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Ever since the establishment of the Eastern Depot, it had been met with quite a few fires. The one from this time wasn’t as extreme as Old Wang had described; there was only one blaze, which hadn’t spread, in the western area, and that got speedily put out. The cause was purported to be some citizens burning something nearby, and the sparks had drifted into landing over there, causing the wood to ignite. If the continuous rain from a few days prior had been happening right now instead, it might not have caught.
Asking around, Tang Fan found out that the burned part was indeed a holding area the Depot used to keep prisoners, and also happened to be where Zheng Cheng’s body was stored. Two prisoners died in the flames, with even the corpse getting turned to ash.
As things had come to this, any further supposition would be of no use — the one with the unfathomable motives was shooting for exactly that idea, in all likelihood. Tang Fan sighed inwardly, thinking to himself that this had gone round and round, yet had unexpectedly ended up just returning to square one. That maid, Ah-Lin, probably wouldn’t be able to escape calamity this time around.
He had his heart set on this case, and wanted to discover the truth. It wasn’t for the thought to stand in the limelight, nor to work against Pan Bin, but for a simple desire to console the deceased in the Nine Springs, and to save the innocent from blame. He had studied painstakingly by cold windows; was that not to be able to defend the common folk one day? Now that the Court was corrupt in discipline, many people would rather place their energy into fighting and scheming, refusing to do anything practical for the sake of the citizenry. Just like Pan Bin’s type of being neither good nor evil, even more officials that would look after themselves before principles could be found all over the place.
Yet, even at that state, there would always be someone that wanted to act. Since everyone else refused to do so, Tang Fan thus didn’t take any offense to taking over.
Being capable of giving Pan Bin the plan to pull the Eastern Depot and Brocade Guard entirely down into their water fully demonstrated that Tang Fan’s methods weren’t lacking in slyness. Even so, a nobleman was flexible on the outside, but rigid on the inside; he only wished to use that cleverness for proper business.
However, he wholly hadn’t anticipated that this incident would be so difficult to advance. The originally very uncomplicated case had quickly met with obstruction after obstruction, and now even the body was gone, which explicit cut off all ways back.
Only now did he learn why that despite his teacher Qiu Jun having entered his post many years earlier than Pan Bin, and also being a great scholar of the present age, he was merely an Imperial College Chancellor.
With the way the world worked, stubbornly benevolent sorts that refused to compromise like his teacher were bound to not be put into positions of power.
As for himself… did he have to walk down his teacher’s old path, too?
He shook his head. His cool-headed, meticulous disposition causing him to rapidly disengage his emotions from the loss of the Marquis Estate’s case, he pulled out the bottommost one in a pile of dossiers and flipped through it.
That homicide case had admittedly been major, but with how big Shuntian Prefecture was, there was never a shortage of cases, and the controversial, unresolved ones in particular had accumulated over the years into a heap even bigger than a mountain. As a Judge of the Prefecture, the substance of his job was not any more breezy than anyone else’s; this was not his non-essential civil post in Hanlin, where documents would be arranged and compiled just to kill time.
Even though a Judge’s position was minor, he was still someone in charge of judging cases and lawsuits in the Prefecture — a duty that could not be rashly neglected.
He read slowly, pausing between each word as he finely mulled and pondered things. At times, he would take his brush and jot notes at the side, or occasionally flip through files from last year. Once he finished the meal a bailiff had brought at noon, he threw himself back into work, unwittingly passing most of the day like so.
The sun had already begun to slant to the West before Tang Fan finally felt some soreness in his eyes.
He raised his head, glanced at the sky outside, then looked at the dossiers he had finished reading on the other side of the table, happily discovering that he had accomplished a lot today. Thus, he stood up, stretched his muscles, and packed up his stuff in preparation to go home.
He had been at the Prefecture for a little over half a year. Given that there were no mishaps, this was his typical day’s work.
Now that his job had come to an end, it would fit most for him to go eat a bowl of shallot wontons, or mincepork noodles.
From only one slight thought of the proprietor’s craftsmanship in that north-district wonton-noodle stall, Mister Tang felt his stomach rumble in hunger.
However, before he had time to implement that notion, a Brocade Guard came in from the outside.
“Brother Xue?” Tang Fan was astonished. This was Xue Ling, the one that had been at Sui Zhou’s side.
