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Chapter Fourteen The Show's End
Everyone waited nervously as the allotted time of three days passed.
To determine whether An Ziran was telling the truth or not, many sharecroppers and curious commonfolk rushed to Shopkeeper Feng's grain store to wait. Even before the time had come, the streets were crowded with bustling people.
Chitchat spread among the crowd. Most didn't believe that the An family would be so generous.
The rabble rousers who had started the whole thing that day were present as well.
As the day went on, no movement occurred in the store. The sun was almost at its peak as the people An Changde had hired to spread rumors started to do their job.
Waiting beneath a blazing sun, the commonfolk started to shuffle their feet in discontent as they began to suspect An Ziran had been lying. Some of them even seemed inclined to riot. The rabble rousers began to approach the grain store, seemingly prepared to seize food from them yet again.
This is when the doors swung open.
Since the incident, they had remained closed for three days without even cracking open. Needless to say, no business had been carried out. Not that it mattered; it wasn't like the An family owned only one such store.
The store was empty. All that remained were a few neatly arranged chairs and tables and a big chest on the floor. In the middle stood the current head of the family An Ziran. He looked even skinnier than he had three days ago, his figure even more striking than before. In his bright blue robes he looked just like a handsome young prince. Of course, no one was in the mood to admire him.
Seeing that he had actually shown up, the common people immediately rushed close, only to be held back by the An family's servants.
Shopkeeper Feng took a stand outside. "Everyone, please stay calm and patient for just a moment. If you want your loan receipts, you'll have to stand in line quietly. No chattering or rabble-rousing. Just listen for your name and come up one by one to claim your receipt."
After he had spoken, the people quieted down.
Shopkeeper Feng nodded his head approvingly before returning inside once more to An Ziran's side. "Young sir, there should be no more issues now."
"Then let's begin," said An Ziran calmly.
Suzi, who had been standing next to the chest, opened it immediately. From within he produced a pile of loan receipts.The people outside waited, necks craned in anticipation. Even though people from the An family were present and they still hadn't received their loan receipts in the moment, they had a hard time believing that there was even a slight possibility of it happening. The whole thing felt like a dream.
Anyuan County may have been small, but its population was sizeable. Because of this, a huge number of farmers owed the Ans money. In an attempt to finish before sunset, An Ziran had his servants put four tables in the grain store and arranged for four different shopkeepers to distribute receipts and keep the line moving.
One name after another was called. When they received that familiar loan receipt, many of them began to sob. These were the loan receipts that had tortured them for years. Most of them thought that there was no chance they would see them again.
Seeing that any chance for change had passed them by, the people sent by An Changde left the scene quickly.
Just as they left the crowd, they were immediately seized and thrown into an alleyway nearby. Everyone else at the scene was too immersed in excitement and joy to notice what was going on outside.
More and more people were receiving their loan receipts, but a few of them were beginning to feel their hands grow sticky with sweat. Watching others receive them yet still emptyhanded themselves, they couldn't help but begin to feel uneasy.
Time went by quickly. The sun sunk beneath the horizon.
Only a small pile of loan receipts remained in the chest, yet quite a few people were still gathered outside, waiting.
Suzi passed the remaining ones to An Ziran, who stood up slowly and paced over to the front steps. He stopped there, his calm eyes sweeping over the ten-odd nervous faces below. "Know why I left you all for last?"
The ones who hadn't received their receipts lowered their heads in shame. They were the rioters who had robbed the An family's grain store twice. When they looked around and saw who remained in the crowd earlier, they had already begun to feel uneasy.
A rough-looking, dark-skinned farmer ground his teeth together before walking up to An Ziran and raising his voice. "I'm sorry, young sir. We already know that we were manipulated by some unworthy bastards behind the scenes. We caused a big loss to the An family's grain store. It's our fault. Please forgive us. We promise to never repeat our mistake."
The farmer's surname was Liu. He had a family of six, including his elderly mother, so he often borrowed grain from the An family. By now he already owed them six cups of rice. This might not seem like a lot to some and was only the weight of a small child, his family might not be able to return that loan for a lifetime. This was why he was moved to steal from the An family's grain storage.
As soon as he apologized, everyone else in the group did as well, their voices joined to promise that they would never do something like this again. Their attitudes seemed quite genuine.
Would An Ziran give the loan receipts to them just like that? Of course not!
Those who made mistakes should have to bear some burden of responsibility. If he just let it go, there would be more people in the future looking to exploit his kindness. Humans are difficult creatures to predict. Just like earlier today, in the morning–the impatient people gathered here had begun to scold the An family when they saw that they might not receive their receipts. It was hard for An Ziran to trust that they wouldn't act out in the future. For this reason, he had to at least teach them a lesson.
"I can give you the loan receipts. But for all the troubles and losses you've caused this family, I won't give you the whole receipt. I will keep a third of the amount of money and food that you owe us, and you will have to return this debt on your own power. If you have no qualms with this, go to Shopkeeper Feng for your revised loan receipt. If you do, you're more than welcome to turn away and leave right now."
Each and every word came out of An Ziran's mouth with exacting clarity.
After seeing the joy all those people had experienced when receiving their loan receipts, the people still present couldn't help but be disappointed that they still had a third of their original debt hanging over their heads. Their spirits falling into the depths of a ravine was extremely bitter to the taste, especially with the comparison of rising hope they had been given beforehand. They could only rue the day they listened to those rabble rousers. If they hadn't acted on it, they wouldn't owe the An family a third of their food and money.
The young master had spoken loud and clear. There was nothing to resist–what use would it be? No one's heart was still in rebellion. They could only blame themselves for their indecisiveness, letting themselves be swayed so easily. In the end, they still had to return for a new loan receipt.
Everyone was silent when An Ziran finished speaking.
An Changfu had been an unforgiving master. He took seventy percent of the sharecroppers' profits, forcing them to work for more profit than they could actually hope to keep, so that they often went hungry. But most landlords in this area and this dynasty wouldn't take less than five shares of profits. Hearing this news stunned everyone.
"Is…is this true?" One of the sharecroppers said, barely managing to gulp down his surprise.
The corner of An Ziran's lips rose ever so slightly. "Of course. An Ziran would never make a promise he couldn't keep!"
Some of them began to stumble home immediately. They had to tell their families the good news. Others simply sat on the ground and began to sob. Finally, the heavens were righting their wrongs.
It didn't take long for An Changde to catch wind of the whole thing, and only put a dark look on his face.