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The more digital the product, the quicker it evolved, as did its look. Thus, folks sometimes preferred to collect antiques instead.

The guitar renaissance generated by Natiwuzi and his company had been very successful. Just look at the different ways young students were carrying or hugging their guitars on school campuses.

Natiwuzi even nudged journalists toward news stories of the more sensational variety, such as a male student confessing his love for a female schoolmate by playing a ballad outside her dorm. Storylines like that happened in the movie "A Guitar Romance." The students were simply imitating the actors in the film.

Fashion and trends were determined by proactive leaders. Natiwuzi had prepared thoroughly for this day.

Amid the wave of promotional activities, not only did Natiwuzi's NaZ brand become a hit, so did Ji Polun, the male lead of "A Guitar Romance." 

This point came up during conversations between Zu Wen and company—when Ji Polun made promotional appearances with the press team, he focused on college and secondary school campuses. He carried a guitar every single time but struck different poses, and students scrambled to mimic him. He had generated the buzz befitting a hot young actor.

At the same time, more and more folks tuned into Fang Zhao's webcasts. Every day, Fang Zhao spent an hour lecturing and another hour answering questions online. He also posted altered guitar scores online, mostly simpler pieces suited for beginners.

Many musical pieces had been preserved from the Old Era, but most were ill-suited for New Era tastes. Slight alterations would make them more palatable. The same song would require different scores for the electronic guitar and acoustic guitar. The technique was different too. Fang Zhao would break it down for his viewers. For example, for a piece he altered for the lecture the day before yesterday, the acoustic version required sliding, while the electric guitar version saw more plucking.

Today, as in previous sessions, after answering viewer questions, Fang Zhao played a song with a new guitar model provided by Natiwuzi.

The student response had been overwhelming, so Natiwuzi's brand had launched a new series called "Rising Sun," targeted at student buyers.

Today, Fang Zhao played with an acoustic guitar from the Rising Sun series. He strummed the strings gently in a seemingly casual manner as a soft but grounded melody drifted from the high-quality wood craftsmanship alongside the live footage. 

The song he played today was an updated Old Era piece requested by a viewer. All things retro were the fad of late, with many folks digging out songs preserved from the Old Era. 

The song he had played yesterday was an updated happy birthday song dedicated to a viewer who had been celebrating his birthday. The viewer had been so moved that he had awarded Fang Zhao 10,000 dollars online.

Fang Zhao wrapped up his show every day by playing one of the songs requested by his viewers.

"Oh, I wasn't picked again. Is it because there are too many people online and too many requests?"

"Today's show is over?"

"Watching today's live broadcast made me realize that my pretentious guitar pose yesterday was wrong."

"The guitar is so difficult to master. I've made no progress in three days. My fingers are numb from practicing all afternoon yesterday, but now I think these Old Era instruments sound quite nice."

"Hire a private instructor and learn one-on-one."

"Fang Zhao is too good. He's even more skilled than the instructor my mother hired for me."

"I heard that the instructor my father hired for me is also following Fang Zhao's webcasts. He's a younger graduate of Fang Zhao's alma mater."

"The more I look at Fang Zhao, the more handsome he seems, especially when he plays the guitar. He projects a completely different aura. Who knows when Fang Zhao is lecturing at Qi'an Academy of Music next? I'm going to get his autograph."

"Count me in if folks are organizing a trip to Qi'an Academy of Music!"

"I feel like Fang Zhao is a very gentle person."


The Silver Wing gaming team that had just gotten offline from battle: "Hehe." Gentle, my ass!

Indeed, Fang Zhao looked gentler on average these days. He also lacked the fiery temper of his contemporaries. Even Silver Wing staffers had observed that Fang Zhao was much more even-tempered than when he had first joined the company. His temper had improved, and he was no longer wearing an ultra-aloof look all the time.

Every time they heard comments like that, members of the Silver Wing team felt misunderstood. Only they saw the other side of Fang Zhao.

"The deadline is coming up, no?" Dorrian asked Jinro. "Still no news?"

"Three more days." Jinro clicked the rankings page on the Fiery Bird official website and browsed the top 10 teams in each continent. Teams hovering near the top 10 were still locked in a fierce battle.

"We're ranked No. 7 now. If we make a push, we can definitely clinch the No. 6 spot. If boss is willing to play again, we could even make the top five," Milo said. 

But they all knew that Fang Zhao didn't spend much time online these days, and even if he went online, he operated separately. It was clear that he was gradually phasing out of the team. The entertainment media was speculating every day about possible internal strife, practically begging for some development that would allow them to put out a 3-million-word feature on the team's internal bickering. Many folks were also hoping AliveAfter500Years would lose his No. 1 ranking, but he clung onto the position, and quite firmly at that.

"Didn't Wayne say he would release our promotional video once we got the invite from Fiery Bird?" Schwarzer was looking forward to seeing the video immensely. Even though he had not seen the final product, he had seen some of the footage Wang Tie had shot, and he had enjoyed it. The final cut was definitely going to be very slick.

"The deadline is the fifth. We should be receiving an invite on the sixth. The sixth is the earliest we'll see it," Jinro said.

Jinro never would have guessed when he had signed with Silver Wing that he would make it to Fiery Bird's annual gala. He had been retired from gaming for several years now. He wondered if folks from other continents still remembered him.

The team's promotional video was ready. For the score, Wayne used the piece Fang Zhao had submitted. Wayne never would have guessed that Fang Zhao could produce a piece that met his expectations.

