Translated with: Jia<3
Yan Heru corrected himself at the last minute and finished up his words, “—pretty ruyi scepters!”1
“How polite of you to have prepared a gift.” It was then Shen Zechuan set down his brush. “Show Young Master Yan to a seat.”
Qiao Tianya released his grip, and Fei Sheng pushed Yan Heru in while saying, “Quick, quick, quick. Serve tea to Young Master Yan!”
Yan Heru suffered an enormous loss this time. He had carefully selected many a number of people from Cuiqing, all of them exceedingly good-looking young boys and girls. He originally meant to get on Yao Wenyu’s good side by letting Yao Wenyu take his pick first so that it would be a lot smoother when he dealt with Shen Zechuan later, but he did not even get to see Yao Wenyu at all. On entering this courtyard, he thought of giving them to Shen Zechuan. After all, which man did not love beauties? It was not like Xiao the Second was some ravishing beauty that could put flowers to shame.
Yan Heru stroked the back of his head and marked Qiao Tianya down in his book of grudges, then held up the hems of his robe to take his seat. He still wore an amiable expression, but his smile was restrained as he said with some melancholy, “The Prince of Libei was a hero of all times. Who doesn’t know of his exemplary military achievements? I was simply worried that the Prefectural Lord and Marquis would be overwhelmed with grief. If your health were to suffer, you would be doing a disservice to the late prince who was ever the compassionate man. See, that’s why I rushed over playing the jerk, all just to amuse a smile out of the Prefectural Lord! My deepest condolences, Your Lordship.”
Yan Heru spoke in officialese with a hint of Hezhou accent. He could not change his habit of adding words like “see”, “yes?” or “no?”, and the likes, which made him sound like a spoiled child using them. However, it was indeed quite impressive to be seeing him say words of comfort in such a well-mannered way now.
Shen Zechuan thanked him for this kindness. After all, the expenses in the entire territory this year were massive, and Yan Heru was inextricably involved in every single account. While Yan Heru was speaking, Shen Zechuan took the medicine from Fei Sheng and drank a few mouthfuls. With a gentle expression, he said, “When I was in Libei, I heard you supplied Bianbo Camp with tens of thousands of taels for the repairs of the bridle paths.”
“Those were just chump changes,” Yan Heru said. “Nothing of significance that the Prefectural Lord should keep in mind. Besides, the battle lines are now unified, yes? Libei and Qidong are both fighting against the Biansha baldies. I’m but a mere merchant who can’t be of help in any other way. This is just a small gesture of my goodwill.”
Fei Sheng scoffed to himself in secret, marveling at how this lad was not much worse than himself when pretending to be a decent human being. Look at how he was going on about the unification of battle lines now, yet he did not show the slightest twinge of guilt earlier in Dunzhou when he led the merchants to do business with Biansha.
Shen Zechuan finished his medicine and spoke after a moment’s pause, “What’s the nature of your business in coming to see me today?”
“That’s exactly it, to see Your Lordship.” Once again, Yan Heru flashed a smile. “Your Lordship is now like my own kin elder brother. I’ll miss you like crazy if I don’t see you for one day.” Acting without thinking, he straightened up in his seat and said, “Why don’t you take me as your younger brother? I’ll kowtow twice to you.”
Yan Heru was indeed shameless. He addressed Cai Yu as “pa”, Lei Changming as “big bro”, and even Lei Jingzhe as “eldest nephew” the last time he came across him. Now that the tides had turned in Shen Zechuan’s favor, putting him in control of the entire situation, he wanted to pass himself off as Shen Zechuan’s younger brother. Was it a big deal to remain in a lowly, subservient position? It was nothing compared to money — this lad saw it more clearly than anyone else.
“Sure,” Seeing Yan Heru getting all delighted, Shen Zechuan continued, “Kowtow twice to Shen Wei first, and we can be considered to hail from the same clan.”
Yan Heru almost spat out loud in disdain. He was not a fool. Being associated with Shen Wei in any way would ruin his reputation, and he would be cursed by all in both the east and west. He beat a retreat and said with waning interest, “Then forget it. We have rules at home, so kowtowing to Shen Wei is definitely a no-no.” He said to Shen Zechuan, “Your Lordship. Your Lordship~”
“Hm?” Shen Zechuan said.
