After scaring Master Cotton, Xie Duo triumphantly entered the cuju field but found the courtyard gate tightly shut.
“Why is the gate closed?”
Han Jiao didn’t expect the big boss to ask this question. He paused and realized that Xie Duo had come alone for the appointment without any attendants.
“The cuju field is only open to the princes. The key should be with the steward. Hasn’t Your Highness brought Respected Elder Xu along?” Han Jiao asked the big boss, puzzled.
Xie Duo responded casually, “He will arrive in a while.”
Just as he was leaving for the cuju field, the prince was suddenly summoned by a palace maid from the Kunning Palace to meet Mother Empress.
It was just some trivial matters, but Mother Empress repeatedly instructed many times. Xie Duo didn’t dare to mention that he was in a hurry to get to the cuju field, so he obediently listened.
By the time Mother Empress finished her instructions, it was already a quarter past the ninth hour.
The Ninth Prince walked out of the palace gate. As a eunuch approached, he saw the Prince rushing towards the cuju field.
At this moment, Respected Elder Xu, who was in his fifties, was still catching up with His Highness, accompanied by a few cuju players.
Being late was one thing, but not remembering to bring the key was another. Han Jiao, looking dissatisfied, gave a subtle look of blame to the big boss and then kindly asked, “Why didn’t the two Princes come with Your Highness?”
“Why should I bring them along?” Xie Duo glared.
Han Jiao, feeling pressured by this attitude, quickly explained, “We are here to demonstrate the new cuju rules for the princes. Shouldn’t the two princes present for this as well?”
“Who else do you want to invite?” Xie Duo turned to face the child prodigy and sternly asked, “Who are these new rules really for?”
“…Of course… Of course, the rules are for Your Highness, but since Your Highness usually plays cuju with them, it wouldn’t be convenient if they don’t understand the rules.”
Xie Duo’s tone softened slightly, “I’ll teach them myself.”
“Then I’ll leave it to Your Highness,” Han Jiao sighed, helpless with this stinky little brother.
There’s no rule that says you can’t share the rules of the game!
Respected Elder Xu finally arrived, panting, and saw a group of people waiting outside the cuju field. He quickly signaled a young eunuch to open the gate and welcomed everyone in.
Next, Han Jiao prepared to demonstrate his prowess, using highly competitive rules to completely win over the stinky little brother’s heart.
Although Han Jiao’s primary sport during his school days was basketball, he had practiced cuju for over an hour yesterday evening and had a basic grasp of it.
The above were Han Jiao’s own expectations.
However, the reality was quite different.
From the moment Han Jiao’s first kick went wide and didn’t touch the cuju, the audience, including the big boss, couldn’t stop laughing.
Out of the corner of his eye, Han Jiao saw the stinky little brother rise and applaud, which shattered his confidence. He became even worse at playing cuju, with his legs acting like they’d never listened to him before.
To make things worse, Han Jiao had carefully chosen nine colleagues who were decent cuju players.
Of course, compared to Han Jiao, they could be considered decent, but in front of Xie Duo, everyone else seemed incredibly inexperienced.
This practice session was originally destined to be dull and uneventful.
However, with Master Han’s penguin-like movements, the Ninth Prince, who was known for his stern demeanor, gradually bent over with laughter.
When His Highness had enough laughter, a few eunuchs approached cautiously and asked, “Your Highness, which Master’s kicking style are we supposed to draw inspiration from?”
The Ninth Prince, overwhelmed by laughter, was nearly caught off guard by this question but quickly regained composure, focusing on Han Jiao’s less-than-impressive cuju skills.
How could His Highness admit that he brought people to learn Han Jiao’s “new kicking technique”?
The number one cuju master of Great Chu couldn’t possibly admit to making a mistake.
“The one with the blue and white jade hairpin.” Xie Duo quickly raised his hand, pointing to one of the junior scholar-officials who played fairly well. He lied with a serious expression, “He has a good sense of power in his kicks.”
The surrounding eunuchs observed for a while and nodded in agreement with His Highness’ choice.
Han Jiao, not knowing that he had been so disapproved of by the stinky little brother that he dared not acknowledge himself, continued to make every effort to get through the prosthetic limb adaptation period. Finally, he completed a demonstration of the new rules for ball possession, passing, and shooting.
Even though he barely touched the ball throughout, Han Jiao arrived at the sidelines covered in sweat and gasped at the big boss, “Your Highness, did you understand?”
