Chapter 129: A Crisp Slap
"Who else would it be, if not for me?" Although Lian Shengjie's response sounded firm, one could hear how dry his throat was if they listened carefully.
Pang Xiao snorted with laughter when he took another look at Lian Shengjie's oh-so-solemn face and then promptly ignored the newcomer. His slender, limber fingers picked up a gold-rimmed, white porcelain wine cup. A beautiful maid with a pretty smile immediately appeared by his side with a copper jug.
The amber nectar sloshed into the cup, sparkling in its radiance, immensely rich and fragrant to the nose. The maid's red lips were upturned slightly as she looked carefully at Pang Xiao's handsome face. Two spots of color instantly appeared on her cheeks as she looked shyly downwards.
Lian Shengjie was highly envious of the scene in front of him. He couldn't help but swallow hard as he hesitantly took a few steps forward. Pang Xiao didn't care at all as he flung his head back to drain the cup. His Adam's apple bobbed and the curves of his hard chin added a few hints of roguishness and dominance to his being.
The maid's cheeks grew even redder and she looked ready to pour even more wine, but Pang Xiao took the jug from her. He waved his hand to dismiss her and looked sideways at Lian Shengjie again, remarking lazily, "Sir Lian must have received the emperor's decree, or your courage wouldn't have grown to the point where you don't even bow upon seeing this prince.”
This caused Lian Shengjie to finally unglue his eyes from the beauty. He trembled once all over when he met Pang Xiao's sharply mocking look and almost sank to his knees.
"Ahem. This, this official is naturally here with the emperor's decree, not like some people who are here on a private trip." Lian Shengjie spoke with a fair amount of trepidation. Fear had been beaten into his bones, and his body unconsciously tensed all over whenever he saw Pang Xiao. His back ached in sympathetic phantom pain even as he looked at the prince.
Pang Xiao smirked down at him, arching his brow as he pointed at a random empty seat. "Have a seat, why remain standing? This prince didn't punish you to stand."
Lian Shengjie flushed a furious red as anger flooded his mind, burning away some of his earlier trepidation. He stiffly took a seat in front of Pang Xiao. When the minister of the Court of State Ceremonial saw that the two Great Zhou delegates didn't seem to like each other very much, his hands grew clammy from sweat. He was deathly afraid that the two would start fighting at the drop of a hat. If such a thing happened on his watch, the emperor would surely find great fault with him.
He breathed a quiet sigh of relief when Lian Shengjie took his seat without further ado, and gave orders for the accompanying officials to sit as well. The minister also indicated for the banquet and performances to begin.
Pleasing strains of music rose elegantly from the orchestra as lithe, young dancers wearing sheer veils turned and twisted in pleasing forms. They appeared slightly ethereal in the opulent and magnificent Flower Hall. The scene was further elevated by the sumptuous delicacies laid out on red, peony embroidered, brocade tablecloths that decorated the tops of the square tables on the sides. 1
Lian Shengjie was enjoying the fine wine and delicious food served by beautiful palace servants. His eyes were drawn to the elegantly performing girls and he felt quite comfortable and at ease. All of his previous tension and nerves had completely drained out of his body.
Pang Xiao caught sight of Lian Shengjie's undisguised leering from the corner of his eyes. He took the wine jug from the maid serving him and watched the performance with an exceedingly frosty look. The seductive scene that played before him didn't seem to register at all.
The minister and other Great Yan officials all had their own speculations when they saw the vastly different reactions from Pang Xiao and Lian Shengjie. But they didn't dare involve themselves in the fight between the two, and could only mutely keep them company.
After a few rounds of wine, Lian Shengjie had completed relaxed and his emotions started rising because of the alcohol.
"Y-your Highness, y-y-you made a private trip… to Great Yan. What, what do you think your crimes w-will be?" What should've been a strongly imposing statement came out in a stammer as the wine tangled his tongue.
Pang Xiao responded lazily. "The peace talks were a success and the two nations are now friends. This prince is just walking around. What kind of crime is that?"
"You're just irrationally making things up! As the general of the Valiant Tigers, how would you not know of the importance of your position? His Majesty hasn't allowed you to make any such excursion, but you made that decision for yourself! Don't you know that you've already angered the emperor?!" The alcohol rushing to Lian Shengjie's head gave him the boldness to slam his hand hard on the table.
The music and dancing instantly ground to a halt as attendees shook from the sudden display of fury from Lian Shengjie. The minister didn't dare become involved in Great Zhou matters, so he quickly rose and slipped away with his men.
What had been a lively scene of celebration was now eerily quiet. Pang Xiao didn't seem inclined to speak, instead just taking a sip of wine. Lian Shengjie snorted derisively at the silence.
"Not speaking means you're afraid! Let me tell you something, Pang Zhixi, it's not the first day that your arrogance has grated upon our ears! You've always been disrespectful to us old officials of Northern Ji. We serve His Majesty, but you still look down on us and sneer at us. You use violence against us and curse at us. But it's a good thing the emperor is wise and noble and has seen through your cockiness!"
"Are you quite done yet?" Pang Xiao lazily dug at his ears.
"The emperor bade me ask you why you've come to Great Yan instead of returning to the capital! So answer!"
