What Feng Sheng wanted wasn’t just any account book——to say it was the lifeblood of salt merchants wasn’t an exaggeration.
What was recorded in it was no laughing matter. It encompassed all their dealings with numerous officials over the years. Who among the officials had received their benefits, how much of which, and when they received it——they had all been kept into account. This account book was a family heirloom passed down from one generation to the next and was never brought out in times of peace. Once taken out, it was used to save lives in the event of a major ordeal.1
Feng Sheng wanting this account book was tantamount to demanding for the Chen family head’s life.
However, the conditions she proposed were enough to tempt him. Since the implementation of the new policy, those account books were now like chicken ribs.2 The Liang Huai Salt Administration Reform had become a national policy. The general trend dictated that, even if salt merchants hauled out their account books to compel those officials to speak for them, unless the one above was superseded, it would be futile.
Therefore, it wasn’t like he couldn’t hand it to her. In the end, it all hinged on his whim to gamble. For a moment, the Chen family head was unable to build his resolve, palpable how conflicted he was about this matter.
“Will you allow this old man to consider it?”
“I’m fine with it. It depends on whether or not others can sit still.” Feng Sheng lifted her chin to the side where the Cheng family waited. “Master Chen should know that resources are limited. This matter is about grabbing the first opportunity. If you lag behind, you may not be able to grab a share of the pie. Think of Huang Jin Fu, and look at the situation now.”
“What do you even need this for? You should know that once the contents inside are leaked, my Chen family will face the risk of retaliation.”
“Didn’t I say I can help Master Chen resolve any menace from the rear? The account book is in your hands. Do those officials you used to associate with still have dealings with you now? They no longer want to see you face to face and are only greeting you with their closed doors. Master Chen is not a fool and should understand the undercurrents of what is occurring.”
The Chen family head shivered all over, and his eyes twitched.
Yes, he approached this Lord Fang, not only to keep the Chen family’s business intact, but also to save the lives of his family. He was over seventy years of age and had occupied the position of the head of this family for nearly forty years. Over the years, he had interacted with countless officials, including some governors and important ministers of the imperial court.
In the past, he was a bit fastidious in the visitors he welcomed and sent off. Now that he knew that the Chen family was on the brink of collapse, would they be afraid of him saying something he shouldn’t or taking something he shouldn’t? Would it reach the extent where they would rather strike first to gain the upper hand? He didn’t need to enumerate. Just listing any few names could take his little life.
The entire Chen family was now on a pot of fire. The Jiang family’s circumstances were still vivid in his mind. Something as major as assassinating an imperial envoy was actually smoothed out by them. Was smoothing it off an attempt to preserve his life? No. They merely wanted to squeeze the last drop of oil out of the Jiang family and then settle him after.
The person who dared to execute this move was extraordinary. Would the Chen family follow in the footsteps of others? No, the Chen family still didn’t have as big of a face as the Jiang family, and there was no need for them to settle his family in a similar fashion.
For a moment, the Chen family head’s eyes flickered nonstop. Actually, the more he thought about it, the more he broke out in cold sweat. He then shifted his sight at Lord Fang smiling as he sat opposite him, placidly shaking a folding fan, his countenance insipid, looking as though he had a card up his sleeve.
The world knew just how deep the water in Liang Huai was. Even merchants like the Chen family head were aware of the trend of the court. Using who knew how many men and horses to play, no one knew how many paths this game actually had. This one surnamed Fang, which path was he taking?
“Master Chen, must you know what I, a mere seventh-rank prestige official, will do with that thing? It naturally has its uses.”
At the same time, on stage, the raucous sound of percussion instruments reached its climax.
Suddenly, the cadence shifted from high to low, and one of the strings snapped.
“Alright, I concur.”
Feng Sheng revealed a satisfied smile.
To pull wool over people’s eyes, the Chen family head exited the scene in anger halfway through, while Feng Sheng sat until she finished watching the play.
Witnessing the two parting on bad terms, other families dared not come forward.
However, to be able to discuss and settle a family today was beyond Feng Sheng’s expectations. She was not in a hurry. She could idle away the hours. She had waited this long, so this little bit of time didn’t matter much.
Thus, she took the carriage and maundered around Yangzhou City for half a round. Not only did she purchase some snacks and fruits, she also bought a lot of pastries. Amidst her brief excursion, outside a long-established store with wheat cakes as its specialty, her group of people stood on queue for nearly an hour.
The few people secretly following her were somewhat unable to make head or tail of it.
On the way back, Feng Sheng hauled in numerous things in a huge bundle, astounding Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu.
Since Feng Sheng loved to nibble on snacks, they usually had some at home. This time, however, because she had disappeared for a considerable length of time, all the snacks at home had long spoiled. Never did they expect her to buy half a month’s worth of snacks today.
The two maidservants were stowing the stuff away when a person emerged from the door. It was Fan Jin Chuan.
“Worthy Brother Fang, I want to discuss something with you.”
