Translated with: Jia<3
Ding Tao was petrified. In that instant when their eyes met, he thought that he would die like Jida had. He could still remember the expression in Shen Zechuan’s eyes when the latter killed Jida, and the same expression had been in those eyes as they locked on him just a moment ago. He wanted nothing more than to run, and when Shen Zechuan handed him the candy, he lost the courage to raise his arm.
It was silent under the eaves. Shen Zechuan had already retreated back into the room. The harsh sunlight blazed upon Ding Tao’s frame. He had yet to recover his wits. That kind of feeling was indescribable, but one thing was for sure—this was not the young master he was familiar with.
Ding Tao lifted both arms and wiped haphazardly at his eyes. He wanted to pick up the candy, but it had long melted from the heat of the sun. The delicate sweetness of osmanthus attracted a colony of ants. Ding Tao remained kneeling in place. He did not know why, but the tears had begun to pitter-patter down from his eyes.
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Shen Zechuan’s interrupted memories could no longer be strung together into a coherent whole. It had been too dark in the dream; he simply could not remember any more details. He stood behind the bamboo blinds and heard Ding Tao sobbing beneath the eaves.
Shen Zechuan told himself:
He must not dwell too deeply on this dream.
He had to sieve the truth from falsehood as soon as possible and decipher if the contents of this dream were real scenes he had genuinely seen before or if they had been a figment of his imagination. For six years, he had been subjected to the compulsion of nightmares; he knew best that such dreams were sometimes a mixed bag of reality and fiction. It was just like how he used to dream of the Chashi Sinkhole in the past, although the sight that greeted him in the sinkhole would change according to his state of mind.
After Shen Zechuan had gotten injured during his trip to Chazhou, he dreamed of himself lying in the sinkhole. That was the prelude to his mistrust of his own body and his realization that he had begun to fear death. Frequent nightmares could mess with memories, and in truth, Shen Zechuan could no longer be certain of the words that Ji Mu had said to him before his death.
Shen Zechuan thought self-deprecatingly to himself.
It was just one Shen Wei.
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Liu’er’s network of connections came in very handy. They hid all over the city in every street and alley, and as long as they were paid enough, they could become “eyes” of varying sizes. By capitalizing on these informants, Fei Sheng could snoop into every nook and cranny of Dunzhou without even stepping foot outside. However, Lei Jingzhe’s movements were intriguing, to say the least.
“Lei Jingzhe has been brazenly carrying out his search for three consecutive days. He’s checked through all the goods entering and exiting.” Fei Sheng said in a hushed tone behind Shen Zechuan. “Master, could it be that he already knows that we’re in the city?”
Shen Zechuan was wearing a zheyang hat1 that was common in Qudu. “If that’s the case, he should be checking the wagons and carriages of the merchants coming and going rather than the goods themselves.”
This batch of military supplies was very important to Lei Jingzhe; otherwise, he would not have promptly rushed over to Dunzhou to check on it personally. Based on Shen Zechuan’s guess, Lei Jingzhe wanted to exchange this batch of supplies for something else of equivalent value from the Twelve Tribes of Biansha. Yet, he did not search to the west immediately when he arrived in Dunzhou; instead, he wandered around the city of Dunzhou.
Shen Zechuan lifted his arms to lean over the edge of the railing and surveyed the restaurant from top to bottom through the sheer fabric. He took his time organizing his thoughts, then said, “Checking the goods shows that Lei Jingzhe thinks those supply wagons will still return to Dunzhou.”
Shen Zechuan tapped his fingertips on the railing.
How could Lei Jingzhe be so sure that the supply wagons would return to Dunzhou? The numbers of powers in Zhongbo who could devour this batch of provisions were few and far between. Cizhou was one of the primary suspects. Shen Zechuan was even prepared to challenge Lei Jingzhe openly, but as it turned out, Lei Jingzhe had not suspected him at all.
“Master, even if Lei Jingzhe thought someone else robbed the supplies, who would resend them back to Dunzhou?” Fei Sheng could make neither head nor tail of it. “There are still Scorpions stationed here. Transporting the supplies back would be walking right into the trap.”
“You’re right.” Shen Zechuan, who had been having difficulty sleeping these days, wearily massaged the center of his brows. “Who in the world would rob the goods and send them back later…”
This made no sense at all.
