Chapter 52 Abysmal: Crisis
Feng Luodi felt as if her lucky star had been shining on her; a few days after she had received Rising Wind as a gift from an elder brother, she received news from Mingxuan Zither Emporium that another Guqin, Abysmal, had been located. The caravan that he had requested to help locate the Guqin had bought Abysmal, albeit at a hefty price, and were on the way back to Chang’an with the Guqin. They were returning to the capital via the waterways, and was due to arrive in Chang’an at noon.
Feng Luodi’s spirits rose considerably upon receiving the news, and spent a lot more effort into dressing herself up for the joyous occasion. A half robe a vibrant shade of emerald green was draped over her inner shirt of pale green, while a grey skirt adorned with pearls decorated her lower half. Her dressing was completed with a belt of white jade that sat snugly on her hips. Feng Luodi was about to leave the house when Jet quickly stopped her.
“Young miss, are you leaving house alone again? Let me tag along with you!”
“No need for that.” Feng Luodi shook her hand. “I’m just having a look around the port. I’ll be back before long.”
“But Fu Bo had said that the harbour is a really chaotic place, young miss! It will be safer if I were to accompany you instead. Or would you like to grab Fei or Scarlet from Autumnal Ombre before you go?”
“Alright, alright. I’ll head to Autumnal Ombre first then. Get back to the kitchen, Jet; Mother’s medicine requires your attention.”
“Yes, young miss. I’ll get to it soon! Be careful on your way there, young miss!”
“Jeez, Jet!” Feng Luodi laughed. “You’re getting as long winded as Fu Bo!”
Feng Luodi slowly waltzed out of the door and headed straight for the port, evidently in high spirits. She looked at the sky. It is almost noon, and I can’t wait to get Abysmal! If all goes well, there will be only 7 Guqin left to get before I can go back!
She reached the port before long, but the merchant fleet had yet to arrive. Looking around, she was surprised to see two familiar faces.
“Elder brother. Situ.” Feng Luodi called out. The two men were standing near the waterfront, watching the workers and merchant ships as they entered and busied about the harbour.
“I never thought that I’d see the two of you at the harbour; this doesn’t lie under either of your judistrictions, does it?” Feng Luodi’s jovial mood showed in her tone.
“Situ was interested in knowing more about the harbour of Chang’an, and I was free to show him around.” Jiang Moyin smiled warmly at her. “What about yourself? What’s a girl like you doing here? And you’re unusually energetic today, what’s gotten into you?”
Situ stood by the side, not looking at Feng Luodi.
Feng Luodi was too light-headed in her joy to notice Situ’s slightly uncharacteristic behaviour. “Abysmal is reaching Chang’an soon! I can’t contain my excitement!”
“Abysmal? Isn’t that one of the 10 Guqin that you are always searching for?” Jiang Moyin was glad to see Feng Luodi happy, and his voice was even gentler than usual. “I see that your effort is finally paying off.”
“That’s right!” Feng Luodi nodded repeatedly. “I had persuaded a merchant caravan heading to the Jiangnan region to ask around for information regarding the 10 Guqin, but I didn’t expect them to simply buy it for me!! They’re due to arrive at Chang’an by ferry at noon.”
“So you came to wait at the port, huh?” Jiang Moyin shook his head and laughed. “Your obsession with these Guqin is serious business.”
“That’s because of their importance.” Feng Luodi smiled. “I shan’t disturb the two of you anymore, then. I’ll wait here for the fleet to arrive.”
“You can rest over at the little shack back there, if you’re feeling tired. You can still watch over the docks from there.” Jiang Moyin pointed at a little shack not too far away from the water, serving tea and drinks for the passing sailors. “The two of us will head over there to accompany you once we’re done looking around the docks.”
“No need to accompany me, Brother. Just do what you’re supposed to do.” Feng Luodi shook her hand, and quickly headed to the shack.
“She seems to be really happy.” Jiang Moyin smiled, and finally took his eyes off Feng Luodi. He turned to Situ, who was still looking at the ships in the harbour. “Let’s head in that direction. Ships and barges that enter Chang’an via the waterways have to be checked at that checkpoint for any prohibited cargo.”
Situ nodded, and the two slowly made their way towards the heavily manned checkpoint that sat in the middle of the harbour.
Noon came soon enough, and the two approached the shack where Feng Luodi was waiting with a bored expression on her face.
“Is the ship not here yet?”
“Nope.” Feng Luodi shook her head. “I was told by the shopkeeper that the ship bearing the caravan would fly a purple flag with an embroidered lotus. Have you guys seen it?” Feng Luodi looked at Jiang Moyin hopefully.
“Neither did we.” Jiang Moyin thought for a moment, and sat down beside her. “Don’t worry about it; I’m sure they’ll arrive soon enough. In the meantime, we’ll keep you company while waiting.” He poured tea for both himself and Situ.
Feng Luodi and Jiang Moyin chatted amicably about various topics, from the business of Autumnal Ombre to their review of the popular music scores, but Situ never spoke a word. Feng Luodi had noticed his silence but decided against initiating conversation with him. What is wrong with Situ today?
A while had passed, but there was still no sight of the ship Feng Luodi was waiting for. Feng Luodi could not hide her disappointment any longer and wondered out loud, “Is it not going to arrive today?”
Jiang Moyin comforted her. “Perhaps they were delayed by the wind. We’ll stay with you, so let’s wait a bit longer.”
“Alright.” Feng Luodi forced a smile.
Suddenly, an attendant came running towards Jiang Moyin. “Grand Tutor, the Heir seeks your counsel immediately.”
Jiang Moyin frowned, but Feng Luodi interjected before he could speak. “Brother, go on ahead. Your duties are much more important than accompanying me.”
