Feng Sheng subconsciously looked over, and two faces manifested in the resplendent light.
One face was stern and resolute, with sword-like eyebrows, a high nose bridge, and tightly pursed lips. Amidst the darkness entwined with firelight, his eyes were dark and gloomy with an indistinct hint of mockery.
The other face was plump, bewildered and at the same time gloating, very much taking delight in their misfortune. The phrase ‘tsk, such a mess’ stemming from his mouth truly made a person want to slap his face.
The one who had spoken was De Wang, and beside him stood Zong Yue
Their intervention was beyond anyone’s anticipation, especially Fang Feng Sheng’s.
Studying the blood on her face, Zong Yue’s brows creased. “Take them to the ship.” He leapt over the side of the boat, and the dazzling firelight subsequently fluttered with him.
Feng Sheng and Uncle Yu boarded the ship.
The two truly cut a sorry figure. Uncle Yu, despite his excellent martial arts skills, in the end couldn’t defeat four men with only two fists. He was in a terrible state and sustained heavy injuries. Feng Sheng had been exhaustively shielded by him, yet her appearance was in complete disarray and her clothes were soaked through.
“Don’t blame this one for saying this, but Advisor Fang is truly in such dire straits. When we invited you to our prince manor as a protege, you refused and instead ran off to this place where birds don’t shit. If we hadn’t been passing by, there would have been a few more nameless and vengeful souls in the river.”
Feng Sheng had always felt that this eunuch called De Wang’s mouth was crude, but this was the first time he was this crude. Circumstances were nonetheless stronger than people, and she had just been rescued, so it would be unbecoming of her to pretend not to know old friends.
“Thank you, Your Highness, for saving this one’s life.”
Zong Yue, who was sitting high on the main seat, nonchalantly replied, “No need. This prince was merely passing by.”
Mentioning this happenstance, misgivings immediately clouded Feng Sheng’s thoughts. She probed, “Where is Your Highness planning to go?” These waterways were also connected to a couple of major salterns. Did the third prince intend to visit the salterns?
When the words left her mouth, she realized that she had uttered the wrong thing.
De Wang took a quick look at his master, promptly straightened his back, and reproached, “Impudent! Is this something you can ask? You’re just a mere advisor. Do you have the right to pry into His Highness’s business?”
Feng Sheng was a little embarrassed. “This scholar misspoke.”
Zong Yue glanced at her and stood up. “Take them out and arrange a place for them to stay.”
Just as he took a step, Feng Sheng called out to him.
“Your Highness, this scholar has one more thing to say.”
Zong Yue’s footsteps halted. “Speak.”
“I have a few yamen runners brought out from the county yamen, and they were separated from me. Would it be possible for Your Highness to order someone to search for them? They don’t know the terrain very well, and with this weather, I’m afraid……”
“Instruct the men to go and do it.”
Not realizing that he was directed an order, De Wang failed to manage a timely reaction. Only when De Cai beside him kicked his leg did he blurt out in compliance.
De Wang instructed the imperial bodyguards about the matter and traversed all the way back with De Cai.
“You’ve finally learned to be smart for once.”
De Wang pointed to his nose. “You’re talking about me? When have I not been smart? I’m the smartest man around His Highness. Aren’t I able to immediately discern his thoughts just based on his body language? Even if I couldn’t, I would still do the same.”
“If the master does something, even if it’s unreasonable, we as slaves have to make it reasonable. This way, the master’s face is saved. Only then can we avoid being fishes in a moat.”1
“What you say makes sense,” De Cai replied with a perfunctory smile.
“You said it yourself! If His Highness’s face is lost this time, we’re both done playing.” De Wang smugly patted him on the shoulder and lowered his voice to intone, “Ai, do you think our Highness is attracted to that Advisor Fang? Why else would he find an excuse to come all the way here? He even took his men along to look for her once he heard the other party might be in danger.”
De Cai’s gaze was transfixed behind the other’s back. He couldn’t help but cast him a sympathetic look.
“What kind of expression is that? Don’t you trust my judgment? Look at His Highness’s awkward little gesture, obviously wanting to talk to the other, but ended up talking to me instead……” By this time, he had also perceived that something was amiss. He turned around to check, just in time to see Zong Yue standing not far behind him with an overcast face.
