After sleeping for a while, Feng Sheng suddenly awoke, feeling a bit sick to her stomach.
Her stomach was uncomfortable, but she was familiar with this kind of discomfort, so she lay there quietly and waited for it to pass.
Around the babu bed1 hung a light green fine gauze bed-curtain, and a faint yellow light penetrated in from the outside. She was the only one in her small world, immersing in its tranquility.
She was often too occupied or had Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu in her company. Feng Sheng felt that she hadn’t been alone in a long time. This kind of atmosphere furnished a rare calm, so she freed her mind and thought about nothing.
From outside, there was the noise of something falling to the ground, as well as the faintest sound of a maid’s exclamation. Feng Sheng sat up.
Without waiting for her to ask, someone suddenly lifted the bed-curtain, and Prince Wei, dressed in his middle-layer garments,2 emerged in front of Feng Sheng.
The little maid instantaneously withdrew in fright.
“Your Highness Prince Wei……”
“Fang Feng Sheng, who gave you the guts to disobey this prince all the time? Since this prince fancies you, it’s a great honor for you. You should accept it honestly. Who gave you the guts to refuse?!”
Feng Sheng had seen Prince Wei fly into a rage several times, but whenever he was angry, he only wore a cold look and spat out cold words, or at most, smashed a teacup and kicked a stool. This was the first time he bore a semblance to a vicious beast provoked into rage.
Besides, they were in a very awkward situation. She was in her bedclothes, and so was Prince Wei, and he had just lifted the bed-curtain and castigated her.
“Your Highness Prince Wei, if you wish to talk, allow me to put some clothes on……”
Her later words were abruptly cut off.
“What are you doing!”
Feng Sheng’s voice had changed its tone, because Prince Wei actually propelled her to his chest.
Zong Yue’s big palm caressed her face, and he said, “That time, you threw yourself in this prince’s arms. Later, you turned your back and claimed that this prince was trying to seize a subject’s wife. This time, you pretended to be drunk, praised this prince, and belittled yourself, wanting this prince to retire from the scene. Fang Feng Sheng, you cunning fox. This prince is not a toy for you to tease time and again.”
Feng Sheng’s face slightly stiffened. She stretched out her hand against his chest. “I’ve already apologized. The incident is over, and the circumstances are different. Is there a need to mention it again?”
“You don’t feel the need, but this prince does.”
Scalding hot breath brushed against her face. She shrank her neck to evade, but he clamped down on her so hard that at some point she was unknowingly maneuvered to the other’s lap. His big palm had veered to stroking her earlobe.
This kind of act was too intimate and too humiliating. Feng Sheng trembled all over, unable to tell whether it was out of fear or embarrassment. When a prince of high status disregarded her face and exerted power, she was no match against him, whether it was in status or force.
Her head was spinning fast, trying to figure out how to extricate herself from this predicament.
“Your Highness Prince Wei, you don’t want to force a reluctant woman, do you?”
“This prince has now given up reasoning with you. You once said that this prince was despicable and shameless for attempting to seize a subject’s wife. This prince will now do what you want.”
“No, no, no.” Feng Sheng moistened her lips and countered, “Your Highness Prince Wei, an imperial descendant, is wise and powerful. How can your honored self do something like force a woman?”
Zong Yue peered at her with cold eyes as she sat on his lap, gathering her wits and attempting to convince him, like a rabbit that had fallen into a trap but was ignorant of it.
How often was Fang Feng Sheng like this in front of the Zong Yue? She was always quick-witted and provoked him into anger. He marched here in fury and had been stifling the feeling in his heart, but he also hadn’t planned on doing anything to her. After all, with his pride, it was beneath his dignity to force a woman. Unexpectedly, he scared the other party. The more terrified Fang Feng Sheng looked, the more his interest was piqued.
“Now you know how to make up to this prince? Too late!”
He slid his palm to the back of her neck and gently rubbed it. Feng Sheng grabbed the arm behind her and very quickly uttered, “Wait, doesn’t Your Highness think that I’m setting myself on fire? Let’s make a bet, shall we?”
“Bet?” Zong Yue narrowed his eyes. The arm that had secured her waist suddenly grew a hand and started rubbing.
Feng Sheng stiffened her posture. “Yes, let’s make a bet. If I succeed on the matter, the grudge between us will be wiped out and cannot be revisited, nor can Your Highness use it to make things difficult for me again. If I fail, I’ll be at Your Highness Prince Wei’s disposal.”
“At this prince’s disposal?” Zong Yue snorted lightly and said, “Could it be that this prince has such thoughts?”
“Whatever Your Highness thinks. Your Highness Prince Wei, there are thousands of women in the world, including those who are dignified and magnanimous, gentle and carefree, and charming and affectionate. However, to a man, any woman is just a night of pleasure. After which, she would be discarded to the back of his mind without any challenge. Does Your Highness dare bet with me? If I succeed, we can reconcile and make peace, and if I fail, I will withdraw and comply to your wishes.”
