Translated with: Jia<3
Several days later, the garrison troops of Cizhou escorting and transporting the grain wagons arrived in Chazhou. Fei Sheng returned to the residence to give Shen Zechuan a full report of the happenings in Chazhou. At the same time, he handed over his records of the prices of goods in the two prefectures of Huaizhou and Fanzhou. Not only that, he had even gotten to the bottom of Lei Changming’s and Lei Jingzhe’s backgrounds.
Lei Changming was a native of Chazhou who had his beginnings as an armed escort; this was all open and common knowledge of his background. Fei Sheng, who had made inquiries all over Chazhou with the help from the shops in Juexi, learned that Lei Changming had engaged in the flesh trade during the reign of Yongyi, as divulged by the elderly people in Chazhou. Back then, both prefectures of Dunzhou and Duanzhou saw a burgeoning rise in the numbers of the entertainment quarters across their territories, leading to the proliferation of famous courtesans like Shen Zechuan’s mother, Bai Cha. Subsequently, Lei Changming scoured the lands of Dengzhou, hoodwinking innocent and naïve women and reselling them to Dunzhou and Duanzhou as prostitutes. Afterward, Shen Wei ordered for the brothels along the banks of the Chashi River to close down, thereby causing the businesses in Duanzhou to fall into drastic decline. Lei Changming had no connections in Duanzhou and could only look for another way out.
Lei Changming, who had until then been trying to get by, wanted to resume his old trade. He hence capitalized on the reputation of the Zhu Clan and went around making connections with the officials in Zhongbo. In his process of associating with these officials, he found out that these people dreaded the time after spring every year when the Chief Surveillance Bureau would make field trips to conduct inspections and audits. As the Imperial Censors had the right to impeach, the appraisals of the officials involved would undoubtedly be affected. This was an important affair pertaining to their own promotions and transfers, and as such, they did not dare to act rashly and visit the brothels for pleasure.
Lei Changming thus hit upon an idea. He set up a “Mingshu Hall” in Fanzhou, which was a poetry club-cum-teahouse on the surface. In actuality, however, he had the decent women he sourced put up there as secret prostitutes to bribe the various officials. However, this business did not last long either, ruined at the hands of Shen Wei.
At this point in the record, Fei Sheng had specifically made a note at the side.
Shen Wei had spies and informers everywhere in the various prefectures. Ever since he married Bai Cha, he had been rather heavy-handed in his attempts to crush the brothel trade in the various prefectures. Lei Changming’s Mingshu Hall had not been established for even a year when it was wiped out at lightning speed by Shen Wei. Abducting and trafficking women of decent origins was punishable by law. To escape responsibility for the crimes, Lei Changming instructed his subordinate to take his place, while he hurried over to the prefecture of Dunzhou where he offered Shen Wei a large sum of cold, hard silver ingots before he managed to extricate himself.
After this incident, Lei Changming reverted to his ways of idling around doing nothing. His wife and son had passed away early, but he did not take a concubine at that point in time. He had a penchant for grooming children ever since he abducted and sold women a long time back. But he was too brutal towards them, and none of those children ever survived. At the end of the reign of Yongyi, Lei Changming took on the Yan clan of Hezhou’s job to provide armed escort as a means of livelihood. Subsequently, he got into the Yan clan’s good graces. It was from then on he really started to enjoy a meteoric rise.
There was no mention of a jade bead or earring in this record. Shen Zechuan closed the book and contemplated it for a moment. “It’s strange. Children who can wear earrings are either wealthy or noble. Even if Lei Changming dared to abduct and traffic those of decent backgrounds in Zhongbo, he would not dare to lay a hand on the noble clans’ heirs from the Eight Cities of Qudu.”
“Master has guessed it right. I heard about this from my inquiries too, but I can’t very well include it in the report without evidence, so I have to report this to you in person.” Fei Sheng stood beside the table and turned his head back to look at Li Xiong, who was in the courtyard. “I spoke to that lad too, and I more or less have an idea. During the reign of Yongyi, Lei Changming saved the young master of the Yan clan, Yan Heru. That child did indeed wear an earring. He was a good-looking child too, said to be fair and exquisite, and he was the apple of the Yan clan’s eye. Lei Changming took Young Master Yan back. Well, as Master has seen in person, this man was a beast, and he actually harbored indecent thoughts towards that Young Master Yan.”
