Chapter Fourteen Twelve consecutive drawings
Li Yi faced the rubbish on the table, forced to wonder how he would be able to create something with it.
Ping An spent a lot of effort grinding the tung oil ingot, but using the brush with its explosive head to paint anything would be unfavourable.
Li Yi couldn’t help but say, “Even brushes and paper in elementary schools are better than this.”
Wu Jin bared his teeth and put on a fake smile: “What? If you are really capable, why does it matter what brush and ink you use? Don’t people pay for your paintings because they recognize them, or do they recognize the instruments you use?”
“Not to mention that the brush does not work smoothly, which greatly affects the power of stroke, do you realize that no matter how good a painting is, with such brush and ink, it will be considered a fake?” Li Yi felt that he was playing a piano to a cow.
With this kind of paper and ink, people would be forced to treat the genuine works as copies.
Wu Jin didn’t care about this, “Fake? How much silver can a fake sell for?”
Li Yi said angrily: “I don’t know if you can get fifty taels.”
“Fifty taels? Enough!”
Wu Jin’s voice was happy; Li Yi really didn’t expect that he would forsake eight hundred taels and would be fine with fifty taels.
This man just wanted to save a few coins on brush, ink and paper?
“Who knows if what you said is true. So, I will try my hand with the fake. Besides, you are a sinner from the previous dynasty, how can you know if people still accept your paintings.”
It turned out that Wu Jin still had some calculations of his own, fearing that he might not even get the sesame seeds, let alone the watermelon.
Li Yi couldn’t help but groan. A sinner from the previous dynasty? The paintings of Huizong of Song and Zhao Mengfu were highly respected in the Yuan Dynasty, and the paintings of Zhu Di and Shi Tao were regarded as treasures by the Qing people. Which one of them was not the remnants of the previous dynasty and the blood of the royal family. Even in this time and space there were many examples of such predecessors.
It’s just that these upper-level collections couldn’t be explained to this little official. Li Yi only said: “It has nothing to do with painting and calligraphy. Moreover, if I die, this will be my final work, and it will even matter less.”
In order to convince Wu Jin, Li Yi even cursed himself.
Even Wu Jin knew about ‘don’t punish the dead’. After listening to him, he showed some acceptance on his face and his attitude eased: “If that’s the case, it shouldn’t matter what kind of paper and brush you use. If it’s your final one, take your opportunity and paint it, and paint it well!”
Li Yi was still disgusted with that set of rubbish and really had no desire to create, but at this moment of life and death, a strange feeling suddenly overcame him.
In the middle of the night, the rain was heavy. The lamp light was like a bean and everything was lonely and silent.
When Li Yi lifted his brush to the paper, he couldn’t help but think that if this really were to become his last work… in his twenty years of life, what feelings would be worth telling and what scenes would be worth painting?
Soon emotions surged over him that toppled mountains and overturned the seas, and at dawn, Li Yi put the brush aside and went to sleep.
The next day, Wu Jin personally took the stack of drawings and went to Tongbao Hall, where Li Yi had instructed him to go. Li Yi was aware of the background of this merchant house and held on to a little hope in his heart.
Although Wu Jin listened to Li Yi’s words and went to Tongbao Hall, he had other plans in mind.
If he followed what Li Yi said, he would have to directly report the name of the artist. Not mentioning whether the paintings in his hand would sell for eight hundred taels or not, in case someone targeted him, if either the matter of Li Yi being in the secret prison, or Luan Yiwei learning that he was robbing prisoners openly, was exposed, either thing would be fatal for him.
Wu Jin was naturally a cow chewing on peonies when calligraphy and paintings were concerned but he was not stupid. He wanted to sell a fake, and fifty taels would be a safe bet.
It was not long before Fu Ji, the young proprietor of Tongbao Hall, came out to receive Wu Jin, and indeed after only a few glances Fu Ji said the painting was a crude imitation.
Wu Jin had already prepared excuses, saying that he was encouraged by his friends, it was the first collection of his small family he invested his money in and he was deceived. Crying and looking very pitiful, he begged the young proprietor to show him a way to sell this stuff, even if he himself didn’t accept it.
