Joy of Life - Chapter 223

[Updated at: 2021-01-12 01:47:41]
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Chapter 223: Meeting Shen Zhong in the Rain

Translator: Nyoi-Bo Studio Editor: Nyoi-Bo Studio

Raindrops beat upon the roof of the carriage, their impact echoing within. Fan Xian closed his eyes and tried to rest. Some time later – he wasn’t sure how long – he found that the carriage had stopped. The carriage door opened. Fan Xian smiled and stepped out into the rain, finding that an umbrella was already being held out for him, shielding him from the elements, with only a slight spring chill making its way through the alley and underneath the umbrella.

Wang Qinian was wearing black, holding the umbrella above Fan Xian’s head. Behind him, the seven tiger guards carried their longswords on their backs, silently forming two lines on either side of Fan Xian.

Fan Xian was wearing a dark-colored overcoat with a white gown underneath, and underneath that were the night-walking clothes he had prepared before he left the Qing capital. This way of dressing, with simple and unadorned clothes hiding lethal power underneath, combined with his heroic and vigorous appearance, looked formidable indeed.

“Commissioner Fan. This way please.” The Brocade Guard who led the way extended a hand, his face expressionless as he ushered them into the courtyard. In the alley by the side of the courtyard, Fan Xian turned his head slightly, hearing the faint bustle ahead of him. He laughed. “Looks like this is the rear courtyard of a pleasure house.”

The Brocade Guard’s face was rigid. Then he smiled. “Your hearing is impressive, Commissioner Fan. This is the rear courtyard of Panshanlin. Master Shen likes to entertain guests here.”

Fan Xian knew of Panshanlin. He had heard that it was Northern Qi’s finest red-light establishment. The first Emperor of Northern Qi was once a frequent guest here. He smiled and nodded, stepping on the wet paving stones into the rear courtyard. In the courtyard, the bamboo formed dense shadows and the rock garden was made up of layers upon layers of stones. Agents of the Brocade Guard were everywhere. These men were clearly guards, and had made no effort to hide themselves.

As they walked, Wang Qinian held the umbrella, the seven Tiger Guards following silently behind, with Fan Xian at the front coolly and confidently walking deeper into the courtyard.

As they walked, watching these enemies from the south, the Brocade Guards could not help but feel somewhat surprised. They were surprised by their counterparts’ boldness, and by the youth of their leader who walked in front.

Wang Qinian put away the umbrella and fell in silently behind Fan Xian. Fan Xian rested his hands behind his back and narrowed his eyes as he looked at the courtyard. The room was quite spacious. A large round table with a floral pattern stood in the middle, and there was still a great deal of space around it, filled with all sorts of elaborate decorative items. The table was wide enough to seat 15 or 16 people, but at that moment, only two people were sat around it.

One of them was a man in expensive clothes, with a silk cap on his head and a jade thumb ring on his hand. After he saw Fan Xian enter, an unusual coldness appeared in his otherwise ordinary-looking eyes. He looked Fan Xian straight in the eye, and after a moment, he spoke. “Commissioner Fan? I have been looking forward to meeting you for a long time. Our meeting today is very much out of the ordinary.”

Fan Xian did not immediately respond to the man’s polite greeting. He was savoring the fact that the Northern Qi Brocade Guards had all addressed him as “Commissioner Fan”. It seemed that today’s discussion was between the Overwatch Council and the Brocade Guard, rather than being diplomatic negotiations between the governments of the two states. He lifted his right hand and undid the collar around his neck with his two fingers. The overcoat he was wearing slipped off him.

Wang Qinian was already behind him to catch it.

Fan Xian sat on one side of the round table. Looking at this rich man, he saw that his brows were extremely thick, as if they had been painted on. He couldn’t help but smile. “Master Shen, if you scowl so at everyone you meet, why are you instead so courteous toward me?”

So this was Master Shen Zhong, Provost of the Discipline Commission of the Brocade Guard. Countless members of the Brocade Guard were under Shen Zhong’s control. It was hard to believe that so many dangerous men were led by such an ordinary-looking man. If it weren’t for the Overwatch Council’s thoroughly detailed files on the man, Fan Xian wouldn’t have even been able to guess at his identity.

“It is not courtesy.” Provost Shen sighed. Looking at Fan Xian’s handsome face, he couldn’t help but shake his head. “Master Fan, you are renowned throughout the land as a poet. You have my admiration. I had not imagined that two months ago I would receive the news that Fan Xian, Fan the immortal of poetry, had become a commissioner of the Overwatch Council of the Kingdom of Qing… I… must admit I do not quite understand. What exactly is old Chen thinking? Master Fan, how can someone such as yourself live as we do, scurrying around like rats in the gutter?”

Fan Xian laughed. “Master Shen, you are too modest. Travelling thousands of miles from home to be an official is something one does for money. No matter what one does, first of all one must seek benefit for the state, but after that… one must carve out a life for oneself.” [1]

His speech was rather informal. Shen Zhong sighed to himself. He couldn’t help but look down on this southerner despite their common profession. After all, he was young and he spoke crudely. He really didn’t know what Chen Pingping was thinking, and he didn’t know why the South’s formidable Emperor would agree to such an absurd arrangement within the Overwatch Council.

In truth, Provost Shen Zhong of the Discipline Commission of the Brocade Guard had always felt an unspeakable envy for his southern counterparts, and a certain respectful fear of that old wheelchair-bound cripple. He had never been able to understand how his southern counterparts had earned the complete trust of the southern Emperor, unlike himself, who stood trembling in the royal court, unsure if one day he would be thrown out of the palace like a pair of worn-out shoes.