“Xiao Cai Zi, you actually dare trap this big brother!” Wailing like a ghost and howling like a wolf, he threw himself by Zong Yue’s feet and entreated, “Master, this slave didn’t say anything. It was all De Cai who deliberately trapped this slave……”
De Cai was dumbfounded. They had acted like good brothers just a moment ago. How come he was now stabbing him right in front of his face?
“Go get yourself twenty lashes from Zhan Qing.”
Feng Sheng changed into clean clothes and plunged into slumber. When she awoke the next day, the sun was already three poles high.
She gazed out the window, only to discover that they were still aboard the ship.
She breezed to Uncle Yu’s room to monitor his injuries. From Uncle Yu, she learned that the yamen runners who had wandered off had all been located. As for the people who attacked them last night, except for a few who were caught on the spot, the rest had run away.
“Feng Sheng, why are you flushed red?”
“Am I?” She touched her forehead. Feeling its heat, she concluded, “I guess I caught a cold last night. It’s okay, I’ll just go back to sleep.”
“I don’t know if there’s a doctor on this ship. Go back to your room and lie down. I’ll go ask,” Uncle Yu said.
Feng Sheng conscientiously plodded back to her room and lay down, never before thinking that she would sink into stupor amidst it.
There was no doctor on board. As for Uncle Yu’s injuries, an imperial bodyguard had handed him a bottle of high-quality medicine for his incised wounds. Originally, Uncle Yu had planned to endure and leave it be. After all, they would have reached Taizhou City on the morrow. However, the ship docked on a small town ahead, and a doctor had been invited on board under someone’s orders.
After drinking the medicine prescribed by the doctor, Feng Sheng woke up.
Her ferocious headache had driven her mind in a whirl.
“Take this bowl of medicine as well. It’s truly your good fortune to have me serving you medicine.” At the sound of this effeminate voice dripping with sarcasm, Feng Sheng knew at once that its source was Eunuch De, De Wang.
“Thank you for the trouble, Eunuch De.”
“If it wasn’t because you looked so pitiful…… If this ship wasn’t full of men, do you really think I would have come?!”
“Actually, Eunuch De could summon Uncle Yu over. Uncle Yu has been with the Fang family for many years, and I treat him as an elder,” Feng Sheng responded and gulped down her medicine.
De Wang’s lower lip quivered as though about to spit out a reply, but he ultimately swallowed his words back.
Was he even willing to come? Would he have come if it weren’t for someone’s orders?
Once Feng Sheng had finished her medicine, De Wang grabbed the bowl and ambled out, running into Zong Yue upon his exit.
“Master? This slave will go to the kitchen to check the medicine.”
Zong Yue made a guttural sound of approval and stepped into the room. De Wang also very scrupulously closed the door on his way out.
Feng Sheng had been preparing to lie down, but seeing him enter, she could only prop herself up to once again sit.
“Please forgive this scholar for being sick and incapable of bowing.”
Zong Yue sat on a chair and uttered no response.
He remained reticent, so Feng Sheng also said nothing. The room was terribly quiet.
Zong Yue fiddled with the prayer beads in his hand, his gaze falling alternately on Feng Sheng and the prayer beads.
“I still don’t know if Your Highness……”
“Why are you in charge of the land rectification?”
Feng Sheng coughed. “In Taizhou, the dispute over marsh fields and farmland has never subsided. The rich families and rich salt-boilers have either transformed farmland into marsh fields, or exploited it in an attempt to pay less taxes. The salt affairs offices always oppose Taizhou’s county yamen, and some salterns also constantly impede its operations. Implementing government decrees and collecting taxes have become an insurmountable feat. Therefore, the land rectification was necessary. This way, each party performs its own function, the boundaries are delimited, and conflicts are avoided.”
“This prince wants to hear the truth.”
“This scholar is telling the truth.”
Zong Yue stared intently at Feng Sheng, and the other did the same. For an indefinite amount of time, the two maintained this tension.
Feng Sheng exhaled and, with a smile, sounded out, “What does Your Highness think I want to do?”
Zong Yue scowled. “Whatever you want to do, remember not to get involved in what you shouldn’t, lest you set yourself on fire.”
“Why does Your Highness always tell this scholar such things? Does Your Highness know something?” Saying this, she looked fixedly into Zong Yue’s eyes but fathomed nothing from them.
“This prince doesn’t know anything.”
