Translated with: Jia<3
Knowing that he had humiliated Shen Zechuan with his rebuff, Kong Ling barely approached him over the next few days. Instead, he focused his attention on inspecting the goods in the respective stores, too busy to even pause. On the other hand, Shen Zechuan behaved as he always did and continued to greet him as Mister Chengfeng whenever he saw him. This filled Kong Ling with even more dread, and he deferred to Shen Zechuan in every matter.
Just as they had expected, Cai Yu’s low-priced grain did not impress the smaller bandits. With Luo Mu in the midst acting as a go-between and pulling the strings, several parties gradually started developing feelings of dissatisfaction towards Cai Yu. Cai Yu had a taste for extravagance in recent years, and each year when he celebrated his birthday, he would surely receive rare and priceless gifts. He would also rank his friends and relatives close and far according to the presents they gifted him, and this subsequently stirred up a great deal of unhappiness among a great number of them in private. At the same time, news that Cai Yu was distributing cheap grains suddenly spread outside the city, and with the price falling lower and lower, the starving commoners outside the city grew more and more outraged.
Cai Yu used to consider himself a respected elder of Chazhou, and yet he was ignoring them all with the city gates shut, leaving them to fend for themselves. Shen Zechuan was right; it wasn’t that he did not understand, but that he was in a predicament with no way to back down.
The grain in Chazhou was presently supplied by Hezhou and subsidized by the Yan Clan. By taking all these grains, Cai Yu had to pay back interest to the Yan Clan, and the portion he could not pay back had to be paid out from his own pockets. Lowering the price would only disadvantage himself, and as he was unwilling to make a loss, he could only force himself to push on ahead. He had already sent multiple letters in succession to Hezhou to enquire about the situation.
This was what Shen Zechuan had been waiting for.
Cai Yu could never imagine that over one night, the entire city would be in discussion over the price of grain.
“Where did these people come from?” Cai Yu called for the maidservant to help him put on his clothes, and asked his trusted aide, “Why have I heard nothing about Cizhou’s grain wagons entering our territory!”
His aide replied, “They took the public road and suppressed the news of their arrival outside of the city; it never managed to reach us.”
Cai Yu’s expression was somber as he put on his boots and took a few steps. “I’d found it strange when Kong Ling entered the city. What would Cizhou be doing here for no rhyme or reason? Turns out it’s to steal our business! They’ve prepared so thoroughly, all to challenge me! What did they say?”
His trusted aide picked up the hem of Cai Yu’s robe from behind. “I’ve sent someone to make inquiries this morning. The price of the merchants from Cizhou is one tael for seven dou of rice.”1
On hearing this, Cai Yu promptly sneered. “I thought they were here to play Bodhisattva and save the people, but they are also just here to profit from others’ misfortune. Has there been any reply from Hezhou?”
The aide estimated the time and answered, “At this point in time, the letter hasn’t been delivered yet.”
Cai Yu stood by the door and contemplated it in silence alongside the murmuring stream in the courtyard and the clear, melodious chirps of the birds under the covered walkway. He had spent a huge sum of money on this compound with the intent to pass it down to the younger generations as a family residence. He still had a few sons who were waiting to take over the family business and properties from their old man, and there were more than a thousand people in his family whose livelihoods depended on his sale of grains. He did not dare to lose this business.
“One tael for seven dou.” Cai Yu muttered. “One tael for seven dou… Isn’t Cizhou belittling me a tad too much by thinking of snatching away my business at this price? Since they lowered their price, then we will go even lower. Go tell the grain stores under us that I’m going to reduce the price to one tael for eight dou out of pity for the commoners outside the city.”
The aide hesitated. “But the Young Master has yet to reply. If…”
“Lower it.” Cai Yu’s expression gradually grew grave. “The Young Master still addresses me as ‘pa’. Even if we can’t make a profit this time, I can thicken my skin and go to Hezhou to ask for a favor. With the Young Master at the head of the Yan clan, no one would dare to do anything to me! Cizhou came bearing down on us so menacingly this time. There will be trouble in the future if we don’t make them think twice and bow out.”
Cai Yu’s trusted aide had only just left the house, and Shen Zechuan knew all about it.
Fei Sheng’s network was everywhere. When he whispered the information to Shen Zechuan, Shen Zechuan was handing out free porridge outside the city.
