Translated with: Jia<3
Xiao Chiye received not only a scolding, but also a beating. But he had been thinking about this matter for a long time, and did not want to hide it from his family. He stood inside the military tent to accept his punishment of demotion. Before the commanding generals withdrew from the tent, they sneaked a glance at Xiao Fangxu, only to find His Lordship even angrier.
Zuo Qianqiu looked at the arm guard over and over again, then gave Xiao Fangxu a slight thumbs-up. “I really can’t tell from this.”
Xiao Fangxu stood at the other end with his back to them and said, “Would I not know what arm guard he uses? At most, it’s processed dogskin. He would simply presume on his thick skin and not put in any effort into this at all.”
Zuo Qianqiu was put in a spot too as he looked at Xiao Chiye and said hesitantly, “… Why didn’t you mention it to us when you were in Qudu? Tell shifu about him now, so that we can… mentally prepare ourselves a little.”
“Prepare, my ass.” Xiao Fangxu looked back. “He already had it all figured out and was just waiting for me to take the bait!”
“You’ll have to meet him sooner or later.” Xiao Chiye took the scolding with his hands behind his back. “What ought to be done has to be done. I still want to take him home this year to see Mother.”
“You sure have it all arranged, huh.” Xiao Fangxu’s words were loaded with sarcasm. “I might as well call you Father.”1
Xiao Chiye did not dare to continue this thread of conversation.
“Where’s he from?” Zuo Qianqiu set down the arm guard. “Qudu?”
Xiao Chiye answered honestly, “Zhongbo.”
So Zuo Qianqiu said to Xiao Fangxu. “That’s still not too bad; it’s close by.” He followed up with a question, “How old?”
Xiao Chiye answered, “Twenty-one. Pretty young.”
Zuo Qianqiu inexplicably found this prerequisite to be familiar, but he could not quite put his finger on it for the moment and merely continued, “The arm guard is quite well-done. Is he in this trade?”
Xiao Chiye replied, “… No.”
Xiao Fangxu sneered, “Do you dare to repeat what you said outside earlier to your shifu?”
Xiao Chiye gave a slight cough.
Xiao Fangxu said, “I demoted you, and you stabbed me in the heart!”
Xiao Chiye found these words of his familiar. Not falling for it, he said, “I didn’t. I wouldn’t dare to.”
Zuo Qianqiu was still wondering about what kind of person this man was, so he asked, “Then, what’s his name? Is he from a clan we are familiar with?”
“Yes.” Xiao Chiye paused for a moment, then answered, “Shen Zechuan.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Several days later, Kong Ling and Yu Xiaozai arrived at Luoxia Pass. Cizhou wanted to discuss long-term cooperation with Luoxia Pass, and both parties had more or less reached an agreement through their written correspondences. This time, they wanted direct passage through it so that they could arrive at Huaizhou before the end of the eighth month.
The eighth month had only just started when the original commander of Fanzhou’s garrison troops revolted with the intent to proclaim himself king. He even deployed troops to seize Dengzhou first, wanting to use this opportunity to threaten Cizhou. In addition, he also sent a document to demand Cizhou transfer the grains they sold to Chazhou to them, calling it a “loan of grain”.
Shen Zechuan, of course, ignored him and got Zhou Gui to draft up an official denunciation-cum-declaration of war and dispatched it to Chazhou with the intent to join forces and eradicate the bandits. With the exception of his own self, he slapped the label of “bandits” on all the armed groups in Zhongbo. This “King Yi” of Fanzhou naturally did not accept this, and both parties hurled verbal abuse at each other from afar. The advisors under their command traded letters to “send greetings to the other party’s ancestors”. At the same time, they also spared no effort to make the other party out as rebels, while describing themselves as being compelled to revolt for the sake of the people.
Shen Zechuan did not remain idle either. Time was precious at present. In between the exchange of abuses on both sides, he had the Cizhou’s prefectural yamen start repairing the bridle paths and relay stations leading to the various prefectures. This was no small project and could only be completed at the end of the year. Meanwhile, Cizhou’s garrison troops continued to push ahead with their training; Cizhou was now expanding at full steam.
“Apart from what is needed for Huaizhou, the profits from the sales of grain this time are enough for the repairs of the bridle paths. But the grains distributed by the yamen will no doubt be reduced as well. I don’t have the heart to turn away the increasing number of refugees as winter comes around.” Zhou Gui presented a book to Shen Zechuan. “And with the weather getting colder, we are seeing a gradual uptick in refugees from Dancheng.”
