Way of the Devil Chapter 42
"Young Master Song, it’s been a few days since we last met and your face looks much more radiant than before," the boat mistress greeted them, her face all smiles. "Jun’er is still dolling up. Why don’t you take a seat first and listen to some tunes to relieve the boredom while waiting? We’ve got a few new singers here who’re very good at what they do."
Song Zhenguo’s face remained stern and did not return her smile.
"I want to ask about something. Two days ago I brought a friend here--a young master named Wang Ziquan. I heard that he came to this pleasure boat again afterwards. Please ask the lady who accompanied him two nights ago to come out. I have some questions for her," he dropped a few pieces of silver into the boat mistress’ hand.
This casual gift was basically equivalent to a few thousand dollars. If his family wasn’t wealthy, there would be no way he would have dared to spend like that.
"Oh you mean Die’er. Mm, I’ll call her out right away. Young Master may rest and wait in the chamber on the side," seeing the stern looks on Song Zhenguo and Lu Sheng’s face, the boat mistress dared not delay. Customers who were as open-handed as Song Zhenguo were few and far between. Even the descendants of officials were not as generous as Song Zhenguo despite their more powerful backgrounds. 
The duo including Lu Sheng were led to a chamber to rest and wait. Not long after, the girl called Die’er was summoned into the chamber.
Die’er looked extremely mild and meek, drawing the sympathy of those who looked at her. She was dressed in a long green dress and was clutching a long flute in her hand, as if she was about to perform in front of customers. Presently, she looked quite befuddled about being summoned so abruptly.
"Young Master Song, may I know what questions you have for Die’er?" She asked meekly.
"Let me ask you this: do you know where that Young Master Wang Ziquan, whom you accompanied two nights ago, is?"
Die’er’s face drew a blank.
"Young Master Wang Ziquan? Oh… I remember now. Didn’t he leave with you, Young Master Song? At that time, Die’er was exhausted, so after Young Master left, I left the boat and went home to rest."
"Went home to rest?" Song Zhenguo’s brow rose.
"Yes, that’s right. Back then, Die’er had just accompanied three customers consecutively. I was so very exhausted. Once it ended, I told the boat mistress and was one of the first few who got off the boat," Die’er replied meekly. "What’s wrong? Did… did something happen to Young Master Ziquan?" She grew anxious.
Lu Sheng examined her closely with his hawkish eyes, but saw no indication that Die’er was lying.
"Let me ask you, did your boat close for business right after we left?"
Unsettled by Lu Sheng’s stare, Die’er hurriedly nodded her head. "Yes, yes! Once you three Young Masters left, the boat mistress closed the boat for business."
"Then let me ask you again! After closing for business, will red lanterns usually be hung on this boat?" Lu Sheng asked again.
"Red lanterns?" Die’er was bewildered. "What red lanterns? Each day after closing for business, our boat always docks in the nearby harbor for inspection and maintenance. No lights are allowed on the boat during the inspection and maintenance except for those lit by the maintenance personnel. Everything was as per usual yesterday."
"Docks in the nearby harbor? Not here?" Lu Sheng was stunned.
"Of course not. We only dock here temporarily while doing business. Waves here can get rather huge… wouldn’t it be easy to be carried away by the wind if we docked here?" Die’er looked at Lu Sheng with a strange expression.
Worry crept into Lu Sheng’s heart. It seems like Wang Ziquan, like him, had boarded the pleasure boat decked with red lanterns.
"Brother Lu…" Song Zhenguo felt something was amiss as he listened on. He had no idea what Lu Sheng was trying to drive at with his questions. In his eyes, Lu Sheng had boarded the boat with red lanterns by mistake. Still, he listened on patiently.
"Don’t tell me that there’s no boat here at night that’s decked with red lanterns? An empty pleasure boat? It’s the exact same model as this boat," Lu Sheng asked again, unwilling to give up.
"Young Master, may I know where you heard about this big boat with red lanterns? Do you know under what kind of circumstances only do we put up red lanterns here?
Only when a lady on the boat has passed away do we hang three red lanterns outside her room door and inside her room.
One at the door--to guide her home. Two inside her room--to pay respects to her and to give her rest."
Upon hearing, Lu Sheng stood rooted to the ground, dumbfounded.
He recalled the eccentric pleasure boat decked with red lanterns all over. Red lanterns hung outside every single room and chamber!
And the arrangement in which they were hung was exactly as Die’er described--one outside the door and two inside the room!!!
"Ahhh… this is so scary! Young Master, you must’ve heard some horror story from somewhere and come to scare Die’er, haven’t you?" Die’er got the jitters and goosebumps surfaced all over her body.
"Yue Sheng… were you having a nightmare?" Song Zhenguo too looked worriedly at Lu Sheng. Lu Sheng’s other name was Yue Sheng, which was essentially the word "Sheng" taken apart.
Lu Sheng had rarely used this other name in Nine Links City. There, everyone had addressed him as Young Master Sheng or Brother Sheng. But within the academic circle, calling someone by his other name was both more familiar and formal at the same time. 
"It’s nothing… I just…" Lu Sheng hesitated, but kept the story of how he had been almost trapped in the red boat to himself. Even if he had said it, Song Zhenguo might not have believed his words. And even if he did believe him, it made no actual difference anyway.
