Translated with: Jia<3
The military supply wagons were placed under the guard of the Libei Armored Cavalry and manually transported back to Cizhou by the bandits. Shen Zechuan only brought a dozen or so Imperial Bodyguards and some goods with him as he disguised himself as a traveling merchant heading north. They did not head down to Dunzhou directly, but took a detour to the public route leading from Fanzhou to Dunzhou and entered through the west gate.
Liu’er, with his biangu hat, followed behind Fei Sheng with his butt sticking out. As long as his eyes started roving, the Imperial Bodyguards would sandwich him in the middle so that he felt suffocated and could not move. He used to be Lei Jingzhe’s messenger, so he was well-informed and the most familiar with the ongoings in Dunzhou. They would save a lot of trouble by getting him to lead the way. But this old man was a very crafty one. At first, in order to escape, he had smeared his face until it was all dark and swarthy, causing Fei Sheng to nearly miss him when he blended in with the group of bandits.
Shen Zechuan’s medicine never stopped coming, and after being on the road for five days, his cough gradually subsided. However, he was still unable to apply too much pressure on the two fingers on his right hand. Given that he could not even pen letters these days, the messages to Libei and Cizhou were all written by Ding Tao on his behalf.
“When we enter the city, we have to first go to a pawnshop to register the goods.” Liu’er tugged on the side of his biangu hat to hide his face, then folded his arms under his sleeves and craned his neck to say, “It’s very chaotic now in Dunzhou. Only merchants who are registered and listed at the pawnshop can enter the city and stay at the inns. All the parties are playing it cautious. This is an unspoken rule. Anyone who doesn’t know the rules is most certainly fishy.”
Shen Zechuan rested his folding fan on his knee. He remained concealed from view in the carriage, revealing only a vague silhouette. “Who owns this pawnshop?”
“The Yan clan of Hezhou.” Liu’er lowered his voice and moved closer to the side of the carriage curtain. “When Lei Changming still had the Yan Clan to fund him, this place was a terrible mess. While it was said that Lei Changming was the one in charge, he was, after all, not the Provincial Administration Commissioner. Bandits like us don’t have that many staff and runners either, so we turned a blind eye when it came to what’s happening down there. But there were too many merchants coming and going. Who knows if they are spies? So Young Master Yan suggested Lei Changming set up a pawnshop here and hang up the words, ‘Tongming’. Brothers who conduct business deals with the Mount Luo bandits naturally know how to answer upon entering the shop. The Yan Clan later fell out with us, but Lei Changming kept this pawnshop as a show of respect for Young Master Yan.”
The corner of Shen Zechuan’s lips shifted ever so slightly. “And with that, the Yan Clan has the comings and goings in Dunzhou firmly in their grasp, with records of every business transaction Lei Changming has ever made. This Young Master Yan must no doubt be better acquainted with these years’ accounts than Lei Changming himself, right?”
“He’s a child prodigy, yes?” Liu’er smacked his lips. “Not one business deal Yan Heru conducted himself has ever been unprofitable. This person may be young, but he’s a mercenary man who loves money very, very much! There is no business he doesn’t dare to dip his fingers into.”
“Lei Changming saved his life. There must be a reason that caused them to fall out with one another.” Shen Zechuan recalled the incident regarding the lawful grandson of the Shao clan and asked in passing.
Throughout the journey here, Liu’er had been going all out to ingratiate himself with Shen Zechuan for fear that Shen Zechuan would kill him off once he outlived his usefulness. He immediately weighed up the stakes and sold Lei Changming out. “Lei Changming had an addiction… and it grew progressively worse in recent years. The commoners in the two prefectures of Dunzhou and Duanzhou were very much afraid and did not dare to keep their children at home around for fear that we would carry them off and give them to Lei Changming. At first, Lei Changming kept the Yan clan in the dark and did not dare to bring it up. But later, he asked the brothels in Fanzhou for some young ones, and the children the procuress came over to deliver were recorded in the pawnshop as rice flour. This was uncovered by the Yan Clan’s audits, and Young Master Yan flew into a terrible rage. Lei Changming promised Yan Heru that he would turn over a new leaf, but how could he change something like this? With Cai Yu fanning the flames on his end, it didn’t take long for them to fall out for real. Yan Heru cut off the monthly funds to Mount Luo, and grains stopped heading our way.”
Having said to this point, Liu’er faced the carriage curtain.
