Book 6 Chapter 23: The first kiln

 Wan Li lay in bed with his eyes shut, his limbs extended comfortably. He seemed relaxed, but his entire body was tensed up, including his heart and mind.

  He didn’t know whether he should admire or hate Si Ma Nan.

  He had thought his own tactics to be extremely effective. Wasn’t Si Ma Nan going to send various assassins after him? He would remain out in the open. Anyone who tried something would have to do so under the eyes of the public. Because Si Ma Nan didn’t currently have the capability to carry out an assassination in secret, this was the most effective form of defense.

  However, Si Ma Nan was crafty as expected. He actually made a personal appearance, moving in right next door. It was like a blade against his back, keeping him on edge yet helpless.

  Si Ma Nan’s current identity was that of an upright merchant who came to Hongqing Town to seek opportunities in porcelain business. His appearance immediately overshadowed Wan Li’s publicity. After all, actual business was much better than the advertising Wan Li had promised. Therefore, not only did Wan Li feel there was a knife above his head poised to drop, his plan to gather intel had also been ruined. The townsfolk had all turned their attention towards Si Ma Nan. Who would still waste time with Wan Li? That guy was not only a billionaire, he even had a capable and beautiful daughter. Wan Li’s attractiveness immediately dropped to zero.

  Furthermore, it would be one thing if Si Ma Nan directly made a move against him, but he didn’t. He just kept an eye on him. This made him feel frustrated, not knowing where to direct his pent up energy. He knew Si Ma Nan was trying to wear him down, and felt that his habit of overcomplicating simple things was kind of psychologically perverse. Moreover, he also knew things were definitely not so simple. Si Ma Nan must have other reasons for his actions.

  He wanted him to make a choice. If he was afraid, secretly leaving after being unable to endure the pressure, Si Ma Nan wouldn’t stop him. If he insisted on helping Ruan Zhan, then he wouldn’t stand on ceremony either!

  Therefore, before it came time to reveal the cards, Wan Li wasn’t afraid of his own safety. He had concluded Si Ma Nan wouldn’t touch him for now. The reason was that his death would enrage Ruan Zhan, unleashing his potential. That wasn’t something Si Ma Nan wanted to see. Actually, he also felt Si Ma Nan was a little afraid of Ruan Zhan. He definitely didn’t want to go all out against him.

  If Wan Li died, Ruan Zhan would lose an important helper. If he didn’t, he was a good piece of bait in Si Ma Nan’s eyes. Therefore, he merely observed him. He would fatten him up, and wait for the moment to be ripe before slaughtering him!

  Si Ma Nan was always someone who used whatever he could, and would furthermore use it to the utmost, getting the greatest value out of everything! He was a hunter looking at his prey. He would surround it without killing!

  What should Wan Li do? Time was pressing. He had to quickly figure out the truth of the matter while preserving his little life. Of course, he also had to do his best to avoid letting Si Ma Nan figure out what he was up to!

  After the last two days of “exchanges and interviews”, he wasn’t completely without results. First, he confirmed that a major case had indeed happened in Hongqing Town before in one of its subsidiary villages. However, which village it was and what had happened was something the elders in town were unwilling to speak about, so he hadn’t figured it out yet. Yet based on his calculations with what he knew, he figured the matter definitely happened ten years ago.

  Thus, he used this timeframe to investigate the public records and found out that the town leaders, including the mayor and those missing officials, had all been in power already ten years ago.

  Thirdly, of the missing people, apart from those related to the officials and the mayor, the other young people were descendants of those holding various positions in town back then. Even the beautiful reporter from the provincial capital Liu Hong and the cameraman Zuo De were included. This was interesting. There truly was a thread that connected everyone trapped inside the empty city. Now he just had to find where the thread started and pull out the buried matter of ten years ago.

  Those who came to him looking to get some free advertising in his news report were mostly the upper-middleclass people of Hongqing Town. Perhaps he should go talk to the lower-class and commoners. Although when he occasionally tried it previously, he noticed the people were more fearful and unwilling to speak. However, this line of questioning might end up being the correct one.

