# 179. Leaving the Capital
In the morning, Princess Lin’an slowly woke up, feeling warm and snug all around. She stretched comfortably, and her foot collided with the table leg with a “clunk”.
She opened her dazed eyes with confusion, seeing a deathly pale sky; at this time, the sun had yet to rise.
Biaobiao was as if waking up with a hangover from a night at a club, as her expression slowly changed from one of blank confusion to complete bewilderment, thinking that her eyes must not be working properly; why wasn’t she looking at an embroidered brocade bed canopy, rather at the dawn sky?
She groaned tiredly, in a lovably silly manner.
Last night’s scenes slowly flitted through her mind, like scenes rom a show. She remembered that in the night she was having dinner with Xu Ningyan on the boat, talking and drinking.
Perhaps because she had never had such an experience, she immediately agreed to this small Bronze Gong’s suggestion, but as an unmarried princess, if such an uncouth action were to get out, her name would be ruined in an instant.
Later on, maybe because she had started drinking, she let down her guard, and almost automatically at his suggestion laid down in the boat.
When she saw the sky full of glittering stars, Biaobiao’s heart became drunk with its beauty, the only thing on her mind: *drunk, I know not if the sky is in the water, my dream laden boat sailing atop the milky way.*
She was enthralled.
Like that, she didn’t want to sit up again, and under the influence of alcohol, slowly drifted to sleep.
It was so warm, too, even on a boat in the middle of winter’s grasp, she didn’t feel a little bit cold, rather warm as if she was in her mother’s embrace.
However she didn’t have enough mind to worry about this, Biaobiao sat up in a panic, discovering that there was a brocade duvet laid on her. She instinctively wanted to throw it off, before pausing, feeling around her own body under the covers, and making sure that she was fully clothed, and that nothing was amiss.
Nothing amiss, such as the ache when one loses their virginity, so written about in texts.
Biaobiao let out a long sigh of relief, and looked around. She saw the maid guarding her by the shore, and thus turned from the hung-over Biaobiao to the dignified Princess Lin’an.
She called over a guard by the shore, telling him to jump on the boat, and help her off. At the same time, she asked: “When did Master Xu Leave?”
“He left before it got light.” The palace maid replied quietly.
Lin’an nodded with a dispirited air, thinking back to the warmth she felt that night. Thinking closely though, that warmth shouldn’t have come from the covers alone, and so she made a stern face: “Last night, were there any errant moves?”
The maid, with bags under her eyes after not sleeping all night, immediately told on him: “He disrespected Your Highness.”
“Eh?” Princess Lin’an’s expression was terrified.
“He was holding Your Highness’s hand,” the maid said resentfully, “and when he left before dawn, he slapped… slapped your servant’s… buttocks, threatening me not to tell Your Highness.”
*That unreasonable!?* Lin’an’s willow-thin brows turned nearly vertical, as she had a feeling of embarrassment of misjudging someone’s character.
“Second princess…” the guard mumbled hesitantly.
“What are you mumbling about!” Lin’an glanced at him unhappily.
“It was freezing last night, and Your Highness was sleeping on the boat — a single duvet would not have been enough to fend off the cold.” The guard explained, “Your subordinate saw last night that Master Xu did not sleep at all, and the reason why he was holding Your Highness’s hand was to transfer qi and expel the cold.”
*Transfer qi… did not sleep at all…* Biaobiao stared blankly for a moment, then remembering that she did indeed have a very comfortable night, asked with suspicion: “Why have we not heard of this matter, and no one in the past has transferred qi to me.”
“This…” the guard forced a smile, “To work one’s qi over a whole night without sleeping, expending one’s own energy, who could really keep that up. Except a middle or high rank martial artist, that is.
“Furthermore, Your Highness wears brocade and dines on jade, usually this is unnecessary.”
Biaobiao bit her lip, testing: “How tiring is it?”
The guard replied: “If it were your subordinate, I would be already dead.”
Her glossy eyes rippled with emotion, and her gaze became as soft as silk.
“When Master- Master Xu left, he seemed… to be very tired.” The maid recalled, “But why did he order your servant to not say anything?”
