Chapter 41 Rising Wind: Oleander Blossoms
Feng Luodi stood across the street from the Jiang household. Carriages and people lined up outside the household, where the queue extended all the way to the adjacent street. The visitors were all dressed in expensive silks and fabrics, the expressions on their faces either concerned, arrogant or humble. The head steward and servants of the Jiang household cordially attended to each of the visitors with a smile on their faces, graciously accepting the presents that were passed to them. Feng Luodi sighed. Even though I had given specific orders to keep the matter under wraps, word has already spread this far. I can only imagine the close tabs people keep on the important people of Chang’an – they must have already bought out some of the attendants in the Jiang household.
In the Jiang household, Situ walked towards Jiang Moyin’s room, easily finding his way without the guidance of any attendant. Jiang Moyin sat reclined on the bed, a bamboo slat opened in his hand. He was deep in thought reviewing the scripture, a brush in his other hand poised to edit any mistakes he found.
“Did the Heir send that?” Situ casually poured himself a cup of tea. “What a diligent student he is! Sending you scriptures to mark even when you’re in such a state.”
“The scriptures came with servings of bird nest* and high quality ginseng. Would you like to try some?” Jiang Moyin smiled at the sarcasm in his friend’s voice and put down the scripture he was reading. “Did the Duke of Anping have to resort to slinking in through the backdoor?”
Situ filled another cup with hot tea and placed it on the table beside Jiang Moyin, sitting himself down on a bench beside the bed. “I’m not going to be refused from entering like the rest of your guests outside.”
“Seems like we have to give Lu Bo a salary rise, then.” Jiang Moyin smiled, but his expression turned serious again. “How’s the situation looking now? Has his Majesty started investigating the matter?”
“Not even his Majesty can ignore the issue anymore.” Situ’s tone was a little impatient. “The children are being hit the hardest, seeing as how they are usually the weakest amongst the population. Many have fallen ill, but neither the royal physicians nor the hospitals have been able to identify the poison. There is unrest is breeding amongst the people.”
“Is that why the Administrator has been tasked with solving this?”
“The Administrator is a smart fellow; he came to me for help the moment he’d received the assignment.” Situ filled Jiang Moyin’s empty cup again.
“He wouldn’t be the Administrator of the capitol if he wasn’t a smart person, Situ.” Jiang Moyin looked worried. “Has the water source be checked yet? The only logical explanation for the entire population to be affected by the poison at the same time is the contamination of our water source. The Wei River runs beside the city, and there are many lakes and streams running both inside and outside of the city walls.”
Situ shook his head. “The Administrator had them all checked yesterday: there was no problem with any of the water sources.”
“What can possibly be the cause of all this, then?” Jiang Moyin furrowed his brows, deep in thought.
“That, is a problem for the Administrator to solve.” Situ got up from the bench. “All you have to do is to stay in your room, and write the word “approved” on all of these scriptures. Don’t forget: you are only the Grand Tutor, not the Heir himself. So don’t overwork yourself.” He turned and left the room without looking back, leaving a stunned Jiang Moyin with his pile of bamboo slats beside him.
Situ could hear the hubbub outside the front gate of the household from where he stood outside of Jiang Moyin’s room. He shook his head, and decided to head out the back door where he came in. Just as he reached the door, an attendant approached him.
“General, one of the Covert Watch* had sent word that Miss Feng was spotted in the queue outside the Jiang Household, but she left once she handed her gifts to the head steward.”
Situ nodded, and took the reins from the attendant. “The rest of you can go back first. I have something else to tend to.”
Feng Luodi and Fei strolled along the street as they headed back to the Feng household. Suddenly, the sound of an approaching horse reached their ears and they quickly ducked to the side of the road. Unexpectedly, the horse stopped right in front of them. Feng Luodi raised her head and saw Situ looking down at her. The sun was behind him as he reached an arm down to her, his figure bathed in an illuminating light.
“I’m heading off to investigate the recent case of mass poisoning. Would you like to come along?”
Feng Luodi retracted her gaze, and looked back at Fei. “Head over to the teacher’s place yourself. I’ll return to the household afterwards.”
