Chapter 20: Like a Grape
Lord Shu’s teeth were clenched so hard it seemed they might shatter. His followers were equally infuriated. Eyes twitched, lips quivered, veins bulged out on foreheads.
Even Lord Shu’s hand had come to rest on the hilt of the long dagger at his waist.
Unfortunately for him, Bao had worded things perfectly, leaving him no choice but to agree to her suggestion. If he refused, the resulting loss of face would be virtually fatal. If he tried to do something to physically harm her, the result would be the same.
Plus, she had implied that it was normal in Yu Zhing for women to engage in drinking contests, making it impossible for him to cite her being a woman as a reason to not compete.
Several long seconds passed in which Lord Shu was clearly trying to think of what to do.
Finally, Bao took a deep breath and was about to say something when Lord Shu slammed his drinking vessel down onto the table.
“Very well!” he said. “Since you want to drink, we’ll drink. There is no more famous drinker in these parts than Lord Shu, so what have I to fear? Right men?”
A cheer rose up from Lord Shu’s men, although it seemed less enthusiastic than it should have been.
“Bring four pots of Wuxing sorghum wine!” he said loudly.
Sorghum wine, thought Bao. So that’s what this stuff is. Tastes like fire! Sorghum Wine was a relatively new innovation that had appeared in Qi Xien, with an alcohol content that supposedly vastly exceeded the more common yellow wine, or alcohols made from various other fruits or berries. So far it was mostly popular in border regions and among rough-living men. Bao was well aware that, based on her current alcohol tolerance, she could definitely finish four pots of yellow wine and still not pass out. Furthermore, she had just experienced a moment of inspiration regarding how to use the strange energy to help her drink even more than that. All of these thoughts ran through Bao’s mind in a split second.
So Lord Shu thinks he can put me under with two pots of sorghum wine? Bao chuckled.
“Four pots?” Bao said, an incredulous look flashing onto her face. “Just for you? Wait. Don’t tell me you’re planning to drink four pots yourself and only give me three? Because I’m a woman?” She threw her head back and laughed heartily. “Will your insults never end, Lord Shu?! If you wish to drink four pots, then bring me five!”
Lord Shu’s face suddenly paled, and his eyes went wide. However, he quickly recovered composure. “That… that wouldn’t be fair.” Raising his voice, he called out, “Bring five pots of sorghum wine for me, and five for Chieftess Bao.”
“How manly of you, Lord Shu,” Bao said. “By the way, I would like to appoint Mao Yun as my official Wine Vanguard.”
Lord Shu’s brow furrowed. “Wine Vanguard?”
Bao gave an exaggerated sigh. “How difficult to be so far away from the more… courtly parts of the world. Lord Shu, in official drinking contests, participants appoint a Wine Vanguard to sample each pot of wine that the opponent drinks from. This is to prevent both poisoning as well as cheating by using watered-down wine. As my Wine Vanguard, Mao Yun will sample your pot of wine before the round starts, and your Wine Vanguard will sample mine.”
This was something Bao had just made up on the spot. However, considering that neither Lord Shu nor any of his men had challenged her previous, wildly inaccurate statements on Yu Zhing drinking culture, it was clear that they knew little or even nothing about it, leaving her much more confident in being able to pass off complete fabrications as truth.
Lord Shu continued to frown, but at the same time, nodded. “Er, of course. I’m obviously aware of the Wine Vanguard arrangement. We just call it something else where I come from. Very well, my Wine Vanguard will be my most trusted attendant Shi Fanzhuo!” Then he raised his voice again and called out, “Furthermore, make those ten pots of Zun Shan sorghum wine, not Wuxing sorghum wine.”
Hmph! Switching wines after I bring up the Wine Vanguard arrangement? I’d wager 10 to 1 that he was planning to cheat with that Wuxing sorghum wine!
Lord Shu looked at Bao, his eyes flickering coldly. “Chieftess Bao, are there any other random requirements you’d like to bring up before we begin?”
“Oh, just one,” she said. “I’m afraid these dainty bronze drinking vessels aren’t really appropriate for a true drinking contest. Drinking so many pots of alcohol only one mouthful at a time can get tedious. I suggest we use something else. Turning to Third Zhou, she said, “Third Zhou, do you remember those three Harqa drinking vessels we happened to come across before we headed north? Do you still have those?”
