T/N: In case you guys weren’t aware, clicking on the superscript numbers will link you directly to the footnote and vice versa. You can immediately check on the notes and go back to where you left off without having to keep scrolling. Enjoy the chapter!
Translator: Sylph, marchmallow
“Master, please don’t take offense. That boy De Cai just needs a good beating. No need to concern yourself with him. When he comes back, this slave will whip him. Look who he found, telling us he could be a personal aide, but he was actually dumber than this slave……”
Two men were strolling along the tree-lined path.
The one leading in front donned on a dark-colored brocade robe with a jade belt of the same color around his waist. His stature was tall and straight, and his hands were clasped behind his back as he trod unhurriedly, his gait leisurely.
Along with him was a fat man one head shorter than him, blindly following suit.
“Aiyo, what’s wrong with this slave…… this lowly one really needs to be disciplined. Master doesn’t need to lift a finger. This lowly one will do it himself.”
Zong Yue cast him a sidelong glance: “It’s alright.”
De Wang had precisely the kind of character that shone once given a bit of sunshine, one that would continuously peep at his master with bright eyes to decipher his mood, and then stick closer upon confirming it was safe. He smiled so much that his fat face appeared to be blooming, almost as though ready to flatter at any given time.
“This lowly one wants to express some of his views. The unique scenery of this so-called Sun Manor in Shaoxing City can’t compare with the scenery of our palace. Prefectural magistrate Sun’s boasting of Sun Manor seems to be a bit magnified.”
“This master isn’t here to enjoy the scenery.”
“This lowly one knows that the master is here to search for retainers, but not to mention Magistrate Sun’s recommendation, that boy De Cai isn’t doing his work well, either. This lowly one believes it’s an exaggeration to say that Shaoxing is a place where personal advisors1 are born and that nine out of ten of the world’s retainers are from Shaoxing. The people here don’t seem to have two heads more than others, so this lowly one doesn’t believe they can be smarter than most.”
“As if you know everything!” With a cold snort, Zong Yue raised his feet and set foot on the steps of the waterside pavilion.
The waterside pavilion was adjacent to the lake. Seen from a distance, rays of light and lake water all blended into one harmonious entity, rendering a breathtaking scenery. Zong Yue only assumed that this was also a part of the courtyard, so he stepped in without much thought.
De Wang began nitpicking in his shrill voice, “This small pavilion is acceptable. It also has burning incense, but the aroma is a little terrible and not nearly as good as the fragrance of the one we have at home.” After a round of criticizing incense and furnishings, he discovered that other people had occupied the pavilion.
Two girls were also present.
One of them was tall and thin, dressed as if she were the master, and alongside her was a servant girl.
Noticing Zong Yue’s creased eyebrows, De Wang gestured his orchid-like fingers2 at the two girls and chastised, “You two are so bold to intrude on us and disturb our Master. Do you want to lose your little lives?!”
Listening to the fat man babble, Zhi Chun was quite at a loss.
This person had barged in as soon as she heard some muffled voices. Obviously, the person who just entered was a little abnormal—a grown man yapping in a piercing tone as he extended his orchid-shaped fingers. Did he think he was in a drama?! Throwing out words of killing as if it was no big deal!
Zhi Chun had always been a bit resolute, so she would by no means eat up this loss. She immediately retorted, “You’re saying we broke in, but where did you come from? Do you know where this place is? Why are you disturbing my Miss? I won’t let you go so easily!”
“Hey, you silly little girl!”
“Look at you making that effeminate face…”
Fang Feng Sheng poised herself up, lowered her eyebrows, then did a faint curtsey, “Presumably, you two are guests of the manor. The two of us did not barge in but have been staying here for a while now. This girl is young and ignorant, hoping you two won’t take offense.”
She acknowledged the two of them, but in reality, these polite words were implicitly aimed at Zong Yue.
Zong Yue frowned and observed the weak woman in front of him. He had always loathed women of this type, so sickly thin that she looked almost morbid, because it reminded him of some extremely displeasing memories.
Although the woman’s complexion was fairer than snow, her figure faintly resembling the delicate appearance unique to Jiangnan women, like a weak willow swaying in the wind, it was precisely the kind he most despised.
Zong Yue glanced at her in disgust and was about to take his exit when his eyes caught a glimpse of the rice paper spread out on the table.
He strode over.
He was born tall with a cold and an extraordinarily oppressive demeanor.
Feng Sheng and Zhi Chun couldn’t help but take a step backward.
Zong Yue grasped the rice paper from the desk and held it up.
He was a Buddhist. Because most people in that place were believers of Buddhism, it was only natural for him to emulate. However, his belief in Buddhism differed from that of ordinary people. Most people’s faith in Buddha only hung on their faces or expressed through their mouths, but he was one who had truly internalized his belief and implemented it in his life.
