Regardless of how she truly felt, Song Caitang had to observe the formalities within the household. She went to Qingyi Court to greet Madam Zhang.
The timing she had chosen wasn’t the best. Guan Qing was in the room quarreling with Madam Zhang.
In order to give their employers some space and face, the servants quietly walked away when the two women began arguing. They turned their eyes and ears away from the room, so it was easy for Song Caitang to just walk in without being stopped.
Song Caitang froze in her footsteps when she heard the commotion inside the room. It was rude to eavesdrop, after all. But the voices inside only grew louder and clearer. She turned to move further away, but it was too late. Their conversation had already reached her ears.
Guan Qing slammed the table. “That’s not how you do business! Don’t you know what the Green Gang1 really does? Did you think they were really only selling and shipping grain? You can go out there and ask anybody! The stories of their violent behavior only keep increasing! Prices of anything can be negotiated, regardless of whether you’re asking someone for a favor or if you’re striking a proper deal. But you’ve asked for so much up front, demanding a slice of the cake, and taken away so much profit from others! Did you think everyone’s made of mud? You can squeeze them in any way and shape you fancy?”
But Madam Zhang did not seem fazed by this. “No matter how formidable the Green Gang is, they’re all people too, so they still have dreams and fears. Guan Qing, you might be good at business, but when it comes to understanding how people work, you need more time to learn. I’m watching this particular sale, so I can guarantee that nothing will go wrong!”
Guan Qing snorted. “And how are you going to guarantee that? Based on the nonsense that Manager Liu said?”
Madam Zhang chuckled. “You’re still too young after all. You can’t weather storms, and your temper is often out of control. You always object to everything without understanding the full situation, so Manager Liu isn’t going to tell you all that he knows. You wouldn’t understand the implications of this matter.”
After that, Madam Zhang’s voice calmed down and sounded confident. “In any case, Manager Liu no longer works for your stores. He works for me now. Whatever we’re doing is none of your business.”
Guan Qing was clearly getting more worked up. “The Green Gang has gone through some reorganization and a new boss has taken over. Nobody knows what sort of temperament or personality this new boss has. We don’t know if he’d be the sort who can kill without batting an eye! Do you even know about this?!”
Madam Zhang remained unrattled. “That’s none of your business.”
Guan Qing snapped, “What about Manager Liu? He agrees with you?”
Madam Zhang chuckled again. “He’s already left your stores and come to mine. Do you think he agrees with me?”
“Fine!” Guan Qing’s voice suddenly became gentle and sweet again. “We’ll use the best of our abilities then.”
Madam Zhang grew wary. “What do you mean? Are you going to cut off my route?”
“You struck a partnership deal, didn’t you? You can do it, so why can’t I?” Guan Qing’s voice was emotionless and the fire in it was gone. It seemed even more powerful for some reason. “Instead of letting you bring the entire clan down, I’d go strike some proper, lawful deals, and earn some money along the way.”
This made Madam Zhang very unhappy. “Guan Qing!”
But Guan Qing ignored her and walked out of the room.
When she got to the door, she noticed Song Caitang and raised an eyebrow.
She was giving off too much girl boss energy, so Song Caitang quickly explained, “I’m here to greet Second Aunt formally.”
Guan Qing nodded. “Get it over and done with quickly. Wan’er has prepared some soup for you.”
Song Caitang responded, “Got it.”
Madam Zhang’s expression stiffened when she saw Song Caitang. She clearly realized that the younger girl must have overheard the conversation earlier, which made things a little awkward.
But Madam Zhang was very good at making it look like nothing had ever happened and quickly put on a smile. “Caitang, come and sit over here.” She turned to instruct one of her maids, “Call Second Young Mistress over, tell her that her cousin is here, so she should accompany her.”
Song Caitang put on her best polite but distant smile. “You don’t have to ask her to come over. Guan Wan has made soup for me, and she says it’s almost done, so I must not miss the best time to drink it. Once I’m done with my greetings here, I need to leave.”
“Why, it’s fun to spend time with Wan’er but not fun to spend time with your aunt?” Madam Zhang chuckled, then told the auntie next to her to go to the main kitchen and get a bowl of the nourishing soup she had specially instructed a cook to make. “A young lady like you has a weak body and you can’t take too much work, so it’s good for you to drink this soup. Don’t worry about Wan’er, I’ll get someone to pass on the message.”
Since she was being so generous, Song Caitang had no reason to refuse. She could only smile obediently and sit down for the time being, then use her grandmother as an excuse later.