Jiang Moyin sighed, and got off his bench. He turned to Situ. “Stay here with her, then. I’ll be heading into the palace.”
Situ, who had remained silent all the while, nodded without looking at Feng Luodi.
Once Jiang Moyin left, awkwardness began to set into the atmosphere. Their quiet tension was a stark contrast to the rowdy sailors around them. So this is what happens when two people who do not know how to make conversation sit together at the same table, huh? Feng Luodi played idly with the teacups on the table for a while, but finally mustered enough courage to initiate conversation.
She turned to Situ. “Are you in a bad mood? Is that why you haven’t been saying anything?”
Situ put down his cup. “Is that what you think?”
Feng Luodi was exasperated. “If not, why haven’t you said anything all the time? Don’t tell me you have a toothache.”
Situ looked at her for a long while, only until Feng Luodi began to feel uncomfortable did he speak up. “You seem very close to Moyin.”
“What? Of course I am! He’s my brother! Although we aren’t related by blood, I really respect him as an elder brother.” Feng Luodi was even more confused. What’s gotten into with him today?
“Only as an elder brother?” Situ stared hard at her.
“Of course! What else can it be?” Feng Luodi looked back directly at Situ. Are you sure this is the Situ I know?
Situ looked away silently, and Feng Luodi went back to her cups on the table.
“I’m tired of waiting, let’s head back. I don’t think the ship is going to arrive anytime today; I’ll just ask about Abysmal at the zither emporium tomorrow, I guess.” Feng Luodi sighed in exasperation as she rubbed her temples, getting off her bench. It was 2 in the afternoon, and the two of them had set in the shack for the past two hours in absolute boredom, with not a single word exchanged between the two of them.
Situ stood up as well. “Where do we go now?”
Feng Luodi rolled her eyes inwardly. Is this man not intending to go back to his residence? She thought for a moment, and turned to him. “Let’s go to Autumnal Ombre, then. As compensation for accompanying me for the past two hours, drinks are on me.”
Situ nodded, and the two walked back to Autumnal Ombre in silence. Reaching the shop, Scarlet quickly took out a few flasks of wine while Fei set the table with dishes bought from nearby restaurants. Situ and Feng Luodi sat opposite each other in the inner room, drinking and eating in awkward silence.
Downing a cup of wine, Situ spoke up. “If you like zithers that much, I can buy them for you.”
“What?” Feng Luodi looked up at him. “No need for that, I have too many zithers at home anyway. I love playing them, but not collecting.”
“What is it that’s so special about the ten Guqin you’re looking for, then? Why are you so happy just because you’ve found one of them?” Situ stared deep into Feng Luodi’s eyes, as if trying to see into her heart.
“They are very important to me, but I can’t tell you why.” Feng Luodi paused. “What I can tell you however, is that they are more important to me than my life; I won’t let anybody stop me from finding them.”
Situ narrowed his eyes, and he clenched the cup between his fingers tightly. He downed another cup of wine, but did not speak. Silence filled the room again, but it was quickly broken by a shout from the outer room.
“I am a constable from the yamen, on orders to bring in suspect Feng Luodi. Anyone who obstructs me from carrying out my course of duty will be viewed as an accomplice and is to be brought back to the yamen as well.”
“What? I am a suspect?” Feng Luodi was shocked to hear her name, and quickly walked out of the inner room. To her surprise, the constable was someone she knew.
“Constable Zheng. What brings you here?” The man in the shop was the constable that had worked closely with her on the case of the murder at Moonglade. Fei and Scarlet quickly rushed over to her side when Feng Luodi emerged out of the inner room.
“Miss Feng, please come with me.” Constable Zheng was unmoved by her appearance. Then, he saw Situ who came out of the room behind Feng Luodi. “Your Grace.”
“Why are you bringing her in?” Situ was expressionless. Feng Luodi kept quiet, giving silent consent for him to speak on her behalf.
“Feng Luodi is suspected of smuggling salt1 into the capital. It is a violation of the martial law, and we will have to question her after she is detained in the yamen.”
“Constable Zheng. These are just mere accusations if you do not have the evidence to back them up.” Feng Luodi was calm, but inside she was extremely confused. How did this happen so suddenly?
“Of course I have evidence – concrete evidence.” Constable Zheng looked directly at her, an edge in his voice. “The yamen had arrested a merchant ship that was returning from the Jiangnan province this morning, and large amounts of contraband salt was found in its hold. The sailors confessed after being interrogated by the Administrator, and confessed that they were working under your orders to smuggle salt into the capital. Please come with us, Miss Feng.”
Feng Luodi felt as if she had fallen into a carefully prepared trap. But who is the trap for?
“Isn’t it possible that the merchants were faking evidence just to implicate me in the matter? I’m sure the Administrator would not wrong me in the matter.” Feng Luodi tried to remain calm.
“It is possible, but you will still have to be brought in for interrogation and detained as per protocol. This is according to the law of our kingdom, and it will be best if you cooperate with us. Or else…” Constable Zheng’s voice trailed off threateningly.
“Okay. I will go with you.” Feng Luodi spoke up. She knew very well what the unspoken words would mean. Before she could move, Situ grabbed her arm.
“I deem the evidence insufficient to bring her in. Come back for her again once you have enough evidence that she’s responsible for this.” Situ looked firmly at Constable Zheng.
“Your Grace, please do not make things difficult for me.” Constable Zheng waved to the group of officers that stood behind him. “Feng Luodi is still a suspect, and regardless of what you say, I’ll need to bring her in for interrogation today.”
- Salt played an important role in the economy of Ancient China. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_in_Chinese_history ↩