Jin lao’er‘s complexion turned horrible.
He already had a scar on his face that looked like a centepede writhing slightly. Whenever his mood shifted, the scar would appear absolutely atrocious.
“Eldest brother, it’s just a woman. Is there a need for you to go this far? Why are you exhausting yourself to this extent? The woman is Old Three’s. He himself has tacitly agreed. Based on what you just said, if there’s something wrong with that woman, then is there also something wrong with Old Three?”
This remark rendered Master Bao speechless. He could question everyone else’s loyalty, but not Gou Qing’s. The official salt business in Liang Huai had grown dismal in the recent years. Owing to this, a large part of the salt gang’s income actually hailed from Gou Qing.
In this regard, Gou Qing never said anything. He always devoted himself to duty without complaint and was extremely deferential towards him and Jin lao’er. If Gou Qing had issues, then a greater part of the salt gang also had issues.
“This is news handed over by my people. In brief, we have to guard against her.”
“You’re just afraid I will touch that woman so you came up with that excuse. Fine, I won’t touch her until Old Three comes back, but after that, eldest brother, you can’t stop me!”
After that outburst, Jin lao’er piked out.
Master Bao’s face turned ugly, but there was nothing he could do.
“Get someone to keep an eye on that woman.”
“Yes, Big Boss.”
The location of the accident was not in Taizhou, but the source was in Taizhou, so the Taizhou Military Inspectorate was also one of the forces in charge of the investigation.
Now that the higher-ups had characterized the local salt traffickers in Taizhou as the chief culprits of the attack on the imperial envoy, Gou Qing and his men raided several places in succession, all of which were where small fish and small shrimp resided.
Such small fish and shrimp were obviously incapable of such a severe incident, but those above couldn’t rest easy not finding the real culprit. He apprehended these people to accomplish his duty for the majesty of the court. He couldn’t say anything and could only simply obey orders.
Going out for three days in a row, they raided one place after another.
When they came back, the Military Inspectorate gathered together to drink, but anxiety inevitably loomed over them.
“Boss, if we keep on doing this, our means of retreat will be cut off. You’re now stuck in the middle, not with either side. Before long, we won’t be any different from rats crossing the street,”1 said a fellow named Er Ban.
But, was he really stuck in the middle?
It was actually because of his actions that those above were still unable to find the real culprit. He had brought some people in for questioning, but they were actually his sworn brothers he used to share drinks with. Those brothers didn’t miss out on giving him filial respect, yet he treated them in such manner. After this incident, who would dare trust Master Gou? Who would dare trust the Military Inspectorate? Using the words of the Tao, this was disloyalty to his brothers, taking money but doing nothing. It was akin to turning hostile as quickly as rummaging through a book.
If it weren’t for Gou Qing alerting every place in advance and warning everyone of the consequences, others probably would have turned him over long ago. However, if he persisted this way, someone impulsive would quite possibly no longer be willing to be a scapegoat.
Gou Qing drank in melancholy and remained unspeaking. His peach blossom eyes, which always seemed to be smiling, were cold. He was obviously in a bad mood.
Mao Zi tugged at Er Ban, saying, “Alright, just keep on drinking. What are you chattering for? Boss is well aware of the situation.”
Gou Qing actually wasn’t confident on the situation at hand, and even if he was, he was still in a mess. Matters everywhere were like threads tangled together that no one could sort out.
Just like now, he knew perfectly well that if some things continued, the outcome would never be good, yet he had no other option but to put on a bold face and proceed. It seemed as though that one surnamed Fan had gone insane, fixating only on those private salt traffickers without investigating anyone else.
Unless he handed over that woman. But how could he hand her over?
The result of not handing her over would lead to him taking more of his old friends in for questioning, and if he continued this way, it might be impossible for the salt gang to stay hidden.
Gou Qing tossed his wine cup aside and rose to his feet. Er Ban was going to say something, but Mao Zi thwarted him from doing so.
The room teemed with men from the Military Inspectorate, and as they saw Gou Qing stand up, everyone motioned to stop drinking.
Gou Qing waved his hand. “You all continue. I’m going out to dissipate the alcohol.”
