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(Traditional Chinese cover scanned by Dairytea)
Due to Gao-bo losing consciousness, we have to figure out on our own who's staying where.
As the saying goes, when the tree falls, the monkeys scatter. From just a glance, it's obvious there once were as many, if not more, servants and maids to order around as in my prince's manor, but now in this abandoned house there remains only the Gao family of six - two of them babies who can't wear proper pants yet.
Gao-bo proves to be a true, loyal servant of the type you find chronicled in the epics. If I were him, I'd take advantage of the huge estate being abandoned. I'd sleep in the east courtyard one night and the west courtyard the next night. Then I'd p.a.w.n all the valuables for money to spend in the name of stimulating the market economy. However, after hearing the butler's son, Ergou, recount his father's acts of loyalty while leading Xiao-Quan, Xiao-Shun and Moyu around organizing our rooms, I'm left shaking my head in disbelief. Ergou tells us how his father protected all the china and collectibles with a knife that he borrowed from Butcher w.a.n.g, how with br.i.m.m.i.n.g tears he keeps the rooms of Su Yanzhi and his brother, the Second Master, spotless every day, how he offers incense to the Second Master three times a day, how he makes sure not to include apples in the offering since the master didn't like apples...
Wiping his eyes, Ergou concludes, “Everybody in the manor left ‘cept for my pa, and my pa said there's not enough hands aroun' here, so he called over me and my wife and my brother, Sanzhuzi. Now n.o.body's home takin' care of the fields, and there won't be no harvest this year. Sanzhuzi lost his engagement with a gal in our town, too.”
Sighing, I fish out a bill and push it into Ergou's hand. The next morning, Gao-bo comes knocking at my door. The moment I open it, he falls to his knees and places the paper at my feet.
“Forgive me, Your Highness. My imbecile son has no sense. My family is of low, pathetic origins and has no right to Your Highness' charity.”
His back is pin straight, and he looks like a warrior riding into battle. Well, what can I say? I didn't sign up to be the antagonist, but that's just how the story goes. Too bad for me.
The antagonists suffer in their own way, too. Gao-bo takes the offence indirectly from the shadows so that Master Su doesn't lose face. For instance, our living quarters. Master Su naturally stays in his old room. The young marquess gets a.s.signed the VIP guest room in the east courtyard. Pei Qixuan gets the library. And I get moved from the guest room that was prepared last minute into the Second Master's old bedroom. Gao-bo says that of all the rooms, only this one is fit for a prince.
That night, when I'm lost trying to find the outhouse, I spot a building glowing with candlelight, so I make my way over. Turns out it's an altar room, and on the table is a single tablet. Gao-bo is kneeling before it, praying.
“...has come back, Second Master. What goes around comes around. The man is in your room. If you harbour any grudge, now is the time to...”
I'm not sure if I should chuckle or be angry, so I just curse silently. I don't want to bother Master Su about this since he must be overwhelmed by memories and feeling rather down since he came back home, so. If I need to endure some discomfort, so be it. After all, I have connections with the Bridge of Hopelessness, and as a righteous person, I don't need to be scared of any ghosts.
I manage to navigate back to the Second Master's bedroom and sleep beautifully until the sun has risen well above the horizon.
After waking up, I go looking for Fu Qingshu in the name of discussing work.
He is eating breakfast: five-seed sticky rice congee, silky swirl buns, and even two fancy side dishes. But being the wasteful son of a b.i.t.c.h that he is, he clears the table after barely coating his teeth. He asks me what the matter is while wiping his lips.
“Since we have been given an imperial order, we should act quickly and begin investigation.” I suggest, “Why don't we head out in common attire and take a turn about the town. We may well find some clues to help us.”
Disinterested, he leaves the dining table and takes a seat across from me.
“The annual tribute isn't like a murder or arson case that one might find in the yamen. We need only visit the Huizhou chancellor for the books and compare them with those delivered to the imperial court. It won't take more than a day.” – implying the ten days that the emperor allotted us in Huizhou are purely a waste, and even implying that I simply want to have fun around town under the guise of the emperor's edict.
