Chapter 368: Not even going to the disaster area
The carriage left Tianning Capital leisurely in the middle of the night. Han Yunxi had been exhausted over the past few times and was planning to sleep, but she was surprised when Long Feiye ordered them to turn southwest as soon as they reached the outskirts of the city.
Tianning's famine crisis had struck three major areas in the middle of the country. The capital city was located in the north, so logically speaking, they should head due south. Why is Long Feiye leading them southwest?
Bewildered, Han Yunxi asked, "Your Highness, is there an ambush up ahead?"
They might have hidden the news of Long Feiye's injury, but there was no telling whether the assassin had spread word instead! Plenty of people in Cloud Realm Continent wanted Long Feiye dead, so it was only natural they be extra cautious on the road.
"I'm taking you to a place," Long Feiye replied, reclining lazily against a high pillow. He was obviously relaxed, his eyes closed to rest. If anything, he didn't look like someone who was injured at all, much less a man troubled by the complications of the famine crisis.
Where's he bringing me at a time like this?
Han Yunxi guessed that the location must had something related to the disaster areas, but she couldn't venture to know any of the details. She perched against the window and looked curiously at the night scenery outside. Truthfully speaking, she'd never traveled along this road before. Still, she was so tired that she soon fell asleep.
By the time she woke up next morning, the carriage was still moving. Long Feiye had already woken up before her and was reading a few secret missives in his hands. Han Yunxi scooted to his side and tugged at his sleeves like a lackey man.
"Your Highness, where are we going? Tell me about it!"
Long Feiye ignored her completely, not even bothering to lift his eyes.
"Your Highness, say something, won't you?"
"Your Highness, just tell me. I have no way of guessing. It looks like it's pretty far away." Han Yunxi just wouldn't give up. Long Feiye didn't usually like to be disturbed when reading his messages, but he didn't even lose his temper this time. Instead, he handed Han Yunxi one of his missives instead. There were a total of three messages this morning, all of them concerning the imperial uncle's desperate efforts to sell off his grain. He only had three more days before the deadline to pay over 1,000,000 taels for the auction bids. Over the past few days, the imperial uncle had been busy trying to sell off his stores to convert them into cash. Unfortunately, he hadn't managed to sell any of it yet.
It wasn't for a lack of buyers, but the simple fact that his asking price was too high. The imperial uncle had originally embezzled the grain with intentions to sell it at an exorbitant price once the grain market skyrocketed. Now he was being forced to sell it ahead of time, but his shrewd, greedy personality meant he'd try to raise the price as much as possible. Moreover, he really needed a lot of money fast! How was he supposed to get enough funds unless the grain was pricey enough?
Of the 2,400,000 taels he owed to the Ministry of Revenue, only 1,200,000 taels had been paid in advance. Some of those taels came from the betrothal gifts that the crown prince was supposed to give Mu Liuyue. Others came from the imperial uncle's private stores, while the rest came from usurious loans. Naturally, the imperial uncle's estate was worth far more than 1,200,000 taels, but the crafty imperial uncle had long changed his ready cash into things like land and collection objects. There was very little actual money on the premises. He could probably sell off any old antique or curios for tens of thousands of taels. Some were even worth a million taels on their own. But none of those items were equal to ready cash, nor could they be easily sold off. Once they made their appearance at an auction or similar bidding grounds, the imperial uncle's estate would be selling off its own face, too.
There were plenty of wealthy members within the royalist faction, but the imperial uncle's estate was the richest of them all. His family was supposed to be the strong patron backing the emperor's faction. Because their standing was so high and mighty, there was no way for the imperial uncle to lower himself in the eyes of others. Thus, his only solution was to take out loans with high interest rates from the black market to get taels immediately. He'd requested the transaction be made with utter secrecy.
It was impossible to get an exact sum, but a rough estimate of the loans they owed and the money needed for the Ministry of Revenue meant that the imperial uncle's estate was missing at least 2,000,000 taels. Unless they sold their grain at high prices, it'd be impossible to earn a profit or even break even with their losses.
Naturally, there was no way for news like this to be commonplace. Even the aristocratic circles in Tianning's capital city would be hard-pressed to uncover its rumors. However, the traveling merchants that came in from all directions had sharp ears and quick wits. A single rustle of the wind was enough to hint them towards the big picture. The news of Grand Concubine Yi's charity auction had long spread amongst them. The smarter merchants smelled a business opportunity in the air and knew that the imperial uncle would have to undersell his grain, and in great quantities, soon!
Those who rose late missed out on profits, those who weren't crafty couldn't be merchants! Nobody was willing to play Good Samaritan and help out the imperial uncle's estate this time. Everyone wanted to take advantage of his misfortune, and secretly came to agreements to force the prices down. The missive explained everything very clearly. Someone spread news in Tianning's black markets that there was 30,000 dan of husked rice for sale. Anyone who could unload that much grain at once during a famine had to be from the imperial uncle's estate. Of course, they had no concrete proof despite all their guesses.
Moreover, everyone was aware of the imperial uncle's embezzling habits as well. But again, there was no concrete proof, so the rumors remained rumors to the end. After reading through all three messages, Han Yunxi was just about caught up with the situation at hand. She grinned and said, "Is Your Highness planning to buy the grain to help the disaster areas while ridding the people of a corrupt official at the same time?"
Long Feiye actually shook his head. "No, your lordship is going to sell grain as well."
