Translated with: Jia<3
Worried about their respective businesses, the merchants were all anxious to meet with Shen Zechuan.
The hall was saturated with a cacophony of noises, with a blend of all sorts of accents engaged in conversations where everyone was talking without actually communicating and comprehending the other, much like a chicken trying to talk to a duck. Many people could not even speak bureaucratic jargon fluently without the Yan clan acting as the mediator. Yan Heru set up this “small mutual market” in Dunzhou, and they had prior dealings in trades like tea, salt, copper, and steel with the bandits as well as the various tribes of Biansha. Now that Yan Heru was in custody, they were afraid that Shen Zechuan would pursue the matter. Hence, they made plans to call on Shen Zechuan together, hoping to make enough of a commotion that the law would not be enforced given the large number of violators.1
Chen Yang notified the maidservants to prepare tea. Not only was the hall packed with seated people, the area at the foot of the veranda was also fully crammed with standing merchants who had come after getting wind of the news. These people, having arrived from all over the world, crowded boisterously together, making such a ruckus that the courtyard resembled a bustling downtown area.
It was here Shen Zechuan sat, answering, “that makes sense” regardless of what he heard. The din in the hall persisted until it was almost night, and still, they did not make any progress. Shen Zechuan had seemingly replied to every question, but he did not really answer any of them. He left them hanging until they were all starving and choked up with pent-up frustrations.
Xiao Chiye headed over next door to finish up his discussion of military affairs with Tantai Hu. He stepped out to see the dark sky and the lamps lit in the hall. The merchants outside were sitting and reclining in various poses on the mats on the ground, while Shen Zechuan was still inside playing the time game with the merchants.
Fei Sheng lifted the curtains and stepped out. He moved over to Xiao Chiye and said in a soft voice, “Master asks if you are done with discussion of military affairs. If so, we can serve up the meal.”
Xiao Chiye asked, “Have these people already been dismissed?”
Fei Sheng answered, “Master says not to dismiss them. Let them remain here. He even invited them to stay here for the night.”
So Xiao Chiye nodded and said, “Then, let’s have dinner in the courtyard next door.”
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The merchants had all made up their minds to get a definitive answer from Shen Zechuan. At the very least, they had to see Yan Heru. Their goods were all stored at a side courtyard belonging to the Yan clan. What was to become of these goods now that the Biansha Cavalry and the bandits had retreated? Yan Heru had given them his guarantee, so the question of whether they ought to stay or leave all had to be re-discussed.
But Shen Zechuan was too good at passing the buck and did not give them anything precise. Fearing the soldiers whose presence was everywhere in Dunzhou, the merchants did not dare to have a falling out with Shen Zechuan. All they could do was suppress their anger and continue to sit here with the sole intention of dragging it on and wearing Shen Zechuan down.
Shen Zechuan reckoned it was about time once he was done reading all the important affairs of Dunzhou. On seeing Fei Sheng return, he rose and said to the merchants with a smile, “Gentlemen, you have been sitting here all day. We can discuss the matters again later. I’ve gotten my men to prepare a banquet. Let’s talk about it in detail during the feast later.”
Without giving any explanation, he bent under the curtains Fei Sheng had lifted and left.
The merchants sitting inside waited for a long time, but Shen Zechuan did not return, and the maidservants did not enter to serve the dishes either. They lifted the curtains and stepped out for a look to find only familiar faces left in the courtyard. Not even a guard was in sight.
The man who had smoked a few pipes grew anxious and slapped his thigh. “He couldn’t have run away, could he?”
Instantly alarmed, the merchants crowded together like a flock of sparrows and charged over to the entrance of the courtyard, where they discovered the doors were completely sealed.
Someone said in horror, “Don’t tell me they are planning to silence us? That won’t do! Your Lordship, Your Lordship! We are all decent businessmen with documents endorsed by the local authorities!”
Upon hearing the pounding on the door, Fei Sheng, who was outside, hoisted his blade over his shoulder and said, “What nonsense are you all spouting? His Lordship is inviting all of you gentlemen to have a rest in the courtyard. Weren’t you people unwilling to leave? Then just sleep here!”
The merchants hollered, “We want to see His Lordship!”
