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All three of them prepped their everyday clothes at the bureau, and when it was dismissed for the day, they changed into them, then left for Immortal Guest.
Pan Bin, Wei Yu, and Tang Fan were all officials promoted via imperial exams. Pan Bin was Tang Fan’s senior schoolmate, while Wei Yu was a Place Honorate from the eighth year of Chenghua — when they started deeply discussing about things, everyone had quite a bit of common ground. Despite Pan Bin typically liking to put on airs, as well as being a bit stingy and fond of bickering as a person, he was not only Wei Yu and Tang Fan’s superior, but also an older generation of official. He had a lot more experience than the other two, and plenty of advice and guidance to spare, thus making the meal one where everyone talked and laughed leisurely, both the host and the guests the utmost of pleased.
At the time they left Immortal Guest, it was still early, no later than a little over halfway through the time of the Rooster.(6pm) Curfew wasn’t yet in effect.
Pan Bin and Wei Yu long had people from their households waiting outside their private room, and they escorted the two back. Tang Fan lived alone, having neither a hired guard nor a need for a boyservant. Noticing that it wasn’t too late, he walked back home by himself after seeing the other two off.
House prices were not cheap in ancient times, especially for those in the capital, where one cun of land was pure gold. The Emperor was miserly, too; ever since the Great Ancestor’s time, several salaries wouldn’t be sent out each year. Many officials that came from outside lands to the capital for office couldn’t afford housing, nor would their rank be enough to attain a Dynasty-granted residence, so their only option was to become an unofficial resident like Tang Fan by renting a house to live in. Some officials were even a bit more tragic, with no choice but to lodge at a colleague’s home, and speaking of it always made them cry bitter tears.
The place Tang Fan rented had convenient transportation, and wasn’t far from the bureau. Were it not for that little section of courtyard that the Li’s had partitioned out of fear of hauntings, where there wasn’t enough room for a whole family to live in, a bachelor like him wouldn’t have gotten this little advantage.
Sunset’s glow filled the sky in the evening’s capital. People hawked snacks and pastries, called their children back home to eat, and greeted and gossiped with those they were acquainted with. Lively and noisy, it had the certain life-like atmosphere of a hangout area.
When he walked into Liuye Lane, he happened to catch sight of the maid Ah-Xia coming out from the Li home and preparing to knock on his door.
She turned her head, pleasantly surprised. “You’ve just gotten back, Sir Tang?”
He smiled. “Yeah, I did. What’s this?”
“Today is the Great Heat. Our Madam ordered some pastries made, then had me bring them to you.”
“Why be so formal? I’ve just finished eating, so you can take it back, Miss Ah-Xia. Thank your Mistress for me.”
“If you refuse to accept them, how would I be able to explain that when I go back?” she asked, anxious. “If you want to decline them, you should personally say so to the Mistress!”
She used this trick every time, and he really didn’t have a good way to refuse it. Being a grown man, it would be bad for him to readily go visit another family’s Mistress — even if he had a bit of a friendship with the Li’s — since the patriarch ultimately wasn’t present. Aside from a twelve-ish-year-old youth now in the house, they were all weak or old women and children, so they tried to avoid as much suspicion as possible. Ah-Xia was a servant, so there was no taboo.
He opened the door to invite her in. Noticing the cheerlessness amidst her features, he asked, “Are you okay, Miss Ah-Xia?”
Whenever Madam Li had something that needed delivering, she would pretty much always send Ah-Xia over for it. After a couple times of this, they had gotten quite familiar with each other. Since her mood was poor and she currently needed to distract herself, upon his inquiry, she lowered her voice to say, “These days… the Madam received a letter sent from the Master outside. It stated that while he was on this business trip, not only did he take a concubine, but the woman was already pregnant. She’s now very upset about this. We the servants are also solemn, of course, and can only hope that she’s able to not take it to heart!”
Tang Fan didn’t have much interest in private affairs like this, but he still consoled her. “Speaking many words of comfort to your Mistress is good enough. Life will go on as usual.”
Her expression got a bit better. She looked at the basket she brought, her cheeks now flushing with bashfulness. “It’s hot out, and the pastries won’t keep for long, so I ask that you eat them soon. This Ah-Xia will take my leave.”
“Miss Ah-Xia!” he called out to her.
She turned back. “What else do you need, Sir Tang?”
“This basket… your Mistress had you bring it over, right?”
“Why do you ask this, Sir? If she didn’t, would I dare to act on my own initiative?”
“I appreciate your good intentions, Miss, but please take the basket back with you!”
About to cry from nerves, she had no choice but to tell the truth. “Don’t misunderstand, Sir Tang! She really did have me bring the pastries over! I just… I just put an extra pouch in it!”
He went and searched about in the basket with his hand for a minute. Sure enough, he found a pink pouch under the pastries, with decently-crafted-looking embroidered peonies on it. He was a bit unsure of whether to laugh or cry.
The connotation of a maiden gifting a pouch was self-evident. It was merely that Ah-Xia had been careless; what kind of person was he? A Judge of Shuntian Prefecture, that was what. His eyesight was a bit keener than others’, so her evasive glance just then definitely hadn’t slipped past him.
