I was supposed to do a double release today, but I got caught up with personal stuff and will make up for it tomorrow.
Fan Jin Chuan’s heart was awfully tormented as he plodded back.
Rain clattered on.
Feng Sheng sighed. ‘The heavens and earth are not benevolent, and they consider all living beings as disposable objects.’ That old farmer’s line still whirled in her ears.
“Uncle Yu, bring the old man back.” Saying this, she chased after the other.
Her feet were slower than Fan Jin Chuan’s. When she reached the Song family’s house, she saw the bamboo hat and straw rain cape1 Fan Jin Chuan had worn hanging against the wall outside the door. She breathed a sigh of relief, shook off her hat, and entered the room.
Returning here was like breezing into another world. A charcoal brazier blazed within the room to ward off the cold and dispel moisture, furnishing warmth in this stormy weather.
Fan Jin Chuan was perched in front of the brazier. The fire’s orange light illuminated his face, the water droplets on his brow appearing glassy and translucent.
Feng Sheng also occupied a seat across the brazier. The bottom half of her robe was soaked through. As she inched closer to the charcoal brazier, the burst of warmth slightly propelled her cold body to jerk away.
“You don’t seem surprised.”
She sighed noiselessly, “What does my lord want to ask?”
“What that old farmer just said.”
Feng Sheng stretched out her palm and hovered it over the charcoal brazier for some warmth.
Dark red prayer beads slipped out of her sleeve, adding an unspeakable charm to the flow of color under the firelight.
“Why are you surprised?”
Fan Jin Chuan was clammed up for once. When he finally spoke, his voice had a hint of bleakness to it, “Sometimes, it truly makes me wonder. You’re obviously several years younger than me, yet you seem to see through the ways of the world. You’re constantly unmoved by the billows, and you manifest a kind of indifference only visible from the cold eyes of a bystander.”
“That’s because my lord doesn’t know what I’ve been through.”
After a pause, she added, “Far too many injustices happen in this world, and my heart is too small to bear them all. I have no way of dealing with them, nor do I have the capability to concern myself with them. Since I’m fully aware of this incapability and powerlessness, I simply ignore them.”
“But I can’t.”
Feng Sheng’s voice drawled on, “As I’ve told you before, this place is frequently afflicted by disasters, and the imperial court has repeatedly sent relief, so how could they possibly not care? Since there hasn’t been a resolution, there must be some insoluble obstacles hindering them.”
“The people, the silver, the official position, the court, the society, and the state power.”
“To say it’s the first three, I could still believe it. But the court, the society, and the state power? Considering the vastness of this entire land,2 Great Zhou isn’t only comprised of a mere Liang Huai!”
Feng Sheng nonchalantly countered, “But Liang Huai accounts for half of the country’s tax income. Great Zhou has a vast territory, but very few places yield taxes. The military expenses at the borders and the barbarians at the open sea, which among them is not in need of silver?”
“You mean to say that His Majesty is actually aware about the disorder in Liang Huai but is keeping one eye open and one eye close?”
“I don’t know.”
After a moment, she said, “Perhaps.”
“I don’t believe it! His Majesty is clear of the country’s affairs and is very diligent in managing the government. He wakes up before dawn every day and reads memorials until the depth of the night. With his knowledge of the common people’s plight, how could he remain impervious?”
“If you don’t believe me, then forget it. How can I, a common man, dare offer an opinion about the monarch’s ways?”
“When we return, I will submit a memorial to His Majesty to report the chaos in this place!”
“Suit yourself. Well, I’m going back to my room.”
When Feng Sheng stalked back to her room, she had burrowed inside the quilt, but she still felt cold.
Sickness seemed to loom over her, and in the end, it indeed came.
She had a high fever. In her stupor, Uncle Yu’s calls echoed in her head, overlapping with Fan Jin Chuan’s incessant chatter.
Regret overcame her. From the beginning, she shouldn’t have accompanied that pedant to Taizhou. Her aim had always been to reverse her father’s case, but she was now stuck in the mire. She was constantly precluded from doing what she wanted, and the county yamen‘s trifling matters all but ate away her time.