  Finally, the innkeeper was a little weird. He seemed to be watching him, and had also said many strange things. The innkeeper told him that he didn’t look to be someone wealthy, and it wasn’t economical to stay in the inn long term if his job didn’t cover the expense. He might as well live in a bed and breakfast. According to reason, there wasn’t any innkeeper who would say something like. This person was either especially kind, or something was going on but he didn’t dare say it openly.

  He had tried to probe deeper, but the innkeeper was airtight. He didn’t reveal anything at all, and merely said the residences on the west side were rather convenient and he should check it out.

  Also, he wasn’t able to get any information about the person hidden behind the whole affair, that fengshui master surnamed Long. That person seemed to be a deity-like existence to the townsfolk. Wan Li felt it had to be related to the resentful spirits.

  He lay in bed for a long time. On the surface he seemed to be napping, but he was considering his next move. In the end, he decided to use a diversionary tactic.

  Si Ma Nan wanted to watch him? Well, he would let that old fox watch him. During the day, he would wander randomly around the town. Then, he would find an opportunity to use the invisibility talisman and shake off the people following him. That way he could act freely before returning to sleep next door to his enemy. From what he knew, Si Ma Nan was temperamental and those around him all feared him. Therefore, he just needed to make those following him lose track of him for a little while before allowing them to find him before he returned at night. He believed those people definitely wouldn’t dare report they had lost track of him for some time in the middle. Those lackeys were just trying to make a living, and weren’t loyal like he and Ruan Zhan.

  He was unable to shrink the bloodwood sword. It wasn’t convenient to carry around but he also didn’t feel at ease hiding it somewhere. Therefore, he ended up using Xiao Xia’s method. He bought a fishing pole and put the sword into its container, as well as the talismans Ruan Zhan left behind. He carried it around every day. Furthermore, he also prepared some ordinary weapons for self defense. That way, no matter if humans or ghosts attacked, he wouldn’t have to fear unless Si Ma Nan sent some boss-level people.

  With his plan decided, Wan Li started to act that afternoon. He first entered the busiest market in town before using the invisibility talisman in the bathroom. While the people following him waited there foolishly, he had already ran into town to gather intel. Of course, those “pitiful” people would see the bathroom door open for a moment but no one would come out.

  He felt the innkeeper was giving him some hints and decided to head strait to the west side of town.

  When a place developed, whether it was a large city, a town or a village, it wouldn’t develop very equally. There would be wealthier places and also poorer places. Although Hongqing Town was the province’s most wealthy town, the majority on the west side lived ordinary and not so wealthy lives, people without money or influence. Since most of them didn’t have their own business, or had only small ones if they did, the houses were relatively more worn down.  Since the town’s funding went into constructing the new town, the old town had already become more dilapidated. The west side was even more so. The dirt path was narrow and uneven. The houses on either side were short and flat.

  After several conversations, Wan Li discovered the inhabitants here looked forward to moving to the new town more than people in other places. This was because their standards of living would clearly improve. Therefore, their respect towards the town leaders also contained some gratitude. To avoid startling snakes by beating the bush, Wan Li didn’t dare ask direct questions. This made gathering intel even more difficult.

  As he was at his wits end, Wan Li suddenly recalled that on his first day here, the madwoman Lady Feng he encountered who lost her son lived here. He had promised to help treat her, but hadn’t been able to find the time to visit.  Since he had come, he decided to stop by. From what he saw, the people who lived around Lady Feng were all very kindhearted. If he could run into the chatty and direct middle-aged woman, that would be best. Perhaps there might be some serendipity.

  He took out his notebook and looked at the address. Confirming that he wasn’t being followed, he headed towards Lady Feng’s house.

  Although the houses here were worn down, they were still individual homes with their own gardens. They weren’t as crowded as those in the city. Lady Feng’s house was at the end of a small alley. It was extremely narrow, with only space for two people to pass at once. Because there were no streetlamps, it would probably become very dark at night.