The weather was bright and clear today. Shen Zechuan left the city at the hour of mao2 and started giving out free porridge to the poor and needy from the hour of chen3 right up to the hour of shen.4 The sun was so scorching hot at this moment that the muddy ground was cracked. Refugees all sought shelter under the shades of the trees. Shen Zechuan gave a slight nod after hearing Fei Sheng out and said, “Since he has taken the bait, he won’t be able to escape. Go to Luo Mu and get him to tell the smaller gangs of bandits not to get anxious. Cai Yu’s price of one tael for eight dou can be further reduced.”
Fei Sheng was clearly aware of Shen Zechuan’s intent, but he just had to play dumb before the latter and asked like a student eager to learn, “Then, Master, are we going to reduce our prices too? We can’t let Cai Yu get his way.”
Shen Zechuan tossed the handkerchief to Qiao Tianya and said, “Of course, but we’ll have to wait for nightfall before we reduce the price.”
Because he had matters to attend to during the day.
A white-robed gentleman wearing a white jade pearl with two or three attendants in tow suddenly appeared outside the city of Chazhou and stayed at the porridge booth from morning to night to personally distribute the porridge to the people. The refugees who received the porridge made a little inquiry and found out that these grains from Cizhou were initially meant to be sold in Chazhou, but Cai Yu refused to let them into the city. Since they pitied the commoners outside the city, they used those grains to hand it out to them instead.
Shen Zechuan’s attitude was cordial and amiable, and he spoke humbly and politely. What’s more, he was good-looking. If there were any households with orphans and widows, or with the old, weak, ill, and disabled, he would not only give them food but even send the physician over to take a look at them. He even absorbed all the consultation fees and cost of the medicinal herbs himself. In less than two hours, the refugees who had come forth on hearing of his name had converged into a flock. Whenever the others asked about Shen Zechuan’s name, Qiao Tianya and Fei Sheng would answer with “His Excellency Zhou’s aide” and “Mister Chengfeng’s comrade”.
Even still, Shen Zechuan was young, and he had a distinguished air about him when he moved and acted. Speculations started swirling around in no time. None of the common folks knew who this young master was, and that subsequently made him appear all the more mysterious and conspicuous.
◈ ◈ ◈
Cai Yu was restless with anxiety as he kept waiting at home until the hour of chou,5 all the while not daring to close his eyes. When he heard someone coming to report, he hurriedly stood up to let his trusted aide in before asking, “How is it? Is there an update on Kong Ling’s end?”
The aide had been running to and fro the entire day, and even if he had taken the sedan mid-journey, he still could not endure this degree of exhaustion. His back was presently drenched in perspiration. He wiped his sweat with his sleeves and gasped for breath as he answered, “It went down! As Old Master predicted, Cizhou has also lowered the price again!”
Cai Yu worriedly asked, “By how much?”
The aide replied, “One tael for nine dou of rice.”
Cai Yu’s expression was calm; this price was within his expectations. He paced. “We lowered by one dou, and they followed suit. It seems that they do not have enough confidence either.”
The aide followed alongside Cai Yu. “Old Master, then should we still lower the price? If we lower it any further, it’s going to reach one dan!”
From two dou to one dan, Cai Yu was already thinking about the kind of punishment he was going to face when he went to Hezhou after this disaster. However, he could only continue forcing the issue right now. He clenched his jaw and said, “Lower it further! To one tael for one dan!”
◈ ◈ ◈
When Luo Mu heard the news in his residence, he said to Kong Ling, “If Cai Yu continues to lower the price, it’d be difficult for him to raise it again in the future. He’s fallen for the ploy hook, line, and sinker.”
Kong Ling faced the window and confirmed that there was no one else around before speaking. “It’s all thanks to the Vice Commander’s foresight.”
Thinking of Shen Zechuan made Luo Mu sigh. “If it had been me, I would have been deceived too. How could Cai Yu have known that Cizhou was planning to veer towards Qudu’s price? This is a lucrative business. Every increase of one dou of grain per tael is a loss of real money.”
