While Sang Hong thanked and rewarded the men, the crowd became excited as they gazed from afar and chattered eagerly at the same time.
Shi Fengju then instructed Zhan Huan to invite the few men to have some tea and snacks and inquire about the number of officials coming, their status, and more. After getting hold of the information, Zhan Huan conveyed them to Fang Shi through a maidservant. Fang Shi was taken aback and quickly went to the kitchen to make the arrangements.
Not long after, the festive music could be heard from afar. As the team of officials approached, the music became louder and many children were already rushing up to watch the lively scene. In a brief moment, officials, who wore a black robe edged with red and a high hat on their heads, arrived grandly in front of the crowd.
In the middle of the team, an official was carrying a scarlet tray that had a large piece of red silk cloth laid over the parchment. A few officials also held red boards with words of commendation painted in black and an auspicious drawing of a carp leaping over the dragon’s gate. The team was in an orderly fashion and the percussionists drummed loudly from behind, creating a grand and festive atmosphere!
“They’re here! They’re here!” The crowd hurried forward to welcome them.
“Hehehehe! Sirs, thank you for your hard work! And thank you, everyone!” Dressed in bright outfits, Sang Pingliang and Li Shi appeared out of nowhere like ghosts and welcomed the officials with cupped hands ahead of everyone else. Their abrupt greeting and unnaturally high voice took Sang Hong and the rest by surprise. Even the drum beats went momentarily out of sync.
However, the officials did not take notice and merely assumed that the elders must have acted oddly from the excitement. After all, they had witnessed such an instance numerous times already. In that split moment, they regained their composure and the drum beats regained its level again.
“Not to worry, not to worry!” The leader of the team greeted with a smile.
Earlier on, Sang Hong had already arranged for a group to prepare the firecrackers. At this moment, they were set off and the crackling sound exploded in the air, filling the surroundings with a thick sulfur smell. Accompanied by the jaunty sounds, it was a jubilant moment.
As the firecrackers died down, the drumming gradually stopped as well. The team leader smiled and sang out loud, “We are here to send our felicitations to the top escorted examinee. Congratulations to the top escorted examinee! Congratulations!” After he was finished, he brought the tray forward. By then, the crowd had already squeezed Sang Yufei to the front. The official kneeled on one knee and held the tray up high with both his hands.
“Please invite an elder forward to remove the cloth and read out the words on the parchment!” An official, well-versed in etiquette, reminded in a moderate volume.
“Me——” Sang Pingliang rushed forward excitedly. But before he could say he would do it, Sang Yufei was quick to answer. “Let us invite Li Zheng over!” He clasped his hands together and bowed respectfully to Li Zheng before saying, “You are the village head. Furthermore, you’ve watched over us over all these years. Please do not refuse my request!”
“Yes ah, yes ah! Everyone here hopes so too, so go for it!” The crowd despised Sang Pingliang and wanted to keep him out of this. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, they clapped their hands and cheered with much excitement while pushing the despicable man to be back.
“Alright then, I’ll do it!” Li Zheng was very happy. He cupped his hands and went up, ignoring Sang Pingliang’s silent glare.
Everyone watched as Li Zheng went up and removed the cloth. Holding the golden-red parchment in his hands, he read aloud with a huge smile, “Sang Yufei, from Qingzhou Yangliu Town’s Sihe Village, has gotten first place in the township exam!”
Even though the news was already been made known long before the officials had arrived, the crowd could not help but be excited when Li Zheng articulated the words aloud. Everyone gave a burst of applause and congratulated Sang Yufei.
The officials also smiled and gave their compliments.
Sang Hong and Sang Yufei got busy returning the compliments. Sang Hong then went to pass a red packet to the leader before inviting the officials into the house to rest and have some tea. With lunch catered for, Sang Hong also invited them to stay for lunch.
The officials had already smelled the aroma of the food wafting from the kitchen. They rejected half-heartedly and eventually relented as they entered the house with Sang Hong.
“Everyone, thank you for coming! We’ll prepare a banquet another day to thank all of you! Many thanks!” Sang Hong and Fang Shi bowed to the crowd and thanked everyone for coming to observe the ceremony.
The crowd knew Sang Hong’s family had to entertain others. Other than Li Zheng and a few respectable elders in the village who stayed behind to lend their company and prepare the spread for the officials, the others did not wish to disturb them and happily left.
The main room was not spacious enough so only the more senior officials and Li Zheng sat inside. As for the rest, they dispersed across the front yard or sat in the corridors while the servants served them tea and snacks.
Before, Sang Pingliang and Li Shi had no chance to act as they were blocked pushed to the back by the crowd. Since there was no one left to stop them, they rushed into the house and invited the officials to sit down with a huge smile plastered on their faces. Only words of politeness left their mouths and they ordered the servants around with their loud voices to make and serve the tea. It was all a show to emphasize their significance in the household.
