How undeserving to die just like that. Rain. Heavy rain.
Raising one’s head, they could still see endless chaos; the sky and earth were boundless and indistinct as dark clouds gathered in clusters, combining the world in a way that day and night was indistinguishable.
Rain poured from the sky as if it didn’t cost him1 anything to do so, throwing pot by pot of water into the world of mortal human beings like his worth of supply was endless. Flatlands turned abound by rivers and lakes. Once the river water rose, both sides of the fields were submerged in water. At a glance, one could even see the shadow of a house there.
Rong Qing waddled through the mud in heavy and light steps, all his shock and fear frozen in place due to the scenery in front of him.
It is finished. Everything is finished.
He knew very clearly that all the lives and legacy that existed in this place were done for, annihilated entirely.
This ground beneath his feet should have originally been the lands of a flourishing village. Half a month ago during this time, it had been the most bustling period for the village: The farmers returned from the fields, children were frolicking around, and the steam rose from every house’s kitchens, smelling delicious to anyone who walked past. Yet now, as far as the eye could see, everything was flooded.
Endless rainwater caused the high tides of rivers and broadened the river’s walls, shoving its way into the outskirts and county towns. The rain had never stopped, getting heavier the longer it poured. The flood raged through all four directions, wreaking havoc and doing as it pleased, conquering every inch of land it could reach into.
Umbrellas had become useless objects; the rain laughed mechanically as it broke through the oil paper in fissures, trickling down the person under the umbrella.
Rong Qing pushed the hands of his subject away, allowing himself to be exposed in the heavy rain.
Before that, he was already drenched in rainwater that he could not even open his eyes, and could only use a hand to wipe his face as he squinted his eyes. Everyone behaved the same way. Everyone looked like they were in despair as they looked at this calamity taking place: tears covered their faces, unable to put it past themselves.
The subject behind him could not keep up with Rong Qing’s steps, thus shouted once.
Yet his voice was swallowed by the heavy rain, almost inaudible, for even he could not hear himself.
“Little Lord, come quickly and stop Imperial Censor Rong! Stop going forward or otherwise, it would be impossible to find the way back!” The government officials that came with him shouted loudly, employing all the strength they had in them.
Xiao-Liu turned his head back abruptly and realized that when they came, some highlands were still visible, yet they were all flooded within such a short period of time, like a giant tortoise that was slowly sinking into the water, now with only the tip of its shell visible. He was shocked, quickly raising his legs with the intention to follow after Rong Qing who was in front of him, but tripped over a stone submerged in water and fell forward entirely, splashing his head and face into the mud.
Turning back to Rong Qing, he was left with no path to walk both in front and behind of him. There was water everywhere, and trapped with him was an old tree, standing tall in the water, welcoming its fate helplessly.
“Quick! Quickly save my Lord!” Xiao-Liu paid no attention to his aching knees, his eyes cracking as he exclaimed loudly.
A few officials exchanged glances, at a loss of what to do.
When Imperial Censor Rong from the capital heard of the flood, he insisted on leaving the safety of the highlands and county towns to come here and supervise it in person, ignoring the counsels of everyone. The County Magistrate of Guangqian county had no choice but to send the Assistant Magistrate and a few officials to accompany him. Who could have guessed that the rain grew heavier the longer it rained? Not only did it refuse to show any signs of slowing down, but the flood had even slowly begun to reach the highlands. Even the foothills that were not previously within the vicinity of the flood were gradually being swallowed up.
Amid the great waves, there was no lack of wooden buckets and clothes, and more suspicious-looking black strands like hairs were floating around as if there were people underneath the water, their fate undetermined.
Everyone found it difficult to save themselves, so how could they dare to try and save others? All but this Imperial Censor Rong who did not fear death, wanting to go forward to pull the person up. In the end, he was trapped and still needed someone else to save him. Assistant Magistrate Li Yan already scolded Rong Qing in his heart a few thousand times.
Should they save him, or should they not?
If they save him, it was possible they would be taken away by the currents themselves. If they leave him—this was an Imperial Censor from the Imperial Court, if their superiors want to find fault, it would be difficult for them to be absolved of the crime.
However, these were, after all, calamities. If the Imperial Censor wanted to go seek death for himself, bystanders could do nothing in their power.
Li Yan’s heart wrenched. He knew how to swim, but his fate would be different depending on whether he took a step forward or backwards—his life would be in danger if he chose to save him now with disregard for himself.
As he thought until this point, the expression on his face descended into even more panic: “But what should we do? I shall go for someone to save the Imperial Censor Rong now!”
How could he come back in time if he headed back now?
Xiao-Liu had an idea. He lunged forward to hold Li Yan, exclaiming loudly, “Quick, save my Lord! We can undo our sashes and tie them to our waists and hold hands to reach over there. There’s still time!”
Li Yan gritted his teeth: “Let alone clothing sashes! Even linen ropes would float away!”
After a few moments of bickering, the water levels rose more, reaching even to Xiao-Liu and the other’s feet where they stood. It was still rapidly rising up, and there were only a few inches left where Rong Qing was standing; he could neither retreat nor advance.
Xiao-Liu grew even more panicked. There was even a cry in his voice,
“My Lord, please wait for us! We are coming over to save you!”
Li Yan watched the three little officials who came with him, all three of their faces chaotic from the threat of the water and their expressions couldn’t be seen clearly. However, neither of them were willing to risk their lives saving a Supervising Imperial Censor that they didn’t know much about. Additionally, they didn’t even like this Rong Qing—for once he arrived, he had incessantly made indiscreet remarks, criticisms and accusations. At present, he was not only seeking death for himself, but he also wanted to drag others down with him.
Not long later, Li Yan made the decision.
However, in the next second, a shadow flew before them. Amid the heavy rain, it was so quick that they could not even discern the colour of their clothes.
That blurry shadow landed where Rong Qing stood, reaching out to catch his shoulder before lifting his entire person up, lending the old tree’s branch and leap to where they are.
Although there’s also water here, at the very least they could still stand. Xiao-Liu was both pleased and shocked: “My Lord!”
“Why aren’t you people leaving? What are you doing staring?!” The male saviour’s deep and dull voice could surprisingly pierce through the curtain of rain and allowed them to hear him clearly.
No one dared to dally any longer, scuttering off quickly as they watched the progress of the present events.
Xiao-Liu helped Rong Qing, pressing on hurriedly from behind.
The sky was merciful today, for the rain grew lighter all of a sudden and the water no longer rose. Everyone got the chance to stop and breathe, then ran to higher lands and watched the gates of the County Town far away in the distance. They could finally calm down after suffering an emotional attack.
The umbrella was long gone, unknown where it was cast-off to. Everyone was stuck fast with splotches of dirt from head to toe, it was hard to even tell what colour they were wearing originally. There was only the sound of heavy footsteps moving forward step by step until they reached their destination. Xiao-Liu’s legs gave out beneath him, and Rong Qing whom he was helping fell down along with him. The blue-clothed saviour sniggered, and after a few inhales he leapt into the air, abandoning him and went into the city himself first.
Had it been in the past, Xiao-Liu would have already complained. Yet, now, he didn’t say anything, and neither did he have the strength to.
Rong Qing looked on.
After two hours, everyone had returned to the city. Rong Qing rejected Li Yan’s invitation to the County’s Bureau to have a rest, returning to the posthouse instead. Li Yan had no interest in retaining him, his attitude towards him was obviously a lot colder now, no longer the same welcoming attitude when Rong Qing first came to Guangqian County.
Inside the bathtub of the posthouse, Rong Qing comfortably washed away the dirt on his body, then wolfed down a meal hungrily, feeling his strength gradually replenished. As he was surrounded by quietness, he thought back about that moment of life and death, and couldn’t deny that he was still terrified in the aftermath.
Originally, he came here to supervise disaster relief. How undeserving would it be if he were to die just like that?
Not long later, Xiao-Liu came dejectedly to confess his crimes and ask for punishment.
“My Lord, this little one failed to save you just now. It was all because Li Yan was delaying it on purpose! He even wanted to push me into the water, getting rid of us both at once, so he could push the responsibility cleanly off himself!”
Rong Qing did not hold a grudge as strongly as he did. He said calmly, “I insisted on witnessing the situation myself. It’s normal for him to be displeased with it.” Xiao-Liu stopped talking all of a sudden: “The one who saved you just now looked familiar.”
Rong Qing said: “If I wasn’t wrong, he’s with Cui Buqu.”
Xiao-Liu felt very shocked: “They arrived so quickly? Then…Would Master Cui find fault in you?”
As his words dissipated, an employee delivered an invitation. Speak of the devil.
On the invitation was written: Master Cui extends an invitation to a meeting at the Yi’er Teahouse situated within the city.
Rong Qing laughed bitterly: “They just saved my life, even if I wanted to scold him, I can only do it secretly.”
This matter began around ten days ago.
Guangqian Prefecture reported a series of incessantly horrendous rainstorms, provoking the river waters to rise in level. Within the county, the disasters caused by floodwater ran rampant, and among them, it was Guangqian County who had it the worst. The flood victims lost their homes, and famine stretched across a thousand li, and thus they begged the Imperial Court to issue provisions to aid the victims.
Among all the Imperial edicts in the Imperial Palace, Guangqian Prefecture was often plagued by calamities, experiencing floods practically every year during the rainy season. This year was severe. So, after sending provisions to aid them, the Emperor also sent Supervisor Imperial Censor Rong Qing to the County to patrol and supervise the movement.
When the day to set out came, only Rong Qing knew that other than him, the Zuoyue Bureau’s leader Cui Buqu had also set out. Master Cui held orders that were issued by the Empress in person. Rong Qing looked over it thrice before he finally decided this was issued by the Empress. It was strange; when it came to official ranks, this expedition should have been led by Cui Buqu, but the Emperor hasn’t issued the order. Instead, it was the Empress who did so. Additionally, taking the Zuoyue Bureau’s duties into consideration, it was difficult for Rong Qing to believe that the Empress sent Cui Buqu to keep an eye on himself.
Ever since he entered the palace as an official, he had never interacted with either the Zuoyue or Jiejian Bureaus who roamed between the righteous and crooked path2. In Rong Qing’s eyes, Cui Buqu was just someone who took advantage of his luck to climb the stairway to power. In reality, these sort of people were not few in number within the Imperial Court. Before this, they have never meddled in each other’s business, and so be it. Presently, they needed to work together. In Rong Qing’s heart, it was difficult for him to not feel a little bit conflicted.
Both parties met each other for the first time at the Ba Bridge of the suburb of the capital. Although they never had the chance to speak, they would not come to the point of confronting each other with daggers. On the surface, courtesy was still permitted. Rong Qing politely allowed Cui Buqu to take the lead, yet Cui Buqu said this expedition would be Rong Qing’s to lead and allowed him to do as he pleased, no need to be overly cautious.
With these words from him, Rong Qing no longer put up a front and allowed his carriage to leave slowly before he departed first, setting out for Guangqian Prefecture.
Rong Qing had never, from the bottom of his heart, wanted Cui Buqu to interfere in his businesses. He hurried on the way, finally arriving in Guangqian Prefecture. Everything he heard and saw was more appalling than expected. Imperial Censor Rong, who has never seen such horrendous results of a calamity, carried a hot, passionate desire to aid the people who went about supervising, going onto the field in person, going as far as to disregard his own safety as he approached the nearest county’s suburb. In the end, he almost lost his own life, and Cui Buqu who had been originally taking his time coming had already arrived. He had even sent someone to rescue him.
So when Rong Qing arrived in the teahouse and saw Cui Buqu, who looked even paler compared to the last time they parted at the Ba Bridge, before he said anything, he already looked ashamed of himself. Redness spread from his neck to his ears, so that he couldn’t avoid bending his body to give a long kneel on the ground at Cui Buqu.
“I thank Commander Cui for his deed of rescuing me!”
A new arc has begun. The content is related to the last arc. The next chapter will mention it ~
 him: ⽼天爷 (lit. “Old Sky Uncle”) so I used a male pronoun.  正邪游⾛的 (lit. [someone] who walks the righteous and crooked path): ‘Righteous’ refers to legal businesses which abide by the laws, while
‘crooked’ refers to illegal ones that could mean pugilists, gangsters, cultivators, etc. The Jiejian and Zuoyue Bureau probably have dealings with both sides.
Cui Buqu gave a bashful smile.
“Imperial Censor Rong, if today Guan Shanhai had not come in time, were you prepared to end your life in such a way?”
Faced before Rong Qing who relented his pride and submitted, not only did Cui Buqu comfort him, he even delivered a lecture to him.
Rong Qing’s face froze in place.
“Not long later, everyone would come to know that Imperial Censor Rong came by orders to supervise the calamity, yet before he gained his victory, the officials of Guangqian County were already deep in grief, and even the Imperial Censor himself had been drowned by the flood. This would just prove that the calamity is indeed serious, and Guangqian County would receive even more rations for this. You, on the other hand, Rong Qing, would become the Imperial Envoy who died the most obscure death in the entire history of Great Sui,” Cui Buqu paused for a moment, gave Rong Qing a half-hearted smile, “as well as be turned into the greatest joke.”
Rong Qing finally understood why he did not like this Commander of the Zuoyue Bureau.
Because whenever the other spoke to him, there was always another implication between the lines and layered meanings. Just now, his words sounded like he was mocking him, but in reality, it felt like there were an entirely different set of meanings to them as well. If Rong Qing could not guess at them himself, his speaking adversary would never explain it to him.
There were some people who were fated; even if they didn’t know each other for long, they could still share hearty talks. However, Rong Qing was very certain that regardless of how many times he’s seen Cui Buqu, he would never like him.
This person was truly too harsh and thought too frequently that he knew better. Making use of the Empress as his support, his standards were loftier than the clouds, deeming that nobody meets his standards at all.
Rong Qing stomached his resentment and said: “I know that it was impolite of me to embark on the journey first this time, Commander, and you are displeased with me. However, the calamity is like wildfire—if I came a day early, perhaps I could survey and deliver the report a day earlier so that more people could be saved!”
Cui Buqu unceremoniously continued his words: “So that is why you almost died.”
Rong Qing immediately leapt to his feet, standing straight: “If Commander Cui does not wish to have a proper talk, then this subject will take his leave first. I will return this favour of yours in the future, but this time, in Guangqian, we will each walk our own paths!”
He was also a stubborn person; since he felt that he wasn’t in the wrong, naturally, he was unwilling to remain here and stomach the scolding.
Cui Buqu raised a finger slightly.
Before Guan Shanhai could understand what he meant, Qiao Xian had already taken a step forward, her sword out of its sheath, positioned across Rong Qing’s neck horizontally.
“Were you allowed to leave?” Qiao Xian said coldly. Rong Qing was driven into fury and laughter: “Consider me acknowledging the barbarity of the Zuoyue Bureau. It seems that you people would even threaten officials of the Imperial Court! It’s no wonder all our peers were terrified at the mere mention of you people. If what Commander Cui wants is this threat that makes everyone run when they see you, then you’ve got it!”
Cui Buqu’s expression was plain: “It has not been even a few days since you came, and you almost died. Once this information spreads, the name of your Rong family and the name your father had tried so hard to build, will all be lost because of you.”
Rong Qing was stunned: “You know my father?”
Cui Buqu: “Your father is Rong Qi, assumed the post of County Magistrate of Mo County in Youzhou two years ago. When the Göktürks penetrated and pillaged the city, he had been fearless, unwilling to bend the knee even at the threat of death. In the end, before the reinforcements could arrive, it was too late, and he died before the gates of the city. His Majesty commiserated over his loyalty that remained until the bitter end, thus promoting you to join the ranks of the Imperial Censorate.”
At the mention of his father, Rong Qing’s fury had unconsciously died down. He remained silent for a while, before saying finally: “Actually, I’ve managed to uncover many things over the last few days. I, too, realize something was very strange about this matter.”
Rain visited more frequently than usual; when Rong Qing came to Guangqian county, the rain had been hailing for subsequently ten days. He had followed another path and went through the highlands, away from the river water. The main road was supposed to just be filled with wet soil, but it shouldn’t have reached the same level as flooding an entire city. Only after arriving in Guanqian county did he notice that the calamity had extended beyond his expectations.
Within the territory of Guangqian Prefecture, practically half of the county towns have already been submerged. Even in the wilds of Guangqian county, every inch of land was difficult to waddle through. The calamity victims had all taken refuge within the city, however, there were limitations to how much Guangqian county could hold, and so they could not take in all of them. County Magistrate Huang Lue allocated these people on the Western side of the city, making them work in exchange for shelter. Every day, they would have to transport sand and stones outside the city to build a wall in order to prolong the calamity from entering the city. Rong Qing had seen it himself and believed that it was not a bad plan. Since they have received the calamity victims, they have arranged work for them so they wouldn’t cause trouble.
However, although Guangqian county’s situation was settled, the County Magistrates of other county towns were not as capable. The calamity hasn’t retreated, and the rations in the main storage were limited. Huang Lue hoped that Rong Qing could deliver a report to the Imperial Court to ask for more rations.
Rong Qing had such intentions. However, as a patrolling Imperial Censor, he couldn’t just listen to Huang Lue. Thus, he sought out the Assistant Magistrate Li Yan for questioning. Who could have guessed that Li Yan hesitated when he spoke, showing that he was hiding something about County Magistrate Huang. Rong Qing found it strange and after being bombarded with incessant questions, Li Yan finally let a hint slip, allowing Rong Qing to travel to the wilds in person to take a look.
As he spoke until this point, Rong Qing changed the subject and said:
“The night before, I received a strange painting.”
He allowed Xiao-Liu to bring the painting.
There was no mounting on the picture. It was rolled up in a simple way. In the centre of the painting, there was a granary. A great many people were moving rations outside of it, and on the side sat a man that looked like an official with servants by his side, sitting at a table having a feast as he surveyed the people moving the rations on a hot day. It was extremely crowded.
And on either side of the painting, not far from the granary, was a pile of corpses like a little mount. There were males and females among the dead, including the elders and the young, sprawling in all sorts of positions on the ground with yellow faces and appearing to be extremely thin, like they have shouldered great pain. Some of them were already dead, and some of them still held a silver of breath. In the hands of the man was an arm and he gnawed at it like an evil spirit. Beside him, there was a child who had lost that arm, wailing and shrieking as blood flowed everywhere.
Just by looking at the left and the centre of the painting, one would not feel anything, but once they piece the right and left side of it, there’s an effect of making one feel like they were suffocating.
Rong Qing still recalled the first time he saw that painting, his heart had been shaken by something he couldn’t name. He had stood there in a daze for half a beat feeling nothing. Looking now at Cui Buqu, his gaze had lingered on top of it only for a while, not even blinking.
Truly the heart of tigers and wolves1, Rong Qing thought.
“This person,” He tapped the dining official on the left side of the painting, “Guangqian County was originally an upper-class county. The County Magistrate is a sixth-ranking official. Due to the calamities that took place these two years, it was demoted to a middle-class county, and the official demoted to a seventh-ranking. However, the date for County Magistrate Huang Lue reporting to work hasn’t come, so he is still a sixth-ranking. This person is wearing a scarlet-coloured official gown, and he wore no ornaments or fine jade. Although one cannot see his face clearly, by judging his attire, you can tell this is Huang Lue without a doubt.”
Cui Buqu said: “So you think that someone tried to file an anonymous report to you after knowing of your arrival, hinting that the County Magistrate Huang Lue is corrupt, embezzling rations and submitting false reports of the situation?”
Although Rong Qing was emotional, a sliver of intellect remained in him. He hadn’t rushed up to Huang Lue for questioning, but he was still unable to be at peace, and thus went looking for other officials in Guangqian County, knocking at their doors hoping to find something through them.
