Translated with: Jia<3
How could the bandits have expected that the commoners would rally together and fight back? The deafening sound of trampling feet roared like sudden claps of thunder, while the cacophony of curses and cries blended together and engulfed the bandits like a surge of floodwater. The commoners were already all seeing red as they shouted in the melee, “The evil bandits deserve to be killed!”
The bandits were not a match for this many people. Stones and broken bowls went flying and smashing all over, causing the bandits to scurry for cover. Seeing as the situation did not bode well, that particular chief intended to flee, but when he looked back, Cai Yu’s trusted aide was already running away!
“Son of a bitch!” The chief flew into a rage and took to his heels too.
But he was unlucky, and the sharp-eyed Fei Sheng deftly hauled him back. This chief was merely a commoner, and there was no way he could defeat a well-trained Imperial Bodyguard like Fei Sheng, so he promptly fell into the horde of people who swarmed around him to beat him up while he covered his face and rolled on the ground wailing.
The rest of the bandits were thrown into disorientation. Seeing how the commoners outside the city were all acting like man-eating evil spirits as they pummeled the chief, they abandoned the battle and fled back into the city.
◈ ◈ ◈
Cai Yu was waiting for updates in his residence. The dishes left aside on the table had already gone cold. He suddenly heard a commotion outside and hurriedly got up, but he had only taken a couple of steps when he saw his attendant stumbling his way in. The latter reported in a panic, “Old Master, there are plenty of people outside. They have surrounded our mansion!”
Cai Yu’s main forces had already been dispatched out of the city, and at present, he had no more than five hundred people left behind in the city. It immediately dawned on him, and he hissed through clenched teeth, “I’ve been had!”
He had no men by his side at present, and this gave the small-time gangs an opening to exploit the situation.
Cai Yu immediately said, “Tell the guards guarding the compound and the remaining men to keep an eye on the various courtyards’ gates. Bring my cloak over. I’m going to meet them personally!”
Cai Yu draped his cloak over himself and secured his broadsword, then briskly made his way outside with his entourage. The residence’s doors were tightly shut. Cai Yu peered through the gap in the door and saw torches everywhere outside the residence. Even though his heart was heavy, he still faked a laugh and said, “Who do we have here? I’m not hosting a feast today, and there’s no joyous event going on either. So why raise such a big hooha coming over to give your congratulations?”
Outside, Luo Mu leisurely replied, “I heard Elder Brother has been haunted by nightmares lately and has trouble sleeping, so I made a special trip to invite the various brothers over tonight to dispel the evil energy in Elder Brother’s residence.”
Cai Yu expressed displeasure on hearing Luo Mu’s voice. “Mengzheng, I married my younger sister off to you, and I treated you well too, and yet you return my kindness with enmity. I’m afraid that’s a violation of moral principles.”
Without batting an eyelid, Luo Mu said, “Cai Yu, you shut the granaries to sell grain and profit off others’ misfortune, and you turn a blind eye to the destitute and displaced commoners outside the city. You are no longer considered a chivalrous bandit who robs the rich to help the poor. As the prefectural prefect of Chazhou, I had no choice but to socialize with you for years in order to make you let down your guard. Now that you’ve lost the heart of the people, you should surrender without resistance as soon as possible.”
Cai Yu had never been one for pretenses. He was instantly beside himself with rage. “What a shameless lad! You were so sincere and earnest in your words when you asked for my younger sister’s hand in marriage, and now you’re turning against me. You, you despicable scum!”
Luo Mu strode a few steps forward, not wanting to engage further with Cai Yu. “Open the doors quickly and surrender, or we’ll break the doors down!”
Cai Yu gripped the broadsword at the side of his waist and hollered, “I’ll see who dares to force their way in! My blade hasn’t aged one bit. I’ll kill whoever dares to come forth!”
But even if Cai Yu cut an imposing presence, he still would not be able to withstand a siege on all sides. The guards in the Cai’s residence were all ordinary people, and they all had the urge to flee when they saw the sinister glints of the broadswords and swords outside.
Under the protection of his bodyguards, Cai Yu avoided the rain of arrows that had been unleashed upon him. “I’ll handsomely reward anyone who guarded the compound! My position in Chazhou was personally appointed by the young master; he even calls me ‘pa’. Luo Mu, if you harm even one strand of my hair tonight, the young master will definitely make you pay back two-fold in the future!”
