Joy of Life - Chapter 229[Updated at: 2021-01-12 01:47:43]
Chapter 229: Shangjing’s Secret Agents
Translator: Nyoi-Bo Studio Editor: Nyoi-Bo Studio
After coming out of the temple, Fan Xian had been followed by three people. He didn’t know whether they were spies from the Brocade Guard or men from the palace, but whoever they were, he was not going to let them follow him today.
Having picked off those three adversaries, Fan Xian made sure once more that there was nobody following him, and then finally set off again. After exiting the alley, he did not get into a carriage, because any contact he made with people would leave traces that could be followed by Northern Qi. On the damp street, the passersby slowly grew in number. Under cover of the crowd, Fan Xian lowered his head, and quietly walked alongside the masses of this foreign country.
According to Overwatch Council procedures for losing a tail, he was supposed to look for a fabric store or similar establishment, and then exit through the rear door, making a number of twists and turns before finally arriving at his destination. But Fan Xian did not employ this method. Firstly, he did not believe that anyone was following him; secondly, he believed that the more twists and turns he made, the more people he would come into contact with, which would make him more easily discovered. He crept carefully and secretly into an official’s residence, unsure what he was going to do there.
Luckily, at that moment, the skies above Shangjing began to open once more. The fine rain was silent but visible, and it effectively covered up his tracks.
Near the Royal Academy in the southern district of Shangjing, there was a neighborhood where commoners lived known as Zhangjiadian. It was a mixture of good people and riff-raff, filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but in the past few years, order had been reasonably well-kept. On top of that, living quarters were cheap, so it had slowly become more crowded. Petty merchants without much of their own money had also begun hawking their wares there, making some extra cash. They set up shop fronts on the street and sat there doing business.
This area was unlike Xiushui Street; here, they sold everyday goods at cheap prices, and naturally not of the best quality. The third shop that one passed on the east side of the neighborhood was one such establishment. The shop sold palm oil that had come from overseas, imported through the City of Dongyi. Although it was cheap, it tasted fairly good. But its color was unappealing, particularly in the winter months, when a layer of white scum would form over it. As a result, households with a little bit more money would opt for rapeseed oil from the east of the Kingdom of Qi.
Luckily, the majority of people always lacked disposable income, so this oil merchant, who didn’t even have a sign outside the storefront, still managed to keep going. But he didn’t employ staff; other than the shopkeeper, there was only one part-time shop assistant.
It had been raining on and off all day, and there were not many people walking out and about in Zhangjiadian. Today it was less busy, but the oil merchant’s business had little to do with weather conditions. Any household who had no oil to cook with would stop by, so the oil merchant was not worried. Instead, he set out a stool and sat in the doorway to his shop, watching the rain fall outside.
Perhaps he really was getting old. The young shop assistant had seen him staring blankly into space a number of times this year, much more than he had before.
“Shopkeeper, I’d like to buy some oil.” Someone stood at the entrance to the shop, blocking out the drab daylight from outside. The shopkeeper waved a hand and ushered him in.
The person took off a rain hat to reveal an ordinary-looking face. He laughed and entered the store. “Young man,” he said to the yawning shop assistant, “I’d like to buy some oil.”
“What kind of oil would you like?” asked the shop assistant, all smiles. “We’ve palm oil, and we’ve also just had some rapeseed oil come in from the east of Qi.” The shop assistant was respectful, but secretly felt apprehensive. If they came into the shop, of course they wanted to buy oil. Why waste words?
“Give me half a catty of palm oil.”
“Very well,” said the shop assistant in a loud, clear voice. He nimbly poured and weighed the oil, then saw that the person’s hands were empty. He couldn’t help but scratch his head. “Sir, how are you going to carry it?”
“Do you have pots here?”
“We do. Three coins for one wooden pot.” The shop assistant was happy to be doing business.
The customer said nothing as they took their oil-filled pot. He seemed to be thinking about something.
“Is there anything else?” asked the shopkeeper curiously.
“Do you have sesame oil?”
“Do we have sesame oil?” he asked out loud, not particularly loudly. Sitting in the doorway, the old shopkeeper’s withered right hand trembled.
“We don’t have anything that high-quality, I’m afraid,” said the shop assistant dispiritedly. “This is Zhangjiadian, nobody can afford sesame oil around here.” As he spoke, the shopkeeper slowly made his way back to the counter and waved a hand to dismiss the shop assistant. He looked at the customer and smiled.
“Sesame oil is too expensive. Except on festive occasions, people don’t normally buy it. There’s still half a year until the next festival, so we haven’t ordered any.”
“It’s not just for festival days. It’s also for holding remembrance ceremonies for people,” said the customer, smiling.
