Late into the night, while Feng Sheng was half-awake and half-dreaming, Prince Wei returned.
Sensing a sudden presence by her side, she instinctively rose up, and ‘Gou Qing’ sitting in another quilt hove into her view.
An awfully weird feeling crept in. More than that, she felt slightly discomfited.
Prince Wei glanced at her without speaking, blew out the lamp by the bedside, and lay down. Left without a choice, Feng Sheng could only lie down before her eyes sunk into darkness.
She could faintly detect an indistinct smell of sandalwood, a scent unique to Prince Wei.
She once again began ruminating over why he came here and how he had arrived here. Had he captured Gou Qing? Was that how he obtained information that she was trapped here? If so, why didn’t he directly deploy his troops to completely annihilate this place and instead came alone?
Numerous doubts haunted her. Perhaps Feng Sheng had long assumed that they had a close affinity between them, that Prince Wei was doing this to save her. However, she also had one nerve convincing herself that this person had always been incomprehensible. Nonetheless, one thing was for certain. He definitely had his own motives in everything he did, so he clearly wasn’t here just because of this.
Feng Sheng chanted this in her head over and over as she reasoned with herself. Soon, she seemed to accept it as truth.
She could only do it this way, else she would owe this person too much. How could she pay him back for all he had done?
Not knowing why, she recollected what Fan Jin Chuan had confessed to her the night the ship was assailed. In reality, it wasn’t that she didn’t understand; more like, she didn’t want to understand.
Among all the things in this world, only the debt of gratitude was the most difficult to pay.
For some reason, Feng Sheng always felt that the salt gang’s base was eerily cold, a coldness that resembled nothing at all like the weather in Jiangnan.
She couldn’t help but speculate, was the salt gang’s base far away from Jiangnan? Otherwise, why else was it so cold? However, she also deemed this kind of logic a bit irrational. If the salt gang’s base was far from Yangzhou, with Gou Qing still on duty as the Taizhou Inspector, how could he come and go as he pleased?
Such presumptions were quite senseless, but Feng Sheng was too idle and could only conjure all sorts of cluttered suppositions in her head. Probably because the past few years had been hectic, the gears in her mind had never ceased rotating. When she first arrived at this place, suddenly introduced to such an idle lifestyle, she wasn’t able to easily adapt. Sitting in the room with nowhere else to go, she actually had to exert a great deal of effort to pass the time.
Anxiety hovered over her every day, but she could not freely express any of such feelings. Over time, she gained mastery of embarking on a mental journey, consigning the Liang Huai Salt Administration and even everything at home to oblivion and instead dwelling on other matters. Just like that, time passed.
Now, there was suddenly a person by her side. Sometimes, Feng Sheng couldn’t help but wonder if, after that night, he no longer knew how to deal with her because his embarrassment had gotten the best of him. If not, why else would he go so far as to move in and out with otherwoldly elusiveness day after day? Soon after, she herself felt that she was a little too delusional for thinking that she and the other person had some sort of an affinity. For all she knew, he might be occupied with other things. After all, he wasn’t the third boss of the salt gang.
Pondering about it, if he was posing as Gou Qing, then where was the real Gou Qing? How would the Military Inspectorate cope with the recent events? Immediately, she remembered that he was a prince. He was Prince Wei, so such a trivial matter shouldn’t be difficult to resolve.
So she was truly, utterly, and extremely bored, and right in the midst of this boredom, New Year’s Eve arrived in a flash.
Feng Sheng learned from Da Shun that it would be New Year’s Eve in two days.
She hadn’t counted the days since she arrived here. She had surmised that New Year’s Eve wouldn’t be that far off, but who would have imagined it to arrive in the blink of an eye? Da Shun also handed her two sets of clothes, informing her that the third boss had ordered him to prepare them. He further explained that it was inconvenient to travel in and out of the island, so women’s clothing were not an easy commodity to grab ahold of.
The island? So the salt gang’s base was on an island?