Xie Duo nodded. “I hope Master Han will come here often to guide us.”
“I’m not a good player, and I’m unworthy of the word ‘guide’,” Han Jiao modestly replied.
There was something odd about the way the big boss said that, and his expression seemed genuinely eager to watch Han Jiao play.
“The new rules I’ve envisioned are roughly like this,” Han Jiao wiped his sweat and turned to the cuju field to explain, “The area here is quite spacious, but the cuju field is surrounded by flowers, plants, and rocks, which doesn’t provide enough distance needed for a tug-of-war match. So, I suggest removing some decorations to create a longer field by about the length of an arrow and maintaining a width of at least twenty paces.”
Xie Duo instructed Respected Elder Xu, “Take notes.”
It was the first time Han Jiao faced such a well-behaved boss.
Indeed, when it came to matters involving playing cuju, this stinky little brother took it seriously.
Once Respected Elder Xu brought paper and pen, Han Jiao explained all the rules he had envisioned.
The big boss listened attentively throughout and then turned to Han Jiao. “All can work, very comprehensive.”
Han Jiao, getting compliments from the boss, who was usually playful, felt his heart swell with pride. He couldn’t resist extending an invitation, “Why don’t Your Highness join in and try it? If there are any rules you’re unsure of, I can clarify them.”
And this was why people shouldn’t get too carried away.
Xie Duo’s eyes crinkled with a smile as he asked, “You want to play with me?”
“Mainly, I want to help Your Highness get familiar with the new rules,” Han Jiao didn’t sense the danger yet. “Is that not possible?”
Xie Duo turned away. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to control myself…”
“Hmm?” Han Jiao became slightly cautious.
“Alright, let’s have a game.” The big boss turned back, a sly smile playing on his lips.
Right after that, Han Jiao understood the words “I’m afraid I won’t be able to control myself…”
From the beginning, that cuju ball seemed to have turned into a magnet, sticking to Xie Duo’s toes.
A group of junior scholar-officials all wanted to impress the Ninth Prince, so naturally, they spared no effort to contend.
From Han Jiao’s perspective, the people around Xie Duo seemed to move in slow motion, making every move of the big boss, like juggling, spinning, and kicking past opponents, appear incredibly effortless.
It seemed like the opponents were collectively going easy on him.
It wasn’t until the wicked big boss intentionally brought the ball to Han Jiao’s presence while showing off his skills that Han Jiao realized it was a massive gap in skill.
“I’m going through,” the big boss challenged Han Jiao.
He couldn’t hold back!
Initially, Han Jiao had intended to go with the flow and take it easy, but in that moment, he was ignited with a fierce determination. He rushed forward like a starving tiger, lifting his foot to kick the ball that had been “hypnotized” by the boss.
However, Xie Duo kicked the ball higher, and Han Jiao missed it!
Watching the little child prodigy’s every move from up close was indeed entertaining. Xie Duo was elated, raising his hands and waving them enthusiastically while urging, “Why don’t you… like this, like this? Faster!”
At first, when Han Jiao saw the big boss making motions like a duck flapping its wings with his hands, he didn’t understand what he was trying to do.
After several failed attempts to snatch the ball, Han Jiao couldn’t keep his balance and had to wave his hands to regain it.
Suddenly, Han Jiao noticed that the big boss was bent over with laughter. It dawned on him that this stinky little brother was mimicking his efforts to maintain balance!
He absolutely had to defeat this stinky little brother!
With a fierce expression, Han Jiao exerted all his strength, desperately trying to steal the ball!
But the big boss was even slipperier than an eel.
What kind of experience was this, feeling on the verge of breaking down?
Han Jiao suddenly reached out to grab Xie Duo’s front collar, attempting to secure him close and then used his foot to snatch the highly agile ball!
“Which rule is this?” Xie Duo’s question brought Han Jiao back to his senses.
Han Jiao looked up, saw Xie Duo’s serious expression, and then lowered his eyes to the little cotton paw pressed against his chest.
Like being scalded, Han Jiao withdrew his hand and refused to apologize, continuing to vie for the ball.
“Isn’t this a foul?” Xie Duo asked as he nimbly tipped the ball with his toe, caught it with his left hand, and spun it on his index finger.
“Your Highness touched the ball!” Han Jiao shouted like a pot calling the kettle black, “That’s a foul!”
