Perhaps in an attempt to bring the two closer, or maybe as a way of briefing Fang Zhao on the story behind his brand NaZ, Natiwuzi began speaking in a gentle voice. "One of my ancestors fought for General Wu Yan when he recovered Yanzhou, achieving quite a few feats. When the New Era was founded, this ancestor was conferred the title of major general. He also became one of the first antique collectors of the New Era. He helped found both Yanzhou's Collectors' Association and the Yanzhou Museum."
Natiwuzi gave an overview of his family history first. The point was to convey that he was from a reputable family. Even though the brand NaZ was relatively new, it was backed by a powerful foundation.
Fang Zhao thought carefully. He actually did remember the elder who had recovered Yanzhou with Wu Yan, the one Natiwuzi mentioned. He had met Natiwuzi's ancestor when he'd led his troops in the recovery of a particular battle zone. The reason he remembered this person was because the kid liked collecting stuff and hoarded a lot, regardless of whether the items were useful or not, especially items from the Old Era. At that time, the war hadn't been over yet. No one could predict the future. Apart from their daily supplies and equipment, people didn't pay much attention to other items. But this kid was different. He'd had an addiction of sorts.
The first time Fang Zhao had met the elder that Natiwuzi had mentioned, the elder had still been young, only in his early 20s. In Fang Zhao's eyes, he had just been a kid, someone who had been born and raised during the Period of Destruction.
Natiwuzi, of course, had no idea what was going on inside Fang Zhao's head. He continued, "Come to think of it, after the founding of the New Era, the government moved all the scattered martyrs' remains to the newly built martyrs' cemetery. When Fang Zhao was buried, the old man attended the funeral."
Natiwuzi was typically a man of few words. He was a slow talker during his previous conversations with Fang Zhao, but once he started talking antiques and related gossip, he got quite excited. His sentences accelerated quite a bit, unlike his usual tempo.
Realizing that his comment might cause a misunderstanding, Natiwuzi followed up with an explanation. "Don't get me wrong. I didn't mean you. I meant the leader from the Period of Destruction, the martyr Fang Zhao."
Fang Zhao said, "I know. Keep going." He knew Natiwuzi had brought up the grave relocation for a reason. He also wanted to know why Natiwuzi had mentioned the martyr Fang Zhao's grave in particular.
"The collector's gene has been passed from generation to generation in our family. That old man loved to collect and treasured all his items. When Martyr Fang Zhao was buried, he had picked a few beloved pieces as burial items, precious stones of some sort. Word has it they were excavated some 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. They could fetch a decent price based on prevailing prices. Any of them could start a bidding war in the black market. It wasn't just the old man. There were plenty of folks who did the same thing, in Yanzhou and elsewhere."
Probably because he was usually reticent, the brief spiel already made Natiwuzi thirsty, requiring him to down two cups of tea. He was still excited, though, not betraying the slightest sign of impatience. He lowered his voice and kept feeding Fang Zhao gossip. This involved the personal affairs of political leaders from the Period of Destruction, after all. Even though only he and Fang Zhao were present, out of respect, he couldn't raise his voice.
"Martyr Fang Zhao sacrificed himself before the founding of the New Era. Because of limited funds, his remains were kept in storage until the end of the war, when the martyrs' cemetery was built. He was buried in the first row of the core area. Even though his was the second tombstone in the first row, he was buried with many more items than the others. This may sound disrespectful to the martyrs, but from a collector's perspective, judging from the value of the burial items, Martyr Fang Zhao's grave is the most valuable. Naturally, it's coveted by grave robbers."
As the descendant of a major collector, even though Natiwuzi was less interested in other antiques compared to guitars, they were still antiques, after all. They still tickled his appetite.
Natiwuzi slapped himself in the face and lamented, "No one knows how many valuable pieces are in Martyr Fang Zhao's grave or what, exactly, the items are. The people who knew are long gone. There is no mention in footage from the time. All we have are a few vague references in the notes of people who were involved with the burial. That's why we have more cemetery guards in Yanzhou than in other continents. Even the martyrs' cemetery in Huangzhou can't compare.
Fang Zhao: "..." Should he cry or should he laugh?
