[If you’re not reading this on chichilations, then you’re reading a stolen copy. Reposts are not allowed anywhere or for any reason!
Links for mobile viewers: Ko-fi Donation — Chichi’s Twitter — Project Index — Digital Version Library
I see all your likes and comments~ Thanks in advance~]
Tang Fan felt a chill in his heart. His counterpart was merely a trueseventh-rank Gonfalon, but the way he spoke was so grand, there had to be some backing behind him. He quit joking and spoke frankly. “Many thanks for your kind thoughts, Gonfalon Sui, but Sir Pan has shown me the grace of knowing my worth. I can never show ingratitude to that.”
Facing his detached demeanor, Tang Fan was unconcerned, cupping his hands. “If you have free time some other day, I’ll invite you for a drink. I’ll be going first, then.”
Sui Zhou stood up. “Take care, Sir Tang. Forgive me for not seeing you off farther down the road.”
Yet, at that moment, a Brocade Guard came rushing in. “Brother!”
Tang Fan recognized him as one of the ones that had been following Sui Zhou that day in the apothecary. His name was Xue Ling, and he had a tanned complexion with intrepid features.
“What is it?” Sui Zhou asked.
Xue Ling shot a look at Tang Fan.
Right as Tang Fan was thinking to keep away, Sui Zhou instead said, “If it’s related to the homicide case of the Marquis Estate, there’s no harm in saying it.”
“Someone came from the Eastern Depot and took Zheng Cheng’s body away!” Xue Ling exclaimed.
Tang Fan gave a look of surprise.
Sui Zhou’s expression darkened. “What happened?”
Xue Ling smiled bitterly. “Just now, a Depot person came, saying that he had orders from his Director, and that in order to crack the case as soon as possible, they had to borrow Zheng Cheng’s body for the investigation.”
The Eastern Depot’s Director was its boss. The one now occupying that seat was Shang Ming, who had never gotten along with the Western Depot’s Wang Zhi.
Once a eunuch had power, three-chi-tall waves would arise even without wind blowing, to say nothing of having the homicide case to now possibly use as a pretext. Since Wang Zhi had meddled in this, Shang Ming naturally refused to be outdone; for the sake of fighting for the Emperor’s favor, they were both going all-out.
Sui Zhou laughed frostily after hearing this. “He’s just holding a chicken feather like it’s a token of command!”
It wasn’t clear whether he was cursing the one that had come from the Eastern Depot, or cursing his Director, Shang Ming.
Tang Fan gently sighed. As Zheng Cheng’s body wasn’t there, there was no need for him to go visit Sui Zhou tomorrow. The case would likely need a breakthrough via the person that bought the thorowax.
“Gonfalon Sui, I’m stepping out. I’ll later have Shuntian Prefecture send folks to go research the buyer. If you find him on your end first, do pardon my request to inform me.”
Sui Zhou gave a faint nod. “Take care.”
Tang Fan returned home, then realized that he had been on the go for most the day today. Apart from that half-bowl of white congee in the morning, practically not even a drop of water had gone into him since. Now that he wasn’t busy, his stomach immediately grumbled, though he didn’t feel like cooking. After foraging in the kitchen for a long time to find nothing edible, he had to wash a pear from the basket Ah-Xia had delivered that morning out of a lack of choice, then held it up to nibble on.
Cool and sweet pear juice entered his formerly parched and aching throat, promptly making it a lot more comfortable. After he was done eating, he took out the bottle of ointment Sui Zhou had given him and delicately smeared it on the bruises on his neck.
When it had just been applied, a knock sounded from outside the door.
As soon as he walked over and opened it, he first smelled an enticing aroma, closely after which he saw a girl carrying a food box.
“I’ve come to bother you again, Sir Tang. Our household made some noodles to eat today. My Mistress heard that you had just gotten back, so she figured that you were busy with government work and didn’t have time to eat. For that, she had me bring a bowl of wontons over. Eat them while they’re hot, Sir!”
The two homes were separated by only one wall, so any sounds of movement that were a bit on the louder side could all be heard clearly. The Li’s predecessors used to be officials, but this generation only had ordinary merchants; all the more unremarkable in the capital, where officials were all over the place. Usually, the Li patriarch was away from home; a family of the old, the weak, the women, and the children meeting with authorities and bailiffs was inevitably lacking in power. Due to Tang Fan having aided them several times previously, appreciation was kept in their hearts. They knew that he wasn’t yet married (and thus definitely negligent towards cooking), so, from time to time, the maid Ah-Xia would be sent to bring him a bite to eat. Little by little, the two homes’ relations grew to be pretty good.
He accepted the box. “Old Wang’s cooking skills have never been anything to talk about, but it’s really no good to be a bother to all of you all the time. Please go tell Madam Li that she doesn’t have to inconvenience herself like this from now on.”
Ah-Xia pursed her lips in a smile. “What are you saying, Sir Tang? You’ve helped our family so much. We’re only bringing a bit of food over, how does that even expend any effort? You don’t need to be polite. Eat it while it’s hot! Just have Xiao Huzi come take the container back later!”
