“$2,000 for this chunk of shit?”
--Joliet' Jake Blues, ‘The Blues Brothers’
Chapter 248 – Shitty business
Lei Yan the Dancing Abacus was not particularly outstanding. He was not as handsome as Huang Ming or Nangong Xie, not as learned as He Ding, not as powerful as Zhang Ping nor diligent as He Ding. He could not even be the life of the party like Ma Jun or be fussed over by the ladies like Min Guang.
A few years ago he was part of Tianxin City’s Seven Stars: a coterie of rich young masters who dallied their time away indulging themselves with wine, poetry and other leisurely pursuits. He had expected to waste his youth away before taking over the family business; a boring and dreary future of bookkeeping and accounting. Thus he was more than willing to be part of the Seven Stars’ escapades.
Alas, the good times came to an abrupt end. The Seven Stars scattered, like meteors blazing their own paths in the sky. None shined brighter than Huang Ming who had etched his name into history and became their idol.
Ma Jun inherited his family business early while Zhang Ping was so enamoured by an Amazon that he followed her into the army. Min Guang, the youngest of them had disappeared without a word of parting, while He Ding and Lei Yan found themselves drafted to join Great General Huang’s administrative staff.
And what their former leader, Nangong Xie? Disappeared, but with much more sinister implications.
To see someone whom they had thought to be a bag of harmless fun to reveal himself as a traitorous sycophant quickly sobered their little group; and they lost their profligate ways. Each woke up to a new life of responsibility and maturity. Pen and paper were their only available interaction, mostly consisting of Huang Ming sending instructions and cryptic advice that seem to make no immediate sense, resulting in rude replies from the rest.
Lei Yan had always been a lazy sort, but he quickly threw himself into the work as the general’s quartermaster. He felt that he was actually doing something and contributing to the country, relishing the challenges of wheeling and dealing. There were times when he felt the work he was doing paled in comparison to Huang Ming’s achievements, but then again he did not need to risk his neck out like his friend. It was not a glamorous job, but certainly vital, as repeatedly emphasized by Huang Ming in their correspondence.
It was an easy job at first. The fort’s proximity to Tianxin city meant an ease in logistics. All he had to do was to ensure a steady stream of supplies to the fort to keep the men well fed and happy. He had even earned the moniker of Mr. Bookkeeper among the troops for his special deals on their behalf.
Then came the strange orders from Huang Ke: manure. A lot of it.
“Is this for some sort of agricultural venture?” he had timidly asked.
“Agriculture?” Huang Ming’s gigantic brother had repeated.
“Well… for the troops to raise their own crops?”
“Wha-… I mean, brilliant deduction, Mr. Bookkeeper. Yes, that is exactly what I had planned.”
Lei Yan must have a dubious look on his face, for Huang Ke hastened to add: “Father… I mean, the general has seen it fit to put me on latrine duty. He even had people make sure that I achieve a quota every month. Can you imagine me telling the troops to shit more often? Well, he didn’t say how it is going to be gathered, or what to do with it. Might as well put it to good use. So get as much as you can.”
Lei Yan was left scratching his head but dutifully obeyed, and so carts of nightsoil were sent to Tigertrap Fort. Fortunately there were some merchants who managed to suppress their laughter to help him out. A few intrepid surveyors even showed caves where hordes of bats dwell so as to harvest their nastiness.
Then there were more strange orders: specially built areas to process the collected waste.
“Well, er, you have seen how barren the valley is. Whatever topsoil available is going to need all the help it can get. And we need factories and workshops to build our own siege weapons,” Huang Ke had explained.
“This will be expensive…”
“This is all Huang Ming’s idea. Here, another letter from him for you,” Huang Ke said.
As before, Lei Yan remained skeptical after reading the letter. When did Huang Ming find the time to learn the intricacies of being a farmer? Some of the other things he wrote seemed ridiculous.
Ah, no matter, he was already catering to Miss Liu Yuchun’s orders of lumber, carpenters, artisans and so on; building these… ‘processing’ areas was trivial.
So he did what was required.
Then, problems. Suddenly funds from the capital began to get delayed for one bureaucratic reason or another. Around this time Huang Ming had been dispatched to Chu and so Lei Yan had no one ‘upstairs’ to seek for help.
The troops did not grumble as they were veterans who had followed the great general for many years, and they were truly loyal to the kingdom. Besides, the agriculture system was sufficient to keep the troops fed.
On the other hand, the artisans and workers he had hired for the construction and manufacturing work were more vocal.
In his darkest hour, he thickened his face to seek a loan which proved fruitless.
His friend He Ding was decidedly unhelpful.
“It’s not strange that they are reluctant to give you money. You did buy a ton of shit after all,” he had laughed in his face.
“Thanks,” Lei Yan growled.
“Don’t worry about it. We will think of something. Send them back if you need to, we can have the bored soldiers pick up the pieces,” He Ding said.
Lei Yan still felt like a failure. Thus he kept trying until a benefactor finally agreed to give him a loan.
“An interest-free loan?” Lei Yan was shocked, being familiar in the money-lending business himself.
The elderly man smiled kindly. “I am getting in on my years and I wish to give back something to the country. It will also help my son’s prospects in the future,” he had said.
Then Lei Yan understood: the man wanted a favour. Normally Lei Yan would balk, but then he remembered Huang Ming’s letters. The work he was part of was vital, and it was imperative that it should not be interrupted.
Lei Yan swallowed his doubts and offered the benefactor’s son a job. The young man was immensely delighted and grateful to be part of Great General Huang Zheng’s staff.
“Where is the great general? Will I get to meet him?” he asked excitedly.
“Of course you will. But for now, head that way and someone will make you useful,” Lei Yan said joyfully, even giving the young man a clap on the shoulder.
“You know this is a set-up, right?” He Ding asked conversationally as the fresh-faced young man went away.
“Of course. Didn’t you get the memo?” Lei Yan scoffed and waved Huang Ming’s letter.
“Just making sure that we are on the same page,” He Ding said dryly.
Lei Yan shrugged. “Hey, someone offered to give me money, I’ll take it. Doesn’t mean that I will actually do what they want me to do.”
“Looks like we are all corrupted by Huang Ming,” He Ding chuckled. “What do you plan to do with him?”
“Put him to work, of course.”
He Ding frowned. “No you didn’t,” he muttered when he realized the direction they were looking at.
“Oh yes I did.”
“You are absolutely terrible. You allowed the father to give you the money and now you’re sending the son to work with manure.”
“I am learning from our idol,” Lei Yan smirked.