"Even though Martyr Fang Zhao's grave is ranked second in the core area, extremists and grave robbers love to target his plot. Even General Wu Yan's plot isn't as attractive, and in recent years, people with ulterior motives have spread word that many of the precious artifacts that were seen in archive photos or footage from the era but never found actually ended up in Martyr Fang Zhao's grave as burial items. Anyone with a brain wouldn't believe this claim—the grave is only so big, after all. There are so many artifacts that meet the criteria. A good portion have been confirmed as destroyed during the Period of Destruction by archeologists; how could they be in the plot? Still, many folks robbed Fang Zhao's grave out of greed. Serves them right to have been shot by the cemetery guards. But they also tested the waters for other grave robbers."
Noticing that Fang Zhao seemed preoccupied, Natiwuzi nervously said, "Don't get any ideas. The cemetery guards aren't window dressing. They are authorized to shoot to kill anyone suspicious. Not to mention that convicted grave robbers face stiff sentences. No fewer than 100 people are sentenced to death each year for attempted grave robbing."
Fang Zhao said, "Relax, I don't plan on robbing any graves." He was just curious about what was buried in his grave. Was it filled with antiques?
Natiwuzi glanced at Fang Zhao skeptically. "That's good to know."
The reason he'd brought up the martyr Fang Zhao was to impress the Fang Zhao before him. People always worshipped heroes, especially young people, let alone a young man who was a namesake. Youngsters from the New Era typically worshipped the martyrs who shared their exact name. He also knew that Fang Zhao was not an easy sell, but Fang Zhao was still young, after all. Natiwuzi had just flooded him with stories of Martyr Fang Zhao's heroics and stories of his ancestors, and Fang Zhao seemed receptive, so he thought to himself, He's in play!
After yapping on about his ancestors, Natiwuzi switched gears and started telling Fang Zhao about his parents' generation and himself.
Hailing from a wealthy family, Natiwuzi's mother had been a businesswoman who ran a chain of hotels. His father had been an archeology professor at Yanzhou University who was a hardcore academic and held key posts at Yanzhou's top government ministry in charge of cultural affairs.
So Natiwuzi had lived a blessed life since his childhood. Coming of age under the wings of his parents hadn't been completely smooth sailing, but it had been much easier than folks without a similar background.
When Natiwuzi was six, he had seen his first antique guitar, a relic that his father and his archeology team had recovered from a dump. He had been instantly captivated. It had truly been love at first sight. Natiwuzi was also blessed talent-wise. Otherwise he would not have risen to become one of the three leading masters of the world out of all these fast guitar players.
He'd made his name in a guitar competition he entered at 22 and from there launched his storied career. Back then, Natiwuzi had been unrivaled among antique instrumentalists, the true world No. 1 of speed strumming. Jiminy had not achieved fame until 20 years later, which had forced Natiwuzi to share world champion honors. A few years later, Li Kasi had come onto the scene, the final link in what eventually became known as the world's three speed-strumming maestros, who have reigned supreme until present day.
Even though there were other talented speed strummers, they were still a notch below the top three.
But Natiwuzi lamented that he had never been as talented a composer as he was a player. He never won any of the most respected awards in the industry. In terms of artistic achievement, he still paled in comparison to those award winners. It was a sore point that even his father had broached with him a few times.
Now, Natiwuzi was an old man. He had been through a lot and gained perspective. So what if he didn't measure up in terms of artistic achievement? At least he was still one of the world's three speed-strumming maestros. He had left his name in the history books.
Speed players like Natiwuzi were considered technical virtuosos. Even though speed wasn't musical in itself, playing fast drew folks who were otherwise uninterested in antique instruments, so popularity-wise, Natiwuzi measured up with those award-winning musicians just fine. In fact, he had many, many more fans. That was what his father meant when he told Natiwuzi that any career choice meant "winning some and losing some."
As he became older, Natiwuzi hadn't been able to keep up physically, so he had stopped performing in public. Instead, he had parlayed his career background and his connections into a business career. He'd started his own business selling antique instruments under the "NaZ" label.
"'NaZ' was brief for Natiwuzi's name. The logo of the brand was a big capital "Z," the slant in the design comprising six guitar strings.