“The informants we have successively planted in Dunzhou turned out to be of no use precisely because it’s too chaotic over here.” Fei Sheng plucked up his courage and said, “Could it be a bandit who is unwilling to defect to the Biansha people scheming against Lei Jingzhe?”
Shen Zechuan thought about it carefully and gave a slight shake of his head. “After the split of the Mount Luo bandits, there has never been a leader who could win over the masses. Ding Niu and Liu’er were taken captive because they never thought of joining forces to oppose Lei Jingzhe. It’s possible for them to be small-time bandits based on their current size, but they would never have the courage to lay their hands on such a big batch of supplies. “
Military armament was not like other things. They could not be taken apart and hidden like grains. Given that this batch of supply wagons required hundreds of bandits to push it, it was easy to imagine just how heavy it was. Those small-time bandits could not have swallowed it at all. Shen Zechuan’s ability to transfer them hinged on the fact that he did not kill off that batch of bandits, along with the fact there was also the Libei Armored Cavalry tagging along to hold the bandits in check. Otherwise, he would not have easily gotten his hands on this batch of stuff.
This matter was so bizarre it was a little ludicrous.
Fei Sheng did not dare to laugh. He thought about it for a moment. If only Mister Chengfeng or Yuanzhuo were here, he would not have needed to speak up. But there was no one beside Shen Zechuan at present, and Fei Sheng would look like a blockhead if he just stood there without moving, so he thought hard about it for a moment and said, “Could it be—”
A sudden stir of commotion downstairs cut off Fei Sheng’s words. Shen Zechuan lifted the veil of his hat and squinted his eyes at the main hall. Being on the fifth floor, they had a full view of the situation in the main hall.
This restaurant belonged to the Yan clan. Shen Zechuan was here because Lei Jingzhe would be here tonight to entertain a certain someone. The identity of said person was unknown for the time being. His informants were not good enough to pull off that level of information, but Shen Zechuan more or less had a guess who it was.
“The scorpions.” Fei Sheng lowered his voice. “Lei Jingzhe brought the scorpions.”
Shen Zechuan looked down at Lei Jingzhe. The latter had just recovered from his injuries, and his hair had been cropped short. One could hardly distinguish him from the Biansha Scorpions crowding around him. Due to the distance, Shen Zechuan was unable to get a clear look at the tattoo on Lei Jingzhe’s nape.
Lei Jingzhe apparently had matters to attend to. He stepped across the hall and hurried up the stairs.
“If he’s here for the feast,” Fei Sheng slowly furrowed his brow, “then that’s quite the number of people he has brought along with him, isn’t it?”
There were plenty of merchants in this building, but no one dared to stand in Lei Jingzhe’s way. He had indeed brought a lot of men with him; there were at least thirty of them. A few of them followed him up the stairs while the rest took their seats in the main hall. The Imperial Bodyguards in their various disguises kept their composure and watched Lei Jingzhe as they drank, made merry, and even brushed past him.
Shen Zechuan picked his teacup up and watched Lei Jingzhe head up the fifth floor to the area across from him. He sipped his tea and said, “When you get back, give Liu’er some monetary reward for his accuracy in pinpointing the location.”
Fei Sheng acknowledged the order.
The party on the opposite end lowered the bamboo blinds to keep out prying eyes. The few men Lei Jingzhe brought along stood guard outside. Fei Sheng, who had great eyesight, carefully searched for the scorpion tattoos on these men’s bodies with the help of the lit lanterns.
A little less than an hour later, the lanterns in the building were all raised. The party on the other side called for their food to be served, and waiters weaved in and out of the area. Fei Sheng attempted to shift his position, but the screen at the other end had been so cleverly erected that he could not find the chance to snoop.
Lei Jingzhe’s feast stretched on for a very long time from the hour of you to the hour of hai, and they still had yet to call it a day. Shen Zechuan had already finished an entire pot of tea and was leaning sleepily against his chair. Another two hours passed, and the vibrancy in the atmosphere in the building turned up a notch instead of evaporating.
“It’s the Yan Clan’s show now.” Fei Sheng reminded Shen Zechuan in a whisper. “Master, this is a signal for the various merchants to have fun among themselves.”
Shen Zechuan breathed an acknowledgement and tiredly opened his eyes to look downstairs for a while from his seemingly drab seat. “A free market it is. The Yan clan profits from playing the mediator between the various parties here. What they collect is privilege money. Tell them in a while to sell the grains we brought over as well.”
