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Book 2: The Infinite Heart
Chapter 19 - The Infinite Heart (Part A)
"Really, not dying any earlier or later, only waiting until the worst moment to kick the bucket." Fuyao had a mournful face as she crouched in front of Ah Shina's body that had not even a scratch on it, biting her fingernails while muttering curses at him.
Right now, despite her substitute city master position seemingly secure, the reality was that she was treading a thin steel wire. She had to rush in circles just to stabilize the situation, first sending Zong Yue over to Prince De to detail the specifics of the event, in order to get his approval to become the temporary city master. Then she screened a couple relatively suspicious Rong in the district government, and recruited fresh Han attendants. Next, she began to train a militia to bolster the defensive power of the Han residents who had lesser numbers. She also redrew household residency boundaries, separating the Rong who had become used to living with each other to let them live mixed with Han households, while some of the fiercest Rong who hung colored cloth most prolifically were executed. Although some covert movements were impossible to prevent in the city, it could still be considered peaceful.
She couldn't support everything on her own - a lot of the details were managed by people found from who-knows-where by Zong Yue. He also obtained the trust of Han residents who were familiar with the local situation, formulated a plan for citizen self-protection, and when the completely incompetent City Master Fuyao blindly struggled through official documents, he scolded her with a poisonous tongue while taking care of all the various miscellaneous things himself. When handling matters his movements flowed fluidly and dexterously through the documents, skillfully reaching the heart of the issue every time, and the mountains of piled scrolls all quickly disappeared in a blink. Meng Fuyao could only exclaim in wonderment, more and more getting the feeling that Zong Yue's origin was far from ordinary. What kind of doctor was so good at bureaucracy? Once, when she raised the question, Zong Yue acted like he didn't hear anything. The next day he went off to continue collecting his herbs, refusing to help her, causing her to have no choice but to stay silent on the matter. The two's partnership was unexpectedly working quite well.
Yet even with all this hard work, it seemed that with Ah Shina's sudden death, everything would dissolve like flowing water. The Rong of Yao City fervently esteemed this City Master. If the news of Ah Shina's death spread out, the volatile blazes that they had just managed to calm would immediately explode out again!
Clearly, there was a spy inside Yao that was acting for the Rong military and purposefully fanning the flames of the situation. By collaborating with outside forces, they could take Yao City without needing to sacrifice even one soldier.
While her, this city master who suddenly fell from the sky, would likely not be able to completely clear the local government branch of all enemies. Fuyao shook her head, lazily standing up. She said to Zong Yue who had been calmly staring at Ah Shina's body, "Let's dissolve it."
Zong Yue frowned. "You think that the Rong wouldn't come looking for the missing previous City Master just because you dissolved it? In the next couple days will be the Rong's 'Deity Festival' and Rong everywhere will celebrate. If Ah Shina doesn't show in this type of event, you will have no way to explain."
Fuyao gave a mournful sigh. Just as she was hesitating, she suddenly heard the pounding of the complain drum in the front hall. The sound was extremely bizarre, booming over and over, neither fast nor slow. It didn't have any of the grieving or frantic rage of a funeral crier, but was drawn out and distant, the sounds passing all the way into the basement jail. There even seemed to be some disharmonic noises interspersed with the drumming, faintly traveling over.
The discordant noises sounded like something soft impacting the drum surface.
Fuyao rose uncertainly, muttering, "Yi, someone is actually drumming to voice a grievance? Under the blue skies of the rule of Meng, shouldn't there only be peace and harmony, with no injustices at all?"
Zong Yue gave her a glance and revealed a bit of a helpless smile. This Fuyao's spirit must be made of steel - even such a terrible situation couldn't stop her from cracking jokes all the time.
Fuyao bounded outside, brushing aside the unlucky stuff for now. She was full of anticipation for presiding over her very first case in her city master career! The attendants all stood ready fully armed. She shook her custom-tailored robes, solemnly and formally ascending to her seat. Hearing that the drum outside was still thundering, she impatiently turned her head and shouted, "What are you still pounding for! This elder has already arrived!"
With this turn, she saw clearly the person who was drumming.
Letting out a surprised gasping sound, with a tumble she fell backwards off of the raised platform.
… in front, looking out from the wooden stake fortifications, a light purple-robed man held the mallet up high in front of the complaint drum. He calmly swung down, his posture elegant his aura composed, pounding the complaint drum as if playing a musical instrument. A crowd of young women surrounded him, infatuatedly staring at his slender wrist exposed to the sunlight from the sliding down of his robe sleeve.