The two exchanged a couple more pleasantries, then she said goodbye and left. He carried the box into the house, opened the lid, brought out the bowl of savory shallot-pork wontons inside it, then took a copy of Bodhisattva Barbarians off his shelf.
This book was not a compilation of Song Dynasty poetry, but a vernacular novel written by an unknown author of this Dynasty. Written in the story was a County Honorate who was staying as a guest at a County Prince’s Estate, then was slandered by an affair with a maid, getting unjustly killed by the Prince. Following his death, he transformed into a ghost, and thought up a way to allay his grievances; exposing the Prince’s plans for rebellion before royalty. In the end, the Prince suffered for his evil by getting beheaded by the Court, and the Honorate went on to the underworld to take up an official’s post in it.
No one could have ever imagined that Sir Tang, who had entered Hanlin from his fourth-place rank in the exams and received praise from the Emperor himself, was fond of reading these all-in-one melodramatic novels of romance, suspense, the supernatural, and immortality.
Fair, slender fingers turning to the page he was at last time, he lowered his head to take a small sip of the warm soup, and sighed in happiness.
With a life like this, what else could one want?
Early the next morning, Pan Bin called Tang Fan over and inquired about how the case was going.
Tang Fan spoke succinctly about the progress and discoveries, and also about the event of the Eastern Depot taking Zheng Cheng’s corpse away.
Pan Bin, surprisingly, appeared to be ecstatic. “The Eastern Depot interfering makes the case even more complicated!”
The man also seemed to realize that his excessive joy was somewhat inappropriate. He promptly gave a light cough to gloss it over. “Shuntian Prefecture doesn’t need to wade too deep into this. The Eastern Depot sticking its hand in is something the Western one certainly won’t let go.”
To simply look at it from another perspective, he was like this precisely because he considered Tang Fan to be someone on his side. It undoubtedly wouldn’t have been this easy for him to lose his manners with his many years of experience in officialdom, otherwise.
Tang Fan nodded, sighing. “This humble official thinks so, as well. The Eastern and Western Depots can never work together, and on top of that, the former snatched him from the Brocade Guard, so they’re surely unhappy. There’s a horde of talented people in the Dynasty, but everyone refuses to give way to each other, instead making it impossible to do anything. Even investigating one case is challenging!”
“There’s nothing bad about that. Thanks to that idea of yours, all Shuntian Prefecture needs to do now is watch the flames burn from across the river. If a conclusion ultimately can’t be found, then punishment won’t apply to a crowd, and it wouldn’t be good for His Majesty to look into Shuntian’s blame alone for that. It’s best like this.”
Tang Fan supposed that his senior had probably reached some sort of agreement with Marquis Wu’an in private, and couldn’t resist tactfully warning him. “Sir, that maid Ah-Lin… even if she tempted Zheng Cheng in deliberate bad conscience, it’s not a crime worthy of death.”
Ah-Lin was currently still locked in the Prefecture’s jail. Marquis Wu’an was fixated on his son’s death; he didn’t want to face the possibility of assassination, but stubbornly believed that she was the one that caused him harm. Tang Fan feared that the matter would end being left up in the air, and she would then be directly handed over by Pan Bin for the Marquis to vent his anger on.
Even though many factions were currently meddling in the case, it was just a power struggle, in the end. Who would be concerned with the fate of an insignificant maid?
Pan Bin grew stern, annoyed. “Why are you this inflexible, Runqing? Don’t forget what your status is, and what her status is. Is it worth it, to risk your future prospects for one maid?”
“Brother, I’m not purposefully trying to make things hard for you. This is honestly an issue of the sanctity of human life. If I can’t discover the truth, my conscience will be difficult to appease!” Tang Fan replied in earnest.
Pan Bin sighed. “Runqing, ah, Runqing… do you think I’m hard-hearted? I remember that back when I first entered officialdom, I was full of zest just like you, thinking that I would make reports to superiors, and then the Dynasty would defend the commonfolk. But the ways of this world are unfair! The Eastern Depot, Western Depot, Brocade Guard, and all those above our heads — which one of them can we afford to provoke? Whether that maid ultimately dies or not is up to what His Majesty sees as fit. It’s not like we’re carrying the killing blade, so you mustn’t care so much. To be able to look after your own skin nowadays is already pretty good.”
He paused, then lowered his voice. “I may as well give you some words that come from the heart. Disregard the villains in Court currently causing a disorderly mess, the Cabinet accomplishing and doing nothing, and the Western Depot’s tyrannical rule. In truth, they’ve all analyzed His Majesty’s thoughts, and he is content to see a situation like this. If Court officials, from top to bottom, are of one mind, and they act against him, how would that, in his view, do him any good? You’re still young, and don’t understand these stakes. Being an official is being an official, but we’re still the Son of Heaven’s officials, and we have to figure out his mind before we act in all we do. For this case, the Eastern Depot is good, the Western Depot is fine, and even the Guard is more deserving of mention than us. Just let them all go get their own headaches. You can take part, but don’t scramble to go do everything; when the time comes, your credit will be taken by others, while the mistakes will all be yours, and who could you go to to right that wrong? I, your Brother, am low in status, powerless in words, and weak in mind, so I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to help you!”
