Old Madam was debilitated and ill in bed, her old tears overflowing from ceaseless crying.
Sun Wen Cheng was the person she held most dearly in her heart, and even Wang Yue’er was no match against him.
Thus, Sun Wen Cheng trusted her.
Sun Ru Hua lowered her head, wiped her face with a handkerchief, and said, “Fourth Brother, I honestly don’t know much about it. I only know that there was an incident on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival. Qian Er from the outer courtyard broke into Fourth Sister-in-law’s room, and Xiao Tao burst in afterwards, claiming that Fourth Sister-in-law was having an affair. Third Sister-in-law somehow got linked to this matter, but she insisted it had nothing to do with her. Because mother punished her by leaving her at home, she had wanted to drink wine with Fourth Sister-in-law. Who would have thought that she would run into such a scene and end up entangling herself in a fishy situation?”
“Qian Er broke into Feng Sheng’s room? Her own servant girl accused her of having an affair?”
“Later, I learned that it had all been a misunderstanding. Another thing was that, after the noble guest was settled into Banyan Garden, Old Madam had used her recurring nightmares as an excuse to ask for Fourth Sister-in-law’s help in copying Buddhist scriptures and praying for blessings. The great master had said Old Madam’s fate lacked water, so the scriptures had to be copied where water was nearby for it to have an impact. Fourth Sister took me to assist Fourth Sister-in-law to copy Buddhist scriptures. I hadn’t known at that time, but later on, I understood. It turned out that the nobleman liked reading Buddhist scriptures, and Fourth Sister was only acting upon his interests.
“……On that day, Second Aunt sought out Fourth Sister. Fourth Sister had claimed that the nobleman fancied her, and that it was thanks to Fourth Sister-in-law’s good fortune. However, her expectations were subverted. No one knew exactly who it was that had caught the nobleman’s interest, so Old Madam invited all the sisters to Xiwu Hall, not excluding Fourth Sister-in-law. Afterwards, Old Madam dismissed the rest, leaving only Fourth Sister-in-law there……”
“Are you telling the truth?”
Sun Ru Hua cried out in pain, “Fourth Brother, you’re hurting me!”
Sun Wen Cheng’s grip remained firm. “I’m asking you again. Are you telling the truth?”
“Fourth Brother, you’re really hurting me! If you don’t believe me, go ask Fourth Sister, or ask one of the servants in the manor. When Fourth Sister-in-law had left that day, many of the servants were also aware that the nobleman departed thereafter. Old Madam then prohibited everyone to talk about Fourth Sister-in-law, and made it known to the public that Fourth Sister-in-law was suffering from a foul disease that had long been incurable, so she was thus sent away.
“Fourth Brother, I didn’t want to talk about these things. You and Fourth Sister-in-law were the epitome of ‘talented man and beautiful woman’, and your hearts were united. If not for running into each other today, I would have been disinclined tell you. Fourth Sister-in-law was already pitiful enough. After the Fang family’s incident, she was ill in bed for quite a time, but rumors in the manor had sprung up, saying that biao young miss would soon replace Fourth Young Madam to make way for the virtuous. It wasn’t easy for her body to finally show some improvement, but then, such a matter transpired. Fourth Brother, you mustn’t tell anyone that I told you this, else this sister won’t be able to live……”
Fresh tears still streaked down Sun Ru Hua’s face, but Sun Wen Cheng had already stalked out.
He absently plodded about, visibly disoriented, feeling like the vast world no longer held a place where he could be at ease.
“Hey, Fourth Brother. Why are you just standing there?” Sun Ru Yi, who was passing by the garden, curiously eyed Sun Wen Cheng.
Sun Wen Cheng snapped out of his trance in an instant and yanked Sun Ru Yi’s hand forward. “Come with Fourth Brother. Fourth Brother has something to ask you.”
Fei Cui was about to follow, but Sun Wen Cheng shot her an oppressive glare, immediately terrifying her into scampering aside.
“Fourth Brother, why so secretive and mysterious? What exactly do you want to ask, ah?”
Sun Wen Cheng jerked and pulled Sun Ru Yi with him until his footsteps came to a halt at the entrance of a small pavilion.
“I heard that, a while back, father had intended to send you out as some person’s concubine. Is it true?”
“Some person’s concubine? Can a prince’s concubine be the same as an ordinary concubine? Too bad that the third prince didn’t prefer me, and instead actually wanted that one surnamed Fang……”
In stark realization, Sun Ru Yi shut up.
“Fourth Brother, you set me up?”
“If you still want to recognize me as your brother, tell me the truth!”