What made one even more speechless was, at the bottom of the drum, a snow white furball crawled on the drum rack, using its head to pound out "peng peng peng" noises. Every three times its master hit the drum, it collided with the drum once in a precise interval, its attitude completely focused.
Who else could it be other than that unscrupulous pair of master and pet?
Meng Fuyao's mouth opened wide enough to fit Master Yuanbao inside. She froze in her seat, not knowing whether to pound her wooden gavel, or to quickly flee. Before her thoughts could complete, the man pounding the drum had already gracefully set down the mallet. He nonchalantly tidied his clothes, even smiling and nodding to the ladies gathered outside, then strode inside amidst a chorus of stunned gasps.
A certain fat ball squatted on his shoulder, its gaze dignified as it gazed around complacently.
Upon careful observation, a bit of scorn could be detected in its eyes - that official's robe was so ugly!
Fuyao was struck speechless for a while. Suddenly she sniffed and raised her head, encouraging herself.
Ai … wasn't it just someone running over to plea a case? Even if this person was just a little teeny bit special, and his true motives for filing the case just a little teeny bit suspicious, she definitely could just pretend he was a commoner who was actually bringing a case.
Only … why did she keep feeling a little guilty in her heart?
Fuyao's eyes drifted around without stopping. She drifted to the crossbeams, drifted to the tables, drifted down to the ground, only unwilling to drift and face the front. She touched the documents, touched her robes, touched her hair, only unwilling to touch that judge gavel to start the case.
On her face was clearly written, "I'm heartless, I'm so guilty". The light-robed man in front of her was unable to resist grinning, but Master Yuanbao only rolled its eyes.
Outside the hall stood many citizens, all wanting to see how the new city master would preside over a case, and see what complaints this unusually striking man had. The crowd's fervent eyes fixed on young delicate substitute city master on her podium, then examined the good-looking case-bringer underneath. No matter how they looked, it seemed like the two people's expressions were quite strange; the new city master's face was particularly odd, and there seemed to be a bed of coals placed beneath her, causing the judge to twist and shift constantly.
It had been silent for a long time. The commoners began to whisper to one another. Fuyao had her hand forced, and could only cover her face while feebly knocking down the gavel. Hoarsely she said, "Who are you down in the hall? What is your purpose of complaint?"
Her gaze furtively glanced over Yuan Zhaoxu, uncertain what kind of bad idea he had in mind. She saw Yuan Zhaoxu raise his eyes in a smile, then drag out, "Honorable Elder …"
Yuan Zhaoxu didn't relent. With a lift of his robes, he actually prepared to kneel down.
She directly leapt up in horror and was just about to yell stop. However, Yuan Zhaoxu was only misleading her. His knees bent a little then straightened again. He scratched his head chuckling, "Aiya, Honorable Elder, this one forgot that I was bestowed an official rank, when I meet Elder there is no need to kneel."
Fuyao's teeth were on the edge as she glared at him. Suddenly she didn't feel guilty anymore, what was she feeling guilty about? This guy never took a loss. He would always eventually return the favor to her! Then, what was the use of feeling apologetic about him?
She immediately stood straight and savagely slammed the gavel, loudly yelling, "Hand over the formal complaint!"
With a smile, Yuan Zhaoxu took out a piece of cloth from his robes. The temporary court overseer Yao Xun went up to receive it. His finger lifted up a little so that he could see the thing inside the cloth, and immediately he revealed a conflicted expression, not daring to laugh. He held back a smile as he tiptoed over with the fabric.
Fuyao curiously took it - this guy actually had a complaint?
When she opened it up to look, a complete fish's head rolled out from the bundle.
She stared at that treasure with an exasperated look. Fuyao recognized the thing as the remains of that fish she devoured on Green Pearl Mountain.
Strange, didn't she throw it away? When did he go and retrieve it?
Truly an exceptionally strange "complaint", huh …
Before she thought things through, she heard the person below speak in a speed neither fast nor slow. "Junior, Yuan Zhaoxu, sues the Tai Yuan native surnamed Meng who took advantage of me then left me, deserted me and my feelings, and turned completely fickle and heartless …"
Meng Fuyao almost spat a mouthful of blood out.
What kind of stinking complaint was this?
