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On that day, Qing Luo woke up early and put on a tight fitting tunic, loosely covering it with a silver-white robe. She brushed up her hair, tied a jade belt around her waist, then looked into a mirror to see an elegant young man with a complexion as clear as jade.
Seventh Mistress helped paint her bare skin brown and thickened her eyebrows. Ah Luo deepened her voice when she spoke and thought of how she used to walk with large strides, removing all habits of being a good-mannered girl. Ah Luo was very satisfied and Seventh Mistress felt relieved as she smiled, “Those who are unfamiliar with you will not realise that you are a girl.”
This first operation brought anxiety and excitement. Ah Luo climbed over the wall lightly, took out the ladder made from hemp rope and let it hang down, thinking that this was much easier than climbing with her bare hands. It would have been great if she knew Light Body Qinggong and could fly around freely from one place to another. Recalling Liu Jue’s Qinggong, she felt envious. If it weren’t for the enmity between them, it would have been good to ask him to be her teacher.
Landing safely, Ah Luo winked up at Xiao Yu on top of the wall. Then, she rolled up the ladder and buried it in a hole under the wall that she dug. They had made two ladders just in case Xiao Yu heard the flute but couldn’t come, so she would still be able to return by herself.
After recognising her location, Ah Luo lifted her foot to start heading to the Commercial District but she glanced at the small river not far from her and changed her mind. She went to a secluded corner of the courtyard wall where she pulled out her flute and played a song that usually harmonised with the xiao player. As soon as the flute’s melody rose, she paid attention to all directions. After a while, the sound of the xiao reached her. Ah Luo listened and discovered that it was coming from the direction of the river. She put away her flute and began heading that way.
When the flute sound stopped, the xiao’s melody also halted as though the player was wondering why the song was so short today. Then it picked up again.
As Ah Luo neared the river, she slowed her pace, pretending to be on a scenic stroll. She saw a young man sitting under a weeping willow next to the river. Dressed in a purple robe, he held a jade xiao in his hand. So he was the xiao player. Why did he come here to play the xiao everyday? Was it just to harmonise with her own flute?
Sensing someone behind him, the man turned around only to see a handsome youth staring at the xiao in his hand. He couldn’t help smiling, “Little Brother, do you like the xiao too?”
Ah Luo saw the man had sharp eyebrows slanting upwards towards his temples, a gaze hard to understand, and a slight smile on the corners of his mouth. Another fine specimen. He wasn’t shabby and having accompanied her for so long, she had a favourable impression. She replied, “I was just enjoying the view by the river when I heard the xiao. I followed the sound and ended up disturbing this gentleman.”
The man laughed heartily, “No harm done. It was just for a moment today.”
Ah Luo heard a bit of melancholy in his voice and knew in her heart that it was because there was no flute accompaniment. She smiled and said, “I like playing the flute, may I play a song with this gentleman?”
Surprise flashed across the man’s eyes, “Little brother can play the flute? Great!”
Instantly, they played a flute and xiao ensemble. After playing a song, the two of them became closer. The man looked at Ah Luo and said, “I’m happy to have met you. Seeing as Little Brother is rather cordial, may I invite you to dine together at the Qian Feng Lou?”
Ah Luo thought that this Qian Feng Lou was like a restaurant or teahouse, just the kind of place she wanted to go to and it was good to have a companion to go with her. She smiled and said, “My name is Luo Shan, what is Elder Brother’s surname?” Like this, Ah Luo naturally brought their relationship closer.
The man smiled and said, “Good, good. Today, not only did I meet you, but I gained a brother. My surname is Chen. You can call me Zi Li, or Elder Brother is fine too.”
Ah Luo loudly and affectionately called him Elder Brother. The two of them chatted as they walked and Ah Luo happily discovered that her newly made Elder Brother knew Feng City very well. Following him was like having a guide with a live map. She secretly rejoiced at her luck.
The two of them headed east along the river until they reached the embankment where there were already tea stalls. This was the first time that Ah Luo had walked on the streets of Feng City and like an avaricious flounder, she looked at everything as though it was rare. Looking left and right, she turned her head back to see that they were already far away from the noble residential area. Suddenly, Zi Li called out, “Brother Shan, walking like this, I’m afraid you wouldn’t reach Qian Feng Lou even by sunset.”
Ah Luo’s face reddened and she looked up, “Elder Brother, how far is it to Qian Feng Lou?”
Zi Li said, “It takes three and half minutes by horse but two hours to walk.”
Ah Luo thought, walking for two hours? This Feng City really was large, it would be better if they had horses. Speaking of a horse, a horse appeared. With the sound of a whinny, Ah Luo saw a big horse head stretching out in front of her.
Zi Li said, “I let the entourage wait here. Brother Shan, can you ride a horse?”
Ah Luo asked him, “Does it count as being able to ride a horse if there is someone leading the horse while I ride it?”