“Yes, young miss.”
When Fei disappeared from sight, Feng Luodi carefully placed her hand into Situ’s outstretched palm. With a lift from Situ, and a braced leg against the stirrups, Feng Luodi deftly flipped onto the seat behind Situ, her hands gripping as little of his clothes as she could. Situ gently patted the horse, and they slowly trotted out of the city.
“Isn’t the Administrator in charge of the case now? You are authorised to investigate as well?” Feng Luodi was perplexed.
“Mmhmmm.” Situ’s voice was flat. “I have to solve the problem before the situation escalates any further.”
“Do you have a lead already?” Feng Luodi excitedly leaned towards the side to look at Situ.
“Sit properly.” Situ’s voice wasn’t any louder or stricter than it usually is, but Feng Luodi quickly sat back straight into her seat. Jianqiu will never stop laughing if I were to fall out of the saddle like that.
“That’s exactly why I need to investigate the case: there have been no leads at all.”
“Oh, alright then.” Feng Luodi nodded in the direction they were heading towards. “Is that why we’re heading out of the city? To check the water sources?” She continued on to explain her view. “That makes sense. The numerous lakes and streams around Chang’an city makes the water source very vulnerable to any form of poisoning.”
Situ smiled and shook his head. “No wonder the two of you are sworn siblings. You even think and speak alike.”
Feng Luodi widened her eyes. “You were with elder brother before you came out? How is he doing now?” Her voice was laced with concern.
“He’s doing great. Great enough to sleep, eat and mark his scriptures.” Situ kicked the horse, and they picked up pace towards the city gates.
Feng Luodi was confused. If that’s the case, why does Situ still sound so upset?
They reached the outskirts of the city soon after, and quickly dismounted the horse, unable to ride the horse into the dense vegetation. It was autumn, and the landscape was a tapestry of different colours. From the vibrant green of the evergreen trees to the gold and red of maple leaves, the scenery unrolled itself like the masterpiece of a painter in front of their eyes. The sound of trickling water echoed through the woods, and birds chirped from their post up in the trees.
The two slowly ascended the side of a hill, the fallen leaves forming a thick carpet beneath their feet. Walking by the riverbank, they passed the occasional abandoned shack in the middle of the woods. As the going got steeper, Situ extended a hand naturally to Feng Luodi.
“Watch your step. Most of these seemingly sturdy logs are already decomposed.”
Feng Luodi thought about it for a second, and quickly placed her hand in his. At least it’s much better than being embarrassed if I tripped and fell. “If it isn’t a problem with the water source, is it possible that the wells were directly poisoned?”
“That’s not possible. All the wells are included in the patrols that the officers from the yamen and the troops from the Imperial Army run. It’s impossible for someone to poison all of the wells at the same time to affect such a large percentage of the population.” Situ was calm.
“Then it must have been through some other medium.” Feng Luodi looked at Situ directly. “What do you think might have caused it?”
“The royal physicians have gathered that it might have been caused by the toxins in flowers, seeing as how it is autumn right now, and the autumnal flowers are in full bloom.”
Feng Luodi caught on immediately. “But the patches of flowers in the city are not significant enough to poison such a huge population. That’s why we are out here in the outskirts of the city, isn’t it? To find a field of flowers that can satisfy such a criteria.”
Situ paused, and turned to look at her, a smile gracing his lips. “Smart.”
Feng Luodi blushed inexplicably, and quickly turned to look at the surroundings. Why is it the less he says, the more I gush at his praise?
Just as she turned her head, a huge patch of vibrant pink appeared in the corner of her vision. Pinkish red flowers bloomed in abundance, a huge field of lively maroon, red and pink.
“These flowers look really familiar.” Feng Luodi exclaimed as she quickly pulled on Situ’s sleeve. Situ turned around, and she quickly let go of his sleeve nonchalantly.
Situ took a look at the field of flower she spotted, and started walking forward. “Let’s go and check it out.”
The two of them walked across the carpet of fallen leaves and approached the field of pink flowers. The crown of the flowers were red, their petals spiralling in the shape of a funnel, and the flowers all gathered at the top of the stem. It was a lavish picture of pink and red.
