Translated with: Jia<3
When Shen Zechuan woke up in the morning, the day was just starting to break. After Shen Zechuan had his breakfast, he boarded the carriage and headed back to the cosmetics shop with Kong Ling. It was still business-as-usual in the front hall. Qiao Tianya and Fei Sheng stood guard in the courtyard, while the Imperial Bodyguards kept careful surveillance both inside and outside the shop.
Half an hour later, Luo Mu’s sedan arrived too. He was wearing his usual attire—a deep red robe with a slanted collar. The shopkeeper at the front desk was sharp. Seeing as the attendants following behind Luo Mu were unfamiliar, he raised his voice and said, “It’ll be scorching hot soon, and it’ll be tough on you all to be standing outside. Men, lead these brothers into the room for some tea and a rest.”
Those few attendants exchanged glances. Presuming that Luo Mu would not be able to escape, they followed the shop assistant into a room. After entering, they insisted on hanging the curtains up so that they could keep an eye on the entrance of the front hall.
The shop assistant followed beside Luo Mu and offered a handkerchief to Luo Mu to wipe his hands. Luo Mu wiped his hands as per usual and took a look at the goods on the counter. The shopkeeper greeted him with a courteous smile and said, “The last time Your Excellency came by, we didn’t have all the goods. This time we have prepared them well in advance. There are even new jade pieces and trinkets that have just arrived from the east. They are all in the back. This way, please!”
Luo Mu appeared to be hesitating as he cast a glance at the attendants.
The shop assistant continued, “This short distance will not take too much effort. Some goods are hard to come by, it’s not very convenient to bring them to the front for you to choose from, and it doesn’t look good on you when you view them there.”
Only then did Luo Mu reluctantly nod and follow the shopkeeper to the courtyard at the back.
Qiao Tianya personally drew the curtains. Luo Mu said his thanks and bent over to enter. He first paid his obeisances to Shen Zechuan, then looked at Kong Ling. It was only after seeing that both their expressions were relaxed that he took his seat.
Shen Zechuan noted that Luo Mu was dressed as a literati today and presumed that he must have chosen his clothes and shoes carefully before leaving the house. Although he sat impeccably upright after entering, he would subconsciously look at Kong Ling wherever there was a conversation. The moment Kong Ling opened his mouth, Luo Mu’s eyes would be fixed on him.
“Cai Yu has been going all out to hit out at the smaller gangs these days, but he knows not to go too far. He understands the principle of interdependency given that they share a common lot; if one falls, the other will be in danger too, and he also fears he will end up isolated by all if he crosses the line. So at the same time he strikes out at the smaller gangs, he attempts to win over the remaining younger generation by ‘offering low-priced grains to help the masses’.” As Shen Zechuan was at the side, Luo Mu was already trying to hold his gaze in check. “This approach is to sell the grains cheaply to the gangs who had not been stirring up trouble.”
Kong Ling asked, “How much is that?”
Luo Mu answered, “One tael for five dou of grains.”
Kong Ling smiled and said, “The price isn’t really that lowered. His so-called ‘low-priced grains’ merely means he makes just a tiny bit less profit than the others out there. Cai Yu used to be generous in helping the needy, and he never used to think much of money and worldly possessions, but he’s so miserly now that he’s older.”
At this price, the grains could not be called “low-priced grains”; instead, they ought to be called “expensive grains”. Chazhou’s current rate for the grains was one tael of silver for two dou of rice, while the rate in Qudu was one tael of silver for two dan of rice.1 Cai Yu was making big bucks off the profits. What’s more, it was profit that forced the common folks into dead ends. To think he merely changed it to one tael of silver for five dou of rice just to win over the others. It was clear he was hankering over the money and could not bear to drop the price too much.
Shen Zechuan brushed aside the floating foam in his tea and said, “Cai Yu is in a predicament too, with no way to back down. Everyone inside and outside the city is now complaining about the high price of the grains. If he were to drop the price drastically to win those smaller gangs of bandits over to his side, the common folks would hate him even more, so naturally he wouldn’t dare to do so.”
“It’s not just Chazhou. Public wrath is running high even in Fanzhou.” Luo Mu was the most acquainted with Cai Yu’s business. “At the beginning of this year, Lei Changming broke off contact with the Yan clan for some unknown reason, and Yan Heru no longer gave financial aid to the bandits from Mount Luo. That was why they thought of seizing Cizhou and robbing Cizhou’s granary. Part of the reason was that they could not afford Cai Yu’s grains.”
