Translated with: Jia<3
Shocked by Han Jin, Gao Zhongxiong took a couple of steps back and bumped into the bars behind him.
Han Jin could not even stand the mosquito bites when he marched to war, much less endure the dirty conditions in prison; it was very much against his will to end up in such a plight. When he saw Gao Zhongxiong’s expression, he could not help but burst out wailing, “You treacherous man! It’s all your fault I’m in this state!”
Gao Zhongxiong dared not respond and stuck close to the bars as he headed for the entrance.
Feeling his hatred rise, Han Jin launched into a torrent of abuses. “You threw in your lot with traitor Shen. How shameless! You disloyal, turncoat slave who panders to a traitor!1 Gao Zhongxiong, you’re just a wretched soul with nobody to turn to! Don’t go, come back, you…”
Gao Zhongxiong cut a sorry figure as he pushed the prison door open and shook off that relentless, haunting voice behind him. Outside, the chilly wind blew his entire back cold. The literati cherished their reputation. Who didn’t want to go down in history as an honorable scholar untainted by political ills?2 The words ‘disloyal, turncoat slave’ dealt such a hard blow to Gao Zhongxiong that he almost could not get back up on his feet. He had tens of thousands of grievances pent up in his chest with nowhere to vent, and they eventually amassed into a wave of nausea so overwhelming that he grabbed at the wall and threw up.
Gao Zhongxiong threw up everything he had consumed that day, puking until he had a case of acid reflux. He leaned against the wall, gradually sliding into a sitting position on the ground. As he gazed towards the vast sky, he thought of his elders back in Yuzhou. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief, but the tears would not stop streaming down his cheeks, so he wiped them with his sleeve instead. Eventually, he hugged his arms, rolled over to curl up in a corner, and cried while trying to suppress it.
Who would be willing to give up his dignity and bow to power for a pittance?
Not Gao Zhongxiong. But without this pittance, he would die. In order to seek a way out for himself, he even cast aside his sensibilities. If someone were to tell him five years ago that he would bow obsequiously to a yamen runner for the sake of being a lesser functionary in the future, he would rather die. But he had not only done that now; he was even willing to learn to flatter others for petty gains.
An unspecified amount of time later, Gao Zhongxiong got up, tidied himself, and edged along the wall as he made his way outside. As he passed by the yamen, he had the sense that the whisperings around him were directed at him, but he did not seem to feel a thing. Like what Yao Wenyu had said, the past was but a dream. He had woken up too.
“This humble one is Gao Zhongxiong, and my humble courtesy name is Shenwei.” Gao Zhongxiong strode into the yamen and bowed as he said to the others. “It is on the personal recommendation of the Vice Commander that this humble one has come to offer my writing skills for the yamen’s use. In the future, this humble one shall be responsible for drafting up all the official proclamations and public notices the yamen needs.”
◈ ◈ ◈
In the twinkling of an eye, it was already the end of the eighth month. Kong Ling and Yu Xiaozai had returned from their trip to Huaizhou. The discussion in Huaizhou had gone smoothly. The only odd thing was that when they passed by Luoxia Pass on the way back, they found the attitude of the Luoxia Pass’s Commandant loaded with subtleties; it was far more agreeable than it had been when they passed through on their way to Huaizhou.
“That Commandant from Luoxia Pass…” Yu Xiaozai said, “was trying to dig for information on our Vice Commander. He made several inquiries on the Vice Commander’s marriage.”
“He couldn’t be trying to play matchmaker for the Vice Commander, could he?” Zhou Gui thought of Xiao Chiye and hurriedly asked, “Then, how did you answer?”
“I initially wanted to answer that the Vice Commander already has a spouse.” Yu Xiaozai had darkened a lot on this trip. “But Chengfeng advised me not to, so I just replied that he was still unmarried.”
Both of them did not understand, but Kong Ling was a discerning and insightful man. He had heard that the Hereditary Prince’s Consort of Libei had come to Cizhou, so he paid special attention to Luoxia Pass’s attitude on their return trip. He knew very well the reason for the change in their attitude. No doubt Libei had reached out to them in advance, wanting to understand Shen Zechuan through them—he just did not know if it was the Prince or the Hereditary Prince.
Kong Ling picked up the tea and said, “The Vice Commander isn’t married to begin with. It’s better to say it as it is when it comes to this matter, lest it provides others with grounds for gossip and leads to misunderstandings.”
Zhou Gui was just about to speak to Kong Ling about the screening of the functionaries from the last time when Qiao Tianya lifted the curtains. They rose to greet in unison, “Vice Commander.”
It was raining outside, and Shen Zechuan had walked all the way over from his residence. Even if he had an umbrella, it was inevitable for him to get wet. On the contrary, Yao Wenyu was all securely bundled up as he was pushed in. The only thing was that he was too thin, and even when he sat in the wheelchair, he did not feel like a living being. Gao Zhongxiong came in last after them. He was dressed very simply, with a pile of books in his arms and half of his shoulder wet.