“It’s Oleander.” Situ’s voice was hard and firm.
“Oleander? Aren’t they poisonous?” Feng Luodi edged forward for a closer look, but Situ quickly grabbed onto her arm to stop her.
“Very poisonous.” Situ affirmed.
“Cough! Cough!” Feng Luodi coughed lightly, and turned to Situ. “The flowers are in full bloom now. Could the poison in the water be caused by the pollen of the flowers being blown into the city? They might have landed in the wells in the city, and contaminated the water source.” She turned to look back the way they came. “It isn’t that far away from the city, after all.”
Situ pulled Feng Luodi further away from the field of oleander flowers. “Let’s test out your theory then.”
The two of them found an alcove where the wind didn’t reach, and hunkered themselves down. Their plan was to wait until a huge wind came by, which was very common in the season, and to observe if the pollen would ride the wind into the city.
“Are these flowers artificially planted, or naturally grown?” Feng Luodi felt the hairs on her neck stand up, as she looked at the sea of poisonous pink flowers.
“Someone planted them.” Situ said without a doubt, gesturing to the field of flowers. “Most oleanders grow on high ground, but these have been carefully planted in the middle of the woods. It is much lower here, and there are many trees surrounding them.”
“That makes sense.” Feng Luodi nodded.
“That’s why the oleander pollen cannot be blown into the city.” Situ stood up, and just as he walked out of the alcove, a gust of wind came, blowing in the opposite direction of the city. Feng Luodi looked at the span of space between the field of oleander flowers and Chang’an. Indeed, even if the wind was blowing in the right direction, the pollen would be stopped by the hills and woods surrounding the flowers.
“Seems like this isn’t the reason, then.” Feng Luodi felt a little dejected, and turned to look at Situ. However, Situ was as composed as ever, his eyes focused in the distance. From this angle, Situ’s features are very defined by modern standards. He looks sharp and outstanding from this angle, and his eyes are even more mesmerizing from the side. His lips are thin and angular, matching the desolate aura of the wild North he brings back with him. He must have been busy lately; a light beard had begun to grow on his chin, and it makes him look even manlier than he usually is.
Before Feng Luodi knew it, her hand had reached out to stroke the soft beard that had grown on Situ’s face. Just before her hand landed on his face, Situ’s head turned around and caught Feng Luodi in the act, his eyes widening in surprise.
Stupid, stupid! Why did I do that! Feng Luodi mentally slapped herself as she awkwardly retracted her hand.
“Let’s walk in that direction and take a look.” Feng Luodi spun around and briskly walked away from Situ in embarrassment. Wordlessly, Situ followed after her.
Night had fallen, and Lu Bo, the head steward of the Jiang household, busied himself sorting out the gifts that they had received on behalf of Jiang Moyin. He opened a box and found a few common desserts in the box, along with a folded handkerchief. On it was written the words “Gifted to Moyin, from Luodi”.
“Luodi? Miss Feng?” Lu Bo exclaimed. “It must be the sworn sister of the Grand Tutor! How could I have forgotten to invite her in!” Lu Bo quickly placed the handkerchief back into the box and brought it into Jiang Moyin’s room.
Jiang Moyin was in the exact same state that Situ had left him in – reclined in bed with a bamboo slat in his hand.
“Grand Tutor, my apologies for having overlooked this just now. Young Miss Feng had this delivered in the afternoon, and I hadn’t manage to invite her in when she came just now. I’ve only just saw this box for you when I was sorting out the rest of the gifts.” Lu Bo quickly took out the desserts in the box and carefully plated them, handing the handkerchief to Jiang Moyin.
Jiang Moyin tenderly touched the embroidery on the handkerchief – a cluster of bamboo. It wasn’t a well embroidered piece by any means. Seems like it was true when she told me the zither was the only thing she was good at. Their names “Moyin” and “Luodi” were embroidered in the same fashion as he had taught her to write, after seeing how bad her penmanship was.
“It’s alright, Lu Bo.” Jiang Moyin laughed light-heartedly. “She likes peace and quiet, and wouldn’t have been comfortable if she was here in the afternoon.”