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“Are you mocking me!?”
--Wrymrest Agent, ‘Hearthstone’


Chapter 214 - Provoked for nothing

The royal procession column halted at the foot of the hill where the Bright Filial Piety Temple sat upon. The martial bearing of the soldiers and the gaudy clothings of the female servants looked out of place against the serene backdrop.


There were no allowances for the carriages or horses to climb up, there was only a very long and wide stone staircase that rose in a straight path up the hill. Along the way were equally spaced free-standing ornamental gateways made of massive wooden columns and beams painted in red and black, reminding Huang Ming of Earth’s Japanese torii gates.


At the very top of the hill and past all the gateways was the main pagoda of the temple, flanked by smaller towers at its four corners. Seeing the Japanese-like gateways ending in a Chinese-style tiered towers was surreal to Huang Ming.


Huang Ming and Chu Xiong could not help but pause to drink in the grand sight. They were stunned… or daunted, for the steps were numerous and steep indeed.


“Afraid?” Chu Feng asked snidely, confident that he was physically more fit than his brother. He had never seen Chu Xiong lift anything heavier than a wine cup, and thus was completely contemptuous.


“I am of course inferior to you in terms of muscles, brother,” Chu Xiong drawled.


Chu Feng snorted, but before he could make a further insult, his eyes were drawn towards Qiong Ying. The woman was looking every inch the stricken beauty and not the confident temptress that had appeared in his tent the day before. She stood a fair distance from the princes, her eyes looking up at the temple steps with trepidation.


“Get the lady a sedan chair,” Chu Feng ordered, eager to get ahead of his brother. It worked, for it caused Chu Xiong to frown. But Huang Ming nodded in approval.


Chu Feng was taken aback by his reaction. Then he saw a flash of irritation on Qiong Ying’s face, and he blanched. He had acted without thinking again: he had pre-emptively ended a possible argument between Huang Ming and Chu Xiong.


Miffed, he instead turned to needle at his brother again. “Shall I call for a sedan chair for you?” Chu Feng offered insultingly.


Chu Xiong narrowed his eyes at the barb.


There were a few maids who were going up with the princes, as it would be inconvenient for other men to linger in a temple for women. A few of the soldiers had already stripped to their waists, preparing themselves to carry the chairs and their female passengers up the stairs.


“We don’t want you to collapse halfway, after all. You should have spent more time moving your lazy bones,” Chu Feng continued with a sardonic sneer.


“Prince Chu Xiong, we should each take one,” Huang Ming said blandly.


“What?” Chu Feng exclaimed at Huang Ming’s willingness to humiliate himself.


“We are not as fit as you, Prince Chu Feng. I am sure you can reach the top on your own quickly, and I do not wish to cause you to wait for us,” Huang Ming explained.


Chu Xiong smiled. “Indeed, brother. Your strength is known to all, I am sure you can get there in under an hour,” he said loudly for the benefit of those nearby.


How was Chu Feng going to deny it without losing face?


“Of course!” he said through clenched teeth. He turned away, one hand moving to remove his cloak.


“You are going to be a source of inspiration to us all, Prince Chu Feng! To climb up such heights while in full armour!” Huang Ming announced.


Chu Feng stiffened, but still unable to find the words to refuse. He glared furiously at Huang Ming, only to be further infuriated when the dandy scholar and his brother were completely ignoring him to chit-chat with the ladies who were his fellow sedan-riders. They were not at all ashamed to be the only men using the sedan chairs, as if it was completely natural to use such convenience.


Chu Feng looked at them incredulously.


“You may begin, dear brother. No need to slow down yourself on our account,” Chu Xiong said.


Thoroughly incensed but lacking the mental faculty to extricate himself, Chu Feng could only stomp up the stairs. His men hastened to follow their enraged prince.


“The prince is full of fire and passion,” Huang Ming remarked airily. “There is no point in forcing ourselves to match his peerless pace.”


“True, true,” Chu Xiong sighed as he got on his own sedan.


“Since that is so, let’s us be leisurely and not stress our carriers. Since we have come all this way, we should enjoy the view,” Huang Ming suggested.


“What a sound suggestion!” Chu Xiong nodded in agreement.


Behind them among the women, Qiong Ying turned her face away to hide her smile.


And so they took their own sweet time going up the stairs. Their original excuse of not wanting Chu Feng to wait for them was completely thrown out of the window as they made numerous stops along the way to take in the majestic view, exchanging pleasantries with each other and with the women around them. Even their sedan carriers did not feel overly burdened as there were opportunities for them to rest.


Thus it took them nearly two hours to ascend the stairs. When they reached the top, they saw a smouldering Prince Chu Feng waiting for them. He was sitting on rock with his hands on his knees, his eyes glowering at them.


He had indeed pushed himself to reach within the hour. In the end he still had to wait for them to arrive. At first he was glad to have the time to wipe off his sweat and catch his breath, but the moment alone allowed him to think back on how he had been swindled. He had exerted himself… and for what? There was no bet involved, no reward promised. His brother took the easy way ostensibly to catch up to him and yet still arrived later at a leisurely pace.


“Did you really make it in one hour?” Chu Xiong asked in great astonishment. “Even though we used the sedans, it was not easy!”


“Of course I did!” Chu Feng shot back. “Ask them!” he swept an indignant arm at his men who had kept pace with him. They hastened to nod their heads in affirmation.


“Well done, Prince Chu Feng! Come, I clap for you!” Huang Ming said with his eyes wide open and slowly clapped his hands while shaking his head in exaggerated appreciation.


Chu Xiong followed his lead and clapped as well. The rest of the entourage dared not to contradict the prince and followed suit. Besides, they were praising Prince Chu Feng, surely that was the right thing to do. And so they clapped.


Then from behind Chu Feng, his men too joined in the clapping. He slowly turned to face them, his eyes wide and round in disbelief.


His incinerating glare caused his men to froze in mid-clapping.


Just when Chu Feng was about to blow his top, an austere voice interrupted the farce.


“Why are you all clapping in these hallowed grounds?”

 

Climbed the temple to be an example,
His only reward: wet with sweat.​