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It was unknown what the Shadow had promised Fan Xian for him to accept the compensation for the "accident" and to happily leave Shazhou the next day. There was a downpour of chilly winter rain; it was desolate and dreary like a spell had been cast. Fan Xian and his group, secretly entering Jiangnan, vanished into the low hills and forests outside of Shazhou.
In the depths of the night, a few officials wearing full body rain jackets boarded the big ship from Jingdou at the Jiangnan sailor's pier. They took careful precautions. Even the sailor responsible for welcoming them didn't clearly see their true appearances.
At that moment, the person who was in charge of matters on the ship, Su Wenmao, looked at his colleagues boarding the ship in the rain and asked, "You are all here. What about the boss? The Qinian Unit left some people at least, right?"
An officer said with a pained expression, "The boss said the setup should be as realistic as possible and left the Qinian Unit on the ship. We were sent back with our faces hidden. This way the sailor's people will believe he is on the ship. Once this message is released, it will at least fool a few people."
Su Wenmao was stunned and speechless. "He's starting to enjoy this. Since he's already revealed himself in Shazhou, hiding is a…" He forcefully swallowed the oath back down his throat. He coughed a few times. "That is fine too. Tomorrow, we set sail and enter Jiangnan Road."
"March 3rd," The member of the Qinian Unit said seriously. "The boat is to arrive in Suzhou on March 3rd. The boss gave this date."
Su Wenmao panicked. "What ship can go that slowly?" He rose and swung his hand, and angrily said, "No matter how we travel on the river, I cannot stay any longer in Sha Lake. We must leave port tomorrow."
The official furrowed his brows. "Sir, what's wrong?"
Su Wenmao's expression was worried. "After we entered the Jiangnan sailors' camp, the commissioner and Third Prince still refused to leave the boat. Of the various sailors' leaders, who do you think won't have misgivings in their heart? These past two days, there has been an endless stream of garrisons and commanders who have found excuses to come aboard every day. Everyone knows they are looking for an opportunity to please the two n.o.blemen. If the boss isn't on the ship, how could we dare to let them on?"
The more he spoke the angrier he became. He had built up quite a temper from obstructing everyone coming aboard these past two days. "I can hold back this level of officials, but I heard that the sailors' admiral is arriving tomorrow afternoon. He is a first level super official. Even if the commissioner were here, he would have to obediently salute. Even the Third Prince wouldn't be able to do much. How I can obstruct him?"
The official he was talking to was also startled. The status of the admiral could not be compared to those small fry officials. Once that person arrived, this lie would be revealed. The admiral couldn't do anything more to Commissioner Fan and the Third Prince other than submit a secret memorial to the Emperor to express his anger at being tricked. People like him had to be the punching bag."
"Leave early tomorrow morning!"
The Qinian Unit left to guard the ship came to a strong consensus and began to instruct the sailor officials below to prepare to leave. At the same time, they informed the Tiger Guards and three Sixth Bureau swordsmen on the deck.
"The boss said he will send someone else to go to that a.s.sembly in Hangzhou. You won't need to go." The official watched Su Wenmao, then he asked, "I think that the sailors have sent many gifts."
Su Wenmao said, "They're all in the back. Those who control troops are truly rich. They live up to being the capable people that protect the lives and ships of the water bandits."
That official suddenly had a flash of inspiration. "Weren't you worried earlier about how to drag out the time until March 3rd? I have a plan, why don't we…"
He leaned next to Su Wenmao's ear and said something.
Su Wenmao was overjoyed. "Good idea! Commissioner doesn't mind small things like this. We are not allowed to accept silver from the officials, but there is nothing wrong in helping him collect silver." He thought of something and entreated. "Ah right, keep a close eye on the chest of silver in the back room. The commissioner has sent down a death order. No one is to get close to that chest."
That official made a sound of acknowledgement but his thoughts differed. Although the chest contains tens of thousands of silver, the commissioner's family is so rich. Is it necessary to keep an eye on it like a family heirloom?
Early the next morning, right after the fog on Sha Lake had disappeared, the almost new ship from Jingdou slowly left the dock under the "reluctant" gazes of the Jiangnan sailors through the conduit and out of Sha Lake. It went slowly and joyfully into the territory of the Yangtze River.
Watching the big ship disappear into the mouth of the lake, the three ships tasked with their protection also followed along. On the sh.o.r.e, the Jiangnan sailors and generals released a breath. Finally they had sent away the two plague G.o.ds they didn't dare come near or touch. But once they thought of all the gifts they had given these days that seemed to have completely gone to waste, they also felt a bit pained.