  Luckily, the person responsible for taking care of Lady Feng today happened to be that middle-aged woman he encountered last time.

  “I truly have some fate with the mister from outside the province!” She was very happy, hurriedly inviting Wan Li into the courtyard.

  The moment he entered, Wan Li saw Lady Feng sitting on a small stool in the shade, keeping herself busy. The elderly woman wasn’t as agitated this time. Instead, she was calm and serene, her clothes and hair both neat and tidy. She was like a mother waiting for her child to get off work and return home. She did some busywork while glancing up towards the doors every now and then.

  She saw Wan Li the moment he entered. A warm, timid smile appeared on her face. She clearly remembered Wan Li. This indicated her mind wasn’t confused and her memory was very good. The possibility of being treated became more likely. He was evaluating things from a medical perspective. He walked forwards a few steps, wanting to see what the elder was wiping down in her hands.

  It was porcelain.

  Under the large, clean towel, the elder meticulously and gently wiped a piece of porcelain. A wooden box with a lid was next to her. Once she was done wiping a piece, she would carefully place it into the box before taking out another. Then, she carefully put the lid in place.

  Were they antiques?

  Wan Li knelt down as he pondered, allowing the elder’s gaze to linger on his face. “Lady Feng, may I take a look at your treasures?” He asked.

  The elder looked up at Wan Li. She didn’t speak, but gave a permissive smile.

  Wan Li gently opened the box. Although it was large, there were only four pieces of porcelain inside. A pair of vases, a bowl and a plate. These pieces startled Wan Li slightly. Although he knew Hongqing Town was famous for its porcelain and that top-quality porcelain was rather expensive, the four pieces still surprised him with their beauty.

  There were no gaudy colors or patterns. They were white like snow, with some flowing designs on the outside that felt rhythmic to the touch. The material was extremely thin, with faint red flowers spread evenly across the white, as if they were seeping out gently from the inside. The entire thing looked exquisite. Although Wan Li didn’t understand porcelain, even he knew these things were premium goods.

  “These things are Lady Feng’s treasures. She never lets anyone get close to them, let alone touch them. Since she was willing to let you pick them up for a look, mister must be a good person. Lady Feng must also understand this!” The middle-aged woman said in astonishment on the side.

  “These porcelain pieces are truly beautiful. Are they antiques?” Wan Li looked at Lady Feng but was actually asking the middle-aged woman.

  “No, they just came from the first kiln.”

  “The first kiln?” Wan Li was a little confused.

  “Oh, you’re from outside the province so you don’t know about it.” 

  The middle-aged woman explained patiently. “In the past, there was almost no one in our town who knew how to make porcelain. Even those who knew only made bricks or some crude pieces of rough porcelain to be sold inside the town. But Mayor Yuan, who was still the vice-mayor back then, spent a large sum to invite a an elder who inherited the art to teach this precious technique. The brick kiln production site of the past was transformed into the kiln facility today.”

  “How long ago did this happen?”

  “Probably around ten years…no, it’s been eleven years now.” The middle-aged woman said. “Our town was so poor in the past. Many who wanted to raise their families could only go find work outside the county. After the porcelain plant was built, a large group of workers were hired. The money was then used to build several others factories and everyone could make a living. There was no more need to leave their hometown. If that factory could have opened sooner, Feng Yongzi wouldn’t have to leave his old ma and marry into someone else’s household. He also wouldn’t…ai, the heavens decide our fate!”

  “After saying all that, is the first kiln referring to the first factory that was opened?”