If she worried about the autumn harvest today, she would worry about someone’s lost livestock tomorrow. Two families would tarry and argue adamantly about a case. There were also tax captains, flood victims, and the military inspectorate. Gou Qing’s words were too difficult to swallow. Threads of information strewed everywhere, yet she couldn’t draw a single one.
This so-called case reversal now seemed like a joke.
She had dreamt that she was back early in her childhood. By her side was her father, systematically teaching her how to read with utmost patience. But as they were reading, blood suddenly shrouded her father’s face, and he began elucidating the details of his own gruesome death……
“Worthy Brother Fang, Worthy Brother Fang!”
Feng Sheng awoke looking pensive, expending a great deal of effort lifting up her eyelids. Fan Jin Chuan’s guilty face instantaneously came into her sight.
“It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t been impulsive, you wouldn’t have caught a cold from the rain.”
“You were unconscious for three days.”
Stunned, Feng Sheng propped herself halfway up and asked, “Has it stopped raining outside?”
“It has stopped.”
“Have there been any affected places?”
“Flood swamped quite a few villages, but as Tax Captain Song had mentioned, each of them had high ground to evacuate to, so no lives were lost. As for the rest, only after we return to the county yamen will we know.” Fan Jin Chuan promptly became spirited. He beamed, patted Feng Sheng’s shoulder, and quipped, “Worthy Brother appears constantly aloof, but is actually a person who has the common people in his heart. Otherwise, why would you ask about the disaster instantly upon waking?”
Amused, Feng Sheng couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m just worried about myself.”
“Whatever Worthy Brother says. You’re actually not quite old, yet you put on an indifferent face. How could this brother not notice that it’s all just a cover-up?”
Feng Sheng was utterly clueless as to what to reply. In reality, she was truly just self-seeking. Her heart could only contain the matter of reversing her father’s case. She had not the mental capacity nor energy to trouble herself about other affairs. However, all this, she had no idea how to explain, so she could only preserve her quiescence.
“So, when do we go back?”
Embarrassed, Fan Jin Chuan shot her a quick glance and said, “I was thinking of returning once you’re awake, but your health……”
“Don’t mind me. I’m actually fine. I’m afraid the county yamen will be in chaos if we don’t return after so long.”
At Feng Sheng’s insistence, the group set out on their return journey.
Outside was still a land teeming with water, but it didn’t impact them much as they ferried along waterway. As they gradually exited the area, they noticed that both sides of the banks showed no traces of disaster, lifting a great burden off of Fan Jin Chuan.
As they streamed within the vicinity of Taizhou City, they sighed in emotion upon seeing that the place was so bustling and lively, a stark contrast to the previous town, giving off a feeling that two worlds coexisted.
There was no chaos at the county yamen. All had assumed that the lord was delayed at the countryside patrolling. As for the matter of the rise of water level down the areas surrounding the river, the slow current and the large distance hampered the relaying of information.
However, as the party returned to the county yamen, news stormed in one after another. Fan Jin Chuan was preoccupied, while Fang Feng Sheng resumed recuperating.
Feng Sheng’s illness severely distressed the two girls, especially Zhi Qiu, who unremittingly yammered about Fan Jin Chuan until her head ached. Of course, these complaints were all in private. On the surface, she and Zhi Chun detained Feng Sheng in her room to recuperate, prohibiting her from wandering around. In actuality, it was to oversee her as she drank her medicine three times a day, so she wouldn’t have the chance to pour it out.
Gou Qing had also caught word about Fang Feng Sheng’s condition and dropped by for a visit. However, as soon as he strode into the room, Fan Jin Chuan also sprung in. He could only set down the tonic he had brought and make a nimble exit.
Fan Jin Chuan, on the other hand, apart from dealing with the flood, didn’t seem to forget what he had promised. For several days, he endeavored to draft a memorial and presented it to Feng Sheng for perusal.