Therefore, he had asked Assistant Magistrate Li Yan, but he had stuttered and stammered endlessly.
This was not all; Rong Qing also discovered that among the officials in Guangqian County, aside from Li Yan, County Official Wu Yi was also not on good terms with Huang Lue.
In Guangqian County, the County Magistrate, Assistant Magistrate, and County Official were the three most important people, yet they have appeared united on the surface but divided in heart, minding their own business. Underneath, all the officials were playing a game of theories, one where the glint and flash of cold steel could not see blood.
One day’s time was not enough for Rong Qing to find out about anything. However, last night, he received another painting.
It was the same paper and the same brush strokes.
Rong Qing spread out the second piece of painting in front of Cui Buqu.
This time there were no officials, yet the painting was even more frightening.
Amid the flood, broken trees sunk and floated, the residual of bodies drifted; sometimes one could even see a black head looking at the sky with soundless fear and inaudible screams, plagued with terror and despair.
The city’s wall and moat could be seen from afar, close to a nearby mountain slump under an old tree, a man was kneeling on the ground diligently unearthing it with his bare hands and uncovering a few semi- decayed hands from the soil which stood out from a forest of white bones, as if one has already dug close to hell where all existence of Buddha had thoroughly perished. Guan Shanhai stood at the side as he glanced at this painting, he couldn’t help muttering a questioning sound.
As if Rong Qing knew why he did that, he said: “That is right. This tree was the very same place I was trapped in the morning. During that time, I decided to take a look myself because of this painting to see whether such a place truly exists.”
In the end, it was proven that the tree did indeed exist. However, before he could unearth the ground beneath it, the horrendous rain had already caused the water level to rise tremendously. Had Guan Shanhai not appear in time, Rong Qing would have already turned into a lonely ghost that roams the earth.
“Commander Cui should know now that there is a reason behind my doings!”
Cui Buqu paid no attention to the displeasure that came from his voice,
“So, your suspicions for Huang Lue have grown?”
Rong Qing nodded: “When I proposed leaving the city to investigate the matter to Huang Lue, he had strongly objected to it. County Official Wu also behaved as though he saw nothing. Instead, it was Assistant Magistrate Li Yan who was willing to pursue me out to take a look. So, the problem most certainly lied in Huang Lue.”
Cui Buqu said: “If normal people saw a horrendous rain carrying on infinitely and rising up the water levels, of course they would object to it. Why are you not suspicious of Li Yan’s ulterior motives instead? That he was trying to use this chance to eliminate you?”
Rong Qing remained silent for a while, before retorting: “Huang Lue is the County Magistrate of Guangqian County. His word decides many things that go on around here. What can an assistant officer like Li Yan do?”
Cui Buqu said coldly: “However, this time the calamity did not just hit Guangqian County. Practically half of the entire Prefecture has been submerged in water. If I were you, I would not deduct a conclusion based on these paintings that came from anonymous sources.”
Rong Qing felt that Cui Buqu saw him as a prick, trying to make an argument out of everything.
He was unwilling to say more.
When a conversation becomes disagreeable, more words would mean more opportunities for arguments.
“Tomorrow, Huang Lue has invited all the aristocratic families to discuss funding the calamity with rations. He has also invited me. If Commander Cui refuses to believe it, you can attend it and decide for yourself between the loyal and the disloyal.”
Rong Qing snorted coldly, flipped his sleeves and left. Everything was too chaotic.
Clouds of fogs surrounded them everywhere, and regardless of how one tries to pry it apart, it was futile.
Guan Shanhai was used to killing straightforwardly on the battlefield; he has never before seen or experienced such a complicated situation. At first glance, it looked like allocating tasks depending on the different ranks of each official, but if he were to look closely at it, it seemed like it wasn’t that simple. Was it possible that they have truly exhausted all the rations delivered here by the Imperial Court? County Magistrate Huang and Assistant Magistrate Li obviously had strife between themselves. Was Rong Qing being used by both of them? Why would someone deliver two pieces of paintings to Rong Qing? Was it to lure him into searching for the truth or deliver him to death’s door?
The more he thought about it, the heavier his headache became. Guan Shanhai felt fortunate that he had been a martial official, and there was no need to gyrate around these matters in circles. However, he couldn’t believe that Cui Buqu could pry the truth open like a god the moment he arrived, readily solving everything in one go.
However, what he knew was that in order to catch up to Rong Qing, Cui Buqu had halved the amount of time originally needed to arrive. His body’s condition seemed to have gotten worse, yet he never uttered a word during the journey.
Although Guan Shanhai did not like this new task given to him, his perception of Cui Buqu was no longer as bad as it had been before. He even couldn’t refrain from uttering in a light tone: “How did you know Imperial Censor Rong would encounter danger?”
“Because here, Rong Qing is a knife. Whoever has it in their grasp could use it to threaten someone else.” Cui Buqu suddenly sighed, “Perhaps we will be able to see the one hundred ways Rong Qing could die from very soon.”
Guan Shanhai was confused and had completely no idea what he was talking about.
Rong Qing was also very confused.
He was speaking to the aristocratic families within the city, and they were sitting in the courtyard behind the county’s bureau.
Answering Huang Lue’s invitation, everyone came to attend the banquet and discuss ways to ease the current situation.
What made Rong Qing confused was this: Yesterday, Cui Buqu was still behaving cynically, yet today, he was like a tamed sheep sitting behind him. Not only did he add a beard to himself, he even introduced himself as Master Cui, changing his identity completely and turning into an aide of Rong Qing’s. The native merchants were all very interested in Imperial Censor Rong, for practically everyone came forth to offer him gifts in an attempt to form closeness. They seldom notice Cui Buqu who sat behind him, and the few who did only asked a question or two about him. Cui Buqu was servile and submissive, and thus all the questions were answered by Rong Qing.
Rong Qing knew that Cui Buqu wanted to conceal his identity, and it coincided with his wishes since he also did not want others to know that Cui Buqu was a member of the Zuoyue Bureau, which would lead them to think that the Imperial Court had no faith in him, thus sending someone to keep an eye for them.
However, he hadn’t expected Cui Buqu’s acting to be so flawless. It was as if he had changed into another person entirely. He claimed to be a man of few words and truly acted the part—uttering not even a single word. Even his gaze had turned gentle and harmless, speaking in a gentle and hushed tone. Where was the sharpness he had shown just yesterday?
Another guest has arrived. Rong Qing could no longer pay attention to inspecting Cui Buqu’s change. He realized that most of the people who gathered today were either young people or the eldest and second children of the family. The patriarch of the family itself seldom showed their presence.
Among them, one young man stood out from the crowd.
The other looked twenty give or take; he was quite handsome, said to be surnamed Li, and was the fourteenth child of his house. He was a distant relative of Assistant Magistrate Li Yan—only now did Rong Qing realize that Li Yan was a native and his family’s situation was liberal. The Li family had been a notable clan known locally and throughout the entire Guangqian Prefecture.
Li Shisi followed behind his cousin—who is also the eldest child of the Li family—and came forth. However, compared to the sturdiness of his cousin, Li Shisi was a lot more engaging. Not only did he go about proposing a toast of wine to everybody, he even came to close proximity with Rong Qing, having no care for courtesy, pulling him to the side as he asked him something. He even showed an interest in Cui Buqu who was next to Rong Qing.
“I heard Master Cui is someone from the Southern Dynasty? Why have you not remained an official in the Southern Dynasty but came all the way to the Northern Dynasty? What sort of scenery is in the Southern Dynasty; is it truly filled with mountains and rivers aplenty, filled with euphemism and songs?”
Li Shisi strained his neck, practically touching Cui Buqu. If not for his young-looking exterior that didn’t look annoying and for his face being filled with curiosity, it was feared that he would have been receiving a lecture about manners right now.
Cui Buqu gave a bashful smile: “Not everyone who wants to become an official would be given the chance. My capabilities meet neither the standards of a martial or literary official. Fortunately, Imperial Censor Rong did not mind and took me in to help with copying scripts and books. As to your mention of the scenery, my humble opinion feels that the mountains and rivers are similar in both the Northern and Southern Dynasty.”
“Aiya, Master Cui, how delicate your wrist looks!” It was as if Li Shisi found something new and interesting, caught Cui Buqu’s wrist and refused to let go.
“I heard the people from the South often have queer interests, especially flirting with those who are elderly in age. With your looks, could it be that you were a target of such people and so you came north to seek refuge?”
 虎狼之⼼ describes someone who is ambitious, cruel, and ruthless.
Why does he keep thinking of Feng-er, regardless of who he looked at? Cui Buqu twitched his arm but did not draw it back.
At that hour, everyone around Rong Qing, including himself, turned their gazes over.
Rong Qing gave a strange look and felt that this young man was flippant in his conduct. If the one he had taken liberties on was a beautiful woman, he might have already stopped him a long time ago. However, the present Cui Buqu had a beard on him, thus he was obviously a scholar, so nevermind his identity as a member of the Zuoyue Bureau. As Rong Qing recalled all those rumours of the Zuoyue Bureau that struck one with terror, there was only one thought in his heart: How audacious this youth is!
He even felt some sympathy for Li Shisi.
If it had been Cui Buqu, this Li Shisi would have already been minced into a few dozen pieces by his gaze alone, neatly arranged for the cooking. However, Cui Buqu is not Cui Buqu now; he was Rong Qing’s strategist, Master Cui, and it was only because of this that he was behaving like a silent introvert. This has already proven that his attitude was not the same as the real Cui Buqu.
Master Cui gave a shocked expression, as if he had just received the greatest insult or as if this sudden change had been unexpected: “How could you!” He forcibly shakes the other’s hand off. This time, it went very well. However, as Li Shisi’s hand conveniently relented, his fingers encircled his palm once, molesting frivolously. He looked just like someone with a string of lovers of all perceivable types!
“Imperial Censor Rong, Master Cui and I met through fate, thus may I know if you are willing to be parted from this cherished possession of yours?” Li Shisi turned his head around at Rong Qing. “Regardless of what conditions you want to be fulfilled, just list them down as you please.”
“Absurd! Master Cui is a person, not an inanimate object. How can you say that? Excuse yourself, now!” Rong Qing reprimanded him. He was already well-prepared for a battle of wits before he came; who could have guessed that this Li Shishi, who had come out of nowhere, had tossed his plans into disarray!
“Shisi-lang1, watch your manners!”
The Eldest Son of the Li family hurried over, conducting formalities to Rong Qing with a face full of helplessness, “I beg your forgiveness, Imperial Censor Rong. This younger cousin of mine grew up in Luoyang with a single-mother in the past who raised him into such an unbridled and unrestrained troublemaker! Please do not bother a generous person like yourself with the likes of him!”
Li Shisi, with a face full of ridicule and patheticness, said: “Cousin, what is all this talk about being unbridled and unrestrained? This is called being in my truest nature! I have no interest in all the entertainers that filled the halls here. I only want this Master Cui! He’s not a wife, son, or elderly father of Imperial Censor Rong, so why can’t he be given to me? I could offer more money to hire Master Cui into a new place as a literary clerical staff, wouldn’t that be the same?”
Rong Qing’s face sank, raising his voice, he said: “Did County Magistrate Huang invite me here today to see such foolery?!”
As he finished speaking, County Magistrate Huang Lue hurried over here with the guidance of an escort. Members of the Li family all begged for pardon, exerting all their strength to pull Li Shisi out towards the seats.
Li Shisi mumbled and spluttered in displeasure, however, once he was lectured by his cousin, he no longer dared to attempt anything else. A pair of eyes were still wandering about, often looking towards Cui Buqu’s direction. He watched as Cui Buqu noticed his line of sight, returned it in a non-committal way, and he smiled at him with his teeth exposed.
Cui Buqu was expressionless, avoiding his gaze.
Although Rong Qing was a guest, he was an Imperial Envoy and Censor. County Magistrate Huang Lue offered his seat. Because of this, Cui Buqu also obtained an opportunity to sit next to Rong Qing, in a place where he could observe the entire venue.
Everyone who came to today’s banquet was native distinguished families and landlords. They owned many lands, thus this time they suffered great losses from the calamity, their harvest this year reduced into nought and they couldn’t even collect their rentals. These people were now forcibly mustering their spirits and smiles onto their faces. Let alone the delicacies of the locals, even if they were served extremely rare delicacies, they would not have the spirit to enjoy them.
Huang Lue sat on the secondary seat, his voice raised as he said: “First of all, the calamity outside the city hasn’t quelled, so it’s not the best time to hold a banquet. However, everyone present today is the people of this city with a literary reputation. They have heard that Imperial Censor Rong came forth from the Imperial Court to supervise the calamity, they couldn’t help feeling delighted and decided to pay a visit of their own accord, so this humble subject gathered all of them here, so your Excellency may inquire them.”
The Imperial Censor’s arrival was simply to inquire about the situation, supervise it, and those rations would be prioritized to feed the people who had lost their homes and avoid them rebelling when they were cornered to a wall. These distinguished families would earn no benefit from it, so they should not have been interested in the banquet today. Hearing Huang Lue say, “pay a visit of their own accord” they couldn’t help cursing at him for licking Rong Qing’s boot and giving a false account of facts.
Yet Rong Qing was completely pleased with Huang Lue and his initiative because if Huang Lue hadn’t invited everyone on his own accord, he would have also proposed meeting with all the distinguished families of the local county. His orders to patrol wasn’t just to investigate the calamity but to also investigate whether those rations were indeed distributed to the people, whether or not the local landlords were conspiring with the officials to gain benefits through it. After assuming the position of an Imperial Censor for a short while, this was his first time leaving the capital on an expedition. Before leaving the capital he had even inquired a senior official and remembered all of his counsels to heart.
Speaking of which, he still found Huang Lue’s performance satisfactory, at the very least, he did not serve any delicacies today as all their food were just normal dishes, vegetables being more than others. It looked a little shabby. Rong Qing had even found a dish from his hometown here, and although he knew that these may be arrangements Huang Lue had made after inquiring about him all around, and that this dish had been just a simple dish, he was still able to eat it happily.
Everyone took their turns coming to toast him wine. Among them was Assistant Magistrate Li Yan and County Official Wu Yi. He couldn’t bring himself to give him a cold shoulder, so he could only comply with the atmosphere and deliberately took a few sips. Before it affected his mental intelligence, he placed his wine cup down and lightly coughed twice.
“Although the Imperial Court issued rations for the calamity this time, on my way here I have witnessed for myself the rising of the waters that flooded countless fields and houses. People that have lost loved ones and their houses were unnumbered because of this. But County Magistrate Huang Lue has already allowed the victims into the city, despite that there are limited rations within, and at most they would only last for half a month. When that time comes, even if the waters have quelled, it will be at least Spring of the following year before any harvests could be made. And even at that time, there will still be a cold Winter to brave through.” Everyone present were elites, there was no need for him to elaborate. As his words reached here, everyone already knew what he wanted to say.
A young man surnamed Ding stood up immediately and severed his words: “Imperial Censor Rong cared deeply for the people and pitied the fate of humankind. This time, the fields of my house have been washed away completely due to the flood. However, my kind-hearted mother could not bear to see our tenants starve, she even took out rations from our own storage and distributed it to them. Right now nothing is left in my house. Watching many places in the Prefecture has also been hit, the rations that needed to import from outside the Prefecture has its price weighed in gold. We simply could not afford it, so I beg Imperial Censor Rong to think of a way to save us!”
Rong Qing has heard before that the Ding family is the largest landlord of this County. There were also people in their house who served as officials. Once he spoke, everyone complied to him.
“Yes. The fields of our houses have also been flooded!”
“Everything in our house has been washed clean. I beg the Imperial Censor to think of a way, request the Imperial Court to send us more rations!”
“Imperial Censor Rong, you need to be the judge of the people!”
A dozen people joined in. Rong Qing was a little dumbfounded. He originally wanted the landlords to donate some rations, yet they have already taken the opportunity to wail first. His words could no longer be spoken.
Assistant County Magistrate Li Yan spoke at an opportune moment: “Everyone, it hasn’t been a few days since Imperial Censor Rong arrived. Today, everyone is called here so he may understand the matter fully. If anyone has any grievances, there’s no harm in giving it your full account here. However, after tonight, if anyone is discovered to be spreading rumours about the Imperial Court outside, the officials will not spare them a light sentence.” Huang Lue was watching the theatre with a cold gaze from the sidelines; it was instead Li Yan who stood out and spoke for him. Rong Qing’s impression of Li Yan got better. Just as he was about to speak, he heard one man say: “Assistant County Magistrate Li, consider this humble one unable to subscribe to these words of yours!”
Rong Qing decided that the voice sounded familiar, and so turned around and discovered that the one speaking was the same person who flirted with Cui Buqu a while ago, Li Shisi.
“Now that it’s chaotic everywhere with rumours coming one after the last, all of them saying that the Imperial Court hasn’t delivered any rations and wanting the people to find their own supplies. It was not us who spread these rumours! Our house originally gave our servants three meals a day, but it has been decreased into two meals now. Speaking of hardships, we aren’t any better than refugees! It’s only because we live inside of the city that we haven’t thought of moving away yet. However, if this persists, the calamity will flood the entire city eventually! When that time comes the entire Guangqian County would be finished. Whether we should remain or leave, please assist us in making this decision, Imperial Censor Rong!”
Li Shisi exclaimed loudly; not only he didn’t hold any restraint at all, but he was also even disrespectful towards Rong Qing, behaving exactly like a spoiled brat of a prestigious family.
Rong Qing’s expression sank: “Presently, everyone is on the same boat and are weathering through the same hardship. Yet, here you are speaking about staying or leaving. Putting this out would be called sowing unrest among the army! To speak the truth to all of you: the Imperial Court’s supplies are not endless. If the flood victims cannot weather through this winter, then a lot may freeze to death. Nevermind you people having no harvest in the following year, it would be easier for those who carry malicious intentions to gather and create chaos. When that time comes, wouldn’t harm just come back to you?!”
Everyone said in their hearts: Here it comes. Imperial Censor Rong made such a huge detour and finally came to the main point. In the end, isn’t he just hoping to dig out some money and rations from these distinguished families? However, how would everyone give away their fortune so easily? They still thought about asking the Imperial Court to help them, why not just save themselves a breath.
Li Shisi spoke again, speaking out the words in everyone’s heart: “Since Imperial Censor Rong has put it in such a way, we can just leave!”
The landlord surnamed Ding shouted: “Imperial Censor Rong, we also wish to lend a hand to our hometown, yet now we have the heart, but not the spirit!”
Everyone else also said: “Exactly! We couldn’t even save ourselves.
There is no way for us to help others!”
“Alright!” Huang Lue finally spoke, “Two years ago, Guangqian Prefecture enforced donating rations and decreased the rental. We could support ourselves during some smaller calamities. This year, it was unfortunate that we have encountered a huge calamity. Other than the Imperial Court delivering rations, we will need everyone to do the same as two years ago, to waive rentals if one were to donate rations. As to how the rental should be decreased, there is still a need for everyone to gather together and offer suggestions.”
Everyone exchanged glances, but then, that annoying Li Shisi spoke again: “Lord Huang, we have already said just now that it is not because we refuse to donate, but that there is truly no rations to be donated. Let alone waiving the rental, even if the Imperial Court waived the next ten years of rental, we still cannot donate any rations!”
Rong Qing finally felt that this meal tonight was truly vexing.
He originally thought that he has already familiarized himself with some of the things that go on in Guangqian County and was already prepared to enforce his dominance tonight. He even wanted to demonstrate himself in front of Cui Buqu, to send his ambitiousness tumbling. Yet, nothing went well tonight. Not only did they refuse to comply, but these officials from Guangqian County did not look very enthusiastic at all. Who on earth gave him those two pieces of (damn?) paintings? Rong Qing originally wanted to make use of this banquet to uncover an inkling, but who could have guessed that the officials and landlords’ reactions had tossed him into a difficult situation instead.
