Fuzhu’s Ballad Chapter 19

CHAPTER 19 A flood in early spring catches people off guard

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Gaolin County lay adjacent to Yingshan Prefecture, its land stretching out to meet the lapping waters of the Jialong River. A hub for commerce, the bustling county town boasted a vital port where travelers and traders alike could rest their weary feet. Along the riverbank, the hardworking locals plied their trades, running quaint inns and quaint shops, casting their nets into the river, or ferrying eager passengers across its tranquil waters.

The small fish restaurant that Shentu Rui went to was located in the rural outskirts of Gaolin County, upstream from the town’s wharf. The proprietor had fashioned a simple wooden house, its foundations raised high above the water, much like a humble water pavilion. As one gazed out of the window, the serene waters of the river seemed to paint a picturesque view, adding to the quaintness of the wooden house.

As the sun climbed higher into the sky, the mist that had cloaked the river in a veil dissipated, revealing a glistening surface that sparkled in the spring warmth. The rushing waters flowed inexorably towards the distant town, with its forest of masts, evoking a sense of liberation and expansiveness that comes from viewing human settlements from afar.

Lan Dan sat by the window, her eyes fixed on the breathtaking view, her heart filled with a deep sigh. It was her first time witnessing such natural beauty, and she felt almost greedy in her desire to commit it to memory forever.

Shentu Rui joined her, his gaze following the river downstream towards the town. “We will be crossing the river at Gaolin later. By evening, we will have arrived in Jixian, and once we have passed through the city, we will officially be outside the borders of the six capital prefectures of Jingji.”

Lan Dan, who didn’t understand much and just knew that they were passing through this place on their journey northward, nodded in confusion.

The proprietor brought a plate of freshly fried small fish, and as Shentu Rui was a regular customer, he chatted freely with him, replying to his casual question about business with a smile.

The proprietor’s response was tinged with a hint of concern. “Business is still doing well, but as you can see,” he gestured towards the stone dam on the riverbank, “we can no longer see the watermark from previous years. The water level rose too high and flooded the area. It’s been an unusually warm year, and they say the weather up north is even more unpredictable – the ice and snow are melting quickly, and the spring flood is coming early. With this rising trend, I fear that the embankment won’t hold up much longer.”

Shentu Rui leaned out of the window, his gaze fixed on the riverbank below. After a moment of careful observation, he turned to the proprietor with a serious expression and asked, “Have you reported this to the officials?”

The proprietor clicked his tongue in frustration and replied, “I’ve spoken with the magistrate a few times, but nothing has been done about it.”

Shentu Rui nodded, his face betraying his displeasure. The proprietor quickly made his exit, leaving the two alone with their thoughts. Lan Dan watched Shentu Rui’s expression closely as she slowly nibbled on her fish. She knew better than to disturb him in moments like this. Suddenly, Shentu Rui snapped his fingers and summoned his personal guard. He handed the guard his waist badge and muttered a few words under his breath. The guard saluted and promptly left the room.

“You, go hurry the proprietor for the fish. We won’t be able to eat in peace when the magistrate comes,” Shentu Rui ordered. There was no one else in the room, so the order must have been meant for her.

Lan Dan sighed inwardly, but obediently carried out his orders. As she stepped outside, she saw the guards enjoying their meal at the other tables, laughing and chatting. The relaxed atmosphere was a stark contrast to the tension inside the room. She lingered for a moment, not in the mood to face Shentu Rui’s surly disposition.

From a distance, there were deafening shouts and rumbling sounds that reverberated through the earth and sky, merging into a colossal roar. The source of the noise was indistinguishable, and the cries gradually became shriller and closer.

The proprietor, who was often by the river and vigilant, let out a shout, signaling for everyone to retreat to higher ground. “Something’s wrong! It must be a breach somewhere!” he cried out urgently.

Shentu Rui also rushed out quickly, his guards surrounding him and urging him to leave.

Shentu Rui quickly rushed out, his guards surrounding him and urging him to leave. He hastily tore off his cloak, his anger palpable as he spoke, “Where am I going at this time? You two,” he pointed to the guards, “Hurry up and report to the governor of Yingshan!” He reached for his waist, then remembered that his personal guard had taken the badge to call the county magistrate. He never wore other tokens when he went out. Frustrated, he snorted and ripped off the small jade crown from his hair, tossing it to the guard. “Tell him to quickly dispatch two thousand soldiers and horses to address the emergency. Hurry up!”

He furrowed his brows and scanned the crowd in front of him, speaking in a calm voice, “The rest of you, follow me.”