“Speaking of the refugees from Dancheng.” Holding the book in hand, Shen Zechuan turned to look at Yao Wenyu, “Yuanzhuo comes from Dancheng and knows more about the current situation there better than we do. Why is the number of refugees increasing so much all of a sudden?”
On hearing him, Yao Wenyu, who had a coat draped over him, answered with a serious countenance, “After the previous emperor’s death, Han Cheng wanted to convince the Empress Dowager to create more official positions for the descendants of the noble clans and use the state treasury to support these descendants on behalf of the noble clans. The list comprised over ten thousand people, but the Empress Dowager didn’t consent. To preserve their strength, the noble clans with Han Cheng at the head became even more aggressive in seizing the commoners’ crop fields. They fraudulently under-reported the acreage2 of fields to the higher-ups, thereby hiding away vast expanses of fertile farmland and leaving the common people without land to grow crops; these commoners even had to pay poll tax per head in their families. As a result, the number of people who fled increased.”
“According to the law, once their household registration is confirmed, those who leave illegally without relevant documentation from the local authorities will be drafted into the army, or worse, immediately executed.” Shen Zechuan thought through it for a moment. “The most suitable way to escape arrest from the local authorities is to come to Zhongbo. But Cizhou’s capacity is limited after all, and relying solely on the yamen to distribute grain is not a viable solution in the long run. We cannot afford to feed this many people.”
And it wasn’t just that. A portion of the refugees who had come to Cizhou had gotten hooked on getting free meals. They made excuses to decline registering themselves in the census registry, instead assuming the status of ‘refugee’ so that they could freeload and idle their lives away at the entrance of the yamen.
“I made a special point of asking the census officials; many of the people in this group are the young and strong who loiter around the streets and stir up trouble. Public order was good before the seventh month, but after the eighth month, theft became a common occurrence. When the yamen constables arrest and send them to prison, they become unreasonable and make a scene.” Speaking to this point, Zhou Gui fretted with worries. “After they found out that they could still fill their tummies in jail, they became even more brazen. Alas!”
Shen Zechuan had already come to a decision on this matter. He said, “They dared to be this dauntless only because Cizhou is accommodating and magnanimous towards the refugees and has not set the relevant penalties in place; it is still treating them as local citizens of decent origins to deal with. But the times are different now. Today, I’d like to ask you gentlemen to draft a document to strictly forbid refugees from putting off registering themselves in the census registry. By the middle of the eighth month at the very latest, anyone who has not registered themselves at the yamen will be all driven out without exception. Not only that, Cizhou shall put up notices everywhere the day after and assign the relevant clerks down to explain. Make sure to clarify what is at stake if they break the law clearly to the illiterate commoners in the city. Starting from the day after tomorrow, any violators and offenders shall be dealt with severely. No mercy will be shown.”
Shen Zechuan’s methods had always been pretty mild ever since he had arrived in Cizhou, and he always looked to be an amicable and easygoing person to outsiders. He never flaunted his talents openly, even when it came to Chazhou’s matters, but this time, with a change from his former style, he could be said to be swift and decisive.
Zhou Gui said hesitantly, “But will we lose the hearts and support of the people if we put up severe punishments in place? After all, it was only a few months ago that Cizhou started taking in the refugees with open arms.”
“These are two separate matters.” Yao Wenyu timed his words perfectly. “Cizhou accommodates the refugees out of compassion, but if it were to lose its trust with the people because of this, then it’d be putting the cart before the horse. As the saying goes, to deal with external foes, we have to first resolve internal conflicts. Cizhou must first eradicate its internal threats as soon as possible; otherwise, it will prove to be a burden in the future.”
“Fanzhou already has a ‘King Yi’ now.” Shen Zechuan set down the book. “This King Yi wants to establish a small Zhongbo imperial court at the southeastern side of Cizhou, and he has assembled the military forces from the two prefectures of Fanzhou and Dengzhou and poised them for combat against Cizhou in an attempt to get us to be his granary. The situation will be even more chaotic after spring next year. We cannot yield and make any more concessions because of the words ‘benevolence and righteousness’.”
“Besides, this is also a good thing.” Yao Wenyu said to Zhou Gui. “Repairing the bridle paths and relay stations need manpower, and the refugees just so happen to fill in the vacancies in Cizhou. With the yamen distributing grains to them based on the quantity of work, they have somewhere to use their strengths, and they also get to fill their tummies, so naturally, they won’t go around stirring up trouble.”
Zhou Gui nodded as well on hearing this. “Once the household registration is settled, the yamen will have an exact number of people in Cizhou. If we start with the surveyance of fields at the end of the eighth month, we will be able to finish the divisions of fields before the start of spring next year. As long as we don’t encounter a natural disaster next year, Cizhou’s granary will be able to maintain its abundance.”