She lowered her head. “I put that in without permission. If you don’t hate the idea, Sir, I w-want to be your maid that will sweep snow and present tea to you, serving your side day by day.”
She finally drummed up the courage to express her true motive. At the end of it, her cheeks were fully red, and her head was about to drop to her chest. She didn’t dare to look at him.
He was quiet for a moment. “Many thanks for your regard, Miss Ah-Xia. I’ll accept the pastries, but I ask you to take the pouch back, and not come again in the future.”
She looked up, eyes red around the rims. “Do you think me too shameless, for offering myself to your pillow? You can’t look upon this lowly body of mine?”
Tang Fan shook his head. “I’m only an impoverished official with nothing to my name, no permanent properties, and only enough salary to support myself. I genuinely don’t deserve to be treated with such sincerity by you, Miss Ah-Xia. With your personality and looks, you’ll definitely find a better ending later.”
“You don’t need to cajole me. With an origin like this, how could I ever find a good ending at all? If you’d be willing to take me in, then I’d be willing to be a maid that cleans and cooks for you! M-My admiration for you can be testified by the sun and the moon!”
To speak according to reason, Ah-Xia’s looks weren’t lacking, and she even came to the door of her own accord; there would be no sense in an ordinary man decidedly shutting it in her face. Beyond that, so long as he said something to the Li’s Madam, then in accordance to his status and friendship with the Li’s, it would be unlikely for her to hold on tight to one maid. Their ancestors had formerly been officials, but for a few generations now, the Li’s were merchants, long becoming an ordinary family. If they could build a connection with the promising Tang Fan by means of one maid, the Mistress would definitely be happy to fulfill his wish.
However, he really had no interest in stuff like accepting concubines or pretty maids. Since he wasn’t interested, a blunt rejection was best; why would he lead the other on, adding countless troubles to them both?
For that reason, in the face of Ah-Xia’s pitiful appeal and sweet-sounding confession, he still said, “Miss Ah-Xia, I won’t tell anyone else about what happened today. Please take the pouch back. I’ll be resting.”
Seeing that he was unmoved and didn’t even come to help her up, she knew that there would be no use in staying. She wiped her tears and stood. “This was entirely my lack of manners, to impinge upon you like this. Please forgive me, Sir.”
“It’s no bother. You don’t need to be so courteous, Miss Ah-Xia.”
She bowed, pouch clutched in her hands. On the inside, she felt disappointed and humiliated, and, without any further polite conventions, lowered her head, turned, and left.
Ever since Yingzhong’s time, the status of the Imperial College had been on a gradual decline, and the Dynasty had formed the unwritten rule of ‘those not of Hanlin will not be of the Cabinet.’ Tang Fan was handsome, refined, and of Hanlin, making his status superior. Even if he was currently only a minor capital official, no one could say for certain whether he might reach the highest of official’s positions in the future, or the heights of the Cabinet. How could admiration for a talent like this stop at Ah-Xia alone? He was practically a piping-hot cake that matchmakers wore out his doorsill for.
Ah-Xia understood that well, too. She knew that as a servant girl, she was absolutely unworthy of him, but even though she couldn’t be a primary wife, being an attending maid was always a possibility. She wasn’t asking him to take her as a proper concubine, either; as long as she could have just a few bits of tenderness, she would be fully satisfied.
Yet, even with the requirements so low, he still didn’t want her.
Infinitely heartbroken, she felt like she had no face left, hurriedly opening the door and going out. Unexpectedly, someone was actually standing there, and were it not for her speedily ducking out of the way, she narrowly would have headplanted into him.
She raised her head, spooked, to fix her eyes on him, then found that he was extremely familiar; it was the Brocade Guard that had come looking for Tang Fan before.
She didn’t react for a moment, only focused on staring blankly at him.
He didn’t even look at her, though, lifting his hand to knock.
Suspecting that the man had heard what she had said to Tang Fan in the courtyard just now, she couldn’t help but be ashamed and angered, speeding up her steps to return to the neighboring Li home slightly like she was fleeing from defeat.
On Tang Fan’s end, having sent her away, he looked at the basket again.
When Ah-Xia had been here, he thought to maintain his composure. Now that she was gone, he, of course, no longer cared.
He had sampled the Li cook’s handiwork before. Upon spotting the fu-ling cakes and chilled yam bits dressed in pickled plum juice, he took out the plate of yams, picked up a piece, then put it in his mouth.
The yam had been sliced into strips, then put on ice, after which the plum juice was poured onto it. Sweet, sour, and crisp, it was both delicious and beneficial for digestion.
After eating one piece, he didn’t hold back, taking another. Pleased, he picked the basket up in preparation to bring it to his room and enjoy it there.
A knock came from the door outside.
Thinking it was Ah-Xia that had left yet then returned, he furrowed his brow. He really didn’t want to give the girl any fanciful ideas that would lead to a misunderstanding, so he had to put the basket down, walk over to the door, and get ready to straight-up bolt it.
