The food and wine served at the imperial banquet were not delicious at all.
It was perhaps Wu Qi's most insipid meal since he came to Pangu Continent. As he stuffed his mouth with meat, he cocked his head and glanced around at the high ministers and dignitaries of Great Yu, his heart filled with mixed emotions.
The imperial banquet of Great Yu had always followed the ancient tradition. Ancient people struggled to survive in the vast wilderness, so naturally, they did not pay much attention to food and drink. What was served at this banquet was really unsavory. Truth be told, all the meats came from a very good source, the best parts cut from seasoned demon beasts, all being excellent ingredients. But, no matter how good the ingredient was, if it were only half-boiled and sprinkled with some salt, served bloody without adding any other condiments, it could never be considered a delicious dish.
With a blunt jade knife, Wu Qi cut through a tough piece of meat cooked like an old cow's hide, then stuffed the bloody tenderloin of a demon beast into his mouth with a big frown on his face. An indescribably foul smell rushed up his nose from his mouth, making him nearly throw up. But, this was an imperial banquet given by the Human Emperor, and throwing up would be rude. So, Wu Qi could only chew on the tenacious piece of meat. His teeth and the tough tendons in the meat rubbed against each other, producing a loud crunch.
All the meats came from demon beasts raised by Great Yu, and had gained sentience and human forms. With their roots as beasts, these demons did not have strong divine power, but their fleshly bodies were amazingly sturdy. And since they had taken human forms, it meant that they had cultivated for at least thousands of years, making their muscles as tough as a steel ingot. Had he not attained a fleshly body that was stronger than these demons, his teeth would have been broken as he chewed through the meat, just like what would happen when an ordinary mortal tried to bite a steel ingot.
In addition to Wu Qi and the other military officers, whose fleshly bodies and teeth were strong enough to attack these meats, a major part of those who had the honor to 'enjoy' this imperial banquet were Oracles and civil officials serving in the imperial court. As feeble as they were, there was no way they could eat the meats of demon beasts. As such, they were served with boiled potatoes and vegetables, which came intact with skins and roots. Like the meats, they were only boiled and sprinkled with some salt.
In short, the dishes served at the imperial banquet were prepared in the exact same way as the ancient people did. Across the table, Wu Qi saw an elderly man in a black robe, who appeared to be a high Oracle, and the big jade bowl placed in front of him, in which were three large boiled cabbages that came in whole along with the roots. They almost seemed like some raw vegetables.
Sitting beneath the thirty-six thousand towering totem poles on the spacious square and shrouded in the gloomy green light, countless ministers and dignitaries of Great Yu were gnawing pieces of bloody meat, their faces stiff and expressionless. The air rang with the loud noises produced when tendons in the meats were bitten off. Between them, Oracles and civil officials in the court assumed solemn airs as they ripped and tore the fist-sized, almost raw potatoes and whole cabbages in their hands with their teeth. If one looked close enough, one could see the glumness in their eyes. Wu Qi felt that it was a grim and bizarre scene, yet somehow full of a sense of absurd comedy.
As Wu Qi was slowly swallowing the meat in his mouth, his eyes caught a short, skinny Oracle sitting off in a corner. He almost burst into laughter when he saw the Oracle grimacing as he grabbed a couple of boiled carrots from his jade bowl and nibbled at them.
So, was this the imperial banquet bestowed by the Human Emperor? It was no wonder Yangqiu Fengbo and the others were so excited when they were talking about the award ceremony, but when it came to the imperial banquet after the ceremony, they each assumed an expression weirder than the other.
The tradition of Great Yu! Wu Qi held back his breath as he tried his best not to laugh.
Since there was no delicious food, naturally there was no fine wine. The wine served at the banquet was made according to the oldest recipes, the sour, low-alcohol wine that ancient people brewed and kept in clay pots with bits of grain sunk at the bottom. It had a strong sour aroma, just like fermented vinegar. Wu Qi could not find a word to describe its taste: sour, floaty, and almost feeling like it was about to explode in his mouth. And, as the wine slowly flowed down into his stomach, he felt as if countless sharp blades were cutting at his throat. It was an unforgettable sensation that made his flesh creep.
All the bibulous military officers had become gentlemen at the imperial banquet. Unless necessary, they would never take a sip out of their wine vessels. But, the elderly man who presided over the banquet, the same old man who had declared the conferral, would propose a toast every ten minutes, and everyone present would have to down the wine in their large wine vessels. It was literally the worst torture in the world.
The elderly man was the high priest of Great Yu, and was responsible for the preparation and conduct of important ceremonies. It was said that each high priest was chosen by lot from the elders of the aristocracy, and strangely enough, their sons and daughters all ended up not being married. Wu Qi had a feeling that such a peculiar phenomenon must have some weird connection with the imperial banquet.
