Translated with: Jia<3
Shen Zechuan was writing a letter in the room, so Qiao Tianya and Fei Sheng took their leave.
Fei Sheng felt the itch to smoke, but did not dare to do so while standing under the eaves, worried that he would reek of smoke should Shen Zechuan call for him later. He stood still for a moment, but when he saw that Qiao Tianya wasn’t moving along, he knew what this was all about.
“Something’s the matter, huh?” Fei Sheng took a few steps outwards, leaning against the banisters along the corridor. “Tell me first, what kind of relationship do you have with that ‘Unpolished Jade Yuanzhuo’?”
“We’ve met before, but we’re not close. I have some impression of him.” Qiao Tianya mentioned casually.
The more Qiao Tianya tried to make light of the matter, the more suspicious Fei Sheng was. He asked, “Yao Wenyu isn’t a court official but a commoner who spends most of the year traveling out there. It’s even difficult for Marquis Helian to meet him. Where did you encounter him?”
“Fate brought us together.” Qiao Tianya did not answer seriously. “I didn’t expect it either. Isn’t this why I’m asking you to help me ask around?”
As Fei Sheng could get nothing out of him, he gave up probing and reported. “Secretariat Elder Hai, before he met with mishap, had previously wanted Yao Wenyu to leave Qudu and return to Jincheng, the hometown of the Yao Clan. There are students of Grand Preceptor Yao there who could watch over him on behalf of the Secretariat Elder, but Yao Wenyu didn’t go.”
Qiao Tianya uttered an “oh” and remained standing under the eaves to watch as the rain continued to fall.
Fei Sheng continued, “Yao Wenyu had probably realized at that time that Secretariat Elder Hai asked him to leave because he had already made up his mind to remonstrate to the death. So Yao Wenyu got on the carriage and circled around once before returning to wait in the residence for Secretariat Elder Hai to finish court. Who would’ve known that what he ended up with was news of Secretariat Elder Hai’s death instead?”
Droplets of rain dampened the toes of Qiao Tianya’s boots as he watched the gradually intensifying haze in the courtyard. His gaze fell upon a puddle, and he saw his own reflection.
Fei Sheng paused for a moment. It was only when he observed that Qiao Tianya’s expression was normal that he continued. “When Secretariat Elder was buried, tens of thousands of people came to send him off. Yao Wenyu was his only student, and he conducted the funeral for Secretariat Elder as a son would for his own father. It didn’t take a few days for the students from the Imperial College to start a riot; all of his books were torn entirely. If not for Kong Qiu hiding him in time, he may very well have ended up getting ripped to shreds by the students. However, he seems to have vanished into thin air after the matter of the emperor’s daughter was revealed. My informers in Qudu couldn’t find a trace of him either.”
Qiao Tianya shifted his gaze to him and repeated, “Vanished?”
“That’s right, he vanished.” Fei Sheng lifted the arm he had placed against the banister and drew a circle in the air. “When I escaped from Qudu with you, I lost contact with my informers for a period of time, and I only re-established contact with them a short while back. By then, Yao Wenyu had already vanished. Qudu is the territory the Imperial Bodyguards are most familiar with. If my men say he disappeared, it’s more than likely he’s dead.”
Qiao Tianya immediately replied, “Impossible. Kong Qiu still wants to revive the moderates, and Yao Wenyu is an indispensable candidate. Whether it’s for official or personal reasons, Kong Qiu would never let him die.”
Fei Sheng stared at Qiao Tianya, waiting for him to finish before saying, “My claim that he’s already dead is supported by evidence. Hear me out first. Initially, he was just missing. Kong Qiu and Cen Yu were both looking for him too, but to no avail. The last place he appeared at was Mount Bodhi, where Hai Liangyi was buried. When my men went to investigate, they found an abandoned carriage; he had been kidnapped. But if it was purely a kidnapping, the perpetrators would no doubt approach Kong Qiu to negotiate or, at the very least, discuss the conditions for release. That is only how Yao Wenyu could be useful as a ransom. However, Kong Qiu heard nothing from them at all, and it wasn’t just Kong Qiu; even the Yao Clan of Jincheng didn’t receive news of him.”
Qiao Tianya furrowed his brows. “If a riot hadn’t broken out in the Imperial College, Yao Wenyu would be the new star of the moderates, but the Yao Clan suffered a drastic decline after the Imperial College’s riot. He can no longer bear the responsibility of commanding all the students in the world. To Qudu, he’s a useless pawn. There must be a reason to kill him, but if you ask me, there was absolutely no need to.”
“Right?” Fei Sheng turned his head around and asked in puzzlement. “He is without an official position or title, but he is the eldest lawful son of the Yao Clan. Killing him will only bring nothing but problems. I don’t understand it either.”
Shen Zechuan called out to them from the room. Qiao Tianya ended the conversation and lifted the drapes to enter. He never broached the subject again.
