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The premonitions of humans were mysteries within mysteries, and written word would find them difficult to describe. Right before, he had felt uneasy from head to toe, and the outcome of that validated his premonition at once — danger instantly approached, and, judging from the force at his neck, the other was about to make this the place he died!
Eyes widening, he saw that before him was a silhouette covered in white. Although they were within reach, he couldn’t even tell what they looked like, because they donned a white mask on their face.
Along with the sharp pain coursing through his neck, there was a sob-like, resentful voice resonating in his ears; intermittent, as if someone was calling for their soul, yet indistinct. Only words such as ‘wronged spirits’ and ‘divine fox’ could be vaguely heard.
He had read the books of sages since he was a child, and showed respect from a distance towards discussions of the supernatural. In this scenario, one phrase had to surface in his mind: a ghost in god’s clothing!
Regardless of whether the other was a real or a fake ghost, they had come prepared, and were massively strong. Tang Fan, though, had been caught off guard with the sudden ambush, and was rapidly cut off from his breathing.
In the span of a few brief breaths, his struggle bore no fruit, and he was instead trending towards rolling his eyes up into his head and passing out.
Then, at that very moment, the sound of a sword unsheathing cleaved through the empty air.
The pressure on his neck subsequently lightened. With one hand against the wall and one hand caressing the injured area that had just been strangled onto him, he couldn’t keep from violently coughing.
The white figure floated and swayed, beginning to fight head-on with a black figure.
Someone grabbed Tang Fan’s arm and hauled him up.
“You have quite an agile trap, Sir Tang, but why is your physical skill so terrible?”
Tang Fan lifted his eyes to take a closer look — hey, a familiar person!
It was none other than the Gonfalon of the Northern Bastion Office that he had met a few days ago in Rejuvenation Hall: Sui Zhou.
The man’s tone was exactly like his being, ice-cold and with no emotion, but Tang Fan could also catch a thread of ridicule in his frosty words. He had no choice but to force a smile.
The reason why Sui Zhou wouldn’t work with him wasn’t wholly because of this issue with the Marquis Estate.
The Brocade Guard had never regarded Shuntian Prefecture as very pleasing to the eye, and that segment of history had to be traced back to the Guard’s role.
To be brief, the grudge’s origin was a long time ago, and it was a really long story that was better not discussed. At present, Tang Fan coughed a good couple of times, not having the leisure to dispute with him. “Who is he?” he asked, voice hoarse. “Why did he attack me? And what did you show up here for, Sir Sui?”
“Just a leftover from the demon fox case. A group pretending to be spirits,” Sui Zhou answered coldly.
While they were talking, the white-clothed person had since been captured by a Guard under Sui Zhou’s command. Even their white mask had been seized, revealing the ordinary and frazzled face beneath it.
Now having the illumination of lanterns, Tang Fan noticed that on the mask was a pale lotus flower drawn between the brows.
“The White Lotus Society?” Taken aback, he combined that with what Sui Zhou had just said, and quickly came to a conclusion. “Was the demon fox case from two years ago actually connected to them?”
“You’ve seen the emblem of the Society before, as well?”
“Yes. I once passed through Qinzhou when I went to study abroad as a teen, and happened to run across authorities there arresting a White Lotus follower. The emblem on his body was exactly the same as the one on this mask. But why would this one attack me?”
Sui Zhou said nothing, but the Guard that was next to him holding the lantern did. “Ever since that case, the dregs of the sorcerer Li Zilong have haunted all over. Recently, they’ve been looking for intellectuals to act against in an attempt to spread rumors of rebellion via prophecy, following in Li Zilong’s footsteps. Last month, there was an exam-taker that fell off the roll and was in the middle of walking the streets at night after getting drunk, and these guys almost took his life. Perhaps it was you not wearing your official’s robes, Sir Tang, that thus turned you into their target of action. From now on, it’d be better for you not to come out this late.”