"But since Ziquan did not come to this pleasure boat, where else could he have gone?" Song Zhenguo was worried. "The Annual Examinations are almost upon us. If we break the Institution’s rules and have our names forfeited, our future would be ruined in our own hands!"
"There’s nothing else. Thank you, Die’er. Here, this is for you," Song Zhenguo passed her a few pieces of silver.
Die’er’s face lit up immediately. This would go to her individual earnings apart from what she got on the pleasure boat. She carefully kept the silver pieces in her waist pouch and spun around, heading towards the door. Halfway there, a thought suddenly came to her mind and she turned around, saying, "Oh yes, Young Master. Die’er did once hear a ghost story that was spread among the ladies on the boat.
It was about a red boat on this Cypress Pine Lake in the past. Its name was Scarlet Decks. A big fire killed everyone; none of the ladies on the boat managed to escape. After that, the legend of the Scarlet Decks began spreading on Cypress Pine Lake… rumor has it that the boat was decked with red lanterns. No one who boarded that red boat had ever gotten off it."
Lu Sheng’s spirits lifted and he quickly halted Die’er.
"Please stay, Miss. Can you tell us more about the story of this pleasure boat called Scarlet Decks?"
"Err… Die’er has only just entered this profession recently and doesn’t know much. But isn’t Young Master Song very intimate with Miss Jun’er? Do you know that Sis Jun’er misses Young Master Song every single day? She’s been working on this boat for quite a long time. She should know," Die’er replied.
"Got it," Lu Sheng nodded. "Carry on."
Die’er exited. Neither Lu Sheng nor Song Zhenguo said a word. Both remained silent, contemplating different issues.
Not long after, Jun’er strolled in, dressed in a low-cut, short, plain white dress, her eyes lighting up upon sighting Song Zhenguo.
"Young Master Song!" Her eyes shone with rich tenderness, unbeknownst to herself.
"Jun’er!" Song Zhenguo strode forward and put his arm around Jun’er gently. "It’s been a few days, how’ve you been? I’ve been paying your boss enough money. Apart from me, no one else can request for you."
Jun’er nodded lightly, bliss blossoming on her face. "Jun’er knows that Young Master’s very good to Jun’er…"
"I’ve been waiting… waiting for the day when Jun’er will agree to let me redeem you," Song Zhenguo said gently. "Alright, we’ve come here today to ask about that Young Master Wang Ziquan who came with us the night before. Does Jun’er know if Young Master Wang ever came back to this boat after we left that night?"
"Young Master Wang Ziquan?" Jun’er searched her memory. "It was already very late that night. Didn’t that Young Master Wang get off the boat with both of you? Why would he return?"
"You’re sure he never returned?" Lu Sheng followed up with a question.
Jun’er nodded. "I’m sure. Because, I took even longer than usual that night and ended up being the last to get off the boat. Now to think of it, it was probably about a joss stick’s duration after you left."
"Is that so… that’s strange…" Lu Sheng fell in thought.
Song Zhenguo asked a couple more questions, which Jun’er answered one by one. Her words corroborated what Die’er had supplied. Since neither of them could discover any leads, they left the boat helplessly.
"Looks like our last resort now is to report the case to the authorities," Song Zhenguo sighed.
Lu Sheng shook his head, "I’m worried that even that wouldn’t be of any use…"
Song Zhenguo looked at Lu Sheng, puzzled.
"Brother Song, I think you should go home. Let’s call it a day… it’s getting late," Lu Sheng reminded, "Besides, we’ve still got the preliminary examination tomorrow."
"Alright, then. I’ll head back first. Yue Sheng, if you get any leads, you must inform me," Song Zhenguo sighed again, then parted ways with Lu Sheng.
After watching Song Zhenguo board a horse carriage and disappear into the distance, Lu Sheng searched his memory, examining the reactions of Die’er and Jun’er when he spoke to them. However, he discovered no loopholes.
"Looks like they weren’t lying. But, if that red boat wasn’t the one we were on, why would my money pouch be on it?" Lu Sheng doubted.
He had the faint premonition that he had just gotten himself embroiled in a new mess.
Song Zhenguo sat in the horse carriage, sighing over and over.
He was a sentimental person. Wang Ziquan was someone who had gone missing after going out with him and no news about him could be heard yet. No matter what, he had to give the Wang Family an explanation.
Moreover, Ziquan was his good buddy, too. How could an adult like him disappear just like that by Cypress Pine Lake?
‘Could it be…’ he suddenly thought of a possibility. ‘Could he have fallen into the lake!?’ At this thought, he shivered from top to toe.
‘No! If he’s alive, I need to find him. If he’s dead, I need to see his corpse! Ziquan was there because of me. If something really happened to him, then I, Song Zhenguo, am responsible for him!’ Song Zhenguo steeled his heart and set his mind on his decision. ‘If Ziquan really met with some mishap, I’ll go to the authorities!’
He had made his mind up.
‘But then, what about Jun’er?’ he thought of his beloved Jun’er. His monthly expenditure on her alone amounted to more than a thousand silver notes, just so that he could reserve Jun’er for himself and keep other customers away from her. He had already had more than ten quarrels with his aged father at home because of that.
At the thought of this, a headache came upon Song Zhenguo.
He quickly arrived home. After paying for the carriage after alighting, he walked into the courtyard and headed straight for his room. He did not want to see anyone in his family for even a second.
A few servant-maids saw him and were about to greet him. But in the blink of an eye, he was already gone.