Salt ponds were essential to dry salt, and setting them up necessitated manpower.
Different from Taizhou, because of the depression of the salt affairs in Haizhou, local officials were more powerful than salt officials. However, the salt-boiling households were miserable, as they were burdened by salt and field taxes with no private salt to subsidize them. As a result, the salt-boiling households often fled from incidents in the salterns, or gave up their fields to rich households and were reduced to tenant farmers.
Second Assistant Zou could not bear to excoriate the common people, but he had no other alternative for this plight. So long as they accomplished the salt shipment amount every year, he could only turn a blind eye. Over time, a few old and weak women and children were the only ones left in the salterns.
In other words, the Haizhou Division absolutely couldn’t assist Feng Sheng. She not only had to expend manpower, but also had to spend silver.
Fortunately, in this world, silver could solve most problems. She had accumulated a large sum of silver because of the private salt trade in Huainan, and it was adequate to support her endeavors in Huaibei.
Because Feng Sheng was willing to spend silver, she quickly established a shallows in the coastal area. Around this time, it was almost the end of the year.
Fan Jin Chuan had already written to Feng Sheng twice, asking her to return to Yangzhou before New Year’s Eve.
In this regard, Feng Sheng had no intention to return.
On one hand, it would attract attention, and the other…… What would she do back in Yangzhou?
Ever since her father died, she never had a home. Wherever she went, that was where her home was.
“Why is Lord Fang standing outside? It’s cold out. Come in quickly. We’ll be eating in a little while.” Second Assistant Zou’s old wife, an old woman Feng Sheng addressed as Aunt Hu, served food into the room and greeted Feng Sheng standing on the corridor.
“Alright, I’m coming.” Feng Sheng exhaled a breath of cold air and lifted the curtain to enter the warm interior.
Second Assistant Zou’s two grandchildren were playing with each other inside. Charcoal braziers blazed in the room, and several dishes had been set on the table, emitting a rich aroma of food that made people want to wriggle their ten fingers.
Outside came Tong Bai Hu’s voice of greeting. The door curtain was lifted, and Tong Bai Hu stalked in.
“Quickly sit down. The wine is also warmed up for you all.”
“Aunt, you sit down too,” Feng Sheng said.
“You men drink wine, we don’t. Later, I’ll set another table with Dan Zi’s mother and the two children. It’s New Year’s Eve, it’s always going to be warm and lively.”
Second Assistant Zou, Feng Sheng, and Tong Bai Hu gave way for each other. The three people settled themselves on the table, along with Second Assistant Zou’s son, a simple and honest youth named Zou Mu Liang.
Lively footsteps dithered outside the door. They belonged to Aunt Hu and her daughter-in-law as they helped Dao Qi and a few Jinyiwei prepare the New Year’s Eve dinner. They were all big men and paid no heed to delicacy. As long as there was meat, wine, and enough dishes, it sufficed for them.
As the last dish was served, the table for women and children was set. Zou Mu Liang led his eldest son to set off firecrackers outside the door, and Feng Sheng followed them to watch. After a while, everyone in the room made their exit.
In the middle of the courtyard lay one thick firecracker and a string of suspended smaller firecrackers.
Zou Mu Liang burned the incense and instructed his son to light it. The little boy was afraid and didn’t dare, but in the end was eager to try. Finally, under his father’s support, he stretched his small arm and used the incense to light the firecrackers.
First, he lit the firecrackers, and then the hanging string.
This moment, all they could hear was a loud thundering sound. After which, the small string of firecrackers ignited.
Crackle, crackle, crackle, crackle……
Feng Sheng covered her ears. She seemed to hear Tong Bai Hu’s muffled laughter, jeering at her for being terrified of firecrackers. Second Assistant Zou and the others looked at her with their faces wreathed with smiles. She wanted to withdraw her hand, but she was ashamed to withdraw it. Nonetheless, she assumed an appearance of a just and self-confident man, emphasizing that a truly masculine man who feared firecrackers was not at all disgraceful.
Besides, it wasn’t that she was afraid, she just felt that it was too loud.
Zou Mu Liang lit another string of firecrackers and threw them in the yard. The two children at the side were circling around it, tittering and slapping each other.
Along with the sound of firecrackers, indistinct shouts erupted nearby, but they were slightly inaudible. From outside the door, a tall man draped with a cloak sauntered in the dim light of the night. Only then did Feng Sheng realize that Prince Wei had come.
At this time, in this kind of place, Prince Wei?