"The usual chain of command may be discarded in the field of battle." Pang Xiao put down the wine jug, causing it to clink lightly against the table. "Besides, I have my own reasons."
Lian Shengjie continued to laugh coldly when he saw that Pang Xiao didn't erupt in his usual immense rage. So what if he had the command medallion of the Valiant Tigers? So what if the Valiant Tigers were so fierce that one of them could counter ten foes? Even if Pang Xiao was a prince, he still had to bow his head in front of the emperor and fear the old Northern Ji officials and the strong Dragon Rider troops of the Marquis of Northern Stability, Ji Zeyu!
When Great Zhou had trampled Northern Ji, Pang Xiao's Valiant Tigers had acted as the vanguard and had led from the front during each slaughter and act of violence. He'd dragged out officials who had surrendered and slowly sliced pieces off of them to feed the hounds. That vicious cruelty had become a trademark that horrified the Northern Ji officials. They were now under the Great Zhou banner, but they still viewed Pang Xiao as the reason for the fall of Northern Ji.
How would they not hate Pang Xiao? Even the emperor was wary of Pang Xiao's military strength. Ji Zeyu's growing Dragon Riders was the sharpest weapon that could counteract the Valiant Tigers. And yet, Pang Xiao didn't know how to keep a lower profile and continued his cocky ways, doing whatever he would, whenever he wanted.
As a surrendered Northern Ji official, Lian Shengjie had long since felt that Pang Xiao was a thorn in his side. And now that the prince could only respond with some platitude like 'the usual chain of command may be discarded when in the battlefield', he really felt so delighted that he could nearly float to the rafters!
"Don't be proud of yourself for too long." Lian Shengjie laughed heartily. "Take it from your old brother, rein yourself in some. If you explain yourself well to me now, I can put in a few words for you in my report back to His Majesty. Otherwise, you won't even know how you die. Not to mention, it's not me who wants to know why you're in Great Yan, but the emperor."
The man propped himself up on the square table and leaned forward as if to listen carefully, but his supposed sincerity was belied by the mockery writ clear across his face. "Well? Come on now, tell me."
Pang Xiao had been smiling downwards all this time as he played with the gold rimmed wine cup. Huzi by his side had long been purple with indignation. The guard was absolutely itching to charge up and wring Lian Shengjie's neck.
When Lian Shengjie saw that Pang Xiao was still remaining silent, he leaned a few degrees even more forward and smiled jeeringly.
"And why aren't you talking? You said that you have your 'reasons', so what are those maaaaarvelous reasons?"
Smack! rang out crisply. Lian Shengjie clutched his swollen cheek with disbelief as he stared at Pang Xiao, stunned.
"What the hell are you?" Do you have the right to listen to this prince's words?" Pang Xiao rose to his feet, looking down loftily at Lian Shengjie's face, which was now alternating through different colors. The alcohol had been slapped clean out of the man. When he recalled how he'd mocked Pang Xiao earlier, he stumbled back a few steps, still holding his cheek, as if this would somehow save him from another strike.
Pang Xiao couldn't be bothered with him and strode straight out of the Flower Hall with Huzi.
Lian Shengjie grimaced at Pang Xiao's departing figure, roaring, "You! You won't hop around for long! You'll be crying one day, sooner or later!"
The situation had been witnessed in full by the minister of the Court of State Ceremonial. In fact, all of his men had surreptitiously plastered themselves against the doors right after they'd left, using the cracks as peeping holes. They scattered into the palace before making a report to the emperor.
The emperor was holding the empress in the imperial study, flirting and cuddling on the golden blankets on the luohan bed next to the window. When they heard the minister's report, the empress laughed coyly. "What prince of the first rank? He's nothing much at all!"
The emperor had had enough of Pang Xiao's airs as well. He smacked the empress' buttocks and murmured a few words into her ear. The empress pouted and protested cutely for a while, loathe to leave. She finally did so when she saw that the emperor really did want a moment alone.
The emperor merrily watched his empress walk off, adopting a serious expression when only the men were left. He rose to his feet.
"So it seems that the Great Zhou emperor is wary of Pang Zhixi."
"This humble official thinks so as well. Otherwise, with Pang Zhixi's arrogant nature, he would never put up with repeated questioning like this."
"Pfft! We knew that someone as cocky and self-sure like him would never enjoy prosperity and fortune for long. How would those in positions of power allow others to sleep soundly by their side? It's likely the Great Zhou emperor has long since been irritated by the sight of Pang Zhixi. Why else would Lian be so bold in front of Pang Zhixi?"
"Your Majesty is wise and noble." The minister nodded repeatedly. The emperor dismissed his men with a wave.
When he was alone in the study, he took a seat behind the black lacquer, paulownia table covered with decorative dragons. His expression was dark as he recalled, with great regret, his extreme courtesy towards Pang Zhixi that day in front of so many officials and subjects. Who knew that the prince's position had already become tenuous in Great Zhou?
If he'd known, he would've been tougher and showed a harsher attitude! Pang Zhixi likely couldn't sway the Great Zhou emperor these days! How could he have believed those threats of renewed war? What a miscalculation, an utter miscalculation!
In a fit of fury, the emperor swiped his arm across his desk, sending the papers and ink stones on the table tumbling to the floor.
These square tables were larger than the average table. Each side can seat two people. ↩