No one would have expected a mere gentleman-litterateur to have effectuated the upheaval that agitated the court and the public from the 25th year of Jianping to the 26th year of Jianping.
The origin of this upheaval was the successful implementation of the new policy. With this, the Salt Distribution Commission yamen undertook the rectification of the Liang Huai Salt Circuit.
In this regard, the Jianping Emperor was pleased to witness its success.
The rest of the court were well aware that, when talking about officials most suspicious of corruption, other than salt officials, he couldn’t think of anyone else. Although the reform’s new policy had accomplished gratifying results, it exhausted manpower and material resources. Even to the Jianping Emperor, it had become the source of inconceivable pressure. Hence, he naturally loathed those salt officials to the bone.
With such a mentality from the highest authority, the rectification Feng Sheng initiated coursed through more breezily than she had expected.
Feng Sheng arrogated the right to single-handedly administer this matter. She left all sorts of follow-up matters of the new policy to Fan Jin Chuan and tackled the most difficult part herself.
At first, Fan Jin Chuan was blind to her intentions. He simply assumed that Fang Feng Sheng had little confidence in his ability. Furthermore, something still lingered between the two of them. He practically took Feng Sheng’s words at face value.
But after the incident, it was too late for him to regret.
Feng Sheng united several salt merchants and first collected five million taels of silver for the imperial court, allegedly paying tribute by means of monetary contribution. At that time, the court was in a heated discussion about war because of the Mian State’s invasion of one of the Great Zhou Dynasty’s territories. In fact, this issue had long plagued them, but it was kept in abeyance because the state treasury was depleted.
Although the Liang Huai Salt Administration Reform boasted indisputable results, raising a huge amount for military expenditures couldn’t possibly be accomplished overnight. Great Zhou had once fought against the Mian State, but due to the terrain and the long battlefront, they suffered defeat when victory was within reach. If a second war were to commence, there would be no possibility of it ceasing. If the subsequent military expenditures could not keep up, it would render all their previous efforts useless. They might also face the possibility of losing Great Zhou’s national prestige.
This was the rhetoric spewed by a group of officials from the peace faction.
However, the Jianping Emperor was from the pro-war faction. He had long regarded the Mian State a thorn in the flesh. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, he was unable to achieve anything concerning this. Now, after all the trouble, the wind blew to a favorable direction in court, but was hampered at the last step. Therefore, when news from Yangzhou reached him, it was undoubtedly the long-awaited rain after a long drought.1
The news had so delighted him that, he not only qualified these salt merchants to set up salt shops in Liang Huai’s salt district, he also conferred Feng Sheng the prestige title of Grand Master for Consultation, permitting her to supervise the Liang Huai Salt Circuit.
This was tantamount to Feng Sheng obtaining a tenure. In the past, she had to carry Fan Jin Chuan’s banner to intervene in the affairs of Liang Huai Salt Administration, which was somewhat unbefitting of her capabilities. Now, with this decree, Feng Sheng possessed the qualification to be independent.
Because of this, she alone was able to take charge of the arrangements to rectify the Liang Huai Salt Circuit yamen.
After receiving the decree, Feng Sheng assiduously attended to her duties. Not only did she bring the matter of checking the previous year’s accounts to the table, but she also cooperated with the salt distribution commissioner, He Lun, to detain and question the officials suspected of corruption.
For a time, a tremor struck Liang Huai.
In fact, all knew that this matter would arrive sooner or later; otherwise, there would not be so many people opposed to the implementation of the new policy. However, when the real thing confronted them, only then were they able to truly learn from experience what it was like to panic.
Feng Sheng rolled like thunder and moved like the wind, more resolutely than they had imagined. There were human testimony and material evidence, as well as old accounts over the years as proof. For a time, several officials fell off their horses one after another.
Witness testimony naturally referred to those salt merchants, and the material evidence were their account books. However, even if the culprits knew that such was the case, it was too late. Since that one surnamed Fang dared to brandish them, these salt merchants also dared to testify, indicating that they had passed the clear road in front of the Jianping Emperor. Briefly put, this was heeding His Majesty’s will to sort them out.
Under these circumstances, the few officials involved did not dare act like trapped beasts putting up a desperate fight. When the Jinyiwei knocked on their doors, all were like dead dogs, allowing them to take them away. After that, when hauled to the Salt Distribution Commission yamen, they also spoke without reserve and quickly confessed, lest they be subjected to the suffering of the skin and flesh.
There were even many who, because of their guilty conscience, had already made preparations. They had sent away their wives and children, dismissed their servants, and were just awaiting the Jinyiwei to reach their doors.
