TOMAS Chapter 44

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Chapter 44 Rising Wind: Findings

“Can you go ahead by yourself first? I have something urgent to discuss with the Administrator.” Feng Luodi shook her head as they stood outside Dream Mirrors, pulling her arm out of Qi Jianqiu’s grip.

Qi Jianqiu was confused by her sudden change, the anger she had for Gan Qingjia suddenly disappearing from her face. “Didn’t you say that you had to look for Situ?”

“Change of plans.” Feng Luodi smiled, and pushed Qi Jianqiu towards the zither parlour. “Go on ahead without me.”

Qi Jianqiu’s face fell. “I guess I’m not going in either, it won’t be any fun without you. I’ll accompany you to the yamen then.”

“Oh, really?” Feng Luodi raised an eyebrow. “You’re prepared to miss Emerald’s dance and the chorus of the zither artistes?” She had barely finished her sentence when Qi Jianqiu grabbed onto her arm again.

“Hnnnngghhhhh…let me see the dance of Emerald, Luodi.”

Although the streets were deserted, it was business as usual for Dream Mirrors.  Many patrons walked by the duo as they headed into the zither parlour, casting weird looks their way. After all, Qi Jianqiu was obviously a lady dressed in men’s clothing, and her tight hug around Feng Luodi’s arm raised a lot of questions.

“Alright, alright. Let’s go on in.” Feng Luodi sighed at her friend’s antics. How can she do this in public? Qi Jianqiu nearly jumped in joy when Feng Luodi’s agreed, and tightly clung onto her arm tightly as they walked into Dream Mirrors. Naturally, her actions drew the attention of many who stopped and gaped in shock, but Qi Jianqiu remained oblivious. At a table on the far side of the hall, Gan Qingjia and the rest turned to look at the commotion. Gan Qingjia’s eyes lit up.

“Hey look! The cute girl is back again!”

Xue Yiqi saw the two girls entering the hall and turned to Gan Qingjia. “You already had your fun last time, please don’t start teasing here again… Seems like she just invited Miss Feng to support her today.”

Hearing that familiar surname, Situ raised an eyebrow and looked over. It really is her. Feng Luodi was dressed in a high skirt the colour of primrose today, a beige shawl draped over her shoulders. The skirt accentuated her curves, and the dark green earrings she wore contrasted sharply against her milky skin.

“No matter; I can handle any number of girls at the same time.” Gan Qingjia took a swig of wine, and walked towards the two girls with a smile on his face. Xue Yiqi quickly followed, with Situ walking slowly behind them.

Qi Jianqiu sat down by her table and looked up to see Gan Qingjia walking towards her. “Why? I haven’t lost yet! Just wait and see!”

“Of course, I’m waiting for you to lose.” Gan Qingjia smiled, and blew a kiss at the dancers on the stage. A chorus of sharp intakes of breaths could be heard around them.

Qi Jianqiu glared at him, her cheeks puffed in annoyance. Xue Yiqi stood awkwardly between Gan Qingjia and Qi Jianqiu, unsure of what to do. Situ ignored the few of them and looked at Feng Luodi.

“What brings you here? Weren’t you accompanying Moyin?”

How did you know that I was with Moyin? The words almost slipped out of Feng Luodi’s mouth, but she caught them in time. “I have something very important thing to discuss with you. Can you spare me the time?” She looked around the hall, filled with merrymaking and laughter. “Or are you too enticed by the dancers here?”

“Wow! Do you smell that? Did someone just spill a vat of vinegar1 somewhere?” Gan Qingjia overheard their conversation and leaned in, with a teasing look on his face.

Qi Jianqiu heard his comment, and sniffed the air around her, completely clueless. “Where? Where is the spilled vinegar? I don’t smell anything.”

Gan Qingjia looked at her confused face and burst out in laughter, quickly joined by Xue Yiqi. Situ ignored the few of them. “Let’s go somewhere quiet, then. It’s too noisy here.”

Feng Luodi nodded, and looked at Qi Jianqiu. “I’ll leave Fei here to support you. He’ll know where to find me if anything happens.” She quickly abandoned her friend and followed Situ out of the parlour, leaving Gan Qingjia and Qi Jianqiu locked in a staring contest, with Xue Yiqi watching on from the sidelines.