Fu Ji shook his head and sighed again and again, then finally said that there was no need to go somewhere else. He might as well do his good deed of the day and save Wu Jin from running around and getting deceived by others, so he was willing to pay thirty taels to buy it.
Wu Jin thought it was too little, and the two of them went back and forth, settling on thirty-six taels for the deal.
When Wu Jin left, the shop manager standing beside Fu Ji couldn’t hold back anymore. He hurriedly said at once, “Young master, it’s just such a crude thing. How come you are willing to pay thirty-six taels? No matter how little it is, it is also silver. Our Tongbao Hall had never been a charity shop.”
Fu Ji laughed so loudly that the corners of his eyes went wet with laughter, “Boss, to tell you the truth, Tongbao Hall has picked up a treasure this time!”
“How? Is there some mystery here? Don’t tell me that this painting is real.” The old man puffed his beard and stared in anger.
“Real.” Fu Ji stopped laughing and said solemnly, “It cannot be more real!”
“Young master! Are you kidding me, you have seen it all, what kind of brush and paper was used here?! Although these small paintings all have quite a bit of artistic conception, they are far from being taken seriously!”
“Boss,” Fu Ji leaned over and pointed to the small seal in the corner of the twelve consecutive drawings: “This is what I relied on.”
It was a small seal that Li Yi had no choice but to carve on the spot, using a piece of hard cake given to him by a prison guard.
The shop manager leaned closer and took a look. The small red seal was engraved with the four bean-sized characters ‘Yishi Huan’an’, and he couldn’t help but wonder, “Isn’t that the seal of the abolished grandson of the emperor?”
“Not mentioning you, there are few people in the world who know about it.” Fu Ji himself felt that this was an opportunity given to him by gods. “It’s really incredible. In my adopted father’s mansion I saw a few paintings and calligraphy collected by my old man after the prince’s mansion was raided more than ten years ago.
There was a picture of an immortal painted by the abolished grandson who was only fifteen or sixteen years old at that time, and it was truly amazing. The small seal used in the bottom of the painting had these four characters ‘Yishi Huan’an’ (life of joy and peace) and the engraving technique was exactly the same. As my father said, Huan’an was the infant name of the emperor’s grandson. This painting was a gift for the crown prince’s birthday. The emperor’s grandson signed it with his infant name to show his closeness.”
Fu Ji’s adopted father was Zheng Lin, the head of the Imperial Household Supervisors and the biggest backer behind Tongbao Hall.
“And if you take a closer look at these four-character round seals, there is another mystery. The four characters ‘life of joy and peace’ are arranged in a cross shape, and they can be read from top to bottom and from left to right and vice versa. Life of joy and peace, peace of joyful life, joy of peaceful life, joy and peace of life.”
After Fu Ji’s guidance, the shop manager couldn’t help but croon, “It really makes sense and the emperor’s grandson is really worthy of such a seal. But not only he is not joyful any more, even the whole world is not at peace.”
“Oh, back then, the crown prince was just a normal loving father who wanted his child to live a blessed life. Who knew what would happen later.” Fu Ji sighed and said, “If you look at the word ‘Huan’ again, the two characters on the left are missing a little bit. This is because the person who engraved the seal deliberately left a missing stroke to prevent others from making forgeries.”
“Young master, this really can’t be fake.” The shop manager knew the young proprietor very well; he would never forget calligraphy, paintings and seals he had seen. This gift was praised non-stop by the old master when he was there.
“Boss, I remember that the painting of the immortal was done in the year when the crown prince died. Soon after that, Prince Yin became the ‘Hidden Prince’ and there were no more paintings from the abolished grandson of the emperor.” Fu Ji was quite proud.
“These are the first ones since all these years?” The shop manager couldn’t be calm anymore.
This Prince Yin’s paintings were notoriously rare. Nowadays they were either in the hands of the literary elite or deep in storage in the inner court, and the few copies of his works by the inner court artists that were available were all snatched up at once.
And now the real thing has ended up in their own treasure house!
“Only this paper and ink are too bad.” The shop manager couldn’t help but say, “Could it be that the abolished grandson has fallen to this point? This shouldn’t be the case. If he is willing to sell paintings, how many people will rush to worship! How could he ask such a person to secretly come to our Tongbao Hall?”