Cui Buqu, who was next to him, never spoke even once. The other is surely laughing at him like a joke, Rong Qing thought, and his mood sank to worse states, drinking more frequently unconsciously.
Cui Buqu still felt that Rong Qing was too tame. Tonight, he was being led on from the beginning until the end, however, his focus and attention were not on Rong Qing.
Li Shisi’s prior behaviour made it easy to mistake him for Feng Xiao in disguise. His age and looks being entirely different were not strange, as Qiao Xian too could make this happen. In the past, when they were in Göktürk, they had done this before.
In fact, Li Shisi’s methods and ways were overly flaunting. These were very like Feng Xiao.
However, when he saw Li Shisi toasting wine to County Official Wu Yi, his face very naturally let slip a look of desiring to curry favours, so it changed his thoughts. Because it seemed to him that Feng Xiao had never spoken so submissively in a low voice to anyone before.
That man surnamed Feng was unbridled and unrestrained, looking like he took nothing seriously, but in reality, he was proud and confident, sparing no one even a second look but himself. It was impossible to want him to take a submissive role and be inferior to someone else.
So, Li Shisi was only Li Shisi. He should have nothing to do with that man surnamed Feng, right?
Cui Buqu withdrew his look and lowered his gaze, feeling bewildered at his own doubts for once. Logically, he had left the capital without a word. At this time, even if Feng-er realized he wasn’t there, it would be impossible for him to instantly locate where he was, more so hurrying over here so quickly and making himself a new identity. Then, why was he doubting so much? Why did he keep thinking of Feng-er, regardless of who he looked at?
 ⼗四郎 (lit. Fourteenth Man) same as San-lang, Er-lang.
[Translator’s Notes: I haven’t been very chatty lately because work is sucking away at my soul but I’ll still be quietly updating here :3]
Master Cui, I truly am serious about liking you.
At the same time Cui Buqu was observing someone, he was being observed as well.
Most of the people’s attention was on Rong Qing since, after all, he is the main character of the theatre. In fact, Cui Buqu’s presence was far too unnoticeable. He looked like a normal literary official who rarely showed up and rarely encountered such a huge scene, that this is the first time he is situated in such a banquet and not knowing what to do. He was even a little shy, a man of few words, and looked uneasy when he was speaking to someone else. Even when the spoiled son of a distinguished family like Li Shisi flirted with him, he was at a loss of what to do.
Rong Qing did not explain for this aide of his on his behalf; very few words were exchanged between them both and they did not care to hide the look in their gazes that signified they did not know each other well. This only proved that Rong Qing and his aide were not close, and furthermore proved that there was no one beside Rong Qing that could be of use to him, that he was left with no choice but to recruit such a person to make the numbers.
Imperial Censor Rong was truly as the rumours made him out to be: freshly out of the thatched cottage and unclear of everything he knew. Such a person could only be led on by the nose like a fool when he came to Guangqian County. Some people were deep in thought and some of them felt relieved, letting out a breath.
Rong Qing did notice the gazes of those who watched him, but he couldn’t slap the table and rise to his feet to question them, because he would be regarded as even more of a joke that way.
The wine in the cup brought a linger of sweetness. It should be special from the locals. One cup into the stomach and there was a sweet aftertaste. He looked at the ripples of the wine swaying and felt his eyelids growing heavier and heavier.
Cui Buqu would only watch from the sidelines, but Master Cui was with Rong Qing, so it would be unusual for him not to advise him.
“My Lord, care not to drink too much. County Magistrate Huang is looking at you!” He advised against it in a soft, timid and overcautious tone.
“No need to bother yourself with me!” Truly, wine amplifies one’s daringness. ly, Rong Qing was still careful about himself around Cui Buqu, but now, that was completely gone.
Cui Buqu gave a look that looked like he didn’t know what to do; his face paled as he coughed twice.
At his side, a maidservant couldn’t help but bend down next to his ear, saying gently: “My Lord, there is lime wine in the manor. It will reduce the intoxication. Should I bring it here?”
Cui Buqu raised his head in surprise, meeting the maid servant’s beautiful and delicate looks. The latter’s face heated up and smiled gently.
“Please do, little miss.”
The maidservant said softly: “It is no trouble.”
In her heart, she said: Although this Master is a little elderly, he is very gentle and considerate. She was just a common citizen currently being employed as a maid for a short term, helping out with serving in the bureau’s back courtyard. Roughly two years later, she would need to marry. If she could marry a husband like Master Cui, who knew better how to dote on people with age, wouldn’t that be great?
As she thought of this, the maid servant’s face reddened even more. She quickly dropped a, “My name is Ju’er,” before leaving to fetch the wine.
Cui Buqu couldn’t have guessed that even after turning into an aide of an Imperial Censor who was frustrated with his life, he could still draw the interest of a lady. However, he didn’t pay it much attention, for County Magistrate Guang had already come here with his cup raised.
“Imperial Censor Rong came from a long journey. This lowly subject should have organized this banquet to wash away the dust, even if a sudden calamity had befallen us and Guangqian County is in a difficult situation, for as you see, even this banquet had to look shabby. Please understand us, Imperial Censor Rong.”
Rong Qing rose to his feet slowly; his consciousness was still vaguely intact, only the hand that raised a cup was shaking slightly.
“May I know… when will Governor Yang1 be arriving?” The one he was asking after was the Prefecture Magistrate of Guangqian Prefecture, Yang Yun.
Huang Lue looked very apologetic: “The number of affected places in the Prefecture were too many in number. Governor Yang is busy with official matters, just now he has sent someone here to deliver a word that he will not be able to come today.”
Rong Qing was very angry.
One of the reasons he came to the banquet tonight was because Huang Lue had mentioned before that Yang Yun would certainly show up.
However, he did not. Not only was Yang Yun absent, he had not even sent a Sima or Registrar or any other subject to explain himself. He had just allowed a servant to casually give a word to Huang Lue, and be done with it.
This show of a cold-shoulder was obvious without a doubt.
In the entire Guangqian Prefecture, no one took this Imperial Censor seriously.
It also meant that they were not worried that Rong Qing would file a report once he returned.
Because Yang Yun is a relative of the royal family, the cousin of the Emperor. He still shared a good relationship with the Crown Prince Yang Yong. Thus, he was fearless.
Rong Qing also could not prove the misfeasance of the officials. As the calamity progressed, the officers were giving their full efforts in saving it; the ration’s storage has been emptied because of this, and the waters outside the city haven’t quelled. The County Magistrate of Guangqian County had also sheltered many victims. If Rong Qing spoke carelessly, ill luck would only befall upon him.
“If I were you, I would not have attended the banquet tonight.” to his ear, Cui Buqu spoke suddenly.
Rong Qing’s heart was in frustrating disarray, he unknowingly turned his ears away.
“You have not found out anything before asking them to contribute. Wouldn’t that be the same as robbing someone else on the street? Yang Yun’s absence was also within reason. Before this expedition, I have already sent people out to investigate; although Guangqian County experienced calamities frequently, including the flood two years ago, it has never been like this: with water filling up every corner in the rise of explosive waves.” Rong Qing’s heart quivered, he couldn’t help saying: “This also meant that two years ago, it had never reached this situation, but Yang Yun and Huang Lue filed false reports?”
Cui Buqu watched the banquet, his expression unmoving.
“From what I know, in the first year of Kaihuang, Guangqian collected five thousand shi2 of grains. Last year, another three thousand shi. After the flood this year, the Imperial Court delivered more grains. However, right now, Huang Lue claims the storage has been exhausted; would you believe it?”
Rong Qing murmured: “I hadn’t been wrong. Something is amiss here!”
Cui Buqu: “If I were you, I would not act rashly and alert the enemy, but I would leave the discussion for further plans after everything has been investigated. If there is evidence, even if we threatened them with the lives of their families, killing family after family and sending heads rolling down, the entire scene would unfold on its own. Whether it was Yang Yun or Huang Lue, if they dared to make a ruckus of it, then let them give it their biggest shot.”
His voice became softer and softer, only Rong Qing could hear it. Although his voice was slow and soft, coming in pleasant waves of sounds, Rong Qing was startled by the sheer killing intent his words brought, even his entire person was woken up by it.
This Commander of the Zuoyue Bureau truly kills without blinking. Rong Qing recalled all the rumours that were related to Cui Buqu, and among them, the one revolving around the Thousand Lantern Banquet had been the most reputable. If he dared to even touch the most beloved person of Princess Leping, who wouldn’t he dare to kill?
Rong Qing felt his heart grow cold, couldn’t help but furrow his eyebrows: “Using your method, surely there would be those who were innocent or wrongly accused among them. We came here to cast out the wicked and cherish the virtuous, not to unleash a killing spree!” Cui Buqu gave an astonished look: “Then dare I ask how many of the wicked has Imperial Censor Rong cast out as of now?”
Rong Qing suppressed his fury: “There is no need for you to provoke me. I would never heed your advice! Otherwise, how could I, an Imperial Censor, be any different from the dogs of the Zuoyue Bureau?”
Without waiting for the maidservant Ju’er to deliver the lime wine over, the alcohol had reached Rong Qing’s head. These words that were spoken to Cui Buqu were equivalent to depleting any soberness he had left. His body shook and fell headfirst onto the wine table.
Cui Buqu shook him worriedly: “My Lord! My Lord!”
Assistant Magistrate Li Yan sighed when he saw it: “Imperial Censor Rong truly exhausted himself with the calamity; only due to running about endlessly and accumulating these feelings in his heart, he got himself drunk so easily!”
Huang Lue immediately ordered someone to help Rong Qing to rest. Cui Buqu followed after them when he saw it, yet Huang Lue laughed and said: “Master Cui, you too are exhausted from running errands for Imperial Censor Rong these days, so let yourself relax tonight! Imperial Censor Rong is an honoured guest, yet he has fallen down before the banquet ends. For the sake of your master, you should give in and drink a few more cups!”
Cui Buqu could not fight him over it, so he really drank two cups, before he reddened in a way that could be seen with the naked eye. He immediately waved his hand as he coughed and said: “Truly, I cannot hold it any longer!”
Watching his embarrassed look, Li Yan, Wu Yi and the others all laughed.
“Master Cui truly is sincere, drinking as he was told!” “Isn’t this it? The subject is like his master!” “I wager Master Cui is more forthright than Imperial Censor Rong.
Does Imperial Censor Rong have any plans for this expedition?”
Among the jokes, it was unknown who had asked such a question.
Cui Buqu shook his head, supporting his head with a palm as if he was thoroughly beaten by the wine.
“I do not know. It doesn’t matter where my Lord goes, he refuses to bring me. He—he doesn’t trust me!”
There was a complaining undertone as well as a feeling of being wronged; both Master Cui’s eyes have turned red, there was also a glint of tears, looking like he was truly drunk.
Since they couldn’t ask anything from him, everyone lost interest.
All but Li Shisi who went about toasting wine to everyone sauntered here. In his hand was a cup brimmed with wine, doing all he could to push it into Cui Buqu’s hands and ask him to drink.
Cui Buqu wanted to push it away, but the other’s mood darkened.
“Why is Master Cui willing to drink someone else’s wine, but not mine?
Is my wine poisoned, or what?”
Cui Buqu squinted his eyes at him, giving off a look of innocence and confusion.
Li Shisi giggled as he caught Cui Buqu’s hand, half-heartedly forcing him to drink that cup of wine.
“Master Cui, since you are so unhappy and unwilling here, why don’t you find another host?”
“What… What host?” Cui Buqu blinked, slower than he was before like he didn’t understand. Li Shisi: “Imperial Censor Rong is old-fashioned and stubborn. You cannot benefit yourself with someone like him; surely Master Cui finds it difficult to even sustain himself? Imperial Censor Rong wanted to pull off something big since he came to Guangqian, but he has never asked whether others were willing to. He’s young, yet fearless. There is no need for Master Cui to ride on the same sinking ship with him. Why don’t you take the chance and seek out a new host?”
Cui Buqu gave a doleful frown: “I am just a humble scholar; after failing my studies, I could only write to earn a living. Other than Imperial Censor Rong, why would any new host have me?”
“The Li family is one of the largest distinguished families in this county. Coincidentally, I need someone who can write. If you decide to follow me, I guarantee you would not live in poverty as you do now. Regardless of how much Imperial Censor Rong pays you, I will double it!” Li Shisi said heroically.
Cui Buqu furrowed his brows and said nothing as if he was profoundly deep in thought.
Li Shisi did not hurry him to give a reply; instead, he made use of the opportunity while his back was against the audience as they drank wine and chatted, not paying them any attention, he used his thumb to caress the tender flesh atop the other’s wrist. The roughness made Cui Buqu shiver slightly, deepening the layer of redness on his face.
Even if Master Cui is a muddle-head, he would know that Li Shisi was taking liberties with him.
Seeing there was fury on his face, Li Shisi laughed as he got closer: “Master Cui, I truly am serious about liking you, as well as serious about giving you a better life. Let alone remaining at Imperial Censor Rong’s side where your days are bitter, you might even endanger your own life. Think about it yourself. If you truly find an answer, then come to XiangJi Restaurant and say my name. The manager will send your word.” His warm breath inched even closer. Cui Buqu flung him away before leaning back.
Li Sisi grinned: “How pleasant it would be if you were to remove the last character3!”
Cui Buqu coughed twice; it was doubtful whether he was furious or ill. “Dare I ask whether Lord Li knows someone surnamed Feng?” “Feng4?” Cui Buqu’s voice was soft and inaudible. Perhaps Li Shisi
heard it wrongly, thus curiously said, “Eight generations throughout my ancestors there was no one whose surname was “Feng”. Why are you asking this?”
Cui Buqu said in disinterest: “Perhaps I’m mistaken. He looks a lot like you, Lord Li.”
Li Shisi immediately took advantage of it and laughed: “Haha! Couldn’t have guessed that Master Cui liked to play these sort of games. Alright, alright! Then when we interact with each other in private, you may call me Feng Shisi!”
Cui Buqu jumped to his feet.
“Lord Huang, this humble one can no longer digest more wine. Please allow me to excuse myself.”
Huang Lue waved his hand like he understood: “Ju’er, help Master Cui to rest.”
Li Shisi did not continue harassing him. He returned to his cousin’s side, before hearing him lecturing himself: “You are too ridiculous. Even more so than normal days. Why did you tease Rong Qing’s aide today?!”
“I am just helping out my cousin to inquire about Rong Qing’s background?!” Li Shisi shamelessly and intimately stated, “If Rong Qing brought such a person with him, then he will definitely know what he’s up to. Maybe if we start from him, we could chase Rong Qing out quicker!”
The eldest son of the Li family snorted: “Take care of yourself first. It’s not your place to interfere in such big matters!”
Li Shisi lowered his head in an awkward smile, accepting his lecture, no longer having the frivolous behaviour when he was with Cui Buqu.
“Aren’t I just helping? Otherwise, after being driven out by my old home, I will be driven back into it! How embarrassing!”
“You!” The eldest son of the Li family was caught between being furious and laughing, exasperated at him not meeting the expectations.
Rong Qing’s headache shattered his mind.
He held his head as he sat up, shooting a glance at the half-naked woman who had fallen unconscious next to him, his jaw couldn’t help but fall, quickly lowering his head to inspect his own clothes, feeling up and down, checking left and right, as nervous as a virgin woman.
“I still thought that Imperial Censor Rong would want to have a night. Who could have guessed that he would look like this: a common womenfolk who was kidnapped to the fortified mountains?”
Rong Qing immediately raised his head.
There was someone standing next to the door, giving him a half-hearted smile. It was the one who wobbled as he walked, seemingly as if he was seriously drunk just now, Cui Buqu.
 使君 (shi-jun) honorific title of civil governor of a province in ancient China.  ⽯ (shi) Chinese unit of measurement which equals to around 60kg.  李郎君 “Li Langjun” taking away the last word would be “Li- Lang”, similar to “Er-lang”, “San-lang”.  “Feng” from Feng Xiao means “Phoenix”, Li Shisi mistakes it with the word “Wind”, which is also pronounced as “Feng”.
Undoing your robes, waiting for your arrival, only you may come, share in the warmth.
Warning: This chapter contains some triggering contents regarding body horror.
Rong Qing had only spoken the first half of the sentence and the second half was a given.
Alcohol makes one foolish; he originally just wanted to drink a little, but who could have guessed that his capacity for alcohol was weak, and spiralled out of his own control. He thought that since the wine tasted sweet, it should be harmless; yet once he drank one cup after the other, he finally lost all consciousness.
He’s fallen into the trap of women’s charm.
It was unknown how much truth he spilt before he woke up sober. Would Huang Lue use this against him?
One by one these theories rose to his sea of thought; Rong Qing’s complexion turned pale, and could no longer pay attention to Cui Buqu seeing him as a joke.
He came here to supervise and investigate the case, not to get himself in trouble. His journey had just begun, so this cannot strike him on his head yet. Regardless of what national beauties were before him, Rong Qing was confident in his determination to omit the temptation. However, now he got drunk and delivered himself to his enemy’s doorsteps.
“If I weren’t here, you would have already lost yourself in the charms of women.”
Cui Buqu walked up close; Rong Qing held guilt in his heart and instinctively retreated behind. In the next second, he came into his senses again, his face seething red.
But he has also suddenly realized the reason why he didn’t like being close to Cui Buqu before.
Because this Master Cui’s observations were too sharp—so sharp that nobody could hide anything from him, as if there was nothing he couldn’t see through. Words that came from his mouth were also mostly a cold laughing mockery. Rong Qing’s passion and stubbornness have turned him into a useless brute with only courage. Everyone preferred to listen to pleasant words and look at beautiful things. There were no exceptions, and Rong Qing could not exempt himself from it either.
However, this almost turned into a grievous outcome; if Cui Buqu hadn’t woken him up tonight and allowed him to continue sleeping, then the next day after he woke up, he would still remain innocent, but no words would be able to explain himself.
“Thank you, Master Cui. It’s my fault for being so careless.” Rong Qing mustered the strength to submit.
Cui Buqu had no interest in Rong Qing. He did not lift his eyelids, told Rong Qing who was getting ready to get down the bed and put on his shoes: “Return to the bed. You are allowed to only leave tomorrow.”
Ha? Rong Qing was taken aback as if he understood what he meant.
If he left now, it was obviously rejecting the courtesy of Huang Lue.
Then, it would be inconvenient to investigate anything in the future. Before he wanted to speak, he turned around to look at that beauty, he couldn’t tell whether she was truly sleeping or simply pretending, finding it inconvenient to say what he wanted to say.
Cui Buqu walked up and patted the beauty’s face.
“Wake up!” His actions weren’t gentle at all.
The beauty woke up vaguely, blinking as she saw two men looking at her, wanting to scream.
Cui Buqu’s actions were quick; he covered her mouth with one hand and hit the back of her neck with the other.
Swaying, the beauty fell back down softly. This time, she truly was unconscious.
Rong Qing: “…”
As expected of the Zuoyue Bureau, with a name that widespread terror; even the Zuoyue Commander himself is so ferocious and cruel.
Then, he heard Cui Buqu say: “When I came in just now, I took a look around.”
If Huang Lue and the others wanted to corrode him, there was no need to send people eavesdropping on the walls outside at this moment. As long as Rong Qing spent a night here, everyone would reassuringly believe that he is already in league with Huang Lue.