“And this is—” The leader was a little startled. Isn’t he the one who had greeted us first but was either intentionally or unintentionally ignored by everyone else? By any chance, is he part of the top escorted examinee’s family? And from the way he acted, he seemed to be the Sang family’s elder.
Sang Pingliang heard the official’s question but did not rush to answer him. He smiled and glanced towards Sang Yufei affectionately. Forcing Sang Yufei to address him as Uncle in front of everyone else was exactly what he wanted.
However, while Sang Pingliang had the restraint, Li Shi did not. Hearing no answer, she immediately shouted, “Our mister is Yufei’s blood-related uncle! And Yufei’s our blood-related nephew!”
Yufei? While the leader of the team was still recovering from her unexpectedly intimate way of addressing Sang Yufei, Li Zheng and the few other elders scolded, “Outrageous! How dare you call the top escorted examinee by his name! You ignorant woman, there’s no place for you here, please leave!”
The officials were enlightened: So that’s the case!
But after witnessing the woman getting scolded, their heart pounded heavily: There’s sure to be a story behind this!
As members of the court, they were quick-witted and hid their thoughts well. They merely nodded at Sang Pingliang courteously and smiled while sipping their tea.
“Mister!” Li Shi said in resentment as she looked towards Sang Pingliang.
Sang Pingliang was not in any position to help her and merely grunted, “Didn’t you notice that all here are men? Leave now and stop making a fool of yourself! Go to the kitchen and make yourself useful; serve these officials well later!”
“Alright!” That perked Li Shi up and she puffed her chest as she left.
However, Fang Shi was the one in charge in the kitchen; nobody paid any attention to Li Shi even as she wandered around in the kitchen. They treated her as air, and when she tried to speak to them, they would briskly reply to her to avoid any further questions. That filled Li Shi’s stomach with anger.
“Officials, today must’ve been tough on you. Hehe, please enjoy the good food and drinks that’ll be readied in a while!” Sang Pingliang then sighed, “Our Sang family has finally made it! It wasn’t easy for my dear nephew!”
“Hehe, the top escorted examinee is still young, he will have a bright future ahead of him!” One of the officials smiled and said.
“Indeed! I can finally live a comfortable life ahead, hehehe!” Sang Pingliang then went on to talk about how difficult it was for him to raise all three of them after their parents passed away at an early age and the relief he felt after seeing them gradually becoming successful.
As his audience was oblivious to the actual story, they felt immense respect towards Sang Pingliang and commented positively to his words.
But they soon realized that something was amiss because other than Sang Pingliang, everyone else, including the Sang Brothers and Li Zheng, were silent.
The officials were bemused.
One of them tactfully changed the topic. Letting out a light cough, he smiled, “This tea is good. It has a sweet scent and tastes good. Even the color of the tea is pleasing to the eyes!”
An elder smiled and pointed at Shi Fengju, “That is to be expected! This tea is brought by the Sang daughter and son-in-law. They wouldn’t bring anything that is of low quality!”
Everyone smiled and agreed.
A thought suddenly came to mind for one of the officials and he exclaimed, “Sang family’s son-in-law; isn’t, isn’t he the oldest son of Shi household that is regarded as the richest family in the whole of Qingzhou?”
Everyone’s eyes gleamed with interest; much more than when speaking about Sang Yufei.
“Haha! That is but a baseless label given by others. It is not worth anything!” Shi Fengju smiled politely.
“Eh! So this is the Shi family’s oldest son!” Everyone became excited and smiled while greeting Shi Fengju with cupped hands. Shi Fengju smiled and returned the greetings. Soon, everyone started chatting with one another and the atmosphere lightened a little.
Sang Pingliang went along with everyone else, but he quickly seized an opening to add, “Not to forget, my nephew-in-law is a great man! He is so humble and filial! Whenever he returns, he would come over to visit me as well! Hehe, big brother in heaven will be very proud to know that his daughter married such a good man!”
Shi Fengju felt extremely uncomfortable upon hearing his words, and he disliked being misunderstood. Without the need to consider familial ties, he smiled and said coldly, “You are too courteous. Including this time, Sang Wan and I only came back twice. I cannot accept your compliments! Anyway, you have your own daughters, talking about being filial isn’t for you to say!”
Sang Pingliang’s face reddened and he smiled embarrassedly to the rest, “He’s just being courteous, too courteous!”
“No, not really. Your words are the ones that are courteous!” Shi Fengju smiled slightly and said, “I am only speaking the truth!”
Li Zheng and the rest of the elders grumbled uneasily to themselves because of Sang Pingliang’s foolishness and the Shi family’s eldest son’s display of strength. However, what was good was Shi Fengju’s own straightforwardness as well as his good heart.
Everyone quickly laughed it off and changed the topic, but Sang Pingliang had a stomach full of resentment.
Fortunately, not too long after, Li Shi hurried over with a broad smile, “The food is ready. Everyone, please come with me!”
Everyone got up altogether.