Fu Ji overcame his previous joy, frowned slightly and said, “If I guess right, the abolished grandson should be in a bad situation and was painting under duress. The person who came here was dodgy and probably knew something.”
“Young master, this matter…” The shop manager couldn’t help but bring it up.
“No worries.” Fu Ji thought that with the head of the Imperial Household Supervisors as his backer, he was not worried about getting into trouble. What’s more, people die for wealth and birds die for food. As a person who opened a merchant house, how could he refuse to accept the treasure delivered to his door.
“Let’s just pretend we don’t know anything. No matter what this guy is involved in, let’s not get involved.”
The shop manager thought about it too; the new dynasty was established and who cared about the life and death of the abolished grandson of the previous dynasty.
If something really happened, Fu Ji and the shop manager thought looking at each other, this would be his final work.
Fu Ji presented the treasure in his father’s mansion that night. Zheng Lin, the head of the Imperial Household Supervisors, opened the album. He was slightly puzzled when he looked at it. After a closer look, he almost slid down from the chair.
“Where did you get this?!”
“I was just guarding a tree-stump waiting for rabbits (waiting idly for an opportunity), and someone delivered it to the door. But I’m afraid it did not come from a righteous place, so not everyone can keep it. Dad, how about you look after this painting. Now that you have entered the court of the new dynasty as an official, you have to start consolidating your foundation. Didn’t you ask me to find some treasures, is this good enough?”
“Good, what else can it be but good!” Zheng Lin flipped through the album and sighed, “It’s time for both of us to be lucky. You’ve done a great job. Go to the treasury later and ask them to give you some gold and silver, so that you don’t lose money.”
“This child has been blessed by my father’s luck, how dare I claim credit for the silver.”
Fu Ji knew he couldn’t sacrifice a child to catch a wolf. Instead of keeping the painting as a treasure for his shop, which he didn’t know if he could keep yet, he should give it to his father. Only if his backer was stable in the palace could his shop be stable. This was the only long-term plan!
“Since you don’t want silver, send a few more art pieces to the palace another day, and I’ll have the master of ceremonies settle a treasury’s account for you.”
A private account had to be paid out of Zheng Lin’s own coffers; so he was happy to use a public account instead, so that the palace could pay a lot of money to buy some of the backlog of goods that Tongbao Hall couldn’t sell.
Fu Ji understood as soon as he heard it; his father was so good, he would never make him suffer losses.
He asked curiously after a while: “Which nobleman will Dad give these drawings to?”
Zheng Lin, however, was only willing to be vague, “The one who is now rushing to hold the Buddha’s feet.”
Zhao Yuan only saw Li Yi’s drawings after they were put aside for two days.
Nowadays, there were more people who wanted to bow to the regent than to the emperor and the empress dowager; especially the old people among the twelve supervisors were the most diligent.
The little emperor was still unable to be the master. There were various factions involved in the court, and hundreds of civil and military officials could not be removed for no reason; but in the inner court was another matter. As long as Zhao Yuan said the word, the emperor and the empress dowager would not contradict the regent for the sake of the old men left behind from the previous dynasty.
So the gifts sent by Bingbi and other eunuchs were piled up. The registration of gifts was managed by the special department, but Zhao Yuan usually listened to the registration list every two days, in order to know what to expect.
When he returned to his residence from the palace, he changed his clothes as usual. He took off his jade belt, winged crown, and when he was about to remove his dragon robe, he heard the attendant in the study report the list of gifts: “An album of twelve consecutive sheets of drawings on white linen paper, signed Huan’an.”
Zhao Yuan was startled, “Wait, what did you say?”
The attendant didn’t know what was the matter, so he took a closer look and said, “Reporting back to Your Highness, the signature registered in the album is the word ‘Huan’an’.”
“Who sent it in? Bring me the album.”
After Zhao Yuan entered the capital, he let the word out that he was searching for paintings by famous artists of the previous dynasty. Everyone knew that he was a good collector of calligraphy and painting.
The regent’s preferences were wide. Among the first-class paintings and calligraphy collected in the capital, both the ones from the previous dynasties and those popular at the moment were all picked by the regent first. No matter which kind of immortal you were, you had to rank after Zhao Yuan.