“Let Cai Yu sell for a few days first.” Shen Zechuan turned over his folding fan and tapped it lightly against the table. “It doesn’t matter if it’s one tael for two dou, or one tael for five dou, the common folks and the smaller bandits all can’t afford it. Cai Yu forced himself to show such kindness naturally because he hopes those under him will acquiesce to him and stop opposing him. But his attitude isn’t humble enough, and this will only backfire on him.”
“It’s not just the common folks.” Kong Ling lamented. “Even governmental officials can’t afford to buy with their monthly salary issued by the imperial court. On our way here, we saw people selling themselves everywhere outside Chazhou, even to the extent of selling off all the children in the family in the hope that they would have a chance to live.”
“People aren’t worth much nowadays, and even if they sell the children, it’s all at low prices.” Luo Mu had long heard of this. “Besides, who in Zhongbo will be willing to spend money to buy the people given the present situation? Only the brothels in Fanzhou will be willing to take them in. And even if they sell down someone from a decent origin into a low-class trade… the money won’t be enough for them to exchange for one dou of rice.”
Shen Zechuan was still not familiar with the situation in Fanzhou, so he asked, “Since Fanzhou has difficulty feeding its people, then where does it get the money to operate all these brothels?”
Luo Mu answered, “They are run by bandits too, for the specific purpose of dealing in the flesh trade with the bandits from Mount Luo and the Prefecture of Dengzhou. Prices are extremely low, and even this bit of profit is all swallowed up by the procuresses of the brothels.”
Perplexed, Kong Ling asked, “But they have to feed all those people they brought back to do business, right? Do they buy grains from Cai Yu too?”
Luo Mu shook his head. “Humans are worth less than dogs. They are fed swill and weeds. If they starve to death, the bandits can come and buy more again. Anyway, the prices are so cheap they won’t suffer any losses either way.”
Kong Ling sat in a daze. Anguish gradually came over his face. “Zhongbo has been reduced to such a state. If the imperial court had been willing to lend a helping hand, the situation would not have deteriorated to this point. I said many years back that Hua Siqian…”
Shen Wei’s name was still wedged in his throat.
Knowing Kong Ling well, Luo Mu feared he would say something unfavorable and leave a bad taste in Shen Zechuan’s mouth, thus he hurriedly switched the subject and said, “So what should be the next step according to Vice Commander’s plans?”
Instead, Shen Zechuan replied, “If Shen Wei had not cowered and recoiled from battle, Zhongbo would not have been so badly defeated. I hold Mister Chengfeng in the highest esteem for his concern for the common people, so there is no need to make a special point of avoiding certain subjects.”
Shen Zechuan was so sincere that Luo Mu felt embarrassed instead. Kong Ling felt his heart sink. He had recently been both following and avoiding Shen Zechuan. He was a clever man; he was willing to work for Zhou Gui because he was familiar with Zhou Gui’s character. However, he still felt some unease towards Shen Zechuan, and one of the biggest reasons was that he thought that following Shen Zechuan was a dangerous move. Masters that were difficult to read were the hardest to serve. The more calm things appeared to be, the more he had to tread with caution.
Kong Ling could side with him, but he was unwilling to assist Shen Zechuan the way he supported Zhou Gui. Shen Zechuan had been dropping hints repeatedly this entire trip, but Kong Ling feigned ignorance and turned a blind eye to it all. And now, he was filled with even more trepidation when he saw how Shen Zechuan was not only not angry but even giving him a way out.
Seeing the changes in Kong Ling’s expression, Shen Zechuan gently turned over his fan and paused for a moment before speaking. “Suppress the news that Cizhou is here to sell grains for a few more days. Wait until the bandits prioritize their own interests and are no longer willing to be pushed around by Cai Yu before releasing the news. When that happens, keep the reserved grain wagons from entering the city. We’ll set up the porridge booth right outside of the city. Tell the refugees that Cizhou is here to sell the grains at a regular price.”
Luo Mu probed, “What if they have no money?”