Yuan Zhaoxu, Brother Yuan, this is a court of law, this is the Infinite Empire's central administration in Yao City! How can you speak those words?
I … took advantage of you and left, deserted you, spurned your feelings, was fickle and heartless?
Her fingers trembled. She really wanted to pick up the fish bones and throw them in Yuan Zhaoxu's face! Unfortunately, this was a court of law, and she really couldn't afford to lose face. Thinking of Yuan Zhaoxu's phrase "take advantage and leaving", her face involuntarily flushed scarlet. She furiously glared at Yuan Zhaoxu for a time, but to no avail - the person's face was serious, just like that white-furred rat on his shoulder, with no hint of shame at all.
Fuyao had no choice but to deepen her voice and hatefully say, "This sir's complaint does not seem to fulfill requirements."
"Really?" Yuan Zhaoxu faintly smiled, then pointed at that piece of cloth. "Would Honorable Elder give the citizens here a look at the complaint? This junior feels that it should fulfill the requirements for a complaint quite well - even a token of love has been attached to the complaint as proof."
Gossip was an ability that all people in all eras would possess. The moment they heard "token of love", the various citizens below all surged forward with a hubbub, wanting to get a look at the treasure that was mysteriously bundled in the cloth. Honorable Elder Meng, however, could only weep without tears with regards to the fish bones … alright … the token of love.
With a couple swift movements she quickly put away the "token of love", in the same motion pinching it into dust. Then she solemnly stated, "What you said is also reasonable. This official has already taken a look. Since it's like this, this official will take care of this complaint. Only, we are within the Infinite Empire, and you reporting a Tai Yuan citizen is not something that this one has jurisdiction over. How about you go to Tai Yuan and file a complaint?"
Once she was finished, she felt very pleased with her own quick thinking. In her view, Yuan Zhaoxu definitely wouldn't be able to say anything else now. She shifted her butt in preparation to leave the hall, yet at that moment the man only gave another chuckle.
The moment Fuyao saw his smile, goosebumps rose on her skin, and she instantly stopped moving. As expected, she heard him say, "Elder, although this girl is a Tai Yuan citizen, she is fond of traveling. Recently she has lurked within the Infinite Empire's borders, precisely here in Yao City. Furthermore, she swindles wealth and seduces men - it's hard to say, after tormenting me, if she will continue to harm others. Please, Elder, for the sake of all the common people, arrest and bring this woman to justice as soon as possible!"
"Swi-swin-swindle wealth and … se-se-seduce … men …" Elder Meng began to stutter out, "Swindle whwhat wealth … whwhat seducing …"
"She swindled away a strand of fur from my pet's butt. This pet's fur is not mere common fur. Usually a servant will groom the fur, and every strand of it is worth thousands of gold." The "precious pet whose fur is worth thousands of gold" on Yuan Zhaoxu's shoulder immediately spun around, raising its plump rear end to show the Honorable Elder its "precious fur that was cruelly plucked out". Of course, it was basically impossible to discern the spot where the strand had been.
"As for seducing …" Yuan Zhaoxu lightly smiled, lowering his long eyelashes. His pupils glowed with a brilliant light that rippled like water. "This junior is too embarrassed to say. Honorable Elder should already know."
Most shameless didn't exist, only more shameless! This partnership of master and pet that loved to put on their "comedy duo" skit was really going too far! Fuyao struggled with herself for a while, then suddenly leaped up. With a bang of the gavel she loudly proclaimed, "In consideration of this case's special circumstances and the private affair of the strange precious fur, the public hearing will stop here! Attendants, close the gates and bring out the dogs!"
The great door rumbled as it closed over the curious gazes of the citizens. Some still didn't give up and crowded around the gate gap, wanting to peek inside, guessing that "the new Elder and this mysterious victim must be an adulterous couple" and so forth. Fuyao ordered people to toss water out from the gate gaps, successfully driving away the master gossipers.
Finally, Honorable Elder Meng kicked and pushed away the snickering Yao Xun and the bright-eyed Little Dagger who were watching the show, and afterwards collapsed onto her seat to miserably wail, "Alright … Prince Yuan, Master Yuan, Elder Yuan, spare me and stop playing around anymore, please?"
Yuan Zhaoxu slowly stepped over. He leaned over to look at Meng Fuyao, then chuckled, "The Honorable City Master looks quite well. Seems like you've been living a carefree and nourishing lifestyle."