Yan Heru perked up and said, “Well… I have something else to discuss with you. Hasn’t Qidong already come to an agreement with our Cizhou? There will definitely be no problem with the Commander-in-chief’s military provisions this year. I’ll make up for it. All of it.”
In no hurry to respond, Shen Zechuan drank the tea to rinse his mouth.
Sure enough, Yan Heru continued, “Qudu is afraid of you now. You have powerful military forces all around you. If you were really to come to blows with Qudu, how would the Eight Great Training Divisions be able to hold their own against you? But lowering their heads like this isn’t the way forward either, so I’m thinking, Qudu will cut off our business to Juexi from this year onwards. At least, they won’t leave the Xi clan’s copper mines and fleet of ships in your hands.”snap
The fleet of ships at the Port of Yongyi concerned the business of Libei’s mutual trade market. Unrefined tea was worth nothing in Juexi, and it was only through export with this fleet of ships that profits could be made. Yan Heru did not feel bad about the seizure of the Xi clan’s properties. In any case, those were not his shops. The Yan clan could no longer trade in grains in Zhongbo now, and Yan Heru had to find a substitute to fill in this void. He was eyeing the port.
“What do you have in mind?” Shen Zechuan set down the lid of the teacup. “Give it to me straight.”
“I think we should,” Yan Heru plopped down on the table, “forgo the Port of Yongyi.”
While tapping on the tea lid, Shen Zechuan raised his eyes to look at Yan Heru and saw the ambition in the latter’s eyes. Shen Zechuan did not reply immediately. He remained in his seat patiently, and in no time, he figured out Yan Heru’s plan.
Yan Heru blinked. “We can… build a new one.”
The Yan clan of Hezhou occupied the waterways in the south of Dazhou. This was the key reason its businesses could spread all over from east to west. But after their goods arrived at Juexi, they had to be handed over to the Xi clan’s fleet of ships at the Port of Yongyi for trading. That was why the largest share of profits from this route did not go into Yan Heru’s pocket, but Xi Hongxuan’s—which was now also Shen Zechuan’s pockets. Yan Heru had been feigning civility with Shen Zechuan all this while in all kinds of brazen attempts to cooperate with Shen Zechuan because he saw the trade route in the whole territory shrinking. He had to keep up with Shen Zechuan’s speed. To Yan Heru, Juexi’s intent to seize and seal off the copper mines and the Port of Yongyi this year was an opportunity to capitalize on the timeliness of it all and get a step ahead.
A few years ago, it was tough going for Yan Heru to venture up north. Libei would not collaborate with him, so he simply established a small trade market in Dunzhou and made use of the pawnshop to launder money for officials around the world. It was the same now; he was still just as gutsy. Giving up the Port of Yongyi meant that the Xi clan could no longer hold back the Yan clan in the west. Yan Heru wanted to hold sway over the internal and external waterways and put himself on equal footing with Shen Zechuan in this turbulent time.
Shen Zechuan stroked the edge of the tea lid with his fingertips. “How are you going to get around Jiang Qingshan?”
“You are holding a handle against Juexi in your hands.” Yan Heru grinned, revealing his canine tooth. “In the past few years, the merchants have gone to Dunzhou to launder money on behalf of the local officials, and there are plenty of officials from Juexi in that name list. If the account books in the pawnshop were to fall into Jiang Qingshan’s hands, they would have hell to pay even if they don’t die. I’ve dropped countless amounts of bribe money in Juexi in order to gain access to the market there, and now it’s time for them to repay the debt.”
There were hundreds of officials and lesser functionaries in just one region alone. Even if the prefectural prefect himself was upright and impartial, there was no way he could ensure that all his subordinates under him were uncorrupt. The administration of a prefecture and a city were extremely complex, and there were only so many Investigating Censors Circuit in the various areas. There were simply too many unseen blind spots from top to bottom falling through the cracks, and all of these were openings Yan Heru exploited. Yan Heru was able to do business on such a large scale next to the Xi clan in Juexi because these people were his subjects who had rendered meritorious service by protecting him, and now the same people were all stepping stones who would pave the way ahead for him.
Shen Zechuan was going to have to re-evaluate Yan Heru anew now.
