Chapter 23: Selling Oneself Into Servitude
A few days ago.
“Who’s there‽” the sailor on watch duty shouted, gripping his spear with agitation. A dark humanoid figure emerged from the bushes and after taking one look at the sailor, fell unconscious and dropped to the ground.
The sailor froze and cautiously made his way to the unconscious mystery person and poked his shoulder with the spear, flipping the body face up. Although the face was blackened with terrible burns, the sailor only frowned for a moment before recognizing this mystery person.
“It’s Huang Zao! Huang Zao is still alive! Team Leader Lan Zao, your brother is alive and he’s back!” the sailor yelled, alerting the entire exploration team camp.
A crowd gathered together led by Lan Zao who had a robust body the size of two adult men combined matched with a deep Bronze aura. Finding his unconscious brother, Lan Zao first looked incredulous then surprised delightfully. He crouched down, lifted Huang Zao’s head, leaving him half-lying on the ground, and cried out, “Brother, my dear younger brother, wake up!”
Although Huang Zao was still unconscious, he murmured, “Water…water…”
As soon as Lan Zao held out his hand, the other sailors passed over a water bag. After being fed water, Huang Zao gradually awoke. When his vision grew clearer and he saw Lan Zao’s rough face, he almost burst into tears, bawling, “Big brother, it’s me! I’ve come back alive!” His voice was hoarse and feeble. He had not had a good time chasing after this group on his own in this dangerous forest.
“Huang Zao, what happened to you? We thought you were dead. Team Leader Lan Zao tried to go back to find you several times but everyone stopped him for no one thought you would have survived. Lan Zao cried his heart out for you several times,” an elderly man pushed his way into the crowd and said. He had a round face, a thin and shriveled body, and wore a pair of cracked spectacles. He had a large, hoary beard that had not been maintained for a long time. It now resembled a gray and dirty cleaning rag.
This was old man Cang Xu. All members of the exploration team respected him. It was because of his guidance the team managed to get out of the desert.
“Thank the gods and fate you are still alive! Oh heavens, it’s truly a miracle!” exclaimed Lan Zao. “Quick, tell your brother, what happened to you?” Lan Zao was overcome with curiosity.
Huang Zao coldly snorted, “I didn’t die. I only fell unconscious back then…” He gave a brief account of what had transpired.
Lan Zao sighed with emotion, “Huang Zao, so you really managed to save your own life. What a thrilling tale!” The people around them echoed the sentiment and gave their words of admiration and congratulations.
“Trouble, gentlemen. It seems we are in trouble,” the old scholar Cang Xu, however, said with gravity.
“What trouble?” someone asked.
“No matter how much trouble comes, I’ll not abandon my little brother! We’ll fight against the spiders!” Lan Zao’s eyes flashed with resolution.
Huang Zao continued, “Everyone, don’t worry, no spiders are following me. As long as you escape their hunting grounds, the spiders will just crawl back into the canopy. I stayed with them for several days. Besides, I’m sure all the spiders were burned to death in that large fire.” Huang Zao’s voice was filled with pride. Now that the danger had passed, his escapade turned into his capital to brag with.
The old scholar shook his head. “I do not mean the spiders but those two people.”
“I’m sure those two are long dead. A pity, though,” Huang Zao responded. He had not revealed that he had fled like a coward. Instead, he had said the spiders attacked Zhen Jin and Zi Di, leaving him lucky enough to take the chance to escape.
“They may not be dead,” the old scholar sighed.
Lan Zao muttered, “On this strange island, do those two young people really have the ability to escape from the furious spider leader?”
The old scholar still frowned. “We know Iron-rank strength is restricted on this island. But what about Silver? Or Gold? Such a powerhouse is not among us, so we can’t be sure that level of strength is also restricted.”
Huang Zao gawked with eyes wide open. “Mr. Cang Xu, do you think those two are Silver or even Gold experts? That’s impossible. They’re too young. Besides, I didn't sense a Silver or Gold aura from them. Actually, the girl seemed to be an Iron magician.”
The old scholar smiled and shook his head again. “Could there be so few young powerhouses? General Bai Lang of Cold Iron City is seventeen, and the Jin Meigui House’s Archmage Shui Si is only a sixteen-year-old girl. The recently risen star, Assassin Luo Shi, who was inducted by the Assassins Alliance from among the commoners is rumored to be an eighteen-year-old.”
“No way, those people are all future major characters. They’re too far away from us. What are the chances I randomly ran into such people?”
The old scholar said in a flat tone, “The possibility is high. According to your description, the girl is young and has Iron strength. She, alone, is someone that can’t be overlooked. In that case, what is the level of the force that nurtured her? She addressed the young man as ‘my Lord’, so what is the status and strength of this young man? Think about it.”
The crowd sunk into deep contemplation and the faces of the two brothers began to look distressed. After pausing for a bit, the old scholar continued, “I suspect he not only has a high status but is also a powerhouse on his own. Gold cultivation is unlikely but it is likely he is a Silver expert.”
“Mr. Cang Xu, what proof do you have of this?” Lan Zao countered, “What makes you conjecture this?”