“Riches cannot be brought to the grave; how long can he profit off misfortunes in Zhongbo? You’re a fool! If Cai Yu had any foresight, he would’ve shown restraint this year. Cizhou had no confidence due to a lack of resources six years ago, but we’ve been recuperating and rebuilding our strength in these six years. The transportation of the army provisions for Libei’s military from Cizhou last year was decided on by Secretariat Elder Hai and the marquis. Think about it, Qudu already knew then that Cizhou had the ability to bear this responsibility. Once Cizhou is revitalized, those with ambition from the respective prefectures will also vie with each other to rise to the top. When the time comes for these places to re-cultivate their grain fields, the price of grain in Zhongbo will surely fall. This path to fortune cannot last for long; the only question is who will be the one to crush it.” Having spoken to this point, Kong Ling paused for a moment. “Both the time and place are right. The Vice Commander meant to make a killing in Zhongbo.”
Upon noting that Kong Ling was in a daze, Luo Mu asked, “I noticed that the Vice Commander has intentions of using you, yet you continuously turn a blind eye to it. Chengfeng, could it be that the Vice Commander can’t be compared to Zhou Gui either?”
Kong Ling gazed at the tree shade outside the window and replied only half a moment later, “My abilities are mediocre. The only reason I can support Zhou Gui is that he can only be the Prefectural Prefect of Cizhou in this lifetime. Keeping the calm in one corner of the world is easy enough that someone of my caliber can do it. But stabilizing a vast territory can only require talents who are pillars of the state. The Vice Commander is no mere fish in a pond; I dare not be so presumptuous as to claim connections with such a man.”
Luo Mu was struck dumb.
◈ ◈ ◈
Neither the men inside or outside of Chazhou slept well this night. Cai Yu drank cup after cup of strong tea, afraid to shut his eyes lest the other party surreptitiously lower the price again the moment he lay down. He had never been a man with business acumen, and he had been only relying on his status as a bandit to keep up a farce for the Yan Clan. And now, he was a bundle of nerves, having been driven to a state of anxiety.
The people from Cizhou remained passive for a long time. Only the porridge booth outside the city was still operating. Cai Yu had heard that more than a thousand people had converged outside the city, but he was sure that what he had in his hands were the bona fide armed forces; the gathering outside the city was merely a motley crew. Even if they were to converge together, they could not affect the situation.
Time continued to pass by. When afternoon came around, Cai Yu decided to take a nap fully-clothed, but he had only just shut his eyes when he heard a report coming in. He hurriedly sat up and let a maidservant support him on his way out. The moment he saw the aide’s expression, his heart sank. “How much did they lower it to?”
The aide anxiously reported, “Old Master, the price drop this time is crazy! They’ve dropped it to one tael for one dan and three dou of rice. The people who were adopting a wait-and-see attitude yesterday are already starting to leave the city one after the other. They are all making a beeline for the Cizhou’s grain wagon to buy grains!”
Cai Yu was rendered speechless for a moment. “That low?!”
The aide replied, “It’s already close to the price of grain in Juexi. If it keeps getting lower, we will have to give up all our profits after spring this year to repay Hezhou!”
Cai Yu held on to the man and said in disbelief. “Didn’t Cizhou just send army provisions to Libei? Now that Libei has rebelled, they’ll be getting all of their provisions from Cizhou in the future. If Zhou Gui sells off all of the grains, how is he going to account for it to the Prince of Libei? Furthermore, what are they even earning by lowering the price this much?!”
The trusted aide followed behind Cai Yu, similarly panicking as he spoke, “Exactly! If they continue lowering the price, it will be no different from Juexi. Wouldn’t that be making a loss? What profits could there even be?”
Cai Yu was getting on in years, and he had not slept all night; he was presently so unsteady on his feet that he had to let someone help him to the seat. “They’re determined to steal our business…” Hatred bubbled up in him.“How dare they! Go gather my men. Tonight, we’ll overturn their grain wagon, capture Kong Ling, and kill all those that came along with him! I have ferocious bandits on my side; why would I be scared of them? Zhou Gui, that ignorant brat. I’ll see if he has the guts to fight me head-on!”
The aide slapped his knee, thrilled as he spoke, “That’s the way, Old Master! We should’ve retaliated long ago and not wasted all that effort playing nice to them! I’ll go right now!”
Okay, I get it. You all want them to meet, right? Alright, alright. Coming your way soon.
Thank you for reading.