The common people in the area eventually caught wind of such happenings. They, who used to be utterly terrified of the Jinyiwei, now clapped their hands in high glee and even created nursery rhymes that circulated in the marketplace. This was outside of Tong baihu’s expectations, and it made him and Feng Sheng sigh with emotion. He was supposed to assist in handling the case, but was now unexpectedly presented a scenery so glamorous that it improved the reputation of the Jinyiwei.
Of course, this was only on the surface. Behind their backs, there was no such peace and tranquility. As Feng Sheng persisted in her investigation, more officials were implicated, and many had become cornered dogs leaping over the wall, wanting to commit murder to keep their secrets under wraps. Much to their chagrin, they couldn’t eliminate these mouths. When things had developed to the current situation, they could only ask someone of higher status to speak for them. Fang Feng Fu was also tactful enough to know what and who could or could not be investigated.
This was the usual practice in officialdom. Everyone, without exception, had factions and feared death. Even if His Majesty wanted to tidy up Liang Huai, it was impossible to investigate and remove all officials involved. There would always be someone who would slip through the net. Now, they were all surreptitiously praying that they themselves would be the ones to slip through. Naturally, they were bound to use the back door to seek refuge.
There were many who had given each other prior notice, and their means of doing so were fantastic oddities of every description, impossible to enumerate one by one. Many frequently approached Fan Jin Chuan for salvation, but Fan Jin Chuan paid them no mind and chose not to bother Feng Sheng, as though nothing had happened.
When the Salt Distribution Commission’s Vice Prefect, Wei Tong Xin, was arrested, things had already reached a state analogous to pouring oil on a blazing inferno.
He Lun sought Feng Sheng once again, his expression deeply perturbed.
“It’s time for you to stop. You should understand who’s behind this person. We’ve been drifting with the wind and current for a while now. They understand what it means to be ‘a mantis trying to stop a chariot’,2 sacrificing their pawns to save the master. If we persist with our ways, I’m afraid even His Majesty won’t be on your side. Once they attack in unison, you will only be reduced to fine powder.”
What He Lun said, Feng Sheng naturally understood, but this was precisely the result she wanted.
For a while, she slept for only four hours a day, spending all her waking hours contending with those officials. However, she was not at all exhausted and instead felt sheer euphoria, knowing that her goal was within reach. Now, every step she took was to compel the other party to play their cards until they had no cards to play, such that the big fish that had been hiding would finally surface.
In fact, Feng Sheng did not have to be so severe. She had more ways to achieve her own goal, but those methods would all but consume years, even decades. If one cultivated oneself until one was strong and formidable enough, the enemy would no longer be as terrifying; however, that didn’t guarantee triumph, because while one was cultivating, others were doing the same.
The other party was born an imperial descendant, maybe even the nation’s future monarch. This was perhaps the only chance she could ever get in her entire lifetime, so she would never let it go.
“You’re simply insane!” He Lun brushed his sleeves and strode away.
However, in the afternoon, he dropped by once more, still counseling patiently and systematically like before, but this time with more pleading.
“You are still so young. Why are you so serious? In this world, nothing is truly right and wrong or black and white. Water that is too clear has few fish. Watching you and Zi Jin implement the new policy to benefit the people of Liang Huai, the imperial court, and the nation, I, as one of them, am very moved and excited. I think I myself have found the true essence of being an official. However, a great man has some things he can and cannot do. You have a great future ahead of you, why involve yourself in this matter?”
Feng Sheng revealed a wisp of a smile and said, “Has Lord He ever heard the saying that someone has to ultimately step forward?”
This put He Lun in a daze. “Haven’t heard it.”
“It was my father who said that. A pity I wasn’t there at the time.”
Feng Sheng rose to her feet to make tea.
He Lun lowered his head. He was originally a high-spirited man standing seven feet tall, but his shoulders were now slumped, and his face was flustered.
“Old Brother Feng Fu, I’m awfully sorry I can’t accompany you any further on this journey. Had I been alone, I would have accompanied you for a good time, but I have a petite wife, young children, and an old mother, as well as several hundred people in the He clan……”
Feng Sheng peered at him.
In fact, even she never would have expected He Lun to be the one to accompany her in carrying out this prelude. When she bid Advisor Ma to advise him, it was simply because she didn’t want him to stir trouble, but she absolutely never anticipated him to change so much. Even under considerable pressure, he had been keeping her safe. How many people had trod on the He family’s gate these days and what kind of people they were, she was more or less a bit aware. For him to accomplish this much already transcended her expectations.
“Lord He need not be ashamed. I understand.”
He Lun suddenly gave a wistful smile and turned his back. “If I continue, even I will feel that I’m being ridiculous. Well, to cower is to cower. What good is there to cover up shame and desolation? Old Brother Feng Fu, I wish that all your wishes come true and your achievements earn eternal glory.”