Sun Wen Cheng’s contorted face was truly frightening. He had been handsome and mild-tempered since young. Who in the manor didn’t praise Fourth Young Master for being an outstanding person? A person hailed as such rarely even reprimanded his servants for their mistakes, but he was now casting his own sister such a grotesque sneer. Sun Ru Yi was undoubtedly petrified.
“……Father and mother said it was a scandal that none could talk about. Otherwise, no girl in the Sun family can marry in the future.”
Sun Ru Yi wept incessantly and, to Sun Wen Cheng, spilled out all her cognizance of the past events. In fact, her version wasn’t that far off from Sun Ru Hua’s. Both were cut off at the part where Old Madam dismissed all other girls, leaving only Fang Feng Sheng behind.
“Fourth Brother, what’s wrong with you? You’re scaring me ah.”
“I’m fine, you go. Don’t let anyone else know about this, since grandmother has ordered to forbid it. You know grandmother’s temper. If anyone else finds out, she will be livid.”
“I’m not telling anyone anything. Fourth Brother, don’t let anyone know that I told you, either. I poured it all out, but mother had said I couldn’t.”
Sun Wen Cheng nodded, and Sun Ru Yi hastily exited.
When she finally disappeared, Sun Wen Cheng laughed in derision.
Ridiculous! How ridiculous! The three people closest to him actually banished his wife to ingratiate themselves with those in power. Nothing in this world was as utterly ridiculous as this.
After a full night’s rest, when Fan Jin Chuan awoke the next day, the sun had already risen three poles high.1
He darted out of his bed, not even bothering to eat his meal, and inquired about Advisor Fang’s whereabouts. Xiao Qi informed him that Advisor Fang had invited a group of rich landlords and was having a discussion with them at the reception hall.
Within the reception hall, there was a painting of the Court Hall in the middle of the center wall. Underneath the painting was a long black lacquer cedar table, in front of which was a square table with a wooden armchair on each side. For those of lower status, the left and right sides of the room occupied a pair of black lacquer cedar chairs separated by a flower table of the same material.2
Feng Sheng, garbed in a blue robe, sat on the right side of the main seat, holding a lidded teacup in her hand, while her eyes were on the crowd across from her.
The two rows of round-backed armchairs were now filled with men in silk and satin robes, fat and thin, all of different forms. Without exception, all were from rich local families in Taizhou.
“We don’t know what your thoughts are, but Fang-mou3 and the master have discussed putting forward this regulation. It is now the only way to safeguard the autumn harvest in every part of the county.”
A middle-aged man with a mustache shaped like the 八 character said, “Advisor Fang, your words just now baffled me. Those fields aren’t even our fields, yet we’re tasked to dispatch people to guard them. I’ve never heard such a joke in my entire life.”
“Then, hearing it today, what does Master Sun think about it?”
“You——” Furious, Master Sun brandished his sleeve, “are simply too preposterous!”
Feng Sheng flashed an unyielding smile and set down her tea. “Whether you all find it preposterous or not, this matter is settled. The autumn harvest is a major event that the county yamen attaches great importance to. Whether or not this season’s taxes can be paid on time will all depend on those days. Fortunately, the period isn’t too long, so I’ll have to trouble you all. The master will definitely remember your good deeds and won’t let you work hard in vain.”
“Anyway, I completely disagree. Even if the honorable county lord is a parental official, he can’t force the people to do things against their will.”
“Where is his lordship? Advisor Fang, you’re merely an advisor. Aren’t you slightly overstepping your bounds?”
“This official is here.”
With that voice, Fan Jin Chuan, attired in an official uniform, sauntered in.
The official uniforms of Great Zhou were all of standard style, with a black gauze hat, a round-collared robe, and a belt. The seventh-rank official uniform was blue-green, and on the front was sewn a mandarin square badge with the characters for ‘stream’ and ‘imperial edict’.4 Because of this style, the official uniform was dignified but not the least bit aesthetic. However, Fan Jin Chuan’s tall stature empowered him to carry well his clothes, especially adding an unthreatening prestige to his grandeur.
“Advisor Fang’s opinions are the this official’s opinions. Since you are citizens of this county, you should adhere to this county’s regulations. In two days, this official will issue an official letter to inform the whole county.”
“Honorable county lord, are you not afraid of stirring up public discontent when you so disregard the wishes of the people?”
Feng Sheng brushed her folding fan open and said, “Master Sun, can you represent the people of the county? This one forgot to tell you one more thing. The day before yesterday, a few people marched to the county yamen, accusing your noble son of snatching away their daughters. Because the autumn harvest has recently engrossed the lord’s time, this complaint was temporarily deferred. However, you also know that this isn’t a trivial matter. If it is kept under wraps, this one fears it might arouse people’s grievances, ah.”
Master Sun was so infuriated that he charged up from his seat, but he was also just rooted there, making no further act of leaving.
