“Humans were drinking alcohol five-thousand years ago, and we're still drinking it now. Alcohol is humanity's friend. Can I abandon a friend?”
--Yang Wenli, ‘Legend of Galactic Heroes
Chapter 149 – The bait
Nobody knew what Huang Ming had planned: he hurried composed a letter and had it delivered with urgency. But within a few days, a single merchant wagon arrived at the capital. It would not be unusual except that it was gaily decorated with bold characters that shouted “Ma Family Brewery”.
It was also escorted by a powerful contingent of guards. In fact, the ratio was completely disproportionate: the merchant had employed an entire company of men to defend a single wagon.
This disparity obviously drew the attention of those who saw it… and smelled it. There was a heavenly fragrance of herbs and flowers emanating from the wagon.
The escort guards brusquely kept curious spectators at bay and rode ahead to open a wide path for the wagon.
“What is so special about this wagon?” an onlooker dared to ask one of the guards. All around him, rubber-neckers, profiteers and other gossip mongers leaned in to catch the conversation, just as eager and curious about the presumably precious cargo.
“Only the best wine from Tianxin City. It is a special blend that is only made once every ten years,” the guard replied proudly.
“Ten years? Why?”
The guard smiled and was about to respond when another, older guard came over to knock his head in a reprimand.
“Don’t go blabbing about the clan’s secret! Do you want to get struck off the clan register? Go make yourself useful!” the older man admonished. The younger guard turned pale hastily and quickly ran off.
The older guard snorted in satisfaction of his powers, but the same onlooker who had questioned the previous guard now turned his attentions to him.
“Brother, why so secretive?” the onlooker asked.
“None of your business,” the older guard said brusquely.
But the rumourmongers were not so easily deterred, they literally pressed some gold pieces into his hands. Eventually the guard accepted it ‘reluctantly’ and stuffed the ingots into his uniform.
“This is a special tribute from the Tianxin City branch family of the honourable Ma clan,” the guard confided. “Every ten years, the Ma clan would have a gathering in a different city for wine tasting and to decide the next premium recipe to be officially entered into their roster. This time it happens to be in the capital.”
“You mean, it’s a competition?”
The guard nodded. “Of course! Every branch wants their own blend to win. Expect to see more wagons like this over the next few days, they will be coming from all over the country.”
“Why only once every ten years then?” someone asked.
“What do you know about brewing wine?” the guard sneered. “It takes time to research and develop new blends. Ten years of preparation is nothing!”
“Then why haven’t I heard of this before?” a young man spoke up.
The guard looked at him contemptuously. “How old are you? The last competition was ten years ago, did you even have hair down there back then?” he asked.
The crowd laughed as the young man was shamed.
The news spread across the capital, with the details distorted and exaggerated with each telling as more wagons streamed into the capital. Fanciful descriptions of heavenly nectars fit for the gods soon reached the ears of Wang Hong.
Wang Hong was soon drooling and had even thought of marshalling the Imperial Guard on a sudden ‘inspection tour’, but he still had the presence of mind not to act impulsively.
“A wine competition right when I have sworn off drinking? Somebody is trying to set me up!” he said to himself, proud to have seen through the ruse.
He was about to send a message of gratitude to Prime Minister Tong Xuan for his warning when General Yin Yanzhao came to call on him. Wang Hong was rightfully puzzled, for he had no dealings with the so-called North Star.
Wang Hong only saw General Yin fleetingly when he had escorted the Jin ambassador the royal banquet. General Yin himself was completely forgotten after Lord Aidi’s dramatic entrance and subsequent humiliation by Huang Ming.
“This general greets Lord Wang Hong,” General Yin greeted.
“What brings you here, general? Shouldn’t you be preparing to escort the Jin ambassador back north?” Wang Hong asked directly.
General Yin had a sheepish look. “Yes, you are right. But I have intentionally delayed it for a small matter, and I was hoping for a favour,” he replied.
All of a sudden, Wang Hong had the impression that General Yin Yanzhao was a meek person and not at all like the warrior oft-told in stories. Combined with the faint impression of him from the royal banquet, Wang Hong thought that those stories were simply exaggerated.
Probably one of those who relied on his familial connections, Wang Hong sneered inwardly. Unlike himself who had to use all sorts of flattery to catch the eye of the Prime Minister.
“Well, what is it?” Wang Hong asked.
“I was wondering if you had received an invitation to the Ma clan’s wine competition,” the general said.
“What? It is a real thing? I thought it was just rumours!” Wang Hong said with astonishment.
“Oh, you didn’t know of it?” General Yin said, greatly disappointed.
“Explain!” Wang Hong demanded impatiently.
“Ten years ago the competition was held in a northern city. My father received an invitation and he brought back a bottle of the finest wine I have ever tasted.”
“He actually went to the competition? How was the wine?” Wang Hong asked, leaning forward in his seat.
“I was still young then, and there was only a single bottle. My father… he was so stingy that he only gave me half a cup,” General Yin sighed in reminiscence and subconsciously smacked his lips.
It caused Wang Hong to gulp.
“Your father… General Yin Yanxi… even someone as brutish as me knows of his fame. But how did he get the invitation?” he asked.
General Yin shrugged. “My father never told me the details, but it seemed he had saved a Ma family caravan in the past as it travelled the north.”
“And so you come looking for me, in the hopes of getting the wine again?” Wang Hong asked, still suspicious.
There was a sad, wistful smile on General Yin’s face. “As you are aware, my father died in battle. While I do crave the wine, my first wish is to make an offering over his grave. He said it was the best drink he had ever tasted, and I thought it was suitable as a libation.”
Wang Hong nodded, but inwardly he was rolling his eyes. How wasteful to pour a divine drink for the dead, when there was so little of it for the living!
“I am sorry to have troubled you with this trifling matter,” General Yin said apologetically.
“Nonsense!” Wang Hong thundered. “You are a filial son, doing your best to commemorate the memory of your father! That alone is a worthy cause!”
General Yin cupped his hands. “I am humbled by your praise. But since you did not receive an invitation, this is all moot.”
“Have you tried asking them directly?” Wang Hong suggested.
“I have not, as they are quite secretive. This is the first time in ten years that I have heard the Ma clan surfacing so near, which is why I dared to impose on you,” General Yin said.
Wang Hong was finally convinced. “Though I do not have an invitation, who are they to deny me if I was to show up?”
“But the competition is a closed, private affair. We should not offend them,” General Yin replied hesitantly.
“They are merchants, so what if they are offended?” Wang Hong scoffed. “Besides, I will tell them that I wish to present their wine to the king as gift. Surely they will not pass up on this honour.”
General Yin’s eyes widened. “You are very astute, Commander Wang Hong,” he praised.
Wang Hong laughed loudly, tickled by the praise from this so-called famous North Star. Wang Hong himself did not have any appellation, and he thought those famous personages that had them were merely blowing hot air to promote themselves.
How right he was! Look at how this Yin Yanzhao was grovelling before him, all for the sake of a drink for his dear, departed father!
“Come, we shall knock on their doors and ask boldly for to ‘inspect’ their wine, as it is our right as guardians of the country!”
Even a general is employed,
To play the part of a decoy.