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Snow covered the large trees. Icicles hung from the thick tree branches like harps.
Lu Sheng sat in the ox carriage. A small charcoal brazier was placed in front of him, releasing heat that warmed the small space in the carriage.
He was dressed in loose black robes and wore a black ribbon that tied his hair up and a string of dark golden beads around his wrist.
Umbrella girl sat before him, sipping on a cup of hot milk tea in her hands.
She was presently in Yingying mode. For a long time recently her body had been under Yingying's control; Hongfang Bai seemed to have given up on interacting with Lu Sheng and rarely showed herself, content with passing messages to him through Yingying.
Lu Sheng lifted his cup of milk tea to his mouth and sipped lightly as well. Then, he turned sideways to peer out through the window.
Through the curtains, he could see the flying snow outside. The wheels of the carriage and the company's boots would cause crisp sounds as they stepped into the snow.
"It's already been five days since we left the Northern Lands. But this winter storm looks like it's getting more severe," Lu Sheng observed plainly.
This time, on his trip to Central Plains, he brought only Ning San and Xu Chui with him apart from umbrella girl. He was used to these two trusted men and could count on them to get things done.
As for the rest of the company, it comprised some servants, guards, and servant maids, numbering several dozens in total, including four carriages and several horses. This was considered a very lean company for the Number One Expert of the Northern Lands.
He intended to tour the Central Plains on his own without informing Shangyang Jiuli first.
"What's the gap between the Central Plains and the Northern Lands? Yingying, do you know?" Lu Sheng asked softly.
Yingying took out a piece of paper and brush, scribbled, then held it up.
"Central Plains is a giant lake, while the Northern Lands are a pond. Be it in terms of resources, people, experts, or cities, the gap is vast."
"That big a difference?" Lu Sheng's eyebrow arched. "In other words, there're many experts there? How many are there of Hongfang Bai's level? Do you know?"
Yingying shook her head slightly. But immediately after that, she erased her words and wrote new ones.
"But sis is powerful even in the Central Plains. Compared against the Nine Great Families of the Central Plains, she's equivalent to a weak Family Head.
But the Nine Great Families of the Central Plains have very strong foundations. The Family Heads are certainly not the strongest experts among them; they're merely managers."
"Oh, I see..." Lu Sheng
understood. His own strength had been a cut above Hongfang Bai. But not too much. Presumably, he was somewhere between the Lower Three Grades and the Middle Three Grades. The nine-grade system of Snake realm encapsulated a vast stretch of cultivation; the strength of the Upper, Middle and Lower Three Grades were drastically different as well.
It was hard to say what stronger realm existed above that of the Nine-Headed Snake.
'Looks like I've got to lay low and keep a low profile...' Lu Sheng frowned.
"Clang... clang... clang..."
Suddenly, a series of metal clangs rang out from the distance in the snow.
Lu Sheng pulled the curtain back and peered through the flying snow into the distance. Faintly, he saw a team of carriages parked on the right side of the path. Someone among them was hitting cymbals hard.
"What's going on?" Xu Chui's enquiry rang out. Then a guard went ahead to check out the situation.
Rumbling along, the ox carriages continued towards the carriage team.
Before long, the guard returned and whispered his report to Xu Chui and Ning San. After being informed, Ning San alighted from his carriage and came to the side of Lu Sheng's ox carriage.
"Young Master, there's a company of carriages also heading to the Central Plains. Their wheel broke down along the way and they're hoping to borrow our carriages and come along with us to the nearest city. They claim to be from the Silver City and are willing to offer monetary compensation."
"Oh?" Lu Sheng eyed the carriage team, comprising several horses pulling two carriages, escorted by a dozen or so armed men with bundles strapped on their backs. They were organized around the few women and children shielded under umbrellas in the middle of the company.
"Let them board the empty ox carriage." On this trip to the Central Plains, Lu Sheng was disguised as a wealthy young master who was seeking to further his studies. Well, that was who he used to be, anyway. He was unafraid that he would be exposed.
To tell the truth, as long as he was not attacking, Lu Sheng's personality could be considered peaceable. He was rather happy to help others as long as it did not affect him.
"Many thanks to our host." In the distance, Lu Sheng could see a muscular man in the carriage team cup his fists towards him.
He nodded slightly and let down the curtain, leaving it to Xu Chui and Ning San to make the necessary arrangements. They were more than a match for these men if anything should happen.
The carriage team progressed forward, and the other team merged with Lu Sheng's, following at their tail at a leisurely pace.
Noon came and the snow abated significantly. Gradually, puddles
puddles of various sizes with a layer of thin ice on them formed on the surface of the ground, replacing the scene of white earlier.
The servants set up fire. The site where they had chosen to make camp was behind a small hill near the forest, which shielded them from the chilly wind.
And so, under the chilly air, the two carriage teams began lighting fire and preparing their meals by the road in the middle of the forest.
Lu Sheng alighted from his carriage and sat by a fire. Xu Chui was in charge of patrol and sentry while Ning San was organizing the men to handle all sorts of duties.
As for the other carriage team, the most prominent person among them was an aristocrat woman who sat down with two girls. Beside them, their captain of the guard, the muscular man who had cupped his fists at Lu Sheng earlier, followed.
The aristocrat woman looked fair and well-dressed, with fine brows, big eyes and a small mouth, and cloaked in an outfit of purple which covered up most of her body. Near thirty years of age, she seemed to have just been married. She would be considered the classic refined town lady.
The older among the two girls whom she led was thirteen or fourteen years old, while the younger must have been no more than seven or eight. Both of them were cloaked in white jackets. Curious, they stared at Lu Sheng.
