Since her initial encounter with Gou Qing, and the deeper they were acquainted, the more Feng Sheng was mystified by this person’s immeasurable depth. Regardless of its origin, all of the salt from Taizhou had to pass under his eyes, and all who were involved had to pay a fee for right of passage.
With this, the salt gang collaborated with major salt merchants and orchestrated salt transport to corresponding ports. This, to them, served as another source of income.
However, Feng Sheng had a foreboding that things were not so simple, as the series of developments coursed too smoothly. If this persisted, the blatant proliferation of private salt would culminate the grave stagnation of official salt. To a certain extent, she couldn’t just sit idly by; otherwise, her goal would only be half-achieved.
At this moment, however, her thoughts were incapable of mustering any tricks, not unless it involved killing or plundering. Now, Feng Sheng no longer thought Gou Qing to be the libertine who coveted herself. She even felt that his licentious demeanor was merely a shell constructed by the other party.
She was nonetheless no better than the other. It was just that, each of them harbored their own ulterior agenda.
“Brother Gou is quite wise!”
“Not as wise as old brother Feng Fu.” Gou Qing cast her a profound look.
Huang Jin Fu’s entrance interrupted the conversation between the two.
Enrobed in python-patterned brocade etched with the ‘silver’ character, he was as fat as a moving mountain. He wore rings on five of his ten fingers, vividly illustrating a salt merchant’s wealth.
“I’ve ordered someone to prepare guest rooms. You two can stay here for a few days. I dare not say anything else, but at least my garden is a masterpiece.”
After the feast, it was no longer too early outside, so Gou Qing and Feng Sheng did not refuse. Servants ushered them to their respective rooms.
Feng Sheng waved off a group of maids, citing her dislike of being served. She bathed and then disguised herself before stepping out of the bathroom.
Unexpectedly, she found a beauty perched on her bed.
“I’m here to serve the gentleman.”
Saying so, the other party sat unmoving and even exhibited some reluctance. There was a little maid standing at the side shooting her warning glances, but it was as though she didn’t see.
Feng Sheng’s interest was piqued, and she waved away the maid. The little maid stared anxiously at her own miss before leaving.
Feng Sheng went to the chair and sat down. The tea on the table wasn’t yet cold, and she drank it with great interest. After a momentary stillness, the other party could no longer retain her composure and uttered, “What you want to do, just do it quickly. Anyway, I don’t plan on returning whole.”
These words were enunciated as if she were a man-eating tiger.
Feng Sheng was now thoroughly intrigued and set down her tea. “Presumably, you’re a miss from the Huang family?”
The little beauty was finally willing to give Feng Sheng due attention.
“How did you know?”
“Your attire and your maid.”
The little beauty smirked with a hint of disgust and voiced, “I’m not a proper miss of the Huang family, but a daughter born to a mistress my father supported outside. I also have a rank, but it’s merely in name, not comparable to a proper Huang family miss. But so what if they’re proper misses? Aren’t they just used as tools all the same?”
That last sentence she had grumbled was ridden with resentment and ridicule.
“Oh? Then, how should I address miss?”
“You can call me Nineteen.”
Uh, what kind of address was that?
Nineteen rolled her eyes. “I’m nineteenth in rank.”
Huang Jin Fu had so many daughters? Well, Feng Sheng was a little surprised.
“Why is Nineteenth Miss here today?”
Nineteen rose to her feet and propped herself on the seat across Feng Sheng.
“Do you really not understand or are you just pretending? My father wants to win you over, that’s why he sent me here. You should be very honored. If he didn’t attach great importance to you, my father wouldn’t have been willing to let go of this daughter. My father dotes on this daughter the most,” boasted Nineteen with her chin tilted upward.
Feng Sheng was amused. She truly was still a little lass.
“If your father dotes on you the most, why is he giving you away?”
Nineteen’s face stiffened, and she replied, “My father knows you haven’t married yet. After tonight, you’ll have to marry me back. But first of all, although I’m not a proper miss of the Huang family, I grew up with wealth and good treatment. If you’re too poor to support me, I will be laughed to death by those twenty.”
Feng Sheng deduced that ‘those twenty’ were Nineteen’s sisters. With this forced marriage suddenly thrusted to her direction, she felt a little helpless.
“Nineteenth Miss, I don’t plan on doing anything to you.”