Rong Qing thought for a moment and said: “If I leave at daylight, then wouldn’t the person who delivered the paintings think that I have already submitted to Huang Lue and the others, and no longer offer us clues? Let us do it in this way: I feign waking up in the middle of the night, create a ruckus, then leave. Would that not be better?”
He hasn’t gone completely stupid. Cui Buqu curled his lips: “Possible. However, the scale of the ruckus you create on your own is surely limited?”
Rong Qing gave a confused look.
Li Yan also drank a lot during the banquet before he was finally heaved up onto the horse carriage while he was heavily drunk. Once he returned to his manor, he collapsed and slept until the next morning, when he heard his trusted servant reporting that something huge came up at County Magistrate Huang’s place last night.
Rong Qing woke up at midnight, realized that there was a beauty next to him. Angered, he immediately ran to the room next door to beat up his own aide who was similarly drunk, then dragged the bureau’s servant as he went looking for Huang Lue, waking him up from his own bed and scolded him for seeking entertaining when the calamity was still going on outside the city. The pitiful County Magistrate Huang was then punched on his eyes, and it’s feared that he might not be able to leave his room for a few days.
Li Yan laughed loudly as he listened, his voice suddenly stopped as he asked his servant: “Then did Rong Qing sleep with that beauty?”
His servant squinted his eyes: “It’s said that when the beauty woke up, she was only half-dressed and her body was covered in bruises. She cried and shouted that it hurt. Perhaps Imperial Censor Rong hasn’t had ‘a meal’ for a while now, he went full out at once!”
Li Yan laughed again: “Really, such a young bird!”
His servant played along and said: “This Rong Qing is both reckless and rude, yet it’s exactly because of this that he will not ruin our plans. Once the flood retreats, he can only leave and everything will return to normal.”
Li Yan shakes his head: “That won’t do. If that happens, how will I get the chance to take over Huang Lue, and climb a step higher? Huang Lue’s position is swaying and unstable. It’s very easy to ruin plans. Best let him and Rong Qing fight among themselves and suffer heavy losses together. Go, get a paper and a brush.” ……
When Cui Buqu and Rong Qing returned to the posthouse, Guan Shanhai has just returned.
Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian did not follow them to the banquet last night. Firstly, was to maintain a low-profile, after all, when two top-tiers were guarding him, it was very difficult not to get noticed. Secondly, there might be someone among the audiences who knew Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian, and their identities would imply the involvement of the Zuoyue Bureau, which would not help their investigation.
“What did you find out?” Rong Qing couldn’t help asking Guan Shanhai.
Guan Shanhai cast Cui Buqu a glance, and after the latter nodded his head, he said: “By order of the Commander, I have investigated the Governor of Guangqian Prefecture, Yang Yun.”
Rong Qing was stunned: “Why is Yang Yun being investigated? Wasn’t it Huang Lue?”
Cui Buqu said: “If something is going on with Huang Lue, would you think Yang Yun is completely ignorant of it? Either he pretends not to know anything, or feign weakness and helplessness, allowing Huang Lue to operate fully. Or, he is the biggest fish behind everything. Be it either of those possibilities, this person cannot escape the crime.”
Rong Qing was slightly astonished; why had he never thought of the third possibility?
Guan Shanhai said: “Yang Yun’s wife experienced a miscarriage and passed on more than a decade ago. After that, Yang Yun married someone else, but his new wife bore him no children. She had even convinced him to take in a concubine, so that they may be descendants of the Yang family. However, Yang Yun had not done that; he was instead bent on remaining with his new wife until today, where he still had no children.” Rong Qing asked: “Does that not mean that he and his wife are now in a good relationship?”
Guan Shanhai shook his head: “I went under a new identity during these two days and bribed the servants of the Yang manor, feigned conversation with them only to find out from their mouths that Prefecture Governor Yang remained in his study most of the time and did not share a room with his wife.”
For a moment, Rong Qing looked as if he saw the breakthrough before it vanished within a blink of the eye.
Until Cui Buqu laid it out: “A man, especially if they have reached Yang Yun’s age, would most certainly crave for children. If he shared a good relationship with his wife and was bent on growing old with her, then so be it. However, the fact that he refused to share a room with his wife proves that this reason can be excluded.”
Rong Qing saw it suddenly: “Something is wrong with Yang Yun!”
A sudden realization hit him, and what followed were even more thoughts: “If something is wrong with Yang Yun, then Huang Lue cannot escape it either. As I observed these people closely yesterday: All the landlords carried worried faces, fearing that we would want them to be parted with their legacies. The Li and Ding family, who were the two largest landowners in this county, led the start of the argument and yet they did not even look the slightest worried about it. Perhaps they have already conspired with Huang Lue from the beginning to pocket these rations! There was also Wu Yi; he is the County’s Official, failing to subside the calamity, he drank quite a lot yesterday. It seems he is also somehow related. From top to bottom in Guangqian County, it seems like Li Yan is the only one innocent.”
The more Rong Qing spoke, the angrier he felt. His face has turned metallic green: “Since Yang Yun refused to meet me yesterday night, it may be because that thief’s heart of his is consciously guilty!”
As the conversation went on, Qiao Xian also returned. She brought with her a large sack while having a curious look on her, her brows knitting tightly, turning their gazes on the sack in her arms from time to time as if she really wanted to toss it away yet her hands clutched it tightly. It all did not add up.
Following her into the house was the scent of rotten flesh that had spread, making one want to vomit.
“Commander, from what you ordered me to investigate, there’s the result.”
She placed the package onto the table, carefully opened it. Rong Qing opened his eyes wide, his face turning pale.
Inside the sack, there were a few tattered clothes and robes stuffed into it that one could no longer tell its original colour.
However, they were not the ones radiating the stench, but it was the bones with flesh clinging onto them that had been submerged in water for too long and bloated.
There were fingers, hands, hair, ribs, and some of them were flesh that had fallen off after they rotted. Some of them seemed like they were gnawed on by animals. However, on them, without a doubt, were all wounds made from knives.
Rong Qing turned his head and rushed out, after a while, vomiting sounds could be heard.
Cui Buqu was perfectly calm and collected. His eyes blinked once and told Qiao Xian: “Wrap it up, and make someone give Imperial Censor Rong some water.”
Rong Qing had drunk quite a bit of wine last night but he ate nothing and so he could vomit nothing from his stomach but bile. His footsteps were wobbly as he helped himself back using the side of the wall.
“Where is this from?” Even his voice was light-headed. Qiao Xian said: “Outside the city, at the same place you almost drowned last time.”
Rong Qing was astonished: “You dug them out there? Then it means the painting speaks the truth!”
He took the water from Qiao Xian’s hands. Just as he took the first sip, he recalled something and shakily said: “Have you… cleaned your hands just now?”
Qiao Xian looked at him expressionless: “No.”
Rong Qing had already drunk a mouthful of water into his stomach. He couldn’t even spit it back out. His face turned metallic green once again.
Watching as he wanted to run out to vomit again, Qiao Xian quickly grabbed him and dragged him back, snorting: “Be a man and have guts! Why make so much fuss?!”
Rong Qing looked like he cried invisible tears, he could only try his best to turn his head away, not looking at that sack; forcibly he said: “How many corpses like these are left?”
“Today the flood receded a little. The place you stood on yesterday could keep a foothold. I have only dug a little and discovered these. There are a lot more down below. If one were to dig further, I fear,” Qiao Xian paused for a moment, and spat out four words, “It would be endless!”
Rong Qing’s lips quivered, unable to say anything.
At this time, the posthouse’s soldier begged for an audience, saying that a child came on behalf of someone else and delivered a bamboo tube. It said that it was for Rong Qing.
Rong Qing could no longer pay much attention to vomit, and quickly asked: “That child, bring him in quick!”
The soldier laughed: “He’s long gone. There’s only this scroll. Would you take a look?” He had smelt the strange smell in the house, waiting by the door and refusing to come in.
Qiao Xian tossed a string of copper coins to the soldier. The latter put the bamboo tube down and happily excused himself.
Rong Qing opened the bamboo tube and took out a piece of rolled-up paper.
After it was opened, it was another painting.
The style was similar to the ones before, however, its lines were a lot thicker. After it was drawn, it was simply rolled up and stuffed into the bamboo tube.
At the foot of the mountain, was a villa, and everywhere else were forests. There was no one guarding the villa, only a large rat on the stage.
The rat was truly large, practically as tall as half the height of a pillar, dragging its curled up tail as it fixed its gaze on the gates of the villa, giving it a greedy look. Its body was leaned forward in a stance as if it was prepared to go in at any time.
Rong Qing blurted out: “Oh big rat, Big rat, don’t take my grains. How hard I tried to nurture you, yet I hadn’t earned your pity. Oh big rat, Big rat, don’t take my grains! How hard I tried to nurture you, yet I hadn’t earned your grace1. Is this to remind us to go to the villa to investigate?”
Guan Shanhai said: “From the painting, the villa is surrounded by forests. This place should not have been hit by the flood yet, thus it can only be the North of the city.”
Yet Qiao Xian said: “Commander, this humble subject thinks that due to the urgency of the matter, we should first find out who is the one behind these paintings. This person has delivered three paintings, as if warning Imperial Censor Rong, yet refuses to divulge their identity, concealing themselves and refusing to come into the light. Perhaps they’re harbouring malicious intentions and want to lure us into the wrong path.”
Rong Qing immediately: “But you’ve seen it just now yourself, his warnings are true. Otherwise, how were you able to bring that sack back?”
Qiao Xian said coldly: “A few corpses and bones cannot prove anything. If there is something going on with villa in this painting, it would be heavily surrounded. To go seeking it suddenly would surely alert the enemy. If you can, go look for it yourself, do not take us along with you to the frontlines. The reason Commander came here originally wasn’t to help you investigate this case!”
Rong Qing was stunned, speaking as his face slowly turned red.
“Stop making noise. Someone has already found this place for us.”
Cui Buqu took out a strip of paper from his sleeve, spreading it on the table.
Qixia Villa in North of the City, Ninth Night of the Ninth Lunar Month. Convenient for moon-gazing, undoing your robes, waiting for your arrival, only you may come, share in the warmth.
The words were crooked and askew and neither did the paper have a signature. Every sentence did not make sense, rendering one to laugh.
However, this was the very strip of paper stuffed into his hands last night, when Li Shishi was teasing him.
⻨！三岁贯⼥，莫我肯德: 《硕⿏》(lit. Big rat) from 《诗经·国⻛·魏
⻛》 (lit. Book of National Songs of Wei Dynasty) is a folk song of the people during the Wei Dynasty.
But, is Feng Xiao, truly worth it?
“This strip of paper was secretly given to me by Li Shisi during the banquet last night. Whether or not his words are to be trusted, he had undoubtedly pointed us to the place so we needn’t search for it ourselves.”
Before everyone’s looks that bounced between suspicion and concern, Cui Buqu spoke slowly.
Rong Qing’s look changed: “That is to say, the author of these three paintings was him?”
Cui Buqu did not answer that question. Instead, he talked about what he had discovered from those three paintings.
The first painting illustrated the expression of a man in official clothes, so they were definitely familiar with people of the court. Otherwise, common people would not even have known what colours were worn by their respective ranks, neither would they have known how to draw such a clear-cut piece of painting.
The second painting had corpses buried under a tree; now that Qiao Xian had gone to dig them up in person, it had been proven that they were true. From the corpses’ bones and leftover clothes, they were very likely flood victims. However, why would flood victims be killed? If they killed each other, then no one would have buried them, neither would there be such a huge pile of them. Thus, there was only one explanation: they were killed. In fact, the murderer did not want anyone to know, so they buried the
corpses. Once the flood washed over it, the soil was washed thin, so when Qiao Xian went over, she could very easily dig them out.
As Cui Buqu finished speaking, he looked around at everyone. As expected, they all looked astonished.
The paleness hasn’t faded out from Rong Qing’s face, swaying unstably as he stood, battered out of all his senses: “I know now. I know now… these flood victims must have wanted to enter the city for refuge, but were murdered on Huang Lue’s orders!”
The Imperial Envoy would be coming, yet the flood victims were accumulated outside the city, unwilling to leave; this cannot be justifiable. However, there were not enough rations within the city. Or perhaps, Huang Lue and those distinguished families within the city had never intended to waste rations saving these victims. So, they had killed them all to get over with it. Strength left the victims as they starved, so when faced before this wave of killing, they wouldn’t have the strength to fight back.
If this theory is true, then the entire Guangian County, from its County Magistrate to distinguished families and landlords, were all accomplices or the murderers themselves.
“Huang Lue should die!” Rong Qing hammered a fist onto the table, cursing brutally.
He suddenly raised his head to look at Cui Buqu: “I will write the report now and send it to His Majesty, bringing this local incident to light!”
Cui Buqu asked him instead: “If one were to say these flood victims died outside the city before they arrived, and Huang Lue had buried them in order to avoid the pestilence from spreading, what would you say then?”
Rong Qing’s expression was extremely agitated: “If that is so, then how can they have knife wounds on them?!”
Qiao Xian twitched her lips: “This is not good. If one were to say they killed each other from starvation, and the city is already empty of rations during that time, Huang Lue would not dare to let them in easily. In the end, while in their hesitation, everyone died. If you don’t have other evidence, then this incident would just be rendered a wrong observation. If he could defend a city from being invaded by the flood, that in itself is already a laudable deed; balancing merits and demerits, he would be forgiven.”
It was like Rong Qing’s neck was being squeezed, he was voiceless all of a sudden.
Cui Buqu told Qiao Xian: “Go and investigate Li Shisi, check the time he arrives in Guangqian County. And also, whether there is such a person in the Li family.”
Qiao Xian acknowledged the order and left.
Rong Qing couldn’t help saying: “Then, what about the third painting?”
Cui Buqu: “Qixia Villa; we can take a look.”
Before Rong Qing could display his smile, Cui Buqu raises a finger.
“However, it is me who goes, and not you.”
Rong Qing was taken aback, immediately saying: “Commander Cui, you cannot burn the bridge after you’ve crossed the river!”
Cui Buqu practically burst out laughing: “If Qixia Villa is really related to this incident, then it will most certainly be heavily guarded, with dangers aplenty laying in hiding. If I won’t go, can it be you otherwise?”
The only two top-tier masters present, Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian were people of Cui Buqu. Naturally, Rong Qing cannot command them.
Rong Qing withered all of a sudden.
He felt like after he came here, he had not uncovered many clues, but he also has never done a single thing right. Now it was obvious there were many things that looked wrong, but not a single clue could be found.
The endless stretch of heroism that Rong Qing had when he left the capital, cannot withstand a single blow in the face of reality.
Very quickly Qiao Xian returned.
Li Shisi; there truly is such a person. It’s not difficult to investigate since all one needed to do was ask at Li family shop units. In fact, due to his absurdness, no one would ever question people who seek his name.
“Allegedly, he is a distant nephew of the Li family’s patriarch. Since young, in his hometown, he’s naughty and mischievous, unable to be taught, failing in both studies and martial arts, a mouth full of flattery and often running off to linger in inappropriate places, making his elders furious till they jumped and were forced to toss him into the county town, begging the Li family to arrange a task for him to do, to avoid him from growing more and more absurd. Who could have guessed that he doubled his mischievousness when he came here, for not only did he coax the entire Li family till they bloomed with happiness, he even got involved with a married man, creating affairs everywhere. However, he had accomplished the few tasks that were given to him splendidly, and so the eldest son of the Li family got close to him.”
“I’ve asked around, and realized he came to Guangqian County after the heavy rain began, around five to six days ago.”
Rong Qing gave an “Ah”, and said, “The rain began ten days ago. Horrendous rain caused the water to rise in level, catalyzing the process, flooding outside Guangqian City four days later, meaning that Li Shisi hasn’t witnessed it!”
Cui Buqu turned towards Guan Shanhai: “What are your opinions?”
He had not treated Guan Shanhai like any common bodyguard, seeming like he looked up to him instead. Guan Shanhai was also gradually being convinced and wasn’t as declining as he was at the beginning. For Guan Shanhai, pursuing Cui Buqu was no longer a reality that could be changed. With how Empress Dugu heavily valued the Zuoyue Bureau, this task of his would not end swiftly. Instead of being displeased with his duty, it was better to earnestly try his best.
And so Guan Shanhai added with all seriousness: “With Li Shisi’s identity, it’s impossible to obtain trust the moment he came. So, he could not have witnessed the corpses beneath the tree unless he heard hearsays. However, even if we had not obtained such important information, how would he have found out within a few short days? Thus, these three paintings might not come from him. His meeting at Qixia Villa might only have been a coincidence.”
Cui Buqu nodded his head: “But I still need to go.”
Qiao Xian’s eyebrows furrowed: “Commander!”
Cui Buqu raised his hand, and she immediately quietened down.
“Yesterday at the night banquet, Li Shisi came out of the blue, speaking when it was not his place to speak, showing himself in an incredibly bombastic way. After him, Huang Lue, the Li and Ding family all couldn’t hold themselves back and had to speak to provoke Imperial Censor Rong into fury.”
From the views of bystanders, perhaps Li Shisi was just creating mischief. However, to Cui Buqu, this method of his was very similar to Feng Xiao’s style. Behaving mischievously but bringing out the true faces of everybody.
“The Governor is taking his time; Huang Lue remained silent; the Assistant Magistrate Li Yan seemed to love proving himself more than the County Magistrate. The Ding and Li families seemed like they didn’t even take Imperial Censor Rong seriously. However, without Li Shisi there to holler around, these people might still have been in quiet, humorous moods, joining forces to perform a staged banquet as if they were all in the same boat, coaxing Imperial Censor Rong enough to the point he might have already written a request to the Imperial Court asking for more rations.”
Rong Qing listened angrily. Waking up this morning, he realized he had almost stepped into Huang Lue’s traps, yet hadn’t thought that he was played so thoroughly.
Guan Shanhai looked like he had a thought.
Qiao Xian squinted her eyebrows, realizing that Cui Buqu seemed to trust Li Shisi beyond the normal.
Cui Buqu is determined that this is Feng Xiao in disguise, and so formed his analysis based on this thought.
But what if this assumption was wrong?
What if Li Shisi isn’t Feng Xiao? Even if he is Feng Xiao, what if he is harbouring malicious intentions, luring Cui Buqu into a trap on purpose?
“If the painting is not the doing of Li Shisi, then who could it be?”
Cui Buqu allowed Rong Qing to take out the other two paintings; once three paintings were put side by side, it was obvious.
The third painting’s brush strokes were clearly rougher and more casual than the former two. With just a few strokes, it sketched the outline of the rat and the villa.
This proved that it was drawn during a very pressing moment. He couldn’t even wait for the ink to dry up first before wrapping it up and have someone send it here.
Rong Qing had never noticed this before, but now that he examined it, he did notice a few problems.
“This person’s skills in painting are good—definitely not a common citizen. Since he could find out these things, he would have been someone of considerable standing. In fact, he could even grasp the core secrets. He might have been one of the Li or Ding families.”
Although he was rash and childish, after he calmed down he could prove that he wasn’t completely useless.
“The third painting is sent here early in the morning, proving he had been observing our every action in the dark. If I had associated myself with Huang Lue yesterday night, I fear this painting would not have made its way here today. Master Cui, in your opinion, would this person have attended the banquet yesterday night?”
Cui Buqu nodded his head: “Not only is this person not a common citizen, but he is certainly also quite accomplished in artistic and calligraphic abilities. Although he tried his best to erase all traces of himself, we could still perceive that his painting abilities are excellent. Lao-Guan, go find out among the people who attended the banquet yesterday night, who is skilled in calligraphy and painting, yet possess very small fame.”
Guan Shanhai left quietly, having no objections to the address of ‘Lao- Guan’.