“It was because of this that we were starving so badly on Mount Luo. Lei Jingzhe had Lei Changming demand grains from Cizhou. Zhou Gui had no troops and power then, and he gave in time and time again. It just so happened that the emperor in Qudu passed away. When the marquis rebelled, the uncle and nephew pair plotted to use Han Jin to exchange for noble titles. In any case, no one’s keeping Zhongbo under control. If it really worked out and they get conferred with the title of a prince or something, then we would transform into a regular local army!”
Shen Zechuan tapped with his fingertips and said, “Lei Jingzhe is truly a good child.”
Lei Jingzhe was the brains behind Lei Changming. How could he have let Lei Changming take a tumble over such a simple matter like Fanzhou’s delivery of children? It was because the Yan clan cut off Lei Changming’s monthly funds that Lei Changming would turn his main forces on Cizhou. He marched his troops to Cizhou in such an ostentatious display and ended up being targeted and killed by Xiao Chiye and Shen Zechuan—he was indeed a target set up to be a scapegoat.
In all probability, Lei Jingzhe had long wanted to usurp and take over his position. They might have gone to Han Cheng in an attempt to exchange for noble titles, but Han Cheng might not necessarily be willing to acquiesce to both men’s presumptuous demands. Throw in Lei Changming’s insatiable greed into the mix, and it remained to be seen whether they could even reach an agreement. So, Lei Jingzhe took Lei Changming, his kin maternal uncle, out of the equation and let him die conveniently in the strife without ever tying himself directly to it.
This suggested two possibilities. The first was that Han Cheng was not a Scorpion, and the Scorpions were far less capable than Shen Zechuan feared. The second was that they were all pawns and did not need to mutually know each other; they just had to stay in their place and do what they ought to do to complete the mission.
Shen Zechuan had his own theory regarding both of these conjectures. He lost himself in his thoughts and did not speak again.
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It was already the hour of hai when the horse carriage entered the city, and as its name suggested, Tongming Pawnshop was indeed brightly lit. Fei Sheng brought Liu’er along to register themselves and saw horse carriages of all styles and colors outside the pawnshop. There were the Longyou merchants that had come around from Juexi as well as human traffickers from Fanzhou. A hubbub of abacus beads being flicked and all sorts of shouts filled the place, where every imaginable ware was on sale. It was already such a late hour, and yet the place was still bustling with activity.
As the hub, Tongming Pawnshop sat in the center with large lanterns hung up on both sides of it. Wine taverns and stores operated all night, with the hustle and bustle keeping up until dawn. There were plenty of beggars, but they were all being bossed around. Prostitutes of all ages drew close to the coming and going wealthy men and pulled them to the inns so that they had a place to sleep for free for a night, relying on this to earn some money for food. Amidst the surge of crowd, Fei Sheng noticed a few Biansha faces.
This place did not seem to have been once defeated in war. The stench of wine and meat gone sour permeated the air along with the fragrance of perfumes and spices from Juexi and the Chashi River; they jostled against one another for prominence, subsequently turning into a fusion of smells that made one’s knees weak. This street was like a milky way reflected from the vault of heavens that converged the remaining bright lights in Zhongbo together, making the surroundings look pitch-dark in comparison.
There were so many people around that Fei Sheng did not dare to be too conceited and careless. Armed with the tips Liu’er had given, he headed inside the pawnshop and looked around for someone to submit his registration. The goods were miscellaneous grains from Huaizhou. The store clerk busily and methodically checked them one at a time according to the sequence of the hanging tags. He moved quickly, and the younger assistant following behind him was even quicker in noting it all down.
When the shop clerk came before the horse carriage, he did not presumptuously reach out to lift the curtains, but bowed at it in all earnestness. “You sirs come from the west and are all-powerful connoisseurs of the trade, and since you have made your way to our Dunzhou, we dare not be poor hosts, so we will just lay it all out here first. You must be fatigued from the journey, so treat it as some entertainment tidbits to relieve your boredom.”
Shen Zechuan did not answer.
This shop clerk had seen his fair share of traveling merchants, and he had prior dealings with both magnates and bandits before, so he knew that some of these customers had terrible tempers. He remained firmly on his feet with a neutral expression and said, “Once you have entered the city, it’s all entirely up to you whoever you decide to have business dealings with; no one can interfere, for it’s nobody else’s business. As fleeting as our encounters are, we are all fellow travelers whose paths have crossed. Our coming here for the same purpose makes us acquaintances who should mutually get along and help each other. Dunzhou is remote and out of the way, so let’s all look out for one another. If you require mediation for any issues, feel free to send someone to the shop to let us know. No matter where these people are from, the assistants will always be standing ready to assist without delay as long as you so command. However, there is one rule that must be made clear to you. Any goods that are meant for purchase and sales have to be recorded down on file in the shop, and every good on record in the shop has to be a genuine product. By having yourself registered for business in our shop, you can be considered as having received the nod from the Yan clan. In Dunzhou, we share prestige and wealth together.” After the shop clerk was done speaking, he bowed once more to the horse carriage, then turned aside and lifted his arm to guide them. “A courtyard has been especially prepared in the back for you. Please choose the attendants as you please. We have all kinds of fresh, seasonal fruits available for your enjoyment. As long as you stay in Dunzhou, you can ask for anything you would like to eat or enjoy. Our Yan Clan will take care of it all for you!”