However, Feng Sheng had been to the seaside and could easily sniff out the sea breeze’s salty and fishy smell, so this should not be at sea.
Before she could muster further guesses, Prince Wei suddenly notified her that the salt gang would be hosting a New Year’s Eve banquet. They were allowed to bring the womenfolk in their family, so she ought to dress up and accompany him when time came.
Feng Sheng called to mind the clothes Da Shun had delivered to her. When he had handed her the clothes, because she didn’t go out and thus had no use for them, she didn’t inspect them. Could there be another reason behind them?
Once Prince Wei left, she turned over the bag containing the clothes.
She was told that there were two sets, but there were actually more. Not only were there indoor and outdoor clothing, there were also matching shoes. In addition, there was also a whole set of rouge, powder, and jewelry.
Feng Sheng held her chin and contemplated for a while, nearly deciphering Prince Wei’s intention. As for the specifics, she would have to attend the banquet to find out.
That night, Feng Sheng prepared in advance.
She was clumsy with her hands in styling her hair. Zhi Chu and Zhi Qiu had styled her hair in the past, and her skills were limited to only a simple man’s bun. After repeatedly failing, she gave up on combing herself a pretty bun and haphazardly gathered her hair behind her head, with excess hair hanging down, and inserted a gold hairpin to secure it.
In any case, ‘Yue Hong’ was not a woman from a respectable family. She didn’t need to concern herself whether she wore a maiden’s hairstyle or a married woman’s.1
She was attired in a short, waist-length, vivid reddish-pink jacket with barely visible floral silk tapestry brocade, and an indigo horse face skirt with golden threads and golden embroidery embedded on its full length.2 Since her face was adequately fair, powder was uneccessary, so Feng Sheng only dabbed some rouge on herself.
Scrutinizing herself in the mirror, she touched her face.
Suddenly, she realized that if she seriously spruced herself up, she could qualify as a beauty who could bring calamity to the whole nation.
Right this moment, Prince Wei pushed the door open and strode in.
He had also switched out his clothes, donning on a new, sapphire blue, satin, cotton-padded robe. Gou Qing had large peach blossom eyes and bushy brows, manifesting a romantic visage. Every time she saw such a face, she couldn’t reconcile it with Prince Wei’s otherwise cold and indifferent countenance.
Feng Sheng didn’t know if he had witnessed that scene just now, but she somehow felt a little abashed.
“Are we going now?”
Prince Wei’s allusive eyes scanned her body, and he nodded his head.
The New Year’s Eve banquet was held in the Juyi Hall, the largest place in the entire salt gang base.
In the salt gang, those with a bit of fame and prestige gathered together in the hall. All present were men, and not a single woman was in sight. Thus, Feng Sheng discovered that Prince Wei had deceived her.
Upon her entrance, some people were stupefied. Some couldn’t take their eyes off of her, but it could be reckoned that with ‘Gou Qing’ here, most of them were quite bridled.
Once the banquet began, they glossed over the formalities. Anyhow, Master Mao stepped forward and orated some opening words, and the rest either went along with him or echoed what he said in assent. These guys hailed from a Green Standard Army3 background. Wild and uncultured, they ate and drank together. Because they were all entirely rough and boorish, it didn’t seem appropriate to call the occasion a banquet.
Nothing exquisite and ornate was visible, only massive pots of meat and large jars of wine. The men here either used bowls or jars for drinking, so wine cups were out of the question. Fortunately, Feng Sheng had prior experience mingling with soldiers and yamen runners, else her jaw would have dropped from shock.
What astounded her even more was Prince Wei.
Prince Wei had consistently given her the impression of being cool and indifferent, his emotions indiscernible on the surface, while also being graceful and dignified. That kind of noble temperament embedded in the imperial family was not something easily imitated, nor was it easily eliminated.
Because it was an inherent trait, it had penetrated deeply in the marrow. However, she absolutely never expected that if Prince Wei were in this kind of situation, that invisible temperament would vanish.