Feng Sheng, whose back was against him, sighed noiselessly. When she looked back at him, she nevertheless wore a smile.
“What does my lord wish to talk about?”
Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes turned gloomy. Feng Sheng would only call him lord when they were on official business or whenever he upset her. The rest of the time, she always called him Brother Fan. However, not knowing when it started, ‘lord’ had become a byword for him.
“Just wanted to talk to you. Let’s find an empty place to chat for a while.”
In the fourth month, the small grass was in seed. In the fifth, the cicada gave out its note.
The fourth month had the best days of the year. It had neither the cold spell of the third month’s later spring, nor the fifth month’s blistering summer heat. When the grasses grew tall and the nightingales fluttered in the air, the outside became verdant and exquisite, invigorating and relaxing to those present.
Since it was merely casual chatter and not a formal discussion, Feng Sheng suggested finding a spot to lounge around in the back garden.
After Xiao Qi made tea, she sat down.
There were obviously plenty of occasions where the two sat opposite each other drinking tea and chatting endlessly, but none of them was as awkward as this one.
In truth, it wasn’t really that awkward, it was just that neither knew what to say.
In the end, it was Feng Sheng who first opened her mouth.
“It’s rare for my lord to be this leisurely. These days, plenty of things have piled up for my lord to handle alone. My lord has been troubled.”
“I’m not troubled.”
Feng Sheng chuckled and sipped tea, gazing at the scenery outside the pavilion as she did so.
Fan Jin Chuan’s stared at her with covetous eyes. Day and night had he yearned for that face, believing that he himself had caused her death. With all his hopes dashed to pieces, he could only turn his lament and resentment into motivation. Who would have imagined she would actually be in pristine condition?
With the knowledge that she was completely unscathed, he drank himself into a stupor and awoke even more ardent, recalling the words she had uttered before she left——remember our plan, you have to finish it.
Dreaming of her coming back, he had rehearsed in his head how he should convey to her his desires and worries; dreaming of her coming back, he had strengthened his resolve to gather his guts to confess to her his thoughts. However, when she returned, seeing her countenance the same as before, the clear and light feeling seemingly separated by a layer of fog once again drifted back.
He often dreamt about that night, the flesh and fragrance of a beauty, her slender fingers covering his lips.
But upon rousing from the dream, he was still alone.
However, hunger and thirst dwelled in his innermost being. No longer could he remember how many days such longing lasted. He could only recall having thought that, if someday his mother passed, and if he were still alone and unmarried, it wouldn’t be bad to spend his days with Worthy Brother like this.
“Feng Sheng, why don’t you marry me?”
No one would have expected such a proposal to spew out in this kind of situation. Feng Sheng’s hand trembled, spilling out some of her tea. Not batting an eyelid, she dried the tea on her fingers, and by the time she turned to him, she had already regained her composure.
Fan Jin Chuan’s sight dithered away from Feng Sheng. He appeared quite apprehensive as he stared blankly at the landscape outside, daring not to look at only her.
Feng Sheng somewhat sighed, and for some reason, a voice resonated in her ears.
“……But remember, the woman this prince doesn’t want, others can’t lay a finger on, so stay away from Fan Jin Chuan……”
“How did Brother Fan come up with this idea? If it’s because of that night, you should know why I did that. It was actually for both our sakes.”
Hearing this, Fan Jin Chuan’s emotions churned.
“No, Feng Sheng, you should know how I feel about you. I’d always thought you were a man, so I stopped being polite and was always impassioned, but you’re not……”
Behind the pavilion, Man’er listened to the conversation inside, her face in sheer alarm.
Even Fan Jin Chuan asking Feng Sheng to marry himself was not as appalling as hearing that Advisor Fang was a woman.
She didn’t listen any further and trod away in a trance.
What to do? What should she do?
Man’er was now in complete disarray. She had long discovered Brother Fan’s unusual feelings for Advisor Fang, but so long as Advisor Fang was a man, it was impossible for Brother Fan to be with the other. Therefore, even if Brother Fan had been unwilling to marry her, she was not in a hurry. With plenty of time in her hands, she could slowly wait.
A woman like her, who knew nothing and had no maternal family to rely on, must learn to be patient. Such forbearance had previously been foreign to her, but after her father’s death and her brother and sister-in-law’s appointment as heads of her family, she finally understood.
Man’er was not stupid. It was more proper to say she was smart.
Were she stupid, she wouldn’t have realized she was suffering under her brother and sister-in-law’s harsh criticisms. She wouldn’t have exerted all her strength to extend to Bao-shi, fleeing from the village people mocking her for having a successful man who kept delaying his return because he refused to marry her. She herself took the initiative to rush to the Fan family, vowing to Bao-shi as she knelt that she would serve her for the rest of her life, unyielding in her determination to stay.
Therefore, the moment she found out Advisor Fang was a woman, she was smart enough to know that she couldn’t win.
