Yang Rong Gui was taller than most, a talented person, and a renowned young master in his younger years. Now he was a little older, growing a moustache, appearing even more mature and steady. He was excellent in treating others, his way of speaking was not shallow either - it was far different from the despicable appearance in Xu Ling's imagination.
But at this time, he had not even had the chance to meet with Yang Rong Gui - the people he met instead were a pair of false envoys.
Yang Rong Gui's heart was deep and unpredictable, his thoughts were seldom exposed, but the governor of Yangzhou - Zheng Kun, who had always been serving him, was able to see through it. After sending off Yan Wang and his party, Yang Rong Gui stroked his moustache quietly. Although there was no joy on his face, Zheng Kun knew that he was in a good mood. He came forward and said a few flattering words, "It seems that Master Yang and Yan Wang get along very well?"
The hidden meaning was: it seemed that Yan Wang also knew the depth of the world of officials. He had no intention to pursue this to the end, only wanting to use this matter to gather power for himself.
Yang Rong Gui laughed and said, "His Royal Highness Yan Wang is a talented young man. If he were to be refined a little more, he would have great potential for the future. Deputy Inspector Xu is a righteous man, a true pure official rarely seen. But I was thinking the Marquis of Order was accompanying them, I didn't realize that the Marquis was so eager about military affairs, crossed the gate of Yangzhou Prefecture but did not enter, and went directly to Jiangbei Camp. Unable to meet with Great Liang's God of War at least once, I feel quite regretful."
Zheng Kun had followed him for a long time. If discussing the matter of being a smart flatterer, he was incomparable. He immediately assumed he understood Governor Yang's meaning: Yan Wang was young and inexperienced, although his ambition was not at all small, he had already shown his true intent in a few words — he was easy to deal with. That surname Xu was a wooden stick, reading books to the point of being delirious, there was no need to be concerned about him. And the best thing of all, he did not know whether it was ‘a martial officer not interfering with internal affairs to avoid suspicion’, or it was a deliberate move by Yan Wang, shooing the troublesome Marquis of Order far away, letting them carry things out with all their power.
Yang Rong Gui and Zheng Kun looked at each other and smiled. Yang Rong Gui said, "This time, a peasant's nonsense gossip has been spread to the capital, it is reasonable Yan Wang must investigate a bit. Go tell the servants to prepare well, we walk straight and stand upright, we do not fear any investigation."
Zheng Kun smiled with understanding and said, "Yes, Master, rest assured."
Sending away the joyful Zheng Kun, only now did Yang Rong Gui retract the very faint hint of joy on his face. All that was left was calculating coldness.
He knew that Yan Wang would not be easy to send away, but he did not expect it to be this difficult. If it was not for Officer Lu's warning in advance, he would perhaps truly be tricked by him. That Yan Wang who had overturned clouds and rains in the court, what kind of incredible tactics did he possess? How could he be an ignorant young man?
The grand plan they calculated had been tight-knit in secrecy all this time, even Zheng Kun had no knowledge of it. If the storm was raging and swords were drawn as soon as Yan Wang arrived, they could react according to the situation, it would have been easy. But he was being this careful…the grand scheme of things would not be good.
That matter must be done as soon as possible.
When Yang Rong Gui and his colleagues took the ‘Inspector and Deputy Imperial Envoy’ to visit their ‘refugee house’ with very few residents in the suburbs, Chang Geng and Xu Ling were exploring the situation of the refugees everywhere in disguise. What puzzled Xu Ling the most was that His Royal Highness Yan Wang with his noble status would mingle in the city like a fish in water, chatting with small merchants and people from all walks of life in the pugilist world. With the false Yan Wang at the front covering those people's eyes and ears, no one would pay attention to them. It had not been a few days, but Xu Ling had made several friends close enough to come to their houses for free meals.
Finally, the things they wanted to inquire about were beginning to catch on.
"You mean, there used to be many refugee houses outside the city, but now no one knows where they disappeared to? Your High -... Shopkeep, be careful!" Xu Ling was talking to the inn manager while staring at Yan Wang beside him with trepidation.
