The weather was mild today. There was plenty of sunshine and the trees had stayed quiet.
It was the perfect day to go out in a light-colored padded jacket. The sun would wrap one up and slowly drive out the dampness and gloom that had seeped into the bones until all that was left was the cozy warmth.
Right now, Xiaozhai was slouching back on a bench, looking as laid-back as a dozing orange tabby cat that had just finished its meal. Behind her was a dried fountain and department stores were in her front. On either side of her were the underground passages—she was right in the middle of a shopping center plaza.
"Here you go!"
With a soft call, two paper bags swooshed towards Xiaozhai, who readily caught them and found the bags a little bit scalding. As it turned out, they were an apple pie and a red bean pie.
In Gu Yu’s hand was another plastic bag. He did not go to Xiaozhai right away, but turned around and called out to someone, "Hey, come and join us!"
Zhao Lei, who was tailing them conspicuously not far away, replied to his greeting with utter embarrassment and awkwardly came up to them. Gu Yu and Xiaozhai shared a bench while he sat on the other, nibbling at the pie Gu Yu bought him.
"What took you so long?"
Xiaozhai took a bite of her red bean pie and steam swirled out of the opening right away. The soft pastry left behind a few crumbs at the corner of those pink lips when the pie left her mouth.
And here went the opportunity to finesse!
When you were dating a girl and the good opinion was mutual, a typical probing move went as follows: with a tissue—if you happen to carry one and are quick enough to get it out of your pocket—or your bare hand—if you have nice hands and there is no dirt under your fingernails, wipe her lips clean.
If she accepted this without dodging, you were safe to move to the next level, such as holding hands (or get a room, eventually).
At the end of the day, it still depended on whom you were dealing with. By now, Gu Yu had lost count of his ‘finessing’ that had been smashed to pieces by Xiaozhai’s brick wall and he did not even bother to look. He only replied, "There was a lot of people, so I’ve been lining up."
"A lot of people? Oh, it’s Sunday today."
Seeing that he would not fall for it, Xiaozhai pursed her lips and wiped away the crumbs herself, then turned to the other side, "Hey, why aren’t you getting the day off?"
Zhao Lei had been enjoying his pie and said miserably, "How am I going to get my day off when you two are still walking around? I’m lucky enough to have someone else cover the night shift, or it would take me less a month to die a premature death following you two around the clock."
"Haha, we’ll be off in a few days. You’d have a full night’s sleep then," grinned Gu Yu.
"I‘m thanking you in advance for that!"
Zhao Lei made a cupping gesture with his hands, apparently very sincere.
He was actually filled
with mixed feelings. They had started off as enemies and he even got bound up in confinement by the two. The situation had changed swiftly after that and the two categories of ‘friend or foe’ were not enough to define their relationship. Instead, it was something too sophisticated for him to describe...
While his thoughts were all over the place, his phone suddenly rang. Zhao Lei straightened his face and picked it up. "Yes, Director Tong! Yes, ok, I understand… you have my word. Bye bye!"
The conversation was brief. Hanging up the phone, he said, "Just to let you know, the person from the capital has arrived. Director asked me to tell you that there is going to be a banquet at the guest house of the provincial government today and you two are invited."
"In that case, please tell him for us. We’re not going!"
"Sure, I will definitely… what?"
Zhao Lei was utterly baffled. "Did you just say you’re not going?"
"Yep, you heard him right. If they want to talk, let them come to us. We’ll set the time and location," Xiaozhai had moved on the the apple pie.
Zhao Lei was dripping with sweat by now. Being a man working inside the government system, he was instinctively sensitive to the official authority. If it were him that got invited by the director, he would be dashing at the opportunity like a puppy going after its stick, not to mention that the man from the capital was involved.
"We’ll make it easy for you. Call them and say that we’ll be waiting for them in our hotel at eight o’clock tonight." Gu Yu found Zhao Lei a decent man and tried to appease him.
"I, I... you guys wait here!"
Zhao Lei ran out swiftly to keep some distance from the two and made a rather long phone call comprising numerous "yeses" and "oks". When he came back, he said, "The boss has agreed. But, they said the hotel is too noisy and crowded and they’d like to meet in the tea house nearby."
