Chapter 97: Yangzhou
Nan Xun knew how urgent this matter was to Jun Huang. Without wasting any more time, he mounted and squeezed the horse's torso with both his legs. The horse broke into a gallop, bringing sand and dust up in the air. In the veil of yellow dust, Nan Xun's eyes were drawn to Jun Huang's aloof face. The silk robe she wore looked pristine against the backdrop. She looked like a goddess riding on her horse.
Their horses galloped forward. Their clothes fluttered and rustled in the wind. The only thing they could hear was the swooshing sound air made. The beautiful scenery was left unnoticed as the two of them tried to reach Yangzhou as soon as they could.
They arrived at the gate to Yangzhou city before sunrise. They dismounted and smiled a little at their destination.
Nan Xun turned to Jun Huang, who looked back at him. They led their horses towards the checkpoint. After answering the guards' questions, they made their way inside. The streets were bustling with people roaming the stands. Jun Huang relaxed visibly.
She had seen how difficult life at the border was. She was afraid that Yangzhou might have suffered the same fate. If that were the case, she would have to conclude that the emperor was truly incompetent. Fortunately, the city was as prosperous as ever.
As the biggest city in Northern Qi, Yangzhou had attracted many magnates. There were an abundance of business opportunities here. A good number of rich men moved their whole family and settled down in the city, which explained why the prefect of Yangzhou was corrupt. Every one of these businessmen was able to award him handsomely.
The prefect was willing to do anything for money. As long as he received payment, he would gladly turn a blind eye to any crimes. The heaven cared not about the mortal world, and the emperor was too great a distance away. That was why a mere prefect was able to assume total control of the city.
"Let us find a place to rest," suggested Nan Xun. "Tomorrow we will start our investigation."
Jun Huang nodded. She knew when to be patient. After a long day on horse, the poison in her body was again rearing its ugly head. She rubbed at her chest with a pale face. Nan Xun immediately came to her side and supported her with an arm. Worried, he asked, "Are you alright?"
"I'm fine." Jun Huang took a deep breath to suppress her discomfort, but she didn't try to move away from Nan Xun. Instead, she leaned against Nan Xun and let him support her weight. In his concerns, Nan Xun failed to notice her unusual behavior.
Upon their arrival at the inn, the clerk could tell from their extraordinary presence that they were from a good family. Jun Huang and Nan Xun had changed out of their silk robes, but the fabric of their clothes were far from cheap. Moreover, they both possessed this innate aura that demanded others' attention.
"Are the gentlemen here for a meal or to stay the night?" The clerk swung his towel over his shoulder and came up to them with a servile smile.
"We're staying," said Nan Xun. "Prepare two of your finest rooms for us."
"Understood." The clerk rushed off to arrange the rooms for them. Nan Xun placed a silver ingot on the counter. The innkeeper widened his eyes. Such generous payment happened only once every blue moon.
Nan Xun didn't pay the innkeeper any attention. He pointed at the two horses they left at the door. "Take good care of them."
The innkeeper hurriedly agreed. Once the rooms were prepared, Nan Xun helped Jun Huang up the stairs and ordered the clerk to send them some food.
After the clerk had left, Nan Xun said to Jun Huang, "You have to give your body time to recover. Don't be hasty."
Jun Huang nodded. Once Nan Xun left, she shut the door and sat down at the table. She inhaled deeply and took her own pulse. Her body was in a good enough condition. She was simply exhausted from the trip. She took some painkillers she had made herself. It made her feel a little better.
The next day, Jun Huang left the inn with Nan Xun and walked the street to find out what had been happening around the city. Yangzhou was large. It was a waste of time for them to do this together. After thinking through the pros and cons, Jun Huang suggested that they split up.
Before they parted ways, Nan Xun reminded Jun Huang to not take risks on her own. If she found anything, she must tell him lest she get hurt. Jun Huang nodded and went west.
This region was populated by poor people. The further she went, the more shabby the buildings were. Residents here were dressed in crude and even torn clothes. She felt her heart ache for them.
Two children ran out from nowhere and pulled at Jun Huang's clothes. They looked up at her. "Big brother, big brother! Please give us something to eat!"
Jun Huang squatted down and tried to understand what was happening. Before she could say much, an old man walked out with a crutch. He pointed at the two children. "Please don't be offended, gentleman. They are pitiful kids who have lost their parents."
Jun Huang got to her feet. "Isn't there an orphanage for these kind of children?"
The old man smiled a little and waved his hand. "The gentleman must be new to the city. You don't know that there was a tax increase, do you? Originally, there was an orphanage in the city, but it was unable to continue its operation. These orphans can only beg for a living. It's a great misfortune that the emperor never noticed." He got more and more riled up as he spoke. The wrinkles on his face deepened.
Jun Huang was deeply rattled. She had never heard of a tax increase for the past two years! On the contrary, didn't the emperor cut the tax for Yanzhou out of kindness because of the drought hitting the city a few years back?