Lin’an did not respond to this question, suddenly walking towards the door: “This morning he needs to leave the capital for Yunzhou, what time is it, we wish to send him off…”
She didn’t know why, but there were ripples coursing through her heart, yearning to see her running dog.
“Your Highness, it’s past six…” the maid chased after her, “furthermore, since when would a princess send off a Bronze Gong, if this got out, it would be a disaster for both you and him.”
These words stopped the headstrong princess Lin’an in her tracks.
*For me, at most I would be scolded by father… but on my reputation, a small Bronze Gong like him would be bound to face much worse…* Lin’an’s gaze scanned over her maid and guard, and her round face showed a rare expression of royal might:
“This matter concerns our reputation, you are not to tell anyone about last night’s events, else you shall be beaten until dead.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
The road from the capital to Yunzhou was a long one, and so to save time, the imperial envoy decided to use the canal routes, and avoid travelling overland.
The government boat cut through the waves, its sails bulging.
Xu Qi’an stood on the deck, welcoming the river winds. Boats big and small were moored at the river shore, both government and private crafts.
“You don’t look too good, you’re overworked.” Jiang Lyuzhong came to the deck, and stood side by side. Looking across at Xu Qi’an, he laughed: “Busy night at the Jiaofangsi?”
“… mhm.” Xu Qi’an didn’t have anything to say.
He did indeed to go the Jiaofangsi, and had a parting exchange with Fuxiang, but what really tired him out was that his energy was all sapped by Biaobiao. The latter, though, could not be spoken of.
“Look at you, you’re still young, your eye bags are still light.” Jiang Lyuzhong put both hands on the railing, laughing with the laugh of an old seasoned veteran,
“Yunzhou also has a Jiaofangsi, the women south of the river have soft bodies, soft voices, and a whole different feeling to the capital.”
“They’re not the same.” Xu Qi’an shook his head.
“You’re a romantic type of guy?” Jiang Lyuzhong said with shock.
*This has nothing to do with romance, and everything to do with freeloading…* Xu Qi’an said solemnly, “Unless Gold Gong Jiang is willing to pay.”
“Wha?” Jiang Lyuzhong stared back blankly.
“If you pay, then it’s the same either way.” Xu Qi’an was very serious.
Jiang Lyuzhong thought for a moment, before pointing to the river surface: “What do you think the water is like here?”
Xu Qi’an’s gaze followed, and he replied very sincerely: “Nothing much to say, dirty as anywhere else.”
Jiang Lyuzhong nodded: “Good that you know.”
Xu Qi’an: “…”
After a while, Jiang Lyuzhong said: “We will take the canal south as far as Qingzhou, afterwards we would need to travel on land. About ten days’ travel on land will be enough to reach Yunzhou.”
“Sir Jiang, isn’t it inappropriate to tell me about these secrets.” Xu Qi’an said.
“No matter, with your ability sooner or later you’ll become a Gold Gong.” Jiang Lyuzhong smiled without much of a care.
*From friend to friend, if you set goalposts for me I’ll be angry too…* Xu Qi’an replied also with a smile: “Thank you for your kind words. So, why do we need to switch to the dry road?”
“Overland”, Jiang Lyuzhong said, before explaining: “Whilst Qingzhou and Yunzhou are bordering, there are no waterways connecting them. If we were to go via water all the way, then we would need to detour around the neighbouring Shazhou, and it’ll be slower than going by land.”
“There aren’t any waterways?” Xu Qi’an expressed his confusion.
“Originally there were, there was a tributary river connecting Yunzhou and Qingzhou, but just over a decade ago the river suddenly changed course.” Jiang Lyuzhong explained.
*It changed course…* Xu Qi’an slowly nodded.
Hydraulic infrastructure has been a headache-inducing problem for the court since ancient times; rivers will often dry up, or change course. Even in his previous life, flooding was a big issue for all. It was all well and good for a guy to change course, there’s a back door to take, but when the water changes course, disaster follows for a thousand li, and the people suffer.[^1]
Just then they saw a plume of black smoke rise up in the distance. Xu Qi’an focused his eyes, and saw that it came from a little boat moored in the distance. There were people on it burning goods.
