At the time Bianbo Camp was attacked, Shen Zechuan was taking a nap.
Qiao Tianya sat under the eaves fiddling with his zither, while Ding Tao and Li Xiong surrounded the copper crock playing with the fishes. It was quiet inside the room. The sunlight spilled over half of Shen Zechuan’s shoulders. He had just settled the details of the census register registration with Zhou Gui and the rest last night, and they had begun to do an inventory count of Cizhou’s granary reserves this morning. Autumn was just around the corner. If they wanted to do business with Chazhou, this was the best time. He busied around until the afternoon, and that was when he took the opportunity to doze off for a moment while he was sitting at his desk.
An unspecified amount of time later, he woke up.
Shen Zechuan leaned back against the taishi chair1 and pinched the center of his eyebrows. After taking a moment to compose himself, he called for Qiao Tianya.
“The bandits from half a month ago have already returned to Mount Luo. Have there been any movements from Lei Jingzhe?” Shen Zechuan took up his brush and continued to write what he had yet to finish earlier on the paper.
“Even if there are any signs of activity, it will reach us a few days later.” Qiao Tianya picked a chair to take his seat. “Besides, the marquis is thorough in his arrangements. When Lei Jingzhe returns to Mount Luo, he will be the target of criticism. Just trying to resolve his own internal affairs on Mount Luo alone will take him about a month or so.”
Shen Zechuan said nothing and continued writing. Finding him to be somewhat distracted, Qiao Tianya added, “Master only slept four hours last night, and you still have to go over to the Zhou’s residence to discuss official matters with them after dinner later. There’s no harm in taking a rest while you can now.”
Shen Zechuan said, “I’ll sleep after I return. Is Fei Sheng still idling around? Since he wants to do something, give him something to do.”
Qiao Tianya rubbed his fingers and said. “I’ve been thinking about it these few days. You’ve been leaving him out in the cold for more than a month. If this goes on, I fear he will harbor resentment.”
“The gears in this person’s brain sure turn fast. He knows Ce’an isn’t willing to take him in, so he wants to remain in Cizhou. Zhou Gui and Kong Ling fear his Imperial Bodyguards background and don’t dare to use him, so he can only follow shifu around, hoping to get a job from me through shifu.” Shen Zechuan set down the brush to let the ink dry and continued, “Now that Gu Jin has returned to Libei, we are indeed short of people to scout for us.”
When Qiao Tianya and the rest arrived in Cizhou, the various Imperial Bodyguards who had followed them out of Qudu also arrived one after another. But even if these Imperial Bodyguards were to gather, there were only about a hundred or so men, half of which were Fei Sheng’s old subordinates. At first, when Shen Zechuan set Fei Sheng aside without using him, it was because Fei Sheng did not have the intention to follow him; that gaze of his was fixed squarely on Xiao Chiye. A pity Xiao Chiye was unwilling to take him as a subordinate, so Fei Sheng could only settle for the next best option and remain by Ji Gang’s side, deferring to him on every issue. In Cizhou, Fei Sheng was not involved in any of the matters, yet he would often put himself within Shen Zechuan’s sight. His intent was simply too obvious.
Fei Sheng had it all read pretty accurately. Even if Shen Zechuan left him out in the cold for a moment, Shen Zechuan would eventually have to use him still, because he had observed Shen Zechuan’s every move, and he knew that Shen Zechuan lacked manpower.
Qiao Tianya leaned over slightly and asked across the table, “What does Master want him to investigate?”
“Two things.” Shen Zechuan answered. “The first is to get him to keep constant track of the price of tea and rice in the various Zhongbo prefectures and the prefecture of Huaizhou. Cizhou’s proposed price will be in the middle. If we want to avoid suffering any losses, we will have to get a good idea of the prices in these places. The Imperial Bodyguards used to have the same assignment back in Qudu, so he can assign men to carry out this task. The second is for him to get to the bottom of Lei Changming and Lei Jingzhe’s relationship with the Yan Clan of Hezhou. Especially Lei Changming. I want to know all the details of this person’s life.”
Qiao Tianya was a little surprised. “Lei Changming was merely a live target Lei Jingzhe set up for himself on the outside. Why is Master not investigating Lei Jingzhe but Lei Changming instead?”
