go on sale? Haven't they noticed its special properties?'
* * *
Yunhe Prefecture is a small city with barely two-hundred thousand people located in the mountains. It gained fame across the country as a production base for high-quality wooden toys, but recently, the local government made a push for a transition toward the more lucrative tourism industry, only to have its efforts fall flat. To make matters worse, the manufacturing companies, having found more business-friendly places to settle, vacated the city, leaving it in an economic predicament.
At the highway exit to Yunhe Prefecture, the western-style wooden city gates, which showed signs of dilapidation due to poor maintenance, was a telltale monument to the problems which plagued the city.
A group of people was standing beside a large black jeep that was parked right under the gate, offering a vivid contrast with the derelict structure. There was a man in suits and wearing glasses, who had elegant manners and pale skin, a robustly-built man whose manners were as coarse as intimidating, and two women, one who possessed the charms of maturity, whereas the other was blessed with delicate features and a seductive air.
"They're here…" Eyeglasses pushed up his glasses and turned his head toward the highway exit.
"Is Li Yiming not here?" Big Beard threw his cigar on the ground and stomped on it vigorously.
"It's Liu Meng and Li Huaibei… Why are they together? Where's Li Yiming?" Qing Linglong was confused.
Li Huaibei got off the car with an expressionless face, while Liu Meng seemed to hesitate as she approached her former teammates.
"Liu Meng, where is he?" Qing Qiaoqiao approached Li Huaibei's car and glanced inside to make sure that there was no one inside.
"Something came up and he couldn't come."
"He couldn't come?" Qing Linglong could not believe what she had just heard.
"How? What could possible be more important than…" Eyeglasses was perplexed.
"I… I don't know…" Liu Meng glanced at her cell phone worriedly; she had tried to call Li Yiming several times on the way, but to no avail.
"Seriously?" Big Beard raised his fist and was about to smash it on the hood of the car, but paused mid-air awkwardly after noticing Li Huaibei's staring at him.
"No use complaining now. I believe Li Yiming has his own considerations. Even if he doesn't, I trust Bai Ze's judgment. He must have something important at hand." Li Huaibei looked at the group with envy. 'I used to have friends like that… too.'
"Eyeglasses, look up where Li Yiming went." Qing Linglong turned toward Eyeglasses and said with severity.
"No need. Li Yiming is in Donghai. He boarded a ship, the Pandaria, about three hours ago." A voice suddenly came from behind. Everyone turned around to find, to their surprise, a beautiful woman in a traditional dress. Although she seemed weak from some kind of injury, her fragility could not conceal her air of elegance and her heavenly affectation.
"Wang Liping?" Li Huaibei frowned.
"I'm even more injured than you are. I don't think I can handle this on my own. May I join you?" Stargaze showed a smile that was as pleasant as the warm spring wind that caressed one's face.
"You said that Li Yiming went to Donghai?" Liu Meng came forth and took Stargaze's hand. She was the only one who had grown accustomed enough to sages as to not be too intimidated by one.
"Going on a cruise at this time? He…"
"I don't know. I just know that he boarded three hours ago."
"Pandaria…" Li Huaibei scrunched his eyes once again.