Perhaps he already knew that the situation in Guangqian County is like a messy pile of chips, impossible to overcome with just martial arts alone and that Cui Buqu’s existence is like everyone’s pillar of support. Let alone Qiao Xian and himself—even Rong Qing who was not used to people of the Zuoyue Bureau had unconsciously relied on Cui Buqu, following behind him.
Although this Master Cui is riddled with sickness, and could not even muster his spirits on normal days, when one is before him, answers to every uncertainty would be determined, and problems were no longer problems.
Breakfast was delivered quickly, but everyone had no appetite. Rong Qing only took a few bites before rising to his feet and turning around to leave, saying that he wanted to search for new clues. Perhaps he could tell that Qiao Xian had something to say, so he searched for an excuse to leave. Cui Buqu did not stop him.
After Rong Qing left, Qiao Xian couldn’t wait anymore and said:
“Commander, tonight, please allow this subject to go!”
Cui Buqu said: “With Guan Shanhai, you needn’t worry. Feng Xiao would have his reasons for leaving a clue like this behind.”
He has already decided that Li Shisi is Feng Xiao. Qiao Xian puckered her lips.
Cui Buqu’s deals with Feng Xiao more frequently than herself, and he was an equally intelligent person, so he could have most certainly recognized Feng Xiao through scanty hints.
“However, Commander, by the end of the day Feng Xiao is a member of the Jiejian Bureau. Every action and move he makes would be for the Jiejian Bureau, just like last time in Tiannian Mountain, where he feigned surrender to annihilate the stronghold of the Thirteen Pavilions of Yunhai in a single swoop. You sustained heavy injuries, yet he earned the Śarīra, improving his martial arts to a stroke above, even obtained the same amount of credit as our efforts. Do you think that this time he came, was just to warn you of this, with no ultimate goals?”
Cui Buqu raised his eyes.
“What are you trying to say?”
Qiao Xian struggled momentarily, before immediately kneeling down, looking at him.
“This subject thinks that your trust in Feng Xiao has already crossed the line!”
Cui Buqu laughed instead: “Oh? And what is the line? Who made that rule, was it you?” He was furious for real. Qiao Xian could see it through his eyes, but she insisted on continuing to speak.
“Commander, Feng Xiao and we do not walk the same path. He looks fast and unbridled, but in reality, he is astute in calculations. Since the City of Six Crafts until the present, every time he works together with you, he has never been at a disadvantage! This time, he has surely come to Guangqian County for something else. It might even be his intentions to let you take the perilous road, while he sits back waiting to reel in the benefits!”
Cui Buqu nodded his head: “I know. Everything you say applies to his personality very well.”
Qiao Xian: “Then why do you still trust him?!”
Cui Buqu froze as he pondered.
He thought back to the day in that cave, that stab that Feng Xiao had given him.
During that time, he was not angry or surprised, because he had long calculated the reasons and causes, and understood why Feng Xiao would do this. If Feng Xiao hadn’t stabbed him, it would instead make him stupid.
Petty kindnesses and soft-natures did not suit them.
However, he hadn’t expected those words from Fan Yun: That Feng Xiao who had obviously left came back looking for him and got himself harassed by Yu Xiu.
If Feng Xiao had left earlier, using the ways Cui Buqu taught him to pass through the array, then he would not have been trapped inside.
Because Feng Xiao had come back looking for him, Cui Buqu also went looking for Feng Xiao. Perhaps from that moment, both of them were truly entangled with each other, a clear line impossible to define between them.
“Commander, the Jiejian Bureau presently looks like they were on good terms with us because of Feng Xiao, but His Majesty would never be too happy to see the Zuoyue and Jiejian Bureau walking so close with each other. Feng Xiao had other reasons for trying to be intimate with you!”
Qiao Xian had never interfered with Cui Buqu’s matters. She would only follow closely by his side, listen to Cui Buqu, and move forward even in the face of danger.
However, her hostility to Feng Xiao has propelled her from being initially hidden and dormant to no longer able to be contained. She would rather provoke Cui Buqu into a fury, but she has to make a reproachful protest.
Cui Buqu blinked: “Everything he could get from me, he could also get from His Majesty. Why make an unnecessary move?”
Qiao Xian gritted her teeth: “Because he wants your person!”
Cui Buqu was taken aback as if he didn’t expect Qiao Xian to put it that way. He couldn’t help himself laughing out loud and he couldn’t stop, bending his back down, unable to be suppressed.
Qiao Xian’s face brimmed red.
Cui Buqu laughed for a long time before he sat back up and shook his head: “Impossible.”
Him, Cui Buqu, who was like a decaying tree, harassed by illness all around; even if he could live to see next year’s Spring, he might not live to see the following one.
As for Feng Xiao, he was peerless in both martial arts and looks—even the unique beauty Fong Xiaolian could not meet his standards—and he’d give anything to spend the rest of his life with a portrait of himself. How could such a person take a fancy to Cui Buqu, a cruel and vicious person who makes use of forceful methods?
“Qiao Xian, you’ve mistaken. Presently, between him and I, we are neither enemies nor friends. However, if I could recognize him, I believe he will not harm us for nothing.”
“Then what if he doesn’t show up tomorrow night?” Qiao Xian asked. Cui Buqu paused for a moment, “It won’t happen.”
Such a confident answer.
Qiao Xian suddenly had a theory.
A theory she wasn’t willing to ponder over too much. Unconditional trust meant taking matters to heart.
To Cui Buqu, has Feng Xiao already become someone he took to heart? Perhaps even he himself hasn’t realized that.
Or perhaps, he wasn’t willing to think about it.
From the City of Six Crafts to Guangqian County, those fine and dense threads intertwining them has stretched across a great half of the Northern Dynasty. Was it not enough to touch the feelings of the cold, hard, steel- hearted Cui Buqu?
But, is Feng Xiao truly worth it?
Forty-five minutes after noon, Guan Shanhai returned. Rong Qing had also hurried into the house.
Of the conversation between Cui Buqu and Qiao Xian just now, they know nothing. Although they realized the atmosphere in the room has turned strange, no one was dumb enough to ask about it.
Guan Shanhai brought a very important message.
“Commander, Imperial Censor Rong, time presses on, so this subject could only vaguely investigate Governor Yang Yun, County Magistrate Huang Lue, Assistant Magistrate Li Yan, and County Official Wu Yi, as well as all the distinguished families within the city: the Li, Ding, Zhao, and Zhong families. I discovered that Huang Lue is quite skilled in artistry. He was once a student of Dong Boren1, sharing a style similar to his teacher. After assuming the post of County Magistrate in Guangqian, the Li and Ding families asked him to paint for them to earn his favour. This subject could not find a piece of Huang Lue’s work within a short amount of time, so I’ve gone instead to an antique shop near the city centre and asked for a copy of Dong Boren’s work.”
He spread open the painting he brought back in front of everyone.
Rong Qing gave a questioning yelp and used it to compare to the second and third painting.
“The way those leaves were drawn, they’re incredibly similar!”
Following that were even more questions.
Why did Huang Lue send Rong Qing three paintings and provided him with clues so that he may investigate the flood? Was he unaware that if the matter came to light, Huang Lue himself would not be able to escape the crime?
This discovery was astounding, making everyone dizzy.
Rong Qing was surprised and bewildered, afraid that he was overthinking it, so he compared both paintings again.
“There are two possibilities.”
Cui Buqu said: “He may have done it on purpose, going against the very path he walked, to lead us into confusion before destroying us in one swoop. Another possibility is that he behaves like he’s on one side, but is serving another; unwilling to associate with them, yet dares not speak for himself, so he could only use these sort of ways to warn you. If you failed, nothing would happen to him. If the Imperial Court launches an investigation, he could be exempt from the crime for making such contributions.”
Rong Qing inhaled sharply. The result was making him more and more stunned and bewildered.
He himself was, too, a scholar who studied bitterly for decades, one who came from a background who read cursorily the accomplishments of scholars of the four arts2. These few paintings, from flowers and trees to mountains and rocks, were drawn from the flow of one continuous line.
This also meant that these three drawings were most certainly the work of Huang Lue.
“Master Cui, please allow me to follow both of you tonight!” Rong Qing begged again.
Cui Buqu rejected it: “No, you should stay here. Huang Lue has given you three paintings, he might give a fourth. Only with your presence these clues are obtainable.”
Rong Qing wanted to say something, however in the end, he kept it to himself and nodded his head, obeying completely.
With Qiao Xian and Guan Shanhai, Cui Buqu will be safe, and with Cui Buqu, they would discover more leads in Qixia Villa and find more key evidence to the case.
Rong Qing could smell a sliver of danger, the smell of impending rain from the mountains and wind that hailed down the pavilions.
However, this present version of him hadn’t expected Cui Buqu and the others to encounter such grave danger on this trip. Because from the way he saw it, among these three people, even if they were in danger, Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian would be enough to help Cui Buqu escape.
Even Cui Buqu and the others had been thinking the same.
It drew close to midnight.
The heavy rain had stopped for half a day, and the flood had also receded. As the common people watched the first light after the rain, all their worries in the last few days were lifted. They had also slept soundly tonight.
However, in the sky, dark clouds gathered and concealed the stars and moon. If they weren’t blown away, there would be another horrendous rain, adding to the already disastrous situation of Guangqian Prefecture.
Outside Qixia Villa was a blanket of cold silence.
Even the birds on the mountains have hidden. The villa’s doors were shut tight, yet dark shadows lingered within, proving that it was lenient on the outside but there were people manning the inside.
Tree leaves rustled on the ground, the wind has begun to rise.
Three shadows dropped gently atop the roof, before slipping down into the back courtyard.
Nobody had noticed them.
 董伯仁 (Dong Boren) a famous painter during the Sui Dynasty.  琴棋书画: zither-playing, chess, calligraphy, and painting are the four arts of a scholar from the old school.
Where was Feng Xiao?
Qixia is a very common name.
At the beginning of this year, among all the wealthy families, if they wished to name their villas after a pleasant-sounding yet decent name, “Plucking the stars and looking at the full moon in Qixia” was used most frequently. However, this cannot prove that the owner of the villa lacked literary skills; it could only prove that this villa was nothing unusual. During Spring or Summer, the owner would bring their families to the North of the city where the lands were half the height of mountains to avert the heat.
However, something was strange about this villa.
Its large doors were closed; dust gathered on its steps; a layer of ash atop a few messy footprints like it’s been abandoned for many days. Other than that, the eave was clean, devoid of spiderwebs and on it was written perfectly: “Qixia Villa”, deterring little thieves and rascals from intruding.
Nowhere around the villa was lit.
The wind howled, brushing past tree leaves and bringing them through the openings of the edge of windows. The sound had turned strange, just like a vengeful spirit that has been wronged for many years, was denied vengeance and was left to wander in the wild in long wails. It made others feel chill seeping into their bones. The back courtyard looked like it was empty of souls, as if dangers lingered in the shadows and that a terrible beast could leap out at any moment and time, opening its bloody mouth and lunging itself in your direction.
The three of them came uninvited, naturally, these were expected. Guan Shanhai held Cui Buqu’s shoulder as they landed gently on the ground, following Cui Buqu as he pointed the way; Qiao Xian went to investigate the wood house and kitchen.
Regardless of what Qixia Villa held, and how Huang Lue and Feng Xiao managed to point into the same direction since they have come tonight, they will have an answer.
Qiao Xian walked forward, and just as she was pushing the door, Guan Shanhai seized her wrist quickly.
Guan Shanhai pointed upwards, hinting that she should enter through the roof.
Qiao Xian refused to accept it; ever since Guan Shanhai came, Cui Buqu’s side seems to have been occupied by another person, making her share her worth with him.
However, at this moment, she couldn’t do as she pleased. Cui Buqu was still waiting at the side. Qiao Xian flew up onto the roof, bent her back to lift a few tiles and place them aside. Very quickly, she moved out a hole. As she leapt into the hole, a luminous pearl appeared in her hand.
This was the same one Cui Buqu had dug back from Tiannian Mountain. During that time, he brought the dagger Fan Yun left behind that could cut gold, cleave jade and be all-conquering, so he had dug out a few luminous pearls on his way. Since Xiao Lu was so wealthy, it would be a waste if he hadn’t taken them. If not for carrying many things on him, he even wanted to give one to every member in the Zuoyue Bureau in sight once he returned. The faint and rippling glowing light of the luminous pearl allowed Qiao Xian to see most of the things in the woodhouse clearly—the windows were locked from the inside and there was no way to open them. Just as her gaze fell upon the room’s door, she couldn’t help inhaling sharply.
There was a trap mechanism behind the room’s door—the moment someone pushed it open, it would immediately set off the bow and send an arrow to the door, granting the intruder an instant death.
If she hadn’t listened to Guan Shanhai’s warning just now, even if she could avoid it in time, it would have alerted the people in the villa.
Thus, this villa obviously wasn’t as simple as it looked on the surface.
After all, no big families would implement an ambush like this into their own villa that used to avoid the summer heat.
On the other side, Guan Shanhai also discovered a similar trap mechanism in the kitchen. He searched all around him and didn’t find anything strange, only that he returned from where he started, returning to the back courtyard to look around in other rooms again.
The trap mechanisms in the woodhouse and kitchen made Qiao Xian and Guan Shanhai feel that something in this place was off, otherwise, they would not have taken this matter so seriously.
He watched Cui Buqu kneel next to the flowerbed with his back bent as if he had discovered something.
“Commander.” Guan Shanhai called out.
Cui Buqu didn’t turn his head around. He picked up a green brick next to the flower bed.
There was no soil underneath. It was empty.
Guan Shanhai realized that something was off. Without Cui Buqu’s orders, he reached out on his own accord and touched under the brick. He touched an even smaller brick. It was loose and could be pushed further down.
Guan Shanhai turned around to look at Cui Buqu, wanting to obtain his approval.
Cui Buqu patted twice on his shoulder, indicating that he allows it. All of this was done in the darkness, there was no need for speech.
Although Guan Shanhai joined the Zuoyue Bureau midway, the army’s camp before this had beaten discipline into him, so he was able to resist himself more than any trained Zuoyue guard. Cui Buqu brought him out to honour the Empress, but it had also been a test to put the capable to good use. Even though Guan Shanhai performed well and synchronized with Cui Buqu even more than Qiao Xian, who had been with him for years, it was natural that it displeased Qiao Xian to see it.
Guan Shanhai who obtained Cui Buqu’s approval pressed on the brick again.
Although it’s not loud, something big shifted inside. Three of them were taken aback.
After that, they watched the back courtyard split suddenly from the centre, spreading apart into two sides, revealing a pitch-black underground world.
Guan Shanhai’s reflexes were extremely quick. He flew over, looking down using the luminous pearl and discovered that everything in the cellar was linen sacks. He reached out to stab one of them open, something like white sand poured from it into the heart of his palms, before pouring further downwards.
These are grains! Fresh, new, fat and white grains!
Guangqian Prefecture met a calamity this year; the farms have not been harvested before they were washed clean, so it cannot be grains manufactured locally, and neither could it be stale grains, so it can only be the new grains that were delivered from the Imperial Court’s storage this season!
At the same time, a loud uproar rose from the front courtyard, footfalls pouring about from far to near.
The shadows of the lights wavered, followed by voices, shaken and anxious.
Should we leave or remain? Guan Shanhai couldn’t tell.
Now they have already alerted the enemy, so if they left, the rations here would be moved away on the second day, and there would be no evidence left here; however, if they do not leave, unless Qiao Xian and he had the confidence to suppress the guards here before informing Rong Qing to mobilize Zuoyue guards from the nearest area to theirs and catch them red- handed, there would surely be nothing left of their corpses if they were caught, so there’s no hope for any further investigation.
Guan Shanhai realized that he has never encountered a time when decisions were so hard to make back in the Imperial Guards. He suddenly understood why Cui Buqu insisted to come in person in the first place. Other than Cui Buqu, neither he or Qiao Xian could bear such responsibility.
Cui Buqu’s orders came quick and brief, placing an order at the very moment Guan Shanhai was thinking.
Guan Shanhai exhaled a breath. At that moment, he was a step closer to understanding Cui Buqu’s decisions. Ever since leaving the capital with his heart carrying unwillingness, Guan Shanhai now would obey without a second thought. Even Guan Shanhai himself did not notice this change in himself.
This chronically ill Zuoyue Commander seemed to have a calming effect on others.
As soon as Cui Buqu’s words landed, Guan Shanhai immediately pulled him up and leapt without delay.
Qiao Xian followed closely behind.
However, once the three of them landed, from the forest outside a few black shadows emerged and attacked them.
Swords and blades clanked, and death was in the air! It’s a trap!
These three words surfaced in Guan Shanhai’s heart and mind.
The enemy might have already been waiting for them, before finding the opportunity to catch them all in a single draft.
It was no wonder their journey here had been unusually smooth, without anyone hindering them.
“Bring him and leave, I will stay behind!”
Qiao Xian spat out these words, not even looking back before lunging herself at the incoming people.
The sword in her hands moved so closely the wind cannot slip through it, creating a heavy sword screen and blocking those seven to eight people outside, forbidding them to come closer.
Guan Shanhai showed no hesitance, grabbing Cui Buqu and leaving! With Qiao Xian withholding those people, Guan Shanhai pulled Cui Buqu and put a distance behind them in a single breath. That area was not far from the foothills, but Guan Shanhai didn’t dare to let his guard down.
All around them were dense forests, swaying in the wind like flickering black shadows that veiled the sky as if there were dozens of ambushes hiding within.
There was killing intent!
A killing intent that seemed like it existed and yet not.
From the front, back, left and right, the air hauled; Guan Shanhai looked back abruptly!
Dark clouds caught the leaves in a whirl, dragging the long shadows on the ground.
There was no light, so how were there shadows?
Guan Shanhai felt an alarm ringing in his chest, and at this moment, a long sword had soundlessly reached behind him.
Yet, he was not its target, but it was Cui Buqu who stood next to him!
Guan Shanhai’s expression paled, and using the quickest movements of his life, he turned around, the long knife in his hand shooting out at the incoming intruder!
However, he was still half a step too late, and the long sword that shot out like an arrow did not turn back. Cui Buqu quickly took a few steps backwards, however, a few steps backwards for a person with no martial arts was nothing to a flying sword. The sword pierced his robes but did not penetrate his chest.
Cui Buqu only felt a striking pain in his chest as the new wounds dragged the old ones back out, and pain brimmed up like rising water. He lets out a groan, his footsteps wobbly. The long sword pierced his skin, but couldn’t advance any further, because Guan Shanhai’s knife was blocking it.
Guan Shanhai leapt up and advanced forward, engaging into a fight with the enemy, their sword glares and shadows so quick that one wouldn’t afford to turn away.
Cui Buqu covered where he was injured, before taking a few more steps back.
Other than the groan he emitted before, he didn’t utter another word, so quiet as if he was a dead person.
But because of this, Guan Shanhai could entirely focus on fighting the enemy without distractions.
The light in the villa was not far away, yet it wasn’t enough to reveal the intruder’s face, because his face was covered, and one could only tell from his figure that he was a man.
However, unless one were a god-given talent that had learned all the martial art techniques that exist in the world, it would be challenging for them to conceal the origin of their martial arts. Especially in front of someone like Cui Buqu, who was strongly informed.
So, it’s him.
At that moment, a lot of details connected themselves, allowing Cui Buqu to realize many things.
However, they were useless to this current situation at the moment.
If they could not escape from this hell tonight, and both of them ended up dead, then even if more things were discovered, nothing could be done.