He Lun left.
Feng Sheng studied his back for a long time and returned to sit behind the writing desk.
She summoned Uncle Yu and all the people under her.
There weren’t a lot of them. Except for Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu, the rest were from Dao Qi. Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu did not stay. No matter how unwilling they were, Uncle Yu sent them away.
After the two withdrew, the room finally quieted down.
Feng Sheng observed these people. On the table were some silver. Those who wanted to leave, she would never force to stay and could leave with the silver.
“Young Master, I, Dao Qi, was born in the wilderness. I know nothing about general principles, and my only family is my woman. My woman and I owe Old Yu a few lives, and since he serves you as his master, you are my master. Staying here isn’t so bad, so I won’t say anything more about leaving”
“I think the same as my man.” Hu Si Niang smiled at Feng Sheng.
“Brother Dao isn’t even leaving, so we’re naturally not leaving. Anyway, if one gets their fill, the whole family won’t go hungry.”
“If we take the master’s silver, we have to work ourselves to death for the master. Our lives haven’t been sold yet, so what’s the point of leaving?”
“All disperse. Let’s go and drink!”
These people hooked their arms around each other’s shoulders and all sauntered away. Their backs were not at all pleasing to look at, even vulgar, but Feng Sheng felt hot tears about to well up her eyes. She strove to remain stoic until her face grew rigid.
“Young Master, we are different from those scholars, and we can’t help much, but for each day Young Master is still here, we will be by your side. But Young Master, even though my heart yearns to avenge Master, I don’t want you to gamble by yourself.” Uncle Yu implored, somewhat mournful.
“We’ve trod on thin ice every step of the way, gambling with our lives, so let’s gamble big this time.”
In the evening, Fan Jin Chuan came.
His blue robe alone reminded Feng Sheng of the time in that small inn in the middle of nowhere. By his side stood a page boy carrying a book bag, and they had just barged in to escape the heavy rain.
Fan Jin Chuan recollected the exact same memory, a time when he was very hard-pressed. She shook her fan to break him from his trance.
“Worthy Brother Fang.”
As they smiled at each other, whatever affection and sentimental entanglements they previously had vanished like smoke in thin air. She was still the crafty and resourceful Worthy Brother Fang, and he was also still the exceedingly righteous but not clever enough Brother Fan.
“Had I known you were thinking of such an idea, I would have stopped you right then.”
“Actually, I was already laying out the plan, you just didn’t know.”
Fan Jin Chuan couldn’t help but smile, albeit a little bitter and astringent. “Every time you do something, I always find out much later.”
“I simply don’t want to harm you. You have to know that in this matter, the one person I don’t want to harm most is precisely you. After all, I’ve been taking advantage of you from start to finish. I’m too selfish a person. I neither want to owe others a favor, nor accept anyone’s favor. Yet, I’ve repeatedly received favors from others. If I implicate you again this time, even if I succeed in my revenge, I will feel uneasy all my life.”
“So, it wasn’t like I had to join in, but——”
This turn of events was a bit abrupt for Fan Jin Chuan. When Feng Sheng subconsciously looked over, she noticed him simper, somewhat pained and somewhat at ease. The substance of which was so complex that she was actually a little stunned for a moment.
“But that doesn’t mean I can’t secretly help you. You might be called into the capital for a debriefing, and I reckon it won’t be long before that happens. You should understand exactly why. I’ve already contacted my friends in court to speak on your behalf and to try to buy you as much time as possible. Prince Wu, Prince Zhao, and Prince Xiang shouldn’t let go of this opportunity. The reason why they haven’t made a move is probably because they are waiting to see who will make the first move. If they join in, your pressure ought to be alleviated. As for what happens after——”
Fan Jin Chuan paused, his expression transforming to that of apprehension, “Although fishing in troubled waters can alleviate the situation for a while, it can’t eradicate the the root of the problem. You’ll need to walk the road by yourself after that. If you can, try to put yourself out in the open as much as possible so they don’t dare touch you.”
Feng Sheng was confounded. She had never expected Fan Jin Chuan to say such words.
Furthermore, his words coincided with what she was planning. Liang Huai was only a temporary battlefield. If she wanted to make that person pay, the capital was definitely the home ground. Perhaps the Jianping Emperor had now already lost his patience with her and was awaiting her entry to the capital under the guise of a debriefing, but his main objective was to stop her from whatever she was doing.
It was because of these calculations that she had been sleepless lately, for what she could gather here were all the weight she would need to keep her alive after entering the capital.
Feng Sheng had never actually believed Fan Jin Chuan to be stupid. At most, he could be said to be ignorant of the present state of affairs and had overflowing righteousness. Yet, he actually came up with such an analysis. Such a person wholly embodied the statement, ‘great intelligence may appear to be stupidity’.