Although others had never seen Prince Wei, they could discern that this man’s grandeur was far from ordinary, especially with so many people clustered around him. Truly not just any average man.
The string of firecrackers had already exploded, and the smell of niter was pungent.
Feng Sheng blinked to make sure she wasn’t mistaken and descended the steps. “What is your honored self doing here? Have met His Highness Prince Wei.”
Second Assistant Zou was about to ask who this person was. Upon hearing that it was Prince Wei, he hastily greeted with a deep bow, his hands clasped in front of his chest.
“Passing by,” Prince Wei briefly explained.
Just in time, Tong Bai Hu also marched forward to salute. He lifted his hand and strode to his side.
“Lord Prince Wei, please come inside. My wife has just prepared the New Year’s Eve dinner. If Your Highness doesn’t mind, please have some inside.” Second Assistant Zou welcomed him as he stood at the side of the road.
Passing by? As if! Feng Sheng followed behind and also went in.
Prince Wei’s arrival changed the atmosphere. The women and children had all vanished, leaving only a few men in the room.
Feng Sheng was fond of those two little boys, and she also liked chatting with Aunt Hu and the others amidst the meal. In her heart, she groaned a little about Prince Wei, this uninvited guest.
As for Prince Wei, although he said nothing of his preferences, he didn’t refuse when Second Assistant Zou invited him to sit on the main seat. He sat at the top, so the rest were inclined to sit below him. De Wang, the lackey, was also around. Five to six people were standing next to Prince Wei to set the dishes for him.
In such a situation, this New Year’s Eve dinner was not destined to be lively.
It was neither harmonious nor insipid. No one spoke, but for some reason, Prince Wei seemed a little displeased, his face growing colder by the instant.
There was a sudden bang. Prince Wei had tossed aside his chopsticks and rose to his feet to fire out. Others had no other choice but to stand up as well.
Second Assistant Zou accompanied him out. Feng Sheng was too lazy to move, so she just sat there listlessly and continued to eat. Unknown as to what happened outside, after a brief moment, Tong Bai Hu came back and announced that Prince Wei had gone. He also mentioned that Prince Wei’s temperament was worthy of his reputation. Sure enough, he was moody and indecipherable.
He left? Good riddance!
After a while, Second Assistant Zou returned from the outside, his stance suggesting that he had sent Prince Wei away.
In a spacious and comfortable carriage outside the Haizhou Division yamen, De Wang half bent over and hesitantly asked Prince Wei, “Your Highness, are you really leaving?”
Prince Wei looked at him coldly and didn’t respond.
“You’ve come here with great difficulty. It’s now freezing cold, and it’s New Year’s Eve. Do you want to drive back all night?”
De Wang was immediately terrified and didn’t dare speak.
After a while, he poked his neck out and once again inquired, “The things you brought have not been delivered yet. Do you still want them sent out?”
Prince Wei didn’t say anything. De Wang snuck a glance at him and very scrupulously left the carriage.
Feng Sheng had just asked to have the children, Aunt Hu and the others beckoned over, but someone once again returned from outside.
This time, it was De Wang who came.
De Wang put on airs, and tailing after him were two imperial bodyguards holding various brocade boxes.
“His Highness prepared some New Year presents and asked me to send them over. Second Assistant Zou, this is for you and your family. Tong Bai Hu, this is for you. Advisor Fang, this is for you.” De Wang pointed to the two imperial bodyguards, each of their hands holding two or three brocade gift boxes stacked high up until they almost covered a person’s face.
With this, it seemed clear why Prince Wei had come.
Originally, Second Assistant Zou and Tong Bai Hu had their misgivings about Prince Wei’s sudden presence, but now they were enlightened.
She wasn’t sure whether or not it was due to her state of mind, but Feng Sheng actually felt that those two’s thoughtful eyes peering at herself were a bit ambiguous. She suddenly found it a bit hard to sit still.
“By the way, Advisor Fang, His Highness still has words he had instructed this slave to convey.”
In this situation, Feng Sheng could only go outside with De Wang.
“What does His Highness Prince Wei want to say?” Feng Sheng nonchalantly asked.
De Wang eyed her from head to toe, revealed a crafty smile, and said, “Advisor Fang, just stop feigning ignorance. Don’t you know why His Highness has come?”
“Whether you understand it or not, with what Advisor Fang and Lord Fan want to do, you still need His Highness, don’t you? What good will it do to offend His Highness? Don’t fault me for warning you, but our Highness remembers grudges most clearly. As long as a grudge has been made, it will never be resolved for a lifetime,” warned De Wang with a vicious grimace.