They were inside a small pub in the outskirts of Yangzhou. The owner was a retired bodyguard*, surnamed Sun, with an intimidating face and fierce temperament. Any guests that annoyed him even slightly would be kicked out. Luckily, this man was excellent at brewing wine, and combined with many visitors from the pugilist world, he was able to continue his business that was on the verge of closing down.
*Bodyguard here is referring to a job from ancient times, their duty was to escort and transport goods from one place to another safely. Like a shipping service.
No one knew how, but Boss Sun was getting along with Yan Wang. The inn had already closed as of this moment. Yan Wang was in a good mood, carving a plaque for him on the spot. He was personally stepping on a bench to hang it on the door; the bench was missing one leg, shaking on its own even with no one touching it.
Boss Sun laughed aloud and said, "Your shopkeep is very well trained. No need for you to worry your pretty little head. What are you asking about the refugees for? Nowadays, with the foreign dogs occupying Jiangnan, there are many people drifting everywhere. It isn't worth much even if they lay dead all over."
Xu Ling said, "I heard that there are a hundred thousand refugees in Jiangbei. Our host asked us to come and explore the canal coast. We wanted to accommodate these refugees by building factories and taking them in as workers. Traveling all the way here only to find so little people, where else are we supposed to find workers?"
Boss Sun had drunk half a kilo of yellow wine, his face was red, and his eyes were fluttering. He looked at Xu Ling drunkenly and grinned, showing his yellow teeth and saying, "What, want to dig for information from me?"
Xu Ling: "..."
Chang Geng took the hammer and nailed the sign into the entrance of the pub. He leaped down, smiled, and shook his head. The three-legged bench remained motionless from beginning to end. Master Xu grew up reading books, not knowing about the outside world, afterwards, he entered the court to be an official. He had always been inside the capital; how could he know how to deal with these hardened and experienced men in the pugilist world?
Boss Sun looked at Chang Geng and slurred his words, "White dragon in fish clothing, the shopkeep is not simple."
Xu Ling was breaking into a cold sweat due to fright for a moment, but Chang Geng took the bottle handed over by Boss Sun without a care and drank half of it, "What are all these talks about white dragon or black dragon, some people are bound to run into ghosts if they walk too much at night. I am that ghost."
Boss Sun looked at Chang Geng in a meaningful way for a long time, then laughed, "Why did the Imperial Officer find me?"
Chang Geng had his cover torn down by someone else, yet his face remained unchanged. "Nothing. Just thought that Boss Sun's small pub business is too good. There are only two or three tables of guests every day, but batches of drinks, vegetables and rice were delivered one after another. Can you finish eating them all?"
Boss Sun looked up at him. The drunkenness on his face all but vanished, his eyes shone with malicious intent. Xu Ling was sharp, noticing a fierce-looking short knife hidden under his robe.
Xu Ling suddenly stood up and said, "Your Highness!"
The accountant, waiters, and the people originally dozing off in the restaurant all stood up, each with sharp and bright eyes, their waists seemed to have weapons; all were martial artists.
The two guards of the Black Iron Camp blocked the door, one on the left and one on the right; Xu Ling unconsciously tightened his hand around a sword he kept for self-defence.
Chang Geng put the bottle gently on the table, making a clicking sound: "On the way here, I was thinking, where could one hide this many refugees? The worst-case scenario is that Yang Rong Gui has gone completely mad that he gathered all the refugees together under the name of the epidemic and killed them all in a pit."
Boss Sun grinned fiercely and said, "Your Highness Yan Wang truly understands the minds of the dog officers under your command, worthy of being the leader of all dog officers."
"The leader of all dog officers is my elder brother, not me," Chang Geng said lightly, "but even if Yang Rong Gui was any more insane, if he really forcibly expels and kills the refugees, there will soon be rebels everywhere. It is impossible not to alarm the garrison of Jiangbei nearby."
Boss Sun gave him a cold look: "Yang Rong Gui declared that the villages to settle the refugees had been built. They run along the hill. He wanted to take the refugees there to open up the wasteland, start farming, and settle down slowly, then send people to register and issue a number plate to each refugee and distribute them to different villages by the plate. How to distribute land and collect rent were stated clearly. They also allowed a group of refugees to choose their own leader. If you don't want to go, from now on, you can do as you please on your own, there will be no more porridge to receive outside Yangzhou City — sick people will be separated from each other and isolated to another area. Doctors will provide the medicine, every doctor of Yangzhou City will be there that day."