“Thank you. Once I leave, matters in Liang Huai will depend on you. You must know that although my heart only holds great revenge, I still wish for this place to be well.” Because, besides the corruption and decadence, numerous beautiful things and countless memories lay here——their separation outside Yangzhou that year, the government residence in which she insisted to be his advisor, He Lun, Second Assistant Zou, Old Wang, Xiao Hu Zi, Gou Qing, the night she was rescued in the salt transport canal, and far too many memories to even recall.
Feng Sheng sent Fan Jin Chuan away and was just about to close the door, when a person appeared outside.
It was De Cai.
“Master is telling you to stop immediately. He can’t come over right now because he’s wrapped up in something. He will drop a visit once it’s done.”
This wasn’t the first trip De Cai had made. Seriously speaking, it was the third, but Feng Sheng brushed him aside each time.
“Tell him that it’s late. Tell him not to ask about any of it. I don’t want to get him into trouble.”
After that, Feng Sheng shut the door. De Cai remembered what Prince Wei had said in his letter, that he could just directly strike if necessary. He was about to break down the door when a man walked out from the side. It was Uncle Yu. Looking to his right, Dao Qi stood, swinging his knife in motions resembling the outline of a flower.
He was no match against the two of them, so De Cai retreated.
Uncle Yu and Dao Qi stared at each other and were about to retreat, but the door opened from inside once again.
It was Feng Sheng, who had donned on a cloak.
“Go to the Salt Distribution Commission yamen’s prison.”
In the entire Salt Distribution Commission yamen, the most guarded and airtight place today was the prison.
Because of Wei Tong Xin’s arrest, the jailers were all replaced.
With Feng Sheng’s sudden visit, several torches were lit in a stone room in the prison, illuminating the place.
A large wooden armchair was placed at the top of the room. Feng Sheng sat on it with Dao Qi and others standing beside her. On the opposite side was a man in prison uniform: the famous Vice Prefect of the Salt Distribution Commission, Wei Tong Xin.
This Wei Tong Xing had been appointed vice prefect in the Salt Distribution Commission for approximately seven years. He had sent off a number of salt distribution commissioners and had close ties with several major salt merchants. To say he could cover the sky in Liang Huai with both his hands wasn’t an exaggeration. However, such a person, Wei Tong Xin himself, did not expect he would be arrested.
Knowing he had sat on such a position for six or seven years, did he still even need to mention who was behind him? He absolutely never expected that this salt administration reform would go so far as to reform the one above him.
However, since his arrest, no one interrogated nor tortured him, and he was served delicious food and drink every day. This relieved Wei Tong Xin. He remembered the words delivered by the above prior to Liang Huai’s upheaval, telling him to avoid conceit and impetuosity. Presumably, these people couldn’t dare move him. They might still be afraid of the person behind him. Perhaps, arresting him was just a passing act.
With this mentality, Wei Tong Xin didn’t take it to heart when he was brought out from his cell in the middle of the night. Even when someone asked him a question, he simply yelled that he wanted to sleep, until someone held a knife to his face.
“I don’t have much time left. I hope you answer whatever I ask so you can sleep early, and I can return early.”
When Feng Sheng emerged out of the prison, the sky’s marble white color had just emerged in the east.
When she returned to the residence, she did not rest. Instead, she washed her face with cold water and approached the table to eat the breakfast she had bought from a food stall she had just passed.
As she was eating, Tong baihu arrived.
Feng Sheng looked towards the door and asked Tong baihu, “Brother Tong, have you eaten?”
“Old brother Feng Fu.”
“What’s the matter? Let’s talk about it after breakfast. The emperor isn’t short of hungry soldiers.”
This latter statement made Tong baihu subconsciously glance at her, but he couldn’t perceive anything unusual.
He sat down and accompanied Feng Sheng for breakfast, but he didn’t eat much. Instead, Feng Sheng ate very earnestly.
When they finished the meal, Feng Sheng wiped her mouth with a handkerchief before saying, “What so-called matter is Brother Tong visiting so early for?”
“Received an oral decree. His Majesty ordered us to escort you to the capital.” After a pause, Tong baihu added, “Sorry to bother you with this sacred order. But you can rest assured, Feng Fu. I will take you to the capital safely and will never let anything happen to you in the middle of the journey.”
Feng Sheng stood up. “Let’s go.”
This ends the Liang Huai arc. Our girl’s finally going to the capital. It’s been a long journey.
1 久旱逢甘霖: a good rain after a long drought (idiom); to have a long-felt need satisfied
2 晓螳臂挡车: a mantis trying to stop a chariot (idiom); to overrate oneself and attempt sth impossible