A few days later, Cheng'an city.
It was three in the afternoon and the gates to the city were wide open. Zhao Xiaobao was sitting at the back of a cart, both eyes staring blankly at nothing. The cart was filled with fresh produce he’s bringing into the city to sell. His eyes were soulless.
“Aiyaaa, how many times do I have to tell you? Don’t worry! He was literally swallowing his own crap in that trench, he’d probably choked to death already! There’s no way he would’ve lived through that. Even if he didn’t suffocate, he would’ve died from the smell!” Li Chengfeng, who was sitting next to Xiaobao, couldn’t help but say.
Xiaobao pouted, obviously mad at Chengfeng. He maintained his silence.
Chengfeng giggled some more, “Don’t be mad, it’s just a joke! That dude’s just a figurehead for the Spiritual Mountain Sect. That must be why his paper seals didn’t even work!”
Xiaobao snapped, “Are you kidding? I couldn’t even move an inch!”
“Huh? How’s that possible?” replied Chengfeng, confused.
“How would I know? All you do is pick on me!”
Chengfeng pretended not to hear the last statement, “Hey, hey, don’t cry now!”
“But it’s true! All you do is bully me!” spat Xiaobao, tears streaming down his face.
“Why are you crying? You’re a man, look at you crying so uglily! Have you no face?”
Xiaobao held back the tears as if on cue, and like an overdramatic diva, replied, “Of course I do!”
Chengfeng hopped off the cart and waved a hand, “I’m so done with you. Go back on your own for now!”
Xiaobao quickly wiped the tears from his face, paid the drayman, and chased after Chengfeng. “Where are you going, Master? Wait for me!” he called out.
Chengfeng continued walking without turning his head, “What do you think?”
“You’re going to that Zhixi’s place again!” replied Xiaobao, unhappily.
Chengfeng turned to glare at Xiaobao and snapped, “So does everyone!”
Xiaobao muttered under his breath, “As if…”
“What did you say?” Chengfeng shot back, annoyed.
There were no computers or smartphones here in this world. It had been many years, Chengfeng missed the awesome dramas he used to watch but with time, the memory of computers and smartphones grew increasingly distant. He was even beginning to forget the plot of his favourite movies.
The modern, urban person would have no idea how limited entertainment was during these times. When the sun set, it was as if the city went to sleep, and there wouldn’t be any avenues for entertainment. Chengfeng despised that. Eventually, he discovered a new nighttime entertainment: brothel hopping!
But brothels here meant a very different thing. The ones Chengfeng enjoyed were visiting are those with oirans, who were very much like the modern-day artistes and celebrity entertainers. They often performed songs and dances, as well as accompany aristocrats, who would one-up another on their riches and spendings.
It was also here, Chengfeng met Liu Zhixi. A stunning, young maiden who made this dangerous world a little sweeter for Chengfeng.
Xiaobao shrunk at the sight of Chengfeng’s aggression. “Nothing, Young Master. It’s just that… you’re always getting rejected...aren’t you worried that people will talk about that?” suggested Xiaobao, meekly.
“So what if I’m visiting someone I like? If they have a problem with that, they can take it up with me!” snapped Chengfeng, his face a map of anger.
After some silence, Xiaobao asked, “But… with all these visits that end up in rejection, just where are you getting to?”
Chengfeng raised his head and his eyes were in a daze, as if staring at the maiden herself. He then said, dreamily, “Those who know me, will know my sorrows and sufferings; those who don’t know me, will ask for my wants and intentions. After all, you only live once. So screw what everyone else thinks!”
Xiaobao watched his master’s back, mumbled under his breath, and shuffled behind Chengfeng.
As the pair strolled, they crossed Hudong Street, and soon neared the entrance of Xilian Bridge.
There was a long line of hawkers and their stalls along the side of Hudong Street. Their cacophony of hollering and promotions ebbed and flow, an attack on the ears of all passersby.
“Try our fried sparrows! The recipe was passed down from generation to generation, a delicacy fit for a king!”
“Fried soy meat! Fried soy meat! Sink your teeth into our fried soy meat!”
