Chapter 383: Time to give up the grain
Han Yunxi had been pondering over the same question as Long Feiye.
"Your Highness, there has to be a bluff in there somewhere," Han Yunxi was convinced. Before Nanguo Mingde had shown up, she'd asked the guards and found out that none of the city's four gates had been closed to keep out unwanted guests. During their trip, the two of them had guessed that the disaster victims were all taking refuge within the city and begging for grain there, but that didn't seem to be the case.
Could it be...that someone was controlling the crowds?
It was quite normal for an imperial envoy sent to relieve a natural calamity to see no sign of its victims. Typically speaking, the imperial envoy's travel routes were all arranged by the local officials, who would drive away the victims before they ever came into sight. Even if a route wasn't planned out ahead of time, the local officials still had the skills to chase away the victims to a place where they wouldn't be seen. But rumors of Long Feiye's embezzling had spread so far and wide that the higher-ups wouldn't have let Official Nanguo hide the famine victims even if he wanted to. They would definitely use those crowds to make trouble for Long Feiye instead!
As Long Feiye and Han Yunxi lost themselves in thought, Chu Xifeng arrived. With a smile, he proclaimed, "Your Highness, I have two pieces of news-one good, one bad!" Despite that, he proceeded to tell both of them in turn. He didn't have the guts to ask His Highness Duke of Qin to choose which one he wanted to know first!
"Your Highness, the good news is that the messenger pigeons sent news that the grain caravans reached the other two disaster areas successfully without being detected. Right now the carts are waiting right outside the borders for your further orders!"
Half of the 3,000,000 dan of grain that Long Feiye had gotten off the imperial uncle's estate was now situated outside South Ning City itself in secret. The other half was split between the other two major disaster areas. Now that they'd arrived, Long Feiye only needed to give an order before they entered the cities to distribute their grain. Long Feiye had not only come to help with relief aids, but to capture the corrupt officials. Although they'd gotten quite the amount of grain from the imperial uncle's estate, there were even more famine victims at stake. There were limits to how much grain each victim could take, and it wasn't even certain whether they'd make it to next month, much less the rest of winter.
Currently, it was only the beginning of the winter months. Two months later and it'd be the twelfth month of the lunar year, when the world was covered in frost and snow. There wouldn't even be wild herbs or edible weeds around to eat then. It was unknown how the victims would survive the winter! Official Nanguo's considerations were right. If His Highness Duke of Qin couldn't find enough grain, he'd move against the corrupt officials and make them cough up all the grain they'd eaten for themselves. When Chu Xifeng saw his master simply nod to his news without further orders, he moved on to the next topic.
"The bad news is, the guards have already found out that all of South Ning Prefecture's famine victims have been gathered together in a hamlet on the outskirts of the prefecture. As this subordinate sees it, they've already established their own organized system."
Han Yunxi laughed. "Your Highness, it looks like they'd been waiting for you for awhile."
Long Feiye only said four words. "We'll wait until tonight."
Time stopped for no man nor thing. Six hours passed by until it was time for sundown. Nanguo Jun was shut up in the senior provincial official's estate, looking at the setting sun with a face that wanted to cry, but had no tears. That afternoon, he'd seen his father send men to take away all the grain kept at home that was on their account books. These weren't embezzled goods, but their normal stores of grain. After all, the estate needed to raise its own share of officials to look after the entirety of South Ning Prefecture. There was only supply to feed 500 or so people for a month. From what he knew, the basement of the estate had a large store of grain as well, but his father hadn't touched a single granule of it. He had no idea what his father was doing, but he hoped that the man wouldn't lose his temper on him again after he came back.
Before the deadline arrived, all of the city's citizens had shown up with their families to line up in front of the senior provincial official's doors and wait for their allotted grain. By sunset, all 20,000 or so denizens were accounted for, and the line stretched all the way to the city gates like a vast and torrential current! Even though the line was neat and orderly, it was still enough to thoroughly block the senior provincial official's door. If a crowd like that went out of control, the consequences would be unthinkable. When Long Feiye's carriage wound its way out of the alleyway, all of the people on the main street got out of the way to let him pass. No matter what the rumors were, the person who gave them grain would be their Heaven and Earth, their father and mother, their very source of survival!
By the time Long Feiye arrived at the front doors, they were still shut tight. If not for his presence, the crowd might've started rioting long ago.
"His Excellency Provincial Official seems to be breaking his word?" Long Feiye asked coldly.
Official Nanguo's voice called out instantly, "May Your Highness Duke of Qin calm your anger! May Your Highness Duke of Qin calm your anger!"
The crowd followed the source of the noise to see Official Nanguo run over with a few servants from a neighboring alleyway. Soon enough, cart after cart loaded with grain rumbled out after them. What else could make the citizens happier than the sight of grain? Everyone made way for the carts, respecting yielding a space for them even larger than the one for Long Feiye's carriage. Official Nanguo personally directed the carts and even reminded the drivers to take care, lest they harm any of the pedestrians. It had to be said that his sensitive care for the people was a great contrast to his son's attitude earlier that morning to be affected and artificial!
