“Wake up, wake up!”
Fan Jin Chuan opened his eyes, still feeling rather befuddled. “You are?”
“We’re from the Jiangdu County’s yamen, and you’re——”
Fan Jin Chuan abruptly sat up and looked around——he was no longer on the ship, but on the shore. The night was as cold as water. A burning smell overwhelmed his nose, and on the water surface was a sea of orange fire illuminating the night sky.
“Why aren’t you dousing the fire? Is there still anyone on board? I am Fan Jin Chuan, the local commander of the Liang Huai Salt Circuit. Where did you find me? Did you find anyone else?”
Fan Jin Chuan fired out so many questions that no one could answer him. Only a yamen runner nearby explained that they had found him in a room on the ship. That time, he had been buried in a quilt. Had someone not turned it over, he might not have been discovered.
As for the fire, extinguishing it was a hopeless feat. The fire was too monstrous, salt was flammable, and each and every salt ship was heaped with salt.
Not far away rang out a sharp cursing voice, sounding somewhat like Eunuch Huo.
Fan Jin Chuan dashed over, and sure enough, there stood Eunuch Huo and another person.
Eunuch Huo’s current condition looked anything but fine. There had been four spare boats on the ship. He had swiped all the boats away and took several others with him. However, those people had perished in pursuit. If not for the Jiangdu County’s Military Inspectorate, Eunuch Huo might have lost his little life.
On the last boat, only he, Yue Hong, Liu baihu, and a few Jinyiwei remained.
There were still some on the sea who had abandoned their boats and dove into the water, and now the Jiangdu County’s county magistrate was having them rescued. All in all, this incurred quite a heavy loss.
“Lord Fan, ah. Fortunately, you’re also fine…… Ah! Fan Jin Chuan, you’re crazy!” Eunuch Huo covered his face and screamed hysterically, “I’m going back to report to His Majesty. You’re disrespecting your superior. I’m an imperial envoy!”
Fan Jin Chuan shot him a cold glare and veered to the crowd, scouring for a figure among the survivors almost like a madman.
But she wasn’t there. Not among them!
“Did you see a woman? Did you rescue a woman? I’m going to the ship to take a look. There should be someone else on it.”
“Don’t you dare go now. Lord Fan, the fire on that ship has not been extinguished. We didn’t find any women on it. Where can there be women in a place like this? The only woman is the one beside that Eunuch.”
In fact, Fan Jin Chuan already had a premonition. Something must have happened to Fang Feng Sheng. He was not clear in his head at that time, but it now occurred to him that she would not, without rhyme or reason, suddenly change into women’s clothing and cover him up. That time, those people had ceased ransacking the room, so they were unable to locate him. Where else would they have gone? Naturally, someone had led them away.
She was a woman. What would happen to her?
Fan Jin Chuan didn’t dare brood over it, else his heart would explode at the thought.
“Fan Jin Chuan. Remember what I told you before. Remember our plan. You must finish it.”
Gou Qing was seldom at the salt gang’s base, but this time, he was briefly extending his stay for a reason.
He had gone out for a trip. When he returned, he was informed that their business had plunged to ruin. The first gang leader was immensely displeased, yet the second gang leader was in the clouds and had reportedly brought back a beauty.
Jin lao’er1 was a lustful man. If he were to bring back ten women, it wouldn’t be so surprising. Gou Qing didn’t take it seriously until Jin lao’er invited him over.
Before he even set foot into the room, Gou Qing heard the melody of a pipa.
Having judged a myriad of sounds with his superb hearing ability, he could tell that the strumming of the pipa was at least upper level. He also thought to himself that this Jin lao’er finally understood that when it came to women, he couldn’t always look at the skin and flesh, but he should also pay heed to the lasting appeal. Then, that face hove into his view.
“What? Has Master Gou forgotten me?” The beauty’s eyes were teary, and she spoke as though weeping and complaining at the same time.
Jin lao’er put on airs and declared, “Old Three, I want this woman. Today, just give me a word. Will you give or will you not?”
“Master Gou, are you really going to give me away?”
Gou Qing gazed down at the hibiscus-like face in front of him. He tugged her over, half-lifted her chin with his rough fingers, and scrutinized carefully.
