The weather was decent the next day, so Fang Zhao didn't linger in Shanmu Farm. He set off for Qingcheng.
Wu Yi was sad to see him leave. He had enjoyed discussing shepherding with Fang Zhao the day before. The more they had talked, the more he had realized how knowledgeable Fang Zhao was. He had offered advice that could be applied to raising shepherd dogs in Muzhou, which made him more enthusiastic about his guest. He had pleaded with Fang Zhao to stay longer to no avail. When Fang Zhao left, Wu Yi saw him off in person.
"Do drop by if you have time. You can bring Curly Hair. He can have a friendly matchup against my dogs. My farm pales in comparison to the big farms that can host formal competitions, but there's enough land to run around. You know, dogs are fast learners. Even if he doesn't know how to shepherd, he'll pick it up after hanging out with my dogs for a bit. When you visit in the future, don't worry about the lodging fee, just give me a heads up. Let me know if you need any fresh produce and the like. I'll save some for you ahead of time." Wu Yi rambled on as he directed workers carrying bags of produce onto Fang Zhao's flying transport.
Wu Yi felt he'd learned a lot from his conversation with Fang Zhao yesterday and should make it up to him. Wu Yi thought it impolite to take advantage of a younger friend that way, so he'd prepared quite a few gifts for Fang Zhao. Even though, as a general rule, he didn't like foreigners, he welcomed folks like Fang Zhao. That was how he operated—if he connected with someone, he would treat that person extra well. If not, he wouldn't bother with a single look.
Weather conditions were stable during the flight from Shanmu Farm to Qingcheng. The journey was smooth.
Although Muzhou was made up predominantly of fields, every continent had its major cities. Just like in other continents, you could find high rises in Muzhou. It was just that the buildings were spaced out, so black streets were unheard of, and every city was equipped with a shepherding competition venue, which served as an entertainment center and a site of cultural preservation.
As Muzhou's capital, Qingcheng was home to many large farms, and it boasted a lavish central business district populated with skyscrapers with unique designs. It was also equipped with the world's largest shepherding competition venue. Traveling from Qingcheng's suburbs to its central business district was like moving from one extreme to another—one was the natural abode of farms and ranches, the other a high-tech hub of the New Era.
Qingcheng had dedicated parking spaces for flying transports, but the movement of foreign aircraft like Fang Zhao's was limited. They were barred from the martyrs' cemetery. To get to the cemetery, Fang Zhao's party had to find an alternative.
After parking his flying transport, Fang Zhao called a cab.
The makeup of the martyrs' cemetery in Muzhou was similar to the one in Yanzhou. It consisted of a square, a grand monument, an area for scattered graves, a public worship area, and a memorial hall. But the martyrs' cemetery in Muzhou had a unique feature, which was widely known—a burial site for service dogs.
The martyrs' cemeteries in other continents also housed decorated service dogs, but not as many as the one in Muzhou. The Muzhou cemetery was also the only one to dedicate an entire area to service dogs.
Fang Zhao also knew that Su Mu's squadron had been the one with the most dogs. During the war, many of the dogs had been sacrificed. Their purpose had been to fight side-by-side with mankind and take their place in deadly missions, so it made sense that Su Mu had built a dedicated burial site for service dogs during the New Era.
The reason shepherd dogs in Muzhou enjoyed a rarefied status also had to do with the burial site for service dogs. The area was marked by a sculpture of Su Mu and a dog. Fang Zhao knew the dog well. Out of all the dogs Su Mu had raised, this one held a special place in his heart. When Fang Zhao's previous incarnation had passed, the dog had still been in combat with Su Mu in Muzhou. After being reborn into the New Era, Fang Zhao had learned from history books that the dog had saved Su Mu's life. Otherwise, Su Mu would have been missing among the founding generals of the New Era. But the dog didn't live to see the New Era.
Fang Zhao underwent an ID check when he reached the core area of the cemetery. It took some time because Fang Zhao was a foreigner and therefore scrutinized carefully. Zuo Yu's ID check took even longer.
"Here's the deal: outside of Yanzhou, many special venues will require thorough vetting. It's a pain in the ass," Zuo Yu told Fang Zhao. "Even if you're cleared at the entrance, you might get vetted again when you reach the cemetery's core area."
"Right. The guards assigned to the cemetery have especially strong instincts. They're usually loaned from the police. The cemetery is a fixed rotation in the force. Their sense of smell is even better than a dog's. One of our instructor's army buddies was certified as a cemetery guard. He was assigned to the cemetery's core area every Memorial Day."
Just as Zuo Yu finished his sentence, they were approached by a guard. They had just set foot in the core area.
"He must have noticed something about me," Zuo Yu whispered to Fang Zhao. Zuo Yu was former special forces. It was understandable if he set off alarms.
Zuo Yu volunteered his ID when the guard approached.
After checking Zuo Yu's ID, the man turned to Fang Zhao. "Excuse me, your ID please."