◈ ◈ ◈
Luo Mu, for the sake of prudence, did not bring up the matter to Cai Yu directly. Instead, he coaxed his concubine until she was happy and allowed her to follow him in and out of the study. The private letters, which were partially concealed in the study, were copied down by concubine Cai’s maidservant before being surreptitiously delivered into the hands of Cai Yu.
Upon seeing the letters, Cai Yu immediately flew into a rage. He summoned Luo Mu to his residence and hurled a stream of verbal abuse towards him.
“I thought you were an honest man; that’s why I was willing to marry my sister off to you. Was there a single time that I didn’t contribute generously to help you out whenever your residence faced a difficulty? I treated you like a dear brother-in-law, yet you were scheming against me behind my back! Luo Mengzheng, look at yourself. If it weren’t for my support, you’d have been just a nobody! Do you really think of yourself as a bigshot?!”
Cai Yu was an uneducated and crude man used to mixing around in the lowest stratum of society. He was so vulgar and coarse when he cursed that Luo Mu fell to his knees before the table to repent. “Elder Brother treats me well; how could I dare repay your kindness with enmity? These private letters are anonymous. I have no idea where they came from either. I’ve been feeling nervous and afraid, unable to sleep at night and spending the day in a daze, all just to find an opportunity to bring up this matter with Elder Brother.”
Cai Yu got even angrier. He tossed the private letters onto the desk and pointed at Luo Mu. “What opportunity were you looking for? You and I are just a courtyard apart. Have you been crippled that you can’t get over here? If I hadn’t found out sooner, you would’ve already fallen into cahoots with them!”
Cai Yu was so furious that he felt uncomfortable. He stood up to take a few steps, repeatedly stroking his chest.
“You certainly are a piece of work, Luo Mengzheng! I was just wondering why there were so many people scolding me all of a sudden after spring this year. Turns out you were all trying to stab me behind my back! A shameless group of filthy trash. Back then, when I was renowned, you were all just babies who have yet to wean off milk. I always gave all sorts of financial assistance to you, yet you turn around and bite the hand that helps you! Why? You’ve gotten greedy after seeing how profitable the grains are? Bah! Do you think you people are worthy of doing this business? Are you people even capable of handling it?!”
Luo Mu was seized with terror. He wanted to speak, but Cai Yu bellowed, “Keep kneeling! I showed you due respect when we’re outside and thought of ways to support you, yet you don’t cherish it and stubbornly choose to fraternize with those ingrates. I’m telling you, if it weren’t for my younger sister’s love for you, you wouldn’t be going home today!”
Sweat was pouring from Luo Mu like rain. He kept his head lowered and said nothing.
Cai Yu just sneered when he stood looking at Luo Mu’s sweat-soaked back. He spent the first half of his life on knife-edge, and he finally settled down now that he was older. Who didn’t respectfully address him as “Elder Cai” each time he went out for business? All the major and minor bandits of Zhongbo had to give him face, and not even Lei Changming, whom he despised to the core, dared to behave out of line before him.
It was only after Luo Mu kneeled for an unknown period of time that Cai Yu’s anger dissipated some. In his eyes, Luo Mu was a spineless man. If he dared to keep those letters hidden for so long, it was surely because he had been instigated by the other party. This meant the other party was genuinely plotting against him and was just about to take action towards him.
Cai Yu’s heart was still fluttering with trepidation, but then he thought the better of it and ended up feeling so resentful that he was gnashing his teeth in anger. He had always thought of himself as a very generous man. Even though he had taken a large cut of the profit from the grains, he had still saved a share for those under them so that they would not starve to death. But these people did not know how to be grateful.
“Since they’re so heartless, I have no choice but to be unrighteous.” Cai Yu sat down beside the window where the light was spilling through and said maliciously. “Those insatiably greedy bunches are just like snakes trying to devour an elephant. I’ll catch a few and make an example out of them as a warning to the others to make them understand that I, Cai Yu, may be old, but I’m not so old that I’d subject myself to humiliation from others.”
While Cai Yu was publicly making a show of dealing with the smaller gangs on one end, Shen Zechuan’s cold was gradually getting better on the other. Fei Sheng was very efficient in his record-taking. He not only had all the prices of goods in Chazhou documented in the book, but had also sent someone to Fanzhou to do the same.
During the first few days, Shen Zechuan did not spread the news that Cizhou was here to trade in grains; Kong Ling had only gone around Chazhou to buy non-local products, making it seem as though they had made the trip especially to purchase these goods. When someone came to ask about their visit, Kong Ling’s reply was ambiguous and dismissive. After a few days, the number of people who came to probe lessened.
Kong Ling followed Shen Zechuan out to the shops owned by the Xi Clan. The shops operated by the Xi Clan here mainly dealt with parallel imports, rouges, and medicinal herbs.
“Starving refugees swarm the land outside the city, while the city remains peaceful and wealthy. Troubled times or not, the ones who suffer will always be the common people.” Kong Ling picked up the medicinal herb, took a sniff, and praised, “This is good quality stuff.”