Xue Ling cupped his hands. “Mister Tang, Gonfalon Sui ordered me to come invite you over.”
“I’m not sure what’s going on?”
The sharp-faced man gave a rare grin. “Something good is.”
Since he said it was so, Tang Fan agreed to, put his things away, then followed Xue Ling out the door.
“Brother Xue, if he isn’t in a hurry, how about you come grab wontons to eat with me, first? If I go to meet him as hungry as I am, I’m afraid that I’ll be weak-legged and chatter-teethed, unable to speak when the time comes. The wontons of a stall in the city’s north all have fresh pork mincemeat from the day of, and the inside is also covered in chopped shiitakes and shallots. The skin is very thin, and once cooked, you can faintly see the filling. The flavor is delicious, tender, soft, and smooth — taking one bite can make you feel like you haven’t been born in the capital in vain!”
After talking for a very long time, he was still starving.
Xue Ling laughed, finding this Sir Tang to be truly interesting.
Thanks to the Brocade Guard’s unusual role, the majority of ordinary officials, upon seeing them, would be apprehensive or on-guard in their dread, or toughen up their faces to curry favor. Tang Fan, though, was an outlier, chatting and laughing when he should, then being serious when he should, neither unduly fawning nor appearing disgusted and scared.
Having been campaigned by that eloquent tongue of his, Xue Ling also felt like gluttonous worms had invaded his stomach.
“In that case, I’ll be taking advantage of you this time around, Sir Tang.”
“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, I’m so hungry that my stomach is sticking to my back!” Tang Fan answered, giddy.
The two fled to the stall and ate their food with delight. Xue Ling discovered that Tang Fan hadn’t lied to him; in spite of the kiosk’s simpleness, there were a lot of customers, and the taste was beyond good. He had come and gone from the northern district before himself, but he had never tried this.
Now that Xue Ling knew the taste, he couldn’t get enough, and ordered another bowl of meat-and-bone broth noodles. Being a martial artist, his appetite was double the size of Tang Fan’s.
Following the meal, Tang Fan paid, and then they walked to the Northern Bastion Office, their crammed stomachs giving them strength and vigor.
Pedestrians rushed about at the period of nightfall, scrambling to reunite with their families and eat the food their wives made, for the most part. Although the inner city had every single officials’ institute and governmental office there was stationed within it (along with no lack of aristocratic residences), it also had equal amounts of average citizens dwelling inside it. Some of them had been settled here since the Adept Ancestor shifted the capital to Beijing, and they moved along with it; many years had passed and the Ancestor had since died like a snuffed candle, but the common people had multiplied in their habitation over several generations, while Beijing grew increasingly prosperous. Relative to the distant Nanjing, it had become a true-to-the-name capital.
With this many people, it was hard to avoid getting held up and bumped into on foot. However, since Xue Ling was present, the apparel of the Brocade Guard was enough to make people give a wide berth, which worked better than Tang Fan’s own official’s uniform. All along their journey, bystanders swiftly made them a path of their own volition, causing them to advance at a much faster rate.
Even so, at times, this standard still had no such use at all. Not far away, someone was scurrying down the road with his head down, and not looking very closely at what Tang Fan and Xue Ling were wearing. They came to a collision where he suddenly knocked against Tang Fan’s shoulder, causing both sides to take quite a few steps sideways. The other party didn’t even raise his head to glance at Tang Fan before he was quickly running forth.
Tang Fan looked back, but could only see the man’s hurriedly-retreating figure, which was soon submerged into the crowd.
“What is it?” Xue Ling asked from beside him, noticing that he had stopped.
“It’s nothing. Let’s go.”
The Brocade Guard was divided into the Southern and Northern Bastion Offices. In addition to the Registrar Division and Fourteen Institutions, the core of the Guard resided in the Offices. The Southern ruled internal affairs, the Northern handled outside ones; beneath the latter’s banner was a further five Guard Centers, each with a role.
The leader of a Guard Center was called the Millarch. The ones below him went Deputy Millarch, Centarch, Assistant Centarch, and only after that was it Gonfalon’s turn. Generally speaking, a Gonfalon’s position was not high, but all the work one did was practical; like the homicide case of the Marquis Estate, for example. On account of the decedent having a special status, the Emperor ordered the Guard to get involved in the investigation, and the matter fell upon Sui Zhou’s head, becoming his responsibility.
