For two successive days, Zong Yue’s face was overcast and inexplicable.
The whole time, De Wang was cautious and prudent, but nevertheless suffered several of his temper tantrums.
This day, when news came from below, De Wang preferred dying over notifying his master, so he steadfastly forced De Cai to stand upfront.
“Your Highness, Lord Fan left Yangzhou today and headed to Taizhou through the Tongyang Canal.”
He had disclosed Fan Jin Chuan’s movements, but in actuality, it was an indirect account of Fang Feng Sheng’s whereabouts. However, nowadays, even De Cai was careful not to utter the three words, ‘Fang Feng Sheng.’
“On the other hand, there’s news from the capital. It’s time for Your Highness to return to the capital as well.”
When Zong Yue glared at him, De Cai quieted instantaneously.
After a while, Zong Yue ordered: “Let Zhao Zhuo Yang keep an eye on her, and tell him to deliver a letter to the capital when she dies.”
De Cai retreated, and De Wang, now given a pretext to leave, stealthily followed out.
“Are you really relaying Old Zhao the order using those exact words?”
“How else can it be passed on?”
“Although Your Highness said so, I think his heart says otherwise. If you really were to pass on the message, at least spread the word only when that woman surnamed Fang dies. I surmise that if it really were to happen in the future, the person to deliver such dire news will only face death. You musn’t, by all means, harm Old Zhao.”
De Cai sneered, “You’re actually quite concerned.”
“What do you think is the matter with our Highness? Could have chosen any beauty in the world, but just had to get entangled with that woman surnamed Fang.”
De Cai didn’t answer, causing De Wang to kick him in irritation. He pressed him on for a response until he noticed De Cai’s wary eyes fixated behind him.
“High-highness, Master, this, this slave……”
“Prepare the horses.”
From the docks outside the city, one could reach any place by waterway owing to Yangzhou’s developed water system. Hence, the local shipping industry was quite advanced, and ubiquitous civilian and merchant ships from various places huddled along the docks from morning until night.
Countless salt transport ships fluttered through the area, rendering a magnificent sight.
De Wang rode on a horse all the way, frightened out of his wits as he thought of Zong Yue’s rationale as he galloped to the dock. Who would’ve known that, just when the dock was ahead, he would suddenly tighten his reigns in an abrupt halt?
The steed’s long whinny elicited several repeated glances from passersby.
From the black steed alone, as well as the man’s icy and distant mien imbued with unmasked dignity, people couldn’t dare ogle so openly.
Zong Yue turned back, and the convoy behind him could only do as commanded and tail after him.
Just what is your problem this time?! But of course, that was not something De Wang dared say.
From Yangzhou to Taizhou, one could arrive directly through the ‘Tongyang Canal’.
Tongyang Canal, also known as the salt transport canal, ran through more than ten salterns all over Taizhou, bringing countless conveniences to salt transport, and even state grain transport.
Whenever it was time to transport salt, three or four ships, or perhaps even five or six salt transport ships were strung together to form a small fleet, stretching out for over ten li. The fleet traveled against the current from east to west, and if the wind direction was out of sorts, a thousand sails would assemble so numerous ships could sway together undeterred. Alternatively, teams of boat trackers could also tie ropes on their backs and bellow heroic chants as they struggled forward.
As they were about to arrive, Fan Jin Chuan and Fang Feng Sheng derived their initial impressions of Taizhou after preoccupying themselves with all these scenes along the way.
Majority of the country’s salt was produced in Huainan, while Taizhou was the birthplace of southern salt.
When they reached Taizhou City, the entire party was once again gobsmacked.
Taizhou didn’t resemble what they had imagined an ordinary county to be; it was also more prosperous than an average prefectural capital. Numerous water networks were strewn throughout the city, as well as several Tai dams constructed by utilizing the connection between moats and plentiful nearby rivers. Salt evaporation ponds surrounded the dams, and an abundance of salt merchant ships floated about.