The old shopkeeper became more respectful. “If you tell us how much, then we can place an order on your behalf, sir.”
The conversation had reached its crux, so the two men lowered their voices. But the customer’s memory was very good, so he rattled off the weight he needed clearly and unambiguously. “I want seven catties, three taels, nine maces and four hao… of palm oil.” 
The old shopkeeper shuffled the beads on his abacus. “There’s an issue with the price,” he said reluctantly. “Sir, would you mind stepping into the back room to discuss the matter further?”
The old shopkeeper told the shop assistant to keep an eye on things, then led the customer into the back room. The shop assistant realized at that moment that the man was not discussing buying oil, but selling oil. He couldn’t help but stand slack-jawed, thinking how lucky it was that he had managed not to offend this sesame-oil seller.
This sesame oil merchant was, of course, Fan Xian in disguise. He followed the shopkeeper into the back room, and found that that it was completely unlike the meeting place he had imagined – it was bright and airy.
They did not exchange pleasantries over cups of tea. The shopkeeper looked at Fan Xian, caution showing in his old, muddy eyes. “Did you come from the south, sir?”
Fan Xian nodded.
The old shopkeeper made a welcoming gesture. Fan Xian breathed a secret sigh of relief. Yan Bingyun’s procedure had been rather complicated, and begrudgingly, he had no choice but to reel off another string of numbers.
At that moment, the shopkeeper finally confirmed his identity, and he felt his whole body relax. He fished around in his sleeves, his hands trembling, and took out a knife coated in poison. Fan Xian understood that if a visitor was a Qi spy, the shopkeeper would have to break things off with him immediately.
This was also why Yan Bingyun had felt so humiliated after his capture.
The shopkeeper looked at him. “Sir, are you part of the Overwatch Council?”
Fan Xian shook his head. “I think that given the current circumstances, it’s best we keep words to a minimum.”
The shopkeeper laughed bitterly. “It has already been a year, a whole year, and we’ve heard no news from above. After the incident with the spymaster, the royal court has not sent a single person to take over his position. I presumed that the royal court was preparing to have us go silent.”
By “going silent”, he meant for a spy in enemy territory to immediately cease all action after a problem arises to avoid being exposed. The period of silence might only last a month… or it might last a decade.
Fan Xian frowned. As head of a spy network, Yan Bingyun’s capture was impossible, because he did not need to personally take on the dangerous duties of delivering information back to Qing or making inquiries himself. But the Eldest Princess had made her move, leaving the Overwatch Council’s northern spy network paralyzed.
While Yan Bingyun had been in Northern Qi’s hands, the royal court and the Overwatch Council had not dared to take the risk of getting in touch with those who had gone silent, and so there had been a year-long period of silence.
“I hope that a year of inactivity hasn’t meant that everyone’s gotten rusty.”
“Do not worry, sir.” The shopkeeper knew that as the young man had been able to take Yan’s place, he was definitely a formidable member of the Council. Smelling the faint scent of blood on him, the shopkeeper was careful to respond. “I await your orders, sir.”
“There are three matters; some urgent, others not.” Fan Xian looked at the old man. He knew that he and the countless other Council spies had had a very difficult year, drifting in the wilderness like homeless orphans, so he made sure to speak gently. “The most important matter is that we immediately find out where Xiao En has been taken. The second matter is to investigate the true reason for the hostility between the Empress Dowager and the Emperor.”
This was something that Fan Xian did not understand. It seemed that the young Emperor had bitten off more than he could chew.
The shopkeeper’s face did not change. Although he knew that both of these tasks were extremely difficult, he could only calmly wait for the young man to give his third order.
“Investigating Xiao En’s whereabouts is urgent; the matter in the palace less so.” Fan Xian muttered something to himself. “As for the third order, I want to make something clear: the palace treasury has been smuggling goods to the north these past few years.”
The shopkeeper squinted. There was a strange light in his eyes. “That is an issue regarding Xinyang, sir. Has the Council finally decided to make a move?”
Fan Xian shook his head. “Find… find out the truth for me, but don’t make a single move against them. Make sure every factor that can be controlled is controlled. If the Council decides to make a move in the future, you need to make sure that everything you have at hand is enough to salvage this route entirely.’
“Understood.” The shopkeeper knew that this was a long-term mission, and that he could take his time.
Fan Xian was thinking about something else. He didn’t know whether that business with Master Cui was his mother-in-law’s attempt to test him, or whether she was now making demands of him, so he had been forbearing. Although Xinyang did not know that the business with the pamphlets and Guangxin Palace was Fan Xian’s doing, the clash in the Ministry of Justice had gradually brought his conflict with the Eldest Princess to the surface.
 Catties, taels, maces, and hao were all units of measurement used in imperial China.