Li Luo emerged from the Suncreek Villa's doors to see the vague stirrings of a crowd gathering and pointing. The whispers had grown louder.
Just as they had anticipated, word had spread of the poisoning almost as soon as it had happened.
The culmination of his coup de grâce.
Li Luo ignored them. Taking the reins of his beast from a waiting guard, he heeled its flanks hard and galloped away.
Pavilion Master Lei Zhang and a dozen bodyguards escorted him.
They thundered along to stares that were perhaps a little more knowing than they should have been.
"Young Lord, our reputation is being destroyed with every wagging tongue," Lei Zhang said tersely from beside him.
He had sent a few ears out to listen. The rumor was that Li Luo had flown into a rage after the branch artificers refused to obey him, and had poisoned them all.
Li Luo gave him a curt nod of acknowledgment.
"Ignore them all and focus. Get to the Golden Dragon Bank and get our antidotes. If we can just save them, the truth will get out."
Lei Zhang nodded, comforted by the steel-like calm and resolve he saw in the young man's eyes as he dealt methodically with a madness that Pei Hao had previously reserved only for Jiang Qing'e.
He had risen from his reputation as a useless young lord to earn Pei Hao's twisted respect.
Perhaps this was a sign of Li Luo's growth too?
As they rode, Lei Zhang was on constant watch around them, his resonant power always a whisper's touch away as his eyes roved for signs of danger.
It would not be beyond Pei Hao to also try a direct attack on Li Luo. That was why Jiang Qing'e had sent bodyguards with him.
Still, Lei Zhang's worries were either unfounded or his presence was enough deterrence. They reached the Golden Dragon Bank safely, and Li Luo ran in.
He grabbed hold of a service staff, who recognized him immediately and bowed courteously.
"Can you help me check if the Golden Dragon Bank has these ingredients?" Li Luo handed over the list.
The man looked it over, his eyebrows frowning deeper and deeper as he scanned each item. "Young Lord Li Luo, the ingredients here... Amber wormroot and ambient saltpeter have all been reserved by medicinal houses all over the city. They have cleaned out our stores."
Li Luo ground his teeth in frustration. Even the Golden Dragon Bank? Pei Hao's sponsors had deep pockets indeed.
How was he supposed to turn the tables?
Lei Zhang's face was grim. Although the ingredients they needed were high-grade, they were not highly perishable or frequently used. Only a fool would think the spike in purchases was a coincidence.
Li Luo was quiet for a moment. "Please find Lu Qing'er for me. I have an appointment."
The staff nodded promptly, ushering him to a luxurious waiting room and asking him to wait.
Li Luo did not wait for too long before he heard light footsteps in a familiar cadence. Lu Qing'er's beaming face rounded the corner a moment later.
Her smile froze when she saw his stony face. "Something wrong at the Suncreek Villa?"
Such was the knowledge of one placed at the center of Xia City's activities.
And also, Li Luo had spoken to her privately on her birthday, telling her that the Suncreek Villa might soon be in trouble. He had asked if she would stay at the Golden Dragon Bank if she could, in case he came with requests.
Li Luo nodded and told his tale.
"I urgently need some special antitoxins. But the Golden Dragon Bank's supply of amber wormroot and ambient saltpeter have been suddenly cleaned out.”
"Those are rarely bought precisely because of their price. Clearly interference is at foot. And if even the Golden Dragon Bank is cleaned out, then everywhere else should be dry as well."
Li Luo nodded. "Any ideas?"
Lu Qing'er chewed it over. "They must have bought up everything that the Golden Dragon Bank put up on the market recently, but the Golden Dragon Bank is huge. There has to be a storehouse somewhere for contingencies. I believe those two ingredients should be somewhere."
"Young Mistress, the storehouses cannot be opened without the President's writ!" the staff behind Lu Qing'er protested. "Which we do not have!"
Lu Qing'er looked at him loftily. "I do."
"If the storehouse is opened so casually, I'm afraid the Vice President will use that to attack the President..."
"Oh, please," Lu Qing'er snorted. "Don't underestimate my mother."
"Come," she said to Li Luo. "The clock is ticking away."
"Qing'er," Li Luo muttered fervently. "Many thanks. I'll owe you one. I'll do anything you say in the Golden Dragon Dao Fields."
"I'll hold you to that," she said happily with a toss of her head as she led the way.
Li Luo hurried after.
A few minutes later, they were standing before an enormous storehouse, ringed by an army of security personnel.
As they walked up, someone darted out into their path. "Qing'er, you cannot open the storehouse. It's against the rules."
It was Ning Zhao. His father was a vice president of the Golden Dragon Bank.
Lu Qing'er raised one eyebrow coolly. "Why not?"
"Qing'er, I'm not here to make trouble for you," Ning Zhao said defensively. "But you're going to need the President's writ, or the guards are not going to listen to you."
Lu Qing'er flipped a dainty hand up to reveal a jade slip pincered between two fingers, its rose-gold filigree catching the sunlight.
Ning Zhao stared at it agog. "How did you get that?"
"No need to worry on my behalf," Lu Qing'er said dismissively. "I have the writ, and everything here is by the rules. Besides, I'm not here to cause trouble. I'm going to take a small amount of ingredients, which I will sell at twice the price. Don't forget that the Golden Dragon Bank's motto is ‘harmony breeds wealth.’
"I'm here to make us money. Out of my way." She brushed past Ning Zhao and led Li Luo onward to the store, thrusting the jade writ into the hands of an old man.
He doubtfully examined it, but he eventually nodded after ascertaining its authenticity. He ordered some servants to get the ingredients requested.
"A moment, Young Mistress."
Lu Qing'er nodded.
"Li Luo," Ning Zhao said in a low voice. "You are the young lord of House Luolan. It's unseemly of you to be encouraging Qing'er to break the rules. President Yu will not be happy when she finds out."
Li Luo looked straight into his unfriendly eyes with disinterest. "Oh, your concern is very flattering. I'm not taking them for free though. As Qing'er says, I'm willing to pay double for them."
"Is this about money?" Ning Zhao sneered.
Li Luo matched him in snideness. "You know well that the Suncreek Villa is in trouble, but here you are trying to stop me in every way. Do you have another agenda?"
Ning Zhao bared his teeth. "Watch your black tongue, Young Lord. Best clean up your act at House Luolan before you even point a finger outside."
Li Luo regarded him as he would a muzzled rabid dog. He turned away to wait for the ingredients to arrive.
Ning Zhao smiled to himself. Surely the people he had sent to inform President Yu would have reached her by now.
Qing'er must have stolen the jade writ, and President Yu would not be happy about that. And if he calculated right, her displeasure would be turned on Li Luo. Perhaps she would kick him out directly.
Ning Zhao smugly settled back to wait.
“Qing'er might be enamored, boy, but you think President Yu's going to let you off?”Previous Chapter Next Chapter