“This prince chanced upon your father and admired him greatly. This prince doesn’t want you, his only offspring, to set yourself on fire, not even knowing when death is at hand.”
“Then, does Your Highness know that my father died a horrible death? The whole case was like child’s play from beginning to end. My father’s position didn’t amount to much, so he was easily taken care of. However, the dignified Liang Huai salt distribution commissioner was questionably deemed corrupt and greedy for taxes. The case was hastily closed, and to this day hasn’t been properly settled. In the end, was Zhou Guang Rui really that reprehensible? Or is there someone trying to shut out the heavens with one palm, pretending as though nothing had transpired?”
“Fang Feng Sheng, you’re audacious!” Zong Yue barked coldly.
“Your Highness, I’m not at all audacious. I just want the truth!”
“Just the truth?”
“Of course not. The culprits, as well as those who have done evil to my father, I want them all executed.” Feng Sheng’s eyes were fixed ardently at his own as she enunciated every single word.
Their gazes clashed, neither giving way to the other.
Zong Yue suddenly took a step forward and leaned down to touch her neck. She subconsciously pushed him back, but instead pitifully fell against the headboard.
Feng Sheng felt a pang on her throat. Zong Yue twirled the object in his fingers. “With this kind of lousy thing, you disguise yourself as a man and no one could recognize you.”
“Give it back to me!”
Feng Sheng reached out to snatch it, but Zong Yue stood up.
“Don’t set yourself on fire. That’s all there is to it.” After saying that, he turned and strode out.
The ship finally reached Taizhou City.
It had originally been two days away. However, to accommodate Feng Sheng’s illness, the ship settled in a town for two more days.
Feng Sheng’s illness had not at all subsided, as her high fever kept recurring. From this, it was evident that the doctors in town weren’t very capable, so they could only rush back to Taizhou City.
“Uncle Yu, you go out. I can do it myself.”
The past few days, Feng Sheng had been incessantly feverish, so she was always covered in sweat. She was basically incapacitated, and there were only big men aboard the ship, so none were qualified to wipe her body. Moreover, she could only switch out her clothes whenever her sweat had soaked through.
In the end, her clothing was limited, and she could only make do with her inner garments. It would’ve sufficed if she was just cooped up in her room, but she had to disembark to reach the county yamen. She would have to endeavor such a long road and encounter people along the way. However, with her current predicament, she couldn’t be so carefree.
Feng Sheng endured the dizziness as she donned on her outer robe.
A shadow of a person swept in. Feng Sheng raised her head and was about to speak, when darkness suddenly engulfed her vision. After which, her whole person hung in the air, and was immediately secured tightly by something.
“What are you doing!”
Her nose was subsumed by a peculiar aroma akin to sandalwood, but not entirely. With only murk in front of her eyes, Feng Sheng tugged at the fabric veiling the light with great alarm. After an arduous attempt, she finally peeped out her head, only to discover that she was pressed against Zong Yue’s chest.
“Quickly put me down!”
From this angle of hers, only the other party’s rigid chin occupied her sight. The other party didn’t seem to want to pay attention to her. She managed to slightly dig herself out, but was once again brutally covered up.
Zong Yue paced outside. “If you don’t want people to see you in this mess, just behave yourself.”
“Put me down. I can walk by myself.”
“You can’t even wear your clothes, and you still want to walk by yourself? There’s no one one aboard who could help you. There are also no carriages, but horses. Do you want to crawl all the way back on your own?” It seemed that Zong Yue’s tongue was also quite poisonous.
Once outside, the thin cloak could no longer dispel the cold. Feng Sheng couldn’t help but shrink back a little.
It felt as if she had reached the deck, and felt as if she had gotten off the ship.
Now, Feng Sheng could only wholly relax her mind, otherwise, she would explode.
She was hoisted into the air and thereafter placed on something mobile, apparently a horse.
The man clamped her down with one hand and clenched the reins with the other. With a flourish of his wrist, the horse took off.
De Wang, who was standing closely behind, finally loosened.
The truth was that the lump within the master’s arms was detrimental to his poise and majesty. Fortunately, everyone hung their heads and didn’t dare look up.
“All hurry up and follow.”
The group of people mounted their horses and galloped to Taizhou’s county yamen.
1 池鱼之殃: lit. a disaster for the fish in a moat; fig. be involved in a disaster not of one’s own making; trouble to an innocent bystander; get implicated into a conflict