Shen Zechuan snapped his folding fan shut.
Fei Sheng continued, “But he didn’t dare to. It just so happened at that time that Shao from the Ministry of War was imprisoned, and the male descendants of the Shao clan were all sentenced to execution. In order to preserve their bloodline, the old matriarch of the Shao clan had the last remaining grandson of lawful birth disguised as a girl. This lawful grandson of the Shao clan was escorted into exile in Zhongbo, where he happened to fall into the hands of Lei Changming.”
When Fei Sheng reached this point, Qiao Tianya, who had a book on his face, suddenly sat up. “The Shao clan? The Shao clan from the Ministry of War during the reign of Yongyi? The Ministry of War Vice Minister, Shao Chengbi!”
Fei Sheng clapped his hands. “Right. That’s the one. You know him?”
Qiao Tianya stood up in a flash, momentarily stupefied for quite a while before he answered, “Of course I know him… Master, I’ve told you before that I’m the son of Qiao from the Ministry of War. Shao Chengbi and my father were bosom friends. Not only that, Shao Chengbi was an official that the Grand Mentor single-handedly promoted. It was just that he wasn’t good at socializing, so he hardly interacted with the Grand Mentor. Later on, he married the elder sister of the current Minister of War, Chen Zhen. It was because of this that he had a narrow escape when everyone in the Eastern Palace was being hunted down, and that was also how he was spared from being exterminated by the Empress Dowager.”
Fei Sheng nodded. “That’s what happened. But Shao Chengbi did not make friendly overtures towards the Hua and Pan factions. To remove him, Hua Siqian abused the power of his own authority at the end of the reign of Yongyi and had Ji Lei command the Imperial Bodyguards to frame him as one of the participants of the Eastern Palace’s rebellion case, causing all his family possessions and properties to be confiscated and sealed off.”
Shen Zechuan then understood. Lei Changming did not dare to lay his hands on Yan Heru, so he used the lawful grandson of the Shao clan as a substitute instead.
Fei Sheng continued, “The lawful grandson of the Shao clan was older than Yan Heru, but even so, he was merely nine years old at that time, and he was a grandchild of lawful birth doted on and pampered by all in the Shao clan. Before Old Matriarch Shao met her end, she pleaded with all her old acquaintances before she could have him swapped over and sent out of Qudu. But who would have thought that he would be ravaged by Lei Changming when he arrived in Zhongbo? Lei Changming was extremely brutal. The first reason was that he always liked to drink wine before doing the deed, and so his restraint was impaired, and he did not hold himself back. The second reason was that he wanted to stamp out the root of future troubles. Drag the child out and bury him once the child was dead, and this matter would be considered over and done with. Cai Yu was the one who asked around and found out about it. My guess is that it’s also because of this matter that Lei Changming had a falling out with the Yan clan later.”
This was the first assignment Fei Sheng was handling for Shen Zechuan, so he naturally had to do a beautiful job of it. Fei Sheng then continued to give his detailed report on Luo Mu of Chazhou. In the process of listening, Shen Zechuan eyed Qiao Tianya.
Qiao Tianya’s mind was preoccupied.
After Fei Sheng took his leave, he took the opportunity to chat with Qiao Tianya in between the changing of shifts.
“There’s no need to ask me.” Fei Sheng rubbed his hands together, washing the space between his fingers clean. “Any news I have regarding the lawful grandson of the Shao clan came from the bandits in Chazhou. You know this too; he’s nowhere as important as Yan Heru, so who would remember his existence back then? Eight or nine out of ten of the people who fell into Lei Changming’s hands ended up dead, and even if they didn’t…” Fei Sheng sighed, feeling complicated, “There’s no way they can continue living.”
Qiao Tianya faked a relaxed demeanor and merely said, “Did I even ask you? I didn’t plan on asking.”
“Fei Sheng looked at him in disdain and used his fingers to gesture at the distance between them. “You know, in all probability, the reason you waltzed over here was to ask about the matter. It has been so many years since this incident. If you really can’t get over things, pretend he’s still alive.”
“There is no ‘pretend’.” Qiao Tianya took a few steps down the stairs and raised his arms to pillow them at the back of his head, squinting his eyes slightly as he faced the sunlight. He spoke with an air of nonchalance, “If he’s dead, he’s dead. It’s so much more pleasantly cool to lie six feet under.”
