Interest in music was indeed lacking in Muzhou. Locals were clueless about many genres and they didn't follow any pop stars, let alone symphonic composers. They didn't bother with musicians except for reading the occasional news item about them.
But now, people were interested in the unfamiliar name that appeared in the promotional film for one of the teams competing in the Eastern regional finals of the local shepherding competition.
"Who is Fang Zhao?"
The curiosity of people who normally only followed agriculture, the weather, and shepherding contests was piqued.
They learned from music students that Fang Zhao was a rising star in the world of pop composition. He was widely praised by senior composers and admired by younger fan. This is how some Muzhou natives responded when they got the lowdown: "Sounds impressive, but how was Su Hou able to commission a piece from him?"
Right, how had Su Hou managed to get Fang Zhao to compose the background music for his promotional film for the Eastern regional finals?
But even if they were curious, they had no way of finding out the truth.
Of course, what the masses of Muzhou cared about most was Su Hou and the seven dogs of Dongshan Farm.
The focus of the promotional clip wasn't Dongshan Farm itself but rather the evolution of the farm's young owner. The combination of video and music was quite memorable. The film made people regret teasing Su Hou in the past. After all, this was a kid still in secondary school, and a hardworking and tough kid at that.
Older folks were always drawn to youngsters who worked hard.
Some of the parents watching the live broadcast started nagging their children. "Look at how hardworking Su Hou is, blah, blah, blah."
Su Hou probably never would have imagined in his wildest dreams that he'd become a role model, but he had no time to bask in the glory. He was preparing for battle.
Maybe it was the promotional film, but Su Hou felt a lot more relaxed. In its place emerged an indescribable fighting spirit and a sense that a long-awaited occasion had arrived.
When Su Hou described the feeling to Fang Zhao, Fang Zhao smiled and responded, "That's called confidence."
After the promotional films for all the teams had played, the folks watching the live broadcast realized that the one that left the deepest impression was Su Hou's. It painted a vivid picture of the young farm owner's personal growth.
"OK. The promotional films were a showdown of marketing prowess. Now it's down to business." The spectators settled down and started looking forward to the competition.
The Eastern regional finals determined which four teams would qualify for the grand finals. The size of the venue was bigger than regular-season venues, the courses were longer, and the pasture was more uneven. It was easy to veer off course, and instructor intervention was much more common than during the regular season. Completion times were also longer. Generally speaking, a decent time was under 10 minutes. Teams that had made the grand finals in previous years typically posted times of under six minutes, while contenders for the overall first and second places usually finished in about five minutes.
The goal Wu Yi set for his team was eight minutes. Under 10 minutes was a bare pass, and a lowly ranked one at that.
"As long as you exercise good judgment, ask to intervene in a timely manner, and signal correctly, you'll be OK."
As an instructor, Su Hou could only monitor the competition venue and master the correct route from a few screens near his pedestal. The route for every final was different. Sometimes the dogs needed to make an unexpected turn. That was when the instructor stepped in.
The theme music for the shepherding competition began to play, which meant the finals were about to kick off. Competitors and the viewers scattered all over Muzhou set aside what they were working on to focus on the contest. Discussions were left unfinished. Not only were the viewers passionate about this traditional sport in Muzhou, but many of them had bet on their favorite teams to win.
The first team to compete was a veteran competitor. Six of their eight dogs had appeared in the regional finals last year. Their preparation was probably precise and methodical, since their dogs didn't betray any signs of nervousness or discomfort. The farm owner also stepped in at the right moments. You could say that the first team completed its routine smoothly.
"Seven minutes and 16 seconds!"
That was a decent time, but the farm owner didn't seem to be pleased. His dogs had taken 10 more seconds than they had the previous year. Ten seconds might not be a major gap during the regular season, but in the regional finals, it was enough to make the difference between a top four finish or not. Even though he wasn't happy, the farm owner didn't show his temper. He just shook his head, saying during his interview, "The sheep are different this year. They're hard to herd."
Hard to herd? The viewers were confused.