The masked person’s martial arts were very strong, at least on par with Guan Shanhai’s. Guan Shanhai’s martial arts were those of one who has won a thousand battles; in fact, his movements were an example of murdering techniques from the Jianghu. The former fought at a large scale when it was one-to-one combat with the opponent, unwaveringly rigid. However, when fighting the masked person, he couldn’t demonstrate his skills to the fullest. Since the beginning, he was suppressed on all sides and even bled quite seriously from his wounds. However, Guan Shanhai adapted to it very quickly. He turned from the offensive stance to the defensive, accumulating his strength; his long knife defending Cui Buqu who stood behind him, waiting for the chance so he may turn on the offensive again.
Qiao Xian was still in the villa, unknown whether she was dead or alive.
With her martial arts, unless she encounters someone whose martial arts are a lot better than hers, escaping completely unscathed is entirely possible. However, she feared that they would successfully catch up to Cui Buqu, so she would have to forcibly withstand it.
The light in the villas was bright, no longer dark.
But in the end, was there a trap to begin with? Had the enemy known about their movements prior, and were quietly waiting for their arrival so they could abandon the darkness and come into the light, or did they only alert them after opening the underground cellar?
As Cui Buqu watched Guan Shanhai fighting with that person, his heart gave an answer.
Nevertheless, regardless of how much danger they were in, Feng Xiao, who had left him a note, or Li Shisi, had never shown up throughout the event.
Li Shisi is Feng Xiao.
Then, as the protagonist of tonight’s event, where was Feng Xiao?
…… Rong Qing looked at the secret letter in front of him as turbulent waves rolled in his chest.
There was only a short line of words on the letter, asking him to go to the room in the back courtyard of the bureau tonight. There was no name of the sender, but there was a cluster of leaves with the same style of drawing as the other paintings.
If Rong Qing could not recognize whether this handwriting belonged to Huang Lue, it seemed like Huang Lue knew this concern of his, thus he added a fragment of the drawing so it would be convenient for Rong Qing to compare in detail and earn his full trust.
Whether he should go or not, Rong Qing pondered over it for a long time and could not make a decision.
He had already analysed it with Cui Buqu during the day; Huang Lue continuously used paintings to hint them about the many hidden trickeries behind the calamity. Cui Buqu has also already brought people and advance forward to investigate Qixia Villa.
He had instead remained in the posthouse, waiting for Huang Lue’s forth painting.
However, the painting hasn’t arrived but it was a letter instead.
Huang Lue didn’t want to let others push him forward to his death, so his only option was to bring order out of this chaos, following in the Imperial Censor’s footsteps and expose all of this, atoning for his own crimes with a contribution. However, he was also worried that Rong Qing’s capabilities would not suffice.
Rong Qing knew now why the Empress wanted Cui Buqu to go on this expedition with him, because the affairs that go on around here reached in far too deep, even to the extent of involving the Emperor’s relatives. It was impossible to accomplish it with just him alone.
Thankfully, there was Cui Buqu. As he thought until this point, his heart calmed down a bit, but shortly after, it became stricken with panic again.
Before Cui Buqu left, he warned him to never leave the posthouse.
However, this time, Huang Lue had delivered a message he wrote himself.
Perhaps he had been discovered for “living off them1”, so Huang Lue was forced to seize the moment, he could no longer be concerned over whether his identity was exposed.
Huang Lue surely held evidence of those who pocketed the rations in Guangqian County, Rong Qing felt, so he if missed the chance, there would surely not be a next time.
He finally made a decision, stuffing the strip of paper into his chest before rising to his feet and heading outside.
The night is dense.
Rong Qing was in a hurry.
He hadn’t alerted anyone, keeping off the main road as he travelled to the little gate of the bureau usually used to transport vegetables and grains.
Just as he pondered over whether to knock, someone from the inside opened the gate.
A servant in azure-coloured robe lowered their head as they waved at him.
Rong Qing took two steps forward, heard the other say: “The Lord has given orders to bring you to his study. Keep your voice low, don’t alert the others. Governor Yang’s eyes are everywhere in this manor.”
It really was Huang Lue.
Rong Qing’s heart calmed, nervously and excitedly nodding his head. He realized that the words spoken by this person had even let slip one particular message: That this matter truly did concern, Governor Yang Yun.
Perhaps this is ultimately the biggest fish.
Rong Qing followed after the servant in azure-coloured robe, passing through the alley and arriving outside a study.
Inside were candlelight lit faintly, vaguely lining out the silhouette of a person sitting before a desk.
Huang Lue is truly present.
No one was guarding the entrance, so Huang Lue should have already moved them away earlier.
That azure-robed servant said in a low voice: “Your Lordship may enter on your own. I will stand guard outside.”
Rong Qing pushed the door open.
The azure-robed servant immediately closed the doors behind him after he entered like he was afraid someone would discover them. Rong Qing didn’t pay it any attention. He walked towards the room.
Lifting the curtains, Huang Lue’s back was faced to him, bent over his desk on his elbow, writing furiously.
“Huang Lue, I have come. What do you have to say to me?”
Huang Lue didn’t move and even his shoulders did not raise; it was not the response of someone having heard a voice.
Moreover, it had been him who invited Rong Qing over deep in the night. Rong Qing felt something was wrong.
“Huang Lue?” He walked forward slowly, reaching out to hold the other.
Huang Lue was wobbling, didn’t put up a fight before he fell sideways. Rong Qing was taken aback.
He saw a dagger had stabbed itself into Huang Lue’s neck, claiming his life in a single shot!
What in the world happened?!
Rong Qing’s mind was in a mess. He stopped pondering over it, consciously making a decision as he turned around to the door.
It cannot be opened. It was locked! What about the window?
He quickly went to open it but realized that something had already fastened it shut from the outside and it could not be opened.
Rong Qing had no martial arts, so he cannot leap up into the beams and exit through the roof. He could only be trapped in this room.
At this moment, the outside lit up.
Lights were lit one by one, accompanied by the sound of shoutings.
“This is terrible! Murder! Imperial Censor Rong killed the Sire!
Rong Qing finally admitted that he has completely fallen for it. However, he suddenly thought of a key question.
How did the enemy know that no one was with him and that he could only come to the meeting alone?
Could it be that Cui Buqu has also encountered danger where he was? Rong Qing’s heart sank.
He stood next to Huang Lue’s corpse and heard the commotion outside. It was unknown whether someone of importance came. A stream of killing intent surged through and a leg kicked the door open.
Governor Yang Yun, bringing a group of people, coming in the name of catching a “murderer”, with Li Yan, Wu Yi, and the others following behind him.
“Rong Qing, how daring you are! So you truly think that as an Imperial Censor, you may do as you please? Even killing an official of the Imperial Court?!”
“It really is you. It really is you!” Rong Qing starts laughing coldly.
Yang Yun gave a look that says: Have you really gone mad? He furrowed his eyebrows and waved a hand: “People, arrest him!”
“Don’t touch me!” Rong Qing pointed at Yang Yun, “He is obviously murdered by you; after you murdered him, you called me over, so the crime of Huang Lue’s death can be pinned on me. You are the true murderer!”
Yang Yun sighed a breath: “Why has the Imperial Court sent a lunatic as the Imperial Envoy?”
He turned towards Li Yan, Wu Yi, and everyone else: “I should not have interfered with matters occurring in your county, however, now that such a huge matter had happened, an edict should be written to the Imperial Court. Do you people have any opinions to first arrest him?”
Yang Yun is the superior official, while Li Yan and Wu Yi are inferior, so they immediately said: “Everything will be carried out as the Governor orders!”
Rong Qing said angrily: “I am still an envoy sent by His Majesty; who dares to lay a finger on me?! Huang Lue gave me three pieces of paintings, told me that something is going on with the rations of Guangqian County. I answered him and came here for an inquiry. Who could have guessed that he was murdered by the lot of you! I want to submit a memorial to His Majesty! Yang Yun, since you came to arrest me today, this proves that you are guilty at heart. You are the one that executed the murder!”
Yang Yun was driven into a furious laugh: “Good, good. It seems like Imperial Censor Rong refuses to relent before he meets the tether’s end. You said Huang Lue gave you three paintings; where are they?”
Rong Qing raised his head: “In my room at the posthouse!”
Yang Yun spoke in a low voice: “I will go there with you in person. If you cannot find them, then don’t cast the blame on me for being cruel!”
Rong Qing saw the look of confidence he carried on his chest, and out of nowhere, he felt his hope sinking.
However, as things progressed, he was left with no choice, and could only bring people as they travelled to the posthouse, silently praying that Cui Buqu could return as quickly as possible.
He had naturally forgotten how he could not bear the sight of Cui Buqu in the beginning, yet at this moment he had already taken the other for his last saving grace.
However, whether Cui Buqu would show up in time or not, even he wouldn’t be able to tell.
A stream of people came to the posthouse; Rong Qing went into his own room first, sprawled onto his bed and fumbled under his blanket.
Rong Qing’s expression changed abruptly.
He immediately raised his blanket; there were originally three paintings there, but now—
There. Is. Nothing! Author’s Notes: Although Feng-er did not appear in these two chapters, his shadow is everywhere. He will officially show up in the next chapter. In fact, he remains a key character in this arc as usual. Good night lovelies ~
 吃⾥扒外: describing someone who plays a double agent, benefiting off one person while actually helping another side.
Rong Qing’s frantic searching suddenly drew to a pause.
He abruptly turned his head around, meeting Yang Yun’s gaze. The look in the latter’s eyes was calm and serene as if he had expected all this. Yet it seemed like there was nothing within them either, and that everything had been Rong Qing’s own illusion.
At that moment, Rong Qing completely understood.
These three paintings might have been work of Huang Lue’s, and perhaps Huang Lue did show the intention of siding with them and providing guidance; however, Huang Lue’s paintings have been discovered, so the enemy must have lured Cui Buqu and the others away on one side, while plotting a trap for Rong Qing on the other, masquerading as Huang Lue to deliver a secret message. The enemy knew that Rong Qing would most definitely come to the meeting because Huang Lue is the most important character of this case. Wouldn’t those clues be attractive? Rong Qing could never ignore a temptation such as this.
Then, Rong Qing heard Yang Yun asking that azure-coloured robe servant.
“Are you the one who let Imperial Censor Rong in?”
The servant lowered his head, his expression not visible: “Yes, Imperial Censor Rong said he has something important to discuss with the master. After this humble servant had informed the master, Imperial Censor Rong was let in.”
Yang Yun asked again: “What did they discuss?”
The servant said: “This humble servant doesn’t know. This humble servant was standing guard outside on orders, only to hear that a fight rose between both of them and became all the more vigorous. The master shouted, “I am a subject of the Imperial Court, every action of mine will have testimonies of the law, and not to let you do as you please”. After that, the ink slab was flipped, and so were the tables and chairs. This humble servant realized something wasn’t right, couldn’t call the others in time, so ran inside to push the doors open, yet saw…”
His voice was trembling with fear as if he really did hear these series of noises outside. Rong Qing snorted coldly twice, no longer interested in defending himself.
Because he knew that regardless of what he said, this crime of murdering Huang Lue would definitely be clasped onto him.
This was a theatre staged since the beginning; whether Rong Qing was a part of it or not did not matter, this theatre would surely be able to carry on.
“What did you see?” Yang Yun asked as if he hadn’t heard Rong Qing laughing coldly, and neither did the other big and small officials.
Rong Qing cast Li Yan a look; the other did not raise his head to look into his direction.
How did he conclude that this Assistant County Magistrate was a good person to begin with?
From the beginning, Huang Lue was the only one that could be bought over.
So it was a pity that Huang Lue was already dead. Because dead men tell no tales. “This humble servant saw Lord Huang fallen on the ground. Imperial Censor Rong was holding a dagger in his hand. When he saw me opening the door, he ran forward. This humble servant was so shocked that he quickly left in a panic, locking the windows and doors from the inside before calling out to the others. After that, all your Lordships were alerted.”
The azure-robed servant put everything in a logically arranged manner, laying out the causes and effects clearly. In due time, he would be quite an intelligent and formidable subordinate. If Rong Qing hadn’t been the one being pressed charge to, he would have wanted this servant for himself.
As things have progressed, Rong Qing no longer has a reason to take out that secret letter.
However, he still carried a sliver of hope, and so he took the letter out of his bosom to put it onto the table.
“This is the letter Huang Lue gave to me. He drew me three paintings to warn me that the rations of Guangqian County had been distributed to anonymous sources, that someone had embezzled it. So, many victims were not saved. The corrupt did not only embezzle the rations, but they have also refused to spare the victims. In order to totally annihilate any future troubles and to avoid the Imperial Court from looking into the matter, he would rather go big or go home, and so he silenced all the victims outside the city. I have already dug out a lot of corpses from beneath the tree. Yang Yun, what do you have to say?”
Yang Yun spread the letter and took a look at it.
“Imperial Censor Rong, although I really want to believe your words, I cannot refrain from saying: I have seen County Magistrate Huang’s penmanship, and this is not his.”
When Rong Qing listened to this, he no longer felt surprised.
If the other knew Huang Lue had delivered three paintings, decided to cast the line longer on purpose to fish for the biggest fish and deliver a secret letter, then this all made sense.
As to the same style of leaves and mountains at the end of the letter, it was very possible that the murderer forced Huang Lue to draw it on before he killed him. Only in this way can it lift Rong Qing’s final concern.
Rong Qing cannot refrain from admitting that when he was before a sly old fox like Yang Yun, before an iron fortress like Guangqian County, he had finally ran his head into the wall until it cracked and bled.
“Yang Yun, feeling cocky aren’t you? The moment I came here, you were like an old hunter, quiet and soundless, waiting for the prey to jump into the trap on his own.”
“Imperial Censor Rong, your words are all over the place, and I have ceased to understand it.” Yang Yun sighed, giving Rong Qing a pitiful expression, “Additionally, I know not of the corpses you speak. Li Yan, Wu Yi, do you people know what these matters are?”
Hearing his own name, Li Yan finally took a step forward, put his hands together and said: “Those corpses and bones belonged to victims who had died from the plague. To avoid an infestation, the County Magistrate had given orders to gather them all and bury them. During that time, the flood invaded and everything was put into a hurry, so they could only be hastily taken care of.”
“I see.” Yang Yun nodded his head, turning towards Rong Qing, “So, Imperial Censor Rong, why did you kill County Magistrate Huang Lue?”
Rong Qing laughed loudly and asked instead: “Say it yourself, why would I want to kill Huang Lue?”
Yang Yun’s expression was unchanged: “Huang Lue is dead. Only you would know the causes behind it. Although you are the Imperial Envoy, you would be similarly guilty for killing an Imperial Official. If you refuse to speak the reason, then I can only retain you temporarily and wait for the imperial edict before executing punishment.” “He who has a mind to beat his dog will easily find a stick1!” Rong Qing pointed at Yang Yun brusque with a harsh look, “Do you dare to go to the capital with me and debate before the Emperor?!”
Yang Yun shook his head: “As an Imperial Censor, you knowingly violated the law and killed a County Magistrate yet refused to repent. Seize him!”
He raised his hand slightly, and from his left and right people moved, pressing Rong Qing down.
“Let me go! I am the Imperial Censor; do you people intend to defy your superiors and start a rebellion?!”
Rong Qing knew that he cannot give in. Once he was caught today, tomorrow he could be executed soundlessly for any form of reason in the prison. There might even be a file charge with his very own signature and seal on the Emperor’s desk. Even if other Imperial Censors are to come here in the future to help him reopen his case, he’d only have one life and cannot be resurrected. To him, this would already be too late!
He struggled with all his might, hollering and yelling with the intention to sway these constables.
However, very quickly he grew disappointed. These people would not bulge, obeying Yang Yun and being on his beck and call. They cared nothing for what Rong Qing said.
Li Yan, Wu Yi, and the others pretended that they have heard and seen nothing, hearing him but paying no heed.
“Release me! Release me!”
Even if Rong Qing tried all he could to root himself to the ground, he was still dragged outside against his will.
Could it be that even before he could prove himself, his life will be forsaken here? Walking until the bitter end, disappointment turned to despair; Rong Qing felt inexplicable grief and anger.
“Who dares to touch him?”
An unfamiliar yet familiar voice resounded from outside the door as if the holy voice of nature had descended from thin air.
Rong Qing violently turned his head!
His strength was immense, practically snapping his neck. Yet, he didn’t care, pinning his gaze towards the outside.
Everyone else followed the voice and looked, stunned as if they had never thought that even at this time, someone would show up willingly be a guarantor for Imperial Censor Rong who has committed murder.
Outside the door, someone showed up.
As he finished speaking, he hadn’t stopped walking, moving forward in huge steps towards everyone else.
His cloak fluttered behind him as he strode, leaving behind a cold chill.
He bore a sickly countenance and stood alone, yet it felt as if there were thousands of troops and horses behind him, to the point that there were soldiers at his left and right awed by his aura and couldn’t refrain from taking two steps back, opening up a path for him.
Rong Qing’s feelings had become agitated, as his eyes were filled with hot tears.
He had never before been so thankful for Cui Buqu’s appearance. In Rong Qing’s eyes, Cui Buqu’s figure had become unsurpassably gigantic.
Behold a high mountain in awe, where all scenery had stopped2. Yet the others did not share in his sentiment.
Wu Yi, who was worrying over the fact that he had not proven himself in front of the Governor, took a step forward when he watched the scene, standing in the way of the exit.
“From where did this rebel come from? You…”
“It is me. Cui Buqu.” Cui Buqu rebuked with an even louder voice, refusing to allow the other to finish his words. He fished out a wooden token of authority and cast it at Yang Yun.
Yang Yun dodged it, and so the token hit Li Yan’s shank. It hurt.
Li Yan groaned, his face twisting, wanting to stomp on that accursed token. However, Cui Buqu’s next words stopped this thought of his.
“Commander of the Zuoyue Bureau, to be regarded as similar to the Six Ministries, additionally, with the authority to execute an action before a permit.” Cui Buqu surveyed his surroundings, an impatient and domineering aura written on his face. “To put it simply, I am superior to Yang Yun’s title as an official, understood?”
Li Yan and Wu Yi exchanged glances before the latter stepped out to question him: “Among the three Departments and Six Ministries, why have I never heard of the Zuoyue Bureau?”
Cui Buqu laughed coldly: “You haven’t, but Yang Yun definitely has. As the Governor of a Prefecture, as well as a relative of the Royal Family, Yang Yun, will you dare say you haven’t heard of the Zuoyue Bureau?”
Yang Yun said slowly: “Are you not Imperial Censor Rong’s aide, Master Cui? Since when have you turned into the Commander of the Zuoyue Bureau? Rong Qing dared to kill even an official of the Imperial Court; how would I know whether or not you are fake?” Cui Buqu: “Ever since we came here, haven’t you refused to show yourself? How would you be able to tell, with a single look, that I am Rong Qing’s aide? Could it be that Governor Yang had known everything like the back of his hand, but still he refused to show himself, so he may wait for the prey to leap into the trap on its own?”
This person was truly as the rumours made him out to be: difficult to deal with.
One especially cannot spar with him in matters of the tongue.
Yang Yun thought: A face deep like water, an aura as superior as the height of mountains, steadfastly standing his own ground.
“Regardless of how you elaborate on the account, Rong Qing remains the murderer of Huang Lue…”
“A suspect!” Cui Buqu cut him off again, “Before the Three Judicial Divisions find Rong Qing guilty, he cannot be called the murderer! I have already sent someone on horseback to deliver an edict to the Emperor. An answer will come within a few days. Before that, Governor Yang cannot retain him for any sort of reason!”
Yang Yun snickered coldly: “What a coincidence. Before I came, I have also delivered an edict to the Emperor, telling him of Rong Qing’s doings while he carried the identity of an Imperial Censor: vilifying a colleague, inferring in the relieving of the calamity, and even wished to forcibly share it out among the people with the intention of raising a riot and ten other similar violations of the law!”