Third Zhou smiled immediately. He clearly had no idea what Bao was planning, but knew that there must be some trick up her sleeve. “Of course, Chieftess.”
“Please, bring them out.”
Third Zhou rummaged through a pack off to the side before producing the very three vessels to which she had referred. They were ceremonial drinking vessels of the Harqa people, who were nomads and warriors of incredible renown. Although they were also made of bronze, that was where the similarities ended. The drinking vessels provided by Lord Shu, which were typical in this part of the north, were so small that they could barely hold a quail egg. Harqa drinking vessels were larger. Much larger. In fact, each vessel seemed large enough to hold half of a pot the type Lord Shu used. Of course, Harqa nomads didn’t drink sorghum wine; the type of alcohol they used such cups for would be much less potent.
When Lord Shu saw the Harqa drinking vessels, his eyes widened.
“Ah, that’s much better,” Bao said, smiling. Accepting the vessels from Third Zhou, she took a moment to examine them. “Yes, just as I remember, this one has a phoenix engraved on the side. I’ve always liked phoenixes.” She placed it on the table in front of her. “Lord Shu, of the other two, one is engraved with an ox, the other, a Flying Crocodile. Which would you prefer?”
“The ox I supposed.”
Bao nodded and then threw the ox-engraved vessel toward Lord Shu, who caught it. The remaining vessel she placed next to her knee, behind her table and out of sight to anyone except for perhaps Third Zhou.
Lord Shu cleared his throat as he looked the drinking vessel up and down. “This….”
“Remarkable, isn’t it,” said Bao. “We can get this contest done a lot faster with the drinking vessel of a true drinker.”
About this time, a few servants returned bearing ten pots of alcohol, which were split between Lord Shu and Bao. Without waiting for Lord Shu to even say anything, Bao unsealed the first pot of wine and began to pour the alcohol into the Harqa drinking vessel. Simultaneously, she said, “Mao Yun, please take your place at Lord Shu’s side to act as Wine Vanguard.”
Even as Mao Yun rose to his feet and walked over toward Lord Shu, Lord Shu sent his attendant Shi Fanzhuo over to sit next to Bao.
Over the course of the next few minutes, Bao made up a set of formalities off the top of her head that she claimed was the proper form for a formal drinking contest. The first pot of alcohol was sampled by Mao Yun and Shi Fanzhuo, who both gave their approval. Then the contest began.
Bao didn’t waste any time. She immediately raised her Harqa drinking vessel to Lord Shu and said, “To your health and prosperity, Lord Shu!”
He nodded to her, and they began to drink, maintaining eye contact the whole time. Since Bao initiated the toast, she would determine how deeply to drink, and she did not hold back. She let the burning alcohol pour down her throat slowly but surely. As the seconds ticked by, Lord Shu’s eyes began to grow wide. Even Bao felt some tears welling up in the corners of her own eyes. Finally, she leveled her glass out and placed it down, doing her best not to cough, or allow the tears to spill out of her eyes.
Wow! This sorghum wine is not for babies!
By this point, the alcohol she had already consumed was reaching her head. Combined with the long drink she had just taken, things were starting to spin a bit. According to the customs she had cited, she and Lord Shu would now have a short period of time to munch on some of the cold dishes which had been provided, as well as drink fresh water if they wished, before beginning again.
Even as she took a sip of water, Bao closed her eyes and circulated the energy inside of her. Just like before, she sent it through her body, specifically into her bloodstream. It didn’t take long to identify the alcohol therein, which she then began to push through her blood, toward a specific direction. Her right hand.
Her right hand happened to be grasping the extra Harqa drinking vessel, which was behind the table, out of the view of Lord Shu or any of his people. As the alcohol in her bloodstream flowed toward her hand, she pushed the tip of her index finger down hard onto the engraving of the Flying Crocodile, specifically, one of its teeth. It was really a tiny bronze spike, and when she poked her finger onto it, it pierced her skin, and a drop of blood oozed out. She then quickly moved her index finger into the glass. Moments later, a mix of blood and alcohol began to ooze out of her finger into the cup.
Over the course of the next minute or two, she continued with this process, until the cup was about a third full. By that time, it was Lord Shu’s turn to drink.