But he is not the only mandarin here! I put on a serious face and tell him how wrong I think he is.
“The duty of purchasing annual tribute is outsourced by the local government to local merchants, but the merchants must get it from the producers themselves. The difference between cost and price is large to begin with, since we want to pay for the ground and sell for the sky. If they buy at the raw cost but report the market price, then this alone would account for an incredible discrepancy. So we must go to the market to see for ourselves if we don't want to be fooled by the books.”
“That's true.” Fu Qingshu nods. “You certainly thought about it more deeply. But,” he says pointing to the table, “are you not going to eat beforehand?”
“Good eye, Brother Fu!” I chuckle dryly. “If we don't get out of here, I'm going to starve to death.”
Baozi. Lily-white. Fresh out of the steamer.
Hot to the touch, enticing to the smell, heartwarming to the taste.
In front of the baozi vendor, I look up at the sky, tears streaming down my face.
Fu Qingshu watches me from the side, tapping his fan in his palm. “There's a restaurant three yards away. Why must you be like this?” His disdainful face tells me he looks down upon street vendors.
I rea.s.sure him. “I can't wait, not even for three yards. If I don't put something in my stomach right now, then I'll have died by the time the dishes are served.”
He finally gives me a rare look of sympathy as we enter to establishment.
But the waiter breaks the bad news. “Dear customer, it's still morning. We don't sell alcohol and dishes. Those start at noon.”
Meanwhile I'm here dying from hunger. I smash my chopsticks against the table.
“What alcohol and dishes?! Bring me whatever can fill me up!”
Frightened by my starved craze, he agrees and hurries off. Less than a minute later, he serves a bowl of congee and a plate of green onion swirls. And thanks to our spiffy clothing, he adds two small plates of salted veggies.
Fu Qingshu fans himself in the seat beside me. I've noticed a tiny shortcoming of his: he loves seeing me act poor and miserly. So he looks to be in a pretty good mood.
“Is he not giving you any food? You are a prince after all. Even if that Gao-bo doesn't like you, he must treat you with utmost respect if only for Master Su's sake.”
“Oh, he's been feeding me all right,” I reply. “Three meals a day. Ginseng, swallow's nest, seafood, abalone – every meal finer than the last. It's just that the swallow's nest congee was cooked with dishwater, and the ginseng soup was mixed with horse urine.”
“That's taking it too far!” he exclaims, evidently shocked.
I scoff, “As if those little tricks would get me! Eight hundred years ago I already told Xiao-Shun to keep an eye on him and see what tricks he has up his sleeve. But he is old after all and a loyal servant. I can commend at least his intentions, so I won't pursue any action against him and cause trouble for Master Su.”
He snaps his fan shut and shoots me an inquisitive glance. “So your plan is to starve while you're here? What thoughtfulness and generosity.”
“It'll have to be that way,” I conclude. “I figure these days you'd have to allow me to grab some chow before our business every day.”
“And are you going to bring those two masters along?”
With a green onion swirl in my cheeks, I explain, “Just look at Master Su. How could I possibly ask when he's so down. I initially thought he'd help me with reading and calculation, but now I wish I hadn't asked. And Master Pei, he might just see through the lie, so I have to keep my guard up and watch my mouth. There's nothing I can do. You and I are on the same page, so I'll have to ask you to bear with me.”
He grins and fans himself again. “Why don't I ask Gao-bo to send more to the east courtyard, and you dine with me.”
I raise my face from the congee and hold my fists together towards him. “I'd appreciate that!”
He seems rather content with me, his smile glowing. “We aren't strangers here. No need for politesse.”
I reckon it's the first time in his life that he's spoken to someone in such familiar terms. His articulation isn't even that smooth yet.
I reach out and squeeze his hand, chuckling. “Good man!”
The administrative office of the local mandarin. This may also include the official residence.
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