Occasionally, someone would approach him for a toast, and the laughter and indignation amidst their conversations painted him rather like a completely different person.
Feng Sheng had a conjecture. Perhaps this wasn’t the first time Prince Wei had worn a disguise to appear to be someone else.
Yes, a disguise.
Feng Sheng had caught wind of this strange technique from Uncle Yu. He had elaborated that there were people in the Jianghu who knew a disguise technique that could transform one’s face into another person’s. The highest class of disguise technique was by means of a human skin mask, though it was said to be extremely expensive. Moreover, those adept at this craft rarely appeared in the Jianghu.
Feng Sheng had deduced that Prince Wei was using a human/skin/mask/tool because she had seen him wash his face. If he had only been using simple make-up, the water should have washed it away. Hence, it could only be a human/skin/mask/tool.4
For a prince to know these Jianghu methods, Feng Sheng was honestly quite confounded.
On the table, they had been drinking for countless rounds, and Feng Sheng could tell that most of them were already inebriated. Throughout, the noise from drinking games and jeers lingered in her ears.
When she raised her eyes to look at Prince Wei, she saw him with a smile on the corners of his mouth, his hand cupping the bowl of wine, drinking in a leisurely fashion.
Across the room, a greedy, devouring gaze was aimed towards her body. It was from Jin er.
From the moment she arrived at the table, Feng Sheng felt that Jin er had been eyeing her intentionally or otherwise, with an extremely impudent gaze. To this day, Feng Sheng heavily regretted the time she put too much effort in playing that stupid act, for it had now incurred such peril.
Under the guise of intoxication, Jin er slammed the wine bowl on the table, lifted a jar of wine, and flung it in front of ‘Gou Qing’.
“Old Three, I offer you this jar.”
‘Gou Qing’ looked up at him with a smile on his face. “Second Master knows that I never drink like this. No need to stir trouble.”
“Old Three, are you not willing to give me, second brother, any face?”
“How could I dare?”
“You not only dare, but you very much dare! If you don’t drink the wine, fine, but you must yield to me one thing. With so many brothers present today, I will allow you to do so. If you yield, from now on, I’ll treat you like my own brother. Didn’t you always say that our Earth Character Hall is constantly against your Black Character Hall? If you do as I say, I guarantee you that from now on, the brothers of Earth Character Hall will be as close as blood brothers to the brothers of Black Character Hall.”
The drinking games and jests below all ceased, and they cast their eyes on the table at the top.
At the same time, a portion of stares landed on Feng Sheng. In the entire salt gang, who didn’t know that the second boss had a squabble with the third boss because of a woman?
Many of the people below held two different stances towards this matter.
A fraction of them were saying that brothers were like hands and feet, while women were like clothes. In opposition, others were asserting that the second boss didn’t take the third boss seriously. Why should a woman who had lain in someone else’s bed be given to him? Even if she were to be handed over, it shouldn’t be through such a method.
So tonight, at the sight of this woman’s appearance, several of them had a hunch that a big show would play out. Just as expected, it had begun.
“What thing? If second brother is talking about the thing I’m thinking about, then, no need for second brother to ask.”
Jin er was sitting while ‘Gou Qing’ was standing. Jin er was tall and sturdy. He was an illustrious and valiant general within the salt gang. He was able to sit in the position of the second boss, not by virtue of his own blood brother being the big boss, but by virtue of his own strength. When he defeated others to obtain his position, how many people feared Jin er‘s formidable and terrifying aura?
However, ‘Gou Qing’ was still holding the bowl of wine with a smile. From an outsider’s perspective, he was not at all inferior.
“Old Three, are you saying that you don’t want to discuss with me?” Jin er slapped the table.
The dishes and wine on the table all shook and emitted a brittle sound. In truth, everyone knew that if Jin er hadn’t restrained his strength, once his palm landed, the table would have been obliterated.
