A tall man in a white mandarin collar suit entered the room. His subordinates, a short-haired man and a young woman with a long braid, followed behind him. Lien Hua kept a close eye on the group as they approached her and her companions.
Her boss, Luo Feng, and the other bodyguard, Tao Song, bowed to greet the Soaring Serpent Society’s leader. Lien Hua quickly did the same.
“Sorry for being late! I got caught up in something.” Zhang Wei Long smiled cheerfully. His crisp white suit and black ponytail gave him an air of elegance.
The young woman behind him flashed a derisive smile. “Says the guy who completely forgot about this meeting and overslept.” Although not hostile, her eyes and tone clearly belittled Zhang.
“You shouldn’t joke like that in front of guests, Mao. You’ll ruin my reputation.”
“Your hair is sticking up.”
“Guh.” Zhang quickly patted the top of his head. His long ponytail swished as he checked for any unruly strands.
“I was lying.” Mao made a mischievous grin.
“…Of course. I knew that. I’m just trying to lighten the atmosphere.”
“It’s pointless to act cool. Even if you try to keep it in, you’re bound to spill it all out.” Mao’s eyes narrowed as her lips curled into a sadistic smirk. “You couldn’t last two minutes.”
“That fast!? Am I a virgin!?” Zhang’s mouth opened wide, but his thin eyes remained like black slits.
It was Lien Hua’s first time meeting Zhang, but she knew how powerful he was. His silly behavior did nothing to dampen his dangerous aura. Despite that, Mao, who looked to be in her mid-twenties, had spoken to him with utter disrespect. Her attire, a purple sleeveless qipao with a short skirt and black stockings underneath, was out of place for a formal meeting, especially among triad executives.
Who is this woman?
Zhang’s male companion shot Mao a stern look and coughed. Mao glared back for a moment but turned her head away without saying anything.
After exchanging quick introductions, Zhang and Luo Feng took seats across from each other at the round table. Zhi Zhu, Zhang’s right-hand man, stood directly beside his leader. Everyone else remained a few steps behind their representative. Although supposedly Feng’s elder, Zhang’s appearance suggested he was in his early thirties. Rumors recently circulated about him undergoing cosmetic surgery regularly to keep his youthful visage.
“It’s not every day that I get a visit from the dragon head of the Golden Lotus Group,” said Zhang. “So, what do you want to talk about?”
“Recently, your Soaring Serpent Society, representing the triads, has severed ties with foreign organizations. That will inevitably isolate us and weaken our influence. Could you shed some light on why you are doing such a thing?”
“It’s a temporary measure. I want to remove external hindrances until I’ve united the triads.”
“United? The different groups have always operated with a certain degree of freedom. Even though we recognize you and your society as our leader, we have the right to act as we see fit on matters concerning our group.”
“That freedom is the problem. It’s fine when the individual groups act with consideration as part of the whole, but that’s often not the case. The constant bickering and infighting, especially among the smaller gangs, is wasteful. I simply decided to step in and stop all that.”
Feng’s expression grew dark. “You are overstepping your bounds. The triads are connected for the sake of expediency. We are not a single organization under your command.”
“Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not doing this for my own benefit. Unification will benefit everyone in the organization. When we are free from internal strife, we can resume our dealings with foreign groups without fearing usurpation of authority.”
“Your motivation, while admirable, is irrelevant. The problem lies in the fact that you intend to rob the groups of the free will they have enjoyed for decades. That shows distrust and disrespect. Please rethink your stance. Otherwise, I will have to speak with the other groups about this.”
The tension in the room caused cold sweat to form on Lien Hua’s face and neck. Before being assigned to guard Feng, she had faced many critical situations. She was more than confident she could handle herself in battle, but Zhang and his retainers were definitely not people to trifle with.
Zhang closed his eyes and sighed. “I understand. I may have rushed too much. Thank you for your counsel.” He smiled at Feng.
“I am glad you understand our position.” Feng nodded in gratitude.
Lien Hua relaxed her shoulders a little. Her fellow bodyguard Song’s face slackened as he breathed out in relief. Zhang was a reasonable man, just as his reputation suggested. Feng was right in approaching him directly with his concerns.