◈ ◈ ◈
In just a few days, it’d be the end of the seventh month, where wagons of silver returned as wagons of grain left Cizhou. Autumn was just around the corner, and Zhou Gui was worried that the grains in Huaizhou would be bought up by the other places. Now that they had money, Zhou Gui began discussion with his advisors on the issue; this business with Huaizhou needed to be settled as soon as possible.
Shen Zechuan headed to the study for the discussion, and after listening, he only asked one question, “What does Mister Chengfeng think?”
Kong Ling hesitated for a moment. “As I’ve said to His Excellency last night, going to Huaizhou right now is too hasty. I do not approve.”
Zhou Gui, who was sitting in the less honorary seat next to Shen Zechuan, nodded as he spoke. “Chengfeng did indeed say that when we were discussing the details last night. However, Vice Commander, some parts of Juexi were struck by natural disasters this year, and the Provincial Administration Commissioner, Jiang Qingshan, has also been transferred away. The areas with grain shortage will no doubt have to buy it from other prefectures. Huaizhou is close to Qudu, and the autumn harvest is on the horizon. I’m worried that Juexi will ink a deal with them before we do.”
Zhou Gui’s worries were not without reason. The granaries that Cizhou had emptied out to conduct this trade were meant to be kept for emergency use, so it wasn’t reassuring to be holding on to all these silvers in hand with no grains in their reserves.
During the past few days, Shen Zechuan had been planning out a trip to Huaizhou, but he was hesitant not for just this one reason, but also because Qudu’s transfer papers for Jiang Qingshan had still not been issued. Regardless of whether this person was sent back to Juexi or reassigned somewhere else, he would inevitably affect the trade of grains in Cizhou. If Jiang Qingshan was deployed to Huaizhou, then their business deal with Huaizhou – if negotiated now – was likely to end up voided.
Shen Zechuan was in a quandary. “The concerns of Mister and Your Excellency are not without reason. I’ve also been pondering over the issue regarding Huaizhou for the last few days. According to our earliest proposed plans, it would naturally be better to get it done as soon as possible. But as things stand now, figuring out how to avoid Qudu’s scrutiny is a concern too.”
Kong Ling said from the side, “Moreover, we have to borrow the tracks from Libei for the passage of our money wagons, and this matter still needs to be discussed with the Hereditary Prince. But in all probability, the Hereditary Prince will not stop us. We are borrowing the bridle paths of the Libei Armored Cavalry and converting these silvers into grains to replenish their supplies. At present, Libei will naturally be happy to agree. I’m only worried about one thing, and that is, how do we get past Luoxia Pass? The Luoxia Pass Garrison Troops still fall directly under the jurisdiction and control of Qudu, and they lack neither grain nor money. Libei can still pull some strings with them, but what about Cizhou?”
Given Shen Zechuan’s relationship with Xiao Chiye, he could also ask for a favor with Luoxia Pass on account of their friendly ties when it really boiled down to it. But this was built on the basis that Xiao Fangxu and Xiao Jiming were willing to acknowledge Shen Zechuan. Otherwise, relying on Xiao Chiye alone… well, apologies, the Second Young Master at present doesn’t really have that much of a prestige yet.
By bringing this matter up, Kong Ling was also tactfully conveying the fact that they were not that close to Libei. They had to settle the accounts due if they wanted to borrow the tracks for their own use, and it would not be that easy either if they wanted to borrow troops in the future. At first, they all thought that Xiao Chiye was going back to succeed his father and elder brother and carve out a distinguished career for himself, but based on the way things looked now, Xiao Chiye was even lower in rank than the commanding generals at the site of battle. It was not that generals in charge of supplies were not important, but there was simply no comparison when it came to reputation and prestige.
They discussed in the study until dusk, but still failed to reach a conclusion.
When Shen Zechuan returned to his residence, he saw Ding Tao and Li Xiong waiting to receive him at the entrance.
Ding Tao did not return to Libei, and he was not included in any of the duty shifts either, so he spent the whole day practicing shadow boxing at Ji Gang’s side with Li Xiong. They had nothing to do in the afternoon after they were done with training in the morning, and thus both of them ran wild all over the place, playing to their hearts’ content for the entirety of the seventh month. Ding Tao was no longer upset now. He had forgotten all about Chen Yang and Gu Jin. There was also no one to nag at him when he ate sweets at night. It was only when he got a toothache that Qiao Tianya would lecture him.
