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Immortal Guest’s known name was not simply blown air. The restaurant’s fame in the capital had been cawed ever since Yingzong’s time, and that was primarily due to its owner being quite business-minded. He spent a huge amount of money to specially hire two chefs separately learned in northern and Jiangnan cuisine to come and cook, and also bought a private residence behind the restaurant in order to open up another area called Immortal Cloud.
If customers wanted to entertain guests or eat food — and if they didn’t care too much about all the people around — there was Immortal Guest in front at a much more reasonable price. If one was a high official that liked peace and quiet, they would go to Immortal Cloud at the back, as the decor was of superior quality compared to the front.
Even though the two places were right next to each other, each had its respective doors open without mutual interference.
Wang Zhi happened to invite Pan Bin to eat at that Immortal Cloud.
Their meeting was set for a certain shichen, so Pan Bin intentionally came a quarter-hour in advance. However, when the guiding worker brought him and Tang Fan into a private room, he discovered that Chief Eunuch Wang was already seated.
The other’s dark clothes and cap were presently no different than those of the ordinary customers outside, but the face below said hat was soft, pretty, and surprisingly young, even carrying the arrogance of looking down on everyone out of his peripheral. Pan Bin didn’t dare to slight him the least bit, promptly stepping forth with a smile. “You came so early, Eunuch Wang! Sorry for my rudeness!”
Wang Zhi remained sitting where he was, merely raising his hand to beckon to them. “So I did. Please take a seat, Sir Pan.”
His eyes swept over to land on Tang Fan. “This is presumably Sir Qiu’s other brilliant disciple, Sir Tang Fan?”
Tang Fan cupped his hands. “This humble one was born in the countryside and has never witnessed such a grand spectacle before. Upon hearing that you invited my senior for a feast, I wanted to follow him to broaden my horizons, which is why I’ve shown up uninvited. I ask that you forgive me, Eunuch Wang.”
Wang Zhi waved his hand. “It’s no problem. Sit.”
Truthfully speaking, Wang Zhi was younger than both of them — not even twenty yet — but he held a high position. All of his gestures were a bit condescending, yet Pan Bin didn’t dare to give any dissent.
“Since everyone’s arrived, I’ll have them serve the dishes,” Wang Zhi said.
With that, he pulled on the callrope hanging next to the dining table. Not long after, someone pushed the door open from the outside and came in with a tray held in hand, serving them dishes one after the other.
“I didn’t know if you all preferred northern or southern cuisine, so I ordered half of each direction tonight, just enough for one of each.”
“You’ve taken much trouble, Eunuch Wang,” Pan Bin answered. “I’m not sure what—“
He had been wanting to inquire after his intentions here, but, frustratingly, he got cut off by the other waving his hand as soon as he opened his mouth.
Wang Zhi lifted his chopsticks. “Let’s eat, then talk.”
Pan Bin had no choice but to shut his mouth.
For a dinner party at Immortal Cloud, one couldn’t get a meal without having a hundred or more taels. As the Director of the Western Depot, Wang Zhi did not lag behind anyone else.
Almonds with Buddha’s hand, Longjing prawns, feng-tailed shark fins, small birds fried to a golden crisp, silk-ball fried scallops, fish fillets with cream sauce, dragons-playing-with-a-pearl, jadeite lotus-leaf soup…
The dishes were served all at once like running water, making it a bit much for the eye to take in. As a high official of the third rank, Pan Bin had seen many aspects of the world in everyday social niceties and communications, but even he couldn’t help but be endlessly dumbstruck by such a large tabletop getting instantly packed to the brim.
Since he couldn’t say anything, he had to muffle himself with food.
All three of them thus silently lowered their heads to taste the food. The atmosphere was somewhat odd for a moment.
Pan Bin was restless, which inevitably caused the delicacies to lose their taste in his mouth. He still mulled over Wang Zhi’s intent while he ate, resulting in a much slower eating rate than the other two. Right as he reached out his chopsticks for the third time, Wang Zhi was putting down his own and wiping his mouth, hinting that this was now over.