Under the guise of collecting calligraphy and painting, Zhao Yuan only wanted to collect paintings by one person. Unfortunately, there were too few of his paintings. Since entering the capital, he had only obtained one. He thought he had got everything possible, apart from those stored in the palace.
Signed ‘Huan’an’, it shouldn’t be that painting of the immortal back then, right? An album? When did it happen?
“Your Highness, it was sent by Zheng Lin, the imperial supervisor. This album was an oversight of this slave.” Zhao Xi personally handed over the album and knelt down in front of Zhao Yuan. He had only flipped through two pages of the drawings in that album before his heart sank. It had been so many years since he had called himself ‘slave’ aloud.
Zhao Yuan took the album of the twelve paintings. It took him more than half an hour to turn them over. The hand that used to hold the sword was rubbing back and forth on the small seal for a long time until he said to Zhao Xi who kept kneeling, “Go get caned five times. Call Zhou Yi for me. ”
Zhao Xi naturally understood the situation and had guessed that Zhao Yuan was going to call Zhou Yi. While going out to receive the punishment, he said, “I have already asked General Zhou to wait outside.”
In a few moments, a large, lean man came in, with a fiery gaze and a commanding look, someone who could be useful both in and out of the battlefield.
Zhou Yi was now the first-rank guard of honor of the regent’s residence and a third-rank military officer. He was originally a staff general under Zhao Yuan’s command, responsible for scouts and intelligence. The regent’s honor guard was similar to Luan Yiwei of the emperor. Now that the Zhao family had taken over the country, most of the army men were reorganized into various guard divisions.
Zhao Yuan handed the album to Zhou Yi. Zhou Yi took it carefully, looked at the paper, ink and brush, and said, “These are used by interrogators in prison.” He leaned closer and smelled the scent of the ink, and weighed the paper, “Taking into account the volatilization and color of the ink, the paintings were completed less than ten days ago.
Judging by the dryness and flexibility of the paper, it’s always dry in autumn these days. Only four days ago, it rained at night. The painting was either made that night or the next day.
The artist’s skills are excellent, and the power of his brush alone may have had decades of work behind it. But some parts of the painting showed a lack of strength; coupled with the previous assumption on him being in prison, there were concerns about his health.
There were twelve pictures in this album, most of them showing the scenes of the two young men. Although their faces can’t be seen, from their carefully painted clothes and the scenery in the paintings, both of them were noble young masters.
The paintings were quite expressive. Judging from his appearance, the taller young man had studied martial arts. The shorter young man was painting. It should be the artist when he was a teenager. Moreover, two of the twelve pictures only painted the martial arts teenager separately. From this point of perspective, it should be the memory of the artist, so it is most certain that the paintings were made by the slightly shorter young man.”
“Okay, very good, as expected of my general, the first scout of the Southern Yunnan Royal Army.” Zhao Yuan already knew that Li Yi had fallen into Luan Yiwei’s hands, but Zhou Yi had never heard it before.
Zhao Yuan glanced at Zhou Yi who was standing aside, “If there is anything else, you can tell me.” How could he not see that his confidant had something else to say.
Zhou Yi had no choice but to say, “Begging my lord for forgiveness.”
Zhao Yuan raised his eyes, “Exempted.”
“Just looking at the use of ink, you can see that when painting, the emotions of the person holding the brush fluctuated greatly. Every time he was drawing this martial arts boy, he always hesitated at the beginning when using the brush and lingered when he was finishing. This subordinate…”
Zhou Yi was a military man and it was rare for him to hesitate when he spoke. At this moment, he finally found his resolve and said, “This subordinate has seen the paintings of Prince Yin of the previous dynasty hidden by my lord. There is no doubt that the artist is Prince Yin. As for the martial arts boy, I think he is my lord.”
Zhao Yuan nodded. Zhou Yi was his scout, his personal soldier and one of the very few people who knew the secrets of his past.
“Now that you know everything, you should understand what you need to check.”
“This subordinate knows.” Zhou Yi knelt down on one knee and immediately made a promise, “Within three days, the place of detention will be identified.”
Zhao Yuan said lightly: “Two days.”