“Gentlemen, please take a seat.” Shen Zechuan settled into his seat and wiped away the water droplets on his hand with his handkerchief. “It has been hard on Mister Chengfeng and Youjing on this long trip. There’s no need to be in a hurry to return to duty these few days. Take a break.”
Kong Ling and Yu Xiaozai said their thanks in succession.
“Shenwei, do sit too. There’s no need to be formal.” Shen Zechuan lifted a palm to motion to Gao Zhongxiong. At the same time, he said to Kong Ling, “This is Shenwei, a new subordinate of mine who specializes in writing. He is presently gaining experience in the yamen, and there are still plenty of many matters on which he will need Mister Chengfeng’s guidance on.”
Kong Ling politely and humbly played down the accolade and sized up Gao Zhongxiong. Gao Zhongxiong had secured his hair up in a simple bun today. As he had to move around in the yamen for the whole day now, efficiency had taken precedence over everything else, and so he no longer looked so much like a scholar.
Gao Zhongxiong set down the books and bowed to Kong Ling in a greeting. “I’ve long heard much of Mister Chengfeng’s reputation. It’s an honor to meet you.”
Kong Ling rose to his feet and returned the greeting.
Shen Zechuan waited until they each took their respective seats before saying, “With things going smoothly in Huaizhou and Chazhou, everyone can have a good year this year. The functionaries to survey the fields have already been sent down. To ensure the accuracy of the acreage, there will be two more checks carried out after. By the time this is done, it will be the end of the year, but the good thing is that we can finish the surveyance in time for this year. Now that the recording of registrations is done, the moving of Cizhou’s autumn harvest into the granaries is completed too. As soon as the snow falls, we should discuss the allocation of lands.”
Yao Wenyu spoke up just then, “In the past, the land taxes and levies in Qudu were all paid in kind. After the grain was collected and put into storage at the granaries, it was manually audited and converted by people. The labor costs of the transport office also had to be apportioned among them, so it might not necessarily be accurate. We are now in Cizhou, and we can dispense with the escort and transportation of grains. But to increase the expenses for the upkeep of the granary, the most appropriate way to collect silver would be to combine the miscellaneous taxes.”
“The trading of grains is not a long-term endeavor either.” Kong Ling said, “Once Chazhou is done with the reorganization this year, they can start tilling their lands at the beginning of spring next year. If they can get through it, it will be a bumper harvest for them, and they will no longer need to do business with us.”
“Wouldn’t the other four prefectures need it?” Yu Xiaozai was not as familiar with the situation in Zhongbo as the rest of them. “Seems to me that King Yi won’t be in the running for long. The two prefectures of Fanzhou and Dengzhou are so poor that the people are turning against each other, yet he’s still bestowing awards and conferring titles on a motley crew of ministers for his court. If we aren’t doing business with Chazhou, we can do it with them.”
The others laughed.
Shen Zechuan said, “Youjing is truly from the Chief Surveillance Bureau.”
Seeing as Yu Xiaozai did not comprehend, Kong Ling said, “When you see others conducting themselves with such behavior, you think about impeachment, forgetting that they’re impoverished to the extent that they’d turn against one another. So how would they have the money to buy grains from us?”
“Human trafficking is rampant in Fanzhou, and traffickers are running amuck all around. If we have them purchase the grains, they might even use children to barter. These people are incorrigible!” It filled Zhou Gui with contempt just to bring up this subject.
“This is something that has to be combated, but the source is still at Mount Luo. As for King Yi, he can’t die no matter what.” Yao Wenyu relaxed a little and revealed a smile. “He is currently our barrier in the south. Without him, we will come face to face with Qi Zhuyin.”
“Speaking of Qi Zhuyin.” Yu Xiaozai rolled up his sleeves slightly. “This reminds me of Qi Shiyu. I heard some news. During the wedding ceremony when Third Missy Hua married over, the Old Commander saw what an unparalleled beauty his new wife was, and in a moment of happiness, he collapsed.”
Zhou Gui was stunned. “Collapsed?”
Yu Xiaozai continued, “He had a stroke!”
Whether Qi Shiyu had a genuine stroke or a bogus one, this incident made it clear that he would not be sharing a room with Hua Xiangyi. The Empress Dowager got the in-laws relationship she wanted with Qidong, but she had no way to take it any further. If Hua Xiangyi did not beget an heir, Qi Zhuyin would retain her position as the commander-in-chief. With her stepmother in her hands, she had every reason to suppress and hold her other brothers in check.
“Man proposes, God disposes.” Zhou Gui lamented. “It’s fortunate that Qi Zhuyin is not a man.”