In any case, just by looking at this high priest's twisting expression, and the anger brooding deep in the eyes of all the military and civil officials present, Wu Qi knew that it was a much-hated official post. The problem was that the imperial banquet of Great Yu had a complete set of rituals, and even if one were the most powerful King under the Human Emperor, one was not allowed to leave their seat until it was completed.
Wu Qi sighed helplessly as he swallowed another piece of meat.
Ji Ao gave him a look from the side, then patted him on the shoulder and whispered, "Every subject of Great Yu wishes to achieve notable merits and be conferred rank of nobility, and every noble wishes to be promoted in grades or even ranks. But, the imperial banquet comes after the award ceremony..." Shaking his head, Ji Ao went on in a glum voice, "I have heard that the only son of this high priest is serving in the Right Army of You Xiong. I will assign him a mortal task!"
Wu Qi looked at Ji Ao in horror. "He has only one son?"
A high priest was also considered an important official of the state. With the state policy of encouraging procreation, this elderly man must have at least several hundred wives and concubines. But, how could he have only one son?
"His other sons have been killed in action over the years." Ji Ao said indifferently.
Wu Qi silently cut off a piece of meat that was still dripping blood and slowly stuffed it into his mouth.
Although there were no fine wines and savory dishes, the imperial banquet had musicians and singers to liven things up. Unfortunately, whenever the ancient people gathered to drink and eat, it was often when they were remembering their ancestors and dead siblings. Generally speaking, unless it was an important sacrificial ceremony, ancient people would not gather together for no reason to enjoy their precious 'fine wines' and feast on 'delicious' meats of demon beasts.
Therefore, the tunes played by these musicians and singers were ballads sang by ancient people in memory of their ancestors and the people who had died in wars, such as 'Requiem', 'Death March', 'Spirit Calling', and 'Mourning'. The melodies of these ballads were gloomy and sad, their lyrics mournful, and the singers chosen to sing them were fair of skin and homely in appearance, with voices that were sharp and high...
Amidst the flickering light of the green flame, countless men in black robes sat silently beneath giant totem poles, gnawing on pieces of bloody meat, boiled potatoes and cabbages, and all sorts of bizarre foods while groups of singers in fluttering white dresses sang grieving ballads around them. The sight made Wu Qi, who had wanted to burst into laughter, feel like crying.
He turned his head and looked at You Xiong Palace sprawling like a monster above the high stone steps, cursing in his heart. It was no wonder Emperor Haozun had clung himself on the throne and would not join the imperial banquet. Perhaps he was afraid of this terrible banquet as well!
The subjects of Great Yu might only attend a few imperial banquets in their lifetime. But, if Emperor Haozun were to attend each one of them, even when he only rewarded his subjects every one hundred years, how many such imperial banquets, which had a gruesome vibe to them and would only end at midnight according to the ancient tradition, would he have to attend?
Wu Qi felt like weeping but had no tears. The dusk had just settled in, and the imperial banquet would not end until midnight. He wondered how many kilograms of undercooked meat he had to eat.
As he chewed on an undercooked vein, the blood in it spewed out of the corner of his mouth, spattering Ji Ao's armor. However, the latter did not react at all. He had slumped into a state of torpor; cutting at the tough meat with his blunt jade knife, then stuffing a piece of meat, half-bloody and half-pale, into his mouth. His expression made him look like a warrior who was riding to a battle that he knew he could never win.
The air rang with the eerie noises of teeth grinding against teeth as the subjects of Great Yu moved their jaws mechanically, slowly attacking the foods placed in front of them.
"Eat slowly..." Ji Ao whispered to Wu Qi as he chewed on his own meat, "... the rituals at the imperial banquet follow the ancient sacrificial ceremony. When you finish your food, they will immediately serve you another portion. So, try your best to eat as slow as you can. However, when the imperial banquet is approaching its end, you have to finish all of your food and wine. It is deemed as a sin of disrespect if you don't finish your foods and wines, and you will be demoted."
Yangqiu Fengbo gave a loud belch from the side, then murmured under his breath, "His Excellency wasn't aware of this when he first went to the imperial banquet, and so, he finished what was served to him as quickly as possible. In the end, he had eaten the meats and internal organs of seven single-horned fire buffaloes, and received a good lecture from his father when he returned home."
Ji Ao let out a stinky belch before saying, "That's why I told you to eat slowly...Bah, look at that fool! Clearly, this is his first time attending the imperial banquet, and nobody has told him about this technique...Well, it seems everyone wants to see someone in trouble!"
Wu Qi turned and looked over, just in time to see a few eunuchs placing a big bowl of boiled potatoes in front of a young man. The youth's face had almost taken the color of the potato, and as he gave the big bowl piled high with potatoes a glance, his face turned pale and body began to shiver.
Apparently, this youth was only a civil official who did not cultivate a fleshly body or practice magic. He was only an ordinary human. How was he going to be able to finish so much food that tasted so awful?
Wu Qi gave the youth a pitiful look, then sunk his head back down and continued to attack the huge piece of meat in front of him like it was his mortal enemy.