Not surprisingly, when he toasted her, he also drank half of a Harqa drinking vessel worth of alcohol, with Bao following suit. In a short few minutes, the two of them had imbibed an entire pot of extremely potent alcohol.
Even as they rested, Bao once again used the strange energy to force the alcohol out of her blood and into the extra drinking vessel. Of course, she couldn’t get it all, so her head continued to spin. However, if her calculations were correct, she was likely drinking only about one third of the amount of alcohol Lord Shu was drinking.
Time passed, and eventually it was Bao’s turn again. She looked over at Lord Shu, and could see that his eyes were a bit blank, and his head was even swaying back and forth slightly.
“Lord Shu, would you like to concede?” she asked, smiling.
“Of course not!” he blurted. “I’m waiting for you, frail little woman!”
Her eyes glinted with a flicker of anger. Fool, I was about to go easy on you!
Maintaining her smile, she raised the Harqa drinking vessel. This time, she drank only a third of the entire vessel before stopping. During the respite, she drained as much alcohol as she could. By this point, the hidden drinking vessel was about three quarters full.
Bao’s head was fully spinning, but not too badly. From the way she felt, she could tell that she wasn’t even halfway to her limit.
It was Lord Shu’s turn next. “That last drink was a bit on the safe side, girl!” he said, his voice slightly slurred. “It’s time to narrow the gap! The time has come to show you what real drinkers can do! No Yu Zhing slut can outdo Lord Shu!”
With that, he began to guzzle alcohol down with a vengeance.
Bao took a deep breath and began to follow up. Soon, it became apparent that Lord Shu was going to down the entire glass. Bao’s throat was burning, and her stomach was beginning to clench up. Her arms twitched, and sweat had broken out on her scalp and down her back. However, she continued to drink, draining her drinking vessel only moments after Lord Shu did.
Lord Shu devolved into a fit of coughing, and when that was over, sagged, panting. But then he straightened up and looked at Bao with cloudy eyes.
Bao took a moment to compose herself, suppressed the urge to vomit, and then quickly began forcing more alcohol out of her system.
Lord Shu was now swaying back and forth visibly, whereas she was sitting there calmly. A quick glance around the room confirmed that nervous expressions could be seen on the faces of all his men.
“Lord Shu, it seems your men are losing confidence. Are you sure you can handle the pressure?”
Lord Shu’s expression darkened. “Pressure? There’s no pressure! I feel more pressure taking a piss than I do in this supposed contest. I’ve half a mind to just have my men kill your men, and then take you to my chambers to give you a spanking! Hahaha!”
A nervous chuckle rose up from Lord Shu’s men, whereas Bao’s people muttered angrily.
“Lord Shu,” Bao said. “The teat of a cow feels great pressure when the milk comes out. Do you know why? Because the teat is so small! I wonder… if you feel great pressure when taking a piss, could it be because….”
Lord Shu leaped to his feet, eyes blazing with fury. “Bitch!” he yelled. Fumbling at his waist, he managed to draw his dagger, which he pointed directly at Bao. “I DARE you to say another word!”
Bao looked him directly in the eye. At the same time, she reached her hand into her sleeve and laid hands onto the knife there, simultaneously sending the strange energy swirling in the same direction. Then, her voice cold, a slight smile on her face, she said, “You have a tiny dick, you bastard.”
With an enraged roar, Lord Shu leaped over the table in her direction. However, even as he jumped, his robe caught on the table leg, twisting him to the side. His foot landed onto the ground at a strange angle, and with a squawk, he tumbled toward the ground.
As he fell, his hands flew out in front of him instinctively to break his fall. And that was when a sound rang out like a grape being squashed beneath a boot, as Lord Shu’s dagger stabbed into his eye and poked out of the back of his skull.
The Bone General reined his horse to a halt and looked at the trees off in the distance. “So she’s in that forest?”
Off to the side was his most trusted lieutenant, who wore bone-like armor similar to the Bone General. “Yes, General Gu. The scouts say she’s holed up in a primitive fort roughly a day’s journey into the forest.”
“I see.” The Bone General frowned. “Unfortunately, the orders that came in were very clear. Insurrection in Hai’an requires my immediate attention.”
“Your orders, sir?”
After a moment of thought, the Bone General sighed. “Leave someone behind to keep an eye on her. We ride south immediately. We’ll return for this girl once things are settled in Hai’an.”