Fei Sheng sneered and said, “Haven’t you already seen him today? My master stayed inside with all of you gentlemen for half the day.” As he spoke, he sent someone to move over a chair for him. He sat down facing the door. “We have checked all of your goods, and the copper and steel among them are all strictly prohibited by the government. It’s not going to be that easy to retrieve them.”
“It’s a state of extreme unrest everywhere now!” The man who had been smoking earlier stood on tiptoe to lean over the crack of the door and quibbled, “It’s all too easy to get our hands on a few batches of goods, but we only did the trade this one time. We are all honest people!”
Fei Sheng did not beat around the bush with them. He raised a hand to take the book and said as he flipped the pages, “Know what I’m holding in my hands now? It’s the book of registrations from the Yan clan’s pawnshop, with detailed records of the goods every one of you imports to Dunzhou every month. It is all down in black and white, so it can’t be fake, can it?”
The merchants within whispered to one another, wiping their sweat and flicking their sleeves as they crowded together again. They made such a din that Fei Sheng could not make out what exactly they were saying. Eventually, that man craned his neck and shouted through the door, “Tea has long since ceased to be prohibited. Hey, I’m a tea trader! Open the door. Don’t implicate the innocent!”
“Zhongbo has been in such a state of decline these two years. Who are you selling tea to in Dunzhou? The Yan clan themselves is the largest tea merchant in the south.” As Fei Sheng spoke, he lifted his Xiuchun blade and rapped hard on the door panel with the sheath. “Stop making a ruckus! Hurry up and spit out the truth!”
“What truth do you want us to spit out?” The man stubbornly refused to admit it. “The goods are all recorded clearly in the book. Just match the goods with the records in the book, and it will all be clear.”
Fei Sheng swung the book in his hand and said, “None of you will be able to escape if we send this to Qudu and hand it over to the yamen. Let me tell you this; my master is a benevolent man. He’s giving you the opportunity to make amends. All you need to do is to list down truthfully on paper who you consulted with in Dunzhou and who you converted the silver for, and I’ll immediately open the doors and let all of you out. All past accounts will be written off too.”
Other than tea out of the quartet of tea, salt, copper and steel, the last three were all materials controlled by the imperial court. The Xi clan could set up a copper mine in Juexi because they had special permission, as decreed by the imperial edict. They had to audit the accounts with the Ministry of Revenues and the Ministry of Works on a monthly basis, as well as assign supervisors for the specific purpose of supervision. But this errand was a lucrative one with plenty of potential to harvest ill-gotten gains, and the supervisors – all of whom were picked by the Ministry of Revenue – were often in cahoots with the Xi Clan. They colluded to falsify accounts for submission to the imperial court, which in turn helped the Xi Clan to conceal the copper and steel. All the flow and movement of copper and steel outside the Xi clan could be seen as collusion between the local officials and merchants. These coppers and steels were just like the military provisions that were stolen from within Dazhou in exchange for huge profits.
Yan Heru’s operation of the pawnshops and pleasure houses in Dunzhou was not just meant to provide the various merchants from all over with a place to trade, but also to dispose of stolen goods on behalf of the local officials. It was here he had the goods converted into silver. Liu’er had not given a complete account when he led Shen Zechuan’s squad into Dunzhou; that was, the need for a specific secret signal to enter Dunzhou was not just for the purpose of “playing by the rules”.
Once Fei Sheng was done speaking, an uproar broke out on the other side of the door. All kinds of accents could be heard among the din as the merchants crowded and jostled noisily at the door. Fei Sheng closed the book, lifted the recently brewed tea in his hand, and blew at it as he savored it.
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Before dinnertime, Chen Yang had given the kitchen instruction to prepare fish, and as a result, Shen Zechuan ate an extra half a bowl of rice. The remaining half of the fish ended up in Xiao Chiye’s tummy. As long as the Second Young Master did not have to pick out the fish bones himself, he was more than happy to consume fish to his heart’s content.
After their meal, both men stood under the eaves and listened as the merchants in the courtyard next door cursed and swore. Xiao Chiye rinsed his mouth and said as he wiped it. “Isn’t there still a scorpion? Let’s call him over now. I have a question for him.”
Chen Yang left to summon him.
Xiao Chiye turned towards Shen Zechuan and asked, “You haven’t been calling for Ding Tao to stay by your side these days. Why is that?”
Shen Zechuan replied while looking at Xiao Chiye, “Lei Jingzhe is in Dunzhou. If there is no one keeping watch on Li Xiong, he might run out to look for Lei Jingzhe. Ding Tao is his playmate, so it’s only fitting for the two children to keep each other company.”