Cang Xu smiled. “We can think about this from a different angle. Suppose you found someone crying for help and to rescue them, you would need to face more than a dozen Bronze spiders. And there is just you and your teammate. If you do not have Silver-rank or Gold-rank strength, would you dare provoke these spiders to save someone?”
Lan Zao’s mouth opened wide, rendered speechless, while Huang Zao said to himself, mouth twitching, “Basically, these two are most likely not dead and I’ve offended a Silver or even a Gold expert? I shouldn’t have run away! I should have given the dagger back! I made a mistake, I’ve made a big mistake!” Huang Zao screamed while gripping Lan Zao’s arm hard. Under immense psychological pressure, he confessed the truth. Everyone‘s faces changed as they heard that he had run away with the crucial dagger.
“Mr. Cang Xu, what should we do?” Lan Zao had no idea what to do and could only look to the old scholar for advice.
“Everyone, don’t panic,”—Cang Xu lifted his hand and steadied them—“this matter has not gotten out of hand yet. Everything I said is just my speculation. It’s possible those two have already become the spiders’ food or died in the sea of fire. Right?”
“But didn’t you just say it’s even more likely that these two have already solved their troubles and are coming after us? We’ve left behind marks all along the way,” Lan Zao said, his face mangled with confusion.
Cang Xu nodded and stared at Lan Zao with a deep gaze. “Therefore, we must turn around now. We must confirm whether they are dead or alive. If they are dead, we could maybe pick up some excellent equipment. If they are alive and caught in some kind of predicament, we will need to go out of our way to help them to repay them for saving Huang Zao’s life and to atone for his last-minute escape.
“If they are coming after our lives, I strongly advise everyone that we do not resist except as a last resort. Think carefully, are we really the opponent of someone who can deal with the spider group? Surrender! Surrendering is the best option. Don’t forget, we were all together on the same ship and shipwrecked here together. They need us. All major figures need subordinates. Or at least they need enough manpower to man a ship.” Everyone nodded at Cang Xu’s words.
“Then what should I do?” Huang Zao anxiously asked.
“Don’t worry, you have me, little brother,” said Lan Zao but there was no confidence in his tone.
Cang Xu looked at him and replied sincerely, “Stubborn resistance will only bring about your own death. Even if you run, where would you run to? Flee into the forest only to get eaten by wild beasts? Following my instructions is your best chance at survival. Remember, if those two are still alive, you must show them the worth your life has by letting you live. Don’t be stingy with your belongings. Even if they don’t need it, still offer it up to them. You must present yourself with a heart replete with remorse.” Huang Zao nodded as he desperately memorized Cang Xu’s words.
With that, the group returned the way they came, and at the mountain spring, they encountered Zhen Jin and Zi Di. They took the initiative to reveal themselves, and Huang Zao left the group and walked up to the two.
“It’s you! Hmph, we’ve caught you at last, Huang Zao!” The girl sounded displeased while the boy stood silent and looked at him unkindly.
Huang Zao palpitated. He wished that they had just died but the two stood before him well and fine. Even if Huang Zao was a boorish, foolish man, the old scholar had already explained the implications of the situation to him. Then, Huang Zao saw the new weapons the boy carried on him. He recognized that they were made from spider legs and wood and realization crept up in him that the two had killed the Silver spider leader. In his heart, he bemoaned the fact that Cang Xu had been right, that he had been unlucky to have to run into two big shots like them.
Clang. Huang Zao threw his scimitar on the mountain rock. Then Huang Zao plopped down on the ground, hit his head hard against the rock, and begged for forgiveness, “O great ones! I am Huang Zao, the one who fled. I was wrong. I have committed an unforgivable sin! I will not resist. Be it death or dismemberment, I submit myself to the judgment of the great ones!”
The two looked at each other, both a little confused. They did not expect a situation like this. They had thought that these people had surrounded them with ill-intent. In the end, Huang Zao pleaded his guilt and surrendered.
“My lord, my lady, this old one is called Cang Xu. I am a scholar who once served the Sha Ta House for thirty-eight years,” the old scholar walked over to them and said. Behind him followed Lan Zao.
The boy did not speak, but the girl stepped forward and said, “I am Zi Di, the current president of Wisteria Merchant Guild. Now I have the honor of introducing to everyone here my Lord—Zhen Jin. He is a noble whose bloodline can be traced back to a Legend magic beast golden needle queen bee. He is the sole heir of the Bai Zhen House, an eminent Templar Knight, and a candidate for the position of the City Lord of White Sands.”
“Wisteria Merchant Guild?” When Zi Di mentioned it, some among the crowd whispered to each other. This was a famous merchant guild that they had more or less heard about.
“A Templar Knight?” When she said it, many gasped. Lan Zao shook and Huang Zao dared not lift his head, and he felt a drone in his ears.
