Eunuch Huo was a lot more determined than they had thought. No matter how much Feng Sheng hinted and reasoned, he was still convinced that this was an opportunity not to be missed.
By dealing with the accumulated batches in Huainan, he would compel the two divisions to relinquish an amount of salt tallying with the accumulated batches on the records. If they couldn’t, then it only meant those who looked upon them with greed had all taken the salt for themselves. This could then be used as an excuse to directly replace the recalcitrant officials one by one. With that, the new policy would be smoothly carried out.
This way of thinking was not half bad, but it was too naive. If such a method was effective, would the Jianping Emperor, who had always turned a blind eye, send someone to deal with Liang Huai because he could no longer stand it?
The Jianping Emperor’s previous response was quite in line with Feng Sheng’s notion of a monarch’s sophistry and strategy. However, the appearance of this Eunuch Huo, who did not play his cards according to usual practice, completely rendered the Jianping Emperor’s motives an enigma that Fang Feng Sheng couldn’t at all decipher.
A cautious monarch suddenly deviated from his usual character. If Feng Sheng hadn’t pestered Fan Jin Chuan to ascertain if Eunuch Huo had been delegated by the Jianping Emperor, she would have suspected that the opponent had infiltrated their people and sent Eunuch Huo over specifically to create a stir. However, Fan Jin Chuan was quite definite that it was the Jianping Emperor who had sent Eunuch Huo over.
In that case, there was only one possibility: the Jianping Emperor was so apprehensive that he was unwilling to wait for two or three more years, desperately eager to reform the situation in Liang Huai. Feng Sheng had estimated the time of two or three years based on the current circumstances. After all, it would take more than one cold day for the river to freeze three feet deep.1 A reform was naturally not something anyone could accomplish overnight. Two to three years was a conservative estimate.
But why was the Jianping Emperor so apprehensive?
Too little valid information were available for Feng Sheng to gather, so she was still unable to unravel the reason behind it.
Now, however, she couldn’t mull over it for long. Eunuch Huo had grown dissatisfied with Feng Sheng for shirking her responsibilities that the two of them were almost at each other’s throats. If it wasn’t for Fan Jin Chuan’s intercession, Feng Sheng would have quit being an official.
Finally, they reached an agreement. Eunuch Huo and Fan Jin Chuan would venture to Huainan to deal with the matter. Feng Sheng hadn’t wanted to tag along, but she couldn’t rest easy, so she consigned Huaibei’s affairs to Second Assistant Zou, Dao Qi and the others, and embarked with them.
It wasn’t until she saw the team responsible for escorting Eunuch Huo and Fan Jin Chuan did Feng Sheng realize why this person was so arrogant.
The team consisted of about two hundred people, a garrison from a nearby guard station, as well as another group of Jinyiwei. Not only that, but according to Fan Jin Chuan, Eunuch Huo had in his possession a handwritten order that could mobilize local officials and garrisons of local guards at will. With such forces under his control, taking down ten with one stroke didn’t seem impossible.
By this point, Feng Sheng’s heart finally relaxed a bit.
After traveling for ten days, they reached Taizhou.
Upon setting foot on Taizhou, not only Fang Feng Sheng, but even Fan Jin Chuan frequently sighed with emotion.
They didn’t drop by Taizhou’s county yamen but went directly to the Taizhou Division, where they were greeted by Gong Yi Chang, a vice prefect.
The banquet hosted by Gong Yi Chang was very sumptuous; however, it didn’t balk Eunuch Huo from brandishing his next series of actions, which were nothing more than combined threats and inducements to deter them. He ordered the Taizhou Division to relinquish a quantity of salt tallying with the accumulated batches within a certain period.
Eunuch Huo did all of it, and Fan Jin Chuan and Fang Feng Sheng instead became his foil.
Vice Prefect Gong did not raise any objections. He also explained the difficulties he faced because of those who had prevaricated. He claimed that a few people under him didn’t listen to his instructions, but he had taken care of them. In five more days, the salt ships would reach Taizhou City.
At first, everyone, including Eunuch Huo, suspected that Vice Prefect Gong might be up to something. But on the evening of the fourth day, the ships for salt transport arrived. Furthermore, salt ships kept incessantly drifting in, and this was only the first batch of salt.
Since Vice Prefect Gong was so tactful, Eunuch Huo couldn’t flare up at him. In private, he wouldn’t cease prattling to Fan Jin Chuan about how all of them were like walnuts2 that needed some cracking. He seemed to find it quite regretful how tactful Vice Prefect Gong was. According to their previous plan, had Vice Prefect Gong not surrendered anything, he naturally would have to admit his crime, and they could then easily carry out their operations.
Unfortunately, everything was out of their expectations.