Before Luo Mu could respond, he heard Kong Ling, who was standing next to him, speak, “And who exactly does this Chazhou belong to? It’s enough that you’re the Yan Clan’s lackey, yet you even want the commoners of Chazhou to join you and be his lapdogs too?! You’ve played accomplice to a villain and helped him do wrong by the people, causing many innocent commoners to die! Let’s not even begin to talk about tonight; we’re definitely taking you down!”
The main gates of the outer courtyard had already been smashed open the moment Kong Ling’s words left his mouth. Even as he watched them rush in, Cai Yu refused to resign to his fate and followed the few remaining men in his residence as they fought and retreated. In under an hour, they had already been forced back to the perimeter of the courtyard in the rear.
In the vast expanse of the night, Cai Yu became a prisoner caught in the trap. He had spent half his life being chivalrous, yet he had fallen, all for the word “money”. And now, at the sight of his fortune going up in flames, and of his wives and children weeping, he could not help but feel a sense of grief akin to that of a hero reaching the end of his rope. But it was too late for regrets.
Feeling contemptuous about Luo Mu’s behavior, Cai Yu was determined to fight back until the very end. It was pandemonium on the streets outside of the Cai Residence, with different gangs all joining the fray. Cai Yu’s men were decreasing by the minute. Just as Cai Yu had completely lost heart and was ready to take his own life, he suddenly heard a cry of “gege” from amidst the chaos.
Luo Mu, lamenting the ill-timed arrival, turned back and shouted, “Send the young madam back!”
Concubine Cai had always been pampered and coddled, and yet, she had run all the way in her haste to hurry over, losing not just her shoes in the process but also falling and injuring her arms. She couldn’t care less about her sweat-drenched hair as she pointed at Luo Mu and trembled uncontrollably. For all her shrewish nature, there were now only insuppressible chokes of sobs emitting from her throat. “Luo… Luo Mu! You…” she wailed, “You despicable and vile man!”
Although cognizant of Kong Ling who stood by him, Luo Mu could not help but take two steps forward.
Concubine Cai’s hair was disheveled as she held her head high amidst her panic. She spat at Luo Mu, tears streaming down her face. “I gave my heart to a dog! How could I have been deceived by a bastard like you?!”
Concubine Cai and Cai Yu were siblings, with a large age gap between them. Although she was his little sister, Cai Yu nurtured her like his very own daughter. Brother and sister had both grown up depending on each other and were thus very close to each other.
Seeing Cai Yu completely surrounded, Concubine Cai understood that Cai Yu would not escape death tonight. So she covered her face and cried out, “It was me who brought harm upon gege!”
When Kong Ling saw Concubine Cai covering her face, he realized things were about to go south and hurriedly said, “Quick, stop her!”
But it was too late. Concubine Cai made use of the action to pull out a golden hairpin in her hair. In the blink of an eye, blood had already splattered all over the silks and satins she was adorned in. Cai Yu was overwhelmed with grief at seeing this. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he stood among the crowd, his head tilted back as he shouted in sorrow, “My silly sister, it’s clearly I who have ruined you!”
With that, he severed the idea of brandishing his broadsword to slit his own throat. With a loud bellow, he charged into the group of bandits and hacked away at several people until he eventually died of exhaustion, but even then, he was still shouting before his death, “I am Cai Yu of Chazhou. My time has thus come to an end!”
When the first glimmer of dawn appeared during the hour of mao1 after a night of chaotic battle, the strife in the city had already ceased. Nearly half of the Cai’s residence courtyard walls had collapsed, its prosperous image of yesterday completely evaporated. Attendants and maidservants swept the gold and silver ornaments in the residence into their bundles, taking it along with them as they fled into the night.
Kong Ling stood at concubine Cai’s side and watched as the pool of blood stained the hem of his robe. Cai Yu’s entire family lost their lives this night, most of them killed under the bandits’ blades. Kong Ling waited for Luo Mu to come and collect concubine Cai’s body for burial, only to hear an attendant say that Luo Mu had gone over to check out the Cai clan’s granaries.
Kong Ling stood where he was and waited right until late afternoon. But Luo Mu never came.
◈ ◈ ◈
Once Cai Yu fell, the grain stores in Chazhou all came under Luo Mu’s charge. He was now not only sitting on Cai Yu’s grains, but also Cai Yu’s wealth. Cizhou’s grain wagons finally entered the city, but the money he promised Cizhou earlier never materialized. The price of grain in the city was still one tael for one dan of rice, the same price Cai Yu had set while he had been alive.