"The tea house?"
The two exchanged a look and nodded, "That’ll do!"
"Outrageous! This is outrageous!"
In his office in the local sub-bureau, Old Tong was exceptionally outraged as he bellowed, "Who do they think they are, huh? They should be thanking the state for the leniency to consider negotiations at all and now they are coming up with conditions? This is an utter contempt for the law!"
Mu Kun could not be bothered to react to the charges. Old Tong had pulled some strings to get in the BIMAUP. He had his merits, but he was way to rigid in his thinking, still holding onto the ancient mindsets.
The reason for his lashing out was simple: the imperial envoy had arrived and naturally he had to make himself noticed.
With his own safety secured, he could afford to accuse others for their faults in front of his master with the most dramatic manner, so
so much so that he could even burst into uncontrollable tears and appear to be ready to crack his own head open on a pillar—such behavior was called the science of showing one’s loyalty.
While the directors sat around the room, a man was seated in the host seat. He was none other than the ‘envoy’ that had just arrived at Urumqi. The man was in his forties—even younger than Mu Kun was—and the black-rimmed glasses gave him a learned and refined look.
"Haha, Old Tong, do calm down."
He had a nice voice and was smiling. "Our two young friends are very smart. They know they are disadvantaged and decided to play some tricks. It’s all understandable. Since the negotiation has been made certain, the formality is not all that relevant. After all, the leverage is the key."
"Yes, yes, I quite agree with you. We need to show our generosity." Old Tong changed his manner at the snap of a finger.
Unlike the idiotic Tong, Mu Kun knew better and asked anxiously, "Have you really decided to go in alone? We can hardly absolve ourselves from the blame should anything happen to you."
"Like you said, those two are very capable people. The number of helpers I bring with me won’t make a difference. I can’t take an armored division with me, can I?"
The envoy was at ease and even comforted him, "Don’t worry. They are smart enough to know what can be done and what cannot."
"Then, then at least take Xiao Wu and his men, just in case."
"Okay, I’ll leave it to you."
The envoy checked his watch for the time and saw that eight o’clock had yet to come. He sighed softly despite himself. "To tell you the truth, after hearing so much about these two in the capital, I actually am looking forward to the meeting… all right, I’ll leave you guys to your business. Let me know when the time comes."
The two men dared not delay and left the room right away.
The same night, eight o’clock.
The tea house was not far from the hotel and the two-story building was of a considerable size. Tea houses were generally branded as being high-end. The interior environment was nothing like the restaurants, which were boisterous from everyone talking loudly at the same time.
It was already quiet enough on ordinary days. Had it not been for the cars parked outside, one would not be able to tell if there were customers inside. Today, of course, there were no other customers.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai arrived precisely at eight o’clock and walked in from the front gate. A man in suit was already waiting for them. He bowed slightly in greeting, "Please proceed to the second floor!"
They went upstairs and were led into a private room by another man in suit. Inside were seats for four and a table with zisha 1 teaware laid on top. On a wooden side table, incense was burning in a censer.
A middle-aged man was in the host seat, skillfully carrying out the Fujian tea ceremony. He filled three cups with tea and greeted them, "Just about the right time. Take a seat, please!"
The two sat down. Gu Yu did not touch the cup, but inhaled first and commended, "Nice incense!"
"How do you know the incense is nice?" the man smiled.
"It is tranquil, beautiful, and elegant. I can sense an implicit and refined culture in it. If I may take a guess, is it the Xuanhe Dragon Garden from Ming Dynasty?"
"I was told before coming here that Mr. Gu is a master incense-maker. Now I see that that fame is indeed well-grounded!"
Xuanhe was the reigning title of Emperor Huizong 2 of Song. The Snowy Dragon Garden was the most celebrated tea in Song Dynasty that had long been lost by now. Xuanhe Dragon Garden, however, was an incense created by an incense-maker of Ming Dynasty imitating the idea of the famous tea, which was specifically used in tea houses and could be served together with tea.