There was no expression on Tang Fan’s face. He simply nodded, voice tranquil. “This Runqing has memorized your heartfelt words entirely.”
Having spoken a huge heap of stuff in his earnest advising, Pan Bin paused, feeling that his mouth was dry. He grabbed a lidded tea cup, took a big gulp, then smiled. “This isn’t without any sort of gain, really. Since that Gonfalon Guard called Sui Zhou has a decent impression of you, you should hold onto that. Do a lot of stunts to get close to him, and you might get a powerful position in the future. Are you aware of where he comes from?”
Seeing Tang Fan shake his head to say he didn’t, he went on. “He’s Empress Dowager Zhou’s grandnephew. His mother is a niece from outside the Dowager’s maternal family. There was also once a paternal grand-uncle in his clan that had been appointed as Minister of War, then entered the Cabinet during Zhengtong’s reign. Unfortunately, he later died in the Tumu Stronghold Crisis.”
Tang Fan had a realization. “Sui Anlan?”
Pan Bin nodded. “Due to that layer of connection, he’s someone who can get a word in both inside and outside of Court, unlike ordinary Guards. I heard that even Wan Tong has to have some degree of friendliness when in his presence.”
Wan Tong was the presently-posted Conducting Envoy of the Guard. In other words, the group’s boss.
He was the younger brother of Consort Wan, who now ruled the imperial harem like a hegemon. She was a full seventeen years older than the Emperor, but he was outrageously doting on her, practically listening to her every word. Even Crown Prince Zhu Youcheng’s position teetered on the verge of collapse, almost not guaranteed.
With this fantastical romance serving as his supporter, Wan Tong was naturally made to feel like a fish in water, immersed two-fold.
However, the wife would never be the same as the mother. Since Sui Zhou had a connection to the Dowager, if he had a bit of skill and the want to get ahead, he would just need to point at the date he wanted it and wait.
Tang Fan had noticed that despite Sui Zhou’s aloof bearing, he was rather capable at his work. He hadn’t thought that he would also have such a strong matron. Clearly, there were hidden dragons and crouching tigers everywhere in this city, and one had to have more caution in their behavior and actions. Had Tang Fan ever wielded his half-a-rank-higher position to try ordering Sui Zhou around, he might have been beset right now.
Yet, in regards to his senior’s words, Tang Fan was genuinely a bit speechless. He really wanted to say, Sir, are you aware that everyone looks down on our Prefecture? This road of trying to build connections and climb higher won’t lead anywhere.
However, he ended up not saying anything, merely standing with his hands tucked in his sleeves, smiling as he listened attentively, and nodding to express his agreement from time to time. His attitude of being eager to learn made Pan Bin very pleased.
The man loquaciously explained stuff to him another round. Tang Fan heard a continuous droning sound in his ears, and when he stood up, even his footsteps were a little on-air. Right when he was about to take his leave, he saw the Shuntian bailiff Old Wang dash in from outside.
“Sir, it’s bad! Something happened!”
Pan Bin loathed hearing words like that the most, and his brows scrunched up tight. “What’s bad? What happened? Can’t you say anything nice to hear?!”
Old Wang betrayed a bit of hidden excitement, but he still didn’t dare to display it too plainly, which resulted in his whole face looking warped and very grotesque. “No, Sir, we didn’t have anything happen at our Prefecture. It’s the Eastern Depot! The Depot caught fire!”
“What! What’s going on?! Explain, quickly!”
“Just before the sky got bright today, the Depot reportedly caught fire. The intensity of the flames was quite strong, and burned more than half the place down. I don’t know how it happened. They’re all still fighting the fire right now!”
Tang Fan’s heart jumped. “Do you know where corpses are placed in the Depot?”
Old Wang shook his head mutely, unsure of why he suddenly asked something like that.
Pan Bin asked him a few more questions. Upon seeing that Old Wang knew no other details, he waved his hand for him to leave.
“Runqing, how do you see this?”
“Just yesterday, Zheng Cheng’s body had been taken away by the Eastern Depot. Today, it’s on fire. That’s really too big of a coincidence. There’s definitely an issue somewhere, but the particulars need to be thoroughly scoped out before a final argument can be made.”
Pan Bin knocked on the table, nodding. “The water in this is very deep. Seems like the Depot isn’t a sound iron plate, either. When one walks the road too much at night, won’t they encounter ghosts?”
The way he spoke with schadenfreude, as well as the desire to make the commotion he was watching even worse, made Tang Fan quite a bit flabbergasted.
I know you don’t want this case to be cracked, Brother, but you don’t need to be so obvious about it!