In his bedroom and study were several pieces of Buddhist furniture. He also preferred to read Buddhist scriptures and even had the habit of copying them daily. He wore his prayer beads at all times and fiddled with them constantly.
People all over the world would preach that the Third Prince was pious for his beliefs in Buddhism.
That being said, Zong Yue naturally understood the characters he was scrutinizing. He could discern that the words written on the piece of paper were excellent.
“You wrote this?” Zong Yue was a bit confounded.
His countenance was cold and stern. He had a pair of sword-shaped eyebrows, a high nose bridge, and thin white lips. The obscure and deep eyes gave him an additional air of palpitating coldness, yet he was exceptionally fierce. Much like the fiercest burning knife, just smelling it would suffocate people.
Fang Feng Sheng had seen quite a few people, and this person was the most imposing among the people she had ever seen in her life.
He was truly no ordinary person!
“Yes.” She lowered her gaze and took another step back.
An extremely oppressive gaze fell on her body. On the surface, Fang Feng Sheng was unmoved, but in reality, her spine and shoulders were tense.
Her sight shifted down.
Fang Feng Sheng sensed something flash before her eyes, but her wrist was caught before she could even react.
“What are you doing? Let go of my Miss! ” Zhi Chun panicked and shrieked.
De Wang stopped his prattling and gaped at his master in astonishment.
“Prayer beads? Yours?”
His voice was low, and his thumb dawdled on the prayer beads against her skin, during which he inevitably touched her slender wrist. His touch was so hot that it made Fang Feng Sheng tremble.
She struggled but couldn’t break away.
“It’s mine. Men and women should not touch hands when they give or receive things.3 If the gentleman has something to say, can you let go of me first?”
The skin under his fingers was so soft and tender that Zong Yue couldn’t help but rub it again, and his dark eyes fell on the woman’s half-drooping face and her slender, white neck.
It was very white, the veins underneath vaguely visible, giving her a sense of weakness, like a person easily swayed by a gust of wind.
Zong Yue’s eyes flashed with a trace of playfulness and mockery, then released her hand with a slight force.
Fang Feng Sheng staggered and could only stand firm with Zhi Chun’s assistance.
He said nothing, but turned and walked away.
“Is that person crazy? How could he hold a girl’s hand so harshly?” Zhi Chun complained, glared at the bruises on Feng Sheng’s wrist in distress, and cursed, “And that sissy just now, chattering as if he was in a drama or something, both the master and servant are sick!”
Feng Sheng retracted her hand and slumped down on a nearby chair, “Okay, you should stop talking. I’m guessing he’s the so-called noble guest from Banyan Garden.”
“Noble guest? What noble guest? Miss, are you talking about that sissy?” For a moment, Zhi Chun didn’t seem to comprehend it.
“Which one do you mean?”
Soon, Zhi Chun realized.
“Miss, do you mean the handsome but bad-natured gentleman just now?”
Yes, he looked handsome.
Although it was only a brief glimpse because conflict had risen, Zhi Chun still got a clear view of Zong Yue’s appearance.
The most handsome man Zhi Chun had ever seen growing up was Fourth Young Master. This man and Fourth Young Master were two extreme contrasts. If Fourth Young Master was as gentle as jade, this man was as cold and sharp as a knife. Zhi Chun’s heart even thumped glancing at him once, birthing a desire to glance one more time.
“You need to do something about that inarticulate mouth of yours. If I’m not mistaken, this gentleman comes from an extraordinary background. That sissy you just said, who talked as though he was in a drama, should be a palace eunuch,” Feng Sheng softly admonished.
After hearing Feng Sheng’s words, Zhi Chun’s jaw nearly dropped in bewilderment.
Although she was not very knowledgeable, she had been with Feng Sheng for many years. The Master acted as an official’s aide, and he would come in and out of the yamen4 and other government offices with various officials. Therefore, she knew what the palace and a eunuch from the palace signified.
“What about the gentleman’s identity?”
Feng Sheng’s eyes flickered and she replied, “I don’t know.”
“What about us, Miss? Is Miss’s hand hurt for nothing? This servant will ask Old Madam and Master to let them help Miss.”
“What Master? For such mere trifles.”
“Can Miss still copy scriptures?” Fang Feng Sheng used her right hand to hold the brush, but it was now injured because of the strength by which the man had clutched her wrist.
Feng Sheng tried to move her wrist, but the faint pain made her frown.
“This servant can go back and find some herbal medicine to apply on Miss’s wrists.”
“Master, this lowly one isn’t just saying this, but it’s too obvious that this Magistrate Sun wants to climb the high branches. A few days ago, he sent two soft girls, and today we got to see another one so fragile that she could be blown away by a gust of wind. There was also that poisonous little girl! Belittling us using such mediocre and vulgar tricks, doesn’t he know who you are?”