When Madam Zhang saw that she was cooperating, she asked, “I heard that Pacification Commissioner Lu has gone missing. Didn’t Magistrate Wen call you over to help?”
That was an interesting question.
When Madam Zhang asked this question, she emphasized words differently from what Song Caitang expected. Madam Zhang also did not look at her. She kept her head slightly bowed as she reached for a cup of tea on the table. She looked like she wasn’t concerned at all, but she was actually testing the waters.
This test was interesting too. Her expression and subconscious actions showed that she wasn’t just trying to make conversation, or trying to see if she could find a chance to use Song Caitang to connect her to the upper echelons of society. It seemed more like… a genuine question. Like Madam Zhang sincerely wanted to know more about this.
What she wanted to know wasn’t whether Wen Yuansi had looked her up, but whether Lu Guangzong had really gone missing.
Song Caitang narrowed her eyes slightly. She couldn’t figure out what the man’s disappearance had to do with Madam Zhang.
Since she couldn’t figure it out right away, she kept that thought aside for the moment. “As you know, my strength is in examining bodies. In dissecting bodies.”
Madam Zhang raised an eyebrow. “And so?”
Song Caitang smiled faintly, “So… as long as there are no dead bodies found or there are no murder cases, he would not ask for me.”
Madam Zhang seemed a little disturbed by her words. She brought the teacup to her lips but put it down again before it could even touch her lips.
Her smile became slightly awkward as well. “Since you’ve spent so much time with Old Madam Li, then I think it’s only right for you to show concern when others are unable to. Don’t you think we should send Old Madam Li a letter?”
Now Song Caitang knew what this was about.
Sending a letter was different from going over to visit. Who would do that? Of course, Song Caitang wouldn’t have to do that herself since she was a young mistress of this household. Madam Zhang would be the one to send someone to do it.
So, Song Caitang rejected the idea, “Old Madam Li is a devout Buddhist who enjoys peace and quiet. Magistrate Wen wouldn’t dare to talk to her about something like this, so I don’t think we should bring it up.”
“You’re right,” Madam Zhang paused to think, then said, “In that case, when you have the time, go and visit her.”
Just then, Guan Rongrong arrived. She hooked an arm around Song Caitang’s and declared, “I’ll go with you! You’ve been living with us for so long, but I’ve never taken care of you properly despite being your older sister. This time, I’ll make sure to take good care of you! Caitang, don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything! Just follow me!”
Madam Zhang played along and patted her daughter’s hand lovingly, “Take good care of your younger sister, you hear me?”
Guan Rongrong smiled brightly, “No problem!”
Their acting was seamless and the responses were very quick. Neither of them actually bothered to ask for Song Caitang’s opinion.
Of course, her opinion wasn’t important to them.
Madam Zhang wasn’t done, “Since you have the time now, you should come with me to greet some of the important ladies of the city. It wasn’t easy waiting for you to regain your senses, after all…”
She went on to arrange what Song Caitang was to do next all by herself.
This mother and daughter were so well coordinated. One would come up with an idea and the other would give an opinion. Before Song Caitang could even say anything, everything was already settled.
She didn’t get to say anything, but she wasn’t angry when she left Qingyi Court.
Those two were using this method to arrange her schedule without allowing her to voice out her opinions, but it didn’t mean that their decision was final. When it came to dealing with doing something she didn’t like, she didn’t have to deal with it there and then. Besides… she had a powerful cousin.
She went straight to Guan Qing.
After hearing what happened, Guan Qing rolled her eyes very inelegantly, “Ignore her.”
Song Caitang burst out laughing.
They chatted for a while, then Song Caitang remembered how Madam Zhang’s question seemed to have some hidden meaning behind it and asked Guan Qing if she could make any sense out of it.
Guan Qing immediately snorted out loud, “HA! It’s as if she’s eaten the heart of a bear and the gall of a leopard – the crazy woman is hoping to use this to earn money!”
Song Caitang only understood what she was saying after she explained in more detail.
It turned out that Manager Liu said he had come across some information regarding Pacification Commissioner Lu some time ago. It was information that was very important and very damning, so it could be used for blackmail purposes. Then, recently, the Green Gang wanted Lu Guangzong to help them with something but the old man refused, so Manager Liu thought that they could make use of this situation to make big money.
Guan Qing did not agree to do this.
All sorts of situations and scenarios existed in the business world, and plenty of illegal things happened under the table. But business was business. As long as everyone kept their tactics within the scope of their business, nobody would complain. But getting involved with high-ranking officials or getting entangled with a secret society was a definite no-no.
It was too dangerous.
And too shameless.
