Fang Feng Sheng’s timing was perfect, as it coincided with the Shaoxing Provincial Hall’s lecture held once every three months.
This lecture was organized by the Shaoxing Provincial Hall, hosted by local Shaoxing residents of high esteem, where both new and old participants could partake in mutual exchange of assistance through intellectual discourse.
In actuality, to put it bluntly, it was simply a convenient way for everyone to reciprocate their sentiments and experiences with one another, as well as an instrument for amassing and disseminating classified information through unofficial channels.
This form of communication was also segregated into different classes. For example, Fang Feng Sheng, someone unknown from the younger generation, was merely listening to the excitement outside and communing only with those similar to her own rank. The aides inside were differentiated mainly by their official title and ranks, but at the moment she hadn’t yet achieved that kind of level.
All in all, for several successive days, the provincial hall was quite spirited.
Fang Feng Sheng was a fresh face, but she was humble, courteous, diligent, and remarkably active. Coupled with an authentic Shaoxing local dialect, those in the provincial hall warmly accepted her as a newcomer. In just two to three days, everyone from the Shaoxing Association of Advisors were aware that a newcomer had been welcomed in the provincial hall. Although he always wittingly shifted everyone’s attention towards himself, he was indeed a rare talent. His future was limitless, and would undoubtedly possess not only just a speck of success.
This news, Hou Fei knew, as well as that person’s name, Fang Feng Fu.
“This junior is asking for teacher’s instruction,” Feng Sheng said while performing a deep bow with her hands clasped in front of her chest.
The old man standing in front of her waved his hand, “There’s nothing else.”
At that moment, a young manservant clothed in blue robes with a small melon-skin-like cap fluttered over.
“Gentleman Fang, may I speak with you for a moment?”
Feng Sheng nodded to the old man and retreated with the manservant to the side, “I wonder what the matter is?”
“My master is requesting for the gentleman to come over.”
“Your master is——”
“My master is his lordship perfectural magistrate’s private advisor, Advisor Hou.”’
It was apparent that Advisor Hou was respected in the Yangzhou prefectural magistrate’s government residence, and with the guidance of the blue-clad manservant, Fang Feng Sheng set foot in the government residence’s second hall without any obstruction.
This was an important place for handling official business in the government residence. In addition to the second hall, ‘Tui Si Hall’, to the left and right, there was a library, a drafting room, a receiving area, a courtroom and the like. Advisor Hou resided in a small courtyard on the right west side, which also doubled as his office.
Needless to say, the layout of the government residence exuded grandeur and majesty.
Before entering the main hall, she saw an old man standing in the middle of the hall with his back turned to her.
This person was Hou Fei.
He and Fang Yan were sworn brothers, and he had been Fang Feng Sheng’s teacher for half a year.
As if sensing someone coming in, Hou Fei turned around.
He was around forty years old, with a thin face, a few locks of beautiful beard, and brows tinged with a hint of gloom.
At some point, the manservant had withdrawn and shut the door, leaving the two people alone in the hall.
Fragments of sunlight sprinkled in through the window panes, casting a circle of light on the floor, whirling around minuscule particles of dust.
Feng Sheng was wordless for a while. If the time changed to a few years ago, she would have been ecstatic meeting her Uncle Hou, her teacher. But now she was——
“I had guessed you would come sooner or later, but I didn’t expect you to actually come. Sit down.”
Hou Fei sat on the wooden armchair, and Feng Sheng hesitated, choosing one at the other end.
“Did you come to Yangzhou and headed straight to Shaoxing Provincial Hall instead of looking for me because Ah Yu said I had refused to see him?”
Feng Sheng stared intently at the other and nodded, “Yes.”
“You think I was afraid of being implicated by your father, that’s why I turned my back against him?”
“You went to the Shaoxing Provincial Hall and made a big show of it to draw me out?”
Those three consecutive affirmative answers made Feng Sheng’s gaze gradually transform. Perhaps there were previously some misgivings, but now it was ultimately clear and resolute.
All were conveyed through her eyes.
Perhaps if it were any other person ‘attending to their own virtue in solitude,’ Feng Sheng could understand. However, if it were Hou Fei, she couldn’t make sense of it.
Hou Fei and Fang Yan had been close for decades. They were sworn brothers who had grown up together. The two were personal aides, one of the Yangzhou prefectural magistrate, while the other of the salt distribution commissioner, and they couldn’t do without each other’s support. Furthermore, Hou Fei was Fang Feng Sheng’s closest uncle, elder, and teacher, so to her it was all absolutely incomprehensible.
With a bitter laugh, Hou Fei’s words were ridden with agony: “It was too fast, too urgent. So fast that it caught me off guard; so fast that it made my blood run cold.”
“You mean when something happened to my father?”
Hou Fei released a long sigh and stood up, “Even those working in this local government’s residence didn’t know. Under those circumstances, we were all completely caught unaware when the home of this local government’s dignified and upright third-rank Liang Huai Salt distribution commissioner was quickly confiscated. I once asked Lord Du, but he simply dismissed me with, ‘Don’t ask, don’t look, don’t listen, don’t speak.’