“This is the first year.” Shen Zechuan was in a pretty good mood. “Chazhou will also be put on the agenda next year. Other than that, we should also prepare to open up a new bridle path on the Luoxia Pass and Huaizhou’s route to the northwest.”
Taken aback, Zhou Gui asked, “Are we not borrowing the bridle path from Libei?
“That’s right, but in the long run, we still have to remunerate Luoxia Pass accordingly.” Shen Zechuan said, “Luoxia Pass is right above Quancheng; they are allies we need to befriend. Once it begins thriving along the trade route, the present routes will be insufficient for us. Not to mention that Beiyuan Hunting Grounds is going to become the Imperial Army’s camp; it’s essential to open up new bridle paths.”
“Then there’s also the issue of army provisions for the various areas in early spring next year.” The weather was bad, and Yao Wenyu’s legs were hurting, but he looked no different from how he usually was. “Firstly, Qidong is the biggest threat to the south of Zhongbo. They had not managed to deploy troops to Zhongbo in time as they were affected by the late emperor’s assassination and Lu Guangbai’s desertion. But now that the marriage alliance between the Hua and Qi is already a done deal, chances are high that they might send troops up north to crush us if army provisions in early spring next year are sufficient. Secondly, now that Libei has broken free of Qudu’s control, the Northeast Provisions Bridle Path has been stripped of the rights to directly access the Juexi’s granaries. Libei shares a common lot with us, and Libei is the one to shoulder the responsibility of fighting back the Biansha Cavalry in the north, so the issue of army provisions has to be resolved before spring falls.”
The advisors were all discussing affairs in a partitioned-off area in the study, separated by a screen in the middle. As they were indoors all year round, many of them smoked pipes, and as time passed, smoke began to permeate the study, making it stuffy.
Shen Zechuan called out to Qiao Tianya, “Help Yuanzhuo out to take a breath of fresh air.”
Yao Wenyu bent over slightly in a bow to Shen Zechuan from the wheelchair he was seated in and let Qiao Tianya push him out. Shen Zechuan instructed Zhou Gui to open the windows and have the advisors in the partitioned area take a break too. The air in the room was too heavy and smoky, so Shen Zechuan headed out as well to take a breather in the chilly wind.
It was the rainy season in Cizhou of late. Sunny days were few and far between, and the weather was extremely cold. Worried that Shen Zechuan would fall ill again, Ji Gang was particularly cautious and watched him every day as he put on extra clothes and had Fei Sheng follow him around whenever he headed out.
The moment Fei Sheng saw Shen Zechuan step out, he walked over to hand him the cloak. Shen Zechuan draped it over himself and walked along the covered walkway for a moment. The flowers of the Chinese scholar trees in this courtyard had long withered, and the leaves on the branches had all fallen off, leaving bare trees set against the backdrop of gloomy skies. It was quite the picture of bleakness and desolation.
Thinking of a way to amuse him, Fei Sheng said, “Master, there’s also a copper crock in this Zhou’s residence that’s exactly a carbon copy of the one in our residence. There are a few brocade carps in it that got swatted around by that gluttonous cat of Mister.”
Shen Zechuan looked over and said, “The one in our residence is a housewarming gift from Madam Zhou.”
Shen Zechuan was a little chilly standing there, but he felt a lot more clear-headed. Noting that it was about time, he headed back under the eaves of the study. Qiao Tianya and Yao Wenyu had not yet returned, so he waited for a while longer. At that moment, Zhou Gui came over in a rush, gesturing for Shen Zechuan to head in.
By then, it was almost the hour of you, and after three more quarters3 of discussion, it was time for dismissal. The advisors still had to work through the night to draft the new documents, and Shen Zechuan had to head to the study to review the details and discuss the finer aspects with everyone when he woke up the next morning at the hour of mao. It was a race against time to get the notice up before midday the day after tomorrow.
“Once winter comes around, the mutual market of Libei will also start bustling with activities.” Shen Zechuan stood by the door as he conversed with Zhou Gui. “Negotiate with the Yan clan if you can; if not, forget it. When the time comes, we can take a detour to Juexi from Huaizhou. Although it’s a long distance, we can think of a way to traverse the waterways owned by the Hua family of Dicheng. The army provisions also—”
Ding Tao entered from the courtyard entrance and leaped over the railings in a couple of steps. Shen Zechuan broke off their conversation and signaled for Ding Tao to speak first.
Ding Tao’s cheeks were slightly flushed as he excitedly exclaimed, “Young Master, the Hereditary Prince’s Consort is here!”