After reading it, Feng Sheng asked, “How will you hand it up?” A seventh-rank county magistrate didn’t have the qualifications to directly submit a memorial.
“I’ll entrust someone to do it.”
“It would be best if those entrusted have no self-interests. The place involved is too large, lest it’s handed to a person with sinister intent, chances of anyone seeing that memorial will be none.” After a pause, she went on, “Have you thoroughly reconsidered? Do you know what you might face if you hand this up? The situation may not be favorable. News may leak out, you may be retaliated against by the interested party, and this matter may not reach His Majesty at all……”
“I’ve considered everything. If Worthy Brother is afraid of getting implicated……”
“I’m not afraid of getting implicated. If you’ve thought about it, then quickly find someone to send it off.”
Feng Sheng seemed detached about the whole affair, but she had actually been closely following it.
However, to her perplexity, the memorial was sent away without her knowledge. She only found out when she asked Fan Jin Chuan two days later.
He had it sent away just like that?
It seemed that it wasn’t as significant as she had imagined. Apparently, it also wasn’t as grave as her initial presumptions. It was so insipid that it made a person unsure of which course to follow.
What would be the outcome? Would she ever find a similar opportunity?
None of this was known to anyone, and all she could do was wait.
It had been an old practice to worship the heavens on the Circular Mound3 during the winter solstice, and this year was no exception.
Clad in a majestic imperial robe, the Jianping Emperor was poised on the middle of the platform to commence worship. The Crown Prince, Zong Duo, was positioned on the topmost step. Down the lateral side were civil and military officials of all ranks, along with a cluster of imperial clan members, titled princes and dukes, and nobility and ministers close in connection with the imperial family.
Although the whole process was cumbersome, the Ministry of Rites, the Court of Imperial Sacrifices, and all those who accompanied the worshipers were accustomed to it. In the past, nothing had ever gone wrong. However, the very moment the Jianping Emperor fronted the spirit tablets to offer the Jue4, Crown Prince Duo, who was clutching a sacrificial wine cup as an offering, suddenly toppled over.
The scene was unbearable to witness.
Fortunately, those of the Court of Imperial Sacrifices were seasoned officials. With agile movements, they served a new sacrificial wine cup, and the matter was settled just like that.
However, everyone knew that the matter couldn’t end in such vague fashion. Upon worshiping the heavens, the Crown Prince tripped and fell on the Circular Mound Altar. To say that this matter was big, it was because he had enraged the gods. To say it was small, it was because Crown Prince Duo dishonored the heavens.
Regardless of how others perceived it, all could agree that it was a major incident.
After the ceremony, the Jianping Emperor returned to the palace.
Rumors had dispersed even before the imperial procession crossed the threshold of the Forbidden City, saying that prior to worshiping the heavens, the Crown Prince meant to fast for three days, but had consumed wine within this period, thus violating the gods. Furthermore, not long ago, there was also a scandal in the east palace. The dignified Crown Princess quarelled with a concubine, resulting to her miscarriage after only a little over two months of pregnancy.
A disgruntled Jianping Emperor declared that the Crown Prince, for such disconcerting matters to transpire in his rear court, was lenient in governing his family. The Empress received news that the Jianping Emperor had just arrived at Qianqing palace, so she rushed over to plead on her son’s stead.
The Jianping Emperor had always respected and held the Empress in high regard, but this time, he refused to see her. The Empress knelt outside the palace hall for a long time, but the palace eunuch, Chen Qian, finally persuaded her to go back.
“The Empress has left?” The Jianping Emperor inquired the moment he saw Chen Qian walk in.
Chen Qian answered, “Her Royal Highness5 has gone back.”
Sitting behind the dragon desk, the Jianping Emperor sneered and then flicked his arm, brushing away all the memorials on the dragon desk to the floor.
“Your Majesty, quell your anger.”
Quell his anger?!
How could he quell his anger!
The Jianping Emperor shot up and paced back and forth in the palace hall, his gaze landing on a memorial that had been whisked to the floor.
He trod over, stooped down to grab it, and flipped it open——
This subject, Fan Jin Chuan……
“Call Prince Wei here.”