If someone were to come from the pugilist world, more or less involved with some factions, whether it be legal or illegal, there would always be a place for them to go to. Most of those who became refugees were honest and poor people. Their lifelong wish was to have peace, a roof over their heads, and food on the table. As long as they could live, and their lives could be improved for the better every day and have hope for the future, they would never cause trouble.
If Yang Rong Gui said he had built a better shelter on the other side, there would undoubtedly be skepticism from the people. But Yang Rong Gui had explained that they needed to cultivate the wasteland and farm by themselves, even assigning the rules beforehand — it definitely sounded a lot more certain. Even if the rent might be higher than the landowner that year, in this precarious situation, it was enough for people to take charge of themselves and follow after him on this path.
Xu Ling was very doubtful as he heard this, he had always assumed Yang Rong Gui was the idling type, eating salary; due to his underling causing an epidemic, he had deceived the higher ups in order to push away the responsibility. Who would have expected that he was quite organized? If he had done so earlier, how would there be so many refugees in Jiangbei?
Xu Ling said, "It is a good idea to open up the wasteland. Since Governor Yang had managed those refugees well, why did he hide the report of the epidemic?"
Boss Sun said with sarcasm, his voice filled with sorrowful coldness, "The officer received the ruler's salary, you truly are carefree and naive, not knowing where the money came from."
Xu Ling was stunned for a while and suddenly responded, "You mean Yang Rong Gui took the money that the court sent down for the epidemic to settle the refugees!"
Xu Ling regretted this remark immediately, what he had just said was simply too bizarre. Sure enough, the next moment, Yan Wang and Boss Sun laughed at the same time. Xu Ling blushed and rushed to find a way to mend it: "I just didn't think that Yang Rong Gui had the courage to go this far. The area across the river had been taken by the enemy, it was also right next to the Jiangbei Camp. How could he dare..."
"Jiangbei Camp can't be mobilized freely," Chang Geng muttered. "Once the enemy forces have any abnormal changes, nobody can bear the responsibility. If Yang Rong Gui wants to hide it, Old Zhong would not have the type of vision that could know of the situation on this side."
Boss Sun gave a sneer, disagreeing with his explanation.
"As long as he can control the North Station, he can cover the sky with one hand." Chang Geng turned to Boss Sun and said, "Since Brother Sun knows everything so clearly, you must have helped in taking in many of the refugees. My guess is that there are many fishermen in Liangjiang, behind them there is the Sha Hai Group running rampage on both sea and land, I wonder which side does Boss Sun belong to?"
Xu Ling on the other side did not recognize it at first, but he felt that the words 'Sha Hai Group' were very familiar. Suddenly, as he saw Boss Sun turn his head and smile, revealing a horrifying scar from a sword wound from his ear to his jaw, he remembered that the Sha Hai Group was the force that spread all over from Jiangnan to Fujian — they were a major bandit group!
Boss Sun was not a bodyguard, but a bandit! The restaurant was not a Xinghua Village, but a place selling steam buns of human flesh filling*!
*A reference to Sun Erniang, a fictional character in Water Margin 水浒传, one of the Four Great Classical Novels in Chinese Literature.
Xu Ling instantly turned tense, trying to cover for Yan Wang behind him with the power of a scholar who had no strength to tie a chicken, "You... You are…"
Chang Geng put his hands together: "The dog killers could still be the ones who uphold righteousness*, there still exists one with many sentiments in the green woods, I have been disrespectful.
*From a couplet by famous Ming Dynasty poet, Cao Xuequan 曹学佺 (the second verse is "many cold-hearted ones are of scholarly origin".)
Boss Sun's eyes swept a few Black Iron Camp guards behind him and straightforwardly said, "Yan Wang doesn't have to be so over courteous either. This time you all come openly for a visit, secretly exploring for information; at the end of the day, you only want to know how greedy Yang Rong Gui is, where the refugees that have been harmed by him went to, and whether there is a real epidemic. I might as well tell you directly — those people that have been taken to other areas in order to be saved, as soon as the patients arrived, on the first day, each of them received a bowl of medicine to drink. At the end of that same day, at night, a big fire broke out. None of the people inside were able to flee, their bodies and the evidence have all been erased. The others had been detained in batches in the so-called ‘mountain village’ or had joined the gang with us brothers."