As for the matter of the commissioner and the prince's ship having had a run in with thieves in the sailors' garrison area—of course there would have to be a scapegoat. The glances the generals sent toward garrison Shen were pitying, but no one at the moment was taking a lead on this matter. Everything had to wait until the admiral returned to camp later that afternoon to decide.
Su Wenmao had guessed wrong. The generals of the Jiangnan sailors had to wait until the second day for the admiral to arrive.
That first ranking military figure in Jiangnan, Admiral Shi was not anxious at all to arrive. He was only anxious to arrive not too quickly.
Admiral Shi was a first-level official and disciple and friend of the old Qin family in Jingdou. He was not afraid of Fan Xian. He knew that if he rushed back to meet with Fan Xian and ran into him and the Third Prince's lie, he would have to lower his status to speak. To be sycophantic to a child whose beard hadn't even grown out, to a bird who had yet to grow feathers, where would his dignity and face go?
Thus on one hand, Old Shi sent someone ahead with a message saying he was conducting business elsewhere and was speeding back with all haste to greet the Third Prince. On the other hand, he held his favorite prost.i.tute and sat in his carriage, swaying back and forth on his way toward the sailors, lamenting that the path was too short.
In the end, Admiral Shi succeeded in his mistiming. By the time he arrived, the ship had departed.
Speaking of the other side, Su Wenmao sailed the ship downstream in high spirits. Following Fan Xian's orders, he accepted the official's suggestion and stopped every time he came across a province or dock. He didn't care whether the pier was run down or only a small town of a few thousand on the river side, he simply went and stopped, went and stopped. A dock a day, no rush at all.
The movements of the ship were strange. It stirred up all manner of disturbances in the officialdoms of Jiangnan Road.
As everyone knew, Commissioner Fan and the Third Prince might be on the ship from Jingdou. Since it was so, whenever this ship docked, the local officials would have to go forth and offer their greetings, as well as prepare an excellent banquet; they also could not go empty handed. At such a juncture, who dared to be careless?
The county upstream gifted jade, and the downstream county could not compare, but they would have to at least give a bag of cat's eyes, right? Our county is poor? There has to be a few mountain ginsengs to dig up, right? Our county has no money? At least a few strands of the famous pine and cypress smoked golden cured meat! What if the two n.o.bility were tired of eating exotic delicacies and likes the local flavor of our food?
What? The city has no exports? Quick, send workers to pull his boat.
In over a month, the officials along the river never saw the mighty royalty, but they had spared no effort in their attempts to please and suck up.
The big ship went down south and stopped each time it came across a county, even the smallest places were not neglected. While the Jiangnan officials were ecstatic at this rare opportunity to present gifts, they also couldn't help secretly criticizing, Commissioner Fan and the Third Prince…their appet.i.tes are too big! They didn't even let off those poor towns that didn't produce anything!
"You don't understand, right? Even tiny mosquitoes are meat," an advisor of a manor in Suzhou said. "Seems like this Sir Fan has inherited Minister Shang's style. His bookkeeping is very detailed."
Another advisor shook his head and sighed. "Reputation! Reputation! These young n.o.bility today disdain to even make an effort of face!" Following this he suddenly said disdainfully, "Besides, that Sir Fan junior is not even Sir Fan senior's…"
"Shut up! You dare to comment on this matter! No need to wait for the Overwatch Council to cut you up. I will strangle you!"
The respectful official sitting in the middle scolded loudly and angrily. After he calmed his temper, he lifted his tea and drank before saying, "Do not discuss others behind their backs. As long as they are willing to accept silver, it is fine. Jiangnan lacks everything except silver."
The official closed his eyes and muttered to himself for a little while, then said with a trace of concern, "I'm just afraid this is a smoke screen the commissioner has released, but who knows? Besides, who knows if he is still on that ship? I heard the man from the South say that Sir Fan's carriage was still heading toward Danzhou, and he hasn't neglected to collect silver either."
On the official roads in the middle of the plains, the group with the most people, currently under the leadership of the fake Fan Xian, were taking servants, guards, and shopkeepers of the Qingyu Hall toward Danzhou.
On the Yangtze River, Su Wenmao sailed the ship and happily gilded his trip. He didn't know that in future days he would be cursed and berated harshly by Fan Xian.
Various pieces of information became mixed and confused all the Jiangnan officials. They didn't know where Commissioner Fan was. Even if some of the cleverer people guessed that Fan Xian might have taken an alternative route, they were unable to find any useful information. The people of the Second Bureau of the Overwatch Council were hiding the traces of Fan Xian and his group's true movements.