The man was mildly surprised to see him hit the bullseye with his first guess. "Burning incense has always been a hobby of mine and it’s been a pity that so few could share my appreciation. We’re years apart in our ages, but I see that we can become fellow incense-appraisers."
"You flatter me. We’ll see about that after today."
Gu Yu returned the pleasantries before finally sipping his tea. It had a well-rounded taste and there was a natural fragrance of orchid about it. The tea was also of top quality.
Xiaozhai also took a sip, but her comment was accompanied by the shake of her head. "Pedantic! So pedantic!"
Both men winced, but understood immediately after that.
The man realized right away how Mu Kun must have felt during his previous encounter with the two. Covering his flitting embarrassment, he changed to a formal manner. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Wang Qi. With the trust of my superiors, I am to take sole responsibility for the issue at hand. Since you have taken the initiative, I presume you must have your own consideration. We have also carried out some careful discussion on our side. We do hope this meeting will turn out successful."
"Of course, that hope is mutual."
After the tone was set, they got down to business.
Wang Qi began with a smile. "You two are known far and wide by now. From Luobi to western Hunan, then to Urumqi, the noise you’ve raised was ever louder. Even those very high up have noticed. We meant no harm by following you all this time; it was solely out of the appreciation of talented people. As you might know, the BIMAUP was only just founded and we would be more than happy to have people as able as you two on board. Of course, you will be treated as we see fit with your value."
Gu Yu burst out laughing. How come the lines of offering amnesty to the rebels stayed the same throughout all the eras? Unfortunately, they were not least interested. He refused right away, "Thank you, but the career of a bureaucrat really doesn’t suit us."
"Fine youths like you ought to serve their country. Your work will be rewarded generously. Please reconsider the offer."
"Everyone has their own ambition and I don’t think you should force one upon others."
A few rounds went on like this and Gu Yu turned down each one of them. Wang Qi’s attitude remained unchanged, keeping his friendly smile all the time. One could only desire things of one of the three categories: money and women, fame, or power, and the government had a plan for every one of them.
For the enlisting of these two rebels this time, for instance, the bosses had drawn a bottom line: as long as they agreed to join the bureau, they would be transferred to the capital right away and a new team was to be set up specifically for them. They would be given positions equivalent to deputy directors. It was indeed a generous offer. The BIMAUP was under direct jurisdiction of the central government and just imagine what it meant to promote one straight to the level of a deputy director!
He could not show his cards just yet and the probing had to go on for another few rounds. "Well, I won’t press you on that. I was just trying to let you see that what you did earlier had disturbed the social stability greatly. You injured dozens of people in the Miao village alone. Should it be brought to the court, do you know what consequences you’re facing?"
"Hey, I thought the law also gives rewards for the merits?"
Xiaozhai interjected suddenly. "We have caught the zombie for you. If not for us, your men would have been wiped out. The rest can wait, give our share of rewards for that first."
‘What? Such a vixen!’
By now, Xiaozhai had left such an impression on Wang Qi. However, he was not angry.
That was just the way negotiations were. Eighty percent of the time, the two sides were disputing over the trifles, the real deal was only revealed in a single instant. When he reorganized his thoughts and was ready to talk again, Gu Yu spoke.
"I say, Mr. Wang… I have no idea what position you hold and the way this talk has been going on was really awkward. I’ll just cut to the chase.
The reason for this meeting today is to sort out two things: what you want and what you can offer, versus what we want and what we can offer. Once we all see that our terms meet, an agreement is reached. Am I correct?"
"Haha, indeed. That was very straightforward of you!"
Wang Qi abandoned what he was going to say, leaned forward slightly and asked, "In that case, you go first. What do you want?"
"First, release Long Qiu."
"I see. Go on."
He acknowledged the request without an affirmative answer.
Gu Yu looked into Wang Qi’s eyes, his own pupils as dark as pools of ink. He smiled, "I want Phoenix Mountain."TL/N: zisha, literally "purple sand/clay", is a type of clay with a purple-red-brown color that can be made into teaware. TL/N: Huizong, whose personal name was Zhao Ji, was the eighth emperor of Song Dynasty.