The two studied each other, their eyes interlocked, emitting signals that only they understood. To outsiders, it was not so obvious.
“What, Old Three? Are you reluctant?”
Gou Qing raised his head and glanced at Jin lao’er. “Indeed.”
“Indeed reluctant.” Gou Qing shifted his gaze towards Feng Sheng.
“Are you saying that you won’t give me any face?” Jin lao’er was furious. Not only did he lose face in front of the beauty, but his authority was also challenged.
“If that’s how the second gang leader understands it, then so be it.”
Gou Qing embraced Feng Sheng and was about to leave, when a cracking sound burst from behind. It was Jin lao’er who induced a sneak attack out of contempt.
Gou Qing pressed two fingers together. He clamped the knife between his fingers and looked back. “Does Second Boss really intend to clash blades?”
“You——” Jin lao’er eyed the woman with a stern look on his face.
That moment, a man ran in from the door and grasped onto Jin lao’er.
“Second Boss, the big boss wants to discuss some business with you.”
Taking advantage of this interval, Gou Qing left with Feng Sheng.
Returning to his own quarters, Gou Qing asked his trusted subordinate to keep an eye on the outside before he looked at Feng Sheng.
“Lord Fang, what are you plotting? You’re a woman?!”
No one knew why, but he spat out the latter phrase ‘you’re a woman’ through gnashed teeth. Gou Qing wasn’t stupid. It was more precise to say that he was quite astute. The undulating curves he felt in his embrace weren’t fake. She was definitely a woman, and her previous male appearance was an utter deception.
“You’re going to have to ask your salt gang about that. They’re audacious to the extreme, going as far as attacking the court’s imperial envoy.”
“That incident wasn’t my own doing. Can you explain to me what this is all about?” This question was mainly aimed at the fact that Jin lao’er aggressively had him summoned over.
“Isn’t Master Gou’s mind as clear as flame? I thought you were one who could prophesy with supernatural accuracy that you could have guessed it yourself.”
Gou Qing stared at her. His eyes glimmered, and he was able to grasp what was going on.
“But I still want to hear you say it yourself.”
As a person living under someone else’s roof,2 Feng Sheng had no other choice but to speak.
In fact, she had acted that way on the ship because of a wild guess. She believed that in Huainan, only the salt gang possessed the strength and guts to commit such an atrocity. She didn’t expect she would astoundingly hit the mark.
“You actually know that I’m from the salt gang.”
Feng Sheng smiled. “As it happens, I have a few subordinates who used to be in the caravan and are familiar with your handicaps and secret codes.”
Gou Qing suddenly laughed. “Advisor Fang proves herself to have incredible foresight. But should I call you Lord Fang now, or——” he paused, “Beauty Fang?”
“Is Master Gou actually a stickler for formalities?”
Gou Qing slyly made his way over and peered at her through his peach blossom eyes, smirking. “I once said that you please my heart. Did Advisor Fang forget?”
Feng Sheng stepped back a little without weakening her momentum. “I thought Master Gou liked men, and others were no good.”
Gou Qing looped his arms around her waist and pulled her over. “When did I ever say that I didn’t like women? Women are very nice, fair as jade.”
She caught his fingers before they were about to cover her cheek. “It seems that Master Gou doesn’t want Fang-mou as a cooperative partner anymore.”
“A cooperative partner shouldn’t be this troublesome. You’re inciting disharmony in my relationship with the second boss. You probably don’t know that unlike elsewhere, I’m not as powerful as him and his brothers in the salt gang’s base. My guts are small. I fear that they will cut off my head in the middle of the night.”
Feng Sheng cast away her smile. At that moment, someone outside the door informed that the big boss summoned the third boss over. Gou Qing stared into Feng Sheng’s eyes and unclasped his hand.
Then, the person left.
This was indeed the salt gang’s base.
Feng Sheng had this conjecture, but despite acceding to her every plea, Jin lao’er was very cautious along the way. Hence, although she was now here, she was unsure of the exact location of the base.