They laughed and chatted about something else. Kong Ling and Yu Xiaozai had only just returned today, so Shen Zechuan could not really let them sit and chat the entire night. At around the hour of chou, he dismissed them.
Zhou Gui personally saw Kong Ling back to his courtyard and gave him a brief and concise account of the screening incident on their way over. Finally, he said. “We executed an advisor who took bribes and kept the peace in the yamen until now. But rumors keep popping up recently, saying that the Vice Commander came to Cizhou to coerce me. Can you believe this? Alas, I can’t eat or sleep well these few days, worried that these words will make their way to the Vice Commander’s ears and cause misunderstandings between us.”
Kong Ling held the umbrella and said, “I reminded you a long time ago that the address of ‘prefectural prefect’ should be done away with. If this matter had played out before someone who is oversuspicious and distrustful by nature, you and I would have long lost the trust of the Vice Commander.”
“But I,” Zhou Gui said anxiously, “don’t know what to change it to!”
“It doesn’t matter what you change it to. What’s important is the attitude.” Kong Ling tilted the umbrella to allow Zhou Gui to raise up the lantern. “Cizhou has already established itself. Naturally, it can no longer leave this matter ambiguous. You may not intend it that way, but you won’t be able to hold up against repeated rumors, so distinguish between master and subordinate clearly as soon as possible and make it clear to the others as well that Cizhou has already changed masters.”
During their discussion, both men had already gone up the steps. The attendants followed behind them. Before Kong Ling stepped onto the walkway, he looked back and motioned for them to slow down and not to follow too close.
“It’s not appropriate to call him the Provincial Administration Commissioner, and it’s not appropriate to call him the Viceroy either. Think of one for me.” Zhou Gui said after him. “And I can get it settled tomorrow morning.”
“Those are all titles designated by Qudu; of course, they aren’t appropriate.” Kong Ling could not think of one at such short notice either. He stood for a moment, then said with a headache, “Shen Wei was the Prince of Jianxing, but he has been stripped of his noble rank and title. We mustn’t allow this relationship to be associated with the Vice Commander anymore.”
Both men stood side by side in the chilly night, with the wind rustling past their clothes. It was so freezing that both men shivered simultaneously. Kong Ling was tired and cold, and so he chased Zhou Gui off. “Go back and think of one yourself.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Two days later, Zhou Gui submitted a document with the request to change “Vice Commander” to “Prefectural Lord”.3 He initially meant to address him as “Lord Shen”, but the word Shen was associated with Shen Wei, so it was revised to the “prefectural” in “prefectural prefect”. The word ‘prefectural’ was flexible; it could progress in tiers according to their future expansion in the region, making it convenient to make changes again. This was the first time Cizhou explicitly recognized Shen Zechuan as the one who reigned supreme in Cizhou. Meanwhile, Zhou Gui demoted himself back into his original position and became a subordinate of Shen Zechuan.
Once this matter was made public, King Yi of Fanzhou was the first one to get anxious. He repeatedly issued several notices angrily denouncing Zhou Gui for defecting to the traitor. But Cizhou now had Gao Zhongxiong, an eloquent writer of quick wit and great speed who could twist the narrative in their favor. At the same time he condemned King Yi for his heartlessness in disregarding the lives and deaths of the commoners in Fanzhou by carrying out wasteful large scale construction of extravagant buildings for his enjoyment, he also composed a ballad for distribution to the four prefectures east of Zhongbo, singing the story of how Shen Zechuan had traveled thousands of li to deliver grains but had instead gotten injured, so much that it moved all the listeners to tears. The more that rumor spread, the more exaggerated it became. By the time it reached Xiao Fangxu’s ears, it had already become “seriously wounded” and “almost broke an arm”.
Xiao Fangxu got a fright and went to grab up a diligent Xiao Chiye in the middle of the night to ask, “He broke an arm?”
Xiao Chiye, who had been continuously running errands for half a month, had only just fallen asleep when his old man yanked him up. He was still half-asleep, so Xiao Fangxu shook him and asked his question again.
Annoyed by the shaking, Xiao Chiye asked in a hoarse voice, “Who, who broke an arm?”
Xiao Fangxu said, “Shen Zechuan!”
- 三姓家奴 literally, a slave with three surnames. The term originates from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms 《三国演义》 and refers specifically to Lu Bu. It’s used mockingly to refer to capricious, disloyal and unrighteous people who serve traitors (以身侍贼)
- 清流 renowned and unsullied scholars who were concerned with politics but held themselves aloof from those in power, i.e., political outsiders (e.g., members of the Donglin Clique in the late Ming Dynasty)
- 府君 literally magistrate of a prefecture, also used to refer to 太守 or 知府 so this term can also be translated as Prefectural Magistrate, Prefectural Governor, or Prefectural Prefect.