Pan Bin was compelled to put his chopsticks down in suit. Out of the corner of his eyes, Tang Fan was nonetheless continuing to eat. Despite his movements being unhurried and looking not a bit crass, they felt brusque no matter how one looked at them right now.
The corner of Sir Pan’s mouth drew back, and he quickly gave his junior a look. However, either Tang Fan didn’t see it, or was just pretending that he didn’t, because he kept reaching his chopsticks out for food.
In contrast, Wang Zhi laughed, revealing an expression of high appreciation. He even called out to commend him. “Good! Eat as you please, Sir Tang! You must be someone that acts with their feelings. Compared to him, Old Pan, you’re way too restrained!”
Goodness… he was clearly more than twenty years older than Wang Zhi, but he shouldn’t actually be getting called ‘Old Pan’ by him.
The man felt indescribably awkward, but also too afraid to correct Wang Zhi, so he had to contort his face into a smile. “Young people are always a bit more lively! I’m just too old!”
On the inside, he felt that this way-too-young Chief Eunuch was just as the rumors outside claimed: high in military merits, decent in name, and different from the crowd in personality.
That alleged ‘difference’, to speak definitively, was that he was distinct from other eunuchs.
Were a regular man to slap his thigh and say that it was good that Tang Fan wasn’t so restrained, Pan Bin wouldn’t be astonished at all. Instead, a eunuch still wet behind the ears said it to feign maturity and cloud-reaching heroism, which was bizarre no matter what.
After drinking down the broth in his bowl, Tang Fan finally set his chopsticks down, then admitted his guilt to Wang Zhi. “Do forgive me, Chief Eunuch. I can only blame the dishes here for being exceptionally delicious, as I couldn’t resist taking a couple more bites for a second.”
In spite of both his expression and bearing not embodying the trait of ‘has never seen the world before’ at all, Wang Zhi was still glad to hear this. “If you like it, Sir Tang, I can invite you next time!”
Tang Fan smiled. “Good dishes need to be eaten once within a long stretch of time; that’s the only way they remain memorable. If they’re eaten too rashly, their preciousness is instead lost.”
That was both a tactful rejection, and a seamless praise for Wang Zhi.
The other indeed did not get angry, contrarily showing a very at-ease look.
Looking at this aspect, Tang Fan was more open in front of Wang Zhi than Pan Bin, being completely unlike his limb-tied sort that feared Wang Zhi’s rank and power.
Wang Zhi knocked on the table, finally no longer leaving Pan Bin’s stomach hanging. “I had invited you here because I have something to beseech, Sir Pan.”
“Your words are so heavy, Eunuch Wang! Why the word ‘beseech’?” Pan Bin quickly replied.
“I’ve lost something, and would like to ask Shuntian Prefecture to help me find it.”
Pan Bin suffered a start. “What is it that you’ve lost?” he asked, cautious.
“A horse carved out of white jade, about half a chi tall.”
“What does it look like? How was it lost?”
Wang Zhi grabbed a scroll that had been placed on a high sidetable, then passed it to him. “It looks like this. I set it up as an ornament in my home, but it was lost all of a sudden one day. Maybe a thief stole it and sold it, and now it’s wandered off to parts unknown, still unfound.”
Pan Bin opened the scroll. On it, a jade horse was painted; the craftsmanship was average, but it was good enough for one remember what it looked like.
“Do you have any clues, Eunuch Wang?”
Wang Zhi smiled fakely. “If I did, would I need to seek you out?”
Pan Bin, realizing that he had misspoken, swiftly answered, “This humble one will strive to solve this as quickly as possible, as well as help you to retrieve your jade horse.”
Wang Zhi nodded in content. “I’ll be troubling you, then, Sir Pan.”