However, all this had nothing to do with Fan Jin Chuan. On the way here, Fang Feng Sheng had roughly briefed him about the local situation in Taizhou.
Because salterns pervaded Taizhou, none of the salterns had their own commissioner-in-chief. However, Taizhou did have its own Salt Affairs Division, Tai Dam Directorate and Inspection Office, batch inspection areas, and the like. Salt affairs itself had formed its own system, which was a separate entity from the local, prefectural, and county government offices.
In other words, this was a place where there were more salt officials than local officials.
When Fan Jin Chuan and others turned up, someone from the county yamen marched forward to welcome them.
The county magistrate, Hu Nan Chun, personally made an appearance. The assistant county magistrate, recorders, clerks, and other deputy officials accompanied to greet them.
After a short rest, Hu Nan Chun especially invited Fan Jin Chuan to a banquet. Fang Feng Sheng, his private advisor, naturally itched to tag along.
The banquet was quite lavish, and there were actors performing various songs and dances.
It seemed that singing and dancing were imperative when it came to banquets. These provoked Fan Jin Chuan’s disgust, but Fang Feng Sheng was relentless in her persuasion to drag him there. Left without a choice, he tossed aside his displeasure, enjoying the wine and chatting merrily with County Magistrate Hu.
After half a round of drinks, the scene had lightened, and the assistant magistrate surnamed Liu inconspicuously shot a purposeful glance at one of the singers. The girl who was previously embracing a pipa and singing a folk tune slithered towards Fan Jin Chuan and Fang Feng Sheng’s side.
“No, no, absolutely not.” Fan Jin Chuan waved his hands emphatically.
Feng Sheng beamed at County Magistrate Hu, poked the other underneath the table with her folding fan, and leaned in close, “Since this is a piece of County Magistrate Hu’s goodwill, my lord should accept it. We’re just drinking, nothing more.”
Fan Jin Chuan aimed at her a pointed gaze, and she responded with an equally meaningful stare. He understood but spoke no further.
Hu and Liu exchanged substantial glances and grew even more earnest shoving wine in their direction.
Fan Jin Chuan’s tolerance was scant, and he signaled at Fang Feng Sheng by casting her various expressions out of chagrin. Unfortunately, Feng Sheng’s focus seemed to be concentrated on the female singer’s body. The two were occasionally whispering, sharing a cup of wine, and wallowing in delight.
“Worthy Brother Fang……”
County Magistrate Hu nudged him and said, “County Magistrate Fan, this official offers you a toast.”
Drinking one cup after another, Fan Jin Chuan was intoxicated.
Fang Feng Sheng was no better than him, her face extremely rosy. Regardless, the female singer was very conscientious and didn’t urge them to drink any less.
“Look at us, drinking and forgetting our business. We’re handing over the great seal1 today. County Magistrate Fan looks fine, so shall we head to the court hall?”
Assistant Magistrate Liu interjected, “Why bother? You’re here and Lord Fan is here. Just order someone to bring the great seal over.”
“That also works.”
Not long after, someone drifted in with the great seal.
County Magistrate Hu personally secured the great seal and offered it to an inebriated Fan Jin Chuan, whose footsteps were staggering and face severely ruddy.
“County Magistrate Fan, come, come quickly. After receiving this great seal, you will now be the parental official in charge of this county. This official will depart this post and embark to another place. In fact, this can be what you call fate, fate ah.”
Fan Jin Chuan’s hazy eyes shifted from his face to the great seal in stupor, unable to conjure a reaction.
He reached out to take it, but a hand blocked it that very moment.
The fingers were slender, with joints like jade. Dark red prayer beads were draped beneath the large sleeve, particularly eye-catching against the jade hand and blue garment.
Fang Feng Sheng still clutched a wine cup in her hand as she looked over, “County Magistrate Hu seems to be in a hurry. Before relinquishing the great seal, each and every single matter must be thoroughly understood. Don’t just rush things.”