Zhang casually pointed at Feng. “Kill him.”
Zhi Zhu leapt over the roundtable and grabbed Feng’s throat with one hand. With a wet, crunching noise, he squeezed the man’s neck like a soda can.
Lien Hua rushed towards Feng, but Mao intercepted her from the side. Mao spun around, her three-foot braid whipping, and thrust out her leg. Lien Hua blocked the kick with her cybernetic left arm and jumped away. A searing pain stung her stomach. Her black suit and white shirt had four parallel cuts. Blood seeped into her clothes.
Metal-tipped fingers bared, Mao dashed towards Lien Hua and swung each hand. Lien Hua narrowly dodged the first strike and blocked the second. Like a cat, Mao lowered her body. Her claws swerved towards Lien Hua’s legs. Lien Hua could not keep up with Mao’s speed at all.
Song tackled Mao from behind, pinning her to the floor before she could rend Lien Hua’s flesh. “Run!!!”
Lien Hua sprinted for the closed door and rammed it open with her alloy shoulder. Taking a peek behind her, she saw Zhi Zhu stomp on Song’s neck, crushing it.
She had been too careless. Because of her naivety, Feng and Song were dead. But she could not give up. She had to tell the Golden Lotus Group what happened. Her heartbeat drummed in her ears as she blazed through the corridors of the Soaring Serpent Society’s headquarters.
Lien Hua checked behind her. No one was in pursuit. She could make it to the exit. A few men were stationed there, but if she focused on breaking through, escape was possible.
The shiny wood floor rushed at her face as she fell and skidded to a stop.
Her legs felt like jelly and would not move. Not only that, her arms had also stiffened.
She screamed in her heart for her limbs to obey her will, but they lay limp on the floor.
Soon, Lien Hua heard footsteps approaching from behind. She wanted to look, but her neck would not budge.
“Did you know that a cat’s bite is more dangerous than a dog’s?” asked Mao. “The wound itself is small, but the bacteria injected deep into the flesh is another story. They attack the tendons and joints, causing paralysis.”
Lien Hua tried to curse at her enemy, but her jaw hung loosely as saliva dripped from the corners of her mouth.
“Don’t worry, you won’t die from that. We still need to find out who else agrees with Feng’s thinking.”
“You sure sound arrogant for someone who got tackled to the floor,” said Zhi Zhu.
“He came at me from behind. And wasn’t Song your responsibility?”
“Excuses. You should’ve taken her down with your first strike. I’ve given up on expecting manners or respect from you, but at least do as your teacher says. The boss may have taken a liking to you, but if you diminish his or our society’s face, not even his favor will save you.”
“Whatever.” Mao grabbed Lien Hua by the foot and dragged her back the way she came.
Ageha gently shook Kaika’s shoulders. Her eyelids fluttered open.
Kaika slowly sat up. “Ugh… What happened last night?”
“You girls got drunk and went nuts.”
“…Sounds about right.”
Kaika, with an incredible bed head and dried drool on her chin, was in the middle of a minefield of ceramic cups and liquor bottles. Valeriya lay snoring on the tatami, snuggling with Mitsuki the hug pillow. Arashi slept peacefully with her back against the wall.
“Setsu-san didn’t want to wake all of you up so she left the cleaning for later.
“In our room finishing up some work. She’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“My head is killing me.”
“Wake up the others so you can share the pain. It’s already a little late, but I made breakfast.”
“Yeah. Setsu-san invited us to eat with them. Hurry up so the staff can start cleaning up this mess .”
“Got it.” Kaika jumped to her feet.
She’s surprisingly obedient.
Must be the hangover.
“Don’t forget to wash your face.”
Kaika shook the mother-daughter pair until the snoring stopped. After they began to stir, she went to Arashi and pulled on her ears until she opened her eyes. About ten minutes later, everyone, including Mei Xing, Setsu, and Li Xue, gathered in the Wong family’s personal dining room.