“Tofu! Tofu! Get your fresh tofu here!”
All of the noises made the street bustling with life. The scene brought a degree of warmth to the early winter season.
As the pair continued their stroll, someone noticed Chengfeng within the crowd, and excitedly yelled, “Hey it’s Master Li! Everyone, hide your wives and sisters!”
Chengfeng seemed unfazed, as he continued to smile unabashedly to onlookers, and even flirted with some of the ladies.
“Oh, isn’t it Ms Xiong? I haven’t seen you in so long, you’ve gotten so much prettier. I’m guessing the men in your family are treating you well, you’re absolutely glowing! Hey, where are you going? I’m not going to eat you!”
“Oh, Xiao Yu, come let Master Li see… oh, what’s that bust you’re packing in your chest? Are you hiding buns in there? Are those vegetarian buns, or meat buns? I’m hungry, why not let Master Li have a bite or two of those buns?”
“Hey Xiuzhen, is this Gouwa? Oh my, your little brother has grown so big, how delightful. Come, let me hug your sister!”
Chengfeng continued his stream of sleazy comments and flirtations with the women on the street. Eventually, some of the older, married women threw vegetables and fruits at Chengfeng, signalling their anger.
But Chengfeng wouldn’t dodge. Instead, he caught as many as he could, and cheekily remarked, “Rumour has it that the Pan An people are so pretty, passersby would toss fruit at them as a means of getting their attention. And here I am with all the fruits!”
“Master, who are the Pan An people?”
Although Xiaobao practically grew up with Chengfeng, he still wasn’t accustomed to Chengfeng’s flirtatious behaviour and was thus embarrassed by the unwanted attention. He shrunk and hid his face as both of them finally reached Xilian Bridge.
The bridge used to be called the Face Washing Bridge. The name came from the year when the Daqi Emperor was expanding his empire via a conquest to the north, and thus used the nearby river to bathe.
Under the wisdom and advice of National Advisor Tian Zhenjun, whom the Daqi Emperor Zhao Yu appointed, they had conquered the north nation of Zhuyi, as well as ordered their men to establish counties in the savage lands of the north and spread education to the inhabitants. As such, the land eventually became Cheng'an, a land with a four hundred and eighty-year-old history.
Although it’s a borderland, it is home to one of the four famous mountains, known as the “Spiritual Mountain”. In the world of Sadhana, which consists of tens of sects, the third-ranked Spiritual Mountain Sect forcibly occupied the said land. As a result, the land gave birth to many great, skilled men, a bustling hotspot for martial arts practitioners and gamblers. Practically everyone wielded weapons and every corner had a gambling den.
After the establishment of counties, during the 15th year of the Mahayana calendar, Liu Zhezhi of Wenzhong became an officer, and felt that the bridge was too plain. Thus, he ordered his men to refurbish the bridge and plant some lotus flowers in the river, hence its name, “Xilian* Bridge”.
[*TL Note: Lian = Lotus]
To the west of the river is the Changdi Spring Willow; to the east of the river is the Hepu Xunfeng island. The area is filled with spectacular buildings: such as the Xilian Pavillion, Haiyun House, Laixun Court, and in between them are beautifully carved walls and bamboo trees. The scenery is evermore stunning as the sunlight illuminates the waters of the lake.
Today the lake was occupied by many brothel boats. Night has yet to fall, and the courtesans are out to play. Some conversed and laughed with the men on the bridge, some recited poems among themselves.
Xiaobao may be a servant, but his complexion was rosy and fair, his features petite and boyish; instantly making him a favourable target among the courtesans. The second he stepped on the bridge, the courtesans called out to woo him.
“Hey darling, come play with me!”
“Hey little boy, why don’t you let me teach you a tune on the flute?”
“Hmph, you’re absolutely shameless! How can you say such sleazy things in broad daylight? Come here Xiaobao, ignore him! You make my heart ache, I really want you in my arms!”
“Blergh, your heart aches ‘cause you’ve been carrying those expired buns in your chest for too long!”