She supposed that someone had rescued Fan Jin Chuan by now, and he might be under the impression that she had died or had been taken captive. Either way, no one else could save her now, so she could only count on Gou Qing.
But Feng Sheng hadn’t forgotten how much of Gou Qing’s business had been damaged since the Huaibei reform, which meant that the two had long since gone from being partners to acquaintances in a delicate situation.
At the beginning, she only wanted to draw Jin lao’er away. She thought about nothing else and had no other alternative but to masquerade with fox-like charms to protect herself, but now, she instead spun a cocoon around herself. If Jin lao’er grew obsessed with her, would Gou Qing risk his life to protect her?
There truly was a tiger in front and a wolf behind, and a bottomless chasm underfoot. One careless mistake would consign her to everlasting perdition.
But this was all she could do. She had no better option for the time being.
Gou Qing returned after a long time. His complexion didn’t look too well, different from his earlier indecent appearance. Feng Sheng was not in a position to ask him exactly why, so she could only remain silent.
“From now on, you better not leave this room, else I can’t guarantee what will happen.”
In the evening, Gou Qing didn’t leave either, hinting his intention to sleep in this room.
Observing the way she eyed himself, Gou Qing smirked, and his debauchery recovered.
“What? You’re nominally my woman, and you want to throw me out? Who’s going to believe you’re my woman if you do that?” His thoughtful eyes scanned Feng Sheng all over, and he said, “A beautiful woman is here but I won’t touch or move her? Even if I believed myself to be Liuxia Hui,3 others wouldn’t.”
“It is improper for men and women to touch each other’s hand in passing objects.”4
“I thought that you no longer cared about any distinction between men and women. I didn’t expect the dignified Lord Fang to be so petty.”
Feng Sheng had nothing to fear, but she had a very strong sense of crisis towards Gou Qing. This sense of crisis was not borne from anything else, but out of a woman’s sixth sense of the opposite sex.
Seeing her like this, Gou Qing smirked and rose to his feet.
He strode to the cabinet, yanked out some beddings, and tossed them on the floor.
“Tonight, you’ll sleep on the bed and I’ll sleep on the floor. You should be mentally prepared. Jin lao’er hasn’t stopped setting his sights on you. I have quite a few enemies in this place, so I’m afraid the future will be a bit rocky.”
What did that mean?
Instead of answering her, however, Gou Qing blew out the light, plunging the room into darkness.
Gou Qing didn’t stay long and left the salt gang’s base the next day.
Feng Sheng later learned from Da Shun, the person Gou Qing had left to take care of her, that the attack on the imperial envoy was a bit serious, and Gou Qing ventured out to handle it.
In the salt gang’s Juiyi Hall, the big boss, Master Bao, sat upright on the seat of honor, a large chair emblazoned with tiger skin. Jin lao’er stood below with a face full of reluctance.
He had gone to Gou Qing’s place when he received news that Gou Qing had left the base, but as soon as he reached the door, a person resolutely escorted him back.
“I don’t care how much you like that woman. I promised Gou Qing before he left that you couldn’t touch her.”
On the side, a man attired as an inept advisor stepped forward and lectured, “Second Boss, don’t make trouble for the big boss. He was already originally dissatisfied because of the affairs thrown into disarray. That dog official surnamed Fan sent a letter to the imperial court. The dog emperor was furious and ordered an all-out investigation on the matter. On the cusp of the storm, the third boss will go out to inquire news for us. Please don’t do anything cumbersome for a woman.”
“Also, according to the news, the woman named Yue Hong is still with that castrated dog surnamed Huo, so where did this woman come from? There may be something wrong with this woman.”
At once, Jin lao’er raised his head to look at the big boss.
1 Actually similar to how the Crown Prince addresses Zong Yue as ‘Old Three’ (老三, lao san). Old Second/Two Jin sounds quite awkward, so I’m keeping the pinyin here. It’s just a more familiar way of addressing that person, and that he’s the second in terms of rank among his peers.
3 Liuxia Hui was governor of the District of Liuxia in the Lu State. He was a man of eminent virtue, and is said on one occasion to have held a lady in his lap without the slightest imputation on his moral character.
4 She was quoting Mencius, that’s why it sounds weird in this context.