No update yesterday as I was so tired. Work is getting a little busier and my stockpiled chapters are getting fewer. Thus, I’ve decided to stockpile chapters on the weekends and will be updating five times a week (on weekdays) instead of seven. Enjoy the chapter!
Today, an unexpected guest paid a visit to Taizhou’s county yamen.
Since the land rectification commenced, there had been several such uninvited visitors. However, none of them were there to demand an explanation for the recent events. They were merely there to act as trustees for others’ interests, spewing out obscure hints or beating the drum.1
The other party didn’t explicitly express anything, so Fan Jin Chuan just took it as if he didn’t understand.
“This Advisor Fang is too audacious and presumptuous. He’s deceiving his superiors, deluding his subordinates, intimidating commoners, and relying on force to bully others. He’s bringing disaster upon this village! My lord must not condone it, ah.” The visitor spoke as he wagged his head, assuming an air of self-approbation and looking as if he was deeply troubled for Fan Jin Chuan.
“Instructor Feng, you worry too much. I know Advisor Fang’s personality well. He is not this kind of person. The land rectification must have offended a few people, so they’re slandering him in retaliation,” Fan Jin Chuan replied.
This Public Instructor Feng was over fifty years of age and was one to swallow ancient learning without digesting it.2 As Taizhou’s county public instructor, he was in charge of the county’s overall education and taught local scholars preparing for the imperial examination. Although his official position was merely eighth-rank, he was regarded as a person with high virtue worthy of respect in the locality.
Relying on his status as an elder, he barraged Fan Jin Chuan with exhortations for over half a day. When he noticed that the other party seemed to be turning a deaf ear to his advice, he was annoyed and deplored, “If Lord Fan insists on indulging this person, misfortune might befall upon you. Well, I simply can’t bear my lord to shoulder the blame for others’ sake. Since my lord won’t listen to advice, take it as though this old one didn’t say anything.”
After concluding his sermon, he brushed off his sleeves and motioned to leave.
Once the man was escorted out, Xiao Qi came in and said, “Young Sir, the man has been sent away.”
Fan Jin Chuan, who was standing in front of the window, made no sound as he gazed at the gray sky outside.
“Young Sir, don’t take that old man’s crazy and unfounded ravings to heart. He must have accepted someone else’s silver and deliberately came to prod you as someone else’s mouthpiece.”
“I never took his words to heart.”
“Then, why does Young Sir still look sullen? Young Sir, Advisor Fang’s side is undoubtedly going smoothly, so why do you look unhappy?”
“Worthy Brother Fang has taken all the stigma upon himself and left me out of it. I’m truly ashamed in my heart.”
“Advisor Fang is also doing it for the county yamen‘s sake, so why should my lord take it personally? Didn’t Advisor Fang say that you’re his golden cudgel3? As long as you trust him, and as long as you don’t falter, he will fear nothing.”
“But, after all……” Fan Jin Chuan sighed lightly and said, “Counting the days, Worthy Brother Fang should return soon.”
“He ought to return today or tomorrow, these two days.”
Prince Wei received a secret decree to once again head to Yangzhou, stirring the hearts of who knows how many people around the two rivers.4
Not only did the Yangzhou Prefectural Magistrate, Du Ming Liang personally welcome him, but the Grand Coordinator of Jiangsu, the Provincial Military Commander of Jiangnan, and even the Director General of the Grand Canal, the Director General of Grain Transport, and the Superintendent of Imperial Silk Manufacturing in Jiangnan all made an appearance. Regardless of the number of people inquiring news in the open and in secret, all said that Zong Yue journeyed to Yangzhou especially to seek out Great Master Hui Jing for meditation practice at the Daming Temple.
In fact, all were aware that Prince Wei was carrying out a secret decree. This wasn’t much of a secret to the perceptive and ambitious. However, what this secret decree was, no one knew.
Yangzhou, where salt merchants congregated, was teeming with gold and jade. In such a place, one could indulge in a wanton life. Salt merchants had three advantages: garden landscaping, raising actors, and enjoying culinary delicacies. Someone once said: In this world, Yangzhou salt merchants were the most opulent and wasteful; compared to them, those with less than a million were merely small merchants. Nonetheless, even the wealthiest of merchants could only kneel and flatter in the presence of imperial family members.
This time, when they caught wind of Prince Wei’s trip to Yangzhou, they yearned to ingratiate themselves with him, but their insufficient status hampered them from doing so. Therefore, they entrusted officials they were close with to thread them together.
This was their consistent tactic, securing every opportunity to cinch themselves onto those in power. By all accounts, these salt merchants had amassed wealth equivalent to that of an entire nation’s, a large part of this owing to their association with influential officials. Otherwise, how would salt merchants monopolize the market? They could possibly ‘forever for a hundred years, depend on their holdings.’5
Relying on these perpetual ‘holdings’ was sufficient for them to immerse in affluence for a lifetime.
This time, Zong Yue plainly and painstakingly evaded them, but nevertheless wound up dwelling in a courtyard constructed by a salt merchant. Of course, on the surface, it had nothing to do with the salt merchant. Instead, it was Du Ming Liang’s private garden serving as Zong Yue’s temporary residence.
