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[Arc 2: Days Living with the Brocade Guard]
The homicide case of the Marquis Wu’an Estate was considered to have come to its complete conclusion. Because of the thing with Lady Sun, the Marquis Estate and Count Yingcheng Estate changed from close kin to foes. Both sides wrangled over lawsuits before His Majesty, giving the passive, slacker Emperor a huge headache. He directly threw them to the Cabinet to deal with, but since a factor of the case was ‘untidy inner-boudoir matters’, the Cabinet didn’t want to deal with this business that was akin to a dog farting onto a stove, either, pinching their noses and running far away from it.
For the sake of his son’s exile, Marquis Wu’an was obliged to seek out Wang Zhi, hoping that he could say some good words in the Emperor’s presence and get Zheng Zhi to come back a bit sooner. Upon seeing the Marquis willing to bow his head to him, Wang Zhi was perfectly happy to go beg the Emperor, and with his mediation, Zheng Zhi’s unlimited banishment was ultimately changed into one he could return from in three years.
Yet, no one would expect that on the final year, right on the eve he was to obtain pardon, he suddenly contracted a violent illness and died. There were going to be rumors in the capital that claimed Marchioness Wu’an held hard feelings about Zheng Cheng’s death and dispatched someone to do him in, but that was a story for another time.
This entire affair going around in circles actually gave the Western Depot the biggest profit.
At the very start of this, Wang Zhi had only been wanting to use the topic as a pretext for his own performance, which was why he opposed Marquis Wu’an in resolutely requesting for a thorough investigation.
Now, his aim had finally been reached, with his prestige naturally getting established amidst his honors. Getting that set up via an event he didn’t need to put any personal effort into the whole time meant Eunuch Wang was quite pleased.
With all that said, for a very long period of time henceforth, it would be an absolute given for Marquis Wu’an to never want to catch sight of Tang Fan and Sui Zhou again. Even though they had only acted under orders, it was because of them that his Estate got stirred into pandemonium. In all likelihood, he would feel heartache whenever he remembered those two names in the future.
The event wasn’t completely devoid of profits, however. At the bare minimum, Sui Zhou obtained the commendations of his superiors due to his competent handling and remarkable performance in the case. Supposedly, his direct superior, Millarch Zhou, intended to promote him very soon.
Compared to that, Tang Fan was a bit obscured and unknown. In general, the promotion of civil officials was a bit slower compared to military ones. That was because military merits were tangible while political achievements had many tricks to them, with every turnip to its own suitable hole. Being only in his early twenties and holding a sixth-rank official’s position was already a turn of fate that many were jealous hadn’t come to them. Dealing with cases was within his duty; if he got promoted once for every well-handled case, his current position in the capital would clearly not be enough.
With his history as a fourth-place exam-taker, he should have still been simmering his qualifications in Hanlin Academy right now. Albeit dull and dry, it would have been a noble post in the eyes of others, and when the time came, he could go straight from the Academy and into the Six Ministries, then right into the Cabinet; that was the path a future Cabinet minister ought to walk. Going from the Academy to Shuntian Prefecture for work instead, like Tang Fan did, looked foolish and self-effacing of character to some, because only Palace Honorates that couldn’t get into the Academy needed to be transferred elsewhere to get experience from being a local official.
If he had cared about that, though, he wouldn’t have agreed to Pan Bin’s request for him to be a Judge back in the day.
Some things would always need someone to do them. Without getting hands-on practice, how could one understand this country? How could one even talk about governing it in the future?
At the initial founding of the Great Ming, the greater half of important Court officials had come from the Imperial College, as opposed to the imperial exams. Each individual had been a true talent that acted practically, but in the wake of the exam system gradually maturing, the College gradually declined, and there was an unspoken rule that those not of Hanlin were not to enter the Cabinet thereafter.
Therefore, no matter what pity others had on his behalf, Tang Fan merely put on a smile, then went to and from work and home every day, as per usual.
Mister Tang had a problem, however.
Lots of people had tried to matchmake for him ever since forever, especially recently.
He came right out of being a Palace Honorate to enter Hanlin; young, promising, and with endless prospects for the future. So long as he didn’t make the mistake of taking his brain out of his head, then even if he couldn’t become a Vizier later on, he could still climb step by step like so, and ending up as a third-rank Assistant Minister would never be an issue. To speak of his personal life, despite not having a carriage nor house, his outside appearance was outstanding, and with his parents dead, marrying him meant that one wouldn’t need to worry about mother-in-law/daughter-in-law conflict leading to a household at odds later. Even with a lantern, a better husband and son-in-law simply couldn’t be found.