Tang Fan smiled at him. “Many thanks for telling— cough, cough, cough!”
Even if the period of his throat-wringing had been brief, his neck was currently scorching with pain on account of the excessive force the other used, making talking rather challenging.
Seeing that he was fine, Sui Zhou ordered his subordinates to carry the White Lotus follower, turned around, and made to leave.
Disregarding the ache of his throat, Tang Fan quickly called out for him to stop. “Hold on, Gonfalon Sui!”
Sui Zhou looked back indifferently. “What else is there, if you’re not going back to rest and recover, Sir Tang?”
“The homicide case of the Marquis Estate— collaboration will be a mutual benefit! Please think it over again, Gonfalon Sui!”
The other was still unmoved. “Where’s the benefit?”
Tang Fan coughed. “Your Office has Zheng Cheng’s body, and I know what’s ultimately going on with those pills he took before his death!”
Sui Zhou finally turned all the way around.
“The substances mixed inside the pills indeed have some inconsistencies with the prescription of yang-rich spring,” he went on, hoarse. “I found someone skilled to reconstruct the materials the pills were made of, and there’s something mighty off with that aspect. If you’re interested in cooperation, I’d be willing to tell you the facts of it.”
Sui Zhou stared at him for a short bit, then eventually said, “I’ll go look for you tomorrow.”
Now that there was hope for working together, Tang Fan finally let out a sigh of relief. “I’m on break tomorrow, you can just come to my house. It’s the first one in the northern sector, Dingfu Street, Liuye Lane.”
Sui Zhou nodded lightly, turned, and left. He really did cherish his words like gold, refusing to say even half a sentence of drivel.
Watching the few peoples’ retreating backs that were hidden within the dark, Tang Fan shook his head and felt his throat, smiling painfully as he thought, I’m not really sure that I’ll be able to talk tomorrow.
As if to confirm his worry, when he got up the next day, his throat was even more terribly sore than yesterday. Looking at his reflection in a bronze mirror, purple bruises from the grip could apparently be seen on his neck, and they hurt badly when pressed.
Due to his appointment with Sui Zhou, Tang Fan didn’t go out to buy ointment, merely cooking a bit of rice congee and eating it with some pickled vegetables his older sister had sent from his hometown. They were actually quite crisp, fresh, and tasty.
Back after he had become an official in the capital, he had leased this lone, small courtyard off of Dingfu Street. The residence had originally been owned by the neighboring Li family, which had a eunuch for one of its forebears, and he purchased the big house on Liuye Lane. Later on, though, there was reportedly one courtyard that a concubine of the Li household had previously hung herself in. Feeling it inauspicious, the owner had a wall built to cut off that courtyard and convert it into a small living space to be rented by itself. On account of it being a ‘murder house’, and not very spacious, the price was pretty cheap, hence why he rented it.
People said that getting residence in the capital was pretty hard. Dingfu Street was a good locale; most of those living there were high-ranking officials, so, naturally, its houses were more expensive. If it weren’t for those prior reasons, he likely wouldn’t have been able to afford rent.
In spite of them, he had been living here for over two years, and hadn’t ever come across anything bizarre. There was nothing beyond the interior lighting during the day not permeating through enough, giving it a somewhat sinister appearance. It became a ‘murder house’ through the propagation of lies, which ended up being to his advantage.
The current patriarch of the Li’s was presently doing trade in other parts of the country, but his family hadn’t gone with, and everyone from all age groups was still there. After two years, their relationship with Tang Fan was pretty good, too, and they had contact on occasion.
At the moment, Tang Fan was halfway done with eating when someone outside knocked.
Thinking it was Sui Zhou, he got up to open the door, only to see a young maid standing outside.
Once he started speaking, that hoarse, unpleasant-sounding voice that was no longer its everyday smoothness made the maid jump in fright. She then caught sight of the dark bruises on his neck, and couldn’t help but cry out in alarm. “Sir Tang, what’s happened to you?! Could it… could it be that something evil happened last night…?”