“Human traffickers.” Fei Sheng looked attentively at the people below. “That’s the procuress from Fanzhou.”
The procuress of Fanzhou was a rotund, heavily made-up woman ostentatiously decked out in loud, showy apparel. When she came here in the past, it was for the specific purpose of bringing children for Lei Changming; she had never carried out any transactions with the other merchants. But her business in Dunzhou was impeded when the Yan clan fell out with Lei Changming, so she reluctantly switched to selling women, whom she took in from the various prefectures in Zhongbo. In those few years where the starvation among the people was at its worst, a dou of grains could be exchanged for an entire family of young and old.
“Master.” Fei Sheng half-bent over and began to introduce in detail. “This procuress’s name is Cuiqing. We dug into her background in passing while we were monitoring the prices of commodities in Fanzhou. She and Lei Changming have a shared past. She was initially a native of Duanzhou, and before the defeat of the Zhongbo’s troops, she worked as a procuress too. Later, she went to Fanzhou and continued to ply her old trade there. Lei Changming was the one who forked out the deposit. That was why she was willing to take the risk and deliver the children to Lei Changming.”
Grasping her handkerchief in hand, Cuiqing twisted her body to squeeze through the group of merchants. No one dared to take advantage of her in this place. On the contrary, however, she would think of ways to get her hands on whoever she occasionally took a fancy to. As an old-timer in the three prefectures of Dunzhou, Duanzhou, and Fanzhou who had dabbled for a long time in the trade, she had some involvement with Lei Changming and Cai Yu, although she had yet to board a big ship like the Yan clan.
Cuiqing was so obese that she squeezed a few men out of the way when she sat down. She crossed her legs and reclined against the side of the table. The fair-faced man following behind her kneeled to light her pipe for her. She tilted her head to suck in a few mouthfuls, then blew out puffs of smoke.
“My eldest nephew hasn’t come down yet?” Cuiqing cast a few glances up. “They are taking such a long time. He should’ve been done by now even if he was messing under the sheets, let alone having a meal.”
The merchant sitting by her side said, “What good stuff has the madam brought along this time? Take them out while you can and show them to us. We’d be keen too if there’s one suitable!”
“Bah.” Cuiqing examined the gold and jade bracelets on her right hand. “Are you even worthy of the good stuff? The ones we brought along this time are not salacious goods worth a mere few dozens of silvers. Those are all young virgins in the prime of their youth! In Qudu, you can forget about taking them away without at least a few hundred taels.”
“How is a virgin worth this sum? Whores are all temptresses, so it’s only natural for them to be more expensive the more seasoned they are!”
“You guys are only worthy of fooling around in those lousy brothels.” Cuiqing stroked the fair-faced man’s cheeks with her manicured finger that had been painted with nail polish and cackled. “Back in the old days when Duanzhou was still the money-spinner of Dazhou, all the girls in my stable were unrivaled beauties. Which of the cheap sluts from other brothels has even been able to beat my girls in all the years the establishment has been ranking them?”
Cuiqing generally did not bring up the past given how pathetically she had fled during the defeat of the Zhongbo’s troops, but the atmosphere was great tonight, with flattery freely thrown around left and right. She smoked her pipe, looking very pleased with herself as the others clustered around her.
“Not to boast of my high standards, but if it had been in the past, the goods I brought along today would only be worthy enough to serve tea in my establishment.” The rouge on Cuiqing’s lips was bright red, and her thick make-up concealed much of her wrinkles. From the contours of her face, it was visibly apparent that this one had also been a great beauty several decades back.
“Come on, give us names!”
With a contemptuous smile, Cuiqing said, “The top three in the ranks were all girls from my establishment, and each one of them married well. Today, prostitutes and performers are inseparable from one another,2 but back then, they were as different as the waters of the Jing and Wei Rivers.3 All of you have to spend gold just to catch a glimpse of those who sell their arts, and they can simply refuse to see you when they were in business. They were even more precious than the young missies from rich, prominent families. My eldest nephew’s mother was also a girl of mine, the famous Xiaoyinlei4 of the Chashi riverside who married into the Zhu clan in Duanzhou.”
As Cuiqing spoke, she pinched the man’s face and blew smoke into his face.