In spite of it being out-of-style to snatch a husband off the Honorate roll in the Ming Dynasty, with such excellent composite factors, he had gotten innumerable matchmakers coming to his door acting as go-betweens following the very day he had become a Palace Honorate three years back. Among them was no lack of major Dynasty officials, Hanlin gentlemen, and the rich families of meritorious officials.
Succeeding that, when he had formally become Qiu Jun’s latest disciple, the latter wished to betroth his youngest daughter to him. In the creation of a grand tale, Tang Fan agreed, and even specially invited his already-married older sister over from elsewhere to lend a hand managing things. Sadly, Qiu Jun’s daughter had poor luck, as she passed from illness a few days after coming of age, right when the two’s engagement hadn’t been settled for long. Matchmakers of course knew that it would be bad to display over-eagerness, so while they did immediately go looking for a new family for him, the matter ended up getting delayed to date.
However, as of late, the number of daughters reaching appropriate marrying age might have been increasing by the day, or the homicide case might have given him some more fame, which caused everyone to be reminded of this in-demand son-in-law candidate — Liuye Lane was frequently getting icebreakers dropping by to make arrangements for him. Fed up with the disturbances, Mister Tang had no choice but to escape to the outside world as much as he possibly could. Thankfully, he had to go to the bureau every day for morning roll-call, giving him not much time to remain at home during daylight, and thus averting the possibility of getting harassed by a crowd.
Yet, while strangers could be avoided, neighbors couldn’t. On this day, he was returning home from the bureau, then noticed somebody from the next door Li’s waiting by his gate. That person wasn’t the usually-seen Ah-Xia, though, but the family’s steward, Old Li.
Upon seeing him, Old Li laughed in greeting, giving him a bow with his hands held before him. “You’re back, Sir Tang! You’ve kept me waiting!”
“Oh? Is something wrong?”
“No, no,” the other quickly answered. “Our Mistress wants to fix a date to come pay a visit to you. When do you have free time, Sir?”
Tang Fan smiled. “We’re all neighbors, there’s no superiority here. Why be so serious about this? If the Madam really has something on the mind, I can just go over.”
Old Li smiled apologetically. “If you’re willing to, then it would be very welcome, of course. Please follow this lowly one.”
He welcomed him into the Li’s lobby, had someone fetch tea, then asked him to wait a short moment, running off to report to his superior.
Soon after, Lady Zhang walked in, tailed by two maids.
It stood to reason that, with him being an official and them commoners, she should have to bow to him. However, he was renting the Li’s courtyard, which gave them the relationship of a tenant and landlady. On top of them normally being quite amiable, there was no need to pay too much attention to things, so they each took a seat after a few pleasantries.
“I should have paid you a visit during the daytime, Sir, but I ended up inviting you over at such a late time,” she said with a smile. “This old one is truly apologetic!”
He silently sweat; he was constantly taking care to avoid those matchmakers all day long. When would he ever stay at home?
“You don’t have to be so polite, Madam Li. You called me here, but I’m not sure what I can do for you…?”
She was a bit awkward. “It’s something a little sudden. Truthfully speaking, this old one is being impetuous, so before I speak, I ask that you don’t take offense, Sir.”
“Does it have to do with rent?” he pondered.
She had to laugh. “No, you’ve misunderstood. The price of rent is fair as it is. Wouldn’t it be unkind of me to just raise it willy-nilly? In truth, it’s a happy event. My Ah-Xia, who hasn’t yet made something of herself, has been raised by my side since she was young, and she’s like a daughter to me. I’m aware that with her status, it’s absolutely impossible for her to be married to you as a wife, but she really admires your elegance. That’s why I’m not stinting on strengthening up this old face to ask; would you be willing to receive her, allowing her to wait upon you at your side?”
Ah-Xia was then seen to be standing near Lady Zhang, her cheeks dyed pink in both shyness and embarrassment.
Tang Fan: “…”
What kind of luck did he have, lately? How could he have done all that dodging, yet still couldn’t dodge this situation?
Seeing that he was thinking quietly to himself, Lady Zhang asked, “Is there an area of difficulty about this for you, Sir?”
Men could have multiple wives and concubines; that had been the case since time immemorial. To be given to him as a concubine now without having him take a wife would be no shame on him. In any case, with Ah-Xia, he could proceed with embracing other women as usual; how many men would reject a maid-concubine from a clean family, who came to their door of her own accord? For Tang Fan, this would entirely be flowers added to already-beautiful embroidery, and for very little effort.
Yet, beyond Lady Zhang’s expectations, he still refused.
“Regardless of whether it’s a taking a wife or accepting a concubine, I don’t have any intention of it for the time being. I’m still young now, and should pay most of my attention to learning and my career. I don’t want to be distracted by other responsibilities, so may you forgive me, Madam Li.”