Rong Qing said angrily: “Keep letting those words spill out of your ass!”
Yang Yun did not pay him any attention, glaring at Cui Buqu with both his eyes.
“A life that belonged to Huang Lue lays here. As an official of the people of Guangqian, I cannot sit here idly and not take it into regard. Before the superiors order it, crimes committed by all classes of people will be similarly punished. Rong Qing must be imprisoned! If after the investigation it is proven that he is indeed not Huang Lue’s murderer, I will ask for punishment for my erros in front of His Majesty myself!”
Cui Buqu refused to take a step back: “I have already brought in the nearest Zuoyue guards to this area, and they will arrive very quickly. His Majesty allowed Rong Qing and I to embark on this expedition so that this matter will be handled by me. It’s not necessary for Governor Yang to bother himself with it.”
Yang Yun squinted his eyes.
Even if the people around them were obtuse, at this moment they could already see the contrast between the two of them. The senior and junior officials all looked at them in awe, as quiet as mutes, and dared not even breath.
Even though Rong Qing was from the Censorate, he had just come out of the thatched cottage; impulsive and quick to be driven into anger, did not even pose a threat.
As the saying goes: When the gods fight, the people suffer; no one would be willing to be the fish in the pond that got involved, and so they waited until a victor and loser were decided among the gods, before the common mortals would once again come out and watch the crowd.
“Three days.” Yang Yun finally said slowly, “I can only give you three days. After three days, no matter what, I want Rong Qing to be arrested and questioned. When the time comes, you and I will just demonstrate our own prowess in front of His Majesty!”
Cui Buqu glared at him for a moment. “Alright.”
Yang Yun laughed, putting his hands together: “The inability to attend to Master Cui since he came to this place is our own fault. I ask for your understanding.” Cui Buqu said in disinterest: “Ignorance can be forgiven; Governor Yang has taken it too seriously. Please take care of County Magistrate Huang’s corpse. I will order people to investigate the truth of his death.”
Yang Yun: “Naturally, it will be done. This matter is enshrouded by mysteries, perhaps even strange. It is true that the truth must be uncovered.”
As two old foxes came and went, the anxious aura radiating around them both gradually wore thin. The bystanders couldn’t help letting out a long breath of relief.
Rong Qing’s heart that had been suspended for a while could also temporarily relax.
Listening to how Huang Lue’s corpse will be taken care of, he wanted to speak but said nothing, as if there was something he wished to say, but in the end, he refrained.
If Cui Buqu could hear his thoughts, he would have felt that he was finally a little bit smarter.
Yang Yun didn’t remain for long, he brought his people and left quickly, returning a quiet posthouse to Cui Buqu and the others.
Rong Qing let out a breath of relief, and just as he wanted to say something, Cui Buqu spat out a mouthful of blood, dyeing his front in red.
Rong Qing’s face paled, immediately climbing over to help Cui Buqu who had fallen down, taking up half of his weight.
Only now he knew that the front Cui Buqu had put up just now was all forcibly acted out.
However, this was difficult to lay blame to. Just now, Yang Yun was stunned by this exact act. If he knew that Cui Buqu was just faking it, let alone three days, he would have immediately tossed both of them into the prison, striking first to gain the upper hand.
Cui Buqu said nothing, he only glared at him.
Rong Qing knew he was guilty at heart, he dared not spill nonsense and told him everything.
“I know I am in the wrong, Master Cui. I haven’t listened to your warnings and took action on my own, so this is my comeuppance. Presently, I dare not act impulsively any longer. Everything will go as you say!” Rong Qing confessed honestly, gritting his teeth, “Everything is surely the work of Yang Yun! Huang Lue is also murdered by him!”
If Cui Buqu still had his strength now, he would most certainly take Rong Qing’s head and slap it a few dozen times before speaking. However, at present, Cui Buqu had no strength to scold him. He could only be thrift with his strength and squander it on more useful matters.
“We were ambushed in Qixia Villa. Qiao Xian and Guan Shanhai have both been injured. I only managed to escape through their protection.”
Rong Qing’s heart skipped a beat as he listened: “That proves that Yang Yun knew every step we took. Could it be that near us there is…”
Cui Buqu shook his head, his voice sinking low: “At this pressing moment, we should bring Qiao Xian and the others back as quickly as possible. They have been secured in a cave by me without water or aid. It’s difficult not to guarantee that the enemy will find their way there!”
“I will go with you, taking Xiao-Liu along. He’s powerful and could be of use!” Rong Qing nodded his head, before asking in confusion, “Just now, you managed to suppress Yang Yun purely by your aura, why not take Huang Lue’s corpse as well? He will most certainly do something to it!”
Cui Buqu: “This is their territory. Even if I retained the corpse, they would still find ways to do something. Additionally, they would patch all the holes and leave no traces. There is no need to hold on to any hope that anything could be found on the corpse.”
Rong Qing remained silent for a moment: “You spoke about submitting an edict to the Emperor and moving nearby manpower; I suppose they are lies meant for Yang Yun?”
Cui Buqu closed his eyes and nodded his head: “Only in this way he wouldn’t dare act rashly and we could buy more time.”
In this game of chess, they have lost their advantage. It was as if the enemy could foretell the next steps they were about to take and block their every path, forcing them to a dead end.
Cui Buqu was very certain that he saw clearly the thick intention to kill in Yang Yun’s gaze just now.
If not for the enemy’s inability to determine whether there were Zuoyue guards waiting outside of Guangqian County for orders, they would have already acted.
Ambushes were laid on all sides, and their enemies stood in all four directions; it gave one a feeling of helplessness as if they punched a bed of cotton with a fist.
Perhaps this wasn’t the worst situation he’s found himself in, but it was definitely against an enemy who knew him best.
Cui Buqu ordered Xiao-Liu to help himself apply some medicine and change his clothes. Only now Rong Qing knew that Cui Buqu even sustained a stab wound to his chest by a sword. Thankfully, it was only the skin that was pierced, and not anything deeper. However, it still bled a little and needed to be tended with medicine and gauze cloth.
After it was hastily bandaged, Cui Buqu brought Rong Qing and left. They had to escape a few pursuits before finally leaving the city and running towards the North of the city. To avoid the enemy finding Qiao Xian and Guan Shanhai’s location, Cui Buqu secured them outside a cave, even making best of the situation by utilizing the geography and deploying a small array, causing people who enter the forest to lose their sense of direction, no longer finding their way out no matter what.
However, once he entered the forest, his eyebrows furrowed.
“What happened?” Rong Qing immediately realized something was wrong.
“The array changed.” Cui Buqu said.
Rong Qing was astonished: “Someone came here before us!”
Even if this was the case, Cui Buqu cannot back out. Because Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian both could still be waiting for him in the cave.
Internal wounds could be tended with meditation, but if external wounds were not treated with medicine, then the healing process will be prolonged. Only with water and food could Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian recover.
Rong Qing was also aware of the disadvantages, so after he was astonished, he followed behind Cui Buqu soundlessly.
The fog in the forest was thick, for even sunlight could not penetrate through it.
Only god knew where such a fog came from at a time and season like this.
A wind blew from the mountains, bringing with it grains of sand. Rong Qing couldn’t see very well, so he rubbed his eyes. It had only been a brief moment, but once he opened his eyes once again, he realized that Cui Buqu and Xiao-Liu had disappeared!
Cui Buqu heard the laugh of a young maiden in his ears. It oscillated between sounding close up and far away, like a feather that tickled at his heart, sending his thoughts into disarray.
They said many things, yet it seemed like they hadn’t said anything at all. Unintentionally, Cui Buqu expended some of his attention to listen.
It was neither a drum nor a chime3. It sounded more like a chime being split open by someone using a weapon and a long winding aftersound ensued, ringing endlessly in one’s ear.
Cui Buqu’s body shivered a little, feeling like an awl had pierced through his ears. Pain came suddenly, and it was too late to cover his ears. He could only forcibly stomach it. Everything before his eyes suddenly blacked out, and a feeling of wanting to vomit blood brimmed up his chest all of a sudden.
A pair of hands immediately covered both his ears.
The warmth they brought seemed to also bring a strong foundation of inner strength, acting like a barrier that kept the sound at bay.
Behind him, a very familiar breathing pattern twinned its way here, enveloping him in it.
The Director: Okay, you’ve made your debut. Time to turn in for the day. Feng-er: ???
 欲加之罪，何患⽆辞 (To add to [my] crimes, how would [you] fear you have nothing to say?): means that when someone is determined to condemn someone else, they would surely find one reason or another. 
⾼⼭仰⽌， 景⾏⾏⽌: Often used by Sima Qian to describe Confucius (Kongzi) for his persona in Records of the Grand Historians, which is used to describe someone who holds his head high with an air of great virtue. 
编钟 Ancient Chinese instrument:
Happy reunion in your dreams!
To meet an old friend in the midst of danger is undoubtedly something to be celebrated.
Waves of music from the zither came from all eight cardinal directions, turning into a sound as sharp as a blade when it pierced the ear. Thankfully, due to that old friend protecting him with his inner strength so that he may not be harmed further, it was also something worth being happy about.
Yet, once that person stood behind him and said “Guess who am I?”, Cui Buqu felt that he couldn’t muster it in himself to be happy.
The zither’s music quelled, and his ears obtained their momentary peace.
As if the other thought he wasn’t heard clearly, his hands slipped down and covered his eyes.
“Guess who I am?”
Cui Buqu: “…”
What situation is this now? How dare he still find the mood in him to make a joke?
Cui Buqu hit him in the acupoint on his elbow; there was no need for martial arts, for anyone would feel their arm go numb after being hit in said acupoint. The other gave a light-hearted laugh, conveniently releasing his grip.
Cui Buqu turned around, and as expected, he saw the person he anticipated to see.
Or perhaps, Feng Xiao.
Perhaps Li Shisi had been frivolous and unmannerly, avoiding the general courtesy between people, but he came to this county all the way from his hometown to work under his cousin and had even obtained his good graces. It was important that he should know how to behave and read expressions, and not take a fancy on Cui Buqu upon first glance at the banquet, going so far as to disregard Rong Qing’s identity and harass them on purpose, drawing trouble to himself. This had not made sense, to begin with.
After the deed has been done, this “Li Shisi” would use all sorts of reasons to avert questioning from members of the Li family. However, to Cui Buqu, he had already exposed the truth of his identity as Feng Xiao.
“I remember you were the one who asked me to meet you at Qixia Villa.” Cui Buqu said slowly.
“That is right, but I was being held back during the journey.” Feng Xiao smiled.
He had switched back into his original voice.
Cui Buqu: “It would not be an ordinary person if he could withhold you for so long, that you were unable to show yourself.”
Feng Xiao: “That is right. His martial arts are impressive that it’s rarely ever seen in life. He and I fought for practically half of the night with neither of us gaining the upper hand and only then did I manage to escape.” Cui Buqu: “Before you obtained the other two Śarīra, how were your skills compared to his?”
Feng Xiao pretended to ponder over it: “Before that, although I am a little inferior, I have the virtue of an elegantly dignified aristocratic demeanor with an unbridled and carefree calm command that surpasses the likes of mortals that he would never be able to catch up with even on swift horseback. Hence, even if we encountered him before, there is nothing he could do to me.”
Cui Buqu said coldly, “Commander Feng, your first sentence would have been enough. The nonsense that follows afterwards can be discarded. Then who do you think he is?”
Feng Xiao laughed: “If you want me to guess, it should be Xiao Lu.”
Cui Buqu suddenly raised his gaze to look at him. Feng Xiao: “Didn’t you also guess the same?” Cui Buqu did guess the same.
Fan Yun had followed Xiao Lu for quite a number of days. Even if Fan Yun had other goals, upon encountering an extremely gifted and talented young man like Xiao Lu, he would most definitely erupt in joy, passing on a part of his martial arts and unorthodox arrays to him. The regrettable sentiment from Cui Buqu that he had been unable to learn martial arts was not a problem when it came to Xiao Lu. Even if Fan Yun was wary of him, Xiao Lu would have nevertheless learned a lot.
Before this, back in the outskirts and the secret underground room of the Duan manor, Cui Buqu had his first meeting with Xiao Lu. During that time, he was a completely graceful young gentleman, leaving behind a great impression of himself for Cui Buqu. Looking back at it now, the enemy had only shown himself just because he wanted to meet Cui Buqu, feigning being on a quest to save his sister. It was even unknown what identity that woman who was saved by him had. Cui Buqu thought that he had been careless in the end, and did not investigate Xiao Lu and that woman’s background after the incident was through. However, with Xiao Lu’s smarts, he should not have left behind any clues.
One can imagine that in those years he built the Thirteen Stories of Yunhai, he would have needed a lot of luck, and would have to learn unique martial art techniques that many would never come across in their lives. With his capabilities, he could build a powerful organization like the Thirteen Pavilions of Yunhai, who roamed the Northern and Southern Regions freely, from nothing. Naturally, scheming to obtain powerful martial arts for research and study would mean nothing—prodigies were rare, but they certainly exist.
Cui Buqu himself is one. If not for his extraordinary intelligence, he would have long died in the Cui family’s manor and would have never lived to adulthood.
Feng Xiao is also considered one, achieving such an extent in the martial arts at such a young age, surpassing all peers his age tremendously. Naturally, he is also a prodigy in martial training.
However, the most terrifying thing about Xiao Lu is not his schemings or martial arts, but his patience. Even with powers like his unsurpassed martial arts and the Thirteen Pavilions of Yunhai, he could still quietly wait in the dark for a few years until the Jade of Heaven’s Lake was delivered to the Central Plains, and only then was the Thirteen Pavilions of Yunhai exposed by a tip of the iceberg.
Since the City of Six Crafts, Cui Buqu and the Thirteen Pavilions of Yunhai kept running into each other. Naturally, this didn’t mean that Xiao Lu and he were tied by fate, but that Cui Buqu had been looking for traces of this organization. Xiao Lu has also gradually acknowledged that if Cui Buqu was not eliminated, the numerous plans of the Thirteen Pavilions will be perturbed.
When one is a pest as small as a fly, they would still always buzz around someone in annoyance, so nevermind the Zuoyue Bureau who had the Great Sui Empire at their backs and wielded similar power. They cannot be compared to just a fly. After forming an alliance with the Jiejian Bureau, Cui Buqu has become an enemy Xiao Lu wanted to get rid of as quickly as possible.
In this flash of thoughts, Cui Buqu joined many dots together.
He had long since guessed that the Thirteen Stories of Yunhai was behind this during the course of investigating Yang Yun, but he hadn’t expected to face Xiao Lu head-on so quickly.
“Just now, I found it strange. Their place of hiding was obviously a secret, and there was also an array situated outside. Even if enemies found their way here, it would be impossible for them to find their way in so quickly and even change my array. It was you all along.”
It was Feng Xiao announcing his participation in the game, allowing the enemy to acknowledge Guan Shanhai, the others, and the array’s existence, and so conveniently changed it.
If not for Feng Xiao, he would have found Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian by now.
Feng Xiao did not look apologetical for accidentally luring the mastermind here, he chuckled instead: “Wouldn’t that be convenient? Both of you were taught by Fan Yun; with the happy reunion of shixiongs, how do you do justice to this alluring scenery without a spar?”
Happy reunion in your dreams! Cui Buqu thought in his heart.
He really wanted to take Feng Xiao’s head down and kick it around like a ball.
However, there cannot be a civil war between them; everything will be discussed after they have found the others. Even if Xiao Lu could change the array, he would not be able to locate Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian’s location in a short amount of time. If Cui Buqu was quick enough, perhaps they would be a step ahead and find them first.
Rong Qing and Xiao-Liu lost their way, but they were not Xiao Lu’s targets.
Regardless of how talented the array maker is, they cannot deal with all concerned aspects well-rounded; the person Xiao Lu wished to kill the most now is Feng Xiao, and Cui Buqu second.
Rong Qing and Xiao-Liu did not matter, so they were instead safer, at most they would just lose their way in the array.
Cui Buqu sighed: “Does Xiao Lu also know how to attack with the zither? Did he steal that knowledge from the Fajing Sect?”
Feng Xiao also sighed: “What he did isn’t the demonic songs; it only has its appearance, but not its abilities. In fact, didn’t you hear what he was playing?”
Cui Buqu was taken aback, and for a moment he recalled it. It was the ‘High Mountains and Flowing River’.
Bo Ya had quoted Zhong Ziqi as his Zhiyin, and played the ‘High Mountains and Flowing River’; after Ziqi’s death, Bo Ya broke his zither and cut its strings, deeming that there is no one else who knows him best like him in this world1.
Feng Xiao plainly said: “He played you such a song on purpose, weren’t you even a little bit moved?”
Xiao Lu’s standards were high, giving his good graces only to Cui Buqu. Perhaps the reason he showed himself was because his impression of Cui Buqu was very different. Both of them shared relations with Fan Yun, and both of them were born with defects on their bodies; Cui Buqu was born congenitally deficient, Xiao Lu carried a physical disability on himself, beautiful yet incomplete— having the same life experiences, yet they had a heart as determined as steel, refusing to have their lives decided by fate, not letting go as long their goals have not been achieved.
Cui Buqu being like this would naturally make Xiao Lu feel something in his heart.
Whether it was a long-time friend or foes that felt sympathetic for each other, between the both of them, there was truly something that cannot be drawn with a clear line.
However, why did Feng Xiao’s tone sound a little strange?
Cui Buqu frowned slightly: “Let’s not talk nonsense; let me see how much he changed the array.”
As he spoke, he walked forward a few steps. The fog was dense, and the sound of women laughing came rolling back once again.
Taking a few steps backwards, those voices were gone, and what replaced them was loud bustling sounds of a city—of hawkers crying out loud, streams of pedestrians coming and going—coming through life through voices alone, as if one saw it with their own two eyes.
However, following these voices that came from all eight cardinal directions, the fog grew denser. Cui Buqu had originally found the exit, but when a horrendous wind swept past, the road ahead changed again and turned into forests and boulders before his eyes.
A hand held his wrist.
Feng Xiao had been by his side all this time.
“These voices are disrupting me from succeeding in lifting the array; could you return a tooth for a tooth?” Cui Buqu asked in a soft voice. Feng Xiao’s teeth parted vaguely, looking as if soundless, but in reality, the secret message had already been transmitted and only Cui Buqu could hear.
“Sure, but I have no zither on me.”
The zither Yu Yin that Feng Xiao had “blackmailed” from Cui Yong was declared by him as too glaring when carried upon the back, and so he took apart its strings and used it as a weapon. The zither’s body, according to hearsays, was brought back to the capital by him. Presently, they didn’t have it when they needed it. Without the body, how can one play music of a zither?
“Give me your hand.” He heard Feng Xiao speak again.
Cui Buqu paused for a moment as if he could guess what the other was thinking of.
After a while, he reached out with his hand.
Feng Xiao tied five strings of the zither to Cui Buqu’s forearm and held the other end in his own hand.
Using their bodies as the zither, their hearts as the music. Feng Xiao raised his right hand slightly, plucking the string. Zing!
The sound of the zither is clear, its music gathering in bundles, taking shape from quietness like an arrow leaving its bow, shooting at the direction in front.
Cui Buqu felt a sharp pain on his arm, lowering his head, the strings of the zither had cut through his clothes and skin, causing red lines to show themselves.
However, Feng Xiao didn’t stop as he flung wave after wave. Zither music filled with qi surged forward, carrying an arrogance similar to Feng Xiao. The fog scattered, and those voices perished.
Cui Buqu twitched the corner of his lips.
He suddenly realized that Feng Xiao wasn’t playing recklessly, but he was truly playing a song.
“Feng Qiu Huang2”.