Everyone was happy to see the line of carts drive out, but it wasn't long before...the line of carts stopped! A careful count only revealed a total of ten carriages. Each one carried eight dan of grain, making no more than 80 dan of grain in total. Long Feiye watched the entire scene in silence, but the citizens were quick to grow flustered as they broke into whispers.
"That's all the grain there is?"
"Is that enough to split between everyone? Could it be that we won't each get a share?"
"Was it two jin? They said two jin this morning!"
At first, the commentary was only about the quantity of grain, but someone from the crowd suddenly shouted out, "Everyone, don't panic. His Highness Duke of Qin will definitely do as he promised." Immediately, the topic of the discussions turned to Long Feiye.
"That's right, His Highness Duke of Qin promised. We shouldn't get impatient."
"His Highness Duke of Qin is the imperial envoy. If he promised everyone, then he won't shirk on the goods!"
"His Highness definitely has ways to get enough grain."
If Han Yunxi was there, she would've rolled her eyes at these words. These people could sure make things up! It was clearly Nanguo Jun who agreed to provide the grain, so when it did turn into Long Feiye's promise instead? Unfortunately, she was currently absent from the scene, leaving Long Feiye by himself. Even Chu Xifeng wasn't around. Dressed in long brocade robes, Long Feiye stood at the top of the steps leading to the provincial official's house with his hands clasped behind his back, facing the comments from the crowd below. His lofty, towering position stood steadfastly in place, as staunch as Mt. Tai; those wintry eyes had fixated themselves on Official Nanguo since the very start.
Official Nanguo made a show of supporting himself with the carts as he made his way to the door. Huffing and puffing, he didn't even rest but hastened to pay his respects. "Blessings to Your Highness Duke of Qin. For the sake of finding this grain, this official came late. I ask that Your Highness forgives me."
All of the commentary stopped as the crowd re-focused its energies on the scene before them. Even the ones at the end of the line came closer to see what was going on. For now, they were still an orderly bunch with no thought of fighting over the grain.
"How much grain did you find?" Long Feiye's glacial voice turned the air chillier by a few degrees.
"To reply Your Highness, this official personally left the city this afternoon and managed to find a total of 80 dan of grain. Add that to the 100 dan stored in the provincial official's estate and that's a total of 180 dan, which is equal to 1,000 jin of grain." As Official Nanguo spoke, he knocked on the front doors, which opened to reveal a few men carrying out dan after dan of grain. At his words '1,000 jin of grain,' the crowd grew silent again.
1,000 jin was quite substantial for a single person or one family. However, it was something worth crying over when 1,000 jin was to be split between 20,000 some people. How much could 1,000 jin be worth between them all? Not even enough to fill a single bowl of rice! Very soon, the crowd grew restless and broke into hushed conversations. None of them dared to raise their voices, since His Highness Duke of Qin hadn't said anything yet.
"Nanguo Mingde, do you take your lordship to be someone who doesn't know mathematics? Or are you simply cheating these 20,000 and some odd people instead?" Long Feiye's angry tone silenced the crowd again.
Nanguo Mingde immediately fell to his knees. "Your Highness Duke of Qin, have mercy! If every person in South Ning City gets two jin of grain, that's 40,000 jin for around 20,000 citizens. Even if this official had Heaven-sent skills, there's no way I can dig up that much!" As he spoke, he raised his voice even higher and cried, "Your Highness, all of this grain came from various governmental offices. It was left by the imperial court to raise the officials and soldiers. Currently, South Ning Prefecture oversees four counties and eight townships. All of the grain from the government offices were emptied out by this official, as well as my estate's own stores. This official really has no other way. If Your Highness Duke of Qin still thinks this isn't enough, then take this official's life! My son is the only blood heir to my Nanguo Clan, so I beg Your Highness to spare him on behalf of his youthful ignorance!"
Nanguo Mingde's words were remarkable in both word and expression, his face covered in tears. When he finished, he turned to kowtow towards the citizens. "Everyone, I, Nanguo Mingde, am the official who oversees South Ning Prefecture, but I couldn't even protect a single mouthful of grain for you all. I really have let you all down!"
His choice of words really were quite interesting. By using 'protect, he seemed to be hinting at other possibilities behind the scene. The peasants had heard so many rumors, from the Duke of Qin embezzling everything to the senior provincial official stealing grain and the minor officials joining in the corruption. But they had no idea which ones were true or false. When they saw Nanguo Mingde looking so wretched as he offered up his life, they began to question the rumors accusing him of stealing their grain. Perhaps they'd all misunderstood this senior provincial official. If he could gather grain from all the government offices at a time like this and even offer up his private stores, it was already a job well done.
In the end, the peasants were still softhearted! At this moment, someone shouted from the crowd, "Official Nanguo can't die! Official Nanguo's already tried his best! It's not his fault that he couldn't find the grain!"
Following that, a young pageboy rain out of the senior provincial official's estate in tears to kneel in front of Long Feiye. He shouted, "Your Highness Duke of Qin, have mercy! Please spare Official Nanguo, he even took grain from his old mother! There's not a single grain left in the estate!"
All of the people starting talking at the revelation, making Nanguo Mingde a target of public sympathy and even someone to be respected.