This translator is back! I made a character list, which I will be updating every week.
Enjoy the chapter!
Fang Feng Sheng had thought that Fan Jin Chuan would brood over the incident for a few days, but he was already back on his feet on the morrow.
He had no other choice but to pull himself together. As a new official who had just assumed office, he was bound to be swamped. Apart from accepting visits at the county yamen from his internal and external subordinates and paying respects to his superiors, he also had to receive local officials, members of the gentry, village heads, elderly, public school instructors, scholars preparing for the imperial exams, and several others. He also had to pore over the local fish scale land registers1 and household registers to gain mastery of the distribution of villages, farmland, mountains and rivers, as well as the social customs, circumstances of the people, and plenty more.
Fan Jin Chuan wasn’t idle, and neither was Fang Feng Sheng. She waded through everything Fan Jin Chuan had withstood so that she could grasp the entire Taizhou like the back of her hand.
It was already the fourteenth day of the eighth month, and the following day was the Mid-Autumn Festival.
To confer benefits to his subordinates, Fan Jin Chuan decided to hold a moon feast on the day of Mid-Autumn Festival. All registered officials in the county yamen were invited.
The banquet was held within the yamen. There was a bright moon up in the sky, a cool night breeze, and a refreshing scenery.
Wine and food were bountiful, and all who were present were colleagues during the day. The new county lord was amiable and cordial, so everyone’s nerves had slackened. Throughout the banquet, wine cups intertwined amidst toasts, and jovial laughter dominated the atmosphere. Assistant Magistrate Liu had to admit that the new lord had the capability. In just less than a month, he had managed to soften those under his command into submission.
Rather, it was that Advisor Fang who was capable.
With a wine cup in hand, Assistant Magistrate Liu squinted at Fang Feng Sheng sitting not far away.
She was clad in a blue robe, perched behind the table with a smile on her face, lightly shaking her paper fan. Those who approached her for a drink were all merrily welcomed, and not a single one was refused. She had shed off all airs as she engaged in blithe and witty conversations with the surrounding people.
Feeling suddenly disheartened, Assistant Magistrate Liu streamed a cup of wine into his mouth.
What was there to vie for?
This was a lousy place and a lousy yamen. Ill means were not differentiated, yet all disappeared when work beckoned. Quarrels occurred daily and he would even get caught in the middle of them. Whoever had the ability could take care of it all!
“Come, Bookkeeper Wang. I offer you a toast!”
Bookkeeper Wang raised his eyebrows at him and asked, “Are you finally resigned?”
“There’s no such matter as being resigned or unresigned. Just drink when there’s wine!”
They looked at each other with a smile and completely downed the wine in their cups.
Just when everyone was in the throes of drinking, Fang Feng Sheng vacated her seat.
Fan Jin Chuan fled out of the banquet on the pretext of relieving himself to look for her. He saw her ambling along in the front courtyard, looking pensive.
“What is Worthy Brother thinking about? Worthy Brother was the one who had instructed me to host a banquet to show grace to my subordinates. How come you’ve run away instead?”
“It’s nothing. I was just thinking that at this time, the provincial examination should be over.”
The provincial exam was held on the eighth month, and the opening time was usually before the sixth day of the month, which varied from place to place. On the fifteenth day of the month, the exam ought to have concluded.
“Why did Worthy Brother suddenly bring this up?” Immediately, it dawned on Fan Jin Chuan. “It’s all this brother’s fault for asking about Worthy Brother’s pain. However, Worthy Brother need not be discouraged. Although you missed this time, it’s not unlikely that you will pass the exam next time and make it to the noble list of successful passers.”
Feng Sheng laughed in spite of herself, knowing that he had misunderstood, but she also lacked the desire to explain.
“Let’s go and drink.”
By the time the merry-making was over, it was midnight.
Feng Sheng returned to her room, and Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu had prepared hot water.
After taking a bath and washing her hair, Feng Sheng felt a little more comfortable. Donned on her were only her bedclothes. She draped her fine black hair over her shoulders and sat cross-legged on the luohan bed, letting Zhi Chun wipe her hair.