“These were all small potatoes. The one I doted on the most was the number one in the establishment. Ever heard of ‘pure as white jade, as if made of porcelain’? Back then, just putting up her name alone would have the whole city of Duanzhou turning up in full force. Even the emperor himself who was faraway in Qudu wanted a glimpse of her ravishing appearance!”
The surrounding merchants clapped their hands and said in delight. “That’s Bai Cha!”
Under the spiraling wisps of smoke, an entranced Cuiqing put up her hand, looking as if she was still reveling in her past as she snorted and murmured, “Bai Cha huh… do you people really think ‘pure as white jade’ is a fabrication? She was what it truly meant to be like jade and porcelain. If all of you were to see her, I’m sure all of you would no doubt kneel down to be her footrest if she so much as furrowed her brows. No one could bear to let her get sullied by the dust on the ground…”
The hall reeked of smoke so thick that several courtesans who were sitting with them coughed. But girls like them who earn a living by prostituting themselves did not dare to cover their noses and mouths for fear that the patrons beside them thought that they were being disdained, so every one of them held it in until their powered cheeks flushed red as they remained squeezed in the middle, all drenched in sweat. Cuiqing got someone to set up the cards with the intention to play a couple of games that were all the rage in Qudu. The handsome man she brought along remained kneeling by the side to massage her legs.
Not a few moments later, one of the courtesans simply could not stand it anymore and knitted her brows as she covered her mouth with a handkerchief and let out a light cough. The smell seemed off to her, so she took a couple more sniffs, then jerked to her feet with a cry of surprise and exclaimed, “Fire!”
The merchants and courtesans in the hall instantly panicked. Everyone watched as billows of smoke rose. Those few attendants who had been serving them had long died. Cries of alarm echoed from all directions as everyone swept up the silvers in a fluster and tucked the money into their bosoms without even knowing if the money was even rightfully theirs. The cards had fallen and scattered all over the ground. Cuiqing, being too obese, tottered on her feet from being jostled against. Even the hairpiece by her temple had fallen out.
“Open the door!” Those who had made it to the door first pounded on it, shouting, “Why is the door locked?!”
Tables and chairs tipped over. Some people even attempted to climb out of the windows, but the windows were sealed too.
Lei Jingzhe abruptly popped his head out and looked down.
When Cuiqing saw him, she quickly waved a handkerchief at him and shouted, “My dear nephew! Hurry up and think of a way to open the door. The back hall is on fire!”
Fei Sheng’s hand was already on the hilt of his blade. All it took was for Shen Zechuan to give the command, and the Imperial Bodyguards would immediately swarm the building. But Shen Zechuan continued to drink his tea without saying a word.
Fei Sheng could not help but call out, “Master—”
As Fei Sheng spoke, a hand suddenly grabbed onto the railing in front of Lei Jingzhe, and from there, a man heaved himself up and leaped over. Lei Jingzhe’s countenance instantly changed. He moved backward to dodge the other party’s incoming scimitar and ended up knocking the screen over with a loud crash, exposing the table and chairs in the middle. To their surprise, there was only Lei Jingzhe himself.
Fei Sheng blurted out in shock, “He didn’t invite anyone at all; this was a bait meant to lure a snake out of its hole!”5
Shen Zechuan felt for his folding fan, but belatedly remembered that he had broken it. He drained the tea and watched the men that Lei Jingzhe had left downstairs rush up the stairs. Oddly enough, other than the area Lei Jingzhe was in, the rest of the place was very quiet.
Fei Sheng, with his sharp eyes, suddenly stuck his head out and stared fixedly at the fight across them. He watched them carefully without missing a single of their moves and exclaimed in bewilderment, “Master, this man is also a ‘scorpion’!”
The man who came to assassinate Lei Jingzhe had, in the thick of the action, inadvertently exposed the side of his neck, where a tattoo of an impressive scorpion identical to Jida’s was inked!
Special thanks to Tea for proofreading! <3
- 遮阳帽 zheyang hat; a ‘sunshade’ hat typically worn by the literati or scholar-official.
- 买艺 performer-courtesans who sell “arts” like music, dancing, and literary skills in painting and poems, etc as opposed to those who simply sold their bodies. Sometimes they did both, but there were also those who didn’t sell their bodies and only entertained patrons with their crafts.
泾渭分明 as different as the waters of the Jing River (clear) and the Wei River (muddy), i.e., distinctly poles apart from one another
- Literally, Little Silver Bud
- i.e. To lure someone into the open or into taking action openly.