On a table with two seats, two people were playing Go.
Fan Jin Chuan vied as black, while Fang Feng Sheng as white.
The wind howled outside, but spring-like warmth permeated within the room. In Feng Sheng’s hand clasped a small bamboo basket containing melon seeds Zhi Chun had freshly fried.
Fan Jin Chuan’s hand faltered as he was about to land his piece. When he finally made his move, Feng Sheng picked up her own white piece and pressed it down.
“Brother Fan, you have lost.”
Fan Jin Chuan couldn’t help but laugh. “Worthy Brother’s Go skills are getting better. This brother is impressed.”
Feng Sheng leaned against her chair with a smile and replied, “It’s not that my Go skills are improving. Rather, it’s my lord who messed up.”
Fang Feng Sheng would refer to Fan Jin Chuan as either Brother Fan or Lord. When she addressed him as the latter, it either denoted an ongoing strife between the two, or because they were amid official business.
“Is it because the land boundaries are too challenging to rectify1? Or is it because of the memorial left unresponded? If my lord is eager to know, go and ask your friend so you will quit agonizing like some trapped beast.”
Fan Jin Chuan briefly hesitated before saying, “He had already replied to my letter, and the memorial has been forwarded, but……”
Fan Jin Chuan rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his hands against his forehead. Although this gesture didn’t seem to connote anything, one could see that he was unquestionably pained. The return letter had reached his hands the day before yesterday, and the contents only rendered him dumbstruck, as it had subverted his expectations and consequently balked his hopes.
Crack, crack, crack.
No sound could vex a person as much as this one.
Fan Jin Chuan raised his head and faced a grinning Feng Sheng cracking melon seeds in her mouth. The longer he knew Fang Feng Sheng, the more he felt how inscrutable and multifaceted she was. She was sometimes as cold as ice, sometimes as indifferent as dust, and sometimes as mischievous as a child.
“Worthy Brother isn’t at all surprised?”
“Why should I be surprised? Have you already forgotten what I said that day?”
Fan Jin Chuan recalled the conjectures Feng Sheng had imparted that day, that the Jianping Emperor was aware of the chaos in Liang Huai.
“Well, it’s impossible for everything to be within expectations. Instead of fretting, you better attend to immediate matters.” Feng Sheng discarded the small basket, patted her robe, and stood up.
“Does this matter truly have no solution?”
Feng Sheng blinked. “It’s not like there isn’t one.”
“What is it, then?”
“This solution is not in line with the way my lord conducts himself, so it’s better for my lord not to know.”
“I still hope that Worthy Brother will dispel my doubts.”
“Would you dare defy the world?”
Fan Jin Chuan was speechless. Feng Sheng smiled and elaborated, “Only when Liang Huai is in chaos, so chaotic that His Majesty can’t stand it, will we be able to break through and do as we desire. But my lord is incapable of such means, so I’ll deal with it myself. I just need my lord to lend a helping hand.”
“What kind of help?”
“Turning a blind eye.”
Fan Jin Chuan was not one to let go once he set a commitment, so lately, he had been busy rectifying the county’s land boundaries.
He had discussed this matter with the Taizhou Division and various salterns from every place.
The land in the county was disorderly, and the boundaries between farmland and marsh fields were imprecise, making it a struggle to collect taxes. In this regard, the salt affairs yamen was completely aware but simply made light of it. All they cared about were matters concerning salt, such as good land and capable men, which were essentially still under the control of the local county yamen.
Thus, the salt affairs yamen did not have any authority to stick their business in the land rectification, nor could they interfere. Fan Jin Chuan had issued them prior notice merely out of courtesy.
In fact, all were aware that rectifying land was an insurmountable feat, so they had treated Fan Jin Chuan as some monkey playing tricks on the street.
Truth be told, it truly was an arduous undertaking. Not only were those rich households unwilling to cooperate, but some common households beneath them were just as reluctant. In the past, rich households would instigate slow-witted commonfolk to induce a furor, and the county yamen could only stand by for fear of provoking civil unrest.
This time, the county yamen initiated the land rectification at Jiangyan Town nearest to Taizhou City, where the wealthiest household was surnamed Chen.
As the county yamen‘s people set foot on the area, the Chen household didn’t come forward as they should have out of resistance. They simply incited those under their command to make mischief. However, to everyone’s surprise, on one certain day, the county yamen‘s people left the Chen household’s premises one moment, then started rectifying their land the next.
The Chen household subsequently shut their doors and kept mum.
Knowing that the county yamen had set the land rectification in motion, it was only a matter-of-course for others to keep their eyes peeled on it. As such, the Chen household’s reaction naturally didn’t escape their notice. However, before they could even clarify the state of play, the land rectification at Jiangyan had ended as swiftly as a sudden clap of thunder, and then spread to the next place.
Gnawing like silkworms and devouring like whales, they swept past one place after another.
This time, the intiator wasn’t the honorable county lord, but the always smiling Advisor Fang by whose side he stood. No one knew precisely what kind of methods had been employed to soften those typically importunate rich households into obedience.
The loss they swallowed wasn’t only a hundredth of a hair’s breadth. Whosever land had not been concealed nor properly rectified would either be sold at market price or confiscated.
They had always seized property through coercion or deceit, so how could they be resigned to pay silver to reacquire land? Even if they were currently terrified into submission, it didn’t mean that they would still be in the future. The idea of them shelling out silver for land purchase was utterly laughable.