The salt passed through the Tai Dam, and then loaded onto a whole dozen salt transport ships.
Along with the salt ships, there were also Fang Feng Sheng and others who left. No one knew what Eunuch Huo and Vice Prefect Gong had discussed. Anyway, it was set that the remaining salt would be ferried directly to Yangzhou. At that time, it would be transported to Huaibei or directly to Yizheng,3 which was extremely convenient for them.
The fleet left Taizhou and traveled west to Yangzhou.
Because it was sailing against the wind, the boat didn’t cruise swiftly. In the past, it would have taken two days to reach Yangzhou, but this time, it took two days to cross Yiling alone.4 However, the weather shifted. Needless to say, winter was cold. During winter in the south in particular, there was less snow and more fog. None could be seen from several meters away on the foggy river, so the ship had to stop and wait for the fog to disperse.
After a day and a half of stopping and resting, they arrived within the vicinity of Jiangdu.5
This Jiangdu territory had almost level terrain, dense waterways, and interweaving rivers and lakes, with the Tongyang Canal crossing transversally east and west. When the weather was clear, the merchant ships streaming through the wide waterways were like crucian carps crossing the river, a rarely seen wonder to behold.
Feng Sheng had traveled aplenty and was very familiar with this place. After Jiangdu, they could reach Yangzhou in half a day.
But in this kind of weather, it was estimated that it would take them another day.
A charcoal brazier was burning in the cabin, furnishing spring-like warmth.
Feng Sheng was most afraid of the cold, especially on the river surface, which was particularly a little colder than on land. The past few days in the ship, she had kept the door shut and cooped up in the cabin to roast coal in the brazier. She was also unwilling to respond to Eunuch Huo as she found his face loathsome.
Of course, she wasn’t alone. Fan Jin Chuan was also there to accompany her to play Go to pass the time.
Feng Sheng had a cloak draped over her shoulders. The charcoal brazier wasn’t far from her feet, and the warm air from the smoke made her drowsy. It obviously wasn’t exhaustion that had caused her drowsiness, but little by little, her consciousness grew hazy. Nonetheless, she still knew how to play Go, which could be considered an innate gift.
It had been almost two hours since they started playing Go, and the outcome was yet to be determined. However, Fan Jin Chuan was not in a hurry. While Feng Sheng was lost in thought, he also stared blankly at the other. How long had it been since they experienced such a hard-to-come-by moment of comfort and leisure?
After a match, Feng Sheng was really feeling too decadent in her current state and was about to get up to pace around the room, when someone knocked on the door.
“My lord, it’s windy. Liu baihu6 said that the wind is rising, and there is no place to dock the ships in this vicinity. He inquired if we should string all the ships together so that the wind and waves won’t capsize the ships.”
None of the salt transport ships were large, and the land on the waterfront was gusty. The wind there was different from the inland areas. It wasn’t uncommon for the gust to uplift houses and uproot trees, let alone those on water; however, the locals were accustomed to it and had their own way of tackling it.
“Go ahead. Tell Liu baihu to order people and to be careful.”
The visitor retreated.
Fan Jin Chuan was about to tell Feng Sheng something when he suddenly felt the ship sway a few times.
The ship they were on was slightly larger than the salt transport ships, and with this ship swinging like this, they could only imagine how other ships were faring. Outside came all sorts of clamorous footsteps, as well as the sound of Eunuch Huo’s swearing.
This eunuch’s voice was so sharp that it pierced through the window.
“I’m going out to take a look. You’re sensitive to the cold, so don’t come out,” Fan Jin Chuan said.
Feng Sheng also did not refuse and simply stood by the window to gaze outside, but only a vast expanse of whiteness was visible, and it was hard to perceive what was happening from a distance.
In this direful weather, Feng Sheng had a foreboding that something was going to happen.
But their party had over a dozen ships accompanied by countless soldiers, and they were carrying the flag of an imperial envoy. She really couldn’t think of anyone who had eaten the bear heart and leopard gall and would dare attack their group.
She considered it carefully and at length. She only assumed that it was because she had been in the ship for a long time that it was easy to indulge in flights of fancy.
After a while, Fan Jin Chuan returned and gave Feng Sheng a rough explanation. These kinds of salt transport ships were often strung together to move forward, so Liu baihu and the others didn’t expend too much effort. They could obviously feel that the ship was now a lot more stable and not as wobbly as before.
Feng Sheng saw that it was still too early for the evening meal, but she didn’t want to play Go anymore, so she told Fan Jin Chuan that she was going to sleep for a while.
Fan Jin Chuan looked at her helplessly and smiled. “Go ahead and sleep.”
She slept until dark. Someone knocked on her door to call her for supper, and only then did Feng Sheng wake up.