Xiao Chiye raised the teacup in his hand to take a sip. He appeared to have believed Shen Zechuan.
When Shen Zechuan tilted his head, he exposed part of his neck, which was decorated with faint traces of Xiao Chiye. Set against those marks, the jade earring appeared even whiter in contrast. Shen Zechuan did not continue the conversation on Ding Tao; instead, he said, “The arm guard was previously damaged. I’ll get another one made when we return to Cizhou this time.”
Thinking about the arm guard reminded Xiao Chiye of Hasen. He looked into the night and said, “It’s still usable after some repairs.”
Xiao Chiye had never mentioned Hasen to Shen Zechuan. That defeat had silenced him quickly, concealing away all those lofty sentiments and ambitions of his. Transporting supplies was truly exhausting, but everyone was exhausted in Libei. Even Lu Yizhi was patching up old coats all day to provide warm winter clothes for the battlegrounds. Xiao Fangxu had kept the blade that was Xiao Chiye back in its sheath, holding him back from putting all of his brilliance and talents on full display, but Xiao Chiye was glad to endure this hardship; he was willing to bide his time and wait for the right opportunity.
“I’ll get two made for you,” Shen Zechuan said seriously, “and engrave my name on them too.”
Xiao Chiye raised his arm and pinched Shen Zechuan’s chin. After a moment’s pause, he said, “Let’s not engrave any names on the arm guard.”
Blades and swords did not discriminate between friend or foe on the battlefield; injuries and deaths in war were inevitable. Xiao Chiye was unwilling to let Shen Zechuan risk his life out there with him, not even with his name. He wanted a good omen—he wanted Shen Zechuan to live to a ripe old age.
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Hairigu was locked up together with Yan Heru. Both of them had already been starving for two days. He was still wounded, and his lips were parched when he was dragged to the veranda under the eaves. He braced himself, barely hanging in there.
Xiao Chiye squatted down and shrouded Hairigu under his shadow. Gu Jin immediately pressed Hairigu’s head down and brushed aside his hair to reveal the scorpion tattoo on the side of his neck.
“Scorpion of Gedale.” Xiao Chiye asked gravely, “What are you doing in Zhongbo?”
Hairigu’s arms were tightly bound. He scuffed the ground, refusing to answer. Gu Jin gripped him by the throat and yanked his head up in Xiao Chiye’s direction, then said coldly. “Answer the question.”
Hairigu breathed heavily as he cast a swift glance at Shen Zechuan, who was standing by the door. But this one look infuriated Xiao Chiye, and Hairigu’s head was almost instantaneously slammed down onto the ground. Sounds of him struggling rang out as he was pressed against the icy cold wooden floorboards.
“I’m not the enemy!” Hairigu could not break free. He felt as if he was being crushed by an iron arm. He did his utmost to look up, but all he could see was Xiao Chiye’s boots. “Help me, Shen—”
Xiao Chiye was expressionless.
Gradually, Hairigu ran out of breath. His cheek scraped against the floor, and while he was on the verge of death, he shouted, “There is still a lot more I have to say!” He gasped hard for air. “Don’t you all want to know about Bai Cha?!”
Xiao Chiye responded. “Before you learn to ‘answer’, we don’t want to know a thing.”
Hairigu felt the strength of the pressure being exerted on his nape. He strained to push his head back against that force. Sweat trickled down his temples as he choked out, “I, Zhongbo, cough, cough! To flee for my life!”
The two fingers on Shen Zechuan’s right hand started to throb with faint pulses of pain. He strode a step closer and stopped next to Hairigu. “Three days ago, you told me that you called me a son of Gedale because Bai Cha split you people up.”
Hairigu swallowed his saliva with difficulty and gasped heavily. “That’s correct. It’s because Bai Cha split us up… that’s why you exist!”
Shen Zechuan frowned slightly.
Xiao Chiye let go abruptly, and Hairigu took in huge gulps of air. Gu Jin lifted him up; he was all covered in grime as he took a moment to take a breather before blurting out, “In the Biansha tongue, Gedale means ‘light’. This was the name Bai Cha gave it. Your mother’s story is a long one, so if you don’t mind, give me a drink of water first. I swear to you that every word I say is the truth.”