‘Gou Qing’ discarded the wine bowl, and his face grew cold. “Second brother, I’ve been avoiding this issue because I feel that we shouldn’t be using a woman to gauge the affection between us brothers, yet you’ve been incessantly undermining my face. Women are insignificant. If I listen and yield, what kind of man will I be? If I yield to someone because he said one word about wanting my woman, won’t I lose my face as Third Master Gou?”
“Things shouldn’t be done this way!”
“Second Boss, don’t bully others too much.”
A heated discussion exploded below, and most of the people who concurred were from the Black Character Hall and were also under Gou Qing. In contrast, not many from the Earth Character Hall stepped out to contest, as Jin er was ostensibly being unreasonable.
However, they also couldn’t do anything about him being unreasonable. Who told him to be notorious for carousing with the wrong crowd? Thus, someone trotted out to mediate the dispute. It was the fourth boss of the Yellow Character Hall, Fourth Master Zhao.
“Alright, alright. You’re all brothers. Why make such an ugly scene on New Year’s Eve? How about this? Third Master, give way. Let’s settle this according to the gang’s rules. You and Old Two have a match. How about you each settle your fate depending on the outcome?”
This so-called rule was in fact an old tradition of the salt gang. The salt gang was divided into four halls: Heaven, Earth, Black, and Yellow. Under each hall was a number of positions and a number of stalls. The predecessors of the salt gang were actually several infamous private salt dealers. In order to confront the imperial court’s suppression of the gang’s formation, each garnered influence from different sources, dividing the salt gang into four forces since then.
They were said to be addressed as the big boss and the second boss; however, in truth, the big boss was not necessarily the most influential, and the fourth boss was not necessarily the least influential. Rather, they were differentiated through their actual strength. Each hall had its own designated business, and sometimes, several halls would vie over the authority of a business. In order not to wreck the brotherhood and camaraderie, they would draw one or several people from their respective halls to compete.
The winner would have his wishes fulfilled, and the loser would concede, regardless of life or death.
This was a kind of formality that several of the bosses had established in order not to disgrace themselves, but they always picked someone from the hall to fight in their stead. No one had ever heard of the hall master himself competing.
As soon as Fourth Master Zhao uttered those words, ‘Gou Qing”s side gave no response, and those below grew agitated and started yelling ‘good’ one after another.
‘Gou Qing’’s appearance was as usual, displaying neither joy nor anger. However, faced with such a situation, it was obvious that he was being roasted on fire.
Jin er’s expression clearly exhibited that he had gotten his way. He was one of the most skilled masters in the salt gang, while ‘Gou Qing”s martial arts were contrarily subpar. If he agreed, chances of him winning were close to nothing, but if he didn’t, with so many of his brothers watching, he would be no different from a turtle hiding in his shell, marring not only his face as Third Master Gou, but also the face of the Black Character Hall. Who would dare trust him in the future?
All of this, Feng Sheng was unaware of, but she could tell the situation was grim just by looking at Prince Wei’s face.
“Old Three, how about it? To compete or not to compete? But don’t blame big brother for not warning you, you’re no match for me.” Jin er touched his big bald head.
“Second brother seems to think you could beat me?”
Jin er laughed out loud and didn’t reply, clearly making light of Gou Qing. In terms of brains, he was not as good as Old Three, but in terms of martial arts, Old Three was not his opponent.
To bribe Zhao lao’si to extend such a ‘suggestion’ today, he had spent a great deal of silver. Tonight, he was going to bring this woman back, trap her under his body and ravage her. He had lived half a lifetime and had never wanted a woman this way.
Thinking so, Jin er shot Feng Sheng a ravenous look, a look insinuating his strong desire to swallow her.
Feng Sheng considered only very few things frightening, but confronted with this kind of scenario, she couldn’t help but quiver.
That moment, ‘Gou Qing’ rose to his feet and dusted off his sleeves.
“Since second brother insists, let’s have a match.”
The wine tables that had filled the courtyard were now all moved away, leaving an empty space.