Previously, to comprehend the county yamen‘s affairs, some people had pried and obtained clues. Last time, Advisor Fang had threatened the Sun family2 into compliance. But who would have thought that the matter would be left unsettled? That county magistrate surnamed Fan actually refused to take the shortcut paved for him and instead persevered in his own foolish means.
In this world, a fool was precisely one who most lacked cunning, so everyone was naturally willing to go along with the land rectification. Never did they expect that the fool would one day gather his wits, refuse to show up, and release a vicious dog in his stead.
Some would catch sight of Advisor Fang handling official business at the countryside with Lord Gou in company. There was nothing to fear in the Military Inspectorate, nor was Lord Gou some frightful person. As long as one did not flout the law, one’s mind could be at ease. However, this was only relatively superficial, at least in a place like Taizhou. Taizhou was overflowing with private salt, regardless if it was for the self-interest of an individual, a group of common people, or of merchants. For goods to reach Taizhou, they had to pass through the eyes of the Military Inspectorate. Hence, everyone knew what would await them if they offended Gou Qing.
“Simply put, Advisor Fang invited me on a trip merely to exploit me?” In the carriage, Gou Qing asked with a wide smile.
“No, this isn’t exploitation. This is cooperation.”
Feng Sheng took out the wine that had been warmed from the brazier and poured a cup for one person. In this kind of weather, there was no better way to gain warmth than to drink wine, where the warmth naturally penetrated inside and out.
“Lord inspector’s position is lofty, so those small benefit fees from salt merchants are inconsequential. If lord inspector wants to make it big, firstly, one needs a helper by one’s side. Next is obtaining marsh fields. If one obtains marsh fields, then one obtains fuel. Obtaining fuel is obtaining salt. In this vast Taizhou, there are people covertly turning marsh fields into farmlands, and there are similarly some who desire more and more marsh fields. Hence, these people unceasingly attempt to obstruct the county yamen‘s land rectification, driven by nothing more than profit. Now, if these lands are confiscated and taken in for our personal use, wouldn’t the benefit yield be much better than lord inspector’s small benefit fees?”
“Advisor Fang knows quite a bit.”
Feng Sheng smirked. “Taizhou is a big place, but it’s not too difficult to know anything as long as one investigates. Lord inspector is a man of great skill and strategy. What’s lacking is just a helper. Now, this helper has taken the initiative to come to you. Does lord inspector have the guts to accept?”
“What will you get out of it?”
“I will naturally get a lot out of it. No one in the world dislikes silver.”
“Then, does Advisor Fang represent himself or Lord Fan?”
“This matter is of no importance. Lord inspector just needs to know that, if need be, whether it’s Lord Fan or the good lord behind Lord Fan, they can be of use to us.”
Gou Qing chuckled. “Advisor Fang truly is an extraordinary man. It’s my good fortune to witness just how wonderful Advisor Fang can be.” He swept his eyes all over Fang Feng Sheng’s body, his gaze slightly ambiguous.
With half-drooped eyes, Fang Feng Sheng only revealed shallow smile and sipped the wine in her cup.
“Then, what are lord inspector’s thoughts?”
“Advisor Fang has spoken so enticingly. Naturally, Gou-mou will not refuse.”
Feng Sheng filled each of their cups with wine, lifted her own, and toasted him mid-air. “Then, I wish us a happy cooperation.”
“Alright, very well.”
After Gou Qing left, Uncle Yu entered the carriage.
“This person’s depth is unknown. Young Master’s cooperation with this person is undoubtedly akin to plotting with a tiger.”
“Whether it’s asking the tiger for its skin or dancing with the wolf, this great opportunity is one we shouldn’t miss. I didn’t stop Lord Fan from sending out that memorial to test the attitude from above, which isn’t far from my presumptions. In fact, nothing is impossible to find out so long as one investigates. In the end, it all depends on the willingness. Since those above aren’t willing, then let’s force them to be. In the recent years, the official salt in Liang Huai has been stagnant. If we add another fire by messing with the above’s source of funds, will they remain impervious?” Feng Sheng sneered.
“But, these private salt smugglers are vicious and merciless. I’m afraid……”
“Uncle Yu, since when have you been so overcautious? I came here with the intention of touching this piece of cake, so I’ve prepared for the worst.”
“I’m afraid that the rich salt-boilers3 in those salterns will cause trouble.”
“Uncle Yu, rest assured. The salterns over there won’t care about such people.”
1 清丈 (qīng zhàng): lit. make an exact measurement of the land. FJC had mentioned this in Chapter 25, but I translated it then as “make exact measurements of land and reallocate them.” But in this chapter, it’s denoted that they’re doing it to rectify land boundaries. Hence, I changed the term as such. In modern world, what they’re doing is what’s called ‘land surveying’ in engineering, but with a much narrower scope, and with the intent to contend with people’s private interests.
2 In case you all forgot, this refers to Master Sun in Chapter 26, not her ex in-laws.
3 富灶 (fù zào): lit. rich kitchen. I’ve freely translated it as “rich salt-boilers” in this context, which I assumed are the bosses/wealthiest among 灶户 (salt-boiling households). The author wrote the last sentence pretty vaguely, and I kept it that way for fear that my assumptions are wrong, and for fear that it alludes to something else to be revealed in the future. Salterns don’t only have 富灶 (rich salt-boilers) in them, there are also the poorer salt-boiling households and other workers, so I assumed she must have meant that other people in those salterns (who aren’t rich salt-boilers) won’t care about them.