"I'm not carefree, I'm not nourished." Fuyao lifelessly replied. "I'm regretful, I'm a sinner."
Yuan Zhaoxu's eyes flashed. He was a little suspicious that she was being so well-behaved. Then, he smiled imperceptibly; this girl seemed fierce and merciless on the surface, but actually she was still too naïve inside. Otherwise how could her heart be filled with so much guilt that she retreated time after time? He had originally thought she would jump up to counter his words just now.
In front of others, Fuyao was never this agreeable.
Yuan Zhaoxu good-naturedly patted her shoulder, saying, "Honorable City Master, are you not planning to receive your old friend who traveled so far to get here?"
"Oh," Fuyao crawled up like a dog, replying, "There are no more extra courtyards, do you mind squeezing in with Zong Yue?"
"Sir Zong has gone to the Sui River," Yuan Zhaoxu carelessly answered, "Prince De's sickness worsened, and asked for him to go over to treat him."
Fuyao turned her head back to stare at him. "You and Zong Yue, what's your relationship?"
"Friends of mutual interest. If one day our interests conflict, we would be enemies." Yuan Zhaoxu replied without hesitation.
"You must be really idle," Fuyao continued to interrogate, her eyes craftily bright as she fixed him with her gaze. "Can the assistants of the Crown Prince casually run about at anytime?"
"The Crown Prince dispatched me to the southern border as a military inspector, this is official business for me." Yuan Zhaoxu held back a smile as he looked at her. "What else do you want to know?"
"I still want to know how black your heart is, and how many twists and turns you still have in your stomach …" Fuyao grumbled.
Yuan Zhaoxu only pretended he didn't hear anything. He followed her and stepped into the inner courtyard, and the two walked through the little flower garden. The southern border's climate was humid and warm. In the flower courtyard was growing winter bougainvillea, their leaf petals large and brilliantly purple and scarlet. The swathes of colorful flowers were a kind of intense yet wild beauty.
Gazing over from afar, the mauve-colored, wide sleeve-robed man and the nimble youth dressed in dai walked together, their auras elegant; they themselves were also a rare picturesque scene.
Meng Fuyao passed through the flowers as her fingers brushed the silk-textured petals. In her heart suddenly arose an unusual tranquility and silence. Everything that had happened ever since arriving at Yao City, the slaughtering and flowing of blood, the coups and revolts, had continuously charged towards her like blood-colored smoke. She had been valiantly persisting through everything, but now she suddenly felt tired. A fatigue that arose from within her blood swept through her entire body in the blink of an eye.
She tilted her head to look at the man beside her. Was it because of him? It seemed that as long as he was present, she would relax for some reason. She would begin to unshackle herself, from the depths of her soul, and feel a quiet peacefulness. This man, this man who could influence her inner emotions, whose effect on her couldn't be considered small - did she really only meet him for the first time a couple months ago?
Her humorous expression and interested gaze in this instant, revealed the gentle flowering of a young girl, that even she herself did not realize. Yuan Zhaoxu discovered this, and leaned his head towards her in a smile. He suddenly bent down to pick a bougainvillea. Taking off her judge's cap, he made a motion as if to place the flower in her hair.
Fuyao's face reddened and she subconsciously shifted away. Suddenly a white glow flashed. The love-rival of Fuyao took advantage of her instance of embarrassment to shoot up, baring its teeth in excitement as it neared the flower!
A big red flower … the master is giving it … the blooming of youth … the fluttering of emotions … Master Yuanbao's teeth had bared so wide that its eyes couldn't even be seen anymore, and its entire body's white fur rippled in agitation.
The hand holding the flower, however, suddenly shifted away. Then, a darkness appeared in front of Master Yuanbao's eyes. Something huge came covering down over its head all of a sudden, engulfing the mouse within.
With an unchanged expression, Yuan Zhaoxu used the cap to wrap up his pet, then with a lift of his hand he hung the hat onto a neighboring tree. Smiling as if nothing had happened, he gently placed the flower in Fuyao's hair.
The hair was dark, while the flower was fiery scarlet, pairing with the young woman's naturally resplendent eyes. It was a spellbinding, soul-stirring beauty of the mortal world.
A light breeze caressed, bringing over a delicate fragrance. Yuan Zhaoxu stood with his hands clasped amidst the flowers, carefully examining the person in front of him. Deep conflict rose up in his eyes as past memories flitted past. After some time he said, "I still prefer it more when you wear female attire and flowers."