The little girl looked especially pretty and cute, and was unafraid of strangers. Her mother held her in front of herself, and she warmed herself by the fire quietly.
"Many thanks to Young Master for coming to our aid. I'm surnamed Zhangrong. We happened to be on our way to pay respects to our deceased elders, but little did we expect our wheel to break in the middle of our journey. I'm glad we chanced into Young Master. Otherwise, who knows how long it'd be before we met another person," the lady thanked Lu Sheng earnestly.
"Don't mention it. This path has always been safe, and is used for policing. At every interval, a patrol would pass by. Even if you didn't meet us, you'd meet others before long. Anyway, you even paid us, so don't mention it." Lu Sheng smiled.
Right about then, the meat soup on the fire was cooked. Servants hurriedly stepped forward to put in the condiments like dried shallots, soaked bamboo shoots, and vegetable bread prepared and cut beforehand, etc., making a large pot of tasty meat soup.
Lu Sheng looked at the meat bun in the little girl's hand. "If you don't mind, come and share our food?" He invited them with a smile.
Fortuitously, these people had come from the Central Plains. Perhaps he could gain
could gain some intelligence from them on the situation there. Although he had learnt some information from the disciples in the sect who had been to the Central Plains, it was not comprehensive.
"Thank you, thank you. No need, we've already had ours…" Ms. Zhangrong waved her hand continuously. But before she could finish, her little girl had already received a bowl of soup and begun eating with relish.
At that sight, Ms Zhangrong sighed in embarrassment and helplessness.
The Zhang Family which she had married into was synonymous with the renowned luxury clothing brand in Silver City. They owned a large estate and a large household; some in the family became government officials, while some walked in the pugilistic world. One could say that they had everything going for them.
As the mistress of the house, she had been living in comfort without worry too. A recent event, however, was a cause for headache.
Zhang Family's clothes business was under threat by competition with a rival and was now stuck in a bottleneck. Her family racked their brains, but had no alternative except to settle on a marriage alliance.
Ms Zhangrong herself was a victim of a marriage alliance and thus abhorred the idea of subjecting her own eldest daughter to the same pain. That was why she landed up taking her eldest daughter northwards on a trip in the name of paying respects to the ancestors.
She had given birth to her eldest daughter, Zhang Ruoning, when she was under twenty. Now, Zhang Ruining was fourteen years old and bestowed with a pure beauty, a thin waist and a full hip, which made her look ravishing despite her youth. Her slender legs left no gap between them when put together.
Ms Zhangrong had heard rumors that her eldest daughter might be selected by the elders in the family as the tool to form the marriage alliance.
Upon learning of that, she began paying immediate attention to her daughter's marriage and was determined to find her daughter a match that would bring her bliss, lest she ended up repeating her own tragedy.
That was how this northward trip came about.
But they had not imagined that their wheel would break down on their way home.
Presently, Ms Zhangrong sized up Lu Sheng while seated by the fire. This gentlemanly and handsome young man seemed to hail from an extraordinary background. Be it due to his carriage team or servants, he looked like a man with clout.
That gave her the idea of testing him.
While her daughter was engrossed with the soup, Ms Zhangrong put on a casual tone and asked, "May I know if Young Master is going to the Central Plains for studies or to visit family? The journey takes at least half a month… not easy month… not easy indeed."
"For studies," Lu Sheng replied openly. "I wonder what is the current situation in the Central Plains? I'm headed for White Bell City."
"White Bell City? What a coincidence. That's my hometown. Among the hundred cities of the Central Plains, White Bell City is ranked number ten. I'm guessing Young Master is seeking your studies in the White Bell Institute?" Ms Zhangrong smiled.
"That's exactly right. But being unfamiliar with the place, I can't help but feel anxious." Lu Sheng smiled. "Why don't you introduce the situation in White Bell City to me?"
"Of course," Ms Zhangrong agreed readily.
And thus the two of them exchanged information while resting. From Ms Zhangrong, Lu Sheng gained a better understanding of what the average city in the Central Plains was like.
Unlike what he had imagined, Central Plains was extremely prosperous. White Bell City, for example, was as wealthy as Mountain-Edge City. And there were plenty of metropolises that were even more prosperous.
The Royal Family of the court's ten-thousand-strong Spirit Tiger Army guarded and kept the hundred cities in line. The cities in each region were ruled by massive Noble Families.
This was a drastically different picture from the Northern Lands. In the Central Plains, each Noble Family possessed their own spokespeople who wielded immense power.
Lu Sheng easily gained information about Shangyang Family. In the eyes of ordinary mortals, Shangyang Family was one of the ancient families; they were more or less about the same as those ordinary large merchant families, with nothing exceptional about them.
Ms Zhangyang was happy to get chummy with Lu Sheng and kill the time. Several days passed in such a routine of question and answer.
After they traversed through a large stretch of snow-covered forest, the trees around them gradually turned a dark green. Fine snow hung between the branches like white cloth, dispersing like powder.
Finally, the carriage arrived safely and uneventfully at their first custom, Rong Xin Pass.
At this point, Ms Zhangrong no longer needed Lu Sheng's escort. They found the store here owned by Zhang Family, hired a new ox carriage with some money and left on their own.
Before departing, however, she left Lu Sheng with an address as a means of contact.
Although she had learnt from their chats that Lu Sheng was already married, Ms Zhangrong did not seem to mind that and had completely regarded Lu Sheng as a potential mate for her daughter.
After separating with Ms Zhangrong, Lu Sheng passed through Rong Xin Pass. The road after that was much wider and more comfortable to travel on, and their speed picked up.
In just five days, the carriage team arrived at their destination, White Bell City.
Shangyang Jiuli's men were already waiting for him there.