His purpose proclaimed, Wang Zhi would inevitably not squander any further time sitting there with two nobodies, so he immediately made an excuse for himself to step out.
At the position he was seated in, he had many connections to the Emperor, and Pan Bin couldn’t ask him for any info. Upon Wang Zhi’s departure, Tang Fan and him both went to see him off at the door.
Wang Zhi waved them off. “You two can continue to order things. I’ve already had the proprietor jot the money down on my tab.”
Eunuchs of high position in the palace, like him and Shang Ming, were bestowed flying-fish or python robes. This was more or less the same as the Brocade Guard, but it was easy to differentiate the two with one glance; the most prominent components were that eunuchs didn’t have spring-gilt sabres, and also couldn’t grow beards.
Wang Zhi traveled in casual clothes tonight, his outfit inconspicuous. He might have gotten used to wearing those flamboyant flying-fish robes, though, because when he turned to leave, he flicked his sleeve out as if he was still in the Western Depot, having some of the grandeur of a major imperial eunuch.
Tang Fan found this laughable as he saw it, but pressed that down. Once Wang Zhi was far away, he asked Pan Bin, “Brother, are we going to keep eating, or go back?”
As soon as Wang Zhi had gone, Pan Bin got a long face, flicking his own sleeve as he seethed. “We’re going back!”
With the private room having been set up by Wang Zhi, Pan Bin had some misgivings about it. He started grumbling when the two were quite a bit away. “A eunuch that got his start from relying on the favor of a Consort has the guts to act like he’s bigger than the Chief of Cabinet… the world really gets worse as the days go on! People have no heart for antiquity! He lost some bauble in his house, then had the cheek to specifically make us come over here! He’s regarding Shuntian as his own backyard! Are we his personal servants that he can just order about?!”
There had been many decent eunuchs throughout the Ming Dynasty, truthfully speaking. There was Zheng He and Nguyen An from the Yongle era, for instance, as well as Huai En of the current era. These folk had all been in the palace since their childhoods, and grew up reading tales of Yue Wumu’s utmost of loyalty to the country in its library; their fealty and honesty had sometimes even been incomparable to that of the country’s high officials, while their relationships with said officials had been great.
However, they were ultimately a minority. The position of eunuchs innately opposed that of civil officials’, because there were always some eunuchs that relied on good fortune to rise up, possessing powers that exceeded that of the officials that studied tirelessly. (The Emperor listened to them more, too… but what was most ‘important’ was that they lacked a certain component, and simply weren’t men at all.) The civil conglomerate was strictly on guard against them unto death — even if they didn’t dare to offend them to their faces, they looked down upon them in their private thoughts.
That was the best description of Pan Bin’s current mood.
Tang Fan waited until the other had vented enough to speak. “Have you ever met Wang Zhi before this, Sir?”
Pan Bin still fumed. Despite not being classified as a huge figure in the capital bureaucracy, he was still third-rank, yet Wang Zhi’s attitude towards him was the same as he was towards his subordinates, making him disgruntled.
“I have, but I’ve never had contact with him at this close a range!”
“How do you view him, then?”
With no thought at all, Pan Bin blurted out: “Bossy! Arrogant! Thinks everyone is beneath him!”
As he recalled the recent set of circumstances, Tang Fan nodded. “He has youthful ambitions, and certainly has the means to be a proud despot. However, I’m thinking that he wouldn’t have called you over just for the sake of a trifling ornament. Maybe there’s some kind of reason for it.”
Pan Bin was not happy. “What reason could there be? Looking for such a thing in this giant capital is no different than fishing a pin off the ocean floor. If someone had pawned it, then it’d be no trouble, as there’d be no way the Western Depot wouldn’t be able to find it with its capabilities. It’s likely that thing has been broken into pieces and he’s asked us to find something impossible to find, or it’s somewhere he himself can’t get to! It might have gotten into some powerful household!”