Zhi Qiu trotted in with a bowl of sobering soup. “Young Master, drink some soup to warm your stomach. Don’t blame this servant for constantly worrying about your poor health, but you always drink wine and hurt your stomach. These days, you haven’t had the appetite to eat breakfast, precisely because you drink too often.”
“After tonight, I won’t drink anymore,” Feng Sheng promised.
Zhi Qiu glared at her. “You always say that, but you never remember.”
What Zhi Qiu said was not without basis. Feng Sheng’s temperament had always been quite pleasant, and she especially cherished her two little maidservants. Hence, owing to her limitless enabling, the two of them were seldom courteous around her. Whenever they fussed over her well-being, she always indulged them with replies of assent, but she unfortunately never took their heed to heart.
Regardless, they couldn’t blame Feng Sheng for her blatant disregard. Fan Jin Chuan’s meager skill in human relations impelled her to take the responsibility upon herself, and she had just recently won the trust of those under her due to her modest and easy-going personality.
What constituted a modest and easy-going personality?
It constituted having no qualms about spewing out words of romance and poetry, gulping down cup after cup of wine, and cursing with utmost vigor.
After all, the county yamen was place where dragons and snakes mingled. Unlike her, a person like Assistant Magistrate Liu could still express himself in an elegant manner, and all officials below him in the yamen, including yamen runners and clerks, would have no other choice but to cater to his fancy.
“Young Master is too thin and ought to eat more.”
“You think I’m eating too little?”
“You’re not growing any meat at all.”
“Alright, you little genius. You’re just relying on this young master’s indulgence, aren’t you? When will this hair dry? I’m tired and want to sleep.”
Feng Sheng was about to sprawl on the luohan bed, but Zhi Qiu pulled her up to thwart her from doing so.
“You can’t sleep, lest you catch a cold. Young Master, wait a little longer. It’s warm, and your hair will dry soon. Sister Zhi Chun, don’t be in low spirits and talk to Young Master. Don’t let her sleep.”
“What to say, ah? That’s right, it’s halfway through the eighth month. Fourth Young Master should have finished his exam, shouldn’t he?”
As soon as those words escaped her mouth, Zhi Qiu shot her a dagger-like glare. Zhi Chun gingerly stole a glance at Feng Sheng and was relieved to see that she was rather undisturbed.
“What can’t we say about this? Miss doesn’t mind. It’s just that, if Fourth Young Master goes back and finds out, perhaps……”
Zhi Qiu gave Zhi Chun a hard tug and hauled her out of the room.
They wriggled and pulled all the way to the side room, and Zhi Qiu bolted the door shut.
“What were you thinking, saying all that to Miss?”
“It was merely a slip of the tongue.”
“I don’t think it was a mere slip of the tongue. You have Fourth Young Master in your heart. Otherwise, apart from you, who else would remember that Fourth Young Master’s exam had ended?”
Zhi Chun blushed. “What are you talking about!”
Zhi Qiu leered at her. “What do you think am I talking about? Even if I hadn’t served Miss the past two years, I still know what you’re thinking. It’s fine for you to keep harping on me about it in private, but not in front of Miss. Instead of being like this, you shouldn’t have come with us in the first place and stayed in that Sun family, waiting for your Fourth Young Master.”
Zhi Chun began to cry.
After sobbing for a while, she mumbled, “I just don’t understand. Fourth Young Master is such a nice person. How can Miss leave when she says to leave, not even saying goodbye?”
“There are so many things in this world that you don’t know. Do you think Miss is like you that she would be stupefied the instant she sees a man?”
“Fourth Young Master was so kind to Miss. Every time he came back from outside, after visiting Old Madam’s place, the first thing he did was ask about Autumn Hall. Usually, if he had any good books and paintings, he would bring them to Miss to appreciate, not even keeping some for himself. Miss didn’t even leave a single word and left just like that. Fourth Young Master must be deeply hurt……”
Outside the door, Feng Sheng, whose damp long hair still hung loosely, stood quietly.