Shen Zechuan paused for a moment before saying, “When I was taking a nap earlier, I recalled the way Lei Changming looked before he died. I find him a little odd. The custom of wearing earrings is the most prevalent among the noble clans in Qudu and the Eight Great Cities. Li Xiong is an orphan Lei Jingzhe raised. He rarely socializes with these people and has only met them once, so it isn’t surprising that he can’t remember it clearly. But Lei Changming was the bandit chief of Mount Luo. He had dealings with the prefectural prefects and garrison troops’ commanders of the two prefectures of Dunzhou and Duanzhou; he even had dealings with Yan Heru, the youngest young master of the Yan Clan, a family of wealthy merchants. He should have come across men wearing earrings countless times, yet he kept focusing on my jade earring before his death…”
Shen Zechuan furrowed his brows slightly. He could clearly recall Lei Changming’s expression before his death. If Li Xiong had not mentioned it, he would not have noticed it either. Lei Changming’s deranged and delirious gaze was clearly looking at another person through this jade earring.
This matter was originally inconsequential. Anyone who heard it should not be taking it to heart. This was because Shen Zechuan’s jade earring was nothing rare; it was merely something that Xiao Chiye had polished out of leftover material while he was fleeing. Compared to the box of earrings he gave to Shen Zechuan back in Qudu, this one was nothing valuable. Others could tell at a glance how “treasured” it was only because of its roundness and smoothness. The noble clans considered it a “blessing” to let their most precious children wear jade earrings.
But Shen Zechuan felt subtly bothered by it. He intuitively felt that there was something in there he would want to dig deeper into. There were still some secrets regarding the uncle and nephew pair of the Lei clan that Zhou Gui and Kong Ling were not aware of.
Li Xiong sat by the copper crock, fiddling with a red string. But he was clumsy and kept failing in his attempts.
Ding Tao scooped up the fish, and water splashed over Li Xiong.
All of a sudden, Li Xiong snapped the string broken in anger and threw it at Ding Tao. He pulled a long face and said, “I’m going to look for my big bro.”
Ding Tao, with his sleeves still rolled up, said, “Better not; what’s so good about your big bro? Why don’t you treat Qiao Yueyue and me as your elder brothers and follow our Young Master? Our Young Master gives out sweets every month, and he never withholds our salaries.”
“I don’t want money.” Li Xiong suddenly stood up. “I want my big bro.”
Ding Tao cast a glance at the main room and saw Qiao Tianya still discussing matters with Shen Zechuan on the other side of the partially hanging bamboo blinds, so he pulled down his sleeves and said, “Why don’t you come with me to grab some meat?”
“I’m not eating!” For some reason, Li Xiong was agitated. He scratched his cheek and demanded anxiously, “Why aren’t you people letting me go? I want to leave the city. I want to return to Mount Luo!”
Ding Tao felt that Li Xiong was truly a brat. He could not reason with Li Xiong, but if they were to come to blows, he was no match for Li Xiong either. Seeing that Li Xiong was about to make a scene again, Ding Tao suddenly hit on an idea. “You miss your big bro so much. He must be really a formidable one, huh?”
Li Xiong answered, “My big bro is the number one hero in Mount Luo. Of course, he’s formidable.”
Ding Tao clapped his hands together and said, “So what if he’s a hero on Mount Luo? Is he as formidable as my master, my young master? I don’t think of him as a hero!”
Sure enough, Li Xiong was furious. He glared at Ding Tao. “Your master and young master isn’t formidable at all! He’s so skinny; my big bro can kill him with just one punch!”
Ding Tao spat inwardly to himself, feeling a little displeased, but he still tried his best to put on a happy act. “Oh? Then that’s pretty formidable. Your big bro is Lei Jingzhe, right? His uncle is Lei Changming. I know all about it.”
Li Xiong was already envious of Ding Tao to begin with, and he was not willing to lose out to Ding Tao here. To prove that Lei Jingzhe was stronger than Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan, he hurriedly said, “Lei Changming is formidable too. He can lift the little people upside down, but my big bro is even more formidable than Lei Changming!”
Seeing that he had taken the bait, Ding Tao played along and asked, “What kind of martial arts move is lifting the little people upside down?”
Li Xiong had blurted it out offhandedly. Now that Ding Tao was asking, he racked his brain to recall Lei Changming’s life. Memories flashed through his mind. “That is, lifting children upside down. Lei Changming loved to do things like this.” He suddenly remembered something. “Oh! I remember it now! Earring… round and white earrings. The children Lei Changming hung upside down wore them too!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Shen Zechuan planned to head out after his meal. As he was changing his outer clothes, he heard Ding Tao and Li Xiong running around the courtyard, yelling and screaming. The maidservant retreated with a bow to the door and was about to instruct them not to make a din when Shen Zechuan looked back and said, “It’s fine. Let them play.”
Qiao Tianya originally wanted to put his zither on the small table under the eaves, but on seeing this, he feared the two kids would recklessly crash into it while they were playing and damage it, so he sent it back to his own room.