Fei Sheng said with a sigh in the courtyard, “While I was still in the imperial prison in the past, I often heard that son of a bitch Han Cheng talk about how fieldwork isn’t easy, and how the local “officials” are all very shrewd. Their notoriety is truly well-deserved.”
“Their craftiness is much stronger than the officials in the capital.” Qiao Tianya pillowed his head on his arms and laid down on a stone bench to bask in the sun. “No wonder he could be the prefectural prefect in Chazhou for so many years. He sure is something.”
Beside them, Kong Ling brewed tea in wordless silence.
Shen Zechuan, who had been in the principal room, lifted the curtain and emerged. The three of them made to get up, but Shen Zechuan motioned for them not to. “What time is it now?”
Fei Sheng competed to reply, “It’s almost noon.”
Shen Zechuan grasped his folding fan. Seeing as the sun was blinding, he shook open the fan to cover his eyes. “Chazhou has scored a victory, but we still have yet to hold the celebration feast, right? Go send Luo Mu an invitation. Tell him that we’ll be having a drink here tonight.”
Fei Sheng acknowledged the order and added, “Master, but what if he doesn’t dare to come?”
Shen Zechuan revealed his eyes that had a hint of a smile in them. “If he doesn’t, then he’s a gutsy one.”
Fei Sheng could hear his displeasure. He hurriedly retreated out of the room and went over to deliver the invitation.
Kong Ling had been drinking and gambling these few days, looking as if he was having so much fun that he forgot all about his home and duties. But he still stood up when he saw Shen Zechuan coming down the stairs.
Shen Zechuan said, “I heard it was Mister Chengfeng who paid for concubine Cai’s burial.”
Kong Ling folded his arms in his sleeves and touched the remaining fried soybeans in his sleeve pocket. “Oh. Yes, it was me.”
Shen Zechuan closed his folding fan and looked at Kong Ling for a moment.
Kong Ling thought Shen Zechuan was displeased, but he had no wish to explain further.
He did not expect Shen Zechuan to let the matter drop. Instead, Shen Zechuan drank half a cup of tea and probed no further.
Kong Ling remembered the wound on Shen Zechuan’s left palm that night and felt even more tired. He was conscious of the fact that he had barely done anything this trip, and yet he was even more exhausted than he had been in Cizhou.
To Fei Sheng’s surprise, Luo Mu not only showed up that night, but he had also come alone. The cook in this residence was new, and his culinary skills were just passable. Shen Zechuan did not nitpick on the food, so even though this was proclaimed a feast, the dishes were only very slightly more exquisite than usual. Refugees were still a common sight in Chazhou at present, and as such, Shen Zechuan ate simply too.
The atmosphere between both parties was harmonious by the time they had been through three rounds of wine. Fei Sheng noted that whether it was Shen Zechuan or Luo Mu, they were both cordial and amiable, neither one displaying any sign of displeasure over the standstill the last couple of days.
Luo Mu made a toast as he spoke. “We are all good to discuss matters about the grain now that everything is in place, but I was just wondering when is the Vice Commander planning to return? It will be easier for me to get the advisors in my residence to draft up a charter if I have a date to work with.”
Cai Yu had already been dead for three days. This matter had been discussed long before they took action. Luo Mu’s refusal now to proceed as per the initial agreement was because he was intentionally trying to stall for time and go around in circles with Shen Zechuan. It was just as he had said to Kong Ling, every increase of grain by one dou per tael equal to a reduction in profit, and that was all real money at stake there. And now that all this money had landed in his hands, it was simply impossible to expect him to forfeit it the way he used to think.
There was a girl and her blinded old man in the hall singing a tune. As Shen Zechuan watched the old man play the erhu,2 he tapped his fingers gently on his fan, as though he had not heard Luo Mu. It was only after the tune was finished that Shen Zechuan responded with a smile, “I’m on a tight schedule; it’ll be in the next two days.”
Luo Mu looked to be in a spot as he spoke. “Two days is too much of a rush. Can’t the Vice Commander stay for a few more days? Chazhou has many scenic spots that the Vice Commander has yet to visit.”
Shen Zechuan’s gaze shifted and landed on Luo Mu’s face. “My family at home are worried, and I’m anxious to return.”