Lady Zhang was stumped. “You’re truly unwilling, Sir Tang?”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”
His refusal was explicit, so what else could be done? Strong-arming him?
Lady Zhang looked at Ah-Xia, and saw that the latter’s former bashfulness was gone; she was quiet, her face pale and eyes glistening with tears.
Sighing mentally, she smiled. “Something like this requires mutual consent. Since you’re not happy to do it, this old one will not further insist. How about you have a meal at our humble home before you go, Sir Tang? Little Lin hasn’t seen you for a long while, and misses you dearly.”
Tang Fan stood up with a smile. “No, I’ve already eaten elsewhere. It’s getting late, so I should head back. I’ll be taking my leave.”
After his departure, Lady Zhang said helplessly to Ah-Xia, “You see? It isn’t that I refuse to help you, but that Sir Tang’s mind is genuinely set. There’s nothing that I can do.”
Ah-Xia wiped off her tears. “It’s this maid that has bad luck, and cannot bear the Madam’s cherishment. However, if things need to be delivered next door in the future, I ask that you find someone else to do it. I am humble in status, but after getting rejected by him today, how could I ever have the nerve to drop by his door again?”
Lady Zhang sighed, patting her hand. “This is due to you two having no fated affinity. Don’t brood over it. If there’s an opportunity, I will help you take note of it. I need to find good husbands for you all… and you need to lower your sights just a bit. The Li family’s status is more than enough for you to be released and act as the wife-in-charge for a smaller household someday.”
“This maid only wishes to serve the Madam now,” Ah-Xia said softly.
Knowing that it was inevitable that she wouldn’t be alright so soon, Lady Zhang consoled her no more, allowing her to slowly come around to it on her own.
Even so, tonight’s conversation with Tang Fan made Lady Zhang’s mood low, herself.
After dinner, she urged her son to make an effort in his studies, then had him return to his own courtyard. Ah-Chun and the rest noticed that she was unhappy, so she asked, “For what reason are you unwell, Madam? Does it have something to do with Sir Tang?”
Lady Zhang nodded, then shook her head, then sighed. “There are men in this world that are fond of having one woman on each arm, so it’s only natural that there would also be men that sit still and don’t mess around. One like him is rare to see!”
“He probably looks down on my low birth, is all,” Ah-Xia couldn’t help but grumble.
The woman smiled. “I don’t see him as someone like that. Maybe his true intended just isn’t here. I heard he had been betrothed to the daughter of an Imperial College Chancellor a few years ago, but before they were married, she perished of sudden illness. Maybe he’s still thinking of her. You don’t need to avoid eating because you’re afraid of choking, you know.”
Ah-Chun was some years older than Ah-Xia, and she knew that the Mistress’s sigh and melancholia just then was very likely because she happened to be reminded of her own affairs.
Just as expected, after a short moment, she was heard to say, “I remember that when I married into the Li family, that man once told me that having one wife in this life was enough. Yet, now, he has someone on the outside…”
She shook her head again. “My barrenness is to blame for this. And who could blame him?”
As it was, she had been married into this house for decades, yet couldn’t help it with an increase in offspring. Over time, her countenance aged, so he inevitably went to seek out other women to bear him children. Even Li Lin, who was currently being raised in house and was her son in name, was not actually her biological son; he was born from a concubine of Li Man’s.
It wasn’t surprising that she would give off such lament, with this scene that made her reminisce.
Ah-Chun hurriedly consoled her. Ah-Xia stowed away her own worries for the time being and comforted the Mistress together with Ah-Chun. After a good minute of consoling, they then consoled her into going to rest.
Ever since the day he turned down Lady Zhang’s kind intentions, Tang Fan would avoid walking near Ah-Xia to the greatest extent that he could whenever he caught sight of her. She apparently had the same exact idea, as the one who came to deliver snacks to the Tang house had been replaced by Ah-Dong.
Ah-Dong was an eight-ish-year-old little lady with a plump face that hadn’t yet shed its childishness. She was very cheerful, and very interested in talking — and he was happy to chat with her. He was no expert on love, so he really had no interest in socializing with someone that had a crush on him, anyway.
Following the delivery of a few snacks, he and Ah-Dong became familiar. She was another epicurean, and whenever a basket was brought over, he would regularly take the stuff out to share with her. With no politeness at all, she would subsequently, and effortlessly, munch up more than half of it.
Today, however, when he got back, he saw the little girl sitting with her chin on her hand right by his courtyard gate. She stared at the snacks in front of her, but she didn’t have that typical gluttonous look about her, instead looking miserable.
The translator says: Tang ‘I don’t got time for no hooha, but I do have time to make friends with an eight-year-old’ Fan
‘Peach blossom luck’ is the literal translation for ‘luck with the ladies’, hohoho…