This... Han Yunxi was surprised. Is he joking? Selling grain at a time like this, when they need it everywhere else?
Although he had many grain stores of his own in Jiangnan, he'd donated quite a few by now. Where was he supposed to find more grain to sell?! And even if he did have the grain, selling it now would only foster more unscrupulous profiteers. Such a vicious cycle would only bring further harm to the disaster areas. After all, the motives of the profiteers dealing with grain was still to sell it off in the end. This way they'd get more silver-the same silver meant to relieve the disaster victims.
"The imperial uncle still has three days left, but your lordship will force him to reduce the price and sell his grain tomorrow!" Long Feiye promised coldly. At his statement, Han Yunxi suddenly realized what was going on.
She couldn't help but sigh with emotion. "As it turned out, Your Highness is the most fraudulent one of all!"
"Fraudulent?" It was the first time anyone had ever dared to curse him to his face. But instead of getting mad, he grew interested instead. "You understand?"
Compared to the daughters of rich and powerful families from this time period, Han Yunxi knew all too much. Of course I understood! While all the merchants were busy facing off against the imperial uncle by force-lowering the prices, Long Feiye would stick his foot in and announce that he was selling grain. That would only force the imperial uncle's grain prices to drop even further. He only had three days left before his payment deadline to the Ministry of Revenue. By then, he'd have no choice but to sell at the reduced prices.
A wise man took advantage of opportunities, while a capable man created opportunities for himself. Long Feiye's tactics would definitely send the black markets into upheaval soon! Of course, all of these were secondary details. Long Feiye's ultimate motive was still to uncover real proof of the imperial uncle's embezzling activities. He wouldn't have the chance until the man began to sell and trade his stores of grain. Otherwise, all claims against the man would only remain at the level of hearsay and conjecture.
Long Feiye listened to Han Yunxi's explanation with some surprise. He had to outline a pile of complicated connections to Tang Li before he got it, but Han Yunxi could see the whole picture after he said one sentence! Even now, I feel like I am underestimating this woman. Though he never spoke a word during their chat, he did nod his head. To Han Yunxi, that was the strongest affirmation in her favor.
As soon as she finished, she struck while the iron was hot to murmur, "Your Highness, chenqie has a guess. I don't know whether I'm right."
"Say it," Long Feiye intoned.
Han Yunxi hid a laugh in her sleeve and drew closer to say in a low voice, "Your Highness, chenqie suspects you're only bluffing about selling your grain. In actuality, you're not going to sell any of it."
Long Feiye laughed out loud at her words while grasping Han Yunxi by the chin. He reminded her in a devious tone, "Han Yunxi, it's not good to be too smart."
Han Yunxi wasn't afraid of him at all. She tugged at his hand until it dropped and said earnestly, "Your Highness, I already told you not to use your right hand! It'll affect your injury!"
She had almost gotten into an argument with him when they were going home from the Hidden Pavilion. Finally, they had no choice but to compromise. He would only use his left hand and leave his right hand alone. Even though they were discussing serious matters now, she was still observing his every move and the state of his wound. When Long Feiye saw Han Yunxi's serious features, he suddenly felt closer to her than ever before. Unexpectedly, he agreed to her demands.
Naturally, Long Feiye was bringing Han Yunxi to the black markets. It was a place of mysterious trades and transactions, including some goods forbidden by the government or items for sale at inflated prices. The money used often came from irregular channels as well, such as usury loans, laundered funds, thus making the entire market 'black.' There were two major black markets in Tianning Country. One was located in the southwest and called the Sky Domain Black Market1; the other was situated near the Three-Way Battlefield between Tianning, Western Zhou, and Northern Li and called the Three-Way Black Market. The Three-Way Black Market was not only the largest of its kind in Tianning Country, but the entire Cloud Realm Continent. Many large cases that affected the economic situation of Cloud Realm Continent could be traced back to the Three-Way Black Market.
If not for the pressing circumstances, the imperial uncle's estate might not have chosen to sell their goods at Sky Domain Black Market. The Three-Way Black Market was a far better choice, being situated at the border, far away from the law. Moreover, the complicated relationships between the various factions of the black market made it difficult to uncover any evidence of shady deals there. However, the imperial uncle's time constraints forced him here instead, giving Long Feiye the perfect opportunity to investigate him.
Long Feiye and Han Yunxi reached Sky Domain Black Market at noon. It was a fortified stronghold located completely underground, with an entrance hidden in a barren hill. Both of them arrived wearing face masks that concealed their features entirely. As soon as they reached the barren hill, Long Feiye grasped Han Yunxi's hand tightly and refused to let go. They stopped before a dark, upright stele with no words on its surface. Although it was the middle of the day with the sun right overhead, the blank stone tablet was markedly cold and gloomy.
"This is the entrance," Long Feiye murmured. Han Yunxi had heard of this black market before, but never expected it to be so secretive. While she stared at the structure curiously, Long Feiye carelessly kicked it three times. Slowly, a pitch-black passageway opened up behind the stele, leading to a tunnel deep into the hill. Soon enough, an old man emerged from the darkness with a lantern in his hand.
"Kicking the door with your foot? Are you sick of living?" the old man reprimanded angrily, before slowly raising his head...
1. Sky Domain Black Market () - tianyu heishi, most likely the 'tian' is a reference to "Tianning."