Unlike the Japanese design of the rest of the inn, the family dining room had a more typical Chinese style. An ornately engraved wooden cabinet and a large round mirror decorated the far wall. Bamboo house plants were placed in the corners of the room, brightening the area with a touch of greenery. A round table in the center held stacks of wooden steamers and a large lidded square platter. One by one, everyone took a seat at the table.
“Dim sum?” asked Kaika.
Ageha smiled confidently. “Sort of.” He uncovered and laid out the steamers one by one. Finally, he took the metal cover off the square platter.
The aroma of the steamed morsels tickled everyone’s nose, whetting their appetites. Har gow dumplings, chee cheong fun, fried taro dumplings, and small meat buns filled the table. Coffee and tea accompanied the dim sum spread.
“The rest look like normal dim sum, but that platter has something I have never seen before,” said Saya.
“That’s a deconstructed siu mai,” said Ageha. “It’s the most eye-catching, but don’t be fooled. None of these dishes are your typical dim sum.”
“Quite a boast from someone coming off a slump,” said Kaika.
“Slump? What slump?” asked Valeriya.
Mitsuki slightly furrowed her brows in worry.
“It’s nothing,” said Ageha.
“Better dig in while it’s hot.” Kaika extended her chopsticks and reached for the rice noodle roll.
“Wait, that chee cheong fun isn’t done yet. I haven’t added the finishing touches.”
“I thought it looks a bit naked.”
Ageha picked up a small sauce boat and poured thick, dark brown liquid on top of the flat noodle rolls. From underneath the table, he took out a kitchen torch. With a pull of the trigger, blue flame surged from the muzzle. He carefully caramelized the sauce on top, causing an intensely sweet fragrance to waft throughout the room..
““Whoa!”” Arashi and Mitsuki gasped in amazement.
“Here you go,” said Ageha as he scattered chopped green onions on the shiny caramel glaze.
Everyone picked up a piece and tried it.
“This is… buta kakuni,” said Kaika. “The crispy glaze on top provides a nice texture contrast to the soft rice noodle and braised pork belly filling. The sweet soy ginger sauce is reminiscent of the traditional pork barbecue stuffing of chee cheong fun.” Kaika took another bite. “The generous topping of green onions cuts the decadence of the pork fat and awakens the appetite! I could sell this.”
While Kaika was busy dissecting the dish, Arashi was stuffing her face.
Kaika poked Arashi’s puffed up cheek with her chopsticks. “At least listen to the explanation when I’m judging the food! That’s basic manners!”
“Yeah, like when enemies wait for masked heroes to finish transforming!” said Valeriya.
Saya munched on a piece of the har gow. “This filling is… crabcake.” Her cheeks rose as she giggled. “With cajun spices. As advertised, this really is not your usual dim sum.”
Her vibrant smile was not just because of the food. Ageha could tell that Saya was happy seeing his recovery more than anything else.
“You were being modest, Shikimi-kun,” said Mei Xing. “You’re not behind me in culinary skill at all.”
“Yeah, I really was being modest, wasn’t I?”
“How incredibly humble of you,” said Kaika, sarcasm permeating her voice.
“Mei Xing’s dim sum is still better,” said Setsu.
“That is what you call bias,” said Saya.
“I don’t want to hear that from you.”
“Joking aside,” said Ageha, “Mei Xing helped me with the prep.”
Kaika puffed out a two-note whistle. “That really is unexpectedly humble of you.”
Mitsuki nibbled alternately between the taro dumpling, which was covered in a crisp, golden honeycomb shell, and the fluffy meat bun. “What a waste…”
“You don’t like it?” asked Ageha.
“It’s too good. To think I could’ve been eating this every day.” Mitsuki shook her head as she continued nipping away at the bun. “Why’d you have to leave?” she quietly mumbled.
“So you two really were in that kind of relationship,” said Setsu. “I heard from my husband, but I couldn’t believe that Shikimi-sama would lay his hands on such a young child.”
“I worked for her mother a while ago. That’s all.” Ageha handed Saya a new pair of chopsticks to replace the ones she had just snapped to pieces. “Please don’t break borrowed utensils.”