They exited Dream Mirrors and walked along the street. The sky had cleared up, and Situ spoke expressionlessly. “It’s much quieter now. What did you want to tell me that was so urgent?”

Feng Luodi slid her hands into the sleeves of her outer robe, her words concise and clear. “I walked with Moyin to the North Plaza just now, and Moyin felt very ill when we passed the statue in the plaza. I suspect that the statue is the source of the poison.”

Situ stopped and turned to look at Feng Luodi. “That’s not enough evidence to prove that the statue is the source of the poison. I had expected something more from you.”

Feng Luodi raised her head to look at him, her face composed and blank. “Calm down, of course I have other findings.”

She continued before Situ could speak. “Red-coloured water puddles around the base of the statue, water I believe to be a mixture of rainwater and whatever poison that is afflicting the city. The statue was built for the crowning of the First Emperor, and if this phenomenon has persisted ever since the statue was erected, it would not have fallen through the cracks of the stringent quality checks for the ceremony. That’s why an investigation of the statue is warranted: regardless of its involvement in the current epidemic, it is an important symbol of our kingdom and we cannot let it reputation be unnecessarily tarnished.”

“Moreover, besides Moyin’s reaction, I also felt a little nauseous as we approached the statue. Luckily, I had caught a minor cold a few days ago, and my nose is still blocked. I must have inhaled much less of the pathogen than Moyin had.”

Feng Luodi looked Situ directly in the eye. “Are these reasons sufficient for the Duke of Anping to order an investigation of the statue and prepare an evacuation of the street?”

Situ looked at her expressionlessly for a long while. Feng Luodi was beginning to feel a little uneasy when Situ snapped his fingers at the attendants behind them. “Yes, it is.”

He turned to the attendants. “Summon the physicians, and ready the Imperial Army for deployment.”

“Yes, General.” The attendants quickly left to relay his order, while Situ and Feng Luodi made their way towards the North Plaza. The silence between them was stifling.

A while later, Situ broke the silence and turned to Feng Luodi. “Are you angry?”

“No? Why should I be?” Feng Luodi retorted immediately.

Situ glanced at her but did not say anything else. The rest of the journey was spent in silence, both of them looking straight ahead.

They reached the North Avenue soon enough, and they could make out the silhouette of the statue in the plaza from a distance away. Feng Luodi passed a handkerchief to Situ without looking at him.

“Cover your nose and mouth.”

Situ looked at it and passed it back to her. “Keep it for yourself. I can hold my breath for the duration.”

Feng Luodi ignored his hand, and casually took out another handkerchief. Covering her nose and mouth tightly, she approached the statue. Situ shrugged, covered his face with the handkerchief, and followed after her.

When the Imperial Army and the physician returned with the attendants, they saw their fierce and strict General Situ covering his face with a feminine handkerchief that was obviously too small for him. Holding back his laughter, the physician quickly approached the statue, joining Situ and Feng Luodi in the investigation. He was still a distance away from the statue when he stopped and fanned his nose.

“Why is there such a strong smell of oleander?”

“Oleander?” Situ and Feng Luodi exchanged a look, immediately thinking of the field of oleander flowers outside the city.

“Yes, I’m certain of it.” The physician walked to the base of the statue, dipped his finger in the puddle of red water, and sniffed it carefully. “It is oleander without a doubt. How much must be mixed in the statue, for it to leak out because of the rainwater?”

He took out a knife and lightly scraped the surface of the statue, bringing it close to his nose. “The surface of the statue smells of oleander as well.” He looked to Situ. “I think we’ll have to check the bottom of the statue. I believe there are officials in charge of this?”

Situ thought for a second, and quickly issued commands to the soldiers from the Imperial Army. “Get some cloth that can stop the smell from passing through and isolate the statue. Evacuate the street and do not let anyone else in. And remember to wear something over your nose and mouth.”

He turned to the physician. “Is it possible to provide my soldiers with some medication to counter the toxin in the air?”

“Of course, of course.” The physician nodded. “Now we can finally treat those in the city who had been poisoned and suffered from relentless diarrhoea. It’s no wonder we couldn’t identify the toxin, it must have been so diluted in their bloodstreams that we could not pinpoint the source.”