“All this completely terrified me, so I didn’t come forward when Ah Yu sought me out. I know you’re bound to have a grudge in your heart. Grumble all you want, but there is one thing I want to say——” he looked at Feng Sheng, his gaze deep, “Go back, don’t check, and don’t get involved in those things. You are your father’s only daughter. I don’t want to see you lose your life. “
“Just because I’m the only daughter my father has, I can’t sit idly by.”
“Then, what can you do? Feng Sheng, you are indeed as capable and as intelligent as a man. If you were a man, you would have achieved no less than your father and myself. But even if you really were a man, passed the imperial exam, brought honor to your ancestors, and thereafter assigned an official post, you still can’t fight against all that. That existence is something we will never be able to touch our entire lives, even if we wore ourselves down.”
“Uncle Hou, what do you know?”
Hou Fei shook his head and sat back down, hands on his knees, eyes vacant.
“I don’t know anything. I just feel like this is an unshakable giant. Compared to it, we’re ants who can be pulverized at any moment.”
The hall quieted down into a breathless stagnation.
Hou Fei straightened his back and smiled at Feng Sheng, “Alright, go back to Shaoxing. Since you’re already married, you should live your life well. I’m sure your father doesn’t want you to get involved in this.”
“Uncle Hou, I’ve already separated.”
“No matter what, even if I exhaust my whole life, I will reverse the case for my father and rid him of this injustice. I will expose the perpetrator for the public to vilify, and have him subjected to the punishment he deserves.”
“You, ah! Truly a foolish child!”
Hou Fei couldn’t convince Fang Feng Sheng and he was busy with his official duties, so he sent Feng Sheng out.
“No matter what. Nevertheless, thanks for the warning, Uncle Hou.”
Hou Fei sighed and didn’t say anything.
Feng Sheng turned to leave, but as she took a step, she saw a glimpse of a familiar figure and subconsciously reverted to her original spot.
That person was clad in a slightly worn-out blue robe, tailed by a page boy, who had just stepped out of the receiving area at the west side of the second hall and was being escorted out.
“What’s wrong?” Hou Fei asked in confusion.
“I suddenly remembered something, but when I was about to leave, I’d forgotten what I wanted to say,” Feng Sheng admitted with a bit of embarrassment, reminding Hou Fei of her past juvenile and naughty self. He couldn’t help but reveal a smile.
Feng Sheng observed the other party through the periphery of her vision and noticed that he had already stalked away. She spoke out in a probing tone, “I saw a person dressed in worn-out clothing, but he unexpectedly turned out to be the prefectural magistrate’s guest.”
“This person is the newly appointed county magistrate of Taizhou in the same division as Lord Du. He and Lord Du also shared the same teacher. His appearance may not seem much, but he was actually a tanhua1 back then.”
Feng Sheng concealed the shock in her eyes and nodded as if she didn’t care, “Uncle Hou, I’ll be leaving first then.”
“I’ll have someone send you off.”
Feng Sheng ambled out of the government residence, her mind still unsettled.
So much so that she was caught off guard when several people strode towards her.
A deep voice rang out. Feng Sheng subconsciously raised her head, and that expressionlessly handsome face crashed into her eyes without warning.
That dark blue brocade robe and waistband of the same color adorned with jade; standing tall and straight, his one hand lost behind him, and the other empty in front of him. His big palm had long joints like jade, his thumb wearing an intricately patterned jade ring inlaid with blue gemstones.
That big palm reached over, twisting her chin the way he did the last time, narrow eyes half-lidded: “You——”
Feng Sheng was busy blocking it, “This gentleman, what are you doing? It’s really insulting for you to do such an impetuous act in broad daylight!”
Her words expressed agitation and her eyes were ridden with anger, as though she had been greatly humiliated.
Zong Yue swept his gaze over her body and landed on her slightly protruding Adam’s apple.
Did he recognize the wrong person?
He withdrew his gaze and turned to walk forward.
“Hey, you’re leaving just like that? You insult someone and you won’t even apologize?”
Fang Feng Sheng jumped to her feet and cursed, while with great speed, bolted to the carriage driven by Uncle Yu, climbed on it, and urged him to go.
“Young Sir, what happened?”
“Uncle Yu, go first, go quickly!”
Naturally, to De Wang, that scholar’s appearance just now also didn’t go unnoticed.
After all, he did resemble that person by seven parts, but in the end, he was a man.
Because Zong Yue didn’t speak, he was also too scared to utter a word and followed alongside him.
Zong Yue suddenly stopped in his tracks, the memory in his mind fixed on the smear of red in the blue-clad scholar’s low hanging sleeve. His thin lips pursed tightly, his body draped with ice-cold air, engulfing those around him.
“Go after it, and chase that person back!”
He’s been tricked again!
Hou Fei was trying to protect Feng Sheng, so he refused to see Uncle Yu. Unfortunately, she still came.
1 探花 (tàn huā): lit. “flower snatcher”; candidate who came third overall in the court imperial examination, the highest level of the imperial exam. I kept the pinyin because it’s a title, and “flower snatcher” doesn’t sound that dignified at all lol.