Nineteen raised her eyebrows in indignation. “You actually disdain me?”
She appeared to be a pampered and delicate little miss, but with her eyebrows raised, she actually looked quite fierce.
“I’m the prettiest of the unmarried sisters!”
“No, no, no. I’m not saying that Nineteenth Miss isn’t pretty. It’s just that, when it comes to marriage, men and women should abide by their parents’ orders and the matchmaker’s words. How can we have sexual relations prior to marriage? Besides, Miss and I are unfamiliar with each other. It’s a joke to talk about marriage so soon.”
Saying this, Feng Sheng sighed softly, “But Nineteenth Miss, what difficult problems do you have at home? Otherwise, how could this possibly happen?”
“Problems? What problems? I just heard my father crying to my mother, saying that the days are hard, and if we don’t do this, the Huang family will collapse. That’s why my mother asked me to win you over and get you on our side.”
To Feng Sheng’s understanding, even if the Huang family were experiencing difficulty, they wouldn’t collapse. Was there a twist she wasn’t aware of? Or was this Nineteenth Miss lying to her?
But to Feng Sheng, she really looked unlike it.
In the Huang residence, at the courtyard where Ninth Concubine lived.
Ninth Concubine was pulling Huang Jin Fu’s ear, wailing and cursing.
She was in her thirties. It wasn’t fitting to describe her as one who had the countenance of a flower and a face like the moon, but she did have a well-rounded figure. There was a sharp contrast between her brows and eyes that differed from that of ordinary women, supplementing a bit of brightness and beauty to her.
“Quickly get my daughter back! Huang Jin Fu, this old woman regrets giving my daughter away. I shouldn’t have followed you to this lousy place to begin with!”
Master Huang usually had the final say in the Huang residence. However, right this moment, Ninth Concubine was pinching his ear. Not to mention beating people out of rage, he couldn’t even brandish his temper. He could only yelp in pain.
“Mei Mei’er, it’s too late to regret now. Those two have been there for so long. The deed has surely been accomplished.”
Hearing this ‘deed has surely been accomplished’, Ninth Concubine was both inconsolably heartbroken and in a towering rage. She shoved Huang Jin Fu towards the couch, pounding and pinching, and barraged him with cries of ‘return my daughter’ every time she opened her mouth.
Huang Jin Fu’s heart was also particularly upset. He consoled, “Haven’t you seen the person? He’s a fine-looking man with a graceful and elegant bearing. Other women in the manor don’t know the situation in the family, but don’t you know? Silver is needed everywhere, and the Lu family is already urging for this year’s floating fees and various contributions. If I don’t think of a way, the Huang family will collapse in my hands.”
“My daughter can’t fill that in. I only have one daughter. Had I known earlier, I wouldn’t have brought Ying’er back and instead continued to be free and happy out there. Why should I dispute with you about these unclear trifles? Now I’ve lost my daughter because of them.”
This Ninth Concubine was originally the daughter of a shopkeeper under the Huang family. Huang Jin Fu once inspected the shop and took a fancy to the pure and unmarried her. This Ninth Concubine was also a discerning person. Knowing that her family depended on the Huang family for their livelihood, she couldn’t shirk, so she followed Huang Jin Fu.
However, she didn’t want to return to Huang family with him, so she instead became Huang Jin Fu’s mistress.
On the whole, a wife wasn’t as good as a concubine, and a concubine wasn’t as good as a mistress. As it happened, this further enraptured Huang Jin Fu, prompting him to spoil and pamper her. Ninth Concubine had mentioned that she wanted to do business, so he let her toss about and have her way. Other concubines in the manor were totally submissive to Huang Jin Fu, yet he just had to treat Ninth Concubine, who cared little about him, like a treasure.
After more than ten years this way, Ninth Concubine was no longer young. This wasn’t the main point. The crux was that Huang Ying’er also wasn’t young anymore.
A family’s miss nevertheless had to one day marry out. What was the use of Huang Jin Fu favoring Ninth Concubine? In the end, as an outside mistress, she had no status, so even Huang Ying’er had no status. Left with no other option, for the sake of her daughter’s future marriage, Ninth Concubine took her back to the Huang family.
Huang Jin Fu had always been one who kept his word. Many of the madams and concubines were afraid of him, so Ninth Concubine’s and Huang Ying’er’s days in the Huang family were quite smooth. Ninth Concubine used to assist Huang Jin Fu in managing part of the business outside, but only when she entered the Huang family was she able to truly witness how the Huang family was now strong in appearance but weak in reality.