He had a lot of shortcomings, but in order to be able to sit in the position of Shuntian Prefect today, he was required to have some skill. Hence why he described Wang Zhi’s aim in so few words.
“Have you ever offended him, Sir?”
Pan Bin shook his head. “How could I? I’ve had hardly any dealings with him at all, and they were all from the Marquis Estate case…”
He paused, a bit boundlessly bewildered. “Could it be that thing with the case had offended him? But when the truth came to light afterwards, didn’t he reach his goal of thereby establishing his might? Why would he come looking to bother us? What’s his connection with us? If he was looking for anyone, shouldn’t it be the Brocade Guard?”
“That can’t be it. Perhaps there’s some other reason.”
Pan Bin thought hard about it, but got no result whatsoever after doing that for a while. “We’ll do this, then — you go to the Northern Bastion Office tomorrow and ask for that Gonfalon Sui.”
Hey, Sir? Can you wake up? The majestic Office is not our Prefecture’s backyard!
“He’s gone on an errand abroad and isn’t yet back,” he replied helplessly. “When I asked them to help us inquire about Wang Zhi’s invitation, they couldn’t find anything out, either. I’m afraid they wouldn’t be able to help us even if they wanted to.”
Pan Bin sighed. “If the Great Ancestor was still here, wouldn’t he be thunderously mad to see a eunuch bullying the Brocade Guard into uselessness?”
The corners of Tang Fan’s mouth drew back on account of his senior’s abundant imagination. If the Great Ancestor was still here, and he learned that two officials just had lunch with a eunuch, the three of them would probably be going to see each other at Caishikou tomorrow.
He had to make a proposal. “From how this humble official sees it, it’d be best for you to send people to look for it tomorrow, while I’ll go scout out information. Most of the minor employees of the two Depots were allocated by the Brocade Guard, so maybe they’ve heard something on the wind. Is that okay?”
Pan Bin stroked his beard happily. “That’s very okay, Runqing. I’ll be troubling you, then.”
In reality, Tang Fan felt genuinely embarrassed every time he sought out Xue Ling and them for something. For one, it made Shuntian Prefecture look incompetent. For two, debts of money were easy to pay back, but debts of favors weren’t; once someone was troubled over and over again, when there came a day that they wanted you to do something difficult, it would be hard to avoid it. For that reason, he didn’t go to Xue Ling straightaway, instead waiting for information from Old Wang and company first.
It was a real shame that after a good couple of days, Old Wang’s party had searched out every pawn shop in the capital, but still couldn’t find the jade horse. All the shopkeepers said that they had never seen anything like it, either.
With no other option, Tang Fan had to seek out Xue Ling again.
The man was rather forthright, though, patting his chest and promising that he would help him ask around.
Then, Tang Fan ran into another vexing matter.
It was none other than the fact that he was soon not going to have a place to live.
Where he did now was a separated courtyard he had been renting next to the Li’s on its lonesome; tiny, but fully-equipped, allowing one to live well alone. However, due to the Li’s incident, out of both the owners, one was dead, and the other was locked in prison. The proof for Li Man’s murder of his wife was indisputable; following Wanping County’s verification, it went up layer by layer, and now his dossier was under the management of the Ministry of Justice.
Antiquated laws were easy on men and harsh on women; a wife killing her husband would suffer death by a thousand cuts, while a husband killing his wife was a different situation. Even so, the circumstances of Li Man’s senseless murder could not be refuted. As long as there were no outside mishaps, his beheading would be natural, though it wasn’t quite as simple as that. His case would have to go through the Three Divisions for a joint hearing, and only then would the Ministry finally determine what the sentence should be.
The Li’s masters, both male and female, were gone, but life still went on. Its Young Lord, Li Lin, became its new master.
He was fifteen years old this year. Due to immersing himself in studies all day long, he couldn’t make sense of these numerous affairs, and had no idea what to do upon suddenly taking over the household. The steward, Old Li, was helpless in this, too; in spite of being qualified in age, he was a servant and an outsider. He had no choice but to ask a paternal-line cousin of Li Man’s to help them with managing Lady Zhang’s funeral for the time being.