Who would have imagined that, on the third day, the salt merchant would send beauties to the garden?
The beauty in a gauze dress collapsed on the ground, weeping as though she had a bellyful of complaints. On this cold day, the heat from the outer room’s charcoal brazier was far from adequate, but, since no one had given her any orders, she dared not move.
Du Ming Liang bustled in and witnessed such a scene.
He had been asleep at home when someone darted in to report that His Highness, Prince Wei, was furious. He didn’t even have the time to properly don on his hat just so he could hasten over.
He couldn’t care less about the fallen beauty and sent word to seek for an audience.
Shortly after, De Wang emerged from inside, smiling bitterly at Du Ming Liang, “Lord Du, you’re here at last. His Highness’ anger isn’t light. His Highness intends to see Great Master Hui Jing for meditation practice in two days and has thus been fasting. During his fast, such a disturbance happened. This truly is such a mess.”
Sweating profusely, Du Ming Liang explained, “Eunuch De, to be quite honest, this lowly official actually doesn’t own this garden. With this lowly official’s salary, this one can’t afford such a place. Whenever a senior official or an imperial envoy drops a visit, we don’t have a place worthy of their status to entertain them. The Huang family happens to have a usually unoccupied garden for honored guests, so they offered it out of their own initiative. I never expected them to be so bold, daring to do such a thing.”
These two people were talking right outside the door, so how could Zong Yue inside not hear?
The two looked at each other, and Du Ming Liang trudged in with his head lowered.
“Forget it this time. This prince is aware of their tactics. It has nothing to do with you, but don’t reach out to this prince again. Next time——”
“Your Highness can rest assured. There will definitely not be a next time. This lowly official will warn them.”
Appeased, Zong Yue nodded and ordered, “Sit down.”
Du Ming Liang plopped down on a round-backed armchair at the side, and a young eunuch approached him to serve tea.
“Fan Zi Jin is now the Taizhou county magistrate. How is he doing as a local official? Before leaving capital, imperial father had asked a couple questions about him. He also acknowledged his scholarly disposition, saying that he was abounding in integrity but short of worldly sophistication. He had learned nothing as an idle and unimpeded official. As such, assigning him an important position was still out of the question. Only by sending him to a local post will he be honed through experience.”
“This——” Du Ming Liang hesitated before saying, “Your Highness knows that associating with a local official outside of official business will arouse suspicions. To avoid this, there should be little contact. This official has not heard of any happenings on Taizhou’s side. Everything there is probably fine. After all, Zi Jin assumed office taking a private advisor with him.”
Mentioning this private advisor, De Wang subconsciously took a quick glance at Zong Yue.
However, Zong Yue was unperturbed, half-leaning on the luohan bed and fiddling with the prayer beads in his hand.
He was clad in a dark blue round-neck casual robe, and one of the buttons on his collar was undone. Appearing as though he was ready to rest, his consistently cold and stern visage seemed a little more casual and approachable.
Zong Yue made a guttural sound of agreement and said, “Tomorrow, this prince will go to Taizhou to meet Fan Zi Jin. After all, imperial father personally inquired about him.”
He stood up. Du Ming Liang thus took his leave. Even if he had some questions in his heart, it was not his place to ask.
On this trip back to Taizhou, Fang Feng Sheng’s group ferried through the waterway.
From Fengli Yard, it would take four or five days to reach Taizhou City. Journeying back, the breeze was still and the waves were quiet, but Feng Sheng was slightly uneasy knowing they still had two days to go.
This subconscious uneasiness was indiscernible to the average person. Only Uncle Yu was able to detect an inkling.
“Young Master, you really need not worry. There are several spare boats on board, and with me protecting you, nothing will happen.”
Feng Sheng paced two steps back and forth and once again stalked to the table.
On the table was sprawled a simple map. Anyone familiar with Taizhou’s terrain would be able to decipher that on it was exactly the water networks near Chuanchang River.
“This part is the intersection of several waterways and is devoid of people. It’s also linked to the surrounding lakes and has complex terrain. If they want to make a move, they won’t let this place go.”
Despite this knowledge, they would inevitably have to pass through it.
If the other party was intent on disadvantaging Feng Sheng, ambushing on dry land would be easier. Therefore, traveling by land was far more dangerous than taking the waterway. They thus shied away from the road and instead braved the waters. However, roaming the waters was almost like placing themselves under the other party’s eyelids. They clearly knew that a tiger loomed in the mountains, yet they stubbornly charged towards the tiger’s direction.
Even so, Fang Feng Sheng couldn’t concede, for she was the insolent Advisor Fang. Would such a human being fear those lurking in the shadows? If she wasn’t fearless, would she have pressed everyone to have their land rectified?