As for the February weather, spring had yet to arrive and winter had yet to leave. The cold arrogantly took over the fields on the two sides of the Yangtze River and refused the arrival of even a sliver of spring. But Jiangnan was close to the ocean and always slightly warmer than other areas, so there was no more snow these days. However, the mud tracks that had been torn up on the official roads were completely hardened by months of winter winds. This caused unspeakable suffering for those being jolted up and down in the carriages.
Fan Xian couldn't bear this kind of suffering. He lifted the curtain and called for a stop. He jumped off the carriage and went on horseback instead. Only then did he feel slightly more comfortable. He stretched and breathed in the chilly breeze that blew over his face. Watching the gutters on either side of the official road his eyes narrowed unconsciously. He saw the channels responsible for irrigation had long been empty of water and were completely dry. If it was because the water dried out in the winter, that would be understandable, but the problem was that there were weeds taller than a person growing in the channels. The weeds slowly followed the channels and grew forward. It looked utterly barren and did not seem to have an end.
He was a bit confused. He thought it would only look like this if it had been dry for many years. He stepped down with both feet and stood up to look into the distance. He couldn't help but suck in a cold breath. He saw that the channels around the official roads were mostly all like this. The tall gra.s.s in the channels had frozen to death long ago, but it remained standing upright, incredibly stubborn, and stabbed toward the sky. How could this kind of channel irrigate? What happened when it was spring planting season?
Along the way returning from Northern Qi, Fan Xian saw that the Qing Kingdom's water irrigation system was fairly complete. How could Jiangnan, one of the wealthiest provinces, not have the money to repair their channels? Were these fields not used for planting?
The official from the Fourth Bureau of the Overwatch Council, who had come from Jingdou, saw the displeasure on the commissioner's face. He kicked his horse forward to explain. "It is only here that is a bit barren. Suzhou and Hangzhou are not like this for sure."
Fan Xian furrowed his brows. "Of course Jiangnan does not lack grain. Most importantly, this land is not very fertile, and the labor has been locked by the palace treasury for too long." He laughed helplessly and didn't say anything further.
Everyone followed silently along the weed-infested channels. They had left Shazhou for some days now and traveled slowly all the way, but they were almost in Hangzhou. Everyone was somewhat tired. Fan Xian didn't have the mood to play the game of inspecting and visiting the people in disguise.
"The carriage at the back: keep up!"
The official of the Fourth Bureau's name was Mai Wu. Ever since Su Wenmao had stayed on the ship, the logistics and organization of this group had been handed to him.
He saw the commissioner was not in a good mood, so he couldn't say anything. He could only order the people behind to follow more closely. There were many aces in these una.s.suming carriages. The problem was that the swordsmen of the Sixth Bureau and Tiger Guards were not people to pa.s.s one's days with. They were veterans at soloing a.s.sa.s.sinations. If you asked them to burrow into the long gra.s.s of the channels and not eat or drink until they reached Hangzhou, it would not be a problem. However, if you asked them to partic.i.p.ate in low-cost travel, they became lifeless.
Along the way they had bought five little girls. They stood with woven weed signs in a place 70 li out of Shazhou City at the foot of a mountain, where there were very little people to begin with. This made the group seem to move even slower and very much resembled a rich family on an excursion.
This encounter also shocked Fan Xian. Since the Qing Kingdom was in a golden age, he never thought that in Jiangnan there were people who sold their own sons and daughters because they were starving to death. Although these poor people were wanderers from north of the river, Fan Xian was still somewhat depressed.
Their group was secretly entering Hangzhou. It was not convenient to take these people, besides, Fan Xian also was a cold-natured person. In the end, the Third Prince couldn't stand it and spoke up. Sisi happily took out a dozen liang of silver and bought five girls. The parents of the girls were endlessly thankful and left with tears streaming down their face. Fan Xian more or less implicitly accepted this reality.
This group of people was too conspicuous. There was an elegant young master, a poor scholar, an arrogant child, a generous girl of a rich family, and a dozen powerful guards. Those who wanted to would be able to guess Fan Xian's ident.i.ty. Since they had a few extra little girls, it was a small disguise. Fan Xian persuaded himself thus.
Another few days pa.s.sed. The official road was as calm as a mirror, and the winter trees stood especially straight on the sides of the roads. A scene of wealth suddenly appeared before them. It was only upon seeing the lively roads, colorful clothing of people walking by, and green city wall faintly visible in the distance that the group realized this was Hangzhou.
Fan Xian sat on the horse and waved his whip. In high spirits he said, "Enter the city. We are going to find Aunt Song!"