Feng Sheng also knew how to quit while she was ahead. “Alright, this matter is settled. This one hopes that you all will go back and give it more consideration. After all, this is a matter of great importance to the whole county. Unity of will is an impregnable stronghold. Only when this is fulfilled can things go as one wishes.”
After the crowd retired, Fang Feng Sheng and Fan Jin Chuan were left in the hall.
“I thought you were going to sleep until noon. Before you got up, all these people arrived, so I came out to discuss the matter with them. However, for you to push forward in such matters isn’t beneficial. After all, you are the parental official. It’s inappropriate for you to rely on force to get others to yield. Alright, I haven’t yet eaten, so I’ll go grab something to eat first.”
Feng Sheng stood up to leave, but Fan Jin Chuan called out to her, “Worthy Brother, you mentioned that the Sun family’s young master had snatched away common people’s daughters. Someone made a complaint, and you suppressed it. Is this matter true?”
“It was naturally a lie, merely some hearsay. I was deliberately bluffing.”
“Deliberately bluffing? What if he doesn’t believe it?”
“He’ll believe it.”
“Because our approach was too tough, and he was diffident.”
“Even if he believes it, but no one else does, he alone won’t make a difference.”
“We don’t need others to believe. All we need is for them to understand an attitude.”
“What kind of attitude?”
“If one offends the county yamen, things will be difficult. To kill a chicken is to warn the monkey, and if one doesn’t want to be that chicken, one should carefully consider whether or not he’s done something furtive.”
The hall suddenly came to a standstill.
Fang Feng Sheng’s meaning was clear. She was intending to utilize the county yamen‘s power to force the other party to obey, even going so far as to construct a trap.
Obviously, no one had accused Master Sun’s son, but she laid it bare based on hearsay. If Master Sun questioned it, perhaps Fang Feng Sheng would fabricate a piece of legal paper and toss it to his face.
Similarly, this applied to others. The county yamen was in charge of the county’s criminal law and legal action. If one was accused, the verdict all depended on the official’s word. The county magistrate who destroyed a family; the prefectural governor who exterminated an entire household——all ensued simply because of a word.
“Is this the solution you’re talking about? In the end, using means to coerce and entice is not what the superior man does.”
Feng Sheng turned around and looked at Fan Jin Chuan with a smile. “Then, what means does my lord think is best? To let them know by reason and to move them with emotion?”
“Regardless, it shouldn’t be like this. To take an official post is to pay particular attention to being upright and steady. If the official himself does the framing, how can he earn the public’s trust?”
“Unconventional cases take unconventional measures. Well, if my lord feels that my means are impetuous, my lord is nonetheless a lord and is completely free to do as he wishes. I’ll take my leave first.”
Fang Feng Sheng drifted out, and Fan Jin Chuan sat there wordlessly.
Xiao Qi looked at him. “Young Sir, why start an argument with Young Master Fang? These days, when you were busy, so was Young Master Fang. For the several days you haven’t rested, neither has he. While you were asleep, he invited those men from rich families to discuss matters with them. If you look closely, you can see blood streaks on his eyes.”
Fan Jin Chuan, suddenly shaken with emotion, replied, “It wasn’t my intention to reprove him, rather…… fine, I will look for him and explain.”
When Fan Jin Chuan arrived, Fang Feng Sheng was eating porridge.
Zhi Qiu droned on about her negligence towards her own health. Feng Sheng just laughed in response and pleaded mercy. Seeing Fan Jin Chuan, her smile vanished.
“Is something the matter, my lord?”
“Worthy Brother is angry. I didn’t tell you all that to reprove you, but……” Fan Jin Chuan paced back and forth a few steps and sat beside her. “Worthy Brother, although you tower over the rest in height of intellect, in the end, you’re still young and your three views haven’t yet been set. A proper soldier prevails over his opponents using upright means, not through treachery and cunning. It’s not that one mustn’t employ sly means, it’s just that one must exert caution. Otherwise, if one persists in doing so, one will lose his restraints, and interminable misfortune will befall him.”
“How great was the folly of Jie and Zhou, who hastened by crooked paths, and so came to grief!”5
Why was it impossible for Jie and Zhou to acquire peaceful ends, such that their outcomes were so dismal? They were engulfed in a quagmire because of their crooked ways! Power inflated people. Once they lost their ‘upright’ heart, they only became increasingly vicious, and spiraled down towards a bottomless abyss.
1 日上三竿: the sun had risen three poles high; it was already late in the morning
2 It looks almost exactly like this:
3 某 (mǒu): lit. certain; some; for one’s name. I was gonna translate it as “a certain Fang” or something, but it sounds weird especially since she’s talking about herself. So I kept it in pinyin… Just treat it like a prefix for a name, sorta like ‘-shi‘ or something.