He walked out of the tavern and was greeted by a burst of chill that sobered his feverish brain for a brief instant.
Snow sprinkled down. The snow wasn’t heavy. It melted before it hit the ground, but it increased the nip in the air.
When Gou Qing saw a man standing by the roadside, as well as a familiar carriage, it seemed as though a basin of cold water was poured down his neck.
It suddenly occurred to him that he had forgotten something.
No, he hadn’t forgotten; he had deliberately forgotten.
No lights were lit in the room. Only lamplight from outside shone in, casting a patch of light on the floor.
Gou Qing knelt in the light, his head hanging low.
It was dark in front of him, and all he could faintly see was the hem of an intricately embroidered gold robe that fell in that light.
No one spoke.
The person in the murk didn’t speak, and neither did Gou Qing.
However, words didn’t need to be uttered. Gou Qing’s heart had grown ice-cold.
He had even consigned this person to oblivion. This man, despite rarely showing his face in front of people, had a very strong presence. Gou Qing had been under the impression that the order from above was due to Fan Jin Chuan’s momentary release of anger, but he had forgotten another possibility.
This person was warning him.
Someone moved in the darkness, and a section of the robe’s hem swayed and vanished from Gou Qing’s sight.
He remained kneeling for an unknown length of time until someone took his arm to assist him up.
Feng Sheng tried to get out, but she was obstructed.
She remembered what Gou Qing had said before she left, asking her not to leave the room. After a thorough deliberation, she conceded.
Firstly, with Gou Qing here, she really couldn’t take any risks. Secondly, she hadn’t forgotten that this was the salt gang’s base, which was, frankly speaking, a bandit den.
Furthermore, it was extremely cold outside. The people here didn’t prepare winter clothes for her, so she could only nestle in her warm room, where she slept and ate with no one to talk to every single day.
Da Shun also refused to converse with her, claiming that since she was the third boss’s woman, he couldn’t talk to her.
Feng Sheng could only abandon the idea of obtaining some news from this foolish boy.
After another day of sleep, in the pitch black darkness, Gou Qing returned.
Feng Sheng didn’t awaken until she sensed someone’s eyes boring through her.
This gaze was so strange that she felt extremely uncomfortable even in her dreams, so she roused from her slumber.
“How come you’re back?”
“What, you don’t want me back?”
Feng Sheng released a hollow laugh. “How could I?”
Gou Qing didn’t say anything, and his eyes scanned her body.
Feng Sheng was so chilled by his gaze that she couldn’t help but touch her naked arms.
In fact, it wasn’t that her arms were bare, just that she was wearing muslin bedclothes. In such a season where water drippings formed into ice, she always felt naked, especially when others were wearing thick clothing. There were two charcoal braziers burning in the room and she was ensconced in a quilt, so she didn’t at all feel cold.
Gou Qing took off his cloak and sat beside her.
He didn’t speak, and Feng Sheng didn’t know what he wanted to do. She yearned to hop off the bed as the man’s eyes were too peculiar.
She always felt that he was brewing up some kind of plot.
“By the way, have someone get me thicker clothes. After you left, I asked Da Shun, but that boy was so dull. He actually said he needed your permission.”
“Is this what you’ve been wearing these days?”
She didn’t know why, but Feng Sheng actually heard displeasure in his tone.
“If I don’t wear this, what should I be wearing?”
Gou Qing sneered and was about to say something, when someone suddenly knocked on the door.
“Third Boss, Big Boss and Second Boss have set up a banquet and are inviting you over for a drink.”
Gou Qing cast her a look and strode away.
Feng Sheng sat on the bed and pondered for a long time but couldn’t figure anything out. She only deemed this person to be rather baffling.
When Gou Qing trod in carrying the scent of wine, Feng Sheng was having dinner.
She had donned on a dark reddish purple cotton coat. No one knew where these clothes even came from. They were tailored for women, but the color and pattern resembled something only middle-aged women would wear. However, Feng Sheng couldn’t afford to be picky given the circumstances. What mattered most was that she had adequate clothing.
When Gou Qing returned, he leaned against his chair and watched her. His stare made her hair stand on end that she could no longer swallow her food, so she had it brought away.