She was originally just borrowing momentum, not only from Fan Jin Chuan, but also from the military inspectorate through Gou Qing. This trip was for Gou Qing to see. Feng Sheng had used the land rectification as weight for Gou Qing to concur with their cooperation. However, a concurrence was simply a concurrence, merely empty words. If one couldn’t drink at least a certain amount of wine, how dare he go to Liangshan?6 Therefore, this was definitely an opportune time for Gou Qing to sound her out. If Fang Feng Sheng showed the slightest hint of cowardice, this cooperation might be rescinded.
After all, selling private salt was a major crime that could result in confiscation of property and extermination of an entire family. If one couldn’t protect oneself, forget about any cooperation.
“How long until we arrive?”
“Half a day.”
“In other words, around nighttime.”
All was quiet at the dead of the night, and the people aboard had long since drifted into slumber.
Nonetheless, the ship slowly shuttled forward. For boatmen who often traveled this waterway, navigating through the night route was something they could do with closed eyes.
A bright moon hung in the sky, as cold and as placid as water.
There was a faint sound of movement on the water surface. Iron eagle-claw hooks latched onto the sides of the ship. Dozens of people clad in black semi-waterproof clothing slithered aboard through a rope, agile and soundless. This whole set of actions were unhurried, executed like floating clouds and flowing water. Probably only the firelight on the ship’s deck were aware of their presence.
It wasn’t until a ghastly howl blared out that the night slaughter began.
The sound of chaotic footsteps thudded, and torchlights illuminated the night. The dead were dead, and the wounded were wounded. All were under control, but upon searching for the ship’s master, no traces were found.
“Boss, is everyone gone?” A black-clothed man carrying a broadsword arrived in a flurry.
“They seemed to have been on guard. Before dark, this lowly one looked through the telescope7 and saw that they were still on board.”
“They must have taken advantage of the darkness to escape. Those men won’t be too far off. Go after them!”
The private salt smugglers in Taizhou had been dealing with water and the government all their lives.
They hated the salt transport canal, yet they had to rely on it to dispatch their salt. The Lixiahe Plain’s intricate waterways were their habitat. It would be a real joke if they let those people slip away in a place they could call their own.
With a single command, dozens of willow-leaf canoes drilled out of the reed banks along the coast. These small boats were exceedingly swift and were perfect for scouring such a complex terrain.
On the water not far from here, a willow-leaf boat was also streaming through. Only Uncle Yu and Feng Sheng sat in it. They gazed at the fire ablaze on the ship in the distance as they paddled with their utmost to urge forward.
“Young Master, you’re still softhearted.”
“They all have parents who birthed and raised them. They usually trust me, so I don’t have the face to use them as bait for my escape. Those people won’t leave anyone alive when they catch someone.”
Uncle Yu sighed and ceased speaking.
Feng Sheng pretended as though she made light of it and assured, “This way, my heart is at ease. Running separate ways will distract them and divide their attention.”
Her speech was cut off, as the sound of turbulent water accompanied by shouting sprung from behind.
The two people immediately abandoned their conversation and propelled forward with all their might.
However, the two were merely novices at rowing, and their collective strength was barely enough. How could they compare to those who lived on the water all year round? A splash echoed around their boat’s vicinity. A shadow leapt out of the water. Silver light gleamed amidst the murk, and the other party struck over with his sword.
With a clashing sound, Uncle Yu blocked the attack with his short knife and promptly engaged in combat with the attacker.
Uncle Yu, who was always so inconspicuous, parried with one hand and secured Feng Sheng with the other to prevent her from tumbling off the boat.
A scream pierced the darkness, and the shadow plummeted into the water.
Unfortunately, the boat behind had already verged upon them. There were four or five people on board, pouncing their way like wolves and tigers.
This was the first time Fang Feng Sheng was so close to death, but the rush of adrenaline had dispelled all her fear. The ship shook violently. From time to time, a knife would slash above her head. Uncle Yu warred against several people by himself, safeguarding her in the throes of it. The only thing she could do was grapple a fallen man’s knife, skulk behind Uncle Yu, and blindly flail around her newly acquired weapon.
She could no longer determine whether or not she had actually stabbed someone. Scalding water splashed onto her face. She didn’t realize it was blood until the smell engulfed her nose.
Suddenly, there was an illumination.
Its blazing light blinded those whose eyes had been momentarily accustomed to the darkness.
All fighting ceased in an instant, and a voice rang out.
“Tsk, what a mess!”
1 敲打: beating the drum at the yamen‘s gate. It’s what the common people do when they need the court to investigate a death, or thievery or anything that’s unfair.
2 食古不化: to swallow ancient learning without digesting it (idiom); to be pedantic without having a mastery of one’s subject
4 两江 (liǎng jiāng): area encompassing Jiangsu, Anhui, and Jiangxi
5 窝本 (wō běn): lit. holdings. These refer to the merchant’s qualifications to acquire salt certificates. The certificates owned by merchants (i.e. their assets) were collected and registered in booklets and to be submitted to the government when full. On the base of these ‘holdings’ they were allowed to collect salt in the salterns and throw it on the market, thus being disbursed their assets. (Source)
6 没有三两三，谁敢上梁山: Liangshan was a county where banditry was prevalent. It’s basically saying, “If you don’t have the courage, how dare you brave these dangerous waters?”