Shen Zechuan’s answer had been gentle, but Luo Mu unwarrantedly reined in his frivolity. He straightened up in his seat and said with a solemn expression, “That’s true. How about this then? The Vice Commander may return first, and when my side is done drafting up the charter, I’ll send someone to bring it over. Chengfeng can stay to supervise and act as a witness.”
Kong Ling was about to speak up when Shen Zechuan tapped his fan lightly against the edge of the table at the same moment. He then kept his mouth shut and did not speak.
Holding onto his fan, Shen Zechuan kept his eyes on Luo Mu even as he spoke to the blind old man. “Play another tune, one from Chazhou. Doesn’t Chazhou have that song3 ‘To Kill A Bandit’?”
That blind old man gave a slight nod of his head and shifted a little to get his granddaughter to switch over to the pipa4 and start playing.
Shen Zechuan did not respond to Luo Mu’s words, and Luo Mu, who sat across from him, did not dare to bring up the matter again. Initially, he could still look at Shen Zechuan in the eyes, but as the tune gradually took on a murderously sinister overtone, he began to sweat profusely.
Shen Zechuan opened the lid of the teacup. “This tea was a gift from Your Excellency. It’s good-quality tea. Is it from Hezhou?”
Luo Mu forced out a laugh. “We found them from our search of the Cai’s Residence. I’m not knowledgeable about tea, so it’s better to present this to the Vice Commander as a show of my respect.”
Shen Zechuan smiled and replied, “I don’t like tea.”
The girl’s fingers slid along the pipa. The clanging of the pipa was just like slashes of blades slicing through the air to perforate into his ears and rupture his eardrums, so intense was it that Luo Mu’s back was soaked with sweat. This one song felt unbearably endless to him. That entire table full of dishes had already gone cold, the most striking of which was the Lion’s Head5 in front of him. By the time Luo Mu left the feast, his legs had already gone numb.
Shen Zechuan stood under the eaves and said to Fei Sheng, “Send His Excellency back. It’s a long journey to make.”
Luo Mu forced himself to bow, looking over at Kong Ling several times before finally being led out the door by Fei Sheng. In no more than four hours on the very same night, the previously agreed-upon documents and money were all delivered to Shen Zechuan’s residence. As he lay awake in the middle of the night, Luo Mu could only think of one thing, and it was that Shen Zechuan knew what he had been planning to do.
Luo Mu had been stalling for time because he wanted to send off Shen Zechuan and wait for the message from the Yan clan originally meant for Cai Yu. Cai Yu was no more, but he had stepped forth. He could also do what Cai Yu did for the Yan clan. The price of grain offered by Cizhou was indeed low, but that was only from the standpoint of the commoners. There was nothing beneficial in it for Luo Mu at all. He might not even be able to get that small profit he used to get from staying by Cai Yu’s side.
He initially thought that Shen Zechuan had not brought that many men along and so would not dare to lay a hand on him. Then, by the time Shen Zechuan returned to Cizhou, Luo Mu would already have been in contact with the Yan clan. When the time came for Cizhou to consider coming back to collect their debt, he would have the backing and confidence to reject Cizhou.
However, Shen Zechuan’s meaning tonight was clear. He had not fallen for Luo Mu’s ploy at all. He was in a rush, and if Luo Mu couldn’t get matters settled and placed his hopes on the Yan clan of Hezhou instead, then Shen Zechuan would dare to make his move and kill Luo Mu right away. That song was as clear of a response as ever.
Closing his eyes, Luo Mu thought about Shen Zechuan’s actions outside the city. A man who even dared to put his own life at stake would not care about the consequences of killing him at all. Before they took action against Cai Yu, Shen Zechuan had said that “they were here to do business”. Now that Luo Mu thought about it, he realized that those words had also been an early warning from Shen Zechuan to him.
◈ ◈ ◈
Two days later, Fei Sheng remained stationed in Chazhou, where he could keep track and take records of the prices as well as keep an eye on Luo Mu. Cizhou’s grain wagons entered the granaries, with the shopkeeper from the cosmetics shop keeping the accounts for them. And so, the grain trade between Cizhou and Chazhou was decided. The price Shen Zechuan settled on with Zhou Gui and the rest back in Cizhou was one tael for one dan and eight dou of rice, but it was now a little higher at one tael for one dan and six dou of rice. This price, though, was already lower than Qudu.