Valeriya picked up the deconstructed siu mai. It consisted of a three-inch long skewer of steamed pork dumpling studded with crab roe, half a flash-steamed prawn tinged in yellow fat, and a cherry tomato. The skewer itself looked like a small dropper. Its transparent squeeze handle contained a black sauce. She popped the morsels in her mouth and gave the dropper a squeeze, causing the sauce to travel through the hollow skewer and squirt onto her tongue. Her blissful expression told everyone how much she enjoyed it.
Ageha responded to the silent compliment in a haughty tone. “It wasn’t much.”
“I can’t complain about your smugness this time,” said Valeriya. “It’s a really strange take on a steamed dumpling. It’s served cold, and the cherry tomato with the dropper reminds me more of a one-bite salad. But the soy balsamic sauce coherently ties everything together. Using the fatty head end of the prawn gave the dish some richness to balance out the tangy elements.” Valeriya played with the dropper sticking out of her mouth like a reversed lollipop. “You’ll make a wonderful wife someday.” She gasped, as if remembering something. “But there’s no way I’m letting you marry into my family, okay!? My daughter is out of your league!”
Ageha clicked his tongue. “Too bad. If I married Mitsuki, I would’ve inherited Ria’s assets sooner or later.”
“W-Wharyou shaying!?” shouted the beet-red Mitsuki, bits of taro flying out of her mouth.
“It was obviously a joke.” Ageha handed fresh chopsticks to Saya. “Maybe you should eat with your left hand before the Wong family runs out of chopsticks. Wait, stop, my fingers aren’t utensils, and they’re much more expensive to fix than chopsticks.”
“C-Can fingers bend that far..?” asked Setsu.
“Wow!” said Li Xue. The preschooler watched in amazement as Saya dislocated Ageha’s alloy fingers.
He returned his hand to its original shape with a few snaps, but the process was not exactly painless.
“Serves you right, you harem bastard,” said Valeriya. She picked up a taro dumpling and took a bite.
Mitsuki turned to her mother with a surprised expression. “Ria, wait! That’s-”
“SPICY!!!” Valeriya gulped down her tea and then Mitsuki’s right after.
“The minced beef curry filling is very hot. Here’s a meat bun. The sweet barbecue sauce and fatty brisket inside should help with the burn.”
Valeriya obediently took the small white bun from her daughter and chomped it down in two large bites. “Whew.”
“Can’t drink liquor. Can’t eat spicy food. You’re like a big baby,” said Kaika with a mocking grin.
“Better than a tiny granny.”
A vein bulged on Kaika’s forehead. “Who’s the granny here? Maybe I should tell everyone how old you are?”
“Don’t bluff. That information is more secure than U.S. nuclear launch codes.”
“The fact you need to hide it is proof enough.”
The two tycoons continued to squabble while eating. Everyone stuffed themselves until all the steamers were empty.
“Each dish was excellent, but the meal itself was all over the place,” said Kaika.
“Indian, Japanese, American, Italian, Cajun,” said Saya. “It is amazing you could come up with so many combinations, but having them together was a bit overwhelming to the palate.”
“The only thing common between them was the dim sum theme. The fusion of so many cuisines in one meal didn’t make sense,” said Mitsuki.
Still made more sense than your fusion with Arashi.
“And none of the dishes were good for a hangover,” said Kaika as she held her full stomach. “You didn’t even spare a thought for who’s gonna eat them. I think I’m gonna be sick…”
“Sorry about that,” said Ageha.
He agreed with her. The moment he started cooking that morning, he completely lost himself in coming up with interesting dishes. Ageha had not considered his diners one bit while preparing the meal.
“You don’t look like you’re sorry at all.” Kaika grinned. “Did you have fun?”
He smiled from his heart. “Yeah.”
Seeing Ageha’s carefree, boyish grin, Saya and the teenagers all blushed.
Setsu looked around the table. “Shikimi-sama is a sinful man.”
“So this is the power of a male kuudere… I really might have to kill you one day,” said Valeriya, her fist shaking in fury.
“Your friends seem to be really well-versed in food, Shikimi-kun,” said Mei Xing. “Anyone would find these dishes delicious, but understanding them to such an extent is quite impressive.”