More than ten torches were also added, and for a moment, the firelight in the courtyard was so bright that it seemed like daylight.
Two men stood on the field, one stalwart and daunting, the other slender and upright.
Both were armed with blades, but one was a heavy weapon with a strong and powerful appearance, obviously flaunting its strength. The other weapon was like a cross between a knife and a sword, slender and sharp, evidently showcasing its agility.
Feng Sheng’s heart was pounding. It wasn’t that she was underestimating Prince Wei, but people like him had always been protected, so there was never a need for him to engage in combat by himself. Furthermore, one could tell from a single glance that Jin er was someone who clearly lived an extremely sinister life, so he really couldn’t compare.
In a moment of desperation, she tugged at Prince Wei, but he blocked her.
Just as Feng Sheng’s state of mind was in turmoil, the battle on the field had already commenced.
Jin er boasted a powerful momentum right from the start, slashing straight all the way, while ‘Gou Qing’ was mostly dodging, parrying twice with his blade in the throes of it. Feng Sheng didn’t know whether or not it was her illusion, but she kept having the feeling that the fine blade in his hand could not withstand brute strength.
After dozens of strokes, even Feng Sheng, an amateur, could determine that ‘Gou Qing’ had fallen behind. Needless to say, Jin er revealed a sardonic smile and pounced forward like a tiger, intending to follow up a victory with hot pursuit.
‘Gou Qing’ sidestepped and evaded another slash. According to his previous pattern, he should be preparing for the right moment to block the swing, but this time, he did the opposite. He nimbly jumped up.
With the sound of weapons clashing together, ‘Gou Qing’’s thin blade actually resisted the 40-catty, Nine Ring Broadsword5 in Jin er‘s hand. Feng Sheng only saw things in a blur as sparks flew everywhere.
With an astonishing clang, the two people in the arena finally settled down, and the sharp blade in ‘Gou Qing’s’ hand pointed straight at Jin Er’s throat.
He was winning?
“You let me win.6 I hope that Second Boss will not make any further entanglements in the future, or else——”
After saying that, ‘Gou Qing’ smiled bleakly, withdrew his knife, and left the field. He reached the hall, tugged up Feng Sheng, and arched his hand at Master Mao. “Enjoy your time, everyone. Excuse my absence.”
Along the way, Prince Wei trod quite briskly, and Feng Sheng stumbled as he dragged her along.
When he returned to the room, he fastened the door in one smooth movement, and Feng Sheng collapsed into his arms with a wobble.
She was about to say something, but she felt something amiss in her hands. When she raised her hand to check, there was blood.
Muah, this chapter is quite fat.
1 In ancient China, young women wore their hair down or in simple styles to show they were unmarried. Maidens traditionally kept their hair in braids until their fifteenth birthday, when they went through a coming-of-age ceremony call the ji-li (笄禮) or Hair Pinning Ceremony. Once a girl married, propriety and pragmatism took precedence. Now busy with family and household affairs, she had no need to parade her hair in front of strangers. Married women in ancient China wore their hair tied up in a variety of styles ranging from the practical to the elaborate, depending on social rank and contemporaneous fashions. (Source)
2 织金裙襕: This type of skirt existed during the Song to Qing dynasty, but it became extremely popular during the Ming-Qing dynasty. From what I’ve gathered, it was a one piece skirt, but it was sewn together from four pieces. The skirt itself also has four “skirt doors”, just means a split between the pieces for movement. The “horse face” refers to the front facing of the garrison, which is a flat surface. (Source: Snowflake)
3 绿营草莽: refers to the background of these people who are from the Green Standard Army, who were from the Ming dynasty but surrendered themselves to the Qing dynasty. The main point is probably that they were socially disadvantaged, segregated from Chinese society, because of the anti-military bias (military eats away grain and taxes in times of peace).
4 These words were in slashes in the raws. Tried my best to make them make sense.
5 九环大刀: Nine Ring Broadsword
6 承让 (chéng ràng): you let me win (said politely after winning a game)