“Xi Hongxuan was a man of foresight when it comes to business.” Shen Zechuan glanced around the shop. “Regular people generally would not dare to open such a shop here for fear of getting robbed, or poor business. In these last few years, Zhongbo can’t even afford to feed itself. Who would have thought that men with power in the city would be far more extravagant than the merchants of Juexi? All that’s lacking is exactly this kind of shop.”
“Money makes the mare go. Anything is possible with money.” Kong Ling lamented.
When Shen Zechuan spoke to him about Xi Hongxuan, he was talking about his own money vaults. Kong Ling understood the weight behind his words; this was recognition for taking his side in Cizhou. Kong Ling felt his chest tighten, thinking that he had been far too impulsive that day. As the saying goes, one should hide his inadequacies by staying quiet. It was not a good thing to display his own intelligence before a brilliant master.
Kong Ling did not reply and played dumb, and so Shen Zechuan did not continue the conversation. He took a look at the accounts for a moment and carefully asked the shopkeepers about news on Juexi’s end. The shopkeepers presented him with some trinkets as a tribute of respect, but Shen Zechuan rejected the jadeware and the likes and merely accepted a fan that had caught his eye. However, he had already gotten accustomed to the fan Xiao Chiye had gifted him, and it did not feel quite right to be holding this new fan in his palm. While he could make do with this fan, he was still counting on Xiao Chiye to not forget about the matter when he returned.
◈ ◈ ◈
The rain finally ceased in Chazhou, but it started to fall in Libei. While the weather in Zhongbo was still hot, Libei was already starting to turn cool. With the winds picking up in the seventh month, it would get colder after the end of the rainy season.
Ever since receiving Xiao Fangxu’s letter, Xiao Chiye had been in a bad mood. He was still stationed at the Shasan Camp but had set up a patrol range with the Bianbo Camp, taking both camps under his watch and keeping his guard up on all sides.
Wu Ziyu was initially going to send the battle steeds up north after three days, but he had already been delaying it for some days. He couldn’t leave on his own and had to follow Xiao Chiye. After receiving the letter, Xiao Chiye was now the commanding general in charge of military supplies in Libei. Wu Ziyu did not have a say no matter where he went; he had to listen to the deployment orders of the respective divisions’ quartermasters.
Xiao Chiye came down from the walls of the camp and headed back to the tent in the rain. The sky was about to darken, and the mess cook was banging a pot as a signal for mealtime. The Libei Armored Cavalry and the Imperial Army were like chalk and cheese as they each squatted on one side with their backs facing the other.
On one hand, the Libei Armored Cavalry, having tasted successive defeats, could not get past the humiliation and were thus awfully on edge. On the other hand, the ways of the Imperial Army were rather unorthodox, and everyone was an old hand at cracking jokes and jesting around. They had few rules to follow once they stripped off their armors, and they were all a playful bunch who loved their fun. This was not something the Libei Armored Cavalry could agree with.
Xiao Chiye received a handkerchief from Chen Yang to wipe his sweat. The tent was wide open, and the drapes were not lowered, or it would be too stuffy inside. Before he could sit down, he saw Gu Jin enter. “Master, Young Master’s letter is here.”
Xiao Chiye took it and raised a hand as a signal for them to leave. He brewed himself tea and drank it as he unwrapped the bundle that was neither too big nor too small. There was nothing much inside, just a neat stack of clothes under a bulging bag. He paid no attention to the clothing, but opened the bag first.
The bag contained only two items inside: a bunch of pressed, dried orange jasmine, and a letter. The letter was a little damp after being soaked for a long time. When Xiao Chiye picked it up, he could still smell the scent of flowers. He drank up the tea in one gulp, then opened the letter.
The letter was short. By the time Xiao Chiye finished reading it, he had already swallowed his tea. He turned his head towards the entrance of the tent, where Chen Yang and Gu Jin still stood, and said with composure, “Lower the drapes. I’m cold.”
Gu Jin wanted to ask, didn’t you find it ridiculously stuffy a moment ago, but Chen Yang had already removed the hooks and let the drapes down.
The moment the drapes shielded him from view, Xiao Chiye read the letter over and over again. Finally, he collapsed heavily onto the bed and held up the letter, reading it word for word.
Days have passed since we parted, I know you yearn for me.
So here’s a little gift to comfort you with.
Touching it is akin to touching me.
Xiao Chiye stared at that line of text and repeated it once more.
Touching it is akin to touching me.
Xiao Chiye’s throat felt dry. He inexplicably started laughing, his gaze a little fierce.
Written at the very bottom in light and cursive penmanship were the words:
It’s hard to sleep by my lonesome self. When will you return?
A good night’s sleep is only possible when you hold me in your arms.
Xiao Chiye loosened his grip and gazed towards the ceiling. Half a moment later, he flipped himself over and buried his face into the pillow. But it was as though Shen Zechuan was lying right next to him, nibbling his ear and whispering in that lazy, laid-back way of his, “A good night’s sleep is only possible when you hold me in your arms...”