A very chaotic version of “Feng Qiu Huang”.
It’s feared that even the phoenix would be so terrified all its feathers would fall off.
Unexpectedly, Cui Buqu exclaimed a sound of realization.
He realized that the misty barrier in front of him had disappeared.
All the voices causing distress had quelled, and the world had returned back into a time immemorial, where there was only Yu Yin and Rao Liang.
The array was completely destroyed.
Just now, although Feng Xiao reciprocated it with music waves, those were just to stop Xiao Lu’s attacks; it had done nothing to the array.
However, the array was destroyed just now. The fog was completely gone, losing its effect completely.
This is definitely not the doing of Xiao Lu. Feng Xiao stopped what he was doing. “He left.”
Xiao Lu knew that showing himself now would not warrant a victory, and so he left. He would live another day to meet his match.
He knew very clearly that as long as he is in the dark, Cui Buqu will never be at peace.
With the enemy in the dark and themselves in the light, regardless of how skilled the party in the light is, every move they make would be watched by the enemy, losing their advantage.
At this moment, Cui Buqu also had no intention to fight Xiao Lu head- on. He exhaled a breath inwardly.
Feng Xiao kept the zither strings, and on it was Cui Buqu’s blood.
Conveniently, he took Cui Buqu’s sleeve and wiped the zither’s strings clean.
Cui Buqu: “…”
Before he could respond to it, his wrist was also caught.
Feng Xiao drew back his sleeve, exposing his forearm where the zither’s string had created five bloody streaks.
In the next moment, Cui Buqu felt his body go stiff.
Holding his hand, Feng Xiao lowered his head, and little by little, he licked the blood cleanly off.
When the tongue brushed across the itching wound, Cui Buqu wanted to draw his hand back, but his wrist was held very tightly, causing his attempt to be in vain.
Cui Buqu raised his leg, wanting to kick the other in his vital spot, yet as if Feng Xiao had expected this, his other hand tapped the meridians on his thigh lightly. Cui Buqu felt his strength leave him as numbness followed, his knees falling limp on their own accord against his will as the other man conveniently caught him by his waist; his pale-white face blushed in lumps of red. Feng Xiao thought that when Cui Buqu behaved in such a way, he looked quite vivid like he was shy on the surface. However, whether or not this was the case, only Cui Buqu himself knew. He would never ask about it on his own accord.
“Master Cui!” From afar, Rong Qing shouted.
Before Cui Buqu could unleash his fury, Feng Xiao laughed and released him.
Rong Qing sprinted over with Xiao-Liu behind him.
“Master Cui, are you alright?!” The colour on Cui Buqu’s face didn’t look too well to him.
“I feel fine.” Cui Buqu has rolled his sleeve back down, “How did you people find us?”
Rong Qing: “Just now, I was walking in the array for a long time and met Xiao-Liu. We searched everywhere for you to no avail. Xiao-Liu was driven into fury by this array, so he plucked a bush and kicked the little stones around us to send them flying. All of a sudden, the fog was gone and we found you very quickly afterwards!”
Cui Buqu: “…what you destroyed turns out to be the array’s core.”
He didn’t really know whether it was blind luck, or that fortune favours fools.
“What a coincidence!” Rong Qing was shocked, yet Xiao-Liu laughed silly and turned around.
Cui Buqu didn’t stall time anymore. Very quickly, he found Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian who were hidden in the cave.
The cave was very small, enough for only two of them to sit inside with their waists bent, not even able to lift their heads. The forest outside the cave was dense, and because of this, it was easier to lay in hiding. Guan Shanhai is keeping himself in closed-eye meditation, but Qiao Xian was awake. Seeing Cui Buqu, her eyes sparkled.
Cui Buqu gave Rong Qing and Xiao-Liu orders: “Both of you, one each, carry them back.”
Rong Qing points to himself: “Am I supposed to carry?”
Cui Buqu: “Should it be me, otherwise?”
Rong Qing turned his head around to look at Feng Xiao; the latter was adorned in fine spotless white robes, waving his fan as if he had come here for a saunter.
“Imperial Censor Rong, allow me to introduce myself: Second Commander of the Jiejian Bureau, Feng Xiao. You must have most certainly heard of me. If not, then from today onwards, you have.” Feng Xiao snickered.
Rong Qing: “…”
He looked like he had eaten stale pork yet he was unable to spit it out, putting his hands together he bowed to Feng Xiao: “This humble subject is Rong Qing, it is an honour to meet Second Commander Feng.”
Brilliant. Who could have guessed that among all those present, other than Xiao-Liu, they were all officials whose ranks are superior to himself? Rong Qing finally succumbed to fate and walked over, carrying Guan Shanhai on his back.
Following afterwards, one sentence from Cui Buqu was enough to cause all his fatigue to evaporate, all his spirits multiplied by a hundred.
“Now, we only have two and a half days left.”  Story of Bo Ya and Zhong Ziqi exemplifies the Chinese ideal of friendship with the word 知⾳ (Zhiyin). Here’s their story.  《凤求凰》(lit. Male Phoenix begs for the courtship of a Female Phoenix), a love story between Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun.
Cui Buqu’s face darkened.
Rong Qing’s goals in this place were no longer just to investigate a case, but to also defend himself.
Before this, if he thought that Yang Yun didn’t have the guts to assassinate an Imperial Censor, then after this incident, he no longer suspected the other’s ruthlessness.
Even County Magistrate Huang was dead, and these were Yang Yun’s territories. It was obvious that Li Yan, Wu Yi, and the others listened to his orders. Under such a circumstance, it would be too easy to quietly kill off Rong Qing.
As for his reason of death, whether he died during the calamity or the internal conflicts between himself and Huang Lue due to disagreement in the split of profits, after Rong Qing died, Yang Yun could flesh out a perfectly well-rounded reason. He is a relative of the royal family, so the Emperor and Empress were bound to give him face. Even if they sought out another Imperial Censor to investigate this, the other may not necessarily be someone unyielding who refuses to listen to reason nor bow to force, and so there would be more leeway for manoeuvre.
The manipulative variables lie on Cui Buqu. Only with Cui Buqu safe, can he be safe as well.
A stream of people sat inside the posthouse; Rong Qing’s emotions hadn’t calmed, Cui Buqu seemed like he could read his thoughts, and so he ruthlessly splashed his face with a cold bucket of water.
“I have lost two people on my side. You have seen it yourself, they dared to kill even me. If we could find nothing in the course of two and a half days, and I am unable to turn it over to His Majesty, Yang Yun would surely use you as a scapegoat.” Cui Buqu gave a look that spoke volumes, “Of the things you can think of and cannot, all of them could happen.”
Rong Qing felt a chill down his spine.
“How could they be so bold? All of these just for rations?!”
Feng Xiao snickered: “These words are similar to asking the people why they aren’t eating meat paste congee1! The granary is the backbone of what keeps a country running. Are you aware that rations during a calamity would be worth more than its weight in gold? Even after the flood recedes, those rations could be kept in storage and remain for the next eight to ten years. They could even be used in exchange for something even more valuable!”
Rong Qing was also aware that he had made an indiscreet remark, his face grew hot, yet couldn’t stop himself from asking: “What things?”
Cui Buqu: “Salt. Iron.”
Rong Qing slipped: “Are they planning a rebellion?!”
When he first came to this place, he thought it was just a serious case of a flood. Fearing that the local officials were delaying their duty, he couldn’t help wanting to keep his eyes on them like lanterns. After that, Rong Qing gradually came to feel that the entire matter is not as simple as he thought it would be. The officials, big and small, were colluding in unison, seeming as if they held suspicions of embezzling rations meant for the calamity. However, he could never have imagined that these people had become frenzied with greed, and the matter had transcended beyond his expectations. “They might not be planning a rebellion, but they surely cannot escape corruption.” After Cui Buqu finished speaking, he turned to Feng Xiao, “I wish to ask Second Commander Feng: why would you have come to this place in person?”
Feng Xiao sighed: “Little Lord Cui, we are both considered old friends of many years who met in a distant city regardless, how could you use such a tone when speaking to an old friend?”
Cui Buqu smiled vaguely: “Well then, old friend, if you refuse to confess now and keep exerting all your energy holding it in, then don’t say it in future as well. After all, the one who’s life now hangs by a thread isn’t me. At most, once all the Zuoyue guards arrive, I can just pat my ass and leave. Such a pity this Imperial Censor Rong would have to shoulder all these upon himself; he might even lose his own petty life.”
Rong Qing shivered all over as he turned abruptly to look at Feng Xiao with a rectangular face showing hints of begging for pity like a small animal.
It was too bad that Feng Xiao, who could slaughter even Fong Xiaolian at will, would not have such pity for a big man like Rong Qing.
His gaze, throughout the entire conversation, had only been on Cui Buqu. Especially on Cui Buqu’s arm, where he was cut by the zither’s string a while ago and still hadn’t had the time to change his clothes; Feng Xiao’s gaze lingered with a persistently suggestive look, turning as real as solid gold as it scorched Cui Buqu’s skin.
Cui Buqu’s face darkened.
It was the same principle whether one is teasing a cat or a fox; when the small animal followed the stalk of reed catkin he held it as it jumped to and fro is entertainment, but once the animal is teased enough to lash out its claws it would be prudent to stop. Being scratched is a meagre issue, but if the other bears a grudge then it would outweigh the gains. Feng Xiao readjusted his expression: “Before coming here, I received an anonymous letter.”
He fished out the letter and placed it on the table. Cui Buqu spread it open.
On it were two rows of words.
With such high lands. one feels at home2.
These invaluable precious jades, the gentleman covets.
The first sentence came from “The Records of the Grand Historian”, referring to Fangling Prefecture, which is also the present Guangqian Prefecture.
As for the second sentence, perhaps Rong Qing didn’t understand, but Cui Buqu and Feng Xiao knew that it was referring to the Jade of Heaven’s Lake.
“Is it the handwriting of that old hag?” Feng Xiao asked. Cui Buqu knew that he was referring to Fan Yun.
“He knows a few types of calligraphy, so it’s difficult to tell, isn’t it? However, among the people who know the location of the Jade of Heaven’s Lake, if not them, then it would be the people of the Thirteen Pavilions of Yunhai.”
Feng Xiao did a flourish: “So, wouldn’t it be unlike me if I hadn’t come here in person?”
Cui Buqu raised an eyebrow: “Li Shisi?”
Feng Xiao laughed: “Coincidentally, I managed to find out that the Li family has a good-for-nothing descendant named Li Shisi. He failed to do well in his hometown, thus was dispatched to the county town to help out. On the journey, I did an underhand attempt and took his place. He should thank me. Alone, how would he obtain the good graces of the eldest son of the Li family, and take him for his own use?”
Although Feng Xiao hadn’t directly participated in Li family’s core affairs, he was an artful person of many facades who knew how to approach subjects indirectly, so it’s doubtless that he had heard quite an amount of useful information. For example, the strange things that went on in Qixia Villa.
This identity of Li Shisi was utilized; he was not a bad piece of chess that hid in the dark. However, it was a pity that presently, his identity was exposed, so he could only abandon the darkness and step into the light.
Feng Xiao looked at Cui Buqu, his meaning clear: Now, it’s your turn.
Cui Buqu slowly said: “Half a month ago, after I received the name list you gave me, I had set my gazes on one of them: Yang Yun.”
“I discovered Yang Yun turned out fishy, so I continued the investigation on all the achievements he obtained in Guangqian Prefecture from his official career the last few years. After that, I discovered something stranger.”
Cui Buqu was not someone who was alarmed easily, so once he mentioned it was strange, it was enough to make everyone feel taken aback.
Feng Xiao leaned on his side with a hand propping up his head, both ears listening keenly, making a display of indolence.
Cui Buqu paid him no attention. His gaze very naturally turned to Rong Qing, yet when the latter gave him a vacant expression, he couldn’t refrain from the itch in himself of wanting to hit someone, and so he turned his gaze back to Feng Xiao.
Feng Xiao sniggered.
Cui Buqu pretended not to hear. He parted his lips to speak: “These lands of Guangqian was known to have many calamities, so ever since the beginning of Kaihuang, Yang Yun made use of heavily flooded fields and poor harvest, and delivered an edict proposing the solution that taxes may be waived with the donation of grains, so they would be able to support themselves and there would be no need for the Imperial Court’s aid.”
As he listened until this point, Rong Qing let out a light “Ah”. He recalled that something like this certainly did happen.
During that time, the Emperor erupted in joy and praised Yang Yun for his aptness to propose such a plan that could aid the Imperial Court and solve their predicament, different from the other Prefectures and Counties, needing not a single penny from the Imperial Court. Naturally, this comment from the Emperor might mean to imply that members of his house were able. Rong Qing recalled that the Emperor had wanted to promote Yang Yun, but was ultimately declined. Yang Yun said that being promoted had laws of its own, and was unwilling to be different from others. The Emperor was not calculative with this daringness of his, in fact, his admiration for him grew.
Even without continuous promotion, a few years later, Yang Yun would steadily rise up the ranks, moving up the world. He could similarly enter the Imperial Government, holding immense power in his grasp.
“However,” At this moment, Cui Buqu broke his train of thoughts.
“I have sent people to investigate two years prior in Guangqian Prefecture. There was rain, but it hadn’t become as serious as this year’s. This also means that there was no need for the donation of grains.”
Rong Qing was taken aback.
Cui Buqu stressed each word: “Yang Yun held the Imperial Court’s permit to waive taxes while he asked those distinguished families to donate their grains; since there was no need for donating grains, to begin with, where have they all gone? This year, after the flood, the Imperial Court issued rations, yet Huang Lue said it was insufficient. Since it was insufficient, why did they not use the grains stocked up from two years ago?”
Rong Qing stuttered as he said: “This also means that, since two years ago, Yang Yun has been cheating the Imperial Court. Were those rations all pocketed by him?”
“Perhaps.” Cui Buqu said, “Whether or not this is the truth, Huang Lue would most certainly know about it, or he might have even participated. Otherwise, he would not have been killed. With just Huang Lue alone, he cannot come out with such a huge set-up and take care of everything for Yang Yun. So Li Yan, Wu Yi, and others are very possibly also involved.”
Feng Xiao said: “That is right. The Li and Ding families most likely obtained some benefits through donating a portion of their grains and having their taxes waived, so they were all on the same boat as Yang Yun.”
Rong Qing quickly rose to his feet and agitatedly said: “Then we should make a plan now to pry open Li Yan and Wu Yi’s mouths—there’s also Qixia Villa. Since rations were hidden there, it would definitely be difficult to move them away within a short amount of time. We can bring people there now, surround the entire villas, there might still be time!”
Feng Xiao shook his head: “It is too late.”
After he finished saying these words, Xiao-Liu, who should originally be outside scouting for information, came running in a hurry, drenched in sweat.
“My Lord, I heard the north of the city is on fire. It’s such a loud ruckus!”
Rong Qing’s heart faltered briefly, turning to look at Feng Xiao and the others unconsciously, “Where is the North of the city?” Xiao-Liu did a flourish and said: “I heard it’s at the hillside. Glancing from the bearings, it should be near Qixia villa. It was such a big fuss! The thick, dense smoke could be seen even within the city. Say, it’s still raining heavily on the other side, yet this one has caught fire. Disasters truly pile up on one another, don’t they?”
Rong Qing paid attention to nothing else. He rose to his feet and ran towards the outside of the posthouse. Not needing anyone to point it out, he could already see the black smoke rising in the north. At a glance, the fire isn’t small. Even if there is someone there to save the fire, it would be very difficult to extinguish it, so let alone the people who wanted this fire to spread as huge and wild as possible, burning everything to a crisp.
Once Rong Qing reminded himself how many refugees those rations could save, he felt his heart ache.
After this fire, definitely, nothing would be found in Qixia Villa, and an important lead would end here.
Two days were left.
Yang Yun is a sly snake that has been operating locally for many years.
What could he do in two days?
Rong Qing was at a complete loss. This feeling persisted until night.
Everyone minded their own business after they gathered. Guan Shanhai and Qiao Xian had to heal themselves.
Feng Xiao had returned to his usual face, leaving the posthouse to look for Huang Lue’s family members—although it would most likely turn out to be to no avail, it was difficult to say whether Huang Lue has left behind any clues. Cui Buqu was investigating Li Yan and Wu Yi; these two people were also key characters in this incident. However, they did not exist separately. Before this, Cui Buqu already knew that a tigeress3 lived in Li Yan’s home and that he’d gotten himself a mistress. This could very possibly be where the lead could extend.
As for Rong Qing, he was writing an edict to the Emperor.
Although this case was far away from being solved, he could not tell where he would be after two days. In order to avoid Yang Yun concealing the truth from the masses, it was extremely important to pass this letter stating all their findings to the Emperor.
Rong Qing was sitting in a daze in the courtyard.
Regardless of how strong their enemy is, they could not have hidden all the rations. Although Qixia Villa was burned down, there would still be clues left behind. In that case, where were the refugees?
Guangqian County is the county town of Guangqian Prefecture; since victims of the flood were forced up a corner, they would most certainly run to the county town to beg for help. Yang Yun and the others could not possibly kill everyone. There would still be a few fortunate survivors, and where would they be placed?
If they could find one or two of them, then these people would all be witnesses.
Xiao-Liu came over.
He was holding a pot of stew.
“My Lord, you have not eaten well the last few days, neither did you have a good night’s sleep. I borrowed their kitchen and made you pigeon stew. Quick, drink while it’s hot!” Xiao-Liu spoke hoarsely.
Smelling the pigeon stew’s scent, Rong Qing immediately blanked, gradually gathering all his spirits back and smiled: “All right. I haven’t tasted your culinary skills since we came out, I should.”
He raised the cover and inhaled. “What’s smelling so delicious?” The one who spoke was Cui Buqu.
The door wasn’t closed; he immediately walked in from the outside.
Rong Qing felt too embarrassed to enjoy it alone, so he pushed the pot of stew out.
“It’s pigeon stew. Master Cui, do you want to give it a try?”
Cui Buqu gave it a glance, paid no heed to politeness and said: “All right!”
He raised the pot with both his hands, lowering his head to take a sip. Behind him, a cold glare flashed, and it turned out to be Xiao-Liu drawing out a dagger, soundlessly with the intention to pierce Cui Buqu’s back!
Author’s Notes: ps, Yang Yun’s method of corruption is similar to Wang Tanwang during the Qing Dynasty. This method of Lao-Wang had cheated those who are intelligent and sharp for a good few years. More interesting is, the one who exposed this person is Heshen.
 何不⾷⾁糜 (lit. Why not eat [congee] made from meat paste?) During Emperor Jin of Hui’s reign, there was a year when famine happened
and the people had nothing to eat, causing many of them to starve to death. When an edict was written to the Emperor, he failed to understand even after reading it. In the end, he came out with a ‘solution’, and asked, “If the people had nothing to eat, why not eat porridge made from meat paste?” despite meat itself being scarce and hence it’s used to describe people who have lived a luxurious life, so they cannot comprehend the hardships of the poor. Here, Feng Xiao probably means to point out that Rong Qing is ignorant, and doesn’t know the real value of rations when the people lost their harvest due to the flood.  其固⾼陵，如有房屋: I couldn’t find a translation, so I tried my best. 其固⾼陵， 如有房屋, refers to Fangling (present Fang County in Hubei), where it used to housed members of
nobility and royalty that have been banished. The full sentence: 纵横千
⾥、⼭林四塞、其固⾼陵、如有房屋 (lit. Forests of thousands of miles in length and breadth, with such high lands one feels like home) refers to the geography of the then Fang County. It’s written in the Records of the Grand Historian.  ⺟⽼虎 (lit: tigress) used to describe wives that are incredibly intimidating.