It had been a whole four hours since they began writing the memorial, and they had just completed the preliminary draft.
Xiao Qi’s sudden knocking ripped apart the glum silence.
Xiao Qi halted just outside the door and reported, “My lord, Old Madam sent someone to ask when you will be taking a break.”
The atmosphere had originally been dreary, but after Xiao Qi’s sudden intervention, they didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and felt a tad helpless.
“We haven’t finished our official business. When it’s over, we’ll take a break.”
Xiao Qi trod in, his eyes not daring to confront Fang Feng Sheng’s, and disconsolately warned Fan Jin Chuan, “My lord, this lowly one thinks that you might as well take a break. Otherwise, this lowly one fears that Old Madam will personally come over later.”
Fan Jin Chuan knitted his brows and rebuked, “Go tell Old Madam that this official business is urgent. Tell her to rest early and to take care of her health.”
Fan Jin Chuan was rarely nettled, so Xiao Qi also dared not say more and hastily fired out to report back.
Feng Sheng suddenly laughed. “My lord, if you’re hungry, why don’t you go have someone cook something for you?”
“Is Worthy Brother hungry? I’ll ask someone to prepare something to eat.” Saying that, Fan Jin Chuan shot up and strode outside to personally make the arrangements.
Watching his back, Feng Sheng’s gaze dimmed, then she placed her eyes on the memorial.
After a brief interlude, Fan Jin Chuan returned.
“I’ll have someone bring in some noodles. It’s nice to eat something warm in this cold weather, isn’t it? Worthy Brother, your clothes look too thin. Don’t you want to wear something thicker?”
“No need.” Feng Sheng held up the memorial and remarked, “I’ve just read what my lord has written, and I think the words are quite evocative. However, I think you should add something more to it. A summary is insufficient. We also need to write down the exact data to employ shock……”
They discussed while waiting for the noodles.
When the noodles arrived, they withdrew to the side to eat.
It was the most rudimental of minced meat noodles, topped with egg and tofu, with various vegetables strewn afloat. The noodles were strong and slippery, with spicy oil adhering to it. A single mouthful was incomparably fragrant, fresh, and steaming hot, coursing warmth all through their body.
The study had no spare tables and chairs, only two round-backed armchairs and a small flower table under the window. The two placed their bowls on the flower table.1
Bowing his head and then looking up, his gaze collided with the other’s, realizing just then that they were at such an intimate proximity.
Feng Sheng evaded his gaze and waited for him to take a bite before she lowered her head to finish her bowl of noodles. This experience wasn’t novel to them; however, since Bao-shi‘s arrival, something had changed.
This change disheartened Fan Jin Chuan, yet he forced a smile in spite of his gloom. Fortunately, the memorial seemed to have consumed Feng Sheng’s thoughts, so his minute display of emotions escaped her notice.
What Fan Jin Chuan didn’t know was that, when he buried himself in writing, Feng Sheng peeped at him in complexity.
By the time they had actually finalized the memorial, the sky’s marble white color manifested in the east. During this period, Xiao Qi had come to urge on Bao-shi‘s behalf once more, but Fan Jin Chuan drove him away after a curt reprimand.
“My lord, what you’ve written here, do you not need to inform the elder lord about it?”
This elder lord was referring to Court Elder Song. Feng Sheng knew, and Fan Jin Chuan also knew.
“No, this matter involves too many. Whether the teacher knows or doesn’t, it might make things difficult for him. He might as well not know, so as not to cause him any trouble.”
“What about Lord Du? He’s on your camp. It would be a bit unreasonable if he didn’t know.”
Fan Jin Chuan sprung up and said, “Alright, Worthy Brother, you need not be apprehensive.”
As he stooped down to seal the envelope with lacquer, Feng Sheng mused to herself: She wasn’t apprehensive, she was just……
“Worthy Brother, go get some rest. I’ve let you stay up with me all night. I still have to wait for people to send this away after dawn before resting.”
“I’ll accompany my lord along.”
“Alright. I’ll ask someone to make some more food.”
Fan Jin Chuan traipsed out and kicked Xiao Qi leaning against the corner, deep in slumber.
Xiao Qi awoke with a start, only to find that the sky was startlingly bright.