“Withdraw and comply? Willingly?”
Zong Yue chuckled. “You’re very confident? Fine, this prince agrees.”
“Your Highness must never secretly interfere.”
“This prince will never secretly interfere.”
Feng Sheng raised her palm. Zong Yue cast her a profound look and then clapped his palm against hers.3
Feng Sheng finally breathed a sigh of relief. Her stamina also gave out.
Only then did she realize that she was still perched on Zong Yue’s lap. She hurriedly climbed out, and Zong Yue also did not stop her.
She took off the coat on the clothes-rack and put it on. She raised her hand, her attitude neither servile nor overbearing. “Your Highness Prince Wei, I want to rest.”
“Changing face as quickly as turning pages of a book!”
Zong Yue also did not express any objection and rose to his feet, leaving in big strides.
It was only after he left that the maid came in shivering from outside.
“You go rest. I’m resting too,” Feng Sheng said.
Since Prince Wei had acceded, Feng Sheng didn’t let go of the opportunity to raise the matter of leaving the next day.
Zong Yue negated in response, saying that she could only leave after three days.
Why it was that she could only leave after three days, Zong Yue didn’t say. Feng Sheng also didn’t think it was good to pry and could only wait patiently for three days to pass.
Nothing transpired in these three days. Zong Yue also didn’t order people to confine her, and she could roam around anywhere in the garden. What was odd was that, every time it was time to dine, Zong Yue would appear, and the two of them would dine together.
Anyway, Feng Sheng could never fathom this Prince Wei’s oddness.
When the three-day period finally arrived, Zong Yue did not fail to keep his word and let Feng Sheng go, including Dao Qi and others. After departing the garden, Feng Sheng discovered that they were in Yangzhou City.
After asking Dao Qi and Hu Si Niang, Feng Sheng learned that Prince Wei did not make things difficult for them. They were provided good food and drink, but they couldn’t leave the place they were cooped up in. Dao Qi had also also attempted to break through and escape, but the guards were all experts and he was no match for them.
Dao Qi’s martial arts was the best among the escorts and he couldn’t even beat them, let alone the others.
There wasn’t time to tell stories. Feng Sheng and her party hastened to the inn where they had arranged to meet with Gou Qing.
They were a few days late for their appointment, and Gou Qing had already grown impatient and had planned to depart the next day. Fortunately, they arrived in time.
Gou Qing inquired about the reason for their delay. Feng Sheng, while observing his appearance, explained that there was a small hitch in the road. Gou Qing was quite concerned about her and tried to worm out more details, but Feng Sheng brushed him off.
She could discern that Gou Qing was completely unaware of the situation, which meant that Gou Qing was not Prince Wei’s person.
They put the matter aside and first settled down at the inn. Gou Qing took Feng Sheng to meet with Huang Jin Fu the next day.
As one of the top ten salt merchants in Yangzhou, the Huang family’s strength and riches were naturally above the norm. Feng Sheng presumed Gou Qing and the Huang family to be partners or subordinates.
The Huang family was the master, and Gou Qing the subordinate. After all, the salt gang depended on salt merchants for a living. However, it seemed that it was Huang Jin Fu who was begging Gou Qing and was exceedingly fawning over him. Even she was regarded with special respect.
Just based on the grand banquet, the fine wine, and the stage, they probably knew that Gou Qing’s temperament was different from that of ordinary people. Instead of preparing beauties, Huang Jin Fu brought out his own theatrical troupe.
Listening to the distinct opera singing on stage and drinking tea, Gou Qing leaned back against his large chair, his hands drumming to the tune.
Huang Jin Fu seemed to have something else to attend to. A while after he left, Feng Sheng questioned his attitude.
“Him, ah? He does need something from me. Do you know what salt merchants like them rely on to make silver?”
Of course, Feng Sheng knew that salt merchants naturally relied on salt.
Gou Qing shook his head. “There are also several kinds of salt, which is why I brought you to see him. The situation is quite ridiculous. Salt merchants rely on official salt, wherein they sustain losses, but they similarly rely on private salt to compensate for the losses. Private salt may seem to proliferate uncontrolled, but in reality, they’re actually in fixed numbers. However, in Taizhou, the excess salt is impossible to calculate, nor is its origin possible to locate. In fact, when salt leaves Taizhou, it will be pooled into several stocks and stored until the stocks flow where they need to go. He wants more, so he naturally has to beg me.”4
“No.” Gou Qing shifted his body and peered at Feng Sheng rather meaningfully, “It would be more correct to say that it’s up to you now. Old brother Feng Fu, now that you have all the extra private salt in Taizhou, shouldn’t they beg you?”
Feng Sheng’s cheeks slightly tightened. Gou Qing was in such close proximity and his words were too insinuating.
Did it mean that Gou Qing had an inkling of what she was doing in secret?