The six-string electric guitar was Natiwuzi's favorite, but NaZ produced four-string, eight-string and 12-string models as well. They also made custom-painted pianos. Other than electric guitars, their lineup included folk, classical, and bass guitars.
A high-end custom-made business was a must for any successful guitar brand. Li Kasi's guitar had 18 strings, and Jiminy's had even more. Fad-seeking nouveau riche fans would order copycat models, but Natiwuzi insisted on using six strings in the company logo. The first time he had seen an antique electric guitar, it had been a six-string. Even though his father's archeology team later unearthed seven-string and eight-string guitars, they couldn't replace the sentimental value of the first guitar he had laid ever eyes on. He himself used a six-string guitar, and six strings made up the slant in his brand logo's "Z."
A light bulb had lit up in Natiwuzi's head when he'd jammed with Fang Zhao for the first time. Later on, he'd researched Fang Zhao and realized Fang Zhao's stature and potential among pop composers. More importantly, he had watched the guitar instruction video that had gone viral. It was quickly deemed the "most orthodox" guitar instructional video by seasoned instrumentalists. The backdrop of the video was the club Space, which was decorated exclusively with NaZ guitars. You couldn't miss the "Z" logo on the guitars. As a result, he had seen a surge in online orders today. Natiwuzi smelled a business opportunity.
"To be perfectly honest, before you arrived, I was going to film you speed strumming and post the video online to let everyone know that there were no backroom shenanigans, that it was all you, but I've changed my mind. I can't post the video right now. I also hope that you refrain from playing at this speed in public in the next year." Natiwuzi gave Fang Zhao an apologetic look, his eyes oozing sincerity. "I'll make it up to you. We can make a deal."
"The reason being?" Fang Zhao asked.
Natiwuzi's voice was already quite hoarse from speaking so much, but he had no intention of stopping. He let out a long sigh and said, "Before I saw you play, I thought a fourth speed-strumming maestro would appear. The Big Three would become the Big Four. But after seeing you go all out, I now know I was dead wrong."
Players who broke strings were a dime a dozen, but rarely could someone stop playing because they noticed an inconsistency in the strings at that speed. Up until now, Fang Zhao was the only person Natiwuzi knew of.
"If you make your debut, then it won't be the Big Three or the Big Four. There will be only one master. Jiminy, Li Kasi, and I will become history. I don't perform any more, so it doesn't matter to me whether it's still the Big Three or not. In fact, I'm more than happy to see you replace me and the others. I know Jiminy well. He rarely performs these days. He likes to spend most of his time traveling. He won't make a big fuss either. But Li Kasi's world tour, which has been in the works for 10 years, is about to kick off. If you appear now, his tour will become a joke. Li Kasi is quite connected, and he's petty. There's no reason to make an enemy out of him. If you launch your career after his world tour, it won't be as awkward. Of course, the most important reason is that I owe Li Kasi a favor. When I announced my retirement and went on my farewell tour, both Li Kasi and Jiminy made some sacrifices so my tour would end on a perfect note."
Natiwuzi was willing to strike a deal with Fang Zhao to return the favor he owed. He had no complaints.
"To be perfectly honest," Fang Zhao said, "I never planned on focusing on speed strumming or posting the video of myself playing."
Natiwuzi: "..." So I overthought things?
But upon hearing that Fang Zhao didn't plan on showcasing his talent, Natiwuzi didn't approve either.
"No, no, no. With that kind of talent, you can't remain unknown. Fang Zhao, I'm just asking for a year. After that kid Li Kasi finishes his world tour, after a transition, I'll do everything in my power to make you the undisputed king of speed strumming. Let's let the world know that, even without me, Natiwuzi, Yanzhou can still produce another global No. 1. It's No. 1 in the world we're talking about here! Can you imagine how much attention you will receive, how much the spotlight will focus on you? At that point you and NaZ will be household names."
Natiwuzi got so worked up, he stood up as he conjured up his grand vision of the future. He didn't believe anyone could resist the temptation of being the world's No. 1. Even he was overcome with emotion thinking about the global No. 1 title and recalling his glory days, let alone Fang Zhao, who was in his early 20s and had graduated from university less than two years ago.