Fan Jin Chuan ordered him to ask people to make food. Xiao Qi stumbled and responded that the kitchen maid had gone home last night, and that the noodles were Man’er’s handiwork.
From inside, Feng Sheng overheard their muffled conversation and was about to suggest that she could wake Zhi Chun to do the errand, when Xiao Qi called out Miss Man’er from outside.
As she stepped out, what greeted her was dense mist and heavy dew. Man’er sauntered over with a food box, apparently mindful of the fact that they had stayed up all night and had prepared food ahead of time.
“We’ve troubled Miss Man’er.”
Man’er looked up and saw a man propped against the door. His figure was frail, with a coat draped over his shoulders. His eyes and brows exhibited fatigue, but he was nonetheless unmistakably handsome.
What a man.
Fortunately, he was a man. Had he been a woman, she feared that even with a lifetime of strenuous efforts, she couldn’t triumph over the other person.
Suppressing her surging feelings, Man’er softly replied, “Advisor Fang is polite. Man’er can’t help Brother Jin Chuan with official matters and can only help with some odd things.”
Then, she turned to Fan Jin Chuan, “Brother Jin Chuan, I cooked porridge and baked cakes. You and Advisor Fang should eat some quickly. You’ve been busy all night and should rest earlier, or else, else, mother ought to be anxious again.”
After the autumn harvest and with the memorial sent away, they seemed to have run out of things to do this year.
In the following period, not only Feng Sheng, but even Fan Jin Chuan had succumbed to dormancy.
On this day, a carriage popped up in front of Taizhou’s county yamen, from which a young miss as pretty as flowers alighted.
By the look of her, she was around fourteen or fifteen, delicate and pretty, with a maid in tow.
She was not looking for Fan Jin Chuan, but for Feng Sheng.
“Big brother Feng Fu, I’ve come to play with you ah.”
It was Huang Ying’er, the miss whose nickname was Nineteen. She had actually waded to Taizhou City by herself.
Nineteen had quite a lively temperament. Although she appeared delicate and contentious, it was precisely these qualities of hers that warmed the heart and delighted the eye.
Upon reaching Taizhou’s county yamen, she tattled on about her ill-concealed distaste towards everything in sight. A while ago, she had pointed that the surroundings were sordid and crude, then criticized the outdated furniture and the dull hue of the teacup. However, when Feng Sheng came into view, utter delight overtook her, and everything else instantly seemed pleasant. At a glance, one could behold that this young miss was experiencing her first awakening of love.
To others, Feng Sheng introduced her as a friend’s little sister. She garbled about how her friend was out on a sojourn and entrusted her to look after her for a while. In truth, who couldn’t see that the young miss sought her out on her own?
With this, Bao-shi finally breathed a sigh of relief.
Afterwards, in her elation, she set up a table to entertain Nineteen, whose name she beautifully articulated as if she wasn’t some outsider. In the county yamen, she was everyone’s senior, so the younger generation naturally had to entertain her. She also fired out questions about Feng Sheng and Nineteen’s wedding day, if the betrothal gift had been finalized, and why Ninenteen’s small face had gone ablaze. Nineteen usually twittered like a small sparrow. This time, however, she was rendered mute and, in abashment, aimed her pair of watery eyes at Feng Sheng.
Fan Jin Chuan had mixed feelings in his heart.
After Nineteen’s unexpected visit, Feng Sheng started getting busy——busy accompanying her everywhere to enjoy the scenery.
Ever since Man’er arrived, not once had she stepped out of the gate, so Bao-shi urged Fan Jin Chuan to take Man’er along with those two. Nineteen was also very curious about Man’er and liked dragging her around to ask questions. There were originally just two people, but they became a group of four.
“Big brother Feng Fu, look at this necklace. It’s actually made of seashells……”
The eastern part of the city had a small market every three days and a large one every five days. Every market day, along both sides of the road were small vendors selling a variety of sundries, food, clothing, encompassing just about anything.
Taizhou was close to the sea, so there was naturally no shortage of stuff from the sea. They weren’t worth much, just some novelty to sell.
Feng Sheng fished out some silver and handed it to the vendor, slipping the necklace into Nineteen’s hand.
Not far behind, Fan Jin Chuan was looking ahead, while Man’er was gazing at him.