The guards quickly carried out their orders and rushed outside to get their horses, with Lan Dan trailing behind them. However, Shentu Rui grabbed her arm and scolded her, “What are you doing? Follow the proprietor and evacuate!”

Lan Dan opened her mouth to respond, but the proprietor rushed over and grabbed her, reassuring Shentu Rui, “Your Highness, do not worry. I will risk my life to protect the young lady.”

Shentu Rui nodded and swiftly dashed out, mounting his horse and leading the group towards the source of the thunderous noise. In an instant, they disappeared from sight.

The proprietor anxiously pulled Lan Dan’s arm, repeatedly urging her to hurry. Lan Dan had no choice but to follow him up a small hill.

The sound was like muffled thunder in the summer sky, rumbling and refusing to subside for a long time. Lan Dan stood on her toes and looked towards where Shentu Rui had gone, but saw nothing. The sound slowly diminished, and Lan Dan breathed a sigh of relief before turning to the proprietor and asking, “Did they block the breach?”

The proprietor had a grim expression on his face, shaking his head repeatedly and anxiously looking towards his small shop by the river in the distance, sighing. “It’s probably completely flooded in now. That area is all farmland with few people. I just don’t know how strong the water flow is and if it will overflow.”

Lan Dan had never experienced a flood before, and wasn’t particularly scared, but she was worried about Shentu Rui. She wanted to know how the situation was on his side.

A carriage thundered towards them from the direction of the county town, its arrival accompanied by the shrill screams of two occupants. Despite their cries, the bodyguard paid them no heed, pushing the horses to move even faster. As the carriage drew closer, Lan Dan could make out the occupants’ complaints. “Slow down! This is too bumpy!”

The proprietor spat and cursed at the sight of the carriage. “The world is crumbling, yet the county magistrate cares only for his own comfort!”

Lan Dan’s expression soured further at the mention of the magistrate. Had he acted responsibly, they wouldn’t be in this perilous situation. She felt a growing resentment towards him, bubbling within her.

The bodyguard asked the proprietor for details about the situation at the bottom of the hill. Upon hearing about the possible breach in the embankment, the magistrate and overseer jumped out of the carriage and scrambled up the hill in a panic. The bodyguard had originally wanted to go ahead to find Shentu Rui, but the proprietor strongly dissuaded him. Seeing the panting county magistrate ogling at Lan Dan in a daze, he gritted his teeth and led his horse up, standing between the county magistrate and Lan Dan with a stern face.

Of course, Lan Dan also noticed the magistrate’s strange behavior. She couldn’t help but feel angry and frustrated at the magistrate’s behavior. Despite the impending disaster, he seemed more interested in staring at her than focusing on the urgent situation.

It only took a blink of an eye for the flood to roar in. The water level wasn’t too high, but the speed of the flow was alarming. The carriage at the bottom of the hill was instantly washed away to a distance of several meters, and the horses panicked and neighed, making people feel scared.

The guard was so anxious that he jumped up. “What about the Prince? Is His Highness alright?” He grabbed the proprietor and kept asking, as if the proprietor knew the answer. His grip was so strong that the proprietor yelped in pain.

The surrounding area was flat and open for tens of miles. Although the spring flood had just started and the water level was not too high, the spreading water lost its momentum quickly. After the water wall passed, the flow slowed down, and in the end, it was only calf-deep.

Lan Dan hadn’t even had a chance to breathe a long sigh of relief when the overseer exclaimed with gratitude, flatteringly saying to the magistrate, “Master, there’s no need to panic. This water is not powerful enough to cause much damage. It’s early spring, and the crops haven’t been planted yet. The loss can be ignored.”

Upon hearing this, Lan Dan, the proprietor, and the guard couldn’t hold back their anger. They were about to scold him when they heard the sound of the horse team crossing the water. It was Shentu Rui and his men.

A group of people halted at the bottom of the hill, and Shentu Rui gazed up with an intense, stern stare.

Lan Dan saw that his hair was disheveled, his robes were haphazardly tucked, and his attire was smeared with mud and covered in black and white spots. It could have been a comical sight, but his ferocious expression wiped away any trace of humor.

The magistrate and the overseer stood on the slope, bowing and paying their respects. They saw that His Royal Highness had no intention of joining them on the slope, and the look on his face was unmistakable. With a sense of defeat, the two men gathered their robes and made their way down the slope, gingerly tiptoeing through the mud and water, looking utterly miserable.

Shentu Rui remained motionless as the county magistrate and overseer tried to appease him with flustered words. The guards stood at attention, their solemn gazes fixed on the scene unfolding before them. A tense silence hung in the air, broken only by the sound of snorting horses.