Realizing his mind was wandering, Shen Zhong immediately pulled himself together. He knew that this young man was the head diplomat, and he knew why had taken a risk in demanding a meeting with him through Chang Ninghou. There was great benefit to be made in this deal, and both Shen Zhong and the palace were intrigued.

“No one dislikes things like silver and gold.” Shen Zhong suddenly smiled. “But I don’t understand how the Discipline Commission can benefit from this.”

Fan Xian waved a hand, and Wang Qinian and the seven Tiger Guards all retreated. Shen Zhong nodded his head, and the other men in the hall also stepped back. Fan Xian looked at the man who sat next to Shen Zhong, feeling somewhat puzzled. He was wearing fine clothing, but he didn’t have that regal air to his appearance that Fan Xian was familiar with. He presumed that he had not been sent to observe by the Northern Qi royal family. In that case, what gave him the right to sit with them?

“This is Master Cui,” said Shen Zhong, introducing him.

Master Cui stood up and bowed to Fan Xian, a self-confident look on his face. Fan Xian wrinkled his brow. “A man of Qing?”

Shen Zhong laughed. “I thought you two might recognize each other. Commissioner Fan, this is Master Cui, second son of the Cui clan of Qing. The Cui clan and the Fan clan have always been equals. You are both sons of rich families.”

Fan Xian frowned. “Master Shen, what is the meaning of this?”

There was a flash of viciousness in Shen Zhong’s eyes. “Master Fan, did you not want to talk business?” he said calmly. “You should know… I have been in this business for many years. So I would like to know how I might stand to benefit, Master Fan.”

Fan Xian turned his head to look at Master Cui, trying to see something in his face. “Master Cui,” he asked suddenly, “did you come to this meeting of your own accord, or were you asked to by an elder of your clan?”

“How could I miss such an illustrious meeting?” Master Cui seemed to have no fear of Fan Xian at all.

In truth, matters were already very clear. Master Cui was there to represent the interests of the Cui clan, and behind the Cui clan… was the Eldest Princess, far away in Xinyang. Fan Xian had considered the possibility that the Eldest Princess’s heavy plundering of the palace treasury had relied on this smuggling route. But what he had not expected was that the Provost of the Brocade Guard’s Discipline Commission would bring the Eldest Princess’s representative to the table!

And what made Fan Xian even angrier was the fact that that scoundrel Cui dared to sit alongside them, acting as a bargaining chip for the other side in their negotiations. Now that the Eldest Princess was making demands of him, how could he not act to wreck Fan Xian’s own business? This was no doubt that pampered brat Cui acting on his own initiative!

Fan Xian had taken the initiative in making contact with Shen Zhong for two reasons. The first was to open up a channel for communication. The second was to strike at the source of Xinyang’s finances. He hadn’t imagined that the Northern Qi royal court would make such a move, bringing what should have been haggled in secret out into the open.

Seemingly sensing his unhappiness, Shen Zhong smiled. “Master Fan, there’s no harm in clarifying things. Everyone wants to make money. Master Cui and you plan to engage in similar business. I wouldn’t be able to cooperate with both of you at once, so naturally, I’m interested in what you two have to say on the matter.”

Fan Xian calmed down and looked at Cui. “Master Cui,” he said calmly, “I didn’t expect you to be brave enough to get involved in such serious business.”

“Certainly not as brave as you, Master Fan,” replied Cui with a smile.

Seeing the awkwardness of the situation, Shen Zhong laughed. “Master Cui is the son of a rich family, and there are a number of important members of the Qing royal court among them. Currently, he is travelling outside the country. In the future, he will enter the court as an official. The two of you should be friends.”

Hearing this, Fan Xian laughed grimly to himself and looked at Shen Zhong. “Master Shen, perhaps you have forgotten my status. The matters of aristocratic families are of no importance to me.”

Having said this, Fan Xian stood up, saying nothing, and left the hall, where Wang Qinian was ready, holding his umbrella. The seven Tiger Guards gripped their longswords in their hands, guarding their master as he left the courtyard. With such a stern appearance, none of the Brocade Guards dared to block their path.

All that could be heard was the sound of the carriage as Fan Xian left in his rather discourteous way.

Shen Zhong did not seem to have expected such an angry response from Fan Xian. He sat there, rather stunned. He had been deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy for decades, and had seen all sorts of negotiations over profit, but he had never seen something like this. The young Commissioner Fan’s conduct really went beyond his expectation.

He turned his head. “Master Cui,” he said, smiling warmly, “it seems Master Fan is quite a headstrong fellow.”

Cui blushed. Fan Xian’s words had pricked his ego. The matters of aristocratic families were none of Fan Xian’s concern! Then what was the Fan family to him? He drank from his cup of wine, trying to drown his sorrows, feeling that he had done something wrong.

Shen Zhong looked at him and said nothing.

Suddenly, Cui’s hand began to tremble. He thought about Fan Xian’s position in the Overwatch Council, and how he was the son-in-law of the Eldest Princess. He went pale with fear. Looking Shen Zhong in the eyes, he suddenly became angry. “Master Shen,” he cursed, “you tricked me into coming here! Do you want me dead?”

[1] Fan Xian quotes from Living Hell by Qing dynasty novelist Li Baojia, a novel about malpractice in the judicial system.