Her imagination was truly plentiful, going in the direction of the ‘murder house’ in short order. Tang Fan shook his head, waved it off, and asked her what was the matter.
Ah-Xia’s panic not yet settled, she shyly lifted up the basket she held. “The Mistress had me come bring you a couple fruits. This is a cultivar of our household, freshly picked.”
Tang Fan nodded and gave a smile, whispering in his raspy voice, “Thank your Mistress on my behalf…“
Because the talking pulled at his vocal chords, he had to knit his brows. Ah-Xia, having the tender emotions of a young maiden, typically held secret good feelings towards this handsome, neighboring Sir Tang, so she was acutely distressed upon seeing this. “If it is inconvenient for you to speak, then you don’t need to. You should rest,” she quickly said. “Sir Tang, if living in this house is uncomfortable, it would be best for me to report back to my Mistress. You can then withdraw your rent so that you can avoid being on edge all day, or becoming like… like this…”
The more she saw, the more she thought that the finger marks on his neck were truly dreadful.
“You’ve misunderstood. My injury has nothing to do with this place, I just ran into a mugger last night…”
Ah-Xia covered her mouth. “What sort of mugger would be so savage as to dare lay a hand on even an appointed official?!”
He shook his head, not wanting to discuss this more to her. “To sum, you shouldn’t say much about it after you go back, lest your Mistress and the rest misunderstand and panic for no reason. It isn’t — cough, cough — a big deal at all.”
At last, Ah-Xia gave him a bit of a look. Seeing as he had difficulty speaking, she didn’t disturb him anymore. Following her inquiry on whether he wanted dinner delivered and getting a negative answer, she then reluctantly took her leave.
However, as soon as she turned around, she saw that someone was standing behind her.
Terrified, she almost let out a shout.
How the Brocade Guard dressed themselves was known to everyone, particularly when the arrival was staring at her coldly. Ah-Xia, a little lady that had nearly been scared into having her knees go soft, lowered her head and hurriedly left without further objection.
Tang Fan smiled lightly, making an inviting gesture.
Sui Zhou stepped inside.
“If you actually do have any clues at hand, Sir Tang, you may as well say them straight. If they’re valuable, arrangements for collaboration could naturally be considered.” Sui Zhou sat down on the stone bench in the yard, getting straight to the point without exchanging any pleasantries.
Tang Fan carried in the basket of fresh fruit Ah-Xia had left behind and placed it to the side. Its interior was filled with gleaming yellow pears. If they were put together with crystal sugar and slowly stewed, they could assuage heat and lubricate the throat, which happened to be suitable for his present condition.
“I’m unsure of what explanation those three from Rejuvenation Hall had given, after they were brought to your Office?” Tang Fan’s voice was rough, and he spoke with a pause between each word, making his rate of speech slow.
Sui Zhou hid nothing, either. “Following the examination process, they were discovered to authentically have nothing to do with this. They’ve already been released now.”
Tang Fan took out a piece of paper from his lapels and set it on the stone table. “Over these days, I’ve flipped through ancient texts in search of the yang-rich spring Zheng Cheng took prior to death, and finally found the source of the prescription.”
Sui Zhou picked up the paper, then saw that there were two rows of medical materials dictated on its surface, with a lot of repetition. Not understanding what it meant, he looked up at Tang Fan.
“The row on top is the prescription for it,” the other explained. “It’s exactly the same as Zheng Cheng’s boyservant said it was. As for the row below, I got someone to analyze the materials inside the pill one by one. Can you tell what the difference is between both sides, Sir Gonfalon?”
Sui Zhou recalled what Tang Fan had previously said. Even though there was no written prescription, there were many brilliant medics in the world that could rely solely on the smell, taste, and other such indicators of the pill itself to trace its source substances and reconstruct what their original forms were. He took a closer look, then found that there was one more ingredient in the row below than the one above.
The translator says: A society full of white lotuses. Terrible.