Feng Sheng’s mind was adrift.
Indeed, she shouldn’t have offended Prince Wei. It was just that, Prince Wei’s actions that time made her subconsciously avoid him as one would snakes and scorpions.
She sighed, arched her hands in a bow and conceded, “Feng Fu is foolish and really doesn’t know how to deal with this. Respectfully asking for Eunuch’s advice.”
De Wang hooked his finger. “Lend me your ear.”
The two had an elaborate discussion, with Feng Sheng shaking her head every now and then. After almost a cup of tea’s time, the two reached a unanimous agreement.
Outside the yamen, the cold wind was blowing, and the carriage was still quietly parked there, surrounded by ten to twenty imperial bodyguards.
Feng Sheng approached the front of the carriage and cleared her throat before saying, “The sky is dark, it’s not suitable to travel at this time. How about Your Highness stay here for one night, and then drive away tomorrow?”
There was no response from inside the carriage. The cold wind blew the curtains aflutter.
“Your Highness, even if you don’t think of yourself, you should think of these big brother imperial guards. The night journey is most difficult in the cold, and besides, it’s not safe.”
Still, no one spoke.
Feng Sheng’s eyes flickered. She leaned over to the carriage window, made a show of listening, and then answered herself, “Yes, yes, Your Highness.”
She made a gesture of invitation to the imperial bodyguards on horseback and said, “There’s wine and food inside the house. Tong Bai Hu and the others specially bought two sheep yesterday. A pot of mutton stew in this kind of winter with a few jars of ‘burning knife’ wine1 is the most comfortable. Eunuch De has already made arrangements inside and asked me to welcome His Highness in. Please, everyone……”
The imperial bodyguards had indeed seen De Wang come in, as well as Feng Sheng conversing with His Highness in the carriage. They only took it as Prince Wei’s temporary change of mind. They had thought that His Highness’s sudden departure was strange, but brushed it aside and drove their horses inside.
The threshold2 taken down and had just been put in place was once more disassembled.
The carriage drove in and stopped.
The curtain was lifted, revealing Prince Wei’s face as cold as frost and snow.
“Fang Feng Sheng, you have such big guts!”
Feng Sheng pulled out a smile. “For fear that Your Highness isn’t used to it, I had another table prepared. I hope Your Highness doesn’t dislike it.”
Prince Wei looked at her coldly and got off the carriage.
Atop the separately prepared table was actually a pot of lamb and radish stew, along with a few more dishes.
There were only two people at the table, Prince Wei and Feng Sheng.
During the meal, Prince Wei’s face remained cold, but in the end, he did not throw his chopsticks again.
After the meal, Feng Sheng was exhausted. She was about to stand up and take her leave. Suddenly, the silent winter night seemed to awaken.
In the distance was the rumbling and the incessant crackling of firecrackers. Because it was too far away, these noises interspersed and unified into a wave of sound that broke through the night sky.
On the other side of the main courtyard, the Zou family seemed to have set off firecrackers as well, churning out a lot of noise.
Feng Sheng ambled outside, positioned herself on the corridor, and gazed at the distant sky. As expected, there was a faint light of fire. It seemed that some rich families had also set off fireworks bursting open into the indigo night sky.
It was past midnight. A new year had arrived.
“To an auspicious new year.”
“To an auspicious new year.”
As she looked over, Feng Sheng was astonished to see Prince Wei’s cold and stern side profile.
Meanwhile, Yangzhou City had a more lively situation than Banpu Town.
By midnight, it seemed that the silent city had abruptly awakened.
Swoosh——swoosh——bang bang bang!
The night was illuminated.
In the house, Fan Jin Chuan, who was accompanying Bao-shi‘s night vigil, promptly awoke.
When he opened his eyes, Bao-shi and Man’er were both scrutinizing him.
“It’s midnight ah. Mother, I’ll have someone go and set off the firecrackers.”
“You don’t say!”
Outside, the sound of firecrackers blared.
Fan Jin Chuan went out and studied the colorful night sky.
The happy laughter and cheerful voices from last year’s New Year’s Eve were still fresh in his mind, but this year, there was one person missing.
1 烧刀子 (shāo dāozi): lit. burning knives. I kept the literal translation. It’s wine with high alcohol content and a strong flavor. According to Baidu: As the wine of the common people, the wine of the general public, the ‘burning knife’ wine has left a glorious footprint in the history of Chinese wine culture. Today’s famous ‘burning knife’ wine began with the brewing technology in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.
2 Basically a plank like this.