“This official is not in a hurry, but this one intends to return to this one’s hometown before assuming office at another place, so……”
“Lord Fan is quite drunk today. It’s better to discuss it tomorrow.”
Fang Feng Sheng hoisted herself up, assisted Fan Jin Chuan, and asked, “Is my lord fine? I’ll send you out to rest. County Magistrate Hu, can this one request for the resting place to be arranged?”
“Of course, it’s already arranged.”
County Magistrate Hu felt terribly awkward with the great seal remaining in his grasp, but he nonetheless ordered someone to usher Fang Feng Sheng’s entourage away.
When they left, his expression contorted, and he waved off the two female singers before dropping on his seat behind the table in exasperation.
“My lord, what should we do? Those two don’t seem to be very easy to fool, do they?” Assistant Magistrate Liu raised the question with a crafty smile.
“The one surnamed Fan is a bookish fool, but that advisor surnamed Fang is difficult to deal with. I had deduced him as someone who wouldn’t refuse, so I thought he would only indulge in wine and women. But I didn’t expect that, despite his drunkenness, the wine wouldn’t muddle him at all.”
“Let’s use the second method.”
By the side were handkerchiefs soaked in hot water to dissipate the effects of alcohol. The two maids motioned to take Fan Jin Chuan’s shoes off for him, but he waved them away.
With his mouth shouting for Xiao Qi, Feng Sheng peered at him and wanted to laugh.
After dismissing two maids, she trod to the bed and probed, “Brother Zi Jin, are you really drunk? So, can I leave?”
It was only then that there was movement on the couch.
Fan Jin Chuan propped himself up. He was ostensibly tipsy, but his mind appeared stable.
“Worthy Brother Fang, what exactly is the meaning of this?”
“Could it be that Brother Fan was unable perceive how anxious County Magistrate Hu was to hand you over everything and leave?”
“Is that why you were drinking and frolicking with those female singers?”
“How can you know what they’re up to if you don’t seize the opportunity?”
“Since you’re now aware of their motives, Brother Fan must pay attention when they turn over everything tomorrow. If I don’t say anything, don’t rashly accept. As for the rest, it depends on what they’re up to. But, let’s see, they probably have some old debts that haven’t been cleared yet. Those people are trying to muddle through with the intention of planting these debts on your head. This is an old trick of theirs. Generally, it’s easy for those who have just taken office to fall for their means.”
Fan Jin Chuan nodded his head incessantly. Probably because he was both drunk and clear-headed, he couldn’t control his movements and bobbed his head in a way that was quite laughable.
Fang Feng Sheng smiled and gestured to leave.
“Worthy Brother, don’t leave just yet!”
“What is it?”
“This brother wants to talk to you about what you did just now. Even if you wanted to ascertain their objective, you shouldn’t have played with those prostitutes. Bear in mind that wine and women……”
“Xiao Qi, hurry up and serve your young sir to rest. I’m going to rest as well.”
The next day, the civil court of the county yamen.
Fan Jin Chuan brought Fang Feng Sheng and the others, while County Magistrate Hu led various officials and clerks from the yamen’s six sections.2
Contained in their hands were the great seal and several books and accounts, which encompassed all the records of Taizhou’s yamen. These records totaled to about thirty-one items, including the number of serving officials, households, grain tribute3, horses, even jail records, balances of the silver treasury and granary, and so on.
In actuality, everything else wasn’t as important; the grain tribute was the most important.
In the past, on the eve of his departure, the county magistrate levied the previous season’s taxes, grain tributes, and silver in advance. The newly appointed county magistrate was utterly clueless, and when harvest came, he was confronted by the dire situation of having neither grain nor silver to collect. What should he do if he had nothing to turn over to his superiors for that season’s grain tribute? He could only lie about a bad harvest and drag it out, or fill it in by himself.