“You were the one who…”
“Your Highness did it on purpose!” Han Jiao didn’t let the boss defend himself. He pointed at the ball in the boss’ hand, catching him red-handed. “This is the first rule violation!”
Xie Duo noticed the little child prodigy was feeling guilty. He squinted as he questioned, “Am I the only one who committed a foul?”
“Your Highness must absolutely set an example!” Han Jiao righteously shifted the blame. “The new rules should be followed without exceptions. If cuju players are eager to win and willing to break the rules, you may only lose the match, but I’ll lose my dignity!”
Xie Duo locked eyes with Han Jiao, unwavering.
After a moment.
“Did you just reverse what you said?” Xie Duo laughed.
“I said I’d only lose the match, and you’d lose your dignity!”
“You just said…”
“That’s exactly what I said! Your Highness, you must follow the rules. Now give me the ball!”
And that was how Han Jiao concluded his first showdown with the boss.
Although he endured some humiliation, the boss laughed so much that his throat went hoarse, so it could be considered a successful venture.
They walked out of the cuju field.
Han Jiao couldn’t help but save face for himself.
“I’m not skilled at kicking this type of ball,” Han Jiao explained earnestly to the big boss, “It has bamboo supports inside, making the force distribution uneven, and it’s easy to kick it off target.”
“Have you kicked the ball before?” Xie Duo expressed his confusion.
“Of course! It was right at the beginning when the ball was served!”
“Oh, I remember now.”
Han Jiao took a deep breath and continued to justify himself, “I’m more accustomed to kicking the inflatable ones I’ve designed myself.”
Xie Duo lowered his gaze and nodded, “I understand.”
“Really!” Han Jiao staked his dignity on making this stinky little brother acknowledge, “If you don’t believe me, once the new ball is ready, Your Highness can compete with me again.”
He wasn’t seeking humiliation for himself.
This kind of bamboo-core ball indeed felt very different from an inflatable ball. When the boss first encounters the inflatable soccer ball, adjusting to the new feel and elasticity would likely be a challenge.
If the new ball had just come out and they had a match, the game’s outcome might very well be 0-0.
In that case, Han Jiao could consider himself on par with the boss.
How many people in the world could play cuju on equal terms with the boss?
He must seize this opportunity before the boss gets accustomed to the new ball.
Under Han Jiao’s control, the boss did indeed accept the challenge.
The inflatable ball designed by Han Jiao was completed a day in advance and promptly delivered to Nansan Hall by the young eunuchs.
In the front courtyard of Nansan Hall.
Three young princes surrounded the new-style leather inflatable ball lying on the ground, all displaying eager expressions.
The youngest, Xie An, couldn’t contain his excitement and kicked it first.
“How is it?” Xie Jing asked excitedly.
Xie An praised it like a breath of fresh air, “It’s unique! The ball feels much more solid than ours! There’s no obstruction from the main structure. It’s like kicking on an evenly stretched layer of leather!”
Xie Jing, excited, quickly ran over to the new ball and tried to touch the ball by lifting it from the tip of his foot, as he used to do.
However, the ball didn’t bounce up to his foot as it used to. Instead, it rolled away…
“Hahaha!” His brothers behind him burst into unmerciful laughter.
“This ball is different!” Xie Jing quickly turned around to justify his ball skills, “The outer layer of this ball is too smooth and tightly stretched! It doesn’t grip my foot!”
“Hahaha!” His brothers didn’t believe Eighth Brother’s excuse at all.
“Don’t believe me? Try it yourselves!” Xie Jing said urgently, his face turning red.
They decided to give it a try.
The Ninth Prince, who had been relentlessly teasing his Eighth Brother, made a grand entrance.
Walking indifferently toward the inflatable cuju, Xie Duo lifted the tip of his foot and gave it a gentle touch.
The ball, which should have bounced up and landed on Ninth Prince’s foot, made a “whoosh” sound and rolled away…
Xie Duo: “……”
His brothers behind him, caught in a cycle of karma: “Hahahahaha!”
Xie Duo, in disbelief, chased after it for a few steps and gave the ball another nudge with his foot!
The ball once again rolled away…
Xie Duo, refusing to give up, chased after it once more, burning with rage in his eyes. He glared at the inflatable ball on the ground, lifted his foot, and seemed ready to flatten it!
After a pause, Xie Duo lowered his foot, preparing to attempt to lift the ball once more.
The Ninth Prince wanted to intimidate this newcomer of a ball first, or it wouldn’t obey.
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