Zi Li saw Ah Luo’s pure eyes stare at him unblinkingly and felt amazed at what a good pair of eyes they were. He nimbly turned around and mounted the horse then stretched his hand out to Ah Luo, “Come, ride with Elder Brother.”
Ah Luo took his hand without hesitation, only to feel a powerful strength lifting up her body and placing her on the horse. Zi Li laughed and said, “Sit tight!” Like this, they began riding.
All four of the horse’s hooves flashed and they charged forward. Ah Luo shut her mouth firmly to prevent a scream escaping her mouth. She held the bridle tightly, her entire body was nestled in Zi Li’s arms. She heard Zi Li’s warm breath above her head, his mellow voice saying, “Don’t be afraid, Elder Brother is here. You won’t fall.”
Ah Luo could neither laugh nor cry, saying don’t be afraid wouldn’t make her unafraid just like that. Her body stiffened as usual and cold sweat poured out. Every time the horse jostled her, she shuddered with fear. Hearing the scenery around her gradually receding, she finally shouted, “Elder Brother, can you slow down?!”
Zi Li heard her trembling voice and felt sure that Luo Shan was a spoiled young master of a wealthy family who had never ridden a horse since he was young. Seeing that they were nearing the East Gate, he reined in the horse, “Brother Shan, it’s alright now. You can dismount the horse and walk or sit on the horse and view the market.”
Ah Luo sat up straight now and saw that the Main East Avenue was around twenty to thirty metres wide with the occasional horse-drawn sedans going back and forth without need to give way to each other. Beneath her feet were large azure stones laid on the ground with the seams paved smoothly. From here, it was possible to imagine the opulence of Feng City.
Both sides were very lively with two and three-storey buildings lining the street with no gaps. The ground level was all store fronts while the upper levels appeared to be restaurants and teahouses. Small groups of fashionably dressed young men and women walked along the road.
Zi Li led the horse southwards into a street that was slightly narrower than the Main East Avenue. It appeared to be an independent courtyard surrounded by small buildings with trees casting a pleasant shade.
As they walked up to a building, Ah Luo saw three flowing characters, ‘Qian Feng Lou’, and knew that they had arrived. Zi Li jumped off the horse and helped Ah Luo dismount. After two steps, Ah Luo felt her backside was in pain. She couldn’t help but use her hands to rub it. When she saw Zi Li watching her with a smile, she felt a little aggrieved, “Elder Brother’s horse riding is too fast.”
Zi Li laughed loudly, “Elder Brother was wrong, I will make it up to you.”
Ah Luo said generously, “I’ll forgive you. Who told me to be unable to ride a horse?” Before, she had only ridden horses that were led by someone in scenic areas, so naturally, she couldn’t gallop swiftly. She suddenly had a thought and grinned, “How about Elder Brother teaches me how to ride a horse one day?” Zi Li nodded in agreement.
The two of them walked into Qian Feng Lou and the young waiter’s eyes lit up. He welcomed many visitors and saw them off everyday so he had a special skill. Most guests that came to the Qian Feng Lou had some sort of status or influence. For these two, the taller one exhibited pride in his gestures from head to toe and it was possible that the shorter one was also a young master of some wealthy family. He said politely, “The two gentlemen, this way upstairs please.”
Ah Luo saw that there were no tables downstairs, only an ebony tea table had been set up. Several landscape paintings and calligraphy scripts were hung all around, full of cultural flair.
Upstairs, screens with decorative patterns cut out of them separated the seats and there were also private dining rooms. Zi Li asked for an elegant room and waited for Ah Luo to sit before he said, “Brother Shan and I can talk quietly here.”
Ah Luo nodded. Sitting by the window, she gazed out at the scenery. She heard Zi Li speak to the young waiter, “I have heard that there are three unique dishes and three unique wines in Qian Feng Lou. Having returned here today, I hope you won’t disappoint me.”
The young waiter nodded with a light laugh, “Young Master returned? Then you must taste our chef’s handiwork.”
After a while, the dishes were served. Ah Luo took one look and saw vegetarian tofu, vegetarian greens, and vegetarian eggplant. Then she glanced at Zi Li. He smiled and shook his head, signalling that he had never eaten them before either. Ah Luo knew that vegetarian dishes were harder to make. She reached out with her chopsticks and picked up a piece of tofu to taste. Before she could speak, Zi Li had also taken a piece and praised, “Good, the tofu is silky smooth without losing its flavour and it leaves a delicate fragrance after swallowing it.”
Ah Luo quickly tried the vegetarian greens and eggplant, only to listen to Zi Li continuously praising the refreshing aftertaste. She couldn’t help but ask Zi Li, “Elder Brother, are these dishes really that delicious?”
Zi Li said, “Could it be that Brother Shan has unusual tastes? At home, the tofu usually doesn’t taste like tofu at all. No wonder the Young Prince of An Qing Palace recommended it and said that if you wanted to taste the flavour of tofu, you only needed to come to Qian Feng Lou.”