The commentator didn't elaborate. The second team took nearly half a minute longer than the first, the reason being that the dogs took too long with their turns.
"The sheep this year are slow," the farm owner who fielded the second team said.
Comments like that initially struck viewers as excuse-making, but after the third and fourth farm owners started voicing similar sentiments, people started wondering.
"I paid special attention during the second team's routine," Wu Yi said in the viewing gallery. "The sheep used in the regional finals this year are different from the ones used in the regular season. I should say they look the same but their temperaments are different. They're bolder and grumpier. That's the problem the fourth team ran into. Halfway through their routine, their flock of sheep nearly dispersed. Several of the sheep even stomped their hooves at the dogs, even snarling at the head dog and almost bumping into it. They're not easy to handle at all." Wu Yi was worried, but he couldn't afford a drop in morale now. He turned and patted Su Hou on the shoulder. "No worries. It's the same challenge for everyone. Everyone will be taking longer than last year. Don't put too much pressure on yourself.
"The fifth team to compete is Shoubei Farm. Let's take a close look. Word is their top dog is angling for MVD in the grand finals." Wu Yi and company turned serious. Their stiffest competition was no doubt Shoubei Farm. They were first in the regular season and a top contender for first place in the East finals, even the overall final.
Shoubei Farm's head dog Gold Colt sparked squeals of excitement the moment it entered the venue. The squeals naturally couldn't be heard on the pasture, but there was no doubt Gold Colt was the center of attention among viewers both attending in person in the viewing gallery and watching via live broadcast. This was truly a champion dog that could shepherd by stare.
Other continents had their celebrities, while Muzhou had their star dogs. The amount of emotion Muzhou natives poured into their shepherd dogs wasn't something foreigners could comprehend. For them, the dogs competing in shepherding contests were as captivating as star actors or singers. The discussion board of the official website for the shepherding competition had long been flooded with messages. If you watched the contest via virtual reality webcast, the cries were literally shuddering.
As the previous few farm owners had said, the sheep used in this year's competition were especially hard to round up. But it was a different story when the dogs of Shoubei Farm took charge. The sheep trotted much more quickly than in the previous four rounds.
"We're coming up on a curve. Shoubei Farm has had good luck so far. Their top dog, Gold Colt, is speeding up. It's attacking the head sheep."
"Change in direction. The sheep have changed direction."
Compared to previous teams, Shoubei Farm mastered the same turn with incredible speed. The whole process was seamless.
"How about Shoubei Farm's head dog, Gold Colt? Spectacular! Now that's herding by staring."
"All in. All sheep are in the pen. Perfect! Four minutes and 32 seconds. Four minutes and 32 seconds! That would have been good enough to place first last year, let alone this year with the new sheep." The commentator was so emotional his voice went off pitch, a flaw that was broadcast loud and clear through the excellent sound equipment. He didn't hide the fact that a new species of sheep was used this year. "That's the best time of this contest so far. And Gold Colt is a likely candidate for most valuable dog in the grand finals."
The commentator turned to his guest, an elderly farm owner. "Someone once said that a heavenly dog like this comes only once every 10 years, or even every 20 years. Take Lightning, for example, which won you five championships, or King Kong from about a decade ago. And now we have Gold Colt from Shoubei."
The elderly man's farm had won five straight championships 20-odd years ago, until his champion dog had passed in an accident. The farm was able to train a new top dog and clinch the overall title again, but they never repeated their legendary run of five straight championships.
This old farm owner was a top expert when it came to breeding, training, and judging shepherd dogs. That was why the commentator wanted him to offer his input.
The old farm owner recalled his beloved champion dog. "Gold Colt has definitely cut a dashing figure this year, reminiscent of the heavenly flair of our own Lightning."
The atmosphere was tense in the viewing gallery where Fang Zhao and company sat. Everyone was quiet. The only sounds were the speakers relaying the passionate voice of the commentator and his guest's lavish praise.
"Heavenly dog?" Fang Zhao said in a puzzled tone.