Because once the great seal was relinquished, it meant that everything was clear, and he could no longer hold his predecessor accountable after the event.
Fan Jin Chuan sat upright behind the large table.
He was the master of the county’s officials. This was his first official appearance in front of his subordinates and had to maintain the dignity of a master. As for the rest, he could only entrust to Fang Feng Sheng.
Fortunately, Fang Feng Sheng came equipped and even seemed quite proficient, gathering the books with her to do the checking. Alongside her were Uncle Yu, Zhi Qiu, and the others, and from the yamen were clerks and minor officials from the six sections, while Fan Jin Chuan and County Magistrate Hu lounged and drank tea.
It took a whole day to thoroughly verify and understand the rest of the trifling matters. Next came the grain tribute, which was of vital importance and thus couldn’t be reviewed in haste, so they could only lay it aside for tomorrow.
The next day, Fang Feng Sheng led the others to make an inventory. The amount of silver in the treasury matched with the accounts. There were some minor errors, but they were too trivial to be bickered over.
Then, there was the granary. A slight variance between the silver and the accounts wasn’t of much significance, but for grain, it was a different case. Other than the granary in the county yamen, there was also the Changping granary. This was where they stored grain amassed by the local government every season in anticipation of harvest failure. An abundant harvest resulted in low demand and a drop in market price, so the government would increase the market price by purchasing all the grain from the farmers. On the contrary, if a natural disaster begot harvest failure, there would be an increase in demand and a rise in market price. The government would then lower it by selling the grain at a fixed lower price, ensuring that the merchants wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the high demand for high profit. This way, the commoners wouldn’t suffer from inflated market prices. Moreover, if a disaster came to pass, they could use the granary for disaster relief, which was extremely critical.
So it wasn’t just Fang Feng Sheng, Fan Jin Chuan was also correspondingly meticulous.
The Changping granary was not within the county yamen, and they had to drive a carriage to get there.
When the yamen runner who was in charge of the Changping granary saw the official lords arriving, he opened the granary doors, revealing densely packed sacks of grain stacked neatly within.
Upon this sight, Fan Jin Chuan flashed a smile.
County Magistrate Hu said, “County Magistrate Fan should be relieved now. Advisor Fang, there’s so much grain. I’m afraid that a few of you won’t be able to count all of it. I’ll have someone find a few people to help you.”
“Then thank you, Lord Hu.”
As before, counting and checking the inventory was just as dull and uninteresting. Fan Jin Chuan ordered people to open sacks of grain to inspect its contents. In them were grain that had yet to be shelled. Seeing this, he breathed a sigh of relief and snuck a look at Fang Feng Sheng.
Fang Feng Sheng responded with an expression of, ‘keep calm, don’t be too excited,’ and resumed tallying.
Bag after bag of grain was taken account of and put back in place.
Halfway through, Feng Sheng shot Uncle Yu an allusive glance, and he stepped forward with a sharp iron tool.
This aroused the crowd’s curiosity. They watched as he abruptly and accurately pierced a sack of grain. The iron weapon seemed to be uniquely crafted, its tail blocking some of the grain that slid out so that most of its contents remained in place.
County Magistrate Hu’s face suddenly turned wan.
Feng Sheng trudged forward, scrutinized it, and called out to Fan Jin Chuan, “My lord, come and see.”
Fan Jin Chuan closed in and distinguished that the thing leaking out wasn’t even grain, but sand.
1 大印: lit. great seal. A seal officials use to stamp on documents and the like, which also represents their power. Something like this:
2 Probably the six rooms in the yamen where lower-ranking officials and clerks do their official duties. A yamen can house over two hundred people, staff and servants alike. If you want to know more about what a county magistrate’s yamen looks like, this site has detailed pictures and descriptions of it. Photo below also shows a general map of the yamen.
3 钱粮 (qián liáng): lit. grain tribute; tax levied from farmers in form of grain that have already been placed in the granary