By buying the grains from Cizhou, Luo Mu not only had to set up booths to hand out porridge, but he also had to think of the most effective way to optimize the money being spent. Chazhou’s problem of utmost priority was re-registration in the census register. He now held the food of the small-time bandits in his hands; he could enlist them in the garrison troops. There were still some issues when it came to the follow-through, but all of these could be discussed again when the large batch of grain arrived from Cizhou. With Fei Sheng here, they could also keep a constant eye on the movements of the Yan Clan in Hezhou.
Shen Zechuan had successively taken out two of the Yan Clan’s main forces in Zhongbo, and the Yan clan was not one to forget about this debt. They initially had nothing to do with each other before, but now, he had to put his attention on Zhongbo, on Shen Zechuan.
Shen Zechuan did not stay for long. He got on the horse carriage that very day and left. Just as they were almost out of Chazhou’s territory, they suddenly heard someone in a carriage chasing after them from behind.
Qiao Tianya lifted a corner of the curtain and whispered to Shen Zechuan, “It’s Luo Mu.”
Luo Mu was here to see them off, but Qiao Tianya said Shen Zechuan was not feeling well today, so he let that matter drop. He was mainly here to see Kong Ling off, anyway. Both of them got off their carriages and walked for a while along the public road.
Luo Mu took out the pastries wrapped in oil paper from his arms and said, “You loved to eat these back at the academy. I saw someone selling them when I stepped out and bought them in passing. Take it with you to eat during the journey.”
Kong Ling looked at the oil paper. “It was so many years ago, and you still remember it.”
Luo Mu smiled ruefully. “It’s… something I ought to remember. Will you come along with the next batch of grain wagons?”
Kong Ling took the oil paper and walked a couple of steps. He did not answer.
Luo Mu looked at Kong Ling like how he had always done so many years ago.
Kong Ling squeezed that bundle of pastries and said inexplicably, “Back then when we left the academy, you asked if I was going to Qudu, and I didn’t answer. We later went our separate ways. Have you ever gone back for a look?”
Luo Mu said, “When I left the academy, I headed west with my family and lived in Qudu for quite some years…”
Kong Ling turned his head back and finally looked Luo Mu in the eyes. “Mengzheng.”
Luo Mu waited for a moment, but Kong Ling did not continue. He could not help but laugh. “Later, while I was in Qudu, I heard that you threw in your lot with Tantai Long and worked under his command. He’s a good official, and you guys have achieved quite the result there too… Why didn’t you marry?”
Why didn’t I marry.
Kong Ling silently repeated it to himself and slowly smiled. He was already old, and yet at present, he was giving off an aura of gentleness and composure that he had possessed in his youth. Somehow, there was still will and spirit in this pair of eyes that had already turned cloudy. He grasped that bundle of pastries tightly and merely said, “… I should leave now.”
The wind surfed past the blades of grass. Kong Ling turned around. He did not wait for Luo Mu’s answer.
Luo Mu stood in the wind and watched as Kong Ling’s sleeves and robes fluttered along with the breeze. His throat tightened. He could not help but take a step after him; he even reached out with his hand. The white hair mixed in Kong Ling’s bun disappeared in the wind, covered by the dancing leaves. In his trance, Luo Mu saw time as it was many years ago.
Kong Ling missed many a number of things in this life of his, but that was not because he never tried to fight for them. He once tossed and turned in bed because of an invitation, but all he got after pacing to and fro as he waited in the academy was a bout of seventh month’s rain. He waited in that rain until his eyes were wet. And from then on, he went away to a distant land far from home.
Mengzheng was a free-spirited man.
This was something Kong Chengfeng came to understand in that rain. Many years later, he waited again, but all he had to show for that endeavor in the end was a robe with a bloodstained hem. No matter which time it was, Luo Mu never came.
From then on, Kong Ling and Luo Mu never saw each other again.
- 卯时 5-7am based on the system of two-hour subdivisions used in former times
二胡 Erhu, a two-stringed bowed musical instrument.
- Specifically 词 ci, a form of classical Chinese poetry dating from the Tang dynasty, in which verses are written to fit pre-existing tunes, often in lines of varying length.
琵琶 Pipa, a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument, belonging to the plucked category of instruments.
- 狮子头 Lion’s Head, or stewed meatball, is a dish from the Huaiyang cuisine of eastern China; nothing to do with real lions, these are large pork meatballs that are steamed/braised and served with vegetables.