As soon as Fang Zhao uttered the phrase, he heard an "achoo" from near his feet. He followed the sound. It seemed that Curly Hair had sneezed.
"Does he have a cold?" Wu Yi shifted his attention immediately. He looked like the sky was about to collapse.
The folks in the viewing gallery got even tenser. Wu Yi and his family, as well as their vet team, rushed forward to check on Curly Hair.
"How does he look?" Wu Yi felt like his innards were shuddering. He was worried that Curly Hair might have eaten something outside of his regular diet. Even though the dogs had undergone thorough body checks yesterday and today and were cleared, who knew if they would catch some weird disease at the venue or suffer from stomach trouble?
The vet team inspected Curly Hair meticulously. The experts shook their heads. "Nothing unusual."
The vets were upset their medical judgment was being taken to task. "Are you questioning our competence? Or do you want it to be sick?"
Wu Yi shook his head vigorously. "No, no, no, of course not."
Fang Zhao watched Curly Hair scratch his head with one of his hind legs. He said to Wu Yi, "Don't worry. He's fine. Let's keep watching."
Shoubei Farm's stellar performance had indeed blown many folks away and put a lot of pressure on the two teams that competed next. Even though the sixth and seventh farms posted decent times, neither came under seven minutes. If the commentator hadn't revealed the fact that organizers used a new breed of sheep, perhaps some doubters would still have written that off as an excuse. Not everyone could tell the difference between different species of sheep.
When the seventh team appeared, Wu Yi and company escorted Su Hou and the dogs to the competition venue.
After the seventh team was done, Dongshan Farm was up next.
"OK, the eighth team appearing this year has been closely watched. Dongshan Farm also boasts a very special dog..."
Wu Yi had rushed back by the time the commentator began his spiel. He sat on his chair and his eyes were glued to the screen, as if he didn't want to miss a single frame.
"And we're off!" The commentator raised his voice, putting everyone on notice.
"The flock has gathered quickly. The herding is going smoothly too. So far, Dongshan Farm's dogs are doing well. Their times are quick. They're the quickest besides Shoubei Farm," the commentator observed while examining data from his statistician.
Wu Yi couldn't sit still. He got up and walked closer to the screen. He clenched his fists and started biting them. His lips were quivering, as if he were praying.
Fang Zhao also glared at the screen. He knew a crucial juncture was coming up.
The final destination of the flock—either the pen on the left or the right—was decided at the last minute and randomly. It was impossible to predict, often coming down to luck. It was a test of the dogs' and instructor's ability to adjust.
About halfway through rounding up the sheep, the destination appeared on the big screen.
It was the pen on the left. This wasn't good news for Dongshan Farm, because their head dog, Curly Hair, was situated on the left flank. By custom, the head dog on the right flank would be responsible for ushering the sheep into the left pen. If your head dog was on the left flank and you wanted to steer your flock left, you had three options. The first was for the lead dog to shift to the right flank and force the sheep left. The second involved the instructor directing the No. 2 dog on the right flank to steer the flock left. The most conservative option was to stop the flock altogether, then change direction, but that was too time-consuming.
Dongshan Farm's No. 2 dog was Bingo. The team had rehearsed such a scenario before the contest. They had decided to go for the first option, as Fang Zhao had suggested.
"The flock is making a turn. They're about to shift direction. Watch the positioning of the dogs. This is the time when the head dog shows what he's made of. Let's see if it can force the sheep to shift direction based on the instructor's guidance, or if they'll stop the flock altogether and then change direction." The commentator pressed on, saliva flying from his mouth. "Su Hou has asked to intervene. Oh! Has Su Hou decided to order Curly Hair to switch flanks?"
Su Hou was shown on screen asking for an intervention. He gave Curly Hair a direct order to switch flanks and steer the flock into the left pen.
"Pay attention. It's speeding up. Looks like it's going to take a detour. Oh! It's flown straight to the right flank."
Not only did the commentator go off pitch, he started stuttering. His guest, the elderly farm owner, also exclaimed, as if he had seen something earth-shattering.