Shen Zechuan smiled and looked towards Luo Mu. “Isn’t this all funds for Chazhou’s future garrison troops and wasteland reclamation? The common people may be poor, but you’ve acquired quite the sum of money while sticking to Cai Yu. Furthermore, once Cai Yu is out of the picture, most of his family assets will fall into Your Excellency’s hands. Use those taels to do business with Cizhou in exchange for winning the people’s hearts, and that would solve Your Excellency’s future problems. Now, I still need to remind Your Excellency that Cizhou is here to do business, not to tighten its belts just so it can offer financial aid to others.”
Sweat materialized on Luo Mu’s forehead. He dabbed a little of it off with a handkerchief, nodding as he said, “But of course, but of course…”
◈ ◈ ◈
When Shen Zechuan returned to the courtyard this time, he did not return with Kong Ling.
Qiao Tianya, with a bamboo hat on his head, sat at the head of the horse carriage with both arms behind his head as a pillow. He said on the other side of the curtain, “Does Master not want him anymore?”
Unable to stand the heat, Shen Zechuan closed his eyes in the stuffy interior to take a rest. He listened to the peddlers hawking their wares along the street for a moment before he said, “I’ve tried both carrot and stick, but he’s determined to turn me down.”
With a young stalk of grass between his lips, Qiao Tianya said, “That’s to be expected. He has been lying low and hiding his abilities in your presence all because he fears being coerced. After he graduated from the academy, he did not go along with Zhou Gui and Luo Mu to join the imperial court as an official. He had simply wanted to be a commoner. Men like him are natural-born strategists. His only pride is the ability to choose his own future.”
Shen Zechuan opened his eyes partially. “It’s not like he’s my only option.”
Shen Zechuan did not want to impose his will on Kong Ling and force him into it, but he really lacked manpower. At first, he thought the pair of Kong Ling and Zhou Gui were the best arrangement. Both men, when put together, could maintain the stability on one end. At the very least, it would not be a problem for them to maintain the stability in Cizhou. But now, Shen Zechuan was lacking a talent who could give counsel. What he lacked was no longer a pair of eyes or a pair of hands, but a strategist who could assist him in devising strategic and tactical plans for the overall game.
Kong Ling had quite the reputation in Zhongbo for his talents. He was fellow student with both Zhou Gui and Luo Mu. With just his personal friendships with both men, he would be able to assist Shen Zechuan with many issues in both the prefectures of Cizhou and Chazhou, just like how he was able to deliver a visitation card to pay Luo Mu a visit outright. He also had the social connections he had built up in the Dunzhou army from his time as Tantai Hu’s adviser. As long as these people were still alive, they could be of use in the future. Besides, Shen Zechuan did not think highly of Kong Ling back then. When Lei Jingzhe plotted to hoodwink them, Kong Ling had been so easily deceived. But that shout Kong Ling made before the city of Cizhou made Shen Zechuan take note of him once again. It was not until Kong Ling had swiftly taken his side right before they set off for Chazhou that Shen Zechuan fully set his mind on taking Kong Ling into his employ.
But Kong Ling did not have the intention to swap masters.
Shen Zechuan was too young. His background not only left much to be desired, but he also studied under Qi Huilian. Qi Huilian had been through many ups and downs in Qudu, and he also served as the head of the eastern palace for many years. What kind of student would such a teacher produce? Qi Huilian was the emperor’s teacher. Kong Ling simply did not dare to continue thinking further. The most crucial thing was that he feared Shen Zechuan; he was unable to trust Shen Zechuan.
In Kong Ling’s eyes, Shen Zechuan was a cold-hearted man who could readily cast aside personal relationships. If it had been Zhou Gui today, he would never speak of such words to Luo Mu.
Vexed, Shen Zechuan raised his head to look at the curtain of the carriage that was swaying because of the jolts and bumps. Sunlight flickered through the gaps onto his knees and blossomed over that particular patch of his white robe.
After Qi Huilian’s death, Shen Zechuan wore white. He never asked Qiao Tianya where Han Cheng placed his teacher’s body after he left Qudu. His anguished wails that night were known only to Xiao Chiye. But the names of Xue Xiuzhuo, Han Cheng, and the Empress Dowager, along with the city walls of Qudu that had been stained red in that pouring rain, were all seared into Shen Zechuan’s heart and mind.
He had to stand firm. He needed a strategist.
Shen Zechuan said to himself silently.
A strategist who could stand up to Xue Xiuzhuo as an equal.
Thanks to AliceLiddell for spotting the typo!