Chang Geng's face remained unchanged, he said, "If we hadn't come, I'm afraid a riot would have happened sooner or later."
Boss Sun sneered: "The officials forced the hands of the people, but then again, when Yang Rong Gui killed the refugees, Jiangbei Camp did not catch wind of it at all. If the refugees rebelled, Jiangbei Camp would surely move immediately, regardless of whether they could not fight corrupt officials or foreigners, they would still be more than enough to defeat us ordinary people. Yeah, all roads are facing the sky, but none of them is the road to survival."
Xu Ling had seen the reorganization of Jiangbei Camp and witnessed the battlefield along both sides of Jiangnan. As he was about to refute, Chang Geng first raised his hand to stop him.
Chang Geng: "If there is really no way to survive, why should Brother Sun wait here for us?"
Boss Sun: "I am respectfully waiting here, because I only wanted to see if the imperial officials in the court would truly be worth anything or not. If you are the type who only sits above others, rats and snakes in the same den, then even if we must face the gunfire of the Jiangbei Camp, we would still be willing to bet our lives and battle to the end! I just don't know if you would dare to come — I cannot bring a wolf inside our home. If you wish to investigate, you can take this pretty boy and follow me, leaving all the dogs that follow you behind."
Xu Ling: "Your Highness, you must not!"
Chang Geng laughed and said, "I cannot ask for more, please."
Boss Sun puts his hands together: "This way."
After he finished, he took the lead in stepping out. He suddenly turned back and looked at the plaque carved by His Highness Yan Wang for the pub where the human meat steamed buns were sold. The old bandit's face finally moved, on it was carved simply the four words — 'Thousand Years of Justice'.
If someone saw the ‘Yan Wang’ in the Liangjiang governor’s manor at this time, they would certainly be startled.
The ‘Yan Wang’ that was graceful in front of others, as soon as the door was closed, instantly became a blockhead showing off his appearance. It was none other than Cao Chun Hua and his extraordinary disguise.
Governor Yang treated them quite well. The room was graceful and luxurious. There were several small objects burning Ziliujin and a Western mirror in the interior as tall as a person, an entire body could be seen while standing in front of it. Only then did ‘Yan Wang’, who just now stood outside like a pine tree, quirk his hips and sway in, twisting his long legs into a strand. Standing in front of the Western mirror, he looked left and right, winking, raising his eyebrows for about a moment and holding his face, seeming to not have enough no matter how long he looked.
‘Xu Ling’ at the side resembled a wooden man, and lowering his eyes, there was no telling whether he had truly become wooden or not. He did not look at the other man.
‘Yan Wang’ sighed and complimented incessantly, "There's no need to mention anything else, just my big brother's face alone, I cannot have enough no matter how much I touch."
‘Xu Ling’ sneered, "Go touch the real thing if you have the courage."
"I am the real thing," said 'Yan Wang', nodding in satisfaction and raising his chin. "Good enough to replace the real thing. Why did he not allow me to perfect it? Since the Marquis also came along, let me mold one out as well. Why did he have to go straight to Jiangbei under the excuse of avoiding suspicion?"
‘Xu Ling’ said, "Not letting you mold it was for your own good, for fear that you might profane Marshal Gu's face, at that point you would be chopped alive by the Black Iron Camp."
‘Yan Wang’ glared and no longer paid him any mind, concentrating on admiring his masterpiece of a face in the mirror. Suddenly, an attendant came and said, "Your Highness, Master Xu, Governor Yang wishes to see you for an important matter, he is waiting outside."
‘Yan Wang’ and ‘Xu Ling’ looked at each other. ‘Yan Wang’ said in a hushed tone, "We already finished our act, the guests and hosts had also enjoyed the time spent together. The next step should be to pull us on their boat with bribes, right? There must be boxes of gold and silver and beauties waiting outside. Female beauties are whatever, but can the male beauties stay? Our big brother told us to keep the physical evidence well, but he didn't say what to do if there is human evidence."