That cousin’s family was in Nanjing. Traveling over from distant parts to the capital, he was unavoidably out of his element. He didn’t covet the Li’s capital, but he noticed that Li Lin was a half-grown teen who had been raised to do nothing other than know how to study, and that felt a bit inappropriate to him. Thus, he suggested that Li Lin, Old Li, and the rest of them all relocate to Nanjing with him; they were all relatives, so they would look after each other.
His primary mother had been killed by his birth father here, which caused Li Lin himself to suffer much upset. He didn’t want to stay in this house that was permeated with psychological shadows one bit, so, after consulting Old Li, he firmly agreed to the cousin’s recommendation. The whole family was to move to Nanjing and leave this sorrowful place.
However, Li Man was currently still in prison. Since a son couldn’t abandon his father, he needed to wait at least until his case reached a sentencing, but a couple of things could be sold off in the meantime, the house included; it could be appraised and put on the market by someone else. When the time came, the tiny courtyard that Tang Fan stayed in would be sold together with it.
Housing prices in the capital were high, while Sir Tang’s family had fallen on hard times. He was a sixth-rank official without the money to buy a house, leaving him with no choice but to move and find some other place to live. Luckily, Li Lin and the others weren’t leaving immediately, so that gave him an adjustment period to seek room and board.
However, said room was really hard to find. If the location was good, rent was costly. If the location wasn’t good, it was too far from the bureau. An elder middleman brought him to all sort of locations, but he wasn’t satisfied with any of them. At the same time, he still had to both do his assignments in the bureau, and also find the whereabouts of the jade horse for Chief Eunuch Wang. He was completely overwrought.
At exactly this moment, the little lady Ah-Dong came sobbing to his door and knelt before him without any shyness. “Sir Tang, can you take me?!”
Tang Fan gave a huge jump in fright, thinking that another Ah-Xia had come, but Ah-Dong’s next sentence let him know that he was overthinking it.
“Can you go tell the steward that I’ll come over here with you? I’ll cook egg fried rice for you to eat! I’ll help you clean your house! I don’t want to go to Nanjing!”
She raised her head to implore him, crying with snot coming out of her nose.
Tang Fan helped her up. “What’s happened? You’re a slave of the Li’s that has signed a mortal contract, yes? Could you even part from them?”
She sniffed. “I am, but Sister Ah-Chun said that as long as you go ask the Young Lord for it, he should give it to you.”
Tang Fan was confused. “You grew up in that house. Don’t you know the family well? Why do you suddenly want to come with me?”
“The Madam is dead, so the Li family isn’t that Li family,” she answered sadly. “The Young Lord said to Sister Ah-Chun that when the funeral was over, he was going to take her as a concubine. She isn’t willing, but there’s nothing she can do about it. It’s beyond her authority. She also said to me that even though he isn’t too horrible, he’s naive, and a bit bookdumb. If he’s allowed to be the master, the family will likely not be any better off than it was before.”
“What about the others? Aside from you and Ah-Chun, how are the others going to be dealt with?”
“Steward Li is going with the Young Lord to the South. The servants that didn’t sign mortal contracts will all be let go ahead of time. A part of those that did sign will be sold. Sister Ah-Chun said that if I don’t want to go to Nanjing, I can take this chance to look for a way out.”
She bit her finger, looking at him pitifully. “Can you take me in, Sir Tang? I’ll be really hardworking, and not give you any trouble. I don’t want to go to Nanjing, I don’t know the Young Lord that well!”
Tang Fan didn’t know how to react. “You being willing to come cook is fine by me, but the question is: will Young Lord Li be willing to let you go?”