De Wang jabbered endlessly all the way back.
However, Zong Yue had always been a man of few words, and De Wang, who was consistently verbose, could perfectly offset his taciturn personality. Had it been De Cai who tailed after Zong Yue, it would probably be that the two would not say more than ten words in an entire day.
“The main point is that, he wanted to climb the high branches by flattering Master, but he didn’t even inquire about Master’s tastes. To put it nicely, this kind of person was just truly pathetic, but to put it bluntly, he doesn’t have any self-respect! Plus, one doesn’t know where he learned about Master’s belief in Buddhism. To think he specifically organized a flower show.5 It’s really……”
De Wang immediately shrank and dared not speak.
As soon as he entered the courtyard, De Cai advanced forward and greeted, “Your Highness.”
Zong Yue breezed past him, sat down on the main seat in the hall, and probed, “How are things going?”
“This lowly one went to Yuyao and visited the Fang family. They were actually a family of mediocre people and even misunderstood this slave’s intention, thinking that this slave had gone to visit because of that incident, and evaded out of fear. No wonder there were rumors in Yuyao that the Fang family was deteriorating from generation to generation, and that Fang Qi Zhi6 was only the one upholding the Fang family’s prestige. He had a son who was also a genius, but unfortunately, he was ill-fated and died young. It’s a bit of a pity that Fang Qi Zhi had also……”
Zong Yue remained unspeaking, and the hand under his sleeve toyed with the prayer beads out of habit.
De Cai stole a glance at him and suggested, “Fang family isn’t the only one in Shaoxing. Your Highness, why don’t we look elsewhere?”
“It’s up to you.” Zong Yue stood up and sauntered to the inner room with his hands behind his back.
It was evident that Zong Yue was unhappy, but all they could do was sit by and do nothing.
Talents such as advisors and strategists could only be found but not sought.
In the beginning, Zong Yue took a fancy to Fang Qi Zhi, but it was a pity that he already had a master and was unwilling to resign. Zong Yue was never a person who liked to coerce others from the start, so the matter ended just like that.
This was only just a small scene that had happened a few years ago. Fang Qi Zhi was not aware of Zong Yue’s identity at that time, and he only deduced that he had an unusual background. After that, Zong Yue journeyed back to the capital, in which he neither showed the mountain nor revealed the water,7 but in fact, the matter had planted a nail in his heart. Therefore, this time, when the emperor decided to authorize Third Prince Yue to handle a few affairs of the imperial court, Zong Yue had the idea of searching for an aide and made a special trip to the south.
Unexpectedly, as soon as he arrived south, he learned that an incident had occurred in the imperial court. Liang Huai Salt Administration was involved in a corruption case. Zhou Guang Rui, the salt distribution commissioner, and Fang Yan, his aide, were all involved. And Fang Yan, Fang Qi Zhi, even committed suicide in prison.
In order to avoid suspicion, Zong Yue did not go to Yangzhou, but took a detour and headed to Shaoxing.
After hearing that the Third Prince had come to Shaoxing in search of an aide, Sun Qing Hua, the Shaoxing prefectural magistrate, got busy recommending himself.
Of course, he did not recommend himself directly, but on the grounds that he was the magistrate of Shaoxing and knew the local people’s conditions. Thus, he invited the Third Prince to stay in the Sun Manor, wishing to reap benefits from the higher nobility.
1 师爷 (shī yé): a private assistant attending to legal, fiscal or secretarial duties in a local yamen ; private adviser. Shibb from Novel Updates said, “This is the personal aide the official (usually the judge) hires. The official pays him, not the state. This man would follow the official along for life across different states. Also, this term only popped up during/after Qing dynasty.”
This is what Fang Yan is to Zhou Guang Rui, which I had previously translated as ‘advisor,’ because it seemed fitting. However, we now know that there’s actually more to it than just that. From this, we can conclude why Fang Yan followed Zhou Guang Rui despite knowing his life was at great risk. It actually came with his job.
The reason why I had to point this out is that, throughout the story, several similar terms for aides/advisors/strategists pop up and are hard to differentiate. In this chapter alone, there were already five terms referring to aides/retainers. Some of them are difficult to directly translate unless more context is given, so for this chapter I’ve translated at least two of them as just ‘aides’.
2 兰花指: hand gesture in traditional dances (joined thumb and middle finger, the rest extended), almost like a flicking gesture. Looks like this:
4 衙门: was the administrative office or residence of a local bureaucrat or mandarin in imperial China. A yamen can also be any governmental office or body headed by a mandarin, at any level of government: the offices of one of the Six Ministries is a yamen, but so is a prefectural magistracy.
5 花架子: attractive appearance, but without substance
7 不显山不露水: lit. to not show the mountain and to not reveal the water (idiom); fig. to hide the key facts or feelings about the matter