When Shen Zechuan was leaving the courtyard, Ding Tao followed behind him, looking as if he wanted to say something. But seeing that it was already late, he swallowed back his words and said as he stuck to the moon gate. “If it gets dark, I’ll go over with a lantern and wait for you.”
Shen Zechuan beckoned to Ding Tao. Once the latter walked over, he said, “After your meal later, head over to Grandpa’s courtyard. He wants to teach you the Twenty-four Stances of the Ji Clan. I’ll be back by the first quarter at the hour of hai2 at the latest.”
Ding Tao nodded and saw Shen Zechuan to the door, feeling a little loath to part with him. He had heard a bunch of stories in the afternoon. He did not know if Li Xiong was lying to him or if it was all real. It was almost dark now, and he was a little afraid too. As soon as Shen Zechuan left, he hurriedly brought Li Xiong over to look for Ji Gang. There were still quite the number of guards and the Imperial Bodyguards staying in that courtyard. With more people around, he was not afraid anymore.
Shen Zechuan arrived at the Zhou’s residence. The study was brightly lit, with several aides sitting within. The summer night was warm, and the windows on all three sides of the study were open. They had also lit incense to repel mosquitoes. The room felt stuffy when it got crowded. Kong Ling feared that Shen Zechuan would feel uncomfortable, so he had the doors kept wide open.
“These are the grains that have been counted today. Vice Commander, please look it over.” Zhou Gui presented the book to Shen Zechuan and said from his seat, “The autumn harvest is just around the corner. The way we see it, this is the most appropriate time to discuss business with Chazhou.”
“During autumn in the past, the company of traveling merchants from Hezhou and Juexi has to pass through Zhongbo to head for the area where Libei’s and the Huiyan Tribe’s mutual trade market is to deal in goods. However, the war is intense this year, and with this business undoable, they will most likely head for Chazhou to make up for it.” Kong Ling lifted his robe slightly and sat down. “If we were to fall behind them, then no matter how cheap we sell the grains when the time comes, Chazhou will not have the money to buy. So this matter has to be done as soon as possible.”
“That’s the thing.” Shen Zechuan looked over the quantity of grains carefully and said, “This matter is the most important right now. If all goes smoothly, life in Cizhou will be better next year. No such trade was made in the past, so the merchants from Juexi and Hezhou could not have anticipated it, but they should more or less get wind of it when our men go over to discuss business. This involves us getting a slice of their pie; they might not necessarily be willing.”
“That’s the hard thing.” Zhou Gui chimed in. “Leaving aside the question of whether the negotiations with Chazhou’s prefectural prefect and the bandits can go smoothly, we have to rack our brains just to guard against the others. Our Cizhou’s garrison troop has been established for less than a month. The military drill ground isn’t ready, and the soldiers are still untrained. If the others were to have designs on the grains and plot against us, we wouldn’t be able to win against them.”
Shen Zechuan had been waiting for a few days for Zhou Gui to say these words. He closed the book and tapped soundlessly on it with his finger. “Cizhou has no commanding general at present. You gentlemen and I are not well-versed in the art of training soldiers. However, the Imperial Army left some soldiers and horses behind at Beiyuan Hunting Grounds to keep guard. If Your Excellency is willing, why not let them train the garrison troops first? We have to come to an agreement with Chazhou first before we give them the grains. Has the negotiator been decided? I’ll get Qiao Tianya to lead the Imperial Bodyguards and escort him for protection.”
Zhou Gui looked at Kong Ling before looking back. “I can’t leave Cizhou, so I can only send Chengfeng over and assign some clerks who can do the accounts to tag along. If the Vice Commander is willing to dispatch some men to protect them, that’d be really for the best.”
Zhou Gui did not understand, but Kong Ling understood it perfectly well. He composed himself and said to Shen Zechuan, “But I’m a greenhorn when it comes to doing business, and I feel very apprehensive not knowing if there are experts there… so I’d like to ask the Vice Commander to bestow upon me an ingenious stratagem I can bring along.”
Shen Zechuan smiled and said, “Mister Chengfeng, you are too modest. Where on earth would I have an ingenious stratagem? If it’s permissible, I’ll go with Mister Chengfeng on this trip.”
How would Zhou Gui dare to let Shen Zechuan venture deep into the tiger’s den where dangers lurked? Xiao Chiye “hasten over within a day” was still echoing in his ears! He hurriedly said, “The Vice Commander is—”
Kong Ling was already making his bow and expressing his gratitude. “I feel reassured with the Vice Commander around.”
This man really knows how it is done.
Shen Zechuan looked at Kong Ling with a gentle expression.
Truly too clever.