“Beg me? I’m collaborating with Brother Gou. As for how great my ability is, doesn’t Brother Gou know? But to go so far as to use the word ‘beg,’ you’re truly praising me too much.”
“Don’t be modest, old brother Feng Fu.” Gou Qing sat up straight. “This is a rare and good opportunity, and I’m helping old brother Feng Fu. When time comes, don’t say that this big brother didn’t help you.”
This had been spoken quite incisively. Gou Qing must have had a clear idea on what she was doing.
In fact, Feng Sheng hadn’t done anything suspicious. She just visited some salt-boiling households, studied some early books and scrolls, and was informed of another method of salt-making apart from the salt-boiling method.
Compared to the salt-boiling method, the solar evaporation method saved fuel, manpower and material resources. However, since the previous dynasties, the imperial court had adopted the more laborious boiling method in major salterns.
Feng Sheng knew all the details; she also had a general outline of why open-pan salt-boiling was popular and why solar-evaporating salt had declined. The imperial court strictly regulated salt production. Open-pan boiling was employed in Liang Huai, while in coastal areas such as Fujian, they implemented deep-vessel boiling.5 Whether it was open-pan or deep-vessel boiling, both were inseparable from the use of ware.
The wares were all crafted from iron and were incredibly heavy. For instance, the Liang Huai salterns were still using iron pans. These pans were allocated into equal portions. Salt-boiling households would be managed as a group. When it was time to boil salt, salt-boiling households would take out their iron pans and assemble, which was known as group boiling.
All in all, it was still to act against private salt. Over time, people developed a notion that salt-making was mainly by open-pan boiling. In addition, Feng Sheng also learned that although solar-evaporating salt saved labor and resources, the salt from solar evaporation was bitter and somewhat inedible. It was not as tasty as the salt from open-pan boiling.
In order to solve this problem, she invited several old salt-boiling households to profit from widespread suggestions, and then dispensed another place for them to experiment. Before she left Taizhou, she received a report from these people, conveying that they had determined the most suitable brine ratio. Solar-evaporated salt yielded from this newfound brine ratio couldn’t compare with open-pan boiled salt, but it also didn’t fall short against salt on the market. After all, in order to earn more silver, it was inevitable for there to be salt merchants mixing some impurities into the salt.
That was to say, if this matter was successful, she could produce more salt in large quantities regardless of the fuel from marsh fields.
This hidden key advantage was the reason why she dared to bet with Prince Wei.
As for why Gou Qing would know, he was a local snake in Taizhou, so some things naturally couldn’t escape his notice.
“I didn’t expect Brother Gou to be well-informed. I let the wind out in advance before I even finished the matter.” Feng Sheng feigned a bitter smile.
“Just because it wasn’t a success before doesn’t mean it won’t succeed in the future. I’m sure old brother Feng Fu’s goals will soon be realized.”
“Even if this matter comes to fruition, it doesn’t seem to be beneficial to Brother Gou.” Feng Sheng used a probing tone to voice out the doubts in her mind.
“How is it not beneficial? If old brother Feng Fu benefits, I also benefit.”
Gou Qing had leaned in long enough to utter this into Feng Sheng’s ear. She was unprepared and could only passively accept it. Their faces were at such an intimate distance. After the initial panic, Feng Sheng looked into his eyes, trying to grasp the depth of the other in them. Who would have thought that Gou Qing would wink at her?
“Well, I won’t hide it from Feng Fu. Snakes have their ways, and rats have their ways. One person can’t earn all of the world’s silver, so it’s better to earn the silver together. You’ve forgotten that, no matter what kind of salt it is, it has to pass through my eyelids to leave Taizhou. Why should I care about its origin?”
1 Babu bed looks something like this:
2 Something like pajamas. Their clothes have three layers: inner, middle, and outer. Inner ones are the underwear, the middle ones are similar to the photo below.
3 They basically high-fived. I have no idea if there’s an archaic way of saying this.
4 A normal amount of salt (as in official salt) leaves Taizhou, but the excess ones are being kept until they need to be sold or traded (which is the private salt). The official salt is actually making them lose money (they do not get compensated by officials), but they need the salt certificates for private salt to get past checkpoints. So to make it profitable, they need private salt (which is the compensation).
5 煎 actually means ‘fry’, but I’ve been using the word ‘boil’ the whole time ‘cause it’s weird to fry salt. This time, I encountered the actual word for boil, which is ‘煮’. Those who aren’t familiar with the ancient method of producing salt (like me), will often lump these “煎” and “煮” together. In reality, these are two different methods of producing salt. 煎盐 (Open-pan boiling) refers to withdrawing brine from ash or alkaline soil, and to use a shallow but broad pan to boil till dry to make salt. 煮盐 is boiling in a vessel with a deep “stomach”, which takes brine from the under coast mudflats or from a salt pit and add something solid to crystalize it into salt.