“Say, how long do you think we’ll be taking them out for fun? These two are too boring and quiet.” They weren’t just boring. Anyone who had two pairs of eyes boring through his back would have trouble feeling comfortable.
“It won’t be long now.”
Feng Sheng nodded and, with a simper, promised, “If you find them annoying, next time, when we plan to go out, we can get rid of them first before leaving.”
Nineteen batted her lashes at her and chirped, “I think that’s a good idea. We’ll do that next time.”
Unfortunately, before this next time, Feng Sheng had Nineteen sent back to Yangzhou.
Because the wind was rising.
Whenever the salt administration was broached in the imperial court hall for discussion, they always ended up with nothing definite.
This time, however, one matter wasn’t left unsettled, and that was when the Jianping Emperor disclosed his intention to dismiss and replace the Salt Circuit officials, the salt-control imperial censor, Gu Bi Chang, and the salt distribution commissioner, He Lun, whom His Majesty had straightened out countless times this year. It was apparent that they had lost His Majesty’s trust. Inevitably, some people’s thoughts stirred.
In court, a nasty atmosphere erupted as everyone began lambasting the Liang Huai Salt Administration’s officials for their incompetence. Some even alluded to the incident of the former salt distribution commissioner, Zhou Guang Rui’s greed for taxes. In any case, they had reached a consensus: a good position should be occupied by a virtuous person.
But who was this virtuous person?
Naturally, it would take another three hundred rounds of debate and several meandering squabbles before they could reach a conclusion.
As the court officials were criticizing the two aforementioned positions like raging fire, the Jianping Emperor threw out a plan like muffled thunder.
In his own name, Fan Jin Chuan, the Taizhou county magistrate, enumerated the advantages of Huai brine on his memorial and made a list comprising 18 major items and 56 sub-items. He criticized the incessant political malpractices of the Liang Huai Salt Administration, and that it was in urgent need of reform.
“Fan Jin Chuan is just a mere Taizhou county magistrate, yet after assuming office for just less than a year and a half, he was able to see that the salt administration had such deep and long-established corrupt practices. Liang Huai has more than a thousand officials in all levels of the system. Our good provincial governors, imperial censors, provincial commanders-in-chief, and governor-generals, are they all blind?!”
The Jianping Emperor brushed his sleeves and flounced out of the court in wrath, starting the court turmoil in the 27th year of Jianping.
That evening, more than one or two families stayed up all night. One feared that more than half of the people in the capital had no intention of sleeping peacefully. In less than two days, the Liangjiang governor-general, the Jiangsu provincial governor, the Jiangnan Circuit imperial censor, and several others filed a complaint one after another.
This was a response to the Jianping Emperor’s remark about their blindness. When the emperor scolded them for their oversight, they nevertheless had to explain themselves, didn’t they? Of course, their explanations manifested none of their lurid thoughts. On the surface, most of them were words expressing their remorse for losing His Majesty’s favor, their extreme shame, how death couldn’t atone for their sins, and other such words. Included among these were their equivocal grievances and powerlessness and so on.
All in all, they could not depart from their main objective, nor could they lose His Majesty’s favor. Now, under these circumstances, while they hadn’t yet affected the grand scheme of things, they had to first cleanse themselves from their previous crimes to avoid reprobation. Along the way, they had to sound out the Jianping Emperor’s attitude in order to carry out their next course of actions once things had quieted down.
In fact, the whole court was struggling over this matter. Some were watching the fire from the other side of the river,2 some were adding insult to injury, some were acting on their own selfishness, and many wanted to sniff out whether the Jianping Emperor was just scolding or was planning to make a move this time.
Soon, the Jianping Emperor declared that, this time, he was utterly serious.
He appointed Fan Jin Chuan to command the Liang Huai Salt Circuit Reform, dispatched Jinyiwei to assist in the task, and sent down a decree ordering Prince Wei to oversee and supervise it.
For a time, the entire court was in a state of panic.
1 Minced meat noodles and the round-backed armchairs separated by a small flower table.
2 隔岸观火: to watch the fires burning across the river; to delay entering the fray until all others have been exhausted by fighting amongst themselves (idiom); look on at sb.’s trouble with indifference