  “No, our town only has one public production facility. The others are privately owned by the “capable people” of the town.” The middle-aged woman sniffed, looking a little disdainful. “Those smaller facilities aren’t able to produce quality goods at all. They merely trick those who don’t understand these things based on the town’s reputation. True connoisseurs won’t buy their things. I heard some major reporter from a large city came a few days ago. Those people all ran off to fawn over him, trying to get some free publicity. Our family is honest and unwilling to open a private kiln to trick people. Otherwise, we could also be a little better off. But my days are more honest. Not making such unconscionable profit makes the heart feel more at ease…”

  Wan Li didn’t dare admit that the so-called “reporter” was himself. He just laughed along. This woman was kind and upright, but she could talk without end. She could turn one sentence into many, and stray further and further from the topic without ever addressing the question. He could only wait for her to catch her breath before interrupting her.

  “So the “first kiln” refers to the only kiln facility?” He patiently asked again.

  The middle-aged woman froze for a moment, having clearly forgotten his initial question. “No. Mister, you still haven’t understood. The first kiln refers to the first batch of porcelain pieces produced when the facility was first opened.”

  “So that’s what it was. Truly exquisite!” Wan Li praised, looking at the white porcelain again.

  “Actually, the first batch was mostly bricks.” The middle-aged woman said smugly, as if this was a secret. “After Mayor Yuan learned the secret technique of the kiln, he personally tested things out in the facility for two weeks without coming out. To be on the safe side, the first batch was mostly brick with very few pieces of actual porcelain. However, there seemed to be some quality concerns with that batch. For the sake of keeping a good reputation, the mayor ordered them all smashed. Truly a shame. However, and this is just between us…” She suddenly leaned in closer and lowered her voice. “Some unknown person felt it was a waste and stole a few pieces to sell.”

  “Who was it sold to?” Wan Li hurriedly asked. Something flashed in his mind. He seemed to have grasped something uncertain.

  “How am I supposed to know. I only heard some rumors.” The middle-aged woman froze for a moment. “I also don’t know how Lady Feng ended up with these treasures, and four of them at that. Now these things are truly valuable. If she were to sell them, Lady Feng could hire a servant to serve her. My husband was one of the facility’s first batch of workers. He had examined these ones previously and confirmed them to be truly of the first kiln. Ai, Lady Feng is so old. If she hadn’t met us kind people, these four pieces would probably have been swindled away.”

  “You just said your husband was in the first batch of hired workers. Was he present when the first batch of porcelain came out?” Wan Li continued to probe.

  “Didn’t I just mention earlier? The mayor personally led people in producing the first kiln. Although the majority was bricks, and the small amount of porcelain was smashed, it was still a successful trial. Only then did they hire workers, and that was when my husband started working. I hear that it’s also for the sake of secrecy. Although the necessary clay can only be found here, the technique being leaked would also harm our business. The workers all do one part of the process. No one knows the complete formula!”

  Wan Li wasn’t interested in the factory’s matters. He just cared about the first kiln’s situation, and directly asked. “Then who were present when the mayor conducted the experiments in the kiln facility?”

  “Who were present?” The middle-aged woman glanced at Wan Li. Although he looked intelligent, she felt his mind was truly a little slow. “Of course it’s those officials. Would we commoners know anything about that formula? It was the mayor and his subordinates who conducted the experiments without coming out for two weeks!”

  “How responsible.” Wan Li’s mind turned. “Madam probably isn’t aware of who they were in detail, right?”

  “Everyone in the town knows that. Those are the gods of wealth who brought benefits to everyone, you know!” The middle-aged woman cried out in either praise or curse, and then rattled off several names.

  Every name made Wan Li’s heart seize up. They were all either trapped in the new town, or were one of their relatives. There was also an official surnamed Sun who had passed away soon after coming out of the facility that wasn’t on his list. However, he recalled that the innkeeper happened to be surnamed Sun.

  Coincidence? Or was there truly a problem?

  “Probably because they contributed too much merit in finding a source of livelihood for our town, but those people were all promoted to officials later!” The middle-aged woman concluded.

  “What about those bricks? Were they also smashed?”

  “No, those were left behind for commemoration. They were piled up next to the clay pits by the kiln previously, and were then used in constructing the new town.”

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