Yan Heru had always appeared quite the shameless one from the time he was in Dunzhou. Even when he had been given the cold shoulder, he could continue on with a broad smile, making others forget he was the helmsman of the Yan clan of Hezhou who had profited off others’ misfortune in Zhongbo just a few years ago. He had also been quite decisive when he abandoned Lei Jingzhe, and was even willing to encircle and kill Lei Jingzhe in Dunzhou to win Shen Zechuan over.
No matter how sweetly Yan Heru addressed said person, he would not waver in the slightest when it came to taking their lives. He was truly a money-grubber. Just like how he would never go out without a golden carriage, he would not even show his face if the person sitting across from him did not have enough bargaining chips of interest.
“Liuzhou, which lies along the coast, is a land with auspicious fengshui.2 Its location is remote, and it lies quite a distance away from the Port of Yongyi. What’s more, it’s a crescent-shaped bay, so the fleet of ships will not lie exposed on the outside. As long as we seal the mouth of Liuzhou’s Prefectural Prefect, You Tan, we’ll be able to continue doing business.” Yan Heru rapped that golden abacus of his. “Make good use of that list of names, and the merchants headed towards Juexi will no longer need to pay tax and duties to Jiang Qingshan. You will have the final say over the tariffs and inland commercial tax… In the future, when you come to reign supreme and take all thirteen cities of Juexi under your command, these corrupt officials will be the first gift I present to you. Kill them when the time comes and wash the land all over in blood, and we’ll see who still dares take bribes on your watch!”
Exploit all resources to the fullest, and get rid of them once they outlive their usefulness!
Yan Heru had not even come of age3 this year, yet he was already well-acquainted with the words ‘ruthless and merciless’. He flicked away noisily on his little abacus with that harmless, innocent face of his, calculating with it not just money, but also lives.
Shen Zechuan had no reason to reject Yan Heru; he indeed needed a new port to avoid Jiang Qingshan. He was not even willing to concede over the copper mines. The various expenses were increasing this year because of the war. By the time he took back the remaining three prefectures, the costs would no doubt skyrocket again.
“You are a far-sighted one,” Shen Zechuan sighed with emotion. “I cannot compare to you when it comes to doing business.”
After Yan Heru took his leave, Qiao Tianya set his hand on the chair’s handle and looked on as the door hanging screen rose and fell. “This lad should be killed.”
“He is resourceful and extremely good at getting on a person’s good side,” Shen Zechuan glanced at that gently swaying hanging screen too. “In time, he will become trouble.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Yan Heru walked out of the residence and stepped on someone’s back to get onto the horse carriage. As the carriage began to sway, he took off the golden abacus around his neck and tossed it onto a satin cushion. Rubbing the back of his neck, he asked, “have you found Hairigu?”
Yan Miao lifted the curtain of the carriage and entered to kneel at the side, “Everyone in the Shen residence keeps their mouth tight, and the Imperial Bodyguards are everywhere; I can’t find him at all.”
Yan Heru was a little displeased. He ticked off the beads on his abacus and threw a tantrum. “What Imperial Bodyguards? They’re just a bunch of beggars who hung up their hats to become lackeys in Cizhou after leaving Qudu! Because of the Port of Liuzhou matter today, I’ve caused Shen Zechuan to have misgivings about me. Who knows? He’s probably plotting my death right now.”
Yan Miao happened to be the messenger for the pawnshop in Dunzhou; in fact, he was also the shopkeeper who handled the incoming and outgoing accounts for the pawnshop in Dunzhou. He might have been the son of a servant4 serving in the Yan clan, but the fact that Yan Heru had him stationed in Dunzhou a few years ago was evidence of Yan Heru’s trust in him.
Yan Miao lifted his head slightly to speak up by the dim light. “From what I can see of Shen Zechuan’s actions in Cizhou, he doesn’t seem to be as vindictive as the rumors have it. The war is of utmost urgency now, and both the northern and southern battlefronts are borrowing on his strength. Little Young Master, you mustn’t lose your head and ruin your relationship with him.”
“He had me take responsibility for providing for the two prefectures’ granaries at the start of spring.” Yan Heru slid the abacus bead back and forth. “That’s essentially serving me with a warning, no? Do you think he isn’t one to seek revenge over a small matter? I think it’s just the opposite.”