After supper, she trod back to her cabin to resume her slumber. She slept until midnight, but something happened.
No one knew when the fire started.
It seemed that one moment the fire was discovered, and the next moment, the wind had spread it all around.
The fire razed one boat after another. All the boats now appeared to be in flames, and there was chaos all over. Liu baihu shouted for other ships to cut down the ropes to prevent the fire from spreading. He didn’t know if anyone heard, but there was no sound of activity from the nearby ships, so he could only send people either by boat or by slithering along the ropes to check what was happening.
At the same time, an unknown number of black-clothed men assailed the ship.
These people appeared very suddenly and struck very viciously. That similar instant, the ship was in utter disorder, so the situation was favorable only to one side.
Feng Sheng was still groggy from her slumber when she heard a knock on her door.
She opened the door with a yawn. When she saw Fan Jin Chuan standing outside, she realized what had transpired.
“You can’t stay here anymore. Come with me. Let’s find a place to hide first.”
Feng Sheng only had time to don on her cotton-padded clothes before Fan Jin Chuan jerked her away.
On the outside was a cacophony of thudding footsteps, howling, and screeching. Flames had engulfed the entire place, so it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe. Fan Jin Chuan had just dragged Feng Sheng out of a corridor. She seemed to smell the water vapor from the wind. Suddenly, a shadow came crashing over, and dreadful wailing accompanied by a mist of blood filled the whole sky.
They should feel lucky that this corridor had no lanterns. Too many corpses were sprawled all around, and the one who had just died blocked them from sight, so the two men in black didn’t tread in, but turned around and went back to fight.
Someone was shouting that the effeminate eunuch had escaped in a boat.
Another responded to chase after him, and someone else barked that they hadn’t located dog officials surnamed Fan and Fang yet.
Feng Sheng sprinted so swiftly that her lungs ached. The noise in her ears suddenly diminished. It turned out they had entered a room.
“Looks like we’re all going to die. Never in my life have I so much hated lacking the strength to truss a chicken,” uttered Fan Jin Chuan with a bitter laugh.
Feng Sheng was still in a bit of a trance by this point. She did her utmost to calm herself down but found that her mind was still in disarray.
“Worthy Brother, we might all die this time. Do you have any regrets?”
Regrets? Of course she had. The Liang Huai reform was only halfway through. She hadn’t yet reversed her father’s verdict and hadn’t yet admitted her father into the Fang family’s ancestral tomb.
Between breaths, a burning smell infiltrated her nose. Feng Sheng suddenly sobered up.
“Do you know which among those people did this to us?”
Fan Jin Chuan was also in a very poor state at this time. His bun was tousled, and on his face were streaks of blood and dirt. He shook his head. “I don’t know. When I discovered how chaotic it was outside, I first looked for Liu baihu. Eunuch Huo had gathered everyone around him to protect him. I ordered those people not to move, so I had no choice but to come to you alone. Just now, those people shouted that Eunuch Huo had ran away, so he must have escaped on a spare boat. That damned old man!”
She reckoned Eunuch Huo to be the first to make Fan Jin Chuan curse. Anyway, Fang Feng Sheng had never seen him this way.
“He can’t escape. Since the other party attacked this ship, there’s no way they won’t lay nets below.”
“Who could they be? How dare they attack the imperial envoy with such audacity? With so many ships, it’s impossible to be completely untraceable. Are they not afraid of His Majesty’s thunderous wrath?”
“Whether they’re afraid or not, why should it matter? If they kill me and you, the new policy will come to an end. No matter how enraged His Majesty will be, he still can’t kill everyone. In order to keep Liang Huai from chaos, the place will revert back to the way it was before.”
Feng Sheng sighed. She should have thought of this long ago, but everything had just been too smooth-sailing, and her vigilance consequently dropped. This time, because of her faith in this ‘palace visitor’, Eunuch Huo, and her faith in the team with such a clear-cut stand, she had assumed that no one would dare be so bold. Unfortunately, the other side still dared.
It was she who had underestimated the madness of those on the verge of collapse.
1 冰冻三尺非一日之寒: idiom. it takes more than one cold day for the river to freeze three chi deep; three feet of ice does not form in a single day; it takes time for things to develop into a certain state, Rome was not built in one day
2 属核桃: lit. belongs to a walnut, or as translated, “were walnuts.” Refers to a person who is obstinate and couldn’t get the point.
6 百户 (baihu): lit. hundred households; a minor official (more specifically, in the Jinyiwei in Ming Dynasty) in command of 100 soldiers and 100 households. I previously thought this was a name (Tong Bai Hu in Chapter 52), but it’s actually an official title. I have no idea how to translate it. It would be too long to say “commander of a hundred households,” so I’m keeping the pinyin.