She had been worried that the two girls would quarrel, but she never expected to hear these words.
“……I’ll tell you what, you should let go of those thoughts as soon as possible. When Miss married into the Sun family, what were her circumstances like? Miss harbored a grudge in her heart and had no desire for love. Now that the master is gone, it’s even more impossible for Miss. Don’t you understand our Miss’s character? Once she’s decided, there’s absolutely no turning back. If you truly can’t bear to leave Fourth Young Master behind, you can go back yourself……”
“It’s not that I can’t bear to leave Fourth Young Master. I just……”
“Anyway, I’m telling you, the next time I hear you mention this in front of Miss, I’m going to turn against you!”
Zhi Qiu thrust out the door in exasperation and ran into Feng Sheng, who was standing outside.
“You never came back, and I was afraid you’d quarrel, so I came to see. What’s wrong with Zhi Chun? Why is she crying?” Feng Sheng peeked inside the door, feigning ignorance.
“Miss, you ignore her. She had forgotten her manners, so I scolded her. Of course she’s crying!”
Zhi Qiu pulled Feng Sheng away with her, and Feng Sheng obediently followed.
Zhi Qiu first served Feng Sheng on the couch, then turned to make her bed on the floor.
“Qiu’er, you come up and sleep with me.”
“But Miss, my mattress is all laid out.”
“If it’s laid out, just leave it there.”
Zhi Qiu discarded her outerwear, climbed into bed, spread out the quilt, and rested on the outer side.
Seeing that Feng Sheng’s eyes were open, she whispered, “Miss, don’t be mad at Zhi Chun. She’s just a little girl. She’s hardly ever seen handsome men.”
“You talk as if you’ve seen a lot of them.”
“This servant has indeed seen a lot. Miss, you forgot that this servant grew up in a brothel, which you had rescued me from. There aren’t really many good men in this world. They’re all greedy for flowers and are driven by lust. When they get home, in front of their wives and children, they look pure and harmless. In fact, it’s all a disguise. “
Feng Sheng was amused.
Zhi Qiu gazed at her. “Miss, do you still think about Fourth Young Master?”
Feng Sheng sighed, “No. Didn’t you say that my heart has no room for love? Go to sleep, you have to get up early tomorrow.”
Fan Jin Chuan, after studying the fish scale land registry, journeyed down the countryside to conduct an on-the-spot survey of the common people’s situation.
He dropped by each and every village. Naturally, he also swung by salterns, but was unable to see exactly what was inside. He had personally come to the door and was inevitably be accompanied by others. In the end, all they managed to accomplish was a quick cursory observation, as though viewing flowers from horseback.2
It would soon be time to harvest autumn grain, and at this time, the county’s vigilance was at its peak.
Around harvest season, the fields were dry and were thus most liable to fire. If the farmlands caught fire, the loss was a season of rations. Unfortunately, what they were most afraid of happened. Several days later, those below reported that two farmlands had caught fire.
The nearly mature grain were razed in flames, so much so that the farmers cried and howled incessantly, lamenting that the heavens had cut off their means of sustenance.
Fan Jin Chuan overexerted himself for two days and three nights. His eyes were severely bloodshot, but he was incapacitated by the heavy loss. The county yamen had limited staff and were also at the end of their tether.
Fang Feng Sheng yanked him back to rest, but he was unwilling. Feng Sheng could only tell him that when he awoke from his slumber, matters would be resolved.
Now, in Fan Jin Chuan’s heart, Worthy Brother Fang was already all-powerful. However, he was suspicious of the situation and had worn down his wits for a solution. In spite of his pedantry, after weathering through those days of toil, he was able to perceive that the fire was not without a reason, because he had long informed the local village heads to instruct the farmers below to be thorough with their fire prevention.
He even went as far as to consider all aspects, including shift by shift patrols, with not a moment of negligence.
Hence, the fire was man-made.
What for? Fang Feng Sheng had previously told him that when harvest drew near, it was inevitable for there to be rich households, merciless and devoid of conscience, who would fish in troubled waters.3 If a season of grain was lost, how could the farmers live? They still had taxes to pay, so they would be left with no other alternative but to sell their houses and fields.