“Kong Chengfeng rejected him thrice, yet he didn’t fly into a rage and continued to treat Kong Ling with respect.” Yan Miao said, “We’ve supplied the grains for the two prefectures, along with the military provisions for Qidong this year. We will also be providing the funds and labor for the construction of the new port in the west. He ought to have taken notice of Little Young Master’s sincerity.”
Yan Heru suddenly swept away the abacus on his knees. He endured it for a moment before opening his mouth. Eventually, he said, “A-Miao, you don’t understand. Shen Zechuan treats Kong Ling well because Kong Ling is still willing to do his best for Cizhou despite being unwilling to work under Shen Zechuan in an official capacity. Kong Ling was the one who negotiated the business in Huaizhou before autumn, and it was also Kong Ling who played the peacemaker when there was animosity between Shen Zechuan and Zhou Gui’s advisors before the new year. How else do you think a blockhead like Zhou Gui can still get to be an official in Cizhou? Shen Zechuan is making the best of his resources; he knows to put these two men together as a team. Not only will they not turn against him, but they will also put up an unassailable defense of Cizhou on his behalf. As for me, if he genuinely and sincerely wants to have a long-lasting partnership with me, how could he tolerate the lapdogs by his side barking at me time and time again?”
Yan Heru was about to say something else when Yan Miao suddenly straightened up and warned in a low voice. “Little Young Master!”
Yan Heru promptly paused. After a momentary silence, he heard the sounds of horse hooves outside of his carriage. He picked up the abacus and crawled over on his knees to the side of the carriage drapes. In a soft whisper, he asked, “Who’s that?”
Yan Miao answered, “The Libei Armored Cavalry.”
Yan Heru felt a sudden pang of fear. He clutched his abacus tightly, wanting to take a peek while the carriage swayed, but then, the carriage came to an abrupt stop.
Lang Tao Xue Jin slowed down and stopped by the side of the horse carriage. Against the entire sky of snow bearing down on him from above, Xiao Chiye cracked his whip in the air, and Chen Yang and the Libei Armored Cavalry behind him followed suit and came to a stop too.
Yan Heru patted his cheeks with both hands and pulled the carriage curtains open. “It really is the Second Master! I’ve been thinking of you on the way.”
Xiao Chiye turned his head slightly to sweep a glance at Yan Miao, who was kneeling inside, before looking at Yan Heru, “You’ve been to see the Prefectural Lord?”
Yan Heru gulped. He had heard that Xiao Chiye had run in the snow for half a night in order to retrieve the Prince of Libei, and that he had not only escaped freezing to death but even broke the necks of more than a dozen men. Yan Heru did not know if it was because of the rumors, but he felt Xiao the Second’s sense of presence swell suddenly. That imposing and intimidating aura assailing him was so overwhelming that he involuntarily broke out into a sweat all over.
“I did, yes.” Yan Heru looked as though he was feeling very warm as he wiped the sweat on his forehead. “I brought some gems and jade for you. If you find them acceptable when you see them on your return, let me know. There are plenty of them in Hezhou.”
Xiao Chiye had just come over from Bianbo Camp, and he had no wish to engage in idle chatter with Yan Heru, so he merely nodded on hearing him and left with his men. The Libei Armored Cavalry passed by them like the wind, and it was only then that Yan Heru dared to rub his arms and shudder a few times.
As if remembering something, Yan Miao said to Yan Heru, “this Second Master has been looking for the Venerable Yideng.”
“Is that so?” Yan Heru tilted his head to look at the fine spray of snow kicked up by the Libei Armored Cavalry. His gaze gradually sharpened, and he said with a smile, “… But having Shen Zechuan sick is far more reassuring to me than letting him recover.”
- 如意 ruyi, an ancient auspicious symbol that served as a ceremonial scepter or a symbol of power, often given as gifts because of the good wishes they implied.
- Fengshui, or the art of geomancy, is the traditional Chinese practice of selecting auspicious sites for buildings and tombs, believed to have a vital influence on the fortune of a family.
- 及冠 a man’s 20th birthday, i.e., coming of age at 20 for a male.
- 家生子 Children of domestic servants or slaves. These children were also born in the household and also served as servants and slaves in the same household.