Situ turned and hastily left the square. Feng Luodi quickly followed. “Where are we going?”

“To find the Chief Minister of Artisans. He’ll know who are the officials in charge of the North Avenue, specifically, the statue in the North Plaza.”

“Right. Your position as the General-in-chief and as a Duke must come in handy in times like these.” Feng Luodi was envious.

“Why do you say that?” Situ looked at her. “Did anyone make things difficult for you because of your identity?”

“No, no.” Feng Luodi quickly shook her head.

Situ smiled. She couldn’t lie even if her life depended on it.

Or am I the only person she cannot lie to?

It was a public holiday that day, and the Chief Minister of Artisans was resting at home. Seeing Situ and Feng Luodi at the door, he welcomed them politely into his house, and quickly instructed his attendants to serve tea and desserts.

Situ went straight to the point. “Who is the official in charge of the statue at the North Plaza?”

“Your Grace, may I ask why you would need that information?” The Chief Minister was perplexed, but one look from Situ was enough for him to forget about his doubts. “The Chief of Lumber Supplies for the North Avenue, Chief Sun, along with his two aides working under him. Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen Chief Sun in a while.”

Feng Luodi spoke up in Situ’s stead. “Is it convenient for you to summon Chief Sun? We have some important questions for him.”

“Of course, Miss Feng.” The Chief Minister smiled jovially, and quickly sent word to Chief Sun. He pushed the plates of desserts towards Feng Luodi, and invited her to try some.

Situ’s lips lifted into a smile. This Chief Minister seems like a smart person.

“Sir, may I ask if there’s a problem with the statue at the North Plaza?”

“There is a problem, but I cannot reveal anymore details before we confirm anything.” Situ changed the topic. “How many keys are there that we can use to access the base of the statue?”

“There should be three.” The Chief Minister did not pursue his question. “One is held by the Court of the Imperial Clan, one is with Chief Sun, and one is with me.”

Situ nodded. “What procedures do I need to go through if I intend to use the key to access the base of the statue?”

“You’ll just need a letter of approval from me. I’ll see to it immediately.” The Chief Minister stood up, and headed towards the back to get the key and letter.

Situ took a sip of his tea, and glanced at Feng Luodi. “How is this attitude? Are you satisfied now?”

Feng Luodi looked up at him as she finished eating a biscuit. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve always felt that everyone should be equal.”

“And that the prerequisite of equality, is mutual respect?” Situ smiled at her.

“Do you think so as well?” Feng Luodi was surprised, and looked up to see Situ smiling at her. Her face flushed red, and she quickly looked down at the desserts in front of her. “I’m glad that you feel this way too.”

Situ continued sipping his tea, his eyes never leaving her, the smile on his face lighting up the room.

It wasn’t long before the Chief Minister returned with the letter of authorisation and the key to the statue. He passed both to Situ. “Sir, you will have free access to the tunnels underneath the statue with these two items. I’ll send someone to follow you into the tunnels to lead the way.”

“Sorry for the trouble, Chief Minister.” Situ poured a cup of tea for the man.

“Not at all, not at all. I know that you have been investigating the case on the Emperor’s orders these days, I should be the one thanking you for your service, sir.” The Chief Minister carefully took the teacup from Situ with two hands.

At the moment, the man who had been sent to fetch Chief Sun returned alone to the room. The Chief Minister frowned. “Did Chief Sun refuse to come?”

“It’s not that, sir. Chief Sun had passed away two weeks ago.” The attendant replied.

“He passed away?” The Chief Minister was shocked. “Why wasn’t I informed of this? Who has been running the logistics branch of the North Avenue in place of him all these while?’

“It was managed by his two aides. ”

“Your Grace, I’m sorry for the turn of events. Do you have….any instructions for me?” The Chief Minister hesitated, not knowing what Situ’s intention was when he asked for Chief Sun.

“It’s alright. Just follow the protocol. I can get to the tunnels myself.” Situ stood up, and Feng Luodi quickly followed.

“My apologies, sir. Cong, lead the Duke and Miss Feng to the entrance of the tunnels of the North Avenue. Keep your wits about you.”

“Yes, sir.” The attendant bowed. “Please, follow me.”

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  1. A Chinese expression used to describe someone being very jealous.