She called to mind a certain scene she saw when she first arrived——
The mist hadn’t yet dispersed, and the sky was just awning.
Man’er looked up and saw a man propped against the door. His figure was frail, with a coat draped over his shoulders. His eyes and brows exhibited fatigue, but he was nonetheless unmistakably handsome.
Such a man.
Fortunately, he was a man. Had he been a woman, she feared that even with a lifetime of strenuous efforts, she couldn’t triumph over the other person.3
She still remembered exalting in her heart, but now, she only felt ridiculous thinking about it.
Man’er absently plodded back and stumbled upon Bao-shi in the courtyard.
“What’s the matter? This is, why is your face so pale? Didn’t you say you were sending Shuan’er something?”
Man’er plastered on a smile. “Mother, I’ve already sent it to him.”
“Don’t you know you should also talk to him? Not that I’m blaming you, but if you were half as shrewd and vigorous as I was back then, you and Shuan’er would have been done by now. I wouldn’t have to worry about you every day.”
Man’er stood there listening until Bao-shi stopped talking and stalked inside.
As she closed the door, everything seemed to have quieted down.
What should she do? Perhaps she wasn’t that hopeless.
Man’er was hanging from a beam.
While Fan Jin Chuan was confessing his feelings to Feng Sheng, she hung herself from a beam.
When the two received the news, they rushed over. Bao-shi was wailing inconsolably, and upon seeing Fan Jin Chuan, she pounced on him and beat him.
She scolded him for being a dumb thing for delaying his marriage with Man’er.
Fan Jin Chuan was a bit nonplussed. Feng Sheng nevertheless stepped forward to check on Man’er’s condition on the couch and sent for a doctor.
Man’er wasn’t dead, but she almost was.
The doctor left after prescribing medicine and exhorting everyone to take care of Man’er, adding that even the best doctor was useless to a person seeking death.
When Man’er awoke, she lay in bed and wept.
When Bao-shi asked her what was wrong, she said nothing and simply whimpered. Just when Feng Sheng was about to leave, she made a noise and called out to Feng Sheng.
Her unusual behavior aroused Bao-shi‘s suspicion. Bao-shi had planned to rest, but she now refused to retire. In the end, she prodded Man’er to spill out the reason, and only then did Bao-shi learn that Feng Sheng was a woman.
The rest need not be asked. Bao-shi now knew why Man’er had taken things too hard.
Rarely was she this infuriated. Even when Fan Jin Chuan dragged his feet on marrying and suggested to marry Man’er off as his sister, she hadn’t been this furious. She and Man’er had been depending on each other for years. She had practically treated her as a daughter-in-law or even as a daughter. She had long held a fire in her heart, a fire she had always choked back because Feng Sheng was Fan Jin Chuan’s private advisor, and Fan Jin Chuan had always relied heavily on her.
Now, being told that Advisor Fang was a woman, there was simply nothing more ridiculous than that.
Adding old and new grudges together, Bao-shi riled at Feng Sheng, berating her quite terribly. Even when Fan Jin Chuan tried to stop her, and even as he grew enraged, she didn’t stop.
The room was suddenly like a vortex haunted by evil spirits, and Feng Sheng could only flee in a hurry.
Feng Sheng went back and slept for a while.
Her slumber lasted from dusk till noon the next day. Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu didn’t dare wake her. They also heard about Man’er’s suicide attempt. Although they weren’t clear about the specifics, they hadn’t forgotten about the faint sentiments that had existed between Feng Sheng and Fan Jin Chuan.
Although this didn’t prove anything, Man’er’s disturbance had completely eliminated the possibility between the two.
Maybe others didn’t know, but the people around Feng Sheng knew what kind of personality she had.
After that, Feng Sheng grew busy running like the wind every day, spending less time in the rear court and more time outside. No one knew what she was tossing about for, and even Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu didn’t dare inquire. As for Fan Jin Chuan, he didn’t come back to seek out Feng Sheng since that day, as if nothing had happened.
Another month or so passed, and only when the watchman’s clapper for the first shift4 rang out did Feng Sheng return with a body full of wine.
But she wasn’t drunk. It seemed that she had gone to socialize for some official business.
She had just trudged into the courtyard she was residing in when a person emerged from a dark corner.
“Worthy Brother Fang.” It was Fan Jin Chuan.
His eyes were filled with wisps of blood, his jaw green with stubble. His visage could only be described as wan and sallow.
Feng Sheng’s body stiffened. She asked, “What’s the matter?”
“On the eighteenth of next month, Man’er and I will be holding our wedding. I hope you will stop by for a drink.”
“Alright, I’ll definitely be there.”
Doesn’t this chapter kind of hurt? Fan Jin Chuan’s feelings, Man’er’s feelings, Feng Sheng busying herself.
2 鸡肋 (jī lèi): chicken ribs; sth of little value or interest
4 一更 (yī gēng): first of the five night watch periods 19:00-21:00 in ancient China