While he was checking Fang Zhao's ID, the guard glanced at him a few times, especially when he noticed that Fang Zhao listed "composer" as his profession. He gauged Fang Zhao carefully, as if in disbelief.
When the officer left, a curious Zuo Yu asked Fang Zhao, "Why did it take him longer to check your ID?" Zuo Yu was puzzled.
"Probably because he thought I am a bigger threat than you are," Fang Zhao responded.
"Hehe." Zuo Yu didn't buy the explanation.
Fang Zhao paid no attention to Zuo Yu. He approached a tall tombstone and examined its carvings.
The carvings depicted a battle in Muzhou. It featured a few service dogs and a few humans joking around. They were less serious than soldiers in battle, even casual.
This was a group of old friends. One of them was Fang Zhao's previous incarnation.
Fang Zhao smiled at the carving, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.
Fang Zhao left the big tombstone to examine the rows of smaller tombstones behind it. When he approached, he noticed someone sitting by the first tombstone in the first row. He looked around 13 or 14, a bit chubby. He was hugging his knees, so his face was obscured. Judging from the pool of water on the ground and the ongoing drool, you could tell the chubby kid was sleeping.
Sleeping in a cemetery? And by the first tombstone in the first row of graves in the core area of Muzhou's largest martyrs' cemetery at that. And he had drooled profusely without reprimand.
Considering how vigilant the guards were and the cemetery's strict security protocols, this was a far-fetched scene. Unless the kid was someone special, like a member of the Su family.
Only a Su could get away with sleeping in the cemetery without being kicked out by security guards.
"Hey, kid!" Fang Zhao gave the teenaged boy a gentle push.
"Huh? What's up?" The boy lifted his head, still drowsy, and wiped the drool by his mouth with his right hand, then repeated the motion with the back of his hand. He shivered and shrank his hand abruptly just as it was was about to touch the tombstone. He then wiped the hand on his clothes and turned to examine the tombstone, breathing a sigh of relief when he made sure it was untainted by his saliva.
Fang Zhao knew who the boy was the instant he saw the boy's face.
It was Su Hou, a member of the Su family. His immediate family had been in the news. Fang Zhao had come across his picture when he'd searched for news reports about the Sus.
Su Hou had an older brother and two younger sisters. They were named Wang, Hou, Jiang, and Xiang respectively. Su Hou's father had quite a few lovers and produced children out of wedlock as well, so there was plenty of competition among his offspring. Su Hou's brother Su Wang was a nerd studying at the Academy of Agricultural Science. His two younger sisters were still young. As for Su Hou himself, well, he just liked to eat.
Folks in Muzhou were waiting to see which of his children Su Hou's father would gift a farm. There was even a bet going on.
The Su family was a big family. Su Hou's father was one of its more accomplished members. Su Hou's family had been in the news recently. It had been reported that Su Hou's father said at a recent reception that he planned on giving one of his farms to one of his children. He did not specify the recipient.
The people of Muzhou loved their gossip, especially when it came to Muzhou's storied Su family. They paid attention every time Su Hou's family was in the headlines.
Su Hou might have been one of the reasons behind the tight security in the core area. Even though it had been some time since Memorial Day and the number of visitors had dwindled, it wasn't normal for the core area to be this empty.
When he found his bearings, the chubby kid wiped his mouth again and stared at Fang Zhao and Zuo Yu with alarm. "Who are you?" He then scanned his surroundings, relaxing once he realized there weren't any uniformed guards around.
"We're here to pay our respects." Fang Zhao examined the wound on the chubby kid's forehand. "This is from kowtowing, no? Shouldn't you get it looked at at the hospital?"
The wound was a piece of cake, considering the level of medical treatment in the New Era. It would heal in two days.
"No!" The chubby kid was furious when he heard the wound being mentioned. "I'm not getting it treated."
Fang Zhao didn't press the kid. He examined the wound more closely and asked, "This is from kowtowing? Seems like you kowtowed more than a few times."
"No kidding. I kowtowed 49 times." Su Hou touched his wound.
"Were you kowtowing before General Su Mu?" Fang Zhao asked with a laugh. The wound wasn't fresh—it looked a day old. It looked worse than it was because the kid had refused treatment. Children his age were hard to figure out.
Su Hou fumed. "No. I just need to kowtow three times for General Su Mu. I was sent to kowtow in Yanzhou."
"Yanzhou? Which relative in Yanzhou would require so many kowtows?" Fang Zhao asked.
"He's not a relative. He's the late friend of a family elder. We send someone to pay our respects every year. My older siblings misled me into believing that, the more I kowtowed, the more the spirit of the deceased would watch over me. But when I got back, they said it was the gesture that mattered and called me a fool."
Zuo Yu wondered. Your older siblings probably didn't expect you to be stupid enough to believe them. This level of intelligence—is he really a member of the Su family?
"We're from Yanzhou. Let's see if we know the person you kowtowed for?" Zuo Yu asked.
"You're from Yanzhou? Have you heard of Fang Zhao?"
Zuo Yu: "Yeah..."