Ah Luo choked when she heard the words, ‘Young Prince’. After she drank some tea and regained her breath, she said, “Does Elder Brother know Liu Jue very well?”
Zi Li’s tone was indifferent, “Not too well, I’ve just seen him a few times. Does Brother Shan know him?”
Ah Luo said, “I saw him at the Peach Blossom Banquet.” Looking at the three specials of Qian Feng Lou, she changed topics, “I think that Qian Feng Lou is afraid of rich people who are used to eating lavish meals with an abundance of fish and meat, so they used plain water to cook some vegetables and present a fresh taste for you to try. These flavours really aren’t that good.”
The corners of Zi Li’s mouth curled upwards into a smile again when he listened to Ah Luo’s comments. Seeing her shake her head with a lopsided smile on her face, her twinkling eyes were really attractive. If it weren’t for the fact that he wasn’t into males, he would definitely take her home.
He thought of the flute’s melody that had sounded for a little while that morning. Incidentally, he had heard it near the river and had played along afterwards, with the sound of the flute gradually becoming clearer and more melodious. The skill of the flutist had improved rapidly and in more recent times, the melody had contained countless emotions. Several times, he had wanted to jump over the courtyard and see who this person was, living in the Right Minister’s residence. He also enjoyed answering the flute with his xiao, feeling the mood changes of the flutist. This was why he would always wait by the river early every morning. He hadn’t thought that just when he was feeling dispirited by how quickly the flute sound had disappeared, a clever and charming little brother had appeared. His flute playing was rather similar to the person behind the courtyard wall. He wanted to become closer to this person.
As he was thinking, Zi Li unconsciously drank several cups of the unique wine. At this moment, he looked at Luo Shan again and suddenly remembered a leopard he once hunted with eyes that were crystal clear. He secretly said to himself, if he had a white complexion, girls wouldn’t be able to compare.
After Ah Luo finished telling her thoughts on the flavour, she saw Zi Li seemed distracted and said, “Elder Brother, if there is an opportunity, Little Brother will cook a few dishes for you to try. I bet you’d even swallow your tongue!”
Zi Li came back to his senses and smiled, “You are the first in Feng City to be disdainful of Qian Feng Lou’s three unique dishes.”
Ah Luo exclaimed, “How could this be? I can see that Feng City is prosperous, surely the food here isn’t so bad?”
Zi Li asked Ah Luo strangely, “Aren’t you from Feng City?”
Ah Luo said, “This is the second time I went outside of the residence, and the first time eating at a restaurant. I usually have an appetite for the food at home.” Ah Luo normally ate in the Begonia Garden and either Madam Zhang or Seventh Mistress cooked. When everyone in the Li Family sat down to eat together once a month, she was careful not to reach out too far with her chopsticks. She felt that the tastes of the main kitchen were not as good as the food she ate in the Begonia Garden, and thought that it was merely because she was from the desolate Begonia Garden so it was fine to just eat an insufficient amount. She hadn’t expected that coming to Qian Feng Lou today, eating these three so-called unique dishes, turns out this was the origin of it all!
Zi Li then told her, “Qian Feng Lou focuses on vegetarian dishes, and is considered to be a famous restaurant in Feng City. To go to Brother Shan’s house, the cooks must be very skilled.”
Ah Luo thought for a while and said, “Elder Brother, can you take Little Brother to eat at other famous restaurants next time? Tasting different foods is Little Brother’s hobby.”
Zi Li saw her pleading eyes looking at him and agreed without thinking, “Brother Shan, you should know that when you look at someone like that, nobody would want to refuse you.”
Ah Luo blushed and lowered her eyes. Zi Li smiled and said, “Since I have such a Little Brother, I’ll give him whatever he wants. Brother Shan, I really like you calling me Elder Brother.”
They paid for the meal. The young waiter smiled and said, “136 silvers.”
Ah Luo was startled and unconsciously stuttered, “These, these three vegetarian dishes cost so much?”
Zi Li looked at her in amusement, “It’s not expensive, Brother Shan.” He took out a silver note and gave it to the waiter.
After leaving Qian Feng Lou, Ah Luo looked back. She finally understood why there were no seats in the lobby on the first floor and it didn’t matter if there were few people on the second floor. One meal was enough to cover the expenses for four people in the Begonia Garden for one year. Yet it wasn’t considered expensive? It was difficult for her to understand this. She thought about if she were to open her own restaurant, wouldn’t she profit like crazy?
Seeing that it was still early in the day, Zi Li said to Ah Luo, “The three unique wines were very strong and I drank a few more cups than Little Brother. I feel a little dizzy, so would it be alright if we walked and sobered up?”
Ah Luo nodded. Zi Li led the horse along and the two of them walked south along the road that had led to Qian Feng Lou, turning into a small alley. Suddenly, a few masked men with swords jumped out and without a word, slashed at them with their swords.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.