“The Bai Zhen House…” Hearing it, the old scholar’s pupils shrank. Cang Xu knew far more about nobles than Lan Zao, Huang Zao, and the others. He understood that the Bai Zhen House was not simple. Although this family suffered much resisting the Empire, they were still once a great Southern noble family with a deep foundation. The current Bai Zhen family head was a Gold-rank powerhouse. Despite his heavy injuries, he could not be underestimated, and this young man before him was the heir of such a family?
He had a respectful expression as he bowed and said with a deep voice, “It is this Cang Xu’s fortune to be able to pay my respects to my lord and lady.”
Lan Zao also knelt on the ground. “Lan Zao kowtows to the great ones. Huang Zao is my younger brother. I implore the two great ones to forgive him for his crimes. I am willing to give up my life for the price.”
“Big brother!” Huang Zao raised his body and looked at Lan Zao in shock, his forehead a bloodstained mess.
Zhen Jin was impassive and silent, which caused the onlookers to feel more and more pressure.
“My lord, my lady,” the scholar said, “please allow this outsider to state all the facts I have seen.”
“Speak,” said Zhen Jin, breaking his silence.
Cang Xu let out a ragged breath and continued, “Huang Zao set aside his unforgivable offense and did his utmost to return to his brother’s side. He was frightened, confused, and weak to the point he fell unconscious. The foolhardy and gutless young man did flee in the face of death but after he calmed down, he was burdened and tormented by his guilt and sin. He became mired in his deep remorse and without the slightest concealment, he told us the truth.
“Afterward, he begged that we rush to the spider forest to save you two. It is because of this that we are here and have the pleasure of meeting my lord and lady. I request that you consider Huang Zao’s repentant heart and be lenient with his sentence.” Huang Zao and Lan Zao gave Cang Xu a look of gratitude.
Zi Di looked at the two kneeling brothers and sneered, “This lowly, cowardly, and selfish villain deceived Lord Zhen Jin by hiding the fact that there was a Silver magic beast. He then got cold feet and deserted at a critical moment, putting a noble-blooded being in danger. He is scum that bites the hand that feeds him! Scholar, how can you advise that we be lenient with such a man?”
Cang Xu nodded repeatedly and smiled. “Saying such things the first time I meet you honorable ones is indeed rude and overstepping my limits. However, the truth is that these two are not soldiers of the Empire. They are only sailors of the Hog’s Kiss. It’s not valid to talk of desertion, right? Alas, these two brothers are quite pitiful. They were born and raised as fishermen and lost their parents at a young age, and were left to fend for themselves with only each other to depend on. If my lord and lady were to execute the younger brother, I fear the elder brother would not survive on his own.
“Lord Zhen Jin, you are a Templar. A knight among knights. You were born noble and your future is as vast as the skies. These brothers are nothing more than worms in the dirt. Lord Zhen Jin, you will surely be the future City Lord of White Sands. When that time comes, your glory will shine throughout the city and your benevolence will be sure to nourish the citizens.
“Why must you be so uncharitable toward these two worms? If Your Lordship will forgive these two pitiful, lamentable worms, I believe these two will repent their entire lives and remember your kindness and mercy, and they will do their utmost to serve Your Lordship and repay your kindness.”
Zi Di raised her brows and looked deeply at Cang Xu, but did not say anything.
Cang Xu lightly kicked the kneeling Lan Zao. He started and hurriedly yelled, “Your Lordship, please be merciful and give us brothers a chance to atone for our sins and to repay your life-saving grace. I ask that Your Lordship be forgiving and magnanimous. Please reluctantly accept us as your lowly servants. From now on, we will be at my Lord’s beck and call!”
Huang Zao did not speak but remained prostrating. The two brothers’ earnest pleading moved the crowd.
“My Lord.” Zi Di looked to Zhen Jin, deferring to his decision with a subordinate attitude. Everyone looked at Zhen Jin except for Cang Xu who bowed his head and gazed at the ground.
Looking at the two brother’s bloodstained faces, Zhen Jin said slowly and impassively, “It is part of my knight's code to assist the weak and save the dying. It is to keep by the code that I entered the spider forest to save you. One must not overestimate nor underestimate others, this saying is my Bai Zhen family’s motto. Therefore Huang Zao, Lan Zao, I am willing to give you both a chance. I hope you can serve with loyalty and earnest actions to change my opinion of you.”
“Thank you! Thank you, my Lord!” Huang Zao and Lan Zao exulted.
Everyone around them heaved a sigh of relief. When they looked at Huang Zao and Lan Zao, many could not avoid revealing envy in their eyes. Although these two had sold themselves into servitude, losing their freedom, they could now rely on a major figure like Zhen Jin and might even be able to soar to success in the future.
Cang Xu once more bowed and said, “Lord Zhen Jin, your magnanimity is great like the earth, and your benevolence is irradiant like the sun. Praise be to you for you will be our banner and under your guidance, we lowly men can take the right path forward.”
Zhen Jin looked at everyone around him with his form straight as a spear and spoke, his calm voice reaching everyone’s ears clearly, “The light of the Temple shines on every inch of land. The standard of the Empire shelters all its peoples. Follow me and I will lead you out of here.”
“Yes, my Lord!” everyone replied in unison as they half-knelt one after the other.