Manager Liu was already bent on doing something like this, so after Guan Qing turned him down, he went to Madam Zhang instead. Madam Zhang had always thought of herself as very intelligent and merely lacked the opportunity to shine. Of course she wasn’t going to let this chance slip.
Song Caitang rubbed the side of her teacup with a finger, “So, she’s hoping that Pacification Commissioner Lu doesn’t die.”
The rumors that he had gone missing had gone round for many days now. Many people were quite interested at first, but their interest had waned.
It wasn’t easy for something bad to happen to someone from high society. Perhaps he might have been feeling bored and just went somewhere for a nice, long stroll.
Most people were certain that Lu Guangzong was just fine. Madam Zhang definitely thought so too.
That was why she had been so confident when she argued with Guan Qing earlier.
“Then… do you know the secret that Manager Liu knows?”
“I don’t know, and that’s why I’m so angry!” Guan Qing smashed the teacup onto the table and narrowed her eyes in anger, “I’m not going to let her ruin the Guans’ reputation and ruin our family’s future!”
Madam Zhang started welcoming guests in the home.
She had invited many guests in the name of Song Caitang and Old Madam Li.
And of course, Song Caitang would be required to sit down and chat with all these guests.
But Song Caitang didn’t want to, so she decided to show off all her knives.
Once she opened her work box and displayed the entire row of gleaming tools that had been specially designed and made, it would scare the entire room out of their wits. Who would dare to respond to an invitation after that? They didn’t want the ghost of a body that had its abdomen sliced open to visit them at night!
Otherwise, she would refuse to leave her grandmother’s residence. Her grandmother was one generation more senior compared to Madam Zhang, so she couldn’t do anything as long as Madam Bai allowed Song Caitang to stay.
Madam Bai and Madam Zhang already did not get along, plus Madam Bai knew what Madam Zhang was up to and wanted to protect Song Caitang. Song Caitang didn’t even need to look upset and Madam Bai would already help to fend Madam Zhang off.
Madam Bai was Old Master Guan’s second wife and was not the biological mother of Madam Zhang’s husband. But as long as she was approved by the family and legally married to Old Master Guan, then Madam Zhang had to obey her instructions.
Besides, mothers-in-law didn’t need a special reason to make life difficult for their daughters-in-law.
They had enough tactics to make your head spin.
Making house rules was enough to keep Madam Zhang in her own room.
Madam Bai had a myriad of different tactics that changed according to the situation. No guest was able to say that anything she did was unreasonable. And if Madam Zhang went against what she said, then Madam Zhang would be at fault…
If the grandmother got tired, Guan Qing would help.
Not only was Guan Qing good at business, but she was also good at handling the war at home too. That’s how she managed to keep her place in the family without Madam Zhang taking over the family’s property and servants.
Madam Zhang was too busy trying to fight fires, appease guests, mediate between parties and make sure nobody fell out with each other. She didn’t have time to go visiting.
The moment she even tried to do something, the other side would put her back in her place.
And because Song Caitang did not do anything out of the ordinary, her two spies were useless. And even if the two maids wanted to fight to get credit, the truth was that Qinxiu had already bullied Huamei into subservience, so she couldn’t be a tattletale anymore…
During this period, Song Caitang had responded to Old Madam Li’s invitation and visited her twice.
Each time, Guan Rongrong would want to go along, so she would prep everything beforehand and wait for Song Caitang at the gate.
And each time, she would be prevented from going along.
If it wasn’t Madam Bai, it was Guan Qing.
There were all sorts of reasons.
“Your grandmother misses you, and you should show your piety by spending time with her”; “We’re splitting the profits today, and every Guan will get some. Are you sure you don’t want to watch the calculations yourself?”; “Wan’er and I aren’t going either, you know?” and so on.
It was always a reason that made it impossible for Guan Rongrong to refute. So, no matter how reluctant she was, she had to give up going along.
And so… very surprisingly, Song Caitang led a very peaceful life during this time.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t settle all of this by herself. But before she could do that, someone would have already stepped in, taken up the burden, and even told her that she could just sit back and relax.
Because that’s what family was for.
Sometimes worrying things happened, sometimes heartwarming events occurred. They could celebrate together in happy times, and they could share the burden during hard times.
Song Caitang cupped her cheeks as she looked up at the night sky. Her heart was so full of joy…
She thought she would just read, drink tea, and admire the spring scenery for a long time to come.
All that changed on the 10th day of the 4th month.
Old Madam Li sent someone to pick Song Caitang up. The old lady wanted to admire pear flowers in the valley together with her.