Fei Sheng was secretly rendered speechless. The Xi Clan was wealthy, but they were nowhere as generous as this. This Yan Heru was truly incredible. Rumor had it that he loved money as much as he treasured his life, but he also spent money like water. He was an ostentatious man who loved gold. He invested all of his capital into Dunzhou and won over the hearts of all the traveling merchants. It was no wonder that the Xi Clan’s chain of shops could not make their foray into the market in the east at all!
The shop clerk did not waste any more time on superfluous talk and shouted, “The Sixteenth Courtyard of Tianji welcomes its distinguished guests!”
The horse carriage started moving with a rumble, guided into the courtyard by a specially deployed errand-runner.
With his face to the carriage window, Shen Zechuan heard the melody that drifted from the upper floors of the wine tavern in the darkness. The dazzling display of lanterns in a kaleidoscope of colors through the carriage drapes looked like multi-colored waves of shimmering water so gorgeous that one was left mesmerized and captivated.
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The moment Liu’er entered the courtyard, he clicked his tongue in wonder. He took his shoes off before stepping on the porch and held them in his bosom as he followed behind Fei Sheng and cast glances all around. He thought out loud, “Hot damn… just how much silver would you need to spend on all these…”
Fei Sheng took a look at the hallway. “Not unless you have a million to splurge.”
Liu’er had never before seen this much money, and neither had Fei Sheng. It had to be known that during the reign of Xiande, the military budget allocated to Libei and Qidong totaled to merely two million, tops. The imperial court officials had to reduce their salaries and scrimp and save to provide for the Libei Armored Cavalry and Qidong Garrison Troops. The imperial court was so ridiculously poor it was driving all of them insane, and yet here Yan Heru was, splurging hundreds of thousands of taels at a mere wave of his hand, all just for the sake of entertaining his guests.
The journey had truly been difficult. Fei Sheng did not dare to make Shen Zechuan endure it for any longer and attended to him as he drank the medicine. He then called for a subordinate to prepare water and make the bed. He did not dare to urge Shen Zechuan to take a rest, and so he quietly instructed Ding Tao to do so.
Fei Sheng did not call for any of the attendants from the Yan Clan to serve in the yard. The courtyard was guarded by rank after rank of Imperial Bodyguards, with Fei Sheng staying in the innermost layer to stand guard under the eaves of Shen Zechuan’s room. Not only were the Imperial Bodyguards on guard duty on the ground, but they were also stationed on the ridge of the upturned eaves. Ding Tao, having slept his fill in the carriage during the daytime, was now sitting up there writing and drawing with Li Xiong. The words that Xiao Chiye had said before they had set off would pop up from time to time in Fei Sheng’s mind, so much so that Fei Sheng’s heart would leap into his mouth if Shen Zechuan so much as let out a cough in the night.
Shen Zechuan was not familiar with Dunzhou, yet for some reason, the nightmares hit him hard that night. Chashi Sinkhole had disappeared, and the Prince of Jianxing’s Manor had replaced it in its place.
The deaf and mute aunty sat under those dark and gloomy eaves, while Shen Zechuan stood in the dimly lit room, feeling thirsty. As the table was so very tall, he stood on tiptoe to reach for the teacup, but ended up brushing it onto the ground. Broken fragments of porcelain that had shattered by his foot went flying all over, cutting his finger.
Shen Zechuan started to sob.
He felt inexplicably upset, as if he had broken something precious.
But no matter how much Shen Zechuan sobbed, the aunty merely continued to focus on her embroidery with her back to him. She extended her arm and pressed it down, which subsequently elongated her shadow all the way to Shen Zechuan’s foot and turned it into a grotesque, long-limbed creature. She repeated this one action over and over again, her surroundings shrouded in dead silence.
Shen Zechuan’s finger was burning with searing pain. He clutched his robes in his anxiety and bandaged the wounded finger. Blood very quickly bloomed through his robe, like a camellia that had broken apart upon falling onto the snowfield—red and vivid.