‘Xu Ling’ looked back at Yan Wang's incredibly handsome face with deep facial features, accompanied by the words ‘Male Beauties’ spoken with drool, giving him a stomachache, but before he could make a sarcastic remark, there was a sudden rush of footsteps outside. The guards in the courtyard shouted for them to stop, but the visitors rushed in regardless. A series of sounds of soldiers clashing could be heard.
'Xu Ling's' face changed dramatically, he whispered, "Did we show an opening? Or..."
As the voice was still in the air, ‘Yan Wang’s’ shameless expression just now suddenly turned grave, appearing much like the real thing.
He stepped forward, pushed open the door, put his hands in his sleeves behind his back, and looked down at the people who had broken into their place in full armor and weapons, with Yang Rong Gui as the leader.
"Governor Yang, what is the meaning of this?" 'Yan Wang' asked, and behind him, 'Xu Ling' placed his hand on his waist imperceptibly, ready to rush out and create a path to escape if their identities were to be uncovered.
Who would have expected that at the next moment, Yang Rong Gui, with raging murderous intent, suddenly stepped forward, knelt on the ground, and said loudly, "Your Highness, this lowly official was worthless and incompetent. The local bandits had rebelled and blocked the communication route from Yangzhou Prefecture to Jiangbei Camp. I was forced to gather up all the guards and soldiers from the nearby cities, we pledge to protect Your Highness with our lives! The situation is critical. Please make preparations for transportation."
'Yan Wang' looked back at 'Xu Ling', 'Xu Ling' made a movement of shaking his head that was hard to detect, he did not yet know what play Yang Rong Gui was putting on here, 'Yan Wang' had to temporarily respond, "I already know of this. Governor Yang stand up…"
Yang Rong Gui, however, turned a deaf ear to him and continued to say aloud, "There is still one more matter; the current Emperor is dim and incompetent, the land of the ancestors is on a declining path, with frequent internal and external troubles. On the outside, there are preying foreigners, on the inside, there are rebel mobs of commoners, but the soldiers everywhere lack a leader. This Yang is willing to take the risk of bearing this grave sin and imitating his predecessors - supporting Your Highness to become the Emperor!"
As he finished, the ranks behind him split in two. Four people came out carrying a set of clothing on their shoulders. 'Yan Wang's' eyes almost came out of their sockets. It was actually a false Dragon Robe good enough to replace the real thing!
Yang Rong Gui: "I have dedicated my all to Great Liang. As the country is in danger, I did not hide any property for myself, selling my own home in order to give to the country. A little of my family wealth, together with my wife's dowry, they have all been handed over to the court in exchange for Feng Huo tickets, but I was still under that incompetent Emperor's suspicion. It truly is an injustice for thousands of years. If a true wise ruler descends on earth, I vow to assist him with my own life!"
These words echoing pridefully, seeming to straightforwardly express himself, but in fact, they contained three layers of coercion and threats:
Firstly — I am corrupt and have committed illegal deeds. All of them were because I was forced to by your Feng Huo tickets. I am guilty. Yan Wang, you are the one who started it all.
Secondly — there may be a bandit riot, there may not be, but if I say they are rioting, then they are rioting.
Thirdly — don the royal robe on your body, or 'die in the uprising of the refugees', Your Highness can make your choice!
When coming here, the real Yan Wang only told them to delay as much as possible with this traitor surnamed Yang. He did not tell them that there would be such a thing!
The pair of a counterfeit chief and deputy inspector were stunned in place by fear for a moment.
After a long while later, 'Xu Ling' took a deep breath and shouted, "Governor Yang, are you out of your mind rebelling like this? The Marquis of Order is still in Jiangbei Camp. You think that the tens of thousands of elite soldiers of Great Liang are dead men?"
Yang Rong Gui smiled and said with profound implication, "Master Xu has said too much, how could an underling dare to entertain the idea of rebellion? But the Emperor has already been killed by a Dong Ying assassin. At present, the country is in danger, the Crown Prince is still young, us subjects have to make such a decision, inviting Your Highness to ascend the throne.”