Chen Qian, who was momentarily out of wits, immediately complied, “Yes.”
It wasn’t long before Zong Yue, garbed in a ceremonial robe, sauntered in. His stance implied that he had no plans of leaving the palace prior to this summon.
“Greetings to Imperial Father.”
The Jianping Emperor tossed the memorial in his hand on the dragon desk, “Take a look.”
Chen Qian bowed himself forward and very scrupulously held up the memorial in front of Zong Yue.
Zong Yue turned it over, and the first thing that entered his eyes was the name on the upper margin. The content on the memorial wasn’t of surprise to him. Rather, it was the time imprinted on it that made him take a second look.
The time indicated that the Jianping Emperor had already received the memorial on that period, but it wasn’t until today that he decided to act upon it. Thinking of the Crown Prince’s stumble on the Circular Mound earlier, he snapped it close for fear of violating taboo.
“What do you think?”
“Lord Fan has always been honest and frank. Presumably, what he’s written is not false.”
“Is that all?” The Jianping Emperor gazed at him with profound and hazy eyes.
“Subject-son is slow-witted and is asking for Imperial Father’s guidance.”
“You sure are reluctant to offend anyone,” the Jianping Emperor snorted coldly.
Zong Yue was silent.
“You, go to Yangzhou……”
As soon as Zong Yue stepped out of the Qianqing Gate, a little eunuch scurried to the corridor.
“Your Highness, Prince Wei, Her Royal Highness, the Empress, requests you to go to Kunning Palace.”
Zong Yue irresolutely followed the little eunuch with large strides.
At Kunning Palace, the Empress wasn’t the only one to welcome him. Zong Duo was there as well.
The Empress headed the six palaces and had been the Jianping Emperor’s first wife since before his reign, already over fifty years of age. Her hair was still lustrous and black, and all but the corners of her eyes were free of wrinkles, which manifested the passing of her youth.
Zong Duo, positioned beneath the main seat, was the only legitimate son of the central palace. He was also the eldest son.
His status had been extraordinary since birth. The moment he was brought into the world, he had been established as superior to all his brothers. He was the ruler, and the other princes were his subjects. When he sat, others could only stand. But today, Zong Duo, who had always been exceptionally dignified in front of a group of younger brothers, was seething with a frenzy of rage.
“Old Three, what did Imperial Father tell you to do?”
Unlike Zong Duo’s display of impatiance, the Empress was calm as she glanced at him and gestured at him to stop, saying, “What are you panicking for? Prince Wei also attended the worship and had to return to the palace after all the trouble. As soon as he reached the palace gate, your imperial father summoned him to Qianqing Palace. He didn’t even have the time to drink hot tea. Fu Chun, serve tea.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
I actually second-guessed myself translating the incident of the crown prince tripping over. It seemed so stupid that I couldn’t believe it the first time I read it lol.
1 斗笠和蓑衣: conical bamboo hat and straw rain cape. Looks something like this:
2 九州 (Jiǔ zhōu): lit. nine provinces. The term Nine Provinces or Nine Regions, is used in ancient Chinese histories to refer to territorial divisions or islands during the Xia and Shang dynasties, which were the earliest dynasties of ancient China, and has now come to symbolically represent China. “Province” is the word used to translate zhou (州) – since before the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), it was the largest Chinese territorial division.
However, in this case, the author seemed to have based this off of Ming and Qing dynasties, who both have more than nine provinces, so FJC might just be talking about the symbolic representation of ancient China.
3 圜丘: The Circular Mound Altar is located to the south of the Imperial Vault of Heaven. It is an open three-layered circular stone altar. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 – 1911), the emperors would offer sacrifice to Heaven on the day of the Winter Solstice every year. This ceremony was to thank heaven and hope everything would be good in the future.
4 爵 (Jue): a type of ancient Chinese vessel used to serve warm wine during ancestor-worship ceremonies.
5 娘娘 (niáng niang): how the empress or other high-ranking imperial concubines are addressed by those beneath them