“Young Master, there are quite a number of beggars in the city today.” Ding Tao followed Shen Zechuan and said, “They are all starving to the point that they’re sallow and emaciated. They said they came from the city of Dancheng. His Excellency Yu went out in the morning to buy an entire bamboo steamer basket worth of steamed buns, and they even fought with one another over those buns.”
Shen Zechuan paused in his tracks. Seeing as the sky was still bright, he said to Qiao Tianya, “Let’s go take a look.”
Cizhou had barely started reorganizing its census registry. If refugees entered, they would all have to head to the prefectural yamen to report their names and places of origin. This was to prevent bandits from sneaking into the city. This matter was already being taken care of. The reason Shen Zechuan especially came down to take a look was because Ding Tao had brought up Dancheng.
When they arrived, Yu Xiaozai was giving out steamed buns. Fei Sheng and Qiao Tianya stepped forward to help, and Yu Xiaozai repeatedly thanked them.
“Youjing.” Shen Zechuan spoke gently, “Bring them to the prefectural yamen, and there will be people giving out steamed buns and porridge. There is no need for you to bear the expense.”
Yu Xiaozai had come to Cizhou on foot with little money on him. Now that he lost his official position and was unwilling to work for Zhou Gui as an aide, he stayed in Shen Zechuan’s residence and let Shen Zechuan support him. But he was very thrifty and often provided literary services to the others. It was only during this period of time he managed to save up a couple of taels, and now they had all been exchanged for steamed buns.
Yu Xiaozai said, “There are only so many rations the yamen can distribute daily. Most of those who come late are the old, weak, sick, and widowed. It’s rather pitiful for them to go hungry. In any case, money is but mere worldly possession.”
Shen Zechuan was also getting suspicious after seeing such a great number of refugees. The city of Dancheng was one of the eight cities of Qudu. They did not encounter a natural disaster this year, and they even provided supplies to Han Jin’s Eight Great Training Divisions. The Imperial Army even had a feast there when they passed by the city, so how could there be so many refugees all of a sudden?
Qiao Tianya was stuffing steamed buns into the hands of the refugees one at a time when he suddenly heard a commotion behind him.
Shen Zechuan shifted his gaze over and saw several ruffians causing a disturbance as they tried to pull away someone else’s donkey. Fei Sheng saw Shen Zechuan’s expressionless face and promptly bundled up the steamed buns and waved his hand to get the Imperial Bodyguards to go over and pull them apart. He yelled, “What are you people doing there making such a din?!”
One of the ruffians had seen the Imperial Bodyguards at work before. As he was dragged away, with both legs trailing on the ground, he said in a panic, “My good sir, it’s not us who are causing a commotion! These few people first said they wanted to sell the donkey, but they wouldn’t give it to me after I paid up. Tell me, is this not a scam?!”
On hearing that, Fei Sheng turned his head and spoke down at the men. “Don’t you people ever check who is in charge here before coming over to swindle and defraud others? Hurry and give the donkey to him!”
The few disheveled and unkempt men timidly tugged the rope and stuffed it into Fei Sheng’s hands. The donkey brayed from the tugs. A hand that had been squeezed back behind them slapped at the ground haphazardly and muttered ambiguously, “That’s my donkey…”
Fei Sheng had sharp hearing, but he did not want to complicate the issue, so he pretended not to have heard it. The ruffians stomped on the hand so hard that it clenched into a fist from the pain and pounded on the ground. But an unidentified person at the back pulled him away until that hand abruptly vanished from sight.
Fei Sheng handed the donkey over. Feeling a slight weight on his shoe, he lowered his head for a look. It was a kitten so smeared with dirt that it was all gray and dusty. Fei Sheng bent over to pick it up. “Taozi, here’s a little playmate—”
Before Fei Sheng could finish his words, that hand showed up once again, revealing only the tips of its fingers as it dug into the ground until it was all bloodied mud between the crevices of its fingers.
“My… My cat!”
This person crawled over, his forehead scraping against the ground. The ruffian behind saw Fei Sheng turning over and hurriedly dragged the person back by the ankles to hide him.
Fei Sheng realized that this person’s legs were in bad shape and wondered if they had been broken when this person had taken a beating.
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