“They might not look like it, but the ladies here are all billionaires. They’ve accumulated culinary knowledge through years of fine dining.” Ageha glanced at Arashi, whose cheeks were smeared with sauce. “Except for that one.”
“So you say,” said Kaika, ”but I bet the blissful look on Arashi’s face while she eats your food makes you very happy.”
As usual, Kaika’s mind-reading was spot on.
Feeling a little embarrassed, Ageha turned away. “Leave me alone (Hottoke).”
“Did someone say hotcakes (Hottokeki)?” asked Valeriya.
Saya’s eyes lit up. “It seems I may have misunderstood you, Varrenikov-sama. I have come to realize that you are a magnificent person.”
“Don’t judge a person’s character from a single pun! And a bad one at that!” said Kaika.
“These people are very funny,” said Li Xue.
“Don’t say that about our guests, it’s rude,” said Setsu in a scolding tone.
“It’s fine, it’s the truth,” said Ageha. “If anything, that evaluation is too nice.”
“…You do understand you’re included in that, right?”
“What’s wrong with being funny?” said Mei Xing. “It’s better than being boring, right?”
“Exactly,” said Kaika while puffing out her non-existent chest.
Ageha squeezed his temples while shaking his head. “When did I become part of this circus?”
“I do not think the ringmaster has any right to complain,” said Saya.
Everyone except Ageha nodded in agreement.
Saya released the parking brake. “Where to?”
“First, let’s get some clothes,” said Kaika.
“The city then.”
They had just dropped off Ageha and Arashi for a scouting mission.
Saya stepped on the accelerator and merged into traffic. “The Wong couple was really nice.”
Kaika crossed her arms. “They really were.”
“You sound irritated. Did they offend you in some way?”
“No, I’m irritated because they were too nice. It was them, wasn’t it? The ones who helped Ageha out of his slump.”
“Yes. I spoke with Setsu-san about Ageha’s problem, leaving out the unsavory details, of course. She asked her husband to give Ageha some advice. It seems he went through a similar experience.”
“Now I owe them one. This is terrible.”
“I am not following.”
“Did you know that Mei Xing married into the Wong family?”
“Yes, I think Setsu-san mentioned it last night.”
“His original surname is Zhang.”
The car swerved slightly.
“…So that was why you chose that inn.”
“He would’ve been the perfect card for the coming negotiation.”
“Would have been?”
“I can’t use him anymore. Not after he saved Ageha. Putting aside their fledgling friendship, Ageha would never let such a big favor go unpaid. Besides, that couple seems to be unrelated to any triad business. I gave our real names when we checked in to test that, but neither of them appeared to know about us.”
“…May I speak my mind?”
“You have never let something like that stop you before.”
“Like you said, that was before. I can’t lie to Ageha anymore. If he finds out I harmed Mei Xing or his family, I don’t how he’ll react.” Kaika shut her eyes tightly and sighed. “I don’t want him to run off again.”
Though Kaika fully intended to keep her vow of truth, she still selectively kept things from Ageha. The promise was not about actively divulging all her secrets. That would be inefficient and dangerous. Ageha understood that, which was why he did not fault her for keeping the meeting with Valeriya a secret.
However, if he did ask her directly about something, she could not lie. Doing so would completely destroy his trust in her. Not only that, it would betray Kaika’s own feelings for the young man. Ageha was irreplaceable to her. The emotion was not romantic. It was closer to a profoundly deep kinship. In certain aspects, Kaika trusted Ageha more than Saya, or even herself.
Despite that, she understood that a time might come when she would have no choice but to lie to him. If the result was worth it, she would definitely break her word, no matter what tragedy or suffering awaited. That was her resolve and punishment.
“You care about him a lot,” said Saya.
“Not as much as you.”
“I do not know about that.”
“Have you lost some affection for him? Sure, he can be a bit of a player, but-”
“Not at all. My feelings have not changed in the least. It is yo-, …never mind.”
Kaika considered reassuring Saya that she did not see Ageha in that way, but in the end, she said nothing.
I guess it’s fine.
Letting things play out was also part of the devil’s entertainment.
A little bit of spice in their relationship can’t hurt.