The result of that was the person outside apparently getting a little impatient with waiting, so they flat-out pushed the door open right then.
Tang Fan still had a piece of yam held in his mouth. “…”
Sui Zhou was standing outside. Tang Fan sighed in relief. “It’s you, Gonfalon Sui! Please, come in, quick!”
He glanced behind Sui Zhou. Great, no one was there.
“Have you had dinner yet? Do you want some?” Mister Tang was generous enough to be generous with someone else’s generosity.
The evening was cool, the fragrance of the yam still faintly discernible. Sui Zhou glanced at him, then picked up a piece. He nodded once he took a bite. “Not bad.”
Tang Fan laughed. “The neighboring cook has somewhat better skill at desserts than the one at Immortal Guest. I invite you inside, Gonfalon Sui — this goes best with tea!”
The last time Sui Zhou came to visit Tang Fan, he hadn’t come in the house, merely sitting in the courtyard. Seeing that there was no one else inside or outside the place, he asked, “You live alone, Sir Tang?”
Tang Fan, while heating water and making tea, put himself down. “Ah, yes. When I eat by myself, the whole household is fed… it’s a bit economical here, and I can’t provide a first-rate tea set, because I ordinarily drink by myself. I ask you not to disdain it, because the tea itself is pretty good. It has no name, but it was picked from wild tea trees in the mountains. Come, try it!”
Sui Zhou picked up a cup of hot tea, smelling its aroma before he took a shallow sip. He gave a slight nod. “Bitter, yet not tart. It’s good tea.”
Tang Fan grinned. “Thanks to your memorial, the Cabinet gently let up on Shuntian’s blame. I haven’t thanked you yet, so when you have free time another day, please allow me the honor of treating you to a meal!”
Tang Fan stared a bit. “Hm?”
“My courtesy is Guangchuan.”
The other understood implicitly. “Since that’s so, you don’t need to keep calling me Sir Tang, either. You can call me Runqing.”
Sui Zhou nodded.
“Even though I’m half a grade higher than you right now, with your capability, your meteoric rise is only a matter of when. The Prefecture being exempt from responsibility this time around mostly came from your power. Sir Pan also asked me to express his thanks to you.”
Sui Zhou declined to comment. “Without you, Pan Bin would just be an ordinary official, inevitably getting demoted and banished from Court.”
Tang Fan smiled. “Sir Pan is actually alright in skill, he’s just been in officialdom for a long time, so he inevitably has some more misgivings when thinking things over. Maybe I’ll be the same as him, in a few years.”
He then changed the subject. “But, now that we’re back on that… I get the general sense that this case is yet to be finished.”
“The baihui acupoint.”
Talking with smart people gave one peace of mind. Tang Fan nodded. “Right. Zheng Zhi and Miss Hui confessed, but there’s one area of doubt; there’s still no reasonable explanation for the indent on Zheng Cheng’s baihui.”
“I interrogated Miss Hui previously. She doesn’t know anything about the wound. According to her defense, Zheng Cheng hadn’t entered her room for quite some time, and other people in the Estate can attest to that.”
“We’ve already discussed before that it’s impossible for someone to be tapped on the acupoint and be unaware of it while in a conscious state. For that reason, the relationship between Zheng Cheng and this individual is certain to be close, or, at the very least, they need to have shared a bed with him for a time. Going along with that condition, Miss Hui doesn’t satisfy it, and Zheng Zhi even less so.”
“Do you have a candidate in mind?”
“There aren’t many who fit it, yet there’s also a lot. In the Estate, Zheng Cheng’s concubine Miss Yu is one of them. I heard Zheng Fu say that he had outside concubines, too, and he’s been to brothels lately. Those are thus all candidates for suspicion.”
Sui Zhou frowned. “However, none of them have suitable motives. That Miss Yu is the most suspicious, in the end. Unfortunately, the Brocade Guard’s manpower has already been withdrawn from the Marquis Estate. If need be, I can have someone tail her.”
The other smiled. “That’s not necessary for now. Shuntian Prefecture can’t do as much as your Office can, but it still has times where it comes in handy. I already set up hands for it back when the case was being re-investigated. Wait for a bit of time, there might be information soon.”
Seeing that he spoke with confidence, Sui Zhou asked nothing else, continuing to drink the tea and eat the snacks.
In spite of being taciturn, Sui Zhou wasn’t completely unconversational. The time he had been in the Northern Bastion Office was longer compared to the time Tang Fan had been a Judge, and had taken part in even more cases prior to this, making his bit of experience in this field worthy of Tang Fan learning from him as a source. Hence, questions were met with answers, and time passed at flying speed.
In the midst of their chat, the plate of fu-ling cakes and dish of dressed yams visibly and unconsciously got to their bottoms.
They both reached for the final cake at the same exact time.
As a host, it was never good to snatch things from guests. Tang Fan reluctantly shrank his hand back, glancing at the lovely little cake.
The affectionate look in his eyes was the exact same as the one Miss Ah-Xia had just peered at him with.
Sui Zhou: “…”