Recalling the words of the overseer just now, the county magistrate improvised, “There is no need to worry too much. We have not yet begun to sow the seeds…”

Before he could finish speaking, Shentu Rui drew his long sword from his waist and swung it down with a resounding clang. The magistrate let out a piercing scream of agony, and Lan Dan cried out in terror, her hands covering her eyes to shield herself from the gruesome sight.

She was naturally familiar with death, as it was almost ubiquitous in the court, the palace, and the city. However, the deaths she saw were those that her father and brothers recorded in official documents, those that were sanctioned and condemned with the power of the law, those that were carried out by solemn palace maids and eunuchs draped in white silk or administered through poison. Even her own death was to be inflicted by a brutish and callous executioner wielding a blade behind his back.

She had been eagerly watching how Shentu Rui would punish the detestable magistrate, but when he swung his sword with merciless eyes, she was unexpectedly gripped with terror. Witnessing someone with whom she had spent countless hours suddenly execute another person before her very eyes was more frightening than she could have ever imagined.

The county magistrate’s screams did not stop abruptly as she expected but became even more miserable. Hearing it, Lan Dan became less afraid and slowly moved her hand away from her face. Shentu Rui had chopped off the magistrate’s official hat, leaving a bald patch on his head, and the magistrate was now crying and rolling in the mud. Lan Dan swallowed before daring to look at Shentu Rui again. Their eyes met. He glared at her angrily, leaving her utterly bewildered.

The governor of Yingshan hurriedly arrived with his attendants. A smart and obedient man, he rode his horse to Shentu Rui’s side. Despite the muddy ground, he knelt down and begged for forgiveness.

Shentu Rui fell silent for a while, clearly struggling to contain his rage. “Make sure the rest of the matter is handled properly,” he ordered coldly.

The government kowtowed and accepted the command.

“I will cross the river now and send a report to the palace. Only after my departure can you fix the embankment,” he declared, his words leaving no room for argument.

The governor was taken aback by this sudden announcement, his confusion plain on his face. “Your Highness…” he began, but Shentu Rui cut him off with a snort of derision. “If I’m here, how can I not deal with it on the spot?” he retorted, his icy gaze sweeping over the assembled officials.

The governor suddenly realized the gravity of the situation and was overcome with gratitude. He fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face as he expressed his thanks. “Your Highness has shown great kindness,” he stammered. “This official…”

“That’s enough,” Shentu Rui impatiently interrupted, glancing at the magistrate who was playing dead in the mud. “He cannot be left alive.”

The governor understood without further explanation. He bowed low and repeated, “This official understands.”

Lan Dan’s mind was in a haze as she tried to make sense of Shentu Rui’s behavior. He had been so biased towards the governor, despite the obvious corruption and neglect of duty that had led to the disastrous breach in the embankment. After thinking for a moment, she realized it was probably due to the flower wine they drank together earlier. What a hypocrite. Lan Dan couldn’t help but snort.

Shentu Rui heard the sound and looked up, his gaze meeting hers with a cold intensity. “Why are you still standing there?” he barked. “Hurry up and hit the road, what are you waiting for?”

Lan Dan felt a surge of anger at his dismissive tone, but she knew that it was not appropriate to argue with him in front of so many people. She walked down the slope with a cold expression and asked, “Where is my horse?” But before she could even finish the question, Shentu Rui had pulled her towards his own saddle, almost dislocating her arm in the process.

Disgusted by the mud and dirt on his soaked robe, Lan Dan instinctively pushed him away from her chest and tried to put as much distance between them as possible. “Dirty!” she exclaimed, her revulsion clear in her voice.

Shentu Rui’s anger flared at her reaction, and Lan Dan immediately felt small in his presence. After all, he had risked his life to help the people, and now he was covered in mud. She realized with a pang of guilt that she was no better than the bastard magistrate who had cared only for appearances amidst the disaster. Feeling a deep sense of remorse, Lan Dan lowered her head in silence, unsure of what to say or do next.

Still angry, Shentu Rui grabbed a handful of mud from the horse’s belly and smeared it all over Lan Dan’s face.

Lan Dan felt a surge of anger and indignation, her body trembling with fury, but she knew better than to provoke him any further. She could only endure silently, her pout a testament to her frustration.

Satisfied, Shentu Rui spurred his horse, heavily treading on the mud to splash the governor before leaving. He was still not satisfied and even trampled on the fallen governor before leaving.

Lan Dan felt wet and cold all over, and her robe was soaked. The wind whipped at her, making her feel even more uncomfortable and exposed. She dared not move, but fortunately they soon arrived at the pier and boarded the ship to cross the river.

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