The TV screen showed Curly Hair making the cross by speeding up toward the flock, leaping, and then treading on the backs of the sheep, like crossing a pond by stepping on stones. "Flying" was an exaggeration, but it was indeed a jaw-dropping move.
This was a very rare move. Not only was it a test of the dog's leaping ability, the most important thing was not to miss a step or lose footing and plunge amidst the stampeding flock. The dog could get killed either way.
Wu Yi's heart was thumping so hard it felt like he was about to vomit it. He barely felt the biting wounds on his fists. His eyes were peeled open. He had seen Curly Hair make a similar move during practice, but he would never order him to try it in competition. It was too dangerous. The slightest slipup and the dog was gone.
The commentator responded quickly and passionately. "MVD! MVD! No doubt, if Dongshan makes the grand finals, Curly Hair will be a top contender for this year's MVD award."
Viewers tuning into the broadcast were miffed by that comment. Hadn't homeboy just said that Gold Colt was shoo-in for East MVD? And that it was a leading contender for MVD in the grand finals? What a quick reversal. Where was his integrity?
The commentator kept on as if he had forgotten what he'd just said—and his integrity at that. He had thrown himself to the wolves on the first day. He was still lost in revelry. "I can see his market value growing exponentially."
The MVD label could be taken literally or figuratively.
Every dog competing in the final would see their market value rise, especially the head dog, and the market price for the MVD in the grand finals would go through the roof.
"The flock hasn't stopped. It's shifted direction. Su Hou has asked to intervene again. Very good. His timing is great. Dog A on the other flank needs to stay on course. The dogs in the back need to hurry up too. This is too sudden of a turn. The flock is speeding up. I have a hunch..."
The commentator took a deep breath as he examined the latest data. "They might..." He hemmed and hawed.
Inside the viewing gallery, Wu Yi was so nervous he could bite his fingers off. His eyes kept darting between the timer in the upper right hand corner of the screen and the action in the center of the screen. He was so stiff he felt like a fossil.
Fang Zhao took in the action on the big screen and laughed. He spit out the four words the commentator had held back, "set a new record."
Wu Yi's ears twitched. He clearly heard what Fang Zhao had said, but his brain didn't seem to process the information. His teeth, which were still biting his fists, started clattering.
"The flock is heading into the pen. Into the pen!"
"They're all in!"
"Four minutes and 20 seconds! Four minutes and 20 seconds!" The commentator screamed at the top of his voice and howled hysterically. "Since the format of the competition was reformed 80 years ago, the best time posted in the east has been four minutes and 21 seconds. That record was set by the team led by the so-called 'heavenly dog' Lightning, which won five straight national championships. Now Dongshan Farm has broken the record by one second. If we didn't swap sheep, the record would have been slashed by at least 10 seconds."
Wu Yi felt like he had taken everything in and his brain went blank at the same time. His lips were quivering and he could barely put a sentence together. "N-new... record?"
"Yup," Fang Zhao responded.
Fang Zhao thought to himself, if these were battle dogs from the end of days, the sheep would be in the pen within a minute, at most two minutes, without instructor intervention.
But considering this was the New Era and that Muzhou had enjoyed a peacetime of some 500 years, this was a decent showing by ordinary farm dogs.
Fang Zhao started to understand why Muzhou's founders decided to make shepherding a tradition.
It was just like mandatory military service in the New Era. Even though vested interests were at play, the competition and the training leading up to the contest kept the service dog or wild dog DNA in these dogs alive. If the geopolitical landscape changed, these dogs could be quickly drafted as battle dogs, just like during the apocalypse.
The melody of "Chasing Wind" at its climax was played and Fang Zhao turned to look at the big screen. Su Hou had left the instructor's podium and dashed toward the seven dogs resting by the finish line. His face was covered in tears. He cried and laughed at the same time. Organizers used "Chasing Wind" as the background music for this scene. It was the BGM of the moment, of Su Hou's moment.