Little did Natiwuzi expect that, after talking his heart out and getting so emotional that his face was twitching, he turned his head to find Fang Zhao calmly pouring him a cup of tea and pushing it toward him. "Hydrate a bit."
Natiwuzi: "...." Can you throw me a bone here?
Fang Zhao gave him a confused look.
Natiwuzi ground his teeth. "We're talking about the world's No. 1!"
After glaring at Fang Zhao for a few seconds, Natiwuzi composed himself and plunked back down onto his sofa chair. He probingly looked at Fang Zhao again. "You're not willing to work with me? Don't wanna work with me? I can sponsor your concerts. We can start preparing in less than a year. I will leverage all my connections to set things up for you. Once Li Kasi's world tour ends, you'll be the world's No. 1! Don't count on Silver Wing."
Fang Zhao remained unfazed despite Natiwuzi's intimidating stare. He calmly responded, "I know working with you in this field is the best option."
Natiwuzi relaxed somewhat, but he was also waiting for the impending "but."
"But," Fang Zhao said while staring at Natiwuzi, "I'm performing my military service next year."
Once again, Natiwuzi's jaded face was on the verge of melting. He said in a quasi-grunt, "Military service? You graduated more than a year ago and you still haven't served?"
It was impossible to bypass something like military service. Fudging your military service was a no-no if you didn't want it to come back to haunt you. The most you could do was leverage your connections into an easier posting.
When Natiwuzi had researched Fang Zhao, he hadn't paid attention to service status. When he had been planning their future, the words "military service" had never crossed his mind.
But a service term could delay his plans by a year or more. That was the minimum. If there were unforeseen developments, the delay could be longer. In the worst-case scenario, his vision might never be executed.
Natiwuzi started brainstorming which strings to pull. "I can set things up for you."
"Thanks, but I've been taken care of."
"Right, Silver Wing must have stepped in on something like this." Natiwuzi relaxed a bit. If Silver Wing had set things up, there shouldn't be any complications, but he still didn't feel reassured. If even one of Fang Zhao's fingers were injured, his plans would be toast.
"Remember to protect your hands!"
Natiwusi nagged Fang Zhao repeatedly, urging him to keep an eye on his hands. Not a single finger could be harmed.
"I'll do my best." That's all Fang Zhao could say.
Natiwuzi was mad, but there was nothing he could do. Military service was a major complicating factor. For anyone else, given existing medical technology, a broken finger could be fixed, but Natiwuzi knew that for a speed strummer, even if his broken fingers were repaired, he might not be able to play at the same level. Even if he could, it would be a long wait.
What a headache!
Natiwuzi wanted to post the video of Fang Zhao playing right now, but all he could do was let out a resigned sigh when he remembered the favor Li Kasi had done for him back then.
Forget it, let's put our plans for the world's No. 1 speed strummer on hold. But that didn't mean he was going to change his plans about asking Fang Zhao to endorse his brand.
"Setting aside speed strumming for a second, we can work together on other fronts. How's your folk guitar technique?" Natiwuzi asked.
"It's OK," Fang Zhao responded.
Natiwuzi raised his eyebrows. "That's great." He didn't like playing folk. If Fang Zhao could, that would be a perfect fit.
He'd had a Plan B all along.
Even though Natiwuzi was one of the three speed-strumming maestros, not everyone dug his style. His influence was also waning quickly. In addition, genuine antique-instrument enthusiasts might not be into electric instruments. To broaden his appeal, especially among students, Natiwuzi had planned on expanding production of folk guitars.
Introductory classes were common at the primary and secondary level. Things were even more flexible in university—there was an abundance of student clubs. Natiwuzi didn't want to cede this market. Even though he preferred the electric guitar, he was a businessman; he couldn't expect everyone to follow his preferences.
"I saw your electric guitar instructional video that was posted online. I've been planning on launching online guitar lessons. I've already hired a few instructors, but if you could join them, that would be even better. I can give you a 70 percent cut of the subscription fees and user bonuses. How does that sound? Right, I've also invested in a campus romance that Silver Wing is shooting. The male lead is someone who acts cool by carrying a folk guitar with him all the time. If the movie turns out well, it will spark a wave of nostalgia for folk guitars on campuses."