Hearing that his tone had relaxed, she suddenly got excited. “He will, he will! I heard the steward say that the house has too many people in it right now, and they won’t need so many later on. Isn’t that them being eager to lose a few? I eat a lot and don’t work that much, so they would definitely be willing to let me go and wreck someone else’s house!”
“…” Is it really good for you to be that frank?
Ah-Dong stuck out her tongue. “I misspoke, I misspoke! Me being too happy is all to blame. Don’t take it to heart at all, I’m actually great! Just pretend that you didn’t hear what I said right then!”
Seeing her so enthused, he smiled as well. “Alright, alright, I’ll go ask for right now, but let’s come to an agreement first — you’re certain you’ll take charge of my meals if you’re in my house?”
Ah-Dong nodded like she was pounding garlic with her head. She had been raised in the Li family, but Lady Zhang was no longer there. On top of that, there were her three closest sisters — Chun, Xia, and Qiu. Ah-Chun was urging her to leave, Ah-Xia had been threatened into murder, and Ah-Qiu was likely going to go South. In the span of a night, that family-like ambience had been shattered. Ah-Dong defied the event of going to the South from the bottom of her heart; in comparison, she was more at ease and got along better with Tang Fan.
“Don’t you worry, Sir Tang! I’ll definitely feed you until you’re big and fat, like a pig!” she promised with complete confidence.
He was starting to suspect that Ah-Chun might be afraid that her unrestrained mouth was likely to offend someone, so she was in a rush to send her away.
Yet, when Tang Fan went to the Li’s to request her, things didn’t go smoothly.
Upon hearing his intentions, Steward Li didn’t readily reject him, but his face held awkwardness. “Sir Tang, Ah-Dong has signed a life contract. Family matters aren’t for me to dictate right now… how about I go and ask the Young Lord?”
Tang Fan nodded, of course. “He’s the one managing the household, so that’s how it should be.”
Old Li invited him to sit for a bit in the lobby, then went to ask Li Lin for instruction. A short moment later, the latter came out.
“You’re wanting to redeem Ah-Dong, Sir Tang?” he asked.
He actually looked very similar to Li Man. Even his stature was about the same, though he looked a lot younger.
The family incident caused Li Lin’s face to fade out of its former puerileness and change to be a bit overcast, resembling his father even more.
Tang Fan nodded. “I heard that you had bought her for five taels of silver back in the day. Now that you’re going to go South, it probably won’t be too convenient to bring her along since she’s not very old. I’m willing to pay ten taels of silver for her, if you’ll transfer her contract to me?”
Li Lin’s view of Tang Fan was somewhat complicated. The other party was both the man that helped to find his mother’s real murderer, and the man that personally sent his father to prison. He should be grateful to him, but he also loathed him a bit. He had even thought, not only once, that if it wasn’t for Tang Fan, he wouldn’t be missing both parents right now.
“Ah-Dong is a slave of my Li family. Forgive me for how difficult it is to do as you’ve requested,” he answered, unfeeling. “Also, I heard Old Li say that the original agreement for the rent’s time period is almost up. As our house is about to be sold, there’s no plans to renew that agreement. For that, I ask that you move out of our next-door area as soon as possible!”
 This is too depressing for me to link to pictures to, but imagine a ring of roasted sparrows circling a cut-up fruit… or don’t, really.
 I have no idea what this is specifically supposed to be, because there’s apparently a bunch of completely different dishes with the name. Generally, there’s one or more ingredients in ball shapes, and then two things in ‘dragon’ shapes, whether literally carved into the shape, or just arranged in vaguely serpentine form.
 In spite of the names, these ‘flying fish’ and ‘pythons’ were basically dragons embroidered on the clothes, and were very similar to each other in terms of looks. However, they both had four toes instead of five, symbolizing aristocracy and not royalty, the ‘pythons’ had less fancy tails, and the ‘flying fish’ had wings as well as fin-like tails.
 The location of the Caishikou Execution Grounds. Don’t google that unless you want to see pics of real decapitated bodies.