An entire valley of pear trees grew along the mountain range to the north. The scenery was as beautiful as a painting, and the flowers were in full bloom right now. It was a waste not to go and see them, so it was common for people to make a trip there just to admire the view.
Old Madam Li was no ordinary person, so the spot she went to was definitely the prettiest and the quietest.
“The road’s a little long, but it’s flat and easy to walk, so we’d definitely get there by noon!” Old Madam Li smiled as she chatted with Song Caitang.
Song Caitang checked the temperature of the teapot and felt that it was at a good temperature, so she poured a cup for Old Madam Li. “Then we need to bring food along. I don’t want to be accused of starving an old person.”
Old Madam Li burst out laughing as she pointed at Song Caitang and said to Auntie Liu cheekily, “She’s really young! All she thinks about is food! Go and take a look at what the cooks have prepared and make sure we bring tasty morsels along! If they’re not tasty enough, we won’t be able to keep this girl’s mouth shut!”
Many old folks liked teasing younger ones and Song Caitang knew that, so she did not take it personally and added, “It’ll be best if they’ve prepared something plain without meat. I’ve been eating so much meat lately, I’m so sick of it!”
But which young person would reject meat? Song Caitang polished off so much pig liver back at Tianhua Temple and that was immediately after dissecting a body. Why would she suddenly want to go vegetarian now? She was just worried about Old Madam Li’s health and wanted the food to suit her taste.
Old Madam Li looked even more dotingly at Song Caitang after hearing those words. “Well, Auntie Liu, I think you’d better get a box of string candy for this sweet-tongued lady!”
They just kept chatting and the atmosphere became especially lively. Old Madam Li was surprisingly energetic and talked to Song Caitang throughout the entire journey.
The journey was long, so they couldn’t spend all the time just teasing one another. They eventually started talking about Wen Yuansi.
“That Miss Ling, the one from the capital who’s related to the Gao family? She’s fallen ill along the way and has delayed her journey by two weeks. She’s supposed to arrive in Luanze very soon. Her cousin is an official and he’s come along as well, so the authorities are very busy recently and Wen Yuansi has not been able to get any time off!”
Old Madam Li referred to her grandson by his full name and sounded a little upset.
Song Caitang could understand why she was upset.
They had passed by many horse carriages and pedestrians on their way here, and it was obvious that these were all families traveling together towards the valley of pear trees to admire the scenery together. Regardless of whether they were sisters, the mistress of the household, or the matron of the family, younger male members of the family would always be present to accompany them and attend to their needs. Old Madam Li had a grandson herself, but he couldn’t come and fulfill this role. Of course she was jealous.
They also talked about the disappearance of Lu Guangzong.
Old Madam Li was Wen Yuansi’s grandmother, so she knew a lot more about this matter than others.
Since it didn’t involve a criminal case and it wasn’t classified information, she didn’t mind talking about it.
Old Madam Li said, “Lu Guangzong has really gone missing. His son, Lu Shen, has reported it to the authorities. His family has been searching for him for a long time but has failed to find him, so they had no choice but to report it.”
The authorities accepted the case, so they had to conduct investigations. They couldn’t get any useful information after questioning everyone in the household, so they got permission to search through Lu Guangzong’s things and found a problem. His study had been ransacked before.
Lu Guangzong was a high-ranking official who had retired from work in the capital. He had been an official in the capital for many years and worked closely with the emperor. He was very capable and very sensitive to any possible enemy attacks, plus he definitely had more than enough guards around him at all times. The fact that he had disappeared just like that was very strange indeed.
On top of that, he had disappeared just as the Yun Nianyao case was wrapped up.
Also during this time, Gao Zhuo had fallen and broken his leg; Madam Ji had suffered food poisoning and nearly lost her baby; and even Governor Li, the one who was in charge of this case at the start, got up in the middle of the night and fell down, injuring his head in the process.
So many coincidences like that made everyone wonder if Lu Guangzong’s disappearance had anything to do with this case.
The atmosphere among the officials was solemn and tense, as though a great enemy was about to attack them.
“Commissioner Lu’s disappearance… I’m afraid it’s a little out of the ordinary.”
Old Madam Li did not spell out the worst possible scenario, but her tone seemed to be hinting at something.
Song Caitang’s heart started to beat a little faster.
She frowned slightly and assumed that she was reacting this way because they were talking about something like that and not because… it was a bad premonition.
Unfortunately, her assumption turned out to be incorrect.
The Green Gang (Chinese: 青幫; pinyin: Qīng Bāng) was a Chinese secret society and criminal organization, which was prominent in criminal, social and political activity in Shanghai during the early to mid 20th century. For more info, read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Gang. ↩️
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