Wang Tie was no longer tracking them online. He had gone back to plying his old trade, but he refused any assignments that involved investigating AliveAfter500Years. Are you kidding me? He had just escaped the fire pit and Fang Zhao had promised him no trouble. If he waded back into the waters now—did he have a death wish?

After news of Wang Tie turning down assignments broke, more and more folks became curious about AliveAfter500Years. What kind of person could force the undisputed king of Yanzhou paparazzi to turn down jobs? Was he a relative of the governor? Or was he a member of one of Yanzhou's major aristocratic families?

The closer the date got to the Jan. 5 deadline, the more the local media focused on gaming. Even if Yanzhou's Big Three entertainment companies were releasing a blockbuster film, it would be hard to compete with Fiery Bird's annual gala.

Fiery Bird's annual gala was an event gamers from around the world paid close attention to. Teams from Yanzhou that were invited were representing the continent, so naturally, they valued the invitation tremendously, especially given that Yanzhou was home to the world's top player of "Battle of the Century," even though his real identity was still unknown. Folks from other continents were glued to the event, let alone gamers in Yanzhou.

Jan. 5 finally arrived, the cutoff date for Fiery Bird's final rankings.

The Silver Wing team qualified for the gala with a sixth place finish in Yanzhou.

But what pissed off the Silver Wing team members was that the team they had surpassed, Zebra Club, had also managed to squeeze into the top 10. They finished 10th by making their move the day before the deadline, crowding out White Rhino Club, the team originally ranked 10th.

Word was that Zebra Club had played dirty. White Rhino fans and Zebra fans had been tearing into each other online nonstop the past two days. 

White Rhino fans derided Zebra fans as despicable, underhanded, and having no shame.

Zebra fans retorted, "Shut up or put up. Playing dirty requires ability too. If you were capable, you could respond in kind."

The two clubs were both named after animals that had gone extinct. This was a popular naming method in the New Era. Fiery Bird, for example, was named the same way. Extinct animals, plants, and so on often offered ideas for company, street, and shop names.

Historical data indicated that rhinos were stronger than zebras, but this time, many folks joked that the rhino got its butt kicked by the zebra. News outlets that had nothing better to do even published comics of rhinos and zebras in battle. 

Fang Zhao was scheduled to lecture at the Qi'an Academy of Music on the fifth. Attendance for his lectures had grown on account of the retro fad of late. Fang Zhao's webcast had also helped boost his profile. If the Qi'an Academy of Music hadn't implemented crowd-control measures, Fang Zhao would have been mobbed by even more fans.

Now that Qi'an Academy students and graduates were in such high demand, many current students took part-time gigs. Instrumental majors would moonlight at restaurants that needed live performers or post ads on private tutor platforms, offering their services. In the past, their ads would have gone unanswered for as long as a week. There were too few people interested in learning musical instruments, after all. Secondary students simply didn't have the patience. Now, though, things were different. Qi'an Academy students typically saw their ads answered within an hour. 

With the advent of the internet, the "distance" in distance learning was no longer an issue, so the students ads were closely monitored not just by Qi'an residents but also by parents from other parts of Yanzhou. The hourly rate for Qi'an students serving as private tutors tripled within a month. With the retro trend still on the rise, there was still room for more salary growth. Non-instrumental majors got mighty jealous and started contemplating switching majors.

However, folks who could afford to splurge on a private tutor wanted to hire Fang Zhao, but Fang Zhao was probably unavailable and beyond their payscale. Fang Zhao didn't have time to tutor, not to mention that even if he were willing to tutor, he was just one person. There were too many people who wanted to hire him and not enough of him to go around. Thus, the vacuum was filled by current Qi'an Academy students or Qi'an Academy graduates who wanted to tutor.

But the part-time tutors might not actually know how to teach, so they had to cram as well. Not only did they tune into Fang Zhao's webcasts, they also flocked to his lectures so they could pick his brains in person.

And Fang Zhao didn't hold back either, generously sharing his techniques and insight. When old man Xue Jing found out, he was very pleased. He even wanted to launch a new global lecture tour with Fang Zhao in the new year, but unfortunately, Fang Zhao had to serve in the military.

After the end of today's lecture, Fang Zhao got a call from Hua Li, the head of Fiery Bird's sound effects department.

"Did you see the final ranking? Your new team did pretty well, climbing to sixth place in Yanzhou in their debut," Hua Li said in a jovial tone. "The invitations to the annual gala have been dispatched from headquarters. Folks from our Yanzhou branch will deliver yours to your office. You'll be attending the annual gala, no?"

"Of course."

"Then let's catch up properly then. Kid, you're... full of surprises."

Hua Li had long known the true identity of AliveAfter500Years. Quite a few core members of Fiery Bird's senior management did, but the company had done a tremendous job with its confidentiality measures. It was impossible for outsiders to pry any insider information from their end.

"The banquet is on the eighth and there are other activities scheduled for the ninth and 10th. It's best to arrive a day ahead of time. You should start making preparations. When you arrive, let's grab a drink. I'll introduce you to a few friends. They're all composers, and they've been longing to meet this rising star for some time. I just don't know how they will react when they find out about your other identity, haha!"

Wayne had already briefed Fang Zhao on the schedule. The Silver Wing team was scheduled to leave for their hotel in Huangzhou on the seventh, ahead of the the banquet on the eighth. They had a busy schedule.

Fang Zhao had to put his webcast and lectures on hold for the next few days.

Jan. 6, 9 a.m. Staffers from the Yanzhou branch of Fiery Bird hand-delivered an invitation bearing the company logo to the 50th floor of Silver Wing Tower.

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