His words were slow as if there was deeper meaning to them. When Fuyao heard him her heart jumped, and she felt that something wasn't right with what he said. Forgetting her embarrassment for the time being, she was just about ask, when Yuan Zhaoxu turned and continued to walk. Behind him, Master Yuanbao clutched onto the official's cap, piteously crying out for rescue.
Meng Fuyao grumpily picked up the hat, and with a couple shakes, she flung Master Yuanbao straight into the air, causing it to dive into its master's merciless embrace.
"Since you are the military inspector, you should be at Sui River, why have you come here? Yuan Zhaoxu's steps were not large, but he was walking very fast. Fuyao struggled to keep up behind him.
"Is Yao City not considered the front line?" Yuan Zhaoxu's head didn't even turn. "Here Rong and Han intermingle in the border between the Rong clans and the inner territory. This city is the true place of strategic importance …" Halfway through his words he suddenly reached out his hand, with a grab pulling out a little person out from behind a tree besides him. "En? Is this part of the pretty scenery? Does the garden look really beautiful?"
The child eavesdropping was suddenly dragged out by him, giving her a scare, but she only glared silently with her eyes that were like a little animal's. It was Little Dagger. She lifted her eyes to meet Yuan Zhaoxu's pupils, without the slightest hint of fear. Fuyao silently admired her - she knew how intense Yuan Zhaoxu's gaze could be. It was rare that such a little kid could remain so unshaken.
Yuan Zhaoxu's brows furrowed as he looked at the kid. A strand of profound thought flashed in his eyes, after which he slowly closed his eyes, as if trying to recall something. Then he opened his eyes and smiled.
When Fuyao saw his expression she couldn't help but curl her mouth in disapproval. Ai, this person just loved to act mysterious all the time!
Originally, she thought Yuan Zhaoxu would say something about Little Dagger's appearance, but Yuan Zhaoxu didn't say anything at all. He released the child, then asked Fuyao as if he were the host, "The building beside the garden is not bad, I'll have some people tidy it up?"
Meng Fuyao blankly gave a sound of assent, after which Yuan Zhaoxu very familiarly dispatched the various attendants to go clean. She even heard him smoothly give the order, "City master lives in the back? No, the city master is going to move, she'll live next to here, right, switch her to here."
With a face of exasperation, Fuyao watched the entire courtyard's attendants obediently running around under Yuan Zhaoxu's command, in only a moment moving her living quarters. She asked with shock, "Why move?"
"I want to place you somewhere I can see." Yuan Zhaoxu pulled her with him. "This way I won't have to worry about you disappearing again all of a sudden."
There was slight discontent in his tone. Fuyao awkwardly looked away, muttering, "Wasn't it just leaving once without saying anything, I didn't even leave the Infinite Empire, so narrow-minded."
Yuan Zhaoxu chuckled but didn't respond. At this time, Fuyao suddenly thought of that body in the jail, and showed worried frown. She couldn't help but ask Yuan Zhaoxu how she should handle the matter, so Yuan Zhaoxu followed her to the jail to look. Kneeling in front of Ah Shina's body, he was silent for a while, then suddenly said smilingly, "This is not hard. Don't things like human skin masks exist?"
Fuyao was speechless as she looked at him - this was an official of the Infinite Empire, he was your subordinate! Do you really have so little conscience as to take their face to make a mask? Even I'm not as heartless as you!
Yuan Zhaoxu understood the message behind her eyes, and glanced at her humorously. "You have a conscience, then just leave Ah Shina a whole body. As for what will happen during the 'Deity Festival', who cares? If the sky falls down you'll be the one to hold it up."
Fuyao plaintively looked at that mind-reading fellow who never did things half-measure. She waved her hand to arrange for Yao Xun to find someone whose body shape matched Ah Shina's. Yuan Zhaoxu closed the door, then an hour later handed her a box, saying, "It can be used after air-drying for a couple days."
She opened it and took a peek. A while later she asked, "Is there still anything in the world that you can't do?"
"Yeah." Yuan Zhaoxu answered without hesitation.
"Yeah?" Fuyao tilted her head, thinking that he would say something really difficult.
"Something I can't do," Yuan Zhaoxu stared at her until Fuyao felt a little shy inside, upon which he leisurely said, "I would never leave someone who cared about me without even a word of warning."
Fuyao wailed in her heart.
Mother of … I'm never going to offend this guy ever again!