She looked at the old man with dark eyes. "Is it true?"
"Why would an old man like me lie to you without a good reason?" The old man gave her a smile before limping away. He gestured for the children to follow him. He was offering them a meal.
Jun Huang tightened her hands into fists, her nails biting deep into her palms. Her thoughts kept coming back to the fact that there had been a tax increase. The pain never registered in her brain.
The more she thought about it, the more furious she got. She wanted nothing but to grab the prefect by the shoulders and questioned him if he was able to sleep at night as he exploited the people like they were animals.
Nan Xun reached the inn before Jun Huang did. He waited a long time, and yet she had not returned. Worried that she might have been in danger, he decided to go find her. He happened to run into Jun Huang at the door. She looked as if her world had been turned upside down.
Nan Xun frowned and checked her for any injury. He relaxed when he saw that she wasn't hurt. "What's wrong?"
Jun Huang met his eyes with a frown. She looked around and gave Nan Xun a look. They knew each other well enough to communicate without a word. They went inside the inn and made their way to her room.
Once inside, Nan Xun made sure there wasn't anyone around before asking, "What did you find?"
Jun Huang's scowl was intimidating. She looked up at Nan Xun. "Do you know about the tax increase in Yangzhou?"
"Nonsense. The people are suffering. The emperor would not have increased the tax at time like this. Neither have I heard of such plan… Did someone tell you this?"
Jun Huang nodded. Her heart was still boiling with rage. She took a gulp of the tea on the table. It was bitter, and the sweet aftertaste never came. It must have been brewed early in the morning and had gone cold over the day.
It was bad for her health to drink too much cold tea. She put down the teacup and forced herself to calm down. She inhaled deeply.
Nan Xun hummed. He had an idea. "Tax revenue is normally recorded in detail. Even if the prefect has submitted false record to the imperial court, he must have kept a real accounting book somewhere in his manor."
Jun Huang's eyes lit up. She exchanged a look with Nan Xun before turning to the window. Sunlight shone through the opened shutters. There was a silver lining still.
Evil would never triumph against justice. She was convinced that there would be a way to punish this despicable man who blatantly disregarded the law.
Nan Xun wasn't so sure. The investigation in the imperial city had attracted a lot of attention. Yangzhou wasn't so far away from the imperial city that the news wouldn't have reached the prefect's ears. Perhaps the prefect had already made the preparations to catch the investigators in one swoop .
Jun Huang knew what Nan Xun was worried about, but the clerk knocked before she could say anything. She opened the door to let the clerk in. The clerk brought them a pot of tea. "This servant saw that the gentlemen have returned to your rooms. I knew your tea must have gone cold. Therefore I brew you a fresh pot."
Jun Huang looked down at the guests having their meals downstairs. No one stood out as suspicious, and there wasn't any onlookers around them. She shut the door and took out a silver ingot. "May I ask you something, brother?" she asked as she approached him with a bright smile.
The clerk was puzzled, but he couldn't stop his eyes from darting to the silver ingot. He nodded without thinking. At this point, he didn't really care what questions Jun Huang was going to ask.
"How has the prefect been treating his people?" Jun Huang decided to ease him into the conversation. She sat on a chair and played with the ingot in her hand, all the while keeping her eyes on him.
"Ha! Isn't every official the same? We ordinary people have no way to even catch a glimpse of the prefect. He always travel through a sedan chair being carried by eight men. His feet never even touch the ground! And that's far from the worst thing about him. I heard that he just married a concubine some time ago. He, a fifty something old man, laid his hand on a young and beautiful woman! What's more, he turned a blind eye to his son's wrongdoings, letting him force himself on a peasant woman. It's said that the woman resisted, and her whole family ended up being beaten to death – "
The clerk rambled on and on. He told Jun Huang every rumor he had ever heard of, paying no mind to the truthfulness of his words. In the end, he let out a resigned sigh. "That prefect is a poor excuse of a human being. No matter what crimes those rich men commit, as long as they pay, he will let them go without so much of a slap on their wrists."
Jun Huang became more and more tense during his rambling. She handed the silver ingot to him and forced herself to put on a smile. "Do not tell anyone of this conversation."
The clerk nodded hurriedly. "This peasant will keep my lips sealed. I have exposed every dirty little secret of the prefect. If he gets a wind of this conversation, I will not be able to survive even if I had ten lives."
Once the clerk left, Jun Huang turned to Nan Xun. "If what he said is true, there must be evidence showing that the prefect has been taking bribes over the years. And if he has let his son hurt people without intervening, there must be some proof at his place as well."
Nan Xun nodded. "True. But next time, please don't just grab a random person and question them."
At night, the city quieted down considerably. There was barely any people on the street. Yangzhou was prosperous, but it was not the imperial city. Jun Huang and Nan Xun sneaked their way to the prefect's manor.
They were dressed in black and their faces were covered by masks. The only visible part of their features were their eyes, which shone brightly in the dark.