Rich households bullied the farmers by invading and occupying their territory using a variety of tricks, but in plain sight would never let anyone ensnare them. When time came that the farmers themselves knocked on their doors, they would lower the price, obtain the fields, and even be hailed as well-doers.
“Alright, you go rest now. If I say I can fix it, then I definitely can!”
“When we survive the autumn harvest, I’ll have people start rectifying the land boundaries.”
No good outcome would result from rectifying land boundaries!
Feng Sheng sighed sorrowfully in her heart, but in the end kept her frustrations to herself.
Sun Wen Cheng staggered out of Xiwu Hall, his gait unsteady.
“Fourth Young Master, why don’t this servant send you back?”
Zhou mama sighed and looked worriedly at his distant and lonely back.
Sun Wen Cheng’s brain was in tumult. The joy of making it to the noble list of successful passers had completely dissipated. He didn’t rush directly to the capital for the spring examination on the second month of the following year because he wanted to tell her the good news himself.
He had known she wasn’t happy here, and to compensate, he had planned to take her out of the city when he became a jinshi. At that time, he would either stay in the capital or be appointed to a local post outside, and she would be out of mourning. They would then be able to live in harmony, but he didn’t expect……
It was only uninhabited for a few months, but Autumn Hall was depressingly empty.
Sun Wen Cheng pushed open the courtyard door and trudged in, but he shrunk back and didn’t dare enter the house.
He stood vacantly at the courtyard and turned around, but still didn’t dare go in. Just as he was heading back, he saw the silhouette of a woman standing not far away.
“Feng Sheng!” He took an agitated step forward.
“Fourth brother, it’s me.”
It was Sun Ru Hua.
“What are you doing here?” Sun Wen Cheng withdrew his outstretched hand and clenched it under his sleeve.
“I suddenly remembered Fourth Sister-in-law, so I came to take a look. When she was still around, I had borrowed a book from her, but now I have no place to return it.”
Sun Wen Cheng looked over. This book was one among the many he had gifted Feng Sheng.
“Give it to me.”
Sun Ru Hua handed the book to Sun Wen Cheng. She seemed to want to say something, but decided against it the last minute.
“Fourth Brother, don’t be sad. Perhaps it isn’t that Fourth Sister-in-law doesn’t have you in her heart, but because she has some hidden trouble plaguing her mind.”
“What do you know?”
Sun Ru Hua’s eyes trembled, and she panicked. “I don’t know anything. Fourth brother, I’m leaving first.”
“What exactly do you know?!” Sun Wen Cheng grabbed her hand. He had always been gentle, and the fact that he did such an act was proof that he was unsettled inside.
“Fourth Brother, I really don’t know. I, I……” Frightened, Sun Ru Hua was on the verge of whimpering, but summoned her courage to ask, “Fourth brother, what did Old Madam tell you? Why did Fourth Sister-in-Law leave?”
Old Madam disclosed that Fang Feng Sheng had desired to climb high and thus had a private affair with the third prince. The Sun family couldn’t afford to offend the prince, so they could only keep silent. But to the outside world, she announced that Feng Sheng was ill for many years, and for the sake of the Sun family’s descendants and future generations, they had to send her home.
She had also told him that this matter was something he shouldn’t comment nor ask about, and that he should keep it in his heart all his life. The prince was a descendant of the heavens, and if the Sun family provoked him, imminent catastrophe would betide them, and each and every member of the family would be sent to their graves.
1 鱼鳞图册: lit. fish scale map registers. These were field cadasters for the purpose of taxation. Because the maps were drawn quite crudely and the particular parcels of land therefore had the round shape of fish scales, the registers were given this strange name. They look something like this:
2 走马观花: lit. flower viewing from horseback (idiom); a fleeting glance in passing; fig. superficial understanding from cursory observation; to make a quick judgment based on inadequate information
3 浑水摸鱼: to fish in troubled water (idiom); to take advantage of a crisis for personal gain