The salt merchants seemed affluent, including themselves, but once they needed silver, only then were they able to determine the limit to their wealth.
Once salt was transported out of the saltern and fell into others’ hands to resell, along the way, cruel exploitation persisted layer upon layer. Apart from this, there were countless amount of silver for supplemental wages delivered to the offices of each official residence and yamen every year, not to mention every kind of excuse fabricated by those officials to set up floating fees and various contributions. These had to be mounted on the price of official salt. However, if the official salt price was too high, it would stagnate, so private salt would run even more rampant.
At present, the Huang family had five ships of official salt in Hunan, but there was no one to transport and sell them. In the past, they were able to convince those above and held off paying the salt tax. This year, because there were several incidents in succession, those above were no longer acquiescent. Before, as long as they ranked among the top ten salt merchants in Yangzhou, who would even consider private salt? Those who troubled with it were only the small salt merchants beneath them. Now, they were left without an alternative. As far as Huang Jin Fu knew, all were scouring for ways to broaden their private salt trade.
Huang Jin Fu’s guts were small. He was well-aware that once selling private salt was reported, it was a serious matter that would lead to seizure of property and beheading. However, in the recent years, he couldn’t make ends meet and was compelled to gradually get involved, even to the point where he had to ingratiate himself with ’Gentleman Fang’ to increase the shipment amount.
“Well, you should stop crying. I talked to that Gentleman Fang, and the other party is a giant among men, clean-living and honest. Perhaps, for Little Nineteen to be on the receiving end of such a person is also her good fortune. Look at Eighth jie’er, isn’t she also living a smooth life in the court elder’s family?”
“If you think her life’s so smooth, why don’t you ask your Eighth jie’er to help you out of your predicament? That’s the court elder’s family. Would they deign to lower themselves to implicate me and Ying’er?”
“Bah, let’s stop talking about the Song family. They’re just a bunch of people who are desperate for silver. Except for being all smiles when they need something, they always look at people with their nostrils. This daddy is considered blind sending Little Eighth to that place. I don’t care about status this time. Although the county official is of high status, the one actually holding the authority in Taizhou, that place, is that one surnamed Fang. He’s also one who keeps his word and has yet to marry. Go have a good rest. We’ll go to the garden tomorrow and attack him by surprise.
“After all, he’s young and inexperienced. We should force him to marry Little Nineteen and have her be the primary wife or madam of the house. When the time comes, our son-in-law will be holding all the private salt in his hands, and I’ll be helping him with matters outside. With this father-in-law’s help, it won’t be impossible to go directly over that one surnamed Gou. If we all work hard to get our son-in-law to be an official in that place, Little Nineteen will directly metamorphose to an official’s wife. By that time, the top ten salt merchants in Yangzhou may have to switch seats.”
“You’re thinking quite beautifully.”
“If I didn’t think beautifully, you wouldn’t have given me Little Nineteen.”
Early the next morning, Huang Jin Fu took Ninth Concubine to the garden.
Seeing that the time was almost up, he broke directly into the room with his men. Ninth Concubine dampened her handkerchief with some water beforehand and charged in bemoaning ‘my daughter’ with a seemingly enraged Huang Jin Fu in tow.
However, the situation in the room was not at all what they had anticipated. Huang Ying’er was neatly dressed and was playing Go with Fang Feng Sheng.
“Father, mother, what are you all doing here, ah?”
“Little Nineteen, this……”
Huang Ying’er smiled apologetically at Feng Sheng and trotted forward to yank Huang Jin Fu and Ninth Concubine outside.
“Father, quickly let the servants retreat. It’s not good having so many people around us.”
Huang Jin Fu waved everyone away and probed, “Little Nineteen, that thing……”
“What are you saying? You damned old man!” Ninth Concubine snatched her daughter over and pulled her aside, “Ying’er, your father just wants to ask……” Well, she didn’t have the heart to blurt it out even if she was her mother.
“Father, mother, what are you up to, ah? I just played Go with him all night. By the way, there’s something else. Gentleman Fang said he wants to talk to Dad.”
Huang Jin Fu plodded into that room, his face riddled with misgivings, and came out only after a long, long time.
The next day, Feng Sheng and the others embarked on their way home.