“What’s up with this, why are they burning goods?” Xu Qi’an said deeply.
His first reaction was that there were law-breakers, destroying merchants’ goods.
Jiang Lyuzhong glanced over, and said with realisation: “Usually this happens because a merchant doesn’t want to go through the toll gate, they’ll burn their goods and return home.”
“They’re nearly at the capital, why bother with this?” Xu Qi’an did not understand.
“Heh, the court sets many levy gates on the river. Every time you pass one, you pay a tax, and as you pay and pay, many merchants will find that even if they reach their destination and sell all their goods, their profit wouldn’t even be enough to pay tax. Thus they would just burn their produce and return, since even on the return leg if you carry any goods you have to pay tax again, but an empty boat is tax free.” Jiang Lyuzhong sighed: “Burning goods on the river is a common sight.”
“What bad table manners.” Xu Qi’an raised an eyebrow.
“There’s worse. Some smaller merchants cant pay the shipping tax, and so can only rely on merchant guilds. Those guilds will buy up their goods at rock bottom prices, and sell them with a markup. Let’s use that saltpetre mine you found in Taikang county as an example. The local *huihu* pick rocks and refine them into lime, but the capital can’t consume such a large amount. Thus, they can only sell to the various different provinces, but they wouldn’t be able to afford the shipping tax.
“Thus the merchant guilds will buy the lime for a low price, and ship it through their own connections. The *huihu* would only get a tenth of the final sale price at best, just enough to eat their fill.
“The various interests involved in this are difficult to handle, even Duke Wei treats this matter with much apprehension.”
Xu Qi’an fell silent.
He thought of another matter. Emperor Yuanjing’s daoist cultivation requires many medicines, the cost of them were astronomical, and this silver wasn’t taken from the state coffers, but rather form his personal treasury.
Then, how was Emperor Yuanjing able to keep up with this endless money sucking void?
He didn’t ask this out loud, returning to the hold to meditate, recouping his energy. Around noon, his stomach was rumbling with hunger.
Leaving his room he heard a lively conversation coming from the deck. He quickly found out that the boatmen had hauled up many plump river fish, and dumped them on the deck to flop around.
Lead by Jiang Lyuzhong, Song Tingfeng and twenty other Bronze Gongs were all joining in the bustle, excited to have fresh fish soup to drink for lunch.
The inspector general who was leading this expedition also came out with a frown, hearing the noise.
He was an assistant censor in chief of the Censorate, a fourth-rank official. The role of inspector general was usually taken by Censors, and their power was great indeed.
The Censorate was controlled by Wei Yuan, and the great azure cloak even had a role there, a Censor-in-chief, second rank. Thus this inspector general could be considered one of their men.
This inspector general had been in his room seasick the whole morning, as the world turned and wobbled around him, and he was just resting when he was awoken by this bunch of martial artists. Naturally, he was very upset.
“Pick out some of the plumpest fish for the inspector general.” Jiang Lyuzhong smiled.
The inspector general, with a long trailing goatee beard and an air of a scholar, waved his hand, his brow furrowed intently: “River fish smell too strong, this official doesn’t have any appetite for it.”
After refusing Jiang Lyuzhong’s good intentions, he scanned over the Bronze Gongs with displeasure, “Be more quiet, what decorum is there, jumping and shouting like that.”
Afterwards, he returned below deck impatiently.
“Tut tut, scholars’ bodies are so weak, can’t stand this little rocking.” A bronze gong remarked, before being stared down by Jiang Lyuzhong.
*Fresh fish soup… perfect for adding some chicken bouillon…* Xu Qi’an, stomach rumbling, was filled with yearning for lunch.
[^1]: Unlike the Nile which has a regular cycle, the Yellow River has always been a pain in the arse for Chinese Empires throughout history, because of its tendency to flood irregularly and up and change course. In the Ming Dynasty, the river rerouted itself round the south of the Shandong peninsula, 400 miles from where it currently reaches the sea.