Tang Fan followed after Xue Ling into the Brocade Guard locale, walking all the way to the Northern Office. A plaque in commonplace clerical script hung on the pillar to the right side of the main gate, and there was an imperceptible force of intimidation present. To the left and right of the entrance stood two expressionless Guards, their bearings cold and contemptuous. In this situation, were one slight of courage, they would likely have already started to spin on their heels.
Most of the Guard’s fearsome reputation fell upon the head of the Northern Bastion Office, while most of the Office’s fearsome reputation fell upon the head of the Bastille. This was an operative organization founded by the Great Ancestor, then developed and strengthened by the Adept Ancestor. In particular, the Bastille — where neither fire nor water could enter, torture was rampant, and people who entered standing up would leave lying down — truly made one feel a sense of foreboding, one thought of it giving them a full-body chill. When it came to officials of the Great Ming Dynasty, for every one that feared the Eastern Depot, two feared the Bastille.
Hence, given that somebody was a normal human (especially one that was an official), as soon as they came to the Office, it didn’t matter how high their position was or whether they arrived willingly or not; their smile would immediately vanish, and their face would immediately get serious, looking exactly like someone owed them hundreds of strings of coins and wouldn’t pay it back.
Tang Fan alone, however, emoted how he always did, still having the leisure to survey the place. When this fell upon Xue Ling’s eyes, he mentally called him a weirdo.
“Brother Runqing, you seem to be quite interested in the Office. How about, once you’re done seeing Gonfalon Sui, I take you to tour the Bastille?” he deliberately threatened.
After experiencing the camaraderie of a bowl of wontons, the two had now become familiar, and his address naturally changed.
Some people innately had a certain approachability; they would only need a few words to make others develop a good impression of them, and thereafter form a good connection with them, just like how some people innately had the demeanor of a leader and were suitable for being the one heading the sheep. These were both aptitudes that couldn’t be reproduced or imitated.
For all individuals equipped with this ability, what was important was, firstly, that their appearance wasn’t too unsightly, and, secondly, that their temperament was both whimsical yet vital. There were some that, even if they said nothing, could cause others to feel like they had been cleansed by a spring wind. There were some that didn’t speak, yet only made people feel like they were detached and antisocial. That was the difference in temperament.
Lastly, their communication and speaking skills were also important. Since ancient times, not one of those that had put on a beautiful dance in officialdom, ultimately ascending to the apex of power, were people unskilled at divining the hearts of humans and unsmooth in garnering connections. Take the current Chief of Cabinet, Wan An, for instance; despite everyone calling him the ‘long-lived Solon’ in private, and being agreeable to him, kowtowing, and calling for his long life all only with sneers, they couldn’t deny that he could conduct himself with dignity.
Tang Fan’s approachability was evidently pretty good. Even Xue Ling, who typically didn’t think much of all these civil officials, thought that Tang Runqing was truly a friend over the span of a brief couple of meetings.
Hearing his words, Tang Fan laughed. “Alright, then. I’ve never walked the Bastille before, so I’ll just ask you to help lead my way to get familiar with it, Old Xue. If I commit some kind of crime in the future and get thrown in, I’ll avoid going in blind, and then getting unfamiliar with life itself!”
The corners of Xue Ling’s mouth drew up. When others heard the word ‘Bastille’, their faces underwent great changes, but Tang Fan was unlike the crowd.
As an employee of the Bastille, Xue Ling gave him a sincere recommendation. “The Bastille is easy to enter, but not exit, so once you do, wanting to leave will be difficult. Throw away the hype blowing around outside; the real Bastille is several times more terrible than you imagine it to be. When you actually see it, you’ll never want to go in it again in your life.”
While they talked, they entered a building.
However, when Xue Ling strode in, he stopped dead in his tracks. “B… Brother!” he stammered.
Inside the main lobby, Gonfalon Sui sat imperially on a chair, watching them as they walked in while bantering cheerfully. “Seems you two really hit it off,” he stated, face blank.
Xue Ling: “…”
Tang Fan: “…”
The translator says: …
 Untranslatable pun; Wan An (万安) shares a character with ‘long life’ (万岁).