Feng Sheng rose to her feet and paced back and forth across the room.
This was a habit she had developed recently. Because she was prohibited to leave, she sat still all day long, so her stomach easily grew upset. She had a poor stomach, so she could only move around this way to aid digestion.
In the process, Gou Qing was still observing her.
Feng Sheng couldn’t help but shoot him a glare. “Master Gou, Great Inspector Gou, what are you looking at? I noticed you’ve been weird since you came back.”
“You did? You know me well?”
Feng Sheng found this question a little strange, but at the same time, she couldn’t pinpoint exactly why. In her heart, she was still intent on going back.
She sat opposite to Gou Qing and said, “Great Inspector Gou, can we have a discussion? Look, we’re partners. How about letting me go back? When the time comes, there will definitely be no less benefits for you. Remember the thing I told you last time. It still counts.”
Actually, this was something Feng Sheng had been reluctant to lay out. Gou Qing was too complicated a person, and she hadn’t been able to figure out whether he was a friend or a foe. Showing an enemy her weakness was exposing her flaws. Revealing her flaws to her enemy and making an offer in advance was not her usual practice. However, she had been confined here for a while. She couldn’t go anywhere, and her ignorance of the happenings outside had really worn down her patience.
So, she first made her offer.
“You can’t go back now. Bao da and Jin er2 suspect your identity because they received news that Yue Hong has been following Eunuch Huo. You, a woman who suddenly appeared out of nowhere, have provoked their suspicions.”
Feng Sheng frowned, not expecting such a mess to crop up after so long.
In fact, her ploy contained several loopholes. Yue Hong would not disappear without a trace, so she would definitely appear in front of other people, and she, the fake Yue Hong, would naturally be exposed. However, she also held back a trick or two. The whole time, she never told Jin er that she was Yue Hong.
Feng Sheng went through the whole thing in her head and fixed her gaze on Gou Qing.
In other words, whether or not she would be safe and sound all depended on this man. Long before she made the decision to sacrifice herself, she had envisioned herself in countless conclusions. Her current circumstance was already the best at the moment. It was just that she was unable to let go of her stance. In this game, not knowing that the premise was an even balance of power, she was still thinking of tricks to turn things around without regard for her own life, which now lay in the other party’s hands.
“How does Master Gou plan to deal with me?”
Gou Qing peered at her. She didn’t know why, but his eyes were a little ambiguous. Feng Sheng was puzzled at first, but in stark realization, her face turned white.
As if perceiving her hidden panic, Gou Qing smiled.
It was a fleeting smile, but it made the corners of Feng Sheng’s mouth stiffen.
He stood up and said, “After such a long journey, let’s settle early.”
What did this mean?
Feng Sheng stood at the side and watched as he stripped off his clothes one by one.
From the cotton robe to the outer garments, all the way down to the inner garments, Feng Sheng could still see his hands in motion and couldn’t help but speak out, “Master Gou, you’re not the only one in this room……”
No sooner had the words left her mouth than she tumbled into the other’s arms after a fit of utter confusion.
Behind her back was a bedpost, and in front of her was a bare-chested man wearing only his inner garments. Feng Sheng had never considered herself short, but here and now, in this position, she felt that the man was rather tall, and against him she was petite.
Vermilion lips were blocked by the man’s coarse fingers.
“Yue Hong, this master was out for so long. Did you not miss me?” As he raised his voice, Gou Qing leaned against her ear, and his breath reeking of wine caressed her earlobe. In a different voice, he uttered, “If you want to die, just scream.”
This wasn’t Gou Qing’s voice.
1 过街老鼠: When a rat runs across the street everybody cries, “Kill it!”; sb or sth detested by all; target of scorn. Gou Qing is both a member of the salt gang and an inspector from the Military Inspectorate, so he always has to be cautious in his dealings.
2 This is actually 豹大 (“Big/Eldest” Bao) and 金二 (“Second” Jin), meaning Bao da is the eldest/head among them, and Jin er is the second, Gou Qing the third, so he’ll most likely be called Gou san. Kept the pinyin ‘cause it sounded awkward otherwise.